“Spontaneous Human Combustion: The alleged burning of a human body without an identifiable source of ignition, resulting in simple burns and blisters to the skin, unexplained smoke, or total incineration.”
In 1944, Peter Jones became one of few to have survived death by SHC, reporting neither sensation of heat nor sighting of flames. Just smoke, which according to him, “appeared from out of nowhere.” It nearly cost him his life. More importantly, it nearly cost me my job. Totally not my fault, long story.
News of the event caused quite a stir in the little town of Buttfuck, but as soon as the smoke settled, Jones was gone. He knew it wasn’t SHC. He knew I’d come to clean his clock and reclaim our property, but had made a careless mistake at the wrong time. Like any good rat, Jones escaped through the crack. Can’t blame him. I’d run for my fucking life too, if I was after me. Hell, I‘d crawl up a cow’s ass with a candle and a can of beans and hide until the first frost, just to be safe.
A search of Jones’ belongings yielded no clues. He’d taken everything and fled into the past. We thought we’d lost him. Jones was awfully bright for a Southerner, so it came as a surprise when he started popping up in Civil War-era photos. Maybe what they say about book smarts not equaling common sense is true. The analytical team watched him appear, disappear and reappear again on the first census reports taken way back in the 1790s, but federal records for Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey and Virginia were destroyed by fire sometime between 1799 and 1830. It was a lucky break for Jones, who got wise and laid even lower. That pretty much dried our leads, so we decided to take the soft approach for a few years. After all, we’ve got time on our side.
Time went by. Thinking he’d won, Jones got careless with the whiz bangs, using our stolen technology to chase a life of fast cars and faster women, ghosting through history at will. Roaring it up in the 20s, free lovin’ in the 60s. Always in the past, always within the Known Territories. A creature of habit, it was all right there in his profile. He couldn’t outrun us forever, but if he ever figured out a way into the future it’d be all over.
Cut to the present, late 22nd century. Jones was in the Now, gloating his fortune and rubbing his money in all the wrong faces. He’d found his way to the top of the NMTE list – Now More Than Ever. I was ordered aboard a slow boat, to sneak him like the rat he was. “Don’t worry about accidents. We want him made an example of. But remember, this is our last chance. Find Jones before he figures out the future, or you’ll find yourself marooned in the Dark Ages with a bad dose of the clap.”
Despite my history of travel, it’d been years since I’d set foot on a ship. The K.E. Gordon was a 300-meter cargo vessel built at the end of the new tall ship era by people who knew a thing or two about mechanical design, but dangerously little about human relations. K.E. Gordon had been a rabid Party supporter who met his bitter end at the business end of an assassin’s pistol. On January 14 of 1940, Gordon answered a knock at the door and was shot in the face by an assailant who then fled the scene.
I boarded the Gordon in NewConn with a bag of clothes, a tourist’s camera, a few essentials, and not a single piece of traceable gear. The secret squirrels in the Intel branch had a theory that Jones had learned to smell us coming. “And you will know us by the trail of dead…” My job was to travel slowly, file reports, sneak him from behind, bring home or destroy whatever I found on Jones’ body. Photographs required.
20APR2009 – Points off for not bringing any of my own movies and only two books, both of which sucked. Bad gun, no biscuit. Nothing else to do but write this journal. Got that jerk-tight feeling at the base of my spine that says this’ll be a long two months, a long late night at the office, a working lunch without end. I’m riding down in GenPop, elbow-to-elbow with a contingent of humorless men worn pear-shaped by bad food and little exercise:
“Health food’s fer fags, my wife does alla that yoga crap – eats twigs or some such, hugs trees, plays a drum. Nothing wrong with me a dip anna beer can’t fix! Yessir, I like Hooters, ‘merican flags and yella ribbons. I drive a big truck, watcha big screen tee vee. Got two point five kids, a wife anna dog. ‘Merican by birth, country by the grace of Allah! I’m a cat hater, I like AC/DC, new countree and barbecue blues…”
Full-time smokers, professional drunks with bad teeth, farmer tans. They appear to subsist on ‘tater chips, ribs, hawt sauce and diet soft drinks. Most wear UNION RACING hats, and t-shirts from theme bars in remote locations.
During my time aboard, I’d see at least one ‘climbing panther’, a four-letter name spelled using only three Asian characters, another fellow with his own name written on the back of his arm, four hand stitched portraits of Elvis Presley and one weeping Statue of Liberty. Still, they’re more than their preferences in pork products and body art.
Each man (and woman) is a self-contained universe, a library of information and useful experience. In this life, one may find a rocket scientist sitting next to a relocation specialist sitting next to a cleaner sitting next to a circus clown sitting across from a born drunk, never knowing who is who until one engages them each in conversation. Most of the crew have families waiting at home. Ship duty is notorious for ruining marriages. Only those who voluntarily perform a thankless job know what propelled them to do it in the first place.
I feel as though I’m waaay outside my skill set at the moment, and it makes me nervous. Guess I been relying on gadgets for too long. I see this as a flank I need to protect, a weakness I need to cover up. A chainsaw to be juggled. Didn’t do a very good job of packing. I’ve always been envious of flight attendants, and their mysterious version of Travel Fu. “You may leave this place when you can pack for a five-day trip with one overnight bag.” My hands are cold and unresponsive as I stow my gear – the air conditioner in the stateroom has a number of settings, one of which is labeled “John Carpenter’s The Thing.”
Picture on the wall; the chief mate in an oilskin coat, a steely-eyed bastard with one hand the wheel, a moment frozen in a sepia toned Holoprint lacking introduction, explanation or cutline. A gruff sumbitch who probably stirs his coffee with a nail, keeps a parcel of hand-written letters tied in a red ribbon under his rack, and a faded picture of a NewConn schoolteacher tucked inside his foot locker. Mary, the only woman he’s ever loved, who waits patiently for his return. (I’m probably making that up.)
Flowchart of fire on the wall, logic in its most basic form: Are you on fire? If NO, good. END. If YES, bad, put it out! Still on fire? Bad! Put it out! Repeat while time and oxygen content permit.
Watching the stores being loaded, I wonder makes the Gordon run. How many pallets of food are required to feed passengers and crew? What about gallons of water? One of the crew tells me veterinarians are required to determine if the ship’s drinking water is potable.
Underway now. The engines kick up a cold spray of sea water as we lift off, punching at my ears and making my head throb like an aging Doberman’s expanding brain…