CJ Montgomery Author Page

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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Mrs. Chen

 Sneak Peek!

‘Master your time, lest she master you.’ The Chesterfield motto hung proudly over the door to Jonathan’s office, as it had for generations before him. Never before had it been as profoundly true as now.

“Will that be all, sir?”

“Yes, Mrs. Chen, I think that’s all.”

“Tomorrow’s the big day.”

Jonathan’s heart raced. The test run for his new device had gone off without a hitch three months before, and so far everything looked perfect, well, almost. He peered out the window at a few errant clouds drifting on the horizon. “Long as it clears up.” It had better. They wouldn’t get another chance for several months.

“I’ve made the adjustments you requested on the program, and the vehicle is supplied with appropriate currency, as well as lunch, should you need it. Your clothes are laid out in your office. I’m afraid there were no authentic costumes available outside a museum, and those are too fragile in any case.”

Jonathan’s face fell. He wanted to be totally immersed in his role.

Mrs. Chen continued, an annoyed lilt to her voice. “You’ll have to settle for replicas. I can take them outside and rub them in the dirt if that will better satisfy your need for authenticity.”

He pulled up the final calculations. “Jasper, run through these one more time,” he commanded his computer interface as he tucked the receiver into his right ear. “And check for activity at the back door.” Several attempts at corporate espionage had him on high alert. He’d been working on this project for three years and no one was going to hack him now that he was on the verge of a working prototype. He was already one of the wealthiest men in the United People’s Republic thanks to cloaking technology he’d developed and sold to the military right out of high school. When he launched his new toy, his name would become the stuff of legend. “A little dirt never hurt anyone. I ought to take you up on the offer.”

“Snide for a man who might die tomorrow.”

Jonathan looked up at her uncharacteristically morose comment. She stood there looking at him, face stern, clever eyes gleaming as always. “I should have hired a twenty-five year old secretary…a hot one,” he said. “I wouldn’t need so many antacids.”

The look on her face remained steady. “Will there be anything else?”

Jonathan smiled and went back to his work. “No, I’m going to finish a couple things here tonight, and I’ll see you here tomorrow…7am sharp.”

“Yes, sir.”

He listened to the staccato tap of her heels as she retreated down the corridor. Mrs. Chen was as much a mystery now as she had been three years ago when he’d met her. As head of a leading technology company, he typically surrounded himself with twenty to thirty-year-old innovators and free thinkers that could take him to the next level. Mrs. Chen was well over one hundred, her face deeply etched, white hair typically rolled into a tight bun, clothes perfect. When she left her interview three years prior, he had the distinct impression he was the one under scrutiny. She wasn’t much of a talker, but when she bothered speaking, it was generally worth listening to. In fact, she’d been instrumental in his recent success. Everyone questioned his choice, but Jonathan hadn’t been sorry once. She’d never steered him wrong. It was a bonus she could operate and repair a refracting tessalator in her sleep.

He returned to his final preparations. Jasper reported systems normal, and Jonathan slid his earpieces and contact lens screens into their docks to charge overnight. He hadn’t moved around much that day, so the kinetic battery was low. He looked over the numbers, and once more at those pesky clouds lingering outside. It had better clear up. His next invention would have to be a weather controller.

Jonathan took the lift up to his apartment, housed on the fortieth floor of the building. He walked in and pushed the button on the screen just inside the door. No messages or mail…no big surprise, since he’d spent negligible time with friends or family over the past six months. He lived and breathed TimePod.

He suffered a twinge of guilt for neglecting his grandmother, but he was certain someone would alert him if her condition changed. He shuffled around inside his junk drawer for a minute until he found his headpiece. He fit it into place and switched it on. “Jasper?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Send program Alpha Gamma Gamma Six to Mimi, the second version, the one we finished up last week.”

“Sending…Task completed, sir.”

That made Jonathan feel better. Mimi would be immersed in her own personal Jane Austen novel any moment now. “While you’re at it, send flowers to Granddad and Grandmother Taan.”

“Is their address still care of Mayview Cemetery, 13000 West….?”

Jonathan cut him off. “Yes, Jasper, they’re not exactly mobile. You can quit asking.”

“Sending…Task completed, sir.”

“Thanks, Jasper.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

“Hey, pull up the article from April 2018, where they found that airplane using LIDAR.” Jonathan had researched dozens of strange happenings spanning several hundred years. He still couldn’t navigate the TimePod accurately, and he hoped one of them might lend a clue to what he was getting wrong. There was a momentary pause before the article appeared in the air in front of him. It was about a scientist wanted for theft of a small plane owned by the research company for which she worked. The plane and its occupants disappeared two years prior, first thought lost at sea, another victim of the Bermuda triangle. Instead, an unrelated study scanning the forest in Southern China revealed it to be very much intact.

Why was it so far away from its origination point? A Cessna wasn’t built for that kind of travel. What were Dr. Sutton’s exact motives? There was conjecture she had been selling information to the Chinese for years, and fearing discovery, had fled to seek amnesty.

“Give me the one from June of that year.”

Another article appeared, this one after the search party finally reached the plane and found the pilot dead within. Dr. Sutton’s charges now included murder. “Pull up the National Sentinel article from the following day, same subject.” The Sentinel had a different take on the disappearance and included some anomalies not mentioned in more reputable reports.

The airplane was fully intact in the middle of a heavily forested area, with only a few pieces of the outer shell and some electronics missing…odd, since if it crashed, wreckage should have been spread all over the forest floor. If it landed, where was the airstrip? There wasn’t one for miles. It was as if the plane had just appeared out of thin air.

“Open the autopsy report on the pilot.”

“It has been heavily redacted, sir. Approximately twenty-eight percent of the original file is available for view.”

Jonathan hoped with his old government contacts, he might get a little more cooperation. Staff Sargent Erickson had been as helpful as he could. “Send Cam Erickson a bottle of Storian Vodka, the good stuff, don’t cheap out.”

He perused the report. The pilot apparently died in the crash, from what was left of the body. The skull was caved in, presumably where he hit the dash. There wasn’t much else left of him. Most of it had been scavenged by animals.

Jonathan leaned back against the kitchen counter as he read the next page for the dozenth time. Most of it was blacked out, but they missed one small section that mentioned a carbon dating test, with a result at three hundred years, dismissed as impossible by the investigators--they knew when the plane was taken. He shook his head and absentmindedly chewed on a sliver of nutrition brick.

Pictures showed rust on the wings, the dilapidated state of the rubber tires. The airplane was a 1997 model, but it looked like it had been there for hundreds of years. The Sentinel theorized everything from alien abduction to time travel, which, when the article was written, was just tabloid sensationalism. But Earth’s first extra-terrestrial contact in 2123, followed up by another in 2240, blew the first assumption out of the water.

Five years ago, time travel was a myth as well. Now Jonathan knew better. He’d sent several unmanned pods until he worked out geographical navigation, then three with different animals, which returned unscathed.

For Jonathan’s maiden voyage, he set down in Tibet. It was only a minute, but long enough for Jasper to scan the surroundings and verify their location and date, and for Jonathan to look into the eyes of a surprised farmer and appreciate he was seeing history take place. But it was a complicated process, and he still didn’t have it totally figured out. He wanted to find out how some scientist in the twenty-first century had managed it. If he could look at her equipment, he might figure out how to fix his.

“Jasper, give me tomorrow’s seismic forecast for the launch coordinates.”

“Plate Alpha Twenty-Three tectonic activity will be .83mm north by northwest, Plate Tau Twelve tectonic activity will be .43mm to the east.”

“Solar activity report?”

“Twenty-five kilometer solar flare near the northern pole expected for 8:03 am.”

“Great…great,” Jonathan replied absentmindedly. He looked at the fuzzy black and white thumbnail of Dr. Sutton. Her file didn’t say what she’d been working on, so that was no help. But he had the coordinates of her plane, and if he managed to appear before 2018, perhaps he could get a look before the search party tampered with it.

To his great relief, the next day dawned crisp and clear, perfect for launch. Mrs. Chen was startled at the music blaring over the loudspeakers in his office. Jonathan finalized calculations and grabbed her in his arms as she approached.

He whirled her around the floor a couple of times before dipping her low. One raised eyebrow punctuated her staid expression. She had clearly never been treated thus in her entire life. “Dearest Mrs. Chen, if you were eighty years younger, I would give Mr. Chen a run for his money.”

Her sharp eyes narrowed. “Mr. Chen is dead. I’m all yours.”

Surprised, he pulled her upright. “Sorry, didn’t mean any disrespect. Just always assumed you hurried home to someone special every night…may I ask what happened?”

“Cerefugi’s Syndrome. Many years ago.”

“Cerefugi’s…that’s what my grandmother has. Why didn’t he just go to The Library?”

Mrs. Chen paused. “My husband didn’t appreciate the newest technologies the way you and I do. He preferred the comfort of books to media.”

“But the patients are very well cared for. My Mimi is currently living happily in the 1800s English countryside. No worries, no responsibilities. Her own personalized Utopia.”

“He didn’t consider virtual reality conduit wired directly to his occipital and parietal lobes to be living at all.”

“And you agreed?”

“I’m afraid even in his final days, you would have had your hands full with Mr. Chen. Besides," she continued, "perhaps Utopia is overrated.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Who’s to say the patients are truly happy? Mr. Chen once told me the worst day of his life was the best day of his life.”

“Waxing philosophical today?”

The glow in her eyes faded for a second before they settled into their customary sharpness. “There will be plenty of time for philosophy later. Are you prepared?”

“Yes.” He reached over onto his desk and inserted his contact screens and both earpieces.

“You will have full use of Jasper’s database while you are gone, but since time targeting is still an issue, you may have to do without satellites. That means no GPS. You will have to verify your whereabouts and extrapolate your…whenabouts?”

“Mrs. Chen, did you just tell a joke?”

“Of course not, sir.” She was already at the external console.

“I probably should have rolled these in dirt,” he commented as he looked at his pristine sleeves and overcoat. The plan was to set him down in the forested, sparsely populated area near Dr. Sutton’s plane, so he could appear unobserved. “Maybe instead of the jungle, you should send me to a palace.”

“Perhaps a country manor instead. Fewer witnesses. Excellent libraries.”

“I’ll leave it up to you.”

“As you wish, sir.”

He stepped inside the pod and closed the door carefully behind him before sitting down at the internal console. The lights were already flashing green, and his brow furrowed. The pod shouldn’t even be powered up yet. He heard a scratch and a soft click behind him, and turned to see his secretary’s face peering through the window. He tried the door, but it was stuck hard. “Mrs. Chen, what’s going on?” he demanded. “Mrs. Chen!”

She pushed the speaker button. “Have a safe trip, sir.”

“Jasper! Transfer pod controls to internal console.”

Mrs. Chen’s voice responded deep in his ear. “Unable to comply, sir.”

He banged sharply on the window. The corners of her lips curled smugly. It was the first time he’d ever seen her smile. He decided he didn’t like it. “Who are you working for?” he shouted.

“Information unavailable.”

“Let me out of here!” The internal pod speakers began a monotone countdown from twenty.

“I suggest wearing your seatbelt. It may be a bumpy ride.”

“Thirteen, twelve, eleven…”

Jonathan sat down in his seat and pulled the harness over his head. His shaking hands clumsily wrestled with the buckles.

“Seven, six, five…”

“This isn’t over,” he glared at her. “I’ll never let you steal this tech. Do you think I have no safeguards in place? It’ll destroy itself if you try to hack it. And you’d better never shut your eyes. I’m coming for you and I’ll never give up, you heinous bitch, do you hear me?”

“Two, one…”

The floor of the TimePod began to soften under his feet, and he smelled ozone in the air as it activated, a side effect of the shift in environment.

“Good luck with that, sir,” was her final message, fading as a whooshing sound filled the pod. It was surreal, with no feeling of movement, like being inside a glass box inside a tornado. It was loud as a freight train, but the air was still around him. Darkness fell over his eyes, which hadn’t happened last time. Jonathan knew he was a dead man.

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