Catalyst: A New Earth (1) - (6) (Final installment)
This is the final installment of the online edition 'Catalyst', first published on G+ a couple of years ago. To read from the start of the story, GO HERE.
Copyright Dark Aelf, 2021
(1) Nine ways to sorrow
Mission Control T+274 Nov 10 1975 18:36, Catalyst timeline June 7 2015 16:40
A flash of light lights up the room, and a rumble travels through the ground. A mild 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 cold fresh air washes through the chamber. The time gate is illuminated. It slowly changes from a dull gray, taking a blue hue.
The reactor picks up the 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 characters 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 storeroom lift, 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 throughout 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 dark 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 whisk him away.
A senior man, dressed in an army uniform comes forward to Benson. He salutes, and says, “General Paige. Happy 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 traveling 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 are 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 quickly 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 hears 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 croplands 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 the 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 want. Vinyl is much better.”
Benson nodded as they pulled into a long white building close to the outskirts of the city. He whispers, “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 timeline 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 desert predominates around the equator, with painfully small patches of green.
She tried to make out the coastline of eastern Australia, where her home had once been. An unfamiliar coast now prevails, patterned with great bays and inlets she refuses to recognize.
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.
Happy 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 were 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 maximize 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 mainly 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 enter the base.
Brent asked, “What is the story with Catalyst? I have been on Calisto; 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 at the base with us, it certainly spooked Catalyst. As for his injury, some 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 believe that 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 presentation by the military and discussions about the varying successes of rejuvenation treatment and 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. It 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 beautiful 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 guessed when you explained what you were going through, I did not 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 timeline. 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 traveled?”
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 artifacts. 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 believe that they are struggling with the same problem I am and they will take their 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 timeline 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 artifacts 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 travelers, Catalyst and he, had the 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 new advisors, the artifacts were brought forward and added to the equation.
The force-field opened as the group moved through it, but just as the commander radioed success, all of the advisors were painfully wrenched back outside the field, leaving Chas, Dawn and a wheel-chairbound Catalyst. Chas reached down and picked up the artifact. 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 recognizes Cannonball and Catalyst. I need two agents to authorize the continued presence of the other time traveler in this facility.”
Chas says, “I can authorize Dawn, but agent Catalyst is incapacitated...”
The Station AI states, “Agent Labrinth has just been contacted and authorizes 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 at all points of time, and that other beings are found 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 speed 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 timeline 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 kids take places around her, talking excitedly among 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 skydome, 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 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 moldy firmament
3. From chaos, we come
From dust created in star anvil
Sometimes volatile enough to cancel
Sometimes 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 the ground, green life did grow
Her voice carried across the meadow, to a full 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?
Ax time, sword time: shields are broken, Wind time, wolf time: ere the world falls Nor ever shall men: each other spare
Labrinth turns 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 listened 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 murmurs, “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 color 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.”
(5) 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 fade into the background quietly.
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 timeworn. 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 a bit of a distance from the time gate when it ischarged a bolt of electrical energy 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 dome. 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 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 whispered, 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 looked for me. 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 artifact 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 the sky darkened and the stars emerged. Then the wind dropped, and the salt crystals fell 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 artifact 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 the 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 farmhouse 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 becoming a little more. There was an old boathouse at the bottom of Chas and Dawn’s 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 was 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 return with a smile and a memory of the first light.
(6) Dust to Dust
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 farmhouse.
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-story house with a commanding view of the bay and then down a rough track
to an old boathouse at the water’s edge.