by David Barber
They emerged with barely a ripple into the half-light just before dawn, the bubble impersonating a snowy mound, and Paula released their birds.
"Are we on target?" Officer Chen wanted to know. Was this the right place, the right time? He was ex-military, not an archaeologist, and this was his first trip into the past. His mission was to rescue Ashdown, or better still, intercept him before he needed rescuing.
They waited for sunrise and after a while their birds detected the other bubble wink into existence, half a mile away.
"Strange to think I’m in there," murmured Paula. She shuffled in her wheelchair.
"We should hear their comms soon."
They emerged with barely a ripple, just after dawn, the bubble impersonating a snowy mound, and Paula released birds into the grey skies.
All clear, she said in Ashdown’s ear, and he shouldered his pack and stepped out into a bitter winter morning in the Neolithic.
Follow the track westwards, Professor.
High above, a plausible hawk sent video feed back to Paula. Paula was the professor’s research assistant of many years.
Smoke from cooking fires smudged the sky, and as it got lighter he could make out huts and the circle of stones on the hill.
A native stood by the track. He was wrapped in furs and carried a bow and the carcass of a small deer. Ashdown called out a greeting. Much effort had gone into learning enough words to pass as a traveller.
Are you going with Script A?
Ashdown pointed across the river. "You know them?"
Even this at cautious distance the fellow stank. Reluctantly, his gaze followed Ashdown’s finger.
Careful, Professor. Paula was unable to stop herself, though he’d told her a dozen times not to fuss.
"Chased me off," complained Ashdown. He stood a head taller than the native, and radiated burly good health. There was nothing he could do about that, but he’d refrained from soap and discoloured his teeth.
"Big mistake (literally, turning your back on a bear). I trade axe heads and amber." He touched the pendant hanging round his neck.
Then he unwrapped the beautiful jadeite axe head from his pack, and the fellow’s eyes grew round. The axe head was from the British Museum, unearthed in Victorian times.
"I can bring more next year. But not for them, not after they threatened me." Script A allowed a native to gain advantage from the blunders of others.
Ash, he had decided to call himself. Son of Ashdown, of the Traveller folk. Which was pretty much true. He proffered the axe head.
According to the script, the gift created an obligation to offer hospitality in return.
"Girt, son of Girt," the fellow admitted. "Of the Stone People."
The amber pendant round Ashdown’s neck provided video, a sometimes clumsy output, because the view didn’t move when he turned his head. Chen heard him belch in approval of the venison, then casually ask about the stones up on the hill.
It seemed the natives believed the circle of stones protected them. "My father saw them in a dream," confided Girt. "Saw them keeping us safe."
"He must have been very wise."
Girt drew a circle in the dirt, gave a knowing look, then scuffed it out. "In times before, we were never safe."
"What is all this about?" muttered Chen. A translation program added subtitles. It was querying whether Girt said haunted or hunted. Chen had watched the recordings of all this, and now it was happening live. He shook his head, still perplexed.
"Lots of taboos round superstitions," Paula said absently. "First contact’s always dangerous. It’s about winning trust. He was hoping to document the winter solstice. An important time of year."
To people who sat at desks, Paula seemed the obvious choice for the rescue mission, a tech, with first hand knowledge of events. Chen had been against bringing her. In fact he couldn’t understand why Ashdown employed her at all, what with the wheelchair and everything. They thought the professor might have been attacked by a wild animal, or even a raiding party from across the river. Chen was here to handle all that.
"When he disappeared, you did the best thing. Going for help."
Paula had waited all day before triggering a return. Had she acted sooner, Chen thought, perhaps none of this would have happened.
"A difficult three weeks for you," he added.
"A lot of waiting."
"And Professor Ashdown is married, yes?" It was evident that this plain, middle-aged woman was in love with her professor.
"She has her own career. Always jetting off to conferences. He doesn’t need that."
Bring Ashdown back with you, Chen had been told. By force if necessary.
"I will rescue your professor, but do not expect thanks. He will blame us for cutting short his visit. Remember, it will not have been three weeks for him."
To keep the past consistent, Ashdown must return with them into his own future.
Then why not stop him leaving his bubble? Chen had asked at the briefing. People just stared. Because we know that didn’t happen.
Later, Ashdown went outside for a piss.
Keeping them safe from what?
"Oh, in primitive belief systems there’s always something to be afraid of. Did you hear Girt say they keep out of the stone circle? So much for it being ceremonial. But that’s what we’re here to find out."
"Listen Paula," he added. "Seems they’re going to sit round a fire all night, but the air in these huts could smoke a ham, so I’m coming back."
Oh? I thought...
"Anyway, my being there might change things. So I’m going to leave them the pendant, so we still have a record."
He turned to find Girt behind him. Ashdown didn’t catch it all. Something about the shortest day. The death of the year. Something about danger and the dark. Whatever it all meant, it seemed the fellow was worried for him.
Touched, Ashdown patted Girt’s shoulder. "A voice warns me of trouble," he explained. "And birds keep watch." He pointed out plausible hawks in the luminous evening sky.
Uneasily, Girt followed his glance. "Warnings are good," he conceded.
His manner was almost shy as he offered Ashdown protection. "Go on your way when the danger is gone."
He made a circle in the air to ward off the nameless that haunted them.
"This is when he handed over the camera." Chen shook his head. "Then your birds lost him in the dark." What could you expect from civilians?
The picture lurched as Ashdown hung his pendant round Girt’s neck. For the first time they saw Ashdown’s face as he stepped back.
"I shall see you tomorrow, friend, and we will have stories to tell."
"That’s not in the script either," said Paula. "He got involved."
Chen checked his comms and the taser. He’d studied the recordings and there were twenty four minutes before Girt watched Ashdown quit the camp. It had been made clear that no one in the past could be killed, but these natives would be no match for him in hand to hand.
"The professor had a theory," began Paula. "Girt’s people dragged tons of stone into circles, and the folk across the river dug huge round enclosures. The professor thought it wasn’t like waggon trains or forts, to keep the danger out. He wondered if it was like a pentagram in magic, keeping the danger in."
She shot Chen a quick glance. "In the modern age there’s no room for that kind of thinking. But here in the past, you don’t suppose, you know, that there’s anything to it?"
Chen barked out a sharp laugh, then stopped himself. She was just a civilian after all, and a woman. Privately he thought it was the Stone People, greedy for more axes. He would ambush them before they attacked Ashdown, then bundle the professor back here whether he liked it or not, leaving the original Paula to fret in ignorance.
"Bring him back safe," murmured Paula.
Chen loped noiselessly into the dark, following the track towards the huts, the landscape alight in his night-vision lenses.
An update, Officer Chen, said Paula. These new birds are better than the old ones. The professor made a detour after leaving Girt. He’s heading for the stone circle. Which explains him being late.
But I’m going to lose video when it gets darker.
"Keep this channel free," said Chen.
Paula could hear his breathing change as he ran faster. Once more, she tried to puzzle things out.
So the reason the professor doesn’t answer the comms check is because Chen stops him. To keep the past consistent. Had Chen not interfered, presumably the professor would have returned and not been declared missing for three weeks, whereas now it looked like Chen kidnapping the professor was the problem all along…
"Are you sure he came up here?" murmured Chen. "The circle looks empty."
I know how his mind works. He’s gone up there to nose around. He knew the natives wouldn’t let him.
"I’ll search the circle then. It’s overgrown, he could be hiding."
Paula squirmed in her chair, her back aching, confined too long without a break. At this very moment she was in the other bubble, in the same wheelchair, getting fretful about the professor. They both knew from experience how irritable he could get about her worrying.
She watched the clock, listening for the moment her anxious voice would break the silence.
Comms check, Professor Ashdown. Are you alright?
A moment later she heard Chen speak in her headphones.
"What is that?" she thought he said.
There were indistinct noises, then a sharp cry, later identified as an oath in Mandarin.
Report in, Officer Chen.
That night, as the tribe sat round a fire in the big hut, Girt, son of Girt, spoke of Ash, the traveller, and the gifts he brought. He spoke of his warning voices, the birds of the air keeping watch, and how with these eyes, he saw him walk off into the dark. As if there was nothing to fear.
The Stone People moaned and huddled closer in the precarious safety of the firelight.
The bubble emerged into darkness with barely a ripple, and figures sprinted out, flinging themselves into positions of cover, weapons ready. Ashdown and Chen were already approaching the stones from different directions. This time there would be no mistakes.
Trapped in the stone circle, something nameless waited.
© 2021 Mehran Baluch
Bio: David Barber lives anonymously in the UK. His ambition is to continue doing these things.