An older version of this tale was previously published in "STUNN" and appears here by permission of its author, our good friend Bryan "James" Joyce.
Hi! I'm Tony Wheelbough. At the moment, I'm a barman at a very unusual bar called the Tavern. It is part of a complex known as The Edge Of Nowhere. This name is misleading. It's actually situated on a planet near the core of the galaxy we Earthlings call the Milky Way. The planet doesn't have an official name, but most visitors call it the Edge. This is probably because of the hundred foot high hologram of a flashing neon sign saying "The Edge Of Nowhere" that is usually the second thing that the startled traveller sees. What's the first thing? I'll tell you later. The Earth time, at the moment, is about 1955. Due to the turbulence in the space/time continuum created by the core stars, space/time travellers are washed up here all the time. I've heard that there is a similar effect at the centre of most galaxies. The Milky Way is the only known place where this effect disgorges the flotsam and jetsam onto a specific place on the surface of a planet. It seemed a worthwhile place to build a hotel and leisure complex. I had nothing to do with the construction; I just work here.
Sounds all very interesting doesn't it? Bet I know what you're thinking right now. How did I come by such an ordinary job in such extra ordinary surroundings? Admit it. That's what you're thinking. Right? You're not the first to have asked such a question. Customers often ask me how I ended up here. This is my story. Like many aspects of my life, it starts in an unusual manner.
In any life, there are an infinite amount of points where it can change drastically and suddenly by pure circumstance. Millions of seemingly unrelated events led to my current state. If they had worked out differently, I would not have ended up at the Tavern at The Edge Of Nowhere. The most significant event was the "seemingly" coincidental intervention of the fairy fellow. This is also his story.
To start with, the fairy fellow was unconscious. If he had not been, this story would probably never have happened. It seems incredible now when I think about it, but even I don't know where I found him. I was lost.
I'm digressing already. Perhaps it would be better if I threw in a bit of my own history first.
I was living in England when I was made redundant from my job at the Berwick-upon-Tweed Matrix shop. I decided to take a long holiday. Other matters had been preying on my mind for some time. I was very depressed, but I would not have admitted to being suicidal. What was needed was a sabbatical of sorts. I've always been fond of backpacking. Without pausing for minor details, such as planning the route, I was off to Scotland.
The flying bus took me to Glasgow. From there, I got a mono-rail to a small village called Dalwhinnie. After a food binge at the Ben Alder tea rooms I set off into the grey drizzle that lined the edges of Loch Ericht (not a very good route). The path ran out after about 10 miles, from there I was walking on wet peat and boulders on what was, in places, almost a cliff edge. Indeed, every now and then, I had to negotiate large places where the mountainside had slid into the loch. At one such place sat a small frog. Strange? The loch was a sheer drop of about 80 feet and there was no other water for miles. I knelt down and talked to the frog for a while.
"Gribbit. Gribbit!" I said. The frog just turned its back on me and huddled down as if it wanted to go to sleep. "Charming," I said and continued on my way.
I wonder how all these boulders got here? Answer - they had fallen off of the tops of the mountains. You don't believe me? Then push aside a boulder and see beneath the bodies of passing idiots like me.
For the first few days, I used the map to walk between places of potential interest. The first night I spent in the haunted bothy at the foot of Ben Alder. Luckily, I never saw anything ghostly hanging from the back of the door in the middle of the night. The story is that a shepherd hung himself there. Many people have seen his ghost. I hate the supernatural. When I was about 13, I saw something that made my hair go white, but that - as they say - is another story...
The next night was spent in the tent in the middle of Rannoch moor. Next day, I wandered off at random not really caring where I went. Rather stupid really! I don't know where I pitched the tent that night. I didn't bother to work it out on the map. My mind was numb with depression, but lacked specific focus. Like the previous nights, I slept like a dead man. The following day I didn't go anywhere at all. I spent the day in the tent reading "All Fall Down," by Enid Jackson. A fictionalization of the real life story of a woman who was a plague carrier. I had been meaning to read it for years. It turned out to be totally bland plot wise, but really great for its historical accuracy. I threw it away.
That night in the tent disturbed me greatly. All the bad things that had been hiding in my mind during the day came bubbling to the surface in 3-D technicolour. My mind was a cinema projecting the same movie again and again. Each time the interpretation was minutely different, but the plot remained the same. In the soft silent blackness, I brooded about the death of my beloved Sarah Brown so many months ago.
We were staying in Stockport Maine in the good old US of A. I was drunk on the night of the accident. We all were. I was driving, my brother Joey and his wife Mary were in the back seat. They had come up from New York especially for my 21st birthday. The party we had just left had been out in the countryside. I can't remember the name of the village, but it should have been called "Hicksville". Everybody was related to everybody. The four of us stuck out like a sore thumb. Nevertheless, it had ended up a very pleasant evening. Sarah was at my left hand side in the passenger seat. We had been dancing all night. Not only was it my birthday, but when we were at the party I asked Sarah to marry me. She said that she would think about it. Swine!
It was 2 a.m and I was tired, but happy. Sarah was asleep. Joey and Mary chatted quietly. It was raining, very windy and I was driving too fast. The moon was bright and full.
At the side of the road was one of the strangest figures I could have expected to see at this time of the morning, or indeed, any time of day. A tall stocky man dressed in green tights, short green jacket and a woolly green hat pulled well down. At first he reminded me of a stereotyped Robin Hood. When the automobile got closer, I spotted his short silvery beard. All in all, he was dressed like an actor I had once seen playing the part of Oberon, King of the Fairies, in a Shakespeare play. He waved furiously and jumped about a lot. I did not know why, but there was something familiar about him that made me feel uneasy. He might have been shouting. It looked like it, but I couldn't hear anything above the noise of the engine and the wild weather.
"Bloody loony hitchhiker! No way baby!"
Almost knocking him down, we roared by spraying him with water from a unfortunately placed puddle. Seconds later, at the crest of a blind hill darkened by overhanging trees, the automobile struck a large dark shape in the middle of the road.
Something screamed. Human screams followed as the windscreen shattered when Sarah was thrown through it. The world spun as the automobile turned over onto its top, righted its self again, rammed a tree and skidded down a grassy embankment. Sometime during all this, something hit me on the face. Why hadn't the crash balloons gone off? The seat belt was breaking my ribs...blackness!
I don't know how long I was out. Don't think it could have been long. When I came to, someone had pulled me out of the automobile. Near by, the fairy fellow was bending over Sarah. A glowing band was about her head. It was connected by a thin cable to what looked like a large portable computer. Distantly, I was aware of the twisted body of a steer lying near by. It must have been standing in the middle of the road when the automobile had hit it. Jesus wept! Had the citizens of Hicksville county never heard of fencing?
Trying to protect her from the loony, I tried to stand. A million volts of pain surged through my left side. The whiteness of bone glistened in the moonlight and the blackness of marrow protruded from the skin of my left fore arm. I blacked out again.
Much later, I found out that I also had two broken ribs on the left side and whiplash. Joey's head was badly cut and he had three broken fingers and whiplash. Mary had a broken leg and a fractured collar bone.
I was lucky. If I had not been wearing my seat belt, the steering wheel column would have impaled my chest. It was an old automobile; made before crushable steering wheel columns became standard.
Sarah was not so lucky. On her way through the windscreen, hit the dashboard hard enough to break her collar bone and all but one of her ribs. Jagged bone tore her heart apart. She was dead in seconds - I hope. Never again would I be irritated by the way in which she treated all strangers as if they were long lost friends. Never again would I run my fingers through her long black hair or gaze into those sad grey eyes. Never again would I have to stoop to kiss her. The loveliness was gone. The greatness that was Sarah Brown did not exist outside of memory. She was wonderful. She was the best. She was dead.
The memory of her broken body lying on the grass beside the road with the stranger bending over it will haunt me till my dying day. Who the hell was he? What on Earth was he doing? These questions remained unanswered. You would have thought someone so distinctively dressed would have been found quickly, wouldn't you? He was never traced.
Although the accident was over a year ago, I never drank again. She had died because of alcohol. Not so deep down, I knew that if I ever took a drink again then someone else would die. It would be me.
As I lay in my tent that night unable to sleep, death the purifier seemed like an increasingly good fellow to meet. No job. No kids. No Sarah. No future? Yes, it WAS a bloody good idea! How to do it?
At nearly quarter to four that morning, I left my tent and started to climb a nearby hill. It was cold, wet and dark. I left my coat and waterproofs behind. I would not need them again.
Twenty minutes later, I reached the summit of the steep hill. Coincidence had provided me with just what I was looking for. The other side of the hill was a sheer cliff. Carefully, I approached the edge and looked down into the dark beckoning woods below. It would be so easy - so inviting - to take a last step forwards into oblivion. A few seconds of freezing flight then silence. Forever.
Obviously, I didn't take that step - so, I'm a coward, big deal! Instead, I sat down. Drunk with fatigue, I was in a dreamlike state. I cried for a while and then sat in a trance for a long time. Why me?
Suddenly I jerked to awareness. The sun was up and the view was quite lovely. I was cold. I shivered in the cutting wind. My clothes were damp with the rain and nervous sweat, but I did not care. For some unknown reason, I felt euphoric. I was aware of a warmth - a hope - inside. Everything happens for a reason. Sure, life had hit a few too many curve balls recently, but all times - even bad ones - change. I think it was George Orwell who said something along the lines of, when you're lying on the bottom of the world the only way is up. Think I know what he meant.
I had decided to stand up when I sneezed. Suicide by Pneumonia. I waited a few moments for the next sneeze. It is my experience that sneezes are plural never singular. The second sneeze never came. Wrong again Tony. I stood up and began the weary climb back down the hillside.
I was thirsty so I stopped and drank deeply from a spring.
"Oh, God! I need a drink!" I whispered out loud. All at once, with a vice like grip, the hand of depression re-clutched my brain.
By the time I got back to the tent, it was far too bright to try and sleep. I got out my stove and heated up a tin of Irish Stew. After only two spoonfuls, I felt suddenly sick. I swallowed two caffeine tablets with cold sweet tea and reluctantly decided to force the rest of the stew down.
After some more cold tea - God really knew what he was doing when he invented tea and sugar - I folded the tent away and went down to the stream to wash the remains of the stew from the pot. I changed my mind and violently threw the pot into the white water. The world stinks!
"And then, one day, all the shit died! So ad bloody infinitum!" I shouted - no, I don't understand it either - and went back to the campsite.
When everything was packed I set off. I didn't plan to go anywhere in particular. I didn't even look at the map. It didn't matter. It was the walking that mattered. When you walk for a long time, even the best scenery eventually gets dull. Your mind seems to switch off. Your body is on autopilot. The rhythmic swing of your legs hypnotises you. The hours can go by very quickly - if you let them.
Many hours later, I came to a largish village. Where it was, I don't know. There was a licensed grocers and it was open. I bought a bottle of whisky and a half bottle of cheap wine.
I walked for a quarter of an hour until I was sure I would not be seen. My water flask hung on the crystalline graphite frame of my rucksack - so it's old fashioned, but it still does the job. I opened it, drank half a pint of water and poured the rest onto the road. We wouldn't like to end up dehydrated - would we?
I opened the bottle of whisky and poured most of it into the water flask. About a quarter was left in the bottle. I held it up to my face and stared at the beautiful golden liquid. Oh, such delights it would bring! It sparkled magically as it caught the sunlight. I sniffed at the mouth of the bottle. The smell made my stomach heave whilst my mouth watered with desire...
Nostalgia had been triggered. A memory popped up out of the twilight zone. Me, aged four, tasting whisky for the first time. It was the morning after some sort of party. I had discovered what looked like a half full bottle of soft drink. I couldn't read, but recognised the bottle as being cream soda. Why was the liquid a sort of brown colour? Who cares! I tilted back the bottle allowing the unknown into my young mouth and went into an extreme panic at what I tasted. It was fire! I spat it out and got a towel to dry my tongue with. The stuff made the towel go a funny colour. Who would put such horrible stuff in a cream soda bottle? Was that what they called alcohol? If that's what the grown-
ups call "drinking", they must be mad! Why on Earth would anyone want to drink stuff like that? It hurts! I'm never ever going to drink that sort of stuff when I grow up!
...I took a sip. It made me cough. I drained the remainder in one prolonged gulp. It burned like hell; yet contained a welcomed comfort reminiscent of a long lost friend. "Hello. I'm back! Long time no see," it said happily. I held my breath for a while so that I wouldn't cough and threw the empty bottle away.
After my abstinence, the fatigue and my depression, one mouthful of that hellish brew would have been enough to make me high. The amount I had just gulped down was just plain stupid! Ten minutes later it hit me. My last clear thoughts were pathetic.
"If I wait till I'm starting to sober up, I can sip the rest and stay drunk all day."
It must have worked; for the rest of that day I walked in a trance. The night passed like a long shadow. The next day was a hazy dream. The effects of the drink could not have lasted that long. I must have bought more, but I don't remember.
When I sort of came to my senses - I don't know how much time had passed - it was four in the afternoon. Which afternoon, I did not know. I was overcome with exhaustion. I had to get some sleep. It was raining again and I didn't have a clue as to my whereabouts. I was walking along a country road. To my left was a lake or loch. To my right was a pine forest. I set off into the forest looking for a campsite.
Soon, I came to a large clearing and stopped suddenly. Very suddenly. In fact, I fell over.
Not wanting to get up again, I wriggled out of my rucksack straps and managed to open it. I had enough awareness left to find my survival kit. I took out the survival bag and, with much difficulty, pulled the toggle which allowed the memory metal struts to unfold it. I put my sleeping bag inside, crawled in and blacked out.
Odd people have odd dreams.
There was a room with no windows. Perhaps a cellar? A stairway seemed to be the only way out. I went up the stairs. Dead end. A deep growling laugh that sounded strangely familiar. I turned to look.
At the bottom of the stairs was a terrible apparition. It was a naked sexless person. Instead of a head, it had a slimy white skull. Bleeding eyes in sharp edged sockets swivelled my way. The thing waited for me. "Come here. I want to talk to you," the skull said with a flapping tongue that looked suspiciously like a slice of raw liver. Again, laughter. The stairs folded and became a smooth slope. I started to slide towards the monster. No! More laughter.
Terrified, I clawed at the slope until my fingers bled. First time I've ever felt pain in a dream! It was so real that I felt my fingernails peel back and break. Splinters of wood from the stairs embedded themselves into the open weeping flesh. It's only a dream! It's only a dream! Then why does it hurt so much? The thing reached out with a massive hand and engulfed my face. Wet. Cold. Dark. I can't breath! Laughing! It hurts! When you die in a dream, do you die for real?
And then I woke up. I still couldn't breath. Something was on my face. I pulled it away and gulped in air. What had been on my face? It was the plastic of the survival bag. The damp morning dew had made it stick to my face.
Reluctantly, I opened my eyes. My head throbbed and I felt sick. I moved slightly and became aware of an urgent need to empty my bladder. It was either getting dark or getting light. I pressed the button of my watch.
"Five p.m." It informed me.
For Scotland, it was surprising that it was not already dark at this time of year. I must have been asleep for over 12 hours. I crawled out of the survival bag and gently vomited bile onto the grass. The steam from the mess was vivid, white, thick and unreal. I stood up, unzipped my fly and washed the ugliness away with a snaking flow of the darkest urine I had ever seen.
"Thank God, no one can see the state I'm in!"
I turned around and got the biggest shock of my life. A few feet away, lying on the ground, was a bearded man dressed in green tights and jacket. The fairy fellow! He was lying face down with one arm outstretched, presumably, unconscious. A woolly hat was lying on the ground beside him. His hair was white - just like mine.
My hangover forgotten, I checked him for broken bones and bruises. Nothing! I ran my fingers quickly through his hair. If there was a lump there I missed it. He was breathing okay and his pulse was strong, so I didn't bother putting him into the recovery position. Where could he have come from? Who was he? Why was he still so familiar? Could this really be the same person that I had seen by the roadside so long ago on that terrible night?
I stood up and began to look for an automobile or something. Why I assumed there would be a vehicle, I don't know - I just did. I didn't find an automobile. I found a something. It was roughly the same shape as a two man hovercraft, but the controls on the open dashboard were of an unfamiliar sort. There was three large digital clock displays. There was no steering wheel, foot pedals or wheels. A five foot flywheel was mounted behind the sofa type seat. A sort of safety rail ran right around its perimeter. There were no doors, but the rail would have to be climbed over to get in.
Obviously, it was not a hovercraft. It must be capable of moving in some other manner. After all, this was the middle of a forest in the Scottish highlands. How else could it have got here? Was it some weird ground effect machine?
I climbed in. There was a button labelled EMERGENCY RETURN. I was about to press it when a thought struck me. If this ridiculous machine was indeed capable of motion; pressing the button might set it off on a journey. Maybe I would have trouble switching it off again?
I climbed out again and carried the Fairy fellow into the vehicle. I settled down into the seat beside him and pressed the button marked EMERGENCY RETURN. With a hum the fly wheel started spinning. The world began to shake slightly. The hum increased in pitch and everything outside of the craft went grey. Look again! There was no outside of the craft any more. Just the greyness. I felt like a character in one of those cartoons where the hero is running so fast that he leaves the cartoon altogether and stands on an empty canvas.
I felt panic surge over me and I insanely decided to jump over board into the nothingness, when the Fairy fellow woke up.
"Don't," he called.
I had one leg over the side already. I would have jumped out, but I couldn't feel the ground. When the fairy fellow had spoke I felt a giddy sense of disorientation. So strong was this feeling that for a moment I thought that it was myself who had spoken.
"Don't do it. I don't know what will happen, but it might be rather nasty," he said.
For a second or so I thought about diving off over the side and then changed my mind. Instead, I withdrew my leg and dropped back onto the seat beside him.
"What's going on? Who are you?" I was too frightened to be able to say anything else.
"Er, I can't remember, but my head hurts. Who are you?" he ran a heavy scarred hand through his white hair and gave a groan. I don't know why, but I got the impression that he was lying and that he knew perfectly well who I was.
"Tony Wheelbough," I said.
"I know!" he said laughing.
"Know what?" I said.
"I remember what's happening now. Well, sort of! You shouldn't be here with me. As to what the hell is happening, things are still a bit hazy. Are you flying this thing?"
"No. I hit the emergency return button."
"I don't think that I remembered to set it, so we'll end up in the right place probably at the wrong time."
"What?" I said again.
"Oh wise up Tony! Haven't you worked it out yet? This is a time machine."
"Like the TARDIS?" Given my current position, you would think that it would have been difficult to mock the fairy fellow. Still I tried.
"Not quite. More like the one in that antique film."
"Back To The Future?"
"No!" he said in annoyance. "That's not old enough to be an antique. I'm talking about that film about a time machine that was called er, The Time Machine. It's your favourite film."
"How would you know?"
The greyness changed. In its place was a reddish sky and grass so dark that it was almost black. In front of the time machine were two extraordinary things. The first was the skeleton of a whale. It was instantly recognisable as a whale simply because it could not have been anything else. It looked as if the bones had been polished and was quite beautiful in an odd sort of way. The second extraordinary thing was a gigantic flashing neon sign which floated unsupported in the air above what looked like an old Edwardian manor house. It said;
THE EDGE OF NOWHERE
"We've arrived," said the fairy fellow.
"Please tell me what is going on?" I whimpered.
"Sorry no time. Must be off. Go to the help booths over there." My eyes followed as he gestured towards a row of what looked like cash dispensers set into the side of a wall standing in front of the manor house.
"Hurry up. I shouldn't be here at all. Causality violations and all that stuff. Savvy?" He vaulted over the safety rail, ran round to my side of the machine and roughly pulled me out onto the dark grass. Next he lifted up the seat of the craft to expose a storage area which was filled with several bits'n'pieces. He removed what might have been a large portable computer. A familiar glowing band was attached to it by a single thick cable. He carried them over to a second, identical, looking time machine parked near by. Opened the seat locker, dumped his cargo in, slammed the seat shut again and climbed inside.
"Be seeing you," he grinned.
"Wait!" I shouted.
"The help booths. Go to the help booths!" he pointed again.
Then he and the time machine were gone. It was as simple as that. One second he was there sitting in the machine smiling and the next he was gone. There was no fading involved. No bang of air rushing in to fill a vacuum. Just a sharp crack like a large piece of elastic snapping and I was alone on the dark grass beside the skeleton of an extinct sea mammal.
Not for long though!
There was another sharp crack to my left. I looked and saw, perhaps 50 feet away, a large object where nothing had been seconds ago. It looked like a miniature version of the part of an oil rig that shows above the waves. I guess its height must have been around the 30 foot mark. As I watched, a door opened, a ramp extruded and three people got out. I say people only because the creatures were humanoid and walked on hind legs. Instead of clothes they were covered in tidy green feathers and had several belts hung about themselves. One of them looked in my direction and gave a wave and a whistle.
"Hi!" it said when I didn't answer its whistle.
Its face was much like I imagined a human being's would look if it was covered in feathers. To my surprise there was no beak on the face nor was there any sign of wings on the body. It turned back to its companions and they walked off towards the building. "Some people!" one of them muttered quietly.
What I needed at that moment was a book entitled, How To Stay Calm. As no such publication was available, I decided to follow the bird-men at a discreet distance. Nearer the building, I could see the words, "Edge Of Nowhere" carved in the stone above the main doors. To the right and left were smaller sets of double doors. Over one set of doors a small black and gold sign said, "The Last Restaurant". Under the sign was a painting of a cobbler's anvil with a ballet slipper in the background. Very funny I don't think! LAST, huh! Over the other set of doors a sign said "The Tavern". There was no painting beside this sign. It was through the latter that the bird-men went. I tried to follow, but could not. It felt as if something was pushing me back. At first it was as if I was walking into a strong wind that slowly increased the nearer I got to the building. When I was about 15 feet from the front door the force was so strong that my progress was halted. What now?
I turned, intending going over to the so-called help booths and was pushed over by the invisible force and dragged a few feet back the way that I had came. Oh, why can't I have piece and quiet to enjoy my hangover?
The nearby help booths looked a bit like cash dispensers except for a dark hole where the money would come out and a much larger landscape screen containing many lines of text. The first line of text was English. The second looked like Russian. The next might have been Mandarin. The next 30 or more lines were a mystery to me. I later found out that some were other Earth languages an others Alien dialects. Here is what the English text said,
IF YOU CAN READ THIS, TOUCH IT.
I did as I was told.
ARE YOU FROM EARTH?
A full sized drawing of a keyboard appeared in the screen. Slowly, I typed in my answer.
IS THAT A.D?
WHAT IS YOUR NAME?
PLEASE WAIT THERE IS CONFUSION!
More than a minute goes by.
DO YOU UNDERSTAND ANYTHING THAT HAS HAPPENED TO YOU TONY?
DO YOU WANT TO?
What a dumb question! It was tempting to give a negative answer, but it was a machine and wouldn't catch the irony. It would probably would just say goodbye. Instead, I answered in the positive.
The help booth went on to tell me lots of things about the Edge Of Nowhere. Like the nature of the invisible barrier that prevented my progress earlier. It was nothing more than a fancy type of force field nicknamed a friction field - true friction fields don't exist. The nearer you got to it the harder it became. Fine, I had already guessed as much. What's it for? This was pretty obvious when you thought about it. To keep out undesirables.
Time travellers don't always arrive by time machine and are not necessarily friendly or even sentient. It's not unusual for a tiger or something equally vicious to get caught up in a naturally occurring time warp and be thrown out near the Edge Of Nowhere. When the planet was discovered there were all sorts of skeletons - even a few human - and other junk lying about in and around the arrival zone. There is no surface water on this planet and nearly all the vegetation is poisonous (to Earth creatures anyway), thus the skeletons. This zone is roughly triangular with sides slightly less than 10 miles long. Right in the middle is a safe zone where nothing is ever washed up by the currents of time. This is where the complex was built. For extra security, the force field was added. All the junk was cleared away to make room for arriving space/time craft - actually, nearly all of the visitors are space, not time, travellers. Travelling any distance through space involves a certain amount of mucking about with time. The only piece of junk that was allowed to remain was the skeleton of a blue whale. It was moved nearer to the force field, covered with preservative and polished.
This was all very interesting stuff, but how do I get in?
YOUR KIRLIAN FIELD MAY BE ADJUSTED.
May be adjusted? I knew what a Kirlian field is. It's a sort of electrical force that surrounds everything. Some people call it an Aura. Even as early as the twentieth century it had been photographed by a special process. According to the help booth, by the twenty-third century it was almost universally accepted that the Kirlian field is actually the soul. Inanimate objects have 'pretend' souls. Animals have partial souls that will grow into the full thing if self-awareness occurs. The friction field that protects the Edge Of Nowhere is triggered by the lack of a key patch in the person's Kirlian field. The patch is attached to the individuals Aura by the help booth if it is satisfied that the person is not dangerous. Unfortunately, Kirlian technology is an inexact science. One in every ten thousand people has a naturally occurring patch similar enough to a key so that the force field ignores them. According to the help booth, the chances that one of these people would turn out to be a threat to the Edge Of Nowhere is so low as to be negligible. I'm not so sure. Life is full of impossibilities. Well, mine is!
My Kirlian field was, indeed, adjusted. After it had answered my questions, the help booth asked me all sorts of questions. Some of them were quite odd. For example,
ARE YOUR MOTHER AND FATHER ALIVE?
WILL ANYONE MISS YOU?
DO YOU LIKE COMMUNICATING WITH STRANGERS?
"If you mean gossiping, then yes."
And so on, and on and on...
At the end of it all, I was thanked for being so helpful and was told to put one of my arms into the dark hole to the left of the screen.
BE CAREFUL NOT TO TOUCH THE SIDES OF THE HOLE OR YOU WILL GET A PAINFUL ELECTRICAL SHOCK.
I was careful and did not receive a shock. My soul was marked and I was free to enter the Edge of Nowhere. There was one last question for me.
THE ANSWERS YOU HAVE GIVEN AND THE SIGNS IN YOUR KIRLIAN FIELD SHOW THAT YOU WOULD MAKE A GOOD BARMAN. SUCH A POSITION EXISTS HERE. ARE YOU INTERESTED?
YOU ARE LYING.
"No, I'm not."
THEN YOU HAVE NOT PROPERLY CONSIDERED THE MATTER.
"I do not want a job as a barman." YES YOU DO.
"I do not!"
THIS UNIT IS INCAPABLE OF LYING. IT HAS BEEN IN CONTACT WITH A PARTY OR PARTIES FROM ITS OWN FUTURE. APART FROM SHEILA STEVENS, TONY WHEELBOUGH IS THE NAME OF THE MOST WELL KNOWN BARMAN THAT WILL EVER WORK IN THE 'TAVERN'.
"I don't care."
I AM PERMITTED TO TELL YOU THAT AS A DIRECT RESULT OF TONY WHEELBOUGH BECOMING A BARMAN IN THE TAVERN, THE INDIVIDUAL KNOWN AS SARAH BROWN WILL BE BROUGHT BACK FROM THE DEAD IN A FEW MONTHS TIME. THIS INFORMATION IS ACCURATE, BUT CANNOT BE PROVED AT THIS TIME.
Oh, my God! How could this machine know about Sarah Brown? Fumbling, I hurriedly typed in a question.
THIS INFORMATION HAS BEEN SECURITY-PROTECTED. IT WILL NOT BE REPEATED. FURTHER INFORMATION IS NOT AVAILABLE. THIS UNIT WILL DENY ALL KNOWLEDGE OF EVENTS ALREADY GIVEN.
The information was indeed security protected. I questioned it for a while, but it acted dumb and denied saying anything about Sarah Brown. There was nothing else I could do. This was blackmail! Reluctantly, although intrigued, I turned away, walked a few tens of feet - unmolested by the force field - and entered the Tavern for the first time. My life was changed for ever. Approximately 100 days later.
It would be fair to say that I settled in quickly. As is often the way with a new job, at first, I was slow and made a lot of mistakes. No one seemed to mind too much. I was rather scared of aliens for a while. The bird-men turned out to be okay - although rather vain. They were the only aliens who actually came from somewhere I'd heard of. They came from a planet that circled Arctaurus. Luckily, the customers were mostly human.
I don't think that there is much point in going into lengthy about my duties or the bar itself. Bar work is the same the Universe over; serving drinks, dealing with drunks, working odd hours and cleaning up vomit. And that's just the good things!
This bar room is not particularly different from any other bar room. It is about eighty feet wide and perhaps three hundred long - rather larger than most. The three hundred feet of mirror which lines the back of the actual bar is interrupted every twenty or so feet by doors that lead into the back stores and kitchens etc,. The back eighty or so feet - looking from the main door - is partitioned into booths that can hold eight people at a squeeze; more if the tables are folded. Lighting is very subdued here. Just the place for lovers to hide and stare into each other's eyes. Pity we rarely get them in here. Finally, at the very back are the sleeping booths. These are affectionately known as "Coffins" by the regulars. They are over seven feet long and about three wide and high. Although the bar room has a high ceiling, the sleeping booths are stacked three high. From a distance, the wall behind the partitioned tables looks like a mausoleum wall. Instead of brass plaques, the doors had windows with blinds.
Tonight is fancy dress night in the Tavern. The bar is more crowded than usual. I'm dressed as Robin Hood. I've got on green tights, a green jacket and I'm excited. Very excited. I've just realized how I can save the life of my beloved Sarah. I can do it without braking the laws of time - not that there are very many.
Earlier this evening I was in conversation with a rather drunk woman from the twenty-fifth century. I cannot remember her name. She was plain-looking with the most astounding legs I've ever seen. The subject of the conversation was Kirlian fields and the way in which the soul stays with the body throughout all eventualities.
"To start with," the woman with the incredible legs sai (she was dressed as a black and white cat), "The Kirlian field isn't the soul. It's just an effect caused by the presence of a soul. No one can detect a soul yet. Give me another Traffic Lights."
I mixed her drink badly and the colours blended together into a yucky mess. She didn't mind. Just shrugged, sipped at it and continued her tale.
"We all have a longer life than we think. The soul can jump between realities. Let's say that your anti-grav failed..."
"Your anti-grav failed," I irritated - I'm good at that. "...but you survived the drop only to be rushed into intensive care. Somewhere about then, reality branches into two or more paths. In one path you die from your injuries. In another you manage to survive. Your soul will follow whichever reality is the more probable. In this case, your death is the most probable so your soul follows that path until you die. If conditions are right, the soul goes on to some other place."
"You mean Heaven or Hell?" I said.
"Who knows? If the conditions aren't right the soul jumps into the next probable reality line and attaches itself to your body in the reality where you didn't die," she smiled and lit up a synthi-joint. "Good huh?"
Her smile did something to me. It was every bit as appealing as her legs. Suddenly, I felt very sad and in need of a cuddle. Even although the Tavern was pretty busy, I felt very alone and insignificant.
"What if there is no other reality for the soul to go to and the conditions aren't right for it to go on?" I said.
"It becomes a ghost, of course," she sneered as if I was very stupid.
"If we only have one soul, what about all the other time lines. There is bound to be other alternate time lines about with copies of both of us in them. Do they have souls or do we have them?"
"You're being daft now. You told me that you already know about pretend souls and partials. When the time lines split, the soul travels on the most probable time line whilst a pretend soul goes on any others. If the alternate time line is a strong one, the pretend soul will eventually become a partial which probably will develop into the full blown thing at a later date. See?"
"Right," I said.
"When you arrived here at the Edge, you probably only had a pretend soul cause something pretty dramatic must have happened otherwise you'd never ever have ended up here. You with me?"
"Still," I said.
"By now it's grown into a full one again or been replaced by the original from your dead copy in the alternate time line. Maybe am wrong! Maybe it was inevitable that you'd end up here no matter what happened! Am I making any sense or am I just drunk again? Does anyone care anyway? More importantly, are there any pretzels?"
I fumbled about under the bar and got a bag of Unicorn Horn shaped pretzels, poured them into a dish and gave them to Miss lovely legs.
"Thanks," she said and licked at the tip of a pretzel in an uncomfortably suggestive manner. Actually, it was not really all that suggestive. It was just wishful thinking on my part. At the back of my mind all I could see was her legs. Legs which I had only glimpsed for a few seconds as she entered the room and crossed to the bar. Oh, hurry up and go to the powder room so that I can look at them again!
"It all sounds very convenient. Don't get me wrong, I'm not calling you a liar, but it all sounds a bit fishy to me. How did you come by this information?"
"It's a matter of history. You can check it out. This scientist guy built an artificial soul..."
"If no one has detected a soul yet," I interrupted, "let alone seen one, how could he build one?"
"I'm not the bloody scientist! You want to hear this or not?" she said indignantly, blowing smoke into my face.
"Okay! Okay! Sorry. Please continue. I didn't mean to offend." "You better not have. Right then, er...what was I saying?" She was beginning to slur her words.
"A matter of history," I said.
"Oh, right! This artificial soul was made for an artificial intelligence that existed inside a computer matrix. It was a copy of the scientist's own brain pattern with artificial thoughts added. It was set up so that the thought patterns were not conscious. Like it was living, but in a coma. Follow?"
"Why?" I said.
"Patience my dear. We're getting there. It was a question of morals. If the copy of his own brain stored in the computer was given an artificial soul that later developed into a real one, then it would be alive. It was not moral to kill a perfectly good mind just for the experiment. See what I mean?"
"Yup," I agreed.
"When the artificial soul developed to a real one - and it did - the intelligence was copied to a second computer matrix. The soul stayed in the first matrix until it was shut down. Effectively, the artificial intelligence was dead. The soul left the first matrix and locked on to the second matrix which was a copy of the mind that had been killed."
"Hold on there! Have I got this right? You're saying that in your century, a human mind can be copied into a computer matrix and it continues to live? That the soul moves to the matrix on the person's death?"
"Well, er yeah? That sounds about right. Provided that the copy in the computer matrix hadn't had enough time to develop its own soul."
"How'd cloning technology work out? Could a body with an empty mind be grown and the computer copy of the mind moved into it?" I was suddenly very excited. Something was beginning to form at the back of my mind. The traditional light bulb was waiting to pop.
"I see what you're getting at. Yes. It's been done plenty of times. You'd have to record the person's brain patterns before or at the moment of death."
The master stroke!
"Thank you!" I leant across the bar and planted a big wet one right on her kisser and hurriedly left the bar.
"Wait! Any chance of a large bloody Mary?" she called after me, but I was gone. Solid gone.
Working fast, I called in a few favours. Within the hour, I was climbing out of the Tavern's time hopper carrying a large portable computer. I still wore my Robin hood outfit, but had also put on a white artificial beard so that a certain person would not recognise me. I left the computer in the field beside the hopper. Both were water-proofed so there was no danger of the rain causing short circuits.
I hurried to the roadside to check the lie of the land. Oh no! I had arrived later than I thought! Not too far away was a speeding automobile. Without thinking, I panicked and jumped up and down shouting "Stop!"
The car sped through a large puddle drenching me. Without pausing to watch for the inevitable, I ran back to the time hopper, collected the portable computer and ran for the top of the hill. I did not see the crash, but I heard it. It was not very nice. I shuddered at the deja vu.
I ignored the dead steer lying half on the road half on the grassy field and went straight for the still figure nearby. It took me a great deal of courage not to look at the dying body of Sarah Brown. I put the sensor band on her head and started the memory dumping process.
There was a strong smell of gasoline in the air. I knew that the automobile would not explode, but the fumes from the gas could be harmful. Just to be on the safe side, I pulled the other three from the wreck.
I did not feel at all strange when I pulled Tony from the wreck. I was too worried about Sarah to be unnerved by the oddness of the situation. I dragged them all away from the wreck and went back to check on Sarah.
The computer had finished recording her memories. I cut a lock of her hair off with a pair of small folding scissors which I'd brought with me specifically for that purpose. There were no romantic reasons for this action. I needed a sample of her DNA. A sound made me look away. It was Tony. He was trying to sit up. For a few seconds he looked at the bone sticking out of his flesh and fainted again.
Sarah Brown's body was definitely dead by now. I carried her mind back to the time hopper. If the conversation I had heard earlier had been correct, the real Sarah Brown was now in the computer. It was not just a copy. When she had died, her soul had either went on to the eternal place - unlikely - or was now in the computer with her memories. I lifted the time hoppers seat and placed the computer into the space beneath. Elated, I lowered the seat, got back in and turned the machine on and...but wait! What had I forgotten? This had all happened months ago by my way of thinking. I felt confused. I think that I was supposed to jump forwards, just over a year, to Scotland, but why?
I couldn't remember why. Nevertheless, I guessed at the co- ordinates and pulled out into the time lanes. Oh, yuk! I hate this grey cocoon that surrounds the time hopper. It makes me travel sick. Wasn't there a way to make the field transparent so that I could see where I was going? Yes there was. I had read the handbook a few weeks ago. Ah, yes! I know what to press.
Obviously, I pressed the wrong buttons. The time engines cut out and the craft hung powerless several feet above a clearing in a forest. Perhaps it was a side effect of the decaying time field, the time hopper bucked like a wild thing and threw me right over the safety rail. I was lucky because the ground broke my fall. That's not as stupid as it sounds. If I hadn't been interphased with reality properly, I would have fallen through the ground and kept on going. Not that I'd be alive for long -the air out there would have been intangible too. I think my hat came off when I hit the ground. Then I blacked out.
When I came to, I was back in the time hopper. I could tell that we were moving because of the greyness. A familiar figure beside me looked as if he was going to jump overboard.
"Don't," I called, "Don't do it. I don't know what will happen, but it might be rather nasty,"
After a few uncertain seconds, he withdrew his leg and dropped onto the seat beside me.
"What's going on? Who are you?" he mumbled, obviously very frightened. I was a bit worried myself, but at least I knew what was going on. Well, sort of! Perhaps I should lie to him? I don't remember much about this bit the first time round?
"Er, I can't remember, but my head hurts. Who are you?" I groaned.
"Tony Wheelbough," he said.
"I know!" For some reason the whole situation struck me as suddenly very funny. The rest of what happened you already know. It was exactly as the first time only the vantage point was different. We arrived at the Edge Of Nowhere. I transferred to the other time hopper taking the computer with me. Tony was looking rather confused so I told him to go to the help booths.
Moments later and I was back at the Edge of Nowhere. This time in my own time line. I gave the memories of Sarah Brown and her lock of hair to the appropriate person - Doctor Mary Cope - who returned to her own time to where the new body had been cloned three years ago. She sent the lock of hair back in time to her self so that the cloning could take place and began the transfer of the memories into the three year old result of that cloning. The computer memories were erased and the soul jumped to the new body.
Sarah settled into her new body okay, came back from the future to the Edge Of Nowhere, fell in love with me all over again, married me and lived happily ever after - except that that was not quite the way in which it happened. It might have worked out that way in the movies, but this was real life.
To start with, her new body looked only about 15 years old - pretty good since it only took three years to grow it. Call me old fashioned, but I felt extremely uncomfortable touching it. The Sarah that I'd know was a woman. This was the body of a child. She too was also uncomfortable with her new body, though not in the same way as me. It was the way in which she moved that bothered her. Everything, even a human body, needs to be run in. Her new body just didn't "feel" right. Her legs felt wrong and the balance was off. On top of that, she had a bad case of "future shock". Months passed before she could except what had happened and learn to enjoy life again. Trouble was, there was far too much to enjoy for my liking. How could our relationship grow if there was that many new things and people in her life that I never occupied her thoughts any more?
Eventually, I couldn't handle things any more and had to talk about it. The talk lasted quite a long time. There was no argument. It was quite tender really. Quite sad. In the end we decided to split - she decided to split. I couldn't decide anything. Perhaps it really was for the best? She got a job in the Last Restaurant and works there still. Sometimes we meet and talk.
"We can still be good friends," she said.
"Yeah, course we can," I lied.
She may be able to be friends, but I could never be. Not now. She had taken my heart and broken it into tiny pieces. Fragments of love scattered through time. Very bloody appropriate! What was I to do now?
When the current of love batters you, sometimes you just got to lean into it, other times you got to go with the flow and see what else turns up.
So that's my story. Another story of love and death. I suppose it's pointless in the end to anyone but me, but you had to ask and the telling has helped me to understand my life a bit more.
"But, what was the master stroke?" Do I hear you ask? Back when I started this memoir, I would have been tempted to say something dull like, "It all was!" but now I know what it was.
I never leant into it. I went with the flow. That was the real master stroke.
(C) Bryan H.Joyce - 27/Feb/92
Final version 27/Aug/92
Hang Foy Soozooki held his hands above his eyes, peering at a cloud of dust gathering at the horizon. It warned him that something was coming, something potentially dangerous. He had been trained for many years, perhaps too many actually. His instincts he trusted unreservedly. He signalled his loyal servant, Sjau Long, to take cover.
"But don't folget," Hang Foy added, sounding important, "to tly and look at what I might do. You will lealn flom it!"
Hang Foy Soozooki, last of the true Ninjas of the Ancient Pagoda of Tjang Kai Tjec, put his gear down beside him. He carefully laid on the ground his sheathed Samurai sword, took from his pockets his razor-sharp Shurigen and removed from his shoulder his Sanyo PLT-1001 Turbo Injection Ghettoblaster. He knelt down to the ground, putting his ear to the soft dry soil.
"Hmmm..." he murmured. In his mind he raced through the countless possibilities he had been taught at the pagoda. Sure-footed deer? Post-Korean Half-track vehicle? Anyone seeing Master Soozooki on the ground like that would have been baffled at the concentrated execution of what is known by the Samurai of old as The Play Of Elephant And Mouse Stamping Together.
"Hmmm..." he murmured again. It was more difficult than he had dared to anticipate. Through the arid soil the resonance sounded like a herd of Eastern Mongolian Groundhogs one moment and like a Transylvanian Butterfly landing on a common Forget-Me-Not the other. Master Soozooki, however, wasn't just any other Learned Samurai. Carefully weighing the possibilities, taking into consideration multiple geographical and ecological factors, his eyes lit up with knowledge.
"No doubt," he proudly exclaimed to himself, "this must be an Alabian tholoughbled, callying a pelson weighing apploximately seventy-six kilos, wielding an 18th Centuly rifle at his left hip, and..."
His servant interrupted from the bushes. "May youl evel-so-humble and plobably nonwolthy selvant, speck of illitating dust in youl eyes, know how much that is in pounds?" Obviously, Sjau Long had had an English education. Which says it all, really.
"El..." Hang Foy said, distracted. From a pocket he took a small device and pressed a few buttons. "Onehundledandsixtyseven point fiftyfive," he replied, "Now whele was I?"
He was about to kneel down for another session of The Play when he heard a polite cough. Stifling his rapidest of killing reflexes, he slowly turned around to behold a man on a horse, accompanied by a man of rather smaller stature who sat on a mule. The man on horseback, one of slender build and long moustache, carried a flag with a white windmill with wooden wings embroidered on it. They appeared to have been standing there for a while already, watching the Ninja during most of his Play. There was wonder in their eyes.
"Please, sir," the man of small stature said, "my master and myself appear to have gotten lost. Might you be able to tell us the way to Portugal, or inform us as to our current whereabouts? We have windmills to fight, you see."
Hang Foy Soozooki was speechless. There was no other way to be, for the small man had spoken some obscure Iberic language that appeared not to have been taught at the Pagoda. Ancient Sumerian, post-modern Serbo-Croatic, any of the hundreds of Indian dialects, Master Soozooki mastered them like the most fluent of natives. Somehow he seemed to have missed the lectures needed for the proper understanding of what was being said now. He would have to resort to The Art Of The Prime Directive: "If All Else Faileth, Look Nonplussed."
He did. The strangers were not impressed.
From the safety of the bushes, Sjau Long cast a careful glance at the scene. Was that the man carrying an 18th Century rifle at his left hip, astride an Arabian thoroughbred? He was, somehow, beginning to have second thoughts about Master Soozooki's supposedly infinite Ninja capabilities. He ducked quickly as he noticed the man on horseback scanning the surroundings.
Master Soozooki had to regain control over the situation. There was only one way. He had perhaps never actually been top notch at some of The Plays and The Arts, but he had never come across an equal when it came to deftly handling a Samurai sword. He took from the floor the sheathed sword, then bowed slowly to the strangers.
Suddenly he assumed a defiant position, spreading his legs somewhat, and within a fragment of a moment a gleaming Samurai sword was frantically attempting to cut air molecules in two.
"Hakkitakki Wegballezakki!" he yelled, his voice resonating with excitement and Ancient Pride, "Banzai! Carpe Diem!"
Dust rose around the quickly moving form of the Last of the Ninjas. Flashing metal could be discerned at various instances, and miscellaneous other cries erupted from his being. A horse whinnied. A flag, still erect from within the cloud of dust and debris, shook. When Master Hang Foy Soozooki had finished looking like, let's be frank, an utter fool, he bowed once more to where he assumed the various parts of the strangers would be lying now. Sjau Long had tried to follow what had been going on, but the dust had been impenetrable for his untrained sight.
When the dust had settled, Sjau Long saw a Ninja with two hoof imprints on his posterior, bowing to an empty patch of road where lay a Ghettoblaster hewn meticulously in two. Sjau Long, deeming the moment opportune, revealed himself from the bushes. He examined the Ghettoblaster - his Ghettoblaster - and peeled from it a Metallica tape. He was disappointed to note it was hewn in two, too.
"Kakki!" he said.
A long man of rather slender build stopped his horse before passing out of sight beyond the crest of a hill. His servant, somewhat less slender and not as long either, sighed deeply.
"Come on Sancho," the man said.
"I think I see a windmill," the servant remarked, matter-of-fact.
"Where?" the man peered.
"There, just beyond the far horizon."
"Let's go then."
Several moments later, their flag also disappeared from sight.
That evening, around sunset, Sjau Long had recovered from the loss. Master Hang Foy Soozooki was still bragging about his ability to totally obliterate two men as well as the animals they had presented themselves on. He admitted to regret the fact that he seemed to have destroyed the flag too - he would have liked to retain a souvenir. They hadn't run into any trouble for the remainder of the afternoon, though the sudden apparition of a Japanese Emperor's Ghost had unsettled them for a few moments. It had disappeared as quickly as it had come, though. Master Soozooki had used the occasion to show off some more of his flashing sword technique - known at the Pagoda as Lotus Decapitation. Although he had nearly made himself the Lotus, it had effectively scared off the apparition.
It was already getting pretty dark. Master Soozooki decided they would have to find a place to stay and make a fire for the night.
"Sjau Long," he ordered, "please use youl humble talents to conceive a file."
The Master's servant took a lump of wood and a bottle of Stroh Rum, after which he went away for about a minute. It was one of the few tricks that Master Soozooki had taught him. The Act Of The Dragon, he believed it was called. Several instants later a loud "AAALLGGGAALGL!" rolled and bounced through the evening silence, after which a viciously besweated servant came back from the bushes carring a half-empty bottle of particularly strong liquor in one hand and a burning lump of wood in the other.
They had barely warmed their hands at the fire and Master Soozooki had not yet started the usual recitation of the past heroic events of himself and his forefathers when a high buzzing became audible.
If there was one thing Ninja Master Hang Foy Soozooki hated most fervently, it was gnats whizzing around his head. His narrowed eyes followed the small arthropod without moving his head as much as a fraction of an inch. Not losing sight of the nasty buzzing insect, he fumbled for his Samurai sword. After stifling a cry and retreating a burned hand from the fire, he located his sword and slowly unsheathed it. He had never moved that slowly. After about fifteen minutes, the gnat had still not decided to fly away, the sword, gleaming eerily in the flickering flames, was positioned vertically before the Ninja. Again his mind raced. Would he employ Dragon Defenestration? Or perhaps the obscure and barely legal Panda Battering? No. He had a better idea. His eyes had the familiar pre-eruption gleam of knowledge.
"Banzai! Coito Ergo Sum!" he cried with a voice loud enough to wake the ghosts of dynasties worth of ancestors.
The gnat was temporarily distracted. It forgot to fly. It kindof floated, not quite aware that it should be falling, right before the crossed eyes of a now sore-throated Samurai.
Before gravity had regained its power over the gnat, however, a shiny and utterly sharp blade slashed through the darkness viciously and mercilessly. Within the same movement, smooth and highly trained such as only True Samurai are able to execute, it disappeared soundlessly within its sheath. For once.
The gnat, which at that instant seemed to realise that it had forgotten to beat its wings rather too long, decided it was time to go. If it had walked it would have looked much like trundling. Only it was flying. But if there's an airborne version of trundling this was it. The last of the true Ninjas seemed ultimately pleased with himself. It manifested itself through a broad smile and a mesmerizing look in his eyes.
"Might I be so immodest as to point out to you the fact that you have missed the gnat, mastel?" his servant remarked, carefully so as not to induce the Ninja's wrath.
Master Soozooki didn't find it necessary to move anything but his lips as he exclaimed with repressed triumph, cleaning a tiniest of red blots from his sword: "I may seem to have missed that althlopod, but that gnat will NEVEL have sex again!"
Original version written March 1989. Rewritten January 1994.
Once upon a time there was a world. A world where everybody lived happily and where there was no war; indeed, a world where people just lived, hunted, harvested, ate, slept, and multiplied.
In this world it was that a man called Zantar lived. He was ruler of a tribe some hundred people in size, and a very thriving tribe it was indeed. Among them were some excellent huntsmen, and they even had some primitive means of using the power of running water to help them with various tasks they would otherwise have had to perform by manual labour.
Zantar lived on an island. Sometimes, he used to go out at sunset to wonder what might be beyond the sea. Where did the sun set? Was there perhaps another island and, if there was one, would there also be people there? Zantar was very eager to learn about other people's technology - if their were other people that is - and teach them his own knowledge in return. Yet he had no means of finding out whether there actually was something there. If his folk were to build ships to explore, only The Divine Ynnor would know what would happen: They might even fall off the flat earths.
It might be noteworthy to mention that these people had a scientist called Sendatsuh, who believed the earth was a rather intricate complex of six flat discs, each a copy of the other, after he had once seen himself gazing back at his own image in the water of the sea - looking rather dumbfounded!
On this sunny mid-spring day, he had had to call together the Council of the Elders as something inexplicable had happened: When taking his usual morning stroll through the hills, he had discovered a large Ankh, partly hidden by some burned bushes. Next to the Ankh lay an enormous Skull hewn out of stone. Its eyes gleamed with a red light that intensified as the sun shone its morning rays on them.
He found it rather unsettling to say the least, especially because the surroundings of the objects had been totally blackened for about 900 square teefs (1 teef = 1/3rd yard = approx. 1/3 metre).
The elders sat silent in Zantar's wooden hut. They looked at each other, trying to read from the various expressions the various thoughts. There were six in total: Sendatsuh the Scientific One, Nroejbrot the Ancient One, Nafets the Earnest One, Sacul the Extensive One, Seec the Fortuitous One and, last, Zantar the Wise One.
"Blackened is the end," quoted Nafets, "thus soundeth the Prophecy."
"Winter it will send," Zantar added, "yes, Earnest One, hard times are bound to be nigh."
"Throwing all you see," said Sacul, as if adding yet another quote to the words just spoken, "into Obscurity!" With the last words, he heaved his hands to the sky.
"Woe! Woe!" Nroejbrot and Sendatsuh chanted, "the end is nigh!"
"Quiet, fools!" Zantar cried, "as of yet, Ynnor the Divine One has shown us nothing that would point to it, and..."
At that very instant, a crack split open the sky, and a deafening thunder followed within a second after it.
"Woe! Woe!" everybody now cried in unison, "Reficul the Evil One is upon us!"
Only Zantar was still silent, seeming to be deep in thought.
The others now began to lament a song of Old, not ever sung before and seemingly reserved for the Most Evil of occasions:
To begin whipping dance of the dead
Blackened is the end
To begin whipping dance of the dead
Colour our world blackened
As if to emphasize the moment, a desperate knocking could suddenly be heard on the heavy wooden door of Zantar's abode.
"Come in!" the leader yelled hoarsely. A boy came in, dressed in a tattered O'Neil jacket.
"The horizon has changed, Mr. Wise One! There is now land! And it's coming towards our shores even as I speak!"
Zantar looked as if he had a sudden vision: A vision, strange and unconnected though it may seem, of an enormous ship filled with a thick black fluid crashing into the shores of a distant land covered with hard water. He saw dying Sea Otters, dying Sea Birds, dying Seals, all covered with the thick black fluid. He saw mankind not doing anything at all about it; just a few volunteers helped the animals, tears in their eyes. He saw the whole world perish eventually.
He discarded the vision as a ridiculous one; surely, mankind would never be able to build such enormous ships? And, if they could, mankind would surely not sit and watch nature decay in case of such a disaster?
"Ridiculous," he said, reacting to both his vision and the boy's statement, but he hurried outside to follow the lad that dashed back to the coast.
Along the coastline, about thirty men stood gazing at what was happening on the horizon. Indeed, it seemed that another coastline had been created there, and it seemed to draw near at quite an astounding speed.
The Scientific One, still panting from running after Zantar, gazed with profound wonder.
"This can't be," he exclaimed, "I have been working on a General Relativity Theory with regard to quarks and interplanetary bonds, but I was sure of the fact that our (flat) worlds are expanding rather than diminishing in size. Must make a mental note to work that one out some day."
After having said that, he continued gazing at what his Relativity Theory considered to be quite impossible.
"Nothing is impossible," said the boy wearing the tattered O'Neil jacket. He had a striking resemblance to someone that would later be known as Einstein (in his younger years), but of course these people didn't know that nor did they know of the things this Einstein fellow would turn out to do some day, and therefore they didn't heed this remark, nor some others the boy brought up (some quite interesting ones pertaining anti-quarks, the space-time continuum in conjunction with the fourth dimension, light speed, the relative Doppler effect, H-Bombs, etc.).
"Hack off!" was all that Zantar the Wise One found necessary to interject.
Would he have had a tail, the boy would have had it between his legs as he slunk off.
"Just imagine," Zantar philosophized to Sendatsuh, "just imagine that there is an entire new civilisation there, a civilization that we can learn from and that we can teach our knowledge..."
He sighed as he said it. The Scientific One just nodded approvingly.
"For one," he said, "they either know how to reverse my Relativity Theory, or they know how to harvest land from the sea."
In spite of the fact that Sendatsuh clearly acted as if he had thought long on how to put that which he just said in the appropriate words, the Wise One didn't react. Obviously, Zantar didn't realise what severe consequences it could have to the world if either of these two statements turned out to be true.
When a reaction turned out not be coming within the next couple of seconds, the Scientific One added: "Somehow, I think the latter is highly unlikely."
Zantar nodded. Sendatsuh began thinking aloud about adding a conditional minus sign to his Theory.
By noon, there were only a hundred yards between their shores and those of the land that was coming towards them. They now saw that pieces of land were just pulled from the sea, instantaneously transforming from a wet sea bottom to dry earth soil. At times, a seemingly random process of lowering a part back into the vast ocean could be witnessed.
"Impossible!" Zantar could hear the Scientific One mumble at times next to him.
"Hack off!" the Wise One would each time whisper. Obviously, he was preparing some kind of speech in case a representative of the other civilisation (if there was one) might enter his domain.
After another quarter of an hour or so, it happened. The shores touched, and the process stopped at the very moment.
From behind the hills, someone emerged. The someone was wearing a red jacket with leopard design. Other people emerged from behind the hills as well. They all wore the same clothes, yet the one that had appeared first wore a cap with a badge knitted on it.
The badge portrayed a small skull; a skull with small red eyes, that glowed in the noon sun.
Zantar beamed with pride as he realised how many representatives there were to hear his speech. Finally, his thoughts turned out to be true: Indeed there was a civilisation beyond the sea, and they had sought to visit his tribe! They had even brought their hunting tools with them!
Every single one of the people emerging from behind the hills was wielding a blunt object in his hand, some of formidable dimensions and no doubt equally formidable weights. Come to think of it, the impact of one of those objects upon any animal's head would probably be quite formidable, too.
There were now at least fifty of them, standing on the highest hills. They left a certain menacing impression by their posture and the look in their eyes.
The leader held his hands to his mouth and cried something to his followers in a tongue not even Sacul the Intensive One could interpret. He could only shake his head when Zantar looked at him, raising his Wise Eyebrows inquiringly.
Next, the leader turned to Zantar's folk. By now, all members of the tribe were gathered; women, children and men. Even Nroejbrot the Ancient One by now had succeeded in catching up with the rest, and was leaning heavily on his staff, panting. A tawse was hanging on his belt.
"What's up?" he puffed.
"Just hack off!" Zantar replied. He felt he was repeating himself, but anyone who mentioned it would just have to hack...right.
The Ancient One looked irritated to the rabble on the new piece of land. His free hand gently caressed his tawse.
The leader now began to speak.
"My name is Noruas!" he cried, "Woe me! Woe me!"
He waited a couple of moments to see what his spectator's reactions were. Which were none; that is, if you don't count the look in their eyes that they usually gave to naughty little children. Nroejbrot caressed his tawse with some more enthusiasm now. A specific look settled in his eyes; a look that had not been there since he had last chastised Zantar when he'd been naughty once more. That had been quite a while ago.
Noruas, who was slightly set back by this utter lack of proper response, considered the time ripe to pull open all registers. He breathed in deeply, then started to chant loudly in a low voice:
"Blackened is the End
Winter it will send
Throwing all you see
The reaction to this chanting was reversely proportional to the one after he had called out his name. The sudden panic was epic (at least in its proportions): Just about all of the hundred tribe members gathered on the beach dashed in about a hundred different directions, yelling a hundred assorted yells of panic (though mostly "Woe! Woe!", "The Prophecy has come to pass!" or "Ynnor help us!").
Noruas' tribe now marched forward as well, with even more menacing looks in their eyes. They wielded their truncheons as if desperately wanting to find out what would happen if one'd smash it on a living skull.
A satisfied look settled itself upon the face of Noruas, the Evil One. He laughed a laugh that would later inspire a bit of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" - though of course he didn't realise that then, nor did Michael.
Since Zantar's people had only lived in the most serene peace thinkable, they didn't know what to do against such a threat other than just running for their lives. It was the only defensive technique they knew, and even that they didn't know well.
From their hiding places they looked and saw the Noruasians take over their land. They saw how their women were hunted down and raped, how their houses were burnt and how their children and people of old age were slaughtered. Nroejbrot was one of the first to fall. He tried to slap the naughty boys with his tawse but to little avail. His blood stained the beach red, as did the life fluid of many others; Zantar was agile enough to run faster and hide better to avoid getting murdered. Though it killed him inside when he saw his people raped and butchered.
The Noruasians ceased their violence when they reached the giant stone Skull with the large red, glowing eyes. It was as if they had known its exact location all the time. They knelt and started praying and chanting towards the object, no longer heeding the Zantarians in their suffering. It seemed as though they had reached an aim.
Another flash of lightning split open the sky, followed by a truly roaring sound of thunder. The Noruasians looked at the sky, and for the first time fear could be seen in their eyes.
And yet another flash.
And yet another (not quite so delicate) sound of thunder.
Now Noruas' people seemed to be panicing. In epic proportions, even.
Right under their startled feet, a swamp seemed to emerge from the soil. It was as if someone, maybe a Divine being, had but pressed a simple button, or clicked a mousepointer on some icon or another. The swamp just emerged. Every Noruasian drowned.
Never had a chance.
"You have defeated the powers of Darkness," I read aloud from the screen, "the power of Light has prevailed. You have won the first level of the game 'Populous'. You may now proceed to the next if you feel like you want to continue being a God."
I take the mousepointer off the 'Swamp' Divine Interaction icon, and prepare myself for conquering the next map. I take a large swig of Coke, and put a handful of potato crisps in my mouth.
"This time," I think, "I prefer being the baddie!"
Original version early 1989 (just after the Exxon Valdez had swamped the Alaska coast with oil). Rehashed January 1994.
The story so far: After a great many adventures, our mutant ninj...er... heroic explorer ventures deep into an old cave that's apparantly of Aztec origin. It turns out to be more lethal than he reckoned, but eventually he makes it to another door, really deep down in the cave complex where the light of day hasn't been seen for quite a lot of centuries.
So there we pick up the storyline. It is quite dark except for a small flame in the distance. The camera pans in, and we see a small figure holding a torch, standing before a door that looks immensely solid and impenetrable.
Sir Richard 'Rick' Jones had felt uncomfortable in a very awkward way when he had gone deeper and deeper into this dangerous, uncharted Aztec cave. On top of that, his torch was also on the verge of dying.
That had made him feel really uncomfortable.
What was he to do once the fire decided to abandon him? He had to open this enormous door, no matter what or how. If he didn't succeed, the light would go out, he would never find the exit again and he would die of starvation, endlessly listening to the fading echoes of his own cries for help.
If he would succeed in opening the door, however, something or other would probably get him killed, too. But this way at least he had some kind of a chance.
"Like Confucius said," Rick thought aloud, "If you're in a large pile of warm damp shit, try to get out of it even if you may end up in another one."
It might not have been Confucius, on second thought.
Rick carefully probed the door much in a way that would have caused it to slap his face vigorously if it had been a female.
Frantically, he tried to decypher the ancient writings on the ancient door and the archway that supported its iron hinges. It was of no avail, however. Apart from the odd post-Aztec insult, he could read none.
"Oh no. Shit," he said, kicking the door much in a way that would cripple a couple of toes if the kicker wasn't wearing army boots (unfortunately for Sir Richard 'Rick' Jones, it did for he wasn't).
He was too much occupied with his own toes for a couple of seconds to see the door opening slowly, which did not even make the slightest hint at the tiniest of sounds in spite of its rusty-looking hinges.
Neither did he notice that, in the split second before the door started to open, a maggot muttered "Hey pal, that's my text!", after which its momentary distraction caused it to fly soundlessly into the solid stone of the old door, ceasing to exist.
As Rick looked up from his sore toes, he suddenly gazed to where there used to be a door. Instead of that door, there was now a lot of air which had the tendency to be totally transparent and thus totally failing to conceil from sight a bright red British Telecom telephone booth.
It stood in the middle of nothing, or at least it seemed to. There were no cave walls nor anything else. There was just a bit of floor. A bit of floor with the aforementioned telephone booth on it.
Limping slightly, Rick ventured nearer. An eerie kind of light was emitted from the telephone booth, and it seemed to draw him nearer to it most incessantly.
When he stood before it, gazing up and down, Sir Jones felt a strong desire to open it.
When he looked into the phone booth he didn't see anything except darkness most profound. This caused a strong desire to enter it.
At once the telephone booth door closed in a way it usually does once you've entered it. Also, just like British Telecom telephone booth doors usually do when you're trying to get out, it got stuck.
When beating and kicking the door didn't seem to help, Rick got to terms with the thought of not being able to get out (you'll know the feeling if you've ever used a phone booth in Britain).
The inside, however, was now no longer revealed in sheer darkness. Instead, Rick saw what he guessed was radio equipment of the fairly advanced kind.
He fumbled around with a couple of switches and sliders.
Suddenly, much in a way a British Telecom telephone booth door would after approximately half an hour (but about two seconds before the firemen, police and national guard finally arrive), it opened in a rather mysterious way.
Rick gazed out into a world he could quite definitely recall never having laid eyes on before.
He was standing knee-deep in a swamp. At the far horizon, there was a volcano that smoked in an attempt to tell the world it wasn't exactly asleep. There were palm trees and several huge ferns all around him and the little red phone booth.
Rick remembered scenes like this from books about Natural History. He seemed to have discovered some kind of timetravel-booth and his fumbling around seemed to have resulted in getting set back in time millions of years.
"Oh no. Shit." he mumbled as the true impact of this thought caught up with him.
A giant Tyrannosaurus rex, that happened to have been hidden from sight by a couple of huge palm trees before, considered this the opportune moment to reveal itself.
It did seem very strange to a Tyrannosaurus, but it felt as if it had been robbed of something it had wanted to say, and it could have sworn to know that little human from somewhere (be it from his past, present or future).
In had but one proper reaction for this peculiar feeling that it had never felt before (and probably never would again). It growled in a menacing way and started to prowl towards the ridiculous red box and the accompanying little human that had the nerve to invade his swamp.
Rick did just about the most stupid thing one could possibly do in such a situation: He tried to get back into the telephone booth. Its door, as could have been expected, had found ways of slamming shut and consequently getting jammed, though - much in a way ordinary British Telecom telephone booth doors would when sensing that someone wants to make an urgent phone call or, in general, whenever it's raining outside.
Rick froze. He closed his eyes, opening them quickly again after finding out that it merely (and unwantedly) resulted in appearances of the Grim Reaper beckoning towards him from the inside of his eyelids.
The time that had elapsed during Rick having his eyes closed, however, had sufficed for someone else to be introduced into the scene.
Yelling "Matcha! Matcha! Matcha!" and wielding some kind of barge pole, something that could not be described to be anything else rather than a caveman distracted the attention of the huge dinosaur.
It turned around its huge head and growled even more menacingly than it had growled before. It went for the caveman.
A cavewoman now also appeared on the scene, much to the surprise of Sir Jones. She had long black hair and wielded a small burning torch, yelling "Hureka! Hureka! Hureka!" and pointing at it.
The caveman beckoned the cavewoman to throw the torch, yelling "Tonga hureka! Tonga hureka!"
The cavewoman threw the torch towards the caveman, who caught it clumsily.
The giant Tyrannosaurus was now getting pretty close to the caveman, yet slowed down as it seemed to be frightened by the fire. Its utterly limited brain capabilities lead it to getting exceedingly confused. It lost interest in what was going on in quite a complete fashion. It trudged off in search for prey that would tax his brain less vigorously, preferably without red boxes of flickering torches.
The cavewoman ran towards the caveman, jumping in his arms.
They both growled and did something that looked very much like kissing. Then, the caveman whispered: "Tonga aluna Lana."
The cavewoman whispered: "Lana aluna Tonga."
The caveman now looked up and asked: "Zak-zak?"
The cavewoman, turning red, nodded.
They both trudged off to where they had come from.
A sound as if a jar of beans had just been unscrewed brought the spontaneous opening of the red telephone booth's door to Rick's attention.
He went inside again.
After the door locked itself, he probed it much in the fashion someone would when getting locked in a British Telecom telephone booth for the fourteenth time.
It was jammed again.
Outside, some heavy thumping sounds indicated that the Tyrannosaurus had, some way or another, regained knowledge of what it had set out to have for lunch in the first place.
Rick quickly fumbled a bit more with the manifold buttons and sliders, trying to get them back into the same positions in which he had found them when discovering it.
The heavy thumping sound ceased quite suddenly.
Carefully, much in the way someone would after having been locked in a British Telecom telephone booth for the fourteenth time, he opened the door.
"Hey! What the f@*k are you doing in my time machine?!"
Rick looked straight into the agitated face of a middle-aged man with grey curly hair and a long travel-worn scarf around his neck.
"Who are you?" Sir Jones ventured.
"Who?" the man cried, "Who!"
He kicked Rick out of the booth.
Totally confused, Sir Jones walked off, directly in front of a car approaching him at a slightly unhealthy speed. In it, someone sat with a broad grin on his face, muttering something about 'industrious retaliation'.
The car collided with the jungle explorer annex time traveller, causing him to get flung against a wall and getting lethally injured in the process.
Just before dying, Rick muttered: "Oh no. Shit."
He then sighed his last sigh without uttering as much as a...well...a sigh, really.
The car drove for its driver to get shot by a passing cop who had accidentally witnessed the hit'n'run. This was the start of a new vendetta that was to continue for aeons throughout the continuum of time and space, breaking miscellaneous laws of life and death.
But that, as you'll be happy to know, is another story altogether.
Original written November 1990. Rehashed January 1994.