Nathan walks home and into his destiny
Approximately 3700 words.
22 September 2018
Nathan Hilbert shuddered at the chill autumn wind that swept through the campus wildwood. Amber light pooled under intermittent streetlamps, while low clouds sped across the gibbous moon and sent shadows fluttering ahead of him down the gravel path.
Distant thunder grumbled and lightning flickered through the barren treetops. Another flash turned the forest blue-white for an instant. Instead of thunder, something--a siren?--keened up the scale and disappeared into supersonic silence.
Maybe it had been a mistake to take his usual shortcut from his physics lab to the bus stop. His former physics lab, that is. His stomach clenched at the memory of Dr. Wilson's words earlier today. "Fantasy theories," he'd said. "Willful disobedience." "Dismissed from the program."
Worst of all had been his scorn-filled last words: "Your fellowship is terminated immediately."
Nathan's shoulder ached from the dozen textbooks he'd stuffed in his backpack when he'd vacated his lab. At least his notebooks were safe online. He'd show that jerk Wilson yet. His experiments proved that he was right: under the proper circumstances, quantum information could arrive before being sent. His photon entanglement experiment proved non-local causal loops existed, no matter what the conventional wisdom said. "Ridiculous," according to his doctoral adviser, the esteemed Duane P. Wilson, Ph.D, Professor of Physics, and full-time asshole. "Time travel violates the second law of thermodynamics," he'd scoffed.
Just wait until Nathan's article came out in Physical Review. Then he'd be the smart one and Wilson would be exposed as the idiot.
Meantime, without his fellowship, how was he going to pay the rent? Or eat?
Two wolf-like dogs raced around a bend in the trail in front of him, and he pushed his glasses up his nose to better peer at them. The hounds' ears flattened against their enormous skulls, and their tongues drooled over their dagger-like teeth.
Nathan had never seen dogs loose on the campus trails, and certainly not beasts like these. He froze as adrenaline sent cold electricity down his spine and tingling out his fingertips.
The dogs loped closer. Their black eyes and foam-lathered lips exposed them as merciless predators on the hunt. They barreled directly toward him, their clawed feet scrabbling against the gravel pathway. His heart jack-hammered, but then, in a rush of fetid fur and savage snarls, they raced past him and vanished down the path.
Nathan let out the breath he'd been holding. Despite being scarred and bedraggled, those weren't strays. Both animals wore heavy leather collars with metal spikes. Their master must have unleashed them to hunt something--or someone.
He clutched at his hoody and increased his pace, eager to escape to the solitude of his efficiency apartment. A frigid raindrop splatted against his forehead, then another struck his glasses. Perfect. Nathan's mouth turned down and his throat tightened.
He glanced at the threatening sky, then back down the trail where the dogs had vanished. Time to get out of here. He tucked his thumbs through the backpack straps and started to jog. Gravel crunched under his sneakers. The rain turned to a steady drizzle. His glasses fogged over, and his vision morphed to a blurry mess of grays and blacks. His usually frizzy blond curls slapped against his ears and clung to his neck. At least he'd have time to get a haircut now that he'd lost his job. He just wouldn't have the money to pay for one. He considered shaving his head, except that he knew that then he'd look like an anorexic Sinead O'Conner. Not that it mattered how he looked, not after his ex-boyfriend Claude had dumped him last month. Lately, he just couldn't seem to catch a break.
Lightning flashed and thunder cracked. Twenty feet to his left, a tree splintered and he skidded to a stop. One of its massive limbs split and drooped toward the forest floor. The scent of ozone burned in Nathan's nose.
He flinched and chewed his lower lip, then raced on, looking at the broken tree instead of the path. His foot splashed into a muddy puddle and caught on a hidden root. With a curse, he flung out his hands to break his fall. Pain wrenched at his ankle. His backpack thudded into his torso. His head struck a rock and the world disappeared in starry blackness.
When he woke, gravel pressed against his cheek. His ankle throbbed. A giant's hand pressed against his side and he couldn't breathe. No, wait. That was his backpack, not a giant. He pushed to a sitting position and assessed the damage. His glasses must have gone flying when he fell, but at least he'd landed near one of the few lamps that lit the trail. Blood seeped from the heels of his hands where they'd scraped against the gravel. He wobbled his ankle, wincing. Lucky him: it wasn't broken.
His knapsack had shifted. Now the straps dug into his side, throwing him off balance. He turned to watch while the broken tree branch twisted in a gust of wind and then settled with a screech to a heap on the ground. He must have been out for just a few seconds.
Where in chaos were his glasses?
That last thunderbolt had unleashed the storm's full fury. Nathan peered through a wet smear of shapes while he crawled on hands and knees, patting the ground. A flash of blue light glinted against something shiny and metallic under a nearby shrub. His glasses! Nettles bit his fingers when he grabbed them, but at least they weren't lost. Except when he put them on, one lens was missing and the other was cracked. He sighed. Whatever.
His imperfect gaze sought shelter--a place to pull himself together and adjust his knapsack. The fallen limb from the lightning strike might do. He crawled underneath it until he reached the tree trunk, where he slumped and removed his pack.
Muffled shouts penetrated the storm, and Nathan tipped his head. Did they come from the direction where the dogs had disappeared? He was all turned around. He wiped rain out of his eyes and peered down the path.
A lanky man rounded the curve and raced in Nathan's direction. The newcomer's long, open overcoat fluttered behind him like a cape, revealing a white shirt, black trousers and knee-high boots. Rain spilled off the wide, floppy brim of his hat. The sound of his breath rasping from his gaping mouth pierced the constant patter of the rain.
The runner reached the puddle where Nathan had tripped, flailed his arms, and then tumbled to the ground from the same hidden root. His hat spiraled away, revealing thick braids coiling from his head. He was handsome in a rugged kind of way, like the Marlboro man. Or like Claude, right down to the permanent stubble on his chiseled cheeks. Nathan's mouth twitched, annoyed with himself at the memory of his ex.
Marlboro Man rolled to a sitting position and cast a googly-eyed stare backward down the path from where he'd just emerged. Light flashed again, and the voices called more distinctly. Were those war whoops? Maybe Nathan was witnessing some kind of stupid fraternity hazing.
The sudden cries of hounds filled the woods.
The man froze and then snatched at a medallion dangling from his neck on a heavy chain. His fingers stroked the surface, and it glowed in response.
Nathan squinted and cursed his myopia. What was the man holding? A cell phone? Why wear it on a chain around his neck?
Something whizzed through the air and thunked into an oak tree not ten feet behind where the man huddled on the trail. Nathan swiped water from his eyes. What was that? An arrow? More swooshes, and more shafts quivered from the surrounding trees.
Marlboro Man screamed and slammed to the ground. An arrow jutted from his right shoulder. Crimson darkness oozed into his shirt and pooled onto the path beneath him. He'd been hit!
Without thinking, Nathan scrambled the twenty feet to the man's side and examined the wound. Seeping, not spurting. Good. Maybe the point had missed any arteries. He snatched off his hoody and pressed it against where the arrow grew out of the man's chest. He had to stop the bleeding.
The man gasped and tugged at Nathan's sleeve. He whispered, "Get down, before the bastards shoot you, too."
An arrow buzzed by and Nathan flattened himself to the gravel. What to do? Call the cops? He reached for his cell phone, but it was no longer in his pocket. Maybe he'd lost it when he fell. Marlboro Man was back to stroking his phone or whatever it was. The ghostly glow from the screen illuminated his craggy features. He paused and wheezed at Nathan, "Stay close during the jump." With that, he stabbed at the surface of his device with a bony finger.
A tiny vortex of light plumed out of the base of the man's phone. It whirled and twisted in ways no normal light could or should. In seconds, a pearly glow expanded and swirled about the pair. Pastel rainbows shot through the iridescence as it accelerated and grew, like a tornado of photonic energy. A subsonic bass tone rattled through Nathan's chest. The sound's intensity oscillated, accelerating, while it changed in pitch. It rose first to a siren's wail and then screeched beyond human hearing. From somewhere nearby, dogs caterwauled in pain.
The world coiled upon itself. Needles of pain shot through Nathan's head, just behind his eyes and into his ears. Gravity undulated in waves, sending vertigo sweeping through his body. A thousand invisible hooks snatched at every surface of his body, inside and out, wrenching him away from the here and now, away from the path, away from the agonizing cries of the dogs.
It lasted only a fraction of a moment, but seemed to stretch to eternity. Nathan's body jolted when silence and darkness returned like a thunderclap. Nausea seized him and vomit hurled from his mouth and splattered onto the snow.
Snow? What the hell just happened?
An insistent hand still gripped his wrist.
Marlboro Man's eyes bugged out of his head. He struggled to an upright position. Pain cramped his voice, but didn't hide his urgency. "Hurry. We don't have much time."
A frigid wind blasted Nathan's cheeks and froze his wet hair. Snowdrifts glistened in the moonlight, and the path had vanished under a blanket of the nasty white stuff. He couldn't see the arrows that had sprouted from nearby trees just moments ago. At least the dogs weren't howling anymore, and no one seemed to be shooting at them. Nathan shivered and wrapped his arms about himself. "What did you do? Where are we?"
The man ignored him and instead pulled Nathan's hoody off his wound, wrapped his fist around the arrow, and snapped off the end with the fletching. He shrieked. Blood squirted like ink and steamed into the snow while his face corkscrewed in agony.
Shock gripped Nathan's gut, and his teeth were already chattering from the cold. "Holy crap, man. What do you think you're doing?" He wadded his hoody back over the man's injury. "You could bleed to death."
The stranger gasped and his eyes rolled in their sockets like billiard balls. "No time." With trembling fingers, he plucked at a pocket of his voluminous coat and pulled out what looked like a ballpoint pen. He tried to hold it next to his wound, but it flipped out of his fingers and landed in the snow. "I can't do it. You'll have to inject me."
"You need a doctor, man. I can't inject you." What was this guy thinking?
"Sure you can. It's like, uh, an epi-pen. You know, like for people with allergies."
Right. He was allergic to arrows. "That's not going to help." Nathan wished he knew where his cell phone was.
"I said it's like epi-pen. Please. I'll die if you don't help me." He tried to pick up the pen, but his hands shook too hard.
Nathan scowled. He didn't want the guy to die, even if was crazy as a loon. He picked up the device and examined it. "It looks just like a ball point pen, except it's heftier. What do you want me to do?
"Just press the point against my skin, right below arrow, and push the pump on the end. Press it hard so they--I mean so the medicine gets in."
Nathan did as instructed, and the pen gave a little poof. Marlboro guy grimaced and gasped, but his shakes stopped in seconds.
The man took several deep breaths, then leveraged himself against Nathan's shoulder and struggled to his feet. "Hurry. They followed me uptime from Scarborough. They can follow us here, too." He waited, his breath husking from his mouth in a fog. "Come on. Get up. We need to get to the Rune Cave. Do you know it?"
Nathan stood and clasped his arms about his shivering body. How did it get so cold, so fast? "You mean that grotto in the bluff? The one that's supposed to have Viking runes? I've been there. They're fake." Claude was an anthropology student, and he'd had nothing but scorn for the local legend. "Are you sure you're all right?" His improvement was incredible, really. Except for his blood splashed on the snow and an arrow in his chest, he seemed normal.
"I'll live, thanks to you. But we've got to get to that cave." The man tugged at his arm, lurching forward through the drifts. "The runes aren't fake," he gasped.
Nathan let the man lead him. A trickle of blood ran down the man's wrist and dribbled onto the snow. His skin was cold under Nathan's fingers. "Buddy, you shouldn't be going anywhere, not with that wound. I seem to have lost my cell phone. Can you maybe use yours to call for help?"
"I don't have a cell phone." His face twisted, and he heaved a quavering breath. "Help is at the Rune Cave." He paused, snatched at the gizmo dangling from his neck, the not-cell-phone, and peered at the display.
On closer inspection, Nathan recognized the device was shaped like a metal cross, and hung from a coarse rope. The display was some kind of holographic projection, except the only place he'd seen one like this was on TV.
The man pointed to his right and muttered, "This way. It's not far." Whatever was in that injection, it seemed to give him new strength. He gripped Nathan's arm and stumbled forward.
Nathan waded through snowdrifts, his ankle throbbing and his toes already turning numb from the arctic weather. His breath puffed in frigid clouds from his lips and his arms shook. It must be worse for his companion, what with the loss of blood and his wound, but the guy pushed on. "Hey, man, how come it's so friggin' cold?" He paused, and then added an afterthought, "Who the hell are you, anyway?"
The man didn't look back. In fact, he seemed more resolute than ever. "My name's Haakon, Haakon Sigurdson. As to the weather, it's winter, of course." He laughed, or maybe it was a snort.
If he could be snarky, he must be feeling better.
Except his answer made no sense. Sure, photons could travel in time, but not people. That was nuts. Nathan skidded to a stop. "But it's not winter. It's just late September." A gust of icy air lashed at his exposed skin and sent snow fleecing from the tips of the surrounding drifts. He continued, although self-doubt crept into his thoughts and his voice, "At least, it's not winter in Iowa. Where the blip are we? What did you do with that thing?" He nodded at the man's cross.
Haakon halted next to him, panting, and peered at his device again. "Look, our location didn't change. I didn't have time to adjust the spatial offsets, just the temporal." He stared at the exotic characters streaming across his device, and Nathan wondered what language they might be in. Before he could ask, the man snapped, "They've found us. Hurry!"
"Who's found us? Wait!" The man sped away, his hand like a vice around Nathan's wrist. How could he go so fast, with an arrow in his shoulder? That pen-thing have pumped him full of drugs.
Haakon's words came in short bursts, between panted gasps while they trampled through the woods. "Hardrada's thanes, that's who's on our trail. They'll scalp you, slice you open, and pull your guts out just for the fun of hearing you scream. Vikings! I hate 'em."
Nathan rolled his eyes. "What the hell are you talking about? I mean, I'm a Packers fan myself, so I don't like the Vikings much either. But they wouldn't kill anyone. Good grief! They're just football players!" If Haakon could be snarky, so could Nathan.
Haakon halted and glared at him. "You think football players shoot arrows? Or hunt with killer wolf-hounds? Use your head, man!" He jerked on Nathan's wrist and pulled him forward.
The bellow of hounds catching scent of their quarry filled the night. Nathan thought of the vicious-looking creatures he'd seen earlier and a jolt of fear tingled the back of his neck and chilled his core. When a ravine opened in front of them, they slid to a stop on the slick trail. Nathan recognized the stone steps leading down to the so-called runes. Haakon gaped at him with wild eyes. "Hurry. There's better equipment in the cave. It's our only hope."
Anything had to be better than standing here in this wind. Nathan followed Haakon down the slippery stairs and onto the icy rubble at the bottom of the ravine. A dozen steps later and they entered the Rune Cave, which was pretty much the way he'd remembered it. It wasn't a cave so much as a hollowed out place in the limestone bluff, barely ten feet deep and perhaps seven feet high. Haakon headed straight for the rear wall, which Nathan remembered held the engravings, the runes.
At least they were out of the wind. He shivered and wished for a nice, warm fire--away from hounds and Vikings, too, for that matter. If he had his phone, he'd call the campus cops, except all they'd do is cite the archers for littering.
Haakon hunched at the rear of the grotto, the light from his device illuminating the wall. The engravings could have been anything, as far as Nathan was concerned, although Claude had said they were obvious fakes, a jumble of runic styles from the eighth to the eleventh centuries.
Haakon stroked the lettering in what seemed to be a particular order, consulting his display every few seconds. Suddenly, the engravings on the cave wall flickered to life, emitting a neon-white inner glow. Heat pulsed through the chamber and warmed Nathan's cheeks. Haakon's features broke into a toothy grin. "Ahhh. That's it." More swipes and the runes started to crawl across the rock in a serpentine wriggle of indecipherable characters. Whirls of light swirled out of the wall and engulfed the two men, enclosing them in a bubble of phosphorescence and warmth.
"Holy crap on a cracker." Nathan realized his mouth was open and he closed it.
Hounds snarled at the entrance to the cave and stuck their snouts inside. The rune-light flashed streaks of greens and blues when the dogs tried to probe its boundary. Multi-colored sparkles streaked over the dog's noses and crackled. The animals jumped back, yelping.
The same subsonic tones that had come from Haakon's cross now filled the cave. The light grew brighter, and the images outside the cave more nebulous and harder to discern. Two figures rushed to the entrance. They were short and beefy, muscled like East European wrestlers. They wore animal furs, peaked metal helmets and heavy boots bound with straps of fabric. Their hair corkscrewed in a twisted bramble down their necks, and their eyes gleamed madly over unkempt beards.
Most importantly, one had a longbow and the other a broadsword, both held at the ready. Nathan's breath clogged in his throat and his heart thudded in his chest. He could believe these wild men would gut their victims just for the sadistic joy of it.
The bowman gave Nathan a gap-toothed grin, pointed his weapon and loosed an arrow. Nathan threw his hands up in instinctive defense. The tone filling the cave escalated in pitch and intensity, and sparks of energy cascaded about them. The arrow never made it to Nathan: it now hung suspended above the ground, half in and half out of the lambent field, at a dead stop.
The man yelled something incoherent in what sounded like Swedish, while his compatriot thrust his sword into the light that enfolded Nathan and Haakon. This time Nathan watched while the luminescence reached out in a burst of color and fireworks that raced down the sword and up the man's arm. He screamed and smoke rose from the hand that gripped the haft of his weapon. Then the light flared brighter still and the world outside the cave vanished in a brassy, coppery glow.
"Sweet god in heaven, what's happening?" Nathan whispered.
Haakon squatted on the floor, staring at the runes streaming across the back wall. "I told you the equipment here was better. For some reason it's slow powering up. It's screwy other ways, too, but it's still better. Must be an older model I've not seen before. Anyway, it's shielded. They won't be able to track us this time. We'll be safe on the other side." He closed his eyes and rubbed the nub of the arrow sticking out of his chest. "This is too much for one dose of nanodocs. " He seemed to fall asleep, but then muttered. "What's your name, friend? What do you do when you're not saving strangers in distress?"
"I'm Nathan Hilbert. I'm a physics student, or I was until today. What do you mean, 'the other side?'"
Haakon nodded and a smile bent his lips. "Hilbert? Really? Like the space?"
Nathan gave him a blank look. What the hell was he talking about?
Haakon shrugged. "Sorry. You probably get that all the time, being a physicist. Anyway, nice to meet you."
Nathan scowled. He wanted answers instead of gibberish. He pointed to the glowing symbols still squiggling across the back wall and hoped Haakon was too out of it to see how his hand trembled. "How did you make stuff engraved in stone do that?"
"It's not stone. It's a machine, a Timepiece or, more exactly, an intertemporal transporter."
"What? An intertemporal transporter? You mean a time machine?" Nathan felt as if he'd stepped into the Twilight Zone and that Rod Serling must be lurking somewhere nearby, cigarette in hand.
"Yeah, a time machine. I'm a Timekeeper, a temporal agent."
He snorted. "I don't believe it. I'm a physicist, remember? Don't try to mess with me. The energy budget to move anything larger than a photon is prohibitive. There isn't any such thing as people travelling in time." He stopped, his mouth agape. That was more or less what his asswipe professor had told him this afternoon. If they hadn't traveled in time, why was it snowing? Maybe this Haakon dude was telling the truth.
"Believe or not, it's true. We're everywhere. Timekeepers protect history and preserve the future." His companion's eyelids drooped, and his words started to slur. "It's nearly finished its power-up cycle. We'll be at the sanctuary on the other side in a few seconds. Not quite where I'd intended to go, but this cursed machine--" His voice faded and his head sagged. He jerked back awake. "I'm losing it. Damned nanodocs must be dumping painkillers into me." His words slurred. "You don't believe we can travel in time. Fine. Maybe I shouldn't believe in you. Come to think of it, you're probably just a drug-induced hallucination. Or part of the Deviation. Make a good story when I wake up." He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes.
A sonic pulse shot through their bubble of light and gravity undulated, throwing him to and fro in nauseating waves. It was too much. Nathan's stomach twisted vomit spewed from his mouth. But then it just hung there, in front of his face, in a disgusting fountain frozen in time. The invisible hooks dug into his skin just like before, only it was worse this time. Pain shot through his skull and the cave disappeared in a whirling vortex of sparkles.