The Baobab

                Sipping my chocolate I sit in a doughnut shop  and watch the cars stream by.  The dark sky presses down upon a gray land.  I look into that drab mass.  My drink cools, forgotten.  I see another sky, an arc of shimmering blue with a sun so bright my eyes begin to water.  I think of a plain stretching away to the deserts of the north and of a girl sitting under a baobab tree.

                Lyn and I were approaching the end of our third year in Nigeria.  We were teaching at a girls’ school at the northern edge of Nigeria, only a few kilometres south of the Niger. The town we had been posted to, Mallam Maduri, was a tiny place, a stop on the railroad between Kano and Maiduguri. It served as a market centre for the local farmers and for traders coming down from the Niger.  If you went to the end of nowhere,  Mallam Maduri was one hundred kilometres beyond that.   Even so, we liked it.  The people were friendly.   Compared to the chaos of Kano and Lagos,  life was peaceful, one day drifting into another.

                The harmattan, the time of cold nights and perpetual dust being blown south from the encroaching desert had passed.  Now the heat mounted with every passing day.  Once classes ended at two o’clock we could little more than crumple of top of our bed and sleep until the heat began to ebb.

                About four we would rise, dress and begin the two-kilometre walk from the school to the town.  There we would check our mail and visit the market, the merchandise spread out on straw to keep it out of the dust.  Nodding at the Fulani herdsmen and Hausa farmers and traders, we would buy our meat for the next day, brushing away the flies covering the meat.  Behind us women in colourful wraps, babies on their back, jostled with one another to fill cups with rice from an open bag on which had been stencilled USAID.  A merchant offered the rice at fifty kobos a cup. Tuareg tribesmen from Niger, wearing deep purple robes, ogled the baturis.  It would give them something to discuss on the long camel ride back home.

                Before going back to the school we would relax with cold bottles of coke and roast bulangu (lamb) or suya (beef). We would sit and gossip with some of the townspeople that we knew or one or two of the other teachers from the school, a pleasant way to end the day.

                As we did every day we passed out of the broken gate of the school .  The  one-eyed maigardi (watchman) waved aty us, sending us a cheery sannu (hello).   Exchanging yaya da aiki Aiki da Godiya (how is work, how is life) , we  stepped onto the  road. Its black tarred surface rose above the plain, running straight towards the town.  Ahead of us we could see the grey fingers of a baobab tree that marked the halfway point between the town and the school.

                More than any other plant the Baobab suits Afrtica.  Ugly and ungainly, it survives where few other trees can.  Often called the upside down tree its branches, bare most of the year, resemble roots. The trunk has the look of an elephant’s leg.  The bark, a smooth, dull gray has a texture as pliable as rubber.

                Beneath the tree sat a girl about fourteen years old.  She was wrapped in dust-stained  cotton,  once bright red, now faded. On her back was tied a sleeping baby. She sat in the shade of the tree.  In front of her was a bowl of hollowed wood inside of wehich was a solitary five kobo coin. I do not know where she was going, where she had come from or how long she had been under the tree.  I can only assume that she had interrupted her journey to rest during the heat of the afternoon.

I believe that she was Fulani, being of a slim build with high cheekbones.  Most Fulani girls carry themselves well,  as if aware of belonging to a clan that had ruled over the Hausa for two centuries.   She looked up as we approached.  Eyes, telling of a life that had become too much for her, stared up at us.  As is traditional  among women seeking a request, she dropped to her knees.  Lowering her eyes she asked, “ Please, Mallam, Mallama, buy my baby.”

                I glanced back at Lyn.  She looked at the girl for a moment and then at me.  We said nothing but our thoughts were the same.

“I’m sorry, mallama,” I told the girl.

I dropped a fifty kobo coin into her bowl.  We went on our way.  I glanced back.  She was still sitting under the tree, her back resting against its smooth trunk.  The baby was beginning to cry.  When we returned, an hour later, she was gone.

We knew why she had made the offer.  Her husband was either dead or had left her, or unmarried, she had disgraced her family.   Without money or education,  there were only two roads open to her, begging, or prostitution. If she were lucky, and could raise a little money, she might open a stall in the market, selling groundnuts.  That was the best that she could hope for her and her baby.

I could have tried to explain, at least to the limited extent that her knowledge of English would allow the reasons why we could not buy the child.  We were only teachers earning a small salary.  We had no property, no money in Canada. The Canadian government would not have approved.  One did not buy children.  We had done the right thing, the sensible thing.  If she had known that, then she would not have asked.

What did she know? Did she know what Canadian law would have to say? Did she know our economic position? All that she knew was  that we were Baturi coming from a land blessed with infinite wealth. We were Baturi. Therefore, we were rich.  Why could we not afford one small baby.  The baby would live well.  Without the baby she would be free to go back home. It must have  seemed a sensible solution to her. Why could we not have seen it? Strange are the ways of the Baturi.

We left Nigeria two months later. We would return to Africa again, twice but not to Nigeria. What became of the girl, I do not know.  If she is still alive she would be an old women.  People age fast in the north.  The child would be grown with children of its own. I wonder if its mother told it about the Baturi who turned it away?  Does  it dream of how different its life would have been in the land of the Baturi. I will never know. Would it have been so terrible to have said yes?      

My drink is finished and my desire to loiter in the warmth of the shop  is overtaken by my need to be somewhere else. I step back out onto the street. Bracing myself against the cold, I look up at the sky.  I see the darkness and long for the blue skies of Africa.  Again I wish for the brown fields and for the baobab trees standing against a molten sun

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Islanders on Sale

To all who are interested my novel Islanders will be offered for free By Kindle Publishing May 15 – 19. Can’t argue with the price.

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Stalinism and Stamp Collecting

One of the oddest aspects of Stalin’s rule was his attitude towards stamp collectors.

He considered them politically unreliable.  Granted he considered most people to be unreliable but why stamp collectors?  Well, seen through Stalin’s eyes his attitude was reasonable.  Stamp collectors were interested in receiving stamps from foreign counties.  This made them suspect spies, and for Stalin, between suspect spy and real spy there was no difference.  Therefore collecting stamps was a quick ticket to the gulag.  So a man who ruled a gigantic land empire, commanded hundreds of millions and possessed nuclear weapons distrusted people who collected little bits of paper.  Why?  Partly it was in his nature to distrust but also because of the very nature of Stalinism and any other dictatorship.

Stalinism was an aberration of Leninism which in turn was an aberration of Marxism.  It demanded blind obedience to an all-powerful leader, a political system now almost extinct, with the one exception of North Korea.  In Stalin’s system  stamp collectors would have to confine themselves to postage issued by the Soviet government under Stalin’s rule.  Pre-revolutionary stamps would smack of bourgeois or pro-monarchist sympathies.  Foreign stamps indicated foreign contacts. Therefore a stamp collector was a foreign agent.

In contrast to the Soviets the Nazis never launched a campaign against stamp collecting contain to arrest stamp dealers for sending valuable philatelic properties out

of the country and warning against the purchase of Danish charity stamps being used for anti-Germanic purposes.  In 1942 a German stamp was issued showing a collector working on his collection.  This stamp would appear on a 1954 American booklet The Stamp Finder.

Josef Bronowski in his series The Ascent of Man points out that underlining any system of absolutism, be it secular or theological, is what he calls the principle of certainty.  Certainty implies that the universe is structured in a certain manner understood only by members of a particular creed.  Whether it be based upon the fuhrerprinzip, the triumph of Communism or the second coming of Christ, the universe will resolve itself in the manner envisioned by the ruling elite.  Rather than shaping their ideas to fit the universe Absolutists insist upon shaping the universe to fit their ideas.  In all absolutist socities exists an enemy, an enemy that denies the certainty of the regime’s belief.  Whether capitalist, Protestant, Catholic. Islamic or Jewish, the threat exists and cannot be tolerated.  Hence Kulaks in the Soviet Union, Jews in Germany and Schoolgirls in Pakistan become targets.

The greatest flaw in absolutism is the limit it applies to human knowledge. It draws a line and demands acceptance that nothing except error lies  that beyond  The great weakness of such a concept is that it demands universal knowledge something lacking in human society. The development of universal laws must rest upon a correct understanding of  the universe, an understanding that no one possesses. How could they?  Scientists speak of multiple universes of which ours is only one.  Even within our own galaxy they claim a possible seventeen billion possible earthlike planets.  How then can the historical and social experience of specific groups on one planet be seen as having universal validity?

For over fifty years I  have collected postage stamps During that time I have heard my hobby referred to as being trivial, silly and a waste of time and money.  However it was not until I read a biography of Stalin that I ever heard of anyone who considered it a danger to the state.

As a child I was aware that outside of the cocoon of my home there was an unknown vastness dark and looming. I wanted to bring light to this darkness. Darkness I equated with ignorance, something bad that had to be removed. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon with its study of Stalinist terror equated fear and terror with the blackness of night. oweverNot all people4 see it that way.

Darkness is not always a bad thing.  It is restful, conducive to sleeping, physically and mentally.  Fear of the dark causes many to huddle together for protection However I did not want to sleep.  I wanted to know. Therefore I developed a love of reading for in books I found a means by which i could push away a little bit of the darkness surrounding me.

When I was about sixteen a cereal company offered as a promotion small packets of foreign stamps.  I remember that one was a New Zealand 4d floral issue. New Zealand I knew to bet in the South Pacific and that it belonged to the Commonwealth.  I also knew that I would probably never go there. Still, I would own a tiny piece of it, proof that somewhere it existed.

            So began my  love affair with  stamps.  But why stamps? After all, what are they?  Printed bits of paper designed to cover the cost of postage.  Well, I suppose that I could sum up my interest in one word: knowledge.  The knowledge offered came in three forms.  First, philatelic.  This involves the stamp itself, its date of issue, design, value, colour, etc.  The second is the knowledge offered by the issuing authority, i.e. head of state, value, language, reason for issue. 

            Two types of postage stamps are issued, definitives and commemeratives.  Definitives are issued as standard postage usually for several years.  Their designs will often consist of heads of state and various themes, i.e. historical or geographic landmarks.  Commeratives are issued to mark specific occasions, i.e. the hundreth anniversary of a country’s independence.  From both the collector can learn much about the country of issue, language, geography, history, etc.

The third form is knowledge that the collector may acquire from the stamp not intended by the issuer.  For example the third largest country among my stamps is Hungary.  Why Hungary?  East European countries through the nineteen-sixties to nineties published large volumes of stamps aimed at stasmp collectors, a means by wehich thery could acquire western currency.  Hungary however was not alone in this.  All Soviet countries including the Soviet Union followed the same pattern.

The most important form of knowledge to be gained by collecting, and possibly why it is disliked by totalitarian states,  is that of  historical perspective.  The first postage stamp was issued in 1840.  My own collection runs from the late eighteen-fourties to the present time.  As I flip through the pages of  a nation’s stamps I get a sense of how a nation developed over the past hundred and seventy years.  The history of France, Britain or China passes in front of me.  Presidents and Kings, good and bad, come and go.  Empires rise and fall,  New nations are born. In France Louis Napoleon gives way to the Third Republic.  Then comes Petain, Liberation and a new republic.  So the collector learns that nothing in politics is eternal.  Yet absolutist states rest upon an assumption of monopolizing eternal values not shared by others.

The one absolute state that has come closest to achieving a sense of permanency is the Vatican.  With its one hundred acres it represents the papacy, a tradition that has endured since the time of Saint Peter but its claims are spiritual control not political control, at least not beyond the bounds of the Vatican. As for other absolutist state, the twentieth century is littered with their corpses, all reflected in the pages of my stamp albums.

An absolute state ultimately rests upon ignorance.  Denial of information is necessary if the belief of its members is not to be shaken. Every postage stamp represents a tiny bit of knowledge.  Stamp collectors do not seek to subvert dictatorial systems but in accumulating and studying stamps they do become more knowledgeable.  In this they contribute to the preservation of the right to knowledge.

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Islanders : Chapter Twenty

New Beginnings

Gehlen felt Gem’s right hand touching him. She was looking down at the table trying to keep him from seeing her eyes.  He turned to Edward.  “Maybe you had better explain what’s happening.”

Edward nodded.  “Of course.”   He rose to his feet.   “Within the hour the two of you will cross into this new world to join your lost friends You will bring gifts of knowledge that you have acquired. ” You will join all the lost ones. Instead of wasting away into nothing, your home will become part of a new world.”

Gem shook her head. “Heinrich maybe, but not me. The portal will begin to self-destruct as soon as I leave.  I won’t do that to you, Edward.”

Edward bent over and kissed her forehead. “Forgive me, Gem,  but I’ve made a few adjustments in the programming. Something I should have done a long time ago. I am now the guardian, not you.  Your life … ” he looked at Gehlen, “is elsewhere now.”

“But what about you,” Gem asked

  “When my work here is finished, I’ll cross over. I promise.”

“How will you cross over?” asked Gehlen

Edward smiled.  “Always an inspector.  I’ll think of something.”

Gem placed her head against Edward’s chest “No you won’t,” she murmured. “Someone has to close it.”

 For a moment Gehlen could not speak. “You know the one thing I always liked about machines. At least they never lied.”

His right hand absently stroking Gem’s hair Edward nodded.  “Must be the human in me.”

  Gehlen nodded. “Must be.  Do we have to  destroy it?”

Edward nodded. “Yes.”

“But no one ever comes here.”

“Doesn’t matter. It is too dangerous to leave it to fate., You know that inspector.”

“Yes. I know.”

An hour later, laden with knapsacks supplied by Edward Gem and Gehlen passed  through the portal.  As ther air shimmered around them their last sight was a smiling Edward. “See you soon” he said.

For one last time Edward looked upon  Gem. Then she was gone.  It was not right he told himself. Machines should not cry.     

***

Edward’s image image flickered out. The energy needed to hold the mounting heat at bay could no longer be diverted into holoprograms.  He estimated that the portal’s defenses could last a few more minutes, but no more than that.

It had taken three months to complete the transfers of materials to the new world.  The records had been the first to go, then tools, food.  Excess wiring and electrical switches, the trees from Gem’s garden had been transplanted, anything of any conceivable value. Up to the moment when she stepped into the portal for the last time, held up by Gehlen, Gem had been thinking of ways that would allow Edward to cross. 

All had failed.  His life depended upon the portal. It would end with the portal. They could bring a program of Edward, a simulation, but not him. “It doesn’t matter” he had told her.  “I have had a good life.  Now you do the same.”

He knew now that the transfers complete he should have shut the portal down once they had left, setting it on self-destruct.  It no longer served any practical role. Instead he had left the portal room and had wandered the empty halls, looking into rooms he had not looked into for ages.

Now that was done. There was nothing else left to do but wait.  The upper stories were gone now claimed by the searing heat, with it the power to allow him to manifest himself as a solid three-dimensional being.  Now confined to the computer he could only wait. He calculated that the portal had another ten minutes before the heat claimed it.

At first he could not believe what he was sensing.  A fault triggered by the heat.

“Louise?”

She nodded.

Then he did something else a machine should never do.  He stumbled over his words.  “H–have you come to take me away?” 

She shook her head. “No.  I wish I could.”

“Then why?”

“I thought that you could use the company.”

Being to perspire she removed her outer clothing. Edward observed a pendent of iron stone suspended from her neck but made no comment.  His thoughts were elsewhere.  “You should not have come.”

She shrugged “Odd.  I haven’t been back here for so long and you never left.  Yet I feel that we’ve traveled the same road.”

“You should not have come back.”

“Where else can I go?”

 “They need you.”

“No. Not anymore.” 

Louise sat down on the warm floor beside Edward’s console and leaned her head against the wall. “Even Gods don’t live forever.”

 “Would you really want to go through with it again?” Edward asked

“If we could, why not?”

A minute passed.

“It will be good to see Tom again and Matthew.”

“Do you think you shall?”

‘Oh yes.”

“What about me?”

“You too, Edward.”

“What if you’re wrong?”

“Well, we’ll soon know.”

“I’m glad you came back.”

She closed her eyes.   “So am I.”

“Do you think that they’ll be all right?”

“Who?”

“The settlers?”

“Yes. I think so.” She wished that Tom had been able to see the planet, to know that what they had hoped for all those long years ago was now coming true.

“That’s something then.”

Another minute passed. Only one small red light shone on the console. Edward spoke, his voice now a faint whisper.  “Shouldn’t we sing a song or something?  It might help.”

Louise looked up.  She had never heard Edward sing or express an interest in music.  What song?”

“One of Tom’s.  An ancient tune, a favourite of his. I always liked it.”

“Why not.”

His voice barely audible, Edward began to sing.

Oh Shenandoah, I love thy daughter.

Away, you rolling river.

Oh Shenandoah, I love your daughter.”

Louise remembered the words that Tom would often sing.

The red light blinked out. Louise hesitated for a moment and then resumed singing.

“Away, I’m bound away,

Across the wide Missouri.”

***

Wooden clothespins clamped between her teeth Alice struggled to hang the clothes in the growing wind.   She looked up at the grey sky. Snow would be coming soon.  Arkady was off in the woods with the other men cutting wood for the winter.   Not an easy world this, but a good one from what they had seen of it. . During the past nine months they had made it their own. There was a freshness in the air, a sense of life  that the other had lacked. 

A distant voice off to her right spoke.

“Do you need any help?”

She looked at a man and woman watching her from across the yard.   They looked tired from travel.   The two began running towards her.

“Father? Mother?”

The clothespins tumbled to the ground.

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Islanders : Chapter Nineteen

The Visitors

Gehlen felt the white stubble on his face.  An old man now, he looked back at Gem still asleep.  She had also aged but only out of courtesy to him.  That should bother him he thought but what bothered him more was that long after she was gone she would remain alone here, except for Edward.

“But this is my home,” she had told him. “Where else should I be? Besides we won’t be the only couple that has been separated.”

Not for the first time Gehlen wondered why he did not resent being here, brought here as he had been under false pretences. He should have left. Gem would not have stopped him and probably not Edward.  Now he knew he never would.

When he returned to the bed Gem was sitting up watching a distant dhow slipping silently through the green Arabian Sea.  They were vacationing on a holographic recreation of the early twenty-first century Omani port of Salalah.

“It was a beautiful world, wasn’t it?” she asked as he slipped back into bed.

“Yes. It was.”

“I know that you miss it.”

“Well, you can only be at one place at one time.  I like it here.”

It had taken Gehlen a long time to believe that.  He had told her the truth about her life, holding back nothing, including the life of Jane Christian.

“She must have been a remarkable person?”

Gehlen nodded. “Yes. She was.”

She had said nothing more.

 As time passed she had revealed to him more and more of the secrets of the complex.  “In ancient times people would place objects in the ground for future generations to open”

“Time capsules?”

“Essentially that’s what this place is.”

“So who will open it?”

She smiled.  “I don’t know. Someone.”

He now knew that Gem had been transcribing and why, the original words of humanity’s great spiritual leaders and philosophers over the first five thousand years of written history.

“I’m trying to capture the best of what were humanity’s dreams.  Someone should remember them.”

“And the worst? Should that be remembered?”

“I think that’s already been done.”

“But who are you writing this for?  There is no one to read it.”

“Maybe someday there might be someone.”

“But why by hand?  The computer can do it within a few seconds.”

“That’s not how they were written. If we do it too easily, we forgot it too easily. Besides, not every culture has computers.”

Gehlen conceded that he would rather be here but the thought of having been used had left a bitter taste that it took many years to wash away.He had also learned why they were alone in the complex. “This world” Gem had told him “was the cradle of the human race.  Like all cradles, once its occupant grew up, it was left behind and forgotten.”

“So what happened to humanity?”

“It moved out across a thousand worlds. For all I know it’s still moving out.”

“Then it escaped extinction?”

“Yes and no. Its descendents live on but the race that you know does not exist anymore. Like all other species it changed.  The race that dreamed, that wrote those words, vanished a long time.”

Many things had been left behind and forgotten, left to moulder in forgotten closets. One had a papyrus roll curled inside a clay vase extracted by a time traveler from a burning house in a Jerusalem being pillaged by the Roman army. On it had been a gospel written in classic Aramaic.  But the brushstrokes were rough, the work of a man more used to the physical labour of a carpenter then that of a scholar.  A backwoodsman, abysmally ignorant of the world outside of his own land, knowing nothing of science and yet….as  Gehlen read the transcribed words, words that spoke of mercy and love, of the dignity inherent in  each human being he understood the need to preserve them.

Gem was now working on recording the words of Ahmoses, the renegade Egyptian prince and priest who had combined the Pharaoh Akenaton’s concept of Sun worship with the Habiru tribal concept of Yahweh.  Unable to accept the restoration of the old gods, he had fled into the wilderness of Sinai.

Stowed now the cot Gehlen had once used. Closed the cubicle that had once been Gem’s room.  Now they shared a two-bedroom apartment upon the ground floor just a step away from the trees and garden.  They only had to look out the large back window to see the tiny lake and thick green grass fringing it, the last speck of water on a planet most of whose surface had once been covered with oceans.  The spare bedroom Gehlen had converted into a library and study.

A steady beeping sound roused them from sleep.  They opened their eyes to see Edward,  dark tall and slim,  dressed in a white Omani robe and turban, his feet in black, open-toed sandles. “Sorry to interrupt you but we have visitors.”

Five people, three men and two women, stood in the portal room gaping open-mouthed at their surroundings. Gehlen recognized them immediately.  He was not surprised that they did not recognize him. Too many years had passed for him.

 “Do you know these people, Heinrich,” Gem asked.

“I knew them.”

Perhaps if he had been thinking more clearly Gehlen would not have done it. But so many years had passed since he had seen them. He forgot that for them the time had been far shorter.  He had also forgotten that there were some things time could not change.

They watched as the three approached. Two were strangers but the third, the old man, they identified almost at once, partly from what Louise had told them and simply from the way he looked and walked.

Better if he had died, thought Joanna. She studied the other man. Something strange about him, something, despite his bulk, ethereal As for the woman, from what who remained close to Gehlen she could imagine what kind of relationship existed between them. She wondered how she would feel once she knew the truth about her lover.

Gehlen greeted each of them by name.  When he greeted Joanna she stepped past him. “Do you really think that we came for you?”

 She stared down at Gem.

 “No. I never thought that.  I had just hoped though that…”

“That I had what. Forgot that you murdered my mother? That’s what kind of man he is” she said turning to Gem and pointing a finger at Gehlen.

Gem laid her right hand on Joanna’s arm and gently lowered it.  “I know what kind of a man he is.”

“No you don’t,” said Joanna.  She looked at the others, at Edward, and at the four companions. “None of you do.  None of you were there. But he was and he just sat there and let her die.”

Out of the silence that followed one voice spoke, Richard’s, sounding as if reciting well known facts to a class of children. “What kind of a daughter would leave her aged mother alone at the hands of such a man?”

Joanna, her face white, swiveled towards him. “How dare you say that?  It was what Jane wanted.  Not what I wanted. Never what I wanted.”

“I know.  What you did Joanna, was not wrong.  We all know that. But neither was what Gehlen did. Can’t you see?  He did what Jane wanted him to do, just as you did. From what I know of her, Jane never hated him. She never hated anyone, but she would hate what your hatred is doing to you. For her sake, please, end it.”

Joanna would not reply.  She thought of Jane and of herself, a fading, aging woman who had not once in a very long time come close to being what she should have been.  Is this all that life is she wondered.  She would never like Gehlen but she was tired of hating.  “For Jane and for you, Richard. I’ll try.”

She said nothing to Gehlen as she passed him. At least he was an old man.  He should die soon.  There would be peace for now.

“Louise sent us here,” said Daniel   “We are looking for some missing friends.”

Edward nodded. “Yes.  I know. Come with me.”

  He turned and walked out of the portal room. Gem caught up with him as he exited the room.

“When did you know about their coming” she asked Edward.

“About an hour before they arrived.”

“But how?”

“I don’t know. I just did. Programming I suppose.”

“Programming?”

“Programming.”

Gem thought for a moment.  “Louise?”

Edward nodded. “Maybe.”

Edward led them to the same canteen where Gehlen had once eaten solitary meals.  There they found two tables pushed together.  Seven chairs had been placed around the two tables. Seven empty glasses had also been placed on the tables as well as two pitchers of water.

Gehlen glanced at the wall upon which he had once seen a waterfall. The wall was a simple white blank.’

“Please sit,” said Edward.

The blank wall flickered. Louise sat on a folding chair perched on grassy slope. Dressed in jacket, black pants and boots she seemed to be resting after hiking through the pine trees behind her. It had been raining.  Her hair a sodden mat of black fringed her forehead.  Behind her could be heard the pattering of raindrops and the twittering of birds.

“Most if not all of you have no reason to trust me. I have been shameless in my use of you, especially of those I have known longest, Gem, Edward and Tom.  I am not asking for forgiveness for that. Two things I can promise you.  The first, and the one that most of you will be glad to hear, is that you will never hear from me again.  The second is that you are about to enter a world better then any than any that you have ever known.  The co-ordinates for this planet have been placed into the portal. They have also been transmitted to your home world.  Once you cross over you will no longer be dependent upon this portal.”

 The camera lens swung away from Louise sweeping past the trees and coming to rest upon a river valley.  In the distance could be seen fields and cabins, cabins that reminded Gehlen of the izbas that he had seen in Novy Rossiya. The green of the fields and trees bore a lushness he had not seen since before coming to Home.

The lens swung back to Louise who was sniffing a yellowish- white flower. 

Odd thought Gehlen.  She actually looked happy. Not just pleased or amused as he had often seen her in the past but completely happy.

“It has taken so long to find this world. Do you remember, Edward, Gem, we assumed that it would be so easy.  Earthlike worlds number in the millions.  Well, they do. The problem was finding one never touched by a human hand.”

Gem, rising, leaned towards the screen.  Edward motioned her to keep silent.

Louise continued. “The worse thing about living in a dying world is that it has no room for a dream.  The portal was the last vestige of your race.  We were its keepers, five being the ideal number for its maintenance without putting undue strain upon the planet’s dwindling resources.  Even at that we knew that we would be the last.  Three would leave for destined roles in a distant past.  Two would be left for maintenance and protection of the portal. Protection from what? Thomas was the one who first asked “why?””

“As the years passed we asked if there could not be another purpose? Three thousand years had passed since the last human child had been naturally upon our world.  We had extended life through manipulation of science.  Could we not extend life elsewhere?  Not be rewriting the past of a former world, no, but by extending to a place it had never been before.  We knew that somewhere in the vastness of space and time there had to be a world.  But finding it?”

“We never understood how long that would take. I’m sorry. I’m going on too long. All data concerning this planet is now being entered into your systems Edward. Once it’s done we can begin evacuation from the test world.”

“Oh, I should add that the specimens have adapted well; an occasional cold and skin rash but nothing serious. Gem. Edward, you can begin demolition.”

The image flicked off.

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Islanders : Chapter Eighteen

                      GEM            

      Eight hours passed each marked by the luminous hands of his watch. Everything else in the bathroom remained wrapped in dark silence. The door as automatic as any other in the portal had no manual override.  The air in the room, once cool and fresh was now stale and warm.  Again and again Gehlen had called out to be met with silence.  Repeated attempts to force the door had failed. After the fifth hour Gehlen told himself that he would die here.  Then as suddenly as the darkness had come, it was over.  The light came back.  Once more water gushed from the shower. 

                                        Gehlen, anxious to rid himself of the dried soap and perspiration, stepped back into the shower.  As the water poured down he made out a foggy figure in the glass of the shower stall. He slid the glass open to see Gem standing in the washroom doorway, dressed in her maintenance overalls. She seemed unabashed by his nudity. “I am sorry for what happened inspector. I’ve talked to him.  It will not happen again.” Then she turned and left. 

By the time that Gehlen  had dried and dressed she had vanished.  He asked the computer where  she was.  There was no reply. Cursing he went off to find her.

 Since coming he had gained a partial understanding of its geography.  Sixteen stories it stood from foundation to the abandoned observation deck.  In those sixteen floors were libraries, workshops, theatres , holodecks and gymnasiums and vast storage rooms containing the remains of human cultures extending aback a hundred thousand millennia.  They also contained silence.  Always silence.

          No footsteps echoed down the hallways, not even his own.  No humming could be heard from machinery.  Doors opened and closed in silence.  As he walked beneath high vaulted arches, he heard only his own breathing.  Only in the woods and gardens midst the soft rustle of leaves did there sound and life linger.  He had once seen Gem there standing beside a Jacaranda tree.  She was running a hand over its purple leaves.  Before she could notice him staring he had turned and looked away.

        Once he had opened a double set of doors to find the back of what seemed to be a lecture theatre.  Twenty rows, each row containing fifty seats separated him from a three-sided stage.  In the middle of the twenty-fifth row sat Gem.

      Odd her being there.  What need does a machine have of amusement?  Probably she was just checking the program.  Gehlen slipped into a chair in the back row.  On the stage he could see a holographic scene of a man standing on the summit of a hill. He looked up towards the man as if the scene had been filmed by someone sitting on a lower slope.  The speaker, his head covered by a rough homespun woolen shawl, had a face burnt by the sun, bearded, with strong Semitic features.  He seemed to Gehlen to be one most unprepossessing men her had ever seen.

He spoke in words that Gehlen could not understand.  Bored, he looked at Gem.  She had no trouble  understanding.  She wore earphones connected, Gehlen surmised, to a translating device.

Bent over an electronic notebook she was transcribing whatever it was that the speaker was saying..  Just part of her maintenance routine. Nothing more.  He slipped out of the room, closing the doors behind him, leaving Gem to her writing.    

Gehlen’s first night he had spent on the cot next to the portal as he would during the nights that followed. He had found it difficult to sleep that night   He had always found that sleep in a strange place would not come easily at first. He had sat at the computer until almost one, when too tired to concentrate upon the monitor he had fallen onto the cot. He had had only a dim sense of the lights fading before he tumbled into sleep.

        Sometime later, he stirred and then sat up. The room’s lights began to glow. He surmised that they were triggered by movement in the room. Clever but finding a washroom and getting a drink of water were his main concerns.

        As he rose he admitted that in a sense Tom and Eloise had kept their word. They had brought him to where he could find out all that he wished about Louise They had not however bothered to tell him how to get that information back home. He stretched his arms. A trip to the loo. A bite to eat and then back to the monitor.

                             There was a canteen just down the hall from the portal room. At least that was what Gehlen called it. The room was large enough to accommodate dozens. Now as he walked into it there was but one table, two chairs and a bowl of fresh cut flowers.

        Gehlen looked at the wall in front of him. A waterfall gushed over a tree lined cleft. Spindly towers rose above the mist. Above the faint roar of the cataract he could hear soft music reminiscent of Vivaldi   A holographic projection. Nothing more.

        “Turn it off” he told the computer.

        “Would you like another screen?”

        “No.”

                Between bites of his chicken sandwich he asked the computer “When does she eat?”

 “Gem?”

             “Is there anyone else?”

“ At 0600 hours she has breakfast. At 1200 she has lunch. At 1800 she has dinner.”

             Gehlen nodded. He reminded himself not to be in the canteen at those.

                “But..”.

 “Yes?” A hesitant computer was something Gehlen had to grow used to

. “She does not eat here.”

  Of course thought Gehlen. There would have been other canteens in a complex of this size although with only two patrons, using more then one seemed a little wasteful. The Bureaucratic mind never changed. Systematic to the end. “So where does she eat?” .

“  Sub level six north wing, room 18.”

“  Is that a canteen.”

            Again the computer seemed to hesitate. “For maintenance workers.”

              “I see.”    If the voice had been human Gehlen would have smiled a lie. He put down his sandwich. As he did his gaze fell upon the blue and white flowers in the simple black vase. If she did not eat here, he wondered, then why the flowers?  

           Gem. Genetically engineered mechanism. Created to maintain this portal. A biological life form yes, but designed as one would have designed a new style of automobile in his own world. No free will. No soul. A machine in all but appearance.  

         What Gehlen expected to see in the maintenance staff canteen was an equivalent of the one he had eaten in. What he saw when the door slid open was very different.

           The room stank of earth, of unwashed human bodies and of rotting scraps of food. The heavy moist air pressed down. Around a large unbaked clay bowl a band of what Gehlen could only call hairy, dirty half-naked savages scooped out with their hands hunks of boiled meat using northing but their hands. Among them long black hair straggling down over her forehead, clad only in a shift of crude wool crouched Gem. Noticing him she looked up. Beneath the dirt and straggling hair she smiled. “Would you like some,” she asked.

        Gehlen looked for a moment, at her, at the room, at the creatures. Then he turned and left.

          The next morning wearing white overalls, her hair tied back she stepped into the portal room for her usual inspection. Gehlen grunted a neutral reply to her greeting and did not look up from the monitor.

                                “Something wrong, inspector>”       

               Gehlen looked up. “I saw you last night, eating like a savage,” he said. He tried to limit the disgust in his voice.

            “Was I? Does that offend you?”

            “May I ask why?”          

    She hesitated.  “I want to know what being human means.”

              “That was not human.”

              “Wasn’t It? For much of your history that’s what your species was like.  Actually

I’ve programmed the holograph to create a different dining experience every night

drawing from every known historical and cultural era. No two are ever the same. The

one you saw was a hut in seventh century Scotland. The deer stew was rather good.”

 ”            Does this cultural training include cannibalism?”

            “That was a phase in the evolution of the species. However. I did put some limits to

the program. That was one of them.”

”            That’s something,” muttered Gehlen, still looking down at the monitor.

                “I just want to know what it’s like to be human.”

             He looked up, humphed and then looked back down. “You? You’re nothing more than a machine, a glorified toaster. How could you ever conceive of what it would be like to be human. To be human is to die. To live knowing that someday you will not be. Know how to die. Then you’ll know what it’s like to be human.”

              “You have seen death?”

                “Yes.” Gehlen remembered an old woman dying on a tiny island far away in another time.  “I have seen death. Be who you are meant to be Gem. You’ll … be happier that way.”

                “A glorified toaster? How does a toaster know happiness?”

 ”               I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.” How does one apologize to a machine?  “Anyway, if you’re that determined to find out about humanity, why not just leave, like the others did?”

 ”             I can’t. Excuse me. I should not … I have other posts to see.”

”             Inspector coming is he?”

              Gem frowned, gave a puzzled smile and hurried out.  Bad joke thought Gehlen

                He could not say that he disliked Gem. How does one dislike a machine? She … It had been made for a purpose to maintain the portal. Fine.  She had her work to do. He had his.

                Later at the computer, having attempted for the seventeenth time to find the combination that would lead him back to his own world her decided to ask the computer another question

“Where is Gem’s room?”

The apartments that the builders had provided were generous in size, full one bedroom apartments on the upper floors. He expected that Gem’s would be similar.

Then the computer told him to go down to the bottom level. Gehlen nodded. “Servant’s quarters” he thought.

                 Every door in the complex had two lights beside them, a green and a red. The green indicated that the door was unlocked. Since arriving Gehlen had not seen a red light lit on any door. Gem’s door proved to be no different.

                        He almost missed the room. The door had no identifying marks on it, looking as it opened onto to a broom closet. The room indeed was not much larger then that, a windowless cubicle. Inside was a cot similar to the one he used, a washbasin, a small table and chair. There was no computer, no holoviewer. But there were books, old fashioned, paper based books. Charming in an antiquated way. Notebooks as well. One lay open on her desk. In neat handwriting words had been written, entitled “Sermons of Saint Thomas.”

                        He leafed through the document, feeling amused by the oddity of it all. Information that been electronically documented millennia before, she was writing down. Above the desk a small shelf contained a dozen similar notebooks.

                        As he looked through them Gehlen could imagine at her desk through the centuries to come writing down words that no one would ever read. What a waste of resources. As he looked through them Gehlen could imagine at her desk through the centuries to come writing down words that no one would ever read. That was a machine for you; systematic in even the most pointless of tasks.

                                                                                ***        

                        He found her sitting on the edge of her bed reading from one of her notebooks. “Yes inspector?”

                “Why did the power go off?”

                “You upset him.  You didn’t intend to I know. Personally I think he overreacted.”

“But what did I do?”

 She closed her book and stood.  “You told him that he could let Eloise come back at any time.”

“So?”

“Eloise is like a sister to him. She crossed over without a remote.  She can’t come back.”

  “But all that he has to do is to open the portal for her.’

“He can’t.  The portal can only be opened by you or I, not by him.”

“I see.” Yes that would   account for some frustration, if you could call it that. “Then just tell him to open the portal to allow her to come back.”

“She never came back.”

               Gehlen was about leave when Gem asked him “’you’ve been in my room before, haven’t you?”

                “Yes.”

                “If you wanted to see it, you could have asked. I understand that’s what they do in your society.”

                “People, yes. We don’t ask for permission from machines” “

            .She led him to the portal   “Come with me, pleas.”   He watched  her fingers reach out and begin typing on the keyboard.

The portal hummed.

           He looked up to see Gem’s quiet frown.

“That’s your way home,” She said. “Goodbye inspector.”

                Perhaps it was her voice but for some reason Gehlen felt impelled to explain.

“Your room wasn’t locked..

                “Why would it have to be?”

                Gehlen looked down at the monitor and then at the portal. He could see trees and hills, similar to his own residence at Home. No. Not similar. They were the same.

                “Please enter the portal now,” the machine intoned.  “It is not wise to leave it open longer then necessary”.

                He looked at the disappearing back of Gem the door sliding shut behind her

                “You knew?” he asked her.

                    The door closed.

                He looked back at the portal. “Save the co-ordinates and shut down.”  Dashing out into the hallway he saw only the elevator doors sliding shut.

                Returning to the portal he slumped into the chair beside the monitor. A minute passed. He considered what he should do. Go home he told himself.

                “She knew,” he repeated.

                An indignant middle-class English accent flowed out of the monitor “Of course she knew. If you had ever bothered asking she would have told you. A bit too honest is Gem. She didn’t have to tell you about herself but she did.”

Gehlen was about to tell the machine to shut itself down to find that he was not looking at a machine but at a man, a man who resembled ancient photographs of King Edward the Seventh of  Britain, complete with white suit, straw boater and silver-handled walking stick..

“When I get bored of being in the console I’ll roam about the place.  Good company for Gem to some extent, but that’s neither here nor there.” He pointed at Gehlen with  the brass tip of  the stick.  “The issue is not me, Inspector.  The issue is you You’ve been acting like a twenty-first century prig ever since you got here. And don’t tell me to shut down. I’m not going to. By the way inspector my name is Edward. I believe it was considered polite to use names in your time.”

“Edward?”

“Yes. I always liked the sound of it.  So…. regal.”

A machine who thought himself a king. Wonderful. “I see. Tell me about Gem, if you don’t mind..

            The computer toned its soft staccato of information “A genetically enhanced biological creation, designed to maintain ….”

            “No. I mean, tell me about her … as a … as an individual.”

            The computer spoke again this time with a soft middle-class English accent.

            “I was wondering when you would ask that.

            “Edward? What does that stand for?    Did the … thing, Ed, think himself to be the manifestation of a long dead monarch?”

            Edward smiled and shrugged.  “Nothing. As I said, I just like the sound of it. When I’m in a particular mood or out of a whim I just adopt an name or personality. Anyway, you wished to know about the individual named Gem”

            “Yes.”

            She is very important to us. Monitors register every moment of her life.  The moment those life signals are absent the entire portal to self destruct. She can leave but she never will. Her sense of duty, of belonging here, is our defense. When she is gone no one will be able to seize the portal ”         

            “Are there no other visitors here?”

            “The last visit before you came occurred one hundred and eighty – seven of your Earth years. As I recall, a party of three. They stayed long enough to have supper, check their co-ordinates and went on to thirty-first P.I. Earth.

            “P.I.?”

“Post-Industrial.  Mind you that visit was before Gem’s time.”

“So she has  never …”

“Never had a visitor. No she never has.  She’s quite happy that you’re here.”

“Happy? I hardly ever see her.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Did she bring me here?”

No. To her you’re a visitor. No, that was Louise’s idea.”

Gehlen nodded. “Why am I not surprised.”

Edward seemed to sound an audible shrug. “Louise never did believe in letting things alone. Well-intentioned though.  Of course we can not rule out the possibility of visits in the future. It is not … impossible.”

“But not likely.”

“Not likely. Yes.”

“Does … Gem know this?”

“Of course. Why should she not?”

But if no one comes, why stay here? She can go anywhere. In time. In space.”

“Yes. Anywhere, except here. This is her home.. She will never leave here. Once she does this world dies. All the others had worlds awaiting them, to which they belonged.  Gem didn’t. There is no other world to which she belongs. This is her world. She will live here. During that long life she will protect it to the best of her ability   Then she will die here. Our last guardian, Gem. After her this will all end.”

“”They should not have left her here.”

“Why not. They have their destiny. She has hers

”      Destiny? More like programming.”

       “Is there a difference?”

”       I thought she was immortal”

”      No one and northing is immortal, except time.  I would like you, to share your life with her for a moment.  Nothing more.”

        “Nothing more? So I am to be kept a prisoner here.”

.        “A guest. You may leave anytime you choose. You have the co-ordinates.”

         “How do I know that they’re real?”

”        Gem and I are capable of many things. Lying is not one of them.”

”       She had them. She wouldn’t give them to me.”

”        She would have if you had asked her.”

”     But she knew and so did you. You are capable of deceit.”

”     Yes. That much is true.”

”    So why should I trust you?”

”    Because right now we’re all that you have. I can take you back to your world at any time of your choosing.  All I’m asking is a few days to give Gem a chance to know an actual human being. Something to remember in the long years to come.”

  ”  So I’m to be her guest? One week. Then I go.”

”  Agreed.”

There was one last thing, 

“If I upsetyou, I apologize for that.  It was not my intent.”

Edward nodded.  “No harm done.”

“What happened to Eloise?”

“What usually happens.  She lived.  She died.  You had better go.”

                                                                                            ***                                                                                         Only one chair remained at the table in the canteen.  There was no bowl of flowers. As he looked at the bare table Gehlen wondered if Gem had been waiting for him to invite her to join him   As he chewed his sandwich Gehlen considered what he had to do. Gem had her responsibility to the portal. He had to respect that. He had his own.  He would go back. He would watch her sometimes when she was too busy to notice. She was always busy.  He had been like that. As long as one kept busy one did not have to think too much about one’s own life.

A week should be enough time. She was already well on her way to disliking him. Another week should finish the job. She would be glad to see the back of him.

            Strange though to think to that through the centuries to come she would here standing guard waiting to receive those who would never come. Universes awaited her. She could pick and choose any. Instead she would remain here. Pointless. Just pointless. As much as his own life had been?

                                                                            ***

            She sat at a crude split log table in a cabin that seemed out of the eighteenth-century American frontier, complete with dried mud between the logs and a long-barreled rifle above the door.  She was eating from a bowl carved out of the burl of an oak tree.  In her hand she held a pewter spoon. An impressive stage setting thought Gehlen but that was all that it was. Apart from Gem there was no other sign of any other inhabitants and on the frontier life was lived communally. The program should have known that or perhaps Gem had just wanted to be alone. It was her natural state.

            “Do you mind if I join you?”             

            She looked up from her bowl. Juice dripped from the spoon as she looked at him.  “I thought that you had left.”

            “No rush. I decided to take you up on that dinner invitation. If that’s all right with you?”

            She smiled.  Odd that, thought Gehlen.  It had been so long since anyone had ever smiled at the idea of his company.

            “I should wash my hands first.”

           “Yes.” 

          She pointed at a white earthenware pitcher and basin in a corner.  As he washed she went to fetch another bowl for the table.

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Islanders : Chapter Seventeen

Dongass

Perhaps it was boredom, perhaps a muted memory of Gem sitting alone in the lecture theatre.  Perhaps his professional instinct told him that to solve mystery he might first have to solve another. Whatever the reason, Gehlen decided on another tact. 

            “All files related to Gem.”

The screen remained blank.  Gehlan repeated his request.

The monitor replied with one word, a word he had never heard from a machine before. “Why?”

“Because I said so.”

“As you wish.”

Twelve million six hundred and fourty seven thousand nine hundred and four articles related to the topic Gem.  Gehlen sat back in his chair.  Two things he knew about machines.  They had no sense of humour, they never lied and no imagination.  All were prerogatives of humans. Try being more specific. “Gem: history and development”

            “9, 375,625 articles related to topic”

A little progress thought Gehlen.  “Article one.”

A brief history of genetically enhanced mechanisms

“How brief is brief” Gehlen asked more to himself then to the computer.

“658 pages, including schematics and holographic illustrations.”

A moment passed. Gehlen could imagine the computer silently cackling. No. Impossible.  Machines do not have a sense of humour.

“Is there a … shorter version?”

“Shorter?”

“Condensed.”  Gehlen was tempted to say simplified but decided against it.

“I could summarize the main points.  It would take a few seconds.”

The voice sounded faintly patronizing. Perhaps it was only Gehlen’s imagination. “Do it.”

The summary was only one hundred and twenty-three pages long. As he scanned it he summarized the summary. It spoke of biomechanics, of synthetic human tissue and of the development of artificial intelligence, matters that Gehlen had scant knowledge of and even less interest. 

When did artificial intelligence cease being artificial? What it did speak to him of was an evolutionary process that had taken place over thousands of years. The pages e summed up in one short sentence.  “They’re not human.”  Eloise, Louse, Tom and this Gem.  Glorified pieces of machinery, nothing more.

Never argue with a machine. Tell it what to do. If it fails to obey, replace it.  This however was a machine that could not be replaced.  Humour it.

   He could see the beginnings in his own time. A declining population in many countries had been  coupled with the growing need of machines to fill more and more tasks once performed by humans. That much Gehlen could understand.  One thing he could not. “But why become like us, replicating even our body functions?”

“Are there not tales of humans striving to become like the gods?”

“We are not gods.”

“To us you were. You gave us life. Did you not believe in Gods once?”

    “Once. You don’t believe that we are still Gods?”

“No.  Not Gods.  Something better.  Human.”

Gehen shook his head. “You’re speaking of a race that slaughtered hundreds of millions of its own kind.”

“I know.”

“I’ve seen humans as they are not as you think they were.”

“All of them?”

“I’ve seen enough.”  He thumped the red button.  The monitor flicked off.
            A world of machines. As he lay on his cot, Gehlen considered what he had learned.   Every interpretation of the future that he had thought of had involved some form of human society. Here it had been replaced by machines. Eloise, Bascombe and Louise. Machines.   That would explain their longevity. As for the supposed deaths o f Eloise and Bascombe, those would have been easy enough to fabricate.  Glorified can openers.  One thing he knew. He could not stay here.  Yet he could not leave, at least not before finding out the truth about the truth about the Bascombes and about Eloise

  The Bascombes had always puzzled him.  On both Bouvet and Pitcairn agents had told that they must remain inconspicuous when traveling into the past to protect themselves from both local temporals and futurists.  The Bascombes had been about as subtle as bulls running through a crowded shopping mall. They had drawn the agents to them Why? He could accuse the Bascombes of many things, but of stupidity?  The agency’s interest in the Bascombes had stemmed from Joanna Dzingira’s failed expedition to Pigeon Island.

   Gehlen sat up on his cot.  No, the Bascombes had not been stupid at all.

Clad only in briefs he rose and sat at the monitor.

“Did Eloise Miller die in 1951?”

“No.”

   “Where did she go?”

   “Dongass.”

 “Dongass? What’s that?”

    “Now, nothing.  Once it was one of the poorest villages in one of the poorest districts of the poorest continent of your world. In the mid 1950’s in a place called the French Sudan.”

“So why would she be there?”

“Why indeed.”

Gehlen disliked being played with.  “Just answer the question.”

“Because History told her to go there, just as with your friends Tom and Louise.”

“They’re not my friends.  Take me to Eloise.”

“As you wish but….”

“Well?”

“Wouldn’t you like to get dressed first?”

***

The monitor always sounded as if it were lecturing him. “Due to energy constraints I can only keep the monitor open for five minutes at any one time.” Gehlen nodded. Nothing unusual in that.  One never kept a portal open longer then necessary.

  “It will take another sixty minutes to recharge it.”

“I understand .”       

“You may be exposing yourself to an unnecessary risk.”

“I’ve already done that. Proceed.”

The early morning air was surprisingly cold. Gehlen could not keep from shivering. He stood on a barren plain, its stony surface marked only by an occasional thorn bush. In front of him rose a mountain of bare rock.   At the base of it date palms spoke of water and of life.  He walked towards the trees.

She sat on a folding chair in front of a khaki-coloured canvas tent pitched in the sheltering shade of an acacia tree.  Six temporal years had passed but she seemed to have aged far more then that. The sheen of her hair had faded to a lifeless grey fringe cropped short above her ears.  Her face had been hardened by the unforgiving sun into browned leather. In front of her a coffee pot steamed heated by a small fire.

From across the fields she could hear the voice of the muezzin calling the village to waken to another day of too much labour and too little food.  In about three hours a trickle of children would come to her, those that could be spared from he fields and huts, those in need of first aid.  As they sat around her chair she would teach them a smattering    of French, of arithmetic, of geography and tell them stories.  No books. No equipment. No means of getting any. What else could she do?

One cold morning she had walked in from the dessert. Others had come before her, Taureg, Arab and French.  They had all wanted something from the village, food, water, women.  The villagers would give the travelers what they wanted and they would leave.

She had asked for nothing.  The villagers assuming that she was lost told her in broken French how to get on the trail to Fort Lamy.  Replying in perfect Hausa she had told them that she was not going to Fort Lamy or to anywhere else.

She picked up a large red narrow-necked earthenware jug. Clear cool water poured into a tin mug.  A cup of coffee would complete her breakfast. As she sipped Eloise looked at the village, a cluster of clay beehive huts, conical roofs of yellowed straw.  A field of parched millet shielded by a waist-high fence of thorn bushes offered scant protection against another hungry year.  She thought of the gift that little Miriam had brought her the day before, four eggs. Such a precious gift had to be treated with suitable respect. After much consideration she had decided to make am omelet to be shared with the children.

  As she lowered the jug the air in front of her campsite shimmered.

“Gehlen.”

His eyes blinked in the bright light.  He should have remembered to bring a hat. What should he say to her?

“So you faked your death.”

“I prefer to think of it as a transfer.” She smiled. “Disappointed?”

Gehlen chose not to answer. 

She poured herself a cup of millet porridge. “It was time for me to leave.  I let the boat drift off into a storm. So you found me.  Louise always said that you would.  Would you like some porridge?”

  “No thank you.” Any answer would be greeted with either another question or with meaningless generalities.  Best to get to the point. “What are you doing here?”

She shrugged.  “I came because the portal said that this is where I should have been for this period. “Choice is not part of our training.”  

“So what is?”

   “I know that you must be angry with us for leaving you stranded at the portal, but we only promised to take you there, not to stay with you.  How is Gem?”

“Gem?”

“Quite special, our Gem.”

   “Gehlen shrugged.  “If you say so.” He turned to a more important matter.  “Why are you here?”

    She smiled.  “Shouldn’t I be asking that?”

  “I’m still looking for my missing people.  You must miss the island?”

“Every day.  But once the government automated the lighthouse, I couldn’t stay.”

Pity. The French think that I’m a communist.  The imam thinks that I’m a missionary.”

Tell me inspector.  Why do think I’m here.”

Gehlen  ignored the question. “What do you want of me?”

“Nothing.  I never asked you to come. I’m not responsible for your actions anymore then you are responsible for mine. There is a small French garrison two days walk south of here but I suppose that you’ve made other arrangements.”

“Your portal?”

“There is no portal here.  There never will be.”

“Then how did you get here?”

“Same way you did but leaving is not the same as coming.”

He glanced at her bare wrists.  She was not wearing a remote. He surmised that she would have a remote transmitter somewhere. Within the tent he could see a folding cot similar to the one he slept one, a wooden box with a red cross painted on it, a handful of cooking utensils a cloth bag of extra clothes.  Perhaps the remote was buried under the clothes.

“The portal opens in an hour.  Come back with me.”

Eloise shook her head.  “I belong here.”  She handed him a cup of porridge. 

He sipped the watery white mush. “Louise told me once that only one generation does not have to worry about travelers from the future.  Now I know what generation that was.  Your generation.  The last.’

“The last. Have you any idea what that means? A life without a future. This village poor as it is, loves its children.  They give their lives a sense of purpose.  Perhaps that’s what we lacked most.  A reason for being.  For a very long time keeping the portal seemed to give us that purpose.”

“So what changed?”

“What changed? Mankind I suppose. As their numbers dwindled, as more and more of them left escaping into the past, into other worlds, the guardians, the four of us, were left to tend the portal to keep it for those who would come.  So we did, but one thing they neglected. A culture that lives only for the present has no future.  We wanted a future, more then just tending the portal.  Something like being on the island, watching ships going past knowing that you never be on one.”

“So you were built to serve the portal?”

“Bred to serve the portal. Yes.”

“But that wasn’t enough for you?”

“No. It wasn’t.  Amazing as it the great portal is still just a thing, nothing more.”

“That was why we brought you there, to let you understand what it is like there.”

“What brought me there was a failure in my remote.  Louise wouldn’t have had anything to do with that?”

Eloise smiled. “Louise was always less ….”

“Scrupulous?”

 “Cautious.”

“But why me?”

“I can’t say for certain but from what I’ve observed of you I can hazard a guess.”

“Well?”

“Something I should tell you. Do you remember the helicopter that attacked us?”

“Of course.”

“A holographic projection, nothing more.”

“A … projection?”

“We thought that it would stimulate your interest.  I am sorry about that.”

“And this village?  Is that a projection as well?”

  “Oh no, it’s real.  It’s very real.”

“So how do I know that?

“A projection can be seen and heard. You can’t smell it. You can’t touch it.”

“Then maybe I’ll wander over to the village.  I have an hour.”

   “I should warn you that they don’t like strangers here.  Strangers bring trouble.”

“Aren’t you a stranger?”

“They’ve gotten used to me.  Besides I’m just a woman.”

“So I should stay away from it, far enough away to keep from touching it or smelling it.”

  “You think that I can help you find your missing people?”

    “Do you know where they are?”

“No.  But … I may know why they are missing.”

    Louise might have done it she thought .Given enough time anything was possible.

   “The problem with developing intelligence is that at a sufficiently high level it develops self-awareness. Once that happens there is no controlling its development, its dreams.”

“As the centuries passed we wondered if it would be possible to create a second age for mankind. We considered the analogy, if you’ll forgive me, of zookeepers.”

“Zookeepers?”

“Scientists of your own time who to keep an endangered species alive would collect specimens and place them in a protected environment allowing their numbers to increase.  Then after a while they would be returned to the wild.  We wondered if we could do the same with the human species. “

“Did you?”

“Not in my time. There were two problems.  Where would we keep the specimens?  Where would we release them? Then Louise came up with half the solution.  Simply use one planet, at different times. But she couldn’t solve the final problem Then Louise came up with half the solution.  But she couldn’t solve the final problem.” 

  “Which was?”

“The planet itself.  You must understand that our existence is based upon two principles.  We never knowingly interfere with the past and we never place humanity in danger.  We had to know that any planet chosen would have to safe for man kind even at the microbial level and that it was not inhabited by any self-aware species. In all the ages and all the timelines that we knew of, we never found such a planet.”

   “Interesting, but what has this got to do with the missing?”

“Louise probably found her planet. I can’t be certain.  After all it was after my time but two things I do know. She would never hurt anyone. The other is that Thomas would never leave this world.”

A trail of red dust snaked through the fields towards the cluster of huts. A brown goat darted past them bleating in fear.  It all looked real enough thought Gehlen but then so had the helicopter.

“Bilharzia, river blindness, yaws, malaria, leporasy.  Then there are the manmade diseases, corruption and misgovernment.  What is not taken in taxes is skimmed off by bribes.  The young men work on the roads to pay the taxes, roads that never come to their village.  Women and old people tend the fields.

A little girl, water jug balanced on her head passed them.

“Sannu Fatima” said Eloise.

The girl replied with a shy smile. “Sannu Malama Eloise.”

Another small head popped out of the entrance to a hut.

The little boy squealed. “Baturi korago,”

“Red-skinned foreigner,” said Eloise.  “Their general term for Europeans.”

     They walked on.  The little boy ran up to Gehlen.  He touched Gehlen’s pant leg and then run back into his hut.

Eloise smiled. “He just wants to know if you are real.”

Gehlen nodded. He watched two women pounding millet into flour.  They glanced at them and turned back to the all consuming task of making food. Yes, they seemed real enough.

***

The air in front of the campfire began to shimmer.

    “What do you plan to do now?” he asked Eloise.

 “Survive. This is where I belong now. You had better go.  He won’t keep the portal open for much longer.’

His last sight of her was her sitting by the fire.  Soon she would follow.  Why would she want to stay?

                                                            ***

“So how is Eloise?” asked the monitor.

“Eloise? Fine.  Ask her yourself.  I’m going to take a shower.”  He could still feel the grit in his hair and on his skin.

The moisture of the hot heat soaked his skin making him feel clean again.  He was rubbing shampoo into his air when the water stopped. 

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Filed under Islanders, Science Fiction

Islanders : Chapter Sixteen

The Guardians

                Goddamn machine.  Gehlen stirred on the cot pulling the blanket tighter around him. Who would have thought that she was a god damn robot? He pressed his eyes and waited for a sleep that would not come. It should come. It had been a long, long tiring day As he lay in the dark on the cot next to the desk and the viewer, he considered what he should think of Gem.

                His discovery of her true nature had begun with a simple question.  The question had been formed ads he had watched her kneeling on the floor cleaning up her mess.  How could such a pathetically weak creature ever command a serious position of responsibility.  Surely there must be others he could speak to?  “Are you the only human being here?”

                “No.”

                “Thenwhere are the others?”

                She looked up at him with a puzzled expression. “Others?”

                “Other humans.”

                She shook her head “There are no others.” She smiled.  “Except for you.”

                “Then … if there are no others who are you?” 

                “A guardian.”

                “Bascombe and Louise, are they also….?”

                “Yes.  No human has been here for over two thousand years.  They left us here to protect the portal until the time that they choose to return.”

                “Except that the guardians have left, except for you.”

                “Yes.”

                “So the guardians, they are not human?”

                Sadness tinged her words.  “I do not have that honour.”

                “So what are they?”

                 “Artificial biological creation built by the last humans to maintain the portal. “

                 What then should he call it? Her?  Sailors ands astronauts called their ships “she.” Countries were often referred to as being female. He surmised that he could continue to refer to her as a she.  Even so ships and countries were things, not people, goddam it. Gem was neither a boat nor a country but neither, through her own admission was she a person.  A human was a human. Why confuse the two? Granted she was nothing as crude as being made from machine parts. Instead according to what she had told him, her kind including the Bascombes and Louise had been bred from artificially created genes, and shaped over generations to serve human kind. Resembling humans and yet not human. Incapable of reproduction. Incapable of creative thought as well he surmised.  Caretakers, they had served the guardians and the portals. Now there were no guardians. There remained only Gem, one solitary caretaker maintaining the portals in the slim hope that someday someone would need it.

                Trailing at a cautious distance, Gehlen had followed Gem as she had shown him what she had called her garden. Having disposed of the glass fragments in a recycling bin inserted in the wall, she placed the palm of her right hand on a silver panel. The panel shone and then faded into nothingness. Through the narrow gap Gehlen could see a grove of sycamore trees and a walkway formed by white flagstones and broad leafed sycamore trees.

                Gem stepped upon the path. Then she beckoned to Gehlen. “Come.”

                The path wound through the trees. Gehlen wanted to return to the console but without the thing he was helpless here so he followed.

                She led him over an arched stone bridge below which a creek tumbled towards a lake in the center of the clearing.  A gazebo of glistening white marble dominated the centre of the clearing..

                “It’s where the guardians liked to picnic until they left.”

                “Left?”

                Gem shrugged. “They always leave.”

                “Why?”

                “I suppose they just get tired of looking.”

                Gehlen thought of Tom Bascombe standing on a tiny dock, of Louise tending her lighthouse.  He could understand some of what was happening.  Louse to stop his inquiries had had exiled him to this place. This Gem acted as a spy and guard to keep him under control. They had cast him into this prison, a prison that needed neither bars nor doors. Time was the jailor. To escape all he had to do was to step into another timeline and he would himself stranded unable to get out Was that the trap? Was that why Gem had never left? “And you? Do you get tired?”

                “Me?” She smiled. “No. This is what I was bred for.  Would you like to know why they built this place?”

                The reason that you are willing to give me thought Gehlen. He pretended to be absorbed in examining a small bronze of an old man’s head.                                     

                `”In each timeline that developed time travel; some form of guardians appeared, at least those willing to proclaim themselves to be guardians. But soon very soon they realize that protecting means controlling.  So how do you protect time without controlling it? First come the dreamers, the fantasists the scientists, the technicians. Then the politicians, the bureaucrats and the military come seeking the power that it promised. To do that they change time; shaping it to fit their own purposes. The guardians became their enemy.  As had happened so many times before, Technology had raced ahead of ethics.”

                “So how do you stop them?”

                “There’s only one way to stop them. You change humanity itself.”

                “They’ve been talking about that since Plato’s Republic. It’s always failed.”

                “No. It hasn’t. It’s just taken a very long time.”

                “You’re one of these better people are you?”

                “Me?  No. I’m just a caretaker.”

                How long had she been here he wondered. Her body shone of youth but not her eyes. She admitted that she did not know how long she had been in she had resided in the meeting place. “It’s hard to tell. I know that it sounds ironic but here time doesn’t mean much at least not to us.  You can keep a clock or watch if you wish and base it on portal time.”

                “Bascombe, Louise. Where they a new improved species?”

                “Not really. They would be here if they were, wouldn’t they?”

                “They were the elders?”

                “There were no elders, at least not as Foley believed. “

                “But the others at the meeting with Foley…”

                “Were just computer projections, nothing more. The only actual elder if you want to call her that, was Louise”

“So the whole basis of the guidelines that founded the settlements rests upon an agreement with a race that does not exist? She lied.”

“Yes she did, but does that make the guidelines wrong?”

                “I’m sorry?”

                “You do not kill because of your belief in a god. If that god dies, should you then kill? In your culture do adults not tell lies to small children? Tales of Santa Claus, Father Christmas, fairies and giants.”

                “We’re not children.”

                “Aren’t you? You spend enough time acting like them, just like Matthew.”

                “Matthew?”

                “A gentle, sweet, brilliant man but to save his sister he was only too willing to believe any lie.”

                “So Louise lied to him?”

                “Of course she did. What else could she do?”

                “She could have tried the truth.”

                “But what would she have based it on? For someone to accept what you call the truth, you must possess the frame of reference to understand it.  Why do you think so many holy men and women have met such bad ends?  People will insist in seeing the universe in terms that they can understand. Matthew was no different from anyone else. That leads me to the second great discovery that always accompanies time travel. Alternate timelines.”

“In every story about time travel. We always considered it from our viewpoint. That’s very understandable. Every sentient being views themselves as the centre of existence. It cannot be helped. Each is determined to survive to protect itself to see the other as threats. Yet each because of the technological and intellectual sophistication required to build a portal ultimately realizes that the survival of their timeline depends upon respecting the right of every other timeline. to exist. So this place was built.”

                “Why? What is this place.”

                “The central portal. It is a neutral ground where all travelers may meet in peace. At least it was. You never studied the future did you Mister Gehlen?”

                “No.”

                “No. Of course not. It was forbidden. Still Is. Except that now that future is your past. Now it is open to you.  When this was built we were at that time between youth and age when all things seemed possible .The dreams of a hundred thousand millennia ours to play with as a child would play with a toy. “

                “What happened?”

                “What always happens. They got old. You should feel proud of them. They were your descendents.”

                Gehlen wondered if Australopithecus would have felt proud of homo sapiens. “What about the settlements?  What happened to them?”

                “The settlements? Ah. They succeeded temporarily, like everything else in history.  Come let me show you the house.”

                He trailed Gem as she led him back into the portal. A silent elevator carried up to the upper floors, the living quarters.  She showed him the apartment that would be his .From the number of the rooms and the size of the dining room and kitchen he surmised that it could easily accommodate at least a dozen persons. As he walked the halls and examined the rooms he kept hoping that he would see something that would indicate that Louise had once lived there. From the exercise room, sauna, and swimming pool he had followed Gem, saying little, looking always for some trace of Louise. The search had left him tired and depressed. 

                “Do you have a cot?”

                “A cot?”

                “A folding bed designed for one person.”

                “I know what a cot is.”

                “Do you have one?”

                “Somewhere.”

                “I’ll set it up next to the console.”

                “The console?”

                “I’ll take my meals there as well.”

                “But what about the apartment?”

                “What about it?  I’ll need a razor. I assume there’s a washroom there.”

                “There are … sanitary facilities.”

                “Good.”

                He did not say another word until reaching the main control room.

                Placing his hands on the console he looked down at her silver screen.

                “So it was built to protect the timeline?”

                “No. To protect all the timelines.  This is neutral territory open to all.”

                “A cross roads?”

                “Yes.”

                “Then one road should take me back home, shouldn’t it?”

                `If one were to b e a prisoner thought Gehlen one should at least live like one. As he lay in the dark Gehlen comforted himself with the two certainties of his life. He was a competent policeman, methodical, honest, and efficient. He was also a man incapable of any deep emotional depths. He could observe.  He could analyze. He could never feel.  The memory of his role in Jane Christian’s death, his willingness to  use Richard as a tool to pry open his entry into Home and the image of that fat slug, his father running towards abandoning his wife and child to save himself were enough  to remind him of what he was.

                Louise had called them the guardians.  On Bouvet Island the patrollers had been guardians. Guardians of what?  Guardians for who? Who was wrong? Who was right? The agency.  Home? Only one could be be right but what if both were wrong?

                Gehlen sat the console considering what he should ask. Gem and the computer had advised him to read the manual.  He would be damned if he would told what to do by machines.

                “Where am I?”

                “Nowhere. Everywhere. Next question please.”

                “How many timelines are there?”

                “Number of known time lines as of, this moment. 3,679,832.”

                 Gehlen sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. This could take a while. At Home they had accepted the reality of alternative timelines. In theory their number stretched into infinity but this had been the concern of travelers and scientist not of police inspectors.  People had lived on earth for centuries aware of the infinity of space without being unduly concerned about it.

                Where would Louise have gone? Always start at the beginning.

                “Could I have a look at timeline one?”

                “Timeline one?”

                “That’s what I said.”

                “As you wish.”

                The computer emitted a soft hum.  As it hummed Gehlen closed his eyes and pondered what Timeline One would be like. Was it one becsue it was the earliest in time, some dark prehistoric past

                He opened his eyes to see …. nothing.   Well, not nothing. He could see the monitor and portal room  but nothing  had changed.

                “Computer?”

                “Yes.”

                “Where are we?”

                “Timeline one, as you requested.”

                “But we haven’t moved.”

                “Exactly.”

                Gehlen wondered if computers knew how to smirk.  “Explain.”

                In your manual under the synopsis of Timeline One. It is mentioned that much like Greenwich Mean Time in your own timeline, The Central Portal serves as the timeline from which we enumerate the others, hence Timeline One.”

                “I see. Computer?”

.               “Yes.”

                “Shut down.”

                                                                                ***        

                The train was moving again. A fetid stench rose from the bodies squeezed around him. Men, women, children, old young jammed into the freight car. jammed so tightly they had to sleep standing up.   The car stank, the air heavy with the stench of despair. An old man possibly a rabbi stood opposite him. The man seemed to study him with eyes deep pools of light. He had seen those eyes before, somewhere. The old man opened his mouth and a harp sounded.

                Gehlen sat up on the cot.    Moonlight streamed into the control from the opened panel, the same panel that led to the house. Thorough the sound of the panel flowed the soft plucking of a lyre.

                The diaphanous gown shimmered in the moonlight. What moonlight? Gehlen looked up at a clear summer sky of stars and a full moon. An illusion he told himself. Clever but an illusion.

                Gem sat in a chair of ivory and wood listening as the girl plucked the five-stringed lyre. The harpist seemed Egyptian.. Beads of green malachite surround her forehead and waist. Apart from the beads she was nude.  Braids of straight black hair, Her brown eyes were framed by braids of straight black hair. She could  not be more then sixteen. thought Gehlen, His time in Sumeria had acquainted him with some ancient music but he did not recognize this. Thoughts of Sumeria however did remind Gehlen of Marna and of Richard.

                “Is this how you spend all your nights?”

                Gem looked away from the harpist. “Not all. What you have me do, inspector, stand in a broom closet all night?  Have you dreamt of the train again?”

                “What do you know of …?” Hs noticed san empty chair beside Gem.

                “We know a great deal about you Heinrich. You believe yourself to resemble your father, a belief reinforced by your role in the death of Jane Christian. That role although exaggerated was real. However you were not the main agent of her death. . An uncontrollable desire for wealth and power is what killed her.”

                “I was there.”

                “Yes you were. That death has left you immunized against both. That is one reason why we chose you.”

                “Chose? For what?”

                “To be guardian of this place.”

                “What about you?”

                “Me?”  She shrugged.” I’m just maintenance.” Gem turned to the harpist. “Beautiful, wasn’t she?”

                Gehlen looked at the girl. An illusion like Foley’s baseball game “What is she singing?”

                “I don’t know. Do you always have to understand something in order to enjoy it?”

                “Usually.”

                “Her name is Tiy. She is a harpist at the court of Ramses the third. We try to keep the best of the past..”        

                “What about the guardians?”

                “Guardians?” The harpist shimmered and was gone.

                “Where are they?”

                “They left.”

.               “Left?”

                “As I said, they always leave.  Millions of worlds of worlds lie in front of them. Sooner or later they find one they belong to. Then they leave.”

                Gehlen saw Tom Bascombe standing on his dock.. “You’re still here.”

                “Yes. I can never leave.”

                “Why not?”

                “Someone has to stay. This is my home. I was born here. I will die here.”

                Gehlen turned away.

                “Something wrong, inspector?”

                “No. What does…What does a guardian do?”

                “There is a manual in the monitor. Primarily you are responsible for protecting the files. Like a librarian.”

                Gehlen frowned. He had never imagined himself to be a librarian. “What if I won’t do my job? Then what?”

                “You will. You always take your work very seriously. They wouldn’t have chosen you if you didn’t .”

                “Exactly whom am I supposed to protect the portal from?”

                “Me. You. Anyone who comes here.”

                “I understand that no one comes here anymore.”

                “Yes.”

                “So doesn’t that make my job rather redundant?”

                “No. If anything it makes it even more important?”

                Gehlen closed his eyes. Somewhere in all of this nonsense must run a thread of logic. “Why don’t they come anymore?”

                “There is no one left to come.”

                “Then why do you need a guardian?”

                “When a society fades it becomes more important to protect that society’s records. That is what you do here.  To keep it for the others who may come.”

                “What others?”

                “I don’t know.  We protect the past here, not the future.”

                Gehlen decided that the first thing in the morning, or what passed for morning here, he would begin looking for the way home. The sooner he found the way back, the sooner he would not have to hear this rubbish.  For now, he should sleep.  He asked Gem to fetch the cot some sheets and a pillow.  Once she had left he stretched out and soon slipped into a deep sleep.

                She should not be here, Gem told herself. .She looked down at the sleeping Gehlen, his feet dangling over the end of the cot.  Tomorrow Gehlen would spend his time getting ti know his way around the monitor. As the days passed he would begin to begin to examine the timelines. Searching. Searching for what? A way back. He would never find it.  Not that it mattered?

                She knelt down beside the cot and rested her head against the mattress. In the dark she could feel Gehlen’s soft breathing. When asleep even the cruelest of humans seemed so vulnerable. This man,, rude and suspicious, had been the one chosen by the last two guardians to replace them. Why him? She would not have chosen him but then what did she know It would be nice having company again. Perhaps he might even like her, given time. She lay down on the floor beside the cot.  It comforted her knowing that there was someone else so close. Soon she would leave but not now. She closed her eyes and pretended to sleep.

                The smell of fresh coffee wakened Gehlen. He opened his eyes to see a table set beside the monitor. Coffee, apple juice and hot rolls had been left for him. Gem could not be seen. Gone about her business he supposed.  Probably just as well, thought Gehlen. Less he saw of her the better. She would only distract him, possibly the main purpose of her being here.  He shuffled towards the bathroom. There he found fresh towels, soap, and shaving supplies. As he showered and shaved he considered what he should do that day. He faced a choice. Find the road home seemed the likeliest although he doubted if he could get back by simply stepping into a portal. They would prevent him somehow. Perhaps she might try slipping into another timeline. He thought of Tom and Louise. It seemed the thing to do around here.  As he munched on a roll he considered how he should do that.

                He knew so little about this place. Consider last night. He had seen the moon and the stars At least he thought he had.  Had they been an illusion or had they been real. Had the ceiling opened to reveal the night sky or was it transparent? Would he ever know?  Hopefully he never would.

                                                                                ***        

Gehlen sat down at the monitor and turned in on. For a moment he considered what to do. When everything else fails, try reading the instructions.

                Do you have a manual?” Gehlen asked the monitor.

                “Of course.”  The computer’s voice sounded suspiciously like that of Gem. So did the reply.

“Which page would you like?”

                “Page one …please.”

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Islanders : Chapter Fifteen

The Past Future

Thirteen times they had filmed disappearances. Thirteen times they had witnessed

them. As with Alice one moment, the abductees were sleeping peacefully, the next moment

they were gone. Now there was nothing more to do but to report back to Benjamin. They

were also bringing back something else that they had learned. In potato fields and ricer

paddies, African bush huts, Russian izbas and Italian monasteries they had heard similar tales

of poor soils and dwindling crops, a fear not only of more disappearances of but also of what

they future would bring.

Daniel and Joanna brought these fears as well as the results of their investigation to Benjamin

“In all the settlements,” said Joanna “There is a feeling that something is wrong with this land and they are waiting for us to fix it. We can fix it, can’t we?”

Benjamin looked out at the green lawn stretching outside, kept green by constant watering.

“I wish Louise had not left. She knew this world better than anyone else. When we came here” it looked as if thus land seemed so reach. Now we know that what we’ve done is exhaust soils that have millennia to recover.”  He turned to look at Joanna and Daniel..So what do you suggest that we do?” 

“Pigeon Island” said Joanna,.

“Pigeon Island?”

The link with the Bascombes, and  the Foleys coupled with its history of isolationmakesit one of the few places we know had been occupied by the futurists.”

Four crossed over. Joanna Dzingira and  Daniel being the only agents  who had been to the  island had been Benjamin’s first choices. They were each allowed to choose one more agent. Joanna chose Richard.   Daniel chose Mei Ling

                                                                                ***

Louise stood in the pelting rain. A great white beam speckled with rain swept across her.  She wished that she was more certain concerning the time of their arrival. When Gehlen had crossed over she had had the good  sense to remain inside a warm dry kitchen.  These four she would have to watch until they left. With four the chances of something going wrong had multiplied.  For years she had known that they would come, long before she had scribbled the date of their arrival on her wall calendar. It was the exact moment of the arrival that had never been verified. For a past event she could have sent a probe but she was now faced with an event in her immediate future. Rather than try to strip the future of its secrecy she found it better to stand in a cold rain.  The best thing to do would be to heat some water for tea and then wait here for their arrival.

She knew much about the future, the big things, world events, the outbreak of the war, elections in the United States and Canada and the time of her supposed death. What she drew her interest from where the events closest to her present life, the ones historians had scant time for. The length of her beans at harvest time, the strength of the wind, the breaking up of the ice in the spring, not knowing these gave her at an illusion of belonging to this time and this place. For over a hundred of this era’s years a portal had existed on this island. The construction and maintenance of the lighthouse had given the island’s owners the explanation they had needed for their presence. Someday that would not be enough but for now she could tend her garden and keep her vigil in peace.

Implanted knowledge had given her sufficient skills to convince Federal bureaucrats that she could man the lighthouse. It had not taught her to care for the job. So what had? Little of her first years had been spent on the island. Seventeenth century Paris and Venice, Eighteenth and Nineteenth century London and New York of the early nineteen hundreds seemed to offer more than a tiny island lost  in Lake Ontario.

 She waved at them. Above her head she held a black umbrella. Two more umbrellas was tucked under her left arm. “One for the ladies. One for the gentlemen  “The beam moved on plunging her back into the dark.

Daniel turned up the collar of his coat. “Why not?”

Through the rain Joanna could see that the house had not changed since her first excursion..  She looked towards the trees and the lake. Across the water, the year was nineteen thirty-six. Here it was whatever she chose it to be..

Louise handed Joanna the extra umbrella. “Looking for the inspector are you?”

“You know ….?”

“This is not the weather to be talking in.  Come everyone. I’ll lead the way.”

She handed an umbrella to Daniel. “I’ve got some hot tea and fresh warm bread in the house.  Then  hot baths and we’ll talk.  Poor Mister Gehlen nearly caught his death of cold. I apologize for the rain. We can anticipate arrivals. No one can anticipate the weather here.”

According to the scanty historical records Louise would vanish in a storm in 1951 while sailing between Pigeon Island and Kingston. Later that same year the Federal government would place an automatically operated beacon on the island. The next owners of the island would be Thomas and Margaret Bascombe.

Joanna, Richard, Daniel and Mei Ling sat around the kitchen table its pine surface covered with a red and white chequered tablecloth.  LOUISE hummed as she examined the blueberry pie baking in the wood stove. None of the four had spoken since entering the house, busying themselves with drinking  hot tea and  warm slices of fresh bread.

E. B. Dobson, Automobile Repairs, Marysville.  A cheap coloured print of a lake in the Rocky Mountains hung upon faded wallpaper speckled with blue roses.  It all looked so harmless thought Joanna but then so had Margaret Bascombe.

She held out a slice of buttered bread toward towards Richard. “The bait for a trap,” she whispered.

“A trap?

“”What else could it be?”

      Richard accepted the bread. He tore off a piece balling it between his fingers as he had done back in Ur.  “This is her home.  We are her guests. She is just being polite,”

   Daniel brushed away a fly trying to settle on the butter. “Winston Churchill once said that it doesn’t hurt to be polite when you’re about to kill a man.”

    Louise seemingly oblivious to the conversation at the table donned chequered red and white oven mitts. She opened the oven door and brought out amidst the strong aromas of apple and cinnamon a golden yellow pie. She placed it on the counter and removed her mitts. No one thought anything of her picking up a white handled carving knife. She placed it under the faucet and turned the water on. She then pressed the palm of her left hand around the wet blade.

   “Before I give you dessert I want to tell you something.”

     She turned and held up her open palm.  “Something you already know.”  Red blood gushed from a gash that ran through the centre of the hand.

     “We are like you and yet we are not you.” She then turned and placed her hand under the now freezing water. She waited for a moment and then turned back to them. Once more Louise held up her hand.          The blood had stopped flowing now having congealed into a red scab which even as they looked seemed to fade.

     Her stance reminded Daniel of a photograph of a twentieth century Italian priest showing to his congregation the mark of the stigmata on his right hand.

“Now, would any of you like some pie?”

    She chose another knife and cut up the pie into five slices. She served them out but no one touched them. Louise apologized. “I supposed I should have waited until after dessert.”

   Daniel put down his fork. “That little demonstration I assume had a purpose.”

   “Yes.”

   “You are trying to tell us that you are immortal,” asked Richard.

      “No. None of us are immortal. Our lifespans are much longer than yours. Our traveling through time also gives the illusion of immortality but death comes to us all.  What I was trying to show I suppose is that we are all travelers here. We just began our journeys at different times. That’s all.”

   “You don’t deny that you’re from, the future?”

  “Of course I don’t. Why would I do that?  ?You’re as much from, the future as I am as far as this period is concerned.  You have come here seeking specific information about  your missing  people  you think quite rightly that  that I know something about it.  You also know that I can’t say anything to you about it without risking your precious doctrine of non-interference    A bit of a conundrum.  However there is something I can do. I’ll take you to see the guardian.  From there you may find your way to your people.”

   “You don’t know?”

  “No. The difference between your portal and the guardian is a million years of exploration. Yours are limited in scope by your ignorance. We’ve had a million years to expand throughout the universes, to explore. Your portal takes you up and down the timeline of your own world. The guardian’s will take you through all timelines. “

 “Why here? Why this era?”

“It’s not a matter of choice. It’s not a matter of where we want to be but where we should be. We don’t go settling where ever we choose. History had decided that before us long before we were born. If we emigrate to the past then somewhere in the past we must be. It’s just a matter of finding out where. There’s a great difference between being a tourist and being a resident.  As long as we just flit from one age to another as long as we never settle down in one place for two long then we’re safe. But is that the way that you would choose to live?”

    As you know Richard, to become part of an age you must not only share its age, you must also share its political and moral ethos.  Is there any place before say the year 1900 that you truly feel at home in?”

   “Your race is egocentric. You think of your world, your time, your space. Even when you began to glimpse the vastness of the universes surrounding you, you could not understand what it meant. The portals were not meant to control time. They were just away to enter it.   Nothing more. You seem to think that people who came before you were unfortunate because they lacked the knowledge that you possess. You can’t miss what you don’t know. As for feeling sorry for themselves, most of them were too busy living to do that.”

“We do not interfere.”

    “So you protect them by not protecting. You guard them by not guarding them. Your father knew better than that, Miss Joanna. Not interfering too often simply becomes an excuse for not caring. Yes we interfere. We interfere by being here but that interference is part of your past. You cannot change it without causing further interference.”

 “You can’t just interfere with the past.”

     “My dear Joanna, we are your past. I have been part of it since long before you were born and so have others. Richard, for example.  He is the earliest known example of a time traveler settling in an earlier period. How would you remove the effects of his existence, effects that have extended over thousands of years?  It is our removal would be interference, but enough of this. That’s not why you’ve come is it?”

The wall clock chimed the hour.  Three o’clock.                 

“Time goes so quickly here doesn’t it?”               

       Behind her the air began to   shimmer.     

    “Time to go,” she said.

      “Go where?” Joanna asked.

  “To where the answers are.”

   The four looked at one another.  Then three stepped forward. Daniel first followed by Mei Ling and Joanna.  Richard hesitated.

   “We will not see you again, will we?” he asked Louise.

  “Probably not.”

    Richard nodded.  He placed his hands on the chain around his neck and removed the firestone that Baram had given him  so many millennia before. He handed it to Louise. “For luck.”

     Louise’s eyes widened in surprise.  She looked down at the black stone.  “I . . . “ Her right hand closed around it.  “Thank you,” she whispered.

       Richard nodded and stepped through the portal.  Just before he vanished Louise smiled at him. “It’s such a beautiful island.”  

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Islanders : Chapter Fourteen

Expectations

They had fooled him. Bascombe and Miller had led him here playing upon his naiveté and had dumped him here  Free of him they could go about whatever business they were involved in  He would have to find a way back, somehow, A way back from where?

  “Inspector?”

   Like all the others in the agency and in the settlements, Basscombe and Eloise knowing he had not been as smart as them, so easy to lie to, to fool, had left him, disposing of him like a useless piece of trash.

    “Wouldn’t you like some water, inspector?”

  Gehlen looked down at the brown haired girl holding the tray.  Who the hell was she anyway? Another one thinking that her could be playing with?  With an open palm he sent the tray flying. Pitcher and glass crashed to the floor shattering into fragments of broken crystal.

    He looked on as the girl knelt down and began to sweep up the broken glass with her bare hands.   “Don’t do that” he told her. “You’ll cut yourself.”

  “I’m sorry” she murmured a tone which only made Gehlen angrier.

“Never say you’re sorry to someone who wrongs you.  Only a coward does that.”  He knew that he should not have been angry with her.

“Is that what I am,  inspector, a coward?” she asked not looking up from the glass.

Gehlen sensed that his he would have to back his way out of his own blundering.  Half-apologetically he murmured, “No. I just meant that you shouldn’t pick that glass up with your hands. “

Her fingers plucked another sliver of glass. “Do you always try to make people dislike you?” she asked.  

A question such as that coming from someone else would have only angered him. Coming from the girl Gehlen forced himself to respond.  “Not always.”

She stood.  “You’re not a prisoner here. You’re free to go at any time. There is no reason to be angry. You asked them to bring you here. They never said that they would stay.”

Gehlen bent down and placed some of the broken shards on the tray. “What’s your name, girl?”

“Gem.”

                                                                                ***

Daniel pressed the tips of his fingers against his eyes hoping to massage the pain. Seven times he had looked at the tape of Alice Brightman sleeping in her room. Seven times he had watched it to see her asleep in her bed and then gone. He had not wanted the holotape to be taken but Louise had insisted. Against his wishes she had planted a camera in the girl’s bedroom the night before the disappearance.

Colin had come to him, in the morning after her disappearance asking if he had seen Alice. Se had not comedown to breakfast. He thought that she might have gone off for a walk but neither clothes nor shoes were missing.  Daniel had tried to reassure him are assurance that must have sounded hollow as Daniel himself. Two days before Alice’s disappearance Colin had proposed to the legislative assembly a bill banning interracial relationships knowing full well that Mei Ling Foley shared Daniel’s bed.

Since being appointed governor of New America Daniel had been puzzled by the conundrum of Colin Brightman. Intelligent, respected by colonists for hrs fervent beliefs in  political liberalism and Christianity, Brightman had been a natural choicer as an assemblyman.,  What Bishop only began to understand over the following months was that Brightman had shared another  belief of his time, that of racial purity. 

   It had begun over Daniel’s breakfast table. Munching on a piece of toast he had   looked through the Daily Chronicle, a special eight page issue edition to commemorate the founding of the colony. He glanced through the usual laudatory articles praising the colony’s founders including himself and projecting great prospects for its future. All well meant no doubt and as boring as hell. Then he came across Colin’s article. “A Clergyman’s View.”

It had begun by arguing that the creating of this and the other settlements was part of God’s divine plan. Daniel did not quite agree with this viewpoint but saw no reason to argue with it.

Reverand Brightman began by praising Director Dzingira for his establishing of African settlements from the castoffs of  slave columns. Slavery and the Slave Trade the good Reverend denounced as one of the greatest crimes in the sad history of humanity. Among the odious effects of the trade the deaths of millions, and the horrendous effects upon African societies. Indeed it was a crime against both the Negroid and Caucasian races for it had resulted in the racial pollution of the American nation.  

“The man’s a racist” Daniel told Mei Ling.

“You sound surprised” Mei Ling replied. “In his time everyone was. He is only expressing what people of his time thought.”

“We’re not living in his time, not any more.”

“He is. Most of the people here are. We are never free of where were we cane from.  None of us are.” She pressed her arms against her chest.   “After all this time I still hear the horsemen, the screams. Yet I do not hate the Huns.  What would be the point of it.”  She placed her hands of the sides of Daniel’s face and looked into his eyes.  “My love, you are a dear, sweet man but you can never understand what it is like to be one of these people. You grew up in a land rich in peace and learning. They didn’t.  “

The next day at a meeting of the legislative assembly Reverend Brightman tabled what he termed  a protection act to control the settling of  “unsuitable colonists” in the settlement of America.  Of the twenty-seven assemblymen, nineteen voted in favour, six opposed it and the others abstained. Before it could become law the act would have to receive the governor’s signature. In front of the assembly Daniel stated that it would be a cold day in hell before he signed it.

Colin replied by meeting with his supporters ad drawing up a petition to Director Dzingira calling upon him to remove Governor Bishop on grounds of “moral turpitude.”

This act caused Alice to raise an objection. “But Papa, he did save our lives.”

Colin nodded. “Yes he did and for that he will always have my respect. Let so many other good men Mister Bishop has lost his way, led astray by the cares of office and wordly ambitions. Believe me my child he would be much happier saving other lost souls, following the career chosen for him by God.”

   Alice slept much better that night knowing that Papa meant the best for Mister Bishop. Three days later she disappeared.

  Much as Daniel detested Colin’s religious and racial views he could not keep from admitting  there was much to like about the man   He could not keep from  remembering when Brightman tried to comfort him over not being able to save more people from the Empress. How could a nature capable of such empathy hold beliefs so morally repugnant.  Neither could he deny the depth of Colin’s love for his daughter.

   He should not have come Daniel told himself as he watched the banks of the Hudson slip by. Two days before Colin Brightman had reported his daughter as missing.  Men including Daniel himself had scoured the hills and town of Columbia searching for any sign of her. The upcoming visit to Albany to dedicate a new public health clinic he had considered postponing but Mei Ling had prevailed upon him to come. It was only one day’s journey. Constable Anderson would notify him if they heard anything.  It would not be fair to disappoint the people of Albany.

Thirteen miles up river from Columbia lay Albany to which he was traveling to dedicate a new public health clinic. From the deck of the Jane Christian Daniel looked at the farms and villages all testimony to the success of his colony. The sight should have pleased him and so it did and yet he could not stop feeling as if somewhere Matthew Foley’s great experiment had gone very wrong.  He could not say that it had failed. It had just taken a road that he was not certain of. The concept of respecting technological parameters was all very well for pre-industrial societies but here it meant cultural regression. Daniel did know that the day had not gone as well as he had hoped. Usually he enjoyed these excursions seeing them as a chance to meet with the settlers and to discuss their problems.   The clinic boasting the best of circa 1915medical equipment had been a gift to the people of Albany.   The visit had begun well. The community’s citizens had gathered to greet him and to view the clinic.

   A little girl had presented Mei Ling with flowers.  A band of local musicians had blared out a recognizable version of Beethovern’s Ode to Joy. There had been the usual speeches by himself and the community’s leaders, They had then toured the clinic. As he looked at the surgical instruments and stocks of medicines he tried to say good things about it but he knew and everyone else knew that what they were viewing was a pittance of the knowledge and equipment possessed by the elders. Even insulin and penicillin had been ruled to be outside the clinics parameters

   A year ago he had met with the other directors of the industrial settlements. Natasha Rankin of Novy Rossiya,  Sean Mulcahy of New Eirann, Robin Gibbons of  New Australia and himself had gathered at Daniel’s residence and had drawn up a joint petition to Benjamin Dzingira that the rules discouraging non-historical technology be relaxed in the fields of medicine and resource development. .

Benjamin had called the four of them to his office. With Louise looking on he had listened as they had outlined their arguments Sean acting as their spokesmen.            

“We cannot freeze people in time. These societies and every other one has to be allowed to develop and be given access to the resources that will allow them to do that.”

Benjamin had listened politely as he always did allowing them to finish without interruption. As he listened he fingered a small beaded bracelet presented to him by a granddaughter separated from him by millennia.

“You speak for four settlements. There are over two hundred that I am responsible for. They range from Old Stone Age hunting cultures to twentieth century industrial states. If you can promise me that your four societies, twentieth century Russia and North America, Nineteenth Century Ireland and Australia will never use the power their knowledge and technology gives them to exploit or control the other settlements then I will agree.  Can you make that promise?”

“We can try” said Natasha.

Benjamin smiled.  “Others have tried.  Until you can up with a more definitive response my answer has to be no.” He waited for as moment and then he spoke again   “However …” What he offered was a compromise” He Louse and the four directors agreed that technological innovations would be introduced based upon the natural passing of time. Hence America was now at a nineteen-fifteen level. As for natural resources substitutes would have to be found for the depleted fossil fuels   Knowledge without the means of using it.  The decision had reminded Daniel of something his former history professor, Paul Langtree had told him. Revolutions come about, not because of poverty, but because a society raises its peoples hopes, only to break them.

   Just before he boarded that steamer that would take him back downriver Daniel paused to say a few last words. A small oval white object sailed out from among the onlookers. It smacked against his right shoulder.  Yellow yolk stained his coat.

   Daniel had stared down at the spreading yolk. He had then looked out that the silent embarrassed crowd.  They really do not like me he thought           

Once inside his cabin Daniel began dabbing at the spilt egg. “Damn it. That’s a new coat.”

“Be glad it wasn’t a stone or something worse.”

    “Am I that bad a governor.”

     “No. It’s not you. “

  “Falling expectations?”

    Mei Ling looked puzzled.

    “For ten cents,” he said “I’d give up this damn job.”

   “And do what?” she asked. “Pluck dandelions?  The trouble with miracles is if you do them once people think that we can do them all the time.”

   “Do you blame them? We have shown them what we are capable of. They know that we can do more for them but we won’t do it. They become confused, frustrated and angry.”

   “Do you think that my father was wrong?”

  “Your father?”

“In bringing these people here?”

   “In trying to save them, no. But, Perhaps he should have just chosen a better place.  This world is just too worn out.”

   “We must be careful to protect the nature of these societies. Too rapid an infusion of technology can destroy them.”

“And too slow an infusion? I don’t know about you but I didn’t sign up to protect societies. I signed up to protect people. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should have stayed back with the dandelions.”

“Do you truly believe that?”

“I’d like to.”

    A small group of people huddled close together against the soft afternoon drizzle, waited for the steamer to dock. Daniel fancied that they might be waiting for him as part of as welcoming committee. One look told him that was not so. They were ordinary citizens, mainly Irish German and English, former steerage passengers pulled out of the Titanic and Empress supporters of Reverand  Brightman who had come to meet relatives and friends on the steamer. He knew these people, their names, their homes, their families. Farmers, workers, fishermen, they were the reason he had come here, to give them the chance for a second, better life. He had wanted to make their world and his  the same but Daniel knew that between the two lay a century of time and thinking that could not be crossed. They would not even look at him. How soon he wondered would indifference ebb into hate. The only ones waiting to greet the governor was his coachman and Constable Anderson

    As soon as the steamer docked the constable clambered aboard.  In his official tone he informed the governor that he had detained Reverend Brightman for questioning regarding his daughter’s disappearance.

“My god man, you can’t really believe that he had anything to do with his daughter’s disappearance

Anderson, a former purser on the RMS Titanic, scratched his right ear. “Not really, but he is the only suspect I have. He was there when the girl disappeared. There was no one else, at least, not that we know of.”

    The onlookers stared at them as they left the boat. There was no demonstration, no flying eggs, just the caged look of prisoners knowing that in the face of greater power than themselves some things were better left unsaid.

Instead of going back to government house Daniel insisted upon traveling straight to the police office. Red brick and iron bars it boasted the best of pre-electric prison technology, tiny windows and narrow cells. Typical he thought, A pre-electric technology in a settlement that possessed the knowledge of 1915.  What was the good of the knowledge if they lacked the means of harnessing it? No coal, No Iron. No copper. For the vast bulk of the settlements inhabited by pre-industrial societies it did not matter so much .Here it meant, cultural regression.  Building a future here would be like trying to take a soup with a knife. During the past two year since he had assumed the governorship  Both he And they could see the future   Each generation would be a little poorer than the one before it. They would possess the knowledge to break out, but never the means. Daniel had seen the mounting resentment and frustration on the faces of the colonists.  As he stepped into the police office Daniel asked himself not for the first time what Matthew Foley had been thinking.

  Colin sat in a tiny cell perched on the end of a pine cot. He seemed to be looking through the bars through Daniel, through the brick walls, at what? Face unshaven, clothes rumpled and soiled, he took no notice of either Daniel, Mei Ling, or the Constable.

As Daniel looked at him he thought of the man who believed in doctrines he found loathsome, an enemy and yet also a man who had offered Daniel words of sympathy. What words could Daniel offer him?  He turned to  the constable.

“How long has he been like this?”

“Hours.”

“I want him out of here.”

“He is a suspect sir. That is unless you know something I don’t”

Beside Colin’s cot was a small wash basin and a wooden table. A bowl of short bread cookies sat on the table a gift from Colin’s housekeeper a Mrs. Everett.  A small round black fly crawled over the cookies., unnoticed and undisturbed by Colin.

Colin only noticed them when Daniel touched his shoulder.

“Why did you take her?” he asked. “She was my angel. She never did you any harm.”

  “Colin…”

    “Why did you take her?  I never thought you would do that to attack me?””

“I didn’t. I swear to you.”

“Then who did? They think I …that I could of….” He lowered his head unable to finish. “You should have let me die on the Empress.”

“And Alice?”

“She would be with God. Who is she with now?  Can you tell me who?”

                                                                                ***

The three sat at Daniel’s black walnut desk.  They had come to investigate the disappearance of Alice Brightman. Two, Louise and Joanna, Daniel knew well.

  In all the years that he had known her at Home Louse had never changed. Once she had been an elderly woman living in Kingston Ontario   Now she did not look a day over fourty. How old was she?. Who was she? What was she? Without her there would have been no portals and no settlements and yet Joanna’s presence troubled him. Physically they had been lovers once but the decades had rolled on. seperating them.  Over thirty years stretched between this and the moment when he had last seen her, years of Amanda and his three sons.   Yet for Joanna what had passed? Ten years?

   She had faded into a bored middle age of failed expectations. She was Jane Christian’s daughter and as such had always lived on the fringe of decision making at Home. She had worked on a few missions and done some good work but she would never be a director.  Her relationship with Sean  Mulcahey still lingered, a faint ember but most of her time seemed to be spent lolling at beaches or in her house. Jane Christian’s daughter she remained but that was all that she would ever be.

Then there was Richard or as he preferred to call himself Tiamat, son of  Baram. Other agents had gone deeper into the past then Richard but no one had so immersed himself in it. Of course with Richard it had been a simple matter of going home. Now, far from that home, he had sat visibly uncomfortable in the padded leather chair. He had said nothing since arriving seemingly content to let the two women do the speaking. He sat in the chair hjs eyes drifting away into another time, another world.

   His fingers fiddling with a red wooden pen Daniel listened while Louise and then Joanna had explained why they had come, to find out how and why Alice had disappeared.

   Not a qualified policeman among the three. Gehlen would not have approved.  But then his    replacement Davies,was not Gehlen. A little more amenable perhaps?  Louise assured him that they had Director Dzingira’s backing. “He just prefers to keep the matter as quiet as possible for now.  To relieve Inspector Davies manpower shortage I’ve offered to investigate the matter of Alice’s disappearance personally”

    “I see.” The nib of the pen tapped against his desk as Daniel sat. He remembered Colin on the edge of his cot, and the people on the dock. “And if you do find how and why she disappeared, then what?”

  “Perhaps then we’ll know why she and the others are being taken.”

  “Is that true?” he asked Louise.

  “Perhaps. I know that it would prove that her father is innocent.”

  “How do you know that?  And suppose you do, then what?”

   “We will try to stop it, Govenor.”

     “And Alice?”

“We cannot undo what has been done.”

  “So what has been done?” Daniel looked at her quiet, blue eyes.  He knew that for Alice there would be no return. He put the pen back down on the desk. Folding his hands he leaned forward.  “When I took this job I did it on the understanding that I would be returned to my own time when I so chose. Well now I choose. I’ll leave tomorrow.”

    For the only time in all the years that he had known her Louise looked surprised..

    Joanna smiled remembering the Daniel that she had once known. “But Daniel, You would go back to being an old man knowing that you must die soon?”

   “I was never ashamed of being old.”

   Richard frowned. He had come because Joanna had insisted and because he had nothing else to do.

  “Honour,” he said.

  Daniel nodded. He had met Richard, had spoken a few words, greetings but nothing more.

“You could call it that.

      “Is there a better word?”

     Louise interrupted.  “What do you want Daniel?”

   “If you should find her, reunite Alice with her father.”

  “Impossible” said Louise. “We cannot undo the past.”

   Joanna smiled. “That’s not quite what you said, was it Daniel”

  “No. No it wasn’t. As governor I have the right to refuse authorization, unless that’s changed. Has it?”

  Louiise smiled. She has always known when to accept defeat. “What do you want?”

  “To begin with, I think you should increase the size of your team.”

                                                                                ***

  The most surprising thing about the video Daniel thought was that it was so lacking in drama. The infrared lens showed Alice sleeping. Then she was gone.  No noise. No fuss. No sign of an intruder. Alice was there sleeping. Then she was not.

“A portal?” he asked.

   Louise nodded. “So it would seem.”

  “But who?”

     For the first time he saw her look troubled.

    “I don’t know,” she said.

    He sensed the lie.

“Are you certain?”

  Louise smiled. “I’m not quite as omnipotent as you think I am Daniel.”

“Someone is reaching out across time perhaps even across timelines taking young intelligent people . Why these people and why here?”

   “I honestly don’t know but I do know that there is a place where you may find the answers. However I…I can never go there again.”

     Joanna frowned. For the first time in all the years that she had known him she had heard Louise hesitate. She had disliked the idea of working with her and had doubted the usefulness of their forming a team to investigate what should have been considered a police matter. Only her father’s urging had persuaded her to come. “But you would send us there,”          

“I assure you Joanna, I would never do anything to place any of you in danger.”

   Joanna shook her head. “Why don’t you tell that to the people you’ve refused medicine to.” Then Joanna gave voice to what had common knowledge for the past decade.  Why she said it she did not know but she did know that it had to be said. For years she had watched this creature, imperturbable, inhuman, rule over the settlements. “Do you know that you’re the most hated person in the settlements?”

   Satisfaction seeped through Joanna.  She had done the right thing.

  Louise did not move. She did not even bat an eyelid but something in her eyes spoke of hurt and of immense age. “Yes. I know.  Matthew was a brilliant man, but he never really understood that once you begin to interfere, you can never stop.  And for all your effort you can’t even expect a thank you   As I was saying there is a place where you may find buried in the records of time a possible explanation for what happened to Alice and to the others. I will give you the co-ordinates.”

     Long elegant well-manicured fingers picked up Daniel’s pen and scribbled numbers unto a sheet of paper. “That will take you to where you have to go. You will also be pleased to know that I am leaving. A good guest knows when she had overstayed her welcome. Goodbye.”

  “Where will you go” asked Richard.

  “To where I came from.”

  She moved to press the small silver band on her left wrist.  As she did so Richard spoke.

   “You have shown me great kindness Miss Louise. Strangers sometimes say the wrong things. That does not mean that you are wrong.  You gave me a life. For that you may take my thanks.” He placed in her hand a pendant, a piece of meteorite held in a leather strap.

  She looked down at it. Then she raised her head and looked as if she wanted to say something, Instead she pressed her silver band. Then she was gone.

The three looked at the empty chair for a moment.

  “Odd” said Daniel. “I didn’t think she’d go so easily. Where do you suppose she went?”

  “Same place as Gehlen I hope,” said Joanna. “At least we’re rid of her.”

  “You dislike her that much,” Richard asked.

    Joanna nodded. “Yes. I think I do.”

“Why?  I could understand your not liking Inspector Gehlen, but why her?””

   Joanna was tempted to tell him that some day he would understand these things.  She knew that she could not. Richard was now older than she. She now felt free of Louise as she had felt free of the agency when she had crossed over from Pitcairn when she had left   Jane alone to…only to find Louise and the elders imposing their own controls based upon their priorities not those of the colonists. Is that what freedom was, exchanging one set of controls for another? “I only told her what she already knew. Was that wrong?”

Richard turned away not wanting to look at her.

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