Somewhere in that vast throng of revelers was Rachel Aiyana Zheutlin, a woman out of time. Gordon Ashe, Ross Murdock, and Travis Fox stood looking down at Jerusalem. King Solomon had dedicated the Temple of Hashem, God of the Hebrews, and the entire region was now celebrating the festival of Sukkot. From what Ashe recalled, during the dedication, blood ran exceedingly freely as 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep were presented as peace offerings.
Now was the great festival. In order to keep their cover, the time travelers erected their own temporary shelter. True, they were conspicuous. By rights, they should be in the city, but then again, as foreign travelers, presumably non-Jews, they did not have to fulfill the commandment to observe the festival.
Yet even if somehow they could get into the city already packed with hundreds of thousands, then finding Aiyana would be a miracle. Gordon chuckled to himself as he regarded the newly built Temple, clearly visible from their vantage point, and imagined it to be a house of miracles as well as prayer for all nations.
“So what now, Gordon?”
“We can’t hope to find her by going in, Ross. We’ll have to wait. I told Kelgarries as much over the radio link.”
“That means we can only contact base once per day. I mean, you did request that the gate be closed.”
“True, Travis. The base gate and relay will open simultaneously each day before dawn local time. We can’t risk a person or animal wandering through the gate if we leave it constantly open for the next several weeks, so we’ll adopt protocol and it will open for ten minutes every morning so we can contact them with a mission update.”
“Why can’t we go back to base, reset the coordinates for two weeks from now, and skip over everything? For that matter, why don’t we come back a month ago before she ever left?”
“You know as well as I do that isn’t possible given the gate’s temporal dynamics, Travis. We were lucky to be able to establish a link this close to when Aiyana arrived, especially using an experimental gate link up. Temporal fields can’t overlap, at least not significantly. Like it or not, we’ve just earned a one to two week vacation in the tenth century BCE middle east.”
“Best estimate is that Sukkot will end in the next three days and the people will be sent home after that, Gordon. We just stage ourselves on the road south, covertly scan for chronotons, and pick up Aiyana’s signature.”
“In the meantime Ross, I guess we’ll have to let Travis do the cooking. How’s the lamb coming along?”
“Slow roasting and smelling delicious, Gordon.”
For the first time since beginning their sojourn, the three men laughed.
So far, Ashe had been solely responsible for communications with base and for some reason, they’d become spotty, maybe because of the link up. The Ceres mission should be over by now if time were truly synchronous between them and the present. Why were they acting like it wasn’t?
Lynn Huỳnh was worried. She was formally in charge of the main personnel time gate and was responsible for making sure Gordon Ashe, Ross Murdock, and Travis Fox (and hopefully Aiyana Zheutlin) returned to the present safely.
It was supposed to be a simple mission lasting twenty-four hours tops. Ashe’s team were to make contact at the residence where Aiyana had been staying since she was whisked back to the tenth century BCE, claim her as a relative, receive the traditional hospitality common to people of the middle-east, and then discretely return to the present.
Now all that had changed.
It wasn’t that time agents hadn’t spent extensive periods in the past, but today was critical. Today, Antoine Barnes, Thomas Lucius, and the team at the large time gate were going to attempt to redirect the rogue Forerunner time-spaceship from arriving over New York City on October 26, 2020 to the vicinity of the dwarf planet Ceres in the present, today in real-time.
The power levels of what was left of the alien time gate inside Ceres were falling too rapidly. If they couldn’t divert the experimental ship into the asteroid belt and let it explode there within the next four hours, all hope would be lost and the explosion over New York in three years would not only kill millions, it would trigger a catastrophic global climate event that would result in the extinction of the human race within a hundred years.
Everyone expected Ashe’s team to return before the incursion. Kelgarries almost ordered them back, but Ashe convinced him that doing so might jeopardize the success of retrieving Aiyana and getting her home.
No one knew what would happen when they triggered a major temporal incursion while a team was in the past. It was a risk and Ashe and his team had accepted it. The fate of all humanity depended on the success of the Barnes incursion, what some were calling “Operation Divert Armageddon.” If it worked, the threat of climate change would be permanently averted. If it changed the lives of four people in the past or even if it cost them their lives, it was still a small price to pay to save the seven-and-a-half billion people.
Except for Lynn. She was in love with Ross Murdock, really in love with someone for the first time in her twenty-three years of life. Every time he stepped through that gate into the past, there was always a chance he would never come back. Seven-and-a-half billion lives and Lynn’s heart beat only for the one who, from her point of view, was currently in the ancient Kingdom of Judea in the countryside outside of Jerusalem.
She returned to adjusting the communications link used to communicate with the time travelers. There was something wrong with the synchronicity, as if time were flowing at a different rate for Ashe’s team than it was here at the base.
Rachel Aiyana Zheutlin or Rachel bat Ester was lost. Well, not exactly lost, but in the revelry following the King’s dedication of the Temple of Hashem, all of its majesty, pageantry, and glory, she had become separated from her “family.”
Had it been down this street or the next one where they were supposed to be staying? It was the eighth day and they were dismissed by the King to return to their homes. Of course, there’d be plenty of people who would gather around outside the city to continue “partying” to use the 21st century colloquialism, but she hoped not to be one of them.
All she wanted to do was go home. Strange how she found the quaint farmhouse in the countryside south of Jerusalem to be home now. Stranger still, as she looked back in the direction of the newly dedicated Temple, did she feel a longing for it, a connection she had never imagined possible.
“So this is what it’s like to be a Jew,” she muttered to herself in English.
She spun around at the voice. A quartet of…of what? Ceremonial guards from the Temple?
“Who are you and where do you come from?”
She lowered her eyes and made her best attempt at appearing contrite. “I am Rachel bat Ester, a humble maidservant in the household of Aviram ben Hoshua near Hebron.”
For the first time, she noticed another man, one in a cloak and a hood behind the guards. He came forward quietly and whispered in the leader’s ear, then stepped back.
“You are to come with us, Rachel bat Ester.”
“Have I committed an offense?” Aiyana was more confused than frightened. What reason would the Priest’s guards have for detaining her? All she’d been doing was walking. She hadn’t been able to get anywhere near the Temple. “I have become separated from Aviram’s family. Can you help me find them?”
“You are to come with us immediately. It will be explained when we deliver you to your summoner.”
Summoner? Who could possibly know or care that she was in Jerusalem? She was a stranger, a nobody.
Two guards moved behind her and the other two flanked her. “Accompany us now.”
The cloaked man moved behind the guards in the rear.
Ancient Jerusalem was small compared to the modern city, but she still felt hopelessly lost. It was an hour before dawn and the lighting was poorer now that the celebration was breaking up and people were leaving the city. She felt like they must be somewhere behind the King’s palace but it was hard to tell.
At first it looked like they’d come to a deadend, and then a door creaked open allowing a dim light to stream into the alley. She was quickly ushered in.
Hallways, stairs, turns left, turns right, Aiyana gave up on constructing a mental map in the eventuality of an escape and finding her way back out alone.
Finally a doorway. The lead guard opened it. “Inside, Rachel bat Ester.”
He wasn’t violent or even rough, but he was definite.
“Yes, my lord.”
Apparently having no choice, she entered. The door was closed behind her and she could hear a bar laid across outside. She was locked in.
No windows. An oil lamp on the table. Two chairs. She chose the one facing the door.
She didn’t see anything else in the room that might indicate what it was used for or how long she’d be staying.
Just as Aiyana was preparing for a lengthy sojourn, she heard the bar being removed and the door opened. She stood.
The man in the robe whispered something to a guard, one of those who had escorted her here but not the one who had spoken to her before. He nodded and bowed slightly.
The robed man entered and the door was closed behind him. He threw the hood back and the robe separated. Were those priestly robes she saw beneath?
“Be at ease. No harm will come to you. I am Azariah, High Priest of the House of Hashem.”
Tovi was frantic. Rachel had been with them as they moved through the crowds and then was gone. She had been attending to the children, and Aviram was in the lead trying to find the street where their lodgings were located.
Sarai had started to wander off and Tovi nearly panicked. She managed to keep all of her children gathered as they were knocked about by the crowds, but when she turned to speak with Rachel, the woman had disappeared.
In the months since the mysterious woman had been discovered by her husband, it was almost as if Rachel had become her sister. Even Aviram grudgingly admitted that he found her helpful with the children and the household. She was far from her lands, not even being sure where her home was, so Tovi was determined to make her a home with them.
Now she was gone.
Tovi was waiting with the children. Almost the only people left in the City of David were the residents. Finally she saw Aviram turn a distant corner and walk back toward them. The expression on his face told her all she needed to know.
“No one has seen her, Tovi. It’s as if she has disappeared.”
“We can’t leave her here, Aviram. What would she do in Jerusalem? What if she’s the victim of thieves or kidnappers?”
“In the Holy City?”
“Many strangers were here, Aviram.”
“We have done all that we can, Tovi.” He took her gently by the shoulders. “I have alerted the authorities. If they find her, a messenger will be sent to us. It is in Hashem’s hands now.”
Tears formed in Tovi’s eyes as she looked past her husband down the street, praying to Hashem that He would miraculously deliver her back to them. Then she felt a tug at her skirt.
“Eema, Eema. When is Doduh coming back?”
Tovi kneeled down to face little Sarai. Her other children had gathered around. “Doduh will be staying in Jerusalem for a while longer. She will return to us as Hashem wills.”
“But I want her to come home now, Eema.”
She hugged her youngest daughter. “I do too, Sarai. But it is not in our hands.”
“Come. It is time to go home. The animals are packed and ready.”
Aviram was firm. Someone had to make the decision and standing on the street weeping would not change Rachel’s fate. He was the husband and father. His will drove the family. Tovi stoically accepted his decision, gathered the children with her and followed him toward the city gates and to the south.
Sunlight was just appearing on the eastern horizon. On a hill overlooking the main road south, Ross had been covertly scanning each group leaving the city for chronoton radiation. Aiyana should be loaded with it and make the sensor light up like a beacon, even at this distance.
“Still nothing, Gordon. If she left Jerusalem, it’s not on this road.”
“Damn. What could have happened to her?”
“Beats me, but we have an alternative.”
“You mean go into the city after her, Ross.”
“Ross, if we do that, we could miss her. She might have left by a different gate.”
“Why, Gordon? If she was staying with that family and they’re returning home, why would they take a different and longer route?”
“I don’t know Ross, but it’s a huge risk simply abandoning this site to go into the city.”
“I’ve got an idea.”
“Am I going to like it?”
“Maybe. How about Travis and I stay here and keep scanning. Since you’re the only one fluent in the language, you go into the city looking for her. If I detect anything, I’ll call you on the comm.”
“I have to admit that makes a sort of sense. Okay, I’ll go for it. If I find her, I’ll let you know.”
“Good luck, Gordon.”
“Thanks Ross…Travis. I’ll keep in touch.”
They watched Ashe walk down the hill toward the road they’d been watching. The steady stream of people leaving the city was diminishing.
“About time to call the gate, isn’t it, Ross?”
“I hope so. The link has become discontiguous. Like we’ve lost our real-time lock and time is moving at different rates on each side of the gate.”
“Shouldn’t we still try?”
“Yeah. Reach Lynn if you can. Let her know what’s going on here and try to find out when they are on their side of the gate.
“Right. I’ll give a sitrep and see what I can get from the base..”
Ross sighed. It was hard talking to Lynn over the comm, even under normal circumstances, as if it were a typical call when in fact, they were separated by thousands of years. What about the incursion? They should have heard something by now.
“Ninety-two minutes until projected Ceres gate shut down, Dr. Barnes.”
“Thank you Mr. Lucius. I think we’re finally ready.”
The calculations looked hopelessly complex to Thomas Lucius, the chief time gate technician and the man who was known as “the control voice.”
However, once they were programmed into the gate controls, all that would be left was initiating the incursion. Sufficient power had been fed from the main fusion reactor into the primary industrial gate. You could drive a tank through the aperture and Thomas had seen components of a small nuclear submarine sent through to be assembled on the far side.
Although they would be sending nothing through nor bringing anything back, they were using that power to link to a fading temporal field being generated deep inside the planetoid Ceres and then using that bridge to intersect with the course of the errant experimental time-spaceship of the Orange Forerunners and redirect it physically and temporally into the asteroid belt.
“Field has formed. Link to Ceres established and at full strength. Levels are holding. Forty-five seconds to incursion.”
Barnes was watching a projection of the time map on his console. The image was particularly dynamic which worried him. The fluctuations weren’t local to the event they were creating but seemed to be affecting other time-space coordinates. He tried to isolate the incursion to the target. The last thing the world needed was another time storm.
Aiyana bowed low. “Why has your maidservant been brought to the High Priest.” She was only half-acting as if she were terrified. “I am only a humble resident in the house of Aviram, a shepherd residing near Hebron. Oh my lord, your maidservant is unworthy to be in your presence.”
“Be at ease, Rachel bat Ester. Rise.”
She slowly stood but kept her eyes lowered, at least most of the time. She took several quick glances at the High Priest’s face, which she was sure he noticed. He looked solemn. Not angry but concerned.
“These are the words of Hashem, Master of Legions and Lord of Heaven and Earth. The woman Rachel bat Ester is lost but her kinsmen seek her. Hashem as spoken and His words are firm. Rachel bat Ester must be returned to her lands and her people. Even now, a kinsman comes to the City of David.”
Aiyana felt her heart pounding in her chest. Could he know, could Azariah really know she didn’t belong in his world? Could Hashem the God of Abraham, Isaac, and David really detect a woman out of time and communicate that to His Priest?
Gordon was on the road leading to Jerusalem from the south. He had been inquiring of each passerby. Perhaps someone had seen Aiyana.
Another family was approaching.
“Good sir, I am Assa, a trader from the north. I seek a kinswoman of mine who attended the dedication.”
The man leading what were probably is wife and children stopped. “Speak Assa the Trader. I am Aviram.”
Aviram. Wasn’t that the name of the household where Aiyana had been staying?
“Her name is Rachel bat Ester. She would have arrived in this area…”
“Eema! Eema! The man is Rachel’s kinsman!”
“Hush, Sarai. Let Abba speak to the traveler.”
“I have sad tidings for you, Assa. Rachel was with us in Jerusalem but we were separated. As best I know, she remains in the Holy City through we know not where.”
The little girl looked sad. She missed her friend and she didn’t want to leave Jerusalem. She was also excited that Rachel had a kinsman. Maybe he would save her.
“Can you tell me where she was last seen?”
Gordon gathered what information that he could from Aviram.
“Thank you for your help, Aviram. May Hashem direct your steps home in peace.”
“May Hashem bring you to your kinswoman in joy and peace, Assa. Whether you find Rachel or not, if your steps take you south, you are welcome at my house.”
“Blessings on you and your house, Aviram. I will bring word to you should I find Rachel or should I not.”
They both bowed slightly and then Ashe continued toward Jerusalem. Gordon couldn’t help but notice how the children, especially the little one, seemed attached to “Rachel”. Aiyana had obviously made an impression here, but then again, she thought she’d be here for the rest of her life.
“Still no readings except Gordon’s. Looks like he’s been meeting and greeting everyone on the road. Now he’s just about at the city gates.”
“Maybe we should have gone with him, taken the scanner. You never know.”
“Maybe, Travis. Anyway, we’ll let Gordon handle it. He’ll find Aiyana if anyone can.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Travis was wondering how he’d feel if it were Cassie lost at some point in the distant past. He probably wouldn’t handle it as well as Gordon.
Gordon entered the city and was confronted by a soldier. “Your name and business?”
“I am Assa, a trader from the north. I seek news of my missing kinswoman Rachel bat Ester.”
Ashe was surprised when he saw an expression of recognition on the soldier’s face.
“You have been expected, Assa. Come with me.”
Another soldier took this man’s place at the gate as the time traveler was led down a main thoroughfare.
Gordon was surprised to be led to a small establishment. It seemed closed though there was abundant foot traffic on the streets even at this early hour. The soldier opened the door and motioned Assa inside.
Ashe opened his mouth and then remembered where and when he was.
She had been seated in a small chair. The man behind her was hooded and cloaked. The soldier closed the door and left the three of them alone.
She stood. “Assa,” she whispered. Then louder, “I thought I’d never see you again.”
The man behind Aiyana removed his hood. “I am Azariah.”
Ashe recognized the name and bowed. “I am your humble servant Assa the Trader.”
“Assa the Trader. Please return your kinswoman and you to your rightful place and quickly. Hashem, the Lord of Heaven, God of Israel and the nations bids you do so. The door is open and you have free passage out of Jerusalem.”
Something was wrong. How did an ancient Israelite Priest know they didn’t belong here? Had Aiyana told him about them? Even if she did, would he believe it?
Aiyana turned back to the High Priest with an expectant look on her face.
“No, my daughter. It is not for you in this place in this time. Be patient.”
She bowed to Azariah. “I am your humble maidservant and I am not worthy of the kindness you have shown me.”
“You must go quickly, my daughter. Now, accompany your kinsman. Return to your lands.”
Ashe thought the Priest sounded excited, almost desperate.
“Come, Rachel. We must be off.”
The door opened and both Gordon and Aiyana walked out. The pack animal was still with Ross and Travis so all they had to do was make it through the crowds and walk out of the city. The soldier escorted them to the gate and then bade them farewell, not understanding what their business had been, but only having been told these esteemed guests must travel quickly.
As soon as they were out of earshot, “Oh God, Gordon…”
“I know. We’ve got to get out of here. How much did you tell Azariah.”
“Nothing. He just seemed to know I didn’t belong, we didn’t belong, and for some reason, he believes we need to return to our “lands” as fast as possible.”
“A time storm?”
“What do you mean, Gordon?”
“The incursion should have happened by now if our side of the gate were synched to the present, but it isn’t. I think something’s gone wrong or is about to.”
Aiyana wanted to dance and sing. The impossible had happened. They’d found her. In all of time, Project Retrograde…Gordon had found her and they were taking her home. She wanted to hug and kiss him, tell Gordon how much she loved him and missed him, but he looked upset, even afraid.
The time incursion. They were going to save the Earth. Did they?
“Incursion in five, four, three, two, one, initiate.”
Lucius’s voice was still echoing on the floor of the large time gate chamber as the field fluctuated, shimmered, and then flared. The gate itself vibrated and then began to twist and buckle.
“Forty-five more seconds.” The control voice was shouting to be heard above all of the popping, crackling, and screaming from the field.
“Time map shift. It’s…it’s working.” Barnes was holding on to his console. The whole room was shaking. Energy tendrils were shooting all over the chamber but none seemed to match the configuration of a time tunnel.
The sun was setting by the time Gordon and his team made it back to the valley where the time gate was located. They’d beaten Aviram and his family back to their home and then past it. No time to lose. Somehow if the High Priest were right, they had to get back home at the earliest opportunity, but that wouldn’t be until past dawn tomorrow.
They noticed the shepherds and the flock were gone. Gordon didn’t think much of it until they got closer to the gate. The temporal field was visible. “It shouldn’t even be open. What the hell is Lynn doing?”
“Gordon, maybe it isn’t Lynn. I think this is what Azariah knew, what he’d learned in the Temple.”
When the incursion began, the personnel gate, which had been shut down, immediately powered on as if she’d hit the panic button.
“Monitor the power levels, Juan. Sanjay, what the hell happened?”
“Beats me, Lynn.” Sanjay and Juan, the two other techs on duty were frantically working their gate consoles but they had no control of anything. “It’s like the thing has a mind of its own.”
“It’s the incursion. Got to be. It’s affecting all of the temporal devices at the base.”
“Incursion terminating in ten seconds, Dr. Barnes.”
“The gate’s activated. It’s now or never.”
“Wait, Ross. Ashe to Retrograde. Can you read us, over….Not getting anything but static. Ashe to base, over…”
The four time agents were standing in front of the shimmering temporal field. Even when activated, on this side, it should barely be visible. Something had gone wrong. For all they knew, if they stepped through now, they might not emerge back home.
There was a cry. The animal. “Damnit, come back here.”
“Let it go Travis. Stay with the group.”
Lynn thought she heard something over her comm, maybe a voice, but there was too much interference. “This is Retrograde. Gordon is that you?”
“Dr. Barnes, incursion terminating in five seconds.”
“We’ve got to go through now, Gordon. The Priest.”
The primary cargo gate flared and the field collapsed. In an adjoining chamber the main personnel gate flared and collapsed at the same instant.
“Power’s down, Lynn.”
“Try to re-initiate, Juan.”
I can’t. The gate’s completely offline. It’ll take thirty minutes to restart using protocols.
“I’m going, Gordon.” Aiyana ran forward and disappeared in the field.
“No. Aiyana.” Ashe ran after her followed by Travis and Ross just as the temporal energy dissipated, taking the quartet with them.
Colonel John Kelgarries emerged from the observation deck into the main chamber of the large gate and walked over to Barnes and Lucius.
Barnes was smiling. See for yourself.”
Kelgarries leaned over the console and looked at the time map projection.
“It’s right here. At 9:07 a.m. and 32 seconds local time, that’s about ten minutes ago, the Forerunner ship materialized approximately 100,000 kilometers from Ceres and detonated. We’ll have to get confirmation from NASA, but anywhere from a third to half of the mass of the asteroid belt went with it.”
“That’s Ceres plus any other object within the blast radius. Probably play hell with calculating near-Earth object trajectories.”
“We did it, Colonel. The incursion was a complete success and I don’t detect any residual time storms or…”
“That’s odd. I…”
The doors burst open and Lynn Huỳnh ran in. “Colonel! Dr. Barnes! I’ve lost them. I’ve lost Ashe and the others. I’ve lost Ross.”
“What the hell are you saying?”
She was out of breath. Tears streaming down her cheeks.
“The gate experienced an unscheduled power surge just when the incursion started. I would have sworn I heard Gordon’s voice right before it shut down. Now we can’t re-establish.”
“But they’re back there still. Re-open the gate and bring them home.”
“That’s just it, Colonel. I can’t. Right before the gate shut down, they jumped through, all four of them, but they didn’t re-emerge on our side. They must have gone somewhere else. They’re lost in time.”
I had a tough time recreating ancient Jerusalem, so I took a minimalist approach rather than attempt to describe the actual dedication of the Temple plus the seven days of celebration. I also decided that Hashem, God of Israel, would certainly know if a person out of time were present and also know if they needed to get home in a hurry. I know I’ve made plenty of mistakes and expect to hear about them.
It looks like Barnes and his team finally eliminated the threat of the rogue Forerunner ship once and for all, but at an unanticipated cost. Now instead of one, there are four lost time travelers. Where and when will Ashe and his team reappear, or are they lost in the void outside of time forever?
In my homage to the works of the late Andre Norton (Alice Mary Norton), this book is being called “Key Out of Time,” and the chapters thus far are:
- Prologue: Key Out of Time
- Interlude: What Lies in the Deep
- The Lost and the Found
- Falling Down the Rabbit Hole
- Diverting Armageddon.
See you next chapter: Scattered Thou Across the Ages.