Wednesday, 1 March 2017

(Novel) Catalyst

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.

Only part of the first chapter is available here at present as the book is being rewritten for publication on Amazon.

Copyright 2016 Peter Quinton, Published by Peter Quinton


Catalyst speaks:

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. 


Real Time

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.


The remainder of this book is being rewritten for publication on Amazon in early 2018.

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