Travel Back
by Anne Thielman

Carrie landed with a soft thump in a small dirt pile about three meters south of a wire fence and about three seconds after she had departed the year when she was a polished thirty-two. That was before she knew that time travel didn’t allow you to keep your age as you traversed the years in reverse order. She picked herself up with some difficulty. Although coming out with just a few bruises, she had to extricate herself from the dirt while considerably disoriented. Not only had she physically backtracked the previous twenty-five years, she had changed from an athletically built adult into a skinny seven year old in a relatively short amount of time. If she had to choose a word to describe her feelings at that time, she would probably not know what to choose because the real answer was “confused”.

Carrie squinted up at the sun. It was bright. She knew that much. She turned in a slow circle, slowly processing that the faded and peeling red barn in front of her was not the main building for the National Institute for the Arts and Sciences and that the dusty wheat fields stretching wide to her right, extending to the rounded grassy hills several miles off, and the gravel road extending indeterminately to her left were neither the office building of the Director of Internal Services for the institute, nor the road leading back to the highway that she needed it to be. In another instant, she began to speculate that not everything had gone according to plan.

It was all supposed to be very simple. As simple as theoretical time travel could possibly be. Carrie began to walk unsteadily toward the barn, hoping there would be some sign of life or, preferably, transportation. She tried to remember the briefings on the possible side effects of time travel but those memories were oddly and unhelpfully fuzzy. As she walked, she had to lift up her now sagging pants in order to put one foot in front of the other, but considering the heat, the formerly practical black spandex outfit—designed especially by the Inter-dimensional Travel Technician—was now rather weighty and useless. After careful consideration and evaluation of the dignity she had remaining, (dirty, sweaty, skinny, seven-years-old, disoriented, lost and mussed as she was) Carrie discarded the garment and continued on her way, wearing only the loose-fitting undershirt and spandex shorts she had worn underneath, which barely stayed up, even though she used her belt to hold up the shorts.

By now Carrie was pondering her former mission. Was she still expected to carry it out, given the circumstances? Surely being seven and nowhere near the actual site of conspiracy were enough to get out of this. In any case, she only had a theoretical hour before she was pulled back to her own time. What would happen if she didn’t come back with the object she was assigned to steal? Carrie stopped walking and considered the situation for a minute or two. She thought back to the morning she had left behind.

“Are you ready for this, girlie-girl?” the director, Hank Buckler, had asked her, as they both crowded around the lounge’s sole coffeemaker. She had refrained from glaring at him but did not respond aloud. Carrie had been through far too much action to still be so belittled by her superiors.

“Haha, just joking with you. I’ll bet you can make it back in less than forty minutes, am I right? Record time, right girlie-girl?” Carrie cleared her throat and poured herself some coffee. She found it difficult to respond to him when he was in one of his moods.

“I’m sure I will complete the assignment,” she said coldly and moved away, even as Buckler was still chuckling away. Ultimately, though, they both knew she was just a runner for this task. Although she had been specially chosen for her physical prowess and pristine record, the actual information she would be stealing, not to mention the ultimate purpose of the theft, were too confidential to be disclosed to her. This fact burrowed into her prideful conscience as she stalked away from the irritatingly cheerful director.

Carrie narrowed her eyes as she recalled the director’s attitude. No, she definitely needed to complete the assignment. If she failed to retrieve this data, or whatever it was, there was no way she could ever advance to the higher clearance levels.

Looking around, Carrie tried to get her bearings. Despite her unfortunate change of stature, this was just another mission. After seven years of intense combat, conflict and navigation training and another two years in the field, Carrie was ready for any situation. The door of the barn up ahead was swinging slightly in the light breeze and inside she could see the bumper of what could be a viable mode of transportation. Carrie crept inside the barn and critically evaluated her surroundings. A rusty Chevy, decades old, rested in the late afternoon sun rays that illuminated the dusty quality of the air. Perfect.

Carrie did a quick search of the barn and then looked over the immediate grounds, to determine whether there was another person on the premises, but there was no sign of anyone. This was both useful…since she would not have to explain herself when she, as a seven-year-old, hotwired and then drove off in a commandeered truck),… and potentially problematic, since an abandoned truck was not likely to be fully functional.

Her conjecture proved to be correct. The truck was indeed, busted. But then Carrie found a rusty old functioning bike, whose pedals her skinny little legs could actually reach, unlike the truck’s.

Although Carrie could not be certain of her precise location, she surmised from the general geography that she was in the near vicinity of the city. She need only bike in the direction of the billowing smoke and she would find the district she was looking for. And she needed to hurry; her loose-fitting high-tech watch told her she had already used up nearly twenty of her precious minutes and she didn’t have much time left. When the watch began to flash, she would have a five-minute window to press the green button and return back to her own time, shape and age…theoretically.

As she began pedaling as hard as her tiny legs would allow, Carrie tried to calculate her chances of success. She still had her mind after all. She was traveling at approximately twenty miles per hour down this gravel road, heading down into the industrial sector. On the other side she could find her way to the institute and from there, well, carry out her original mission. Fast. Given that by the time she would arrive she would have wasted nearly thirty minutes of her precious sixty, Carrie calculated quickly that she needed to move at 1.25 times her normal rate in order to finish in time. However, given her newfound disguise, she could probably eliminate covert operations four through nine and just slip into the director’s office.

The sun shone above her, reminding Carrie that it was now spring, April to be more exact, and not the frigid winter she had left behind. She remembered shivering uncontrollably on her way to work that morning and now she stretched out her bare arms to let them soak up the warm, comforting rays of the sun. As Carrie pedaled harder and faster up a particularly troublesome hill, her heart began to race and she smiled in anticipation of the twirly tickled feeling in her stomach as she coasted faster and faster down the other side of the hill. Carrie even caught herself giggling before she straightened up—or rather hunched down—and pedaled with more determination toward her goal.

Carrie arrived at the institute about three minutes behind schedule. She probably could have made it there faster but she was slightly distracted by the calls of the neighborhood kids in the residential area she had passed. She had tried not to look for too long, but as she coasted by Carrie watched some young girls—about her age, if you wanted to be technical about it—playing hopscotch and jump-rope on the sidewalk. Around them, some boys were trying to play soccer in the street but were mostly just goofing off in front of the girls as they giggled and screamed in mock horror whenever their paths crossed. One girl, wearing a blue flowered shirt, noticed Carrie was slowing as she biked past.

“Hey girl, want to come play with us?” the girl called out. A few of the girls around her looked around to see who she was shouting at. Some waved at Carrie as well but Carrie was suddenly very interested in the road ahead of her as she picked up speed suddenly.

Carrie told herself the mission was the only thing she was focusing on, but in truth her speed dragged again once she felt the breeze ruffle through her hair and the sun warm her bones. She remembered the kids from a few blocks earlier and wondered if they were still playing in the road before she realized it was all immaterial anyway. What should she care about some arbitrary children?

As Carrie peered out at the institute’s main building from behind an inconspicuous bush, she could discern the expected security measures she would have to surpass. With an aggravated sigh she counted the visible security guards and figured she had to slip past four before she found her way into the director’s office. She remembered going over the various security measures dozens of times in her preparation for this assignment. Just yesterday—or, what felt like yesterday—Carrie had been briefed yet again on the proper protocol for evading the guards without detection.

Not that that was too helpful now; she was a child for Pete’s sake. All those precise and efficient martial arts moves were slightly out of her current physical capabilities. Carrie wondered if, when she finally got sucked back home, after she opened the temporary wormhole from her end, if she’d really get back to her old—well, former—age and size. She supposed then she could then start more training or, more likely, filling out the paperwork related to the mission. Maybe she would even need to undergo testing, since she had gone from one age to another and back again so quickly. It was lucky she was able to think through all this. She was sure most other spies wouldn’t handle the unexpected challenge so gracefully. Carrie cleared her throat and threw her focus back toward the mission, concentrating on her imminent entrance to the building. There were only twenty more minutes before she would have to go back and she wasn’t going back empty-handed, was she?

Still, as she moved stealthily toward the front doors of the building, Carrie thought back to her first days of training. “Keep your head up,” Madame would call with a frown, “Don’t be caught looking at the ground.” Carrie had worked harder than anyone in any class. She practiced each move for hours in front of Madame, as an endless list of criticisms came her way. Madame didn’t give compliments.

“No one ever got to the top by feeling good about themselves,” Madame would grunt as Carrie and the others slouched in front of her after another long day. “They get to the top by being the best. By working the hardest. If you don’t make it out there, if you fail, it’s because you quit before you got started.”

That advice carried Carrie through the remaining years. They were tough but she was tougher. Carrie memorized every fact, practiced every move, excelled in every area because she knew she could be better than anyone else.

And yet, Carrie thought with an impatient grumble, here she was, running quietly across an open sunny lobby past two chatting guards, while wearing ill-fitting underwear, in the body of a child, all for the purpose of retrieving some object she would never really know anything about. According to Madame’s wisdom, this must mean Carrie had slacked off somewhere but Carrie couldn’t bring herself to believe that.

Carrie climbed the interminable steps to the fourth floor. She felt as though the whole ordeal was getting to be sort of a drag and she took her frustration out on the stairs. Without consciously thinking about it, Carrie stamped each footstep into the stair with a force and impetuousness that the stupid stairs deserved.

As Carrie finally came to the landing of the fourth floor she gave a sigh of eternal exasperation and tugged open the door. A guard—six foot four, two hundred ten pounds, carrying a handgun in his right side hip holster—turned and looked Carrie in the eye. Carrie was taken aback and stood a moment staring him in the face.

“I’m sorry, miss, are you lost?” The guard stood uneasily, clearly not sure what to do with a lost child.

“No,” Carrie said, annoyed that he would even think that. “I’m just…going to the bathroom. It’s an emergency,” she added, before he could send her back down to the lobby.

“Do you know where your parents are? Or did you come on a school trip? I think I should escort you down—”

“It’s an emergency!” Carrie bolted past the guard and raced to a restroom a little farther down the hall. She pushed the door closed behind her and locked it quickly. She didn’t know if the guard had pursued her, but he probably wasn’t that much of a threat anyways. Stupid guard. Anyways.

Carrie looked around her. Well. She was in a bathroom. This wasn’t strictly part of the plan but there were probably ways to get to that one office from here. For instance, the ceiling was the handy kind where you can just push up squares and get into the crawlspace above. She loved that kind of ceiling best.

However, her recently diminished height was kind of infringing on her ability to get up there. An upturned trashcan was not a sufficient addition to her height but after she balanced the trashcan on the sink, she was able to get to the ceiling tile. As she crawled into the space she pulled the ceiling tile back over the opening. Then she realized the trashcan was still on top of the sink. So, in the event someone got into the bathroom, it probably wouldn’t be too hard to figure out where she had gone. Carrie groaned, impatiently. This mission was more trouble than it was worth.

Trying to orient herself, Carrie crawled toward the general direction of the office she was to break into. Considering the safe room in question was concealed behind said office, she should be able to just forego the office stage and get right to the point. Carrie suppressed another sigh and crept carefully until she was right above the office. Her lightweight frame was handy after all.

She could see the director through the gaps in the ceiling. She could even hear him humming a little to himself. She was close now. Very close. All that training, studying, practicing, memorizing, concentration, focus…it was all going to finally pay off.

And yet, Carrie was finding it difficult to care. The crawlspace was hot and stuffy and she was annoyed at how much effort it took to conceal the sound of her breath. Furthermore, there was no clear way to get into the secret safe room. There seemed to be a big ugly metal division, separating her from her goal. The only way to get past it was the wire grate on the far side. If she could only unscrew it she could get through. She was about to fish through her pockets for a screwdriver but realized she left all her pockets at the farm.

Suddenly Carrie’s watch started to flash red. Perplexed, Carrie looked at the screen. “FIVE MINUTES” flashed repeatedly in bright crimson. Irritated, Carrie pulled off the watch. Like she needed a reminder. Then she remembered something about the high-tech gizmo. The end of the watchstrap was a makeshift tool that could be used to, in dire cases, pick a lock, cause an electrical short circuit, poke things, loosen tough gravel or serve as a wimpy screwdriver for the truly desperate. It was hardly efficient but the screws were neither numerous, nor very tight. In a minute, Carrie was through.

She slipped down into the small white room. Carrie glanced around and was not impressed. The safe room was approximately eight foot square and hardly six feet tall. Every wall and the floor were white plaster and the ceiling was the same tile as the rest of the building. Carrie put her hands on her hips and tsk’d with a little eye roll for emphasis. This room was a joke. All that training? For this? A child could get in here! Security, her foot.

In the center of the room was a small, brown, rickety card table and resting on top, was a manila envelope stamped TOP SECRET. Carrie was by now far too exasperated to roll her eyes. So she just snorted a little. And tapped her foot impatiently on the floor. And then paced back and forth in front of the table. This was far too easy. And not in an it’s-a-trap! way, but in an infuriating I-did-a-lot-of-work-for-nothing way. Carrie’s watch flashed again. “TWO MINUTES.”

Carrie considered the envelope again. From here all she had to do was pick up the dumb thing and press the green button on her watch. Then she would be sucked back—or rather forward—through time, to her own time. She could get back to real missions. Maybe. More training certainly. And more meaningless assignments. And degrading advisers. And what for, really? This envelope couldn’t possibly be that important if these were the security measures protecting it. And it’s not like she would ever actually find out what this was all about.

“ONE MINUTE.”

Carrie looked at the envelope. She was thinking about riding that bike so fast down that hill and how her stomach made little leaps to match the bouncing of the bike over the bumps. She was thinking about those kids she passed, who were playing so happily in the street, and the girl in the blue flowered shirt who had offered to let her play with them. She was thinking about running past the guard out there and seeing the look of utter bewilderment on his face when he realized he had no idea what to do. She was thinking about how she bravely—no, heroically—climbed on top of the trashcan, even though it was very precariously perched on the sink. Then she was thinking about how it felt to crawl about in the dusty crawlspace and cramping her fingers to get the dumb screws off the grate.

“THIRTY SECONDS, TWENTY-NINE, TWENTY-EIGHT…”

Carrie looked at the watch. She looked at the envelope. She looked at the wall, beyond which was a harmless, clueless director of arts and sciences at this shady institute, sitting at this desk still humming to himself. She looked up at the ceiling, at the hole she had come through. Beyond that was the crawlspace, and the bathroom, and the guard and the stupid stairs and the sunny lobby and the glass doors. But beyond all those was as a sunny April day, and a bike that might take her anywhere she might want to go. Maybe even to visit those kids that wanted to play with her before.

The watch continued to flash. “NINE, EIGHT, SEVEN…”

Carrie tossed the watch on the table and climbed up to the ceiling. In a minute, she was gone. The watch flashed with more urgency than ever.

“FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE…”

With a muffled “poof” the watch disintegrated into a small pile of ash, leaving no traceable evidence of espionage.