Be careful for what you wish. This is the text of a story about 1975 and heart-lines, time travel and the fall of kings, but mainly about the elven-path.
This story was written in the G+ stream, a strong collaborative space and the best place in the world to write.
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Copyright 2016 Peter Quinton, Published by Peter Quinton
Shalaye looks around, and checks that all are here:
Touch the spinning thread of destiny,
Rejoice the portion racing past your fingertips,
Relish your life in fair wonder with others,
Until the great destroyer takes us back whence we came
Ok, time to reveal the truth. Please, sit down. This might take time.
I am actually a time traveller. I come from the last half of the twentieth century, but the mechanism broke and now I am lost. I can’t get back. It is all confusing. Things keep changing.
I am still here. Some days I don’t know if I am chasing dreams or being chased by demons.
It is comforting to know that there is a full team of scientists and academics back in Mission Control trying, in their words, "To retrieve me." They have the best people - Labrinth, Cannonball and Benedict. I trust them all. But I have been counting down the days and the nights since they did anything beyond mere head patting. I am beginning to suspect that the whole time travel program has been wound back. Cost cutting maybe. The future was always a bit of a gamble. UFOs and travel to the planets was always more attractive. But it could have been to avoid contamination of their time line by, you know, the future or earthquakes.
Benedict is very particular about contamination. He cuts all communication for days if I settle down to watch a rerun of Startrek or Oprah. They would not like nor understand social media, Wikipedia, David Guetta or smart watches. I think me spending time on the water in a yacht will be a good thing for them all back in Mission Control. Just like old times, no need for deprogramming after shifts.
It is not that they have not tried to be helpful. A while back they worked out how to send Labrinth into the future for short periods. She gets projected into a little Chinese Cafe in downtown Sydney. So I still have some contact with the past. It is almost like old times. We drink black tea while she chain smokes. Well, I drink tea. I think she pretends, but she probably has a gun so I try not to notice. She was always pretty dangerous. Her eyes narrow when she sees people talking into mobiles and drinking Cappuccinos. She tries to reassure me with cheery stories of the past, how things are going back there with the threat of imminent nuclear war and Elvis. They try hard at the anniversary of the failure, small presents from the past like fat ties and 20-function pocket knives.
But I fear it is all a bit too late. Even if they can get me back, I will have aged. Worst, they do not believe in the future. It is all too scary. They will probably lock me up.
I need a way to sort this out. I need to find a way home and, perhaps, stop the program from starting.
Until then, what do I do? I walk under stars into the future, thinking about the past. But let me tell the story, from the beginning.
I was the youngest member of the team. Ok, well, I wasn’t really even on the team. Still, they gave me a code name. They called me Catalyst.
My family was stationed in Woomera at the time. There was no radio and no television. Not much a place for kids, the centre of the desert and one of the hottest places on Earth.
Back then kids had to make their own fun. Some of us hiked out to the research facilities nearby, especially the ones that were secret or prohibited. I think we had more fun planning the adventures. There is not much you can keep secret from a determined network of bored kids. We dreamed of getting on one of the big rockets and heading into space.
The reality of it all was a dull reflection. Trekking in the desert was no easy matter, and some of the prohibitions were backed up with stories of razor wire, machine guns and strange dangerous creatures. Also, there were not a lot of rocket launches in the mid 70's. Many of the facilities were boarded up or being shut down.
Still some friends and I managed to get into, and out of, most of the English and American bases. Some of them were pretty extensive installations with their own weapons laboratories, metal working facilities and fuel storage. A lot of them had collections of recovered rocket hulls from super small military missiles to the massive European rockets which were designed to go into space but ended up falling onto the desert below.
It was really the launch sites with their small mission control facilities that interested me the most. But, we were never able to time our appearances at one of the sites to coincide with a launch. Still, that didn’t stop us trying.
At that time in Woomera, the Scramjet laboratory and the Temporal Research Facility were the biggest challenges to kids like me. The scientists all knew about us and what we were capable of. They were on the lookout.
I managed to get into a maintenance shed with the prototype Scramjet. Sleek and long, with a tapered cone that sent a thrill through me. Still, as I stood there in the heat, it was much smaller than I had imagined. I suppose that these days I would have taken pictures of it and put them up on the web. But back then technology was pretty basic, although one of the kids had a Polaroid Instamatic. None of had any inkling of the web and what it might bring. The Scramjet was going to open up space. I should say, it will. Or perhaps, nothing else can. I remember looking at it in the dusky hanger, the smell of oil and machinery thick around me, and thinking it would only be a matter of time. It will open up space but I will not see it. Faster and cheaper than any conventional rockets, the Americans and Russians dumped the research early. While there had been early promise, they stuck with the cost of proven launch devices. Only an Australian team kept working quietly on Scramjets.
It was much harder to get into Deep Space Station 41, which housed the Temporal Research Facility.
Deep Space Station 41 is located on the north-eastern shore of Island Lagoon. Looks amazing at sunrise and sunset, a massive lake with a natural pyramid rising from it near the centre. Glorious and wild. But as the sun floods the sky with light and you look at the water, it is still. A plain of salt. Deep Space Station 41 is in a slight depression, protected from the searing winds of the surrounding deserts and the savage bite of the dry salt lake. Fifteen minutes to Woomera village. But, in reality so far from everywhere that you could be on the moon. Outside the temperature touches 120F. While there was razor wire and guards, no guards were needed, the sun is sufficient.
In 1975 the Americans had abandoned Deep Space Station 41 three years earlier. Some say it was the heat, others the end of the Ranger missions, others that President Nixon wanted to make clear American displeasure about Australia's withdrawal from South Vietnam or the Labor government.
Originally the facility buildings had been tucked into a gully. Here a power station, canteen and library were placed close to an ancient watercourse. To the east, at the top of the gully, a giant radio telescope watched the Earth's growing number of artificial moons. To the west a high powered camera facility tracked hostile satellites in the twilight as they were caught by the last rays of the sun.
When they left, Island Lagoon returned to silence. Quietly burning in the fierce sun, salt crystals sparkling on its flat surface. The track back to Woomera was quickly coated with a thin layer of desert sands. When they left, the Americans dismantled the giant radio telescope and sold it for scrap. The facility buildings and camera facilities were trucked away, leaving nothing but the roads and concrete bases.
In early 1975, Deep Space Station 41 was chosen to establish a different type of research facility, far away from prying eyes. It took six months to rebuild it. The old facility area was re-established with canteens, a research library and basic amenities. A little to the south, a decommissioned missile silo, was refurbished. A reactor was installed at the base of the silo. Following the surface features on the terrain, a small circular salt pan about 150 feet across, a textured concrete dome covering a blast wall and the mission control building was thrown up. When finished, from any vantage point from space to ground level, the dome was indistinguishable from the surrounding desert.
While a large facility, only a fraction of mission staff ever travelled to mission control. Most, including the large maths teams, remained in buildings at Woomera. Only the temporal research team and visiting military and government members saw the base. It was a shock for a lot of the academics who had been uplifted from Adelaide from their sleepy pure-research sinecures that had started during war-time. The teams were a shot of new blood into Woomera, even though none of them or their kids were ready for the extreme conditions.
The facility was officially described as a power plant although the kids worked out quickly what it was really for. Power was a plausible line and true, to a point. The original facility had had a large power plant to drive the telescope and camera facilities, but the power demands of the new facility were far higher.
But the greed for power is hard to contain. New power lines were thrown up, almost overnight, extending far into the desert on either side, to the weapon research facilities around Woomera to far-flung mining ventures. They only stopped when they hit the state grid. The power facility was a boon, replacing old piecemeal generators at the different weapon research facilities with high capacity dependable power. And it was not just the electricity they sought.
Leaving Real Time
Mission Control October 29 1975
Three men walk leave the larger facility building. Their shirts and shorts are whipped by a hot gritty wind which howls through the desert preventing any civil conversation. They start the short trek southwards towards mission control, their faces twisted left, to avoid the bite of the wind.
The younger man, Chas, stops and turns into the wind checking his plane shielded from the weather in a bay on the blinding white salt lake below. The older men, Mission Controller Benson and the incoming DelCon director, Brent, pause for a moment to allow Chas to catch up. They trudge along the line of an old creek bed, taking what cover they can from the line of small dark desert bushes that cling to the memory of the creek. At the bottom the depression they make the final slight climb up the hard ochre surface of the desert to the slight depression which once held a small highland lake.
They enter through a small door set into the wall of the dome, through a narrow corridor and then past a low concrete blast wall, into the cavernous mission control. While blazing hot outside, the building is in darkness and there is a hint of a cool breeze ahead. They step onto the metal grid floor, the reactor below them vibrating with regular soft pulses. In the centre of the dome, mission control is lit in a pool of lights and a murmur of noise.
Benson turns to the new DelCon officer Brent, and says, “Here it is. Welcome to Mission Control.”
Brent counted about 50 people standing or sitting in the central area. The central area was crowded with heavy consoles, cables flowing over the ground to an outer layer of transformers and other equipment in a large semicircle around a stage area to one side of the centre of the dome. A large screen in grainy black and white tones hangs from chains ascending into the darkness of the dome above the left side of a stage area. On the other side, casting soft blue waves of light over the entire area is the time gate. Two large clocks with dates and a number of large stop watches complete the scene.
Benson says, “As you know, most of the teams are pretty small, except for Guidance. It has 6 maths teams, doing the advanced calculus for telemetry. They are located in Woomera, 10 people in each maths team, working in 6 hour shifts.”
Benson calls over Grant, and introduces him to Brent. Brent says, “Heard good things about you Grant, I am glad to be here. But, tell me why we are still using maths teams? In my experience they end up sitting around playing cards or calculating probabilities on horse races back home.”
“Sure, we have a couple of calculators for adding and subtracting, but the real math demands of this facility are complex and keep changing. None of the off the shelf devices give us the flexibility of a maths team. Maths teams have been the mainstay of Woomera from the beginning.” Grant snorts, “Can’t see them being replaced anytime soon.”
Brent agrees, “You are probably right.” He turns back to Benson, “Ok, I better start earning my crust.”
Benson and Chas walk to the mission control station, situated a little higher than the other stations and closer to the time gate. Chas says, “Seems sensible, I wonder how those two will get on.”
“I wish we had some of these people at the start, rather than now,” Benson shakes his head and takes the com from the night backup. “Commander Benson taking the com. Our final specialist director has touched down, and I suggest you give him a welcome when you get the chance.” He pauses, allowing the chatter to die back down. “By my count, that makes this base fully operational. We will commence our first temporal tests tomorrow, first thing. I want all of you to get a good night’s sleep, because once we start, sleep is the last thing any of us will see.”
At the DelCon consoles, Brent turned to Grant, “I am going to be on a steep learning curve here.”
Grant says. “You will be fine. We are lucky to have a couple of guys like you and Chas, Cannonball, here. Cannonball is ex-Navy, air wing. He is a good bloke.”
“Now. The briefing I had on my way here made it clear what DelCon does. We have a team of analysts but our main job is to stitch the other specialists together. What is the routine?”
Grant said, “The team is ready. During set up we experimented with a couple of different shifts periods – during operational periods it looks like being 6 hours on and 6 off. By the way, we have reopened some of the fallout shelters at the base of the silo next to the reactor. I will take you down later and show you around. We have a backup operations room down there as well."
He points to the consoles, "These work pretty much as you would expect, duplicating some of the telemetry from the other stations and giving us phone contact with our analysts."
"The clocks are a bit different," he points to the big clocks hanging near the time gate. "In practice I stay focussed on those two 24 hours clocks. The first one is the time here in Mission Control. You can set your watch by it. Note, we call our seconds here ‘ticks’,” he waits for Brent.
Brent looked at the clock, the seconds hand slowly sweeping around the clock, like any 24 hour clock, the date set on 29 October 1975. He nodded.
Grant continues, “The second clock is a bit different. It shows the Eastern Australian time of the person we are sending into the future. It just has an hour hand. Give me a second, I have had a demo prepared for you.” He signals a technician sitting in Engineering. “Wait a moment... Right, I have put it into a simulation mode, to give you a feel for what is going to happen here.”
Brent looked at the second clock. After a short pause, the hour hand started to sweep around the clock face, a fraction slower than the first clock's seconds hand. He stared at it for a moment, shaking his head. A multitude of problems suddenly became obvious. He cleared his throat of red dust and salt and starts to ask the same question they all ask the first time, but then pauses “That second clock is moving so fast. Can't we slow it down?”
Grant knows the answer, “A year will pass on the second clock, for every seven hours on the first... The speed is a by-product of relativity. The theory is that when we push people into the future we will give them high relative temporal velocity, at a tremendous cost in power. They should experience time in the future at a normal rate. But they will experience relative time at much faster rate than us back here... or that is the theory.”
“But...” Brent nods his head, looking serious. “Ok. So the data is going to come at us like a bus. It is slowly falling into place... What do you think we be doing?”
“When it starts, I think everything will happen too fast.” Grant shakes his head, “Benson knows this. The other teams will not react fast enough. We are here to help come up with answers. I guess we are going to learn as it happens. While we have a chance, let me introduce you to the other Directors and the rest of the team. Then I am going to have a kip before things start to heat up.”
Mission Control October 30 1975
This time, I managed to break into the facility at just the right time.
I even saw them testing the first time transfers. Three launches and three successful recoveries. One of their senior test pilots, a naval bloke called Chas, was in the hot seat. At the facility they called him Cannonball. A good name for someone they were shooting into the future.
Just a little way into the future, for a couple of seconds each time. The Mission Controller, Benedict, would get all serious, and lots of people would bunker down for the countdown. Then Chas would walk to the time gate in a heavy space suit, look up and disappear. After a couple of seconds, they would pull him back. Each time his helmet was already off and his suit unbuttoned, and sweat would be dripping from his face. Then they would go into a debrief session, until the next launch.
I was crouching down below the blast wall, and could not hear. So I tried to get a bit closer, and that’s when I got nabbed. They took me to Benedict. He sat me down next to him and told me not to move and that he would deal with me later. They were all very excited though, and I was not too worried because I now had a ring seat and I knew lots of the people around me. The fourth test was announced, this time a longer shot was planned, with more power. I noticed Cannonball talking to technicians about a device around his neck. He took it off and put it on a console near me, replacing it with a second sitting there. While no one was watching I had a good look at the one he put down. A heavy dull circular device on a neck chain. It looked very old. Bare crystal, with the imprint of a hawk. Or something like a hawk. It had a recessed central area with a couple of toggles and two bright green lights. Of course, I put it on. You would have as well.
I was so caught up in the device I did not notice them moving into the next time shot. I was still looking at it when they started the time gate. Everything happened so fast. I was standing, some way from the time gate, but the gate arced a bolt of light at me and, suddenly, there were stars all around me.
Catalyst Time Line
Mission Control T+0hrs (Oct 30 1975 9:36), Catalyst time line Oct 30 1975 9:36
We landed on the surface of a salt lake. The dry heat of the desert sucked the breath out of me.
Cannonball took off his helmet and was looking at me swearing quietly. Eventually he calmed down and told me that we had been transferred an hour into the future. I was vaguely pleased that I was now a bona fide time traveller but he said that everyone would eventually make to this point and it really was not all that special.
I asked him what the point of travelling an hour into the future was, and he said, "Small steps, son. Small steps."
He told me that we would be returned to Mission Control in an hour and we then walked back to where he had parked his plane. We sat in the shade of a wing. He explained that the couple of seconds he had disappeared in the time gate amounted to about an hour out here in the desert, because of the temporal velocity we had been given to travel. He made me look at the device, which he called an artefact, and gave me a quick lesson about the controls. He explained that it was used to provide a point at which temporal velocity could be applied or withdrawn, but also served as a communications device. Then we sat back and waited to be recovered, talking about life in the town, and the other bases I had seen. After about 40 minutes both our artefacts buzzed.
“Meet you back in the past” he said. But we never did. He disappeared but my artefact didn’t work. I waited in the shade until Cannonball and Benedict came and found me in a jeep. They were both worried, Cannonball said that they were a little surprised to find me, their instruments back at the base were already tracking me disappearing into the future. Benson gave me a short lecture on time dilation, temporal velocity and the theory of relativity, but I did not understand any of it. Cannonball looked grim and told me I was stuck in the future and that they were working on getting me back.
It didn’t look like the future to me at all. In fact everything looked the same. But, because I was in the future, they reluctantly left the artefact with me. They said that it had probably malfunctioned, and they were testing the other one to see if they could pin point the fault. So, they agreed to keep in touch and had me taken back home.
The excitement of the next few days, completely overtook my adventure in the desert. The town’s power supply failed catastrophically, creating mayhem in all of the facilities, and then news came of the fall of the Whitlam Government. For a while, there was talk of revolution and civil war
My adventure in time might not have happened at all, except I still had the artefact. They did not get in touch after all.
So, I went looking for them. I managed to cadge a lift out to the temporal site. There was nothing left to see. The site was gone. Just a couple of massive concrete slabs. There were no buildings.
Everything was different.
My family remained in Woomera for another couple of months, before dad was transferred. I threw the artefact into a box full of unmade model airplanes and forgot about it for nearly four months. I dug it out when I started to prepare to go to university. The power had drained from the artefact.
It took a little while, but eventually I worked out how to power it back up.
When it restarted, I received a stream of messages from Mission Control. I thought it was a joke at first. But then they gave me a code name, access to a bank account and told me I was on their books as an employee.
Mission Control T+2hrs October 30 1975 11:36, Catalyst time line February 24 1976 3:46
Grant came up with the code name for the boy, Catalyst. He said that a catalyst caused change, something they all readily agreed on. He went on to say that a catalyst had the unique property of creating change without being changed itself.
Brent said, “Poor little blighter, at the temporal speed he is travelling, he will probably be dead in a month. That is a bit of a change.”
They all stood turning that one over until Benedict called time-out. Right from the start there seemed little hope of getting Catalyst back into the present.
They gave me a couple of jobs to do. By that time, I was going to university in Canberra, living in a shared flat in one of the leafy suburbs with 5 other students. Money coming out of the past, seemed almost too good to be true.
So, I did the jobs Mission Control asked for: strange things, checking old newspapers for results of horse races and winning lottery ticket numbers. I sent them back. A day after I sent the information I experienced my first time quake. A flash in the sky, and a rumble all around me. Things changed.
Each time a quake hit, things changed. Sometimes they were not obvious for days. My lecturers started to shake their heads, I was studying modern politics at the time but, try as I might, and I just couldn’t get it right. I would make obvious errors like who was prime minister or president. Except they were not errors. Things were changing. So I switched to something more tangible and took up study and then teaching medieval history. I stopped watching the news.
For the first ten years, I kept sending back the information they wanted. Well, that information I could collect. I could not get access to "advanced weapons research" and information about "relevant political information for the end of 1975" kept changing, sometimes catastrophically.
Mission Control kept in touch with detailed messages, telling me that in that ten year period only 3 days had elapsed at Mission Control.
While their desire for information was insatiable and they could send me lots of messages, I could only send them tightly condensed replies.
But each time I sent information, I would get another time quake.
Some of the quakes changed things for the better. But just as often they would get worse.
Then one quake almost killed me. A building I was in disappeared. I only fell a couple of meters, but it was enough to put me in hospital.
I started to rethink the whole “sending information back to the past” idea.
Mercury in Retrograde
Chas had met Dawn in Adelaide. She was a university student, in her final year at medical school. He had taken her flying to the Gulf and to Kangaroo Island. He could see she adored him, but she told him that she was not ready for a serious relationship. She said: “It is not important that you are older than me.”
Chas did not believe her and back at Woomera, he confided his problems in Labrinth. The night before temporal testing was due to commence, Chas and Labrinth drank a couple of bottles of South Australian beer. In an advanced state of intoxication they came up with a fail-proof plan. Actually, it was Labrinth's idea. She would dress up as a fortune teller and give Dawn a future that was all about Chas.
The plan looked pretty miserable in the bright morning light of the temporal trial. Then things took a turn for the worse, the temporal trial was going smoothly until a boy had blundered into it. A day after the trial, Chas flew to Adelaide to undertake a series of medical tests. Seven hours after the accident, he had experienced a sudden loss of vision and fell to the ground. He described it like being in a small earthquake. Others reported that he had memory problems.
Agent Labrinth cadged a ride in the bi-plane, to keep an eye on him. On the way she told him that she had improved the plan. It still involved taking Dawn to the fair. She shouted, over the roar of the engine and the wind, "Look for an old lady telling fortunes."
Dawn was keen on the idea of a trip to the fair. She was sick of preparing for mid-year exams and grabbed the opportunity to get out into the evening air. She said was even keen to try some of the fast rides, but when tested, the enthusiasm only extended as far as the Cha-Cha.
Darkness fell early, the evening star appearing in the west.
Cha asked, "Have you ever had your fortune told?"
Dawn teased, "Not that nonsense. Please don't tell me you believe in fortune tellers."
Chas thought a bit, "I don't believe in fate. I think we can change the future. Fortune tellers are just for fun, like the Cha-Cha."
"I heard on the radio that Mercury is going backwards at the moment. Mercury in retrograde! Don't travel and don't make plans. What a silly superstition."
"I dare you too have your fortune told."
"What? You would get yours done as well?"
"Sounds romantic and you know I don’t do that sort of thing," she watched his face fall. "Ok. Maybe this once But you are paying."
They wandered back to the fair, the pumped sound of Skyhooks and Sherbet competing for ear space. After an encounter with hotdogs and dodge-em-cars, they heard a horse snickering and came across a tent next to a wagon.
Nearby, in the dark, a man and woman were arguing in low tones. He was holding a brace of rabbits.
The man said, "The bitcherin' mush has ..."
The woman saw Dawn and Chas and hushes him. She walks into the light and says to them, "Kushti Divvus! Good Day! Welcome. I am Shalaye. You have come for a reading, eh?"
As the man turns and stalks off, she says quietly, "Dont mind Bavole, he draws trouble like a candle draws moths. It is always his way."
Chas looks at Shalaye. An older woman, skin burnt dark with the sun and the years, a neat dress, her accent distinctly New Zealand.
She directs them into her tend and then gives a brief apology. They hear running water and she reappears, wiping her hands on a small towel which she places at the back of the tent.
Shalaye said, "What can I do for you? Both seek your fortunes?"
Dawn jumps in, "My friend has dared me to come and get a reading. I do not believe in this stuff."
Shalaye laughs, "What a relief, we can sit and enjoy our time together instead of being too serious. Now, who shall I curse with knowledge of the future first? Wait..."
She turns to the back of the tent and calls, "Adria! Where are you?"
"I am coming" a young woman’s voice answers.
"You will not mind if my daughter sits in during the reading? She has a sharp eye."
Momentary confusion crosses Chas's face, "I did not know... No, that will be fine."
"Adria has been sitting watching me for these last two years, as I did when I was young. It is how we gain experience and help perfect our art. My mother taught me that it is only through experience that you can give advice. You learn by hearing people's problems".
They hear running water and Adria appears, like Shalaye before, and they introduce themselves before Shalaye renews her question.
"Do him first," Dawn pointed to Chas
Quick as a flash, Shalaye threw a small ball at Chas's face. He caught it with his left hand. She held her hand out for its return, smiling at him and catching his hand. "You use your left hand to write?"
"Show me your other palm please, your right hand. We will start here, to see what you could have been."
She puzzles through the lines on his right hand and, after a moment, calls Adria to second-guess her.
"I see a work life complicated by war.” Adria smiles, “I see an uncomplicated home life. One love, one marriage and no distractions."
"Adria, these are times of war. Every man who passes through this tent has a work life complicated by war. This man and woman are sceptical of our art. Tell them something we cannot know, eh?”
Adria becomes still and serious. She says, "You will fly. You will test. You will guide. And you will have a son.”
"You fly but you serve in the Navy” Shalaye was frowning. “I do not understand that. Of course, the first hand is simply a starting point. Now, your left hand please, and we will see where your real fortune lies."
Chas smiled at her, wondering if he could risk a wink, but instead he shot a quick grin to Dawn. Labrinth had outdone herself this time. Even her hands were old, battle scarred. He handed her his left hand, palm up.
She was silent for a moment before she gasped, "Mandi can kek ker lis!"
She thrust his hand away, her upset building, rubbing her hand where they had touched, "You have broken the rules of the world. You have travelled forbidden paths. I can't do it, I cannot read your fortune. You, we, do not exist."
"Come on. Just read my fortune, ok?" Chas was surprised, this was not in the script.
"Get out! Get out!" Shalaye was screaming in great distress. She started to gasp for air.
Chas stood, his chair falling behind him.
Dawn turned to him and said urgently, "Wait outside Chas. I will sort this out."
Chas backed out of the tent, tripping over the chair, not stopping until he was some distance from the tent, feeling confused.
This was not how this was supposed to go. A frown crossed his face, and he decided that Labrinth would have some fairly serious explaining to do. He stood, listening to the sounds of upset in the tent, which rose to a crescendo and then slowly started to fall.
He was not alone. A little distant, in the flickering light of a camp-fire, Bavole was laughing at him quietly. He says, "You think that this is hokkeny baro, hanky panky, a fraud? Think again. This is not a good time for long plans."
Chas watched Bavole turn the rabbits on the spit with his knife.
Chas asked, "Are you part of all of this?"
Bavole looked up into the sky, "All of this? Of course."
Chas said, "I mean, Labrinth - Stephanie,..."
"The woman with the gun? Yes, I know her," he put the knife down carefully. "She told me about your plan to deceive. Cheat. Many ask us to cheat." A cold wind blew through the clearing. He brushed some ash off the rabbits, "So I taught her a little. I rented her a stall. She paid well, but for nothing. Your mouse plan failed."
"What do you mean?"
"Your friend, the woman with the gun, is still waiting for you. But she is on the other side of the fair."
He then nodded at the tent, which had been quiet for a little while, "Your girlfriend is finishing. Listen to me. Do not let your girlfriend get lost."
Chas looked at the tent, and then back to Bavole. He and the rabbits were gone.
Dawn looked serious as she left the tent. They paused to have their picture taken on the way out of the fair, her face still cloaked.
"So, what happened?" he asked.
"She just needed some air and to wash you off her hands. She was frightened and upset with you. I think because of your job. I stayed and let her read my palms, nothing in it really. She told me you needed someone to protect you, and that I could do that."
"Maybe you could."
"I don’t believe in fortune telling."
She held him tight, and never let him go.
They wandered back into the centre of the city from the fair as it had started to rain lightly on Don Dunstan’s city of churches. In this city in the middle of deserts, a city further away from the civilized world than any other, it had come alive with music and culture. They took refuge from the crowds and the rain in a wine bar and ordered a pizza. While they waited for the meal, they played with the juke box, his Rod Stewart “Sailing” to her ABBA “Mamma Mia”. She surprised him after the meal by inviting him back to her apartment when the rain cleared.
Later that evening, she opened her eyes and smiled at him. Sleepily she said, “You should try to rest a little, you have to fly early tomorrow.”
“I want to stay in this moment, right here, forever.”
“You are my very best and my very worst decision ever.” She opened her eyes and said slowly, “My parents are going to freak out when I tell them I am not going to marry some cattle thief from beyond the protected areas.”
He laughed, “So why did you change your mind, about the cattle thief?”
She squirmed out of his hold and crouched over him and pretended to growl, “Because I found someone tastier. You are now in my power. Move at your peril.”
“I will not surrender that easily.”
“Do not make me bite you.”
He tickled her and she collapsed on him laughing.
“Are you laughing at me?”
She raised herself to his head and smiled, “Yes. Everything. Tonight. You were like a little kid. Going to the fair, eating fairy floss and coming on rides with me. Doing stupid things together. I can’t believe that you got me to go see a fortune teller.”
“I have a confession to make about that.”
“The fortune teller already told me everything,” she paused. “She scared you didn’t she?”
“I do not understand what happened. One moment we were going along fine and the next she was yelling at me to get out. You know, I expected she would tell me that I would travel to Europe and meet some German princess...”
She smiled and said over him, “Stop it!”
He continued, “...and we would live happily ever after in a castle on this side of the Berlin Wall selling Czechoslovakian crystal we smuggled.”
She bit his hand.
He pretended to look hurt. While he was checking his arm for teeth marks, and perhaps blood, she sat on him and said, “Pay attention.”
He looked at her. The moon illuminated her face, her clear eyes smiling at him.
“No princesses. Just me. Ok?”
“Ok. But no more biting.”
“I am sorry. It is in my genes. I may bite from time to time, but only when you deserve it. Ok?”
She reached to his hand and brought it up to kiss.
“Ok, but no blood ok?”
She slid down next to him. She said, “I wish you could stay.”
She held her palm to his, tightly. She said, “You showed me a lot about yourself tonight. You showed me that you are not some invulnerable fighter pilot. You are ordinary, capable of being frightened by an old woman. You are willing to accept advice and let others handle situations outside your expertise.”
He said, “I do not know all the answers. I am used to working as part of a team, working stuff out with others, listening to people. For a moment, all I knew was that I could not help, and you could."
He had something on his mind, "But, I demand some repayment for the injury you did to me.”
She pressed her palm to his tighter, “You got what was coming to you. But, I will take requests.”
He said, “What did the old woman, Shalaye, actually tell you?
“I already told you. She told me you needed someone to protect you, and that I could do that.”
“You do not believe in fortune tellers though. What did she actually say?”
She smiled and said, “Alright, but you asked for this.”
She pulled his left palm to near her face and squinted at it. She said, trying her best to copy Shalaye’s accent, “I have described your past, eh? Now we will trace your heart line.”
She traced his heart line with her finger, moving from just below his little finger up to just below the start of the middle finger. She continued, “The line is strong and deep, eh? There are no others. I see his name written here. He is yours, and he needs you because there is darkness all around him. He does not exist but he is important. He needs someone strong to protect him, and you are that person, eh.”
Then she paused and looked into his eyes, “When was the last time you looked at your palm?”
He said, “Um, every day? Twice on Sunday.”
She twisted his palm to his face and made him look at it. He sat bolt upright, staring at it. Then he smiled and gathered her into his arms and kissed her until he felt tears falling.
He said, “Dont cry.”
“I am not crying. You are.”
“How did you do that?”
“The heart on your palm?”
“No. Why did you choose me?”
“I like your curls.”
And then she kissed him.
When he called the taxi and went off to pick up Labrinth, she went back to her studies and tried to ignore him until the darkness engulfed them both. And then she found him and dragged him into the future. And the future was darker than either could have imagined.
The dawn was just a faint promise in the Adelaide Hills to the east. His taxi picked Labrinth up from her motel on the way back to his bi-plane.
Labrinth asked Chas directly, “So did you kiss your girlfriend?”
“None of your business, but... I owe you my thanks. Going to the fair was a good idea. Thank you.”
Chas told her about the fair, and how they had ended up seeing an old fortune teller.
Labrinth growled, “It would have worked better if you had seen the right fortune teller, like me. I waited for you.”
Chas said, “The old fortune teller told me that I do not exist. That I had travelled down forbidden paths. Then she went crazy. I thought it was you.”
“Fortune tellers can’t tell the future. But they are good at reading a person. You probably walked in there with time traveller written all over you.”
Chas shook his head, “You sure you did not tell that bloke with the fortune teller’s something? He knew about your gun.”
Labrinth blushed, “He tried to pick my pockets. You better check your wallet by the way, he probably pinched it while you were walking into the tent. I made my meeting with him turn out good. I got my fortune read and he set me up with my own tent. I made about $100 waiting for you to show up.”
Chas had dived for his wallet and checking its contents. He sighed with relief. “All there.”
Labrinth shook her head, “Might have taken it, spilled the information to the daughter and then put the wallet back when you were outside. Perhaps he was a foreign agent. Or, as I said, maybe it was written all over your face.”
Chas shook his head, “None of the above.”
“Well, what exactly did she say to you? Did she say something concrete or have you taken some general words and built a mountain out of the mole-hill?”
“Too much has happened in such a short time, maybe I just need a long sleep.”
They sat quietly in the back of the cab as it drove south to the port area and Chas’s biplane. In the front seat, the cab driver and a trainee driver were comparing route details in a low murmur.
Chas was first to break the silence, “So you had your fortune told as well? I find that a bit hard to swallow.”
Labrinth was tight lipped, but eventually said, “No harm in a bit of background research. Bavole might be a fraud but he is a master. He gave me some good tips, I earned my $100 fair and square.”
Chas pressed her, “And your fortune?”
Labrinth snorted, “I am going to do a lot of travelling, and meet a good looking older guy. But I should avoid driving at night for the next month.”
“He got that wrong. Back at the base you need to avoid the older guys.”
They reached the port as the dawn started to light up the sky. Tendrils of red and yellow reached to the wharf.
Chas paid the cabbie and followed Labrinth out towards the bi-plane. There was a whiff of smoke in the air and he heard low laughter as the cab pulled away. He froze and looked back towards them.
Labrinth calls, “You coming?”
There was a blinding flash of light. A deep rumble followed by a gentle earthquake. All gone as quickly as they came. Chas was white, “What was that? The quake, did you feel it?”
Chas stopped and looked at the dawn sky. The reds and yellows had been replaced by a vivid pink. He took a deep breath, searching for the smoke, nothing.
“No quakes here. You look like you saw a ghost.” Then, with a little more concern, she said, “Perhaps you need to go back and tell the doctors about this. It might be related to the trial.”
He shook his head and they flew back to the base.
But the quake had changed more than the colours in the sky. Some changes were small: the colour of cars, the shape of new houses and the brands of milk on the shelves. Some of the changes were large: friends at home and work changed, governments changed and the time when the leaves coloured and fell.
On 11 November 1975, straight after the crisis, Dawn volunteered to fly with the first teams that responded to the nuclear missile strike on the northern Perth suburbs. When she returned she had become older, carrying the images of devastation of the fires that had ripped apart suburban areas, and the mass of displaced people moving south. Chas flew relief missions to the devastated city looking for her. Then he got caught up in the enquiries surrounding the disaster.
In the following ten years they set up home in an apartment in inner Adelaide, across the ovals from the city. As government medical services expanded, she took a job in the nearby state hospital and he worked on special operations with the navy assisting the building a new western capital near Derby at King Sound, and did some crop dusting on her father’s property in between times. On the weekends, he would play cricket by the River Torrens and she would go walking in the Botanic Gardens. And in the evenings she would hold him tight and try to keep his demons at bay. They were still in South Australia when their child, David was born. Except it was not called South Australia anymore. The states had been abolished in 1985 during the fifth term of the Whitlam Government. Adelaide had already gone into decline with scandals around the former State Government.
But sometimes not. Sometimes, the new capital was being built at Kununurra near Lake Argyle. Sometimes he would be playing darts in the pub. Or she would be walking on a rent house at Victor Harbor. In the first ten years, each time a time quakes struck, it changed the world for him, a little.
But after the first ten years, the big changes between the quakes stopped. Time started acting rationally again for Chas.
Entry in Chas’s Diary for Nov 17 1985 (T+69 hours).
Time quake today produced no noticeable effects. Flying to the property today for the funeral. Dawn very upset about her mother.
Entry in Chas’s Diary for May 7 1988 (T+86 hours).
Finished move to the farm on an inlet south of Nowra. The old farm house is too small for us all.
Entry in Chas’s Diary for January 11 1991 (T+110 hours).
War with Indonesia has ended, so our call up has lapsed. Returning to tourist flight operation, but press is saying that the war will send us into a recession. Protests in all the cities against the Howard Government, this would not have happened under Hawke.
Every year, around the anniversary of the disaster Chas stumbled. He became disoriented. Sometimes it would take days for him to get back on his feet. Dawn was there to protect him during these times. She did not believe in fortune tellers but she believed in what Shalaye had told her, and feared the coming future. When she would finally sleep through exhaustion, Chas would watch her sleeping, her head on his arm. Her skin pale in the moonlight. Unfamiliar smells drifting through unfamiliar rooms.
Entry in Catalyst’s diary for April 19 2011.
They are trying to be helpful. They have started to send Labrinth into the future, my future. She is projected into a little Chinese Cafe in downtown Sydney. It is a bit of a drive, but apparently it is a safe defence location and they can control the environment.
So I still have some contact with the past. We drink black tea while she chain smokes.
She showed me her gun and looked dangerous. She tried to reassure me with cheery stories of the past, how things are going back there with the threat of imminent nuclear war and Elvis. She asked lots of questions and gave me tasks.
I just nodded. It was good to see her. But I did not told her that Elvis is dead because of the risk of another time quake. Still...
Her eyes narrowed when she saw people talking into mobiles or drinking Cappuccinos.
Entry in Chas’s Diary for May 1 2013: (T+258 hrs)
Time quake while fishing. After many years of minor changes this one caught me napping. I returned to find farmhouse a cold burnt shell. I broke down, feared Dawn killed.
Dawn found him upset and alone in the ruins. She took him back to the safety of a small rental above a fish and chip shop in Nowra. She said that lots of people had lost everything, but they had each other and nothing else mattered. She had saved his precious diary and some of the photos.
He spent the year living as an employee at the shop below. Dawn just smiled as she taught him how to cook hamburgers and fish while she went to work in the emergency ward at the local hospital. And, at night, he would watch her sleeping, her head on his arm. Each time, her face a little older, sometimes battle scarred, her skin still pale in the moonlight. Unfamiliar smells drifting through unfamiliar rooms.
Towards the end of the year, they spend weekends together back at the old ruin, clearing the site for building work.
Entry in Catalyst’s diary for April 11 2014.
Met with Labrinth in Sydney. I explained that since she started to make her annual trips into the future, to the little Chinese restaurant, the time quakes had become deeper and had become dangerous.
I told her of my doubts and that I could not give her any more information. I said it was comforting to know that there is a full team of scientists and academics back in Mission Control trying to "retrieve me". But now that is not enough. Even if they can get me back, I will have aged.
Worst, they don’t believe in the future, they keep changing it.
She was very patient, telling me with a dry voice that they really had a plan.
I told her I need a way to sort this out now. There is a lot of amazing technology in this new world. If I can develop my own time machine, I might be able to go back and stop the program from starting.
We argued. Her eyes flashed, and I saw her teeth. Other diners started to watch, as she became angrier. I remembered the gun as she pointed her hand at me and told me to get a grip on reality. She faded back to 1975 still cross with me.
I sat at the table, not moving, until the other customers left. Reality hit me.
I am a time traveller. I come from the last half of the twentieth century, but the mechanism broke and now I am lost. I can’t get back. It is all confusing. Things keep changing. Some days I don’t know if I am chasing dreams or being chased by demons.
I am not an engineer. I will need help. I need to track down what happened to the program, why it got shut down, and whether they every worked out how to fix the artefact.
If wishes were horses, beggars would fly
Main House Nowra
A blinding flash of light. A deep rumble that passes through your body, vibrating like a dentist drill against a tooth. Then an earthquake, dislocating every molecule in the space around you. All gone as quickly as they came.
Chas was waiting for it and braced automatically. When it happened he sighed, and shut his eyes tight and stopped breathing. He tried to remember the way the world was before the quake. He muttered a quiet prayer hoping that the changes would not affect Dawn. Or that the changes would be small or, at least, understandable.
Then he tried to relax and open his eyes. He checked that the sky was clear and blue, tentatively took a breath and walked back from the beach to find out what had changed this time. The farm cat, Patroclus, padded along behind him.
At the start, there were lots of time quakes. But once Mission Control was shut down, the quakes became an annual event. It became clear to Chas that the quakes coincided with communication with Catalyst. The first ten years were the worst. As a matter of precaution he sat down and estimated when the quakes would hit. This slowly expanded into a diary, where he tried to correlate the information they retrieved from Catalyst and the changes wrought by the quakes. He remembered that the information from Catalyst dwindled to almost nothing after ten years, and it slowly dawned on him why that might be. Catalyst was sick of being tossed around by the quakes as well, and probably stopped sending information back for good reason. But then that had all changed in the past few years, and the time quakes were suddenly changing lots of things again.
Chas thought about contacting Catalyst. But he decided against it. On their first night, Dawn and he had talked about lots of things including a dream, a small farm on the east coast, with him flying tourists and her being a GP in town. Through everything, that remained their goal. Despite the quakes, despite the demons, he did not want to change his life.
From a distance, he saw Dawn in the gardens outside the main house. He paused, there was an unfamiliar old-style car in the driveway. He heard a screen door shut. He saw David and a young woman emerge, shouting goodbyes to Dawn and then driving off.
He looked back to the coast and then searched the house for clues. His biplane was beached and stowed against the autumn winds. No other float planes were in view. The wharf he had built a couple of years back was missing. The boathouse was a ruin. The main house needed a coat of paint.
He smiled. It had been far worse.
He stopped, suddenly feeling very tired. He turned and looked back to the shoreline. He remembered the backbreaking work of dredging and dropping the wharf poles. Of sourcing seasoned timber from Gippsland and bringing it back for the decking of the wharf and the boathouse. All for nothing. Back in another time line, lost to him.
Then he felt her arm wrap around him. She said, “I saw you standing here. Come up to the house, I will fix us some tea.”
He held her tightly. Then they walked in silence up to the house. She never said anything about his dislocation, she just sat with him and they talked until he worked out what had changed. Sometimes the changes were imperceptible. Sometimes they involved learning how to trap rabbits for food or steer a dirigible as part of an enhanced customs net. He learned to learn fast, to patch her memories of her life, into the memories that they almost shared. And at night, he would watch her sleeping, her head on his arm. Each time, her face a little older, her skin still pale in the moonlight. Drifting through another time line. Each time she was a little different and yet the same. Her body shape and dress changed a little, according to the fashion of the time.
He decided to try something a little different. He started, “David was looking good. Is he heading back to town?”
She just smiled and said, “You are guessing.”
“I am trying.”
“He is looking good. He brought his new girlfriend, Mary, out to meet us. You were very polite.”
Then she paused and he shook his head, “No. You are right, I do not remember meeting her. But I know you.”
“You are a worry, my love. Let us do this the normal way. Come, sit in your study and I will get the tea.”
Much later, as she dozed by the radio, he took out his diary. Patroclus was curled up on an empty shelf. He looked at the bookshelf for a moment, wondering about a gap and then turned back to his diary and to his notes about April/May 2014. He read:
“Labrinth sent to meet Catalyst at Sydney meeting place. Returned with no tangible information but reported a disturbing conversation with him. He had doubts. He told her that it was all confusing, that things kept changing, and that some days he did not know if he was chasing dreams or being chased by demons.’”
Chas nodded his head. He knew how Catalyst was feeling. He found the reference to demons puzzling, remembering that brief encounter with one in the final hours of Mission Control. He kept reading:
“While he knew that people were still trying to retrieve him that was no longer enough. Catalyst told Labrinth that he would try to find a way to go back and stop the program from starting.”
Chas sat back and thought. From this end of the stick, that actually sounded sensible. But too little and too late, he thought. By his reckoning there was only one time quake to come, in May 2015. Then Catalyst would have been free of further change as the program was wound up. Chas, was looking forward to, and dreading, that final quake and what that lottery of change might gift or curse him with.
He took out a pen and ticked the entry and then added:
May 7 2014: (T+265).
“Change minimal. Still in the tail end of the recession that started here with the GFC. No sign of economic recovery, limited mining activity and government still propping up most enterprises. David has a girl friend called Mary who I like, apparently.”
He sat looking at the sentence, vaguely unsettled by his use of the word "apparently". He was inclined to use that word a lot to describe his present situation. In the past he would have stopped there, but this time he went on, his writing faster and shakier than normal:
“Catalyst was right. I have the same doubts. But I do not know what to do. I love Dawn, she is the only thing that keeps me going. I hate this lottery of slaving and not achieving anything tangible. I hate not having the same shared memories as Dawn. I have 20 different memories of the past, and it has to stop.”
He threw the pen down and stalked to the study window, muttering to himself, “I do not want this. I just want an ordinary life.”
A blinding flash of light. A deep rumble that passes through your body, vibrating like a dentist drill against a tooth. Then an earthquake, dislocating every molecule in the space around you. All gone as quickly as they came.
Chas was not expecting another quake. He had no time to brace, and ended up falling forward, his hand smashing the study window. In a split second before he hit the window, he saw his biplane and two other float planes moored by the side of his wharf and a refurbished boathouse, lit up with some late-model cars parked nearby. Then the glass shattered and his wrist started to ooze blood. He was staring dully at it as Dawn burst into the room, David close behind.
Dawn stopped the bleeding with a bandage. David drove then to the hospital for stitches.
When the shock passed, Chas whispered to Dawn, “I am sorry. It happened again. I just can’t control it.”
Dawn smiled and put her arm around him, “I know. But I am here.”
Later that night, he watched her sleeping, her head on his bandaged arm. A trick of the moonlight, but she seemed the same as when they first met, her skin pale on his suntanned shoulder. Drifting together with those few memories binding them tight.
In January 2015 Catalyst had arrived at Nowra uninvited and, if truth be told, unwanted. Chas was very wary of him. Perhaps unconsciously, when they were alone, he called him Catalyst rather than by his real name, Peter.
Catalyst explained why he had come. He said, "I think we are running out of time. I have some ideas, but I need your help."
"You have had almost forty years to get in touch. Why now?" countered Chas.
"We are not supposed to live like this. I want a normal life. I think I know how. Tell me what happened to the base."
Chas shrugged, “After the crisis, we had to shut the base down quickly. We only had a couple of days and the base had been damaged by power overloads and a fire. There was not enough time to shut the reactor down, so we put it into hibernation mode. Benedict pulled Labrinth back and sealed the station. You know your artefact stopped transmitting?"
"Dead?", Catalyst threw it onto the pool table.
Chas picked it up, and said, "We never recovered your signal. I wonder why it stopped transmitting."
"That is probably the least of our problems. What happened to the base? What happened to Labrinth's artefact?"
Chas said, "We pushed the desert sands over the base. It is still there, for those who know where to look but they bulldozed a fake road and site - probably what you ended up at when you went back. The team was debriefed and broken up overnight. Benedict took the rap with a secret inquiry.”
He paused and said, quietly, “Labrinth's artefact is stowed at the base. She was picked up by two Foreign Affairs agents during the shutdown. I only heard about it the day after. They took her at night and just disappeared.”
“There were rumours of a bad car accident. People say she was killed. I tried to follow it up. But then I got pulled into helping with the relief efforts in North Perth. Then I spent a couple of years being questioned about the program. But, by the end, no one believed in it anymore anyway, it was treated as a joke, like the Scramjet, and I got no leads on Labrinth.”
They sat eating nuts and playing darts, trying to put the pieces together. The farm cat Patroclus, sat under the table watching the darts fly through the air with interest.
Chas shot a look at Patroclus and said to Catalyst, “But I still believed.”
Catalyst could see the tears in the old man’s eyes, and said “Because of the time quakes?”
Chas said, “Yes. If it was not for Dawn, I would have gone mad. Or more mad than I am now.”
Catalyst smiled grimly, “I guess we are probably both a bit mad. Those quakes were insane... Who else from the station command can we find?”
Chas was quiet. He said, “I know how to find those still living. Except for Labrinth...”
“Stop it Chas." Catalyst said. "I have a theory about what went wrong.”
Chas took a moment, using highly descriptive language, to tell Catalyst what he thought of theories.
“Hear me out Chas. Tell me about your very first time travel attempt.”
“It was straightforward. I went into the future and came back a second later. While...”
“Stop there. Right there. That is what went wrong.”
“You were never brought back. For the circle to be completed, you would have had to have been brought back to the moment you left, not one second later.”
“I think they simply moved you from one part of the future to another. They never brought you back to the real present. Like me, they just left you in the future.”
Chas paused looking into the ceiling. Patroclus saw his chance. He jumped onto the dart board bringing it crashing down.
Chas thought about that while they cleaned up the mess. He said, “Is that even possible? So, if I was never brought back, where am I? Where are you?”
“We are in your house outside Nowra drinking beer and I was beating me at darts until you set the cat onto the board. It is real to us, and might eventually become real to everyone else. But, at the moment, we are simply travelling along the path of the most probable future. I call it a probability cloud. When one of us travellers, well me, sends back information to Mission Control, the changes get promulgated though the probability cloud, all the small changes, the butterflies that beat a couple of seconds later than before, add up and we feel the changes as a time quake.”
Catalyst can hear the restraint in Chas’s voice, “I need to think about this real carefully. But let me get this straight. Are you saying that if we send each of us back to the exact moment we first left, we get out to live our real lives, a proper life, not some unreal half-life. Will we remember what happened here? Wait, can we fix things? Can we make things better?”
“I hope so,” Catalyst smiled. “I have memorized every winner for the Melbourne Cup for the last 39 years.”
“There are other travellers. Labrinth was, is, in the same situation. She was also briefed to try a time grab with another person as well,” Chas is starting to think.
“Look, I do not want you to take this the wrong way but we need to be completely honest with each other. Benedict and I talked about sending her into the future to try to grab you back. We were going to try it on a third person first.”
“And if that did not work?”
Chas thought hard about how to tell Catalyst the next bit, “It did work, sort of. She found someone. They came back together, holding each other, with some sort of demon fighting them. Sorry, that is the best description I can give, I was not prepared for anything like that and then the world went to hell in a hand basket.”
“Whoa.” Catalyst did not usually use words like that, but though he could make an exception this once. They were both silent for a while.
“What sort of demon?”
“Don’t you know? You told Labrinth you had to deal with demons.”
“Well, we all have different demons. What did you see?”
“A ball of clack energy, with fire and smoke. Labrinth was trying to tell me about it. It might be still here. If so, I have not seen it.”
Something was bothering Catalyst. He asked, “So Labrinth is coming to snatch me. When, and what happens if it does not work? Will she help us stop the time program?”
Chas shuffles his feet, “What you have served up to me is just a theory.”
“Answer me straight.”
Chas thought about the Labrinth he knew, full of life and fun. He said, “You and I have both changed in this life of probabilities and time quakes. She might change as well. She will take orders from me, but she is armed and she is dangerous. And she sees you as a threat. But I can't let her go back and get killed.”
“I am not sure you have been listening to me. If she gets killed, at the moment it only has happened in the probability cloud. How long have we got, before she arrives?”
“It is January now, she will arrive in May. So we have four months before she appears.”
“Look, I do not like the idea of someone trying to kill me.”
“So Labrinth and whoever she snatches will be in the same position as we are. All stuck in your cloud thing. We just can’t leave them here.”
“Speaking for myself, I think avoiding Labrinth is the real priority here. But, we have a lot to do before she becomes an issue.
"Another thing. We have been planning to make a change to time. Why hasn’t there been a time quake.
"If my theory is right, a quake is only generated when we actually change the past.”
“I am not sure about that. But I have a more important question. What am I going to tell Dawn?”
Something wicked this way comes
Chas is navigating the biplane by line of sight above the long dirt road. From up here the vegetation fades into the desert on either side of the long road that stretches in a straight line into the haze of the horizon. To the west, dust storms are brewing. He scans the land ahead carefully, watching for where the old power line corridor cut the road.
Catalyst is asleep in the passenger seat, any thought of conversation rendered futile by the sound of the engine. Chas likes it that way. He does not like what Catalyst has told him. He does not even believe everything Catalyst has said to him. But, after weighing up the options, reluctantly, he agreed that it was worth a shot.
A glint in the distance and Chas allows himself a smile. It was not marked on any map, but he still found the corridor without a problem. He dipped the plane, turning it away from the road and along the line of broken and twisted power poles dead straight across the desert sand and salt.
Chas saw the white outline of Island Lagoon and started to descend towards the hidden remains of Deep Space Station 41.
He knew he should have been worried about a thousand other details, like how he was going to corral a team of old scientists and engineers not to mention a bitter and angry Benedict.
Instead he was worried about Dawn. He shook his head, daydreaming again. He was here, in 2015, circling to land on the salt lake below him.
He turn and yelled at Catalyst, "Get ready for landing."
He was not the only one to agree to this approach. Key team members from the original mission also agreed, some throwing significant resources into the venture. They all had unfinished business here, dreams and wishes.
But something else hovered on the edge of Chas's memory. Like the words of an old song. Something important, but he could not work out what it was.
And then they hit the surface of the dry salt lake, and roared towards the shoreline. Within the protection of the small bay, they roped and put the bi-plane under camouflage nets.
It was a short walk from the dry lake to the shore line and back up an old creek bed to the old flat where the facility buildings had once been. Here, in the desert sands were tracks made by a truck unloading equipment. The air temperature started to burn their lungs. Bending down to avoid the stinging wind, they follow the tracks south until they heard the sound of digging.
Over a slight rise they see a team of ten older men working below, helping a small excavator drag sand away from the side of the concrete walls of the base.
Benson sees them and shouts, "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes... Hey Chas! God to see you Catalyst."
Benson hugs Chas. Chas says, "Oh man! It is so good to see you all."
Benson says, "Ok, back to work. We need to get out of this heat."
He dropped his voice and turns to Chas, "Some bad news. The main entry has collapsed. We are getting in through an old service entry here. But chances are that the top layer and our main operations room are stuffed. That leaves us with the backup operations room on the lower reactor level. We are pretty close now."
With a series of sickening scrapes, the excavator takes the last of the sand from the concrete wall, uncovering a metal door.
Chas asks Benson quietly, "You look a lot happier than when we spoke by Skype."
Benson turns to Chas, and smiles. "I am excited. Aren’t you? Even if we do not get any further, I am just happy to be back here."
"Yes, but... Dust storms coming boss," Chas flicks his thumb over his shoulder to the west.
Benson says, "Ok. Guys, hold it there. No need to bust anything, we have keys. Keep the excavator in the trench. I want nets over it and the entrance. Do not waste time."
Chas turns to look at the wall of red dust advancing towards them from the west, "Ok, get everything under cover before the storm hits."
Benson smiles at him, and slaps his back, and says, "We will nail it this time".
Graham, from Guidance, hands out respirators and hard hats, "You have been briefed on this. Stay together, it is probably dangerous inside, snakes, dingos, human strays, roof falls and live cables. Who knows. Keep the chatter down. Keep a careful watch."
Benson says, "Keep cool. You are in safe hands. Catalyst has just been volunteered to scout for us."
Catalyst says, "What?"
Grant smiles at him, "You are the only one of us who can still walk without a walking stick and doesn’t need a hearing aid."
There is a little laughter as Benson turns the key and smiles, "Open, locks, whoever knocks!"
Catalyst works his way through the group of older men and forward into the corridor. It is pitch black inside. As dark as one of the caves back home that he had been exploring. He also remembers stories of people entering some of the old concrete bunkers out here only to become fatally ill.
Leaving the others behind in the heat, he enters the complex, and with his lamp blazing along the first corridor. The floor is covered by a thin layer of undisturbed dust. He comes to a locked door. Using the master key, he opens it into a large store room. He steps inside and shuts it behind him. He calls on the radio, "Catalyst here. First corridor is clear."
He ignores sounds of Benson moving the team into the corridor behind him, and concentrates on the store room. Beneath him, the floor has changed from concrete, to a metal grid, and he can feel the slight vibrations of the reactor below. Enough so the specs of dust have disappeared. He sweeps his lights over the area, illuminating rows of spare parts, jeeps and miscellaneous machinery. He makes his way deeper into the store room, finding exits into the main control room and a service lift to the reactor below. All seem locked and intact.
He calls it in and the team pushes into the room behind him.
Benson brings the team to him. He points to the service lift and says to the team, "If we can get this going, it will take us to the reactor and the backup ops room."
Benson turns to Catalyst, "Right, while they are doing that, I want you to check the state of damage in the main ops room. At some stage we will have to go up there and collect records and the spare artefact. This is the hard part. Do not take any risks, understand?"
Catalyst nods and turns to a single door giving him access to the interior of the base. There is a commotion behind. Benson says, "Wait. What is it?"
Graham says, "We have lost Brent. He is not answering the radio."
“Quiet everyone!" Benson whispers, "Graham, call him again."
Graham calls on his radio, "Del Con, Del Con, do you read. Guidance over."
Benson says, "Lights out. All silent."
They drop into total darkness. They hear footsteps in the distance and the door into the store room opens. A light sweeps the room. Brent calls out, "Hey guys, just me. You there? Not sure how to use these new-fangled radios."
Benson shines a light at Brent, "Where were you?"
Brent said, "Just getting my medication, sorry the heat is making me wobbly"
Benson says, a little more sympathetically, "Keep up mate."
Benson nods at Catalyst, "Go go."
Catalyst opens the door into the main operations room, steps inside quickly and shuts it. He feels a rush of air, and the feeling of space above him. In the distance the consoles around mission control are still dimly lit. The time gate still glows with a faint blue glow.
He feels the movement before he sees it. To his right, the roof has partially collapsed. He freezes, watching rubble falling as something large has moved out of sight. He calls in, “Contact.”
Benson responds on the radio tersely, “Situation?”
Catalyst, “Single, unidentified. Waiting till my eyes adjust.”
A second movement from right, and the sounds of something large scrabbling over rocks and debris.
Catalyst, “Make that two plus. Probably monitor lizards. If so, they will know I am here very quickly. I have vision. Wait.”
He sprints the 70 feet to the central console area. As he does, there is the sickening sounds of movement all around him. He switches on his lamp and swings it around the interior of the building, counting twenty sets of eyes, some much larger than he feels comfortable with.
Benson radios tersely, “Situation?”
Catalyst calls in, “Do not come in. Do not come in. I have made the central console area. I am seeing some superficial fire damage, but the gate and main boards appear to be operational. I am going to take photos."
He takes a series of photographs. Near the time gate, sees some pages in the dust. He walks over and bends down to pick them up. Near them are other prints, faint, unusual.
He hears a scuffling in the distance, and jumps to his feet. A large monitor lizard is standing in front of the blast wall watching him, tasting the air.
Catalyst says to himself, "I do not like these."
He radios, "I am coming back, get ready to open the door."
He trots to the edge of the consoles, momentarily disoriented as his light searches for the door to the store room entrance.
He radios, "Flash me a light, I need to get my bearings"
The monitor has been joined by another, and they start moving deliberately towards him.
He runs for the door, hammering on it. It is opened and he spills into it.
The door is locked, and the team stands back as they hear scrabbling on the outside.
Benson says, “Ok, the party is over. We are safe in here.”
Turning to Catalyst, he says, “Just lizards?”
Catalyst says defensively, “Big ones. Eat any of this team in one gulp. I haven’t seen them that big.”
“What else did you find?”
“I have photos. A fair amount of damage on the west, the roof has caved in although I can’t see an obvious way in or out. The floor is intact throughout - including the damaged area. The main ops looks ok save for some superficial damage. And lizards, The outside perimeter of the area is crawling with them. They must have nests in the damaged area. They seem to have stayed away from the central area. It still looks operational, apart from a layer of dust over everything. Plan B is looking good.”
Benson, “Well I guess the good news is that the monitors will probably keep everything else out. We will probably not find them below in the sealed areas. Ok, we have the lift to the reactor floor working, I think we can all take that ride.”
The trip down into the lower sections of the base were uneventful. It took a flick of the switch to move the reactor into operational mode, and a couple of days to get the air-condition units working and for clean dry air to be pumped into the facility. Under the reactor were a series of fallout shelters. Benson said that they had been carved out of natural caverns that extended back to the salt lake. The team settled into the cool shelters, the twelve able to spread out in relative comfort.
When the basics were taken care of, Benson unsealed the back up operations room. A mirror image of the main operations room above, but smaller. The time gate here sitting a dull grey, unpowered. The old scientists and engineers stumbled into the room, shaking their heads, some with tears. Earlier Brent had explained that most of the console equipment would be repatched through simple Arduino devices to portable computers. He said, “No need for a maths team back a Woomera. I have a calculator.”
Catalyst ended up having a little time to himself while the team struggled with the equipment.
When he was alone, he pulled out the papers he had salvaged from the floor above. The pages had not aged with time - they looked like they had been written a day or so ago. It was a report from Labrinth addressed to Chas and Benson. He read it carefully before hiding it in an air conditioning vent.
The report made it clear that Labrinth considered him a threat, to be eliminated if other measures failed. It also formally confirmed the identity of the person Labrinth and brought back from 1975, Chas’s son, David. Catalyst felt a chill through his body.
Mission Control T+271.7 hrs (Nov 10 1975 17:18): Catalyst time line Apr 28 2015 7:36
Benedict, white knuckles, is at the com. He says, “This is Mission Control, our temporal distance from Catalyst is 39 years, 15 days, 5 hours. His velocity is steady at 1274 seconds per tick.” He pauses, “Here in Mission Control we are standing by.”
Benedict gives Cannonball the signal as a show of anxiety and a low murmur around the consoles.
Cannonball says, “Cut the chatter!”
Benedict replies, “Early acquisition worked this time. What did we discover?”
Cannonball shakes his head, “Analysts are working on it, but I thought I got a glimpse of a map of the Lagoon in the video feed. Catalyst might be trying to make his way back to the base. If the analysts confirm that, we need to send in Labrinth.”
Labrinth was in the darkness, teasing dust.
There was just enough light to see the dust on the blast wall around the huge open building tremor in tune with the beat of the reactor below them. Once, every second and a half, dust particles danced.
She leaned down, and blew the dust high into the air. Sudden chaos, as swirling dust lit up in shafts of light falling from the high roof above.
Towards the centre of the building was a circle of bright lights, with the mission specialists and their consoles. The analogue feed from Catalyst frozen in grainy black and white tones on one side. On the other side, casting soft blue waves of light over the scene was the time gate.
She grimaced. Hundreds of miles from anywhere. Stuck at a facility far out in the desert at Australia's only rocket range, Woomera. Salt lakes in every direction. No television or radio. No rockets either, anymore. Just stars and, maybe, a softball game on a weekend. There were rumours that the American base nearby had got a copy of Jaws and was going to invite people over.
Still, perhaps she was lucky to have any job at all. She was hanging on by her fingertips. A foreign affairs officer, in a year that had seen Australian embassies in a range of countries close with the fall of the South Vietnamese capitol of Saigon and the descent into chaos of a dozen other countries. War was being waged close to Australia’s borders. Five Australian-based journalists were killed by Indonesian forces during their incursion into East Timor. A sweet job in the Europe desk, fell through when the Spanish dictator conceded that he was too ill to govern.
She was starting to drift, feelings of anger about the way things were not turning out for her. She was here on secondment, with some obscure scientific group cobbled together from the remnants of half a dozen failed rocket programs. It was all boring and deadly hot. Until things went wrong, 11 days previously.
She saw Benedict walk into the circle of light. He was talking loudly with two engineers.
He reached a decision and motioned to dismiss the men. They were all men, except for her. He flicked his mike and told all the specialists to take their seats. The senior engineer remained trying to talk with him, but this time the conversation was deadly quiet.
Labrinth circled fast in the shadows, avoiding the circle of consoles and flashing lights, until she was in earshot.
Benedict asked the engineer, “And so that's why we started to put power out onto the domestic grid? You have got to be kidding me!”
The Engineer responded, “Not my call. Finance made the call. This facility is bleeding cash and they needed to make it up somehow. All I am saying is that if you take that much power out of the grid at the moment, you will drain the power out of every energy resource in 500 miles. My team tells me that it may take days to restore power. The politicians will go crazy. You will go crazy.”
Benedict, “Ok, you made your point. I have no choice. But when I give you the call, I want every bit of power committed to this facility. Do you understand?”
Brad shrugged, “Yes. We have told you what will go down.”
He turned and walked over to the grid consoles, shaking his head.
Labrinth quietly withdrew to find more dust. She ignored the buzz of activity that grew as they moved into radio range of Catalyst. She was thinking about what this meant for her.
In the past 11 days, the same process had repeated itself 40 times, every 7 hours. Six hours of dead time - not enough time for a real sleep. Then 60 minutes of finding him, locking coms and starting to transmit short real time messages - highly compressed - because his time runs far faster than time here at mission control. The messages took the same form. They pleaded with him for information.
Sometimes they would get a message back from him. Generally they would only be able to make out a word or two, before the radio window shut. In the centre of the radio range, there was a short period of 86 seconds when the central screen would spring into life. The massive grainy screen would come to life, a couple of images at a time and then a sickening roller-coaster of images almost beyond comprehension. Then they would lose signal and the specialists would pass the information they collected to analysts.
It was fascinating at first. Because of her connections and experience, Benedict kept her in the loop. She helped send messages to Catalyst. But the continued failure to get any meaningful responses from him was starting to press on all members of the command. Then suddenly, it all changed. One of the teams worked out how to send someone to Catalyst.
She got the job because of her past work in intelligence gathering, and because she knew how to use weapons. She smiled to herself, a predator. So she went, through the blue time gate, into the future. She shuddered, feeling the cold metal of the artefact around her neck. They would leave her 3 Mission Control ticks before pulling her back, after an hour meeting with Catalyst. In the future.
She felt a thrill, something was up. Benedict was going to use power. That meant he was going to use the gate, and she would get a brief respite from the heat.
She heard her name broadcast, “Agent Labrinth, report to mission control, now.”
She stopped. Unconsciously she spent a couple of seconds feeling for her revolver, ammunition, a small backpack of stores, currency and gold. She had had a fight before coming into Mission Control. She and her team disagreed about what she should wear. She had carefully described dress style from her previous insertions, but no one would help her remove the flair from her jeans. Finally, she cut them off herself.
She walked into the circle.
Cannonball looked down at her cut down jeans. He walked with her towards Benedict.
Cannonball said quietly to her, “He wants you to stay in the future for a full cycle. He doesn’t trust Catalyst anymore. I think we are just tired and frustrated but he thinks Catalyst is going to do something stupid. Whatever. I want everything you can find us about our near future. The information we have is useless. Benedict wants stuff from the time period Catalyst is in: hard stuff, weapons, and coms. And I want Catalyst's artefact back: we need to find out what went wrong with it, why we cannot get him back.”
As they came up to the coms station, Benedict looked at them and broke in, speaking quickly, “I do not care what happens to Catalyst. The mission will take 12 months. Get me that data. Do not get yourself killed. Do not lose the artefact. Any questions?”
Cannonball said, “You have trained for this. You can do it.”
Labrinth said, “Yes Commander!”
She takes a step back, feeling the tremors from the reactor beneath her.
Cannonball stands next to Benedict who flicks his mike on. Instantly, the other 40 people around the room quieten.
Benedict says, “This is Mission Control, more than 271 hours into this exercise. It has been a long day here. A few moments ago I asked you all to sit down and prepare for the coming events. Agent Labrinth, step up to the gate.”
He looks anxiously at the Mission Control clock. He continues, crisp and fast, “All right. Everything is looking good. We are now seeking Go/Stay authorization for insertion of agent Labrinth into the Catalyst timeline.”
Cannonball calls off each of the service groups.
Engineering - Go!
Vitals - Go!
Power - Nominal!
DelCon - Go!
Surgeon - Go!
Cannonball says, “We are good for insertion. Go-go-go!”
Agent Labrinth takes one last look around Mission Control, takes out her gun and steps towards the gate.
She takes a breath. It is 3:32pm 10 November 1975. She tells herself, “I am Labrinth. I am 27 years old. I will come back here. Nothing can stop me. I will be back here in 7 hours.”
“But I will come back a year older,” she hears herself say.
She has seen the grainy pictures the analysts have data mined from the future. City scapes changed beyond recognition. A world population that has almost doubled. Political boundaries that do not make any sense. Wars in places unheard of. Unreal images of space ships, robots and monsters. Technology she does not understand. She thinks, “I will make Catalyst explain.”
She moves into the blue light, conscious that the reactor pulses have started to pick up. Another step, as waves of tremors, like small earthquakes flood the floor.
The facility screams as it suddenly draws power from everywhere and all the clocks have temporarily stopped.
Suddenly she can see stars. And then they start to move towards her.
DelCon calls out, “Temporal speed for Agent Labrinth increasing. Achieving landing velocity in 10 ticks.”
The reactor tremors are becoming waves, rippling over the floor.
The specialists move into operational mode, calling out directly to each other "Maths Team 2 generating multiple paths." "Overlaying landing radar." "Path 1 no go." "Path 2 looking good." "Power at maximum and becoming unstable." "Switching paths. Confirm path 2." "Landing radar has flared." "Confirmed path 2." "I hope." "We are good."
Labrinth disappears, and there is silence as the reactor returns to its normal level.
Guidance calls, “Mark Labrinth at T+271.955 hours. She is hitting the target in the evening.”
DelCon calls, “We have lost Catalyst’s signal. Attempting to restore.”
Could it be Magic?
Labrinth had been here before, rising towards the stars at an impossibly fast speed. She had plenty of time to plan but, unbidden, a song she had heard before being posted to Woomera came to mind, about having a cyclone in your mind. She also had time to worry. There was a lot that could go wrong while being transported from Woomera in 1975 to Sydney in 2015.
So, after a short indulgence, she concentrated. Firstly, while the team back at Mission Control had the time co-ordinates of a safe place in Sydney, she was concerned about emerging inside a wall or some of the furniture. Once, she had materialised close to a table, smashing crockery. Secondly, the team had to keep reactor power fairly constant for the entire period of her travel.
She did not understand the reasons for this and they could not explain it to her, other than to speculate that the initial accident might have flowed from a power fluctuation. They thought that, if power failed, she would simply be returned to Mission Control or, maybe, somewhere else. She did not mind the first option.
She need not have worried this time. When the time shift finished, she dropped gently onto the floor of the Chinese Restaurant in mid-Sydney.
The lights were out and the shop was closed. She made her way to the windows and looked down on streets, dark and drizzling with rain. There were a large number of people on the streets, hurrying home. She thought to herself “May, about 6pm.” She keyed the transport artefact and, noting that both receive and transmit lights were green, sent short safe arrival message.
Mission Control T+271.955 hrs, Catalyst time line 11 May 2015 20:17
DelCon says, “We have a good signal for Labrinth. No other contact as yet - wait... We have landing success at mark T.”
The clocks start to move again.
Benedict (at T+2 ticks), “Catalyst's signal?”
DelCon, “None. Trying to relocate...”
She took a moment to light a cigarette, before finding her way to the locked exit. She stepped back and then hit it with two lightning kicks, shattering the lock and giving her access to the stairwell. An alarm started to sound as she took the steps two at a time and, within moments, was lost in the crowd.
This was the first time she had been permitted to leave the meeting place. She smiled as she threw the butt onto the pavement.
Now to find a way to get to Canberra and find Agent Catalyst. But this was his turf, and he had had 40 years to prepare for this. He might not want to come back. It was not just a question of finding him and popping the question.
Light drizzle was falling on hundreds of people around her. In the mix of civilians and military personnel, she immediately noticed the large number of women present. In 1975, many would have been dressed in loose skirts and blouses. The military women were in uniform, some with senior rank. A large number of civilian women were dressed in high quality dark formal garb. Suddenly, in the midst of a crowd she started to notice the difference in body shapes from 40 years earlier. She could smell the money around her.
Many of the people had black umbrellas extended. As she looked up, she could see the new massive buildings on either side, glass encased stretching into the mist above, reflecting the new colours of the city.
She suddenly felt very obvious. She imagined odd glances in her direction and felt the urge to become invisible. To do that, she would need new clothes. And boots.
Then she stopped. Maybe the last thing she needed to be was invisible. She asked herself, "Why sneak through the interspaces of this imaginary world? Better to ring the doorbell loudly."
She fought her way through the crowd to the road side. She could not identify any of the vehicles, uniformly smaller and bright coloured. Some with bizarre shapes and grills. She noted that all of them were rolling on the ground, there was some speculation about whether the urban transport could fly.
Looking down the road she saw a low angular yellow car, pulled over to the side. A young man was standing at the driver’s side, his door open as he talked with a woman, her back to Labrinth, but standing a little away from him wearing a backpack. He suddenly held out a fistful of money. The woman shook her head demanding with show of fingers a higher price. He hesitated and then nodded. She reached into her backpack and pulled a package out, catching Labrinth's stare. She thrust a large package into the man's hand and grabbed the money, taking one last glance at Labrinth, who was already moving quickly, before she fled into the crowd.
The man smiled, opened the package and took a deep satisfied breath and backhanded the package into the car. He turned to sit back down and shut the car door, but Labrinth had taken the woman's place and was holding the car door open. He looked at Labrinth, confused. He summoned a precise grammar school tone with a slight sneer, “Do I know you?”
Labrinth said, “Excuse me sir. Special Services. Listen very carefully to me. Step away from the car.”
“Not me!” He looked at her, eyes widening as he suddenly realized she had a gun in her hand, “This is not my car. You will have to talk to my dad.”
Labrinth sighed and said quietly, “Turn around and walk to the back of the car. My partners will conduct a full body search.”
He was white and started to stutter as he moved to the back of the car, “Ok. Ok. Hey put that down. I want a lawyer.”
But Labrinth, and his car, were already gone. As he turned around to shout, the roar of the car was receding down the next block.
She had grown up in Sydney and knew the streets like the back of her hand. She liked driving and had a lots of experience driving all sorts of cars. At first glance this looked fairly straightforward, but the road was wet with the occasional pedestrian so her attention was forward. So her second impression, formed six blocks away after one unfortunate incident with a one-way street, started to tip in favour of it being a little more like the cockpit of a jet fighter. Complete with a flashing red light saying "No Seat-belt" and a bright screen in the central console that appeared to be some type of tracking device.
As it started to rain a woman next to her said, “Turn left at the next intersection in 300 meters.”
Labrinth hit the brakes and the machine did a gentle 360 degree spin, coming to rest with smoke rising in the middle of a large number of pedestrians. She had her gun out pointing at the empty passenger seat. Outside a hundred faces watched her in horror. As she turned to look at them, some held up small black cubes, as if to ward her off. She shook her head, as someone in the crowd screamed, “She has a gun!”
She put her foot hard on the accelerator, and the 10 cylinder motor pushed her to 180 in 5 seconds with only the loss of a little yellow paint as she bounced off a taxi that had been caught unawares.
The invisible woman next to her said, “Turn left at the next intersection in 50 meters.” This time Labrinth was waiting and she zoned in on the woman as she phased through a series of red lights, taking the fender off a city bus. The sound was coming from the central console. Perhaps it was some type of radio device. Labrinth looked at it and said, “Shut up!”
She continued weaving her way towards the Princes Highway and the route out of town. The car was quiet for a moment, but just as Labrinth relaxed enough to try to work out where the wiper controls were located, it made the mistake of speaking one last time, “In 250 meters use the roundabout to make a U-Turn.”
Labrinth paused for a fraction of a second before hitting the central console very hard with the butt of her gun. The console flickered and the car stopped talking. Now, in her place there was a loud thumping noise and high pitched sounds. Some of the other controls on the panel also turned off, including the annoying warning about the seat-belt.
Labrinth allowed herself time to smile, just before she hit the roundabout the woman had referred to, and briefly became airborne. As she came back down to ground she decided to take the next one a little slower.
Against her better judgement, she left the old highway, hopelessly clogged with homeward bound traffic, and followed the signs onto a freeway to Canberra. For a couple of minutes things got considerably worse, with traffic building up, bumper to bumper.
She used the time to quickly rifle through the car, finding a wallet stuffed full of fake looking denominations of currency, and a series of plastic cards with no apparent use... and a kilo bag of illicit drugs. She was worried about the drugs and briefly thought of throwing them out the window, but had not yet found the handle to lower it.
Suddenly she was on roads with multiple lanes and little traffic. She shifted into sixth and put her foot down. She said to the car, “You are only small, but you have a nice turn of speed.”
The car did not say anything. Probably sulking, Labrinth thought, and patted the steering wheel.
Mission Control T+271.956 hrs, 11 May 2015 21:30
Benedict (at T+6 ticks), “Engineering, switch video feed to Labrinth.”
The grainy black and white screen faded into a picture of Labrinth's hands on a steering wheel, a futuristic control panel is sight. The detail around her is impossible to resolve.
A murmur crossed the floor. In the noise, excited comments, "she is hitting 190kph in that thing", "what is she running from", "is that thing even on the ground".
Cannonball calls, “Cut the chatter. I want all efforts on restoring agent Catalyst's signal.”
DelCon says, “Analysts are telling me his artefact recorded massive deceleration before the signal failed. We have nothing to lock onto.”
Benedict (at T+25 ticks), “I know we are all tired. Every one. Take a deep breath. Find Catalyst for me or tell me where he has gone.”
Cannonball quietly turns to Benedict, “We have to rely on her now. Catalyst may have shifted in time. He could be anywhere. Even here.”
Freeway Sydney to Canberra
The first police car she passed put its sirens and light on, but could not match her speed. The second group tried to hem her but she passed them with a fingernail to spare.
Still, the car had probably outlived its use. It was time to disappear. At the next rest stop she collected a couple of rocks and a little further on, she pulled in to a service road with a service station and a couple of restaurants. She spied a single biker dismounting to get a meal and smiled.
She waited for a moment for people to get clear, and then used the rocks to start the car driving, without her, towards the fuel dispensers. At the same time, she sprinted to the restaurant.
Your Arms Tonight
Later, in a little town 20 kilometres off the freeway, in a beautifully furnished split level motel room into which she had tempted her new biker friend for the night, she kicked off her shoes and reflected on her day. The biker, tied up tightly with torn bed sheets, glared at her, but had learnt much faster than the car not to offer comment. Before she had bound and gagged him, he had shown her how to turn the lights down, put on quiet music and run the spa.
They had also watched a brief news report which showed some of her adventures and the fiery death of the yellow car as a service station exploded. She told herself, "Catalyst can not miss that. He would be looking for me." Then she frowned. Maybe.
The news report generated other anxieties. In particular, it had initiated a brief discussion that had left the biker in his present uncomfortable position. She had taken his wallet, keys and all his cigarettes. Still, she shared one with him. She was not a naturally cruel person.
Earlier, he would have told her how to make the bubbles in the spa work as well, but she had put her finger to her lips.
She was feeling terribly tired. Her initial enthusiasm for ringing the bell was starting to wear off and she had to learn how to work the spa herself.
Afterwards she sat down with him again.
Labrinth said, “So, your name is David Moss. And you live in Nowra. Nice place. So, what are you doing over here?”
She paused and looked at him. The biker was lying on the floor, tightly bound and gagged. He returned her stare trying not to move a muscle. His eyes dilated with fear, his mouth dry and gagged.
Labrinth continued, “You are being very quiet tonight. I like that. Play by my rules and you might make it through.”
She jumped up and went behind him, and started to undo the gag. She whispered, “Make a sound, and you will regret it.”
She came around in front of him and smiled. She had the contents of his wallet spread in front of her. She asked again, “So what are you doing over here?”
David coughed, his mouth dry. He tried to speak but only twisted words came out. She gave him a glass of water to drink.
He looked at her, “I just came for a ride. To meet some mates in Bowral. Maybe stay a couple of days. Look for a job up here.”
She pointed to his wallet, “So explain this.”
He thought carefully and said, “That is my wallet. My dad gave it to me.”
She nodded and picked up one of the cards she had organised. He watched as she lifted it to her face and rolled it, watching the hologram on the surface shift shape. She looked him and waited. He froze. After a moment she said, “Good boy. Explain this. Pretend I do not know anything.”
He said, “It is my driver’s licence. It has my name and address. And my photo.”
He said, “It lets me drive trucks, a car and my bike. You use it to prove who you are.”
She said, “How did you get it?”
He said, trying not to think what was happening, remembering the grip she had him in and how she had knocked the wind out of him in one sudden punch, the gun in her hand. He said, “Got it at the motor vehicle registry. After tests. Had to pass a driving test for each type of vehicle, show them my birth certificate.”
She paused, thinking. She put the card down, pushing it gently into the gap between the other cards.
Quietly she questioned each of the other things in front of him, stopping every once in a while to give him a glass of water. When they finished she lit a cigarette and shared it with him.
She caught his eyes in hers, “You think I am mad, don’t you?”
He froze again, “I don’t understand you.”
She went to the mini bar, and opened it, “So how does this work?”
He said, “You drink what you want, and they charge you. It is not cheap.”
She selected a bottle of wine and smashed the top off.
He convulsed. She looked at the bottle in her hand and then smiled, “I don’t much like wine.”
She put it to one side and picked out a beer. She came back, this time coming in very close, “You got a girlfriend?”
His eyes avoided hers, “She left me.”
She said, “So you are looking for work and a girlfriend.”
He shut his eyes and shook his head, “Just a job.”
She said, “Good, I will have a think about that.”
She placed something over his mouth and nose, and everything went blurry.
He dreamed. He was working in a pub, up north. An old pub, the smell of stale beer and cigarettes, and the strike of balls on a billiard table and a patron who hit the bar to attract his attention. Gradually the dream became the bright light of day and someone knocking on a door. He lay, confused unable to respond, listening to the rattle of keys in the door and then the scream of a woman.
Someone was standing in front of him. An old woman, grey hair, bent. She was animated, “Wait, I will get you out. What happened in here! Were you robbed?”
She came back with a blunt knife, flustering as she tried to cut the sheets off him. She was painfully slow, and she talked the whole time, “Was it that nice young woman? She told me to let you sleep in, bring you breakfast later. What did she take? Wait, I will get you out of this and then call the police.”
The gag was off. He shook his head, the last thing he wanted now was a day with the police. He shook, “I am ok. I can’t explain this. I am really sorry about the mess but, please, no need for the police, I will be ok. I will pay for the damage.”
His wallet and money were still all in front of him, nothing missing. And then he had a thought, “Did she take my, our, bike?”
The old woman was still flustering around trying to get the last of the bindings off him, “Your bike? Is that the one that was outside the room here?”
His spirits sank, but she said, “It is still out there. Your girl-friend left in a sports car after she had breakfast.”
He smiled and looked at her, must be in her 60s, face creased in concern for his predicament, “Thanks. This is really embarrassing really. This has never happened to me before.”
She shot him a disapproving look, “I see all sorts of things here. I don’t judge. You young people, you take so many risks. How about you get fixed up, you could do with a shower, and I will fix you some breakfast and bring it back. Doesn’t look like much damage here, just a couple of drinks from the fridge.”
She picked up all the bits of the sheet and tucked them away in one of the compartments in her apron. Her eye caught the jagged edge of the wine bottle, “Oh my, please be careful, I will clean that up when I get back.”
She paused, “Oh, by the way, she gave me a package to give you. I have put it on the bed. Be back in 10 minutes.”
David, let his breath out and shook his head. He took a moment putting his wallet together. He flicked on the TV, turned over to a sports channel and ran the shower. In the shower he said to himself, “No way is anyone ever going to believe this. No one.”
He took his time. The old lady had delivered breakfast, pulled up the bed and cleaned up the broken glass and cans before he got out. It was almost like last night had not happened.
But the TV was replaying the chaos from the previous night, with excited witnesses describing the gun and the danger. He saw her face on the screen, inside the compartment of the sports car. Unmistakable. A cold sweat broke out over his face.
He saw the package on the bed and hesitated. Curiosity got the better of him. He picked it up, and then opened it. The smell of the drugs hit him before he saw them. A couple of months wages in a kilo bag. On the outside, scrawled in black ink, “To David, Thanks for the night. Will see you soon. Labrinth.”
He looked at the food and felt ill.
There was a knock at the door. He jumped.
The knocking continued, “Mr Moss, room service. Can I come in please?”
It was the old lady again. He sat down again. Then quickly hopped up and bundled the drugs out of sight.
He said with a mixture of relief and annoyance, “Come in.”
It was the old lady. But she was different. Instead of being bent and stiff, she moved fast. She laughed, the laugh of a young woman. She said, “Well boyfriend. Eat up, we have a way to travel this morning.”
As the World Falls Down
While he ate, Labrinth changed out of her disguise and changed hair colour and length.
Then she made David an offer he could not refuse: employment as her assistant in some official sounding organisation for 12 months. More money than he would earn in ten. He was to travel with her in public as her boyfriend, acting as bodyguard and driver. She made it perfectly clear that the relationship was just a front.
He said to her, “You do not need a bodyguard.”
There was some fine-print. The deal would have to be approved by her organisation. Also, before they headed off, she left him alone in the motel for a couple of minutes while she sent the drugs with his fingerprints all over them to her friends to ensure his side of the bargain.
His first inclination was to run. But he stayed sitting, frozen where they had been talking. There were not a lot of jobs around, so the offer was better than anything in his wildest dreams. It was almost too good to be true, and when Labrinth saw doubt cross his eyes she peeled off the cash for the first two months. It didn’t help that the risks were worse than anything in his wildest dreams. He had spent a lot of the past day frightened Labrinth was going to hurt or kill him. Then this morning she had apologised and made amends of a sort. She had explained her mission. She was looking for another member of her organisation that had "gone rogue" and had to bring him in. She said she was not looking for trouble and the other might be quite happy to return. Still, having seen a little of what Labrinth was capable of, David wondered what they might be walking into. He had done a little bar work and been in a couple of scuffles outside Nowra pubs, but he assumed that this was not what was on offer.
When Labrinth returned she looked at him, and he nodded. She thanked him, “First stop, town.”
They drove into Bowral to buy Labrinth new clothes.
At first David had to be coaxed into his new role. He felt awkward and still half inclined to bolt. She checked clothes with him, watching his eyes and asking about how a blouse or skirt might be received. When finally she disappeared into a changing room, the young shop assistant turned to him, “Your girlfriend? She is gorgeous. Excuse me, but are you from out of town?”
David stammered, not sure where this was leading. Experimentally he started, “She is a hand full, keeps me on my toes.”
Warming to the role he continued, “Yes, we have a block up in the bush. This is our first time in town for a while.”
The assistant continued, “Thought so. Nice clothes, but... Do you think she would be ok if I gave her some advice, about things?”
Labrinth appeared from the change room ready to model. David said, “I have asked for a bit of extra help... because we do not get into town much.”
Labrinth paused for a moment and said, “I am happy to take advice. But I want stuff you like, Ok?”
David said, “Sure.”
Labrinth and the assistant disappeared into change room together. David let out his breath and found a seat to sit on while the assistant moved into a different operating mode, collecting a far broader range of garments and undergarments. David found himself wondering where Labrinth had put her gun.
Finally the assistant came out and said, “Tell us what you think.”
David face showed it all as Labrinth stepped out.
The assistant bubbled, “Told you Stephanie, he loves this!”
Labrinth blushed a deep tone and dipped her face as David sought her eyes, “Stephanie. That is awesome.”
They spent a little longer than planned. Stephanie and Jill discovered that they had similar taste in clothes and men. David insisted she also get leathers for the bike.
At the counter, he also insisted on paying. She placed a kiss on his cheek.
As they left the shop, David turned to Labrinth and asked, “Boss, should I call you Stephanie or Steph or just babe?”
He avoided the half punch aimed at him and laughed. Not quite a bag of drugs with his fingerprints on it, but sometimes a little is enough.
David suggested they have lunch before continuing. Labrinth put her cards on the table, “Look, I am pretty hyped up about the mission. I have been in some pretty isolated situations, for a long time. I am not confident with anything. Thanks for helping me out back there.”
David said, “Just chill, ok.”
Labrinth continued. “Look, in public call me whatever you think fits, anything except Labrinth. That is my code name, which I want you to use when we are in private.”
David answered, “Ok, Stephanie. I like Stephanie. Is it real?”
Labrinth looked at him directly and said, “Yes. Might be the only part of me that is.”
David paused for a moment, “Perhaps I should not ask about this, but the explosion at the service station...”
Labrinth was waiting for him, “It was a ploy to spike the attention of the guy we are trying to bring in. No one got hurt, just a lot of noise and light. I can’t talk about the details, but key directors of all the relevant authorities approved it.”
A wash of relief appeared on David’s face. She watched him. He wanted to believe her.
He asked, “And the drugs?”
She reached over to him and squeezed his hand, “Maybe a bit of window dressing.”
Her hand was cold. He caught her hand gently, and wrapped his hand around hers, willing it to be warm.
She smiled, “I am glad I found you. I am used to operating alone, but coming back here, after the last place I was stationed, I feel out of my depth.”
He wondered whether he should ask her about that, but then just shrugged his shoulders, “You will be fine.”
She said, enjoying the warmth of his hand, “We have to get a couple of hours away from here. I need to spend a couple of days asking you questions about things. I feel like I have been living in the past. I need to get up to date, and for this mission I have to work outside my normal support people. Any suggestions.”
She paused for a moment, but before he could answer she added, “Also, I have a heap of cash we need to bank.”
David asked, “I saw your stash. You need current ID to open a bank account. You got any?”
Labrinth shook her head.
David thought, “Ok, we need to sort that out. You are probably safe. You can only put a certain amount into an account these days before they ask questions. I will put my wages into the bank. You can put money into my credit card and I can get you your own card linked to it. Remember I explained that to you last night, to use for expenses.”
Labrinth said, “Like the clothes.”
David said, “No. I bought them.”
Labrinth said, “Do not confuse our relationship.”
David said, “No confusion here. Don’t kick sand in my face.”
Labrinth said, “No fights. I am very tired, I did not sleep last night. Thanks for your gift.”
David said, “The most sensible place to go is my place at Nowra. We can go surfing and you can rest up for a couple of days. It is a bit of a mess, but it is a pretty good position. You can have my bed and I will sleep on the couch. Only trouble is that you might have to meet my folks.”
Labrinth had been nodding until the mention of his parents. Her face dropped and shook her head emphatically.
David said, “My place is at the end of their block. Down near the bay where my dad keeps his seaplanes.”
Labrinth look at him sharply, a memory stirring.
David said, “Look, they stay out of my hair.”
Labrinth held his eyes in hers unable to let go. She saw a dull jewel in his eye.
David said, “You ok?”
Labrinth was white. “It is all catching up to me. Sorry, you stepped over my grave.”
David said, “I am out of options, was just trying to help.”
Labrinth said, “I was just worried about getting others involved. Just being overcautious. It is a good option. Can we do it?”
David said, “Sure.”
He looked at her and said to himself, "I never dreamed I would meet someone like you..."
Benedict nodded, “I want to rebrief Labrinth. I want her back here, just for long enough to speak to her. I want you to get close to the gate and tell her personally. Don’t let anyone else hear. Do not send a signal indicating our knowledge.”
Cannonball nodded, “Agreed.”
Benedict takes the mike (T+60 ticks), “Mission Control here. Resume your seats. Prepare to take her out of the Catalyst time line for 1 day at T plus 128 ticks. Signal Labrinth for a pick up and brief at that time.”
Power calls, “Reactor is stable again. We came close to losing it that time. Seek agreement to start building power ahead of time.”
They finished their meal, with Labrinth in deep thought. Suddenly Labrinth started. She lifted her artefact to her ear and flicked the receive toggle. After a moment it went dead and she turned to David, “We will meet my organisation in T plus 1000 minutes. We will be out of action for about a day. Have we time to get to your flat and get ready?”
David said, “T plus 1000 minutes? You are not making sense. Do we need to travel to them?”
Labrinth said, “Sort of. I will explain. 'T' is the exact time I say 'T'. So, the meeting is back when I said it plus 1000 minutes.
David said, "Ok. So, what time would that be girlfriend?"
Labrinth screws her face up, "More than 10 hours and less than 20, I think."
David said, "So 8:00 tomorrow?"
Labrinth smiled, "I thought you might come in handy. We need to be at your place tomorrow morning.”
They went to David's bank and made a couple of deposits. Then they headed out on the back road to the coast. Labrinth had never been that way, to the edge of the escarpment and then a long sharply winding road down sheer cliffs. She sat on the back of the bike holding him tightly with her eyes wide open. He stopped at one of the cut-backs. They walked to the edge and sit for a moment, their legs over the edge and the sea-breeze in their face.
They sat while he pointed out the beaches they would be surfing at over the next week and the other features along the horizon.
He said, “I came here when my world fell down. Come to think of it, I came here when I fell in love as well.”
She saw a sad love in his eyes and said, “A bit of a drop.”
He said, “No. I like this place. I grew up here. My dad taught me to drive, here.”
Back on the road, when they reached the flats, he opened up the throttle, gently and deliberately driving the road.
She leaned into him feeling the Earth move.
Outside Nowra they tracked into a side road and through the open gates of a property. He shot past an old two storey house with a commanding view of a bay and then down a rough track to an old boathouse at the water’s edge. Moored on the water were three aircraft, including a yellow two winged Ag-cat. She had seen it before.
David said, “Nice eh.”
But Labrinth was almost asleep. He had to half carry her into the converted boathouse and up the stairs into his bedroom. Despite his warning it was not too much of a mess.
He settled her on his bed, saying, “Goodnight Labrinth.”
He did not get an answer.
Downstairs, he rummaged through his fridge for a beer and tuned to his sports channel. He consciously turned the volume down to almost silent as he logged onto his laptop, and flicked through to his social media site. On a whim, he went to his relationship status and considered the options. "Single", "It is complicated" or "None of Your Business" were all good options. But they did not quite fit.
In the space of 24 hours he suddenly had a paying job and a girlfriend. A girlfriend who was not. A mystery more than a girldfriend. Without much further thought he clicked on "In a relationship." Truth was, he was pretty sure Mary kept an eye on this, and there was still a bit of pain there.
He drifted off to sleep on his couch with the sounds of waves lapping quietly. The lights dimmed automatically.
During the night, she came and found him asleep, his laptop on with a dozen screens open. She poured a glass of water and stood looking at the small computer, her mouth open. Then she climbed onto the couch, and folded into his back.
He lay, with his eyes open, feeling her behind him, breathing gently. He wondered where she had really come from before he went back to sleep.
He stirred as kookaburras called the dawn.
She said, sleepily, “Stay... please. Just like this. I am still asleep.”
“It is morning girlfriend,” he twisted to face her.
She shut her eyes tightly, “No, it is still night.”
He said, “Pat wants to come in.”
She opened one eye, “Who!”
“Chill. Just my cat, Patroclus. Pat for short,” he said.
He reached over and hit the console. The curtains around the front of the old boathouse swept open, revealing full length picture windows facing out onto the bay. Tendrils of early light were catching the breakwater in the distance.
“Stay here. I will fix coffee and breakfast. We can eat on the deck and watch the sunrise. Best time of the day” David said.
He sprang over her, slid open the doors to the deck. He called to his cat and then padded to the service area at the back of the old shed. She raised herself onto the soft arm of the sofa, looking out onto the bay.
Along the nearby wharf, silhouettes of a trio of float planes and yachts superimposed in impossible shapes. She watched for a moment, the light on the horizon gradually building in among the clouds. She wondered what his coffee would taste like, and whether she should ask for tea instead. The light from the service area cast enough illumination to show the gaps between the floor boards, and the lapping of water matching low wave crests.
She became aware that she was being watched. She raised herself a little higher and met the eyes of David’s cat. A large black male, he shut his eyes and disappeared into the service area, loudly complaining about the new visitor.
She sank back down into the warmth of the sofa bed, half-listening to the sounds coming from behind as the smell of leather and David were slowly replaced by coffee and toast.
He came out taking the stairs fast and she heard the sounds of a brief shower before he came back down, throwing her a towel, “Breakfast in 5 minutes”.
She took ten, dressing in her new gear. He was already out on the deck, the pale light flooding the horizon with music playing softly in the background.
“Looking good,” he smiled. “Just in time. Sunrise in a couple of minutes.”
She sat, “Thanks. Nice place. I was not expecting this from your description.”
“It is a bit of a back water. I have spent most of my life trying to get away from here. I did my degree at Wollongong but there are no jobs here.”
“What did you study?” she asked, wondering how he put the froth on the coffee.
The conversation was interrupted as Patroclus jumped onto the table and with a quick look at her, grabbed a piece of bacon and disappeared.
David shouted at the cat and for a moment chaos descended on the scene.
A voice from the nearby wharf. “Hey! Keep the noise down. You are scaring the fish.”
David jumped up and turned around as a man with a fishing rod emerged out of the darkness of the wharf. “Oh. Hi dad. Sorry about that. The cat...”
“All good boy. Nothing biting anyway.”
“Oh, I am sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt your breakfast.” His father’s eyes rested on her briefly, “Smells good.”
She spoke, “You are not interrupting. Come and sit down”
“I will be missed up at the house. Come up later and say hello.”
“Wait dad. I want you to meet Steph,” David said.
“Good to meet you Steph. I am Chas. I will not come up now, I smell of fish bait. David, bring your friend up for lunch or dinner.”
“Probably be tomorrow. We are going to do some surfing,” David said.
“Be careful.” Chas shook his head, “A white pointer was seen off Culburra last week. Stay safe!”
“Nice to meet you,” he turned to her, his face still in darkness, “Steph.”
He started to trudge back up to the main house, whistling as he went. The sun emerged over the horizon, painting the morning gold. The clouds along the horizon took on silver edges. Suddenly, the yachts and float places were illuminated, bright colours with deep shadows.
David looked at her, “That was not so hard.”
She was still looking at Chas walking slowly, his shadow already reaching the house. He looked so old. She turned to the float planes. On the fuselage of the yellow bi-plane, the word Cannonball.
“Eat up!” He smiled, “We have an appointment in 45 minutes and you haven’t told me how this is going to happen.”
“He is nice,” she is drifting a little.
Then she looked at him, “What do you do morning-times?”
“I go for a run along the beach. Do some presses, try to keep fit.”
“Let’s do that. Have you got some shorts and a shirt I can wear? We can talk along the way.”
He fished out some shorts and a t-shirt and turned his back as she dressed. Then they climbed down the stairs leading up into the boathouse and set off along the shore front.
He said, “Hey, not so fast, you look younger and fitter than me.”
“Ok, you are going to have to trust me on this one. When the meeting is about to happen, we will need to be very close and I want the area around us to be clear of stuff. I want you to hold me and this,” pointing to her artefact. “The meeting will last about a minute and a half.”
“Is it some sort of teleconference?” he looked a bit doubtful.
“What is that? Maybe. The transition to and from will be really disconcerting. I need you to concentrate. Do not let go of me or the artefact, whatever happens.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will. It will feel a bit like going into hyperdrive. You watch StarTrek?”
“Sure, well, not since Voyager finished. I liked Janeway. And Chacotay. But what have they got to do with our meeting?”
She shook her head, her turn to be confused. “Hey David. This is really serious ok? They may have weapons. Just do not react. I will be in front of you. Whatever you do, do not react to anything, or anyone, you see. I just need you to stay perfectly still, let me do the talking. It will be over really fast and I promise to explain everything after.”
“Ok girlfriend. But shouldn’t I be standing in front.”
“I will not let anything hurt you this time,” she said. “Try catch me.”
She switched from a gentle pace to a fast sprint scattering sand in his direction. She could feel him slowly gaining on her, so she started to push herself feeling the sun and sweat starting to cool her arms. She was not prepared for his leap and the tap on her ankle, throwing her off stride and into the sand. He landed just behind her, sprawled in the sand, unmoving. She jumped up, looking around and ran to him. She called to him without response, and then shook him. She turned him over, no movement at all. Then he opened his eyes and smiled at her.
She collapsed next to him, “Ok, I guess I owe you.”
“How old are you?” he asked.
“None of your business.”
“Come on. I need to know stuff. Remember, you owe me.”
“I guess,” she said. “I am 27. Three years younger than you.”
“Thanks, that run almost killed me. Two last questions and I will follow you to hell. What is your full name and date of birth?”
She looked him, breathing heavily, a sweat drenched t-shirt, his eyes alive and smiling at her.
She held out her hand, “Hi David Moss. I am Stephanie Fenner Childs. My birthdate is 16 February 1947.”
He continued to hold her hand as he turned that around in his mind, watching her eyes. She realised, too late, that that was the wrong answer, by about thirty years.
“Stop. David,” but he dropped his eyes and let her hand go. She continued, “I don’t tell anyone my date of birth. I am sorry. But...”
“I know,” he said. I am just an employee.”
“No!” she said. “No. I will explain. I promise I will tell you my real date. When we get back. I am 27. Really.”
He held out his hand, to help her up. There was still a smile in his eye. She said, “You cheated.”
He smiled, “1947 eh?”
They ran together back to the boathouse and changed, their every move carefully watched. Just before time, David took them to a grassy patch clear of any obstructions, “This ok?”
“Stand behind me, close, hold me tight and don’t let go of the necklace,” she says.
He stands behind her. Drawing her close his arms and hers entwined in front of her.
Her artefact started to vibrate. She turned to him and gave him a quick kiss, “Get ready for the ride of your life.”
Gentle blue waves appear around them, and with each wave, a tremor. Small earthquakes rock them both gently. Suddenly they can see stars. And the stars start to move towards them.
He had been left behind once this morning. New woman or not, this was not going to happen again. Patroclus runs across the grass, jumps high over the blue lights, into their arms.
Mission Control T+271.983 (Nov 10 1975 17:34), Catalyst timeline May 13 2015 8:00
Benedict says, “This is Mission Control, a shade under 272 hours into this exercise. We are now seeking Go/Stay authorization for retrieval of agent Labrinth into our timeline.”
Cannonball calls off each of the service groups and then walks towards the time gate, watching the stopwatch, “We are good for retrieval. Go!”
The reactor tremors are building, becoming waves, rippling over the floor. Power calls out, “Fires reported in external power connectors. Being extinguished. Ignore the smoke, the fire is under control.”
Cannonball spreads his legs to keep balance.
The time gate activates and figures start to materialise. Two figures. Something is not right, a third writhing shape is in the mix. Smoke is filling the control centre.
Suddenly Labrinth materialises near him, a second person, a little indistinct behind her. In their arms they appear to be fighting something black, twisting and indistinct in the smoke but moving fast. The creature twists into the air and dives between Cannonball's legs into Mission Control. Cannonball hears a scream behind him and fights the urge to turn.
Cannonball, shaken but standing, “Commander Labrinth, report!”
Labrinth, says calmly, “Focus on me. It's just a cat, deal with it. You will authorise me here to engage Agent...” she pauses, "Chosen." She nods at the man behind her, “My reasons and a preliminary report are here.” She holds out to him a handwritten note
“Authorised on your recommendation,” Chas can hear the chaos erupting behind him and drops his voice, “Listen up. You need to know that Agent Catalyst has disappeared. He may have left your time zone. He may have returned here. We have limited capacity to assist you, power is fluctuating. Stay in touch.”
David is standing behind Labrinth, holding her tightly, in shock. He bites his tongue, wanting desperately to call out to Patroclus, tasting the smell of an electrical fire. Through the smoke he can make out a series of consoles. His face furrows as he sees a grainy black and white picture of Labrinth and him from moments ago, frozen on screen. He watches Cannonball reach to take the sheet from Labrinth. It disintegrates as Cannonball touches it. Cannonball shakes his head, “What?”
A scratch from Patroclus wells on David’s arm, a drop of blood forms and falls towards the floor. David watches as the drop disappears before it hits the floor.
Benson’s voice booms through the smoke, “Prepare for reinsertion. Lock this facility down!”
Cannonball waves and steps back into the smoke as small explosions rock the facility.
Blue light colours the smoke, the floor starts to pulse waves of tremors. Stephanie twists slightly in his arms and he sees tears in her eyes. She puts her head on his chest.
Patroclus has decimated Vitals and Guidance. Operatives scatter everywhere as the creature from the gate targets them. He sees the gate powering up, and makes sudden turn.
Suddenly there are stars all around David and Labrinth. And they start to move towards them.
Time after Time
Boathouse: May 14 2015 8:00
Labrinth and David touch the stars and then fall back to Earth.
They emerged a little above ground, landing lightly where they started. His arms were still around her. Rain drops hit their faces.
A second later, toward the bay, a flash as a star appeared in the sky. A black clawing mass materialises where the star was as a pressure wave sweeps in a sphere away from it. A split second later the mass becomes Patroclus. He lands on four feet and then wastes no time heading for the boathouse.
David lets out a sigh and holds her even closer. Neither move. The day is overcast, a stark contrast with the bay as they had left it a minute earlier. A storm is brewing off shore, the soft drumming of rain on the boathouse roof and their bodies, the thunder of surf in the distance, and flashes of lightning out to sea. The three float planes have been run up onto the beach and are battened down.
"Stay for a moment” David said. “I will fall if you move. That was a picture of us on their screens, right?"
She said, "Yes. We are probably being watched now. Wait."
She keyed the transport artefact and, noting that both receive and transmit lights were green, sent a short safe arrival message. She paused, "Is there somewhere we can leave these. Maybe away from your house?"
“What?” he pauses for a moment. "I am sorry. My head is in a jumble. I do not know what just happened. A safe place? Yes, Dad has a safe lockup on the float plane wharf. We can leave it there for a couple of hours while you work out what you want to do."
She settles back into his arms, feeling her back against his chest, "Ok, we can work that out together."
She reaches down and takes off her shoes and shakes rain drops off her, "Come on."
They walk together, hand in hand, to the wharf, "Patroclus scratched you. Have you got antiseptic and a plastic bandage back at the boathouse?"
"No one uses that stuff anymore, I will use some spray on skin."
She bites her tongue.
They arrive at the lock up, an old chest with an electronic lock. David opens it, and pushes some emergency vests to one side. He fishes out an old backpack, "My dad keeps some memorabilia from the navy here. Mum will not let him keep it in the house."
He takes an old box, a faded insignia of a flying raptor, the writing now indecipherable. "It will be safe in here, this never gets touched."
She takes the artefact off her neck, looks at it and tries toggling the two receive and send switches.
She looks up at him, puzzled, "The lights on the artefact are dead."
"But you used it a moment ago. Was it working then?"
"Yes. These circuit lights should both light up if I toggle these, green or red. They are both dead."
"Nothing obvious, like batteries? Here, let me give it a bang on the side of the wharf."
"No! No, the batteries should be good for a year."
"Want me to take it apart? I have..."
"Maybe it just needs a break from me.” She punches him, gently, “We might be out of line of sight or there might be some sort of interference."
She drops the artefact into the backpack and then reaches into her coat and pulls out the revolver, "This would probably be better here as well."
She thinks for a moment, then reaches down and unstraps a hunting knife from her ankle, "Maybe this too."
She sees an involuntary shiver pass through him, and she says, in a calm voice, "Look, you are completely safe around me. I could not join the army but they trained me as a weapons specialist."
"Anything else to declare?"
She looks at her feet and then nods. She takes off a ring, and passes it to him, "I wore it on base. It stopped questions."
"Maybe you should keep it, for show."
"No. I do not need it here."
"Why? Is there cyanide in it?"
She looks up at him with big eyes, "Yes, maybe."
He says, quickly, "Ok, put it with the rest."
He put all the gear back into the lockup and they walked back down onto the grass.
"You were joking about the cyanide. Right?"
She said, straight faced, "No."
But her eyes were smiling and then she laughed. So he placed his arm around her waist and reached down and picked her legs into the air, balancing her in front of him as he walked past the three tethered float planes towards the boathouse.
She said, this time smiling with her teeth, "What are you doing?"
"You promised to tell me your date of birth."
"You would not believe me before. I am from the past. My birthdate is 16 February 1947. But, I am really 27 years old."
"I believe you."
He carries her a few more steps and says, "Especially now I have seen you early in the morning."
She kicks her legs from his hand and twists in his wet grip, repositioning her legs around his waist, their rain compromised clothing skew-wiff.
"Hey, I believe you, girl from the past. I will follow you to hell and back. I promised."
She holds him tightly bringing him to a stop, "I don’t want to be dazzled by fancy talk or magic. I am happy we found each other. This is my gift to you."
She looks at his eyes and kisses his wet forehead. A flash of light lights up the sky and a rumble travels through the ground. A gentle earthquake, gone as quickly as it came.
"Wow! How did you do that?"
She shakes her head. "The kiss was me. The tremor was something else. Do you get these here often?"
"Never. Maybe something to do with the storm or the train line. We could go shopping and get you a wet suit for surfing but I don’t think we are going to be swimming today. Probably an indoor day."
"I am not sure about that, I have been warned about quakes... Well, maybe we can go get warm and start working. After decontamination."
"Nothing serious. Just need to check for continuum bugs. Standard operational procedure. They hate hot water."
She gives him another hug, her mind running forward to steam, tickling, laughter and running out of hot water. She lets go gently and slips to the ground. She looks to see him smiling, and a little confused.
"Are they dangerous? Just that I see one right ... here!" He reached down to her bottom ribs and tickled her. She shrieked and chased him the rest of the way to the boathouse.
As David opened the boathouse, Patroclus dashed inside under their feet, almost tripping them. David ignores his ringing phone. Instead he turned to her, "So do I call you Labrinth or Stephanie?"
"Come, have that shower first. Questions later."
As they climbed up the stairs he persisted, playfully, "I want an assurance. First time you tied me up, and next time you almost got my cat ate."
"I will not tie you up ever again. Scouts honour."
The bedroom was dark, the low master bed under high wooden ceilings, screens and sound equipment centred on it. Through the old slate roof, the faint sound of the drumming of rain and the thunder of surf. Patroclus was cleaning himself on the bottom of the bed.
The room had a faint unfamiliar smell she had not caught before. Perhaps David’s mum had come over and changed the bedding.
He asked, "How warm did you say the shower has to be?"
Patroclus jumps and hisses at the stairs.
A moment later, someone knocks at the boathouse door. The knocking gets louder, and a woman's voice carries through the house, "David! Let me in! Where have you been? Why aren't you answering your phone!"
In the darkness, David's face turns red and he whispers to Labrinth, "I am sorry. I told you about my ex-girlfriend, Mary..."
He shook his head, shouting back, "You never come here."
"Whatever," Labrinth says to herself.
He walks down the stairs, "Mary, why have you come here? What are you doing? I really do not appreciate this!"
From outside, Mary gasps and then becomes deadly serious, "What do you mean? This is no way to treat your wife. This is my house too. Let me in right now!"
David shakes his head, "Are you mad?"
Mary lets out a shout, "This is the last time you do this to me. I am sick of your drinking and carrying on. I will be up with your mother, when you come to your senses."
David says, "No. I do not want you at my parents place. I plan to have dinner with mum and dad tonight with a friend. I do not want to draw them into our fight. Our old fight. It is over."
Mary says, "David, what are you talking about? Your father is dead. You are not making sense. I am going!'
David is physically shaking, half collapsed on the bedroom stairs, tears streaming down his face.
"David? Has she gone?" Labrinth asks.
"I think so. I have to stop her going to my parents."
"David, she said you are married to her."
"Never!” his voice drops, “We are not married. I wanted to, once. She did not. She left me for Ron. She has been turning the knife ever since."
"David, I believe you. But she also said your dad was dead. We met him this morning, right? Those are his float planes, right?"
"Yes, she is completely unhinged. Dad runs a small tourist charter operation. Look, I better go up to the main house, make sure she is not upsetting my parents."
But Labrinth is not looking at him anymore. She has come down the stairs and is looking outside, at the beach. There were only two float planes, both under heavy tarpaulins, high on the beach almost out of sight. There was no sign of a third yellow two winged float plane.
"David, there is something wrong outside..."
Worse was to come. The wharf they had stood on moments before was gone. In its place a collection of old piers, the surf breaking on them. No sign of the wharf or the lockup.
She says, "Something is very wrong!"
Later, upstairs, she kicked off her clothes and took the shower anyway. She needed some quiet time to think.
David, tied up tightly with torn bed sheets, glared at her, but kept his thoughts to himself. Patroclus made a nest at the bottom of the bed and waited.
Main House, Dawn’s Farm, south of Nowra
Dawn looked straight at the doctor, "He is not dead."
They were sitting in a room looking out onto the bay. The room was sparsely furnished, dimly lit with an older but comfortable set of chairs, a stark contrast to the smaller boathouse, just visible on the water's edge.
Mary shook her head and explained, "Chas, Dawn's husband, disappeared in a flying accident at the beginning of the year. He flew a charter flight in bad weather. It ended with the plane lost and Chas and a passenger missing. Part of a wing washed up a couple of days later. I am sorry Dawn, I know you and David do not want to believe it, but..."
The doctor nodded, "I read the reports at the time. A terrible tragedy. You must miss him a great deal."
Mary had approved of the doctor the moment she had seen her. Older, but wearing a dress straight out of Europe, and willing to listen to her. The doctor's unexpected appearance also avoided the possibility of sitting with Dawn to watch President Beasley talking about the new austerity package.
"It has been a disaster.” Mary continued, “We are at our wits end. The insurance company will not pay on the life insurance policy until there is a finding about death."
"I don’t care about the money.” Dawn said quietly, “I just want him back."
"Well...” The doctor paused for a moment, “This might be a bit painful, but anything you can tell me about this might help with David's treatment."
Dawn asked, "He took Chas's disappearance very hard. When can we see him?"
Mary chimed in as well, "He is my husband, and I want to see him now."
The doctor said, "The police found him earlier this evening. He has obviously had a breakdown and has some injuries. We have him in care. I must tell you that, when I saw him, he had a lot of trouble talking and moving. I would like you to see him as soon as possible, but that will not happen immediately."
Mary said, "He just needs some sense knocked into him. If my brothers were here..."
The doctor smiled at Mary and said, "Yes, I will keep that in mind. But for now, Dawn, tell me about your husband."
Dawn said, "Chas just disappeared. It was going to be an ordinary charter. He had lost touch with his old naval buddies then, early this year, Peter came out of nowhere. They had worked together at Woomera and had a lot to catch up about."
The doctor asked, "Did David meet Peter?"
Dawn said, "No, David works shifts in Wollongong. He is an engineer with Ansett. Has a flat near the airfield and only comes home on his days off."
The doctor asked, "Mary, did you meet Peter?"
Dawn and Mary exchanged looks. Dawn said, "Tell her. The doctor needs to know this Mary."
Mary said, "David and I were having problems. I moved back to my parents place last year. I have been helping Dawn since Chas disappeared."
The doctor said, "I see. So the relationship could have been something else he was upset about?"
Mary said, "We were trying to get back together. He was fine until a couple of days ago."
The doctor asked, "What happened then?"
Mary said, "I started to move my stuff back into David's place. We argued."
The doctor said, "I am sure that everything will get back to normal. Probably sooner than you think."
Mary said, "It is my home as well. I have a right to have my stuff there."
The doctor said, "Everything will work out. I am sorry, but the police have sealed the place off for the next day or so. Nothing serious, just doing a report on his injuries. Is there a place you can stay in the meantime?"
Mary said, "I guess. My parents."
The doctor said, "This has been a hard day for you Mary and I still need to ask Dawn a couple more questions. How about you go back home and rest? I will be in touch with you."
It took a bit to lever Mary out of the house, but eventually she left armed with the name of the shop in Bowral the Doctor bought her clothes at.
Dawn fixed them some tea, and when they were sitting down turned to the doctor, "You are not a local doctor, are you?"
"Is it that obvious, Dawn?” The doctor smiled, “I am working with Defence, stationed in Canberra.” Switching topic quickly, the doctor became more serious, “There is more to this than meets the eye."
Dawn said, "I knew it! Do you know where Chas is? Please... What can I do to help?"
The doctor settled back, sizing up the older woman. She was quiet and alert, but must know more than she was letting on. She continued in a more serious tone, "Well, obviously, our first concern is David, but he will be ok, if..."
"He will be fine, once I untie some of the knots he is in. I think Mary has just rattled him. Leave him to me, he is the easy part of all of this. Dawn, we think your husband is still alive. You will have to be completely honest with me. Can I rely on you? "
"Ok, let’s put our cards on the table. We know your husband worked with the Temporal Research Facility at Woomera."
Dawn returned her stare, evenly, and said, "He worked with a couple of organisations. But I remember that name. He was looking for his old kit bag from there, before he left on the last flight."
"Just tell me what you remember. We might be able to put some of the pieces together."
"Why are you really here?"
The doctor paused, the one question she had not prepared for, “Accident really. The hospital knew I was in town and gave me a call. But it was just a matter of time before I came to see you.”
"Before David was born, Chas used to be in the Navy. He flew sea-planes during the blockade of North Vietnam. When he came back, he started up a charter company. But he went back to the Navy a couple of times as a consultant. He wouldn’t talk about them, but I think it was out in the deserts when they were testing the atomic weapons and the rockets. During that time he was involved with a Temporal something. I remember, because there was an inquiry when it closed. Nothing about him personally. I worried terribly about him, but he survived it and all the others. He came back when David was born. The business struggled on, we almost lost it during the recession, and the '95 war put everything on hold. I would not let him get involved but it was over so fast anyway."
"Can you remember anything about the temporal facility? Anything at all?"
"The Navy let him fly his plane to the station, I think it was near Woomera. He joked about a float plane moored on a dry salt lake, a lagoon. The inquiry after the facility closed was secret but Chas said it was something about the facility triggering the launch of a missile. The inquiry never became public although everyone knows about the missile. No one could cover up a nuclear bomb nearly hitting Perth."
The doctor shook her head in sympathy, and Dawn continued, "The government commissioned an inquiry, which dragged on for ages. Chas was cleared of course, although his boss took a fall. Twelve months later, when the scramjet went the same way, the Whitlam government quietly buried the whole thing."
Dawn shook her head, "Nothing until Peter showed up. He was nice enough, but they did not talk while I was around. Although, I did hear Chas refer to him once as Catalyst. They had funny names for themselves. They surely don’t do that anymore do they? You don’t have one of those code names?”
"Yes, still happens. Silly really."
Dawn gave a disapproving grimace, “They went on a couple of flights together. Then, in January, they left and didn’t come back."
Dawn shook her head, visibly upset, "The Navy would not listen to me. They would not help find him. They sent bereavement people instead."
The doctor says, "Defence had nothing to go on at the time. I think he and Peter have gone somewhere together. Did he take the kit bag?"
"No. He was annoyed with me because I cleaned it up. I didn’t want stuff like that in the house. I found it later though."
"Have you shown it to anyone?"
"No, I was going to give it to the Navy, but..."
"Do you still have it? It might give us a clue."
Dawn left and brought back the old backpack. The Doctor said, "I will get my team to look at this carefully overnight and return it to you. If he and Peter went off somewhere together, it might give us an idea about where they went."
“Too soon to make guesses.”
"David will be fine. If he is up to it, I will bring him out for breakfast tomorrow and you can talk. But, while he is resting, I need you to keep Mary off his back. Maybe for a week or so."
"Chas told me that someone like you might come one day, to help. He told me to trust you, so I will. We can tell her David has gone with you to the naval care unit in Sydney."
"All right, I should let you get some sleep. I was dropped off at the entrance, can I borrow a torch?"
Dawn offered to drive her, but the doctor declined.
Dawn watched Labrinth leave and then walked back to Chas's study. Nothing had been touched. It was the same as when he disappeared. Her eyes touched the pictures scattered on his desk and cabinets.
She reached up to switch off the light but then paused. She remembered the man she lived with all these years. There had been lots of good times. Then there were the times he simply became lost. Good and bad, she would be there for him, smiling. They got through the bad times together. She blamed the Navy and would not tolerate any military paraphernalia in the house.
They had a routine when he got lost. They would sit together quietly until the emotion drained out of him. Then he would sit down with his pictures from the old days. And they would tell each other the stories associated with each. It sometimes took a while for him to recover but he always did.
Instead of switching off the light, she picked up the first picture. They were young. Just after they met, at a fair in Adelaide.
She sat in his old seat, and looked into the picture, wondering how things could have been different, and then she picked up his diary again.
Back at the boathouse, Labrinth climbed up to the bedroom and switched the light on. David was lying close to where she had left him with Patroclus sitting on him.
"Good cat! Look what I have found!" she said, dropping the backpack with a flourish on the floor. She came and sat on the floor close to David. Turning to him, she said, "No way could I have taken you up there. You do understand that?"
David glared at her.
Labrinth said, "Look, I can give you a choice. I can leave you here, in this time line, with your wife, who seems to be... Well, I just do not understand what you saw in her, David. I do not think she is a very nice woman. I would not go out with her. Not in a million years. She wanted to send her brothers over to sort you out, even though I said you were delusional."
Labrinth said, "As I was saying, I can leave you here with your wife and her brothers, or you can come help me find your dad, who is probably not dead, but may have gone off with Catalyst."
She paused for a moment, and said, "Look, tying you up was maybe not the best option, and I know I promised I would not do it, but...
She stopped, as she saw the tears in his eyes. Then she looked at the knots and wondered how she was going to untie them.
I am Shalaye. Maybe you know me already, eh? Perhaps another name, another time, another form.
I see you thinking now. Asking whether it could be her. How she has followed you here. What role does she play here? Where are the others?
But this is my story as well. After all, I am interested in all those who meddle with time.
But, before they tilt the board and hit restart, before the pieces start to fly in every direction, take a moment to sit with me and enjoy this quiet in the centre of the storm.
Perhaps drink some tea with me.
I see you are looking at my cat. Do not be afraid of him. He is called Wind. In the old language, we know him as Bavole. He is a good hunter. He brings rabbits for me.
While you are here, let me trace your heart line. Such a warm hand. But wait, you do not like the future I see, eh. How to change it. How to make it better?
Perhaps you know someone who wishes for a second chance. A chance to make things right. Perhaps a word here, or a caress there, would have made a difference. Perhaps trust would not have been forfeit. Or does that crease in their palm mean that trust was always going to fail? A knife is no help. Even if the crease is cut away, even as the blood dries on the ground below, the crease will start to reappear.
You do not like the tea? Something stronger?
But wait. Watch the crowd gather, to play with time again. Not content with the troubles they unleashed last time. Confident they can control of the energies they will unleash. Shall I name those about to unleash war, famine and death upon the world? They think that they are going to improve the world. Beneficial change for all. But change is best wrought in more subtle means. I act with the slightest breath, one sweet kiss, a single drop of blood. I work for ages to build what you see. Do you think I will stand by and watch this simply unravel?
But it will not. The woman Labrinth holds the key and she will never join them. Instead she will flail in the wind, because her almost lover has lost trust in her. He will not guide her. He will betray her, like his father has just betrayed his wife, Dawn.
Time after time, Dawn has stood by Chas. Picking him up and gently pointing him back into the time stream. She sacrificed her career for him. She threw away her life to follow him. I told her she could protect him, and she did. He should have lived his life out within the protection of her love. But how has he repaid this devotion? At the first hint of adventure and gain, he has left her in despair and joined the horsemen of the apocalypse.
Yes, maybe he chanced a second thought. But was the thought about her feelings? Or was he busy making excuses to himself that the real Dawn was that girl who kissed him before the fair in Adelaide so many years ago? That the person who cared for him so long was just an illusion. An illusion that bled tears for him? Pah!
And now his son will follow suit and abandon Labrinth. Watch. Mark my words. Once trust has been broken, it cannot be recovered.
Of the nightfall
Back at the boathouse, Labrinth climbed up to the bedroom and switched the light on. David was lying tied securely with torn bed sheets close to where she had left him. Patroclus, his cat, was sitting on him.
Labrinth said approvingly "Good cat! Look what I have found!"
She produced the backpack with a flourish and dropped it on the floor.
“That was too close boyfriend. I thought I might have been trapped here in this time.”
David glared at her.
She came and sat on the floor close to David. She said, "No way could I have taken you up there. You do understand that?"
She looked into his eyes and saw the hurt there.
"Look, I can give you a choice. I can leave you here, in this time line, with your wife, who seems to be... Well, I just do not understand what you saw in her, David. I do not think she is a very nice woman. I would not go out with her. Not in a million years. She wanted to send her brothers over to sort you out, even though I said you were delusional."
Labrinth said, "As I was saying, I can leave you here with your wife and her brothers, or you can come help me find your dad, who is probably not dead, but may have gone off with Catalyst."
There was something wrong with his eyes.
She stopped, realisation dawning that she had broken trust with him.
“Ok, tying you up was maybe not the best option, and I know I promised I would not do it, but...”
She stopped, as she saw the tears in his eyes, and then she untied the bonds holding him.
He said, “I have had a chance to think about things.”
“Give me a chance to explain. Please.”
“You have a lot of explaining to do. I think my circulation is gone in my left arm.”
He started to massage his arm and turned to Patroclus. “You have some explaining to do as well” The cat looked at Labrinth, rubbed up against her before jumping onto the staircase, and heading off to find better company.
Labrinth took his arm and applied herself to restoring life hue to it.
He said, “Patroclus likes you. But I do not like being tied up every time you cannot handle sitting down and talking to me. Tell me my mom is ok.”
Labrinth told him what had happened. He sat and listened.
At the end, he nodded his head and said, “Listen to me. I agree with you. You did not have to tie me up. All we had to do was talk. You just had to explain yourself.”
She protested, “You were trying to head up there. You would have simply made it far worse.”
“I am not simply something to be used while you do your job. Look at me. I need to know something. When you kissed me before, was that just an act? Be honest.”
“I don’t know why. I got caught up in the moment. It was not part of my job, I do not do those sorts of things. I kissed you because I wanted to.”
“I wish I could trust you.”
He turned his head away from her.
She slid around and held him. She whispered, “I am sorry. Where I come from, I always had to act by myself. I have never worked with someone before.”
She placed the tip of her nose on his and said, “I really like you.”
There was a chill in the air. The wind was starting to rise outside.
Eyes locked in eyes. He asked, “Will you try a little harder.”
Her eyes were lost in his. She said, “I will try a little harder.”
And then they kissed.
Outside, the wind rose savagely, screaming gales.
And then they kissed and she rubbed life back into his arms and legs, and apologised for every hurt with promises about a thousand things that were probably not important but showed good faith. She said, "I would sleep with my head upon your shoulder, but I hear you are a married man."
"You are confusing me with another man, time girl. I once gave my heart to another, but she threw it away. I have never spoken life-vows. I spent days and nights alone patching the pieces of my heart together. Now it beats to its own rhythm."
"Can I check?"
"Just this once."
“Warning! Even if you call for help, none will come.”
She pushes him flat and sits astride him. Too late he realises what she plans, "Not my shirt. Do not rip..."
Buttons and cloths flew and she says, "Stay still" and places her head on his chest, listening to his heart.
After a long moment, she kicks up to his face, kisses his cheek lightly and smiles, "It was there for a moment, but now it is gone."
"Where have you put it?"
She says, "With mine. We are in this together."
They lie listening to the howling wind holding each other gently.
“We will have breakfast with your mother.”
"You had better not crease your cloths then...The weather is supposed to improve. We might be able to walk along the beach and find shells after the tide. You might tell me about what time travellers do.”
He disentangles himself from her and sits up, kissing her forehead, “But now, I am going to shower and get ready for bed."
She smiled and said, "I will go look at the bay."
She lightly ran down the stairs and opened the door to a sudden blast of cool wet wind. She stepped out onto the deck, wet with surf. She said to herself, "Wake up girl. This cannot happen. I cannot fall for him. Not here. Not now." But she knew that it had already happened, and after a moment she turned to the sky and yelled, "Damn you! What did you do to me!" But there was no response, just the wind. She knew she had already decided. She would break the rules.
So she walked back up to David and took him into the future.
During the night, he awoke. Labrinth was still asleep with her head on his shoulder, her body entwined around his. In the digital light of his portable computer, he watched her breathing. He reached over and moved her hair from her forehead and then kissed her gently. She stirred and nestled closer and said sleepily, “Don’t let me go.”
He remembered the long shower that had ended in her return. She brought steam, tickling, laughter and running out of hot water. Then they had warmed his bed listening to music from his computer. She had thought things would be different in the future, but he left her open mouthed when he found her favourite songs and played them with quality she had never imagined possible. When he threw images onto the ceiling she had to pinch herself.
After a couple of selections of ABBA, ACDC and Kate Bush that brought smiles to his face, and one that left him gasping for air, she started to exercise choice with a little more care, finishing her selections with Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’, listening to the lyrics with more than usual interest. Eventually she said, “I am feeling relaxed, now shatter my illusions with some of your future music.”
He said, “We can do that tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrow. Tonight I am trying to bind you with glamor. Just don’t let me go.”
He fell back to sleep as the cat Patroclus padded quietly back up the stairs when all was quiet, and curled up on Chas’s old backpack, thrown carelessly to one side and forgotten in the night.
In the morning they woke together, their hearts beating quietly together.
On their way up the main house, Patroclus scouting ahead, Labrinth said, “She is your mother. I have told you how I pretended to be your doctor last night, but I think she saw through that. I will support your choice of what we tell her now. She loves your father fiercely, and I do not know what to do. Something we did changed the timeline, and she has been hurt.”
David nodded, and said, “It is sometimes too easy to underestimate my mother.”
Dawn met them on the lawn, running to David and giving him a hug, asking “Are you ok?”
David said, “We owe you an explanation, for all this.”
Dawn turned to Labrinth and smiled, “Thanks for bringing him back.”
They moved inside to a small table next to the kitchen. Early morning sunlight flooded the eating area. Dawn told them firmly that there was to be no discussion until a breakfast of fried eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms and fried potatoes was consumed. It was a long process, involving the making of hot toast and feeding birds on the external deck. Finally, Dawn and David attended to dishwashing. They came to sit at the kitchen table with a fresh pot of tea.
Dawn smiled at them, “Well, who wants to start? Just, please, keep to the facts. I might be ancient, but please, no stories about elves stealing young children in the night. I did not come down with the last shower.”
David shuffled his feet, “We are time travellers. We think we know where dad is. We are going to get him and bring him back.”
Dawn thought about this for a moment, “No elves?”
David smiled at her, “Maybe. I cannot rule them out.”
Dawn said, “This is a bit different to the story this young lady was telling me last night. The one about you having a breakdown and how she was here to fix you up.”
Labrinth blushed and started to apologise, but Dawn held her hand up, “As a senior doctor at the local hospital, I hear all sorts of strange stories every day. I have learnt patience because sometimes, in the strangest of accounts, there are small grains of truth. So, tell me the story from the start, and do not spare the elves.”
David bowed his head and turned to Labrinth, “Can you help me out, please?”
Labrinth asked, “Are you sure this is the way you want to deal with this?”
David said, “Yes, for me, please.”
Labrinth poured herself a new cup of black tea and started.
My name is Stephanie. I was born on 16 February 1947.
I never met my parents.
I did well in the army schools that I attended and I got a scholarship to Sydney University. When I was part way through an Arts degree, I was recruited by the Department of Foreign Affairs and trained in counter insurgency and intelligence operations before serving time at the Australian embassy in Saigon. While there, I received training as a weapons and vehicle specialist.
They transferred me out of South Vietnam in 1974 and, after a period of time behind a desk in Canberra, they seconded me to Australian Temporal Research Facility.
Well before I joined, the facility had been playing with two artefacts. I do not know where they came from. One of the guys who had been with the project for a while joked that the Americans and British got the V-Rockets and submarines from the Nazis while Australia got the clocks. But, I think that was just a story. Whatever the case, a research team had been looking at them for some time and had worked out how to accelerate the artefacts through time. They had insufficient power for any practical application and so the Government established a facility to advance research.
When I joined, the facility had been transferred to Woomera and relocated to the site of an old NASA base at Island Lagoon in central Australia. At the time there was a network of missile silos protecting Woomera. They were being decommissioned as the Americans withdrew support for Woomera and the Whitlam government in Canberra. An old missile silo was scooped out and they built a small reactor deep down in it. A nuclear reactor, in a missile silo that had had a nuclear warhead on it. No one was ever told about the reactor or the missiles.
Your husband, Chas, was second in command of the base. A bloke called Benson was in charge. There were a couple of hundreds of people, most involved with the power facility or the maths teams. Chas was the first person from the facility to be sent into the future. He did a couple of short tests before a young kid skylarking at the facility got sucked in as well. They lost the kid.
We call the kid “Catalyst”. He has grown up and he is incredibly dangerous. He plans to change the past, going back into the past to destroy the facility. In doing so he may kill people on the base like Benson and Chas. The facility is unguarded, it is vulnerable. The risks are exceptional.
I was sent into the future to find him and bring him back. I have failed.
I was a friend of Chas. He was the only guy on base I trusted. He told me about you, Dawn. I travelled to Adelaide the night he took you to the fair. I met the people who read your hand.
Labrinth reached down to drink her tea, but it had gone cold.
Dawn asked, “Why have you failed?”
Labrinth pointed to Patroclus, who was stalking a currawong on the other side of the window.
Dawn misunderstood, “The currawongs are safe.”
Labrinth tried to speak, but her mouth was dry. David said, “Stop there. I will get another pot and I will finish.”
Dawn put her hand out to Labrinth and said quietly, “I forgive you.”
Labrinth has tears in her eyes as a second cup was poured.
I am your son, but from a slightly different time line. I sort of rescued Labrinth and brought her back here. I agreed to help her stop Catalyst. We travelled back in time to report to the facility, but it did not go smoothly.
He stepped over and picked up Patroclus and continued:
The cat came, accidently, and got away from me causing chaos. When we returned, we found out that the problems we unleashed back there had brought forward Catalyst’s plans. Instead of finding dad here, we find that Catalyst has already picked him up and taken him back to Woomera, probably to try to restart the facility. Dad is not dead. I am sure.
Dawn said, “Your story might actually benefit from an elf. Do you have any proof?”
David said, “Last night I had a bit of time to think about things. I spent a while looking at the ceiling. Dad sticky-taped something above my bed. I have not opened it, but I expect it is just what we have told you here.”
He handed her the envelope. She looked at it and handed it back to him, “He has addressed it to you David, you should read it. I do not need to read it.”
Dawn called to Patroclus, and the cat came to her with two bounds, becoming a slightly unstable ball of energy as it jumped, “I believe you. Chas has told me most of this story, except for the bit about Catalyst. That changes things. We must stop him.”
Mission Control T+272.3 hours (Nov 10 1975 17:54), Catalyst time line May 30 2015 3:33
Time passed too fast. Mid-winter cold drilled into Chas. Finally the team had completed work on the operations room and the second time gate was glowing ready to go. Now the team simply had to retrieve the second artefact. Still, it had taken far longer than any of them expected.
Despite the winter cold of the desert, he had started to come out of a night to walk to the shore of the salt lake and check his plane. It was not an idle chore. Left unattended the desert winds would choke inlets and pool in the recesses over the cockpit. Occasionally Catalyst would walk with him, but of late he had become withdrawn. Chas was feeling the same. He missed Dawn terribly, hating every moment away from her, and feeling guilty about how he had left her. If he had his time again, he would do it differently.
But that was the point, he told himself, shortly I will have my time over. And things will be very different. No more time quakes. The two that had hit earlier in May had worried both Catalyst and him, but had not changed anything at the base.
He walked through the trench, past the excavator and onto the desert surface. He paused for a moment, the air was still and the stars were blazing all around him. He looked carefully at his surroundings. His path to and from the plane visible as a faint smear on the ground. No lizards anywhere. He thought again about them and shook his head. No one had seen any above ground, but the first and only encounter with them had kept them out of the main operations room. No delaying anymore, they were planning to go back in tomorrow. Catalyst and Benson were talking about it even as Chas was off walking.
He crested the slight incline and looked down into the distance. He turned to pick his way down to the shoreline.
For a moment, in the starlight, he imagined the lagoon once again full of water. He smiled. If their plans came off, he might even see that. But more importantly, Dawn and he would be able to live an ordinary life. With shared memories. He looked at the stars and shouted, "I am doing this for you, for us."
He heard a rock fall in the distance and whirled around, training his lamp into the distance. Nothing, silence returned. Slowly, he relaxed.
Earlier they had talked about how the mission would proceed. In a conference room off the operations room, they had set up an electronic white board to record every detail of the operation. Benson and Chas brought everyone into the room, one by one and as groups, to talk about how they were going to deal with this new opportunity. The plan that emerged was not to everyone’s liking, and not what Chas and Catalyst had planned, but it was close enough.
Benson planned two missions. The first would take all of them back to a point in time just after Catalyst had been first sent into the future. He called it a test run and it would still be in the future time line. They were going to stay for enough time to sow the seeds for change. Change that would make them individually wealthy beyond dreaming. No missile hitting Perth. Labrinth would not be taken away.
But it went beyond that. It started with Brent. He had a dream. He wanted a world where modern computer science and internet had been jumpstarted. Then Graham mentioned reclaiming land, and preventing environmental disasters. Before long they were talking about health and education for all. And world peace.
Initially Benson just smiled at them, but then he started to listen. Chas could hear the excitement build in his voice, “Why not. This is a gift.”
In the first mission they would be away for a short time. Time enough to change the world. And then they would be whisked back to witness the new future.
The second mission was almost an anticlimax. Chas and Catalyst would be sent to collapse the probability cloud and, armed with experience, the team would recreate the positive effects of the first plan.
After the last briefing, earlier today, Chas spoke with Benson about his concerns.
Chas started directly, "We cannot be sure that any of this will work."
Benson shook his head, "I agree. That is why I am proceeding in two stages. The reality is that it might take a hundred attempts to get to where we need to be. Some of us may not make it. But it has to be better than what we have been through."
Chas said, "Do we need to complicate things with such drastic changes?"
Benson nodded, "Again, I agree with your reservations mate. We have left Labrinth out of this, we are going to deal with her problem differently. Still, I notice that neither you nor Catalyst have nominated seed changes."
Chas tried to speak, but Benson held up his hand and said, "It is ok, I understand. I agree that you are both different cases. It think it is sensible to keep your part of the plan simple."
Chas was silent.
Benson continued, "Look, we are all getting old. We have the capacity to change the world. Why not try?"
Benson's voice faded and was replaced by the sound of silence. Chas kept moving, walking purposefully across the dried mud flats to the salt surface of the lake.
He stopped and shone the lamp along the shore line behind him, and then turned to the plane.
She said, "Wait."
He froze, trying to work out where the sound came from, and wondering if he should sprint to the plane.
She said, "I am old and offer no challenge to you. I am hurt. I need your help."
He slowly turned playing the lamp over the shore line. The acoustics played tricks with him, she could have been in a dozen places.
She said, "Please, turn the light off. You are hurting my eyes."
He hesitated, and she said, "Please, turn down the lamp and I will come to you."
Chas switched off his lamp and moved quickly 10 paces to the right. He said, his mouth dry, "Who are you?"
She said, "I have come from your wife and son. I need to talk to you."
He hears scuttling sounds around him.
She says, "They have come back. We need to get to safety, eh"
He says, "Come to me quickly. The lizards are only dangerous if you flee from them."
A shadow detaches itself from the shore line and starts to crawl towards him.
He says, "Wait there, I will come to you."
She groans in pain, "I cannot do this. I parked my wagon back a little. I followed the shore line until I found your plane. I twisted my leg."
He moves quickly to her. In the starlight, he sees an old woman, a scarf wrapped around her face with her left hand bleeding.
He reaches to her with a hand white in the star light and she slightly recoils. She reluctantly accepts it. He asks, "Could you stand if I gave support?"
She nods, "I just need a rest and fresh water."
He says, "I should fly you to Adelaide, but I..."
"No, no, no. I am just here to give you the message. And perhaps take a short rest. My wagon is here” she becomes animated as the sounds around them increase. “I cannot leave it. Oh! They are here!"
He says, "Hop up, and I will support you. They will not come close if we move deliberately. I cannot radio for help from here."
He helps her up and they start to make their way back to the base. He asks, "Do I know you?"
She says, "We are not safe yet, time traveller. Yes, I know of you, your wife told me all about you. You look just like her picture of you."
A memory stirs, and he asks, "But who are you?"
She whispers, "I am just a beggar. Shhh, any noise attracts them. They almost had me before, but something called them away."
They hear the sound of bodies dragging low across the ground and shadows move in the darkness behind them.
He reaches down to pick up a rock.
She says, "Don’t throw it, others will come."
He says, "I think we will need it ahead."
She holds him tighter.
She says, "Don't let me go."
There was a chill in the desert air. Chas supported the old woman but he was starting to wonder about the odds. There were scuttling sounds all around them now, and they were still a little distance from the base. Chas waved his lamp and this time they could see the eyes waiting for them. The monitors were crawling over the excavator, trying to smash the windows. With the flash of light they turned towards Chas.
Chas said, “Stone the crows.”
The woman was searching for something in her coat. She said, “This might help.”
She was holding a revolver and fired two shots into the air. The monitors turned and ran. She said, “Quick, before they return.”
He stopped at the door into the base and paused, “I can’t let you into the base with that gun. You understand? If you give it to me, I will..”
She pulled the gun out and threw it under the excavator, “I trust you. Just find something to brace my leg, I will give you the messages from your family and I will leave.”
They entered into the base, dim lighting illuminating passageways to a storage facility and a lift down deeper into the base. He stopped near the lift and took her into a small service area and made her comfortable, saying. “There are living areas below, but I cannot take the chance we will meet one of the others, some might still be up. There is a washroom up here. Wait here, I will be 10 minutes collecting stuff I need from the medical bay below.”
She nodded, “I am feeling a lot better out of the cold. Thank you for bringing me here.”
Chas turned to leave and looks back at her. For the second time, he asks, "Do I know you?"
She says, "You asked before. Your wife told me all about you, but I am just a beggar."
He was away for long enough for her to retrace her steps and return.
He said, “We are in luck. The others have called it a night, and I have found all we need to make you comfortable. You will be able to rest in one of the shelters below and we will see how you are in the morning.”
She countered, “Your wife would not be happy to find you alone with another woman.”
Chas laughed, “My wife trusts me, and I would never betray that trust. You are safe with me.”
She says, “But you left her behind, and broke her heart. You left her when she would never have left you.”
Chas pauses, “You have come to argue with my choices? I will not argue with you. Everything I do, I do with only her in mind.”
She says, “Then why not take her into your confidences. You left her with questions unanswered. She may not see it the same way you do.”
He says, “My wife has nothing to fear from me.”
She says, “How does she know you have not left with another woman. One from the past, you have talked about and searched for.”
Chas shakes his head, “I have one wife. I do not look to others to take her place, in part or whole.”
She says, “How is that possible? You have interests your wife does not share, needs she cannot satisfy. You have many friends, men and women. How does she know another has not replaced her in your affections?”
Chas says, “You ask many questions, for a beggar.”
The old woman pauses, “I have promised to return to your wife with honest answers to some of the questions she would not ask.”
Chas says, “For her alone, and not your own prurient interests, will I account. I am here only for one reason. I am here to sort out our lives. She deserves a life with the real me, not some figment of the time line.”
She says, “Ah, the time line. It is hard being a time traveller, eh? And each time your shift time lines and she greets you with love in her eyes. What do you see? Do you see the same woman, or do you see another suitor to seduce?”
Chas says, “Your imagination is running with the pixies. She is the same woman. She is the only constant in my life.”
She says, “I have no doubt of your love for her. So, what do you propose here?”
Chas says, “I do not know who you are.”
She says, “Let me guess. Catalyst has persuaded you to go back into the past and stop the time experiments.”
Chas shakes his head, “How do you know so much? Why are you really here?”
She suddenly seems very old, and he fears she is about to collapse, reaching out to her. She says, “I only had that one last question. I just want to understand.”
Chas says, “If you had a way of going back to the start. Just to live an ordinary life. To have the same memories...”
She says, “So you propose to return to the past and you will start again, eh. And, what happens to the Dawn left in this time? You intend that someone’s bed will never be warm again.”
Chas says, “If I go back to the start that will not matter anymore...”
She says, “Because...”
Chas says, “Because the Dawn here will never have existed.”
She pauses, and says quietly, “Perhaps you should fix that brace on my leg now. Or is that not important anymore? After all, will I not cease to exist as well?"
He does not respond, frozen in turmoil.
She asks directly, "How can this be? Do you not have another way?”
Chas is still holding her shoulder, and she can feel him shaking a little. He says, “You ask hard questions. I do not have the answers."
He shakes his head, "Come into the washroom, we will have a look at the leg and I will do what I can.”
He sat her next to a pail of warm water and cut her jeans away to show the injury.
He knelt in front of her and washed her leg and foot. Wordless, he stopped, resting his head on her knees. She felt his tears.
Then he stood in front of her. He lift up to him and undressed her completely. He washed away the rest of her disguise and rubbed olive oil into her parched skin. He started to speak, but she said. “Hush”. Then he dressed her in base clothes he had brought from below.
Memories flooded back to Dawn. The rushed trip to get into the desert. The days lost trying to find the base. Finally finding his biplane tucked into a small bay of the salt lake. From there it was a simple matter of following his tracks back up to the base and a locked door. More than a locked door, for there were reptiles watching the area from vantage spots nearby. The reptiles stirred but a whistle in the air sent them back to their posts. Still, Chas was a creature of habit so a small hide was set up on the side of the lake for her and she waited. It was a moment’s work to change her age and appearance. She swallowed an astringent mixture to make her voice harsh and rasping and wrapped her face in a veil, and tinted eye lenses changed them beyond recognition. She grimaced at the need, but was unwilling take any chances with his reaction. Then temperatures had soared, baking the land. As night fell, the temperatures dropped, quickly.
Then she looked at him and remembered what he had intended. Dawn sat down, trembling and weeping, while he watched her.
Main Operations Room
Catalyst crouches as the door closes behind him, locking him into the old operations room. He takes a deep breath and, for the second time, looks at the distant dimly lit consoles around mission control. The time gate has a faint blue glow that appears to pulse gently in time with the beat of the reactor.
There is silence all around, no sound nor sign of any danger. Last time he was here, he embarrassed himself by running from monitor lizards. Big monitor lizards he corrected. This time he is prepared. His eyes are already adjusted to the darkness, and he has a series of small surprises should the lizards get too close.
They agreed on radio silence unless there was trouble. His mission was simple, get to the engineering console and retrieve the artefact left there.
He springs away from the wall and sprints the 70 feet to the central console area. He crouches, his skin crawling with the feeling he is being watched. Inside the time gate, an outline is illuminated by the faint blue light.
Her voice comes softly from all around him, “Do not attempt to use your radio, or it might end here right now for you.”
She whistles and there is scuffling in the distance, in every direction.
Catalyst asks, “Who are you?”
She says, “Call me your conscience. Come closer. The closer to the Elven Path, the safer you are.”
He shook his head, "What?"
She says, "You call it the time gate. Come to me."
He remembers the tracks he saw near the time gate last time he was here and counters, “There is a team of others outside, they will not let you get away.”
She laughs, “Your friends? The team of the elderly and the infirm? They cannot help you. Come to me, or you may get bitten. Quick.”
He moves through the outer consoles, muttering, “You do not sound that young yourself.”
She says “I am younger and older than you can imagine.”
He stops near the mission controller station, “Ok, I am listening to you? What do you want?”
She says, “You came here to collect an artefact. Go get it while you can.”
He frowns and turns back, starting a little when he sees a number of monitor lizards pacing in a circle close to the consoles. They are flicking their eyes and tongues at him. He does a quick search of the engineering console that was his target.
She says, “Your trinket is missing, eh? Well, perhaps I can help you. Come to me now.”
Her image shimmers in the gate.
Reluctantly, he turns and looks closely at her. He can only see her silhouette and it appears translucent. He asks, “Are you here?”
She says, “No, the Elven Path is dangerous.”
He asks, “Why do you call it the Elven Path?”
She says, “We teach our young that this is where the Come-By-Night roam, and wait to steal your life away. But you know this. Your life was stolen, eh.”
He asks, “So where are you?”
She says, “I first followed your heart line and remain as close as your heartbeat.” She laughs, “I have been listening to your plans from the very start. I know what is planned. I agree with the first part of the plan: a temporary excursion back to an earlier part of this future returning to this time in the future. But I do not agree with the second. You must remain here in the future. No more time travel experiments. ”
He walks to you, “You know I was stolen. Why not allow me to return to the real past?”
She says, “The second part of the plan, a return to the real past, must never happen. You intend to change the real past. To improve it. To rapidly escalate technology uptake and to cure all society's ills. Am I right? ”
He says, “Not me. Well, not beyond a little horse racing... But some of the others have plans, and why not?”
She says sternly, “Because your presence will be catastrophic. For every positive you introduce two evils will arise in its place. But I understand that you will not simply accept my assurances that this is the case. Instead, you can witness it first-hand. Your own eyes will persuade you more than my words.”
He says, "How do you know what will happen?"
She says, "It always happens. I have learnt this myself, through trial and error. And while I value learning, my kin prefer biting."
He says, “And I will learn the same lessons if we carry through with the first part of the plan?"
She says, "When you return a time quake will give effect to the changes. The changes your friends intend are so great that you will be safe only if you stay inside the facility when the quake happens. But you must leave quickly because the facility will collapse after the quake."
He says, "You are telling me to do nothing more than I was going to do. Why only show yourself to me?"
She says, "I may have appeared to others, but that is immaterial to you. You were stolen. You have more to lose than the others. You are likely to take the greatest risks. I need to persuade you."
He says, "Why?"
She says, "Wait. Listen to me. You need to make one small change to the first plan, or it will fail. Look at the time clocks."
Catalyst turns from the time gate, to the large mission control clocks, next to the dead screen. They are in partial darkness. The first clock is titled Mission Control, and has the date 10 November 1975 and shows an elapsed time of a little over 272 hours. The hand pieces are frozen still. The second clock is titled Mission Control, and has today's date, 1 June 2015. It only has an hour hand but it shows the present time, and is slowly moving.
She says, "If you go back before real time shown on the Mission Control clock, all you can do is watch. There is one exception, which you have already guessed. If you are there at the instance you were first sent, you will merge and your contribution to the probability cloud will collapse. I am telling you this because you must avoid that at all costs. You may not believe me right now. You may wish it were otherwise, but you will learn the truth of what I say."
Catalyst turns this over. He says, "The plan is to aim for T minus 3 hours after Chas's first test. That is 276 hours too early if what you say is correct."
She says, "Yes. Your leader Benson chose a quiet safe time to do the test run. It will not work. You will sit around watching, not being able to act. You cannot take that risk. You must be inserted back into the future, just ahead of the passage of the real time wave to achieve your goal."
He asks, "So what do you intend I do?”
She says, “I am simply your conscience. You need to keep your eyes open. Look beyond the surface. Understand what is really happening.”
He says, “And if I still want to return to the real present despite everything I see, what will stop me?”
She laughs at him, “I am watching you. To help you move in the right direction, I will now destroy this facility. I may fail. I may not stop you. But if you return, you will allow my kin entry into your world. That is an outcome you should avoid with every breath in your body.”
“I do not understand you."
“You will. I have watched you. You want to know everything straight away. Some things are to be learnt slowly. You are about to learn why you cannot go home."
“But you have not told me who you are or where you are from."
"Pray you never have answers to those questions. I cannot stay here any longer. Here, you were looking for this.”
She holds the artefact to him as she fades.
It falls to the ground and the time gate fades to a dull grey. He hears the sounds of rocks tumbling near the old roof fall and flicks on his lamp. The lizards have turned to look at the rock fall.
Catalyst reaches down and takes the artefact.
He hears a whistle and turns his lamp to see most of the monitor lizards turn and run into the distance. One of the larger monitors swings back towards him.
He flicks his radio on, "Catalyst here. I have the artefact. Am about to..."
There is an explosion and a scream of metal from the roof near the collapsed part of the facility. He hears the reactor beneath him start to pulse with higher intensity. As he plays his lamp light over the far walls he sees a section of concrete wall bulge in and then shatter as the roof begins to collapse.
The radio blares, "Benson here, what was that!"
Catalyst freezes, as something rubs up against his leg and quietly growls. He looks down, to see a cat.
He turns, lost and searching for the way to safety. But the cat beats him to it, charges confidently towards the wall, calling Catalyst to follow.
He flicks his radio on talking as he runs following the cat, "Catalyst here. Open the door and get down to the lower level, the facility might be collapsing!"
A cloud of concrete dust sweeps over him plunging him into near blindness. Just the faint outline of the cat just in front of him. He yells at the cat, "Go back to her. You cannot come with me..."
Over the sound of the collapse, she says, "He is called Wind. He will protect you. Take care..."
He reaches down and scoops up the cat and turns his shoulder to hit the door.
Everything is moving slowly. Too slowly. Dust from the collapsing level above them has overloaded the air-conditioners and fine dust is starting to filter into the base.
Backup Operations Room
Benson bursts into the backup operations room as the first warning alarms start to sound.
Benson yells, “Change of plan. Set the time transfer to T+272.01 hours into the mission. First group, come to me - Now!”
Grant says quietly, “Acquiring new vectors. This will take just a moment.”
Catalyst bursts into the room, sweat dripping from his head and a cat in his arms. He turns and tries to close the blast door into the area, “One of them was following me! Something else is in here!”
Chas says, “Calm down son. Go take your place with Benson, I will check.”
Grant says, “Almost got this. One minute...”
Graham shouts, “Reactor heat increasing steeply. We need to go, or it will...”
Benson says, “This is Mission Control. Cut the chatter. This is no longer a test guys. We have to make this work.”
Chas comes back into the area, “All clear out here, no hostiles.”
Benson says, “This is Mission Control, 39+ years into this exercise. I trust you all but we only get one shot at this. You all remember when Labrinth came back, with that thing. I am afraid we are going back to that point in time. I know this is not the optimal case we trained for...”
Benson is looking at the members of the first team gathered around him, each with an arm extended to hold him and his artefact, he continues, “Everything is looking good. We are now seeking Go/Stay authorization for insertion of team A into the Catalyst timeline.”
Grant says, “New coordinates set!”
Brent says, “Handing over to the Base Artificial Intelligence. Activating her defence protocols.”
The Base Artificial Intelligence cuts in, “I confirm mission clearance from all directors, now awaiting authorization from Mission Control to proceed.”
Benson says, “Authorized, let’s go.”
Benson and the other five step towards the blue light of the time gate, fine white dust is starting to pour into the control room. The reactor pulses speeds up. Waves of tremors, like small earthquakes flood the floor. They start to fade. Benson’s eyes have finally settled on Catalyst and is looking in surprise at the cat he is carrying. Then Benson and his team disappear.
Chas says, “Team 2 take your places. We leave in 30 seconds.”
Some of the older remaining members of the team are becoming disoriented by the dust swirling in the air and reducing visibility. Finally they are disentangled from the consoles and walk to the time gate. The Reactor Alarm starts to sound, “Danger! Danger! Reactor overheating. Shut down in 5 minutes.”
Chas sprints to the door. Grant says, "Where are you going?"
“Commander Cannonball, please resume your position, I have this contingency covered”, calmly states the Base Artificial Intelligence.
Chas shouts, “I am assuming control of Mission Control.”
The Base Artificial Intelligence says, “Confirmed, I will deal with the breaches after you leave."
Chas returns to the time gate, shadows around him. Grant looks up at him and whispers loudly, “Who are these...”
Chas says, “Got some additional help. Play it cool. Team two looking good. We are now seeking Go/Stay authorization for insertion of the second team into the Catalyst timeline.”
The Base AI says, “Clear, now awaiting authorization from Mission Control to proceed.”
Chas says, “Authorized, let’s go. Hold on tight, follow me.”
Chas and the others step into the time gate. He searches for eyes in the dark and her arms slip around him.
There is a commotion at the door of the room and they hear the sound of movement. Low shadows approaching through the dust.
Blue light appears around them, waves of tremors, like small earthquakes rock them gently, while the stars start to move towards them.
They leave behind a scene of chaos.
Main Operations Room: Mission Time T+272.01 hours
It was not a good week. Most had not slept for days. Catalyst was lost. Labrinth was sent to find him. The reactor had overloaded and they were struggling to return a basic level of operation. Fires were burning out of control around the facility. Smoke was swirling through the operations room. Just before, something had come through the time gate causing mayhem. Mission Controller Benson and his deputy were running out of options.
Just when things could not seem to get worse, the time gate suddenly activated. DelCon reported, “Multiple incoming!”
All eyes were on Benson and the time gate.
Reactor tremors built, becoming waves, rippling over the floor.
Six figures were writhing in the time gate. Suddenly the figures materialize, blasting the smoke from around the time gate. For a fraction of a second, there were two Bensons, one in the time gate and one at the command station. Then both fragmented into a swarm of particles that snaked through the air and fused into a new Benson. Four other specialists received the same treatment, leaving Catalyst in the time gate holding a very agitated cat.
Benson strode back to his station, saying into the com, “Commander Benson assuming command. Hold your positions and listen. Our mission has been successful. Teams from the future are arriving at the facility to stabilize it. A second team will arrive shortly. Once stabilized we will set in train changes to the time line. Place yourselves under the command of the incoming specialists and have your analysts stand by.”
Benson searches for Catalyst. He calls out, “Get over here!”
Catalyst does not respond. Instead, he drops to one foot, holding the cat Wind tightly. He carefully looks around the facility, searching.
DelCon announces, “Time Gate activating, more incoming.”
Catalyst disappears into the darkness.
The reactor tremors build, a large number of figures writhing in the time gate. The figures materialize, blasting the smoke from the operations area. Benson has an impression of a rush of wind over his head and the brush of feathers. He spins and sees something spinning into the darkness. He turns to catch a glimpse of Labrinth still in the time gate.
Benson calls out to Labrinth, “Catalyst is here. He is acting strangely. Find him and bring him back.” He adds, “Safely!” but she has already gone.
Cannonball walks to Benson, “I have some problems you need to know about.”
Benson smiles, “We are way ahead at the moment. All our primary objectives have been met.”
Chas said, “The base back in 2015 was about to be destroyed as I left. We have picked up another member, my wife. My fault, it was last moment and there was no time to explain... I suggest she be allocated to the medical team.”
Benson said, “The base problem will resolve itself with what we are doing now. I think there is more here than just your wife. Labrinth is out there with others, and I just felt something go over my head. Sort your wife, then find Catalyst. Keep Labrinth in check.”
Chas runs back to the gate.
Labrinth pulls David into the darkness beyond the blast wall and squeezes his hand. Chaos is all around, smoke swirling, consoles and chairs strewn through the area. But she cannot see any panic. Instead, the teams seem to be getting on top of the problems. The Com blares out an update, “Power now stable. As requested, diverting all spare capacity to the external missile defence silos.”
Labrinth turns to David, “Catalyst must have come through in the first group, but I cannot see him. We have to get to him quickly and keep him from damaging the facility or using the time gate.”
David says, “He can’t go anywhere without the artefacts.”
She says, “He has had a long time to think this through. If he is planning to act now, he still has 40 minutes to sabotage the reactor. We have to distract him.”
David says, “There a lot of people up here, too many. If I was him, I would head down to the reactor. How do you get there from here?”
Labrinth says, “There are a couple of ways down, but he will only be familiar with the one we took last night, down the service lift in the store room.” She tries to orient herself and points to the wall, “There is a service door in that direction...”
As she speaks, the door opens, and light from the store room floods into the darkness. They feel a brush of wings as something passes over and near them. They hear Catalyst call out.
Labrinth starts to sprint towards the door, shouting back to David, “Get some backup!”
She gets to the door just before it shuts, pushing Catalyst into the store room. She locks his right arm behind him. He says, “Stop! Something just attacked me.”
She sees blood on his head and says, “Stay very still or I will break your arm.”
Catalyst whispers more urgently, “Did you hear me. There is something in here.”
The door shuts behind them.
She says, “Explain what is happening. Then we will work out what to do. Why have you got a cat?”
Catalyst says, “You are frightening him.”
She pulls Catalyst towards the floor and the cat jumps down. Wind turns and snarls at Labrinth, before disappearing deeper into the store room. Catalyst says, “Damn.”
From the other side of the store room comes the sound of stores toppling from a high shelf.
Catalyst says, “Listen! We have to get out of here, I think it is trying to get me.”
She says, “Focus! I am the only one you need to worry about.”
There is a quiet knock on the storeroom door, and she pulls Catalyst back to the door.
As she reaches for the door, the store room lights are cut and they are plunged into darkness. There is a concussive explosion under her feet and she is thrown against the wall, losing hold of Catalyst.
She staggers back to the door, feeling blood on her shoulder. She reaches the door and pulls David inside. David tries to say something to her, but her head is ringing. She pulls him to the ground and puts her finger to his lips. They move along the wall a little way.
She sits, holding David and waits for her hearing to return. She whispers very quietly into his ear, “He used a stun explosive on me. I am ok but something else is in here as well.”
David whispered, “Chas is on his way.”
They hear a scuffle and another explosion deep in the store room. Catalyst calls out, then silence. David starts to move and Labrinth holds him back, “Shhh.”
They hear the sound of something falling near the doors to the exit passageway. Labrinth freezes and then turns slightly towards the reactor lift. They see the lift controls light up and the lift start to move. Labrinth jumps up and starts running towards it, with David in close pursuit.
In the dark she suddenly trips over something. Something with fur and claws. She falls heavily, her leg under her and David comes down on top of her. She gasps in pain. He says, “You ok?”
Labrinth grimaces, “He must have gone down to the reactor level...”
David said, “Wait.”
He fishes out his mobile phone and switches on the flashlight.
Labrinth looked at him and asked, “How did you do that?”
David said, “You are badly hurt. Do not move.”
He moves his hand down her leg and she winces. He looks at her, “Girlfriend. We have 30 minutes before the artefacts fire up again and we need to be there to go back into the future. Can you walk?”
Labrinth shakes her head through gritted teeth. David says, “Ok. Plan B.”
She says, “What is Plan B?”
He says, “Trust me.”
Labrinth says, “Completely. I should have tied him up.”
David whispers to her, “Next time, but I think the lift was a diversion.”
David switches off the light and stands up, saying in an ordinary voice, “Ok Catalyst. We have not met. I am Chas’s son and Labrinth’s boyfriend. Right now, I speak for all three of us. I know you are still here. Whatever you were trying to achieve here will not work. You do not have any of the artefacts. You cannot get back into the Main Command Room without coming back past us. The base has been alerted to your presence and they will find you. You do not have time to do anything meaningful.”
There is silence in the store room.
David continues, “I have a suggestion you might want to consider. If you hear me out, we will help you.”
Labrinth whispers urgently, “No! You can’t do that!”
David says, “Shhh. Catalyst?”
Catalyst says quietly, “Ok, I am listening. Call Labrinth off. Chas told me she is hunting me. I know she has a gun.”
Labrinth says, “We lost it. You threatened to destroy this timeline. I will not let you do that.”
David said, “Neither of us will.”
David squeezes Labrinth’s hand. He says, “Ok. I will keep it really basic. We want to go back to the future. Together. We want it to be secure. Just an ordinary life, just like you wanted. We do not want time quakes or the risk of you collapsing that future. You once told Labrinth that you were planning to collapse the future and here you are close to doing just that.”
The door to the main operations room opens and closes. They hear the sound of running.
Catalyst shouts, “It might be too late. Something else is hunting us.” There is the sound of equipment being thrown into the aisles. Catalyst says, I cannot change the time line by myself. I want to go back, but if Labrinth decides to stay, your future is safe as long as she lives. This time line, the probability cloud, cannot be collapsed unless Chas, Labrinth and I - all three - transfer back to the very first time we travelled in time.”
There is silence for a moment, and another voice cuts the air, “Nowhere to run. So few possibilities. Let me get this straight. If one of those three dies in this timeline, it is secure.”
Catalyst says, “No!”
The sound of gun echoes through the room.
A New Earth
Nine ways to sorrow
Mission Control T+274 Nov 10 1975 18:36, Catalyst time line June 7 2015 16:40
A flash of light lights up the room and a rumble travels through the ground. A gentle earthquake, gone as quickly as it came. Everything changes.
The backup operations room is dark and silent. The air is stale and hot, no one has been here for decades. A single green light flashes on Brent’s console, in the silence, through a layer of dust. The reactor nearby pulses softly.
Lights flicker on around the room. Air conditioning comes on and cool fresh air washes through the room. The time gate is illuminated. It slowly changes from a dull grey, taking a blue hue.
The reactor picks up pace, tremors build, waves form rippling over the floor.
The time gate activates and figures start to form out of the ether. Six indistinct figures swathed in mist and smoke, one bent over in pain.
The figures materialize. A cat jumps out of the mix and heads for the door. It looks back at them and calls.
Benson tries to support Catalyst. He asks, “Are you ok?”
Catalyst, his face white and twisted with pain, does not respond. Benson shouts, “Give me a hand, we have to get out of this place right away!”
The group support Catalyst and head out of the operations room to the store room lifts, Benson stopping only to unlock doors.
As they start the lift moving, they hear the time gate activate for the second team.
Graham whispers urgently to him, “What happened to him back there? Should we wait for them?”
Benson is tight lipped, “No, every second counts. I do not know what happened. But I am going to find out.”
Graham says, “I think he has stopped breathing.”
Benson says, “Almost there. When we get out into the desert we will stop and give him first aid. Brian, there should be a medical kit in the excavator. Sam, start tearing some bandages, he is losing blood.”
They got to the final door and pushed through out into the desert. They braced for the heat about to hit them.
It is early morning. They are standing on a small tree covered plateau, the base glistening behind them. In front of them a lake of deep blue water stretches to the horizon.
Rain is falling softly and a waiting reception committee springs into action. Before they can react, nurses and doctors place Catalyst on a stretcher and whisks him away.
An elderly man, dressed in an army uniform comes forward to Benson. He salutes, and says, “General Paige. Good to meet you Commander Benson. If you do not mind, we will not stand on ceremony here just now. My med team would like to get all of your people into quarantine and through a full check-up right now. Can’t have you travelling all that distance just to stumble on the home run, eh? Your call, but my strong advice.”
Benson asks, “Where are we? When are we?”
General Paige says, “Time enough for questions later. But this is your base, Deep Space Station 41 on the north-eastern shore of Island Lagoon and a couple of klicks from the space city of Woomera.”
Benson asks, “And the date?”
General Paige says, “It is late afternoon, June 7 2015.”
Benson has tears in his eyes, as he and the team is gently helped down the steps into waiting vehicles. He says to the General, “There was a cat...”
General Paige says, “The cat went with your first team member. I think the team member’s code name was Catalyst.”
Benson asks, “Can I wait to see the rest of the team gets through?”
General Paige says, “Nothing you can do here Commander. Go with the reception team, and I will report to you as soon as you have gone through the preliminaries. We will get you back together again as soon as possible.”
General Paige calls over a senior member of the reception team, “Major Banks, consider yourself under the command of Commander Benson until further notice.”
He nods to Benson and walks briskly to a group of officers who have been trying to attract his attention. Benson hear him asking them, “Were we able to penetrate the shield...”, but did not catch the answer.
Benson follows Major Banks to a waiting vehicle, not dissimilar to those he was familiar with. When seated he turns to Banks and asks, “Are you able to brief me on... what I need to know, right now?”
Major Banks smiles and says, “I have been training to do that for years, Commander. Where would you like to start?”
Benson says, “Where are we going?”
Major Banks says, “We are taking you to Woomera and, once you are cleared for travel, to the rejuvenation station at Near Earth Orbiter 15.”
Benson shakes his head, “Speaking just for myself, I think I might be a bit old to get on a rocket. Probably better to put me on an airplane to Sydney.”
Major Banks shakes her head and says, “We will be taking the elevator to Near Earth Orbiter 15, acceleration is very gentle. I am afraid Sydney is a no go sir.”
Benson pauses, “I guess I have a lot to catch up with then. Let’s start with something simple. When I left, this place was a desert that got a couple of drops of rain one every couple of years. Now it is covered in trees and I thought I saw crop lands in the distance a bit back there.”
Major Banks says, “The sea-tunnel was built in the 80’s, flooding the old salt lakes and making the deserts green again and habitable. We still have a lot of problems with salt and the virus load, but the cropping you saw is helping to sequester the problem.”
Benson asks, “And what happened to Sydney?”
Major Banks shakes her head, “It was pretty bad, you probably need a little while just to reorient yourselves. We have put together a video cassette that should help you over the next couple of days.”
Benson said, “Whoa, video cassette? What happened to DVD’s and digital media.”
Major Banks shook her head again, “Sorry Commander, I am not familiar with those words. I was told to expect that you would know many things we have yet to experience. Perhaps you will take time to explain some of these.”
Benson said, “You don’t have DVD’s? What about Windows 10, FaceBook, One Direction, GST, iPhones.”
Major Banks shook her head, “Sorry sir, I have not heard of these things.”
Involuntarily he exclaims, “Damn!”
Major Banks asks, “What is the problem Commander.”
Benson shakes his head, “I have just got my music collection sorted. I will have to start again”. He winces, “Not music cassettes?”
Major Banks shakes her head, “Not unless you really want. Vinyl is better.”
Benson nodded as they pulled into a long white building close to the outskirts of the city. He says quietly, “it could have been worse...”, and then he thinks about Catalyst, "and maybe it is."
Far Earth Orbiter 19
Mission Control T+282 hours (Nov 11 1975 2:36), Catalyst time line Aug 2 2016 18:08
Dawn is spending too much time on the observation deck, staring at the crescent Earth above, and watching the ice-locked continents that once held the great cities of the world. A narrow band of dry desert predominates around the equator, with painfully small patches of green.
She tried to make out the coastline of east Australia, where her home had once been. An unfamiliar coast now prevails, pattered with great bays and inlets she refuses to recognise.
She was thinking of the team reunion the previous full Earth.
Benson had welcomed most of the other members into a nearby habitat, together with a couple of higher ranking members of the ground forces.
Nice to see you all here and again thank General Paige for his support for getting you all back together.
I record apologies from Labrinth and David who, as you know are expecting their first child and, well. I will not mince words. They do not want to be involved with us. I know, too, that Catalyst would be here if he was able, but I guess that will not be possible.
It has been nearly an Earth year since we got out of Deep Space Station 41. We have had to take the bad with the good. On the plus side, we have been welcomed into the orbital habitats and I have followed your work in your many different fields.
As for our mission, you all know that this was just to be the first stage, and that we were planning to go back, perhaps a couple of times, each time refining the outcome to maximise the positives. I guess that was a bit naive. The authorities have made it clear that further missions will not be permitted under any circumstance. Frankly, I am not sure they give time travel much credence. Some of them treat us as little more than anomalies, present company excluded.
Again, I will not mince words, the authorities are keen to dismantle the base. They have been trying to do just that since our return. Whatever we might think about this, they have legitimate concerns about it falling into the wrong hands, and the possibility of radiation leaks into the subsurface water.
I have argued the toss with them, but even with the best resources to hand, we cannot pinpoint what went wrong. So we do not know what to change. Further, we still do not know who or what happened to Catalyst, and the risk that hostile elements might be in the building just adds to the uncertainty.
On that point, we have been asked to provide volunteers to assist the military to gain entry to the base and I will leave that to you. The request is particularly directed at Chas and Labrinth, but any other takers would be accepted. General Paige will brief us further in a moment but I understand the role is simply to breach the force field protecting the perimeter, not to actually enter the base.
Brent asked, “What is the story with Catalyst? I have been on Callisto, I have not kept up with this.”
Benson answered slowly, “This is still contentious. My attempts to get to the bottom of this have just alienated Labrinth and David. We still do not know anything concrete. Best guess is that something else was in the base with us, it certainly spooked Catalyst. As for his injury, some sort of trauma was inflicted on his spine at chest level, we cannot tell what caused it. Some think it was a bullet, some think stray shrapnel from the concussion bombs we made for him, some think it was some sort of energy weapon, who knows. It should have been fatal, but he is alive thanks to Dawn. By all accounts his mind is active, but he cannot move nor communicate. He is stable but that is all.”
Brent asked, “And the others?”
Benson added, “We picked up a couple of strays during the time jumps, a hawk and a cat. They have been adopted on the station where Catalyst has been getting treatment. They seem to spend a fair amount of time trying to eat each other. Apparently the cat “Wind” spends a lot of time with Catalyst. Labrinth and David have made their home on the same station.”
The briefing faded as the visible Earth moved out of sunlight. Dawn remembered how the reunion disintegrated into a briefing by the military and discussions about the varying successes of rejuvenation treatment and about work being undertaken by the team members at far distant locations.
Chas came up behind her and put his hand on her shoulder, “I thought you were coming back to eat with me?”
Dawn stared towards the planet above, as far away as the moon, “Are you thinking of volunteering?”
Chas said, “I will not leave you.”
Dawn said, “That is not an answer. Sounds like they need you.”
Chas sat down, “I thought you didn’t mix with the military?”
Dawn said, “You know I am unhappy. We have talked about it, you must be getting sick of it all. The last year has been a shock. We have lost everything we worked together for... this habitat is nice but, it is not ours.”
Chas grimaced, “Bit like being a stray cat.”
Dawn looked at him, “What have stray cats got to do with this?”
Chas smiled, “You know. Cats have nine lives. But stray cats just have nine ways to sorrow.”
Dawn shook her head, “I am not a stray cat.” Then she relented a little, “I guess when you explained what you were going through, I did not really understand. I am starting to now.”
Chas said, “What I went through was nothing compared to what you and the rest of us are experiencing right now. Sure the time quakes changed things, but I always ended up at Nowra, in our house, usually. We had the pictures. Up here we do not have any of that. But we have each other. And that is all I need.”
Dawn said, “Yes, I still have you. But...”
The silence hung heavy between them.
Chas said, “I will never forgive myself for leaving you behind. I would have lost you if you had not come for me.”
Dawn said sharply, “Stop beating yourself up. You were always off doing something. I always stayed behind. The one time I needed to come, I did it.”
He started to remonstrate but she said, “Can I ask you a question?”
Chas, too quickly protested, “I did not shoot Catalyst. He was my friend.”
Dawn said, “I know you did not do it. Stand in line, lots of people would have shot him to stop him collapsing the time line. But that was not the question.”
Chas said, “Ok, ask away.”
Dawn asked, “What would happen if you and I transferred back in time, to before the first time you travelled?”
Chas said slowly, “It would be a disaster. You might just disappear. And, for starters, it is simply not possible because they will not let us near the base and they have confiscated the artefacts. Could you leave Labrinth and David?”
Dawn said sadly, “They have closed themselves off from us. They will not answer our calls. I do not know why.”
Chas said, “That will change. With the baby.”
Dawn said, “I do not think it will. I think they are struggling with the same problem I am and they will take their own path. Look, I want to try something. This is driving me crazy. I do not like Catalyst, he took you away from me. But I think we should factor him as well.”
Chas said, “What do you want to try?”
Dawn said, “I think there is a way, just get me that chance.”
Deep Space Station 41
Mission Control T+290 hours (Nov 11 1975 10:36), Catalyst time line Apr 2 2017 18:08
The incursion team had tried every possible variation, to get into the base. It was completely surrounded by a force field, and although carrying one of the artefacts seemed to alter the field, it was not enough to give access. So General Paige permitted the team to seek volunteers from Benson’s group on the basis that they had been the last to get through it.
Chas had argued that the first two time travellers, Catalyst and he, had best chance of success. His wife, Dawn, insisted on volunteering as well and a doctor on the team was judged acceptable.
With military advisors walking with them, this combination made some headway into the field, but not enough. Reluctantly, and with additional advisors, the artefacts were brought forward and added to the equation.
The field opened as the group moved through the field, but just as the commander radioed success, all of the advisors were painfully wrenched back outside the field, leaving Chas, Dawn and a wheelchair bound Catalyst. Chas reached down and picked up the artefact. Bare crystal, with the imprint of a hawk. Or maybe something else... He turned to Dawn, “I wonder if the doors are unlocked?”
A voice interrupted her reply, “Base Artificial Intelligence recognises Cannonball and Catalyst. I need two agents to authorise the continued presence of the other time traveller in this facility”
Chas says, “I can authorise Dawn but agent Catalyst is incapacitated...”
The Station AI states, “Agent Labrinth has just been contacted and authorises Dawn’s presence. You may all enter.”
Chas, “How are you in contact with Labrinth?” Dawn reaches for a chest pouch, holding the single photo she has of Labrinth and David, and their daughter, Kathy.
The Base Artificial Intelligence states, “Agent Labrinth remains in contact with this base through the guardian Wind.”
Chas pauses, “On my departure, I vest my authority in Labrinth and her partner.”
The Base Artificial Intelligence states, “Agent Labrinth has been advised. Please make your way to the time gate.”
Chas pauses, “Is this facility secure?”
The Base Artificial Intelligence states, “At this point in time, no other beings are present. But, be aware that I am not present in all points of time, and that other beings are present in those and other times.”
Chas pauses, “I did not understand that. Try again.”
The Base Artificial Intelligence states, “This facility is mainly safe.”
Chas shakes his head and they walk through the doors, pushing Catalyst. As they moved to the time gate, the light of the facility gradually illuminated and the reactor started to pulse.
Base Artificial Intelligence says, “Coordinates set, I seek authorization to proceed.”
Shadowy figures appear at the consoles, becoming substantial as they watch. Benson smiles and says to them, “Carpe diem!” Brent, sitting next to him, smiles and waves.
Brad says, “Engineering fine!”
Graham shouts, “Guidance good!”
Grant says, “DelCon go!”
From the back of the room a pool of darkness separates itself from the shadow, “I, Adria give my approval.”
The Base Artificial Intelligence, “We are good for insertion. Go-go-go!”
Dawn smiles at Chas and holds him, whispering “Love eternis”.
The reactor pulses speeds up. Waves of tremors, like small earthquakes flood the floor. They start to fade. The stars take them.
Far Earth Orbiter 63
Mission Control T+410 hours (Nov 16 1975 11:36), Catalyst time line May 30 2035 10:53
A grassy meadow, the dew drying in the morning sun, a clear clean sky. Labrinth’s daughter picked her way along the small creek, a small tribe of children behind her. They reach the place of teaching, a rock shelf warm and welcome, and she finds a place to recline and the children take places around her, talking excitedly between themselves.
She claps her hand and says, “Attention please.”
But the children have seen the old cat, and reach out to touch him as he picks his way through them to a place next to her. The station hawk, Rain, flew to a nearby tree.
She waits for a moment for the children to quieten and for the Station guardians, Wind and Rain, to make themselves comfortable. She starts again, “Good morning class.”
The children respond as one, “Good morning teacher.”
She looks at them, child to child, and smiles, “Who can tell me what today is?”
As one, their hands go into the air. She chooses the youngest, “Robert?”
The boy stands, and says, “It is the end of days.”
She says, “Thanks Robert, you can sit down. Today is the day we remember the end of days. So we have come out here to the rock shelf to look at the sky and remember.”
She points to the sky and they look up past the sky dome, to the stars and the Earth hanging there above them.
She smiles again, “Today we tell the story of where we come from. When we remember our parents and give thanks to the station guardians. Please stop me and ask questions. All ready.”
The children respond as one, “Yes teacher.”
1. I bid you to hear me
Children of the rainbow
From high, middle and low
Tales of women and men we still know
2. Of man and monster
Those who gave us milk and bread
From the nine worlds here wed
Locked tight beneath our mouldy firmament
3. From chaos we come
From dust created in star anvil
Sometime volatile enough to cancel
Sometime thin and insubstantial
The teacher paused, “Who knows the next part?”
They had been practicing this all week, and she chose Rebecca, the oldest at six years, to stand.
4. Here, Sun shining fair
On Earth alone
Warming water and stone
On ground green life did grow
Her voice carried across the meadow, to a wide balcony set in a grove of birch trees. David and Labrinth are sitting together in the warmth, listening to the ceremony. David says, his hands running through her hair, “She spoke well.”
Labrinth stretched and turned, “Let’s go find the others.”
David said, "Of course, but listen a little longer."
Labrinth smiled as teacher and children chanted the names of those who came before, “I am in no rush. But I care not for the fairy tales we tell the young.”
David said, “They will learn the truth soon enough. Would you have them recite the old words today in their innocence?
Axe time, sword time : shields are broken,
Wind time, wolf time : ere the world falls
Nor ever shall men : each other spare
Labrinth turn and looks up at the Earth turning above her, “I wonder if we will ever go back?”
David said, “All I love is here. Here we are free.”
Labrinth settled back in his arms and listens to the teacher
Below the teacher reaches the part the children have been waiting for and they are restless. She says, "Settle please...
44. Loud growls the watchman at his post
His chains cracks and he runs free
Much can I remember, more did I see
during the end of days.”
The children cry out, “The end of days!”
Labrinth says quietly, “Um ragna rök... römm sigtíva”.
In the distance she hears her daughter claps her hands, singing after the children, “And now go play. There will be milk and bread when you return.”
David and Labrinth settle in the mid-morning quiet, nothing but the bees to break the silence. She asks, “You miss your father and mother?”
David shakes his head, “So long ago... A lot.”
She holds him. She misses the real wind and the real rain. The ones from the sky. She misses thunder and lightning. And she remembers those other days: the days of colour and danger in the final days of Hanoi, the days of burning heat of the salt lakes in the central deserts, the days when she ran in the sand and surf. But, she had made a choice, her love is in the stars.
She drifted back to that night at the boathouse when the wind blew away the past. She told herself, "For so long as someone still remembers, it will not die."
Begin the Beguine
Real Time: 10 Nov 1975
I saw the first time trials. I watched from a distance. When I tried to get closer, I was nabbed.
They took me to Benedict. He sat me down next to him and told me not to move until he was finished with the tests. I was still at school, and knew how to quietly fade into the background.
I noticed Cannonball talking to technicians about a device around his neck. He took it off and put it on a console near me, replacing it with a second sitting there. While no one was watching I had a good look at the one he put down. A heavy dull circular device on a neck chain. It looked very old. Bare crystal, with the imprint of a hawk. Or something like a hawk. It had a recessed central area with inset controls. Of course, I put it on. You would have as well.
I was at a bit of a distance from the time gate when it arced a bolt of light at me and, suddenly, there were stars all around me.
I dreamed a long dream, so real. I dreamed I was somewhere else for decades and decades. Thrown around time like a fleck of foam in the surf.
Then I fell back into my body and onto the metal grid supporting the consoles. As I fell, there was a tearing sound, and a chittering as a thousand eyes turned in my direction.
But no one in the facility saw me fall so I quietly backed out of the facility. I made it into the darkness of the blast wall and edged around to the exit. All the time expecting a hand to land on my shoulder or a searing pain to erupt in my chest.
The heat of the desert hit me like a wall, but I kept circling around the perimeter of the base until I found shade. Out of the heat, I caught my breath.
"It is not finished just yet," a voice said quietly, and dim memories and pain started to flood back into my mind. "It might take a while for all the bits to fit," the voice said, "but right now, you need to be out on the salt lake, sheltering under Chas’s plane."
I took one last look, but seeing nothing, ran down the path to the lake surface and Chas's biplane. I sat under the wing, sweat and salt pouring off my body, as a jeep came roaring onto the lake towards the plane. Then something strange happened to me. It was like watching something that had already happened, like I was an actor in a play and I could not change the lines.
Chas and Benedict jumped out of the jeep. They were both worried and had one of the techs drive me back home. Over the next few days, I drifted, watching my body go through all the dull predictable motions of ordinary life.
Then, one morning on 11 November 1975, I awoke and everything was different. Nothing like a time quake, just, I was not a passenger anymore. My body did what I wanted it to do. That day, the news came of the fall of the Whitlam Government and, for a while, there was talk of revolution and civil war.
I tried to put the artefact to one side, but I still had a clear disconcerting recollection of the future. So I cadged a lift out to the temporal site with a tent and sleeping bag. At the end of the road where the facility buildings had been, there was just desert and old concrete. I followed the line of the old creek south and walked down into the depression of a small salt pan. There was no sign of a base or a silo. Just the dry surface heating in the morning sun. So I walked to the edge of the rise, and I set up my tent and climbed in, out of the sun. I looked down over the great salt lake stretching away into the distance, and the brown island shaped like a massive pyramid that sits near the middle and a hawk that patrolled from that vantage.
So maybe it had just been a dream after all.
I stayed there the whole day, watching and waiting for something and gathering dry kindling from the small hard bushes along the path. But I found nothing. The sun fell into the west and the wind rose pushing dust and salt crystals high as sky darkened and the stars emerged. Then the wind dropped and the crystals dropped to earth, shimmering in the red light of the horizon. I watched the crystals fall to the lake surface, and, in the glow of the fallen sun could make the nearby faint crisscrossed tracks of a plane on the hard salt surface of the lake.
I lit the fire and watched the sparks fly into the sky. I took out the artefact and looked at it in again, wondering if I should bury it in the salt here or throw it onto the lake. I held it and flicked in onto transmit, “So, what do I do now?” Just static in return.
In the morning I walked back to highway and hitched into town.
The years passed. I went to university in Canberra, got a job and finally left the city to go live in an old farm house far out in the bush. No time quakes. Not one.
I tracked down Chas and Dawn. I visited them when they moved to a farm near Nowra. They had a daughter early in the piece, who grew up and drifted to the city.
We never talked about the past or the future. None of us wanted to call up the wolves of the past.
The occasional fishing trip ended up become a little more. There was an old boathouse at the bottom of his place.
I saw the determination in his eyes, so took a couple of weeks off work and came to help him. During the days I helped him strip it back, repair the exterior and then rebuild the interior with a bedroom on an upper deck. And a bathroom, that could make steam.
We worked quietly. The gentle wash up under the deck, the regular vibration of a motor, the silence broken with a gentle rhythm.
At nightfall we would come up to rest with Dawn and she would spend time providing detailed and thoughtful advice about my private life. Early in the morning, before dawn, we would escape down to Chas’s plane dock and spend an hour fishing, often just returning with a smile and a memory of the first light.
11 May 2015
Dust particles dance in the light.
One day, a black cat decided we had been building the place for it. It stayed despite a couple of poorly aimed stones.
A day later we finished putting the final stain on the upper deck of the boathouse and retired back up to the farm house.
She leaned into him feeling the Earth move.
Dawn was watching the TV. “If it isn’t a new war somewhere, it is young people exploding a fuel station near Bowral,” she growled.
Chas stood. He casually walked to the windows overlooking the bay and the boatshed.
“No accounting for young people. When did you say this happened?”
“Last night apparently. Led the highway police on a chase," Dawn stood and came down to stand with him.
They stood together for a moment, until she continued, with a smile, " I don’t understand how parents can let kids grow up thinking that that sort of thing is ...”
Her words were drowned by the sound of a motorbike which
shot past the old two storey house
with a commanding view of the bay
and then down a rough track
to an old boathouse at the water's edge.
1. The author
Originally from the outback deserts, Peter Quinton now lives in the mountains above the Molonglo High Plains in Australia. After a career in public law, he is taking a little time to reflect and regroup. Watching the world and telling stories.
He loves old tales and wild places. Lawyers don't get much time to tell their own stories or pick their own paths. Instead, he spent the last decades framing a constitution and rewriting the civil law. He used to count a republican form of government, a uniform law of defamation and effective financial management laws as personal achievements. These days he hunts different experiences.
Student of Norse history and the Danelaw.
Three Wishes (2015)
Palladium, Book 1: Looking for Spring (2015)
The Dragons Eye Diptych
Volume 1: Dragons Eye (2015)
Volume 2: The Eye of the Storm (2016)
Short Stories and Fragments
The Parkes Cycle, Book 1: The Long Tailor (collection) (2014)
Cliff Side (2016)
An Australian Wedding (2016)
The Kormak and Steingerd Cycle (collection) (2014)
The Wolves of Ragnarök Cycle (fragments) (2006 -14)
Recipe Book: Catherine Victoria Edmonstone (food) (2015)
Chant Neoen (sound clip) (2015)
Poetry (fragments) (2006-2014)
You can contact Peter via social media in the G+ stream: https://plus.google.com/+PeterQuinton/posts
Or on his website: http://www.silenttheory.net/
> App1: Heartlines
This story is about a couple of things. I have said it is also about heart-lines, but perhaps not the heart-lines of popular culture.
In popular culture, a heart-line is one of the lines on your upturned palm. Lines vary from person to person. Although fixed at birth they only change through misadventure or the ravages of time. The lines are studied like tea leaves, stars and the entrails of small animals. Some think that they can be a guide to past and present love. Such readings go hand in hand with concepts of immutable fate and time.
Love in popular culture is often reduced to the romantic love of one person for another, generally a woman for a man. But the concept has far broader scope, including the love of a mother for her child, or for the faithful for their god.
For a moment though, let us put the broader reach to one side, and selfishly concentrate simply on ourselves.
When we do, we part company with Socrates, because the concept of a crystalline or abstract form of love is a thousand miles away from the touch of skin on skin. While it sounds grand, it has no real meaning. Unlike the romantics, we are reluctant to say that having loved once and failed, love is no longer within our reach. Yet, while sensual creatures, we are unable to adopt physical satisfaction as the sole criterion of success. While we might understand the point, the attempt of our poets and song writers to describe love in terms of the bliss of being lost in another's eyes and body burns hot then leaves us cold.
But then, when each time we ask ourselves, "Well then, what more is there", we turn to contemplate dishes yet to be washed, dinners uncooked and floors unswept. Attempts to describe love in that wider domestic partnership sense engage different subject matters that can, and must persist regardless of love. Relationship compounded by finance, dependents and washing machines.
From a different angle, do we seek the love of Helen for Paris, or Troilus and Cressida, or Orlando and Rosalind or Odysseus and Penelope? But perhaps our choices have already been reduced to those of Kormak searching in vain for Steingerd? Or perhaps worse, Don Quixote simply inspiring Dulcinea. Does the popular concept of heartlines confirm our happiness or misery, and perhaps render us reluctant to take necessary decisions.
Some have got to this point and concluded that love is just an illusion. Or perhaps it is just a pale jewel, some bauble for the young to chase. Some ask "Does it make any sense?".
And then it starts again, lightly brushing against another's mind.
There can be little question that the subject of love is often quietly put into a basket. Perhaps the same basket we put all complex things or those that with no scientific explanation. Perhaps the same basket we placed the love of a mother for her child, or for the faithful for their god a moment ago. But in times of personal crisis, when we reach in and take it out and hold it to the light to seek real understanding, how then can we tally it with a reading of a heart line at odds with our circumstances. Our heartline might be trouble free, while all around are awry finances, crying dependents and broken washing machines.
Akin to all manner of pre-scientific lore, the subject of heart-lines is full of chaff and hardly warrants serious consideration. If it adds a layer of anxiety and distress it is worse than useless.
Still, some practitioners have skills that defy explanation. Sensitive to the person they sit with, they sometimes adapt folk wisdom hidden within the dross to challenge the present. Here the reading can mobilize those stuck in the morass of indecision or by the collapse of trust.
It is then that a heart-line becomes real and starts to burn, providing a catalyst for future action.
> App2: Time Travel
We are all time travellers.
We are all equipped with basic navigational facilities - the ability to experience the passage of time and to anticipate coming events. We are not good at predicting coming events, and we do not learn particularly well from past events, even though we could, perhaps be better at both.
Perhaps given our practical experience in time travel, it comes as a bit of a surprise that the discussion of time travel itself is relegated to the stuff of pure fantasy. At one level this is entirely understandable, those lost in imaginings about what might have been or what might be can become lost and unproductive. Still, there is a respectable side to imagining alternative futures, and we value those who can set out strategies to accomplish or avoid certain future events. Less valued is that advice that traces alternative past events. Still, Bertram Chandler's novel Kelly Country (1981) was such an attempt, tracing an imagined time line from a successful Kelly outcome at Glenrowan into a modern day history that, while mere fiction, illuminates realities and possibilities that we sometimes find inconvenient.
Here I have approached the subject from a different perspective. I have assumed that time has some of the normal characteristics we find in n-space, such as velocity and acceleration. I imagine two things flow from this concept: temporal velocity and time quakes. Time travel into a realm of future possibilities becomes a straightforward matter of giving a person temporal velocity. I imagine that the velocity is relativistic between observers and observed, both continue to experience time as an ordinary rate although the observed move away from the observers at a different temporal velocity. In such a world time paradoxes do not occur. Instead, events occurring in real time (with the observer) are simply promulgated through time into the possible future. Changes are manifested by time quakes. However, time quakes only occur as a result of the actions of the observed on real time.
It works like this. An observer sends an observed into the future. The observer in the possible future transmits the results of a lottery draw back into the past. The receipt of the information send a shock into the possible future, changing it, and those changes are accompanied by a shock - the time quake.
A general theory of events
Intuitively we know that there are pivot events - where the actions of a few can have a dramatic down-stream effect. Some of these were just waiting to happen, and would have happened sooner or later (the gradual increase in wealth outside wartime, the development of new technology under the influence of competition). Others are unique, in the hands of a few and could not capable of replication (examples here might be the 1975 Australian Dismissal or, less obvious, the successful development of scramjet technology, or the Indonesian military reaction to Australian entry into East Timor).
In the short term, maybe individual events are unlikely to impact on individuals, the same people would meet, fall in love and have/have not kids. But over time, enough variability would be added to lead to different outcomes: nice Mrs Brown down the street won the lottery and moved out, and new noisy neighbours moved in, bringing forward your plans to move interstate.
We are often told of the dire consequences of not doing stuff. Some of these are real problems, but we seldom go back and test these, instead, sensibly, concentrating on the future.
So, in this story I have tested changing two pivot events, both real, and imagined the down-stream consequences of the change.
Time Line One
In the first time line, I have imagined what would have happened in the Whitlam Government had not been dismissed in December 1975. This is an old event, tortured to death by partisan Australian commentators in histories and tele-movies. Time has shaped the downstream consequences in interesting ways. The recent death of Malcom Fraser, often portrayed (perhaps correctly) as the villain in this drama, was lauded recently (again, perhaps correctly) by his political opponents as a man of insight and compassion.
The dismissal was well in hand at the time this novel starts, only a catastrophe could have precluded the events unfolding as they did. The catastrophe is supplied in the novel with the additional chaos created by the cat Patroclus, which distracted the power crew from dealing with a power surge which initiated a launch of a weapon carrying missile on Northern Perth. The novel hints at the abandonment of Perth and the re-establishment of the western capital in the north west near Derby or Kununurra.
If the dismissal had not occurred, it is most unlikely that world economic imperatives would have been impacted. International events would have continued to unfold as there have, the Asian financial crisis would have been followed by the Global Financial Crisis. However, the political cycle in Australia would have been disrupted leaving the Labor party in power for many more years, changing the balance of social and private outcomes in ways that are interesting to speculate about. I have assumed the emergence of centralised health and education, a movement into the non-aligned group of nations, the emergence of regional and disappearance of state governments, a partial union with New Zealand, the establishment of a republic encompassing Australasia and pacific island nations. I have imagined that this has come at the cost of burgeoning debt. I have imagined this led to a return to conservative parties (Howard) in 1995 and a precipitous intervention in south Indonesia by the new conservative leading to a short war with that country. The need for escalating defence spending coupled with disruption to mining export channels, leads to the retention of industry protection policies and the protection of failing industries (the Australian airline Ansett, which collapsed with the withdrawal of Government support in real time in 2001). A return to Labor government in the wash-up of war (Beasley) sees Australia exposed to significant GFC impacts and the need to engage in fiscal austerity policies by 2010 (otherwise avoided by strong trade links with China in real time). So the Australia of 2015 in this alternative time line is a large centrist state, bedevilled by defence considerations, large government debt but whose people enjoy significant social support.
None of the events I have imagined here were beyond contemplation at any time and, with the exception of war with Indonesia, all remain on the table.
Time Line Two
In the second time line, I have imagined what would have happened had early testing with scramjet technology in Australia been pursued, at the time.
In time line 2, initiated by the return of Benson's crew, I imagined specific world-wide ramifications, involving rapid technological innovation. The novel identifies a series of outcomes, including the reafforestation of the central Australian deserts and the development of new agricultural areas, the creation of a vibrant space industry and the development of militarised digital industrial base. Important in the plot is the creation of a Base AI, which actively utilises time technology to develop and protect itself.
Unlike the first time line, these developments all have international ramifications. I imagine that the cooling of the Australian deserts would tip the world climate into a minor glacial period and that the intensive farming of the desert area releases a toxic mix of viral agents. Both possibilities have, in the past, been suggested in scientific literature as risks that cannot be quantified. They are known risks that cannot be ruled out, but for which it is impossible to give a meaningful assessment.
The militarisation of digital technology, and the subsequent failure to develop a civil base for this technology is a common and known problem. In the novel it is reflected in two ways: the non-availability of civil digital technology (sorry no apple computers and Windows 10 is not going to happen) and the failure to advance development of technology within the confines of a culture of secrecy (even the military will not have iPhones). The civil choice remains between vinyl and cassette tapes. Defence is still using micro-dots and chinese restaurants.
> App3: Currendelella - the Elven path
I once retold the first people story of how some dried seeds, blown before a tempest, provides a path to the stars, Currendelella. When your time comes to leave for the stars, do not waste time arguing among yourself about who should lead the journey (which might end in peril in the Magellan Clouds or the Unseen River). Instead, trust in the path made by the seeds when the wind blows.
‘Elven path’ conjures an image of a shimmering, almost unreal, path. Those who come upon an elven path may be or become lost. But not all that wander them do so accidently.
Overthinking some descriptions can strip them of magic. ‘Elven path’ is one of those. So my intention here is not to define the term nor seek to explain it. Instead, I wanted to bring together my own thinking about paths and remember how I tripped over the notion, one cold day, in Massachusetts.
I was writing a letter to my parents.
“At the bottom of the hill, a little distant from the old farm house, runs the road. Washington and the continental army marched past the farm along the road before Cook ‘discovered’ Australia and named the great south land “New South Wales”.
From the farmhouse, I can sit and watch the community roll past along the road - an amazing variety of American vehicles (jeeps, Toyotas, Chevy’s, Pontiacs, hummers) at a bewildering array of speeds. As an added bonus, because the town police station is not far distant, the faster passer-bys often travel in the company of a black and white town police car, its lights flashing and sirens blaring.
In the best of Tolkeinian style, the road is called Main Street. Unlike the main streets that dot Europe, all the main streets in Massachusetts lead to Boston rather than Rome. The habit of calling the main street of a town ‘Main Street’ is an ancient practice observed throughout Europe and New England. Originally, only major roads leaving a capital city were gifted with a different name. The ancient Appian Way (Via Appia) led from Rome to the heel of the Italian peninsula in 312BC while the Via Aurelia from Rome to France in 241BC. Even so, the Via Appia was simply known as Main Street in Brundisium. The modern practice of gifting the more confusing pattern of roads within a town or city with fictive names probably dates to the practice in the Republic of naming roads after the Censor who constructed the road, or repaired it.
In Boston, the Main Street that passes the farm house is known as Massachusetts Avenue. At one stage, this was the road that led through the state and beyond, to New York and the other New England cities. But today, it has become a bit of a backwater, overshadowed by the massive Massachusetts Turn Pike, the haunt of the state police.
The Pike cuts through the forest to the south, far distant from this sleepy town. Today, those who travel on the Main Street seldom travel far from home. A historian started his history of Spencer (written in the 1890’s) with the warning that nothing of any importance had ever happened here - even going so far as to apologise for the lack of witches and slaves. But this was deceptive praise based on the humour of the time and the dream of splendid isolation. For in the earliest days of the district, during English rule, witch prickers included Spencer in the spring hunt and slavery was not uncommon. Far from being devoid of history, the town was replete with small factories (shoe makers and wire drawers), was the home of the Howe family (the inventors of the sewing machine and spring beds) and any number of people slain through love or lack of it. But even so, long-distance travel was as uncommon then as now.”
Starting from the modern, the tangible, I was struck by the modern need to construct and then name our roads. Almost as an afterthought, I stumbled over Tolkien’s descriptions of roads and paths in Middle Earth, reminding me that paths were originally established by usage and geography rather than bulldozer. While the shadow of the modern world may drown some of the paths in darkness, traces may still be seen everywhere.
I was particularly taken by Tolkien’s descriptions of the elven path through the dark forest of the Mirkwood (The Hobbit, Queer Lodgings). I remember getting on a bike one day, and leaving the safety of the Main Street and starting to explore the underlying paths and passages all around me. Near the old farm house in Massachusetts are the forests which have now reclaimed the low farmland once attached to it. Through the swampy northern forests are the old paths. Back in Australia, near my farmhouse in Palarang, is part of an ancient trace, one the young blacksmith Alexander Ross followed to his tragic death a century ago. Having, started to write about the modern road, I found myself enjoying the passages of the old ways, a fascination that led to the Natchez Trace and one of the Australian equivalents, the Yuin Trace.
There is magic in those paths. In fall or autumn, as the season turns and the forests lose life hue, the places can become surreal, beyond beautiful. It is then that the old paths start to shimmer. Walking or running along them can lift you out of yourself, briefly settling into the footprints of those who went before. But, because the paths are organic, representing sensible passages, travelling along the paths can tell you things that might not otherwise be obvious.
I had learnt about and followed the paths of the first people when scouting for firefighting. Two images still reoccur to me. The first, in turning through the high bush and coming upon a mountain-side vista untouched by the modern world. I stood, suddenly realizing that here I could see exactly what those who had come before had seen: a hundred years ago, or twenty thousand. The second, a day or so before the Canberra firestorm, when in following one of the shimmering paths, with the bushfire to my back, I came to a cliff edge and saw the city of Canberra below me, close in arrant disregard of the danger.
More recently, in briefly touching on the life of a settler who once lived nearby, I was able to revisit some of the old paths, sometimes on a borrowed stock horse or, just as often, on foot.
“The First People created permanent walk-ways, the Yuin Trace, through the forests bordering on the high plains from the mountains to the West, the Brindabellas and Tidbinbillas, through to the Eastern coastal areas. For tens of thousands of years, the paths making up the Trace were protected by Law, remembered in Dreamings, described in maps drawn on rock and sand, and kept clear through regular burning and use.
The paths were later recorded on the silks used by early European surveyors to draw their fine maps, along with the names of waterways and other features, including vegetation and mountains. Much of the Trace was early designated as a road reserve, and with some exceptions, remain out of private ownership.
Early European settlers used the Trace for travel. Through the mountains, it was often the only viable path. The Trace bisects rivers and streams at fords, reasonably safe for crossing save when the waterways were fed by flooding rains.
Eventually, gravel and tarred roadways were constructed on the ancient path. Today, we travel these paths, seeing many of the same vistas as all those who came before us, for tens of thousands of years.
Some of the more wealthy graziers attempted to restrict public use of these new public roads across their holdings, some corruptly exerting political pressure to install numerous public gates along the road (requiring users to dismount to open and close the gates) and then providing alternative roadways with no gates over land with little farming value (land frequently flooded or across hill tops). Others persuaded authorities to build new roads that benefitted private interests rather than those championed by more practical men, like Mick O’Connell.
In the late 1880’s, public indignation was spurred on when the wealthy owners of Foxlow Station installed five gates across the public road through the property. When the gates were declared public gates, a petition with 200 names on it protested the change. A local correspondent to the Queanbeyan Age complained: “A daily mail will run shortly, and the mailman has to get down every time, which should not be; besides, it is extremely awkward for those who have spirited horses, as there is now, and likely to be, great traffic from Bungendore to the Flat.” Public indignation did not secure a better outcome - the public road was so inconvenient to use, it was eventually shut, and an alternative (but more difficult and longer) track provided up into the hills to the East.
Large landholders, who provided most taxation revenue for public works, also resisted funding improvements to roads, and especially bridges, which were very expensive and were prone to being washed away.”
In writing about the remarkable collaboration between Sub-Inspector Wright and the aboriginal policeman and tracker Sir Watkin Wynne I travelled one of the more difficult stretches of the path.
“He paused, remembering the sheer rocky cliffs, the silven cascades of the mountain streams, the cool mountain air. He remembered being there with Sir Watkin Wynne, retracing that escapade a couple of years later, the old man teaching him the names of the birds, the plants and the cascades. He could still point to traces of the passage of the bushrangers, made years before.”
Finally, in reviewing the old Eddas, I have looked at the notion of the two great constructed paths - the Bifrost and the Gjallarbru. The Bifrost is a work of high technology, shimmering and beautiful, like a rainbow, burning in the sky. But it can fail, and does, under the weight of the horde from lower of the nine worlds in the final days. The Gjallarbru is less known, a covered or woven bridge glittering with gold, to travel on it you must survive a challenge of the maiden Modgud.
So, my conception of a shimmering path started to firm as something that was hidden and yet could be stumbled upon or accessed by those who knew - fey, dangerous and fragile, a shortcut to great benefit.
This meaning fits nicely my idea of a pathway into the future, or the past.
> App4: Your very own time machine in ten minutes
We have all been watching with wonder, the pictures of Pluto from the NASA New Horizons probe.
The probe is special for lots of reasons, but perhaps one of its less well known characteristics is that it has been propelled at such velocity as a result of the sling shot from Jupiter, that (as predicted by the theory of relativity) it is now in the future. We are in its past. So, those photos of Pluto have come to us from the future.
It is not far into the future (the probe would need to get close to light speed to achieve that), but New Horizons is enough in the future so that telemetry and communications depends on observers taking the slight time shift into account.
All well and done, but what practical application does this have?
The probe is heading away from us, but let us consider two different cases:
1. Assume that the probe, at some time in the future, is retrieved and returned. While now motionless on the floor in front of us, it remains in the future. What we have in front of us is it, as it was, in the past.
2. Assume that the probe slows dramatically and does a loop back to Earth. As it flies close to the Earth, for reasons of safety, NASA destroy it at time T in location XYZ. Note that just before destruction the probe has survived time T and left location XYZ without a problem.
Now, the probe is a pretty special case because it has a lot of velocity packed into it, but it has also pushed it outside the parameters of the wave that determine ‘the present’ within our own time frame.
When we look a little broader than ordinary physical objects, iron steel and wood, we find some sub-atomic particles that can be given velocity far in excess of the New Horizons probe. Some theorists suggest that here lies the possibility of time travel. Others suggest that instead of velocity, we might deploy the force of gravity. On the basis of such theory, some have started to design elaborate machines with injectors, linear accelerators and black holes. Which are all a bit outside our budget and time today.
Uncertain of the Certainty?
Before going any further, let us just do a quick environment scan.
Why do we want to go into the future, anyway?
There are heaps of really good reasons. It is fun knowing what new music is going to come out next week, who will win the tennis or what numbers are going to drop for the lottery. Actually, it sounds more than fun, it could be profitable...
But what if the future is uncertain?
What if the future we might experience never happens? Let us go back to case 2 above. There is no certainty that the future that might be observed will eventuate. The only certainty is what happens as the current time wave fixes the present into the historic, unalterable past.
So, while it might look and feel real, the future is simply a probability cloud, always being capable of being collapsed or altered in the present.
Still, there may be lots of good reasons to peak into the future, although fun and profit might no longer be primary motivations. We try to create the future, spending a lot of time designing increasingly sophisticated models of the future. Some of the models are very accurate, others are junk. Weather forecasts fall into the latter category.
So you want to play with Magic?
Not fazed by uncertainty? You still want to go into the future and you are tapping your feet and reminding me that the ten minutes is almost up and we have yet to put a single nail into the first piece of wood.
Consider the first case above. Each of us have been made from the stuff of stars: some bits incredibly old, already pre-stressed with incredible forces at the centre of gravity wells or accelerated by the death throes of our old home. Through velocity or gravity, bits of us are already embedded far into the future.
You are already your own time machine. Ok, they did not give me a manual either, and I have never been really sure what the red buttons are for. We all have to work it out as we go along.
No promises broken. I simply said I would have you in your very own time machine in ten minutes. I did not say I knew how to make it fly.