Thursday, August 16, 2018


Of Bison And Men
By David Barber

It turned out the woman came from only ten years uptime, so not a real time-traveller after all. But still.

In those days Frank opened afternoons for workers from the Canaveral Timeport, coffee going on shift, beers coming off. It didn’t earn much, but he wasn’t doing it for the money. This was the real reason: a gust of air, hot and humid, as the short blonde woman pushed open the door. The very first temponaut to sit at the bar of the Chronos Tavern.

She asked for a fruit beer, which made Frank wonder what was going on in the future, but settled for orange juice. While pouring it, Frank glanced at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar, and found she was watching him.

He couldn't help himself. “You’re the reason I opened this place,” he said. “I mean, you’re from the future. How cool is that?” And for some reason, he told her his name.

"You know we’re warned about disclosing the future, Frank."

“And I was going to ask you about the lottery.”

She smiled wanly. “The past is safer."

She was an archaeologist with the Federal History Project. In exchange for siting the Timeport at Canaveral, we had been gifted some token use of it.

On a wafer-thin screen, she showed him pictures. Horses and bison, just a few brush strokes, but bulging with power and movement. "Cave art. My research project. Or was."

The paintings were from a cave near Altamira in Spain. The oldest in Europe. Thirty thousand years ago.

"Took those last year. Hundreds of metres inside the cave. And it’s dark down there…"

She tried to describe the experience. Don’t think a tunnel dug by men, but a black bowel coiled inside the earth; near half an hour of stooping and splashing and squeezing through fistulas in the rock to find the paintings.

Why did they go to all that bother? he wondered.

“Good question.” She gave him a tired smile, and he reckoned later that was the moment he fell for her.

She swiped another picture. A narrow green valley with scree slopes. Taken from high up. Herds of mammoth and horses and scruffy bison on the valley floor. Underneath was text:

33143 bp. Baseline visit. Walls untouched. No evidence of occupation. Observed spring migration of steppe bison (Bison priscus, now extinct) through valley. Steppe bison will feature in cave panels 7, 12 and 14.

"This is real isn't it?” he breathed. “Not Hollywood."

“On our first visit we stampeded the bison. The wormhole just popping out of nowhere. I’m told its impressive.”

More pictures of the valley, the remains of a camp fire, some hacked-up animal parts.

33005 bp. Walls still untouched, but edvidence of human presence in the valley. Possible hunting camp, with butchery, fire debris and stone tools.

Nobody knew when work on the paintings started, so they kept checking in.

"And this was the visit with the near miss."

The familiar valley, but with distant figures carrying spears. You got the impression of an easy lope.

32901 bp. Hunters changed direction towards us. Initiated emergency return.

An emergency return involved telling a gadget to do it, followed by a flash of Cherenkov radiation and a thunderclap as the air bangs into the sudden vacuum.

"We ducked into the cave so the hunters wouldn't see all that. Even so, we had to report a near miss.”

She brought up another photo. This time he wasn't sure what he was looking at.

32891 bp. Ceiling panels 8, 9 and 11 show soot marks.

"Soot marks from torches. Guess they were exploring. Temporal Guidelines are really strict. But we bugged the cave with tiny motion-activated cams. Just got back today from recovering them."

She wore her pale hair up, untidily. He tried not to stare at her slender, bared neck.

“Found little shrines of flowers round every camera, and bison and horses stampeding across the walls. Perhaps those hunters spied us going in. They only painted where we put the cams. They had to go all that way in.”

Those paintings were for us, she said sadly. And for millennia after, they must have kept the faith, making cathedrals of other caves as the Word spread, hoping the gods would return, though we never did.

She pushed away her empty glass. She shouldn’t have told him all this, it was just habit.

“Helen,” she added. Her name was Helen.

Just before she left, she dug out a dog-eared photograph from her bag. More cave art he imagined, or her posing next to a mammoth.

“You hang onto this until I come into the bar the first time, a few years from now and you show it to me. Proof that we’ve met before. And of course I don’t understand, because the picture’s from my future. But you convince me because you always were a silver-tongued rogue.”

It was the two of them. Him looking greyer. She unchanged. He had a comfortable arm round her.

“This is the one chance I get to come back here and give you our picture. I even wore my hair up for you. Of course you’re older when we marry. Not as innocent. Not as cute.”

“This doesn’t make any sense.”

She sighed. “Give it time.”

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