Quite puzzled now, he scoured the pages of the old wizard’s tiny journal, searching for something that might explain why his cauldron had just opened, on it’s own, without the spoken enchantment…..he didn’t even notice the pistol pointing up into his face until the voice behind it said, “Give it back, boy!… Give it back NAOW!!!…Ya yella-bellied VARMINT!!”
He called himself Zebulon the Wizard, but his real name was Ralph…and he was a thief. Oh, don’t get me wrong, he was a really good thief who came from a long line of renowned thieves. There was no shame in it. Thievery was a respectable occupation in the old country, which had carried over when his family emigrated here. But like so many young people nowadays, Ralph found himself falling short of his forefathers’ success.
Old family connections no longer guaranteed respect and a spot on a crack team of cat burglars – or elicit seed money from the mob for a grand heist. Even the intelligence community ( the biggest employer of thieves in the world) had marginalized new hires into dull college-educated analysts. So, Ralph was relegated to common pick-pocketing on the street, just to pay the bills.
As it so often happens (in old TV shows), Ralph found the solution to all his problems…in church. He could always find an easy mark among the rich overdressed hypocrites on a Sunday morning, but it wasn’t until the post-service meet and greet that he was able to lift a nice fat purse from the breast pocket of – none other than – the Holy Roman Cardinal: the biggest, richest muckety-muck of them all. What a lucky break!!!
How disappointing to find, later, that it was nothing more than a dusty old, hand-written journal…in Latin (of all things). Ugh!! Ralph hated Latin! The kids in school used to tease him for sounding like a drunk Ukrainian whenever he read it out loud.
But, on closer inspection, he discovered that the book was one of those rare mystical Vatican treasures, meant to be locked away and never, ever studied (lest it disprove the church’s fairy tales…or destroy the world). Upon reading it – and understanding it – Ralph realized he’d hit the jackpot!
The book, written by the fictional wizard, Merlin, was an instruction manual for creating a stable quantum portal, i.e., a gateway allowing him to traverse enormous distances…even time itself. Cooool! And if Ralph’s understanding of Latin was better than he thought, his alchemy was even better.
It only took a few weeks to beg, barter, and steal all the exotic elements and artifacts he would need. Some were quite rare and most still had archaic names like “saltpeter.” Who knew potassium nitrate used to be called saltpeter?…or that the chemical makeup of modern gunpowder is totally different than the black powder developed around ninth century China?
As well, Ralph found that the key to the entire project was in the spoken enchantments. Merlin’s overall recipe was pretty straight forward chemistry…but say the right Latin gibberish, in the right tone of voice (standing on one foot with a feather up your bum), and the common reaction you’d get combining bleach and ammonia might produce an adorable plaid bunny, instead of just…a cloud of poison chlorine gas. There was, needless to say, a good deal of trial and error (and even more tedious research) involved.
In the end, Ralph built what he called a “time cauldron” and had only to decide what he wanted to steal, from whom…and when. He hit the books again, compiling an elaborate list of fabulous lost treasures, along with their exact locations, on specific historic dates. But when he activated the cauldron, he was not thinking (as he should have) of the Palace of Versailles, June 15th, 1811… he was thinking of his personal hero, the greatest thief in history.
The portal opened in Missouri, April 3rd, 1882, and he was staring at a rather stunned…Jesse James. As quick as a thief (which he was), Ralph reached in and grabbed an elaborately decorated six-gun tucked into the front of James’ belt, then closed the time portal before his outraged hero could react.
“Jesse James!” he grinned. “How cool was that!!!?” He laughed, very pleased with himself.
Within a year, Ralph had a warehouse full of treasures from throughout history and changed his name to Zebulon. He was surely (and literally) the greatest thief of all time, and having encountered his older self numerous times over the next fifty years, was sure he had a bright, healthy future…
…So it puzzled him even more to find his hero, Jesse James, waving an anxious six-gun in his face…through HIS own cauldron. How the heck did this happen? It was still April 3rd, 1882; shouldn’t he be dead by now?
Jesse poked Ralph in the nose with the barrel. “I want ma gun back. I want it naow…” he stopped to pull back the hammer (very menacing), “or I’ll blow yer dang head off, boy!” He seemed pretty pissed off.
Ralph could have crapped a brick in his fancy wizard pantaloons trying to remember where he put that pistol. But his sweeping gaze landed on a brilliant (desperate) solution. “I might have something better…” he said as he handed Jesse James a brand new solar-powered fully automatic plasma laser assault rifle (with pump-action grenade launcher), which he will have lifted, five years from now, off an elite storm trooper of the fifth battalion of Grand Emperor Trump’s intrepid Space Force.
Well…Jesse was giddy as a June bug in sassafras underbritches – or some such Missouri thing…and with his solemn vow (as an honest thief) to destroy the weapon after today’s gunfight, Jesse James closed the portal, none the worse for wear.
Naturally, Ralph was pretty impressed with himself for his quick wit and elegant solution to the mess he’d made…and what could possibly go wrong with handing an advanced weapon of mass destruction from the year 2024, to a gunslinger from 1882 on his death day…?
***Well, this is one of the few really long stories in our new book, “A Short Burst,” it’s a whopping two pages. It’s one of John’s favorites because it straddles the weird, squiggly border between sci-fi and fantasy. The original image, published in the April, 2007 issue of Analog Magazine was used as the title page of ‘Burst’ (the one above is the revised version). You can find all our books and stuff at our Etsy shop. Etsy.com (search EEWbooks) or just follow the link on our website (which will also bring you to Etsy). -Marsha