The Wizard and the Torch

by Flaulus

Chapter 16

The day the expedition set off became an unofficial holiday. The ferry was a raft, guided by a rope but punted across by rows of slaves on either side of the raft. More slaves were going to haul wagons full of supplies. Crowds thronged the streets wanting to wish the explorers good luck and what puzzled Gene, slaves asked if they could join the expedition while owners offered others.

"It's simple, Master." Malcolm said, "You're off to take new lands. Owners see a profit while slaves see a chance to better themselves. Do you remember Baydon? He's dead. He got paid by three merchants to clear their rubbish at the same time but spent their money getting drunk and hiring a girl. The merchants had him beaten to death. Slaves know you'll curse troublemakers, but the rest of us are doing well in your service. Who would a slave rather work for, you or a merchant with a nasty temper?"

"I've heard about the profit scheme. If a slave finds gold, he and his master will get shares."

"So will you master."

"OK! Jimmy can get rich because of his escorting, but you're not earning money. Does it bother you?"

"Well, it's a terrible life living in a palace with everyone obeying my orders."

"OK! Money is less important here, and a lot is done by barter."

"Yes, Master. I know why you want this expedition, others don't but see an adventure which could make everyone rich."

Gene turned back to the river where, on the far side, the first load was being hauled up the bank.

Craig and Milo would go off with the soldiers, with Craig unhappy he was back in command. Jimmy was fully booked that day but for now, his clients were content to cluster around him listening to his stories of what the expedition might find. Tom had fetched a metal detector for Benny who intended looking for copper wire, but Peanuts was on his own expedition looking for water supplies.

Only Gene and Malcolm crossed on the last ferry. Malcolm should have travelled with the rest of the baggage but Gene insisted they travel together. Gene was in charge but aloof from the mayhem, so it was right he should only cross when he had seen nothing had been left behind. It should have been shocking he shared his grand departure with a slave, but his relationship with Malcolm was so well known, it just produced more gossip.

At first, it was just woodland. They even found animal trails to make their way easier until they stumbled upon the road, a wide, straight stretch of land that curved away into the distance. Either side was woodland, but the road was mainly grass or shrubs, with just the odd tree. Tom led the party onto the road and told them to make camp.

"It's not an all singing, all dancing version you used to find the pirates, but try the drone I bought. Let's see where we are."

While the party rested, Craig flew the drone. Either side of the road was woodland but there was a pattern of straight lines. The trees were a little higher and shrubbery a little denser.

"This could have been farmland." Tom said, "The lines are the remains of the hedgerows. Fly the drone along the road as far as you can. Land it, and we'll collect it when we get to it."

Craig complied but well before the drone ran out of power, it found an unending expanse of rocks and rubble.

"All roads lead to Rome." Tom murmured, "In this case, any road leads to a town. Gene, tell Kaith to take the car to the front of the column."

Kaith was still determined to be Gene's personal servant. He accepted it also meant treating Malcolm as his master, and they both recognised his determination. In a world with a shortage of horses, most traffic proceeded at a human walking pace, so road safety was simpler and different. It was even easier when teaching a slave like Kaith who would never disobey an order. With a strict speed limit, and a fear of letting Gene down, Kaith drove the car for routine jobs. Being driven to meetings with the City Father helped maintain his reputation as a great wizard, and Kaith drove. Gene might have held his breath waiting for Kaith to drive the car off the end of the raft earlier that day, but when it came to manoeuvring through crowded markets, narrow city lanes or the close confines of the villa's forecourt, Kaith was probably the best driver of them all.

Tom, Gene and the others chose to walk. Tom could sit in a wagon when he tired, but it was easy for teenagers. If they spotted anything interesting they passed it onto Tom to examine, but they found nothing useful.

"Benny, survey the road." Tom commanded, "Let's see if we can be sure it really is a road. Craig, Gene, we'll look at those rocks. I don't know if anyone else has noticed, the grass on the road is yellowish. I bet there's rock not far below the surface stunting their roots."

As Gene drove off, he asked, "Benny's not going to find rock with a metal detector is he?"

"I doubt it. If it's a Roman road, he almost certainly won't find anything except for the odd coin or something. I hope that's all he does find because my worst fear is piles of rust that could have been cars."

"Confirming we're in the future." Gene exclaimed, "God, I hope not."

"Yes but if it's the past, we're introducing technology before its time. How will that affect our present." Craig asked.

"We could be on a parallel world." Tom said, "I've been thinking about it, and it's no more incredible than time travel. The point is we must be 100% certain. If it's the past, then you must all come home and hope we haven't damaged the timeline too much."

"And I'm getting to like it here. What about Malcolm? There's Milo and the others."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. We've got the late 21st century for our future, the 1970s to the 2,000s for a parallel world or ancient coins to find. Let's find something then plan."

"And hope we don't find the remains of a 2060s ancient coin collector driving an antique 1990s car." Craig chuckled.

"Slave, speak when you're spoken to." Tom riposted, "Actually Craig's made a good point. We've already found railway lines, so we assume we're not in ancient times, but there is a possibility. Supposing there was a time travel accident, and a great chunk of land slipped into the past. I know, my ideas are getting wilder, but we can't assume anything."

They drove on in silence, each one considering the possibilities, and worried about what they might find. Gene was the natural leader of the group, and Tom now accepted Gene could never go back to being a student. Craig was happy to surrender to another, and being all the things his father told him not to be. Milo and he loved each other though Milo's sexual dominance was notorious; the source of much gossip. Tom was becoming extremely fond of Tarin, but had lived with the idea that sex with a minor was abuse and a terrible crime. Tarin had grown up a slave, seeing sex as a part of life, and it was normal for slaves to be used. Both tried to see the other's point of view and desperately tried to avoid offending the other. Tarin often sat on Tom's lap, and they held each other tightly. As Tarin relaxed, so his manhood responded, leaving Tom embarrassed, careful not to touch while Tarin tried to accept Tom did not find him too repulsive to use. It was an awkward, sometimes tense relationship but Tom had a reason to stay like the other two.

The tension mounted as they approached the rocky expanse, all three knowing they were seeing the key to their future. As the road became impassable the car stopped, and they got out. Craig foraged around then held something out for Tom to examine.

"You spotted it was a shard of glass, didn't you?" Tom asked.

"Yeah, but look at how thick it is. What's it for?"

"Probably a high rise building." Tom replied, "Gather up any more you see. It's as well it's weathered, and the edges are less sharp but be careful."

"Are you looking for anything special?" Craig asked.

"Impurities and imperfections." Tom replied, "If all the shards are of consistent quality then they're probably modern: 20th or 21st century. The more imperfections there are, the older they could be."

It was Gene who made the next discovery.

"They were stuck together like a bit of wall." He said, "When I picked them up, the cement just crumbled, but I've got a pile of bricks."

He continued his search and as he put his foot down he heard a crack, and he yelped with pain as his foot slipped into a crack. The others hurried over, and helped him up. Blood flowed down his leg but when he put his weight on his foot, he found he could stand.

"It's too dangerous." Tom said, "Next time, you could fall into a cavern or be crushed. Let's get back to the car."

As Tom helped Gene back, Craig knelt down and pulled out a thin sheet from the hole. Most of the surfaces were covered in dust and dirt except for a hard shiny surface where Gene had snapped it and where his foot had scraped off the filth.

Craig stared. The yellow letter 'M' in the form of two arches was unmistakable. He hurried after the other two.

"Let's go back." Tom said, "Craig you're the doctor, how's his leg?"

"Badly scraped. The plate snapped, and he scraped his leg over the break. It's bleeding a lot but already starting to clot in places. I reckon it's pretty clean, but I'll make sure when we get back."

By evening, although his leg bandaged, Gene was standing at the table with the rest studying their finds. Benny's proved to be the biggest surprise.

"I did what you said. I scanned along the road, and I got plenty of hits. I tried marking them all out and ended up with patches of metal in a line. You've seen the posts I put in they're mostly car sized with small gaps between. I dug into one or two patches and found plenty of metal, rust, and I think the green stuff is copper. There was a load of plastic, and I think, glass fibre, but it was all crumbly and what was left was all funny? Frayed? A bit unravelled. You can have a look tomorrow, but it was these that lasted the best."

Benny pointed to three fragments. Put together they made a UK number plate and still readable: BN 181 DHU.

"Well done, Benny." I think you've given us a date, and it's after 2050."

"How do you know?" Gene asked, "Number plates have only got two numbers,

"I seem to remember reading the two digits run out in 2049 or so. If they put the extra '1' in, they've got another fifty years."

"You mean a hundred years." Craig said.

"No, they update every six months."

"OK, so what have we got? A traffic jam caused by everyone escaping a town before it's destroyed?" Gene asked.

"About that. The glass shards are consistent with high rise buildings and, of course, modern towns can't survive without its fast food outlets. The only question is, is it our future or a parallel world?" Tom replied.

"Does it matter?" Craig asked.

"No, not unless we can stop the disaster. You youngsters have friends who will be caught up in it. Even if we can't do anything, you need to understand why you can't help."

"It'll be worse if we can do something. We'll have to choose here or then."

There was an uncomfortable silence only interrupted when Malcolm entered the tent.

"Master, there's a stranger to see you. He says he's the Custodian of the Torch."

Gene hurried outside, to be greeted by an elderly man, a little portly and with long white hair. If he had been wearing red, Gene would have believed he was Father Christmas. Instead, he was wearing a white, seamless coverall.

"May we walk." He said, "It's an honour to meet you but my time here is short. My name is Gaaran."

As Gene guided the visitor out of the camp, Gaaran said, "You may be feeling you have been manipulated and sadly, it's partly true. I come from your future, far enough ahead for us to have time travel and to be able to affect minds."

"I don't like the sound of that." Gene exclaimed.

"No. Time is a number of possibilities, and the present is where those possibilities strengthen or weaken. Time travel means we can see and exploit the possibilities. You are at a point where the world can work for reason, prosperity and peace, or can degenerate into the chaos of petty warlords fighting amongst themselves. There are other possibilities, but you need to see the problem not the detail."

Gene nodded, "Go on."

"Remember the sale where you found the torch? You saw it as something special, others saw it is as junk. That was our mind control, and you were one of many candidates. I'll be honest. You were not our first choice since slavery continues because of you. You make it acceptable when it is not and should be abolished. I know, you hated the idea at first, but you're beginning to see the benefits to the master. However, your love of Malcolm is the stuff of legends, and we often tell your story. You also had the most friends who could help you and develop new sciences. So, the possible futures you strengthen are not the best, but they are solid and workable. Your big question is: can you prevent the disaster that will destroy your civilisation? The answer is no."

Gaaran paused, "No, we won't prevent you trying, but the asteroid was already known in your lifetime and that it would be a close flyby. What no-one spotted was an earlier impact had created a trail of debris caught in its gravity and following its path. Without going into too much detail, the asteroid passed close to the moon. It was large enough, not to be greatly affected by it except it continued on a slightly altered path which took it further from Earth as predicted, but some large, extremely dense chunks of debris were diverted towards Earth. In my time, there's debate on how it happened, but many theories centre around a captured asteroid in lunar orbit. It's not important to my story but instead of one single life extinguishing asteroid, Earth faced a series of smaller but damaging impacts. If you like, it was difference between one big hole punched into the Earth's crust, and a series of fractures, some too near existing fault lines not to have disastrous consequences."

"OK, so I could talk about the debris field and get someone to do something about it." Gene paused, "Yes, I see. I'd have to convince them about a freak accident, wouldn't I?"

"Yes. You can guess at the disruption caused by massive seismic activity and a nuclear winter. There were pockets of survivors, and you're in the most advanced. We have looked, but we cannot find a possibility where the destruction was avoided, so we've tried to speed up the recovery. You can keep the torch for now, and you may remain as a wizard bringing new knowledge to the world. In truth, you're just uncovering old knowledge, and before the discovery of time travel, many historians claimed you uncovered it all in the lost city you found today. One other question that may occur to you. The shopkeeper where you got your supplies took the next few days off and was with his family when it happened. Yes, we did influence him to be generous and in exchange, he did not die alone his shop."

"Actually I was going to ask about the hills. Why did people think they were impassable?"

"Our plans are bigger than just you. There was a risk the pirates might succeed with a sneak attack, so we installed mental influencers along the range. The pirates accepted the idea the hills were impassable without thinking about it. Local shepherds on your side of the hills, needed to search for lost livestock, and it was enough to break down our, shall we say, conditioning. It was a surprising side effect when it became a rite of passage for youngsters who were expected to overcome their fear of the unknown."

"So I'm just part of a bigger plan to help you take over."

"If you like, but it's your choice. Are you going to grind Benny down, so he's just an obedient slave or could he become the Father of Science? Both possibilities exist, so it's your choice. We've allowed you to travel freely. Have we made you angry and bitter, or are you going to explore the opportunities you have?"

"But I should free my slaves and be an abolitionist?"

"You must make your own decisions. We have changed your life without your permission and given you a task you may not want. You could call that slavery and a relic of your ways."

Gaaran paused then concluded, "My task was to explain why you cannot change the asteroid strikes. We chose a moment when you would be least angry and frustrated, so would understand most easily. Now, you should return as must I."

Gene walked back slowly, considering his conversation. Could he return to his time, study to become an astronomer and discover the satellite or whatever caused the disaster? Could he then convince governments to do something? Could he trust Gaaron who admitted to manipulating him? How could he know what the truth was? Why was he agonising over a decision when Gaaron could have planted instructions?

In his heart, Gene knew who was manipulating him: Malcolm, and he was waiting for him in their tent.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead