True Path: Book 2 in the Timesplash series
“Three, two, one …”
The big capacitor banks discharged with a bang, pouring their pent up energy into the coils. Within femtoseconds, the temporal displacement field bloomed around the three men on the platform, flinging them out of the spacetime we know and into the void beyond. To Isaac Callendro, team leader of this makeshift bunch of heroes, all he knew was that the lights went out.
The ruins of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center disappeared in a blink. He was in total darkness and silence, weightless and disoriented. In the void, he knew, there was no up or down, no light at the end of the tunnel. There was nothing but himself, the whole of Creation shrunk to the space within his own skull. Yet he also knew that, out there, beyond the stiff, inflated skin of his renovated shuttle-era space suit, his two companions were also with him, traveling in lonely isolation into the past. They had all been lobbed from the present, through the void, to splash down in the timestream forty-one years earlier, a time before dreams of space and exploration had died forever, before the certainties of religion had ripped apart the fragile network of science and reason upon which the greatest superpower the world had ever known had been built.
Just a single minute. That’s all the lob would take. Callendro just needed to hold on to his sanity for one minute and not let the awful blackness suck it out of him. He worried about the others, though. Jacob was so young and brash. Callendro would need the young man’s aggression and callousness at the other end of the lob, but he feared the boy was too unstable. Even if they pulled off the timesplash, it could unhinge a mind like Jacob’s. If that happened, what kind of person would be returning with them to 2066? And Rebekka, with her poise and her old money manners, how would she respond when the madness began?
And yet, after six failed attempts—three crews fried at the lob site, two spat out of the field generator dead on their return, and another that had simply disappeared into the void—the project was running out of suitable volunteers. Callendro knew this would be their last attempt. They must succeed. Everything depended on it.
He tensed his body as they burst into light and weight and noise. Into a room full of shouting, frightened people. Callendro stumbled to his feet and quickly observed his surroundings. They had interrupted some kind of briefing. There was a big image projected on one wall, where a terrified-looking man was huddling, his features blurring as his face vibrated. Other people in the room were cowering in fear, backing up against the walls of the room. Callendro saw Jacob and Rebekka among the upended chairs and dropped tablets. Jacob wasn’t moving. Not moving at all. He had somehow died in the void. Perhaps a leak had sprung in his ancient space suit. Rebekka climbed to her knees and pushed up her visor. She was clumsy in the fat white gauntlets and seemed stunned but OK. Beside her, a chair was bouncing against the floor, hitting the ground and springing back onto its legs, over and over, like a film repeatedly running forwards then backwards. Tiles fell from the ceiling as a crack ripped through the building. The men and women in the room cried out in fear. Callendro winced as the wailing sound shifted up into painfully high registers before grinding down into a deep bass growl.
He had hoped that the room would be empty, that the splash would not begin until they were well clear of the origin. Now they would never make it. The splash would grow around them and they’d have to fight it for every inch of ground. It would be a miracle if they made it out of the building alive.
Callendro lurched toward Rebekka. He noticed everything in the room with a bitter detachment. He had landed badly. His helmet had hit a table corner and now his visor was a web of cracks around a tiny hole. If the whole crew had matching spacesuits, he might have been able to use Jacob’s for the return trip. But their suits didn’t match. Only the first few crews had had that luxury. Since then they’d had to make do and mend, refurbishing any suit from any era that they could get their hands on. He thought about trying to squeeze into Jacob’s suit but the suit was defective. Jacob’s frozen corpse was proof of that. With a sigh, Callendro pulled off his helmet. It would be two hours before the yankback pulled them all back to their own time. He had only two hours to find another suit, or he would die. The primary mission was shot. The operation had failed.
“Rebekka,” he said. The woman looked at him with wild, half-panicked eyes. Whatever she had expected, Callendro could see that this was not it. “Becky!” he shouted. He felt the ground ripple beneath him. They needed to get out of that building at once. “Get to the exit. Get out of here.”
Despite her fear, she understood and began stumbling towards the door, panicking the fleeing people jammed in the room even more.
A timesplash was so unpredictable, Callendro thought as he hurried after Rebekka. Every person in this room might be affected by the sudden appearance of three astronauts. Witnessing the lob could change the rest of their lives. They might make a future decision in one way rather than another. They might fail to do something they should have done. They might drop dead of a heart attack. All of which could cause a temporal anomaly, creating an inconsistency between the future that might unfold and the present that Callendro came from. And if there was one thing the Universe hated, it was a temporal anomaly. As soon as an anomaly arose, massive forces began coercing the timeline back into shape. The bigger the anomaly, the bigger the forces involved. That was a splash: the unraveling of spacetime, the mangling of causality required to put the Universe right, to heal the wound, to return everything to how it was.
Callendro stomped along after Rebekka. The big windows on one wall of the room burst into a million fragments as the building warped. The fragments showered to the ground but stopped in mid-air, trembling. Callendro knew what it meant. Someone among the scattered occupants of this room had been a person who affected the future in important ways. Or perhaps it was the meeting itself. The bigger the effect, the bigger the splash would be. Maybe a space program employing thousands of people would not happen now. Maybe another program just as large would be started. It was impossible to know. But Callendro was sure of one thing: he had to find a suit or he was a dead man.
He saw Rebekka make it out through the door. There were still other people in the room, cowering away from him. Some seemed almost normal, no vibration, no jerky twitching.
“You.” Callendro picked on a woman clutching at a table as if it were a life raft. “I need a spacesuit. Where should I look?”
She stared at him in terror. “Please don’t kill me.”
“I’m not going to kill anyone. I need to replace my suit. Where do you keep them?”
“I—I don’t know. I work in IT. I’ve never …”
“Who are you?” The question came from behind him, from a balding man in a white collared shirt.
“I’m from the future. Look, I don’t mean to scare you, but I really do need to get into a new suit.”
But the man became incoherent, repeating the same syllable over and over, stammering out the beginning of a sentence he would never finish.
“Training,” the woman said. “You should look in the training areas. Try Building 9.”
Callendro nodded his appreciation and left the room. He was keen to get away before he did her and the others any more harm. He knew that everything would soon go back to how it was. After a while, the building would mend, the people would return, and the meeting would resume from the instant Callendro’s crew had arrived. He knew all that, but the sight of the horrified people in that crumbling building still affected him at a level below rationality.
Out in the corridor, Callendro reeled to a stop, unable to understand what he was seeing. Radiating lines seemed to stretch away for miles to a white dot at the center. It was only when the corridor snapped back into shape that he finally realized it had been stretched away from him to a vast distance. The white dot was now Rebekka, standing just a few metres away with her back to him, staring into a gaping crack that ran right across the floor. He hurried over to her and put a hand on her shoulder. She turned towards him, her face white with shock.
“They fell in,” she said, turning back to the crevasse.
“It doesn’t matter, Bec. Nothing that happens here matters—except to us. It’s the past. We’ve stirred it up a bit but it will settle back into place. No harm has been done.”
Her expression was ragged. “I … I know. It’s just …”
“Rebekka, I’m canceling the primary mission.” They were supposed to steal a car and drive ten miles to where Jacob’s grandfather had once lived, but now Callendro had other priorities. “We’ll never make it.” He considered asking her to pursue the secondary mission—to reach the Director’s office and shoot the man—while he went off on his quest for a new space suit. But the idea was ridiculous. Rebekka was barely functioning now. She wouldn’t last five minutes on her own. “Come with me.” He took her hand, leading her away from the hole in the floor.
“Jacob’s dead,” she said.
“I think he had a leak. We’ll be fine.” She looked quickly at his face, where his helmet should have been. He could almost hear her thinking that he wouldn’t be fine, but she didn’t say anything.
He saw an exit sign and followed it. He had studied maps of the building, walked around the future remains of it until he knew it well. Yet now he was disoriented and did not recognize that particular corridor. He tried not to panic. He kept reassuring himself that he was in a space center at the dawn of the Orion Mars Mission—the ill-fated manned mission to Mars. If there was anywhere on Earth he could find a spacesuit, it was here.
They crashed through a fire exit and into the bright light of a Houston morning, frantically scanning the surrounding buildings for any that they recognized.
“There,” Rebekka said, pointing. “That’s Building 31. Building 9 is just beyond it on Avenue C.”
Callendro wasn’t sure. What if they made a mistake, wasted time going all that way? “We need to ask someone.” There were people about but nobody close. The building they’d just left was shaking itself apart, yet no-one else seemed to notice. They would start to notice, eventually, if the splash spread to the adjacent buildings but, until then, the effect was localized, contained.
Callendro saw a van parked just a dozen meters ahead of them and he made for it. There was no way he or Rebekka could fit in the driver’s seat wearing their space suits—the bulky environment packs they each wore made that impossible. But Callendro’s suit was useless anyway and he could bundle Rebekka into the back.
“Help me out of this thing,” he said when they reached the vehicle. He disconnected his gauntlets and Rebekka pulled them off. Tearing at the seal at his waist, he tried to remember what he could about internal combustion engines. He’s seen them in old vids, and knew there would be a key somewhere to start the engine.
It took an age to get out of the bulky, cumbersome suit. He knew it would take even longer to get into a new one, but if they could get the car working, they could cover so much more ground in the time that remained. Helping with the suit had seemed to calm Rebekka, restoring some of her usual poise. Yet, when a scream came from the building behind her, she flinched. He tried to comfort her but felt ridiculous trying to hug her in his underwear while she was in the bulky suit.
He went to the back of the van and pulled the door open. Inside there was painting equipment—cans, rollers, dust sheets. He pulled everything out and dumped it on the road before helping Rebekka climb inside. He slammed the doors after her and ran for the driver’s seat.
“Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Callendro turned toward the shouting. Two men in overalls were approaching from across the road. Callendro quickly opened the driver’s side door and looked inside. He could jump in now, but the chances of starting the vehicle in a hurry were zero. In frustration, he stepped away to face the men.
“I need to borrow your van,” he said. “Just for a short while.”
“Beat it, creep. And get some pants on.”
The other man was staring at the road behind the van. “Hey! He pulled all our gear out. Look.”
Callendro clenched his jaw hard in frustration. Couldn’t anything go right? “I’ll put it all back,” he lied, edging around the front of the van towards his discarded suit. “I just need it for an hour. It’s a matter of life and death.”
But the two men were watching him with a mixture of aggression and wariness. “Call the cops, Al,” the first one said to his friend. “This guy’s a freakin’ whack job.”
Callendro ran to his spacesuit. It’s all right, he told himself. Everything will put itself back the way it was. He fumbled with the stiff white fabric, turning one legpiece until he found the pocket.
“What the hell is he doing?” Al asked.
“Just call the cops, OK?” The man hurried around the van to get a good look at Callendro and stopped dead. “Oh Jesus.”
Callendro pointed the gun at his chest and squeezed the trigger. He missed. He fired again and missed again. The man turned and ran. Callendro fired again and this time blood splashed from the man’s back and a red bloom colored his white painter’s overalls. The man stumbled one last pace, fell to his knees and then toppled forward to lie still. His companion, Al, didn’t move. He just gaped at his friend with wide eyes. Then he looked at Callendro. The sight of a strange man in his underwear turning to face him, gun raised, seemed to snap him out of the trance he’d fallen into. He threw up his arms and said, “Take the van, all right? Take it. It’s yours.”
Callendro fired again, hitting Al in the shoulder. Then again. A miss. Then again and again until the clip was empty and Al was dead. The man’s body did not lie still but twitched and shook on the ground, reliving its last few moments, over and over. From the body, small ripples fanned outward across the concrete.
Bile rose in Callendro’s throat. He threw away the gun and climbed into the van. In the back, Rebekka was sobbing. He wanted to shout at her to shut her up, but he didn’t have the energy. Even without the suit, every movement he made was a struggle against the weight of his limbs. He looked for where the ignition should be but could find nothing. There were displays set into the dashboard but nothing that looked like a key or even a starter button. He looked around in desperation. Maybe there was an instruction manual.
He pulled his head up from under the dash at Rebekka’s frightened call. She was staring through the back windows at a police cruiser that was pulling up behind them.
Callendro took a deep breath. “Stay quiet and keep out of sight,” he told her. “You’ve still got your gun?” She looked horrified but pulled the weapon out of her suit and showed it to him.
He climbed out of the van and walked back towards the police car, acutely aware that he had no clothes on. The two policemen threw open their car doors and jumped out, crouching behind them with guns drawn. Callendro raised his arms and stopped walking. The bodies of the two painters were clearly visible on the ground.
“Get down on the floor and put your hands behind your head.”
“Officer, I can explain everything.”
“Get down on the floor and put your hands behind your head.”
Emboldened by his obvious lack of any weapons, one of the cops came round the door and edged towards him.
Frustration welled up inside Callendro. He didn’t have time for this. The minutes were ticking away on his life and these two fat cops were going to get him killed. With a jolt, he realized that everyone he had seen since arriving in 2025 was fat. Everybody. Living high on the hog, spending the energy from all that oil on making food to stuff their faces with, while just forty years into the future . . . And then he noticed that the police car’s engine was still running. They had not turned it off. The incredible profligacy of burning petrol like that, without a thought, just because it might be a tiny bit inconvenient to stop the engine, hit him like a blow to the chest. This greedy world had destroyed his own, stolen his future, taken a world of peace and plenty and squandered it on fast food and air conditioning, cars and shrink wrap.
“Down on the floor. Now!”
He looked into the man’s eyes. “All I want is to get a spacesuit and go away.”
The cop blinked and, apparently reassessing the situation, frowned. “Chuck, it looks like we’ve got ourselves some kind of crazy guy.”
“No kidding?” said the other cop. “From the way he’s dressed I thought he might be one of those NASA eggheads.”
“Says he wants a spacesuit.”
The other cop came out from behind the door and joined his partner. “We got great spacesuits back at the station, buddy. They got arms that tie up at the back and everything. Now get down on the floor like the man told you.”
“I‘m going to die if I don’t get a spacesuit,” he said, kneeling on the hard concrete, still managing to keep his anger under control. “I‘m here from the future.”
“Yeah? And there’s me thinking you was an extraterrestrial.” The cop stepped forward to cuff him but looked up sharply at the van.
The rear doors burst open and Rebekka began firing from inside. Callendro threw himself to the ground while the cops ducked and ran, returning fire as they went. The one called Chuck fell, dead or wounded, Callendro didn’t care because the man had dropped his weapon.
Callendro got his legs under him and ran towards the gun, with Rebekka and the other cop still exchanging shots. He scooped up the gun and dropped behind Chuck’s body. Taking careful aim, he fired maybe a dozen shots before the other cop fell down dead.
But the body didn’t stay down. It bounced back up, sucking sprays of blood out of the air back into itself and then spurted them out again as it fell. Then it did it again, and again.
Callendro cursed and ran. Another splash had begun. A crack tore through the pavement and tripped him, sending him rolling across the ground towards the van, so close he could smell the oil and metal of its underside. The twitching body of the painter was nearby, the ground still rippling in concentric circles all around him. As Callendro scrabbled to get up, he saw one of the rear wheels. It had sunk to its axle in the concrete. He reached out a hand and touched the ground around the wheel. For all that it was rippling, the concrete felt completely solid. There was no way they could drive away the van now.
He got up and looked into the back of the van. “Come on. We need to get you into the police car, somehow.” Maybe she could take off the suit while they drove around looking for Building 9. On the other hand, maybe he should just leave her here. “Rebekka.” She was leaning against the wall, staring at the ceiling of the van. God damn the woman! This was not a good time to be having a breakdown. “Rebekka, we need to get moving.” He reached in and shook her. She toppled over and lay still on the floor of the van.
His heart thumped. Thumped again. Then he climbed into the van and lifted her head. She was big and awkward in the spacesuit, almost impossible to manoeuvre. He pushed her back up against the van wall and felt her neck for a pulse. Her skin was clammy and cold but she was still alive.
His relief lasted only a second or two before the realization struck him. Frantically, he felt around on her suit until he found it. The bullet hole. It had gone through the front at about waist height. He heaved her forward. The life support pack was positioned near where the bullet might have come out. The chances of it working properly with a bullet lodged in it were slim. And, even if he could mend the hole at the front somehow, the suit was almost certainly compromised at the back too.
Now both of them were without a suit. Not that Rebekka would need one if he didn’t find her medical care very soon. He could still use the police car. Its engine was running and it looked OK, even though mayhem was breaking out around the cop who was still flipping up and down. If Callendro was quick, he might get the cop car away from there before it too sank into the pavement, or a street light fell on it or whatever.
He lay Rebekka down as gently as he could and then sprinted for the cruiser. The ground was shaking as if gigantic animals were burrowing just below the surface. He leaped into the driver’s seat and looked at the displays, all lit up to display an array of dials and buttons. There should have been pedals on the floor. He was pretty sure he’d heard about that. A gas pedal and a brake. But there were none. He scanned the displays again. He had never seen technology like this. It was far more advanced than what he was used to in 2066. The cop car might as well have been an alien spaceship for all the sense its controls made.
He pushed some buttons at random and the car spoke to him.
“Only authorized drivers may operate this vehicle. Please identify yourself and speak your security code.”
He almost screamed in anger and frustration. “This is a medical emergency. A matter of life and death. Just give me control of the car.”
“Only authorized drivers may operate this vehicle,” the car repeated, without rancor. “Please identify yourself and speak your security code. Failure to comply will mean all systems will be locked down in twenty seconds and the authorities informed. You are advised that attempting to operate a police vehicle without permission is a crime punishable by up to three years imprisonment.”
Callendro jumped out of the car. He was scared that a lock down might involve closing the doors too. After a few seconds the engine stopped. He walked back to the van over ground that was cracked and distorted, past the flapping cop and the twitching painter. He didn’t go inside to sit with his dying companion but went to find his discarded spacesuit. In one of the document pockets was a small notebook and pencil. He moved away from the van, away from the shifting ground and the spreading splash. He found a shaded spot in a doorway at the other side of the street. Then he took the pencil and paper and wrote:
Tell him the mission was not a complete failure. We got back to 2025 and we started a splash. Just not the one we planned for. Tell him not to waste any more lives on trying to get this right. Tell him to go to Plan B. I don’t know if he has a Plan B, or what it might be. All I know is that anything has to be better than this.
Tell him goodbye from someone who never even met him but who would do it all again if he thought there was the slightest chance of it helping him get the job done.
In the strange calm he now felt, an astonishing thought occurred to him. Even if he’d found a new space suit, it wouldn’t have done him any good at all. He’d have left it behind like the rest of 2025 when the yankback pulled him home. He’d felt so rational and purposeful and yet he’d been in the grip of some kind of mind-numbing panic all along. For a while, he sat there laughing at his own stupidity. He laughed so much he ended up crying.
It was just fifteen minutes now until the yankback. No time to do much at all except wait. There was only one thing he needed to do, though. He got up and walked back towards the cop called Chuck. He didn’t want to find himself in the void, almost naked, with no air and no heat. He picked up the gun he’d dropped earlier and checked the clip. There were three bullets left.
One would be enough.
The most wanted man in America is about to destroy the entire nation or save it.
It’s 2066 and Sandra has kept a low profile for 16 years, working as a tech in a quiet British university, hoping her past would never catch up with her. But it has.
When Jay hears Sandra has been kidnapped, he drops everything and goes to the U.S. to find her. But Sandra’s kidnapper is not an ordinary criminal. He’s America’s most-wanted terrorist – a man driven to to free his country from religious oppression at any cost. Sandra, still suffering from the fallout of earlier timesplashes, refuses to help create the biggest timesplash ever, which would unleash a wave of destruction that the rebels hope will kickstart a new American revolution.
When Cara, Sandra’s teenage daughter, is taken by one of the many factions on the ground in Washington D.C., Sandra’s resolve is shaken, and Jay is forced into a race against time to stop the deaths of millions or save Sandra and her daughter.
Sandra and Jay must ultimately decide between what is right for them and what is right for all in this thrilling continuation of the Timesplash series.
SHORTLISTED FOR BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL AT THE 2014 AUREALIS AWARDS
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Graham Storrs lives in rural Australia with his wife, Christine, and an Airedale terrier called Bertie. He has published three children’s science books and scores of articles and academic papers (in the fields of psychology, artificial intelligence, and human-computer interaction). He recently turned his attention to science fiction and has since published over 20 short stories in magazines and anthologies.