Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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On The Corner of Galaxy and Fifth

Part Two of Five

By Rob Wynne and Jeffrey Williams


Chapter Eight

Trauma stared down at the body in shock and disbelief ; George continued feeling for a pulse, a movement, any sign of life.

"George...are you quite sure he's dead?" His eyes drifted towards the ceiling, towards the place where he knew the warp tube had hung suspended. "It was a hard fall, certainly unexpected. Perhaps....perhaps he's only stunned."

George straightened up. "This is no time for Monty Python skits, Trauma," he said testily. He gazed sadly down at the still body, and sighed remorsefully, "I am rather sure he's quite dead."

"Oh dear...dear...," Mia stammered as she kneeled and stroked the dead man's forehead, brushing his eyes closed. She couldn't help notice that outside of the obvious signs of having been crushed, this gentlemen was quite handsome. His hair was graying, but in all other respects he seemed young, certainly no older than his early to mid-forties, and even lying still and lifeless on the floor, he seemed at once both aristocratic and aloof.  Mia felt a tear forcing itself out the corner of her eye; she absentmindedly brushed it away as it began to trickle down her cheek.. "We killed him, Mr. Martin, didn't we."

Trauma nodded solemnly. He walked over to a desk covered with papers and diagrams tucked into a corner of the room near the body, and sat down. Closing his eyes, he pressed the tips of his fingers together and furrowed his brow in concentration.

George walked over to Mia and knelt beside her, placing his hand gently on her shoulder. She smiled at him for a moment, but then returned her gaze to the body.

Standing again, George began to examine the area they had tumbled into. A huge ceiling arched overhead, and he realized that this was the inside of some sort of small aircraft hanger. Every flat surface in the room was covered with computer terminals, sheaves of paper, plastic models, and various arcane machinery. Lights blinked and servos whirred on large flat panels lining the walls, and, dominating the room, was a huge plastic model of an engine which was mounted on a concrete block.

He wandered over to examine the model engine. "Trauma," he called. "what on earth is this....thing?" Trauma opened an eye and glanced over at the object George was examining.

"It's an antique warp engine," he said matter-of-factly but without much actual engagement. The eye closed again.

George looked perplexed "Warp engine? You mean, like in Star Trek?"

"No," Mia said, pulling out of her grim reverie. "No, love, he means a real one, the sort people use to travel faster than light from one corner of the Alliance to the other."

"Of, course it is." he scrutinized the engine more carefully, searching for something exotic to back up Mia's claim. "Look, when you say warp engine, you mean that this perfectly normal looking thing can propel a vehicle at faster than light speeds? This is Earth; nothing like this is built here. It's...it's...it's just science fiction you're talking about."

"Ah, of course it is, Mr. Pembroke," Trauma said. He stood lazily and walked to the engine. "Like men on the moon, ships that sail under the water, that sort of thing." His gaze turned back to the body. "What you call science fiction is often simply tomorrow's history, George. I say," he said, whirling suddenly to confront Mia, "it was awfully bad luck, don't you think, for this gentleman to be standing right here just as we plummeted through the warp tube."

"It would have to have been a one in a million chance," Mia said. She thought it over for a moment "Those are long odds."

Trauma nodded thoughtfully, stroking his beard as he slowly walked around the room.. Suddenly, he winced painfully and grabbed his hand. Mia rushed to his side, searching desperately for the source of his discomfort.

The pain subsided as quickly as it had come. Trauma held his hand at arms length in front of his face. In the center of his Operating Ring, the small crimson jewel violently pulsed with a deep inner light. Without a word, Mia slipped a hand into her pocket and removed a similar ring. It's jewel was also flashing with an ominous oscillating fury that seemed to light the room. Trauma took it from her and held the two side by side.

"Flashing," Trauma muttered. "searing pain, alarm, some kind of warning." A look of horror crossed his face. "No..." he whispered almost to himself.

George turned to look at Trauma. "What is it."

Mia read the alarm on Trauma's face. "Trauma, are you thinking..."

"Yes, I'm afraid so." Trauma suddenly flew into a frightening fury. He leapt atop the desk and shook his fist at the ceiling. "I do not appreciate being used to commit murder! What have you had us do!", he shrieked.

George took a step back, nervously. "What are you talking about?" he asked.

Trauma spun to face George, the light from the ring on his hand dancing in his eyes. "The rings, George. The rings are sending out a warning! Something, somehow, has thrown the timelines into turmoil, and I have a good idea what!" He jerked his head back up and peered into the empty void from which they had tumbled back into real space. "You know, don't you!" he howled. "We've been used, George. Both of us have been bloody used!"

"For what? To kill one man?" George shook his head. "Why is it that every time I think I have a handle on things, something new comes along to remind me how entirely out of my depth I am?"

"No, George. This is not some sort of cranky wake up call." Trauma blustered, leaping down from the desk to shake him like a madman. "We plunge into this room, landing on this poor fellow and killing him. Mere moments later, both my ring and Mia's are sounding veritable klaxons of warning. There's a storm unleashed into the timelines, George, and the timing is too exact to be a coincidence!"

George broke away and walked to the other side of the room, stopping to gaze up at a plastic model of an exotic aircraft suspended from the ceiling. A huge, sweeping delta-wing design, the plane had two conspicuous engines embedded in each wing. On a table beneath the hanging model were drawings detailing a cross-section of a similar plane, with notes scribbled hastily here and there at the end of long arrows pointing at various parts of the drawing.

Trauma walked over to George and put an arm around his shoulder. Quietly, he said, "Mr. Pembroke, I realize that this has all spiraled into quite a large mess, and perhaps I am partly to blame for it. However, whoever that man over there may be, he is, or rather, was historically significant. And now he is dead. And that is, as you might well imagine, a terribly, terribly bad thing."

George nodded dumbly. "So what happens now?"

"Now, we must determine who this fellow was, and why he was important. Even as we speak, the time lines will be twisting and reshaping, in an effort to make sense of the new reality. The Cat's Cradle will be in a knot, if you will."

Mia stood up from the body, holding an open wallet in her hand. "Care to know who the sky fell on?" she asked grimly. "Thomas Boltz, of some place called Olympia, Washington."

Trauma nodded. "Something to go on, at least," he said. With suddenly renewed purpose, he began rummaging through the papers on the desk.

"What are you looking for?" Mia asked.

"The exact date. The Useless code couldn't be particularly specific about the time frame." Finally, he stumbled across an exotic looking collection of newsprint and holographic photos. It was a copy of the New York Times-Post. The date on the masthead read November 5, 2016.

"Remember, remember, the fifth of November..." Trauma muttered to himself. He suddenly gathered up the newspaper, folded it, and thrust it into his jacket.. "George, Mia. We've got to get out of here."

"What's the rush?" George asked. "Shouldn't we at least notify the local authorities about..."

"The local authorities are quite the least of our worries, Mr. Pembroke. But have you ever been arrested by an agent of the Timelines Project Authority?"

George was beginning to think that his eccentric new friend had lost his mind altogether. "As a matter of fact, I haven't."

"Neither have I. and I rather intend to keep it that way.

Trauma grabbed George's sleeve, and pulled him back over to the body of the now late Thomas Boltz. Rolling the jewel in the ring, he held out his arms. "Grab hold, both of you."

Mia tucked the wallet into her pocket, and slipped her arm through Trauma's. George quickly followed suits.

"Er, I thought you said that something had happened to the time lines?" George said, slightly alarmed.

"Yes, I'm rather afraid something has." Trauma said. "Hold on. It's going to be a bumpy ride."

Thomas Boltz remained where he lay, forever oblivious to what had been occurring in the room. And it was in his oblivion that Boltz completely failed to notice when seconds after the departure of his killers, new figures began descending from the ceiling and filling the lab.


Chapter Nine

Trauma, Mia, and George hurtled out of the warp tube and into the Cat's Cradle Zone. Even George could see instantly that something was dreadfully wrong. The normally bright crimson was now a dull blood color, and azure comets streaked across the sky, occasionally colliding with one another and exploding into violent fireballs of incandescent fury.

Unlike previously, when the timelines the travelers rode were straight and precise, they now had to twist and turn where their path would suddenly curve. At one point, they had to leap to another line entirely when the path they were riding ended completely, leaving only a sickening drop into the infinite abyss that was the area between time and space.

"This is awful," Mia shouted, trying to be heard over the din of a roaring wind which had come up out of nowhere.

"It will get worse," Trauma yelled back. "The storm is spiraling out from the center of the disturbance. In another few hours, the timelines will be almost completely unusable."

"Where are we going, then?" Mia asked, clutching at her jacket to keep it from flying up in her face.

Trauma turned slightly and called back over his shoulder, "The library! We've got to find out who that was we killed, and why his death has so disrupted the timelines."

George threw himself to the surface of the shimmering path they were riding to avoid one of the comets. If I manage to get out of this alive, he thought bitterly to himself, I will never answer another advert for so long as I live. He clambered to his feet and willed himself to ride the line faster in order to catch up the slight distance he had created between himself and his two companions. He had no idea if it was possible to be stranded in the Zone without a ring of one's own, but he certainly wasn't about to try and find out now.

It was nearly an hour before the trio finally bore down into the warp tunnel that was the entrance to the Timelines Project Authority Library. Trauma emerged from the portal first, flying across the room as though he had been shot out of a cannon. He slammed violently into the opposite wall, bouncing back into the receiving area and staggering drunkenly as he attempted to keep his feet. Mia and George came tumbling after him, knocking him to the floor as they flailed about for something to hold onto.

Trapped beneath his flailing companions, Trauma sighed miserably. "This has become a rather unfortunate habit," he muttered.

Arn looked over the monitor banks at the writhing mass on the floor. He giggled uncontrollably. "Ya know, Trauma, they teach landing lessons in the conference center on Thursday nights. I'm sure they cover landing in there somewhere."

Trauma struggled to his feet and glared at the security guard, then glanced at the large mirrored wall that ran along behind the monitor station. He almost didn't recognize himself, such a state he was in. His suit was rumpled and dirty, his face was streaked with some sort of greasy soot, and his hair twisted in all directions, looking like nothing so much as a lawn several weeks in dire need of mowing. Trauma ran a hand through his hair in a largely failed effort to tame it, and brushed himself off as he was able. He then strode over to the hulking security guard, grabbed him by the lapels, and forcibly hauled him halfway over the counter.

"Arnold," Trauma hissed malevolently to the astonished guard, "please believe me when I say that I would like nothing more at this moment than to rip out your eyes and feed them to rabid squirrels. But this is no time for idle recreation. The timelines are unraveling, Arnold. Chaos sweeps unchecked throughout the Cradle. Civilization as we largely know it has come to a screeching halt." He paused, his eyes locked firmly with a pair of Arn's. "Therefore, I do not have time to banter with you in the friendly manner which we are accustomed to when I arrive. Please accept my sincerest apologies for this change of protocol, and give my regards to your wife and whatever dreadful offspring you have thus far managed to produce."

He let go of Arn's lapels, allowing the astonished guard to slump back into his chair. Turning on his heel, Trauma strode imperially into the library. "George, Mia. Come along. We have work to do."

*****

Standing unnoticed on a catwalk high above the portal area, a watcher stood. He was dressed in a long dark trenchcoat, and he fretted nervously as Trauma, George and Mia entered the library proper.  He bit his lip nervously. They aren't supposed to be here, he thought to himself. They weren't supposed to make it back alive!

Briefly, he considered calling control to update the situation. But he knew that, despite his efforts to date, Control would somehow manage to blame this all on him somehow.

Thinking desperately, the trenchcoated figure decided what to do. He stalked over to the nearby bank of payphones, and dialed a three digit number.

"Um, yes, I'd like to make an anonymous tip..."

In the shadows beneath the brim of his large hat, he smiled a wicked smile.


Chapter Ten

Arn sat at his station, staring mournfully at the terminal, and tried once again to contact the Main Security office. There was no response. Whatever he might have thought of Trauma Martin over the years, the truth of what he had said was becoming more and more apparent. Something catastrophic had happened to the timelines, possibly even to the fabric of time itself, and that meant Arn's relief guard wasn't going to be coming any time soon. Dammit, he thought. They had better pay me overtime for this!

Suddenly, he heard the sound of the entrance portal activating. For a brief moment, Arn thought perhaps his relief had made it after all. He craned his neck to see who had arrived in the library foyer. No one was there.

Odd, he thought, I know I heard someone show up. Thinking there must be some sort of glitch, he referred to his security console. The counter clearly showed that something had passed through the portal. Arn stood up and ambled around the counter to take a closer look at the portal entrance.

In the center of the room, a small, doorknob-sized object lay on the floor. It was triangular in shape, like a small pyramid, and it seemed to be made of a semi-transparent, glass-like material.

Arn blinked in surprise. He walked around the object slowly, trying to figure out what it might be. Oh well, he thought, seems harmless enough. As he bent down to pick it up and take it back to the counter with him, the object flared with a brilliant, harsh, intensely white light, and suddenly the room was awash with afterimages and little else.

Arn cried out in pain. "I can't see! I can't see!" he cried, waving his arms about widely, trying to make contact with a wall or station. He repeatedly blinked his good eyes, trying furiously to make the flash image go away, but his vision refused to improve. It was as if he had spent too much time staring directly into the intense light of a star.

Though his vision was severely impaired, he could still just make out images of figures pouring through the entrance portal. Their white shapes were indiscernible, barely distinguishable from the afterimages polluting his vision. Finally, one of the blurs stopped directly in front of him.

"C-can you help me?" Arn pleaded. "I can't see anyth...."

Suddenly, there was a sharp pain in his head, and Arn felt himself falling into a deep, deep, deep sleep.

*****

George, tired and winded from the strain of the long trip back to the library and the events of the previous hour, sat solemnly in one of the chairs near the circulation desk. He closed his eyes and tried to block out the world while Mia and Trauma sat at one of the reference terminals. They had, for the third time, entered Thomas Boltz's name into the computer, and for the first third time the computer had taken so long to respond they simply canceled the search request and started over. While Mia tapped on the keys, Trauma paced back and forth behind her like a caged tiger.

"What can be taking this confounded thing so long," Trauma snapped. "Can't you possibly get it to work any faster?"

Mia growled, exasperated, and blew a stream of air up to her forehead, pushing strands of her red hair high in the air.. "See here," she said sarcastically. "I've told you before, the system's completely overwhelmed. Everyone and his puppy is trying to figure out what the hell is going on, and they're all hitting the computer at the same time. We just have to wait for a pause in the activity to sneak this request through."

Trauma sighed. "Yes, of course, you are as always quite correct, madam." He lowered his head and took a deep breath. "it is not your fault, my dear, and I apologize for taking it out on you. It's just that being set up to assassinate someone completely unknown to me for reasons I can only guess is something that is fairly sure to set me on edge." The Cheshire grin tried to materialize, but the best he could manage was an extremely toothy frown.

The computer beeped excitedly. Mia swiveled around and studied the terminal in front of her. "Ah-hah! It's finally gotten through to the database! The search might take a while, though."

Trauma fell back into a chair and sunk back into the cushioning. He held his legs straight out, holding them parallel to the floor. "It's all starting to make some sort of sense," he sighed. "Damn my worthless brain for not seeing it sooner."

Mia studied the computer screen. The query was still being slowly processed by the system. She shot Trauma a puzzled glance. "What's starting to make sense?" she asked.'

Trauma waved his hand vaguely in the air. "Everything is. Everything that should have run red flags up in my mind from the very start. The note in a code that George could never possibly understand on his own. His subsequent foreboding dream, the advert for my office on Earth -- which I am sure I never placed." He stood up and began pacing again, waving his hands in the air as he checked off each item in his mind. "That singularly helpful clue in the crossword puzzle of the closest librarian to the public database computers." He stopped pacing and turned to face Mia directly. "It screams of conspiracy, of careful planning and forethought. Someone played all of us for fools, and I was either too blind or too caught up in the game to see."

Mia smiled and brushed her hand against Trauma's jacket. "You can't tell what happens in a book until you turn the page, " she said. "Sometimes, it's really good, a reward for your time and effort." She sighed softly. "And other times, you just want to check the damn thing into the fire." She glanced back at the screen, noting that nothing had been turned up in the interminably slow search. "Only trouble is, you can't tell if it's a good or bad one until you look."

"You're right, it is a paradox," Trauma noted. 'What do you do if Medusa has come into the room? Turn around and confirm it by turning to stone, or not, and discover that it's just your maiden aunt come to do the wash."

George stirred in his seat. He had only been half listening to their conversation, which was just now percolating into the more active centers of his brain. "What I don't understand is why me?" he asked. "Why did they use me to get to you? What had I ever done to deserve this? I'm just a finance manager." He leaned back and closed his eyes, trying to coax the pain from his head. Ever since the adrenaline rush started to die, bones and bruised muscles aggravated by the 30 foot fall onto Thomas Boltz had begun protesting loudly. "My life, heretofore, was about as exciting as vanilla custard."

"Who can possibly understand the motivations of the mad?" Trauma responded. "I suspect they simply selected someone at random and set their plan into motion. Literally anyone could have been used to get to me." He stood behind Mia, his eyes riveted onto the "Searching..." sign blinking furiously at the bottom of the screen. He attempted to coax the computer into searching more quickly caressing the keys and monitor, smiling at the screen, and occasionally murmuring encouraging words to it.

"It's no use, Trauma," Mia chuckled humorlessly. It will do what it will do when it bloody well wants to do it."

Her words echoed in George's head. He was just about to turn over and try to catnap in the overstuffed chair when something new caught his ear. At first, ti sounded like a distant tap or "thwack", and he started to dismiss it as some ancient machinery or ventilation equipment being crotchety. But then he heard another, and then another. The taps were becoming more frequent, and were occasionally followed by clicks or hisses, or even what he could swear were muffled screams.

Opening his eyes, George stared up towards the impossibly high ceiling of the Library's atrium. He could hear the sounds echoing down from the upper galleries. The sound seemed to stop momentarily, but he kept his attention focused above. It was then he finally saw what he had been hearing: a flash of light, followed almost instantly by a "thwack" and a distressed "eeeeeeeeah" There were more flashes coming from other sides of the gallery.

"Trauma," George called. "I think you had better come look at this."

Trauma's attention was still riveted to the computer screen, lest he miss the first grain of information. He shot a half glance in his clients direction.

"Yes, George, what is it?" he inquired, softly.

"Look, this is not some idle query," George hissed. "There really is something I think you need to see."

Trauma inhaled slowly, preparing himself for something which he was sure to be, in the context of their current situation, quite astoundingly unimportant. Slowly, he straightened up and walked over to George. 'What is it that you would like me to see?" he asked pleasantly, flashing a grin that seemed to say that he would enjoy placing George's liver on skewers if this turned out to be a waste of his valuable time.

George said nothing, merely raising his hand to point upwards towards the galleries. Reluctantly, Trauma followed the line George was indicating.

Flash. "thwack" Flash, flash, flash "Thwack" "tap" "thwack" Scream.

"What in the name of Gaston Lafayette is going on here?" Trauma exclaimed "George, have you seen anything or anyone to give you any idea what is going on up there?" He began darting his eyes from exit to exit, as though he were about to break into a run.

"Nothing," George stated, climbing to his feet." I just started hearing that sound and then..." He gulped and wiped a strand of nervous perspiration from his forehead. "Please tell me you don't hear screams."

"Distress, George." Trauma said, pulling his eyes from the scene above and walking back over to Mia.

"We're almost in," she said. "The system's less backlogged now."

"No doubt it is, and I have a nasty suspicion I know why, my dear." He hastily lifted Mia from her chair and set her gently on her feet. "But, I am afraid that now is the time for us to be going."

"But, the computer!" Mia protested. "We're almost insi..."

Flash. "Thwack" Scream. The sounds were now just a few floors above them. "Netank vitian nar....!" The sound of some creature faded away like a balloon with all the air let out. Trauma started pulling Mia towards the exit.

"Unless you can assure me that that is a perfectly normal, everyday occurrence here," he said flatly, "I believe the time has come for us to make a quick and orderly egress."

With that, the three of them dashed toward the portal area with every ounce of spare energy they had. However, when Trauma pushed open the door the reception area, he was greeted with a striking and most unsettling sight.

Standing in the entrance to the portal were three men wearing mirrored sunglasses. This was perhaps their least notable feature. They each wore white, not an off white or ivory or Wimbledon tennis outfit white,. Their jackets, their shirts, their ties, their pants, their shoes, all were a brilliant shade of white that was so bright they actually seemed to be radiating light. Mia very nearly had to cover her eyes from the glare.

"Oh, dear me!" Trauma fretted nervously. "Dear, dear me." He looked quickly at George and me and smiled a panicked smile. "Well, we appear to have but one option here. Follow my lead."

Trauma took a last longing look at the portal, and then turned and ran headlong down a side hallway. Without any idea what has happening besides Trauma's disappearance, George and Mia exchanged puzzle glances and took off after him.

Dispassionately, two of the three men walked lockstep into the main area of the library. One of them slid a hand into his jacket and pulled out a small wand.


Chapter Eleven

Trauma pulled up, breathless. He looked up and down the endless hallway, feeling every inch like a cornered animal. He stood with his hands on his knees and fought desperately for breath while Mia and George caught up with him.

"W-what..." Mia panted, "what's going on here?"

"Oh, this is bad. Bad, bad, bad..." Trauma said, wide-eyed. "Please tell me there is another way out of the library. I would feel most immensely relieved if you would."

Mia nodded. "There's a doorway to the residential section," she said. "Three or four, actually, but the closest one to here is in the loo."

"There's an exit in the bathroom!" George exclaimed. "That's silly.....it's preposterous!"

"Mr. Pembroke," Trauma said hurriedly, catching site of their pursuers walking briskly but effortlessly towards them from much too near down the hallway. "At this moment in time, it is safe to say that i would flush myself down the toilet if I thought it would get me out of here."

As if to punctuate the urgency of their situation, they heard another 'flashtwackscream combination emanating from the vicinity of the ground floor employee's lounge. Trauma stood up quickly and began pushing George and Mia down the hallway away from their shimmering pursuers, who continued to methodically advance down the hallway. Trauma hurried them on in front of him, never once taking his eyes off the pair that was chasing them.

"My dear," he said to Mia. "lead the way. We are in your hands."

The three ran quickly away from the main desk into the lower stacks. "Maybe we can lose them in the shelving." Mia panted. "Eight years I've been here, and i still get lost some days."

Without pausing even to look back, Trauma shook his head. "I seriously doubt that will do any measurable amount of good, except perhaps to slow them down," he said. "They are tenacious, cunning, relentless..." They tore around another corner and down another aisle of shelving. "We can only hope it doesn't occur to them to check a bathroom for an exit."

"Trauma," George wheezed. "Wh-wh-what..." The words succumbed to his need for oxygen. While he was a relatively fit man for his profession, George was certainly not used to tremendous amounts of physical exercise, and that practical part of his brain which had never stopped desperately attempting to make sense of the situation paused for a moment to file a mental note about renewing his membership at his health club in Paddington. He took a deep breath and tried again. "Who are these people!" he finally managed as they careered around another corner.

"Remember your earlier reading, George," Trauma replied. "Specifically, do you recall the section concerning the regulation of time travel?"

"Yes," he sputtered. "yes, I do." George suddenly stopped and grabbed hold of a shelving unit. "Oh my....they're the...the temporal authority, aren't they?" He began slumping to the floor, no longer able to hold himself up. Mia and Trauma each grabbed one of his arms and pulled him along.

"I'm sorry," George panted, the room spinning in multiple directions at once about him. "I didn't realize I was this far out of....out of..."

"It's the timelines again," Trauma sighed sympathetically. "First time travelers occasionally experience the loss of electrolytes and certain other chemicals that regulate this sort of thing." They spun around yet another corner, and found themselves now running along an outer wall. "I'm sorry, George, but under normal circumstances, you would have never even noticed the loss of energy, aside from a slight lethargy similar to jet lag."

"But w-why..." George heaved, "why are they after us!"

"It's obvious, innit?" Mia said. "They think that we three have done something to cause the collapsing of the lines." She stopped and tried to get her bearings, running a slender hand through her now thoroughly disheveled red hair. "Folks, I gotta tell you....I am totally lost."

Frustrated, Trauma slumped against the wall.

"If only we'd been able to learn who that man was," Trauma whispered, closing his eyes. " I cannot make proper assessments without the necessary and relevant facts." Trauma pondered the problem deeply, running through all of the previous hours' events in his head. A thought began gnawing at him, some observation his immediate senses were trying to push through to the part of his brain that dealt with deep, analytical issues. This thought was interrupted suddenly by another inner voice, which was desperately trying to alert him that all around had become quite suddenly silent.

Trauma's eyes flew open, and he immediately wished that they had not. Standing directly in front of them were three white-clad figures, each holding what appeared to be a short wand with an advanced flash bulb mechanism at its top. They marched silently to stand directly in front of Trauma, George, and Mia, staring at each dispassionately, their eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses.

His senses now sharpened to a razor's edge, Trauma watched closely as their thumbs inched towards the triggers he knew were fixed to the back of the wand. Without moving his head, he darted his eyes back and forth, and his stomach sank. At the end of each aisle, another white-clad figure stood like a guardian statue, motionless, emotionless. He was cornered. There was no escape.

Then, to his surprise, one of their captors spoke.

You have two choices." the man said flatly, without a hint of heat or anger. "Either you will be blinded and stunned and dragged helplessly back to the reception area, or you may walk under your own power with whatever modicum of dignity and self respect you have left available to you intact." Their thumbs were all but pressing the trigger button.

Trauma glanced back at George and Mia, and then turned to face the shimmering figures, his Cheshire grin slowly spreading across his face.

"Gentlemen," he said smoothly, gesturing down the corridor.. "We are at your disposal."


Chapter Twelve

They walked silently back to the main reception area, stepping over the bodies of stunned library patrons as they navigated through the stacks. The atrium was also littered with still bodies, slumped in chairs or sprawled haphazardly on the floor wherever they might have been previously standing. Mia noticed a particular figure beside the reception desk, and broke away from the captors, rushing over the side of one of her fallen colleagues, which looked to George rather like a large deflated silver balloon lying on the floor. . Her escort raised his wand to fire at her back, but his hand was caught and lowered by one of his companions.

"This is Wandar," she cried urgently, kneeling before her friend. "She's an Arian....they're not supposed to become fully motionless in a full gravity environment. We must wake her immediately."

"I wouldn't worry," a whiny, booming, authoritative voice called out. Her escort took her by the arm and led her over to a table, where George and Trauma had been seated. "The Biologic Disabler is designed to be harmless, in time, to any and all creatures."

From out of the crowd of white-clad figures, a man emerged. He stood about 5'3, with a neatly combed shock of silver hair swept back in almost a miniature pompadour. He was attired exactly as all the others, with the same mirrored sunglasses perched atop his broad, sharp nose, yet somehow George could sense that this was the leader of the band of merry cutthroats who had pursued them through the library.

He stopped in front of the table and turned to face them with his hands clasped behind his back. "Like the effects of the Visual Distortion Wands, the results are temporary. Your Arian friend will wake long before her system becomes critically paralyzed." He smiled at them in a way that George hoped was meant to be reassuring, because on reflection, it wasn't particularly.

Adapting quickly to the situation, Trauma nonchalantly leaned back in his chair. "George, Mia," he said amiably. "Allow me to introduce you to our captors." He paused for dramatic effect, "the Men in White." Smiling, Trauma looked at the crowed gathered in a large, loose circle around the table. "Men in White," he said, pointing to himself and his two friends, "we are the innocent scapegoats." He shot his gaze about the crowd, searching desperately for any sign of loyalty in their ranks, and found none. There was not even a hint of a smile or a snicker.

"You people are always innocent scapegoats," the Leader said. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Mr. Ellis, the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of the Timelines Project Authority. You will refer to me as CLEO, or sir. Preferably sir."

Turning slightly, he caught the eye of a subordinate holding three large three-ring binders. He nodded to the agent, who in turn handed him the topmost folder.

"Ah, you have a new manuscript you'd like us to proofread?" Trauma mocked. "Why on earth didn't you just say so, really, we'd have been more than happy to oblige." The agent standing directly behind him placed a heavy hand on his shoulder and squeezed slightly. Trauma turned to look up at his impassive guardian. "Yes, well, no need to be rude." he said, gently lifting the hand from his shoulder. "I say, who's your tailor...."

Ellis ignored Trauma's raving, walking over to stand directly in front of George, who winced at his reflection in the mirrored glasses. He was only know beginning to feel his energy return slightly. Ellis opened the notebook, revealing a slender volume of notes.

"Pembroke," he read. "George Martin. Profession: Finance executive. Previous record: None of note. Planet of Origin: Terra. Time period of residence, 19.." Ellis stopped, sucking in air as if to recapture the words before they escaped his lips. He turned to Trauma. "It would appear Mr. Pembroke's time period is a DNC zone." Trauma's smile began to fade. "Last time I checked the law books, Mr. Martin, a DNC zone meant Do......Not.....Contact. Is that not correct, Sergeant Werm?"

A nearby agent nodded curtly and saluted. Ellis closed the file and handed it back to the agent standing next to him, and accepted a second slender volume.

"Kulpa." he read. "Mia. Profession: Librarian, TPA. Previous record: None of note. Planet of origin: Terra Alpha. Well, well, a human colony. I understand it's lovely this time of year." Ellis smiled warmly at Mia. "Time period is current."

He handed the folder back to the records agent, who accepted it gracefully., and then attempted to pass a third folder to Ellis. Failing to open it and pass it over in one motion, he eventually settled for resting the massive tome on the table in front of the three captives.

Ellis cast a disinterested glance at the folder. "Goodness me, Mr. Martin," he said with mock sympathy that barely disguised glee. "We seem to have gathered quite a bit of material on your exploits. Any idea why that may be?" The smile was suddenly devoid of any warmth whatsoever.

"Rampant and unchecked voyeurism, I suspect," Trauma supplied glibly.

"Ah, your wit is indeed," Ellis scanned the file with his finger for the exact wording. "Here we are....'The subject's wit is indeed formidable. Suspect it to be used to confuse agents or distort the facts.' " He cocked his head curiously at Trauma, as if to say "Your move."

"Yes, well, one must maintain a sense of humor if one is to maintain a sense of sanity amidst the overall chaos of the universe." Trauma said smoothly. "Sir." he added pointedly.

Ellis's smile faded like the last rays of an arctic sun before the onset of a long dark winter. "Humor only gets in the way, Mr. Martin." he said gravely, "and there is nothing in this file that suggestions any reason for levity."

He stepped back, turned around, and began addressing the gathered crowd with one arm held in the air, pointing at the sky.

"One," he recited from memory, "unauthorized operation of a Time Ring. Two, illegal access to the Timelines. Three, unauthorized access to sensitive temporal technology. Four, Violation of Restricted Zone 18B..." He spun around and pointed directly at Trauma. "Oh, yes, Mr. Martin," he fumed, "we know of your little visit to Dr. Gerpuppy's Symposium. It took Temporal Corrections nearly a week to undo your damage, and still those sparks fly in the background. Or should I say flew?"

Trauma flew to his feet. "You undid that?!?!? You mean I've been staring at bloody crimson all this time because of..."

"The prisoner will remain quiet." Sergeant Werm said, pulling a large gun from his jacket and training it directly on Trauma. Smiling, Trauma held up his hands in the universal symbol of "Sorry, my fault" and slowly sank back into his chair.

"There was a great debate, Mr. Martin, about whether or not to pull you in. In the end, we decided the effort of tracking down a rogue ring was not worth it, not for that crime, anyway." Ellis returned to the file. "Where was I? Ah yes, routine violations of DNC zones, routine....In short, Mr. Martin, a litany of violations. And still, we were willing to forgive, to blind our own eyes." He stopped, placed his hands flat down on the table, and stood nose to nose with Trauma. "But....this....MURDER." he hissed loudly, "this action of yours has unraveled nearly everything.

"But we didn't do it!" Mia protested. "At least, not intentionally."

"Why do I get the feeling they won't believe us?" George whispered to her out of the corner of his mouth.

"The Time lines are in chaos, the normal temporal flow is in an extreme state of flux." Ellis said, lifting the massive folder easily off the table and plopping it casually on top of the two already carried by the records keeper, who staggered to balance the sudden extra weight. "We have reports of alternate time lines developing with giraffes...GIRAFFES!...ruling the known universe. In another, one-hundred year old cheese has become the standard currency. No one knows yet how this is all going to settle."

Ellis stood up dramatically. "You three are facing capital charges of chronocide, the willful and deliberate destruction of an entire timeline. No one in the history of the TPA has ever faced such charges, and no one will be punished more severely than those responsible for such a crime."

"But we didn't do it!" Mia said, fighting tears. "These two received a note telling them the future of the universe depended on them going to a certain set of coordinates!"

"It's true," George chimed in. "it was given to me by a dwarf in my closet, and then there was this clown who..." George trailed off, wondering if he was helping or hurting their case.

"Gentlemen," Trauma said, "What we have here is a grand conspiracy to set us up as the criminals in this case. Mr. Pembroke was used to get to me, knowing that i would find the riddle of the mysterious coordinates too intriguing to pass up. George is a complete innocent in this affair, as is Mia, whose only misfortune was her attempt to return a notebook to me just as I activated my time ring." Trauma paused for dramatic effect. "Someone, somewhere, set all of this up, including constructing a warp tube thirty feet in the air, including finding coordinates to drop us at the prefect time to smash Mr...Mr...", he snapped his fingers in an attempt to jog his memory.

"Boltz," Mia supplied helpfully.

"To smash," Trauma continued, "Mr. Boltz into a bloody pulp. Surely you'd agree that even I, in my wisdom, and some perceptive souls have even said, genius, could not have set all of these things into motion. And while his name is familiar, I don't even know who the late Thomas Boltz was, much less why he is important enough to kill. Therefore, I think it is safe to say..."

"Mr. Martin," Ellis interrupted. "There is much about this case to indicate that you are not the sole actors in this sordid little drama." He turned to Sergeant Werm. "Of course, if you are such a...genius," his face contorted as though he found the word somehow distasteful, "If you are such a genius, how can you possibly not know who Tom Boltz is? How can you not know how important he is...was...in the grand scheme of things?" He turned to face Trauma again. "Perhaps you are pawns in this little game. Perhaps you were used..."

"Then we are free to go?" Trauma asked hopefully.

Ellis gave him a pitying look. "Of course not, Mr. Martin. As soon as the Timelines clear up to enough to return to Temporal Enforcement headquarters, and as soon as the Temporal Magistrate is able to make it in...whoever he, she, or it might be now that everything is changing...you will be charged with chronocide. And if that magistrate is anyone other than Glonn K'Pak of Numilon, I will make you wish you had never been conceived, Mr. Martin, much less born.

Trauma started at him incredulously. "You realize," he cried, "that there is a chance we are innocent, and yet you bear us such particular malice that you are going to treat myself and my friends here as the criminals?"

"Mr. Martin," Ellis said pointedly. "I bear you no particular malice." He turned and pulled off his glasses. "As a matter of course, I bear general malice towards everyone. It makes the job that much simpler. " He nodded his head at two agents, who moved toward the captives. "Lock them in the library office. Before you leave them, be sure to seize Mr. Martin's ring. They will be kept there until the Timelines clear enough for them to be transported to headquarters."

"You pompous, self-righteous, arrogant..." Trauma sputtered.

Ellis stood still, continuing to face away from Trauma and his companions. "Mr. Martin," he began slowly, choosing his words deliberately. "I would like you to consider the following facts of the matter very carefully. You are, at this moment, able to see. You are able to think. You are able to walk. You have not, as yet, been blinded or stunned. You have not had your bodies dragged towards the interrogation rooms. You have not been placed under questioning, then taken to another room and placed under further questioning, and then taken to yet another room and pleased under even more strenuous questioning. And you have not been given a thorough, final tour of the lush...green...gardens...this facility has just behind the interrogation chambers."

He turned to race them, and George gasped in horror. Where Ellis's eyes should have been were instead twin black orbs, within which a fiery inferno raged uncontrolled, red shadows dancing about in his head. "We are not known for our subtlety, Mr. Martin." he placed the mirrored glasses back on, covering the flames from their sight. "You have already been accorded more courtesy than anyone charged with your crime has any right to expect. Keep that in mind." He gestured to the agents standing on either side of the trio. "Take them away."

Ellis turned and strode over to confer with Sergeant Werm sd Trauma, George, and Mia were escorted out of the atrium of the library.

*****

High above the reception area, a trenchcoated figure leaned over the railing of the 18th floor gallery and watched the scene unfolding below. As the three travelers were escorted away, he smiled and chuckled softly to himself. Then, quietly, he turned, stepped over a sleeping body, and wandered back into the stacks, disappearing into the Terran History section.


Chapter Thirteen

Reluctantly, as though here were being parted from his own child, Trauma pulled the time ring from his finger and dropped into the hands of the temporal agent.

"What is to be come of us?" George asked one of the agents.

Passionlessly, the agent turned to face him. "The time lines are in flux, and at present, travel is considered too dangerous. When a clearing in the storm emerges, you will be taken to the Authority Headquarters" With that, the agents turned and walked outside, pulling the door of the reference office closed and locking it behind them.

George watched the silent procession. When the door clicked shut, he collapsed into the nearest chair like a marionette whose strings had been cut.

"Trauma, what are those people?" he asked. "That...fire...in his eyes. It was....it was..."

"They are what they are, George." Trauma appeared to have retreated into some distant recess of his own mind. "Suffice it to say, though, they are no longer what they once were. I have never discovered what it is that happens to recruits once they are accepted into the Temporal Corps, and I'm really not sure I want to know.

Mia walked to her desk, flipping a switch on the back of the terminal sitting there. "Well, I don't know about you," she said determinedly, "but I do want to know who that was we just killed."

Trauma made a quiet, rude noise. "While in the strictest interpretation of events, our combined body weight did end the life of Mr. Boltz," he said, "we did not kill that man. Whoever orchestrated all of this, however, did. We are merely pawns in this." He sat down in a chair next to Mia's desk, pressed his fingertips together, and closed his eyes. "Now, let us discover the identity of the victim and see where we can go from there."

"George," Mia called over her shoulder as she began tapping at the terminal. "If you look in the fridge there, I should have something that will help get some vital fluids back into you."

"I do need something," he agreed, and slouched over to the black cube that was Mia's office refrigerator. "There are still moments I can barely keep my eyes open. Especially after all we've been through." He opened the door, wincing slightly as a blast of cold air rushed out into his face. Searching briefly, he discovered a container marked "NutraDrink" with Mia's name written carefully on the label in red permanent ink. He pulled it out from the clutter of other, unidentifiable liquids, unscrewed the cap, and downed several gulps of what may have possibly been the most vile substance he had ever voluntarily swallowed. He made a face and swallowed several times in a vain attempt to clear the viscous liquid which was now sticking to the walls of his throat

"Careful, that stuff is potent." Mia said, as George made muffled gagging noises behind her. "Keeps you going through the day, though." It was true. Even as his tastebuds unsheathed the swords of their displeasure and began stabbing at his tongue, he was starting to feel much better.

"Ah, we're finally getting something!" Mia swiveled the screen so that everyone could see the display. "Amazing how fast this thing actually works when hardly anyone is on the system."

"I wonder if they knocked out everyone in the Residential complex as well," George mused.

"Quite probably," Trauma said, opening his eyes and leaning forward to look at the computer. "They generally don't want to be seen. Ellis must have believed us, if only a little, to have authorized not blinding and stunning us."

The computer screen started scrolling up biographical information, including pictures. Trauma felt the pit of his stomach fall through the floor.

"Oh, no!" he cried. "No wonder his name was familiar! I remember him from school lessons! On the screen, the following words appeared:

Tom Boltz (1970-2074)
Terran Aerospace Engineer

From the time he entered the aerospace industry at the age of 26, until his death at the age of 104, Thomas Eugene Boltz was one of the most influential aircraft/spacecraft designers on Earth. Originally attached to Airframe Industries, he became a freelance designer after the success of the Airframe AF-400 (first commercial flight in 2001), the industry's first six engine, one thousand passenger capacity aircraft.

While he enjoyed many successes with both new aircraft and modifications to older models, Boltz's greatest accomplishment came while working as a contracted designer for Boling Aerospace, Inc. Originally hired to design a sub-orbital, high-speed passenger plane, Boltz's design quickly evolved into something more. By the time the final design plans were delivered to Boling, Boltz had created Earth's first dual aircraft/spacecraft, capable of flying between cities on Earth and between planets in Earth's solar system.

This new plane was designated the Boling 808, and it's ambitious design called for engines capable of operating within an atmospheric environment. Once the ship left the atmosphere, however, a second set of propulsion systems took over, transforming the ship into a spaceship capable of approaching and, in theory, even surpassing the light speed barrier.

The design was not without controversy and proved to be a tough sell. The interatmospheric portion of the flight was covered by conventional engines designed by Pitt & Whitley. The spaceworthy engines, however, were to be powered by the controlled combustion of matter and anti-matter.

Two years earlier, Nobel prize winning physicist Gaston Lafayette had discovered a method for converting matter into antimatter, and then recombining it with more like matter to generate massive amounts of energy. His theories were already being tested in massive power generating plants in Northern Europe (see also: The Copenhagen Disaster of 2119). Now Boltz was proposing the same theory be used to power the engine of the new Boling 808.

 

"This sounds like something out of a novel!", George exclaimed aloud as he read this part of the text. "or something you'd see at the cinema."

"It's real, George," Trauma said in a hushed voice. "It's very, very real."

"But, what they're talking about here sounds like..."

"Shh. Keep reading." Trauma said. At another computer across the room, Mia was busying herself finding other information.

George continued, skipping over several paragraphs of technical documentation.

While designed by Thomas Boltz, responsibility of the manufacturing and testing of the radical new design was to be handled by Fortinbras Aviation of Norway. However, many executives and engineers within both Boling and Fortinbras were skeptical of Boltz's design, believing it neither safe nor technologically feasible

At a meeting held in Oslo in late 2017, Tom Boltz single-handedly .convinced both companies that the Boling 808 was worth the risk, and construction of both the airframe and the engines commenced the following year.

Delays followed, and Boltz's contract with Boling expired. While working on new heavy lifting spacecraft for the European Union Space Agency in 2024, Boltz received word that Boling and Fortinbras were ready to test the new plane and he was present in the audience for the unveiling. The radical new ship made its first atmospheric flight in January 2025. The following month, test pilots carried the ship to the upper reaches of the atmosphere and engaged the matter/anti-matter generators, converting the 808 into a spaceship. Four hours later, they made one orbit of the moon and returned to the landing site in Olympia, Washington.

The Boling 808 not only revolutionized space travel for the people of earth, but also led to the creation of the Galactic Alliance when the people of Earth made initial contact with the Elbyian Empire in 2044, a mere 19 years after the ships first flight.

 

George sat back and realized he had been holding his breath for several minutes. He finally allowed himself to exhale, slowly. "Trauma, are they saying here what I think they are saying? This Tom Boltz chap..."

"That Tom Boltz chap, George, damn and blast my memory for not recalling earlier. Tom Boltz created the FTL engine, which eventually united all the disparate systems that now make up the Alliance."

George pondered this for a moment. "That means....what we saw in the hanger wasn't a model of an antique warp engine. It was a model of the prototype!" Well, he thought,. That explains why Taquin spoke English and German.

"Listen to this," Mia said from the other computer. "I did a second search on the Boling 808 and pulled up a timeline. The first flight was in 2025. Two years later, thanks primarily to the new plane, a permanent base was constructed on Earth's moon. total travel time, round trip, was eight hours. In 2029, a permanent colony was established on the planet Mars. In 2030, Fortinbras produced a new version of the engine which cut travel time across the solar system considerably. in 2032, engineers spacetesting an experimental version of the Fortinbras Engine pushed the ship to full speed and broke the lightspeed barrier, officially starting the FTL era. Then, in 2036, an expedition is sent to the Oort cloud, and during their mission discovered several large comets whose orbits had been altered by a blast ring from a supernova and were heading on a possible collision course with Earth. With the warning they received from the Oort expedition, scientists had twenty years warning and were able to find a way to divert the comets."

Mia paused to take a sip of the NutraDrink which George had abandoned on the table. "In 2040," she continued," Earthlings bridged the gap between the stars, venturing to their nearest celestial neighbor, Alpha Centauri, and establishing a colony there. In 2044, after the construction of a large network of waystations, an expedition encountered an Elbyian sublight transport."

"All of this accomplished because of one Earth man's design." George said. "That's mindboggling."

"The 808 and its derivatives," Mia continued, "served as the primary means of faster-than-light travel until well into the 22nd century, long after the Alliance was formed."

"Lost, all lost," Trauma said, dejectedly. "All is lost. We've irrevocably altered the flow of time. No FTL engines, no Alliance. Only those of us in the stable zones will even remember what was. An entire history that once was is now no more."

"Maybe something of the Alliance will survive." Mia said hopefully. "Maybe a few systems will still make contact." She suddenly found herself missing a home that more than likely no longer existed. Terra Alpha had been terraformed and colonized by human settlers from Earth. Without the 808, all of that was now gone.

George, for the first time since he had been dragged into this entire bewildering affair, felt absolutely helpless, but still, there was something within him that insisted that all was not, could not be, lost. "There must be another way! Something we can do!" he said. "Perhaps the Alliance will still happen!"

Trauma sat with his elbows propped on his knees, his face buried in his hands. He did not even bother to look up. "No." he said wearily. "No FTL, no Alliance."

"But, if Boltz hadn't invented them, surely someone else would have, wouldn't they?" George insisted.

"I am a tremendous proponent of the power of positive thinking, Mr. Pembroke, but I see no reason to indulge myself in flights of fancy that will only.." He pulled his head up and stared incredulously at George, a wide grin slowly but steadily elevating the corners of his mouth. "I'm sorry, but what precisely was that insane thing you just said?"

"I said," George repeated emphatically, "if Boltz hadn't invented them, surely someone else would have."

Trauma leapt from his chair and danced about like a madman, sweeping Mia up into a crushing embrace and twirling her about the room. "Did you hear what he said? Did you?" he cackled gleefully as he plopped her back on her feet.

"I heard him," Mia said unsteadily, putting a hand down on the table to regain her balance. "but how exactly does this help us?"

"Who would have had the most to gain by arranging the death of the inventor of the FTL engine, hrm?" Who would have had the motive to see Thomas Boltz removed from the historical picture?" he mused enthusiastically.

Mia's eyes lit up. "Whoever was next! The person or group who would have been the first if Boltz had never existed!"

"Bringing the FTL drive to the table would certainly give it's inventor a lot of power to shape the Alliance, wouldn't it?" George agreed.

"Precisely!" Trauma exclaimed, springing to the top of the desk and spinning in a tight circle. "The three of us are alive, and I don't believe that was part of the plan. The Timelines are in flux, but they have yet to settle. There may yet be hope for us, my friends. They day is not yet lost.!" He jumped down off the desk, furrowing his brow in concentration. "But we need a plan. A plan of action."

"Couldn't we just go back and stop ourselves from killing Boltz? George asked sensibly. "That would be the simplest course of action, except....except we no longer have a time ring." His face fell as he remembered the confiscation of Trauma's precious Operator Ring.

"Yes we do." Trauma said quickly. "Mia, we have a great deal of research to conduct, but I don't think we have time to continue doing it here, We..."

"Trauma," George interrupted. "I saw them take the ring. Don't tell me you gave them some sort of fake. Surely they would have seen through a ruse like that."

Trauma indulged George's question, pulling a ring from his pocket and slipping it on his finger. "The Temporal Corps is remarkably efficient, and has quite a reputation as a ruthless and infallible force that never makes a mistake.  But they tend to grow too fixed on the big picture, allowing small details to slip past them, if you're quick and lucky. I gave them Mia's ring," he said, his eyes sparkling mischievously.

He raised his right hand and waggled his fingers for effect, then returned his attention to the librarian. "Is there any way we can access .the library without physically being here?"

Mia walked over to a filing cabinet in the corner. She reached into a box on top and pulled out three disks about the size of an old fashioned 3.5 inch floppy.

"We can use the library cards. Get me to a computer, almost any computer, and we can tap into the library using them."

"Excellent!" Trauma said. "Superb!"

He wheeled around to face George. "Now, Mr. Pembroke, you have proposed a marvelous and thoughtful course of action, and I believe we should try it. However, it's best to have alternative plans. You recall how difficult it was to reach the library?"

George nodded mutely.

"Well, there are a few places on the timelines that have fixed locations. The Library, the Temporal Authority Headquarters, the Mare Inebrium on Bethdish....all of them can be counted on to be reachable, even during severe storms, as long as you're willing to endure a rough ride. Any non-fixed location will be decidedly difficult to reach with any real degree of accuracy. And in fact, the late Mr. Boltz's lab will be doubly difficult, as it is the center of the temporal maelstrom. I very seriously doubt we shall reach Mr. Boltz's office under the current conditions."

George looked disappointed. "So it's just pointless..."

"His time period, "Trauma grinned, "is another matter entirely. And if we can get to his time period, there rests a chance, an outside chance as it were, that we will be able to correct what has gone wrong."

He walked to the door and pulled on it. "However, we do have the small problem of this door and the Agents swarming outside."

Mia slipped open the drawer of her desk, and playfully dangled a key ring from the tip of her index finger. "You mean," she corrected smiling., "we have the small problem of those Agents swarming outside."

She locked eyes with Trauma and matched his impossibly wide grin tooth for tooth.


Chapter Fourteen

Trauma pressed himself flat against the wall and peered around the corner into the Library atrium. There were only a few agents milling about, but the main doors were still an impossible distance from where they were currently hiding.

"Damn and blast!" he muttered, retreating back down the hallway a short distance to where George and Mia were waiting. "The front door is nearly impossible. There must be another way to access the portal." he reported.

"Well, we'd set off any number of alarms, but..." Mea said thoughtfully.

"Yes?" Trauma encouraged her.

"There's an emergency portal access on each of the gallery levels. They're exit only....feeds into the main warp tube, in case of fire or earthquake or something."

Trauma considered this. "Well," he finally concluded. "They'll likely be guarded, but we'll stand better odds there than trying to slip through the front door. Let's go."

The trio slipped quietly down the hallway that ran behind the circulations area. They came to a large steel door. Mia fished into her jacket, pulled out a keycard, and swiped it through a small black box mounted next to the door. There was an audible click as the door's lock released its hold, and she quickly pushed it open. Trauma and George followed her swiftly through, and George stopped to ease the door shut behind them.

They were standing in a concrete stairwell that went both up and down. Brightly painted steel railings protected the inner edge of the stairs, and yellow stripes were painted along the edge of each step.

"I see institutional design hasn't changed much in 500 odd years." George said dryly.

Mia ignored him, grabbing hold of the rail and propelling herself up the stairs two at a time. She led them up eighteen flights finally stopping on the landing next to another door..

Trauma stopped on the top step and gave Mia a pained look. "I thought you said every floor had an emergency exit," he panted.

"Yeah, but Arn has been complaining about the security camera's not working proper up here. If they see us on the loose from the monitor station, we'll never make it to the portal." Mia stood on her tiptoes and peered through the small window set high in the center of the door. "Looks clear," she reported, easing the door open and slipping through. The two men continued to follow in her wake. They wound their way through the stacks, occasionally stepping over the random unconscious library patron. Finally, Mia held her hand up behind her, and peered around a corner.

"One agent standing by the exit," she whispered.

Trauma nodded grimly and reached into his pocket, retrieving a small red sphere. He peered around the corner at the guard, and then stood on tiptoes in an effort to see over the stacks. Taking a step backwards, he flung the tiny ball over the facing shelves towards the far side of the 18th gallery, then ducked to the floor.

From across the room, they heard a sharp crack, followed by the sound of shelves toppling. Trauma straightened up, gave Mia an apologetic shrug, and glanced around the corner.

"He went for it!" Trauma whispered urgently. "Run!"

The three of them rushed headlong around the corner towards the exit door. Mia thrust the lever of the doorway down and to the left, and threw her shoulder against the door, which flew open and slammed against the inside wall. Klaxons began sounding throughout the library as the automatic fire alarm system rumbled to life.

Trauma dashed past Mia and gazed at the shimmering portal He quickly set the coordinates on the ring, grabbed his companions and gave the jewel a quarter twist. As they were pulled into the warp tube, George noticed a trenchcoated man running up to the door. Funny, he thought. He looks vaguely familiar. But then, with a shimmer and a flash, they were gone.

*****

The trenchcoated man howled with rage. How many lives do these insufferable humans have! he seethed to himself. He was about to head towards the elevators when he noticed a contingent of temporal agents rushing towards the emergency exit. The trenchcoated man quickly evaluated his options, chose the better part of valor, and disappeared into the portal, abandoning the Library to the Men in White.


Chapter Fifteen

The Cat's Cradle Zone looked like a battlefield now, and the normally bright crimson background was dark and foreboding. Gale force winds swirled about, making the timelines sway violently as they pitched and rolled through the abyss that lies between time and space. The three travelers held together tightly, helping to keep each other from falling off and tumbling down into the unfathomable deeps of nothing that lay below them.

"This is futile!" Trauma shouted above the roar of the winds. We'll be lucky if we get anywhere alive, much less where we're going."

"We've got to try," George yelled back. "If we don't, it won't matter where we end up, because it will all be changed."

Mia said nothing, clutching Trauma's arm and staring straight ahead with grim determination. She knew all to well the dangers of travelling the time lines under any conditions, let alone the ones they were facing now. She wondered if, having left the library, she would ever see anything that she considered familiar again. The sudden and stark reminder of the stakes in the game they were playing strengthened her resolve.

She glanced over at George, and marveled at his reticence. She had grown up in modern times, or at least what she thought of as modern times, and George was as foreign to her as a knight of the round table would have been to him. How he was able to take all of this in stride was nothing short of amazing.

George noticed her staring at him, and smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring way. Amazing, she thought. She diverted her gaze downwards, shook her head, and smiled to herself. It's as if he's on a boating holiday, not riding a temporal maelstrom through the wilds of the Cat's Cradle Zone.

Suddenly, the line they were riding along pitched downwards at an impossibly steep and dizzying angle. George could see the warp tube gaping below them, like the mouth of a huge serpent ready to swallow them whole. Oh well, he thought. here goes nothing.

The travelers flew into the warp tube, leaving the chaos of the zone behind them.

*****

Despite the extreme conditions of the zone, the three of them managed to push through the tube and into real space with a relative amount of stability. Unfortunately, the aftershock of their sudden materialization sent the skirts and petticoats of a nearby woman flying high into the air, revealing her delicate if cumbersome undergarments.

It was clear to each of them that they had missed the lab.

They stood in a rather stylish restaurant, which appeared to reside around the turn of the 20th century if the Victorian fashion sense of it's patrons was any indication. The choice of excited scream that escaped the lips of the disturbed woman certainly sounded as though it came from an older time.

"Just as I suspected," Trauma said solemnly, manipulating the jewel on the ring. "The conditions make hitting a specific target very difficult."

"Right place, wrong time," Mia observed thoughtfully. Trauma nodded.

George looked about the restaurant and suddenly felt an aching need to not be there. Virtually everyone in the room, from the patrons to the waiters were staring at them, dumbfounded by their sudden appearance. Even the piano player had dropped his hands to his side and was staring open mouthed at them. One man in particular, however, seemed particularly unhappy to see them. He slammed a bottle of whiskey down onto the bar, breaking it across the barrel and creating a jagged glass hatchet, which he waved in the direction of the three newcomers.

"Wha' the hell are you doin' to Ms. Laura?" he bellowed with a deep, crackling voice.

"Um, Trauma," George said, crowding closer to his companions. "How much longer until we try again?"

"Oh, just a minute here," Trauma said absently, completely oblivious to his surroundings.. "I'm attempting to factor in some of the changes that have already taken place. If I can do that, I might be able to program the ring to give me more stability with manual control."

The hulking man growled as he waded through the crowd. Across the room, the bartender began moving the more expensive bottles of whiskey under the counter, where they were less likely to be broken in the altercation that was certain to begin within moments.

"Er, Trauma," Mia tugged urgently at his sleeve. "Leaving sooner rather than later would, I believe, be a most prudent course of action. While I've always wanted to meet a tall, strong man, this doesn't appear to be a promising introduction." A table flew through the air, landing inches away from the picture window at the front of the restaurant.

"I'll teach you to go messing around with my woman." the man growled, holding up the jagged edges of the bottle as though checking their sharpness. Behind him, a fight broke out between two men who had no real quarrel, but who didn't want to be left out of the festivities and were impatient to get them started so they could engage in their favorite pastime, breaking things for no readily apparent reason.

Trauma noticed the approaching man for the first time. He appeared to be little more than a partially civilized bear dressed in dusty leather clothing. Trauma's face broke readily into his best Cheshire grin, and he crossed his hands, fingers still nimbly manipulating the jewel in the center of his ring.

"Ah, my dear, dear man." Trauma said enthusiastically. Mia could not help but notice the gray stubble on the mans chin, or his cold drunken eyes which blearily attempted to focus his hatred upon the three travelers.

Meanwhile Laura, the offended woman, positively beamed with admiration as the hulk made his way towards the interlopers who had shamed her. "Oh Theodore!" she gushed. "I've changed my mind! I will marry you!" One of the men fighting in the back of the tavern picked up a chair and brought it crashing down over the head of a man who had been peacefully playing cards in the corner, and the brawl expanded to include four new assailants.

"Dear, dear, dear fellow," Trauma continued, "may I be the first to congratulate you on your upcoming nuptials. And madam, my warmest regards on the happy event." He beamed a smile at her.

"Keep your filthy.....uh....words away from my girl!" Theodore bellowed, and moved dangerously closer. One of the card players was thrown up onto the bar, and slid down its polished length, landing headfirst in a plate of cabbage and potatoes being enjoyed by a young couple near the window. As the pretty girl burst into tears, her companion leapt to his feet, reached for a barstool, and hurried into the fray.

"The arms, hook the arms," Trauma muttered out of the corners of his mouth, as he attempted to keep his toothy grin focused on the looming Theodore. George and Mia quickly obeyed.

Theodore issued forth a guttural shout and lunged towards them, just as Trauma wrenched the ring's launch wheel. For just a moment, Theodore felt as though he were on the verge of falling into a deep, dark pit, and then he landed with a resounding thud on the floor. It was as though the three strangers had never been in the room. Staggering to his feet, he noticed that both his bottle and hat had vanished into thin air.

Theodore scratched his head in confusion, decided someone had played a nasty trick on him, and punched the nearest person he saw, a middle-aged insurance salesman from Ohio. The brawl spilled out the front door and into the crisp night air...

* * * * *

Trauma, George, Mia, a hat, and a broken bottle sped into the Cat's Cradle. Conditions were rapidly becoming worse, and distinctions between one line and another were starting to fade.

"I've set the ring," Trauma yelled, "to take us out and then turn us back for another shot. When we get slower, I'm putting the ring on manual to make last minute adjustments."

"Phumppwumpha!" George replied as the hat flew into his face. The three of them arced out and then turned back towards the Terran zone.

"Hang on!" Trauma shouted as he switched the ring onto manual. At first, the trip was no worse than it had been before, but as he began attempting to make adjustments to their path as they rode it, the turbulence became unbearable. Mia began to careen off the path and into the void between lines, and George was just able to catch her and pull her back in. The bottle, however,  tumbled down through the zone for a short time before being vaporized by a random surge of energy.  The flight became a tempest of nightmare twists and turns, hills and valleys, as Trauma frantically tried to switch the ring back onto automatic control. He was certain already that they had missed their target completely, But where they were set to land was anyone's guess.

Just as he made the final twist on the ring to bring it back to automatic, the three stumbled into a warp tube and fell headlong back into real space.

*****

George landed face first in cold wet grass, skidded a few feet, and collided with a hard rocklike slab. Shaking off the stars that danced in front of his eyes, he examined the object which had arrested his momentum. He noted with great distress that it was a tombstone.

"That was immense fun." groaned Mia. "Let's never do it again, shall we?"

The three sat up and looked about them. A lonely moor stretched for as far as the eye could see, and delicate snow and ice decorated the few barren trees. Above them, atop a small hill, the walls of a stone castle could be made out in the clear moonlight. High over their head, wispy clouds chased one another in the swirling winds of the upper atmosphere, causing the light to dance and shimmer.

Trauma was about to get to his feet when he felt a sharp cold object come to rest lightly across his throat. He smiled nervously and glanced up at his assailant.

The man before him was tall and handsome, dressed in a simple tunic and breeches. Leather boots and gloves covered his hands and feet, and a now empty scabbard hung from his wide belt. The usual occupant of that scabbard extended from his right arm and came to rest just below Trauma's chin.

"Intruders of some sort, m'lord." he spoke. "Shall I dispatch them to the hell they no doubt so richly deserve?"

From out of the shadows, a second man emerged. He was pale and blonde, and easily as tall as his companion. The pair were dressed similarly, though the second man favored black and silver rather than the more festive blue and gold of the swordsman. He cast a mournful eye upon the three travelers, finally locking his cold blue eyes on Trauma.

Thoughtfully, he gently grasped the swordsman's wrist, and slowly pulled the blade away. With his free hand, he reached down and helped Trauma to his feet.

"Alas, Horatio. I know him well."

Trauma stared at his benefactor. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was not smiling.

To Be Continued...


© 1998,2007 by Rob Wynne and Jeffrey Williams

Robert Wynne ("Doc") is a gentleman rogue and a scholar of truth. He has been, at alternate times, a writer, an editor, a salesman, a teacher, a freelance computer consultant and a charming vagrant. He currently works as a Systems Administrator for an Atlanta area ISP, and in his spare time enjoyed gaming and figuring out ways to get cheap airline tickets. You can reach him via e-mail at doc@america.net.

While herding a sturdy diesel across the highways of life Jeff Williams dreame d of becoming a writer. In between haunting railroad yards he scribbles cryptic notes on slightly-used paper napkins and posts them off to his colaborator, Rob Wynne. They brainstorm these abstruse anagrams into the tales that you've just been reading. And people say the youth of America have no goals in life. You can reach Jeff at jtwrccc@aol.com

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