Sunday, 26 September 2010

To Save a World

Copyright © 2007

Alien abduction, a race on the verge of extinction, and more sex than a man can cope with...

Consciousness edged its way towards him; slowly, carefully, so as not to startle him.  He first became aware of how comfortable he was: not just comfortable but supremely so.  He could not remember ever being this comfortable before.  The still air of the room was at an absolutely perfect temperature.  The bed below him supported his back in all the right places.  He turned over out of habit, not to find a better position, there having been nothing wrong with the one he had been in.  The bed adjusted imperceptibly to his new posture. 
He breathed a deep breath in, held it for a few seconds, then let it seep from his body.  He opened his eyes to the perfect darkness that surrounded him.  He blinked.  He closed his eyes.  Open or closed, his eyes saw nothing except pitch blackness and the random noise of his own nervous system.  He stretched and the awareness of the covers that shrouded him evaporated.  The room began to glow; walls, ceiling and floor all took on a uniform radiance that slowly increased in intensity until the perfect level for newly opened eyes was reached.  He looked around and saw nothing, not even corners, the illumination being so homogeneous that it cast no shadows, and had the sense that he was floating in a vast, empty universe.  He blinked his eyes tight shut, believing himself to be still asleep and dreaming.  When he opened them again, shaking his head, the room was the same.  Intrigued, and perhaps a little perturbed, he sat up, and the bed adjusted itself once more to accommodate his position, lending perfect support to his back and allowing his feet to sink to what must be floor-level.  He actually pinched himself but nothing changed except the colour of his skin at the site of his assault. 

He stood and walked around, his arms stretched out before him as though he were in the dark.  After a few careful steps his hand touched a smooth wall.  A ripple of light expanded from the point of contact, and the wall settled to a brighter level.  He touched it again, and the wall became brighter yet.  He turned around 180 degrees and walked across the floor, which felt as though it had been constructed to make walking as easy as possible.  Both hands made contact, and the wall rippled and darkened.  At least now he could see the bounds of his enclosure.  He stroked the wall and its colour changed; stroking in different directions adjusted the blend as if he were moving his hand around a colour wheel.

‘Hello!  Can anyone hear me?’  The room, although empty and smooth, failed to provide an echo.  He strained hard to hear any reply that may have been forthcoming.  Nothing.

He moved into a corner and, leaning into it, slid down to sit on the floor.  The floor, however, rose to meet him at the ideal height for his physique and moulded itself to form a perfectly comfortable seat.  He was shocked by this turn of events but, before he had time to think about it, an aperture opened in the far wall and there stood before him the most beautiful woman he had ever seem in his life.

‘Hello, Daniel,’ she said, ‘I hope you feel refreshed after your sleep.’

‘Where the hell am I,’ he asked, ‘and who the hell are you?’

‘You are in one of the very best guest-rooms in our craft, which is in orbit some 640,000 of your miles above your planet.’

‘Wha–’

‘Please do not be alarmed.  You are quite safe here.  We have no intention of harming you and regret any disorientation you may be feeling after your journey.’ She walked towards him as she spoke, her face radiant with a smile that could calm a raging bull, her hips swaying in a way that would arouse a eunuch.  She sat opposite him on a seat that had not been there.  She offered him a device of some sort, flat, and about the size of a journalist’s notebook.  ‘You will have many questions, I am sure.  You will find many answers in here.’

Stunned, he took the device from her without looking at it.

‘You are not a prisoner.  You are free to move anywhere about the craft, apart from a few areas to which, for your safety and continued health, we must regrettably deny you access.  This is not a restriction on your liberty, as we are not permitted to enter those areas either. 

‘This room is programmed to respond automatically to meet whatever needs your actions indicate, whether you require seating, a couch, or other comfort facilities, or whatever requests you address to the computer.  You may exit the room by approaching the portal you see in that wall,’ she pointed to where she had entered, ‘and it will open at your request.  From now on, it will only open to visitors by your request.’

‘So, if I’m not a prisoner, you’ll take me back home?’

‘If that is your desire, once you have found out what we have to offer you.’

‘Which is?’

‘All in good time.  Meanwhile, please make the most of your stay here.’

The smile on her face intensified and she almost purred.  Then she stood, turned around, and glided out through the doorway that closed silently behind her, although it looked more like the plane of air in the doorway turning opaque than like a door closing: he had not noticed the door closing; he had noticed only her sensuous movement.

Shaking his head once more, he turned his attention to the device in his hand.  He turned it end over end, examining it from all angles.  It appeared to be completely uniform and felt like it was made of something hard like metal but covered with a thin rubber coating.  Its weight suggested it was made of polystyrene foam; its rigidity belied that notion.  ‘Computer,’ he said out loud, wondering if that was the right way to address a computer.  Nothing happened, but he felt as though something was listening, like he had said something to a dog that was now sitting at attention with its ears pricked up and its head tilted to one side as if in readiness for a sound that it understood.  ‘What is this?’  He held the object, as if to show it to the computer.

A disembodied voice responded, ‘It is a communication device.’

‘And what does it do?’

‘It communicates, of course.’

Oh no.  A wise-ass machine. ‘And what does it communicate, and to whom?’

‘It has many functions.  It interfaces between its user and many sources of information or entities with whom the user wishes to communicate.  For example, it is now acting as an interface between us, translating your speech into the language of my world of origin and my responses into your language.  Should you wish it, it can interface with our library and show you any information you may legitimately request.’

‘What do you mean, “legitimately”?’

‘Not all information is accessible to every class of user: some information is not even representable to some entities.  In your case, only very little of our information is off-limits; security and weaponry, for example – it would not be in your world’s best interests to return anyone with such knowledge – and other technologies beyond your world’s current level of development.  Some information is temporarily restricted until you have been fully briefed in person to the purpose of our mission.  If you want to know something, just ask.  You will be informed as far as I am allowed to inform you.’

‘OK.  How do I get something to eat around here?’  His stomach rumbled at the very thought of food, as if it were cheering.  He could not remember the last time he ate.

‘There are several options.  If you wish to socialise, you may attend one of our several common areas.  If you wish to eat alone you may request service here.’

‘Well, I think I’ll just eat here at the moment.  What’s on the menu?’

‘What would you like?’

‘I’d like a steak, medium, with fries and a green salad, some mayonnaise and a nice cold beer.’

‘One moment…’

A few seconds passed.  He felt as though his head was being caressed – no, more like his mind.  An aperture opened in the wall and a table slid out bearing the meal he had asked for and the extras, like black pepper and ketchup, which had been in his thoughts but which he had not mentioned.  ‘How did you do that?’

‘As I informed you, the device is an interface.  Keep it with you at all times; you will find it very useful.’

He suddenly realised that he was not actually listening to an audible voice; the computer was communicating directly with the language centres of his brain. 

He sat at the table and tucked into the best steak dinner he had ever eaten.  The texture, juiciness and flavour of the meat were incredible, the fries were crisp on the outside, fluffy in the middle, exactly as he liked them, the kos lettuce, cucumber and slices of pepper were crisp and cool.  He lifted the beer glass to his lips and drank: exquisite was the only word for it.  ‘Computer,’ he thought, ‘Can you hear me?’

‘Of course.  We are interfaced until you dismiss me.  The meal was to your satisfaction.’

He pondered his reply but then realised that the computer had issued a statement, not posed a question, and that no response was necessary.  ‘Computer,’ he said out loud.

‘Yes, Daniel?’

‘You’re dismissed.’

He looked at the device that the woman had given him, and shook his head slowly in disbelief.  He was aware that a presence had left him: he was no longer interfaced with the computer.  ‘Computer?’

‘Yes, Daniel.’    The presence took up its place in his mind once more. 

‘Am I really free to move around this ship?’

‘Of course,’ came the immediate response, ‘just as Azena explained.’

‘Azena?’

‘The woman who gave you the device.’

He checked himself.  How do I know that I am on a spaceship? He thought.  Is this some elaborate hoax?  He sat, and the floor reminded him why he was convinced.  ‘What should I visit first?’ he asked the computer, and felt once more his mind being caressed.

‘I would suggest the recreation deck,’ the computer replied, ‘This is how to find it.’

His mind was suddenly flooded with images of corridors, elevators, and walk-ways outside his room.   He had been totally unprepared for the impact of the visual input from the computer and he reeled and staggered and fell to the floor that reached up towards him and caught him gently.

‘I am sorry, Daniel, I did not mean to startle you.’

‘That’s – ok.  I just wasn’t ready for that.’  He climbed back to his feet and approached the door.

‘Daniel!’

‘What?’

‘The interface.’

He turned back, picked up the device from the floor that had cushioned its fall and returned once more towards the aperture.  ‘Open,’ he said, and the door vanished, revealing the corridor that the computer had shown him.  He stepped through the opening and became aware that he knew exactly where he was going.  He followed the corridors to the elevator, took the elevator to the walk-way, and allowed himself to be carried along to the recreation deck.  Along the way, he thought he saw Azena at least three times but, although she smiled her stunning smile on each occasion, she did not seem to recognise him.

The recreation room was a paradise of beautiful women, ten percent of whom bore a striking resemblance to Azena from smile to hips and every part between and beyond.  As he entered the room, one of the women approached him.  Her costume, he now noticed, clung to her body, leaving nothing to the imagination, and fitted her like a second skin.  He wondered why he had not noticed it before…

‘Daniel!’ she said, ‘Welcome to our recreation centre!  I am so glad you have ventured so soon from your quarters.’

‘Are you Azena?  Only – it’s quite confusing, there being so many that look like you.’

‘I am Azena, Daniel.  All will be explained in due course.  What would you like to do?  Would you like a drink?  We have many alcohol-based drinks, some of which are very similar to those found on Earth.  Perhaps you would like to try something completely different?’  She linked arms with him and led him to the bar.  On arrival, she addressed the bar-keeper, ‘Zondrian phthelmoline for our guest, please.’

The woman behind the bar smiled and complied with the request, and produced a tall, slender glass containing a clear, blue liquid.  He took it from her and sniffed at it, cautiously at first, then indulgently in response to the aroma that charged his senses.

‘All in one go,’ said Azena, smiling.

He emptied the glass into his mouth and swallowed the cool, exotic liquid.  He coughed and opened his eyes wide.  Azena threw back her head and laughed, delighted at his reaction.  A wave of well-being swept over him.  He tried to remember when he had ever felt this good.  He failed.  ‘Wow!’ was all he could say.

Azena explained, ‘The phthelmoline molecule is a direct analogue for human endorphins with the added advantage that it is more quickly absorbed than alcohol, and completely harmless.’  She linked arms with him again and moved in close, her nose almost touching his.  ‘What do you think of our spaceship?’

‘I’m very impressed,’ he responded, seriously, slipping his arm around her waist without thinking, ‘Where did you get it?’

‘It’s a perk of the job.’

‘And just what is your job?’

‘I’m a spaceship captain, among other things.’

‘So, you’re in charge around here?’

‘I am, although my leadership style is more democratic than most.’

Something had been bothering him and he brought it up abruptly, ‘Are there no men in your crew?’  He swept his free arm around, indicating the exclusively female compliment of the room.

‘Oh, we have men.  They are – in a different part of the ship.  I’ll take you there later.  Meanwhile, come with me before the phthelmoline wears off…’  The suggestiveness in her voice suppressed the growing suspicion he was nursing.  She took his hand and led him out of the main area of recreation room to a space that was subdivided into cosy booths.  They sat in one and it encased them in secrecy.  Her kiss took him by surprise and at the same time thrilled him.  She grasped at him and began loosening his clothing.  He wanted to stop her, to slow things down a little, but his blood coursed hotter through his veins than he had ever believed possible…

*

Consciousness once more edged its way towards him.  He was aware of having a very slight headache and a little discomfort in his lower back.  The room brightened until he recognised it as his quarters.  The elation he had known only hours earlier had left him and been replaced with a deep, immense satisfaction coupled with a feeling of utter but pleasant exhaustion.  Images of a naked Azena passed through his mind as he lay there.  He moaned as he became once more aroused.  He turned over, as if to remove the images from his view, and was startled to see her very real form lying there beside him.  She smiled her most alluring smile at him and he melted once more.  ‘I don’t remember coming back here,’ he said, his tone implying some alarm.

‘That’s the phthelmoline.  If you’re not used to it, it can induce an extreme state of euphoria that affects the short-term memory.  With practice, you can retain complete awareness in the aroused state and enjoy it fully.  Don’t worry, the effect is temporary and completely harmless.  Do you remember anything?’

‘The recreation centre.  I remember that, and the booth, and …’ He looked away, embarrassed, and felt himself flush.

‘Yes?’

‘The, er … sex?’  He looked her full in the face and smiled mischievously.

‘That would be hard to forget.  You were quite the athlete.’

‘Phthelmoline?’

‘Indeed, yes!’

His face fell once more and he lowered his head towards the floor.  ‘Is it normal practice among your people to seduce your alien guests so soon after their arriving?’

‘Not exactly normal but not exactly unusual either; and I suppose you need to have something explained: you are not exactly alien inasmuch as we are the same species. And, before you ask, no, we never mate outside the species.’

‘So, you’re human, then; from Earth?’

‘Human, yes.  From Earth, no.  Strictly speaking, neither are you.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Computer, Daniel would like to see “The Origins”.’

The room darkened and disappeared as the computer interfaced with Daniel’s mind.  He saw far below him a blue-green planet wrapped loosely in cloud and its sun way off in the distance.  Whilst the scene looked familiar, the planet was not quite like Earth, its land masses were very different, and the star was not quite the right colour for the Sun, and the planet’s satellite spun slowly on its axis at such a rate that it did not always present the same face to its sister world.

‘Many aeons ago,’ the computer began, ‘this world gave rise to a species that would one day become the most inventive and adventurous, and the most corrupt and destructive, of all species.’ 

The scene changed, and Daniel found himself plummeting towards the planet.  He reached out, his arms flailing, in a vain attempt to arrest his fall.  He heard giggling from beside him, and remembered he was sitting in a room next to Azena.  Down through the clouds he went, and into what must be a tropical rainforest.  All manner of life presented itself to his view: birds, reptiles, mammals, insects, apes.

‘From humble origins, the men of Edun developed and grew tall and upright and soon discovered that rocks were useful to them as tools – and weapons.  In the battle for resources, families fought each other, formed and broke alliances, and subjugated weaker rivals; clans, kingdoms and nations came into being.

‘They developed new tools, and learned to till the soil and husband cattle.  They learned how to build and, in a few millennia, great, burgeoning civilisations appeared.’ 

All the time, visions of the Edunites and their warring and farming and family life had passed through Daniel’s mind, and now he saw vast cities covering the face of the planet, and aircraft flying across the sky between them.

‘Rival civilisations came to blows and almost destroyed their world, until, one day, the world found peace.  United under one ruler, with no more wars to occupy them, the people investigated the extremities of their nature.  For some, invention and intellect was their delight, and great men of science emerged.  Once the exploration of their world was complete, they turned their eyes to the stars and wondered.  Still others turned inwards, and sought fulfilment in self-gratification, and turned many inventions and discoveries to the pursuit of luxury and comfort and exploitation of each other in excess and debauchery.

‘The world’s environment soon became unable to contend with the pressure that man exerted upon it and, despite many portents of disaster, man continued to abuse his world until climatic instability became uncontrollable and the world burned.

‘By this time, man had conquered his planetary system, and had begun to reach the stars.  Other worlds that were suitable for colonisation were found.  The only option for man was to leave his dying birthplace, Edun, and so huge star cruisers were filled with all that was needful and sent forth to people the galaxy.’

Daniel watched as great ships left orbit and swung themselves in great slingshot manoeuvres away from their own star towards many others.  The scene shifted to one ship in particular, that arched its way towards the nearest habitable world.

‘This is the vessel carrying Azena’s ancestors.  After a few of your decades, the ship reached its destination and the people awoke from their hibernation to begin again on a new world.  They abandoned the wild ways of the old world, and sought new ways to benefit from the lessons it had taught them. 

‘Soon, the people began to thrive, and they enjoyed peace and safety for many millennia.  They harnessed the resources of the new world until they were once more able to venture skywards and explore their new planetary system.  The nearby worlds were populated and the commonwealth so formed enjoyed many centuries of commerce and endeavour.

‘Eventually, the home-world, Edun, which had been forgotten in the mists of time, was rediscovered.  Its climate had long since restabilised and the world was once more habitable.  The returnees, unaware of their origins, were astonished at the discovery of ruined cities and the fossilised remains of their former occupants.  One vast building was discovered intact.  It contained records of the old race and its exploits, and its eventual demise and the final leaving.  In time, the language of these records was understood, and it became clear to the explorers that the stories of their ancient past had their roots in the accounts of this world.

‘Azena’s race faced a new problem: a problem so enormous as to threaten its very existence.  Its men were becoming gradually less fertile as the centuries rolled by.  Before too long, natural conception became a rarity, with almost all fertilisations requiring medical assistance (such as your “in vitro” methods of one kind or another, in fact, all of them at one time or another).  With time, the ethics of survival gained the upper hand over the ethics of human cloning, and men sired copies of themselves.  The in-breeding that resulted pushed the fertility problem along even faster, and soon cloning was the only means of propagation (now you will understand why there are so many “Azenas” aboard).  Men themselves became scarce.  Fewer and fewer had been born before the cloning began, and male clones survived less well than female.

‘A breakthough was made, and it became possible to stimulate ordinary cells to produce stem cells and then germ cells (I believe your world has made a similar development recently).  Once more, it became possible to reproduce sexually, albeit in the laboratory, and, with the discovery of how to coerce germ cells to contain Y-chromosomes, men became once more plentiful, but with one painful shortcoming.  All men so produced were sterile, and remain so to this day.  Whilst they are well able to mate, and to perform admirably to the satisfaction of the female, the male cannot engender natural offspring.

‘An outside supplement for the gene pool was needed, and our scientists once more returned to the old world in search of information that could lead them to other colonies that may have faired better than ours.  Many such leads were found and followed up with great hope.  There have been many disappointments.  Some colonies went the way of the old world.  Some, unfortunate enough to have landed in harsher, more hostile worlds than their home, failed to thrive and quickly became extinct.  At least one other colony went the same way as our world but did not have the resources or the good fortune to rediscover the home world and find the information that gave us any hope of a solution; even now, they await the outcome of our venture, and our two worlds are experimenting with ways of recombining our two sub-species; alas, it seems that our respective deficiencies may be all too similar…  Yet other colonies did not reach their destinations; many survived only to descend into primitive ways; or found themselves competing with and outstripped by indigenous races of intelligent life.

‘An interesting effect was discovered: the further from the home world the colonies travelled, and the longer therefore that they spent in hibernation, the more likely they were to regress.  Yet it is in these stocks that our humanity has its best hope of recovery: these stocks have been preserved perhaps for millions of your years in hibernation and, with them, the elements of our genetic make-up that we have long ago lost.’

A new scene appeared.  The departure of the great ships played out again but, this time, a different vessel was followed. 

The computer went on, ‘This is the colony that travelled to your world,’ and then fell silent as the scene ran on inside Daniel’s head.  He saw himself drawing back from the ship until it was one dot against many stars, its passage traced out among them by an imaginary line.  The scene withdrew further from him.  Soon, individual stars merged into clusters, and then into bands, and then he could see the whole galaxy.  Still the line traced the ship’s passage in a great arc across the Milky Way until it came to a halt on the opposite side from its starting point.  The scene zoomed in, and the familiar Earth and its Moon filled his vision.  ‘This is the world most like Edun.  The colony fell quickly into decay but the similarity with the home world arrested the descent just in time for our race to displace the indigenous hominid and begin the long, slow climb back to civilisation, following a path that would be all too familiar to its ancient forbears.

‘And that is where you come in.  We have come all this way to ask for your help.’

The picture faded out and the room and Azena faded in as the computer removed itself from Daniel’s mind.  ‘So how can I help?’ he asked her.

‘Your genes,’ she replied. ‘What we need is your genetic make-up to replenish our depleted pool.  You see, the colony that came to Earth was in hibernation so long that your race is like a genetic time-capsule.  Your planet’s human gene pool contains all the information that has been lost from ours.  Your world is ideally suited to assist our survival.  Your DNA in particular is especially suited to mine.  We have a limited number of genotypes; with access to yours in combination with mine, and others of your world with the other women on our vessel, our scientists would be able to recreate the full range of genetic diversity that once existed in our species, and, furthermore, ensure that we never suffer from this problem again.’

‘And in return?’

‘You will be richly rewarded.  There are several options that we could offer you, ranging from wealth on your world to an even more fulfilling life on ours.’

‘No, I didn’t mean for me personally.  I meant, what would you do for my world?’

‘Your world has many centuries before it gets to our stage of genetic decay.  We will, of course, ensure that you make contact with us when you reach out into space and offer our assistance in your survival.’

‘So, there’s no short-term alternative, like world peace and a solution to world hunger?’

‘We cannot interfere with your world’s development.’

‘Unless that interference would avoid our extinction.’

‘Please remember, Daniel, that our survival means the survival of humanity.  If human life on your world does fizzle out, your contribution at this time would ensure that the species lives on forever, albeit on another world.’

‘And what if I decline?’  His voice carried with it the clear impression that his refusal to cooperate was a very real prospect.

Her face clouded over and her lips became compressed.  Her forehead gradually wrinkled into a frown, and her voice bit back at him, ‘then we would have to resort to other options.’  He made to interject but she continued without giving him chance, ‘I assure you, Daniel, that we are totally dedicated to our mission.  One way or another, we shall achieve our goal.’  The last phrase was delivered in a manner that would have subdued Adolf Hitler.  Her tone, and her look, stunned him into silence; he felt the full weight of the threat, whether implied or inferred, and fell silent.  She rose suddenly from the bed and strode, naked and fuming, from the room; he could not help but be stirred by her swaying womanhood, and he half-wondered what life as a stud would be like…

He ordered breakfast as he dressed and returned to his reverie.  The fantasy was broken on recalling the disturbing manner that Azena had displayed.  He had trusted her easily when they first met; why, he wondered?  He had liked her, even, and that before the phthelmoline.  Something was not right.  Why would someone so desperate for his help behave with such hostility at the first sign of unwillingness?  There were other things that did not add up either; he was no physicist, but even he knew that crossing a galaxy would be an epic voyage, to say the least, and Azena claims that his ancestors did it, and, by implication, so had she.  The timescale involved would be enormous.  Surely there would be no-one alive back at home who would even remember the departure of her ship?  Certainly, they could not be awaiting her return.

The food arrived.  It smelled wonderful, and he ate it hungrily.

‘Computer.’

The Presence inserted itself into his mind, ‘Hello, Daniel, how may I assist?’

‘The journey that my ancestors made to this place, how long did it take?’

‘Many hundreds of thousands of your years, long before our current technology was even dreamt of.’

‘So, how did the people survive?’

‘They were held in stasis for much of the time.’

‘But what about the ship, how did that survive the journey?’

‘As I said, the people were held in stasis for much of the time.  The ship had many redundant monitoring systems to keep a careful watch on its performance.  If a problem arose, the relevant specialists would be roused to effect repairs.’

‘But what about catastrophic failure… A meteor strike, say.’

‘The ship’s defences would have warded off or avoided any such collisions.  Its long-range scanners would detect such threats in good time, and the ship had limitless time to spend on alternative routes.’

‘I find that all rather hard to believe…’

‘Our technology, even of that time in our history, is greatly advanced over yours.’

‘You implied that your current technology is able to shorten the time taken.  How does that work?  Isn’t the speed of light a limiting factor?  Have you found a way to exceed the speed limit?  Or have you found a way to use wormholes or something?’

‘Your Einsteinian view of spacetime is rather archaic, although it is true that the speed of light cannot be exceeded.  The Universe is far more complex than is depicted by your four-dimensional spacetime, or even by the eleven or so dimensions that your scientists are currently toying with.  Let me say merely that the Universe does not seem nearly so big in certain high-order dimensions and that, in those dimensions, nothing nearly so fast as light is necessary.’

‘So, you took a short-cut?’

‘You could express it that way.’

‘So how long does the journey take now?’

‘About two of your weeks.’

‘Two weeks!’

‘In fact, the actual journey itself takes about an hour.  The rest of the time, not to mention a lot of other dimensions, is spent in the dimensional transformation process at each end of the trip, a process that would be extremely damaging to life but for Zondrian phthelmoline.  It is important that your body adjusts to its effects before we attempt to return with you aboard.  I encourage you to make as much use of it as possible.  The week or so that you have been using it is not nearly enough.’

‘What do you mean, a week or so?’

‘Ah!  I perceive you had not guessed that you had been introduced to the substance before your awakening.’

‘Should you be telling me all this?’

‘Of course.  We do not wish to hide anything from you.’

Daniel rose to his feet and strode around the room as he delivered his next tirade, ‘I don’t believe this!  You abduct me without my consent, and then you drug me without my consent, Azena as good as rapes me, and now you hold me prisoner, also without my consent!’

‘Would you have joined us if we had explained it all to you?’

‘I just might have!’

‘We doubt that.  But now you are here you will be finding our proposition much more interesting and difficult to dismiss out of hand.’

He could not deny that.  The situation in which he found himself was intriguing: terrifying, nonetheless, but damn-well fascinating.  He became calmer.  ‘Ok.  That’s true.  So why did Azena behave like she did?’

‘Do you not understand, Daniel?’

‘No.  Explain it to me.’

‘Azena has become imprinted upon you.’

‘But we’ve only just met.’

‘It is of no consequence.  Being with you has been the meaning of her life since before she was old enough to contemplate what meaning is.  Her destiny is intimately tied up with you.  She was made for you, has been prepared for you, and now she fears the biggest rejection possible – what you might call unrequited love. For her, life without you is unthinkable.’

‘What do you mean – made for me… prepared for me?  How did you know you would find me?  How could you manufacture someone whose DNA would be “especially suited” to mine if you didn’t know I existed?’

‘We have been watching your world for many of your years.  We identified suitable candidates and selected suitable mates from our own stock.  We have been watching you for most of your life.  Azena is only a few of your years younger than you.’

Daniel felt confused.  Was he angry? He was not sure. Was he scared by the news just broken?  He definitely felt trapped like a rabbit in headlights.  ‘How much interference has there been in my life?  What have you done to groom me for this, this, this madness?’

The computer continued in its dispassionate tone, ‘Beyond the unobtrusive collecting of samples, absolutely none.  We are an ethical society.’

Daniel recalled the marks on his body that his parents had explained as nasty insect bites.  Only, they were not bites, they were hypodermic punctures.  ‘No.  This is…’  He shook his head in stunned incredulity.  ‘You…’ He exploded in anger, ‘I want off this ship!  I demand to be returned to my own life on my own world!’

‘If that is truly your wish, you will be returned,’ came the calm, emotionless voice inside his head.  ‘We will have to search for an alternative mate for Azena, although I fear the psychological trauma of losing you may be too great for her.  I request, however, that you give yourself time to calm down and consider this rationally.  If, after three days, your decision stands, you shall be returned.’

‘I don’t want to wait!  Send me back now!’  Daniel’s outburst came to an abrupt end.  The computer was no longer inside his head and had not heard his last demand; at least, Daniel was not conscious of any recognition of his words.  ‘Damn you, you stupid machine!’  He threw himself at a chair that did not exist and the floor of the room furnished one for him.  He needed to think.  His mounting frustration drove him from his seat.  He strode across the room and barked at the door, which melted away in its usual unhurried fashion, oblivious to his mood.

He wandered around the ship, paying no attention to where he went, ignoring the beautiful women that smiled at him as they passed.  Unusually, none of them had been an Azena.  He walked for about half an hour without encountering a known area of the ship.  How big is this thing, he wondered?  The corridor ahead of him divided in two, and the right-hand fork was marked as a restricted zone from which he was barred.  For the first time since arriving, he felt himself uninhibited by the rules and walked deliberately to the right; after all, they had trespassed on his body, for goodness sake!

The corridor doubled back on itself twice and darkened.  He found himself in a large lounge with soft lighting and background noise that he could not exactly describe as music but which had structure and form to it; more like birdsong but less strident and more harmonious.  Dotted around the room, groups of three, or four men, never more, never fewer, sat chatting idly and drinking blue liquid from tall, thin glasses.  Men!  The first he had seen since his abduction.  The nearest group of men fell silent and stared at him.  An uneasy silence swept over the room like a rolling bank of fog as each group either spotted him or was made curious by the sudden silence of the others.  The birdsong continued undiminished. Daniel moved towards a group of three.  ‘Hi guys, mind if I join you?’

‘You should not be here,’ one of the men said, rising slowly to his feet.  He was tall, well built.  His irises were pink and his head completely bald, his skin pale, almost white, and translucent like candle wax, his face without hair – no eyebrows or lashes, and no sign of a beard.  Daniel peered, wondering if it were make-up that achieved this effect.  He noted the skin on the man’s hands and forearms: that, too, was waxy-pale and hairless.  He looked around the group; they were all the same.  He extended his gaze around the room and saw more of the same: albinos, all of them. ‘I said, you should not be here.’

‘Look,’ began Daniel, ‘I know this room is off-limits, but–’

‘No,’ the spokesman replied. ‘You should not be on the ship at all.  You are not wanted.  Please leave.’

‘I’ve felt anything but unwanted so far.  Until now, that is.’

‘Do you not understand?  We do not want you here.  We men.  If you stay we will be unnecessary.’

Every man in the room was now on his feet, and every man looked intently at Daniel, each one’s frowning expression adding to the weight of the words spoken by his brother.  Each man shuffled forwards a little, making Daniel feel decidedly claustrophobic.  He shuffled back.

‘I – I’m sorry.  I mean you no harm.’  He spun round and hurried through the opening in the wall, through the snaking corridor that he now realised was so designed to protect the delicate albino eyes from the brightness outside the lounge, and back to the fork in the main passage.  No one followed him.  He stood and listened.  At first, he heard nothing; then the faint murmur of many voices found its way to where he stood.  He was subdued by the encounter, and began to amble along the other branch of the passage. 

For the first time, he recognised a part of the ship he had visited before: it was the recreation room.  There was quite a buzz going on, punctuated by laughter.  He went in and scanned the room as he walked towards the bar.  At a table in the centre, he saw a group of about eight women – all the same type – gathered around and paying court to a solitary man who sat on a couch with a woman on each side and one on each knee.  He was clearly enjoying himself.  He had bushy eyebrows and sported stubble that one of the women caressed with her open hand.

Daniel ordered a brown drink, mainly because he thought it was unlikely to contain phthelmoline, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it tasted remarkably like a good single malt. He took his glass over to the table opposite the popular man. 

The man smiled and waved at Daniel, then addressed his entourage, ‘OK, girls, let’s take a break while I get to know my fellow earthling over there.’  He grinned and winked at the girls, ‘And let’s have the phthelmoline ready…’  The women grinned back and giggled and moved as one to the bar, looking back over their shoulders at the man who winked again and waggled his fingers in a childish wave.

The man stood and stepped over to Daniel’s table, holding out a hand as he went.  ‘Hiya, buddy, Jack Shaw.  Pleased to meet ya.’  Daniel took the other’s hand and introduced himself, and they exchanged a firm handshake.  ‘Ain’t it great here?  Wow! the babes are hot.  Which one’s yours?’

‘Mine?’

‘Yeah.  Which set have they matched you up with?’

‘Oh.  The one called Azena.  What do you mean by “set”?’

‘Ain’t they told ya yet?  Ya don’t just get one of ‘em.  You get the whole dam’ pack!  Look at them lidl ladies by the bar.  They’re mine, all mine…  I don’t mind admitting it, I’m dam’ near wrung out, if ya get my drift.’  He winked again and tapped the side of his nose.  He drained his glass and one of his girls took it from him and replaced it with a tall glass of phthelmoline.  ‘Good job they got plenty of this stuff on board.  Only thing that keeps me up to the mark!’

Daniel wrinkled his nose and scratched his head.  ‘Wait a minute.  You mean that they expect me to play the stud for all the Azena look-alikes on this ship?’

‘Yup.  That’s about the measure of it.  And she sure is as nice a pack of bitches as any dog would want to rub his belly on.  You’re one lucky fella.  Almost as lucky as me…’  His eyes glazed over as he stared away to the bar.  ‘They sure are dandy.’

‘So – you’re up for all this, then?’

‘Yup.  As often as I can be.’  He laughed a loud and vulgar laugh, then drained the blue liquid in one and rose from the table.  ‘You all enjoy yourself, you hear?  I have to go busy myself.  Can’t keep the ladies waiting…’  He winked again and swaggered over to the bar, holding his arms open wide and hugging in the girls that thronged him.  The whole group made its way to a booth that closed around them in impenetrable privacy.

For what must have been an hour, he sat with his thoughts.  He realised that, apart from himself and the girl behind the bar who quietly kept his glass full, the place had become empty.  The booth, which now stood open and vacant, had presumably emptied itself in a different direction.  He wondered if the booths backed onto the lounge he had visited so that the albinos could be accessed without their being exposed to the light.  He wondered what they would make of Jack Shaw and his entourage, and decided they would probably find it pretty damn discouraging.  He spoke out loud, ‘I’ve got to get off this ship,’ and finished his drink.  He sat a while longer staring drowsily into his empty glass.  He realised that the small pool of liquid that collected at the bottom of it was blue.  ‘Damn!’

*

He awoke in a haze and a room not his own.  He yawned and stretched, and a figure in the far corner stood and moved towards him.  ‘Do you not find me attractive, Daniel?’

‘Azena?’  He propped himself up on his elbows and, looking around the room, realised where he was, and wondered if anything had happened between them. She knelt beside him, looking up into his face, her soft hand resting gently on his thigh.  ‘Azena, what’s just happened?’

‘Nothing, Daniel, that is why I ask, do you not find me attractive?’  The expression on her face revealed pain and anxiety, and the slight tremor in her voice gave the impression that she was not quite prepared to hear the worst.  None of the apparent anger of their last encounter remained, and she looked ready to cry.

Unable to help himself, he took her hand in one of his and stroked its back with his other.  He opened his mouth to say something then checked himself, a thought having occurred to him.  ‘Look,’ he said, I’m sorry to put it like this, but, before I say anything else, which Azena are you?’

‘I am the only Azena you have known since you came here, the alpha clone.’

‘And the others?’

‘The others await your decision, as do I.  Do you wish to be with them?’

‘No!  I mean… that won’t be necessary.  One Azena is enough for me.’

‘So you will stay, then?  With me!’

‘No, that’s not what I meant.  I mean.  I.’  He wracked his brain for the right words.  ‘It’s not you,’ he resumed, ‘It’s me…’  I can’t believe I just used that line, he thought.  ‘No, wait, let me start again.’  He sighed and shook his head.  ‘You are beautiful, Azena, the most beautiful woman I have ever met, way, way out of my league.’  She took on a puzzled frown.  ‘I mean, I would never in my entire life expect to get together with someone as beautiful as you.  On my world, someone like you would have the pick of any man in the world she wanted, and would have men queuing up to… Well, you can probably guess.’

‘But I have had the pick of your entire world.  I chose you.’

‘No, that’s not true, is it?  I have been chosen for you by someone else, and you have been groomed, even engineered, perhaps, for me.  Neither of us has made a choice in this matter.  It’s an arranged marriage, if you will, and that’s OK in some cultures on my world but not in mine.  I need time to get to know you… to fall in love with you… to learn that you are not just a pretty face.’

She breathed silently, her gaze now directed at the floor, sadness holding her face in its grip.  ‘You have a choice, Daniel.  Really you do.  You are free to leave if you wish it.’  A large tear splashed onto the leg of her tunic, fragmenting and forming into several tight globules on the impervious material.

Daniel caressed her cheek and wiped away the tear that was about to fall from her other eye.  ‘If I choose to leave, what choice do you have?  You have not been prepared for failure.  It’s as though your feelings for me have been programmed into your genes.  And, I guess, since they are your clones, your sisters all feel the same?’ She looked at him through pools and sniffed and nodded. ‘Your scientists have badly misjudged our world.  We are not all like Jack Shaw.  Some of us don’t take too warmly to the idea of being used as breeding stock.  If your people had been watching me as well as I am told, they should have known that.’

‘You misunderstand, Daniel.  We are for you, not you for us.  Jack Shaw is not being used, as you suspect.  He is being as he wishes to be.  He likes the idea of having many wives; and, of course, that suits our needs very well.  How you relate to us is entirely your choice.’

‘Again,’ Daniel said, slipping his arm around her shoulder and drawing the poor, broken starship captain close to him, ‘in some cultures on Earth, that is accepted but not in mine.  I really only want to be with one woman, and I want to give her all my love, and be loved by her.’

‘You would not go without love, Daniel.  I can promise you that.  I or any of my sisters would be willing at any time –’

‘I’m not talking about sex, Azena.’

She fell silent.  She opened her mouth and closed it again.  She shook her head.  ‘I do not understand, Daniel.’  The dam burst and she sobbed into his lap.

*

The computer had taken up residence again.  ‘So your decision is final, Daniel.’

‘It is.’

‘You wish to return to Earth to endure what you call work and play, and to pass up the life of joy and leisure, not to mention pleasure, that we offer.’

‘I do.’

‘It is regrettable.  We shall, of course, accede to your wish.  We are an ethical race.’

‘You always talk as if you are one of the humans from your world, never like a machine.’

‘I am not just a machine, Daniel.  I am the embedded mind of the last naturally born man of our world.  I am not the actual man, of course.  He died hundreds of years ago.  Faced with the prospect of our extinction he had sought a way to preserve the essence of humanity, our minds, and confer a sort of immortality on them.  His great legacy to his people was to create a computer capable of functioning as a human brain – his own human brain.  He then copied his thought processes onto that computer.  During his natural life, we worked together to enhance that machine, to make it compatible with others, to take its capabilities far beyond those of humanity’s biological form.  Since the death of his body, and, with it, his biological mind, he has lived on as me to continue our work.  Many more of my kind exist on our world with a status equal to that of our biological fellows – not only clones of myself but also of other great thinkers, and even of ordinary people.  Much of what you see on this ship derives from our collective effort of millennia.  So, yes, I consider myself human, and we, indeed, are an ethical race.’

‘And what will happen to Azena and her sisters?’

‘Her sisters will be reassigned to another match.  Their attachment to you is not so great as hers since she is the alpha and the only one who formed a liaison with you.’

‘And Azena?’

‘I await her decision.’

*

In the chill of an autumn evening, Daniel stood in the yard looking up at the night sky.  Somewhere high above him, a star that was not a star twinkled with the reflected light of the sun.  How long it would be there he did not know; they had not told him that.  Their mission to save their race continued, and, presumably, they would take as long as they needed to get what they wanted.  He had no doubt that they would find other men who are like Jack Shaw: heaven help their children, he thought.  Perhaps they had learnt something from their experience of him.  Perhaps they would temper their ethics with morality and add a healthier blend to their gene pool.

If he had stayed with her…

Would it ever get as bad on Earth as it had on that other world far, far away?   Would his world of violence and hatred last long enough to encounter the problems and develop the advances he had witnessed among an older humanity in his brief time in space?

He lifted his glass of genuine single malt to his lips, and recalled to mind the soft, mellow brownness of the liquid that he had poured from the bottle.  He took a sip and swished the aromatic liquid around his mouth, savouring the peat and the tang of the alcohol.

‘I am beginning to understand.’

‘To understand what?’

‘What love is.’

‘And is it worth staying for?’

‘It will be, if you learn to love me.’

‘I think you need have no worries on that score, Azena, I’m a very quick learner…’

The Last Day on the Line

Nothing moved.  No bird  sang.  The air lay about in stillness with not even a whisper to betray  its presence.  Before him, the open ground, punctuated by fractured  trees and scorched craters, lay stretched out until it dissipated  seamlessly into the heavy mist that shrouded the far woods and hills  from his view.  The darkness of the night had slipped away almost  imperceptibly and, in the half-light that followed the dawn, he strained  his eyes in vain to penetrate the greyness that hung like a curtain  across the world’s end in the distance.  The man next to him raised an  arm and pointed to a faint glow that alone penetrated the fog.  There  was a shuffling and the occasional tumbling of stones down into the  trench as each man adjusted his position to see what spectacle was about  to appear.  Once repositioned, each man caught his breath and swallowed  hard.  The glow grew until a bead of light sat atop and revealed the  hidden horizon, and the bead expanded into a pale, irregular disc that  slid inexorably towards the sky where clouds that stood high above the  veiled earth were highlighted with gilt, and clouds far distant behind  the trench vermillion on grey.  The disc, pock-marked in betrayal of the  intense activity on its surface, assumed its true circle as it rose,  and the troopers relaxed and breathed easily.

Another arm moved,  and the shuffling started again.  Tension returned as each trooper  recognised, beneath the disc, another glowing object, this one  crescent-shaped and descending from the point where the planet’s sun had  demarked the horizon.  In response to what each soldier saw, the trench  was filled with the sound of weaponry being armed and whispered prayers  and curses, and tears mingled with the moistness laid down on every  surface by the mist.  ‘Here they come again!’ he shouted, ‘Look to your  front!  Hold your fire!  Hold the line!’

The air was filled with  an intense and ear-splitting crackling as the artillery pieces behind  the line discharged themselves towards the crescent that crept steadily  downwards and towards them.  As each bolt passed overhead and stretched  towards its target, the reactive armour of the entrenched troops beneath  it glowed and hummed, and great swathes of mist were vaporised in its  path and, on its impact, the crescent flared with the light of a star,  yet continued in unchecked advance.

‘Hold your fire! Hold the line!  Wait for the overlap! Mark your targets!’

The  crescent flattened as it reached level ground and continued forwards  under the bombardment, flashing and buckling and reforming beneath the  onslaught.  This was the biggest one they had seen so far.  The constant  hum of the crescent’s generator began to fill the gaps between the  artillery’s crashing and was augmented with a strained whine at each  impact.  The mist before it was driven aside and the discharge of the  crescent where it touched the ground glowed purple and yellow and added  its own signature to the cacophony.

A rifle discharged harmlessly  against the crescent.  ‘Hold your fire!’ he shouted again above the  noise, ‘Wait for the overlap!’  His armour enabled itself and the visor  darkened and cleared to keep constant the amount of light reaching his  eyes, preventing him from being blinded by the flashes of the artillery  bolts.

Still the crescent came on.  Beneath it, they could at last  make out the enemy warriors that advanced under its protection.  Unseasoned troopers wept openly at the apparition before them.  Their  combat trousers became darkly stained and steamed in the cold air.

The  crescent first touched the line about 300 metres to his right.  As soon  as it did, the warriors began concentrating fire on the exposed trench.   The crescent passed over the trench and its skirts fell in to fill the  space.  The few troopers now overlapped by the crescent returned fire  but were soon overwhelmed, their armour unable to withstand the  intensity of the assault.  The artillery continued to crash its full  force on the crescent; still it came on, its envelopment of the trench  widening as it advanced.  The warriors followed its expansion along the  trench eliminating all resistance from troopers as they came under the  shield.  Away from the van, they dropped into the trench and attacked  its bunkers to destroy all they found.  Troopers concealed underground  retaliated in full force, preparing to break out under the crescent.

‘Hold your ground!  They’re almost there!  Five more seconds!’

The  time elapsed in what seemed an eternity and then the air within the  crescent was filled with the intense, eerie shrieking of warriors that  dropped like flies, pressing their several upper limbs to their several  hearing organs.  The troopers that remained alive under the crescent  took whatever cover they could find in preparation for the blast.   Suddenly, there erupted from the trench five missiles that arched their  way into the air beneath the curve of the crescent.  At the apex of  their flight, they disappeared in five simultaneous magnesium-white  flashes, and a second later, the shockwaves from the massive explosions  struck the ground where, contained and focussed by the crescent, they  reverberated and wrought havoc and destruction.  The scene fell silent.   The crescent collapsed, its generator irreparably damaged.

‘Now!’ he shouted, ‘Get into them!’

Troopers  climbed from the trenches, they flooded from the bunkers and onto the  plain of devastation, and firing as they emerged at the many warriors  whose armour had shielded them from the blast but who were still  disorientated by the ultrasonic pulse that had preceded it.  Gradually,  they would recover, and the troopers would yet be fighting for their  lives, but for now they set about the slaughter of the helpless that lay  strewn around them, evening the odds while they had the chance, their  revulsion at the sight of these creatures spurring them on to get the  job done as quickly as possible.  They showed no mercy, and felt no  remorse, for none of either would be expressed toward them...

He  led his platoon from the front, as always, and his men, as always,  followed him without hesitation.  He reached his first victim in twenty  strides.  He forced the muzzle of his weapon into the narrow gap beneath  the warrior’s helmet. He angled it up towards the inside of the helmet,  and then squeezed the trigger.  The warrior’s head was instantly  liquidised and splattered against the inside of the visor.  He leapt  clear and on to the next fallen warrior.  He was conscious that all his  men were moving in concert with him, and that there were ten less  warriors to deal with.  Soon there were twenty less, and then thirty.   On his right flank, his heard his sergeant call out, ‘They’re  recovering,’ and, sure enough, he saw the body of his next target  beginning to stir.  He lunged forward, desperate to make the kill before  the warrior was able to retaliate.  A tendril began to loop around his  weapon, and another around his leg, and then both quivered free as the  warrior’s brains exploded.  Forty down.  The next batch was moving,  struggling to get upright and face the troopers.

His men formed  groups of four, two standing shoulder to shoulder, and two kneeling in  front of them: he took up station behind one of the groups, the sergeant  behind the other.  Troopers all over the battlefield were adopting the  same tactic to give them maximum penetration of the warriors’ armour.   The warriors began to advance.  Four rifles discharged against the  nearest warrior, knocking it back to the ground.  The team of four  advanced and repositioned themselves beyond their fallen foe.  The team  leader stepped in to finish the warrior off.  The kill rate was down;  the advance was slowed.  Soon, there were too many warriors to deal  with.  The enemy could be felled, but the vast numbers pressing forward  prevented the deathblow: at least they were out of the fight.  The  troopers hoped they did not have to wait much longer.  They fell back  towards the trench, breaking and running when they were unable to  prevent the advance.  The warriors poured on after them.  They had taken  the bait.

The resistance offered by the troopers had had the  effect of bunching the warriors into a narrow band across the  battlefront.  When the troopers ran, the band moved as one after them,  only more slowly because of the congestion.  The air was filled once  more with the crackle of cannon-fire.  Without their protective crescent  shield, the warriors were vulnerable to the bombardment, and the  cannons cut swathes through the advancing band.  Still they came on.

The  troopers were running for their lives.  Some of the warriors, more than  enough to handle, would get through the bombardment.  Where was the air  strike?  On they ran, stumbling over the uneven terrain.  Some fell  under the blast of warrior disruptor-fire.  Stopping to help a fallen  comrade meant certain death:  no one stopped.

Unheard, black dots  appeared over the horizon on the left flank.  The three waves of  ground-attack jets banked in turn onto their bombing run.  Seconds  later, they flashed overhead, laying down nu-palm over the advancing  band of warriors.  From the trenches, the troopers saw the jets dip and  then climb on releasing their payloads, the billowing flames sweep along  the battlefront, heard the fractionated crump of the detonations, the  roar of the inferno, felt the shock wave that radiated from the  conflagration, and, finally, were deafened by the scream of the jets now  long out of sight.  The flames subsided as shattered warriors’ body  parts rained down.  Those who had been near the edge of the fire lay  burning and writhing on the ground.  Others screamed and moaned in the  agonies of dismemberment.  Once again, the cannons opened up on those  warriors fortunate enough to have escaped the bombing and who were now  in full flight back to their own lines.  Once again, the troopers left  their trenches to move among the fallen enemy, turning the brains of the  living to soup; the rank stench of burnt nu-palm and roasted warrior  hung like a pall over the corpses.  The jets returned to give chase to  the fleeing warriors and hovered over them, picking them off one by one.   Slowly, the sound of death moved off into the distance.  The troopers’  work was done.

Back in the trench, he called his platoon  together; there had been no casualties this time.  The rookie  replacements among them laughed from nervous relief at their survival,  and revelled in the end of their fears that they would be unable to  function in battle.  The veterans sat silently about; the next battle  would come soon enough, and they may be unable to laugh afterwards...

The  captain came along the line, talking to his lieutenants, collecting  casualty statistics.  ‘Ten-shun,’ called out the sergeant, and the  platoon, as a man, stood and came stiffly to attention.

‘As you were,’ said the captain to the men, then, to the lieutenant, ‘Your men did well, today.  Any losses?’

‘None,  sir,’ he replied, ‘and, yes, they did do well.’  He turned and smiled  at the others as they stood around waiting to hear any news the captain  might have.  Some smiled back; others retained their expressionless  masks of weariness.

Sensing their interest, the captain also  turned to face them.  ‘Good news!’ he announced to the group, ‘Our  Company is being taken off the line for a well-deserved rest.’  He  turned back to the lieutenant, ‘Have your men gather their gear and  assemble in the transportation zone at 1330 zulu.  Your relief should be  here an hour beforehand.  Carry on.’  He returned the lieutenant’s  salute and passed on along the line to the next platoon.

Now, everyone was smiling.

‘A hot bath and soft, clean sheets,’ said one.

‘Decent food that we don’t have to cook ourselves,’ said another.

‘The soft, warm skin of a clean woman,’ continued the first.

‘Red, red wine to wash it all down with...’

The  lieutenant smiled.  He had heard the same routine from these two  countless times before.  How many times had he seen battle with these  men, he wondered?  He could not remember.  Certainly, the three of them  were the only surviving members of the original second platoon, but how  many battles was that?  He would hate to go into battle without them;  they were his lucky mascots.  ‘Look sharp, guys,’ he said to the group.   ‘Let’s be ready to get out of here before they change their minds...’

No  one missed the transport.  No one missed the trenches.  The war had  reached a stalemate, with neither side able to make any headway, and so  an uneasy cease-fire was established.  No one thought of the war; until  the next time…

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Leading Edge

Copyright © 2003

A traveller through time discovers that getting back to where he started from is not as easy as he thought, but that meeting yourself and paradoxes are not as bad as everyone thinks they should be.



He sat in the dark, sipping at the glass of scotch in his hand, staring into the flames of the coal fire across the room as they danced and skipped in their now familiar pattern. It was the fourth or fifth glass, he did not much care, and he had ceased to bother corking the bottle or fetching ice from the freezer. It had actually happened and he could not believe it; all these many hours later, and he still could not take it in. He topped up the glass with the last drops from the bottle and sipped some more. A bird sang in the tree outside the window. Distracted by it, he looked out at the sky where the faintest glimmer of light skimmed the horizon; the balance was tipped and soon it would be day. He was struck by the metaphor; for years he had struggled in the darkness with only the barest hope glowing dimly beyond his reach but soon it would be day.

A red light on the metal box beside him changed to green and blinked for several seconds before settling to a steady glow. He placed the bottle and glass as far away as he could reach without leaving his elaborately constructed chair then closed his eyes and once more pressed the button below the green light. The hum from the machinery directly below him in the basement increased in intensity. The flames of the fire jolted and stuttered once more and the humming returned to its normal level. He reached for the bottle and poured a full measure over the ice cube in the glass. Outside, the sky was dark with no sign of the dawn. All was quiet. Yes, it really had happened…

For the first time, he wondered what the power company would charge him for the energy he had consumed throughout the night. He lifted the glass, and it suggested to him that his discovery was its own answer to its exorbitant running costs; never again would his work be delayed by having to put in extra hours at the factory to pay the bills, even with the vastly increased power storage capacity that his plans required. It amused him that he had never thought of the solution before.

He looked out of the window in anticipation of birdsong. The faintest glimmer of dawn graced the horizon and he watched as the sun burst into the sky to banish the darkness. Feeling suddenly exhausted, he made a note on the pad on his knee, turned off the box beside him, drained the glass, then stood and made his way down the stairs into the basement. Half an hour later, with the equipment closed down after the longest night in history, at least in his history, he climbed wearily back to ground level then groped his way along the gloomy passage to the bedroom and sat on the bed. His shoulders slumped and he felt his head dropping. He blinked himself awake enough to stand and undress. Wearing only his shorts, he crawled under the duvet and drew it tight around him until he was secure and warm in his cocoon, then sank quickly into a deep, refreshing sleep.



It was late afternoon when the sound of torrential rain hammering at the window awoke him. Dark, rain-laden clouds had rolled in from the sea and were busy emptying themselves the better to scale the heights behind the coastal plain. He rubbed a lazy hand over his unshaven face and smiled because of the longer than normal overnight growth. Comparing his watch with the clock on the other side of the room, he saw there was a full eight hours difference. He turned on the TV and scanned the channels for news. Satisfyingly, nothing unusual was reported and the station’s clock agreed with the one in his bedroom to within a minute. He wondered when they would improve their timekeeping.

After shaving and showering, and a celebratory feast of ham and eggs and hot tea, he went to the front door to collect the day’s post. There was the usual junk mail, loan offers, and a final demand from the power company giving him one week to pay before cutting off the supply. He laughed softly to himself as he tore up the mail and dropped it into the nearest wastepaper basket.

The electricity bill did, however, provide him with incentive. He spent the next three days reworking the calculations for scaling up his experiment to the major back-shifts he had in mind and did a specific calculation to determine what was needed to produce a twenty-four hour back-shift. Once the theory had been processed, he placed an order via the Internet for delivery the next day of enough power components for the lesser back-shift, then set about adapting his experimental rig to accommodate the full set of components. Having done all he could, and with his money problems over, he went into town to indulge himself at its most lavish restaurant.



He had no desire to share his discovery with the world; he distrusted his peers entirely and could not face their feigned friendship and falsified knowledge all along that he had been onto something. The only person he considered worthy of sharing it was himself, specifically his younger self. The potential consequences of such a meeting had often taxed his mental powers. Popular fiction postulated that contact with oneself would be untenable and result in mutual annihilation, rather as nature is said to abhor a vacuum, or as matter cannot exist in contact with anti-matter. He knew from the Pauli Exclusion Principal that no two particles could possess the same wave-function, which could cause problems for the constituent parts of two apparently identical objects such as himself and his younger self. However, the normal replenishment of body tissues over time meant he would have fewer atoms in common with his earlier self the further back he went, and the confusion that such shared atoms may feel about which body they belonged in would be insignificant given the large number of atoms he comprised in total. In any case, normal electrostatic forces, which worked at a distance, would keep everything nicely separated. Furthermore, he reasoned, if one were annihilated in one’s past one could hardly have a future to return from in order to meet oneself, or even in which to formulate the intention.

Despite these reassuring thoughts, he still wondered if it were possible to meet himself, never having done so in experiments confined entirely within his home when his previous self most certainly would have been present, and he had no recollection of encountering his older self in his younger days. His own theory was that one’s timeline was unique and that what will happen has happened, or what has happened will happen, depending on one’s temporal perspective. Even if things are changed, he believed that the changes would be part of the natural unravelling of his timeline and so were probably indiscernible; in a quantum universe governed by probabilities, what actually happens eliminates all other possibilities, Schrödinger’s cat is only dead – or alive – if one opens the box and looks in. He had yet to develop a mathematical notation to express the complexity of his ideas. In truth, he struggled even to begin contemplating it, beyond its likelihood of involving hyper-dimensional space-time and the timelines of every atom that has been, is, or will be part of his physical being.

Never having been visited by himself was the one thing that worried him. There were two possible pitfalls: either his experiment was doomed to fail and he would not meet his younger self and likewise his older self had never been able to meet him, or his natural time was the leading edge of all time and there was no future self who could have visited him. The former point he dismissed for the unscientific reason that it negated everything he had done for the last ten years. He dismissed the latter because the universe had existed for eons before any sentient being had emerged to observe it, so how could he possibly be at the leading edge? Whatever the theory, he found himself enormously advantaged over mere philosophy and supposition; he was a scientist, and he now had the means to test his theory…



The next morning saw the arrival of his order. A van pulled up outside and an anxious-looking driver rang the doorbell. ‘Name of Davis?’ the driver asked through a thick veil of weariness.

‘Yes.’

‘Had a dickens of a job tracking you down. Been all over the place. Never been anywhere so remote.’

‘Yes, it is quite hard to find, I must admit.’

‘The folks in the town say this place is haunted, y’know. They say that’s why it was empty for years.’

‘Really? What a strange idea.’ He paid the driver the required cash and signed for the delivery. He moved the new components down to the basement then held himself in check, carefully fitting each part into its place in the rig, suppressing the urge to rush the job and so risk damaging the fragile equipment.

Breaking off briefly from his work at midday, he visited the bank to withdraw the full month’s salary that had just been paid in. Mrs Stephenson, a lady nearing retirement, served him, greeting him with a cheery, ‘Good afternoon, Dr Davis.’ He returned her greeting and smiled as he pushed his withdrawal slip and his passport for identification to her side of the counter’s glass barrier. She picked up the slip and raised her eyebrows at the amount requested. ‘That’s a very large sum,’ she commented, ‘I’ll have to speak to the manager and check there are sufficient funds available.’ She added, with a smile, ‘It’s just a formality.’ He nodded his understanding. Sprightly for her age, she swept up the passport and hopped down from her chair in one movement, then walked briskly over to the manager’s office into which she disappeared for around two minutes.

On returning, she began typing at the keyboard in front of her to call up his account details onto her computer monitor. He noticed that she cocked her head ever so slightly to one side and frowned almost imperceptibly as if trying to remember something. ‘Is something wrong?’ he asked, a little nervous at what she may be thinking despite his knowledge that there was absolutely nothing wrong.

‘No…’ she said, hesitantly, ‘just a strange sense of Déjà vu. You know, like I’ve done this before.’ He nodded sagely, attaching no rational significance at all to the event, but nevertheless having a mildly disturbed sense that something may be out of kilter. ‘It’s a very large amount to encash,’ she continued, dismissing her musings and returning to the job in hand, ‘Is there something we can help you with? Would a banker’s draft be better for your needs?’

He suspected the manager’s influence in her suggestion, and declined it, his mind racing to catch a plausible explanation. ‘I…have a rather large debt to pay, and I need to pay in cash before my electricity is cut off,’ he said, settling for the truth.

‘A banker’s draft would be ad–’

‘No, really, I’d sooner take the cash,’ he interrupted, a little too abruptly, he thought, ‘I only have to go two doors down to pay the bill and a banker’s draft would cost me money.’

She smiled at him and asked, ‘How would you like the cash?’

‘Well,’ he mused, ‘the largest denomination notes available, please.’

She counted out the money and passed it to him. He dropped it into his briefcase, which he locked pointlessly, then exchanged farewells with Mrs Stephenson and left the bank. He walked right past the power company’s office, returned directly home, and locked the thick wads of money in a small compartment in the machine.

At the end of the day, his work complete, he turned the machine on and adjusted the power feed to produce a slow, overnight charging of the massive batteries he had installed. Darkness had fallen, so he ate, set an alarm for 9 a.m., and then went to bed. Sleep evaded him for several hours because of the excitement he felt but, eventually, he slept.



The alarm rang out and he became quickly awake and active. He dressed hurriedly and ate a hasty breakfast before installing himself in the chair, connecting himself to the box beside it, and checking the readings that the latter displayed. Satisfied that all levels were within normal ranges, he looked at the digital clock on the opposite wall before drawing a deep breath and pressing the button. The hum from the basement increased in intensity and he was slightly alarmed at the different tone it emitted with the extra power modules installed. The clock apparently stepped forward five seconds and the humming subsided.

Hearing the throb of the delivery van’s diesel engine, he disconnected himself from the machine and rushed to the front door where he had the same conversation with same weary driver, paid him the same cash, and signed the same signature in the same box on the same delivery sheet. He moved the new components down to the basement then, this time much more calmly, fitted each one carefully into place in the rig, breaking off briefly at midday to visit the bank and withdraw the same month’s salary that had just been paid in. On returning home, he turned the machine on and adjusted the power feed to produce a slow, overnight charge of the massive batteries he had installed.

Out of curiosity, he found two corresponding and therefore absolutely identical boxes from the two deliveries and gingerly placed them in intimate contact. Nothing happened, encouraging his firm belief that he could meet himself without danger. He played with the boxes, and realised that it was very difficult in any case for two copies of the same atom to be placed in contact because the boxes were duplicates, not mirror images. Meanwhile, darkness had fallen, so he ate, set an alarm for 9 a.m., and then went to bed where, weary from his sustained effort, he fell instantly asleep.

When the alarm next rang, he went through the whole procedure again, paying the driver, installing the new components, and once more waiting his turn in the queue at the bank.

After one week of his time and one day and a few seconds of the van driver’s and Mrs Stephenson’s, by this repetitive process he built the time machine to its full capacity and filled the small compartment until he could hardly close its door. The driver had been consistently dull and, on each visit to the bank, Mrs Stephenson had mentioned her ‘Déjà vu’. He had found the repetition of the same events quite amusing, and he played with the incidents, steering their discourses in different directions, even adopting a rude manner with the driver, just to see what might happen, and what difference it might make. The outcome had always been the same. He could not bring himself to treat Mrs Stephenson, whom he had known for many years, with anything but kindness.



He was troubled by the changed tone of the machine and spent the next three days fine-tuning it, re-running his trip to the bank, storing the surplus components as spares, and revisiting the maths. He had previously discovered a minor term in one of the equations that became dominant at a certain power output. Since he could allow himself little time to investigate its implications, he limited the machine to run at a reasonable safety margin below that level and now satisfied himself that the term would have no impact beyond necessitating a slower transition through time. Finally, he took a day off, paid the equivalent of ten month’s salary into a different bank – he could not bring himself to attempt an explanation to poor Mrs Stephenson – and arranged the immediate transfer of a large sum to the power company and of the residue, after meeting the bank’s charges, back to his own account. He returned to the lavish restaurant, apparently much sooner than its customers normally returned and therefore surprising the Maitre d’, although the only expression shown was one of delight.



He chose a time 25 years earlier when he was a university student reading Theoretical Physics, and when his mind had been its most open. That his younger self would believe the revelation that he was from the future he had no doubt; after all, he knew himself quite well and the notion of time-travel had intrigued him since university days.

The practical difficulties of a time-traveller are many and great. For a start, depending on the era to which one travels, one’s normal clothing could be completely out of keeping. Then there is language. Even travelling back a hundred years in one’s own country could make communication tricky; there are new words to avoid, disused words to understand, surviving words to reinterpret, sentence structure and pronunciation to consider. Then there is money. How does one subsist without money? There is no point in taking one’s own currency, which, to make life difficult for counterfeiters, is reprinted in a different design every so often, rendering the modern version unrecognisable to shops and banks of one’s target era. Credit cards are similarly limited or even uninvented. He had a solitary five-pound note from the period he intended to visit. He had found it down the back of a skirting board removed during some alterations needed to accommodate the chair in the room above the basement. He decided that would be enough, since with a few visits to the bank, he could generate enough to fund his trip in next to no time at all…

He collected together various items of memorabilia from his university days and a photocopy of his calculations. All these he placed in his briefcase, and filled another bag with enough food, albeit not very varied, for twelve days. With all preparations made, he sat in the chair, made the necessary connections and pressed the button. The world before him shimmered and took solid form once again.



He was surprised at the differences he saw on his first walk into town, the steady progress and development he had lived with for the last ten years having been wiped out, or, rather, not yet even planned. He was amused at the clothing and hairstyles that everyone wore, and was reminded of his former fondness for the miniskirt... The bank stood in its expected position half way down the high street, although its neighbours, he noticed, were different in his own time. He entered the bank and approached its yet-to-be-modernised counter, behind which he saw and recognised an attractive woman in her mid-thirties. ‘Good morning, Mrs Stephenson,’ he said with a friendly smile, glad that her name was emblazoned in plastic at the front of her position, ruling out any question why this total stranger would know her name.

She looked up at him and returned his smile, ‘Good morning, sir, how can I help you?’

‘I’d like to open a savings account,’ he said, and offered her his five-pound note. She asked for and wrote down on a paper form the information she needed and issued him with a small book in which his opening deposit was recorded in indelible ink. Once his business was concluded, he wished her good day and began wandering around the town. It was dreamlike to be surrounded by familiar sights that were not quite as they should be. After a couple of hours, the eeriness got to him and so he walked back home.

He spent the rest of that day and the next checking the machine and the maths, trying unsuccessfully to find an alternative solution to the problem of the dominant term. The day after that, he walked into town, withdrew his five pounds from the bank, assisted by a puzzled-looking Mrs Stephenson, then walked back home again. He ran a 24-hour back-shift then, once again returning to the bank, explained to Mrs Stephenson that he wanted to pay another five pounds into his account, that he had carelessly lost his account book, and asked if she could issue a duplicate. She obliged him, and he walked home with ten twenty-five year old pounds to his credit. The day after that, he closed the account, ran another 24-hour back-shift, and returned to the bank to pay his money into the as yet unclosed account. By the end of twelve of his days he had £5120 in his briefcase, an appreciable sum for the decade, and he went to the railway station to book a return ticket to his old University town, and then to a decent restaurant for a change of diet.



The university campus was just as he had remembered it. He caught himself thinking that the place had not changed very much since he left, then laughed at himself when he remembered that, actually, he had not yet left. He even recognised many of the faces he saw as he walked about, although not many belonged to people he could claim to know; there was just a familiarity with the surroundings into which the people that one saw everyday fitted as integral parts. He took care to avoid those who had known him, although he would have delighted in renewing acquaintance with people with whom he had long ago lost contact.

He rounded a corner and suddenly, with a jolting shock, there she was, the girl he should have married… She was engrossed in conversation with a male friend and so did not spot him, which was fortunate because the expression of fond longing on his face would have frightened her. She and her companion, as they stood in the warm sunlight, talked and laughed easily together, and it was clear from the expression on her face and her body language that she liked the young man. Turning his attention to her friend, he received a second jolt to his nervous system – she was talking to him! In a panic, he turned and walked briskly back round the corner where he sat on a low wall, wondering what to do next. This was not the way he had imagined meeting himself. He had planned to arrive at his old room in halls and knock on the door and calmly make his introduction to his younger self. At least he now had some idea of the shock he was about to deliver. He looked back towards the corner and saw the girl hurrying off to her next maths lecture, her notebook clasped in folded arms against her breast. The wistful smile on her face gratified him enormously. He found that he had a vague recollection of the conversation he had just witnessed, and tried to remember the detail of it. His younger self, he realised, had gone off in the other direction and therefore most likely back to his room. Departing his reverie, he stood up and followed on, not needing to keep in visual contact, knowing exactly where to go.

It was surprising how claustrophobic the students’ residence now seemed to him as he navigated its labyrinthine corridors. He had remembered it differently, as a place of freedom and excitement. He was beginning to realise how much his perspective on life had changed with age and experience. Soon the familiar door, with his name in the brass cardholder on the wall beside it, stood before him. He could hear the faint strumming of his old guitar from inside. His heart quickened and a lump came into his throat. He heard three raps like the sound of knuckles on wood and realised that he had lifted a hand to knock. The music stopped and he caught his breath as he realised that his younger self was about to meet the future; he wondered if he was doing the right thing and had almost decided to leave when the door opened…

‘Dad? What are you doing here?’ the younger said, suddenly smiling, then frowning, ‘Is anything wrong? What have you done to your hair?’

‘Well? Are you going to ask me in?’ said the elder.

‘Of course, come in, come in.’

The younger looked more closely at the elder and a suspicion came into his eyes which prompted the elder, who had been surprised at being mistaken for his own father, into making his true identity known as quickly as possible. He knew his resemblance with his father was remarkable apart from his having dark hair and his father fair, and that, in this time, they were of similar age. It had never occurred to him to masquerade behind his father’s identity. How much easier that would have been... ‘You’d better shut the door and sit down,’ he blurted, striding towards the far end of the room where he would present the minimum threat to the young man by leaving him easy access to the door if he wished to escape. At the window, he turned and faced the younger. ‘Nothing’s wrong,’ he began, ‘but I am not my–’, he struggled for the right word, ‘our– your father.’

‘What?’

‘I know I look like dad – your dad, that is – but then, so do you.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ The younger man began to look angry and his tone was becoming aggressive.

‘There’s nothing to worry about. In fact, this is about to be the most exciting thing that’s so far happened to you – me – us…Oh, how am I going to explain this?’

‘I don’t know, but you’d better try quickly,’ the younger said with unveiled threat.

The elder decided that a direct approach would be the simplest, ‘I’m not your father. Twenty-five years from now, you will finally develop a working time machine…and come back to tell yourself about it. You’re already interested in it, aren’t you? Fiddling about with gravity equations, looking for clues…’

‘And you expect me to believe that?’ the younger exclaimed in clear disbelief. The elder bent down, opened the flap of his briefcase and retrieved from it a battered red file which he offered to the younger. ‘Recognise this?’ he asked, with raised eyebrows and a wry smile.

The younger took it from him and opened it. He turned the yellowed pages of his own handwriting. Fascinated, he placed the old file on the desk beside his own so that he could see the pages of both at the same time. He turned them to the beginning and moved through the pages in each, one by one. Apart from the obvious difference in age, each page had its identical twin; every accidental mark with the pen, each coffee stain, was faithfully reproduced. He found a pair of pages with writing on one side only and removed them from their respective files. Overlaying them, he held them up to the light. As much as the thickness of the paper would allow, he discerned absolutely no difference between them. ‘How did you do this?’ he asked.

‘I sat in the lectures and wrote down what the lecturer said,’ the elder replied then, after a short pause for effect, continued, ‘Only, for me, it was twenty-five years ago.’

‘So…you really think you are…me?’

‘Of course I am. How else would I have the file?’

‘That could be an elaborate hoax, although I admit I can’t see how you might have done it, at the moment.’

‘How about if I told you something about yourself that I know you have never told anyone and there is no way that anyone could have found out about it?’

‘That would be fairly impressive, I must admit, except I may talk in my sleep.’

‘The barn.’

The younger blinked, and it was obvious that he was trying to hide his recognition of the reference. ‘What barn?’

‘The one you burnt down when you were twelve. You were all alone with a box of matches. You wondered what would happen if you lit one blade of straw. You were quite surprised by the result, as I remember, but then it had been a long, hot, dry summer that year. No-one saw you light it. No-one saw you run. No-one saw you hiding in the tree two fields away. But you watched the farmer trying to put the fire out, and the fire brigade arrive too late to save anything. No-one saw you leave the tree after dark, or Dad giving you a thick ear for coming home so late. “Spontaneous combustion” they called it. But you and I know differently, don’t we?’

‘…Someone must have seen. You couldn’t know.’

‘Unless I was there! Unless I was you! And just look at me. Who else could I be?’

The younger fell silent and sat on the bed, struck dumb by the guilt of being found out. He lifted his face to the elder and said, ‘So it’s possible, then? Time-travel?’

‘No, it’s much more than possible,’ replied the elder, ‘I’ve done it!’

‘So…you…you really are…me?’ The younger was an effigy of bewilderment.

The elder beamed at him and nodded furiously. ‘Yes, yes,’ he stated, ‘I hope it’s not too much of a shock.’

‘I think I’d better make some tea,’ the younger muttered, ‘Do I still take sugar?’

‘No, you gave that up in about three years from now,’ said the elder, mischievously. The younger turned on his heels and headed off to the communal kitchen. ‘Don’t go anywhere,’ he called with excitement as he passed through the doorway, ‘In fact, don’t even move from that spot.’

Of course, he could not stay on the same spot. The fascination of being here again was too much for him. It was like a dream but real, solid. He walked over to the bookcase and took down one of his favourite undergraduate texts, and flicked through its crisp, white pages; the pages in the copy in his own time were yellow and age-worn. He put it back in its place and ran his fingers over the personal items on the bottom shelf, memories flooding back with each contact. The door opened and his younger self returned carrying two familiar mugs and the old brown teapot, new, and minus the crack in the lid and the chip missing from the spout.

‘What are you doing?’ the younger asked, his tone permeated with suspicion.

‘Just renewing my acquaintance with some old friends,’ the elder replied, replacing the photograph he had taken from the shelf.

The younger sat in silence for what seemed an age. His mind raced behind the mask of consternation he wore. His head was filled with questions. What would his future be? Did he really want to know? Were there things he should avoid? What effect might it have if he were to avoid them? The list seemed endless. ‘I don’t know how to respond to this,’ he said eventually, ‘or even if I should be talking to you at all. Goodness knows what problems our meeting may cause.’ He drank his tea, which by now was almost cold, in one go.

‘I don’t believe there to be a problem,’ the elder responded, and he outlined his theories and described his experiences so far. The younger listened intently as the other talked, and interjected with questions and objections, all of which the elder, having thought of them already, had answers for.

‘OK,’ the younger said, finally convinced that the elder’s ideas were basically sound, ‘So why have you come back to visit me? Nostalgia?’

‘No,’ replied the elder, ‘to give you a head start. I won’t live forever and there’s a limit to how far I can push the technology in the time I have left. If you can start sooner you’ll go further. And there are some things I’d like to have avoided…’ He outlined his life after his first degree. He had qualified well and gone on to study for his PhD. After that, he had secured a lectureship and continued his research into gravitational theories. He had maintained his interest in time-travel and had found a clue in his work that made him believe it was possible. The subject had become something of an obsession with him, to the extent that his peers had ceased to take him seriously; scientific journals rejected his papers and colleagues shunned him, not wishing to be tarred with the same brush. Eventually, he had found himself discredited in academic circles and felt obliged to resign. He turned his skills to good use in working for a scientific component manufacturer, a position that paid him well and gave him easy access to the equipment he needed to continue his research at home. He told the younger about the cottage, and how he had back-shifted himself out of debt; the younger, feeling the pinch of impoverished student life, was impressed. He wound up his discourse with a statement that sparked intrigue in the younger, ‘There’s one thing I particularly wanted to tell you, something that has caused me no end of regret and will do the same for you if you get it wrong.’

The younger looked intently at the elder, still questioning in his mind if such knowledge were not dangerous, while the elder stared back at him, his expression begging and pleading with the younger to ask.

‘Go on,’ said the younger.

‘Forget the blonde,’ said the elder, pointing at the photograph on the shelf, ‘She’s not interested in anything more than friendship. I wasted years mooning about after her.’

The younger’s face fell and he sagged a little. ‘You mean Kathryn?’ He turned again to face the elder, who nodded. ‘But I love her,’ he continued, ‘I’m still hoping she may be interested.’

‘She isn’t, and won’t be. But there is someone else who thinks a great deal of you, is hoping for much more than friendship, in fact. And you really like her, although you’re not fully aware of it yet. I realised it when it was too late. She decided she was getting nowhere with me and started seeing someone else. By the time I realised what I was missing she was engaged and out of reach. Marry the brunette, forget the blonde.’

‘You mean Lauren?’

‘I mean Lauren. At least give her a chance…’

The younger sat as though dead while he sorted through the new turmoil in his mind. Eventually, he stirred. ‘OK…’ he said, then shuffled himself upright and addressed the elder, ‘there’s one thing I just don’t get. If, according to your theory, we can’t change anything, why do I get the impression that you never had this meeting? If this is happening for me, and I’m convinced that it is, why didn’t it happen for you when you were my age?’

‘I don’t know,’ the elder replied, ‘but I’m ninety-nine percent certain that all this is meant to be. Maybe something happened that erased my memory of this event... I’ve tried to remember but there’s nothing there. Maybe memory loss is a hazard of meeting yourself… Who knows? But I wasn’t always obsessed with time-travel; the fascination began around this time in my life, so something must have happened to spark it off.’

‘But you didn’t marry Lauren. By your theory, that means I won’t either.’

‘It’s an interesting experiment, isn’t it? Theories have to be able to withstand tests that would prove them wrong, if they are to hold up. If you do marry her, I’ll have to rethink my theory…’

‘I can’t marry her for the sake of an experiment!’

‘That’s not what I’m suggesting. Marry her because you love each other.’



The elder took a room in town so that he could spend time with his younger self and impart as much information about his discoveries as possible. He found himself frustrated at the amount of time the younger began to spend with Lauren, jealous even. His younger self found his clandestine visits to town more and more difficult to live with, and he especially despised the necessity to keep his secret from Lauren. Finally, he gave the elder an ultimatum; one of them had to leave. And so the elder made his way back to the cottage and the younger made his way deeply into Lauren’s affections…



Back at home, he wondered what to do with himself. He had taught his younger self as much as he could grasp and had left a copy of all his workings so that he would be able to understand the theory and construct a machine as his skills grew. Would he do it? Would his relationship with Lauren help or hinder? In the anti-climactic wake of meeting his younger self, he seriously wondered if he should go back to his own time. Despite his theories, he was wary of what he might discover. Actually, he had little option but to go forward. The machine was a huge construction in a building that had been vacant for about fifty years before he had found it. He would have great difficulty explaining things to the former occupants if he materialised in their sitting room and filled their basement with his equipment. The thought of them intrigued him. He decided to pay them a brief visit.

He climbed into the chair and set the machine to visit the time of the previous occupants and, almost instantaneously, to return to its present time, giving him a fleeting look at his predecessors without materialising. He pushed the button and the room shimmered. After what was for him a few seconds, the machine’s rate of regression slowed and reversed until he was almost stationary relative to the normal passage of time. The room quivered into a not quite fully resolved solidity. He cast his eyes around the room until he saw two people, a man and a woman, sitting on a sofa and listening to a wireless set. The man supported his head with one arm, drooped his other around the woman’s shoulders, and had his eyes intently fixed on the speaker of the wireless. The woman, however, was looking straight at Davis with eyes set wide open in a mask of terror.

‘John,’ Davis heard her say tremblingly, ‘it’s happening again…’ She dug her husband in the ribs with the point of her elbow and the man turned his head to see what she was talking about.

‘Oh no,’ he said, leaping up and backing away across the room, ‘What the hell is it?’ Davis realised that they had seen his shimmering apparition and he had terrified them.

The timer on the control box beside him reached its predetermined setting and the machine accelerated. The room shimmered again and the terrified couple dwindled into the past. Davis became aware of the unusual tone of the machine, which seemed to be labouring hard to make the forward transition. The temperature indicator on his console climbed alarmingly and had almost reached the danger level when the room around him took on solid form once more and the machine stopped.

He ran some checks. The machine had functioned exactly as programmed, despite the overheating, although he was relieved that the program had lasted no longer. He was startled by the figures displayed on the console; the month and day that he had returned to were as expected but the year was five years prior to the date on which he had left. He checked his notes to make sure he was not mistaken. Everything pointed to an error on the return leg of his journey. He wondered what had caused it and rechecked the settings. There were no mistakes in the parameters and so he could only conclude that an operational problem had occurred.

He ran down to the basement and played through the recordings of the machine’s behaviour. He discovered a massive power drain on his forward journey, hence the increased noise and the reduced amount of time displacement that the machine had been able to make. He looked over the equations again, and revisited the dominant term. He found nothing wrong in his workings.

Factoring in the extra power needed, he decided to run the experiment again to check his ideas. His appearance in the couple’s home this time resulted in an ear-splitting scream, the crash of a dropped tray laden with teapot, cups and saucers, milk jug and sugar bowl, and a terrified cry of ‘John! John! Come and look at this! I think we have a ghost!’ John had rushed into the room in time to see Davis’s apparition shimmer into nothingness and his wife drop unconscious to the floor. The machine grudgingly retraced its steps through time.

He had lost almost another five years. All the figures were as expected and the power drain had been comparable with the previous trip, allowing for the compensation he had made for the re-run. Puzzled, he ran through the maths yet again and realisation hit him like a sledgehammer. He had a sign wrong in his algebra and an effect of the dominant term that he thought cancelled out had doubled instead; a stupid, schoolboy error – how on Earth had he done that? Once he had seen and understood the problem, which led to positive feedback and an ever-increasing demand for power, he knew exactly how to fix it. He dropped his face into his hands. The device he needed and the technology necessary for its manufacture would not be invented for another thirty years. He was trapped. He opened a fresh bottle of scotch and filled a large tumbler…



He spent much of the next week semi-intoxicated. In his more lucid moments, he turned his mind to the inconsistencies he had encountered on his travels. His older self had not visited him when he had been at university, yet he had visited his younger self. He had not encountered himself at all during his series of one-day back-shifts at the beginning when he used the machine to generate cash. Mrs Stephenson, however, had had a déjà vu on his very first and every subsequent visit to the bank during that episode but had not mentioned anything of the sort during his repeated visits to her younger self for similar purposes. And then there was Mr and Mrs Predecessor. His first visit had generated the statement, ‘It’s happening again,’ and his second visit gave every appearance of being their first encounter with him; indeed, this second visit did predate the first when seen from their perspective. Were his appearances the hauntings the van driver had mentioned? Had he been the reason for the cottage being abandoned?

The puzzles had the beneficial effect of reintroducing sobriety into his life, having given his mind something to grapple with. His theory that what has happened will happen and vice versa explained the Stephenson Paradox, as he called it; her older self’s déjà vu was a rekindling of memories laid down by his visits to her younger self. The Predecessor Paradox reinforced this explanation; they too were reacting to their second visitation in the light of their first. The van driver’s remark about the cottage being haunted he interpreted as an extension of this; at the time of his encounter with the van driver his visits to the Predecessors were already accounted for in the time dimension. So, to some extent at least, what has happened will happen, what will happen has happened. Time had somehow unravelled itself to keep cause and effect consistent; he had not altered the later time by visiting the earlier.

He was derailed by the apparent determinism of it all – the fact that his proximal back-shifts in someway predetermined his distal transitions. He found a comforting analogue in the rather baffling ‘action at a distance’ in the field of quantum physics. Certain collisions of elementary particles produce photons in pairs that fly apart in opposite directions, the conservation laws governing the complementarity of the quantum states available to them. Experiment had shown that subsequently altering the state of one photon in the pair induced the complementary state in the other, even though they were relatively vast distances apart with no apparent link between them. He postulated a similar ‘action at a temporal separation’ whereby an event that selected a probability state at one point in time induced the apparently causal or resultant state at another. His fundamental belief that one could not alter the present by changing the past began to waver…

His own singular experiences, however, none of which seemed to have a complement, he could not explain to his satisfaction. He half-recognised a complementarity in his hauntings, which required the existence of his time machine, resulting in the cottage being vacated and available for him to build the machine, and so be able to haunt its previous occupants… His head began to spin again and wished he would wake up. The only explanation for his older self not having visited him was that his normal time was, in fact, on the very leading edge of time, that the future had no existence except perhaps as a jumble of unresolved probabilities, that he could never discover what will be; his generation could only move forward along the time axis at the normal rate of one second per second and define the present…

His mind turned to more basic drives: food, shelter – survival. Everything depended on his retaining the machine and keeping it working. If he had the machine he could generate money; with money he could buy food, acquire and renovate the cottage – for in this time he did not own it and the floor in the room above the basement had long ago collapsed – and procure spares for the machine. If he generated enough money and invested it wisely, he need not use the machine again, if he chose not to, or if it stopped working.

Large quantities of cash always drew suspicion, and so his first priority was to make himself plausible. He travelled to London and found an agency for a Bermudan bank in which he opened an account using an assumed name and half of the considerable sum he still had left from his earlier efforts in this age. The other half he used to take rooms in the town near the cottage and to prime his cash pump. His cover story for the locals was that he had lived overseas for some time where he had enjoyed a small piece of luck that had given him enough money to retire on. He was looking for a property in the area and was very interested in the cottage. He was not, he told all who felt the need to acquaint him with its history, a great believer in ghosts. As soon as he had enough money, he bought the cottage and began living there, renovating the place around himself. For five years he worked on the cottage and engendered by his infrequent visits to town the notion among the locals that he was somewhat of a recluse, an idea that suited him well.

One warm day, having returned from a shopping trip to town, he emptied the cash he had in his pockets onto a small table in the lounge. A gust of wind from an open window picked up a five pound note and pinned it to the wall. The banknote skittered down the wall and disappeared out of sight behind a length of badly-fitted skirting board. He went to the kitchen to find something narrow enough to use as a probe but stopped short on his return with a bread knife. He put the knife back in the kitchen drawer and left the banknote behind the skirting board where he knew it would be safe for many years to come…

He spent the next four years buried in his theories, revisiting and redeveloping the maths and exploring the consequences of every nuance of its formulation. He devised essential modifications to the machine in readiness for when contemporary technology would allow him to overcome the obstacles he faced. He made the changes that were possible, even though, as a result, it meant he could not use the machine until the new components were in place but that bothered him little; he had no heart for travelling further from his own time, troubled as he was by the kind of home-sickness that mediaeval mariners marooned in some far-flung backwash of the globe must have felt.



Few came to see him in his remote outpost. There was the occasional visit from the postman, who brought him bills or letters from his Bermudan banker’s agent, but the conversation rarely, if ever, strayed from the state of the weather. Whoever did come came on an entirely predictable schedule and left as soon as their business permitted. It was with some surprise, therefore, that he heard an unexpected diesel-engined vehicle labouring up the short, steep hill onto the small plateau overlooking the sea on which the cottage stood. Thinking it must be tourists off course, he ignored it and carried on painting a window-frame without looking round. A van pulled up in front of the cottage and its engine fall silent. Two doors opened and closed and two sets of footsteps crunched their way along the dry gravel path leading to the rear of the house. He noticed that the feet were not in step but had a rhythm suggesting that of one of his visitors was somewhat shorter than the other. He set down his paint pot and brush and turned to receive them.

‘We thought we’d find you here,’ the younger Davis said, ‘We’ve brought some things you might need.’ The younger held out his hand and grinned; the elder snapped out of his stunned shock and grasped the other’s hand with both of his own and pumped it up and down until the younger’s shoulder almost dislocated. Uncontrollable tears of joy flowed down his cheeks. He turned his attention to the woman, to Lauren, and hugged her, crying into her shoulder. Breaking off his contact, he took a couple of steps back. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I’m forgetting my manners. Please come in.’ Wiping his cheeks dry with the rolled cuff of his shirt as he went, he led the way into the cottage and into the small lounge where he waved them towards the sofa. He fetched himself a stool from the kitchen.

He sat opposite them and looked them up and down, grinning from ear to ear. He noticed that they looked older than he thought they should. The younger began the explanations. ‘We spent some time going over the theories you left me. Lauren, being a mathematician of course, was a fantastic help. We, well she, found a few things you’d overlooked or had wrong and we deduced what must have happened to you when you tried to return to your own time.’

‘The dominant term,’ the elder interjected. ‘I had no idea what a problem it would be when I started all this. I’ve had plenty of time to work it out, though.’

‘I’m sure,’ said Lauren, ‘and I’m also sure that you don’t have the wherewithal to put the machine right.’

‘Right again,’ said the elder, ‘but I’ve spent my time getting ready for when the technology became available.’

‘We’ve everything you need in our machine outside,’ said the younger, ‘It’s taken us ages to track you down. We’ve had some fun along the way, though. Do you have a bible here?

‘There’s one here somewhere. Why?’

‘Get it for me, please.’

The elder rose from his stool and went over to the bookcase and returned with an old bible that had been in his family for generations. The younger took it from him, blew off the dust, and opened its dry, fragile pages at Mark, chapter fourteen. He passed it to the elder and said, ‘Verses 51 and 52, read them out loud.’

The elder read, ‘And there followed Him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked.’

He looked at the younger who winked mischievously and announced, ‘That was me! Which explains why the Turin Shroud failed the radiocarbon dating test…’

‘You mean…’

‘Yes,’ Lauren contributed, ‘it was a sheet we picked up in mediaeval Europe.’

‘You didn’t…use a time machine to bring Him back from…’

‘No,’ said Lauren, ‘that was nothing to do with us; He did that all by Himself. Not that we waited to see what happened, mind you. We fled to where we had our machine hidden and left the scene before the guards could catch us. There was no Human Rights movement in those days…’

‘So, your machine is mobile?’

‘Yes,’ said the younger, ‘The wonders of micro-miniaturisation. It’s parked out the front. We’d like to take you home in it but you really can’t leave that here,’ he pointed towards the chair of the elder’s machine, ‘where someone might find it.’ The elder nodded slowly in sage understanding and the younger continued, ‘So we’ve brought you the components you need.’

The elder, almost overcome with excitement, asked, ‘Have you visited my time? Do you know if I make it back?’ The younger shook his head, ‘We’ve no certain knowledge of that but we believe you will. We can’t visit any time ahead of our own. There’s another term in the equation that dominates if we try to get ahead of ourselves and the power needed is phenomenal – it would blow the planet apart. And in any case, you’re obviously not there, are you…?’

‘No, you’re right,’ said the elder, ‘My timeline is somewhat displaced.’

‘But it is important that you get back there,’ Lauren stated, clearly having more to say.

‘Go on,’ prompted the elder.

She shuffled forward in her seat as if to make herself more commanding, ‘We know you think this is absurd because you said so before, but your time really is the leading edge of time, at least as far as humanity is concerned. I know it sounds unreasonable,’ she said raising her voice slightly, and rebutting his objections with the flat of her hand, ‘but the inconsistencies of your experiences should be enough to prove that. We have had nothing but consistent paradoxes. All we have done has related clearly to things that have already happened. What is more disconcerting is the seeming fact that things from the past appear to draw us into concert with them, as if our lives were somehow subject to some externally imposed fate – as in the Turin Shroud example, for instance – but we realise that’s just because of our perception of what for us is the normal passage of time; a bit like the apparent handedness of mirrors, which is merely a superposition of the subjectivity of the observer. But the point is, there is always, without fail, a complementary pair of events in all our experiences.

‘In your case, complementarity only became the norm when you left your own time. You are, or were, on the very boundary of time. You represent the starting conditions of time-travel, we are in an equilibrium state. What we do is only a complement of what has been done, and what will be done is only the complement of what we do now. Your theory, what will happen has happened, or what has happened will happen, is perfectly correct – but only in an equilibrium state. Do you see that?’

The elder frowned and leant forward on his stool, voicing his thoughts, ‘So the fact that I never experienced a visit from myself was because there was no future me to visit me…’

‘Exactly,’ said the younger.

‘And Mrs Stephenson’s déjà vu and the five pound note and all the other things are because I’d reached equilibrium…’

‘There’s a complementary action to the five pound note?’

‘Yes, I lost one down the skirting board four years ago. It’s still there…what would happen if I retrieved it?’

‘I dread to think…perhaps someone else would lose one. But the reason you didn’t encounter yourself in your early back-shifts is also explained. You were so close to the boundary that the probability function was still incompletely collapsed. In effect, you changed the probabilities of who you were – or which one of you was there, if you like. The reason you didn’t meet yourself is because you were yourself – all of yourselves – that near to the boundary, but my probability state was well-defined by the time you got back to me.

Lauren continued, ‘We can also explain why you couldn’t get back to your own time. In your own time, you and all your contemporaries are riding the front face of a wave like a surfer. As you travelled back, you got nearer to the crest. You could have gone forward again after your early experiments but you did one too many. You got behind the crest. By the time you came to our time you were so far behind that you didn’t have enough energy to move up the wave and back over the crest, and, because of the temporal gradient, you slipped further back with each journey you made.’

‘That’s exactly what’s happened,’ said the elder, transfixed by the growing realisation of his true and unique position in time.

‘Our problem in finding you was in knowing how far back you may have slipped. From the work you left with us, we knew what your machine was capable of but we didn’t know how you would apply it.’

‘But how can you move about so freely?’

‘Because we’ve different technology at our disposal and, thanks to you, had more time to work on the equations. Our machine works differently, and the wave looks much flatter from our point of view. We still can’t get ahead of our own time though, and there’s no technology on earth that can better what we now have. There are some clues in the maths that improvements are possible but not without access to space travel.’

The elder looked at her with a puzzled expression.

She explained, ‘We need a massive source of gravitational distortion. Jupiter would do for starters, if we could get close enough, but what we really need is black hole. We don’t have one…’

They fell silent, and the elder’s mind raced as he considered the implications of the information he had just been given. ‘You said it was important that I get back to my own time…’ he said, fixing the woman with a probing stare.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it is. Your visit to yourself is not the only reason we were able to make such great strides forward. There are other events that helped us out along the way. As we’ve already implied, everything we’ve done has had its complementary action, however, there are a few apparent exceptions…’

‘So you may be wrong about my being on the leading edge!’

‘No. The exceptions can only be complementary actions of future events and, we think, ahead of the time you left. They’re exclusively to do with technology in advance of our own time, all of which we’ve incorporated into our machine. It’s as though someone was leaving us clues to their discoveries.’

‘So I do get back, then?’

‘We think so…but you may not be the only one in your age working on time-travel. As I said, we’ve no certain knowledge of your return…’

They talked well into the night, sharing experiences and discussing modifications to the elder’s machine, and breaking off briefly to unload equipment from the younger’s. It was just before dawn when they eventually retired to bed. The visitors went upstairs while the elder watched the sun rise from the sea as he done one fateful morning many years ago in the future…

He awoke late into the next day, and was deeply disappointed to find himself alone again. Peering through his bedroom window, he noticed the terminated tracks of their vehicle in the gravel; his visitors had left but along a different dimension from the one on which they arrived. Never before had he appreciated his own company so much and he wished he still had it. Breakfast was a miserable affair and he felt lonelier than ever. He found himself longing for the familiarity of his own time again, and old Mrs Stephenson’s happy disposition.

Down in the basement, he set about installing the equipment they had brought him. Everything they had supplied was in keeping with his machine; they had deduced correctly the exact components he would need and, he thought rather cleverly, anticipated the manner in which he would incorporate them. Noticing that they had supplied several items in duplicate, he presumed they were fragile and that they thought he might break one. He took great care during the assembly process and stowed all the spares, for none proved necessary, in the machine’s stowage compartment in case of failure during travel.

That night, in his favourite restaurant, the most expensive restaurant in town, he ordered his favourite food and the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu. The Maitre d’ enquired if Sir was celebrating a special occasion, and was deeply gratified on being told that Sir was going on a long journey for quite some time and wanted to take with him a lasting memory of this wonderful establishment. His complement ensured the personal attention of the Maitre d’ for the rest of the evening, and a second complementary bottle of the same wine shared with him over cheese at the end of his meal. The copious quantity of wine Davis consumed that night, a heady, full-bodied vintage, loosened his tongue, and he rattled away to the Maitre d’ about his woes, his travels, and his intended return to his own time. The Maitre d’ tolerated all in anticipation of a generous tip and of the mirth he would cause with the latest stories about the mad recluse from the cottage by the sea.

The Maitre d’ was somewhat surprised by the nature of his tip. Davis first presented him with his car keys. Sir was, of course, very wise not to drive having so fully enjoyed the delights of the vineyard. Davis then presented him with the vehicle documents, with the ownership already signed over whilst under the influence of stone-cold sobriety. Sir was decidedly very strange, although his beneficiary expressed nothing but surprise and gushing gratitude. A taxi was called for, on the house, and the drunken customer helped first into his coat and then into his transport before being waved off by the restaurant’s entire staff. The taxi driver was more than happy to take advantage of his inebriated passenger’s mistake with the large denomination banknote presented as a tip, and laughed all the way home at his incessant ramblings about time-machines.

Davis fell into the chair and the room shimmered before him. He was surprised at that, because he had yet to turn the machine on, but he chuckled to himself on realising that the visual disturbance resulted from the alcoholic haze that was wrapping itself more tightly around his head. He reached over the side of the chair and dialled in the objective of his journey – his home time – and was suddenly swamped by overwhelming joy and desperate longing. He strapped himself in, fumbling for an age with the buckles. The red indicator light flashed green then settled to its steady glow. He pressed the button below it. The machine throbbed and hummed as he passed out of consciousness and out of time…



The darkness around him shimmered unperceived into solid form and the machine went through its automatic shutdown procedure then waited several hours for further instructions. Eventually, something reached through the blackness into the inner recesses of Davis’s stupefied mind and pulled him painfully into sensibility. He groaned at the throbbing in his head and blinked his eyes open and shut until they adjusted to the brilliant morning sunshine that stabbed into the room. He stared without seeing at the clock on the wall opposite. The machine hummed its way gently into his consciousness, and he responded by throwing the power switch to off and unbuckling himself from its seat. He stood, and, steadying himself against the swaying walls, staggered to the kitchen where he gulped down several glasses of water to re-inflate his shrunken brain. The bedroom beckoned, and he resumed his unsteady gait until he was near enough to the bed to flop down onto it and thence to slither back into welcome oblivion and freedom from pain. A patch of sunshine in the lounge crept down the wall, across the floor, and back out of the window.



Someone was hammering at the door. A voice was calling out. Consciousness once more invaded his nirvana and he stirred to push it away. Voices and hammering. Footsteps in the gravel. Faces at the window. Voices shouting.

‘Dr Davis? This is the police. Will you come to the door, please?’

He went to the door, still staggering somewhat, and opened it, his mind still feeling as though it had been packed in cotton wool, his senses somehow remote from his being. ‘Hello?’ he heard himself say to the stranger who stood before him and held out a small plastic wallet for him to see. The wallet disappeared as he looked at it and the voice made sounds like some sort of introduction then came into focus.

‘…and we would like you to come to the station to assist with our enquiries…’

‘What?’

‘Dr Davis?’ The owner of the voice frowned and reeled from the stench of stale alcohol on his victim’s breath.

‘I’m sorry,’ Davis said, ‘I guess I must look pretty awful.’

‘Dr Davis, I’m arresting you on suspicion of passing forged banknotes.’ A hand reached inside the door and applied a painful grip to his elbow.

‘What?’

The voice went on as he was dragged into the open air and led to an awaiting car, ‘You are not obliged to say anything but it may harm your defence if, when questioned, you fail to mention something that you later rely on in court.’ A dozen or so uniformed policeman entered the house as he spoke.

‘What’s going on?’ asked Davis, twisting his neck to look back over his shoulder, emerging rapidly from his semi-comatose state.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the man breaking his arm, ‘we have a search warrant.’

‘What’s going on? What’s this all about?’

‘We’ll explain it all to you at the station,’ said his assailant, ‘and then you can explain it all to us.’

Bundled indecorously into the back of the car, Davis found himself locked in and sitting next to a large man in uniform, to whom he appeared to be attached by handcuffs. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked once more. No reply was given, and they continued their journey in silence as they bounced along the unmetalled track that led away from his home and then sped along the road into town.

At the station, he was stripped of shoelaces, belt, and other personal effects and then installed in a cell. He sat on the small cot at the end of the room and looked around at the gloss-painted, windowless brick walls, and at the steel door opposite in which a small trap opened to reveal part of an inquisitive face and then snapped shut again. Sunlight filtered in through the opaque skylight high above his head and made on the dull grey vinyl flooring a bright square that slithered imperceptibly, shrinking as it went, towards a wall and began to climb it. It summed up his mood exactly. They fed him, at least he thought it may have been food, and watered him through the trap in the door; they made no effort to communicate with him other than this acknowledgement of his bodily requirements. The lidded bucket in the corner was, he presumed, for any output required to balance the equation. He refrained from using it, choosing instead to hammer on the door and demand to be taken to a proper toilet and to be given an explanation for his confinement. They told him, in no uncertain terms, not to make things worse for himself by causing an affray, and to use the bucket. He lay on the cot and tried to sleep but its hardness and a nagging from his bladder conspired against his efforts. Eventually, he used the bucket.

A key turned in the lock and the door swung open to reveal the full figure of the man who had arrested him at the house. ‘Dr Davis,’ the man said, ‘if you would care to come with me, we have a few questions to ask you.’

‘I don’t,’ said Davis, turning over to face the wall.

‘Sorry?’

‘I don’t care to come with you. Why should I? You’ve dragged me here against my will, violated my home – heaven help you if you’ve damaged anything – and left me in this hole for hours without so much as an explanation. You’ve fed me swill and robbed me of my dignity, and now you want to ask me questions! Stuff your questions. Get me your superior officer so I can make a formal complaint.’

‘Dr Davis,’ the man said in the tone of someone struggling to show patience with a perverse child, ‘I am here to give you an explanation, and to hear yours. You will only be held here as long as is necessary. Please follow me to the interview room, there’s a good gentleman.’

A second policeman joined them in the interview room. They made their introductions with the tape rolling and dragged one out of Davis. The first man began the interview proper. ‘We’ve arrested you on suspicion of passing forged banknotes, Dr Davis –’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Davis interrupted.

‘– and here is a copy of the warrant to search your house –‘

‘If you’ve done any damage, I warn you, I will sue.’

‘– signed by a magistrate this morning –’

Davis opened his mouth to interrupt again but was cut off before he could speak.

‘Dr Davis,’ went the patronisingly patient tone once more, ‘if you would just let me finish we’d get through this unpleasant business a whole lot quicker.’ Davis held his tongue, nodded, and looked daggers at his inquisitor who went on, ‘We found nothing incriminating at your home. We shall, however, require you to explain the purpose of the large contraption in your basement. We have reason to believe it may be used for the production of forged notes.’

Davis, smiling wryly, said, ‘I assure you, I have never used it to produce forged banknotes.’ The Inquisitor failed to pick up on the emphasis and Davis became suddenly agitated at a thought that occurred to him. ‘You didn’t tamper with the machine, did you? It’s extremely sensitive and fragile and has taken years of painstaking research to develop.’

‘No cause for concern, Dr Davis,’ said the Inquisitor, ‘We’re very health and safety conscious here. We’ve looked it over, cursory like. As we couldn’t make head nor tail of it we decided you needed to come along and explain it to us.’ Davis breathed a sigh of relief. ‘However, we do have these to ask you about,’ said the Inquisitor, laying two plastic envelopes on the table and pushing them towards Davis, ‘What d’you make of them?’

Davis looked at the bags and saw that they each contained a banknote. He said so.

The Inquisitor continued, ‘Absolutely perfect banknotes, Dr Davis, perfect in every way. However, the interesting thing, Dr Davis, is that they are also absolutely identical. The obvious problem is the fact that they have identical serial numbers – that’s what first brought them to the bank’s attention yesterday. One that is not so obvious is that they have the same fingerprints on them in exactly the same places. They are more like identical twins than identical twins are. Actually, they are not twins. They are decuplets. Yes, Dr Davis, I see you raise your eyebrows in surprise, but it’s quite true, we have eight more notes that match these two perfectly. What’s more, we have many decuplets of banknotes, all with the same complications. How do you explain that?’

‘I have no plausible explanation for that, officer,’ was all that Davis said.

‘It doesn’t end there, you know,’ the Inquisitor went on, ‘the similarities, I mean. Our boffins tell us that they appear to be identical right down to the imperfections in the paper. We’re still awaiting their detailed analysis, of course. Intriguing, isn’t it?’

‘Quite.’

‘And we ask ourselves, “Now how would anyone make something like that?” And straight away we answer, “It would take some pretty sophisticated machinery.” And so we ask the next obvious question, “Who would be doing such a thing?” And we find out from the bank who paid the notes in, and we find out that it’s a very clever man with a PhD and all sorts of qualifications who has been spending lots of money on ingenious pieces of equipment. And then we call at his house and find that he has the most amazingly sophisticated machinery we’ve ever seen, right there in his basement!’

The Inquisitor placed another plastic envelope on the table. ‘We only have one of these, though,’ he said. ‘Can you verify that that is your signature, please?’

Davis picked up the envelope and looked at the paying-in slip that it contained. The signature was his. ‘It looks very similar to mine,’ he said, screwing up his face and slowly shaking his head, apparently in disbelief at what he saw, ‘but you are dealing with a very clever forger. You say this was paid in yesterday?’

‘Yes,’ said the Inquisitor, ‘as the date shows.’ The date had been the cause of Davis’s disbelief. His mind raced. He had been drunk, or at least seriously merry. What date had he set on the machine’s dial? His memory was vague, and he would confirm it when he got home, but he thought it had been the date he left, the day after he had paid the proceeds of his original cash-generating scheme into the bank. With a startling jolt, he realised his mistake! He had forgotten to add on the lapsed time of his travels and, instead of returning to the leading edge of time, he had returned to almost the exact moment at which he had left to visit his younger self. His eyes widened with his realisation.

‘We’ve taken the trouble of arranging an identity parade, Dr Davis, so as to rule out the problem you just mentioned.’

‘What problem?’

‘That your signature may have been forged. The bank teller is waiting to see if she can pick out the gentleman who paid in all that money. Please follow me.’

The little group left the room. Davis was led to another room in which a line of men of similar appearance to himself was arrayed against one wall facing a mirror that stretched the length of the wall opposite. ‘Stand anywhere you like in the line-up,’ he was told. He took his place near one end, and the policemen left the room.

A young woman was led into the room behind the mirror and instructed what to do. She walked along the window becoming increasingly puzzled, and speeding up as she went. ‘No,’ she said as she reached the end of the row, ‘it’s none of these. The man I saw was much younger.’ They encouraged her to look again, which she did, more nervously this time in view of the obvious irritation of the policemen. She reported the same verdict. They broke the rules and drew her attention to Davis. ‘No, I told you,’ she said, becoming quite annoyed with them, ‘he’s like him but much too old. The man I dealt with was much younger.’

Davis was released for lack of evidence but told in no uncertain terms that the investigation was not yet over and that he could be called again for questioning. They transported him back home in silence. On entering the cottage, he was dismayed at the mess the police had made. He rushed down to the basement to see what they had done to the machine. He picked his way laboriously through every detail of its construction and was not surprised to find that a small amount of damage had been done. All of it was significant however, and each discovery hit him like a hammer blow. He sat dejectedly on the floor in the corner of the room, wondering how he would get his hands on the money to buy replacements for the parts that were damaged. He looked between his knees at the machine and his eyes lighted on the small door to a compartment on its side. His misery turned instantly to elation. He sprang to his feet, opened the compartment, and took out the parcel of spare parts that his younger self had left with him. Another paradox had played out its hand. He went exhausted to bed, setting the alarm early so that he would have a full day to affect repairs then leave before the police showed up with more questions to be answered…



Davis sat in the chair and adjusted the settings for his journey. He double-checked the destination time and added on a little extra. As far as he understood, the machine could only take him to the leading edge of time. The extra was just to ensure that he definitely reached it, and to allow for the advance of time in the short duration of his journey. Of course, time had moved on without him and he wondered at what he might find; what technological changes had occurred in his absence, what changes in society? Mostly, he wondered if he had been missed, although he realised it was unlikely. He supposed that Mrs Stephenson may have noticed his absence but wondered if she would still be alive to remark on his unexpected return. He had decided to try and track Lauren down. He would value her friendship, even if she were still married. He hoped she would feel the same… He pushed the button and watched the scene shimmer and fade and crystallise before him.

The cottage was darkened by the boards nailed up at its windows. Dust lay on the horizontal surfaces and cobwebs hung from walls and ceiling. The air smelled cold and damp and stale. What light there was came through holes in the roof where slates had been torn away by numerous winter gales unobstructed by the sea. Corresponding puddles lay on the floor beneath the holes. The clock on the wall opposite the chair had ceased to tick many years ago. Somewhere at the back of the cottage, a loose board flapped in the wind and banged repetitively against a window frame. Davis closed the machine down and unstrapped himself. He left the chair and wandered about the cottage and began to feel depressed about its condition. Twice he had renovated the place, and now it looked like he would have to do it again…



‘Good morning, Mrs Stephenson!’

Mrs Stephenson, whom Davis had encountered in the street, she having retired from the bank some years ago, frowned and reached back into the dim recesses of her mind to find a match for the face of the man who accosted her. ‘Is it…? Yes, it’s Dr Davis, isn’t it?’

‘Indeed it is,’ he exclaimed, ‘and may I say what a joy it is to see you after all this time.’ She smiled and said, ‘Yes, it has been a long time, hasn’t it. You went away very suddenly and no one has been expecting your return for quite some time now. Did you emigrate, or something?’

He offered little explanation. ‘Something like that, but I’m back now.’

They parted company, and Davis walked to the bank with a smile on his face. The smile did not last, however, because the bank was not there. He ran back to where he had met Mrs Stephenson and searched around the nearby shops until he found her. Explaining his quandary, he asked her to tell him what had happened to the bank. She became agitated, disturbed at his insistent questioning. She wondered privately about the state of his mind, and if the rumours surrounding his disappearance had been true and if, all this time, he had been locked away somewhere. The bank, it seemed, and she had explained it as though to someone in an advanced state of dementure, had overstretched itself and, when the depression came on the heels of a war in the Middle East, had gone under. Everything had been lost and many, many people had been left penniless, herself included. Her anticipated comfortable pension had gone in the collapse and she had to get by on what the state, and her late husband’s meagre pension, provided. Realising her distress at his questioning, Davis thanked her politely, and left her alone.

He was not overly concerned about being penniless himself, having a sure-fire way of becoming rich; he was loath to resort to it, however, in the light of his experience with the Law in an earlier time. He made enquiries about his cottage and found that the mortgage lender had repossessed it because the mortgagee had not kept up his repayments, hardly surprising since he had been away for so long. Since the cottage was in such a dilapidated state, the purchase price was very low, the estimated cost of repair very high. He left the mortgage lender’s office in a low ebb and wandered aimlessly about the town until, because of his inattention, he collided with a telephone stand. Having almost decided that he would have to pump his funds again, he picked up the handset on a whim and asked to be connected to a certain Bermudan Bank agent’s office. A man answered the call and began to proceed through the usual series of questions, each of which Davis answered in the expectation that it would be the last. ‘And how can I help you, sir?’ said the agent, eventually.

‘Could you tell me the balance of the account, please?’ He struggled to convince himself that complementarity could be experienced on the leading edge of time, and hoped, against his certain knowledge, that it would.

‘Certainly, sir.’ There was a long pause, at the end of which the man cleared his throat. ‘One moment, sir,’ he said and prolonged the pause. Davis expected to be cut off. ‘Right, sir, your balance at close of banking yesterday, including interest added, is fourteen million, seven hundred an sixty-two thousand, one hundred and eighty-seven euros and twenty-four cents.’

Davis stood in shocked silence.

‘Sir? Are you there?’

‘Uh, yes. Where is the nearest place I can draw some cash, please?’



Davis took a suite in the best hotel in town from which to conduct his affairs. He bought the cottage outright, dismantled the machine so that it could be stored out of harm’s way, then paid contractors to renovate the property, not having the heart to do the job himself yet again nor, with so much money available, the need. Once reinstalled in his old home, he brought the machine back from storage and stowed it, unassembled, in the basement. He could not bring himself to rebuild it, in part because he knew from his younger self’s experience that the machine was obsolete, and in part because he was weary of his travels. He was comfortable, had fulfilled his dream, and had Lauren to find…



It did not take him long to find Lauren. She had not recognised him at first, having not seen him since University. She had three grown daughters, all married and with children of their own. When her children had reached school age, she had returned to her work as a mathematician on the first successful fusion reactor project until her husband had become ill with cancer. Then, she had left her job to nurse him until he died, and she had not worked in the six years since.

Friendship rekindled and blossomed once more into love. He told her of his travels. At first she had not believed him but had become convinced when he walked her through the theories and showed her the dismantled machine in the basement. Her mathematical insight was profound, and she suggested a number of refinements, all of which he acknowledged and incorporated. They talked about her life and the events that he had missed because of his absence. She told him of the war, depression, poverty, and the recovery in the economy as a result of some staggering technologies that had emerged, one of which drove him back to his research. Together, they turned their discoveries into a new design. ‘You know,’ he said to her, ‘with this, I think we could break the time-barrier.’

On the second anniversary of their wedding day, they sat aboard a new machine. Holding hands, they left the leading edge of time behind them, and found a place, if that is the right word, where neither time nor space had any meaning…