Catalyst: Nuclear Strike

 This is the new online edition 'Catalyst', first published on G+ a couple of years ago. A new piece of the story will be published to the site every couple of days. To read from the start of the story, GO HERE.

Copyright Dark Aelf, 2021

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 the 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 inquiries surrounding the disaster.

In the following ten years, they set up home in an apartment in central Adelaide, across the ovals from the city. As government medical services expanded, she took a job at 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.

He did some crop dusting on her father’s property in between times and almost became a cattle thief. 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 working on a rented 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 significant 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 farmhouse 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 the 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 take turns watching her sleep, her head on his arm. Her skin pale in the moonlight. Unfamiliar smells were drifting through unfamiliar rooms.

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.

May 7, 2014: (T+265 hours)

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.

After he and Catalyst were sent into the future, there were lots of time quakes. But once Mission Control was shut down, the quakes became an annual event. It became apparent 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 a 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 drained. 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 dock and the boathouse. All for nothing. Back in another timeline, 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 catch up 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 timeline. 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 his notes about April/May 2014. He read:

“Labrinth sent to meet Catalyst at Sydney meeting place. Returned with no solid information but reported a difficult 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 what 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 last quake and what that lottery of change might gift or curse him.

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 the government still propping up most enterprises. David has a girlfriend 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 it 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 pier 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 tightly.

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