Looking on as she entered, I was immediately struck by the huge, cheesy grin plastered on her face. Don't get me wrong, she seemed quite friendly. That was also what worried me.
Once you got past her face, she was quite an attractive young woman: well-kept long brown hair, slim proportions, and elegant hands.
She glanced in my direction. It's an odd sensation to feel both honored and embarrassed at same time. My only reliable response was to smile, albeit not as widely as was she.
A hand came up to fix her hair. It was a single stroke. I have never seen a simpler, more graceful motion. My mind discarded her goofy grin an instant later.
Alas this failed to dispel the abomination from her face. She came over to my table, a couples rows back from the front counter.
"Mind if I join you?" I shook my head; "I don't mind at all, please sit." The young lady, against my assumptions, sat in the space right next to me. I moved down the table, giving her enough space. Apparently, space wasn't what interested her.
Retaining her strange smile, she edged her way up the table and ended up right next to me. Now when I say right next to me, let me tell you, I almost felt like I was wearing her satin skirt.
I restrained myself, both mentally and physically, and maintained a calm exterior. Finally, the grin receded into an overly pleasant look. She reached out her hand, calling for mine. I returned the gesture.
"Cassandra Cunningham" she presented in the voice that dripped with honey. So lost, was I in her linguistic prose, that I nearly neglected to introduce myself to her,
"Nick Fael." Whereas her name had rolled off her tongue like a love poem, mine plopped on the ground like a bird leaving.
Cassandra didn't mind, keeping her lifted lips firmly in place, " I hope I'm not interrupting." That one I had to think about. Now you had to take into consideration that just moments before I'd been staring in a cup of black bottom-of-the-pot coffee, hopelessly alone on a lovely afternoon. The reason why would take a full afternoon to explain.
Then, poof! I've got a smiling (perhaps a tab much) young woman pressing against my side with a nonchalance I'd never before encountered. It was definitely something to think about.
I took a quiet breath. " No, nothing at all. How do you do, Cassandra Cunningham?" When she paused for a moment, I worried that using her full name might have been a mistake. Nonetheless, her flawless grin did not falter. " Call me Cassy…..everything's fine. I'm a tad hungry though. Do you mind if I join you?"
I didn't mind in the least. A beautiful woman walks up and decides that she wants to have lunch with me. This was a rare day. " I don't mind in the least." Cassy laid her head against me and cuddled, " Thank you."
I reciprocated her hug and sighed softly. " So what brings you here?"
Her smile was on the rise again, " I'm on vacation." I had to admit, a small town like this wasn't exactly the kind of place I would want to spend my summer vacation. There was hardly anything of interest.
" Are you visiting friends?" She shook her head and, for the first time, her expression was almost negative. " Well, I do have relatives around here, but they don't know me all that well."
" What'd you come here for?" She wrung her hands together. I tried to anticipate her next words, " I came here to see you, Nick."
I brought my fingers up to my lips and pondered this for a moment. "Do I know you?" A frown actually crossed her face, which was much more surprising to me than her previous comment.
" If you want to pick at technicalities, then no, but in the grand scheme of things, yes." I was beginning to worry, she continued, " What I mean is, I know you….but you don't really know me…..a river of destiny separates us." I wanted her to explain what she meant by that, but I doubted it would have helped, so I left the matter alone.
" So what are you going to have?" asked a gum-chewing, young woman in a dull uniform. Cassy ordered a tuna sandwich and a small salad. I went with the burger and tamale.
She smiled and left to fill the orders. Cassy looked over at me and flashed her proud grin, " I hope you don't think I'm strange. This just the way I am….you know, with the booth. As for my smile, well the agency told me smiling keeps you out of trouble."
Everything pointed to the idea that she was from out of the country: travel agency advice, strange habits, sentences with more metaphors than is normal. It all fit. Satisfied, I decided not to ask about her home country for numerous reasons.
" So you came to see little ol' me? Why? What deeds have I done to attract such undue interest?" Cassy folded her arms, pressing her elbow deeply against my side. Her cotton shirt felt slightly moist, with a hint of sweat.
I gulped. My throat was really feeling dry right now. I wished the waitress would come back with our drinks. Cassy looked me in the eye, ample smile still painted on her lips. " You'd be surprised. Back where I come from…..you'd sure be surprised by the number of people who know you."
A deep, furrowed frown came to my face. Being a small-time columnist for the New York Times did bring some degree of prestige. Recognition abroad was not included in that. This was sure a pleasant surprise, although an unusual one.
Finally, the waitress returned with our drinks. I downed mine quickly, but found no relief. Worried about a possible growing infection, I touched my throat lightly. There seemed to be none of the regular symptoms other than the soreness.
I rubbed my eyes. Cassy grasped my hand and did her best impression of a worried look with her lips still in the stratosphere. " Is something wrong, Nick?"
I shook my head, knowing she could see right through me. Lunch came soon afterward. My appetite was virtually non-existence and I was feeling a wave of nausea coming on. Eating was my last concern at the moment.
Cassy, pleasant look still decorating her face, happily chewed away at her sandwich. I felt incredibly sick. Her side was still pressed into me. I caressed her shirt sleeve, not even fully aware of what I was doing. My hand came away moist.
My first thought was concern for her health as well, she seemed to be sweating quite profusely. My head began to rock and I soon left the conscious world.
A while later, I found myself sitting in a car. Cassy was right next to me. " That was a nice meal. Too bad you weren't able to enjoy it." I shook my head to clear the haze, but it remained nonetheless.
" What happened?" Cassy shrugged…..I guess, I couldn't see her all that well,
" You passed out on your burger. It's in the back if you want it." I couldn't even think about food, my body felt so disrupted. The door opened and closed.
" Cassy?" There was no response. I called to her again. I felt the seat her voice had come from. My vision was still terrible. A cough. This time it didn't clear. It's an interesting sensation, choking, almost like forcing yourself to die, because you know what's happening. You want to clear the blockage, it seems like you should be able to, but you just can't. Then you blackout and the abyss takes you……
Cassy walked down the road, muttering to herself in a strange tongue. Finally, English found her. " All that for one man. One man who played his hand years ago. A simple article, that was all."
She looked down at her shirt and skirt in mock disgust, " Ruined. Tacguine toxin doesn't wash out. I sure hope the agency plans to reimburse me….I really do hope so…for their sake." She reached for a device in her pocket and activated it.
A sigh, a release of all guilt. The device turned on, and Cassy was no longer there.
The birds warbled pleasantly, the wind whispered through the trees; a sigh escaped my lips. Looking down, I read from the manila file resting in my lap and took a bite from a stale bagel.
My head wavered back and forth in time with the trees around me. There was no denying it to myself anymore. Things had changed, possibly forever.
There came a faint buzzing from down the garden path, like a swarm of irate bees. I gave it little heed. A fire-engine came screamed along the nearby boulevard, I focused even stronger on my reading. A crow called from the trees above me. If it were to make a visit and perchance grabs at my papers, then I think I might have chomped its tail-feathers.
I turned the page over and continued. Faint footsteps emerged from the dull roar of the city. The footsteps were not far off. I conceded no glance in their direction.
My lips became dry and chapped. I moistened them. The footsteps grew in intensity. Tap, tap….tap, tap. From sound alone, I could tell they were heels, a woman's business heels, possibly black. But my eyes did not shift from their target.
A voice spoke, " Excuse me, sir. Do you know what time it is?" Her gender was indisputably female. I had checked my watch a few minutes ago, so I had a pretty good idea of the current time. "About a quarter till ten." This would not be the end of our conversation, although I wished it had been.
" Do you want the rest of that bagel?" I shook my head to say no and offered it to her without even glancing in her direction. She paused a moment. " Must be fascinating." I nodded unconsciously, desperately trying to finish the sentence I was on.
The woman tapped her right heel unconsciously. I found this quite distracting. For several moments, my mind focused on willing the crow above us to have bowel movement in her direction. " May I sit here?"
A sigh. I knew I wasn't about to get rid of her anytime soon, so I allowed her to sit next to me. Her spacing selection was quite unusual. Despite our unfamiliarity with one another, she proceeded to press her side up against me. " Don't," I cautioned.
She backed off slightly, but not as much as I would have liked. Now it was her turn to sigh. I received great pleasure from this simple accomplishment. She chewed noisily on my donated bagel. A logger sitting beside me would have been less distracting.
Leaving sounded like a good option, given my choices, but I wanted to finish the paragraph I was on before I tried that. The woman rubbed her hands together, sandpaper on wood.
Even the stoical crow was complaining. I truly felt sorry for him. She coughed; bullfrogs in the pond over yonder were enamored. " Lovely day, isn't it?", she tried.
" If you say so." The woman retreated further, apparently my efforts were working. " What are you reading?" I sheltered the file from her prying eyes, " Nothing that would interest you."
" Try me." she challenged. Needing a strong retort and possessing none at the moment, I refused to answer her question. She leaned over in my direction, but I allowed her no inspection of my documents. " Cassandra Cunningham." She introduced herself and offered a friendly handshake. I took the handshake as I was focused on the papers. I left little time to ponder the moistness of her hand.
" What's your name?", she pressured. Reluctant, I finally answered, " Dave Marsh." A slight 'hmm' came from her, followed by. " Oh, you're the editor for the New York Times, aren't you?"
I gave her a half-hearted nod, keeping my eyes firmly on the page. I was almost done. " Can I please have a little eye contact?".
I closed the file and looked over in her direction. She was actually quite nice-looking, but that was hardly an issue to me at the moment. " Listen, Ms. Cunningham. I'm glad you read our paper. But I'm quite busy at the moment. What I have here might be a Pulitzer-Prize winning piece of work, and by a first-year columnist, no less."
" May I see it?" I wasn't about to give the only copy of Nick's article to a woman I knew nothing about. " It'll be in the paper on Tuesday, surely you can wait until then."
Ms. Cunningham sighed, " Since we're alone. I'll dispense with the façade….the article you hold in your hands…..Tomorrow's Past…..by Nick Fael….can never be published….if it is…..then…..terrible things will happen."
I edged in the other direction; there was nothing in Nick's article that would cause anything of the sort. Well, maybe the idea that the need nostalgia is evidence of a weak mind might inflame baby-boomers, but that was it. How did she know so much about it anyway?
" Who are you?" Cunningham shook her head, " That's something you can never know, I'm sorry." My head pounded, " Why are you sorry?" Cunningham reached her arm out, " Give me the file."
I clutched the folder closer to my body, " No way." I took off for the boulevard. As soon as I had got twenty feet, I knew something was wrong. My throat was tight, as though caught by something. The legs on which I stood were too weak to support my weight and quickly gave way. With a sigh, I fell to Earth and thought…..I should have had more than a bagel……..
Cassandra walked over to Dave Marsh's fallen body. The file she sought rested underneath him. With a good deal of tugging, she was able to free it. A sigh, " Finally...." She reached into her pocket and retrieved a small, green lighter. After only two attempts, she held a steady flame into her hands. That flame quickly spread to the file, which it engulfed. Cassandra tossed the file into the nearby trash-bin, extinguished the lighter, and looked over Marsh's body.
" One down, one to go."
Cassy was home.
The familiar walls of her small apartment in Boston filled in along with the other details. Another sigh escaped her lips, but this time it was relief, true and utter relief.
Then came the troubles of reality. Around her stood several people, all of them in gray, military uniforms.
" Ms. Cunningham……can you hear us?", asked the brown-haired one. Cassy shook her head to mean 'yes'. " Were you able to destroy the intended targets?" Cassy nodded, " Was there any change in the timeline?"
" None apparent, I'm afraid. The extra-temporal probes detected only a 0.0323 percent event shift. It was not enough to prevent the Collapse." Cassy sat up and pounded her fist into the couch, " I thought those same probes said the Collapse could be prevented by eliminating the presence of the Nick Fael article."
The brown-haired officer tapped on a small, hand-held pad, " It turns out that Fael saved another copy of his article and left it in the safe-keeping of his brother Mark. Mark published the article in the New York Times on April 21, 2000 under his brother's name." Cassy bit her lip, " So I guess I have to go back again and eliminate Mark Fael as well."
" Not so fast. April 21st will be there for all time, you on the other hand are experiencing post-temporal-stress. I recommend you get a good night's sleep and we'll pick up where we left off in the morning."
The blond-haired man with the heaviest chest of rank walked over to her side,
" The Agency thanks you for your selfless dedication, despite all the Tacguine immunity injections that you had to endure. In fact, I'd go as far as to say, were you not a civilian, I'd promote you!"
Cassy smiled lightly, " Thank you, General Hart, but right now I'd rather have a change of clothes. I might be resistant to Tacguine, but doesn't mean I like carrying it around all the time."
He nodded, " Of course." Cassy changed into clothes identical to the ones she had been wearing. The General smiled and shook her hand, "Get some sleep tonight."
"I will." All but one of the soldiers exited out the front door. The one left behind gave her a look that none of others had. "Don't tell me you're going to go to sleep without a hearty dinner?"
Cassy folded her arms, "I've already had two meals, albeit in another century." The soldier chuckled, "What did you have?"
Cassy pushed a lock of hair aside, "Well, I had half a bagel from the late Dave Marsh and a tuna fish sandwich and a small salad with the late Nick Fael."
The officer was amused, "Do you make it a habit of eating with dead people?" Cassy gave him a sly, sidewise glance, "Only those soon to die." The officer walked over to her, "Does that include me?" Cassy shrugged, "Should it?"
"You tell me." Cassy smirked and walked over to the kitchen, "So…." The man folded his arms in a near parody of Cassy and answered, "Chris Furmor." Cassy took a couple of glasses out of the cabinet and laid them on the table.
"You want something to drink?" Chris looked over at the tap, " Anything but state-reclamated water." Cassy gave him an understanding look, " So, Mr. Furmor….what's your position in the all-powerful agency?"
" Temporal technician, I'm the one who makes sure the devices sent people where they want to go. How about you? What do you do when you're not out fixing the dreaded Collapse?" Cassy let her hands drift down to her hips; " I'm a painter. Sure, it probably sounds silly. The entire world's gone down the waste-recycler and I…paint."
Chris frowned uneasily, " I don't think it's silly, not in the least. I think it's quite noble of you. Not everyone has the courage to look past the sorrows of today and examine the bigger picture."
"How do you know? Maybe I paint shrunken heads." Chris threw up his hands calmly, "Then they must be inspiring, shrunken heads. What do you paint?"
" I paint the world around us, the dark and disheartening husk of a world that it is, then I use my imagination to wonder what it would be like without the Nick Fael article. Then, I paint that reality." Chris listened carefully, thought about it for a minute, then responded, "What if you found out that the Nick Fael article wasn't actually responsible for the Collapse and something else was?"
" Then I guess I'd have to pull double-duty and take care of that too." Chris shook his head sternly, " No, I mean what if you found out the death of Nick Fael and Dave Marsh was for nothing?"
Cassy sighed and thought about his idea for a moment, " I suppose, then, I would feel disappointed, perhaps saddened and hope that I can be forgiven before I reach the Great Hereafter. That's what I would feel. Is there something you know that I don't?"
Chris shook his head, " No, it was just a thought." Cassy smiled and nodded in return, she spoke a few words in a strange tongue. Chris smirked a moment and answered back. " So you know Gedeian? Interesting, I thought no one spoke that anymore."
"I'm not only a painter, but also an aficionado of many languages."
Chris let his eyes drift slowly around the room, "Are you also an aficionado of literature?" Cassy laid her elbow against the fridge, "Well, I don't know. You'd have to name a specific genre."
"How about science fiction?" Cassy scratched her head, unsure as to where this was going. "I've come to think of science fiction as too much like today's reality."
"Well, it's just this one book I seem to remember from a while back. You might not remember the name, but it goes something like this. A man invents a time machine that takes him into the past. He goes back in time to 1930 and kills Adolf Hitler. World War II never happens and instead the world is destroyed in a war in the year 1960. So he has to go back and stop himself, which means killing himself…."
Cassy couldn't help but interrupt, " He can't do it, if he does then he won't be around to committ the act and it creates a paradox." Chris looked around the corner, " I bet it does."
A woman walked around the corner as soon as he finished the sentence. She was gray-haired with minute wrinkles crossing her face. But, there was one thing about her that made Cassy take a step back. Her eyes. They were her own eyes.
This aged and matriarchal woman was herself; perhaps 40 years down the road.
"And I bet that time would wait for that man. You see, Cassy, tomorrow you will become that man. But in destroying the Collapse, you also destroy the future. There is no win, no victory over time. There can't be. Time has its consequences, like all things do."
Cassy found the words to say after a moment, "I'm not the man in the story, you are. You can't destroy me, temporality prevents it." Old Cassy shook her head, "I'm not going to destroy you, I'm only going to prevent you from ever carrying out your job. Chris here will make sure the Agency doesn't send anyone else back."
Old Cassy took a needle from her pocket, "I know this is a bit unfortunate. You were probably looking forward to three square meals. Things don't always turn out the way you expect them to."
She plunged the needle into her counterpart, feeling a ghostly echo in her own body as well. The two recoiled and a moment later, were gone into the fateful void they found themselves in so commonly.
Chris sighed, got up, and opened the fridge. From it he took a piece of bread, which he lifted in the air.
"Here's to you Cassy."
Time, fate, destiny…..mere words. They are part of one another, part of a greater picture. Inseparable and yet distant each other. They are guided by events, day-to-day occurrences, and nameless people.
Yet, they are a fine mesh not to be meddled with. A single shift, and it all Collapses. A single person and it is all changed. A single human being that sees flaws within perfection. What they do not know is that the flaw is not in world, but rather in themselves.
" When clouds condense with soft, sweet elegance, their inner hearts a lake within the sky; standing wet, yet staying dry.
I sit and count them, one-by-one, they're the most incredible thing ever...bar none.
Their form strives to serve a function, their life to serve a need. The lifegiving water that they hold is used to feed both tree and weed.
I look upon a cloud and see, not a day besieged with darkness, but a day composed of fun. To other planets I'd not turn, I will name but one.
The Earth, for what it's worth, has got the right amount of sun. Nutrients and carbonates are in correct supply. Exactly why, I know neithe.
But other planets, you can have them. I want Earth and not one other. For it is the only place where clouds exist, there is not another ".
Julius Ternbaum glanced up from his poetry journal and toward the object of his writings. The blue sphere in front of his eyes shined with fluorescent intensity.
He kicked the grey dust ground with renewed disgust, swirls of it spun around in front of him before settling back into their former home a second later.
He turned his lawn chair in which he was sitting so that he could see the Earth from a better vantage point. He curled his wrinkled face up into a frown and let out a hard sigh that sounded more like an attempt to remove something lodged in his throat.
" Trouble, dear ?", asked a voice from behind him.
He scarcely flinched at the voice, his eyes which were transfixed on the immense blue refusing to change the subject of their study.
" The Earth just keeps getting smaller and smaller each and every day ", said Julius, placing his fist upon his chin in a contemplative gesture.
The voice sighed and walked around the seated Julius so that he would at least notice her.
The voice belonged to Sasha Ternbaum, Julius' wife of 50 years. He looked through her when she stood between him and the Earth.
" Sometimes....I think you love that planet more than you love me ", said Sasha, laying her hands upon her hips.
Julius just nodded, his mind a quarter of a million miles away, " It's so big that it seems like I can touch it.....but it used to be larger, before it started moving away ".
Sasha rolled her eyes, " Julius.....I've told you already, the moon is moving away, not the Earth, that's because of all the artificial gravity we use, it's influencing the tides. So we need to push ourselves back a little, so that the coastal cities won't get trashed ".
Julius nodded like he had suddenly remembered, but wasn't even paying attention to what she had said. " So close, yet so far, why did we ever leave it ?"
Sasha put her hand on his shoulder. He was 80 and only 8 years her senior, but seemed more like a hundred when measured by the amount of energy each of them put into living.
" We left the Earth 40 years ago to get away from all the pollution and social decay and now you want to go back, you wouldn't survive the reentry ".
" I'd only go to visit, I need to see a cloud from the bottom side one more time, then...I can die in peace, knowing that for one last moment, I was home ".
Sasha sympathized with him, she too felt times when the need to get back to became intense and unavoidable. But, Julius seemed to feel that longing at a deeper level than she did. He took it like he were a flower dug out of it's native ground and put in some kind of greenhouse, a place better for it, but totally foreign.
Julius was embedded in the Earth, much like that flower and when he left his home, he felt like a part of him stayed there, making him feel incomplete.
Sasha laid her soft hand on his cheek. " You have your garden, a planet with a breathable atmosphere, and gentle breezes......what's missing ?"
A tear formed in Julius' eye and fell down his cheek and onto Sasha's hand. " The clouds.......and the rain, without that, this world's nothing ".
Sasha tried to explain, " It's a waste of resources to release water into the atmosphere and even more wasteful to change it into clouds ".
" It's not !", said Julius, as strongly as his feeble voice could manage, "....not to me, it's not a waste. That's why this world is so dark and unfeeling, it's lacks the complexity and empathy that comes from the knowledge it holds the lives of countless beings in it's hands ".
Sasha glanced down at what Julius had in his lap, " You've been writing another poem....may I read it ?"
Julius looked down at his journal and handed it to Sasha. Sasha moved the pages carefully as she read, her eyes moving from word to word with a fluid motion.
When she was done, she looked up from the page and at her husband, " It's wonderful ".
Julius grunted, " No, it's not, I used improper grammar, and 'neithe' isn't even a real word ".
Sasha nodded silently, " You're right, but the emotion behind it is real, even though it may not be as exact as some of others you've written ".
" I'm a feeble, old fool that doesn't have any purpose left on this.....", he was about to say ' Earth ', but he stopped, " .....universe ".
Julius lifted himself up from his chair and walked up to his wife, " I'm going to go to bed now.....if I die, don't call for help ".
Sasha lowered her head solemnly.
Julius walked back into the house, closing the sliding door after him.
Sasha let out a sigh, it had always been like this with Julius, every day, he talked about the Earth and about his death. He had already written into his will a clause that states he wished to be cremated and have his ashes scattered into the ocean where they would travel with the water along it's cycle of evaporation and condensation.
She never told him that he would most likely sink to the bottom before he evaporated with the water, such knowledge would hurt him far too much.
Sasha clutched the journal to her breast and closed her eyes. When Julius was gone, this would be her only memories, his stories and poems. Sure he wrote others, but this book and his 50 others were the only ones that counted.
As she passed the hall on her way to bed she looked at the rows of novels written by Julius Ternbaum or known by his pen name, Alex Sherstone. She reached her hand up to grasp one of the many among dozens. On the richly detailed leather cover was written the words in gold, " The Councilwoman ".
She grabbed another, " Old Friends Reunited ", another, " A Long, Yet Short Journey ". She looked at the last two on that row, " A Pleasant Accident ", and " To Die Happy ".
All the titles brought back memories, some more than others, but they were all a part of Julius Ternbaum the man and the writer. Each one spoke volumes about him, about his drives, his troubles and his spirit.
Sasha remembered most of the novels that she had selected vividly; " The Councilwoman " was about an older woman working her way up the local city council to a high position, " Old Friends..." was about a man and a woman who had never seen one another in over 20 years, and " A Pleasant Accident ", was a catastrophe that ended up doing some good.
Sasha had forgotten what the last book was about, so she flipped through it to refresh her memory. As she turned the pages, the intricate world created by a man fresh out of college began to fall into place.
She was only 20 when she began reading his novels and ever since the moment she turned the first page, he was always her favorite, marriage was post facto.
Sasha stopped at page 450.
" I saw the grayness of the clouds and sorrow in my heart. She stood next to me and wept. A gentle drip of moisture fell upon my brow. My heart warmed to counteract the coldness of the air. She leaned next to me and whispered, " Sleep darling, sleep ".
I was home ".
Sasha shut the book upon the ending and placed it back on the shelf with the others. It tugged at her logic to comprehend how a man's life and his novels could be so unintentionally similar, yet still differ in form and ideals.
She promptly exited the room and climbed the stairs to find her husband fast asleep in their bed. Sasha placed a soft kiss upon his hand, and got into bed herself.
She rested for a few minutes, showered, then returned to bed and drifted off to sleep herself.
" I think it's crazy, he don't have the kind of resources to put on a rainstorm for one man ", said councilman David Heimburg.
" It's not just for one man, it's for the entire planet. Listen...not only will it create a few showers, but it will also increase the soil output across the one-fourth of the arable land...it's for the good of all of us ", said Sasha, pushing her spectacles back on the bridge of her nose as she ruffled through the documents in front of her.
" I'm still not convinced, is there anyone who seconds the motion to take this under consideration ?"
No hands went up.
" The motion is declared dead......next business ".
Sasha frowned and refused to back down from her position.
" If I could second it....I would ", said a voice from the corner.
Sasha looked at where the voice was coming from and smiled as soon as she recognized the face.
Councilman Heimburg coughed impolitely and bluntly asked, " Who the heck are you ?"
" Aleksandr Shelekhov ", said the man, stretching out his hand to Heimburg.
Heimburg shook it once, " May ask you why you're here ?"
" Well.....for two reasons actually, the first I'd rather not name, the other is Mrs. Ternbaum ".
Sasha smiled again, the wisdom embedded in her wrinkles accented by the joy filling her lips. Shelekhov returned the gesture, reaching out his arms to hug her.
" It is good to see you again ".
" You too ".
They released from their embrace and faced each other. " I see that your studies were put to good use ".
" Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks ".
Shelekhov frowned, " Old.....and all this time I thought you were only thirty ".
They both chuckled.
" I missed you ", said Sasha, " It always more fun when you were around ".
The middle-aged Russian smirked, " For both of us.....godmother ".
Sasha shook her head, " Yah.....I would never have believe when I accepted you as my godson that one day you would give me a B in your political science class ".
" I had to be unbiased ", answered Shelekhov.
" I guess so ".
The two of them walked off to the other side of the room where they would not disrupt the meeting further.
" How's Julius.....stubborn as usual ?"
Sasha lowered her head solemnly, " I only wish it were so......he's so depressed and I can't figure out why......I mean it's all so sudden. He's lived on the moon for half his life, how come he misses Earth now ?"
Shelekhov pondered this for a moment, " I don't know Julius as well as I know you and even then we have not been in contact for a long time; but, I would say he's getting old. I say that because there seems to come a time in a human being's life when they look back at all that they have done and wonder whether any of it really mattered. They feel like their purpose no longer persists and must commit some final act before signing-off, you could say ".
Sasha nodded, " Julius said something about wanting to see the Earth one last time, seeing the rain and clouds ".
" There you go, take him to Earth, that should fix him up ".
" But he's too weak and frail to survive the journey ", said Sasha emphatically.
" Whether he dies is not the issue.....it's whether he goes with honor.......and with peace ".
Sasha turned away, angry, " You sound just like him ".
" He doesn't have a death wish, but he does have a wish.....one that you should respect ".
Sasha sighed glumly, he always made sense.
" I'll take him to Earth and fulfill his wish ".
Shelekhov smiled, " It is the right thing to do, you know that ".
" Yes....I know, but I don't want to lose him ".
" Don't worry.....Councilwoman Ternbaum, he may have a long journey ahead of him......but all journeys are shorter than they seem and their end is never truly written...much like my own. Julius and I are very much the same, we both have a long journey behind and ahead of us at the same time ".
Sasha looked Shelekhov in the face, " Where does your journey take you ?"
" To places not yet dreamed and pathways not yet trod upon ".
" Will you ever return ?", asked Sasha.
" No one ever returns for any journey, they leave pieces of themselves along the way and come back a different person ".
Sasha gave Shelekhov a hug, " I'll save a piece of you in my heart for when you return. How shall you be traveling ?"
" That's the oddity....it's a time machine.....or at least we think it is. It just appeared suddenly in a British field 15 years ago. The mechanics were pretty simple and the sciences involved were not that difficult ".
Sasha nodded, " Ok....then when shall you travel to ?"
" To 2 BDA ( Before the Dark Age ). I have always wondered why civilization collapsed all those years ago and... can we prevent it ?"
" I doubt that fate should be meddled with, leave the universe to make it's own decisions about how it would like to turn out ".
Shelekhov shook his head, " For every possibility there is only one outcome, no matter how many paths that might have been taken. Now if you change a relative past event, you change the flow and thus throw yourself into a universe where that very interference was actually what took place and is not an alteration ".
" An interesting idea......how does the machine work ?"
" It is based on the principle of cross-linking membranes. Remember the old 11th dimensional theory that states that quantum membranes are the fabric that binds the universe together. Well, the process is related with that, Jiang Zang temporal loops in time and restructuring the atomic configuration of a highly dense object to curve space and thus time.
The internal devices generate massive amounts of heat and graviton radiation, which require the systems be regulated with hyper-coolant and that the crew be appropriately shielded from gravitons with a black cap and goggles.
The machine has to be dropped from a height of many miles above the Earth so as not to generate so much gravity that it crushes everything in it's path ".
" When do you leave ?"
Shelekhov looked at his watch, " 20 minutes ago ".
" Get on your way, you're late already..........good luck ".
They hugged each other once more and separated, each going another way, Shelekhov to meet his destiny and Sasha to meet her greatest fear.
A water freighter departed from one of the Alaskan stations on a beeline course for the moon. Heavy traffic hindered it's takeoff and further complicated things because it had to held in a geostationary orbit until it got clearance to leave.
A test launch of some kind of spherical space ship he had heard about had cut his boosters to 10 percent and virtually guaranteed his trip would a complete failure. But, perseverant in his job to deliver liquid supplies to those who needed them, he tried for the moon anyway.
When he was orbiting it, he soon found that he didn't have enough power to land without dumping his precious cargo. So with a heavy heart, he pushed the open valve.
It wasn't until Sasha got within a mile of home that she realized that something strange was going on. Off in the distant hills where billowing clouds, forming huge thunderheads as she watched them intently.
Did the Council change it's mind ?, she asked herself, but soon rejected the idea as impossible. Still the strange aerial forms where quite a sight to behold.
Immediately, she thought of what Julius would think. More than likely he was jumping out of his seat with excitement at the prospect of a storm on a planet that had never had such storms in all of it's history.
She stepped on the accelerator as her mind began to ponder the thoughts that her own husband was thinking at this very moment. All of his dreams and hopes and writings had a culminating purpose, but yet a tragic conclusion, for once, maybe, his life could conclude happily.
Their small house with the enclosed garden came into view along the bumpy road, all it's flaws just an index to the true beauty that was beyond that structure itself. She took a moment to look at it with the looming clouds getting ever closer with every passing beat of her heart.
For the briefest of moments, she was back on Earth, coming home from her studies at Westminister and being greeted by her radiant husband as he trudged across the green grass, the smell of fresh watermelons growing in their neighbor's backyard.
But there was no one to greet her, just a house, lifeless with failed hopes invested in a new world remade by science and turned into a blurred copy of where they had come from.
She quickly removed her seat belt and walked up the steps and into the house. As she shut the door, she was greeted only by the endless tick-tock of the great grandfather clock sitting in the hallway.
Julius was nowhere to be seen.
But on the table was his journal open to a page which she had not yet read and when she picked it up, she realized that it was in fact a brand new poem. The first verse rhymed while the second and continuing pages just seemed to speak to her. The pen in which the second and the ones afterward were written seemed to differ from the first one as well.
" When my life comes to it's eventual end, is there anything that I could send, to mend the problems I faced during my life ? Sasha, my dear wife, I tell you this to save you strife. The destiny that awaits me is full of hope and dreams, for all my years it seemed as if it were bursting through the seams. A land of rain, a world of clouds; it is the heaven that awaits me. I will wait patiently for the day when together, once again, we shall be ".
" Time is but a flower blooming, living, dying, it's energy recycled. I speak of hopes and dreams and paths we take toward a great tomorrow. Sasha.....there are things that you have yet to see, but with my eye I cast upon them, I wish them never seen. There are flows of time that await to those that wish only to explore them. Old centuries are flowing streams as well, their present never written. Events are dreams that we think have happened, but we can never prove them true. Truth.....it is a word I have lost in all my travels.
I wish only to say to you the future is within those that strive to make it whole. Causality is an endless loop in time that brings no endings, only questions. But, there are questions that only I can answer, my mind a safe to lock away the secrets that are enclosed within. I have a great burden upon my heart, an emptiness that cannot be
I am not Julius Ternbaum....he never existed, except in the mind of an old fool. My real name is Shelekhov, I doubt you need to know my first. Before you begin thinking of counterpoints about how such things are impossible, let me tell you.....they are not.
Where to start......Can there be a beginning that can define how all this came about ? I doubt it. To write such things would take a library more massive than my own. Rest assured in the knowledge that I am Julius Ternbaum....the man you married, everything else is far too complicated to tell you in so short a time.
The Earth was where I started more than 130 years ago ( please don't ask, it's an even longer story ). But, unfortunately, it faces many problems, much like the time I once traveled to, so very long, yet short, ago. Earth of our time is headed down the road that leads to another Dark Age. I once thought that when people got advanced enough their own ability to destroy themselves stems from technology, that double-edged sword in their own backs.
But, now I know that the Sphere is truly responsible, like an agent of destruction. Maybe that is why the ancients abandoned it, trying to end it's wrath. I am not sure who built it, but you and I will be the ones who stop it.
Although, it is too late for me, my time has come and gone. Do not weep for my passing, I have lived a life of travels that have taken from one end of existence to another, an Odyssey across all that man can and cannot imagine.
But in all my travels, in all my exploits to return, much like the great Odysseus, I too have found a point at which my journey must conclude. Then again, no ending is ever written and no story ever finished. For me, I could only complete my chapter, but you will write the next. You must stop the Sphere's launch, it will create a vanished loop, a hole in time, a cause lacking an effect, but I am prepared for that.
As to what will happen to me afterward, I can only guess. Will the Consortium stop the project and direct a new path down the road of history ? Or should we just let time run it's idle course ? My mind is now a web of distorted thoughts, it's cohesion lost between the flow of sand passing through a sieve. The moon shall survive and so will the clouds and rain, whilst mankind quickly vanishes from the Earth.
Maybe this is the way, to allow the planet to recover, to save the clouds from vanishing ? I know much, but I am just a boy standing by the ocean, sifting water through his hands while he cares not to look up and see an endless horizon of blue stretching as far as the eye can see. But to have knowledge is nothing if you do not have a home to return to, of which I still have none.
I found solace in knowing that clouds shall persist forever and they were my companions to make the journey closer to bearable. The soft rain was just my reminder of the world I left behind, the hope of coming back.
When I finally returned, I found myself at a time before my own birth, with no hope of reaching another destination. My spirit soon exhausted, my mind disconsolate, I found peace only in my writing. Then, you came along and renewed my hope and refreshed my memory.
Is it right to marry your Godmother ? The question was tossed around my head many a time, with no answer to it even close to being found. Was such a setup just coincidence or maybe something else ? In all my years, I have yet to find a single time when anything in my life happened incidentally. I could name the moments, even seconds when I realized such things true.
Was it all predestined ? Or did I create my own fate ? Has the universe but one outcome, never deviating from those settings ? Can you jump from one to another to give but the illusion of change, like I proposed so long ago yet short ago ?
You remember my books, they were preset too, " The Councilwoman ", " Old Friends Reunited ", and " A Long, Yet Short Journey ". Do you see the similarity ? It's parts of my life, your life, our future, and it has been written.
My dear Sasha, how do I end this letter, with sincerity or love ? I just cannot tell. I know your emotions are in turmoil now that you know the truth, but can you forgive me and still love me ? If you can, then I can rest easy in knowing all is well......and take my final steps home.
Love, Your Husband
PS. I suggest you take this, it brought me luck and may bring you some as well ".
Sasha picked up the thin metal rod laying underneath the journal. It was light grey in color and totally smooth from end to end and on it's tips, as if it were made purposely without a single flaw. There was a painted section near the middle of the rod that had a white triangle, with a circle inside of it, with a diamond inside of it and with another circle inside of the diamond.
She ran her finger across it and felt a mild static transfer.
Instantly, renewal and hope coursed through her veins like she had just been given a drug that had cured all her ails. Fears and confusion vanished as the world seemed to all of a sudden come into crystal clear view.
She could see through the glass sliding door that there was an elderly man sitting in his favorite chair, looking out at the Earth, his eyes closed in deep concentration.
The realization took only a short time to truly sink in, even then Sasha wasn't as startled as she would have expected.
Calmly, carefully, she opened the door and walked out to where Julius was seated. After a moment's walk, she was right next to him.
Lunar showers began to fall on the two of them, a sense of peace emanating out from the contact point of every single droplet. She looked up to the grayness of the clouds and felt sorrow in her heart.
The effects of the metal rod wore off and her emotions once again set in. She wept beside him, knowing there was nothing she could do, nothing she'd want to do, for this was his wish, " To Die Happy ".
A drip of moisture from her eye fell upon his brow, warming his heart with whatever feeling he had left in his final moments
Sasha leaned in close to him and whispered words that were her own, " Sleep darling, sleep.....may you find your home ".
Endings may not be written, but lives aren't written either, mutable through your choices and actions.
But for Julius or Shelekhov, his chapter was now written.
Because finally.........he was home.