First Flight

First Flight

illustration by pascal milelli

Eleanor Louise Jackson stood inside the plain steel box of the time machine. It was about the size of an outhouse, but without a bench or windows. She clutched her cane with one hand and her handbag with the other. It felt like the scan was taking far too long, but she was fairly certain that was her nerves talking.

Her corset made her ribs creak with every breath. She’d expected to hate wearing the thing, but there was a certain comfort from having something to support her back and give her a shape more like a woman than a sack of potatoes.

A gust of air puffed around her and the steel box was gone. She stood in a patch of tall grass under an October morning sky. The caravan of scientists, technicians and reporters had vanished from the field where they’d set up camp. Louise inhaled with wonder that the time machine had worked. Assuming that this was 1905, of course—the year of her birth and the bottom limit to her time-traveling range. Even with all the preparations for this trip, it baffled her sense of the order of things to be standing there.

The air tasted sweet and so pure that she could make out individual fragrances: the hard edge of oak mixed with the raw green of fresh mowed grass. Louise had thought her sense of smell had gotten worse because she’d gotten old.

She drew herself together and pulled the watch from the chain around her neck to check the time, as if it would reflect the local time instead of the time she’d left. 8:30 on the dot, which looked about right judging by the light. Now, she had six hours before they spun the machine back down and she got returned to her present. If the Board of Directors had thought she could do everything faster, they would have sent her back for less time because it was expensive to keep the machine spun up, but even with all the physical therapy, Louise was still well over a hundred.

With that in mind, she headed for the road. She’d been walking the route from the box to Huffman Prairie for the last week so they could get the timing on it. But this looked nothing like her present. There had been a housing development across the street from where she’d left and now there was a farm with a single tall white house sitting smack in the middle of the corn fields.

If she thought too much about it, she wasn’t sure she’d have the nerve to keep going. Down the road, a wagon drawn by a bay horse came towards her. Besides the fellow driving it, the back of the wagon was crammed full of pigs that were squealing loud enough to be heard from here. It made her think of her husband, dead these long years or two years old, depending on how you counted it. She shook her head to get rid of that thought.

Louise patted her wig, though the makeup fellow had done a lovely job fixing it to her head. She’d had short hair since the 1940s, and it felt strange to have that much weight on top of her head again. The white hair wound around her head in the style she remembered her own grandmother wearing. She checked to make sure her broad hat was settled and that the brooch masking the “hat-cam” was still pointing forward.

She hadn’t got far when the wagon pulled up alongside her.

“Pardon, ma’am.” The boy driving it couldn’t be more than thirteen with red hair like a snarl of yarn He had a heavy array of freckles and his two front teeth stuck out past his lip. He had a nice smile for all that. “Seeing as how we’re going the same way, might I offer you a ride?”

He had a book in his lap, like he’d been reading as he was driving. The stink of the pigs billowed around them with the wind. One of the sows gave a particularly loud squeal and Louise glanced back involuntarily.

The boy looked over his shoulder. “My charges are garrulous this morning.” He patted the book in his lap and leaned toward her. “I’m pretending they’re Odysseus’s men and that helps some.”

Louise couldn’t help but chuckle at the boy’s elevated language. “My husband was a hog farmer. He always said a pig talked more sense than a politician.”

“Politicians or sailors. If you don’t mind sharing a ride with them I’ll be happy to offer it.”

“Well now, that’s kind of you. I’m on my way to Huffman Prairie.”

He slid over on the bench and stuck his hand out to offer her a boost up. “I’m Homer Van Loon.”

Well, that accounted for his taste in reading and vocabulary. Boys his age were more like to read the penny dreadfuls than anything else, but anyone whose parents saddled him with a name like Homer was bound to be a bit odd.

 

31 comments
Richard Fife
2. R.Fife
A very enjoyable story. I really liked how it twisted about and left things for implications without hammering home the ideas with a sledgehammer.

And, I have to say, the whole "are you a witch?" scene was perfectly done. It really captured the ill-formed logic of a young boy with a large imagination.
Azara microphylla
5. Azara
I really enjoyed this. The picture is a perfect match, as well!
j m rowland
7. j m rowland
Oh, wonderful, wonderful. Mary Robinette, you've made my day.
j m rowland
8. Max Bell
Thanks for posting this, Cory, and for writing it, Mary! Touching. :)
Holly Johnson
9. HollyAnn
My favorite (so far) of all your stories, Mary! Particularly liked the bit about Louise's sense of smell--I've experienced something similar when traveling between NYC and rural PA. Your attention to detail really brings your stories to life.
j m rowland
11. AbbyMercRustad
Lovely story! :) I very much enjoyed it.
Michael Curry
12. mcurry
It's great to see it out in the world, all shiny.

And I still like it a lot!
j m rowland
13. HeatherK
I love time travel stories and this one was superbly done. Time to see what else you've written!

Thank you!!
j m rowland
14. HeatherK
I love time travel stories and this one was superbly done. Time to see what else you've written!

Thank you!!
j m rowland
15. jefff
Thank you so much Tor.com for posting this excellent story.

It made my day! Thanks Mary
C S Inman
16. csinman
Oh, this was simply amazing. My eyes teared up when she got her letter from Homer. :)
Darlene Marshall
18. darlenemarshall
What a delightful story! Thank you so much for sharing it with us.
Ben HM3
19. BenHM3
Thank you Mary, thank you Tor.

Really, really excellent story. Such a nice, light and credible touch on the tropes. The characters are a delight, and their interactions like fine clockwork.

A deft story, one of the best I've read in quite a while.
j m rowland
20. Maureen O'Brien
I keep trying to post this and failing....

1. With Homer being 72nd most popular boy name in the US in the 1890's and hovering in the 100's during the next two decades, it's a far more popular name than any variation of "Maureen" has ever been, at least in the US during my lifetime. And yet, most people would not say that Maureen was a particularly unusual name.

The Social Security Administration's name site is your friend. Use it, because editors don't check this stuff anymore.

I will add that "Milton" was of course a very popular name in the Dayton area, being given to children of many admirers of the good bishop Wright or the poet. Milton Caniff, the cartoonist, is a good example. Other literary names were also reasonably common in Dayton area people of that time. We are a town of heavy readers even now.

2. Everybody reads the Odyssey as a kid, or they did back then. McGuffey Readers, the excellent local schools of southwestern Ohio, the excellent libraries, etc. Big vocabularies were also oppressively common. Not unusual enough to give someone any idea of huge smartness or fannishness, though reading in the wagon helps. Pick something else, and you'll have something. Don't pick too far into the Classics, though, or you'll have people thinking he was aiming at the ministry or being a Classics scholar, not fannishness.

3. Hawt Forever-Young Circe does not lead to thoughts of little old lady witches in the minds of male kids, especially in broad daylight, mid-morning, or a non-spooky patch of road. Haunted houses or other haunted features would be needed.

This is obviously a case of Vanishing Hitchhiker, or possibly of a mysterious spontaneous explosion, or going out bang just like a candle. One might even venture some sort of Shawnee Curse, though it's a bit far toward Dayton for that. Astral travel would be the modern thing to think. God smiting something or Enoch being not, possibly, if the sermon at church on Sunday or on Wednesday night was really awesome.

In short, I don't buy that the kid would think what you said.

4. Engineers are all very good at giving someone the bum's rush as soon as seen, little old lady or not. The paranoid Wrights would have pleaded safety concerns and hustled her way the heck out of opera glasses-shot, and if it meant they took her back to the Inter-Urban trolley line themselves, that's what they'd have done. (It was right there, after all.) If she wanted to stay, she would have known she couldn't let anyone see her at all ever. Your old lady stinks at hiding.

5. It's a good story and you did good research, but it still needs work. Sorry nobody else told you first.

Your editors aren't much for fact-checking, are they? My condolences.
j m rowland
21. Lizrdgizrd
I loved this story. You've won a new reader!
j m rowland
22. Karen Bennett
On page 1, Louise is walking, and...

"Down the road, a wagon drawn by a bay horse came towards her."

A little later:

"She hadn’t got far when the wagon pulled up alongside her.

"'Pardon, ma’am.' The boy driving it couldn’t be more than thirteen with red hair like a snarl of yarn He had a heavy array of freckles and his two front teeth stuck out past his lip. He had a nice smile for all that. 'Seeing as how we’re going the same way, might I offer you a ride?'"

Homer came towards her, so he was going the OPPOSITE way. Why does he offer her a ride?
Kate Mitchell
23. Kate
Loved it. Charming plot. And the protagonist reminded me of my own nan.
Nicole Brown
24. gaimanfan
Lonnie Rivenbark
25. fuddster
Combines two of my favorite things - time travel and aviation history. Thanks for a very entertaining read!
j m rowland
26. Barb Caffrey
Really enjoyed this story, Mary. Thank you.
Ian Gazzotti
27. Atrus
Just read it today, lovely story.

@Maureen O'Brien: Everybody read the Odyssey? Even a farmers' kid? Considering that my grandfather (class of 1916) took his elementary school license well in his '40s, I'm a bit skeptical that it was common for the lower-class boys of 1905 not only to be well-read, but also to have money to squander on big books like the Odyssey.

@Karen Bennett: "towards" means "in the direction of", not "coming from the opposite direction"; if the cart caught up with Louise, then it was in fact going towards her.
Zaphod Beeblebrox
28. Captain_Zaphod
This was a great tale. It was wonderful to see a woman as the actual traveler, and not be the side kick or the wife of the traveler.
Alli Joria
29. allijoria
I really like this story Because it is great and amazing.

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http://blog.itechtalk.com/2010/top-grade-acai-review/
j m rowland
30. tachyos
A well-turned tale but I can't wait for Dr. Donnelly, whoops, I mean Ms. O'Brien to show us how it's really done. Just kidding. Keep up the good work, Mary.
j m rowland
32. Karen Evans
What a great story. I can see why it's on the finalist list for the Locus. Good luck at the ceremonies.

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