Places Of Time

By Ken Doggett

Sci-Fi, Short stories

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6 mins

Places Of Time

AMID THE CHAOS of vendors and buyers the young man caught an instant's gaze into a stranger's eyes, a woman's glance as he brushed past her and into the crowded marketplace that was the heart of fifteenth-century Lisbon.
He could smell fish, mingled with the odor of humanity, all confined by stone buildings that seemed to wall the area. His heavy robes were stifling, and the sun's glare off the stone made it even more oppressive. He squinted at his companion.
“The hour has nearly passed,” she hissed, “and most of it wasted getting to this place.”
He tried to push his way through, and was shoved against a dark-haired woman with a strong body odor and a violet robe that blended to brown where it touched the packed earth. He could see only a few feet in any direction; a sea of faces.
The view ahead suddenly opened!—but it closed again, heads moving across his vision. Yet, he had seen what he wanted to see, even in the dust-filled distance—
He was here! The visionary, the explorer—
Columbus himself.
“Are you certain?” his companion said.
“His face is similar enough to the painting—and look! He is selling his charts.”
She tried to see, stood on tiptoes. “The time,” she reminded him.
He charged ahead, finding a gap that was suddenly blocked by a wooden cart laden with woven goods and pottery, trundling across his path. He squeezed past it, linked hands with his companion to pull her through, and pushed forward again, now clutching the dagger inside his robe.
“The time,” she urged again.
He caught her eyes, but Katrina Anokhin shook her head. “Use only the knife.”
He held her eyes for a moment, but they both knew that he could never push far enough through the crowd to reach their quarry in time. Alexi Govorov sheathed the dagger and grabbed at the pocket hidden deep inside his inner robe. He thumbed the safety as he brought up the .45-caliber pistol, took aim, and waited for a momentary parting of the crowd. Cristoforo Colombo, such an upheaval you would cause...
Now! He squeezed the trigger, feeling his hand numbed by the recoil.
The man fell, disappeared behind the milling bodies. Alexi stood for an instant, stunned, ears ringing from the shot, and turned to look at Katrina, seeing an expression as confused as the mob around him, which was now in panic from the noise of the shot.
But the fading had started. He grasped her hand as the timer reached zero and provided a homing center for the time field itself. A vivid pink blinded him, and subdued as the pale pink walls of the chamber materialized slowly around him. Sounds followed, technical voices muttering crisp incantations over the speaker. And Alexi stumbled out of the chamber, not quite ready for the hooded, icy glare of Sergei Lichizev—the threatening, cadaver-thin tallness, capped by the shine of a bald head.
“What did you do?” Lichizev growled. His eyes dropped to the object in Alexi's hand. “You used the gun?”
Alexi brought it up and stared at it dumbly before his eyes flicked back to Lichizev. “A man selling marine charts. It was not Bartholomeu Dias.”
Lichizev raised his eyebrows. “That is obvious.”
Alexi craned his neck, behind and upward. The dial setting was as he remembered it: LAGOS PORTUGAL: 1494 AD. They were supposed to have gone to a small fishing village whose coordinates had been fed into the machine.
“You were entrusted,” Lichizev said, “by the elected and still loyal former members of the Politburo with the duty of finding Bartholomeu Dias and killing him before he sailed across the Atlantic. Instead, you kill an innocent person, a nobody. And America is still a superpower and the Soviet Union still has crumbled. And nothing has changed.”
Alexi inhaled sharply, struggling to control his own temper. “You sent us to Lisbon.”
“Impossible.” Lichizev's hand was out. “The gun. Give it to me.”
Alexi hesitated for an instant, but obeyed. Then he gestured at the machine behind him. “How could we be in Lagos and then in Lisbon within an hour?—and with fifteenth-century transportation! We went where you sent us! It makes no sense.”
Lichizev had already passed the gun to Katrina, whose face took on a number of expressions before it went blank again. “Make certain this time. You will both return and complete your mission.”
Alexi opened his mouth to protest, but Lichizev turned on him. “It is regrettable—and ironic, with the very essence of time being at our disposal—that the covert nature of this operation left us with so little of it that we could not assemble a more capable team.”
Alexi glanced at the chief technician, a burly man who looked unsuited to the white labcoat he wore, and expected him to voice his usual concerns—the power drain, the suspicion it would arouse. The risk of discovery. But the fluorescent-lit room became silent, and only the electronic circuitry dared to provide an audible hum. Lichizev had turned to a console adjacent to the chamber, his finger stabbing at one of its many buttons, and lighting a readout to its left: SAFETY ENGAGED. Alexi remembered much from his briefing, and his memory now told him that the only function for the “safety” was to make certain the machine could not be used until both of the mission's members were inside it. He was unable to remember why.
He saw Lichizev turn to the chief technician. “Recharge.”
And now they had to wait. Alexi wished that he could travel through time on his own, without the chamber, and certainly without Lichizev—but only as far back as to his youth and to his father's little farm, when his only worry had been about the next harvest. Yet he had chosen to get out, and the only way out was service to the government, his first a short-lived stint with the KGB, where he was found unsuitable, and then the humiliating role of guinea pig, a test subject in space environmental research. But he had never made much money at it, and sent most of it to help support his daughter, Musi. She would be four now, but he had not seen her in two years, not since he and his wife separated. And his own mother, living in a cramped apartment in a seedy part of Moscow...
He had hoped that his association with this project would bring him hero status, and a better life. But that dream now seemed far away, and his life of maybe-not-so-good decisions had led him here, to watch Lichizev berate a technician for the passing time. But he knew—they all knew—that the chamber's residual charge had to be augmented, balanced for two, and that took time.
Alexi glanced at Katrina, sensing that the project frightened her. She still held the gun, and looked alternately as if she were about to use it or give it back to him. Either way, she did not seem to want it. So far, he had resisted any probing conversations with her, but if her childhood had been anything like his, she was probably longing for the smell of hay.
Alexi wondered why she was even a part of this mission; he thought her unnecessary, while her participation complicated the mission. They should send only him, send him to the right place, let him take one shot, boom!—mission accomplished. As he understood it—and as the machine was originally designed—it always carried enough residual charge to send one person. Why not do that, then? It would eliminate the need for laborious recharging and balancing for two, along with the time it took—and that awkward, tacked-on “safety” circuit.
But Lichizev would have none of it. He would rather keep the mission as complicated as possible so that it could fail. Or so it seemed to Alexi, who was now in a cynical mood. Lichizev was undeniably creative, imaginative, and a full-blown genius—and it must have taken a genius to sell this project to whatever powers he had initially contacted—but the compromises they introduced: a chamber originally designed for just one passenger, now requiring two; the “ironic” pressure of time—all no doubt aggravating his already temperamental behavior.
And Alexi was still bothered by his own incomprehensible deed; why did he shoot that unknown man in Lisbon? For what reason? And why did Lichizev send them to Lisbon, and then berate them for it? Alexi could not even understand his own actions, let alone Lichizev's.
But now Lichizev was at the console again, tapping out a sequence of numbers on a keypad that looked as if it had been cannibalized from a telephone; a personal code known only to him, or so Alexi had been told. The SAFETY ENGAGED readout vanished. Lichizev looked at Katrina. “Into the chamber. Both of you.”
Alexi obeyed, but as he followed Katrina into the chamber he glanced pointedly at the dial setting, risking another flare-up as he confirmed the correct time and destination.
“Be certain,” Lichizev growled, “that the man you kill is Bartholomeu Dias. There is risk enough without killing indiscriminately.”
After that came a pleasant silence, and then the voices of the technicians plodding through the checklist, a sequence of technical jargon, as if this were a routine Soyuz launching instead of a plundering of time. When the yellow ready light came on, Katrina reached up and pushed the big red TRANSIT button. As before, he heard the sudden, deep hum of enormous power. The voices ceased, but the chamber's titanium-alloy walls vibrated, reminding him of the only fact he knew about its construction: The imperfections in the bonding process caused the pinkish color, and gave it a marbled appearance. Quite pretty, he thought, for a Russian machine built only for practicality.
But his attention went to the miracle in the doorway, the unsettling haziness, almost a fog, overlaying and then obscuring the outer room, and finally becoming interlaced with shiny, bluish rivulets that beaded in every direction through the fog. Beyond it, he had been told, lay a theoretical nothingness. He had also been told to stay away from it, and he could see why. He imagined the rivulets and beads as volcanic lava mixed with alcohol. He could hear them sizzle.
The sizzling now stopped. The fog cleared. He felt a softness beneath his feet, a grassy surface. The sea in the distance, a warm breeze touching his face. He took a deep breath beneath a bright blue sky.
The odor was much stronger here, undiluted by any other. He looked past Katrina, at a ship anchored out in the bay. He knew its name as well as he knew his own, and he knew where it would soon go, and that it was fated to sail into history, landing at the southernmost tip of what would one day be called “Florida.” But on this day he would see only the mundane preparations for it.
Among the many small vessels crowding the dock, there were two men attending a small dinghy next to one of the piers, and that drew his attention. The identity of one was unmistakable; he had just returned from the historic last meeting with King John II, which ended in disappointment. Now at Lagos, he was overseeing a small stock of provisions being loaded onto the boat for transport to the ship waiting out in the bay. He would next sail to Spain, seeking financial backing.
And this was the most opportune time in recorded history to kill Bartholomeu Dias.
Katrina shivered slightly and moved off. Alexi followed, but with difficulty. Field grass covered the downhill slope and tangled his shoes. He glanced at a single blade of it, noting its familiarity, but also an alien quality, frozen as it was in a moment five hundred years past. But Katrina—
“Slow down,” he said. “We have—” he glanced at the timer—“fifteen minutes?” It was even less than before.



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