Ender’s Choice

Ender lit the cigarette, then snapped the lighter closed with a clink. His long tan duster jacket shifted in a gust of sudden wind that did nothing to shift neither he or the fog blanketing the late afternoon. To one side of him, the light in a lamppost sputtered. To the other side, a mail postbox stood, a blocky figure set against the chill. All three in a row, indifferent to the weather and unmoving.

Black hair waved now and again on the top of Ender’s head. The growth on his cheeks, chin, and upper lip was not long enough to follow suit. Almost too weary to glance up, his overcast grey eyes studied the ground near his scuffed boots.

In his pocket, his left hand twiddled a shilling around its fingers. Noticing the tic, Ender clenched his fist, the edge of the coin digging into his palm. Automatically, his mind compensated for the pain with recollection.

Molten pools of copper shone with the spark of laughter as she looked up into William’s eyes. Ender watched from behind the laurel hedge, despair a pace behind and nodding its heavy head. To the twenty-one year old man, the temptation to burst out into the open, throw himself at her feet, and beg her to let go of William’s hand and take his own was powerful.

Still, a part of him longed for the two of them to kiss, to seal his total exile, to convince his heart that Ender possessed no chance at all of making Katrina’s heart his forever.

Ender imagined himself in William’s position. How easy it would be, then, to slide his arms around her, bring his face closer to her own, until all that filled his sight were her eyes and his ears would hear her heartbeat racing. At last, at long last then…her breath, playing across his tongue as his mouth closed the distance between their lips.

Fingers pressing painfully into his temples, Ender let the cigarette fall to the ground. For heaven’s sake! he berated himself. Get over her! Against the digits, his pulse beat sullen, straining against the punishing pressure.

Bending down, he picked up the cigarette and stuck it back in his teeth. His arm throbbed as he slumped against the lamppost. Fog-chilled steel froze his cheek but he ignored it, staring across the misty street at the decision before him. This is so bloody sentimental. Why am I considering this? Another breeze twitched the hem of his coat. He shifted his weight but didn’t straighten. What will I think next week? Will I regret? Most likely. Will I despair even more? Most definitely. Will I do anything to change what I’m about to do?Probably not.

The breeze rubbed against his feet and glanced down to find it was not a breeze at all, but a cat. It stopped winding around his shins and sat down in front of him, looking up with lemon-tinted eyes.

“I just don’t want to hurt her, you know?” explained Ender in his Scottish burr. Why am I talking to a cat?

With a soft yowl, the black feline blinked as if it knew what Ender meant.

“Well, I suppose I’ve got to talk to someone. But I know what you’re really thinking – you just like my accent.” Half grinning, Ender watched the cat give itself a few grooming licks, then look down the street. “Don’t try acting all nonchalant,” he reproached, then chuckled. “You’re luckier than you know. You can fight your rivals and the girl you fight over won’t care either way.”

Paying no mind to Ender’s ramblings, the cat stretched up, pawing the man’s knee. The man scratched behind its silken ears and purr filled the fogged stillness. Under his fingers, the cat shivered with the cold.

Hesitating for a moment, Ender reached down and picked it up. With one hand, he cinched the belt on his duster and slid the cat down into his jacket with the other. It squirmed around a bit to get comfortable, then nosed Ender’s whiskery chin as if to ask “What now?”

That is the question. Across the street, a squat brick warehouse hunched. The cat squeaked in impatience. Ender looked down into its eyes. “What’s wrong?”

Turning its gaze to the building, the cat shifted again.

“I know. I didn’t like the look of it either when I first saw this place.”

Ender Callahan completed secondary school in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910. The following summer, he visited his grandparents, Count and Countess Fellingworth, in London,. Two of the Queen Mother’s friends, they presented him at court and he experienced the high life of the socially and financially well-off for three months. During that time, he met many interesting people, including Dr. Barnes, a physicist and engineer. Due to Ender’s interest in mathematics and mechanics, they became fast friends and discussed all manner of theories and principles. Dr. Barnes employed the young graduate as his laboratory assistant.

Three years ago, Dr. Barnes received a visit from a resident of Downing Street. The nameless representative of the British government commissioned the physicist to research the possibility of a time machine. Tremors of war unsettled the ruling families of Europe and if any hostilities broke out despite diplomacy’s best efforts, the world would find out how brutal and violent mankind could be.

Dr. Barnes told Ender and no one else. Together, they worked for two years and succeeded after months of eighteen-hour days. Or so it appeared. Before they could test it and determine, the scientist disappeared.

Deciding not to trust anyone, Ender spent a week afterwards relocating the untested machine and reported the project stolen. The government immediately disavowed all knowledge and swore him to secrecy. A few days after, Ender ceased his secret watch on the machine when he met Katrina. From then to yesterday, he found no reason to return.

He turned to other things, learning to play the piano and act. This was in no small part influenced by Katrina’s own musical and theatrical talents. While not the greatest actor, his performance as Iago in one production granted him a rousing round of boos from the audience; Ender was discouraged by this until the director told him that the jeers came due to his realistic portrayal as the villain.

Between spending time with Katrina and acting, the young man took another job at a local pub, playing piano in the evenings. His employer’s son was his own age and tended bars during the evenings while pursuing a degree at Oxford. William.

Now, estranged from his family due to his work with Dr. Barnes and hurt from Katrina’s preference for his best friend, Ender stood outside the warehouse once more. The question, a forgotten ember at the back of his mind for months, now burned bright in his mind. Does it work? He took a step into the street and hesitated. Doubts nudged him, more insistent now. What if it isn’t there? I haven’t been here in a year. It could have been damaged, stolen.

 Ender crossed the street and tried the doorknob on the paint-peeling door. Still locked. That’s a good sign. Moving a brick on the nearby windowsill, he took the key hidden there and inserted it into the lock. As he turned it, the scraping sound caused the cat in his coat to fidget. “Easy, Laddy-me-cat,” he murmured. “We’ll just take a quick look since it’s probably not there and if it is, it probably won’t work.”

The door opened with a groan

Who are you trying to convince, Ender? prodded a cynical thought. The cat or yourself?

“Both,” he muttered aloud as he entered and shut the door behind him.

Before Ender could flip the switch to turn on the lights, they came on, sweeping the darkness away to reveal a cluttered room the length and width of two garages. Indeed, it could have passed for one with all the dismembered automobiles and mechanical parts strewn about, half under dusty tarpaulins.

The memories came flooding back as he spotted an area neater than the rest but no less jam-packed with mechanical paraphernalia. A workbench spanned the length of the wall right up to the corner, wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers, and all manner of tools scattered on it. In front of it stood a circle of tall poles, painted half black and half white and spaced wide enough for a grown man to slip through to stand in the center. Keeping them upright were two metal hoops, one on top and the other on the bottom. On the top ring over each pole were what appeared to be thick metal tin lids painted black. Each rested on a pivot, not unlike a cage.

A slight cough startled Ender and he looked beyond the machine to see a short, grey-haired man in his forties watching him over wire-rimmed spectacles.

“Doctor Barnes!”

The man smiled, a weary effort Ender remembered so well, and nodded. He ran a hand through his prematurely aged hair and blinked his watery blue eyes. “Ender,” he greeted in his soft voice. “I wondered if you would come.” His look turned sympathetic, making him look even more tired. “I heard about Katrina and your friend William. Bloody shame. I can see why she chose him though: let’s face it, you wouldn’t have told her about this project no matter what. Keeping secrets from your lady friend is not the best thing in a relationship.”

“Where have you been?” Ender managed to ask. “Why did you leave? Do you realize I had to move the device before Downing Street got their hooks on it? Alone?”

Dr. Barnes sighed. “I know. I apologize.”

“Where did you go?” demanded the younger man.

“It works.”

A rush of amazement hit the inside of Ender’s stomach like the afterburn of a Lafayette cocktail. “What?” he whispered, drawing closer.

His friend pushed his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose. “I tried it the day we finished it. I couldn’t ask you to test it yourself; that left me,” he explained. “I was pleased to discover my faith in you was well placed – you kept my disappearance and secret and moved the device to safety.

“Our theories proved correct. The magnetic fields, if strong enough and controlled precisely, will bend time and space long enough to shift a body of mass from one point on the universal timeline to another.” Dr. Barnes’s eyes grew bright at the revelation. “Even the recall failsafe works, which is how I managed to return. Admittedly, it was three weeks later than I wanted. As I said, however, it works! With more adjusting, it will function perfectly.”

All this was occurring too fast for Ender and he struggled to stay focused. The reason for his visit came to him once more. “Dr. Barnes, did you read the newspaper this morning?” he asked.

Dr. Barnes was caught off guard for a moment, then his face turned serious once more. “Yes. Arch-Duke Ferdinand and his wife shot to death. Tragic.”

“With their leader dead and Serbian nationals responsible, Austria-Hungary will most certainly call for war. Germany will aid them, Russia will stand with Serbia, and it will not be long before the rest of Europe is called upon to take sides.” The cat in Ender’s jacket squirmed and meowed until he let it out. Tail held straight up, it wandered off into the maze of junk in the warehouse.

“Your grasp of politics is as accurate as ever, my friend,” replied the doctor. “Now, I-“ his voice trailed off. “You are not suggesting…”

Ender nodded, his face neutral. “Isn’t this the reason why we gave up a year of our lives? If we don’t use it, all we worked for will have been for nothing.”

“You are serious.” Dr. Barnes’ eyes took on a weary light. “Ender, you must realize that changing the course of history is a risky business. To dabble in the affairs of time is to plow the fields where only God should guide the team. I knew it when I tested the machine and the experience has only deepened my belief in it.”

“Doctor, if we don’t do something with the resources available to us, we will be responsible for the lives of thousands if not millions of people,” insisted Ender, taking a step closer, a desperate look in his eyes. “You may be able to live with that on your conscience but I am not willing to do so.”

“And how can you be sure that you would change history for the betterment of mankind at all?” Dr. Barnes looked over the top of his glasses again and raised his eyebrows. “Given the chance, would you change history and kill William so Katrina would love you instead? It would be easier and more beneficial to you than saving the life of the Arch Duke.”

It felt as though Ender’s stomach crawled into his throat, driven by the truth of the doctor’s words. What did William deserve? He always had women fawning over him – his charm, his hooded glances, and his laconic Oxford accent. However, as he thought these things, a scene unfolded in Ender’s mind, one he had taken part in one month ago.

“I’ve never found anything in them, Ender.”

The unexpected confession pulled a double take from the Scotsman. “Say again?”

Dropping his gaze to the worn bartop, William shrugged, for once appearing awkward. “I…for most of my life, I never looked deeper than appearance when searching for a person’s worth.”

Ender took a swallow from his pint of beer as he leaned back against the wall. “We’ve all been guilty of that at least once in our lives. The trick is to figure out that we are in fact doing it and look deeper from then on.”

He had figured it out some time ago, William explained. Once, he found his character in a girl he dated – looks, charm, and hollow inside from relying on outward appearances for worth.

“It scared the hell out of me. Now,” the man shoved his hands into his pockets. “I want to find a girl who, like me, has realized the same thing I have.”

His respect for William was nothing if not well placed, the Scotsman congratulated himself as he smiled into his beer mug.

“William was my friend,” retorted Ender. “Is my friend.”

For a moment, the doctor did not reply, just staring at the young man with an unreadable expression on his face. Then, he turned and walked over to the workbench. “I still believe this is a mistake. However, you are correct. We cannot let this work go to waste.”

“Right!” Ender rubbed his hands together and moved to stand next to him. “How do I get there?”

“As we theorized during the late stages of development, if we calculate the magnetism over a certain area during a specific point in time, we will be able to transport you to that area by reproducing those levels of magnetism.” Dr. Barnes pulled out a thick notebook and flipped through page after page of calculations. “What I didn’t account for was the magnetism of the brain. The magnetic pulses discharged by the magnets,” he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the “lids” around the rim of the machine. “Disrupt the brain’s natural magnetic poles and damages memory and thought process. That happened to me. I only recently regained my entire memory enough to find this place.”

“Is there a way to prevent that?”

Dr. Barnes straightened and reached into his pocket. He handed the contents to Ender.

Ender examined the three black bars. “More magnets?” He understood. “Opposite poles of the devices to shield the natural brain magnetism?”

“Correct. Tuck those in your pocket and your memory will be fine. Right.” Dr. Barnes strode over to the pole device and reached up to one of the circular magnets, swiveling it so its face turned in a different direction. He progressed around the circle, doing the same to the rest, making sure they angled in specific directions. “Get in,” he instructed at last after checking the notebook again to verify his calculations

Taking a deep breath, Ender slipped between the bars and stood in the center of the circle. As he did, the light filtering through the dusty windows caught his eye and unearthed a memory of Katrina.

“Dance with me, Ender!”

Laughing, Ender took her hand. Stereotypes be hanged. True, it was a flower-strewn meadow, the warm sun was indeed shining, and, yes, it was spring. But this was real, not a romantic novel. Emerald slivers, soft and thick, bent before her bare feet as Katrina leaped and twirled around with him. He followed as best he could in his boots, still chuckling.

Dr. Barnes took a deep breath and, with one final look at his tables, pulled a small lever on the wall next to the light switch. Above the machine, a long metal bar extended down from the ceiling and halted an inch from the top. At its tip, an azure light began to glow…

“An azure sky with a molten gold peach…”

Katrina smiled at his description. “You should be a writer or an actor.”

The glow grew brighter and brighter until Ender had to look away. Something nudged his foot and his head whipped down to find the cat butting his ankle with its head. “Bloody fool,” he reproached. “Get out of here!”

The cat dodged his foot as he tried to shove it out through the bars. Instead of leaving, it hunched and leaped into his jacket once more. He sighed. “All right, but don’t blame me if you don’t like where I’m going.”

It purred and rubbed its forehead against his chin again. The fur felt so soft, almost as soft as-

“To wield a feather as a sword, so felt the breeze to us that day…”

Flicking his nose with her finger, Katrina’s teeth gleamed, her copper eyes sparkling. “That silver tongue of yours never ceases to amaze me.”

Just as the bar discharged its electrical pulse and sent power thrumming through the magnets, the man in the cage dug his hand into his pocket and tossed something through the bars. With the addition of electricity, the magnetic poles on each of the lids fluctuated and began to spin around and around, faster and faster, building up immense power. The initial light from the electrical pulse faded then shone one last time, forcing Dr. Barnes to shield his eyes. Vibrations from the twirling magnets rattled the bars and the pivots began to whine under the stress. Once again, the light faded, this time for good. Though the magnets still rotated, the cage stood empty.

Letting out a sigh, Dr. Barnes walked over and bent down. He picked up three small bars and shot a look at the formerly occupied cage. “So, Ender, you think forgetting will solve everything?” Fingers tightening around the discarded magnets, he glanced up at the time machine. “Fool. Poor, lovelorn, sentimental fool.”

Author’s note: Another piece submitted to the Phoenix, this one a year earlier. I enjoyed the Byronic hero types (or at least my definition of them) and wondered what a man in love would do to move on besides join the French Foreign Legion.