That was the sound of Evel Knievel’s motorcycle about to jump the Snake River Canyon. It was the moment of truth. I wasn’t responsible for Evel’s making it across the canyon, but I was responsible for him making it home safely. As the chief engineer of the Skycycle X-2’s emergency safety systems, I was nervous, hoping for the best but anticipating the worst.
“Ksscchhhhhtttt!!!” The radio jumped to life. Flight control was checking in with me. “Safety engineer?”
“Safety systems go,” I said.
“Roger,” he said. I was last on the checklist. “All systems go. Evel, you are cleared for launch.”
A burst of steam billowed out of the Skycycle, and I felt my broken heart pounding in my chest.
The year was 1974, and I was confused, lonely, adrift. It had taken me months to admit what I already knew: Breaking up with a time traveler hurts. So when the job came along, I held onto it like a life preserver. If I couldn’t mend my heart, I could at least save a life.
Everything I knew about Evel’s soon-to-be-famous jump of the Snake River Canyon spelled disaster. Not one of the unmanned test runs was a success. The Skycycle X-2 was a hybrid machine whose apparent design mandate was to combine the street handling of a rocket with the flight dynamics of a motorcycle.
And so I worked. My colleagues joked that the only reason OPEC ended their 1973 embargo was because they knew how much midnight oil I would burn. But the work paid off. The X-2’s propulsion systems would always be a slapdash mess, but its 350-plus integrated safety mechanisms were a work of art.
As the Skycycle accelerated toward the edge of the Snake River Canyon, I thought of Sir Edward Robert Chaswick Valiant Sandwicher the Third, Lord of Sexelton and Master of Chessgrass Manor, Servant of the Queen and Royal Knight of the Kashmir Protectorate. We called him E-Bob for short, and in return he pretended that it didn’t bother him.
I could afford to think of E-Bob. The Skycycle’s many safety mechanisms required no human input at all. Not from me, not from Evel. The rocketbike was built with the assumption of failure.
E-Bob and I met in an East London flat in 1967. I had been invited to participate in a round-table discussion on the possibility of astral planes populated by alien races of flower children.
As a physicist, engineer, and the author of thirteen widely acclaimed books on logical positivism, I looked forward to the event. My fellow participants were to be a “conceptual writer” who wrote mostly “poems without words” and a radical Maoist full-time fingerpaint artist. The venue was a small bookshop called The Mouldering Crumpet. They sold only three things: British flags, Vespa scooters, and coffee table picture books of Vespa scooters draped in British flags.
When I arrived I was informed that the event was canceled. In order to provide an eyewitness report of alien flower children, the writer and the Maoist had attempted a daring astral projection that ended in tragedy. Believing that travel across astral planes could be accomplished by travel through time, they had been crushed to death in the gears of Big Ben.
The owner of the bookshop made an announcement. “Blake and Harmony are grooving out on fabulous new plane, and we should rejoice in their bodily liberation,” he said. He paused for effect, then continued, “Ironic, isn’t it, that in their worldly absence we are the ones who are truly crushed.”
Everyone laughed politely, and the owner invited us to his flat. Once there I drank six cups of punch, and then I met the most handsome man in all of jolly old England.
“Ahoy there, fancy lassie,” said E-Bob. “My name is—”
“Let me guess,” I said. “Sir Edward Robert Chaswick Valiant Sandwicher the Third, Lord of Sexelton and Master of Chessgrass Manor, Servant of the Queen and Royal Knight of the Kashmir Protectorate?”
His face went pale.
“My word. You’re absolutely right. That means the prophecy is true.”
“Before learning the secrets of time travel, Wizard Jenkins instructed me to take on a nom de chronos. This was done to protect the integrity of the space-time continuum. Since arriving in the 1960s, I have gone by the name of Jamhouse Johnny Juicebox. My groupies know me as Triple-J Threat, the most far-out psychedelic bassist in all of London, but Wizard Jenkins has said that my true love would know my real name. The fact of the matter is, I have come here from Jane Austen times in search of a proper mate.”
We pledged eternal loyalty to each other that night on the banks of the River Thames. E-Bob then revealed the secret of time travel.
“Blake and Harmony were close,” he said. “But they had it backwards. Instead of crawling inside a giant clock, you must ingest many hundreds of tiny clocks.”
“So that means—”
“Yes, you’re absolutely right. It requires that the time traveler eat countless pounds of miniature but precise Swiss watches. The concomitant expense ensures that time travel is available only to the royal class. As it should be, of course.”
This was my first sign that E-Bob and I came from different worlds.
Our relationship was good but rocky. We were together for many years, and did many fun things, but eventually he developed a lycanthrope fetish and dumped me for a nineteen-year-old werewolf named Sandy Biggums.
“‘Ere you go, gov’nor,” he said as he left my life forever. I was devastated.
So I took the Evel Knievel job.
And there I was, on the edge of the Snake River Canyon, watching the Skycycle race away from me.
Most of you know what happened next. The jump failed. Evel Knievel lived.
That night, during the closing ceremonies, the launch team was officially retired. I was presented with a fine gold watch. And that was it. I finally had all the watches I needed to travel through time and leave my personal trauma in the past. The next morning, I made a great big goulash of Swiss watches and ate them all.
My stomach churned, and the world contorted itself around me. Things got brighter and brighter, but I got sleepier and sleepier. I passed out. I woke up in the year 2013. With the help of the savings I had deposited in a high-interest bank account, I bought a solid gold house. The floor around the oven gets soft when I bake cookies, but otherwise I have no complaints.
Please contact me if you are a metallurgist with a doctorate-level specialty in thermal conductivity or enjoy eating cookies.
Netflix and werewolf hunting.