Celestial

 

18:20

“Black, no sugar.”

Carolyn allowed herself a brief pause to double take. Here, in her cramped little kitchen, amongst the debris of breakfast, that enigmatic woman from the future, who seemed to be taking over the world single-handed, was telling her how she took her coffee. Things like that would take some getting used to.

As would her appearance. At first glance, her outfit looked maybe a hundred years out of date, the long dark blue skirt and starched-looking white blouse — but the severe lines of the latter, without pleats or any other sort of decoration at the front, and short, simple sleeves rather than the expected Edwardian leg-of-mutton style, looked later, more military indeed in its severity. Were it not that the Visitor were a couple of cup sizes smaller than the typical prototype, it was of a style would not seem amiss being worn by one of the decorative Valkyries in a dubious war film. A little bit Zelda, Nazi Werewolf was what came to mind when she thought of what the outfit looked like.

“Half right,” the Visitor spoke, breaking the chain of thought. “I'd better properly introduce myself. Formally, I'm the Lady Nancy Elanor of the clan Wolf, but Nancy, or even Annie, will do for day to day informal use. I hope we can be that much at ease together.

“And I'm afraid that my Clan has at times been labelled in terms that are not too different from what you might understand by National Socialist. I hasten to add that the events that led to that label were over centuries before I was conceived.

“This is roughly contemporary fashion in my old home environment. It's not a time-traveller's mix and match slightly off the mark guess at something like what was being worn around the turn of the third millennium. We never had the long underwear future that your epoch seemed so fond of in your romances of the future, though skirts are really only practical in reliable gravity environments.”

She paused for a moment for thought.

“Sorry, I'm still not used to the setting here — too much time amongst the Ascended in recent years. I've been reading your mind, rather than waiting for you to vocalise, which has been rather rude of me.”

Carolyn took advantage of the pause for breath to fire up the coffee grinder. As she shook it to ensure an even grind, she wondered why all this was happening to her. Life had been so much simpler when she had woken up that morning. If only she could wind back the clock…

And then it struck her — that was exactly what the Visitor had been doing, but on a larger scale. She started to giggle, but it came out as a sob. Too much stress, she thought, blinking her eyes clear.

“Everything will turn out right. That's what I'm here for.” There was a cool touch on her arm, as the Visitor spoke from right behind her as she stood facing the breakfast bar with the grinder and coffee machine. Carolyn looked at the hand resting on her arm. It was small, with long fingers, the ring finger's length matching the middle, and very hairy, with copious fine, pale down right up to the nails. The skin beneath the down had a greyish cast. She turned around, and looked into her guest's face, which showed clear worry and concern, and…

It took a moment's thought to work out what was strange about that face. The eyebrows, which formed a solid bar across her forehead and down the front of her ears until they blended with her hair. And all the rest was covered with more of the down.

There is a word for things that are nearly, but not quite human. That word is monster. Here, staring the Visitor in the face, she knew that she was in the presence of something alien. Her heart raced, and she felt herself break out in a cold sweat. Barely suppressed terror churned her insides.

Get a grip, girl! she chided herself. She took a deep breath, which she managed to avoid turning into a sob.

“I'm sorry,” she muttered, “It's just everything happening at once. It was bad enough at the conference today, and now this…

Carolyn paused, tipped the coffee into the filter cone, added water to the machine's reservoir, and switched it on. With that simple everyday action done, she had an opportunity to gather her thoughts, to try to compose herself.

“Ms Wolf, I think I must have missed at least one word in three of what you said, because I don't know where you're coming from. I can see that you are — must be — from somewhere out of space and time, but you have to explain everything else to me. You might be able to read my mind, but I can't read yours. You'll have to put everything into words.”

The Visitor looked thoughtful. “At least one part in three, at least consciously.” she remarked, enigmatically.

“Where to start? There is so much to say. So much I need to convey.”

“So, let's start with an easy one — or I hope is easy. Who — or what — are you?”

“Technically, I suppose I'm an illegal alien. I'm a genetically modified human clone, born on a planet a couple of kiloparsecs from here.”

“The legal term means you entered the country without papers.”

“Oh, and that too. I've enough to worry about without humouring bureaucrats.”

“But why did you come to me?. I'd've expected a landing on the White House lawn, or maybe Downing Street if you came here rather than the States.”

“Leaders may be very well placed in your power structures, but they are too concerned with the spectacle and the status quo and the defined diplomatic channels. I'm here to build a finer world, to heal or, more often, cut out its sickness — Engineer and Doctor all in one. I can't start on diplomacy — I have to start with action, enough to establish myself as a Power to reckon with.

“I need things to happen that will in the end change everything those leaders control. Your conference, for one. It was a seed — one of many but significant for all that — a seed that didn't blossom as wildly as it could have, for the Ascension as it happened in my history.”

“But what about the rest of you?” Carolyn didn't like this being singled out, but the Visitor just threw her head back and laughed, displaying perfect white teeth. She felt acutely how this contrasted with her own snaggle teeth, much abused by piecework rate NHS dentistry in childhood. Movie star teeth, this woman out of the future had.

Suddenly, as the coffee machine gurgled behind her, the perception shifted, and she realised what the Visitor reminded her of — an old black and white photo of some forgotten starlet, but brought to life in the round, like Betty Boop had been in Roger Rabbit. The monster had been replaced by the absurd, bringing a wry smile to her face.

“I'm all there is. The thing in orbit is just a standard Stargate chassis, full of Engines.” Carolyn heard the capital letter, and got the impression of vast masses in motion. “OK, it's customised to self-enfold, but it's all run with sub-sapient automation — but that's all I should need for what I have to do. Most of the job can be handled by social insect level AIs, and I have templates for raptors when I have to handle the inevitable occasional unpleasantnesses.”

Carolyn started to frame a question, but there were too many implied by everything she had heard. She took a deep breath, and tried to take charge of the conversation.

“Everything you say assumes I know almost everything you do, that I come from your time, or at least, that I'm at home there. I have a hundred questions now, but I'm not even going to play that game and start asking them. Please, in simple terms a primitive like me can understand, what is it you are trying to do? And, more importantly what is it you want me to do?”

The Visitor looked up directly into Carolyn's eyes, and tilted her head, a slightly quizzical expression on her face, spoilt slightly by an all too knowing smile. There were faint aromatic scents, exotic flavours in her nostrils, hints of deep musky perfume that tantalised. Half aghast, Carolyn fought back the impulse to hold the woman tight to her, to feel another close to her, warm and reassuring, chiding herself for feeling so tired and alone and vulnerable.

“What I want you to do is to go on with what you would have done anyway, only this time, I will be assisting you. That way you should be successful beyond your wildest hopes. Meanwhile I shall be doing what is necessary to allow that success to happen in a more reasonable world.”

The moment had passed. Carolyn let out the breath she had been holding, knowing that she could let the tickle of arousal she felt be subordinate to business.

“I think I'm flattered. And I think I'm going to have to ask more questions. What is this Ascension you spoke about this morning, and what is it you are trying to change about it?”

“I think that some of this will involve showing rather than telling. We will have to go for a walk, but for that, I'm going to have to change.”

“You mean put your burkha on again? Or did you want to borrow something of mine? It might be a bit large on you.”

“No, change as in metamorphose. Rather than walk around again in that demeaning and, uh, somewhat conspicuous outfit, just to hide the fact that I'm not a Pink, I'm going to make use of one of the odd things that it amused the Ascended to build into the genotypes they gave to my ancestors, and change into a wolf.

“While I'm transformed, I shan't be able to speak, and I can't project anything abstract or verbalised, so I'll just have to play guide dog.

“I don't know if you will want to watch. But first, isn't that coffee ready? I'm gasping for a cup.”

She turned around. Indeed it was ready, and she poured two cups.

“You did say black, didn't you?”

18:45

Carolyn nursed her now empty cup for the last vestiges of warmth as she slumped in her armchair. Across the little living-room, the woman — Lady Wolf — waited for her.

No more excuse for putting things off. It was time to make the decision to get onto the roller-coaster, blessedly abandoning responsibility to another.

“So, where are we going?”

“Immediately, to my hopper, then up to the Secret Rose — the Stargate. I'm parked under water near Blackfriars. It's stealthed, but even so, it would be asking for trouble leaving it out in the open.

“Now, you go and put your raincoat on, or whatever, as the rain is setting in now, while I go and change.”

And so saying, she wandered off into the bedroom, leaving Carolyn suddenly apprehensive, in all the normal ways — did it look too like a Tracy Emin exhibit, were various drawers discreetly closed — before deciding that was not worth the effort. Let the bitch see the shambles — surely women in her future still functioned in much the same way as they did here and now. Meanwhile, she would rummage under the lighter weight clothes hung on the coat rack for her heaviest, hooded, raincoat.

She had located it and was pulling it on when the bedroom door opened, and a sleek grey wolf loped out, wearing a collar and lead, with the lead on a spool it — she — carried in her mouth. Carolyn felt the hairs on the back of her neck crawl, despite the very down to earth extensible leash. The wolf walked right up to her, sat down, and stretched its head up at her.

After a moment, she realised what was going on. “Walkies, is it?” and took the proffered lead. “I must apologise — I've never owned a dog before.” The gravelly snarl implied that the humour was not really appreciated.

The weather outside was, as promised, foul. With one hand holding the lead, and the other clutching at the hood of her coat to keep gusts of wind from catching it, she felt at the mercy of this creature that was leading her into who knows what. At least in the clearer cold air, with the rain closing the world in around her, she felt that she could think for herself, and not just with her urges for warmth and snuggling.

How — morally, as much as in consideration of capability — could she help this creature, this murderer who had cast her own thunderbolts from on high in the arbitrary savage justice of an antique god? How many had died at her hand, and for what end? Was she herself being, had she, been beguiled into complicity?

And yet with the other hand, the Visitor was giving away just the sort of information that would normally be licensed at prices beyond what needy nations — needy folk — could afford. If she were serious about assisting her own efforts to bridge the data divide, and could bring similar resources to bear, then might it be acceptable to find a long enough spoon and sup with this particular devil?

In this bleak frame of mind, she emerged from the side streets on to the Gray's Inn Road, where the traffic was sizzling along in the standing water gathering on the carriageway. Taking care to avoid the worst of the puddles, and the spray thrown up by the traffic, she picked her way south amongst the thin trickle of desperate pedestrians.

As they walked, the alternation of flats with little shops and busy takeaways gave way to more upmarket cafes and commercial buildings, mostly deserted at this hour. As they approached Theobald's Road, the wolf broke into a lope, and Carolyn followed, dragged along by the eager pace of her guide, dashing across the the junction in small gaps in the traffic, oblivious to the pouring rain.

Chancery Lane Underground station and its subway provided a welcome shelter from the rain at about the half way point in the journey. As she reached the bottom of the steps, Carolyn pushed back her hood and tucked one chilled hand into a pocket for warmth. She waited for her companion to shake herself dry, keeping drawn back against another shower.

But while she herself was drenched, and dripping, the Visitor's canine alter ego seemed to be completely dry. She rubbed the furry head, finding it indeed dry and warm, and receiving a rather smug looking stare for her pains.

“What's your special trick for keeping dry, girl?” she wondered. “More magic? Oh well, time for me at least to get wet again.”

From the shelter of the subway, they emerged on the south side of Holborn, heading right from the rain swept arena of Holborn Circus, where St. Andrew's church stood stark and white amongst trees that were yet to show the advance of autumn in mid October. After the open expanse, the office blocks — modern every decade since the 1960s — seemed to crowd in, dwarfing the occasional urban tree rising from the pavement.

Ludgate opened out, with St. Paul's briefly visible beyond, and soon thereafter they were down in the subway around Blackfriars station. Not somewhere Carolyn would have cared to come alone at night, but escorted as she was, the panhandlers here for shelter kept to themselves as the two of them navigated to where the Embankment ended at Blackfriars Bridge.

Emerging once more into the elements, they turned right, and down on to the riverside walkway leading to Cannon Street and the belatedly reopened Millennium Bridge. Expecting to follow that path, she was brought up short as the Visitor stepped towards the river, and leapt over the balustrade.

She stopped, ready for the jolt as the lead terminated the plunge. She did not expect a steady and growing pull. Carefully she stepped to the edge to look, and could hardly believe her eyes, as the silver wolf stood there in mid air, tugging on the lead.

Resignedly, she followed — she could hardly get any colder and wetter, though the water was low enough to show large concrete blocks ten, fifteen feet below — and found some form of yielding support which let her walk cautiously down under the bridge, and around the first supporting column. There, in some measure of concealment, the wolf stopped and sat, and Carolyn stopped behind her and waited.

“Now what?”

There was a disturbance in the water, and something looking like a migraine rose from the surface. When it had cleared the water, the Visitor stepped forward into it, and Carolyn forced herself to follow into the eye hurting maelstrom.

And suddenly, they were standing in a small open topped vehicle, a bit like an over-sized sports convertible. The Visitor sat on one of the couches, then rocked slightly back on to her hind feet, lifting her forepaws up, in a stereotypical pose as if begging for a treat. And then continued to straighten up, arms and legs becoming longer and stockier, muzzle drawing in, cranium swelling.

In a half-human shape, the metamorphosis paused.

“Could you hand me the lead?” the wolf-woman growled.

Carolyn was only too happy to comply, and continued to watch in fascination as the lead flowed into functional olive drab shirt and trousers, while their wearer finally straightened and adjusted into fully human shape, the fur gathering — mostly — into long silver locks.

“That feels better.” Nancy exclaimed “Now, let's be on our way. Sit down, so I can close the canopy, please.”

Carolyn did so, settling into the plush upholstery. She was reminded of being driven in a petrolhead acquaintance's TVR, only this was more comfortable and opulent. Out of reflex, she felt around for some form of seat belt while a transparent dome flowed out of the sides of the cockpit, and closed over them.

“We're higher tech than that. If we need restraints, it will happen.” she was advised, “so just relax, and enjoy the ride.”

There was some low whistling noise, and a slight feeling of acceleration, as suddenly the street-lit blur that was London in the rain started to fall away behind them.

“Do you mind if we have some music on? — I prefer to have some while driving.”

“Sure, whatever.” Carolyn replied, nonplussed at the mundane request. Overlain on the sound of the engines, a wall of loud unstructured noise burst forth. No, not noise, she corrected herself, but something very densely structured, composed of many different rhythmic and melodic lines, with an urgent tempo binding them together.

Caught up in analysing the structure of the music, she scarcely noticed as they climbed up into the cloud, and then burst out into the clear night.

“We'll be heading west — the Rose is passing over the Americas at the moment — so we'll be getting back into daylight as we head out over the Atlantic.”

Already the western horizon was lightening, and starting to look curved, and as she watched the sunset turning into dawn, the commingled polyrhythms of the music resolved into a single melody that tore at her heart, and an almost angelic vocal line soared above it.

The music had exploded back into its original complexity before they had passed into full daylight, but then even with the Sun brightening from red to blinding glare, the sky was still dark. Below, swirls of cloud over dark turquoise shaded into sunset behind them, the edge of night cutting across the plainly curved face of the ocean.

“We now have line of sight on our destination, so I can open the throttles properly. We'll also be heading almost into the Sun, so I'm going to put the forward view on virtual.”

The glare abruptly cut off, and an entirely viewable pale golden disk with a grainy texture took the place of the Sun, and between it and the horizon, a smaller ring. The nose of the craft rose towards this target, and suddenly the Earth was falling away behind them.

Carolyn turned to look behind, to watch the expanse of water behind turn into a veritable globe, the outline of the Americas discernable under cloud, then stabilise, tilting from behind to beneath once more. Sunlight shone again from above, and ahead…

If this was what had been captured as a clean ring of light on that morning's front page, it had now undergone a terrible change. The ring was obvious still, looming as large as the Earth, and inside it, maybe a third as far across, a dark mass wreathed in mist that was bright in the light, with lighter and darker veins running through it.

“Working medium,” she was told, “Snagged a comet so the matter compilers have a large enough supply of volatiles.”

The ring grew, came closer, as they manoeuvred into its plane, began to eclipse the smoking mass.

“There are a few hundred megatons of carbon — about what you burn every couple of months, and more water and ammonia — but enough, say, to give everyone down there a few body-weights' worth of food, shelter, medicine each. And if it turns out we need more, there are plenty more where this one came from.”

The ring was now a wall running along the left side of the car, lit by oblique sunlight that cast elongated shadows, and then swung around, to become a ceiling. A patch of darkness swelled above, engulfed them.

The sudden transition left her eyes full of red-green after image, and some time passed before she realised that they were now in a space lit with much more subdued — but perfectly adequate — intensity. The craft settled gently into a cradle beneath, little jolts telling of its being latched into place. One final gesture at the controls and then

“Welcome aboard the Secret Rose.”

19:30

“In here.”

The door opened to reveal an opulent bathroom, with mirrored walls, alternately plain, and lightly tinted a more steely grey. Floor, furnishings and ceiling were of a black marble, strongly veined in cream and tawny. A faint floral perfume hung in the warm air, and distant strains of some complex melody kept the antiseptic silence of the corridors at bay.

“Damp things in there, towels in this cupboard,” Nancy opened one of the mirrored panels to reveal a stack of large, fluffy towels, “and when it's had a chance to take measurements, this one” — an empty space at the moment — “will have a new outfit for you. I'll be waiting outside in the lounge. See you in a few minutes!”

And so saying, departed closing the door.

Having emerged from the cosy confines of the little craft that had brought her here, Carolyn had soon been reminded that she was soaked through, the sitting having given more chance for the wet to soak through from her raincoat. Walking down the cool, clean, silent, deserted corridors from the hangar, she began to feel chilled, and her teeth started to chatter.

Her guide had noticed her discomfort, and sweeping through a huge room furnished with comfortable chairs, and tables, led her into this bathroom.

Placing her handbag on one marble shelf, she discarded her raincoat into the bin indicated. She kicked off soaked shoes, peeled off her pop-socks and trousers that were saturated almost to the knee, followed by her merely damp woolie.

Standing there in her underwear, she grabbed one of the towels, which felt impossibly luxurious and reassuringly warm, and began to vigorously dry arms and legs. Between the towel, and the background warmth of the air, her hands and feet were beginning to feel more like live flesh than ice.

She went to the clothes cupboard, and then paused. 'The hell with this,' she thought, taking another towel, and discarding bra and knickers, ' I am going to get properly warm and dry.' It did feel good, defiant and slightly wicked, to just bask here, naked and warm, though she did keep an eye on the door, and wish that the mirroring was not so relentless. It might not be so bad in your early twenties, as the Visitor seemed to be, but though she might work out regularly, Carolyn felt there was no denying that for her, forty was looming.

Having achieved a reasonable state of warmth, she went to the no longer empty end cupboard, to find there a near duplicate of what she had been wearing, betrayed by the lack of labels, and of any sign of wear and tear — no failing elastic, no tiny stains or holes — even the shoes that showed no signs of scuffing or stretching, but still felt like old comfortable slippers. Confidence restored with physical comfort, she slung new coat and old handbag on one arm, and strode out into the lounge.

Here, chairs and tables in shades of blue-grey and dark steel were scattered over a vast area of deep pile carpeting of slate grey, looking more like a luxurious airport lounge than anything domestic. The far wall was windowed, showing bright blazing stars and some veils of mist that toned well with the interior decor.

Here, the background music was something much simpler, languid strings like a harp, with an antique feel to it, unlike what clearly had been the complex music of the future playing first in the car, then in the bathroom.

“We've done a lot of things to the human species where I came from. Actually I'm coming up to my first century,” the Visitor — Nancy, announced, looking up from where she was reclining on a couch in the middle of this expanse. She was now wearing a long white dress that bared her left shoulder, but otherwise looked like something from a Greek statue, and raised a chrome-bright goblet in salute.

“A century,” she continued, “at least in terms of subjective age. It's a bit odd trying to say what your age is, when outside, it's twelve hundred years before you would have first taken breath.

“But anyway, please be seated, and join me for dinner.” She indicated a second couch, facing her. “and over dinner, we shall talk history.”

Hesitantly, Carolyn sat herself down. She was hungry, she realised, having subsisted mainly on coffee all day, leavened with a few biscuits, as she had tried to help hold the conference together.

“As we are talking history,” Nancy continued, “I thought we might eat in antique style, as the Romans might, both in style and menu. As the daring women of the time might have, when dining in purely female company, we shall eat reclining, rather than hidden in a corner and seated on uncomfortable chairs.

“In my future, despite everything that might have severed the chain, we do still record our shared history. I am not some figure out of a distant time who would, for example, confuse the son of a carpenter nailed to a tree, and the son of a carpenter who was first to voyage into space.”

A vague and distant memory stirred, and Carolyn saw a chance to correct her host.

“Carpenter — he was one of the Americans, wasn't he. The Russians were first into space.”

“That they were, and Gagarin's father was a carpenter. I hadn't considered Scott Carpenter when making my jest. But do let's eat.” and then to no one in particular. “You may serve.”

A low steel table extruded itself from the floor between them, then unfolded to reveal the food — chickpeas and quartered hard-boiled egg; a medley of breast of fowl lightly seared and dressed with herbs; shredded leeks and peas, all steaming gently, with a chunky white loaf, a bowl of olive oil, and a pitcher of wine.

“Watered, after the Roman style. And yes, the Romans — the famous Caesars of the early Empire — are more remote from you than your time is from mine. Travel back again as far as I've done, and the Western Empire would still be but a memory, while the first tide of Islam would be breaking on Byzantium's walls.”

Carolyn laid herself down. The savoury smells rising from the table were nigh irresistible, but with an effort of will, she served herself only small portions to start with, relishing the simply, but exquisitely prepared dishes.

“History,” Nancy began, after a few minutes simply dedicated to the meal, “or at least that bit of it we don't share, which is to say all the rest of it, from here to eternity. That history is crucial to explaining what it is that I am trying to do, is why I brought you here rather than just pontificating at you in your flat — that and not wanting to impose on you for a meal you weren't prepared for.”

Carolyn swallowed, took a sip of wine, and replied.

“It's certainly better than anything I could have put together at short notice. Excellent, indeed, and not what I might have first thought of. I probably don't want to know how it was prepared. Or, should I say, conjured?”

“The basic ingredients were produced by matter compiler from the organic reserves aboard, and then cooked to order in a conventional fashion by simple automation. I think it's great — one of the benefits from associating with the Ascended is being allowed smart matter devices like this.”

“Sorry, you're losing me again.”

“Put simply, I'm using a lot of what you might term ‘classified’ technology which isn't generally available to people in my time. It's yet another aspect of the history that separates us. Some of it, I can show you, but some of the crucial events, I can only tell.”

“I don't understand,” Carolyn confessed. “If by showing you mean climbing aboard your time machine, then isn't it an all or nothing affair? Either you can get to future you left, or you've changed the future and you won't be able to get to any of it.”

“History doesn't work like that — it's not a river flowing from the distant past into the remote future, to be diverted into a different course, with a time machine being like a yacht sailing on the river. Instead, all possible configurations of the universe are there in the viewpoint of eternity, and a history is just a path threaded through that, like the frames of a movie. In this hypercosmic film library, all self-consistent stories are true, each thread branching at every point.

“Rather than moving along a thread, I used a short-cut. The Ascended bootstrapped a tunnel by stabilising and stitching together spontaneous wormholes from the quantum vacuum, from my time to something as close as possible to our past, just after a minor branching that had such a wormhole. Now, the two ends of the tunnel move along their own particular histories, allowing us to step forward and across all in one.”

Carolyn thought for a moment, trying to digest the metaphors into a clear understanding.

“So if I understand you correctly, we can't get to anywhere between now and the thirty-somethingth century, but from there we can what — do the same thing again?”

“Yes, that's about the size of it. There are other, more controlled wormholes there which we will certainly be able to use, and others that I hope we shall be permitted. But let us leave weighty matters for discussion on a full stomach.”

20:30

“Dessert?”

Carolyn surveyed the clean plate before her, the almost empty serving dishes, and contemplated her state of repletion.

“Nothing too rich,” she decided.

“Sorbets, to keep in the Roman theme. There'll be coffee to follow, even if it is anachronistic. Some things are too necessary and too perfect to sacrifice to pedantry.”

Carolyn agreed with that sentiment. The sorbets, lemon, mint, and something else she couldn't quite identify — a bit like sour plum and apple — cleared the palate, but still left the need for something by way of a digestif.

“Again it's anachronistic, but if you want, I can produce something in the line of spirits.”

“If you can do a decent malt?” always worth a try, Carolyn thought.

“Certainly.”

The table folded again, and produced a large cafetiere, a decanter of pale amber fluid, cups and glasses, one already containing an oily looking clear liquid. Carolyn pulled the stopper from the decanter, and a familiar peaty aroma burst forth. She smiled as she poured herself a generous double.

“Remembering we both prefer our coffee as it comes.” Nancy remarked, “I didn't bother with the other traditional impedimenta.”

Equipped with coffee and her different liqueur, Nancy rolled on to her back, and stared at the ceiling. Carolyn remained propped on one elbow, watching her. As she watched, a faint grimace crossed Nancy's face, as if she were having to swallow something bitter, and it didn't seem to be either the coffee or the spirit.

“You saw the comet,” she began, “which I'm using for raw materials. By the middle of the century such mining — nearby asteroids, rather than comets — will become economically worthwhile. A mix of politics, technology and sheer economic growth.

“A generation later, there are whole towns in space — not just the front-line technical staff, but the whole paraphernalia of life. Because they are often weeks of travel time from Earth, they have to be highly self-sufficient in food, medicine, and even sophisticated manufacture.

“Then, not so long after, something long vaguely anticipated, but completely unexpected happened. People prophesying it gave it different names. At the time, we called it the Event.

“It started in Scandinavia, in the small hours, under the midnight sun of one high summer. While the first kernel grew, it also launched sparks or spores across Europe — not physical seeds, but logical ones that passed along telecoms networks. Those caught hold and themselves grew, and launched their own sparks. From there, the change leapt the Atlantic, and towards the Middle East.”

Nancy waved an arm to the ceiling, and Carolyn followed her gesture. There, where there had been an illuminating glow, was a graphic of the globe. On the realistic rendering of the Earth, the continents dark green and blazing cream, the dark blue-green of ocean. And over it some electric blue fire burned.

“From the East coast the change leapt across the continent, then down to Brazil, and across the Pacific. Finally, less than half an hour after it started, it blazed across southern Asia and closed the ring.”

Carolyn filled in the sonorous clang that the display and declamation demanded. At this point, Nancy paused to take another mouthful of coffee, and a draught of the spirit.

“Everywhere with a sufficient density of some combination of computation, biotech and population — the intensity in Asia is a result of your contribution, or rather a distant consequence of your contribution — had undergone some phase change. Had ascended to some more intense state. But it was not yet a sane Utopia. There was war in Heaven, an ultimate clash of ideas and ideologies.”

Reds and oranges blazed through the blue fire, which burned out into darkness in many places around the Earth.

“An hour after the Event, or so we later discovered, three billion people had been subsumed, almost twice as many annihilated. And across central Asia and Africa, where there wasn't the critical density of infrastructure, in the industrialised South where there wasn't critical mass of people, or in sparse or actively rejectionist enclaves across the West, hundreds of millions were left behind.”

“From their vantage point in space, my ancestors were watching in horror. Most of Earth had fallen silent, though strange lights could be seen in places on the night side — not always where cities had been. Where there were remaining islands of technological civilisation — Australasia and the tip of South America in the main — radio contact continued, but all the launch sites had been in areas beyond them to the north, and there was not enough capital — human or financial — to spare in the enclaves to build new ones.

“Return to Earth was possible, but it could only be one-way, and it didn't seem to be an attractive proposition.

“Times were desperate for all those who had been left behind. All the interconnectedness of the world had been torn away. Where industrialisation had been introduced essentially within living memory, the veneer fell quickly away; where it was entrenched, the halting of flows of trade and the lack of some manufacturing facilities brought dislocation. For the moment, collapse was halted at a level similar to what you are familiar with, under austere emergency governances, but it was clear that within a few years the lack of industrial base would tell.

“Only the space colonies had any sort of equilibrium, but they had their own limits of population and expertise. For some months after the Event, this uneasy state persisted.

“Then, unlooked for, the Most High emerged from their chrysalis. Through their cherubim and seraphim, they could communicate with us, after a fashion. They spoke to the space colonies — that they were prepared to give technological assistance and to deliver us those who wanted to join us in space.

“Most of the survivors were, in effect, being treated as harmless animals, and were content to be so. Of the high techs, there were some takers for the back to nature option, and some rebels looking to maintain some sort of guerilla civilisation, but most signed up for the trip up and out.”

The graphics showed a fleet of huge capsules, like a chain of sausages, flying from the apex of a great arch that rose from the Pacific, up and out to dark rocks, lit by a few faint specks of light.

“The gifts that the seraphim gave us were sufficient to establish humanity in space — the space-drive, ectogenesis, adaptive modifications.”

Now one of the dark rocks, girdled with chunks of pale ice, was shown passing a planet's banded disk, leaving it and a bright star she took to be the Sun behind.

“Within 150 years of this date, millions of humans, my family amongst them, were making their first homes under distant suns, leaving Earth and its wounded Ascension, and depleted biosphere behind.”

The rock was now shown orbiting a world mainly of whites, with a narrow band of cloud obscured ocean green in the tropics.

“Humanity was now loose amongst the stars.”

The display returned to the same uniform illumination as the rest of the ceiling. This was clearly the end of the oration. Nancy replenished her glass by some magical sleight of hand, and poured herself some more coffee in mundane fashion. Behind her, in the windows lining the lounge the Earth was gradually replacing the stars.

“So, what is it you want to change?” Carolyn had heard plenty of exposition, but no explanation of the grievance that Nancy wished to redress.

“All of it. The Ascended of my future want the whole of your species to Ascend, and I want to participate in it. To become part of something finer, something wonderful, something better than the Ascension I have seen.”

Something akin to ecstasy crossed her face as she spoke, maybe even religious fanaticism.

“And what then?”

“The Earth will recover, and other voices will join the Ascension. And we shall endure.

“Now, shall we go?”

“To the future?”

“Yes.”

Draining her drinks, Nancy sprang to her feet, with more energy than Carolyn felt able to muster, replete, and slightly relaxed from the alcohol as she was. She rose more slowly to her feet, and followed.

Nancy led the way to a door on the far side of the lounge. Beyond was another of the pale dove grey corridors like those they had followed from the car.

There came, as they walked, the distant sounds of mechanism, and a slight feeling of motion. Carolyn looked around, with sudden apprehension.

Nancy paused, looked distant for a moment, then “Tantalum sinter billets. A recompense for the economic side-effects of providing a protectorate for the other terrestrial species who are closer to you genetically than I am.” A graphic appeared on the wall showing a map of the world, with a large part of central Africa and sections of the south-east Asian archipelago emphasised.

They went on for some hundreds of yards of featureless way, and then Carolyn suddenly felt a sense of lightness. Ahead a the corridor ended in a door. Nancy opened it, and held it open for Carolyn to step through.

“Welcome to the future.” she announced.

22:30

Back at last in her flat, sitting blessedly alone at the little breakfast bar that was still cluttered with the remains of breakfast, Carolyn looked at her glass.

Empty.

She reached over for the bottle, and filled the glass almost to the brim with the wine. The bottle was now well over half empty, and she was beginning to feel agreeably drunk. At least she still had that consolation.

She took another mouthful, and looked out at the hateful darkness through the window. She had seen so much, so many strange things, that made her own endeavours seem futile. What did her struggles mean even over so little a span as a couple of centuries, let alone the vistas she had been shown?

And yet her actions would make a difference in the details of the near term; and from now the entire of the future flowed. She had responsibilities there. So she had made the necessary phone calls to reschedule tomorrow's program at the conference before cracking open the bottle.

She had made a decision that could possibly be crucial for everyone now alive, and could not be sure if it was the right one. The bottle was there to numb the doubts and terrors. Soon she would need to sleep, to be ready for the morning, and would need to be more relaxed in order to do so.

12:00 UTC, 12 May 3342

The corridor opened onto a concrete balcony above a dusty road, and facing a ragged rust-brown cliff, maybe thirty yards away. Above, covering the area, a square-gridded glass roof at some distance above, showed a pale whitish sky. Low above the clifftop to the left, shone a Sun that, though too bright to look at, some how seemed wrong.

“Mars, in my epoch,” Nancy announced.

“We've come through a smaller wormhole that I brought through the major warp that the Secret Rose is holding open. This end is in the neutral territory where the unAscended population of the Partnership worlds can communicate with representatives of the Ascended on matters relating to Earth. Most importantly, we are in a position where, so long as we stay a whole number of days — you don't want to be jet-lagged when you get home — we can get you back home by bed-time of the evening we just left, by choosing an appropriate wormhole path.”

Carolyn leant on the edge of the concrete wall edging the balcony, and looked over. Beneath, maybe twenty feet below, something looking a bit like a skeletal racing car was parked, partly hidden from view underfoot.

There was a strange, almost metallic, tang in the air.

“Are we starting to get to the show, rather than the tell part any time soon?”

“This is the first bit of show, though perhaps not the most spectacular. The overture, perhaps, for a real show that will begin tomorrow after breakfast. It's only early evening here, but it will be dark soon enough — it's near the autumn equinox, and we're in the tropics here.

“At the moment, we are in the Clan Wolf enclave — essentially my own private estate, as none of my family have been in the Solar System since we left with the first wave of starships like I showed you just. It's just a roofed over valley — crude engineering on a world far enough from Earth conditions that terraforming would be a multi-kiloyear project.

“Worlds much closer to Earth in size can be manipulated more easily, and doing so has been a family speciality, so I suppose I'm being a little defensive about the quality of the environment here. At least the stink of the peroxide sands has just about been dealt with.

“Tomorrow we will first meet the Linkers, those post-humans who provide the Stargate network — transient wormholes — that provides the major arteries of interstellar commerce. We need to go through them to get passage to Earth approved, but that is just a formality. It's when there that I can't be sure exactly what we can get approved.”

“So, is there any tourist bit to do here and now?”

“Not much. Once you've seen one bit of red sand with some marginal vegetation, you've seen it all. It's a bit late, body-clock wise, for a worthwhile tour of spectacular areology. Most of it is in night at the moment, anyway.” She headed away, along the balcony. Carolyn briefly entertained plans to dive back through the door, or off the balcony, but dismissed them. She could run, but where to? Achieving what?

Resignedly, she followed her guide around an angle where the balcony followed the course of the valley, to where the way descended in a number of short flights of steps.

“Going down, it's easier to jump!” she was directed, and shown by example. In the reduced gravity, hopping down half a dozen steps felt strange, but the landing could be easily taken in one's stride.

Catching up, Carolyn asked the question that the last answer in her own time prompted.

“What about all the people?”

“In the areas I've designated ape protectorates? They all died, just like the apes, just like you did. I don't think it would come as a shock to you that you didn't make it to your eleventy-first birthday.”

“That's not what I meant, and you know it.” Carolyn snapped.

“No, but it is true here where we stand. It is why I am doing what I am. The people back at the other end of the wormhole are being displaced. For many, it is actually being displaced again. There will be some violence, some hardships, but many of those people may be salvaged, not just the young, lucky and long-lived handful who might have ended up in the right foreign country in the right circumstances on the right day.”

Again a look of swallowing something bitter crossed her face, draining its vitality. Carolyn looked at a woman who was clearly exhausted, showing some of the age she claimed.

“I don't know how many I can save. But it has to be more than actually happened. This is really a second chance for everyone. The Event is already out there ahead of you, a tidal wave rising from the depths of the future. All I can do is guide it, and hope that it is a kinder and cleaner change.

“I have taken it upon myself to try to redeem the most I can of my ancestral species. Not all — I have to weed, to prune, but all that I can. It is not as simple as being nailed to a tree, and I have no-one to ask to take the burden from me.

“In every moment, alternates are exfoliating. Many, maybe most, are going to give up. There will be difficult times ahead. As if it were not enough to manage all your billions, the human Ascension is not unique; a consensus reached in my day might be misunderstood in yours. But I am determined that I shall not fall by the wayside.”

She turned away, leant on the balcony wall, looking down at the ground below. She turned again to Carolyn, looking young, lost.

“But I can't do it alone.”

There were no artful tears, or trembling of lip, but an expression of patent vulnerability.

“I don't know what to say,” Carolyn confessed. “This is all too much. I'm just one person who's been trying to get enough people to listen, so we can get a few of the things we in the West take for granted to the most deprived people in the world. Things that will improve their economic position, and allow them to fend for themselves.”

“And some of those things you say you take for granted are things that essentially no one had, and definitely no one took for granted, when you were a child. And it keeps on like that. Don't forget, I know your whole story, at least as it went without my intervention.”

“But don't worry, I shall spare you the details. Now, we still have a way to go before we can call it a night.”

Carolyn checked her watch. It indicated almost half past nine. She was tired after a long and stressful day, and generally in a pleasant after-dinner state despite the occasional verbal fencing, but the sudden burst of daylight and reduced gravity had rather dispelled immediate weariness.

“Where to?”

“A villa, somewhere away from these workshops. We don't need to live over the business here, so we don't.”

A final cascade of steps, and they were on the valley floor. This, Carolyn thought, as she kicked up some of the sand, this is the dust of another planet. It didn't look much different from the sands of the Australian red centre, or the rose-red sands of Petra.

Nancy had loped on ahead, turning back under the way they had come to the contraption she had seen part of when leaning over the balcony. A large, extended chassis with balloon tyres, it was surmounted by a small canopied capsule at the front, and various mechanisms around each axle.

There were a couple of steps to help climbing, and Nancy hopped up them, did something to hinge the canopy up, and scrambled into a seat. Carolyn followed more cautiously, settling herself into the free seat, and noting that there were no obvious controls.

“The villa.” Nancy instructed as one might to a cab driver when she was seated. The canopy closed with a gentle, but unmistakeable, thunk. Engines purred into life, and the car reversed out from under the balcony before starting down the road.

The ride was smooth, despite the completely unmade surface, with just enough bouncing and occasional moments of free-fall as the car ran over shallow depressions to reassure Carolyn that this was not just a video projection. As they skimmed down the valley, in gathering shadow, she noticed patches of grass, an ankle deep carpet thick enough to seem solid green when looked aslant, but plainly sparse when looked at from above. Occasional glints showed as things moved through the cover. Scattered thinly amongst the grass, a few dark low bushes made this look even more like some earthly desert fringe.

Maybe a mile down the valley they came to a barrier. A smooth grey surface blocked the entire span from wall to wall, a couple of hundred yards, and up to meet the roof. The car rolled to a stop, then crawled forwards into a well lit tunnel that opened ahead.

Another pause before doors opened ahead, and they headed out into the open. Carolyn turned around to look back, seeing that they had emerged from a great greenhouse-like structure that roofed over the valley.

“Yes,” Nancy confirmed for her, “we're now out in the real desert. It's simpler to keep the wormhole in a shed out of the way where it doesn't interfere with any of the other kit we'd want to use. The terrain is convenient for the low tech stuff here — just wall off a section of canyon and roof it over.”

The car picked up speed now, and soon emerged from the canyon into open plain. The setting sun, behind and to the right cast long shadows across the boulder-strewn plain that faded into the general dimness as the disk sank beneath the horizon. A general haziness above held some light, but the car soon switched on powerful beams of its own.

“Twilight doesn't last in the tropics even with the high dust haze instead of cloud. All that really does is ruin the seeing. If you'd rather doze, we can kill the lights — they're just for our benefit; the automation uses IR sensors. You'll not be missing much — it's just desert like this for a while now.”

The chair was comfortable, and reclined at enough of an angle that she wouldn't have to worry about waking as her head lolled forwards.

“Sounds good to me. Wake me when we get there.”

She settled back, and Nancy ordered the lights off. Not quite dark enfolded them, and she let the gentle motion of the ride rock her to sleep.

13:15 UTC, 12 May 3342

After some time of dozing, Carolyn woke to a change in the background environment. They had come to a halt in the middle of an open and dark plain. Above, the stars blazed, casting just enough light to distinguish ground from sky.

“I'm sorry to have woken you, but there's something to see. We're about half-way to the villa, but we're now above the dust and haze. There's still a hint of sunset in the west, and if you look up from there, you can see a couple of bright stars, about twice as far apart as a full moon. Venus is the white one to the right, and the Earth is the bluish one, with the Moon just above it.”

“And the other bright ones up there?”

“Jupiter and Regulus. And all the way up, that's Deimos at the end of the orbital tether. We'll be heading there tomorrow. Orion is just setting there.”

“Why aren't we just heading up there now in your whizzy space car?”

“Because here I am a guest, and have to follow the rules. Everything within 2 AU of the Sun is managed by agents of the Ascension. A few of us lesser beings are allowed access, but we're not the free agents we'd be in our home environments.

“In particular, one of the rules is that flight plans to orbit need prior approval, and it's just easier to take the lift, which we'll do tomorrow in the wee small hours local time.

“Might as well settle down again. We've a way to go yet, and there's nothing else different to see until we get where we're going.”

14:00 UTC, 12 May 3342

Carolyn had not settled down to doze again, but had just lain there staring at the bright dusting of stars above. That little blue spark, setting over the dark desert, was her own home, seen as no one in her day had ever seen it with their own naked eyes.

Could she really have a hand in its fate? Did she dare? Was this plan a good thing or a mad one? Things beyond the scope of just the simple aid and assistance she had been working for frightened her. Who was she to decide the fate of billions?

For the moment, she could do nothing but wait, and go along with the ride. Time for decisions — hard decisions — would come later, when she got back home, if she ever did, but she could not cease to wrestle with the issues. If only when she woke it could be with nothing more than a simple development conference to deal with!

Her dark spiralling thoughts chasing around in tight circles were interrupted by Nancy's sudden cry “We're here!”

She sat up, but could see nothing in the dark; and then she realised that the dark was what there was to see. Something vast loomed ahead, blotting out the stars. And suddenly light blazed out from the obscurity, showing the facade of a building in classical style carved into a soaring cliff face that rose up above the range of the light into the gloom, far, far above.

The car rolled forwards into the gaping doorway, where the titanic doors opened for them, and into a much smaller tunnel where it halted.

“All change!” Nancy announced, as the canopy opened.

Carolyn waited until Nancy had hopped down before scrambling out after her, and following, emerged into a vast dimly lit atrium decorated in a style that seemed to fuse classical and ancient Egyptian. Classically draped caryatids with wolves' heads towered up to frame the human-scale doorways to left and right between their calves, and ahead, the larger way came barely past waist height. In the gloom beyond, Carolyn could discern two files of similar figures in a cathedral-like space.

Such lighting as there was came from many faint sources casting light upwards onto the walls, arranged in strips maybe ten feet apart up the walls, the highest casting light up onto the muzzles of the statues, leaving all above in obscurity.

“It's all for show, really,” Nancy explained, “There have to be a number of purely functional areas — life support, power, that sort of thing, so I just let my imagination run riot designing them. Living quarters are upstairs.”

She led the way to the opening on the left, stepped in and jumped up, being suddenly whisked out of sight.

Carolyn walked to the doorway, and peered cautiously upwards. There was a light a long way above.

“Just jump, and the lift will take you!” the voice echoed from above.

Gingerly, Carolyn stepped into the darkness. It looked just like a bare shaft. Nothing happened as she stood there, then cautiously she hopped.

All of a sudden it was like being a cork floating in a tube that was filling with water, and she rose rapidly towards the light. Just as she was about to curl up against imminently slamming into the roof, she stopped, floating in mid air by another doorway, where Nancy stood.

“Walk towards me,” she instructed.

It was like the walking on air over the Thames, that now seemed so long ago, like walking across a firmly sprung mattress, until she stood on solid flooring again.

At once she noticed the warmth. When they had opened the car, the little pocket of warmth they had built up had dissipated into an almost inevitable seeming cool, verging on the chill. Here, it was warm and even cosy, despite being another large room, though with a ceiling at a more human scale — a yard perhaps beyond where she reckoned she could reach, but extending enough that it seemed oppressively low at the far end.

To the right, the wall was black, slightly glossy, enough to act as a faint mirror — a picture window, she guessed. Opposite, the other long wall was a mural that she thought looked a bit like bad barbarian sci-fi cover art — a group of leather clad warrior women on horseback riding out of long green grass into a retro-style Martian landscape that could have been Burroughs or Bradbury. At least the leather outfits were practical chaps and jerkins rather than the more usual run of skin-tight fetish gear seen on book covers.

“A nostalgic conceit of mine,” Nancy confessed. “This is a copy of a mural I found in the rooms I took for my own at home as a teen.

“Back then, I doubt if I knew that Mars even existed, and certainly never thought I'd end up there, here. Coming here, I encountered a fair bit of the legends that the place gathered, especially in the century or so before your time, and suddenly I knew what that picture had been about. It seemed the right thing to do, juxtapose it with a view of the real thing.

“But it's late, and you'll want to sleep. Just choose one of the beds.” Carolyn had noticed the random assortment of furnishings, including chairs of all kinds, tables, desks, and shelves full of all sorts of bric-a-brac.

“Kitchen is up the far end, for breakfast tomorrow, bathroom is this side” — she waved to the right — “and I've duplicated toothbrush and stuff for you. Simpler than explaining the modern stuff.

“It's about midnight your time, so I'll set a wake-up for eight hours from now?”

“Sure. Whatever. I'll take that one.” Carolyn pointed at the nearest bed.

“OK. Lights down.” The lighting dropped to two patches of light around two of the beds, and a subdued level in the bathroom. “And key Carolyn's voice for her light. So now you just have to tell the lights to switch off.”

“Great. I'll take the bathroom first if you don't mind.”

“Sure thing. Anything for a night cap?”

“No, I'll be fine.”

The bathroom was again reassuringly similar to a hotel bathroom, apart from the fact that there were no doors. Fortunately, around the corner and out of immediate sight, the expected facilities — no strange space plumbing — for which Carolyn was grateful. It was a much needed comfort break, and discreetly silent, after the long ride after dinner. The familiar routine of washing, and brushing her teeth made it feel almost normal to be here. Only the feeling of levity, the strange sluggishness of pouring water reminded her that it was not just another random modern hotel in another foreign city, probably American, from the size and the vast sunken bath.

When she returned to the main room, clothes in partial disarray, she was intending to modestly climb into bed before undressing. Just outside the pool of light by the further bed, however, Nancy was doing something that looked like Tai Chi, naked, her back turned.

Don't mind me Nancy didn't speak, didn't interrupt her tempo, but Carolyn felt the meaning in her head, with a slow serenity that overcame the feeling almost of violation. But then hadn't she been told that Nancy had been reading her mind? Was it not possible, even obvious, that she could probably project thoughts as well? Just get into bed as you wish. No need for shyness.

Oh, well, when in Rome, Carolyn thought. She left Nancy to her exercises, turned her back on her, and undressed. Bed was very welcoming, the sheets crisp and cool, with the great bulky quilt that draped to the floor on all sides so light in the local gravity.

“Lights off,” she remembered. The lights snapped off. From where she was, she could still see part way into the bathroom, where a faint glow gathered around every sharp corner, like a negative of a line drawn sketch, and on the other side, Nancy, deeply immersed in her exercises, in a dim pool of light. Carolyn watched the gracefully moving figure, a hard athlete's body reminiscent of the Soviet gymnasts of her youth, for a little while, before rolling over, closing her eyes and seeking sleep.

The second wakening, the feeling of not quite floating, the simple rush of wonders made sleep more elusive, however. She tossed and turned a while, before lying there staring at the ceiling. The light had dimmed further, but there were still the occasional sounds of movement.

She could not settle the whirl of thoughts in her head. While she could put worries about her conference out of her mind for the moment, she had a new set of worries. Hijacked into the future, shown wonders, faced with a new awesome responsibility for the future of her planet, by this otherwise very reasonable person who seemed to be following a single minded Nietzschean agenda of her own.

While she wrestled with anxiety about the future, the light dimmed further, until darker than she was used to due to streetlights, and soon a rustling of bedclothes, and then quiet but for the distant sounds of breathing.


© Steve Gilham 2001
© Mr. Tines 2001


Chapter 1 — Epoch

Chapter 3 — Albion

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