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Saturday, 26 September 2015

Saturday Story - 'With Malice Aforethought' - 1 of 2

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(part 1 of 2)

Nik Morton

The Temporal Module suspended in space on the rim of the Andromeda Spiral two million light years away from Earth required continuous maintenance and Morgan Bland was one of the ninety-nine mechanics detailed for this purpose.

He was proud of his Personnel papers and of the fact that he had been selected for the job. It was one of the most sought-after posts in the Space Federation. Naturally, a lot of applicants thought it would involve free trips in the Module...

They couldn't have been more mistaken.

There was a Universal Code for such an eventuality as a time machine. The concept that time could be conquered had been accepted for centuries, but overcoming the inherent problems, both physical and moral, had only made time travel possible towards the end of the twentieth century - four hundred years ago.

By interfering with the past, by simply existing in the past, the future was in some way altered, fundamentally changed.

So the Universal Code covered it.

The Temporal Module was used strictly for observation. In its present form it was only capable of transporting a traveller into the past and returning him. Time-travel into the future was forbidden, excepting for the Recorders.

Nobody knew the kind of punishment the Twenty-Eight Intergalactic Jurists would mete out to any transgressor of the Code, for no-one had yet dared to time-travel without express permission and under constant surveillance.

Apart from the technicians concerned with the Module's rudimentary workings - simply a few buttons and levers - and authorised travellers, only the mechanics were allowed anywhere near the machine.

Not a soul beyond the Inner Sanctum of Jurists knew the whereabouts of the blueprints for the Module and the space station in which it operated. Somewhere, rumoured to be on the very edge of the outermost galaxy, the plans were sequestered.

But that was none of his business, Morgan reflected. He had to check the manifold in Section 14G 3Y of the Module. Even with gallium arsenide chip technology it was a gigantic brute of a machine, each riveted panel requiring location code-numbers.

Morgan eyed his watch as he descended the steep ladder into the Module itself. Almost Breaktime; he wondered how Naomi, his wife, was getting on in the experimental lab which abutted onto the Module House.

The Temporal Module was held within a half-mile wide hollow metal case, a mile tall, sealed top and bottom. Adjoining this outer shell were several cylindrical spokes, each an access tunnel. These tunnels led to living quarters, canteens, amusement areas, recreation centres and various separate laboratories, mostly associated with the information gleaned from time-travelling into the past.

One lab was studying the rock formations of the Jurassic age; another the gases of the Earth’s creation; and another was concerned with the beginnings of Uranus. In yet another lab Naomi, as chief chemist, worked on the chemicals that generated the Module itself. These substances were highly dangerous in their raw state, prior to being fused with stabilising agents equally necessary for the Module to function properly.

When the Module operated, only the Booth, nine feet by four, within the Module’s core, actually time-travelled. Meteorites, atomic rays, nothing could affect the Booth; it was impervious to every known element and force. Only through the joint application of many varied forces was it built at all. The Booth was self-propelled and could travel round any chosen planet unseen and undetected by sensors due to a special shielding process.

Observations, mainly using sensors and remote collecting robots, were made from this Booth. Nobody had ventured outside the Booth’s confines; outside was the unknown, the great mystery.

There was no way of discovering how the time-travelling process might affect the body or molecular structure if you actually stepped outside the Booth’s protection. You might cease to exist – or the body’s inbuilt clocks might simply dysfunction.

Damage-control alarm sirens froze Morgan's blood. Other tech­nicians on catwalks around the Module Booth looked up at the bulkhead chart. A red blip of light - indicating an atmosphere leak - flashed in Section K3.

Naomi's lab!

The tannoy, her voice calm, unmistakable: ‘Chemical reaction - isolate - decontamination team close up - Prime One!’

The life-support systems had a leak; the air would be sucked out.

Morgan climbed the ladder and barged his way towards the linking corridor, K. Stopping at a decontam cabinet, he broke the seals and withdrew two suits. Panting now in one of the suits, he raced down the catwalk, jolting as he went, lumbered with the spare suit for Naomi in case she couldn't get to hers.

Then the explosion hit him.

No sound. Just an impenetrable, invisible force. Blasted back down the tunnel, he was concussed and bowled over and over, bashing bulk­heads and deck as he rode the shock waves.

He came to, opened his eyes and realised he could see stars, stars in the deep firmament... He peered round. The space station was a distant speck, slightly buckled it seemed at one of the outer radials... Still gripping the spare suit, he was travelling through space, carried by the explosion.

The rescue shuttle was alongside him as he remembered why he was carrying a spare suit. ‘My - my wife, Naomi - ?’ he demanded on his helmet radio.

His rescuer hauled him inboard, slammed shut the hatch. ‘Sorry, she's dead - didn't have a chance.’

Morgan sank to his knees, eyes wet and red-rimmed; he was trembling and shivering - until the onboard doctor administered a sedative.

In the space station's sick-bay he went through a bad period, suffering repetitious nightmares, undergoing the violent explosion night after night.

As he nervously fidgeted in his waking hours, a scheme formulated in his mind. But in order to put it into effect he must first pass his medical check-up.

From that moment he concentrated on getting his riddled nerves back into shape. Finally, the Doc passed him fit enough to return to work.

Whilst going about his maintenance tasks, he began making a mental note of timing, causation; in his bunk, he jotted down these notes, in a private code. In the quiet periods he slipped down to the Inquiry Library and consulted the reports on the accident.

Surreptitiously, he observed various technicians operating the Module Booth on routine journeys. It was easier than piloting a spacer! He decided. He would do it. He would project himself back in time - about half an hour prior to the explosion. He would save Naomi: Morgan knew the risk. He was violating the Code's Fundamental Commandment: Thou shalt not meddle with time, merely observe and learn. With the utmost caution, he prepared himself. There was plenty of time! During most free periods he busied himself getting fit, dieting and losing weight. He wanted to be in peak condition for the trip; it was reportedly quite an ordeal until you got used to it.

The moment arrived. He’d planned to enter the Booth during a Breaktime. Only Technician Rawlings was left in the core-room's entranceway to the Booth.

Morgan greeted him and explained that the Head Technician wanted a word with him. ‘Go on, I'll stop here while you're away.’

Rawlings didn't question him; they were both security- and stability-cleared as high as possible. Anyway, he knew Morgan very well: he could be trusted.

Alone now, Morgan entered the Booth, adjusted the various levers and gauge dials on the console. He set the place he wanted to arrive in - the core-room - and estimated the time, thirty minutes before the explosion hit corridor K. He had cut it as fine as he thought possible so he wouldn't unbalance the time-scales more than he could help.

He switched the Module on from the core console and then leapt inside the Booth, shut the entrance, sealed it, clipped the head-phones in place and flipped the switches. He strapped himself in with seconds to spare.

The sensation was bizarre, as though he were sitting in a centrifuge. The transparency of the Booth grew opaque; console lights changed colour rapidly; some colours he couldn't identify: the natural laws of light were turned upside down in the time vacuum.

At least he could think, he could register what was happening, though the blood swam in his head, made him nauseous. His stomach squirmed uncomfortably.

The process reversed, slowed and then stopped. He could not detect at which precise moment the Module Booth halted; one instant it was moving, the next, stationary. Now, it just didn't seem possible that he had travelled through time. It was more like being in a space-fair­ground's whirligig.

He opened the entranceway, stepped out gingerly, a little unsteady. He eyed the bulkhead clock in the core-room. A minute later than he had planned. That left him twenty-nine minutes - if in fact he had time-travelled!

Climbing the ladder, Morgan left the Module House and sped down the tunnel corridors; he would have to hurry! On his way, he was brought up to an abrupt halt, looking at himself collecting tools together and placing them in a bag. His other self was quite unaware that he was being watched, oblivious of the drama soon to erupt. A feeling of pity filled Morgan's gullet: he was going to lose his beloved wife... It was an eerie feeling, overpowering himself. It took ten precious minutes to drag his alter-ego back into the Module. He set it in motion, to travel fifteen minutes hence... That should give his other self time to get out of the Booth, hear the alarms, rush to his wife and relive the past he himself had been through. He ran on.

Breathless, he burst into Laboratory K3.

Naomi was struggling with the corpulent assistant, Gregory. The man's lips curled in a travesty of passion.

‘Hey!’ Morgan leapt.

As Gregory released Naomi, Morgan clamped onto his neck and they pitched against the workbench, spilling dozens of chemicals that sent up a nauseating mixture of fumes on shattering. Naomi stumbled into some experimental apparatus, sobbing.

In staggering succession, Gregory elbow-jabbed Morgan's stomach, karate-chopped his face, barely missed the bridge of nose. Winded now, aching, Morgan scuffled back, catching his breath. Gregory charged him again but slipped on the fallen chemicals. His foot glanced off Morgan's thigh, sent him sprawling too. They both upset yet another rack, containing highly unstable phials which instantly burned a hole in the pressure hull!

The ominous hissing alerted Morgan and Naomi at once. She shouted the alarm over the tannoy.

Gregory must have realised too, judging by the aghast look on his face. But he had nothing to grab onto and was suddenly sucked head-first shrieking piercingly, into the rent. Swiftly losing consciousness, his large bulk temporarily blocked the hole; the hissing sound diminished. Air-pressure dials continued to drop.

Morgan snatched his wife's space suit, threw it to her and then stepped into Gregory's - he wouldn't be needing it.

In their cumbersome suits, gasping for oxygen after their strenuous fighting, they both drunkenly bundled through the emergency exit hatch at the precise moment that the lab's mixture of spilt chemicals erupted. The wind was knocked from him; blindly he grabbed Naomi's hand, held tight and blacked out.

To be concluded tomorrow…

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