Within A Thousand Years

By Terry Dartnall


We were driving from London to Berlin into the dark, frozen heart of the continent. The rain turned to sleet as we headed inland away from the tempering effects of the sea. Berlin would be gripped in black ice in this bitterest of seasons but the air would be crisp and clean. The car rattled and blew out blue smoke and I wondered if we’d make it.

He was hitching on the Einfart, the feed-in road. It’s illegal but everyone does it. The cops clear away the travellers but they reappear as soon as the cops have gone. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and he looked incongruous, standing there in the sleet and rain. He had a fuzzy beard that sparkled with rainwater. That should have given me a presentiment, but it didn’t. We’d come a long way that morning and we were tired.

He threw his pack onto the back seat and got in beside it.

"Where y’going?" I said.

"Rome," he said.

"Rome?" Rome was a thousand miles behind us.

"Small pack," said Harry.

"Only going to Rome," he said.

"How far is it?" he said, after a while.

"A thousand miles," I said. "Fifteen hundred kilometres."

He thought about that. "How far is that?" he said.

The guy was making me nervous. Some hitchhikers are great. They tell you wonderful stories. This guy was making me nervous.

"Y’come far?" I said.

"Aldeboran," he said.

"Andorra?" said Harry. "Hey, man, if you’ve come from Andorra and you’re going to Rome you’re way off track, man. When did you leave Andorra?"

"Aldeboran," he said. He looked at his watch. "Some time ago." He looked at Harry. "Oh, you mean subjective time. About ten minutes. I didn’t have to wait long at the floodgates." He looked at me and added, "Floodgates?".

"Feed-in road?" I suggested.

"Right," he said.

My stomach was hurting. It does that when I’m nervous.

"Look," I said. "You’re going the wrong way. Rome’s south of us and we’re going north." "North-east," I corrected.

"To the sun," he said.

I looked at Harry. Maybe we could stop at a gas station and drop this guy off.

"Why y’going to Rome?" I said.

"To see the Pope. I have a message for him."

"Oh," I said.

Harry started to giggle. Harry gets hysterical sometimes. Getting hysterical when you’re in a car with someone who has a message for the Pope isn’t a good idea.

"What’s the message?" Harry blurted.

"Jesus is coming," said our friend.

"Look!" I said. "There’s a gas station! There’s a gas station!"

"We’re OK for gas," said Harry, looking at the dash.

"I’m hungry!" I said. "I gotta eat!"

We swung into the gas station.

"Look," I said, giving him some money, "would y’get me and Harry a couple of burgers? I’m tired and I wanna rest here for a while."

"Sure," he said, and got out of the car.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

"Get one for yourself," I shouted after him.

He turned and walked back to the car.

"That’s kind of you," he said, peering in at me. The sun had come out and it lit up his wet beard. "Look," he said, getting back into the car, "there’s no need to spend your money." He put the pack on his knees and rummaged into it.

"What kind of burgers do you like?" he said.

"Big ones," said Harry. "Plenty of ketchup and onions. Lots of onions."

I was very nervous by now. I had begun to tremble. I was having a presentiment. Was he armed? Was this guy armed?

"Here," he said, passing Harry a huge burger.

"Wow, man--look at the onions!" said Harry, taking the top off and inspecting the contents with his nose. He lunged into the burger. "Get the onions, man! Get the onions!"

I’ve known Harry most of my life. We went to school together. He used to hold my coat when I got into fights, which I usually lost. This was out of character.

"How about you?" said our friend, turning to me.

"I’m not hungry!" I said. "I’ve changed my mind!"

"Fish and chips!" I blurted. "I want fish and chips!"

"Flake!" I added. "I want flake!"

He rummaged in his pack and gave me a parcel of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. I ripped it open. Fish-and-chip smells filled the car. I sank my teeth into the firm fleshy fillet. It was flake all right.

I was trembling visibly now. Flake is Australian for shark. You can only get it in Australia.

My eyes caught the words on the paper...


I forced the flake into my mouth and spread the paper on my knees, tilting it to catch the light. The News Of The World banner was flanked on one side by an advert for Gent’s Raincoats and on the other by an advert for Cork Lino. Under it was the headline:

The War is Won – Victory is Ours!

I peered for the date. The font was tiny:

Sunday, November 10, 1918

I realised that I had stopped shaking. I felt uncharacteristically calm. I had a sense of purpose and resolve. I took a deep breath and turned to Harry.

"How long will it take us to get to Rome?" I said.


You gotta feel sorry for Christy. He’s highly strung. When we saw this guy hitching it was obvious there was something wrong with him. He had a dazed, lost look about him, so I wasn’t surprised by his strange behaviour. He got into the car and I sensed bewilderment and uncertainty. Then he began this wacky stuff about Aldeboran and Rome. All of these guys think they’re John the Baptist or they’ve come from another star system. Or both, in this case. I used to work in a psychiatric ward, so I know. I kidded him and pretended he’d said Andorra. Christy was shitting himself, the poor sod. Yeah, I used to hold his coat when he got into fights. That’s because he got uptight at the least provocation. I know, the guy wasn’t pulling Christy’s chain. He really believed he had a message for the Pope. But what’s the point in getting uptight about it, y’know?

So Christy began making out that we were outta gas so we could get rid of him, but I figgered he was harmless. Then Christy made out he was starving to death and had to eat RIGHT NOW. He was shaking, the nutter! I mean, Christy was shaking. So we pulled into a gas station and what happened next was pretty cool. The guy really did have some great stuff in his pack. That was a great hamburger! He really did have a great hamburger in his pack! But he was hitchhiking on an Autobahn, ferrchrissake, and all you get on Autobahns are hamburgers. Especially in Germany. Especially on the route we were taking, which, in case your geography’s lousy, was close to Hamburg.

And the fish? You can get fish as well. So the guy had some fish. So bite me. But it wasn’t flake. What would Christy know about flake? He’s a Vegan! He was probably more delusional than Aldeboran Dan at that moment. Do I mean that? No, probably not. So it comes down to a scrap of newspaper. Now I do admit that it’s unusual to get fish and chips in a 1918 copy of The News of the World announcing the abdication of the Kaiser. That’s unusual. That’s something to write home about. In fact I did write home about it. Christy and I have discussed it endlessly.

"It was 1918 for fuck’s sake."

"That’s unusual. But not that unusual."

"What are the chances of being given flake in a World War I newspaper announcing the abdication of the Kaiser?"

"It wasn’t flake. And you’re asking the wrong question about the newspaper. The question is: what are the odds of coming across any old newspaper? There’s nothing special about 1918. You’d have been just as impressed by 1903 or 1934.

"What’s so special about those dates?"

"Nothing--that’s my point. But you’d have been impressed by them."

"You’re so bloody rational."

We took him to Rome. We turned around and went to Rome. All the way to bloody Rome to keep Christy happy, with the car banging and farting. But we made it. And what happened? He shot through on us. We got to Rome and he shot through. That was pretty strange, actually. Almost as strange as the newspaper. We didn’t have any doubts about his honesty. He was straight enough. He was a nice guy in many ways. I liked him. He was just weird, but then who isn’t? No, I don’t mean that. We can’t all be weird, or "weird" wouldn’t mean weird. I suppose. We pulled into a gas station off the Autostrade and left him in the car for a few minutes. When we came back he’d gone. Shot through. Vamoosed. But how? There weren’t any cars about, and an Autostrade gas station at 4 in the morning is as isolated as all hell. He didn’t say goodbye, which surprised me. There’s gratitude for you, after all we’d done for him, driving all the way to Rome as if our lives depended on it! What a joke! Maybe it’ll teach Christy a lesson. After that we headed back to Berlin and got on with our lives.

The Hitch-Hiker

I had no end of trouble with the doopleflarber. The co-ordinates wouldn’t settle and I was in too much of a hurry to leave. You can imagine what happened. I was five points off in the probability matrix and found myself on the wrong Earth, with a different geography. Rome was in southern Europe! I can’t imagine what that’s done to their culture. Oh, and it gets colder as you get further from the equator. I think. I’m still working on that one.

The people seemed normal enough, despite the inverted geography. There were no probability deviations as far as I could tell, and I met a coupla nice kids, who gave me a lift. I made some blunders, too, before I realised the doopleflarber had screwed up again--not for the first time, for me or the doopleflarber.

I must have been crackling with temporal energy. I pulled a newspaper out of the past, quite unintentionally. That upset one of them. I didn’t pull anything out of the future, Praise the Lord. That really gets them going. I did wish fulfilment as well. One of the kids wanted something and I produced it. Something to do with the misalignment in the probability matrix, I think. I’ll write it up in my report. It’s an interesting phenomenon. We should get a handle on it.

I took the message through anyway--driving south down to Rome, leaving Germany behind us! I figgered I might as well. One of us had to do it sooner or later. Sooner rather than later, the way things are turning out.

I didn’t see any perturbations when I was there and the atmospherics were normal. But their sun will go nova within a thousand years, so we should act now. There’s a common belief about the return of a Messiah--the usual sort of thing, lingering on in a technological society. We’ll set that up with some trumpetry and angels and get the Messiah to tell them about their sun. I got the message through, so they’ll be expecting him in about fifty years. Well, some of them will. You know what these cultures are like. Give them evidence and argument and they won’t do anything. They’ll nod sagely and set up committees and do nothing at all. Plant a few ideas in the right places and follow it up with fanfare and trumpetry and they’ll rush to the job. We’re probably no better ourselves. A lot of old reflexes and a veneer of civilisation. So with any luck they should be able to get some of their people out in time. We should try to boost their technology, too, if we can. They might be able to take their planet out of orbit, but I doubt it, frankly. But we’ll try. They won’t be able to control their sun. They’re too primitive for that.

One more thing. I took a liking to the kids. I scared one of them, but he was kind to me anyway so I took the liberty of making copies. If their sun goes off early they’ll switch to their avatars at Galactic Central. I know how you feel about this. It’ll be one hell of a shock for them, losing everything they’ve known and waking up at GC. But there you are. That’s what we don’t agree about. They’re young and intelligent and have their lives ahead of them, and they’ll recover. They might even become agents one day. You know how it is. Life has to go on.

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Terry Dartnall

Dr Terry Dartnall teaches Artificial Intelligence at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia. His speculative fiction has appeared in Ideomancer, Oceans of the Mind, Planet Magazine, Visions Magazine, Antipodean, AlienSkin, Mytholog, and elsewhere.

E-mail: terrydartnall@hotmail.com

URL: www.cit.gu.edu.au/~terryd

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