"The Mists of Time" originally appeared in the August 2007 Asimov's--just fifty years after my first story appeared in the August 1957 Fantastic Universe. It's currently available in an audio book anthology, Timeless Time Travel Tales, published by Audiotext. It can also be found in Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction, 25th Annual Collection. Reprints for the Nook and Kindle ereaders are also available on Barnes and Noble and Amazon. You'll find more information on the Royal Navy's anti-slavery campaign in the beginning of the seventh installment of my literary memoir.
THE MISTS OF TIME
The cry from the lookout perked up every officer, rating, and common seaman on deck. The two masted brig they were intercepting was being followed by sharks-- a sure sign it was a slaver. Slave ships fouled the ocean with a trail of bodies as they worked their way across the Atlantic.
John Harrington was standing in front of the rear deckhouse when the midshipman’s yell floated down from the mast. His three officers were loitering around him with their eyes fixed on the sails three miles off their port bow-- a mass of windfilled cloth that had aroused, once again, the hope that their weeks of tedious, eventless cruising were coming to an end.
The ship rolling under their own feet, HMS Sparrow, was a sixty-foot schooner-- one of the smallest warships carried on the rolls of Her Majesty’s navy. There was no raised quarterdeck her commander could pace in majestic isolation. The officers merely stood in front of the deckhouse and looked down a deck crowded with two boats, spare spars, and the sweating bodies of crewmen who were constantly working the big triangular sails into new positions in response to the shipmaster’s efforts to draw the last increment of movement from the insipid push of the African coastal breezes. A single six-pound gun, mounted on a turntable, dominated the bow.
Sub-lieutenant Bonfors opened his telescope and pointed it at the other ship. He was a broad, well padded young man and he beamed at the image in his lenses with the smile of a gourmand who was contemplating a particularly interesting table.
“Niggers, gentlemen. She’s low in the water, too. I believe a good packer can squeeze five hundred prime niggers into a hull that long-- twenty-five hundred good English pounds if they’re all still breathing and pulsing.”
It was the paradox of time travel. You were there and you weren't there, the laws of physics prohibited it and it was the laws of physics that got you there. You were the cat that was neither dead nor alive, the photon that could be in two places at once, the wave function that hadn't collapsed. You slipped through a world in which you could see but not be seen, exist and not exist. Sometimes there was a flickering moment when you really were there-- a moment, oddly enough, when they could see you and you couldn't see them. It was the paradox of time travel-- a paradox built upon the contradictions and inconsistencies that lie at the heart of the sloppy, fundamentally unsolvable mystery human beings call the physical universe.
For Emory FitzGordon the paradox meant that he was crammed into an invisible, transparent space/time bubble, strapped into a two-chair rig shoulder to shoulder with a bony, hyperactive young woman, thirty feet above the tepid water twenty miles off the coast of Africa, six years after the young Princess Victoria had become Queen of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and all the heathen lands Her government ruled beyond the seas. The hyperactive young woman, in addition, was an up and-coming video auteur who possessed all the personality quirks traditionally associated with the arts.
“Four minute check completed,” the hal running the bubble said. “Conditions on all four coordinates register satisfactory and stable. You have full clearance for two hours, provisional clearance for five hours.”
Giva Lombardo’s hands had already started bustling across the screenbank attached to her chair. The cameras attached to the rig had started recording as soon as the bubble had completed the space/time relocation. Giva was obviously rearranging the angles and magnifications chosen by the hal’s programming.
“It didn’t take them long to start talking about that twenty-five hundred pounds, did it?” Giva murmured.
Copyright 2006 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited.
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