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MAY 5th, 2512.
"Thank you all for coming at such short notice. We seem to have something of an emergency, and we have been asked to deal with it immediately. This is Commander Stuart from Global Time Control; I'll let him put you in the picture."
"Thanks Professor, I'll try and explain what the problem is, and hope that you people can figure out what to do about it. 
"At the end of the twenty-second century the Euramericans carried out an experimental series of time-travel trials. The advent of near light-speed travel had made possible a certain degree of time-warping in space flight, and the Euramerican Space Agency made some progress in bringing back experimental subjects from interstellar space flights with virtually no aging. They started with atomic timing devices, then tried it with living organisms. Eventually they could send a rat or a monkey off into space and it would come back a year later having aged no more than a day or two. Finally, to see once and for all whether this was a genuine time-warp effect or just a slow-aging phenomenon, they tried it with a man. The subject was a Captain John Carver, a test pilot with the military orbital fleet. It was all top secret stuff, just a handful of Space Agency and military personnel knew anything about it. Carver never came back. They lost him. They'd never managed to keep a trace on any of the ships throughout the whole of a journey because the speeds and distances involved were beyond their tracking capability at that time. With Carver, the ship just never showed up again. The experiments were closed down for a while, and with the political upheavals of the 2190's, the whole idea was just forgotten about. Until the twenty-fourth century there was no research into the possibility of time travel, and now, of course, the use of time warping for anything other than linear propusion is illegal.
"It was all top secret stuff. Just a handful of personnel knew anything about it"
"The problem is this: for the last few months we've been getting odd readings from  the PFM, the Potential Futures Monitor, on the Solar Orbiter. As you know, the orbiter  sits in a sort of permanent time warp that it creates for itself by interfering the gravitational and magnetic solar fields. It picks up all sorts of time-warp chatter, billions of data bits per minute, but we manage to isolate particular signals that are generated from different points in time. For example, we sometimes pick up short-travel radio waves of a type that can only have been generated during specific periods of earth history, or radiation values that relate to particular astronomical events from the past. Using these we can calibrate the PFM and get a broad idea of when the readings must date from. Occasionally, normally three or four times a day, we can isolate readings that relate to our own immediate future. Sometimes it's stuff from tomorrow, sometimes it's  from twenty years ahead. The readings are often contradictory, and we seem to be picking up alternative futures. We've not got to a stage of being able to distinguish the different potential futures from each other, or even to identify anything very specific about what the readings mean in terms of what's actually happening on Earth, but we've got general indications. For example, we picked up a massive radiation event last year,  generated about six months ahead. We were able to pin it down to the mid-Pacific, and figured it had to come from the Hawaii submarine generator. We warned them that something was up, and it turned out there was a maintenance problem that no one had spotted. If it had been left the whole generator would have blown. Obviously they fixed it, and that potential future never actually happened.
"Lately, the number of potential futures we've been isolating from the PFM has decreased. We still get all sorts of stuff in the near-term, but nothing far ahead. At first we thought it was some kind of ranging problem, but we eliminated that because we still get distant futures turning up, just none for the Earth. It became clear last month that there is a specific date beyond which we are getting no readings at all for the Earth.  Solar and Astronomical data are still coming in, but there are no surface energy readings from this planet. Nothing anthropogenic. There's no sign of life on Earth beyond the early part of 2515. That's three years from now. It's particularly worrying that this termination is the only Earth future we're picking up. At the moment there are no alternative futures on our screens.
"We have one clue to what's going on. We started to register the termination very abruptly on March 29th. At exactly the same time Global Time Control registered an unauthorised time warp event, the first one since we started monitoring nearly fifty years ago, and the Global Surveillance Platforms picked up radiation signals that didn't match any contemporary technology on Earth. They matched the kind of signal you'd get from pre-warp nuclear propulsion units. We've not used anything like that for hundreds of years.
"We've got no sensible explanations for what we're picking up from the futures monitor. The only explanation that fits is almost incredible. We think John Carver and his ship have finally come back to Earth. They are three hundred years late, and somehow they have brought with them the destruction of life on Earth."

MAY 11th
"Mr. President, Chief Secretary Glendale, Commander Stuart. With my colleagues at the Space Propulsion Institute I have considered during the last week the problem which  Commander Stuart outlined to us at our last meeting. Appreciating the urgency of the situation and  also its global significance at every conceivable level, we considered it surprising that your request for help should have been directed to us. Our research is concerned solely with space propulsion technology, and our responsibility is specific to the Euramerican government, not to the Global Community. The Global Administration Satellite has its own research centre, which seemed to us a more obvious group to coordinate research on this problem. However, Commander Stuart appraised me of certain circumstances which underscore the particular interest of the Euramerican administration in this matter, and indicated to us some specific approaches to the problem which Euramerica might be uniquely well placed to pursue but singularly reluctant to see coordinated by Global Administration. With those specific constraints, which you will forgive me calling political, in mind, I have directed my colleagues to devote their attention to a particular solution which will serve the global purpose of our mission and at the same time preserve the position of Euramerica, and of the present administration, without compromise.
"Since the commissioning of the Global Surveillance Platforms no time-warp experimentation has been possible except in the context of interstellar flight. We can use time-warp technology to reduce journey-times to practical lengths, but we cannot translate that technology into anything resembling actual time travel. Nevertheless, our propulsion-related research has put us in a strong position to consider, from a purely theoretical point of view of course, the possibility of time travel."
"Professor," interrupted Commander Stuart, "it is hardly necessary to point out that all of us here have Euramerica Command security clearance; the President and the Chief Secretary are fully aware of all the research that your institute has been pursuing in recent years. You can speak quite openly."
"Very well. Gentlemen, time travel is not only a theoretical possibility, but a practical reality. We have the technological capability at our disposal, and lack nothing but operational testing of the apparatus. Any test would generate warp activity that would be detectable by Global Surveillance, and if our work were discovered it would not only be politically embarassing but could be enough to threaten interzonal political stability. We know that  the Muslims have equivalent capability, and whichever of us uses it first, the other is likely to join in. The chaos that would inevitably follow is the reason that the international testing ban was implemented. Nevertheless, within days we can be in a position to send a man backwards or forwards any distance we want, and to bring him back again.
"One solution to our problem, therefore, could be to send someone back to the  twenty-second century to stop Carver's mission. The problem with sending someone backwards in time is that their presence in the past would inevitably change history, and it is almost certain that the present with which we are familiar would not arise from the new version of events. We ourselves would quite possibly not exist. The risks involved in that sort of operation are too great to contemplate, so we can eliminate such plans at once, except as an ultimate resort to save the planet at the cost of  its recent history and possibly of our own existence. 
"A more satisfactory conclusion could be reached, less obviously, by sending someone forward into the future. Their mission would be to find out exactly what happens to terminate the Earth and, if possible, to identify Carver's connection with the termination. When we bring our man back we will have the information we need to interfere with that connection and to prevent the termination.

The President was uncomfortable with the idea of using time travel. It confused him. On the one hand he was sure that one day someone would break the treaty and that there would be a bizarre time-hopping war with each side going backwards further and further to make their 'first strike'. On the other hand he wondered how it was that there was no one coming back into the present time, or into previous history from the future. If time travel happened, it would affect all times at once, and would already have occurred. Whatever the case, he was reluctant to go down in history books, if history books continued to exist, as the President who started it all. 
"Why can't we find Carver now? You'd expect he'd want to be found if he thinks  he's just completed a historic mission. He has just completed a historic mission. A man and a space ship from three hundred years ago can't be that hard to find."
"The real-time solution is unlikely to work, Mr.President. By the time it becomes apparent to us what is going to happen it will almost certainly be too late to prevent it. Only by fetching information from the future will we be able to prevent that future  from occurring."
"And if the information we bring back isn't enough? Suppose it is already too late to prevent whatever is going to happen? Isn't that what you were getting at, Stuart,  when you said that the Potential Futures Monitor wasn't giving any alternatives? We only know about this problem because there's no way out of it and that's why all you data for the future is blank, rather than just having some blank patches for some of the possible futures." 
"You are quite right, Mr.Pesident. At the moment we can see no alternatives. Our only hope is that futures can be changed. Before March 29th this year the futures all looked OK, then suddenly something happened to change that. We think the only way that can happen is with a time warp. Carver took history itself by surprise. We hope that our man going forward might do the same. We'll know as soon as we send him. If the futures all stay blank after he's gone, then we cannot succeed."
"And then what?"
"It will be up to you, Mr. President, to decide whether to issue the order to send someone backwards. At that time I see no disadvantage in consulting with the Global Administration. Whatever each of the powers has to hide, things will change as soon as we send someone back. If you are forced to consider that option, contemporary politics will cease to be an issue."

MAY 15th
Aaron Thomson, Euramerican Strategic Command, was to be the man. He had been involved with the situation from an early stage as a situations officer attached to Global Time Control, and had an active service background of field operations with Space Fleet. He was briefed and brought up to speed on the whole situation as soon as the decision to procede with the so called 'futures option' was made. Spielman, chief technician on the time warp apparatus, took him through the transport procedure just a few hours before send-time.
"It's kind of unnerving not having any controls."
"There's nothing for you to control, Colonel Thomson. We'll look after everything, you just sit back and enjoy the trip. It's pretty much automatic once the computers are switched in."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I just like hearing you tell me it will all be ok. I'm a bit of an old dog for these kinds of tricks. This is new territory to me, you know."
"It's new to all of us, Colonel"
"Except Carver. Take me through it one more time, ok?"
"OK. First, you do nothing. We'll put you to sleep and give you something to make you dream sweet dreams. Your brain activity has to be much higher than normal conscious levels because thats what the computer uses to fix your original position in the compartment. Then you wake up and it's three years from today. You'll be back here and so will we, but we'll be three years older and you won't. It'll be wierd, because to  you it'll seem like straight away. 
"At that time it may be that we will have already solved the problem by some other means. In that case you just stay there. You lose three years."
"I presume they still count to my pension."
"If we have not solved the problem, you just stick around till, presumably, we all die sometime around the middle of that year. Your job will be to learn all you can about how the problem develops. Meanwhile the time-warp apparatus amplifies your brain activity to the solar orbiter, and as soon as that activity is interrupted, either because you die or because the apparatus is destroyed, the interruption triggers a reversal of the time warp that sent you out, and should bring you back."
"And it doesn't matter if the termination destroys the time-warp apparatus in 2515 because the whole operation is handled by the apparatus here in 2512."
"Right, and it doesn't matter if the reversal wipes your memory of 2515 because you're tied in to a data logger that will record all your brain activity; it will be your memory. You won't come back dead because the solar orbiter will pluck you from the jaws, so to speak; but if you did, it would still be OK because the data logger will know everything that you know. I mean OK from a planetary perspective, of course."
"Yeah, right! And the you that I leave behind me in 2515?"
"When you get back, that won't have happened yet. Everything that we do for the next three years until you turn up in 2515 might be wiped out and re-run differently if you come back to 2512 to let us do it again. All we'll know is that a few moments after we send you, you'll be back. You'll know all sorts of stuff about us that will never actually happen, second time around. Tell you what; if you get there and I seem to be having a great time and the problem's gone away, just leave me, but if I'm dead or sick or something, make sure you come back and let me try it again."
"Ok, Spielman. For you I'll wipe out three years of Earth history, just so you can do all those parties over again! If you've got an urge to do anything really bad, the next three years could be your chance to get away with it."
"I'll do my best. Hey, you've got three hours. Go and pack your tooth-brush."

Send time was two o'clock. Thomson was unconscious by one thirty and positioned in the warp apparatus. The apparatus was a singularly unimpressive looking piece of technology, resembling a rigid glass sponge about the size of half a dozen large double beds piled on top of one another. The material of which it was made was transparent, but the spongey structure of the block made it almost opaque. In the centre of the block was  a tube-shaped hollow just large enough to hold a man. Thomson was placed into this hollow like a body in a morgue-tube. 
Chief Secretary Glendale nodded his head, and Spielman pressed the final authorisation code into the control terminal. Glendale, Stuart, a representative from the President's office, five members of Spielman's technical staff, Institute Chief Miklenborn, his deputy, a medical unit, and two security androids saw the blurred outline of Thomson's body in the block melt slowly into the general translucency of the sponge. It was difficult to tell the exact moment when he went, but after a few seconds it was clear that he had gone.
"If he's coming back," said Spielman, "it should be about now.” 


Thomson woke up very, very slowly. The drugs that Spielman had given him took twelve hours to clear, and then natural sleep took over to keep Thomson unconscious for about six hours more. When he eventually began to surface, he knew even before he was fully awake that he had an almighty hangover. In that period of  waking when the sleeper can tell that he is back in the real world, but still has a grip on sleep if he wishes to lapse back into it, Thomson kept his eyes closed partly because he wanted to hear Spielman's voice before he committed himself to reality and partly because he could tell that the light beyond his eyelids was a little bright for a man in his delicate condition.
Slowly he focussed his senses on the sounds around him. He related them one by one to the operations of the time-warp apparatus and the paraphenalia of the laboratory. He could pick out the computer drives; the gravitronics in the warp-block; the building systems generator. There was something else, too. He couldn't place it. Was everything in 2515 much as it had been in 2512? Suddenly he thought it felt colder than he expected. Where the hell was Spielman? Oh, hell; here goes! He opened his eyes.
For a moment he lay motionless. He was lying on his back with his head tilted to  one side. He closed his eyes again. Tight. He tried once more to focus on all the sounds and feelings around him. He could hear the electronic whirrings of the warp apparatus. He was sure of it. He could hear the more remote hushy chattering of the computer drives and the whispered droning of the ventilation draw.
He opened his eyes again, and sat bolt upright. 
He was sitting on a low, moss-covered mound of coarse, black gravel. The mound rose about three metres above the level of the surrounding country. A landscape of subdued hummocks and dips, sparsely covered with moss and grassy vegetation, stretched away from him in all directions. In front of him and away to his left, the black plain stretched out of sight, interrupted only by patches of mist clinging to the lowest ground, and by occasional silvery pools of water. In the far distance the horizon was shimmering very slightly, as if there might be sunlight on water. To the right, a low ridge rose from the plain, and as Thomson swung around to follow the line of it behind him, it grew into dark, jagged peaks rising a few hundred metres. He judged the foot of the mountains to be about three or four kilometers away. Features were hard to distinguish; there was cloud rolling across the front of the mountains, and as Thomson swung further around to his right the outlook was obscured by distant rain. Fragments of low cloud scudded across the plain, almost brushing the crests of the stony mounds. Overhead, the sky was thick with rolling grey sheets of cloud that threatened rain. The ground was damp, and droplets of water stood out on the stones and the blades of grass. Thomson could feel the moisture through his trousers. The cool fresh air was astringent in his lungs. His head was pounding and he felt a dizzy sickness. He decided, for the moment, not to stand up.
A breeze whispered across the gravel and brushed the grass. The longer stalks, bent over by the rain, drew tiny arcs in the sand as they were swung around. Somewhere not far away, hidden amongst the rises and falls of the land, a river gurgled and gushed through rocks. The sound of the river rose and fell on the breeze, and with it came another sound, harder to define; something familiar, but out of place.
This was not what Thomson had expected. Ideas raced through his head. The warp apparatus was not capable of linear transport, so he had to be in the same place he started from. He had to be at the Propulsion Institute; or at the place where the Institute was. Or  where it would be. If this was 2515, then something had happened to bring forward the termination date, and he was too late. Otherwise this was not 2515, and he was lost; not in space, but in time. His best guess was that the warp apparatus had overshot; he was sometime post-termination. Evidently the planet was still here, just none of the life that was on it. But there was moss, and grass; Thomson thought aloud "may be it's beginning to regenerate."
The sound of his own voice sounded strange to him. "Hangover." He stood up, gently, and looked around. Just beside the mound on which he stood, in a hollow which had be hidden from view while he was sitting down, was a pool of water. He half walked, half slid down the gravelly bank to the water's edge. Cupping his hands, he sipped the water. It seemed ok. He drank, and splashed water over his face. As he crouched over the water, drips falling from his face and hair onto the surface of the pond, he saw his own shakey reflection in the ripples. He gazed down at the reflection as the water cleared.
At first only the general form and the colours were clear, then quite abruptly he focussed sharply on the image. His own face stared back at him out of the water. Startled, he drew in a sharp breath. The face that stared back out of the water was his, but it was unfamiliar. It was him, but not at 30 years old. He stared hard at the reflection. The face was thinner, a little harder than before. The lines around the eyes and mouth were etched a little deeper. The light blue eyes were as sharp, but the prominent brows above were touched now with grey among the rusty brown. This was a man in his forties, or may be even fifty.
Thomson's brow furrowed in puzzlement. Something was seriously wrong. Time  travel using the warp apparatus should not cause any aging, however far the time throw. He stared down at his hands, still cupping water. They seemed gnarled, tougher skinned than he remembered, and more tanned. The fingernails were short and worn rough. His hands were dirty; not just surface dirt from the black gravel, but deep-worn long-term grime. They were like the hands of a man who worked out of doors in all weathers. 
He felt his face. It seemed rough, leathery. He stooped forward again and stared closely at the reflection. His skin was tanned, and stubble covered his jaw. His hairline was  a little higher on his forehead than before, and his hair fell in long curves across his face. He swept the hair back with his hand, and was startled to see, and feel, a long deep scar  running down the side of his face from above his temple, past the corner of his eye, and onto his cheekbone. It was old, like a battle-scar. He stood up and looked down at himself. His tunic was as worn and dirty as he was himself; the insignia were faded, and the trouser-cuffs frayed. His boots were scuffed, and when he lifted up his feet to check, the soles were well worn. 
He reached up to his breast pocket. "Damn." There should have been a note book and a timeline bleeper, but they were missing. He felt inside his other pockets. Nothing. He could feel his identity disc on its chain around his neck, and his old fashioned mechanical time-watch was on his wrist, but a document pouch, his wallet, and some other personal items that had been in his tunic were missing. He looked again at his hands. He wore a wedding ring although his wife had left him years before, and it was in place. He unzipped the front of his tunic and reached inside his shirt to pull out the identity chain. The metal disc seemed scratched, but its tiny status-window showed green. He grinned. Wherever or whenever in the universe this was, his ID was still valid. "Some chance." He went to shove the chain back inside his shirt, but something got tangled. To sort it out he pulled the whole chain into view, and in doing so saw something  unfamiliar. As well as the ID disc, there was a small greenish stone threaded onto the chain. Thomson had no idea what it was. 
Holding the stone up to the light, he walked back up the gravel slope to the top of the mound. He reached the top, where he had awoken a few minutes before, and looked around at the strange, black landscape. He put the ID chain, complete with its green stone back inside his shirt, and zipped up his tunic. He closed his eyes and tilted back his head, face into the wind. He let the breeze lift the hair away from his face, and drew in a deep breath. 
With his eyes closed he heared again the sound that had seemed familiar but unidentifiably out of place a few moments before. This time it was closer. He snapped his eyes open and spun around to face the direction of the sound. "Dogs?" He had his back to the mountains, facing out onto the open plain. Scale was hard to judge. He scoured the landscape for the source of the sound. He was sure it was dogs; like a pack of hunting hounds, baying and howling. Slowly, a darker cloud distinguished itself amongst the patches of mist on the plain. With the cloud a sense of movement. Dust, and a distant drumming like the sound of horses or vehicles moving fast over the rough ground. The undulating ground obscured Thomson's view as the dust cloud moved closer, and for a moment the sound diminished. Then unbelievably close without warning a great clattering rush of howling noise and blinding dust that choked and deafened like an explosion. Thomson screwed up his eyes against the blowing sand and crouched down as something swooped through the opaque swirling air above his head. There was a short piercing whistle, and a shout, and instantly everything fell silent. Thomson's vision was blurred by the sand in his eyes, and the dust settled only slowly from the air. For a few seconds the sound of the river, and of the grass blowing against the sand in the breeze seemed shockingly loud in the sudden hush. As his sight cleared, Thomson was astonished by what  he saw.

"Loose the cord that binds. I am Thurl. This is my pack. We are Thirungu."
Thomson stared in disbelief. Thurl stood directly in front of him, about ten feet away. He was about five feet tall, broad-chested with a squarish head and touseled hair.  Thomson judged him to be about 40 years old. His short tunic revealed stocky, powerful arms and legs. He held his arms out in front of him and opened his palms as he spoke his greeting. Thomson stared as if he was transfixed. As far as he could tell, Thurl was from head to toe entirely the same colour. His hair, his skin, his tunic, even his eyes were a deep auburn brown. It was a colour like polished brickwork, or antique wood. The skin was slightly mottled, like a leather, and tanned in places to a deeper hue, as if by the sun. The centre of each eye was a darker brown, and decorative stitching on the tunic and on the man's soft leather moccasins picked up that darker colour like a sort of camoflage. Beads of sweat stood out on Thurl's brow, and he seemed slightly out of breath. As the  dust around them settled, it clung to his moist skin. If the colouring was a camoflage, Thomson thought, it was not a very good one. The landscape was dominated by stark black and white. Thurl's rich copper brown seemed strangely out of place.
Thurl stood at the front of his group. With him were half a dozen of his kind all of  the same strange monochrome.  Each of them was accompanied by an animal of a kind that struck Thomson as a mixture of leopard and horse. The animals were also monochrome, but of a darker colour than the men. Thurl's mount was almost black. They stood about chest-high to the Thirungu, but were longer than the men were tall, and evidently strong enough to carry them. Two of the Thirungu sat astride their animals. The others stood beside theirs. There were also two sledge-like devices with an animal harnessed loosely to each one. One of the sledges was covered over with a coarse-woven blanket that seemed to conceal a bulky load. The other was empty.
Thomson was searching for some kind of reference; some context to put these people into perspective and get a fix on where he was. The closest images he could conjur up were of prehistoric man, or precolonial aboriginals, but he couldn't think of anything to match the Thirungu. Their stocky, almost stunted, build; their heads, square as if deformed; and above all the strange monochrome that extended even to their eyes and teeth, all made Thomson think of the future, not of history. Was he seeing a post-termination world? Were these the regenerative life forms?
Thurl dropped his arms to his sides and with a single bound jumped onto the back of his animal. There seemed to be no reins, but he sat easily, and the animal seemed almost unaware of his presence.
"This is not our place. We must move quickly. Please ride the board. If you are not  used to the whorl they can be difficult to command."
He smiled and gave his mount a resounding blow on the side of the neck. The whorl shook its head slightly, shimmering black dust out of its mane. It made a light mewing sound, like a contented cat, and several of the other whorl shook their manes and repeated the sound. Thurl chuckled, and patted the creature again, more gently.
"Thorkal will help you."
Another of the Thirungu stepped forward towards Thomson. He seemed younger than Thurl, a little taller and more strongly built.
"Unbind the cord," he said "I am Thorkal. Please stay with me." 
He held out his palms, as Thurl had done, then turned and walked towards the sledge.
Thomson stood still. He was wary of leaving this spot. It was the only point of reference he had to connect him with anything he knew.He felt almost as if leaving this place would sever his link with home. His rational mind knew that his spatial location would not pose any problem to the time warp mechanism. Everything was driven from the lab in 2512 wherever, and whenever, he went. His subconscious mind was reeling. Thomson was not the type to experience panic, but at the back of his mind, it was almost that that he could sense. He looked at the strange group in front of him. Clearly they were anxious to leave. All except Thorkal were mounted, and the whorl were suddenly agitated, pawing at the ground and shaking their manes. Thurl's mount reared and twisted beneath him.
"Where are you going? Where will you take me?"
Thurl shouted above the rising din from the whorl: "We are going home, Thomson. You must come quickly."
Thorkal ran towards Thomson and took him by the arm. "Forgive me," there was  urgency in his voice. "We must hurry." His touch seemed gentle but in a moment Thomson found himself winded and on his back on the sledge. 
The noise was rising to a crescendo, and Thomson could barely raise his voice above the clamour.
"My name," he shouted, choking on the dust, "how..."
"Do not speak"
Thorkal placed his hand over Thomson's mouth, and effortlessly swung him upright and around to face the front of the sledge. Amid the clamour and dust Thomson was suddenly aware that they were moving. Thorkal grasped the front of the sledge firmly with one hand, and held Thomson tightly to his chest with the other. In an instant the sensation of movement became intense. There was no obvious moment of acceleration but suddenly it was clear that the ground, invisible through the dust, was passing close beneath them  with unbelievabe speed. To the left and right blurred shapes kept pace with them, and again Thomson had the sensation of something swooping close overhead. Ahead of them, the whorl at the front of the sledge was invisible through the dust. Thomson screwed his eyes shut. He tried to hide his face from the blast of wind and sand and mist but Thorkal held his head firmly upright.
A sharp slap on the side of his head snapped Thomson's eyes open, and for a moment he saw Thurl on his whorl just a few feet away. The whorl was bucking and rearing, leaping in great bounds through the maelstrom. Thurl had looped one arm around the beast's neck.
"Think the way, Thomson, help the whorl."
"I don't know..."
Thorkal's hand slapped back across Thomson's mouth. Thurl roared with laughter but the sound was lost in the howl of his whorl as it lurched forward out of sight into the chaos ahead. As it vanished, another shape, like a huge bird, seemed to follow. Thomson screwed shut his eyes again, and made a deliberate effort to stay calm. Uninvited, the memory of an amusement sensomat when he was a child came back to him. He used to set the program then pray for it to end. Then he'd set it again. Letting Thorkal take his weight, he tried to concentrate on the memory and wait for the ride to end.
Time was hard to judge. It may have been only a few minutes, but the turmoil of the journey was such that it felt much longer. Speed and distance were also hard to judge. As abruptly as the journey had begun, Thomson realised that it was over. He felt Thorkal's grasp relax, and he opened his eyes to see the Thirungu pack around him much as they had been when he first saw them. The dust was settling. Thurl and the others were jumping off their whorl, which stood quietly, sniffing at the air and at the ground. Thorkal lifted him off the sledge and stood beside him. 
"We have done well" said Thurl. He looked at Thomson. "The whorl felt your strength." He bowed his head slightly. "From here we will be safe. Soon we will be in our own land."
Thomson looked around him. They were standing on the gravelly shore of a broad, shallow river. The landscape seeemed much the same as where the journey had started. The jagged mountains had disappeared, but on three sides of the group the hummocky plain of black gravel stretched into the distance. The air was clearer here, and it was possible to judge that the plain extended for many miles, vanishing beyond the horizon in the direction from which they had come. In the opposite direction, the river flowed across their path, black with sediment from the plain. It was punctuated with flat gravel bars and the water threaded its way through the braids in a series of narrow channels constantly dividing and rejoining as the  river flowed down stream. The far side of the river ran against a high terrace that concealed the view beyond.
Thorkal took Thomson's hand in his own. "We will cross the river, then rest. Our land is three day's walk from here. The whorl have travelled hard, and will take us no further."
Still holding Thomson's hand, Thorkal took a handful of dirt from the ground and tossed it high into the air so that the dust settled gently through the breeze. He squatted down and placed both Thomson's palms flat to the ground. Calling out to the whole group he said: "Befriend this earth." Each of the others replied, taking a handful of dust and throwing it into the air to rain down over them; "Befriend this earth."


 The journey with the Thirungu took four days. During that time, Thomson was able to learn a lot about the Thirungu, but very little about his own situation. The Thirungu were patient with his questions, and tried to answer all that they could. It was clear, however, that most of what he asked made little sense to them. From what they told him Thomson was able to deduce that the Thirungu were only one of many tribes scattered across a broad territory, but he could get no indication of the geography of his surroundings. From the perspective of the Thirungu, their world was effectively limitless, and areas were differentiated only in broad subjective terms. As far as any of them had ever travelled, to the boundaries of their neighbours’ territories or beyond, none of them had encountered any major geographical boundary of the sort that Thompson tried to describe to them. They evidently had no conception of such a thing as an ocean, let alone any global or planetary perspective. Their world simply stretched off indefinitely into the distance. It became apparent, gradually, that the journey to collect Thomson was the longest that any of this particular group had ever made. When pressed, they were vague about their motivation, and about the source of their knowledge that Thomson had arrived. All that Thurl would say was: “You should be pleased to have been brought from there by us.” His tone implied a trepidation verging almost on horror for what might have happened without their intervention.
 As the journey progressed the landscape gradually changed. After the river-crossing at the end of the flight with the whorl, the topography softened into a rolling, swelling prairie of bown sandy earth with a brittle cloak of coarse grasses and low bushes. Where bedrock protruded, it was a rich golden colour, weathered into rounded, pitted shapes like the walls of ancient buildings. From time to time, Thurl would call the party to a halt in the shadow of a river bank or a thicket of trees. Without explanation they would pause for up to an hour before continuing. Thomson could only assume that they were avoiding contact with some local inhabitants. When pressed, Thurl would say “We have no enemies among these people” but would not elaborate upon his caution. Certainly he did not seem afraid. He acted almost as if it were a matter of courtesy not to be seen. If contact could be avoided, perhaps the Thirungu could continue to have no enemies here.
 On the final day of the journey, exposed rock began to dominate the landscape. The group gradually gained height and left the rolling hills stretching away below them as they climbed to a rocky plateau. The spotting rain that had greeted Thomson’s arrival on the plain had continued sporadically throughout the journey. As the group climbed toward the Thirungu plateau the weather deteriorated. They picked their way through gathering darkness and steady rain. Rocks towered above their path like sentinels in the gloom. The moved in single file, making slow progress. Thorkal had given Thomson a hooded cloak of waxy cloth. He pulled it tight over his head, following close behind Thurl and walking almost in his footsteps as the track become progressively rougher. Rivulets of water trickled between the  stones beneath his feet. The sound of the drumming rain mingled with the gushing of streams among the rocks and the occasional rumble of distant thunder.
 Thurl stopped and Thomson nearly stumbled into him. Thurl stood without a cloak, letting the rain bounce off his skin and trickle off him as if he were a tree. In the darkness, his colouration matched the shiny wet rocks almost perfectly. He turned to Thomson with a smile. “We are home!”
 Thompson peered ahead past Thurl through the rain. Directly in front of them the hillside rose into a vertical wall of rock that loomed up into the scudding clouds and darkness. The rock was deeply weathered, and smoothed as if by centuries of the type of rain that was driving against it as Thompson watched. A few bushes, gusted by the wind, clung to the rock face. Thurl turned forwards again, and headed towards a group of bushes that huddled around the base of the cliff. As they approached, Thompson could see that the bushes concealed a low overhang where the rock was weathered away along a line of weakness. It was the sort of place where, in Thompson’s world, a few sheep or goats would shelter from the rain. Here there were no sheep, but the earth beneath the overhang was well trodden, as if by the passage of many people. Thompson had to stoop to follow Thurl towards the back of the overhang. It penetrated further than Thompson had anticipated, and he realised that it was the entrance to a cave that stretched into the base of the cliff. 
 Thurl walked upright, Thompson walked at a crouch and held one hand over his head to gauge the height of the roof. As they moved away from the entrance the light gradually faded, and the sound of the rain and the wind were muffled and eventually silenced. For a few moments, Thompson followed Thurl by sound and touch alone. Gradually, just as the light from the entrance had faded to nothing, a new light seemed to illuminate the way ahead, and Thompson sensed that they were heading towards another opening, as if the cave passed right through the base of the mountain. In the improving light, the cave stretched like a tunnel for a distance af about one hundred yards, and then rose abruptly in a series of steps towards the source of the light. Thompson followed Thurl to the base of the steps, and, looking up, could see that they led up to a portal or cave entrance a little larger than the one by which they had entered. The sound of the  rain seemed to have stopped, but from here Thompson could not see beyond the roof of the cave entrance to judge what lay outside. He looked at Thurl. 
“Is this home?” 
Thurl looked back at the rest of the Thirungu, as if to check that they were all accounted for, and then at Thompson. 
“Please, Thompson, lead ahead.” 
He held out his arm and motioned the way up the steps.
Thompson climbed up towards the light, with the Thirungu in file behind him. At the top of the steps the opening into the cave was bathed in dazzling sunlight, and Thompson was too dazzled for a moment to look out. He shaded his eyes, and stepped out into the mouth of the cave. Thurl stood beside him, and the other Thirungu stood in a semicircle behind them, gazing out the the panorama that spread itself before them. Not for the first time in the last few days, Thompson’s mind raced to catch up with what his eyes were showing it. Thurl reached up and put his hand on Thompson’s shoulder.
“This is our home. This is Thirungat”
 The cave entrance was set high in a rock wall that stretched away in a huge gentle arc to the left and right, circling around far in the distance into a vast natural bowl or crater some twenty or thirty miles across. The floor of the bowl was clothed in a tapestry of fields, woods, and lakes, with small rocky outcrops where curls of smoke rose from clusters of huts set against the rock. The whole basin was soaked in golden light from the setting sun. The atmosphere, rich with evening dew, sparkled with the colours of a rainbow. It seemed to Thompson as if this was a world made not of trees and water and earth, but of emeralds and sapphire and gold. Even the Thirungu themselves, basking in the full light of the low sun, were infused with a richness of hue that Thompson had not seen in them before. Their demeanour was also changed, as if the strain of being in that alien world beyond the walls of their own home was suddenly lifted. In this sunshine, with this green and golden world wrapped up in its own rock womb, with the Thirungu looking down on their home, it was hard to believe that the rest of the world  -  another world - was still outside. It made it seem all the more curious to Thompson that the Thirungu should have ventured out from their home to find him.
 Thurl stepped forward. “Come, we can get down before nightfall and then we can welcome you.”

 Of all the little settlements dotted aroundThirungat, the largest nestled among rocks about a mile from the wall beneath the cave entrance where Thompson and the Thirungu had emerged. About twenty stone buildings were placed directly against outcrops of the native stone, the inner recesses of each penetrating into the rock like a cave. The only building standing free of the bedrock was a large hall in the centre of the village. The hall was large enough to hold far more than the fifty or so inhabitants of this settlement, and Thompson judged that it could probably hold the entire population of Thirungat. Thurl led Thompson directly to the hall, while the other Thirungu dispersed to other buildings. 
 At one end of the hall, a group of Thirungu tended a fire, and as Thompson and Thurl approached, Thompson recognised that there were men, women and children, all of a similar square oaken form to the men he had already met. “This is my family” said Thurl; “join with us.” The greetings between Thurl and his people were quiet, and seemed to Thompson to be strangely formal. Each of the adults in turn approached Thompson with palms upturned: “Loose the cord” said some; others simply said “loose” and bowed their heads. Within minutes, the other Thirungu re-emerged from their dwellings, bringing their families with them. Soon, the whole village was gathered around the fire, and Thirungu from other villages were arriving, lighting separate fires in different parts of the hall.  As each new fire was lit, one of the arriving Thirungu would bring a burning stick to Thurl’s fire. Several of the Thirungu approached Thompson with words of greeting. One of them, a woman somewhat younger than Thurl, having spoken her greeting, did not return to her group’s fire, but continued to stand beside Thompson. 
 Thurl said: “This is Lakta. You will remember her first.” 
 “Be patient, Thompson, and you will remember.”

 Thurl raised his voice to get the attention of the whole group. He stood on a raised block of stone behind the fire that his family had been tending, and looked out across the flames at the two or three hundred Thirungu that had gathered. 
 “These days are always special days for us. Our time runs from moment to moment, each one in its proper place. When our endings are many our lives are full. When our endings are few, our time runs weak..” He looked at Thompson. “Soon you will enjoy the past with us again. And then we will continue the future.” He turned back to the crowd and shouted “Turn this ending!” The whole crowd stood, and returned his shout: “Turn this ending!”
 Thurl stepped down and addressed Thompson: “You do not yet realise how pleased we are that you are here. You are welcome to stay and eat with my family if you wish, but...”
 “Look, I need to know what...”
 “I know. You do not need to explain. You need to sleep, and then things will be more clear. Lakta will stay with you. Your things are where you left them.”
“My things?”
“No one has touched anything, since the last time you were here.”


uh... I haven't done chapter 4 yet!