Sir Reginald Abernathy once stopped a nuclear war with nothing but a sword, his wits, and the kind of heroism reserved for such situations.
The sword was a priceless jeweled scimitar, gifted from Sinbad himself, perfect for fencing, jousting, or, when necessary, piercing the soft underbelly of overconfident dragons. The wits were of the highest caliber, honed by years of seducing princesses and outsmarting evil geniuses. The heroism was the type one might expect to find in any boy who had saved the world several times over before his 11th birthday, which is to say, rare, but an absolute necessity.
In the span of several years, he had killed immortals, escaped from the infamous Inescapable Dungeon (twice), and in a matter of hours built the most advanced spaceship in the universe (just in time, as it turned out), sending the alien invaders of Zubon back to their galaxy with nothing but injuries and the certainty that they would never return to Earth.
Yes, Sir Reggie – as he was affectionately called by his biggest fans – was a master of many talents. So far, he was an archer, swordsman, gunslinger, mechanic, gymnast, detective, pilot, wizard, and now, a knight.
It’s almost hard to believe if you stop to think about it, but such improbability was simply another part of the mysterious Sir Reginald Abernathy, who was, above all, a great many things.
Most recently, he was dead, stabbed through the heart with his own beloved sword by the hand of his life-long best friend.
Manny had stared with cold indifference as he slowly but deliberately forced the wide blade into Sir Reggie’s chest, stopping only when the jewel-encrusted hilt reached bone. In the last few seconds of life, there was gasping and choking and a lost opportunity to say what would surely have been an immensely clever and well-rehearsed series of last words. Instead, the intrepid and indomitable Sir Reginald Abernathy coughed blood, let out a mewling whimper, let his eyes roll back into his head, and shat himself – an altogether dull and unimpressive death for such a renowned hero of the Hutton household.
Manny dragged the body through the living room, around the coffee table and floral-patterned sofa (making sure to avoid the new rug), and out the back door, and dumped it unceremoniously over the side of the patio. He watched as it landed onto a pile of loose woodchips, sliding down and doubling over as it settled on the wet grass. Manny cocked his head to the side, then, almost as an afterthought, lazily tossed Sir Reginald Abernathy’s legendary scimitar, now coated in a film of sticky, warm blood, in the direction of the body.
Wiping his hands on his jeans and trying not to dirty his favorite X-men shirt, Manny hopped into the house, closed the sliding glass with a gentle click, and sat down to dinner. He jokingly tapped the bottom of his fork and knife on the table as he waited for his plate, which was soon filled with a heaping pile of his favorite dish: spaghetti and meatballs. Manny messily shoveled the food into his mouth, grinning as much as is possible for a child with cheeks stuffed full of pasta.
After dinner, Manny disposed of anything connecting him to Reggie: Lego fortresses were demolished; drawn accounts of their past adventures were scrawled over, torn, and discarded; and articles of clothing previously used as costumes, disguises, or forts were folded and returned to their proper drawers. Manny scoured his bedroom, making sure to hide any of Reggie’s favorite possessions at the very bottom of the toy chest. When finished, it was almost as if Sir Reginald Abernathy had never existed at all.
Manny retreated to the living room, where he was allowed to watch an old James Bond film playing on television, starring Roger Moore. Manny was joined soon after by his mother’s boyfriend. Theodore (or Ted, as he had Manny address him) was not Manny’s favorite person; he was old, smelled like a pine tree, and was always talking about how something reminded him of something else. Manny’s mother had met Ted while taking one of his classes at the local community college – a story she repeated as much as possible (romantic, she called it) – and often told Manny how lucky they were to have met him.
Manny didn’t feel lucky. He felt like someone else’s granddad had moved in.
Ted always used commercials as an opportunity to educate Manny as to the history of whatever they were watching. Tonight’s lesson included a complete history of Ian Fleming’s James Bond franchise, and though he pretended to listen, Manny spent the time amazed by how Ted could make secret agents sound boring. There was too much talk of contractual obligations and box office openings, and not enough talk of Walther PPKs and how to become a double-oh.
But, even though Manny could have done without Ted’s interjections (and the commercials in general), his mother soon arrived with a bowl of popcorn, and the rest of the evening was filled with buttery fingers, classic Bond quips, and even half of a can of Sunkist. All in all, it was a good night.
Had Sir Reggie been able to join them, Manny was sure he would have agreed.
* * *
Archie arrived a few months later, in the middle of a great thunderstorm. To be more specific, he arrived both in the exact geographical center of the storm’s origin and in the exact chronological midpoint of the storm’s duration. “Facts are facts,” he loved to say. “There’s no value in approximations.”
In Manny’s opinion, Archie’s arrival had been ill-timed for a number of reasons. There was a flood watch for the town, which not only required the Huttons to remove any valuables from the basement, but for Manny to spend the night in the attic, away from his first floor bedroom, just in case. The relocation made it even harder to sleep through the rain, thunder, and lightning (now closer than before), and even worse than that, the power had been out for hours. Manny sat up for what seemed like hours in the darkness, wielding a flashlight against the shadows of the room from the safety of his sleeping bag.
And then, with a flashing crackle, a small boy appeared in the center of the room. He was dressed strangely, in a full, reflective silver jumpsuit and glowing goggles that whirred and clicked as the lenses changed. The boy looked around, consulted with a strange, glowing watch affixed to his arm, and brushed off his suit, sending tiny bolts of electricity falling to the floor.
“So this is 2010,” the boy said, seeming satisfied. “Then you must be Manny Hutton.”
Manny nodded, hitting the butt of his flashlight against his palm in a futile attempt to jumpstart the batteries. Archie lifted his goggles and gestured to the window.
“Sorry about all this,” he said. “Time traveling tends to cause a bit of a ripple in the space-time continuum. Storms are a side effect.” He leaned down and extended a hand. “I am Archivist #6083748B, but you can call me Archie, if that works.”
Manny thought it worked just fine.
As Archie explained for the duration of the night’s storm, he had come to Manny as part of a long-term future-correcting mission, and though he couldn’t say why (for obvious, time-altering reasons), Manny was to be an important part of that plan. It would involve a lot of secrecy, apparently, and Manny was forced to take the time-traveler’s oath, swearing not to tell anyone of the plan, Archie’s presence, or which future events they planned to alter or prevent.
Unlike Reggie, Archie had no interest in joining Manny at school, for dinner, or in any situation which might reveal his identity or compromise his plan. He would wait each day in the woods adjacent to the school’s soccer field, where Manny would meet him after practice. Soon, Manny began to meet him instead of even going to soccer practice; he was mostly just standing around anyway, waiting for the large, brutish form of a kid everyone called Big Ben to push him down or kick him in the legs on purpose. Besides, the whole soccer thing was just his mother’s way of getting him out of the house for a while each day, which he was still doing, so he didn’t feel bad about not going.
The woods were a dense maze of brush and trees and items discarded from kids around school, filled with empty cans, crumpled packs of cigarettes, and shredded pages of homework. Manny would follow Archie as his goggles clicked and whirred, turning side to side as they focused on each and every item in the forest. Every now and then, he’d drop to a knee, pick up an item – a leaf, stick, and once, an old shoe – and nod, telling Manny everything was right on track. These mission updates were unnecessary, Archie often said, but he knew Manny was trustworthy and didn’t mind breaking a few of the Time Traveling Academy rules.
Eventually, Archie and Manny stumbled upon an old, makeshift tree fort deep within the forest, close to a small creek and bordering a nearby subdivision. Archie checked his records, and declared that they had found the lost watchtower of Archivist #482308J, and it would be their home base from now on. He opened up a secret panel hidden in a nearby tree trunk, and suddenly the tree fort transformed into a metallic tower of flashing lights and panels filled with countless buttons – each one activating a deep-space communicator or highly-lethal defense mechanism.
Over the next few weeks, they scoured the forest for clues as to Archie’s mission, returning to the tower to scan and record their entries in the tower log computer. Manny learned a lot about the future during this time. Humans would populate not only the rest of the planets in their own galaxy, but become one of the most prevalent species in the entire universe, influencing other galaxies with their ingenuity and resourcefulness. Not everything made it off Earth, however; Manny was glad to hear the soccer fad would finally fade away in the year 2420.
Archie shared (top-secret) events with Manny, including the dates of the first Universal War (3203-3298), the second and last Dinosaur Invasion (13389), and the heat death of the universe (10121): the end of everything.
“How do you know it’s the end?” Manny asked one day.
Archie looked confused. “Because it is,” he replied, causing Manny to roll his eyes.
“Okay,” Manny continued. “But how do you know? If it’s the end, how could there be a record of an exact date? Everyone’s dead, right?”
“Simple,” he replied. “We just send an Archivist – probably #5472893M, he loves that stuff – to that date to verify the event, and then jump back in time just as everything explodes.”
“Huh,” Manny said. “Have you seen it?”
“Of course,” Archie said, insulted. “It’s a requirement for all Archivists, to see the heat death.” He showed his watch to Manny, which held an interface of overlaying numbers, holographic images, and clocks. “In fact, it’s one of my favorites: Preset 17. I just press these numbers right here, and see, there, 10121, all set. Just hit CONFIRM, and off I go.”
“Can I see?” Manny asked. “Can you take me there?”
“Not if I want to keep my job,” Archie said. “Sorry – it’s protocol.”
Secrecy was of the utmost importance, and when it grew dark and Manny could hear the honking horns of parents arriving to soccer practice, he would brush off any grass or twigs and run out to the parking lot to meet his mother for the ride home. So as not to arouse suspicion, Archie would use his watch to teleport back to Manny’s room later that evening, avoiding any unfriendly eyes or questions which might compromise the mission.
* * *
The goal of their mission became apparent after two months of exploration. Archie had sifted through all of the previous Archivist’s clues, and finally revealed the terrible secret: an alien race had been sent back in time to Earth, disguised and waiting to infiltrate NASA in order to sabotage the planet’s space program. Archie, with Manny’s assistance, was to locate the aliens in their young, weak state, and eliminate the threat – the future of the universe depended on it.
Manny followed Archie’s lead through the forest, which took them around the back end of the soccer field and into some of the larger trees. Together, they climbed, looking for any signs of their quarry, Archie with his goggles, Manny with a pair of nice binoculars which Ted would not have been happy to find missing. Through the trees, Manny could see clearly see the shapes of Big Ben and some other boys standing around a bench near the edge of the field, spitting in the players water bottles.
“Here!” Archie whispered, pointing to a small pile of sticks in a nearby tree. “I’ve found them!”
Manny swung around on the tree and raised his binoculars.
“It’s a nest,” Manny said.
“Yes,” Archie replied, reaching for the branch. “A nest of foul, parasitic aliens.”
“I think it’s just a nest of baby birds,” Manny said. “Come on, let’s keep looking.”
Without replying, Archie reached out and swatted the nest out of the tree. A handful of white egg shells and tiny squeaking shapes fell to the ground.
“No!” Manny cried, dropping the binoculars. Though it was too late, his arms shot out as if he had a chance of catching them, and he fell. Manny screamed as he tumbled down the side of the tree, scraping his hands and arms as he tried in vain to hold onto something. Manny hit the ground with a loud thud next to a pair of broken binoculars and a pile of tiny baby birds, most of which weren’t moving. Archie was already there, and started stomping on the birds.
“Quick!” he yelled at Manny, urging him to his feet. “Before they transform, this is our only chance.”
Manny froze, looking at the helpless birds.
“Manny!” Archie pleaded. “There’s no more time! Please!”
Manny steeled himself and leapt into action, stomping as hard as he could. Archie picked up a couple of branches, tossed one to Manny, and with their blows almost perfectly in sync, they began to beat the remains of the aliens into the dirt. When the work was done, Manny let out a huge sigh of relief and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Oh. My. God.,” a voice said.
Manny spun to see almost the entire soccer team, complete with Big Ben and Coach Mauss, standing no more than 10 feet away, watching him. He looked to Archie for help, but he had already ducked behind a tree and out of sight. Archie put a finger to his lips in a signal of absolute mission secrecy, touched his watch, and vanished.
“What are you doing?” Big Ben asked. “Freak.”
Emboldened by the insult, others began to chime in.
“He’s killing birds.”
“Baby birds,” someone corrected.
“What a psycho,” another added.
The coach hushed the team, stepped forward, and grabbed Manny’s arm, yanking him in the direction of the school. The other players inspected the scene: some of the younger boys let out little shrieks; one cried; most didn’t say anything at all, most surprisingly Big Ben, who always had an insult waiting; instead, they all stared at Manny as he was dragged away. Manny searched their faces, waiting for them to laugh and point and look embarrassed to even know him, but he didn’t see any of that – they looked afraid.
The rest of the evening was spent surrounded by adults who wanted Manny to say yes to a bunch of questions. Did you know what you were doing? Yes. Do you know it was wrong? Yes. Do you know why it was wrong? Yes. Still, he was forced to wait in an office until his mother and Ted arrived, after which they demanded the same answers to the same questions. On the way to the car, Manny used a stick to pry the remains of one of the birds from between his soccer cleats, which just made his mother more upset.
Within hours, video games and comic books were confiscated, toys were removed, and television watching was completely revoked by Ted (for the binoculars, Manny thought). Fortunately, his mother and Ted spent most of the evening yelling at each other instead of him, which was a nice surprise. Manny sat on his bed, pretending to do his homework while he figured out the dates for getting back his privileges, writing them down in his notebook and circling them until his pen ran out of ink. He paced around the room impatiently, kicking a small stuffed dinosaur against the wall as he waited for Archie.
Archie appeared after dark, disguising the lightning flash of his entrance within the high beams of a passing car as they shot across the room. Manny was waiting for him. Before he could touch his wrist and activate any of his weapons, Manny had his arm behind his back and had pushed Archie to the floor. Manny pulled out a length of rope and began to tie Archie’s arms and feet.
“Let me explain,” Archie said, trying to wriggle free. “My calculations were slightly off; there’s still time to save Earth. The others, they don’t understand, but they will. I can fix this. We can fix this. You’ll be a hero!”
Manny was silent as he quickly and efficiently bound and gagged the Archivist. When finished, he flipped Archie onto his back on the floor and knelt over him.
“I thought you were different,” said Manny, shaking his head in disappointment. “I thought we were friends. But you’re just like all the others, running away whenever things get hairy.”
Archie moaned in protest.
“I can’t hear you,” Manny said. “That’s fine though, I know what you were going to say. I’ve heard it all before.”
Manny turned his attention to Archie’s glowing watch, running his fingers over the interface. As Archie had shown him before, Manny started to tap the buttons in a particular order. Archie narrowed his eyes and incoherently mumbled what Manny assumed was a rehearsed set of warnings and breached protocols, but it didn’t matter. He couldn’t reach the watch to stop the sequences or, more importantly, return from wherever the sequence would send him.
“Okay,” Manny said. “I’m going to help you run away again. Far, far away – as far as you can go.”
He lifted Archie’s arm to let him see the watch interface. It showed a series of blinking letters and numbers: ‘PRESET 17: 10121. CONFIRM?’
10121: the heat death of the universe. Archie shook his head violently, his eyes wide, pleading.
Manny pressed CONFIRM and stood back as the watch began to hum and glow. Archie squirmed within the ropes, but it was no use. His neck strained as he tried to scream through the gag, making nothing more than a muffled whine.
Seconds later there was a bright flash. The whine trailed off, and once again Manny was alone in his room. Archie was gone forever, incinerated at the end of time.
Manny climbed back into bed and pulled up the covers. In the distance, he heard the gentle roll of thunder. He thought about Reggie and Archie and the Sundown Kid and Agent Double-Oh-Oh and all of the others. He closed his eyes and smiled, wondering who would visit him next.
Maybe the next one would be different. Maybe they would understand. ◥