Short Story: Dialed In

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©2020 C. Henry Martens

     The mist makes it difficult to see the landscape below. The rain is coming down in sheets, and the rock outcropping I am sheltered under barely keeps me dry. The moisture in the air wets my cheeks, but I am warm inside my skins. Below, the savanna teams with animals. The large ones move sluggishly, gray and indistinct in the fading light. Huge creatures of the early paleolithic. Everything here seems too large.

     The leather sack beside me contains two severed heads, and this is why I am here. Just a few miles away is a cave that will be discovered in the late twentieth century. The paleontologists doing the excavation in the early twenty-first century are in for a surprise.

***

     We’d noticed some odd activity in the last couple of days, and as Chester backed away from the window he exclaimed, “Jeezuz guys, There’s guys out there with guns. Swat guys. Holy crap, what are we gonna do?”

     “Damn, I knew there was somethin’ goin’ on.” Joel muttered. He was the kind of guy to have your back in a pinch. He was suddenly all business and focused motion. He spun the dial on the accelerator and started flipping switches. The machine began to hum in a syncopated rhythm.

      I had to ask, “Can we get away before they knock the door down?”

     I’m not even sure why we felt we had to, but a bunch of armed government agents had put the fear of God in us, even though two of us were solid atheists and the other was skeptical. We’d had these kinds of deep discussions as we were talking about the machine and time travel. The three of us knew each other pretty well.   

     The machine noise leveled out to a steady sizzle as it warmed up. We were supposed to be jumping in a couple of days. We’d invited Carluchi from MIT, and he was supposed to bring Lin Chang (yeah, you recognize the names, right?), both visiting from their campuses back east. But now? It looked like that meeting was seriously on hold.

     There was a loud and serious rap on the door. The kind of knock that usually meant a landlady hadn’t gotten her rent. In this case, we assumed it wasn’t the rent that was a problem. We figured whatever it was we might be better off ducking out and avoiding any confrontation. Better to apologize than to deal with the red tape involved in getting permission… which is why the machine was built in Joel’s garage instead of at school.

     “Okay, so November 14th, 1805, right? The mouth of the Columbia River, Oregon, right?” I grilled Joel one last time. Our plan was to meet the Lewis and Clark Expedition the day after we arrived. We would be dressed in period clothing and had a story fabricated to allay any suspicions the expedition members would have in seeing two non-native men on the banks of the Pacific. Most of our gear would be stashed away so they wouldn’t see it. We would disappear back to our own time within twenty-four hours.

     Joel nodded, intent on reading the outputs. He was the engineer and tech wizard. Chet was just an anthropologist and had to be trained in skinning wires and terminating as he helped build the apparatus. Me? I knew even less. Just a guy that was expendable. The rest of the crew, three others with tech degrees, were taking a road trip and were supposed to be back in the morning.

     How we’d been discovered, and why the Swat response was a mystery. I’d had a fleeting thought that it was all a practical joke. These techy geeks had odd senses of humor. But I kept my thought to myself. As I’d said, better to apologize…

     I grabbed my rifle and my backpack and jumped into the Enclosure. I wasn’t relishing the trip. The couple of times I’d traveled it had hurt like blazes. I guess that’s what happens when your atoms are broken apart and reassembled in another time and space. Don’t ask me about the physics, all I know is that the dial controlled two things, both shown on readouts and synchronized so wherever we popped into existence the planet was under our feet. It wouldn’t do much good to be in the same place in relation to where we dematerialized since the Earth was traveling through space at ungodly speeds.

     Chet grabbed his pack and rifle and squeezed into the Enclosure. He was a hefty guy and with the packs, there wasn’t much room.

     I looked through the glass just in time to see Joel flip a switch, and everything went white.

***

     Everyone on the Swat Team went by nicknames in the field. It was easier to identify people if there was shouting or crowds with potentially multiple people having the same name.

     Ruger was impatient. He knocked on the door again, hard. He wanted to communicate authority. One of his men had a visual and Ruger knew there were three young men inside the garage.

     The door opened a crack, a bespectacled young face filling the aperture. He looked a little scared and was about to say something.

     Pushing through, Ruger took the kid by the arm and twisted it behind him. He would be in control or the kid would get hurt. The two men accompanying Ruger launched into the room and looked around. There was nowhere to hide and there was no one else in the garage. The only thing besides low tables filled with papers and some old chairs was what looked like a small engine, a control panel with a bunch of gauges, and a large, clear glass shower stall. The engine hummed loudly and the air inside the shower stall sizzled and popped… but there were no others in the small building.

     Putting his hand to his shoulder, Ruger spoke into his radio.

     “Gonzo, get up here. Where are the kids you saw? It looks like there’s only one guy here. Get your ass front and center and explain this to me.”

     Ruger motioned to the other men to keep looking. It was easier to believe there was a hiding place than to believe Gonzo was mistaken.

     The kid was protesting. Ruger knew he was uncomfortable and the Swat Commander put a little more pressure on the kid’s arm to shut him up. He shoved the kid ahead of him toward the table with the control panel. His men looking around, Ruger was inspecting the room too. The damn noise from the machine was distracting, and on impulse, he reached down and spun the dial that looked like it controlled the damn thing.

     “NO!” The kid scrambled and bucked, trying to get out of the Commander’s grip. He planted his foot hard on Ruger’s steel-toed boot, but in doing so he raked the bigger man’s ankle. It hurt and was unexpected.

     The Commander woke up having a bad day and was in no mood. He twisted the kid’s arm hard and reached for the dial again, spinning it several times.

     “What, you don’t like me playing with your toy? Tell me where the other two are and I’ll let you have it back in one piece.”

     The kid was whimpering, his glasses askew on his face.

     “You don’t get it. They aren’t here.”

     Losing patience, the government man gave the arm another tweak. The kid yelped.

     By this time the two men looking for escape routes were pretty sure they had covered their bases. Gonzo had entered and looked too. There was nowhere to go. The floor was solid, the rafters exposed, and the shelves on the wall wouldn’t hide anything. The only exit was the door they had entered, the window Gonzo had been looking in, and the big, roll-up door which was locked and had Swat members outside.

     The humming had changed as the dial was spun and Ruger was tired of it. There was an electrical control panel on the wall by the door and Gonzo was standing next to it.

     “Trip that panel. Shut this thing down.”

     The kid screamed, “NO, if you…”

     And the machine went silent as Gonzo flipped the breaker.

     Crying, the kid almost went to his knees.

     “Oh my GOD… You don’t know what you did. I could have gotten them back. I could have reset if the dial was the only thing you’d touched.”

     “What do you mean?” Ruger asked.

     “I could have brought them back by resetting the dial. But when you shut off the power it kicked everything off without any way to know when they materialized. I have no frame of reference. I can’t find them. I have no way to find them.”

      Looking at the control panel closely for the first time, Ruger noticed a dial that looked important. It had layers of indicators. The first was labeled on the inside with the word “millions,” the next said “kiloyear,” the next “millennia,” then “century,” “decade,” “year,” “month,” and finally the biggest, outer part of the face said, “day.”

     Ruger didn’t get the connection, but Joel had seen the dial turning and had watched as the face designating millions had moved a single space.

     Somewhere between the date on the dial that was displayed now, more than a million years in the past, and today… his friends Chester and Austin were lost in time.

***

     I heard Chester spitting before I opened my eyes. It was my first sensation. The ache in my bones, a leftover from the trip, hung on and would for a couple of days. That was my second sensation. The third was opening my eyes to darkness. We never did know what time it would be because the calibration wasn’t that accurate.

     I sat up. Chet was still spitting. He must have fallen on his face and gotten some dirt or grass in his mouth.

     I looked around, expecting to see the ocean or to at least hear the crashing of waves. The big question would be if we were rematerialized in the early morning hours of November 14th, or the evening before the fifteenth. We either had a full day to wait or just a few hours.

     Slugging a couple of gulps of water from his water bottle, Chet heaved a sigh of relief.

     I stood up and looked around, trying to get my bearings. This was the longest jump we’d made and we’d noticed some wiggle room in where we expected to show up. On one jump I’d ended up in an adjoining room to the one I was supposed to be in. That jump was only a week back in time, so we could potentially be a mile or so from the coast.

     Still sitting on the ground, Chet offered, “Wow, that hurt more than I thought it would. Glad it’s over. If I didn’t have to get back I’d think about staying here.”

     As the guinea pig, I knew what he meant better than anyone. This was only the second time we had jumped two people at a time. The other guy had refused to do it again. Joel was anxious to try it, but as the technical expert, he couldn’t until he was satisfied all the bugs were worked out.

     I reached to offer Chester my hand and he surged to his feet.

     “Well, the ocean has to be to the west,” I said, “so I guess we do some hiking.”

     I was just glad we weren’t west of the target location. We would have been swimming.

     It seemed too warm for November, but I didn’t know how warm the coast of Oregon should be and dismissed the idea.

     We could see the sky getting light in one direction so headed off in the other. It looked like we were a full day early and would have time to scout the meeting place as long as we got there first. It occurred to me that we could be far enough away that we might run into the Expedition as we headed west. At this point, I didn’t care much. We’d figure out some kind of story.

     Cresting a hill, I looked down to see a herd of animals in the growing light. My companion stopped at my side, and we both took some time to let the sight sink in before anything was said. The animals below were similar to camels, but they weren’t camels.

     Without looking at me, still gazing toward the animals, Chet said quietly, “Well, Toto… it doesn’t look like we are in Kansas anymore.”

***

     Excavating a site is boring work. Weeks and weeks of boredom punctuated by high excitement, and then often disappointment as something turns out to be something other than what was wished for. There is a lot of wishing in excavations. Otherwise, people wouldn’t do it. Wishing and curiosity go hand in hand.

     There was some high excitement this morning. Almost a month prior, a graduate student had lifted a spoonful of dirt from the floor of the cavity and exposed something that was definitely not natural. As time progressed and the dig exposed more, the excitement grew.

     Most burial sites contained bits of crushed and displaced bone, and the later ones had the occasional bead or carved figurine. If the excavator was really lucky, they would find a bone flute or even a depression filled with red ocher. In the layer exposed, it would be unlikely to find anything other than primitive hand tools, but there was always the possibility that they would find something never seen before, and the stitched skin bag they were slowly bringing to the surface was certainly exciting. No one had ever seen anything like it.

     Professor Bisset gently placed her trowel under the object and lightly pried it from its bed. Then she let it return to its resting place. There was no reason to hurry. Patience was part of the process. If this object could wait for almost half a million years to be discovered, it was almost sacrilegious to be in a hurry.

     The earth below was exposed and to the trained eye was a promise of more to come. But first, the object lifted from the soil would be studied in every way, slowly, painstakingly, so that no errors could be tolerated.

     The bag was heavy. Much more than expected. It was just over four feet long and weighed almost fifty pounds, but was not large in circumference. Some had speculated that the bag might contain a child, but it was too thin for that. Others thought an animal or perhaps even some kind of weapon. But the weight was too much for an atlatl and throwing darts, and besides, the time frame would be off by hundreds of thousands of years.

     The professor sent the bag for study before she opened it, even though her curiosity burned hot. She turned her gaze to the earth below the bag. A few weeks or perhaps months would expose the next foot or so to the present and the professor could wait. She was a professional.

***

     As near as we can figure we are in the paleolithic. I mean, it has to be. We’ve seen mammoths. We’ve seen woolly rhinoceros. We’ve seen herds of horses that are all a uniform color. We’ve seen giant bison with horns that stick out to the sides instead of curving up. And camels… or what looks like camels without humps. They are everywhere. One day we ran into a giant armadillo. It was as tall as me, at least. I wasn’t going to get close enough to measure.

     We’ve also seen kills. Giant beasts that were taken down and the insides of their rib cages exposed. Flesh hanging from what was left. Big vultures fighting over the carcasses.

     So far we haven’t seen the killers.

     We’re still hiking west. I have no way to tell where we are, but I’ve noticed that many animals are starting to head south. I’m inclined to follow them. Chet and I have discussed it but decided to head west for another week.

     I brought a journal along, so I’m writing something in it every day. If nothing else, I’ll at least have an idea of how long we’ve been here. Chester also has a journal and is writing in it. He says we won’t get back. We’ve both cried. I hate crying and I think I’m over the worst of it. To tell the truth, I’m fascinated by our predicament. The animals and landscapes are beautiful… and terrifying. What I’m really curious about is people. So far we haven’t seen any evidence of people or apes.

***

     The hole that became a priority as the skin bag was exposed revealed another skin bag. This one was rounded, and somewhat egg-shaped. It looked like it had two basketballs in it.

     One of the difficulties was keeping the finds under wraps, away from the media. Professionals were pretty good about it, but volunteers could be a problem. As soon as the first skin bag was lifted from the ground, Professor Bisset transferred all of her volunteers to other parts of the dig and covered the new excavation with a tent. She selected her senior students, those depending on good recommendations to have a career, and restricted access to only those students. They set up a schedule and worked shifts around the clock. Even with the extra security, the professor got calls from colleagues with questions. Rumors travel.

     The dig took just short of a month, and the second bag was lifted from the ground and transferred to a facility for inspection.

     The first bag held an object made of clay. Those studying it were mystified by the stitching as the time period was so far off for anything of its type. Carbon dating and other dating methods all came in, and there was consensus on how old the object was. The bag was aged as expected by where it was in the excavation. Long before any object should have been made with stitching.

     Rather than break open the clay inside, it was decided to used methods to see into the hardened material.

     The second bag, because the first was found to have a clay object inside, was opened more quickly than usual. A second piece of hardened clay lay inside.

***

     We’ve been walking about a month now. We ran out of food about two weeks ago and have been shooting horses. They are the smallest of the grazers. We thought about smoking some to make jerky but we’ve had predators show up and they show no fear of us so they have scared us off our kills. We have little time, so we cut off a chunk of meat and get away from the rest of the animal as quickly as possible. The only thing that scares the predators is my pistol. They don’t like the noise. We’ve had a couple retreat and stay only a hundred yards or so away. We’ve been taking turns sleeping at night and tending the fire. I’m glad I brought the 40 cal.

     We’ve seen short-faced bear and dire wolves. We’ve seen some sign of a big cat, a couple of kills with big holes in the skull. Chester says it is smilodon. I have to say that I would like to see a saber-toothed cat. Just not close up.

***

     The x-rays and sonograms revealed something weird. The interior of the clay looked like a cavity holding a shape that looked oddly familiar. There was a rectangular shape in the middle that seemed separate but obscured the rest so no one was saying what they thought. The wishful thinking was in full force. 

***

    “Hey, Austin… come look at this. I think I know where we are.”

     Chet was a lot slimmer now. Three months of walking and short rations will do that to you. When we got in the Enclosure he probably tipped the scales at two-twenty. Now he’d probably go one fifty. He said he hadn’t weighed that little since high school. Other than being skinny, he looked good. I was a lot lighter, too.

     We’d reached a coast as we walked southwest and I walked up to where my fellow traveler was gazing toward a huge rock sitting some distance away from the water.

     “That big rock is Gibraltar.”

     I studied the rock critically.

     “So the sea we’ve been walking along is the Mediterranean?”

     “Yeah. I’m pretty sure if we wanted to we could walk across to Africa. I’d bet the water here is no more than knee deep.”

     I shivered in my coat, thinking about the warm house I missed and the temperature of the water as winter progressed.

     We stood there for a while, each lost in our own thoughts.

     “I’ve got an idea,” whispered Chester, “I think I know where we can leave a message for the future.”

     I’d barely heard him, it was almost like he was talking to himself.

     “Just before we made this trip I was reading an article about an archaeological dig not far from here. We just have to find it.”

     I thought about it for a minute. I had nothing better to do.

***

      The scientists decided to open the second bundle before the first one. The clay fell away easily, the object inside wrapped in grass to protect it from the clay. Two skulls, perfectly preserved. Both filled with hardened clay so they would retain their shape.

     One was a smilodon skull. The big cat skull had a hole in it, slightly closer to the left eye but centered front to back. The hole was less than the size of a dime.

     The other skull was human. It had two large holes in it. When compared with the teeth of the saber-toothed cat, it was found that the cat’s canine teeth fit perfectly into the two holes.

     There was an obvious problem. The dental work in the human skull was current technology. This was no cro-magnon. The skull from a layer of sediment in an undisturbed cave indicating ancient burial… was from a modern man.

***

     We found the cave just before we were forced to move south at the end of the next summer. Too late to implement our message-in-a-bottle, our time capsule for the future.

     Chet was excited.

     “It’ll be perfect. We can use beeswax or something to encase the book. Maybe amber. All we have to do is wrap the journal and seal it really well.”

     I had to ask, “I don’t get how you know that the book will be found, and how it will be deep enough that it won’t be disturbed by later burials.”

     Chester’s eyes lit up.

     “It’s simple. We already know that the excavation happens, and we already know that there is a lot of debris that accumulates on top of the stone tools we already found. We know those tools were undisturbed, so anything on top got buried without disturbing the tools. The tools are neanderthal, the burial later is homo sapiens.”

     I mulled it over.

     “Okay, so as long as we bury the book as deeply as the tools, it should never be dug up. Everything later is dug into accumulated debris and soil that is laid down over time.”

     “Yeah, and we can even put the tools in the same bundle with the journal. That will help establish authenticity too.”

     “I still think anybody finding it will come up with excuses to think it’s a hoax, or a practical joke.”

     Chet objected by saying, “Well they’re going to test everything we bury. They’ll test the beeswax or amber, or whatever, and there’s no way to fake that. They might not be able to explain it, but they can check with Joel because he’s alive and knows what happened.”

***

     I’m writing this as I sit under this ledge in the rain. I’ve been here three years now, in this ancient world. But I’m alone now. Chet was bringing up the rear after we killed and slaughtered a horse, cutting a hindquarter off to lug to our camp. The saber-tooth cat pounced from brush and had Chet’s head in his mouth before I could react. I’m sure he was dead before I could unsling my rifle. The cat was massive and threatening, but it had no idea about firearms and it dropped with a bullet between its eyes.

     I’ve prepared both skulls and filled them with clay, encasing them in another layer of clay and sewn inside a skin bag. I have no idea if the skin will protect them, but the clay should. By the time my time capsule is dug up the skin will probably have disintegrated, decomposing. I’ve also taken Chet’s rifle and encased it in a similar way, with his journal. I added one final entry because I think it is important. I saw some bipedal humanoids yesterday and followed them to their camp. It looks like they are comfortable there and I will try to contact them after I bury the time capsule tomorrow. So if scientists find Chet’s book they might extrapolate and have an explanation for some things. Who knows what they will believe… or if they will believe.

***

     The rifle is incredibly corroded at both ends, the carbon-fiber stock falling apart, the muzzle almost completely gone, and more than half of the barrel falling apart from the effects of time. Perhaps the grass it was wrapped in stayed moist because of the clay, or the clay absorbed the moisture. The action is preserved very well by comparison, encased in wax. The serial number is still legible. There is a rectangular bundle that is full of dust. Testing has revealed that it was paper at one time, and it did not withstand the effects of being buried for half a million years. If there were words to read in the pages they are long gone.

     The FBI is informed of the situation, and although they don’t understand how, being skeptical and rightly so, they trace the owner of the rifle to the present day. The serial number shows the rifle was purchased less than a month ago by a student from Wyoming, going to the University of California, Berkeley.

     The tests leave a lot of questions unanswered. One is how in the hell the rifle could have deteriorated in the way it has in a month. The alternative is too unbelievable to consider.

     The FBI will execute a search warrant in a couple of days on a garage. Maybe there will be some answers soon.


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