We are now into the third month of Glempy’s Pictonaut Challenge, and what a month it is.  I don’t know what this is a picture of, and I don’t darn well even care, but I wrote a short story about it anyway.  I look forward to reading your one.

“That’s the thing about the future,” Cornelius the time traveller tells us portentously, sucking a stalk of barley furiously in an attempt to look retro.  “Everything is structured like that.”

We look at the sphere again; scaffold ribs poking through gaps in gold coloured skin, humming ominously in the late afternoon sunshine.

“Why is it here?” asks Barney, ever the voice of reason in the face of Cornelius and his outlandish claims about trips to tomorrow.  “I thought you said there were laws in the future about not coming back?”

“There are,” he replies, scrunching his moustache mysteriously, “but they only apply to humans.  There’s nothing to say you can’t send back… things.”

He puts so much emphasis on the last word that the barley goes shooting across the plaza and hits a small dog in the eye.  It gives Cornelius a withering look and stalks off, tail in the air.  That shows admirable restraint, I think – I’m pretty sure I would have bitten him.

“But what for?” Barney persists.  “And what is it, anyway?”

“Experiments,” he replies, rooting around in the pockets of his coat for more grain.  Eventually he comes out with a piece of hay, greying and broken in several places.  He puts it in the corner of his mouth, drooping sadly:- “They want to see if they can send things to and fro if they reinforce the innards with support struts.  A few years after they make this thing –” he pats the sphere affectionately and gets a metallic clank in answer – “they start trying it out on people.”

“But people already go back and forth.”

“Yes, but it does terrible thing to your internal organs.  That’s why they passed the law saying nobody was to go back anymore, only forwards.  Doctors got sick of having people turn up with their gizzards the wrong way round after turbulence in the time stream.  The journey to the future is altogether safer than the voyage to the past.”

Neither of us bothers to point out that Cornelius goes back and forth all the time without curdling his intestines, partly because he’s told us several times the reason for this is mild genetic mutation and partly because we aren’t all that convinced his insides are OK.  For all we know, his gallbladder might be lodged in pancreas, and it certainly seems like bits of his brain are hidden somewhere around his kneecaps. 

There’s also the fact we’ve only got his word for it that he has been to the future.  He’s never offered us nything much in the way of proof, except for a couple of predictions about new types of biscuit that will be coming out next year.  He is always right about biscuits, but that doesn’t mean he’s been to the future – maybe he’s just particularly prescient about confectionary.  Or maybe he knows someone at the factory. 

The orb buzzes gently, an electronic soundtrack to our silence.

“Is it dangerous?” I ask, not really expecting him to know the answer.

“Yes,” Cornelius says, “very.  We should probably run away, now that I come to think of it.”

We stare at him for a too-long moment, trying to work out if he’s kidding.  Then the sphere makes a rumbling noise, vibrating against the ground like an old fashioned drill from the days when there used to be road works everywhere and he’s gone; racing across the platform and down the crumbling steps to the west quarter, tattered denim cape flying out behind him like wash day gone wrong.

Barney and I look at each other and leg it just as the thing explodes, sending shards of kindling flying out in every direction.  The impact pushes us up into the air then down to earth hard, skimming us across the surface like stones on water – minus the elegance and poise.  I don’t know if you’ve ever skinned your face, but the initial reaction is not a calm one.

We’ll be picking splinters out of our everything for weeks.

Now do you agree that we should stop hanging out with Cornelius?” I squeak.  Sawdust confetti rains down, filling our eyes and lungs.

“Suppose,” Barney nods, pulling a needle of wood out of his cheek and wincing.

Meanwhile, sometime in the future, an engineer looks back on history… and laughs.

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