The old man’s room was dark. Only a single candle flickered in the corner, its glow illuminated by a hammered piece of metal and a half-moon visible through an open window. Yet Red could still see the canopy bed in the opposite corner, its thick curtains drawn partway. The old man was breathing quietly, hands folded over his chest, his beard long and combed.
Red was careful not to make a noise. She didn’t know if he was awake and did not want to scare him. She edged along the wall, towards the footstool standing next to his bed where books were stacked in an impossibly high tower.
She knelt down at the edge of the bed, resting her palms on her thighs. Through the window, she could see the moon hanging heavily in the night’s sky, an irridescent smudge just over the rooftops of the ancient city. She sighed as she recalled the narrow, jagged streets and the clop of horses hooves. She had been tempted to stop at the market to buy an orange, for she had not tasted one since her last trip, but she did not blend in with these people. Besides, she had to make haste. There was so little time left.
The old man grumbled and worked his jaw. This was going to be the hardest part — to convince him. Nervous, Red wiped her palms on her pants.
He opened his eyes. Even in the dim light, she could see that they were still clear despite his years. “I was wondering when you would come.”
“You were expecting us?” She couldn’t hide her surprise.
“Yes, I supposed I was.”
The old man struggled to sit up. Red reached towards him and adjusted his pillows so that he could rest against them. Now upright, he coughed and smoothed his beard, studying her. “You have no hair, young lady.”
She touched her scalp, aware that she looked strange to him. “No, I do not. I never did.”
“And you are wearing leggings like a man.”
Red nodded in agreement. “There is no difference between us — men and women.”
The old man chuckled. “Francesca would agree.” He closed his eyes and sighed. A draft from the window gathered the curtains. They shivered.
Red took his hand. It was icy cold.
“I long believed there was such a thing as traveling through time,” the old man said, “but evidence of such a thing was hard to obtain. And the church, well … the church would not allow such blasphemy. It would mean that man could be God.”
“So you are ready then? To come back with me?”
“I didn’t say that.”
Ah. Here we go. Let the convincing begin. She squeezed his hand gently, but her words were firm. “We need you.”
The old man sighed. “So you think.” He looked away. “Tell me about the future.”
They always wanted to know what it was like. “The future is not what you expect. It’s dark and cold. The sun is dying. We have to leave Earth.”
“Where shall you go?”
“Into space and beyond. We need people like you — the brilliant ones to help save humanity. This is why we have come to collect you.”
“And what can an old man like myself possibly contribute in a future world? I do not know your ways or your technolgies.”
“Our technologies not so different than your drawings. Many of your inventions paved the way for ours. You will adapt quickly. You’ll thrive.” Red glanced at the books. A sketch was wedged between two of them. It appeared to be a machine with intricate gears. “We need you to help invent something for us.”
“Me? But you can travel to the past. Your world must adequately advanced.”
“In many ways, yes. But this eludes us.”
“We need a special type of engine that can fold space so that we can travel farther. We know there are no planets that are hospitable in our galaxy.”
The old man’s eyes turned back towards her as he worked his fingers around a gold ring on this left hand. He turned the ring and pulled it back and forth.
“How far do you have to go?”
“We do not know, but we have planned for a journey up to 1,000 years.”
He raised an eyebrow. “So that your children’s children to the tenth may survive?”
“Anything to save the human genome.”
“Genome? I have not heard that word, but in latin the verb geno means ‘to bring forth’, or ‘to be born’.”
Red was silent.
“I cannot return with you,” he said. “I am too old. My mind, like my body, has grown weak. I grow more tired each day. I am slipping away, like that candle.” He gestured to the puddle of wax on the floor. “You should have come to collect me when I was younger.”
“We could not. Your work needed to complete its historical timeline.”
“I can offer you something else instead.”
Red frowned, unable to hide her displeasure. “Tell me,” she said anyway.
“My assistant, Francesca Melzi. You may know her as Francesco, but I assure you she is a woman, though she hides as a man. Much like yourself.”
“And a select drawings for some of my more … advanced devices.”
“I cannot accept that.” Red could see that she would not be able to convince him, but she couldn’t give in so easily. “It must be you.”
“My dear, Francesca is more brilliant that I ever was. She is a star on a dark night. She will serve you well.”
Outside the door to the old man’s bedroom, Red heard a soft knock.
“Ah, there she is now.” He adjusted himself on the pillow, his face suddenly aglow. “Francesca, come in.”
“Wait! I have more to say,” Red said as she gripped his hand.
“There is nothing you can say to change my mind, dear girl. Tell your collectors that they have misjudged me. I am a humble man, too old for ego. Too old to really care about you and your lost future.”