by Jeff Williams
Nightwatch Created by Jeff Williams
Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moriyama
The nearly empty flask by his side gave off a weary slosh. Well, he thought, at least there's that spring back in that big chamber. At least I won't die of thirst. IF I can find the chamber again.
Max had been an avid caver for nearly ten years and had explored all types of cave systems. While many of his fellow hobbyists stuck to wide open caves with little in the way of narrow passages or tight corners, he had grown fond of the truly challenging ones, the ones that required knowing how to compress one's chest to its limits, the ones that required absolute faith that the unseen space below one's feet was passable and led to further treasures. The ones that no sane person would willingly go into with partners, much less alone.
There was the rub. Max, in violation of every caver's creed, in defiance of every shred of advice ever given him by those with far more experience than he, loved the thrill of going it alone. Certainly, there was the possibility of getting lost, of suffering serious injury, or of becoming wedged after misjudging a seam. These were, however, remote concepts, distant ephemeral things...until now.
Max's headlamp flickered once again, and he quickly tapped it to restore the loose connection playing havoc with the light. It was the temperamental illumination that had driven him to his current predicament. While climbing along a diagonal shaft, the lamp went out for the first time, and in the struggle to restore it, much of Max's equipment had fallen, and his map had fluttered away. It had taken awhile to restart the lamp, and in the process he had become completely disoriented. All of the reasons for never caving alone finally, in this terrible moment, crystallized. At the time, he cursed himself and his lack of care in both maintaining the headlamp and in failing to bring along an alternative light source. In the parlance of caving, he’d revealed himself to be a mere spelunker.
Breathing deeply the cool subterranean air, Max pushed himself back from the dead end to the small chamber that for the moment was acting as his home base, and as he sat, he tried again to register the direction the wind was blowing from, but the cave system was scattering it into untraceable eddies. He rubbed the salt and pepper stubble on his pale face, and his brown eyes darted around the chamber. Bitterly, he remembered his brother Jack's offer to travel with him, remembered the raspberry ale he'd drunk at the bar in Boulder, remembered the lovely bartender with green eyes and small breasts he'd always meant to proposition.
A blast of warmer air smashed into the side of Max's face, startling him and causing him to breathe in sharply. He looked around, trying to capture the fleeting memory of where the air had come from. Rubbing his now wide eyes, he quickly decided to take the right passage, the one which curved upward and then headed down a shaft he'd found to be too smooth to try, at least at that time. Now, however, things were decidedly different.
His hands beside him on the wall, his feet supporting him on the opposite side of his body, Max stopped to reassess his decision to descend the shaft, and to wish that his supply of rope was still with him. While he was quite adept at free-climbing, the shaft was proving difficult. As he had feared, it was very smooth, though not unusually so, and it was slow going. To make matters worse, the little grip he could get lent itself to downward motion only. Pulling himself up was much more difficult and was something he was not keen to try: death with dignity--rather than slow death, injured and unable to move deep within a cave system--somehow seeming preferable, if indeed death proved to be his only option.
It was during this moment of contemplation that another blast of warm air passed, this time definitely from below. Suddenly feeling renewed by the sense that he was heading if not somewhere safe then at least somewhere, he resumed his downward journey.
Ten minutes later, he reached the base of the shaft and slid sideways into the only available passage, a craggy tunnel filled with dust and debris loosened by whatever was happening in the caves. As he crawled through a particularly narrow and low portion of the passage, Max was suddenly aware of something he never expected to see this far down--light. Impulsively dowsing his lamp, he found that indeed there was light. He stopped to ponder what was happening. Quickly, he ruled out phosphorescence as the light was too strong to be natural, and he ruled out hallucinations as well since he wasn't that far away from his last meal or his last good night's sleep. After running through all of the possibilities, he was left with only one option: it was artificial light. His eyes widening, Max slid forward as fast as he could through the narrow passage.
The last part required his crawling on his belly through a low overhang followed by a tricky banjo upwards. Slowly, he emerged at last behind an outcropping of rocks, and what stood before him threw his heart into a spin.
The chamber was partly natural, partly excavated to make it somewhat larger and rounder. Bolted into the rock were four large halogen lights providing strong illumination for the room. Circling the walls surrounding the chamber, four large rings had been mounted. The rings were emerald green colored, and black supporting brackets could be seen every four feet. Cabling and other wiring were mounted into these brackets. On a black slab in the middle of the circle, a small white vase sat. On the wall opposite of Max and just behind the rings were two openings, which seemed to lead into further rooms. The light was brighter from these, and he jumped at the chance to be rescued. Climbing over the rocks, he tried to find a convenient way through the rings but then had to settle for more crawling under the small gap at the bottom of them. After moving under them, he was halfway to the other side of the chamber when he stopped to look at the vase. Among all of the machinery and other items in the room, the vase seemed the most incongruous.
Falling to his knees, Max picked up the vase. While it seemed to be made out of porcelain, nothing about it was particularly special. In fact, it looked like something he could pick up any weekend from his friend Krissy's flea market. He was about to put it back and proceed under the other side of the rings and then through the opening when something in his mind started ringing alarm bells. Max needed rescuing, he knew this without question, and he knew that he would die in the caves without help, but the situation was too bizarre. Something, he was certain, was seriously wrong, and it wasn't just the machinery that told him so. Krissy would have called it woman's intuition, and for a second Max pondered if such a thing could be caught.
Quickly replacing the vase, he crawled back under the rings and hid himself behind another outcropping.
A loud hum began filling the area, and the emerald green light from the rings intensified. Over the sounds of the humming, Max was certain he'd heard voices, but the pounding in his chest and in his ears prevented him from making out the words. With great effort, he lifted himself far enough on the outcropping to see what was happening.
The rings were now three times as bright as they had been, and energy was visibly swirling around them from left to right. A light breeze had begun blowing in the room, also from left to right. Across the room, the openings Max had been heading for were now covered by thick metal doors. The rings then glowed more violently, and the hum transformed itself into a loud buzzing sound.
In the center of the apparatus, the vase glowed in a strange, ethereal, green light as energy was broadcast onto it from the surrounding rings. Max was transfixed by the eerie beauty, and for a moment his fears subsided. The light from the rings began to pulsate and dance and then, in a flash, began closing in on the vase like constricting rings of smoke. Max craned his head farther forward to get an even better view, but as he shifted weight onto his leg to push up, it was grabbed by a pair of strong hands.
Max fell immediately onto the hard rock floor and, without pausing to assess the situation, fought back with all of his might.
"Listen to me," someone said, "listen dear fellow. You don't understand...you don't..." Max swung, and his fist connected with someone's jaw, and as it did, he took his first conscious glimpse of his attacker. Judging by the figure's gray-white hair, Max could tell he was an older man, perhaps in his late forties or early fifties. However, just as Max's confidence of winning the fight began to spike, he was thwacked solidly against the neck with a heavy wooden walking stick, and he fell hard onto his side while the stars danced in his head and while a knee planted itself firmly on his chest.
Pulling himself together on pure adrenalin, Max was about to counterattack when fast moving clouds of green energy flew over the rock and then sank only inches above his head. His attacker had dropped to the ground instantly and just barely missed being engulfed. Max's breathing was fast and shallow, and his eyes were open wider than ever before. Debris fell all around them.
"That, my pugilistic friend," the older man said, "was what I was trying to warn you about. Damnit, that was my favorite stick!" The man stood up and immediately offered his hand to Max. The caver, reluctantly, took the man's arm, but before Max could use it for leverage, he found himself being pulled upright by the older man.
"And just who the fuck are you?" Max growled, marveling all the while at how much strength the figure seemed to possess. The man smiled and tsked tsked the caver before wincing and rubbing the side of his face.
"Excellent question," the man said while massaging his jaw. "On the one level, you can think of me as the guy who saved your ass. If that, as a form of identification, is insufficient, then call me Simon." Simon looked around quickly to see if anyone was approaching. "While you make up your mind, follow me. The technicians'll be here any second to check on the remains of their handiwork."
"What technicians? What handiwork?"
"Just over that rock," Simon said while motioning behind him, "unless I'm very much mistaken, is a rapidly disintegrating porcelain vase. A rather cheap vase, but formerly solid nonetheless." He pointed towards a passage. "They won't be happy if they find us, and thanks to you, I’m in no mood for a fight." Max stood blinking at the man, and before the gentleman could stop him, the caver scrambled back onto the outcropping. As he did, roughly a tenth of an inch of new, loose rock flew behind him.
Max had just lifted his head up to see when he saw the last of the vase, or at least the last of it in a recognizable form. As the green glow settled further into it, the vase crumbled into several large pieces, and then the pieces themselves began to crumble. Max suspected that if he watched long enough, even the remains would crumble. He decided not to wait that long.
"Where we going?" he asked Simon as he climbed back down. Simon--Dr. Simon Litchfield of the Nightwatch Institute, Georgetown, D.C.--grabbed Max's shoulder.
"Somewhere a little safer,” he said. The two of them started up yet another passageway. "Somewhere a little safer."
Behind them in the chamber, the metal doors opened, and three white-suited technicians stepped out. Another door opened on the floor, revealing a sunken staircase that allowed access from one side of the rings to the other. The three descended and ascended the stairs and then gathered around the powdered remains of the vase. One of them scooped samples of the powder into small plastic bags. He held one of the bags up, and the others nodded their heads knowingly. "We'll check it in the lab," the technician with the bags said, "but we all know what we'll find."
"Traveled molecularly," an older technician spoke sadly, "but not physically. This, if you'll forgive the pun, is getting really old." Several other technicians came in to the room and began inspecting the rings and the linkages. They were followed by a tall brunette woman who wore much more comfortable floral "civilian" clothes. The sample bag was held up for her to see, and she sighed and closed her green eyes.
"All right," she said dolefully. "Confirm it, then reset the system for another run. I'll tweak the equations." The older technician eyed the woman skeptically; slowly, as if his joints caused him pain, the man stood up.
"Wouldn't it be wise to wait until tomorrow at least?" he asked, beads of sweat starting to collect on his forehead and on the tips of his coarse, sandy-blond hair. "These repeated operations aren't good for the system. We need to fully inspect the components, make sure we're not..." The woman started to protest, but the technician raised his voice. "...make sure we're not going to blow the whole thing apart!" The woman shook her head then turned to walk out of the room. She stopped at the doors and placed a hand on the wall, almost as if trying to hold herself up.
"I appreciate your concern, Dr. Phelps," she said through the gaps in the rings. "I'll note it in the logs, and I'll note the next test takes place over your objections." She turned her head to view the technicians over her shoulder. "Reset the system for another run. Oh, and call Ms. Ried and tell her to bring the rest of the generators online." Shaking his head and eying his colleagues, Phelps finally nodded his ascent.
"We'll do our best to make sure everything's in order." The woman smiled kindly and started to walk away.
"That's all I ever ask, doctor," she said. "That's all I ever ask."
"You heard her," Phelps said mournfully, and the others jumped up to attend to their duties. “One of you needs to at least run a quick calibration on the emitters.” Phillips sighed and shook his head.
Tom Weldon sat on a small grassy plateau overlooking the valley between three biggest mountains in the area. It was after midnight, and though he was dressed quite warmly, the Gortex coat didn't seem to be keeping out quite enough of the cold. He flapped his arms and jogged in place for several seconds before sitting down. He pulled a piece of jerky from a pouch and gnawed on it. The jerky, he was happy to say, had been his idea. A good distraction technique, the psychologist thought, for those moments when nervousness or boredom threatens to overtake you. Leaning forward, he grabbed a heavy pair of binoculars with his free hand and surveyed the valley. For the most part in the darkness, there was nothing to see, but then the scenery changed. At first glance, it appeared to be a campsite of some sort, with many trailers clustered about in a small area. But then there were the large generators, the satellite dish high on a pole above a van, the cabling running into the mouth of a cave, the men and women in white coats.
As he watched, someone who appeared to be a small woman emerged from the cave and began motioning to several others. Tom could see the puffs of steam as the people spoke to each other. Heads nodded in agreement, and then the activity picked up. More men and women in white coats moved to an area just beyond the trailers and began removing green (though in the darkness they appeared black) coverings from more generators.
"Interesting," Tom said, though truthfully to him it wasn't. It was only the damn cold. Still, he thought, I'm glad I haven't started the Atkins Diet yet. I'd rather be out here than deep in this heap of rock. Tom looked behind him towards a spot which he couldn't see in the darkness but which he knew was there--a small hole fringed with so much dry grass that it was nearly impossible to see even in good light, yet somehow Simon's people had discovered it was there. He remembered Stephanie sliding in quite easily followed by Litchfield. Litchfield had a more difficult time, and as he slowly descended, Tom was put in mind of cork in a wine bottle desperately trying to push itself in rather than out. Tom had no intention of ever being a cork. Besides, there was that nasty case of claustrophobia that always seemed to crop up in caves. Years of therapy had cleared up most other incidents of it, but never the caves.
Serves you right, Tom thought as he reflected on these events and upon Dr. Simon Litchfield, the erstwhile leader of these expeditions. Drag me into these situations, give little or no information to work from, and then expect results. Why, he thought, why do I let him talk me into these things, particularly something like this where there was no way I could actually go into the caves? Still, Tom had to agree that there was more adventure on this plateau than was to be found in his staid though comfortable counseling practice back in the L'Enfant Building and that that was the why. The primary why, anyway. At least the only why he was prepared to admit to anyone.
Laughing, he reached down, placed the binoculars on a plastic sheet, and then reached for a black box. After unsnapping the metal clasps, he popped it open and revealed a laptop-like keyboard along with other buttons and dials and a computer screen. Then, he removed a small umbrella-like device and attached it in a slot on the side of the box. As he flicked the release, the “umbrella” opened into its proper dish-like shape. Finally, he opened the shutter on the built-in night-vision camera, an action which caused a small light and the machine to switch on.
Before heading for the underground, Simon had told Tom how to operate the satellite communications device along with the proper orientation for the dish. Then, cryptically, he told him to use D-channel only since piggybacks were more difficult to detect there. Exactly what Tom was piggybacking on he didn’t know, and he didn’t care to know.
As the gold bars that indicated signal strength reached “sub-nominal,” which Tom had been assured was as good as was it going to get, he pressed the CALL button and checked a small sheet of paper. “Dr. Weill…Dr. Weill…” he said to himself. He then hit REVIEW LATER, which triggered a digital recording mechanism.
A few seconds later, a grainy image appeared on the screen. A man in an open-necked white cotton shirt stared back, his gray hair protruding in diverse directions.
“Dr. Weill?” a gruff voice said from the box. “What are you doing? Camping out?”
“Dr. Card,” Tom said to the grainy figure in front of him, “thanks for taking time to speak with me. I apologize for how late I’m calling.” Card sniffed and rolled his eyes.
“Your thanks is misplaced, Dr. Weill,” Card said. “Thank Dr. Divakaruni at Georgetown. If I hadn’t owed him some major favors, I never would have agreed to this consulting nonsense. Why do I have this equipment on my desk, and why am I expected to be on call for twenty-four hours?” Tom smiled, but he’d taken an instant dislike for this man.
“I’m sure Dr. Divakaruni will explain everything,” Tom said, wondering all the while who this Divakaruni lady or fellow was in the first place. “Right now, I have a few questions if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, be my guest,” Card said as he sat back and waved his hand dismissively at the screen.
“Thank you,” Tom said calmly as he prepared himself for the incredulous comments he was about to receive. “If you were going to build a time machine, what would be your method of choice?” Dr. Card blinked, the fingers of his right hand in constant motion.
“This,” Card said, “is why I’ve given up going to one of the finest physics conferences in the world? This is why I’m going to be up and down all night? To answer absurd theoretical questions! About time machines?” Tom smiled and tapped an adjustment key to clear the picture slightly.
“Some of your graduate studies did concern temporal mechanics,” Tom said. “Didn’t the idea intrigue you then?”
“Myself and two others fell under the spell of a charismatic charlatan,” he said, “and were lucky to escape with careers intact.”
“Nevertheless,” Tom interrupted.
“Just hitch a ride on a spaceship,” Dr. Card yelled, “or fly around the world eight times on an airplane. Eight times around and you’ve gained a second back…and lost a year or two to airline food!” Tom stared wordlessly at the screen. “You really want to know don’t you?”
“Certainly,” Tom replied.
“If I were fool enough to try, a particle accelerator would be handy. The science fiction boys haven’t gotten this speed idea wrong. A high-energy, high-speed environment would be ideal though, really, you’d only be sending a particle or two, at best, a few seconds forward or backwards, perhaps, depending on the spin.”
“How big would the accelerator need to be,” Tom asked, “and would it have an effect on objects external to it?”
“There’s one in Arizona big enough to do the job,” Card said. “Big as a town, actually. As for your second question…”
“Scratch that one,” Tom said. “What would be your second choice?” Dr. Card stared incredulously at the screen and then breathed deeply.
“Well, Dr. Weill,” Card hissed, “I’d try to alter time for whatever object I was trying to send. Somehow, and I haven’t the slightest idea what the mechanics of it would be, I’d create a well where time moved at a different speed, either faster or slower than that which surrounds it. The object remains stable and in place while the world around it goes its merry way. But,” Card cautioned, “things are very strange at the quantum level. Even if you create a stable time well, I’m not sure you can accurately predict what will happen, how far forward or backward you'd go, etc. Theoretically, of course. This is all theoretical claptrap, and why do you want to know anyway?”
“Thank you for your help, Dr. Card,” Tom said hurriedly. “I believe we have your services for twenty-four hours. I’ll contact you again soon.” With that, Tom terminated the transmission. Even as the protesting image of Dr. Card faded, Tom was already cuing up the digital recording. Quickly, he made a mental note of anything he should pass along to Simon.
Finally, after taking one more look at the activity below him, he picked up a large, black handset. Tapping a three-digit code, he held the handset to his head.
"Field," he said. "Field? Can you hear me?" Tom waited but received no immediate response. "Are you there? Do you read me...Captain Caveman?"
Increasingly bemused and alarmed, Max found himself uncharacteristically listening to the strange man's instructions as the two of them made their way up rocky passages and through low outcroppings. He even listened, without angry response, to Simon's ranting about the lost walking stick. "A lovely present from an even lovelier Swiss woman," Simon protested. "What am I supposed to tell her next time I'm in Berne?" Finally, they came to a small partially lit chamber in which the sound of rushing air was audible. Also present were two backpacks and several bags as well as a woman Max normally would have fallen onto his knees drooling over, but in his state he found himself immune to the charms of Stephanie Keel. Both Dr. Litchfield and Stephanie were wearing black, dirt-covered coveralls. Both had vague dirt rims on their faces, and Stephanie's hair, which was pulled back in a tight ponytail, had flecks of stone and dirt visible in it.
"Have a seat," Dr. Litchfield said, taking off his tan hat and motioning towards the ground, "if you can find one. This place isn't going to make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens." Stephanie, who had been focused on her notes, looked up and eyed the newcomer with some degree of suspicion.
"And just who is this?" she asked Simon. "I wasn't expecting house guests." Simon laughed.
"I think it's safe to say our friend here, Mr....Mr..."
"Max," the caver said, leaning against the cave wall and then sliding to the floor. "Max Cory."
"I think it is safe to say Mr. Cory wasn't expecting us, either." Opening one of the bags, Simon pulled out two small plastic pouches. He squeezed the first one and tossed it to Max. "Have a cold pack on the house," Litchfield said dryly. "I'll have one," he squeezed the other pack, "on my jaw." He placed it on his cheek while Max soothed his aching neck.
"Our man Flint called about twenty minutes ago," Stephanie said while keeping her eyes on the notes. "Said he wanted you to call when you had the chance. Plus," she said, “he gave me a few bits of information to add to the collection. I wrote them on a blank sheet in your notebook.” She smiled widely. "Truth is, I think he's lonely, though he'd never admit that."
"Yessssssssss," Dr. Litchfield said. "Well, let's see what we can find for Max, first, in the way of food," Simon continued, "and then we'll get back to business." He fished in another bag and tossed over a small pack of beef jerky. "I’ve definitely eaten worse food. Surströmming comes to mind.”
"New Bronsfeld Smokehouse!" Max exclaimed. "This ain't gas station trash," he said, "this stuff's the real deal!"
"I'm...so...happy for you," Litchfield said. "Have a canteen as well," he said while tossing the bottle. Max, thrilled by the banquet before him, slid over happily. As he did, however, a loud hissing sound began filling the room. He looked around, trying to see what was happening, before Stephanie physically pushed him to the side and began examining an air hose on the floor.
"Careful," Stephanie chided. "This splice is pretty sensitive. I don't want to set off any alarms if they're monitoring the air flow."
"Them?" Max said with some puzzlement. Both Stephanie and Simon ignored the question. Litchfield, in fact, grabbed his notes, adjusted the light from one of the lamps set up in the chamber, pulled off his black gloves, and sat against the wall. When no one was looking, he massaged his fingers, which were being irritated by the cold and damp of the caves.
"It's becoming pretty obvious," Simon intoned after settling his fingers on the notebook, "judging by all of us in this chamber, that these caves weren’t as secure as they'd hoped."
"I've been caving in these parts for years," Max said before shaking his head and placing the bottle to his lips. He savored the three gulps he allowed himself and swished the liquid in his mouth. "Took a different route this time. What...what is all this? Who are they? There isn't a military base anywhere near here. Unless..."
Stephanie smiled. "Nah. It's not Area 51, Hanger 18, the Manhattan Project, or anything like that. Have no fear." Max nodded at her. "Does the project even receive government funds?" Simon, who was reading over his notes, shook his head.
"No...no, I don't think so." He dropped the notes to the ground and vigorously rubbed his hands together like he was trying to warm them up. "Now, if they'd known about it, that'd be another story entirely." Rubbing his eyes, he looked towards the roof. “I doubt we’d have known anything if it wasn’t for that consulting contract with this state.” Simon looked down at the notes again. “At least this hasn’t called for any specialized knowledge; between the cram course at the institute and the notes, I still don’t know enough about…”
A beeping sound filled the chamber, and Simon scooped up a black handset, tapped three buttons, and held it to his ears. "Yes, base. Base? Base! Ouch....damn static!" He stood and walked towards one side of the chamber. "Base? What? I can't... Say it again! Damnit, speak louder!"
"He always in such a good mood?" Max asked before swallowing more water. He followed with his eyes as Simon muttered epithets and walked in lunatic circles, swoops, jumps, and dives around the rock room.
"I don't think you want that question answered," Stephanie replied. Opening a black case, she began to inventory the contents--various tiny screwdrivers, miniature wrenches, wire cutters, and assorted other implements.
"Planning on field stripping an engine?” Max asked as he watched her.
"TURN...UP...YOUR...GAIN!" Simon pleaded loudly and slowly into the mouthpiece.
"How much has Simon told you?" Stephanie said without looking up. She pulled down another black pouch, this time opening it to reveal a black laptop computer. "Because unless he's done something uncharacteristic, I don't think I need to be too specific right now." She smiled. "Look at it this way, if I told you what the tools were for, I'd have to jab these," she held up the wire cutters, "into the back of your spine." Max eyed her in mid swallow, unsure if she was joking or being serious. She wasn't terribly big, but occasionally her arms flexed enough to reveal a well-developed set of muscles. He believed that she probably could ram the cutters into his back.
"Can you hear me now?" Simon said. "Good! I’m telling them when we return that these little jewels emphatically do not work well in caves."
"I'm not too happy about this, either," Tom spoke into his handset. He raised the binoculars and observed the activities in the canyon. "One day, doctor, we're going to have a long chat about these outbursts."
"Now, now, none of your voodoo," Simon replied. "Before we lose the connection, what's going on?"
"Extra generators are being plugged to the grid," Tom said. "Something go wrong down there?"
"They just destroyed another charmless piece of bric-a-brac," Simon said. "What else?" Tom scanned more of the terrain.
"No one new has come or gone," Tom said. "Just the generators. It doesn't look like they know we're here either."
"Good for us," Simon said without much enthusiasm. "Right...I'll call back in another hour. Try not to go to sleep."
"Sun's up in six hours," Tom laughed. "You never know. I'm just happy I'm too big for the caves." The good doctor's reply was lost in a wash of static.
"Have a good night," Litchfield intoned with mock sympathy. He switched off the handset and then set his eyes on Max. The caver, who was in mid-chew, returned the gaze.
"What?" he mumbled through the half-masticated dried beef. Litchfield's face filled out in a wide, borderline malevolent grin.
"Don't know you at all, do I?" Litchfield asked. "Stephanie? Do you know this man's particulars and bona fides?" Stephanie looked at the caver and feigned a detailed examination.
"No," she finally said, "no better than I did before. He could, though, use a good electric trimmer. Those scissors he uses to trim his beard..." Max jumped up, his hard hat striking a rock on the wall.
"Just a damn minute," Max said, "I don't know you two either! Nyah!"
"Precisely!" Litchfield said brightly. "So you'd better come along with us. We can do a better job of keeping tabs on each other that way." Max blinked then grasped his temples.
"Okay," he said, "I'll take the bait. Where are we going?"
"A litte reconnaisance," the professor replied, "we still have some information to find before a final decision can be made. The sooner we answer some final questions, the sooner I can get out for a little fresh air." Stephanie began sealing up the packs she'd been inventorying.
"Since you're coming," she said, handing the packs to Max, "you can carry these for me." Litchfield and Stephanie started up another passage. Max stood, staring, for a second, before walking forward.
"You got a lotta nerve, lady," he muttered under his breath. "I think you could carry me!" He disappeared around the corner.
The three of them moved slowly along dark passages, and for the first time since seeing the glowing green rings, Max began to feel at home.
"You've been this way already, dude?" Max asked. "You got a good map? Heh! You have two copies of that good map?" Even in the flashlight lit darkness, Litchfield visibly bristled.
"I think," Litchfield clipped, "you'd better lower your voice. There's a pretty good amount of natural ventilation in these caves, and voices carry."
"'Til Tuesday," Max laughed. "I'm not the smartest jerk in the world, but I caught that one." Litchfield laughed lightly and shook his head.
"Well," the doctor said, "you may have some redeeming qualities after all. Have you heard 'Dublin Street' by Pink Floyd, by any chance?" The group stopped while Stephanie consulted her PDA. The passage they were in was clearly displayed. "We still on the right track?"
"Looks like," Stephanie replied. "About twenty-five feet more, and we should be at that break we found yesterday if they haven't covered it over with some machinery."
"Good a place as any," Litchfield said. "Did you see any likely places to plug in there?" Stephanie nodded, and a mischievous smile grew on her face.
"Several actually," she said. "If we have time, I'll take a crack at breaking through the encryption. If not, I'll just hijack a hard drive and do it back at the base."
"Ah, my little vandal," Litchfield laughed. "Watch her," he said to Max. "Kevin Mitnick was a saint until she came along."
"Kevin...?" Max started to say.
"He lies," Stephanie said as she folded the map. "I'm not that old." She turned to start back up the passage. "Besides, he wouldn't have been caught if he'd known me." Max shook his head as if to clear it of the debris caused by Simon and Stephanie’s verbal sparring.
"Are either of you gonna tell me what's going on around here?" Max said softly. "I have a right to know. I never asked for this barrel of monkeys.”
Simon whispered, "Max, just watch and listen. I guarantee that you will learn." They began approaching a patch of light ahead. "And you'll probably wish you hadn't." Simon motioned for everyone to be silent and fell to his knees as they approached the opening.
"...can't be serious," a female voice said. "We can't even analyze how the machine operated in that time!" The three of them crawled closer, a stray shaft of light floating across Stephanie’s face.
"That's what she said," Phelps said. "Quite clearly. Ms. Ried, I know it's madness, so don't waste your protests on me." In the cave, the three of them could hear a sigh. "You think I perspire like this all the time? She's pushed me to this point with these demands!"
"I'm quitting," Ried said sadly. "When these tests conclude, I'm getting a decent research job that isn't leading to a dead end." Phelps could be heard walking to her.
"I adore Dr. Kingsford," he said. "I've really believed in her for a long time. I'm going to see this thing through, but I don't honestly believe anymore that there is much further to go." The two of them began walking off.
"Same results?" Ried asked.
"Same," Phelps said, "traveled molecularly but not physically. Complete decay..." As their voices faded, Litchfield made a motion for Stephanie to proceed. She slid through the opening and then waited as her gear was passed to her from the passage. Next, Litchfield sent Max through. Finally, Litchfield himself followed. Stephanie immediately pulled out her laptop and plugged it into a jack on one of the computers by a rocky wall.
"Dark rock," Max said as he looked around. "Didn't use enough light to brighten it up any."
"I don't think they're concerned about aesthetics," Litchfield said. "At least they've heated this space. Of course, I'm very curious to know what possessed them to come here in the first place." He put a hand on Stephanie's shoulder. "How does it look?"
"Not good," she replied. "The encryption doesn't look too difficult, but I don't want to spend a long time out in the open trying to get through it." She unfurled the pack with the tools. "I'll pop out the hard drive, and I'll throw in this dud I brought along. As long as they don't look too hard, they might just miss that it's been stolen. This would have been so much easier if that external mirroring device had worked as planned.”
"If all goes well," Litchfield said, "even if they do notice, we'll be long gone. Max. Keep an eye around the corner up there. I'll watch the other direction. I don't mean to rush you, Stephanie, but..." Opening the unit, Stephanie quickly began moving into the guts of the machine.
"Won't take long at all, Doc," she said. Simon ventured down the corridor.
He scanned the hall and found no one present, a condition which gave him a little free time to look around. Besides the intermittent lighting and computer stations, there was very little in the corridor. A small desk lay ahead about ten feet, and he moved his way forward. Amid the flotsam of half-used pencils, partially rusting paper clips, and torn scraps of paper, Simon did see one item that caught his attention. It was black faux-leather cover, the kind available from any office supply store, and it housed a three-fourths used yellow legal pad. However, it wasn't the paper that interested him. Inscribed in gold lettering on the cover was the Roman numeral III. He looked to see if it was the name of the company that made the cover, quickly found that it had been made by Archipelago Office Supplies of Ypsilanti, Michigan, then lost interest. The inscription isn't even high quality, he thought, and he placed the notebook back onto the desk.
Simon looked back and saw that Stephanie was nearly done; he was about to walk back when he heard footsteps echoing from ahead. He bounded to Stephanie, then whistled lightly to catch the attention of Max and called him back. Stephanie looked quizzically at Simon, quickly caught his meaning, and began gathering her tools.
Max, who still didn't understand, was caught off guard when Simon pushed him to the floor and then motioned for him to crawl back through the opening. "Quicker," Simon whispered to Stephanie, "quicker." His eyes darted towards the increasingly loud footsteps. Stephanie, having stowed the last of her gear, dove to the floor and through the hole. Simon then pushed through, his feet barely clearing the entrance before two people walked around the corner.
"It's ironic, Mr. Walker," Dr. Kingsford said, "to be perfecting a time machine and yet have so little time. It is not an irony I relish." In the tunnel, where the three of them were keeping silent, Max's eyes popped. He looked at Stephanie, who gave him a look that seemed to say 'Hell of a day, ain't it?' Then he looked at Simon, who appeared to be in contemplation.
"The rings have been inspected," Walker said. "Everything looks good, at first blush, anyway. I'd like to be more thorough, but judging from your comments..." Kingsford laughed heartily.
"They'll work," Kingsford said, "if I have to hold them together with a soldering iron and the great fix-all."
"Duct tape," said Kingsford, who was almost too far away to hear. "The answer to every problem..." The sound of footsteps receded. As soon as he was certain everything was clear, Litchfield motioned for them to head back to the camp.
When they were a safe distance from the opening, Max grabbed Litchfield's shoulder. "What did she mean, time machine?" Litchfield arched his eyebrows.
"Well," Litchfield said, "the combination of words is more or less clear. That woman, Dr. Laura Kingsford, is the inventor of a time machine. In theory at least. That's why we're here.” Max started when he realized he'd grabbed Simon hard enough to stop their movement. He shrugged his shoulders in apology.
"Is it really?"
Simon laughed. "That, my friend, is what we were sent to figure out. With any luck, the info on the hard drive combined with everything we've observed will give us the answers." Simon laughed sarcastically. "Truthfully, I don't think Dr, Kingsford has. She's tried very hard, and the price tag I think has been damn expensive. But, I seriously doubt anyone can call that vase killer a time machine."
"I don't know, Simon," Stephanie said. "It does seem to suck time out of that harmless porcelain. Perhaps they could call it a running out of time machine."
"Maybe," Simon said. "Well, in fairness to Dr. Kingsford, I'm withholding final judgment until I see this last bit of data. But, I doubt anything there'll change my mind." And with that, the three of them headed further into the caves.
Finally, they arrived at the base. Simon and Stephanie sat against the wall while she set about linking the hard drive to her laptop. Max walked in circles like a caged animal. His eyes darted about as his hands ran through his beard. He took off his hard hat and scratched the balding area on the top of his head.
“A time machine!” he yelled. “A fuckin… You can’t tell me they got permits to run a…” Filled with a rage he didn’t quite understand, Max choked back on his own words. "Why isn't the government all over this, then? Or at least the dudes from the state?" Max stared incredulously at Simon. "The jerks in the legislature can't approve road construction without a couple years of screaming. How the hell are they gonna let something like this go, huh?"
“Archeology, Max,” Litchfield said. “This is an archeological dig as far as the state is concerned.” Max was about to protest when Stephanie’s face lit up.
“I’m in,” she said cheerfully. “This wasn’t really that hard. All right, let’s see. Windows, more Windows, more OS files. My there’s a lot of junk on here.” Simon looked on impatiently.
“Anything of relevance?” he asked hopefully. Stephanie scanned the files before finally selecting one.
“Operating logs for the last year,” she said. “This is very sad. Very sad. This file says that component testing took much of the year to complete. Looks like there were a bunch of problems with that.” Her lips moved as she scanned farther ahead. “Heh! There’s a note here about them losing the space they’d originally planned to use for operations, per order of the board of directors. Actually, it looks like they've been evicted from a bunch of sites.”
“Hence their presence in these caves,” Simon intoned, and Stephanie nodded. "I bet there's other reasons, but at least we have one solid lead. Which company is paying for this?"
“Prometheus Corporation. Ooh, things are getting worse,” Stephanie continued. “They finally turned it on five weeks ago. Their first full run wasn’t until three weeks ago, and since then they’ve gone from no effect on the vases to where we are now. Complete destruction. There’s more if you’d like me to search.” Simon waved his hand.
“No need,” he said. “Actually, yes. Anything on there about why they are rushing?” Stephanie looked through additional files. Max, who was only halfway paying attention, looked through the bag of food and pulled out more jerky.
“I don’t see anything other than a note about the next run which is scheduled,” she checked her wristwatch, “for fifteen minutes from now, but the answer is obvious enough. I mean, they’d already lost their original facility.” Simon smiled.
“Her backers are getting ready to shut her down,” he said, “and the good Dr. Kingsford is growing desperate. No responsible, calm scientist would run an operation in this manner." Simon smiled and snapped his fingers. "That's the other reason! How is her board going to shut down something it can't even get to? She's using the caves as a fortress. Well, that about settles things, then.” Simon stood up and dusted off the front of his shirt though that action only ground dirt further into the fabric. Stephanie laughed lightly as she started packing.
“What are you doing?” Max said. He looked incredulously at the two of them.
“Getting ready to leave,” Litchfield said. “Come with me, Max,” he said as he grabbed the caver’s arm and led him towards the time machine. “One more observation should take care of this completely.”
As the two of them walked up the passage, Max tapped the doctor on the shoulder. “Have you actually seen everything?” he asked. “Are you sure they don’t have another machine somewhere? I mean, you haven’t even been over to the other side of the stupid complex to check, have you?”
Simon looked around the corner into another passage. "Mr. Cory," he said quietly, "we're heading back into a rather...sensitive...area again, so this is the last bit of talking for awhile, okay? In fact, Max, I HAVE seen the project, at least the part they've made public, in a manner of speaking." A wry smile crossed his face. "I paid a visit, or at least a state ag inspector who looks a lot like me did. For some reason, archeological digs are assigned to to the state's Department of Agriculture, as if priceless history was so much grain. I have friends who'd have a heart attack if they knew about this."
"Get on with it!" Max said impatiently. Simon bored his eyes into the caver before continuing.
"Yes," he said before clearing his throat, "Kingsford and company have permits to search this area for fossils--remains of mammoths, rare dinosaurs, that sort of thing. She's also promised to bring in substantial revenue to the county and state from a geological theme park her company will build here if the findings are significant enough. While the state, of course, doesn't give a rat’s ass about probing the mysteries of the ancient world, they're overjoyed at the prospect of additional revenues. When I went to visit the 'dig,' I was taken deep into the caves to view the critters their 'team' has found. Of course, they did an excellent job of disguising the power feeds heading in a different direction, but then I knew what I was looking for. Your average inspector wouldn't have had a clue."
"So," Max said, "what are you going to do about this?"
"Do?" Simon asked, a quizzical look on his face. "I'm not going to do anything. I'm going to take one more look at this project, hopefully with your aid avoid being killed by the debris that thing throws out when it fails, confirm that the device is never going to work, and then go home. My friend and I will show you out."
"Just like that? Someone thought this a big enough deal to send you here, and you're just gonna drop the ball?"
Simon chuckled, "Kingsford’s dropped the ball. These tests, according to my sources, have been going on in one form or another for nearly five years. Everything I’ve seen shows it took them this long to reach the point where they can destroy a vase at will. Their records indicate that every way they've gone has been a technological blind alley. I can't imagine her backers have infinite patience. Besides, a few more blasts of that thing and they're going to bring this whole cave down.” Simon pointed to the roof and then to the walls of the cave. “Do you see those cracks? They’re even bigger near the machine. Between its explosive failures and, possibly, uneven thermal contractions thanks to whatever effect on time it's having, this whole system's weakening.” Simon rubbed his face. “I'm not a complete fool! No, I just need confirmation that everything's kaput, and then I'll be on my way." He laughed. "Even better, no one had to die."
Max eyed him suspiciously. "What did you say?"
Simon shrugged. "I'll soon see the sky," he said, and a bright smiled washed across his face. Max was skeptical.
“You are one strange bird,” Max said, and the two of them headed up the final passage to the testing chamber.
The sun breached the cliffs to the east, and Tom admired the view, finding it to be poignantly beautiful in the clear cold air. Breathing deeply, he blinked, trying to stay awake after...after...
How many hours has it been, he thought. It can't have been as long as that. Tom rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands and shook himself, trying to clear his head. Heh, if Simon finds out I fell asleep on the job. He laughed and crossed his arms to close the sleeves from the cold air. Deciding that a cup of coffee was in order, he bent down to restart his portable stove. As he did, he pulled the quarter full pot of now stale coffee from its clamp and tossed the liquid into the scrub.
"Okay, Tom," he said to himself. "Be sure to mix this one so it won't try to walk off the plate this time." He laughed, remembering the bitter, thick, acrid stuff he'd made earlier. After pouring the water and starting to spoon Maxwell House instant in, however, an odd thought hit him, a thought that soon turned his mood to one of alarm. He stared at the rapidly heating water.
"I haven't had any coffee since yesterday evening," he spoke. I didn't want to be too jumpy. But I distinctly remember having some just a few... He looked towards the sunrise, then to the coffee, then to the handset by the rocks. He exhaled a long breath, which wisped away in a vapor fog, and then he dove for the radio.
Fumbling with the device, he had to try three times to punch in the correct code. "Simon," he said, "Simon, this is base! You've got to listen! Something's...."
"…thought the roof was going to fall in after that one," Max said as he and Simon walked back along the rocky corridor.
"Yeah," Simon laughed, "it was spectacularly bad, wasn't it! But, they looked to be setting up for another try. Never mind. We'll just collect my associate, pack our things, and get you out of here before the rocks give up."
Max stared at the older man. "You never did tell me who you were, Simon," he said. "You gonna fill in the blank now, or are you gonna leave me hanging?" Simon reached over and patted Max's dusty shoulder.
"Much as I hate mysteries," he said, "this is as much of me as you need ever know. However, I really hope you have a long, happy, successful life." He smiled. "Just stay away from caves in the future!!"
"No can do," Max said. "Some people want to go climb a mountain. I want to crawl in one. But, you bet, Skeevy or Clem or Krissy or someone's gonna go with me from now on." The caver giggled, but his expression quickly became somewhat serious. "The truth is, Simon, I really don't worry too much about dying. Hey, it's gotta happen sometimes, right? It's dying stupidly that I really fear. If I hadn't found you, I would have either been brained by the time machine, or I would have starved or froze in some corner. I wanna die honestly. What I do know, though, is that I don't wanna run into any more of you!" Simon laughed, but just as they were turning for the walk to Stephanie, Max looked confused. "Simon," he half-whispered, "what was that last one like? A big green blast and the vase being blown to fucking pieces?"
Simon shrugged. "Well, I wouldn't say it quite that way, but I'd agree with the overall effect." Simon was about to comment upon the aesthetic qualities of the color when a thought hit him. Stopping, he cast a quizzical look behind him, almost expecting to see his shadow following him to...
...pressed more keys on the laptop, trying to break the encryption. While Stephanie was in a desperate hurry, she still laughed slightly.
"And what's so funny," Simon chided. "I simply don't see the humor. Without the sequencing code we'll never be able to stop her starting..."
"Don't be so preachy," Stephanie said, tapping more keys, loading other patches from the hard drive. "I just think this encryption is pretty damn clever. It looks so simple, but when you start pulling it apart..."
"I'm glad you appreciate the craftsmanship," Simon said without much enthusiasm. "Sort of like admiring the blade before the scimitar slices your head off." He walked over to Max. "Seen anyone at all?" Max shook his head and then craned his neck for a better view of the far end of the hall.
"I can just make out some whitecoats down a ways, but no one coming here."
"Good, splendid, terrific," Simon murmured, and he walked back to Stephanie. He watched from behind as the screen indicated a partial breakthrough.
"You mind?" Stephanie asked in a slightly irritated tone of voice. "I'm not at my best with people looking over my shoulder." Simon held up his hands.
"I'm sorry. I apologize." He walked to the far wall and sat on a wooden stool. "We've got twenty minutes at most to find Phelps’ codes and stop this before..." His head swiveled quickly towards Stephanie, and he jumped from his chair. Jostling next to her as she gave an irritated cry, he focused his eyes on the time on the lower corner of the screen.
Max looked alarmed and hit the light switch. "Down, down! Someone's coming." Moving quickly, Stephanie folded the screen of the computer and took refuge under the desk. Simon still stood where he'd been until Stephanie and Max physically pulled him down.
"You trying to get us caught?" Stephanie asked. Simon, his face barely discernable in the near darkness, stared blankly.
"No," he whispered. "Far from it, actually. Do either of you remember coming to this room?"
"Sure," Max said, "I remember. We passed the guards and managed to make it here. Our little girl here guessed right."
"Hey," Stephanie protested, "the only one who calls me little girl is Gary Keel, okay?"
"Don't get all bent out of shape," Max said. "Why you ask, Si?"
Simon cringed, but the seriousness of what he was thinking brought him back into focus. "I remember coming here too," Simon said. "But, I don't remember, if that makes any sense." Simon looked hopefully at the two of them, wishing that someone would agree with him. Otherwise, he was going mad.
"No," Max shook his head. "Doesn't sound..." He caught his breath in mid-sentence. "Y'know, I know your boy out there buzzed in and told us about seeing something strange, but I don't..." Simon nodded expectantly, and Stephanie looked towards the two of them as she drew her own memory into question.
"Exactly," Simon whispered. "Exactly. Tom's call, which we all agree we've heard but which we've never actually heard, predicted..." The door handle suddenly started shaking, and the sound of jingling keys echoed in the rocky hallway...
...darkness of 4AM was nearly more than Tom could take. He shivered, and the images through the binoculars shook to the point of their being a constant, vibrating blur. Lowering the heavy glasses, he blew between the lips of his gloves, trying to warm his fingers. Finally, he realized that he had to give in. Reaching down, he turned on a portable hot plate. Into the pot, he poured bottled water, stray droplets missing the mark due to the shaking of his hands. Then, brown powder shaking everywhere, he spooned in heaps of the instant coffee he'd brought with him.
As the pot began to heat, he could see through the red glow that the coffee was going to be too strong. Oh well, better than freezing my ass off! As he looked up, a large meteorite glowing greenish yellow streaked through the sky. As it did, the air was filled with a distinct hissing sound.
"What the hell?" Tom blurted. Oh yeah, he thought. I read something about this. What was it? What was it? Something to do with... Tom looked down at the coffee and suddenly felt extremely confused. His hands shaking, he fished in the backpack for a mug, and it clinked against the zipper as he pulled it free. After pouring a cup, he lifted it to his lips, blew hard on the surface, and took in a large, nearly scalding swig. It burned terribly, but it felt wonderful once it was inside his stomach.
"Definitely too strong," he said, scrunching his face up. "Strong enough to walk off the plate." I knew it would be. I knew it before I even started brewing it. Putting down the cup and grabbing the binoculars, he looked towards the base of the mountain. All of the activity, what could be seen anyway, seemed normal.
Tom picked up the mug and sat back against a rock face. The coffee was too strong, but it would have to suffice. As he sipped the terribly acrid, nutty mix, he tried to place his anxiety. Deja vu is a perfectly normal experience, he thought. I'm not unique. We all go through it. So why am I so rattled, so rattled. He looked to the spot in the darkness where he knew his handset could be found. If I thought something was strange, I'd phone it in to Simon. Something is strange, but I can't put a finger...
...rings began to pulsate and glow with their familiar green color, and soon the vase also took on a similar hue. Simon and Max were just beyond the rings, hidden behind the rocky outcrop.
"Just as we discussed," the doctor noted quietly. Max nodded his assent. He looked below to make sure he wouldn't be brained by any rocks when he fell. Technicians could be seen scrambling about in a chamber just the other side of the rings.
"Ninety-eight!" someone yelled. "Standby! Injection in 10, 9, 8, 7..." The blast doors were closed.
"Smart guys," Simon said. "Smarter than us. Get ready!" The pulsations grew to a fever pitch, and a loud whine filled the air. The energy rings then jumped from the coils and closed in rapidly towards the vase. Simon nodded, and both fell to the cave floor mere seconds before a heavy mix of energy bounced back over their heads, followed by the most violent shaking either of them had felt. Suddenly, they were pelted by a hail of pebbles and dirt. Simon cast a weary eye roofward, risking a heavy eyeful of dust just to make sure that the cave wasn't collapsing around them.
Simon was the first to pull himself up, jumping to the top of the outcrop to view the results. As he did, he noticed that an inch of it had been sheared away. "I'll be glad to be out of here," he said to no one in particular. This time, the vase was nowhere to be seen, only a vaguely white cloud of rapidly dissipating vapor. Max climbed up beside him.
"Somewhere along the way," Simon murmured to Max, "Dr. Kingsford abandoned good scientific judgment. She's guessing! Pumping more energy in than the system can handle." Max shook his head.
"Look, can we just get outta here before something really bad happens?" Simon nodded.
"All right," he said. "I'm not really in the mood to be turned into a shish kabob." And the two of them scrambled down...
"...can't let you do this," Dr. Kingsford said as she hit the ERASE key on the console, clearing away all of the orders to scramble, shred, and otherwise tamper with the source codes to the time machine. "I remember you. Inspector Theo Kolchek of the Department of Agriculture." Simon smiled despite himself.
"If this wasn't so damned important, I'd be flattered. This project of yours has got to stop now." Kingsford shook her head in disgust and walked back behind the tall guard. "Have you any conception of what's going on around here? Have you taken a good look at what this device is doing?"
"I've done nothing but look at it," Kingsford hissed, "for nearly ten years of planning, and for the last five I've done nothing but watch bureaucrats like you try to sabotage my efforts. Oh yes, I know who you are." Kingsford laughed and waved her hands about the room. "You've been sent by the board of directors to pull the plug. You knew I'd never let you cut me now that we're this close. Well, my dears, I'll prove the machine’s worth. After today's tests, I'm certain the equations are nearly stable."
"I've seen what you're calling stable," Simon retorted. "A vapor cloud! You rendered that last vase into energy. No wonder the whole area is on the verge of collapse!"
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," Kingsford said, making sure that the little was delivered squarely onto Litchfield.
"And golf is a good walk spoiled," Litchfield said with a flourish. "Fine, we know our literary allusions, but that doesn't change the danger of what you're doing. In case you haven't noticed, time's collapsing around us, and if you run that machine one more time, the damage could be irreparable."
"And what proof do you have to back this up?" Kingsford scoffed. "Do you have even a quark of evidence?" As Simon was preparing to talk, Stephanie suddenly spoke up.
"I'll give you proof," she said. "What's the last thing you remember doing? Except that isn't the right way to phrase it. You'll remember plenty, but what have you actually done?" Kingsford laughed.
"Everything seems perfectly fine to me," she said chirpily. "Mr. Sable, anything seem strange to you?"
"Nah," he said. "Everything seems fine to me." Max, however, picked up Stephanie's thread.
"Yeah," Max said to Stephanie. "I remember. I mean, I see." Simon scratched his cheek, and he absently began strolling towards Kingsford, but the guards re-cocked their guns and brought the good doctor from his reverie.
"Dr....Dr. Kingsford," he said. "I've no doubt you'll remember any number of things. My friends and I remember perfectly. It's the actually reality of those things that we doubt. What I don't understand is why you can't... Or maybe...maybe..." Simon scratched his chin, trying to quickly assimilate observation, experience, and his quick study of temporal mechanics. "Maybe you've been too close for too long. Maybe prolonged exposure to what that thing does..." Simon's eyes brightened, and he pointed a finger at Kingsford. "Check your log books," he said enthusiastically. "Check them. See if anything seems unusual. See..." Kingsford began laughing.
"I don't have to stand for this." She turned to the guard. "You and Mr. Sable take them somewhere secure. Once this is over, I'm personally calling the board and letting them know I'm not amused by this interloping. That, and the time machine is working despite their unfounded fears."
"Check your damn logs!" Litchfield yelled. "Events you know you've been through won't be there, because they haven't happened yet!" Litchfield ran towards the doctor, but Sable held him back and then pushed him into the wall. "You know, if you're looking to trim your budget," he said to Kingsford, "dismissing the armed goons would be an excellent place to start."
"If they happen to fall down and hurt themselves along the way," Kingsford said to Sable on her way out the door, "that’s fine with..."
...worked quickly, tying the fuses together. "I'm glad you've got confidence in my skills," Stephanie said. "I don't believe for one minute these are going to work." She furiously coiled a wire and attached the end to the small explosive charge. "They might just work too soon.” She lifted her right index finger and sucked on the tip, trying to stop the bleeding from a small cut caused by a stray wire. “I'd give anything for a few minutes to test them out. Or to requisition Mel for the real things."
"I'd give anything to have those normal explosives you didn't want me to use, but I can't have those either. We don't have..." Simon started to voice as he attached the kit to the top of the oxygen bottle. His expression became one of thorough confusion. "We don't have a few minutes," he said, quickly shaking off the feeling. "It's only because of your programming skill that we've delayed them long enough to do this much." Max carried another bottle over and ripped off the mask.
"It won't take them long," Stephanie said. "I'm just glad I planted those processes. I wanted something there in case I couldn't destroy the code before they came back from lunch. Otherwise, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"When we're done," Max said as he laid it next to Litchfield, "how we gonna get 'em to the ring anyway? I know those dudes are gonna be on the lookout for us." Stephanie shook her head and smiled.
"I know what he's going to say," Stephanie muttered. "'I'm guessing something'll come to me.'" Stephanie laughed and turned her head towards Litchfield, her fingers still nimbly assembling the timers. "Isn't that what you were going to say, Doc?" Simon did not appear to be amused.
"Stephanie," he said dryly, "I'll thank you to not try and see the future with me." His expression fell, and once again, he seemed thoroughly confused. "The future? Damnit, it's happened again!"
"Man, it has," Stephanie said as she sat up. "Okay...concentrate...where are we? They locked us up, but we found...we found..."
"A weakness in the plasterboard," Max continued.
"And then a little visit to this storeroom," Simon continued. "This jumping's very disconcerting." Max felt his heart racing.
"You weren't kidding," he said to Simon. "We can't let this go, not if it can do this shit." Simon nodded as he made final adjustments to...
"...field!" Tom yelled. "Field! You've got to respond!" Tom's rapid breaths pulsed into the cold mountain air.
"Base?" Simon said. "Base? I can barely hear you!" The line was filled with static, and Tom had to hold the handset away from his ear.
"Simon," Tom said, "Simon, you don't understand. I've just seen something...experienced something I can't explain. I lost six hours in the blink of an eye. It's...it's like time suddenly jumped. I think Dr. Kingsford's machine..."
"Stop there," Litchfield intoned. "How do you know you didn't...just...fall... Wait...wait a minute. Have we..." The line went silent.
"Simon," Tom sputtered, "you felt it too, didn't you. That feeling that you've experienced things without actually having done them. Like a pot of coffee you didn't remember making." Simon sighed on the other end of the line.
"Think, Tom," he said, "this has been going on for some time now. I can't tell you how long we've been jumping, but..."
...Simon sat with his back against the solid rock, and he stared into an infinitesimal point on the plasterboard on the other side. Stephanie, who was looking through the glass of the locked door, caught him through the corner of her eye. As she turned, she smiled widely.
"I know that look means the great Dr. Simon is thinking of something brilliant to get us out of here," she said playfully. Simon smiled lightly but did not look at her. "Come on. I know you're blaming yourself; I can see it in the million mile vacancy of your eyes." Simon smiled again.
"I was actually thinking two things," he said in a voice just above a whisper. "First, in case you haven't noticed, it's happened again." Stephanie nodded that she understood though Max turned his head quickly and then rolled his eyes in disgust. "Second, I was contemplating...contemplating..."
"Contemplating..." Stephanie prompted while sitting down next to him.
"I'm not given to large amounts of self-doubt," he said. "And, at the risk of sounding immodest, it's never been a skill I've truly needed much. Sure, I've made mistakes, but..." He turned his gaze towards Stephanie. "There's a difference, Stephanie, a difference between confidence and arrogance, and I'm afraid I've gotten us in this mess through arrogance, my hubris, my confidence in my...tremendous...skills."
"Simon," Stephanie said, "no one's perfect. You're not a mind reader. If it had been my call, given what we knew, I'd have made the same choice." She looked at the glass again. "Besides, its my fault too, if you think about it. I'm the one who kept begging you not to use explosives. Now, I wish I'd just let you bring this whole cave down on us." Simon waved his hand dismissively.
"Somehow, knowing two of us would have made mistakes just doesn’t provide much comfort," he said. A few trickles of moisture fell from the ceiling and pooled in an indent in the rocky floor. "I should've trusted the intelligence given to us. A time machine's a time machine. We were sent to derail this project; I should have derailed it right into the ravine."
"Don't do this to yourself," Stephanie comforted.
"I know it isn't helpful," Simon replied, rising to his feet. "But Stephanie, it simply never occurred to me that the failure of the machine could be even worse than its success. It's that more than anything that's killing me." He turned to look at Max. "Would you mind, by the way, giving a good kick to the third wall panel from the door?" Max nodded cheerlessly.
"Yeah," he said as he sat on the floor, "that's the weak one isn't it?" Kicking with all his might, he managed to knock the panel into the storeroom. "Simon," he said as he straightened his jumpsuit, "these jumps...what happens if we, you know, show after the next test? Is that as bad as I figure it'll be?" Simon nodded and then lowered himself to crawl through the new opening.
"If that happens," he said halfway through the wall, "we've failed. If that machine runs again, whatever else happens won't matter. The damage'll be too significant." Simon disappeared into the darkness of the storeroom.
"I guess we'd better go through," Stephanie said to Max. "I've got to get to work on some improvised bombs."
"I don't remember what we were making them from," Simon muttered. "I suppose it'll come to us when we get to the store room." Max smiled.
...Dr. Kingsford walked through the caves, muttering under her breath the entire way. Thinks he can stop me, she thought. Thinks he can throw years of work down the hole. I'll show him! I'll show them all! She laughed bitterly. I suppose I must sound like one of those cheap, B-movie mad scientists. Hah! 'Nuzink in ze verld cun shtop me now!' As she approached the control room, a strange impulse overcame her.
After checking to see that no one was around, Kingsford opened one of the log books the staff kept and looked at what had been recorded. All seemed normal until...until...
Kingsford inhaled sharply as the book fell to floor. Working to catch her breath, she bent down, and holding the book in her shaking hands, she scanned the records again.
In her memory, she clearly remembered several tests that had been recently run. However, in the logs, there were conspicuous gaps, gaps where she knew reports were supposed to be. She checked the front of the log and found that the person keeping these records, Mrs. Van der Wal, was actually one of the most meticulous on the staff.
Double-checking again to see if anyone was watching, Kingsford ripped out the page, folded it neatly, and placed it in her pocket. Then, she gently placed the logbook back on the table. As she headed into the control room, she placed her hand on the doorframe to steady herself.
"How close are we to being ready?" she asked as she walked in...
...the three of them stood behind rocky outcroppings. According to the plan, each would attempt to place a bomb on the rings just before the next test. The timing would be tricky, getting the bombs to explode before the rings discharged their energy while at the same time not allowing enough time for Kingsford's staff to come out and either diffuse the explosives or remove them before they could do any damage.
The plan was for Stephanie to go first, followed by Simon, followed by Max, and each was to target a separate part of the ring. However, as they stood in the shadows, an uncomfortable sound echoed in the caves, the sound of guns being cocked.
"Desperate," Dr. Kingsford said from the shadows, emerging into the light along with four others. She held in her hand a small caliber pistol. "Desperate, but anticipated. By all rights the three of you are still under lock and key, but there's no use in taking chances. Now, before I tell my colleagues here to open fire, I suggest you come out into the open."
Reluctantly, all three complied.
"Two seconds later," Stephanie said as both a taunt and a lament, "if you'd come to the control room two lousy seconds later, you would've never been able to restart that machine. At least not in the near future." Kingsford shrugged.
"Typical," she said. "The intellect fails, so you resort to brute force. Isn't that the way of the world?"
"If it is," Litchfield said, "then why are you developing this time machine to begin with?" One of the guards removed Litchfield's bomb. "Building a time machine is like giving the monkeys a key to the fruit storage room. No matter how much you tell them to leave the contents alone, you'll still wind up neck deep in banana peels."
"A sloppy analogy," Kingsford said. Litchfield laughed.
"It's no sloppier than your methods," he retorted. "What kind of scientist runs test after test without taking the time to properly interpret the results? For that matter, what kind of scientist ignores evidence that's right before her eyes? I'm sure you can tell as well as anyone else that this machine's a failure, and a spectacular one at that." Simon struggled to put an observation into words. "I've been thinking," he said in his most confident voice, trying not to betray his lack of credentials in the area of temporal mechanics, "not only are you tearing apart time, but there must be a," he fished in his mind for the right word," dimensional... element as well. I can't think of any other way we could pass from point A to point F without going through B to E." Simon looked for any sign of comprehension. "Come on, Dr. Kingsford! Is this really worth destroying not only our world but perhaps others as well?"
"You have no evidence, Mr. Kolchek, if that is your name," Kingsford said. Another guard removed Stephanie's bomb. Max, who was still reasonably in shadow, slowly dug his right hand into one of the cracks on the wall. "In fact, sir, what qualification do you have to judge a time machine?"
Simon smiled and shook his head. "I have enough common sense to know that what you're doing is wrong, and it's dangerous."
Kingsford seemed to ignore the remark. "Now, I think it best if we stay right where we are until the test has been safely run.” Max dug in with his left hand, and, slowly, he brought his right leg upwards.
"Five years of failure, and for what," Litchfield continued. "Thousands of destroyed vases?"
"That's where you're wrong," Kingsford replied. "You've obviously been given some information by the board, but you've missed something. This machine...this machine is the Mark III. It’s simply a more powerful version of a proven design." Litchfield's expression fell.
"What?" he said. "Mark III?" Max shifted his weight towards the top of the wall and then towards his right.
"Two years ago," Kingsford continued, "the Mark II routinely sent objects 1.2 seconds into the future. A small step, I'll grant you, but time travel none-the-less. I've been working on the Mark III for five years, incorporating the successful elements of the first two versions. It will do the job; it is only a matter of balancing the equations." Simon's face started to turn red, fury seeming to boil just below the surface.
"Then this is even more obscene!" Litchfield sputtered. "We aren't ready for this! No one can be trusted with this, something you'll prove beyond a shadow of a doubt if you start the machine again!"
"It will work this time," she said reassuringly if condescendingly. "For what it is worth, I give you my personal guarantee."
"Forgive me," Litchfield said, "if I don't have very much confidence in your word." Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed two things. One, the guards were listening intently to the sparring match between the two doctors. Two, Max was no longer in view. Litchfield raised his voice to draw even more attention to himself. "Furthermore...furthermore, Dr. Kingsford, you haven't answered my question. What's it all for? Why is this such..."
"An obsession?" Kingsford interjected. "Sorry, but I've heard it all before." She smiled, and oddly enough, a genuinely warm look came into her eyes. "It runs in my family. I've always worked a problem until I found the solution. My father did, too. Have you, Mr. Kolchek, ever heard of David Morgan Kingsford III?"
"I can't say that I have," Litchfield replied. Max continued to snake along the wall. A few feet more, and he'd be far enough away to drop down and run the remaining distance.
"That is precisely the problem!" Kingsford replied angrily. Max's brow glistened with sweat, and he wished he had a rosin bag for his hands. "My father was a brilliant historian and sociologist. And he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that democracy would fail. That monarchy would fail. That communism would fail. All forms of government are doomed. All except fascism, totalitarianism, absolutism. Someone once described Mussolini and his ilk as 'smash and grab' leaders. Well, that's what it will be like, smash and grab."
Max lost his grip, and he dangled while trying to stabilize himself.
"As he used to say, when the intellect fails, the only recourse is to brute force." Kingsford looked towards the ceiling as she tried to control her emotions. "David Kingsford was brilliant, but his views were unpopular. By his death, he'd been discredited, broken by his colleagues, a mere shadow cast from the one true flame." Kingsford pointed down the hall. "In addition to benefiting humanity, which, believe it or not, is actually one of my primary goals, the Mark III is my ticket towards proving Daddy's view of the future. And when society understands that what he predicted is true, perhaps, just perhaps, we can avoid that fate." She looked towards the floor, and the warm look returned. "I owe him so much, you see. So much." Her voice lowered to a near whisper. "The least I can do is give him his reputation back, even if I do it posthumously."
Simon was about to launch into another diatribe when Max finally fell full force to the floor, the metal of the oxygen bottle clanking on the rocks. Kingsford turned and saw him getting up and heading towards the rings.
"Stop him!" Kingsford yelled. "Shoot him if you have to..."
...sat at the control console and surveyed the various options before her. As Stephanie searched for the appropriate place to input the codes gleaned from the hacking of Dr. Phelps' computer, she was amazed by the age of the equipment.
"Imagine," she said as she finally settled by an absurdly small keyboard, "trying to control time with outmoded junk. Some of this stuff I haven't seen since I was a kid." Simon, who was looking down the corridor, half-turned his head towards her.
"What?" he said absently. "Oh...sign of the times. Obviously her equipment budget's been slashed as well." Max, who was looking through the blast doors at the rings, laughed.
"Hey," Max said, "I got friends who live a pretty good life off the crap other people throw away." He turned towards Simon. "Ever tried collecting mongo?" Simon smiled grimly. He wasn't going to answer, but he badly wanted to describe situations that would make even the hardiest dumpster diver cringe. Full of life, isn't he, Simon thought. I imagine surviving a caving expedition just makes it all the sweeter to him.
"Phelps' codes work," Stephanie chimed. "I'm in the directories.” She quickly typed in a set of commands and then switched to a different screen. “If I can find where the major files are stored, a little creative work should fix this thing's red wagon." The rocky corridor remained empty, but Simon knew it was only a matter of time before the operators returned to resume work. Time he thought suddenly. Have we...yes...yes we have. "I wish one of you was familiar with programming. So much of this stuff looks like divine gibberish!"
Simon started to remark on their current jump when he saw Max, who was laughing at some funny thought that had struck him. Litchfield cocked his head, trying to focus in on some thought that was haunting the recesses of his mind. Suddenly, he remembered.
"Stephanie," Max said, "ever heard the one about baseball player and his dead friend?" Stephanie giggled even as she tapped keys.
"The bad news," she said, "is that the baseball player is playing second base next week!" Max laughed heartily. Simon stared sadly, debating whether to speak up or not. Does he know, Simon thought. Even if he knew, is there anything else that could be done? Simon raised his hand as if to speak, but he slowly let it fall to his side, and he looked towards the floor. Okay...okay...think, you ass! What are you about to do? Where do you go wrong?
"Simon," Stephanie said as she interpreted the information on the strobing, green display screen in front of her, "there's a console behind me, think it has four red levers." Simon didn't respond. "Simon?" Litchfield jumped.
"Sorry," he said weakly. "I'm so...sorry. Drifted off there for a moment. Four red levers?" Stephanie nodded.
"If I read this right," she said, "I need you to set all four to INJECTOR IDLE." Simon headed towards the console, deliberately avoiding looking at the caver. Even if I can remember, should I try to change it? Will that only make things worse? Simon hated indecision in general, and loathed it in himself even more.
"Injector idle," Simon said under his breath, "injector...injector...last one set." Stephanie smiled widely.
“In a few seconds,” Stephanie said proudly, “half the programming in this thing’ll be gone.” Suddenly, Simon's skin was covered in gooseflesh.
Who's guarding my door? he thought.
"Touch anything else," a woman's voice boomed from that doorway, "and I'll personally put a slug in your head." As if to emphasize the point, four guns cocked. Stephanie slid back from the keyboard, and Litchfield, who shook his head in disgust, raised his hands.
"So many mistakes," he said quietly but angrily. "How could I make so many mistakes?" Litchfield and her henchmen came into the room. A guard began frisking Stephanie, a little too familiarly for her taste, and she elbowed him hard in the groin. The other guards, who were checking Simon and Max, laughed, and Dr. Kingsford shook her head.
"You'll have to forgive Mr. Sable," Kingsford said. "He's quite good with a gun, but I'm afraid he has the common sense of a sea slug." Kingsford moved further into the room. "Well, well, well. Looks like we have our explanation. Dr. Phelps was just checking his computer. It seems someone logged in without the proper password. You lot wouldn't also be responsible for two picked locks and a drop in air pressure too, would you?" Stephanie cast an angry glance at Max, who just shrugged his shoulders.
Simon watched every move Max made, every last gesture...
... the light in the cold morning air was nearly too bright to bear. Reaching into his pocket with a bare hand, Tom pulled out a pair of aviator sunglasses and put them over his eyes. Replacing the glove, he looked down at the tools he'd gathered. Small axe, he thought. Check. Wrench, check. Phillips and flathead screwdrivers, check. Tom looked at his watch. He was giving Simon ten more minutes to check back. Without the call, Tom would be faced with finding a way from his lofty perch down to the generators to take matters into his own hands. If he was able to make the journey, he was going to do as much damage as he could.
There was a beeping noise from the satellite system; Tom ran over and looked and discovered that it was finally shaking hands with the satellite again. Punching buttons, he waited for Card to come into view again.
"Dr. Weill," a grainy figure said. "What an unpleasant surprise..."
"I don't have time for you to be sarcastic," Tom uttered. "In fact, you may not have time either. Have you noticed anything strange over the last few hours?" Dr. Card stared and then rolled his eyes. "Damnit, it's important!"
"Temper, temper," Card said mockingly. "As a matter of fact, no. Nothing unusual has happened this morning." Card laughed. "Why? Do you have a recalcitrant time machine in the area?" Tom smiled bitterly.
"You don't know the half of it, Dr. Card," he said. "In fact, I'm about to try and sabotage one."
"Really," Card said with a hint of genuine interest. "A time machine? Has my old friend Dr. Eckert set up shop in your vicinity?" Tom shook his head.
"No," he said as he finished gathering his tools. "Doctor, I'm in a very big hurry. I've been hoping to reach you for the last several hours, but the signal only just cleared." Tom stopped and stared into the camera. "Dr. Card, is it possible to pass from point A to point D without having gone through the intervening points? With a time machine that is?" Tom grabbed an axe and placed it though a belt loop.
"Absolutely not," Card said. "Even with a time machine, you'd still have to physically pass through a space; the only difference is that time would be moving at a different rate for you in comparison to the rest of the world. Unless, of course, you managed to open a gateway to a different dimension. That, I think, would be a very unwise thing to do. But that really wasn't my area of..." The signal disrupted, and the bars indicating signal strength dropped to zero.
"Grand," Tom thought as he made a final check of his tools. As he did, he could have sworn that the shadow cast by a blade of grass shifted too far in the two seconds he looked at it. "No wonder the signal is gone."
The tools, he knew, were not the best options in the world. None were of the insulated variety. There was a good chance, especially if he had to use the axe, that he'd be electrocuted before accomplishing anything. That's okay, he thought. I'll break my leg, my neck, or both before I ever get down there. Picking up the tools, Tom took ten deep breaths and then headed for the only way he could find, an uncomfortably angled path with solid stone on one side and a deep drop off to the other.
Here goes nothing, he thought as...
...rocks exploded uncomfortably close to Max's head. He bobbed and weaved, trying to make himself as difficult a target to hit as possible. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he had in fact been hit in the arm; a terrible pain, like a combination of a cramp and the pins and needles of an asleep limb, was there. He'd heard that adrenalin, however, could mask awareness, and that soldiers who'd been shot several times went on fighting, dropping only after losing massive amounts of blood.
"Take him down," Kingsford screamed, and two shots whizzed by close enough for Max to feel the disturbed air.
Behind in the chamber, a lone guard remained.
"Shouldn't you join them, Sable?" Litchfield asked. Sable said nothing as he picked his nose. "It sounds like they aren't doing very well, you know. I'm sure she's giving double points for the one who gets him."
"Look, brainiac," Sable said, "shut your fucking pie hole! I ain't paid enough to put up with that...that..." Sable rubbed his nose again, and he started digging in ever further. "...that crap. You know what I'm saying?" His features began to scrunch up. Simon and Stephanie looked at each other, an unspoken but definite communication passing between them. Simon, as if in frustration, kicked at the dirt in the cave, stirring up a quick burst of airborne particles.
"Curses," Litchfield said flatly, "foiled again." Sable was furiously scratching and digging at his nose now. Finally, there was no doubt, a sneeze was definitely coming. Just as the guard was starting to disappear into the moment, Simon lunged for Sable's legs, knocking him over even as the sneeze echoed in the caves and mingled with the sound of gunfire. Stephanie landed violently on Sable's gun hand, and the sound of cracking bones joined the others. As if every move had been choreographed, Simon flew up from the floor and grabbed the gun.
"You damn bitch!" Sable screamed as he used his weight to throw Stephanie onto the ground. Before he could do anything else, the butt of the gun smashed onto the side of his head, and Sable collapsed into a heap on the ground.
"Come on!" Simon said as, with a pronounced limp, he headed for the time machine. "Maybe there's time...maybe we can..."
"Can what?" Stephanie panted as she caught up to him. But Simon, who increased his speed, was already lost in the heat of battle.
Max rounded a curve and saw the unmistakable green light and heard the hum of the time machine. He heard a call of fifteen seconds echo ahead, and he fumbled with the fuse on the oxygen bottle. As the rings came into view, he still hadn't found the switch. The blast doors closed, and the energy was already spinning furiously in the chamber.
The pain that hit his back at that moment was the worst he'd ever felt, and it resonated through his entire body. He felt as if he would vomit, but he managed to choke it down. Ten seconds was called, and his run was slowing to a lopsided gallop.
"Stop!" Kingsford yelled. "I promise we'll treat your wounds!" Max was nearly there...just a few more feet. The vision in his left eye was suddenly obscured by blood pouring down his face. He tried to find the switch, but his right hand wasn't cooperating. He knew now he couldn't detonate the bomb, at least not with the fuse.
The hair stood up on his arm. He was close enough now to the rings to feel the tremendous energy pouring through them. Maybe it's enough, he thought even as the vision in his right eye started to fade. He struggled to do what he knew he had to do.
"One," Max said, "two..." With a tremendous effort, and even as two more bullets hit him, he flung himself into the rings.
One of the three guards with Kingsford collapsed to the floor as his head was hit with a large rock. As another turned to look, his gun was shot out of his hand, and he winced in pain as he held his wrist. The remaining guard turned to face Litchfield and Stephanie and dropped his weapon.
"I never thought I'd actually fire this thing," the third guard said, clearly disturbed by what he'd seen. "I thought it'd be fun in security...never thought..." Simon pointed the gun at Kingsford.
"Drop your weapon!" he yelled over the horrible chugging noise that filled the cave. Kingsford, who held her gun weakly in her hand, merely pointed towards the rings.
"The fool," she said, though no one could hear her. "The damn fool!" Energy poured off the rings and into the bloody heap that was Max. Still, he managed to raise his left hand and make a rudimentary "thumbs up" sign before the arm started spasming.
"Simon!" he croaked. "Not afraid! Didn't want to die...something stupid." Litchfield, whose expression fell into one of both admiration and horror, could hear the caver's words over the whine of the machine. He tried to speak, but he was thrown back by a sudden blast of energy. The power surging through Max triggered the fuse, and the exploding oxygen bottle finished the job that Max's body had already begun. Simon looked up in time to see the green energy closing in on the vase, but this time it was wobbly and asymmetrical.
"Dr. Kingsford!" Stephanie yelled. "Help us! We've got to get these guys out of here!" Kingsford turned, her face awash in devastation and horror.
"The field's unstable," she yelled with a voice that crackled with grief. "It'll implode...it'll destroy..." She fell to her knees. The chaotic energy was nearly upon the vase. Stephanie helped the man she'd hit to his feet, the other two guards taking over just after that.
After one last look at where Max had been, Simon turned and ran with the others.
As the energy fell unevenly upon the vase, the object distorted and appeared to be in four places at once before it, along with most of the surrounding machinery, collapsed to a small green point. A wall of energy then flew out as that part of the cave lost its structural integrity. Up the passage, the runners reached Sable, who was struggling to his feet. Once they had him, the guards headed down one passage while Stephanie and Simon ran for their exit.
Simon and Stephanie stumbled their way into increasingly darkened passages, the artificial lights giving way to the natural state of the caves. Fortunately, Stephanie still had a small flashlight, and though it was not very powerful, it provided enough light to allow them to avoid the worst obstacles. The mountain shook violently from moment to moment, shaking loose rock and debris down upon them.
Stephanie was the first to notice. “Do you feel yourself slowing down…not just physically, but…but…” Simon nodded slowly and suddenly felt as if he were on the end of a piece of bungee cord reaching its limit.
“Time,” Simon murmured with great difficulty. “We’re being…pulled…” The bungee cord snapped back, and events rewound around them almost as if the two were part of an old-fashioned videotape. Bullets returned to their guns. Explosions reverted to their previously stable states. Vases returned from the dead, and as the events flew past, Simon felt himself falling into despair. It’s going to happen again! Not again!
The rewinding slowed until Simon found himself once again walking with Max to view the time machine’s test for one last time, one final view of its pathetic state before leaving Kingsford to fail on her own.
"Mr. Cory," Simon chuckled, again, "Kingsford has dropped the ball. These tests, according to my sources, have been going in one form or another for nearly five years.” Simon was painfully aware that everything was a replay, but he was unable to do anything to change his actions. Mercifully, Max didn’t seem to recognize the situation.
They witnessed the test, returned to the base, and received Tom’s fateful call. Afterwards, Simon determined that things were worse than he ever imagined, that the machine had to be stopped. Simon of the present and Simon of the past went with his colleagues to retrieve the information needed to shut down the machine.
"And what's so funny," Simon chided. "I simply don't see the humor. Without the sequencing code we'll never be able to stop her starting the time machine again!"
"Don't be so preachy," Stephanie said, tapping more keys, loading other patches from the hard drive. "I just think this encryption is pretty damn clever.” They narrowly avoided detection, went to the control room, started to sabotage the computer. Max! Simon tried to yell. There’s another way! When I reset the levers, replace me on guard duty! We can buy more time! Fuck you, Simon! Don't just stand there trying to make up your mind. Say something you asshole! But Simon couldn’t speak, couldn’t say anything that hadn’t already been recorded in the etchings of time, the correct etchings. In all of the new conversations, all references to the time jumps seemed to have been omitted.
They were captured, their equipment taken away. By good fortune, however, the hastily erected partitions were not as strong as needed, and the three of them were able to reach the storage room where they hatched their explosive plan. Simon tried to close his eyes, but he couldn’t.
We should have taken a more circuitous route, he said over and over again in his mind as they were caught again by Dr. Kingsford, as he stalled for time, as Max made the same choice again and ran for the time machine.
He saw Max in the final moments of his sacrifice, his final thumbs up before the time machine did its work. All without being able to alter even the movement of one speck of rock.
The stretch of cave was empty and quiet, and a raccoon was nestled comfortably in a hollow of rock, sleeping off the day. Suddenly, its eyes flew open, and its nose twitched in alarm. It sniffed the air, and then it fled just as a spinning tempest invaded the area. Two meteors trailing colorful streams of energy shot from within the caves and stopped at the point of the maelstrom. Dr. Simon Litchfield and Stephanie Keel reformed, and the streams of energy flew into them like a snapped rubber band. Both fell to the floor.
Groggy and having difficulty focusing, Stephanie felt around for Simon, finally grasping his sleeve. “Simon,” she whispered with difficulty. “Doc…we’ve got to get a move on.” Behind them in the distance, the sound of collapsing rock could be heard. “Come on, Simon. It’s through…time’s normal.” A tremor shook their location, and bits of rock fell. Stephanie shook the doctor and hit him lightly about the face. Finally, Simon slowly pushed himself up.
“All right,” he said groggily. “We’ll help each other out of this.” Stephanie stood up first and then leaned against the wall for support as Simon pulled himself to his feet. Using each other as support, they walked on, the sounds of cave-ins growing ever closer.
The sun shone down in brilliant yellow hues upon the plateau. From a grass-covered hole just beneath a rock face, Stephanie emerged. Turning around, she extended a hand to Simon. As the two of them emerged, they each collapsed in an exhausted heap on the ground. Seconds later, a geyser of dirt, smoke, and debris shot into the air from the hole.
“At least everything is buried,” Simon whispered. “Dead…and buried.” Stephanie crawled over to him, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“We did what we could,” she rasped, swallowing hard afterwards. “If you had gotten there instead of him, you would have…” Her voice trailed off as she fell asleep, and Simon after a few plaintive whispers of I should have known fell asleep as well.
A few minutes later, Tom pulled himself up from the trail. He looked down upon the chaos in the valley, the workers running from the collapsing caves. He was about to call Stephanie on the handset when he saw the two of them lying on the ground. For a second, Tom wondered if they were dead. However, it was soon obvious that they were asleep. Not wanting to wake them until he had to, he unpacked and unzipped his large sleeping bag, unfolding it until it was as wide as a king-size blanket. Placing it over them, he headed for the Hummer so that he could drive it in as close as possible.
In the morning sun, a hawk flew from its mountainside nest, its home disturbed by the underground motion. Simon rolled over. “I should have known,” he mumbled in his sleep. “I should have known…I should have known…I should have known…”