Chris regained consciousness like a shock. An immense, rasping breath burned into his lungs, his throat felt full of nails and razor blades. The weight of a building pressed down upon his chest. Every muscle bruised, every joint rusted. His kidneys were punched and testicles squeezed; nausea roiled up through him. His eye lids were lined with sandpaper; like rocks to a doorway, mucus encrusted and propped them open. His sinuses were entirely occluded, forcing him to breathe through his raw, sensitive mouth. His vision was all muddled darkness; his hearing suffering from severe tinnitus – akin to lying on the bottom of a muddy lake – floaters flew past like noseeums, pressure crushed against his ears.
Cocooned in this pain, Chris sought refuge in the distracting memories of his friends at the Center and of his sister. He imagined worse pain – breaking a bone, a car crash. His last sunset on the dock. His mouth watered and his eyes seeped. He hoped the warmth beginning to register in his groin was piss and not blood.
The gauntlet he’d passed through eventually reached its end. All his cells and tissues realigned and his body returned to him. As his eyesight stabilized, the dark haze turning into a light one, Chris ventured a look through his tears. He could almost identify the tall silhouettes of trees and the lesser shadows of close grass stalks, swaying. The tinny, buzzing sound in his ears was incrementally replaced with the soft voices of birds and the breeze through the glade in which he lay.
Chris tentatively rolled from his back to his belly. His cheek rested in the dirt, his breath puffed up dust and chaff and set him to coughing, leaving him feeling weakened again. After another quarter hour of rest, he tried to push up to his knees. He failed his first couple of attempts, but perseverance brought success; moving him through a tabletop position and straight to sitting on his heels. For an unstable moment he thought he was going to continue over and wind up on his back again, but he was able to steady himself and prevent the fall. Small miracles. Big victories.
More rest, hands on his thighs, head tilted back, breathing deeply and much less painfully. His sight was nearly restored; there was still no depth, colors seemed confused – everything was so bright. Chris rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes. The feeling was both raw and sublime.
When he opened his eyes, he saw the copse of pine trees standing before him like sentinels; brown needles carpeted the ground around their trunks. Myriad long-reaching brambles and grasses sprouted up from the edge of the acidified ground and across the entire glade. Chris gingerly looked over his shoulder, fearing his balance was not entirely restored, and found another thicket of leafy trees – Maple? Beech? – growing behind him. A wider stretch of tree line lay beyond and downhill.
The air tasted of sap and wild onions.
He tried breathing through his nose. Blocked tight. Chris inhaled deeply through his mouth and blew forcefully out. A concoction of infernal detritus burst from his nostrils and splashed into the soil before him. Pressure in his sinuses and ears released in a pop, setting his eyes to water even more than before. Chris, ears going through a series of discordant cracklings, breathed in the air of the forest.
The smell was the first of his senses fully unobstructed by the after effects of his temportation. It had been explained to him at the Center that the air would feel thinner and lighter, less burnt, but he had taken for granted how complex and rich the difference would be. His tongue had already detected the nearby pines, but now he could distinguish a variety of sweeter smells which he knew came from various wild flowers in the grove. Earthy odors: dirt, mold, decay and the slight bite of fresh feces, also accompanied the plant fragrances.
“Oh my God. That smells so good,” he said to the open field. His voice was gravelly, tubercular, a lifetime smoker. The thought struck him and he found himself feeling maudlin. Anna filled his mind as he knew she would.
The Center’s motto, “Concern of the Past is Hope for the Future!” was carved above the entrance. Someone had spray-painted a smiley face next to the exclamation point and, though there had been a half-hearted attempt to remove it, the graffiti remained defiantly visible.
Chris stepped up to the glass reception desk. Behind it sat a fair-complexioned young woman typing on the keyboard embedded into the desk. She had fiery, red hair pulled into a tight ponytail; a navy hair band was wrapped along her hairline. Her blouse and skirt were in the Center’s color motif – navy blue and orange. She looked a lot like a majorette. “Welcome to the Center for Social and Environmental Advancement,” she cheerfully greeted him. “Where our past becomes our future.” She handed Chris a data pad and instructed him to type his name and press his thumbprint onto the sensor at top right corner. He noted that he was the twenty-fourth out of fifty recruits already to have arrived in his cohort. Top half. The receptionist caught his smile and returned it in kind as she presented him with the next week’s schedule. Her irises were an Irish green but the whites were rheumy, suggesting illness; the gums around her bright teeth, a little too red. Disconcerted, he shifted his gaze to the collection of papers in her hand. “These are the directions to the dormitory.” Her tone had changed, became suddenly formal. She probably had practice catching people’s notice of her condition, whatever it may have been. “You will find your quarters and the dining facility there. Tonight you will meet your roommates and section instructors.” He thanked her and passed through the reception area toward the shuttle point.
The shuttle ride and subsequent walk to the dorms was farther than he had expected. The campus – if one could call it that – was a retrofitted airport still containing tarmac, tower, maintenance hangars and terminal but now with the additional administration building where he had reported. The airport had been one of many closed due to consolidation. Fossil fuel prices had skyrocketed, so most interstate travel was conducted via high-speed MagLev rails. Though a few of the larger central locations still remained, the majority of ports surviving the down-size resided on the extreme eastern and western states. Departing aboard smaller planes, from smaller airports, air travel within the continent was limited to the wealthy who could afford the shorter hops between bordering states. The general public only flew when international or bi-coastal travel was necessary.
Access to the campus had been altered from its original design; the main entrance now lay at the very end of the runway rather than the center. A staff access road led to the parking garage adjacent to the terminal, but it was not open to the general population; one required a high-level identification card to be granted admittance. The sleeping quarters and classrooms were kept in what had once been the terminal. The campus grounds contained ten hangars serving as additional instruction sites. Each cohort had their own hangar; all of them were covered in several years’ worth of class insignias, mottos, and typical inane shout-outs.
The tower remained a tower.
Chris emerged from the shuttle with five other recruits and approached the terminal building. The group was greeted by an automated sign flashing instructions, directions and the ubiquitous weather and air quality reports. Chris noted that the barometric pressure was low and a front was on its way, rain was forecasted. Air quality was in the upper yellows – just below dangerous potential – and everyone was advised to remain indoors as much as possible. If unable to be inside, to seek cover once the expected rain began.
He found his name and room assignment on the display, but, even with color-coded direction arrows along the walls, it took nearly half an hour to find his quarters. The room was a twelve foot by twelve foot box set up for four occupants. In each corner sat a simple metal-framed bed, a prefab night stand and lamp perched at the head. Only the bed in the far right corner had been claimed which made sense since Chris was 24/50. His – Chris assumed it was a male – bag left on the mattress. “Good choice,” Chris said to the bag. The early bird had chosen the one spot away from both the entry door and the bathroom door on the left wall of the room. Chris laid his own duffle on the bed to right of the entryway but still away from the bathroom since he figured it would be the second least likely to get disturbed during the night.
Before he had opened his bag, a woman, a few years younger than he, stepped into the room. She toted a small, blue hiking pack over her right shoulder. Seeing the bag in the far corner, she muttered, “Top choice.” Chris grunted his agreement, causing her to flinch in surprise. “Jeez! Creep much?” she said.
“Sorry,” Chris said sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to…”
“S’alright, you must have been in my blind spot. I’ve got to check my side mirrors better, I guess. Have you been here long?”
Chris shook his head and turned to his unpacking. “I just got here, too.”
“Missed it by moments, did we?” She stood looking at the two beds remaining. “Oh well, if I can’t have the best, might as well have the worst.” She shrugged off her pack and laid it on the bed to the left of the door and then went into the bathroom.
Chris hadn’t brought much with him; his recruiter had advised against more than a change of clothes, toiletries and a few sentimental items, which, for him, consisted of a half dozen books. He put the clothes into the bottom two drawers of his nightstand, the toiletries into the top drawer. He considered hiding the books for fear of theft but resigned himself to that possibility and, instead, stacked them in plain sight on top. He pushed his bag under the bed with his foot as the woman re-emerged from the bathroom. “Communal bathroom but at least there are locks on the stalls,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Chris,” he said.
“Hi, Chris, I’m Anna,” she reached over to shake his hand. A pause as their hands clasped, each bent forward, almost bowing, like the opening of a dance. Anna’s eyes sparkled with specks of jade, gold and humor. She stepped toward him, still holding his hand. “Have we met?”
“I don’t believe so,” Chris said.
“Hmm,” she squinted slightly, inspecting him, then released his hand and returned to her corner.
“Dammit! The last one,” a broad-shoulder guy burst into the room like a bullet carrying nothing but a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste. He went straight over to the remaining bed and dropped them onto the pillow. “Oh, a girl,” he said, taking notice of Anna. “The rooms are co-ed?”
“What’s your name?” the man asked. “Is it a boyish-girl or girly-boy name like Kris? Something they could have mixed up?”
“No, that’s Chris,” she indicated Chris sitting on his mattress. “I’m Anna.”
“Hi, Anna. Hi, Chris. Sorry about that, dude. I’m Ian Fredricks.” He stomped over to each of them in turn. Ian was clearly the type to use his whole body in greeting; Anna received a two-handed handshake while Chris got a handshake with shoulder squeeze. “Either of you snore?”
Chris motioned to Anna. “She does,” he said.
Anna, squatting over her ruck, craned her face around to look at him. “You sure we haven’t met?” She winked at him.
Ian looked back and forth between them for a beat, then two, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Okay then,” he brought his hands together like a strike of thunder, “I’m off to find food. You two conspirators care to join me?” They both agreed. Anna shoved her pack under her bed and the three set out.
In the dining facility they met their fourth roommate, Marcus. Ian spotted him from across the busy room. He introduced Chris and Anna as ‘long-lost twins’. Marcus asked how Ian had known to approach him. “All the four-seated tables are filled. You’re alone. We’re missing one. I asked and you confirmed. I may be big and dumb but I’m not stupid.”
“Just loud,” Anna added.
“This should be interesting,” Chris said.
As concern for the various aches, pains and infirmaries waned; Chris realized his kit was not with him. The pack had been fastened to his shoulders and tethered around his waist before he temporated, but clearly it hadn’t guaranteed it would remain attached. For all he knew, his kit could have arrived at the opposite limits of his projected space and time probability. Still unable to make out details of any objects farther than a few feet, he began crawling around in an expanding spiral. Near a pine, about twenty feet from where he had returned to consciousness, he came across the kit – it had probably been stopped from going further by the tree.
His first order of business was to inventory his supplies and ensure they remained serviceable. He sat against the trunk and opened the kit, pulling everything out and laying them on the needle blanketed ground. All printed material – including his one and only allowed paperback, he’d chosen Conrad’s Secret Agent – was still wrapped in their composite-leather pouch. Of the documents, there were a total of twenty-one councils broken down into four sections which corresponded to Earth’s quadrants. In each section there were three subsections containing histories, testimonies and data and two subsections displaying both photographic representations and sketched diagrams. Lastly, one long, lone narrative section served as a plea to action.
These written councils were meant to serve as the fail safe in the event that any of the electronic or mechanical versions were lost, broken or corrupted. Their immobile, quietness was less persuasive than the video and audio of the other devices, but they lent a certain gravitas to the message. Paper was rarely used in Chris’ time and any new work committed to it often garnered a kind of religious reverence. He carefully returned to documents to their carrier.
Chris next retrieved his two devices: a small screen to project holographic video and digital audio of the information detailed in the councils, and a hermetically sealed spectrograph containing vials of soil, air and water samples with their inbuilt capacity to generate readouts of the contents. While at the Center, all the recruits had received extensive instructions on how to operate and care for these blocky instruments. He went through the preliminary maintenance, checks and services as he had been trained. They appeared to be in working order; however, he was not a technician, so until they were activated – preferably for a scientific audience – he couldn’t be entirely certain they would work correctly.
Wanting to ensure he presented a reasonably respectable appearance, Chris searched for his mirror. His assignment would be short-lived if he walked out of the woods looking like a mountain man, talking about the coming end of the world. As he’d expected, he looked as though he had been tossed from a moving vehicle – which, really, wasn’t too far from the truth. He set about cleaning himself up and changing his shirt; his pants could afford to be a little scuffed and stained. Along with the clothes he was wearing, he had five pair of socks and underwear, two short-sleeved and two long-sleeved shirts, a wool pullover, a light rain jacket, another pair of pants. He also carried a sleep roll and various camping implements such as fire-making items, two water bottles, three days of high-calorie, high-protein food packets, a flashlight, a whistle, a snare and some fishing line with hooks.
He withdrew his maps and compass. While he perused one of the 1:50,000-scale military styled topographic maps, he ate a fruit bar. The sweet taste of blueberry and strawberry and the granola conspired to clog the salivary glands in his mouth, so he took a swig of water to wash it down. He quickly realized that the map was too large-scaled for him to get any bearings. He flipped open a small-scale 1:100,000 map and identified a river and hilltop which should be easy to locate on the ground and then searched for the corresponding sheet on his other maps. He looked down the hill where he had seen the deciduous wood line, but there was nothing in sight for him to fix his position. Chris sat back and continued chewing through his fruit bar. The maps were meant to guide him in the event he had gotten dropped into a wilderness as he had. He needed to find a few significant landmarks, figure out where to start.
“You should find yourself within fifty miles of your targeted location,” the trainer, what was his name, Jeffries? had said. His sense of self-assurance ensured that the students failed to question the myriad other possibilities. “So the maps you receive should effectively serve your purposes. None of this is an exact science, of course.”
The statement had been made so many times that it had become a joke among Chris’ roommates, an unofficial motto.
“I can’t find my other sock.”
“Funny, I found an extra one in my drawer.”
“You know, laundry isn’t an exact science.”
“Has someone been using my shampoo?”
“I may have, this isn’t an exact science, after all.”
“Are these mashed potatoes or chunky paste?”
“Well, it could be both, it’s not like cooking is an exact science.”
Some of the instructors, who said it, did so with a smile, like they knew the humor of it. Others did not smile. Chris preferred the later since it was one thing for his peers to laugh about it; it was another for their trainers to do so. Jackson had been the last to say it to him.
Chris was lying on his side in his crèche, he could feel the drugs they had given him begin working on his extremities, starting at his fingertips and toes. Jackson leaned over to adjust the straps on Chris’ kit and check his pockets for loose or undeclared items. “Any words of advice?” Chris had asked, the cocktail in his system made his head loopy and the question came out with a slurred chuckle.
“Try to stay alert. This isn’t an exact science.” Jackson then closed the top like a casket and blackness filled both the crèche and Chris’ mind. That first, frightfully painful breath was the next thing he experienced.
Chris considered that last moment before leaving his previous place and time – the only place and time he could have even imagined six months ago. He couldn’t figure out why Jackson had said what he’d said. Did he mean Chris should stay alert through the trip or once he arrived? It made more sense that he’d meant to stay alert upon arrival since the drugs were intended to effectively knock him out of consciousness during the trip. However, wasn’t already evident what he should do? Jackson had seemed more earnest than he needed in stating the obvious; the statement was more than passing advice.
It occurred to Chris that he had never questioned the need for the drugs. The process of transporting him was a physical endeavor and it certainly was not pleasant to awaken from, but there’d never been any discussion of what he would experience during the trip. He was simply told that he would fall asleep there and wake up here. Perhaps the cocktail included a paralytic to prevent any movements from interfering with his transfer.
How long had he been out?
He wasn’t particularly hungry or thirsty, so it couldn’t have been too long. In truth, there were no lingering effects of which he was aware. No lingering fog in his head. No muscle or joint stiffness often accompanying anesthesia. His body did feel beaten up a bit, but he owed that up to his… what, landing?
“Quit stalling,” Chris chided himself. He returned his attention to the task at hand. The sun was warm and appeared past its zenith, giving him, he estimated, about four hours of daylight left. If he wanted to make any progress, he best get going. He collected his supplies and returned them to his kit after transferring a water bottle to an outside pocket on the pack and another snack bar to one on his shirt.
Chris stood and surveyed the low hilltop. The north side was obscured by the copse of pines. He walked a hundred meters through them to see if he could get a better view of what lay beyond. It appeared that the range to which his hill belonged continued on to higher elevations on the north side. Chris turned back, choosing downhill, instead, as his best bet in finding water and people. He would keep an eye out for the river and lone hilltop he saw displayed on the map, but he honestly didn’t hold any hope of the maps being of much use. He would need to follow his instinct.
As he passed through the edge of the pines, he picked up and shouldered his kit. Looking down and past the trees below, he took the bottle of water from his side pocket and drank a mouthful before beginning his descent.
Chris walked all afternoon without coming across any sign of human presence; he passed no roads or power lines; he found no debris or refuse; he heard no sounds of far away vehicles. Stopping to rest about halfway through his day’s hike, he lay on his back watching clouds float by when he realized that there weren’t any contrails in the sky. It worried him that he may have landed so far into the northwest, a wilderness of immense forests comprised of towering trees, thick undergrowth and verdant ferns. He decided it would be best to conserve and begin augmenting his food supplies immediately. This looked like it was going to be a longer walk than he had hoped. Luck, in one manner, seemed to be on his side; he had arrived in the days of late summer or very early fall. The afternoon was very mild; warm enough to cause a light sweat but not so hot that he needed to shed clothing. As long as he remained at lower elevations, he should be comfortable through the nights.
Another two hours of walking brought Chris to a medium sized river. There were rocky outcroppings etched out over millennia on either side of the rushing water’s edge. Some of the stone walls were sufficiently recessed into the slope that a person could crawl inside. He decided this would make a good place to stop for the night and set up before darkness fell. The river was wide enough that the break in the tree line allowed clear sunlight to fall along the shore. The cerulean sky shone overhead and reflected in pools of lazy water.
“I just can’t stand by and not try something significant to make a change,” Anna said. Following a welcome brief by the Center’s Dean, they were issued their blue and orange uniforms, linens and study tablets. Anna complained that she must have been given a male’s jumpsuit. The rest of the week consisted of being introduced to their instructors, undergoing the first of many physicals and immunizations and receiving crash courses into the physical and mental demands of the coming months.
“How about you, Chris? Why did you come to The Cent?”
“I decided to join because I wasn’t doing anything better with my life and The Center needed recruits. I figured I could offer them my services.”
“Look around you, Bro. They’ve got plenty of recruits,” Ian said.
“Yep, and I’m one of many.” Chris closed his statement with a bite to his sandwich.
“Don’t you have any family or friends who would rather you not join?” Anna asked.
“Nope,” Chris said. “Not anymore.”
“What happened to them?”
There was an expectant pause at the table as the others looked to Chris for a moment, waiting for him to elaborate. He didn’t.
“Cryptic, but fair enough,” Marcus said, “but we’re likely to return to that statement at a later date. For now, however, I heard that a lot of people opt out once they’re finished with the training.”
“Yeah, a lot simply don’t come back after their final pass,” Anna said, eyeing Chris. Every recruit received a week long leave to spend with family and friends before temporting. Returning was ‘expected’ but not required. Rumor had it that the Center made a single phone call to the recruit if they failed to report after their leave. Whether they were reached or not, the call was not repeated nor was any action against the person initiated.
Temportation was too big of a commitment for anyone to actually be held accountable for not honoring their pledge.
“Some purposely go through this training in order to head to the hills and live off what they learned,” Ian said. “Not that it will help in the long run.”
“Or their bodies can’t handle the training,” Marcus said, pressing his hand into the small of his back and stretching until an audible crack issued. “I know mine is killing me after that first introduction.”
“True, only about eighty percent of each cohort makes it through the whole course. After that, only about a quarter temporate,” Anna chimed in. “That leaves only ten of every fifty recruits. I think a lot of people just get really freaked out about the finality of being sent. It hits them hard when they’re home.”
“Well, not that it matters to me, but my recruiter said there’s a good chance we could live long enough to catch back up to this time,” Chris said.
“Your recruiter lied to you,” Ian stated.
“Why do say that?” Marcus asked.
“Think about it. If it were a possibility, we wouldn’t be here. The effects would have already taken place and there would be no need for us.”
“So, what…, we’d just disappear?” Marcus asked.
“Yeah, something like that. Hell, maybe we, individually, wouldn’t even exist because of how things got altered. Maybe our parents wouldn’t have met because they didn’t use as much gas, so they didn’t travel away to college or something. You know butterfly effects and all.”
“You’re forgetting something though, Ian,” Anna said. “Maybe our reality is fixed already because this “time” already exists. Maybe going back and making changes simply creates a new, additional and parallel branch of reality.”
“Nonsense,” Ian said through a mouthful of sandwich.
“How is that nonsense?” Anna sound offended by Ian’s off-handed dismissal. “The idea of multi-dimensions is credible. The Dean even mentioned it in his address.”
“Lip-service, my dear. Just like Chris’ recruiter, the Dean is simply trying to make a sale,” Ian said. “And, I didn’t say multi-dimensions aren’t credible.” He took a drink, holding up his hand to pause his statement before continuing. “I’m saying we probably aren’t making any changes. Even if the multi-dimensions model is correct then those realities where we go back and change things also already exist. The realities where we don’t need to go back already exist. But this idea that we make a difference and ‘create’ a new reality is probably bollocks.”
“So why are you doing it?” Anna asked.
“Well, basically for the same reason as you, to try and help make a difference. I just look at our chances with a more critical eye.”
“But you just said you thought it was ‘bollocks.’”
“Look, you know those people who plant little herb and vegetable gardens in their back yards and put solar panels on their rooftops to ‘Help conserve our resources’?” Ian asked the group, hooking his fingers in air quotations. “I look at those guys and the image of people using thimbles to bail out a sinking ship fills my head.”
“At least they’re doing something,” Chris said. “Most of the world just keeps making it worse.”
“Exactly!” Ian said, pointing to Chris. “Not only are they on a sinking ship, but they’re in shark-infested waters. When the boat finally and fully sinks, not only are they screwed once but then they also have the sharks to contend with, and, believe me, they are going to attack.”
“You still haven’t told us why you’re here,” Anna said.
“I’m swimming for the shore, man. Forget the boat. The boat’s going down no matter what we do now. Our only option is for someone to go look for help, but, even if I can’t find help, at least I might find land.”
“What about the sharks?”
“I’d rather take my chances swimming past the sharks circling the boat than sitting and just waiting for them to come get me.”
“I think you may have mixed up your metaphors,” Anna said, giving a quick wink in Chris’ direction. “Are the sharks the predatory populace or do they represent our decaying environment?”
“Huh? Wha…?” Ian looked confused for a moment. “No, the ship is the planet or the environment or whatever, and the sharks are the people not helping.” Chris laughed. “The point is, I’m not gonna stick around while a handful of people use thimbles to bail out the sinking ship. If I’m wrong about not making a difference and my efforts work and do actually make a change, great. If they don’t change anything at all and all I get is a lifetime of living in a pre-apocalypse world, breathing fresh air and not worrying about environmentally induced cancer, just as great. If all my atoms are simply downloaded into the ionosphere the instant I’m temporalized, that’s fine, too; I won’t know it anyway, and it would be better than choking to death with everyone else ten years from now.”
“I don’t think we’re ‘downloaded into the ionosphere’,” Chris said.
“Stop tag-teaming me, you know what I mean,” Ian said, stuffing more of his sandwich into his mouth.
“Splendid! A Saint, a Soldier and a Cynic all fighting for the cause,” Marcus said.
Chris filled his water bottles in the stream, using his line to catch fish for his dinner. He built a small fire pit at the water’s edge and burned moss to smoke the fish spitted across the low flames. As the sun fully sank into a bed of darkness, Chris ate the fish and built up the fire to provide enough light to read from his paperback. As the temperature dropped, he found himself inching closer and closer to the fire for warmth.
Eventually, his eyelids were too heavy and the air too chilly. He prepared a bed within a nearby crevice; his pack tucked deep inside to keep it from any marauding animals. He doused the fire and crawled into his sleep sack. Sleep overtook him before he had entirely lain down. During the night, Chris woke to the sounds of a large animal clomping across the river rocks. He watched as an elk drank at the water’s edge. The silver moonlight glinted on its coat. Then he drifted back into a dreamless night.
Birdsong greeted him in the morning. He had never heard such a cacophony of twittering voices. The sound was both pleasant and disconcerting. Something about the unfamiliar wilderness of them made him tense despite knowing they were no threat. During his training at the Center he had learned to worry only when birds suddenly hushed.
After a breakfast of pine nuts, smoked fish and fireweed tea with some apricot jelly mushrooms he had found outside his sleeping hole, Chris topped off his water, wrapped his remaining fish and additional mushrooms and packed his kit. He found a fjord not far from the campsite and crossed the river, continuing in a generally southwestern direction.
Over the course of twelve weeks, the recruits underwent comprehensive training split into three areas of concentration. Each cohort was broken into smaller groups in order to study the history, politics and science of the global calamities their world faced; practice project management, engineering and making contacts within their targeted times; receive instruction on the use of their equipment, perform field craft, learn survival techniques and endure vigorous physical training.
Though discussions were encouraged within their groups during the classroom-styled lectures and demonstrations, it was the exhausting and sometimes bone-breaking physically-oriented training where recruits were truly able to get to know one another.
Chris enjoyed the exercise like a kid enjoys recess. He and Anna, having become fast friends, often partnered up during combatives and assisted activities. It was common for the instructors to group roommates together, anyway, so Anna and Chris’ pairing went mostly without comment. They were a good compliment to one another; where Chris lacked finesse and coordination, he compensated with strength, and where Anna lacked raw power, she made up for it with stamina and agility.
Ian appeared to excel in almost everything he attempted whether it was in the classroom or on the drill floor. His only apparent weakness showed itself while they practiced meditation techniques. On many occasions, Jackson, a technician and their favorite instructor for the Body and Mind sessions, chastised Ian for fidgeting. In response, Ian made a quite sound like the purring of a cat. This was as distracting as his prior squirming until everyone got used to it and then it became oddly comforting to the group.
Meditation was difficult for Chris as well. The very act of calming himself only caused his mind to wander, like trying not to think about something made one think about it more; furthermore, concentrating on his breathing and his core always led him to notice his stomach and made him acutely aware of the perpetual hunger fomented by all the day’s activities.
Once, following a guttural purr from Ian which, in turn, had followed a reprimand from Jackson, Chris chanced a peek over to Anna and found her serene as a fish, head loosely erected, lips slightly parted and smiling. Her only disturbance was the barely perceivable tapping of the tip of her tongue against her front teeth in a beat suggestive of speech. With the sight, Chris understood something within himself. Anna became his focus image from that moment on.
Marcus worked earnestly, but he was awkward. His performance in the academic subjects was unparalleled – he had a wealth of information for discussions and study sessions -, but his gifts fell short when it came to anything outside the classroom. Though none of them were raised in rural settings, being a ‘city kid’ particularly applied to Marcus. To his credit, though, he always put his best foot forward and wasn’t afraid to ask for help. Ian obliged most times since it gave him a chance to shake off residual restlessness, Chris and Anna filled in the rest.
Following a brutal day from which they each sported large bruises, the roommates sat in the dining hall at their usual table near the windows. Outside the sky was a threatening shade of gray. Smoke from the summer wildfires rose in the distance, a thread of red separated the horizon from the heavens. “I don’t really understand why we need this much jungle training,” Marcus said. “My aches, ache and my bruises are bruised.”
“They’re toughening us up for life in the unknown, bud,” Ian said.
“Yeah, I got it, but is it really necessary to take it to such extremes? I thought we were each meant to be a kind of ambassador?”
“We are, but they want to make sure that we survive long enough to perform those duties, Marcus,” Anna said.
“I’m not sure I’ve figured out what context they think they’re sending us back to. Nothing in our other lessons suggests we need this level of intensity.”
“Sure they have,” Ian said. “Jackson let it slip today in meditation, in fact.”
“How so?” Anna asked, turning to face him.
“Think back if you will. What was his lesson?” Ian said, directing the question at Chris.
“Dude, you never pay attention,” Ian said. He turned back to Marcus and asked again, “What was today’s topic, his thought experiment?”
“Jeez, you two are hopeless. Anna, save us.”
“He had us imagine running blindfolded through a forest.”
“Right,” Ian agreed, bobbing his head in a ‘sort of’ kind of way. “Specifically, having us think of running through a forest blindfolded he was explaining that we must understand the importance of calm and deliberate movements. If we run, though it might be faster, not many would make it out safely; however, if we each walk forward, deliberately, instead, our chances of success will be many times more likely.”
“How does that explain the reasons for all our training?” Chris asked.
“I think it explains a lot,” Anna said. “What Ian’s getting at is that they’re trying to ensure as many of us as possible who go actually survive and are successful.”
“Well, of course,” Marcus said. “I think that intent goes without needing to be said, but it doesn’t answer my question about the physical intensity. We’re not going pre-Medieval.
“The analogy of running through a forest blindfolded is an interesting choice,” Ian continued. “They’re sending us out like blindfolded individuals because, in truth, they don’t really know where or when they’re sending us.”
“And they’re sending so many to increase the odds of success,” Anna said. “Like D-Day.”
“Bingo!” Ian said. “They’re relying on the law of averages to ensure that some of us make it through.”
“But they’re also stacking the deck by making us lean, mean, fighting machines,” Anna said. Ian nodded, raising his glass to her.
Marcus put his fork down and wiped his mouth. “Do you think this is all a guessing game then?”
“Well, sure, to some extent, but every ‘Great Adventure’ is.”
Marcus sat quietly, massaging his right-shoulder and appearing to think about Ian’s statement.
“Shouldn’t other countries be adding to this law of averages?” Chris asked.
“Where do you think this technology comes from?” Ian said.
“I thought it was ours?” Anna said.
“Hell, no! We haven’t really created anything distinctly new from the ground up on this scale in decades,” Ian said. “Believe me, this endeavor is definitely multi-national.” He looked around at their blank faces for a beat, swallowed a few French fries and asked if they knew the story. Receiving three head shakes, he continued, “So, well, yeah, a while back this kid at MIT, Jacob Flinley, wrote a dissertation about how neutrinos or quark-gluon plasma or some shit affected protons’ particle-wave characteristics, relativity and the speed of light and gravity wells. The stuff is way above my head, but the point is that it basically opened up a new direction in which physicists were thinking of the role time plays in our dimensional model. A lot of the original temportation theory came from scientists at CERN working with the Hadron Collider data and Flinley’s dissertation.
“But, mostly, this tech came from a Chinese, science geek-slash-entrepreneur chick, Zhang Jiayi Ying, studying here at Cal Tech who took the theory home, added some stuff in about entanglement, and applied the whole shebang to something other than scientific journals. We then paid heavily for her original designs, and, in exchange for labor – a lot of this was built in Southeast Asia and Central America – we’ve relaxed patent laws, essentially making it open-source. So, now about every country is either running their own programs or in a collaborative with surrounding nations.”
“How do you know all this?” Marcus said
“I researched it,” Ian said. “I wasn’t going to just sign-up for some kind of Razzle-McDazzle, time-travel mission without checking into it first. It sounded way too fantastical – more like a volunteer slaughter program if you ask me.” Anna and Marcus looked down at their trays and shifted in their seats. Chris continued eating. “Don’t tell me that none of you asked yourselves whether this was too unreal to be real?”
“Ummm…” Marcus began.
“I didn’t care,” Chris shrugged.
Ian laughed and said, “I think we’ve established you should really find some friends, Chris. Surely Anna checked it out.”
“I guess I just kind of accepted it,” Anna said. “The whole patriotic piece and everything.”
“Haven’t you learned, sweetheart? You can’t trust anything these governments tell you. War. Profit. Compliance. That’s their game. But don’t worry; I’m just giving you all a hard time. I don’t hold it against you. We’re all products of our environments. I doubt one in a hundred of these people here thought to consider looking into the background of this project.”
“So, I assume you found that temportation is real, right? It actually works?” Chris asked.
“Oh yeah, I’m a believer,” Ian said. “You’ve probably heard the conspiracy theorists out there claiming that the Center’s program is simply a cover for population control; that we’re all just voluntary suicides, but that’s nonsense.”
“Yeah, like you said, ‘a volunteer slaughter program’. I’d heard that, too,” Marcus said.
“Right. Actually, that’s why I starting looking in to it. I wasn’t really interested in the program at all until I heard that crap.”
Anna laughed. “It’s not large scale enough. They’d have to knock out at least half of the 9 billion people on Earth for it to make much impact at this point.”
“Well, even then, it’s probably too late,” Marcus said.
“True,” Anna agreed. “but, if it works, it can sure serve as one hell of a lifeboat, can’t it?”
“A real working Ark, but this time it’s not two-by-two,” Chris said.
No one said anything for a while. Chris watched Anna. She wouldn’t meet his gaze, just stared out the window. Now that the sun had fallen below the clouds, the sky was a hazy orange peeling into a hellish shade of red complimenting the glow from the hillside as nighttime approached. The tint of the glass both provided an additional protection for them and made the light appear more sinister. The scene diminished gradually in reflection as the cafeteria lights overwhelmed the outside’s growing darkness.
“I’m so sore,” Marcus complained again, pulling everyone out of their reverie. “Are they training us to fight off bears?”
“Maybe,” Anna said. “They’re clearly expecting us to be in the wild for a while. That would explain all the trapping, fishing and hunting field craft.”
“Like I said, it’s not like we’re going back to pre-medieval time or even pre-industrial age, just post space-race and sexual revolution.”
“Bad timing for you, Chris,” Ian teased.
“Still, though,” Anna said, rolling her eyes at Ian’s comment, “they want us to survive.”
“Well, then why don’t they just give us guns or something?” Marcus said. “We could use them for defense and for hunting.”
“It would be too expensive,” Anna said, “and we’d have to carry ample ammunition to make it worth-the-while; that would get heavy quickly.”
“Those aren’t the only reasons,” Ian said.
“What else?” Marcus asked.
“Suicide,” Chris said flatly.
“Exactly,” Ian cocked his finger in Chris’ direction.
“What?” Anna said at the same moment.
“You were just talking about how hard a time they’re expecting us to have. They don’t want us killing ourselves if we find it hopeless.”
“Yep,” Ian agreed.
“Oh, wow,” Anna said. “I never would have thought about that.”
“That’s because you’re idealistic and doing this for all the right, selfless reasons,” Ian said. “Most of us are doing this, in large part, for ourselves.”
“God, that’s depressing,” Anna said. “I know it’s true, but it’s sad, too.” She rested her elbow on the back of Chris’ chair and leaned in to him.
“And that’s the reason for no guns,” Ian said.
“Then why do you think they don’t send us in teams?” Chris said, noticing Marcus eyeing him and Anna strangely. “It seems we’d be more effective that way.” Anna squeezed Chris’ thigh under the table and he felt his mouth dry up. She stood and, without saying anything more, took her tray to the kitchen.
“It’s too inefficient,” Ian said, watching her go. “They’d have half the number of attempts made; though, one could argue they might get more volunteers and more follow-throughs.”
“They’d probably have more couples join up,” Marcus added.
“It would be way too data intensive; they’d have to account for a huge margin of error. The shear number of computations already being performed just to send a single individual with limited supplies is astronomical; each additional component represents an exponential increase in power. That’s why early proposals sent people nude. Imagine sending twice that every time, you’re talking magnitudes above our capabilities. Even if the technology were available, the money needed to upgrade to meet that requirement doesn’t exist. And in the end, it still comes down to the bottom line. No, these life pods are single capacity only, Romeo.”
On his third day, Chris stopped at another river and bathed in the slow moving current. The sun was warm and the water was cold and refreshing. Crouching naked on the shore, he was emptying out trash from various pockets before washing his clothes and found a folded up piece of hand-made paper in a cargo pocket. He recognized Jackson’s handwriting; he must have placed it there when he was preparing Chris in the crèche.
“I felt you should know more about your mission than what you’ve been told. I haven’t given this information to everyone I’ve prepare for temportation, but I have provided it to most of the men and women whose training I’ve led.
Your success is not expected.
That is the gist of it. Time’s arrow is a funny thing but many of us here at the Center believe that our reality is fixed. If those sent had been able to alter what was to come, we would no longer be aware of the disaster we are trying to prevent – it simply would have been erased from our continuum.
I have overheard you talking about this with your friends, so my guess is that it should come as no surprise. I won’t rehash what you’ve already intuited.
Everything we are doing here is, to an extent, speculative. And, above all, desperate.
Though we don’t have the technology to reverse the cataclysmic effects caused once our environment passed the event horizon leading to our inevitable ruin, we are lucky – luck, I must stress, played a huge role here – to have develop the means to send you back.
There’s a lot of theoretical physics involved that I won’t go into, but essentially, as you’ve been taught, the method generates a kind of anchor using quantum entanglement by linking certain particles existing in our time and other times.
However, what you weren’t told is that due to the uncertainty principle, we are unable to ensure any truly exact position for your arrival. This unfortunately applies to both your time and location. Since there’s a gradient to each level of certainty, there’s a built in compromise to gain the best for both.
Time is not a single, independent thread but a complex matrix of many aligned in a series across a field of space. More like a blanket.
Good news, though, we do have high confidence in that we have controlled well for the location variable. This is due to the quality that near objects are more closely related to one another than objects separated by greater distances. We expect that no one will find themselves waking on the shores of a liquid ammonia sea, for instance. We also hope to have not sent anyone to the bottom of our own oceans. So, as long as your location remains on terra firma the uncertainty of location is relatively limited.
However, emphasizing location, the compromise we make is that we can’t guarantee the same level of confidence for the time variable. We believe that we have been able to pinpoint time stamps with confidence intervals of twenty years, ten on each side of the target. The chance of being outside this interval becomes increasingly improbable, though not impossible.
This is the point I want to make and it is VERY important for you to understand. Though the probability of that confidence interval actually being twenty-one years holds a certain chance and one of twenty-three years is X magnitude less likely and so forth, ANY timeframe is possible. The trouble is that we don’t actually know what this probability differential – what the standard deviation, to use the technical term – is for this problem.
As you have been instructed, we aim to send you back to target T-minus 5 years, or rather, 1965, in order to give you sufficient time to marshal necessary change. This could mean that you arrive with an additional ten years to bide your time – 1955, or it could mean that you missed your chance – 1975. We discussed sending you back to target T-minus twelve years, putting you around 1958 with a timeframe between 1948-1968, in order to err on the side of caution and still placing you before your required time, but a majority felt that the likelihood of you being so far out of your target was insignificant enough to risk the tighter period and you arriving too early would be as ineffectual as arriving too late.
A small contention holds that it doesn’t really matter either way since we have not locked down the uncertainty and the twenty year confidence interval is really just an arbitrary number. You were not told about this dissention within our team because even the most cynical of us felt you should leave with the greatest sense of assurance we could give you.
I understand any anger you may feel at having been misled, but had I mentioned it before, you may have withdrawn. Realize, where you are – or rather when you are – can’t be worse than if you had chosen to stay behind.
We are doomed.
So, if you are thirty years before your target or thirty years behind it, you still have a chance to live a full life. Here, it’s guaranteed, you wouldn’t.
We will see the end of our world within the next few years despite the reigning dialogue placing it at twenty. The point of no return was breeched years ago, as you know, and all indications – more than the general population realizes – point to an exponential increase – or rather, decrease – in the Earth’s carrying capacity. It’s about to get really ugly.
My point is, don’t worry about your “mission”, it won’t make a difference for us. Worry about yourself. You have been given an opportunity that we are not fortunate enough to share.
The blanket of time is now littered with our graduates.
The following two weeks found Chris in much the same condition. He had yet to encounter another person or indication of human influence. He continued trekking in a generally southwestern direction; however, since finding Jackson’s note, he had taken his time, remaining at various sites for several days until his need to move pushed him onward. He wondered where his friends had ended up, whether they had all temporized or if any had withdrawn. There were literally infinite possibilities. The thought rattled him. He never truly imagined seeing them again, but hope of a reunion lay under the surface of his mind.
Chris stowed all the equipment and councils in a hastily made crypt of a hollowed out log and some river rocks. He drew a map and marked the spot with an X. Each day he recorded the contours and features he passed. At sunset on his 19th day, sitting against a tree trunk next to his small fire, dutifully adding to the map, Chris broke down in tears. He tossed the map into the fire.
That night he dreamed of Anna.
Three days later, Chris heard traffic beyond a ridgeline.
The sudden elevation of his pulse filled his ears and eclipsed the sound, yet he stood still, trying to hear through the beating; trying to convince himself that it was merely an auditory mirage or paracusia. Additional sounds of human activity flowed into his mind: chatter, laughter, the rush of people’s lives. He knew what he heard, at least their false interpretations, came from within, so he remained loosely anchored, until his need for others washed over him like a wave and he broke with it.
He began to run through the trees towards the direction of the noise. His pack bounced on his raw shoulders, jostling, off-setting his balance. His feet tangled in groundcover and he tripped twice. His head hit hard against a fallen branch on his second fall and he stayed down. He knew he was panicking; his reaction to what he had heard was desperation.
“When you find yourself lost, you must remain calm. Stop, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Pull your thoughts inward, not to find a solution but to find peace. The solution will follow. If none comes to mind, set up camp and put your attention to your field craft. However, never stay in the same place for more than a night. Along with keeping your cool, you must continue to move; otherwise, you might find yourself mired in your own funk.”
He forced himself to stay prone. Though he was exhausted, the adrenaline already flushing away and leaving his muscles drained of energy, the will it took to remain down was great. Chris called up an image of Anna tapping her tongue against her teeth and focused on his breathing. If there were people beyond the ridge, they would be there once he recovered.
‘Count to five hundred. Let time pass. Focus on your breathing and collect yourself.’
Chris still heard the traffic, a little louder now since he had slowed his heartbeat and gotten closer. However, in the time it took for him to stand, he had concluded the sound was not man-made. It no longer distressed him, though. He walked to the ridge and stepped out from the brush line. A river, about twenty feet below, cut through a small gorge.
He took off his pack and sat, letting his legs hang over the rocky outcropping. The sun smiled down on him as it began bowing toward its western bed. Chris took out an apple and leaned back on his free hand.
“What happened to you, really?” Anna asked. They were on break from their kitchen duties, sitting on a loading dock out back. “I’ve talked to a lot of people at the Center and no one joined from a sense of apathy. There’s got to be more to your enlistment than ‘just ‘cuz’.”
“Well, I’m almost thirty and I have no family. My parents died several years ago. Cancer runs on my mother’s side and heart problems on my father’s,” Chris said.
“No brothers or sisters?“ Anna asked.
“I had a sister, Teresa, but she died when she was thirteen. I was sixteen.”
“I’m sorry.” Anna clasped her hands together in her lap, her constantly swinging legs slowed.
“It was a long time ago,” Chris said. They were quiet for several minutes. The sunset rolled through a kaleidoscope of colors in the polluted sky. “I guess if there is an event that led me here more than anything, you know, besides the whole unanchored aspect of my life, it is her death.”
“What happened?” Anna asked.
“We had a wooded area out behind our neighborhood. She and a friend, Morgan, were hiking through it one day. It was summer and hot and they came upon the river which ran through it, so they decided to strip down and swim for a little bit.
“The next morning Teresa woke up with a full body rash and a low grade fever. My mom called Morgan’s mom and it turned out, she had the same thing. After a couple of days, the rashes were still there and maybe a bit worse so both our parents took them to the doctor and told them about having swum in the river and the doctor said, ‘Contact Dermatitis’. She gave the girls some steroid creams and instructed our mothers to not worry about the fevers unless they went above 101 and then to just give them something to ease it back.
“Two days later, they were both in the hospital. Teresa never came out. She slipped into a coma, then her organs began to shut down one by one. Her death was ultimately attributed to septic shock.”
“So the doctor misdiagnosed what they got from the river?”
“No, that’s the worst part, really. It was contact dermatitis. Some inspectors took samples from the river and found traces of chemicals, industrial run off, below required levels but high enough to irritate sensitive skin. A company twenty miles upriver had been intermittently releasing their waste into the river. The contaminates were low enough that any effects on the ecosystems weren’t noticed and the river wasn’t widely fished, so no one was getting sick. The only reason it hadn’t already washed all downstream when the investigators tested the water was because the whole thing with Teresa and her friend happened so quickly.”
“Why would they go septic from a rash?”
“It was the doctor’s office,” Chris said.
Anna pulled her leg up onto the platform and turned to him. She felt he was fishing for her to question him, and she was right. Chris wanted to talk about what killed his little sister, but he wanted Anna to drag it out of him. “What was it?”
“The rash itched and thirteen year old kids aren’t scions of self-control. They scratched and when they went to the doctor’s office some kind of super-antibiotic-resistant-staph-slash-herpes-slash-flesh-eating bug jump onto them and rode them home. While they underwent the steroid treatment for the rash, the bug had time to find itself a nice niche inside their compromised little bodies.”
“Oh my God, that’s awful,” Anna said.
“Yeah, it was pretty bad. Luckily, my sister fell into the coma after about three days in the hospital and died two days after that.”
“Did her friend die too?”
“No, she held on longer and the medical team went medieval with her treatment, they cut out infected tissue as if she was a burn patient, and that ultimately saved her. Morgan had a long recovery, though; she had to suffer from multiple skin-grafts and years of therapy, and has a lot of scar tissue. She never wore short-sleeves or shorts in public after that, either.”
“How do you know it was the doctor’s office?”
“Some guy who sliced his arm putting up gutters on his house went to the same office the day after they had been there and developed the same infection. He lost his arm, if I remember correctly.
“An investigation found that an international student at the local university had come in with a possible STD. I don’t remember which country he was from but it was probably the Middle East or Southeast Asia since that’s where a large portion of the international population at the school originated. He had returned home immediately, so, being sixteen and grieving for my sister; I don’t know what came of him.”
The kitchen manager opened the door to the dock and peered out. “You two coming back or what?”
Chris checked his watch; they had passed their ten minutes by four minutes. “We still have three minutes, man.”
“Break doesn’t start once you finish your cigarettes,” the manager growled.
“We don’t smoke,” both Chris and Anna said. The manager mumbled something as he released the door. They smiled to one another regarding their petite coup.
“I’m sorry you went through all that,” Anna said.
“Yeah, but I don’t think I’m special. It’s kinda become a new normal for the world. Who doesn’t know someone affected in similar ways? Different circumstances, perhaps, same outcomes.” The last of the sun’s edge blinked out below the horizon though its light remained in the ever present clouds. “Hey, you want to run away together? You know, use our training to live in the hills like Ian said?”
“No!” Anna said, thinking Chris was joking. When she realized he wasn’t, she asked, “Seriously?” Chris shrugged a shoulder and made a maybe face but didn’t add anything. “You heard Ian, it wouldn’t make any difference in the long run. Anyway, I want to make…, I want to believe I can make, a difference. Don’t you?” When he didn’t answer, she pushed against him, setting him to rock like one of those inflatable punching clowns. “Don’t you?”
“I’ve got nothing to lose,” Chris said, “or gain,” he added.
“Are you serious?” she asked again. “We’ve all got something to lose, Chris.”
“You’re right.” He paused. Looking at his hands so long, she thought he was finished. “I just think I’d rather have something to gain, something definite.” He smiled feebly in the gloaming darkness. “Bad timing, I know.” She sat silent. “I wish they sent us out in teams,” he said.
Anna took his hand in hers but didn’t say anything. They sat watching the horizon burn like cane fields. “This isn’t the end,” she finally said. When the kitchen manager pushed the door open again, they stood and returned to their duties. Nothing more was mentioned about his request.
The last week passed.
Chris forfeited his pass. There was no one outside the Center he wanted to say goodbye to, anyway. While all of his cohort packed their bags and were given their temportation schedules, he simply moved his things from the room he’d shared the last few months over to his single suite. A closet with a bathroom all to himself for the next two nights.
In a matter of hours, the Center transformed from a familiar organization to one wholly strange. His location, the faces and behaviors of the fresh recruits. A storm had even rolled in as if to fully dramatize the shift. The sky was blackened with rolling clouds, lightening splashing vertically and horizontally, rain blowing against the windows and into the doorways as recruits clung to their bags.
After he visited the Center’s medical center to undergo his final physical, Chris ate quickly and retired to the solitude of his room. He sat on his bed for a while listening to the voices coming from the hallway. He didn’t want to read and he didn’t want to return to the throng of people roaming the dormitory. He chose to take a long, hot shower.
Before turning out the lights, Chris looked over his ticket. It was a basic appointment for the station, similar in appearance to a plane ticket: time, gate and crèche assignment listed. Impersonal. In darkness, he lay on his side, facing the wall, unable to sleep.
His door opened and closed quietly. Light momentarily fanned across the room. He rolled onto his back. Anna stood at the doorway, letting her eyes adjust, hair dripping rain onto the tile. She shrugged off her jacket as she had shrugged off her backpack the first time they met. She stayed silent. Chris watched her undress, her clothes left in the puddle on the floor. She climbed into the tiny bed and pressed her mouth onto his.
The next morning she was gone.
He finished his apple and threw the core into the ravine. Birds roosting in the branches to his back chattered up a ruckus and drowned out the sound of the river. Chris decided he needed to return to the woods and set up camp before it got full dark. As he pushed himself up and reached for his pack, he noticed a ribbon of smoke in the distance. He stared in disbelief as another ribbon floated upward and feathered out as a light breeze caught hold. Another followed and another.
Having put together a hasty camp site, Chris returned to the edge of the forest, careful to not get too close to the edge. It was a new moon, so only the vast expanse of stars lit up the sky and far away in the trees of the valley were additional star-like twinklings. Chris pulled his compass from a pocket and noted the direction to the lights. He couldn’t even guess how far; it wasn’t a skill he had learned.
The following morning Chris set out finding a way across the gorge. He began a new map. The idea was that even though he didn’t know how far the fires were, he knew their azimuth from his ledge. As long as he kept track of his movements, he could return to the azimuth. As a second measure, Chris cut one of his t-shirts in a spiral a foot wide to make a makeshift banner. This gave him six feet of cloth. He weighted it against the wind by tying a stone within a knot and hung it over the ledge.
It took two days to find a suitable place to climb down the gorge and another to find a place to cross the river. Walking north along the river bank, against the flow; however, it only took another day before he spotted the white fabric bustling in the breeze through the gorge. He checked the map, and was pleased by his accuracy. He turned west.
After a day, the thick forest Chris had been walking through presented a sudden thinning. There was a discernible decrease in deadfall; the trees appeared less broad in their trunks, but one might notice if they were merely hiking through. Grass not generally found in forests blanketed the ground and grew thickly a dozen yards beyond were none had been. Chris stopped and turned a full circle, surveying the area. Stones of various sizes and shades stood up in rows through the grasses and groundcover like teeth. Then his eye caught something that put it all into a surreal perspective. A crypt hid behind a tree a hundred feet away, peeking out of the shadows; green, leaf-filtered light swam across its surface. He looked at the headstones closest to him and wondered how he had mistaken them for anything other than what they were.
The world suddenly took a frightful pitch to him. The cemetery was not an “old” cemetery from the vantage of his time, in the sense he would had thought of as old. He looked to the nearest headstones. Their surfaces were worn away by the years they had sat here, but their styles were similar to those of his time and the recent times as he knew them. He went from stone to stone until he found one particularly hardy one which was still mostly readable. The dates looked like 1973-2031. The three’s could have been eights and the seven could have been a one, but the two was distinct. This grave was for a person who had died fifteen years before Chris temporated.
Chris peered up through the tree branches at the azure sky. No contrails, no smog, no industrial pollution of any kind. These many weeks, he had believed himself to be in the middle of a large forested region of the Northwest prior to the immense urbanization of the region, but this suggested something else entirely. Clear edges where the fir trees gave way to hardwoods: cherries, oaks and maples; the deep greens gave way to ornamental splashes of color.
It was something one would miss it they weren’t looking for it.
Chris passed through an area in which the wild forest pushed back at what had once been manicured landscape, a barely discernible scar yet still present. He walked amongst the stones. Continuing westerly, he found markers listing whole families on single dates. Many others had no dates. Many others had no names, only numbers. And numbers.
The truth had always been in the back of his mind, but refused to surface. It was all gone. The society he had know and been sent back to save. The planet was fine, had recovered. It took the loss of its people. Like breaking off a bad relationship. Removing a tumor.
Another day of traversing through ruins. The density of the city was the only thing keeping off its complete razing by nature. Being the Northwest, there were still old trees filling places, but they were thinner than in the forest Chris had traveled. What had once been tall buildings were now high hills, their components not as hardy as the granite and marble as the grave markers. Interesting what people choose to make to last.
Untold years of dust and dirt covered the roads and piled up next to the fallen down walls. Windblown seeds had settled into the novel topsoil and taken root, grown and spread.
Rome could not have seemed so old or ruined. It reminded Chris of pictures of ‘lost’ civilizations in South America; now being re-enacted in the north, but with less sturdy materials.
He camped in a cave of debris. The place may have been a garage or a lobby or simply the space under two collapsed buildings. Outside the entrance, he pulled together as much combustible material as he could find and made the largest fire he ever experienced. He wanted to set the whole world to burn.
Again he dreamed of Anna. Her hand in his on the dock. They sat watching the horizon burning like cane fields. A conscious thought told his sleeping mind that his eyes were registering the blaze outside his hole. He turned to look at Anna, but she was gone.
The next morning, he continued along his azimuth. He knew the fires he had seen from atop the gorge were man-made and controlled. It could only mean a village of some sort still sat beyond these discarded ruins.
He walked all day and into the early night. No more stopping.
Some time after sunset, Chris smelt, rather than saw, fire. It rode on a northerly breeze. His pace quickened, but he resisted an urge to run; he had learned his lesson. A half hour of sniffing his way forward brought him to the borders of the village. A cleared field for large crops separated the forest from houses, giving at least a hundred yard buffer zone between the two.
Tears filled his eyes and sobs racked his chest. He retreated back into woods. He knew well enough that to walk into the village, a stranger, at this time of night could likely get him killed. He tried to sleep, but his anticipation and the chill of the night without a fire kept him awake.
Once it was light out enough to see clearly, Chris pulled out the mirror he had kept with him and saw the wild man he had feared he would become peering back at him. Using the last of his water, he washed his face and hair. It made a marked improvement. His gaunt features appeared less crazed, at least.
Chris shouldered his pack one last time and made his way to the village.
He walked through the field sprouting with fall crops. A small, personal garden sat behind the closest house and was being tended to by a couple; a young woman and a younger male crouched down next to one another. The boy saw Chris first and slapped the woman’s shoulder with the back of his hand, pointing out toward Chris. She shot the boy an irritated glance before looking up. Upon seeing Chris, she stood.
Chris’ breath caught, his heart entered his throat. He legs almost gave out from under him.
Her hair shining in the sun. Her slight shrugging off of the canvas bag she’d held on her right shoulder. The way she held herself as she looked at him. The impression quickly faded, however, as he watched her call over her shoulder to someone in the house. Where his first impressions all pointed to familiarity, further consideration brought out only contrasts. Smaller, more compact, darker – whether from sun or lineage he could not tell.
An older couple emerged from within. Since first being spotted by the boy, Chris had remained rooted to the edge of the yard. The couple gestured him forward. The older woman had returned to the house and re-emerged with a cup of water. She handed the cup to Chris which he gratefully accepted since his mouth had gone completely dry.
News of his appearance spread and others came from their homes to witness this stranger who had come from the forest. The residents all had a similar appearance but not one for which simple familial connections could account. It was as though they were a novel race, derived from a common bottlenecked set of genes. Chris wondered what extreme evolutionary pressures must have been placed on these people. He was acutely aware of his foreignness. A spike of fear entered his mind. He may be woefully under adapted. All those medical preparations at the Center may have been for nothing, but, then again, he had been sick since his arrival. He guessed he’d find out soon enough. Either this community would prove to be the death of him or he would be theirs.
As more people continued to arrive, the older man motioned him toward the house. The younger woman whose appearance had stopped his heart earlier took hold of his arm. He turned to her. She really did look like Anna, though darker and perhaps more hardened. She offered him a freshly washed carrot; he presumed it had come from their garden. The father laughed and said something in a dialect Chris didn’t understand. The girl blushed and lowered her eyes as some of the gatherers also laughed. The man clapped Chris on the back and again urged him in doors.
As he entered, he stole a glance back to the young woman and found her still standing, watching.