Authors: Alex Scarrow
A small, malnourished mongrel dog, tan fur worn bald in places down to its scab-encrusted skin, growled at the rat he could hear scratching around beneath the heavy car tyre. The dog’s pronounced ribs flexed beneath his skin as he snuffled and worried at the black rubber before he began pawing in the dry dirt beneath to dig a space wide enough to push his muzzle and small head through.
The rat squeaked with alarm. For the moment it was safe, but inevitably it was doomed, with nowhere to run to. The dog’s paws scratched frantically at the ground, widening and deepening the hole.
A chain-link fence enclosed the back lot of an abandoned colonial-era
, the dog the only living thing there, scratching away at the dirt to get a meagre meal of one frightened rat. Cars that dated from the forties and fifties lay abandoned and rusting in the hot sun. Rubbish and sewage, tossed over the fence in equal measure by the local inhabitants into this unofficial dumping ground, festered and putrefied.
Beyond the fence, a shanty town of corrugated iron roofs packed tightly together and punctuated by dozens of thin threads of smoke from cooking fires, which rose lazily into a breathless sky. Laundry lines stretched across narrow walkways and dangled threadbare T-shirts and sun-bleached floral-print
dresses. The sound of packs of feral children playing catch-me as they chased each other along the barely shoulder-wide alleys between tin shacks and lean-tos. Dogs barked as they passed and a woman cursed the dogs.
A transistor radio was playing Gloria Estefan’s ‘
Mi Buen Amor
’. The deeper thud of a boom-box played the Beastie Boys. And fainter, the
of an army helicopter in the sky circling the shanty town.
Not far from the scratching, snuffling, growling dog, a gentle gust of wind stirred the loose items of rubbish into playing their own circular game of catch-me. A Snickers wrapper chased a Coke bottle, a faeces-soiled nappy chased a bill poster. Dust swirled up into the air to form a modest six-foot-high tornado.
Then, as if a magician had cast a spell from afar, the rubbish, the wrappers, the dirt, a section of the tyre, all of the rat and half the dog were replaced by a dark eight-foot-wide sphere that rippled and shimmered like an airborne oil slick.
Several figures emerged from it. An enormous, muscular man, scowling warily at his surroundings, eyes shadowed beneath a pronounced Neolithic brow, his coconut-round head topped with an unkempt short and coarse thatch of dark hair. A much shorter lean, wiry figure: a young man with unruly hair, dark with a silver streak in it. Following him, a girl wearing glasses, strawberry-blonde frizzy hair pulled casually back into an if-I-can’t-see-it-I-won’t-fuss-about-it ponytail. Finally another young man, skinny to the point of being unhealthily so, and as pale as a ghost. As pale, in fact, as some deep-ocean creature scooped to the surface by a net and now flapping pitifully and quite unappealingly on the foredeck of a trawler. His head topped with a bird’s-nest mess of ginger dreadlocks. His mouth slung wide open.
The sphere of undulating oil contracted and disappeared with
a puff of air behind them, and the girl looked down at the ribcage and spilled intestines of the front half of the quite dead mongrel dog lying at her feet.
‘Ewww … that’s just so gross.’
‘… when we came here two years ago, there were still signs everywhere of the civil war going on next door in Nicaragua. Burnt-out tanks, mines, guns, refugees … I mean, it officially came to an end in the late eighties. But it was still kind of going on in places.’
Adam led them through a busy market square, bordered on all four sides by the faded grandeur of colonial-era buildings that must have once upon a time glowed crisp and white in the sun, but were now a dirty vanilla colour, paint flaked away in patches revealing the dull grey stonework beneath.
The square was busy this morning, noisy with the voices of traders attempting to out-yell each other. Noisy with the alarmed squawking of roosters and hens crammed into wire-mesh cages, the din of a hundred different buy-and-sell negotiations going on over impromptu counters made from stacked-up wicker baskets.
‘The Hondurans all along the border with Nicaragua, during the war, had to repeatedly leave their homes, their towns and flee north,’ continued Adam, shouting over his shoulder to be heard, ‘because the fighting kept spilling over.’
‘What was the fighting all about?’ asked Liam.
‘That’s a long answer.’ Adam smiled. ‘The short answer, I suppose, is ideology. In Nicaragua they had a communist
government come to power. They were called the Sandinistas. Voted in quite legitimately by the poor. But being a communist government it was a worry to the United States government.’
‘Why? What’s it to do with them?’ asked Liam.
‘The American government is worried about the domino effect of communism in the Third World. And these Central American countries – Nicaragua, Guatemala – appeared, one by one, to be succumbing to that, voting in hard-line communist and socialist regimes. Countries far too close for comfort. Countries that might become another Cuba.’
Liam had read up on the Cuban Missile Crisis after he and Maddy had visited a timeline in which the Cold War had turned hot and the world had been rendered a nuclear wasteland. The island of Cuba, just ninety miles off the coast of Florida, had become a communist dictatorship under Fidel Castro in the sixties. The day that Castro took over, alarm bells had started ringing all over the Pentagon at the thought that the Russians might use this ideologically friendly nation, on the very doorstep of America, as an advanced launching pad for their nukes.
Adam looked around the busy square to get his bearings. He spotted what he was looking for and led them to the right, between two market stalls and into a less busy area. A paddock for mules, goats and cows to be tethered.
‘So,’ Adam continued, ‘the Americans weren’t happy about the communist Sandinistas being in power in Nicaragua.’ Easier to talk now, instead of shout over the din of the market. ‘So they launched a ruthless and extensive campaign to destabilize the Sandinista government. They invested hundreds of millions of dollars. Throwing money at any rebel groups offering to cause problems for the Sandinistas. And, Jesus …’ He shook his head. ‘These Nicaraguans were
country that had been systematically raped by the corrupt guys who were
running things before the Sandinista government. The rebels called themselves “freedom fighters”. But all they were, were the officers and generals of the previous corrupt regime, desperate to get their old jobs back, desperate to get their greedy snouts back in the trough.’
‘And America backed them?’ asked Maddy.
Adam nodded. ‘The Contra rebels. Nasty bunch of crooks basically. But, because they were out to bring down a
regime … they were made out to be the
The four of them picked their way towards a long, low arched-roof hut made from sheets of corrugated metal. Adam pointed. ‘That’s the boat-yard, if I remember correctly. That’s where we hired our riverboat and a guide.’
‘So that war in Nicaragua’s all over and done with now, though?’ asked Liam. ‘Right?’
Adam nodded. ‘Yeah. It all sort of wound down in 1990. People wised-up to this CIA-sponsored dirty little war. The money for the Contra rebels dried up. But it’s not like all those bands of soldiers just vanished. A lot of them are still out there in the jungle, trying their best to destabilize the peace. And, of course, the US government are still secretly doing everything they can to make life difficult and miserable for the Nicaraguans … and they will continue to do so until those poor bloody people pick a government the Americans decide they approve of.’
Maddy gave a low whistle. ‘That kinda sucks.’
They arrived outside the hut.
‘So what’s this place?’ asked Maddy.
‘Professor Brian dealt with the official who oversees the local fishermen. He hooked us up with a riverboat captain and guide last time.’ Adam looked at a sign hanging from a cord on the door and grimaced as he tried to decipher it.
‘So, I guess I’m going to have to try to put my awful schoolboy Spanish to use.’ He winced. ‘I’m afraid there’s going to be a lot of flapping of hands here. Unless … unless one of you knows any Spanish?’
Liam turned round and looked up at Bob. ‘Well, big fella, that’s one you know, isn’t it, Bob?’
Quedo totalmente a su disposición
Sal still felt nauseous at the sight of it. Becks had casually done the necessary duty for them and scooped up the hindquarters of the animal, cut off by the edge of the portal – she thought it might be a dog, but it was hard to tell – and tossed it outside into the street.
The support unit was now out on an errand to buy a jug of milk, bread and some other necessities. Sal looked around. That idiot walking filing cabinet, SpongeBubba, was in charge-mode again. It was just her and Rashim sitting around their communal table. He was working with a soldering iron on something, sending a thin tendril of smoke up towards the bulb dangling from the low brick ceiling above them.
He looked at her over the rim of his glasses. ‘Hmmm?’
‘Maybe Pandora is a bunch of different endings that all occur in 2070.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, in Waldstein’s timeline, humankind is wiped out by a virus in 2070. Right? Perhaps in another timeline, mankind is wiped out in a different way, say, a nuclear war, that also happens in the same year? And in another timeline, mankind is destroyed by …’ She paused for thought, for an idea, ‘… by an asteroid strike.’
Rashim looked at her sceptically. ‘Coincidentally occurring in 2070?’
She nodded. ‘What I think I’m getting at is this … perhaps whatever we choose to do, whichever way we steer history, we’re destined to meet our end in that year.’
He tapped the tip of his nose thoughtfully. ‘You are talking of some kind of predeterminism.’ He shook his head. ‘As if some higher intelligence, some greater being, is the pilot of all things.’
She spread her hands. ‘And why not?’
He shook his head. ‘I do not accept that, Sal. I do not accept that anything other than a quantum set of rules governs the sub-particle universe and an Einsteinian set of rules governs the rest of time and space.’ He laughed. ‘And I certainly do not accept that some sort of intelligence is governing events; is watching us like … like the Greek gods playing their games.’
She shrugged. ‘Foster always said that history has a way it wants to go. Almost like it’s alive. He said it could tolerate some degree of tinkering and yet still self-correct. But perhaps history doesn’t necessarily care what path it takes … it just cares where it
‘Where it ends up? You mean …’
‘Wiping mankind out in 2070. You know, one way or another.’
‘You make history sound like it has some manner of a personal grudge against humanity.’ He smiled at that. It sounded silly.
‘You’re laughing at me,’ said Sal.
‘No. Just at the idea of what I just said.’
She watched him work in silence for a while before she finally spoke again. ‘I’m worried, Rashim.’
‘Worried? About what?’
She reached out for a discarded loop of wire and began absently winding it round her finger. ‘I’m worried that we might be doing the wrong thing.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I don’t know.’ She chewed her lip for a moment, putting jumbled thoughts in the correct order. ‘OK … it’s like this. Everything seemed to go wrong for us, go off the rails, after Maddy sent a message to the future asking what Pandora was.’
Rashim put down his soldering iron on a rest and reached for his mug of warm ale. ‘We now know for certain what Pandora is.’
‘The Kosong-ni virus. Becks confirmed that.’
‘What if she’s lying? Or just been given wrong information?’
Rashim tipped the ale into his mouth and swilled it around. Thinking. ‘There seem to be no certainties here, Sal. It seems all we have at the moment are educated guesses.’
‘Right.’ She nodded. ‘Just guesses.’ She was quiet for a moment. ‘Which means Maddy could be wrong about Waldstein. Maybe whoever warned her about Pandora is the real problem, not Waldstein?’
‘Indeed.’ He gave that a moment’s thought, then nodded. ‘But perhaps she is right to seek more information before she decides which way to act.’
Sal watched him return to his work, soldering a circuit board. One of their computer’s motherboards had something or other wrong with it. Rashim had explained it to her once already – it was all blah, blah, blah to her.
Her mind was elsewhere anyway, nostalgic for the good old days. The first few months after the three of them had been recruited. After the Kramer incident. That was when they had most felt like a team. They’d managed to pull themselves together – straight out of the training Foster had been putting them through, and straight into action – but they managed it, they’d put things right. And then there’d been some time
afterwards in which they’d got to know each other better, to settle into a routine of sorts living in that Brooklyn archway. Become almost like a family.
Then there’d been the next big crisis: Liam blasted back to dinosaur times. But again, even though they were still pretty green as a team, they’d pulled it off, they’d steered things back on to the right course.
Good times. They’d been such a great team together. And, dare she admit it, she’d even grown to love those two, like an older brother and sister.
But everything that had changed between them, all of it could be traced back to the moment Maddy found that note in San Francisco. That was the first secret between them. Now they were in such a different, uncertain place.
Maddy and Liam – but particularly Maddy – seemed intent on messing with things they didn’t understand. There was a reason that Waldstein wanted history headed this way. She didn’t buy the idea that the man was insane. An insane man couldn’t invent time travel and countless other things. An insane man couldn’t run a multi-billion-dollar corporation making hundreds of millions of dollars of profit while the world economy plummeted into a bottomless abyss.
Insane – it was too easy an answer. Too lazy an answer. Sal suspected Waldstein knew a truth that no one else knew. A truth. Perhaps an unpleasant one … and he was doing what he thought was best.
So, if that was the case, if she truly believed Waldstein’s agenda was a good one, the right thing … then working against that made Maddy and Liam a problem. No wonder Waldstein had sent those support units back in time to find them.
She shook her head.
Are we the bad guys now?
‘You all right, Sal?’ asked Rashim.
She met his gaze and flickered a smile his way. ‘Fine. I’m fine.’
Thinking about it all gave her a migraine. She wondered how nice it would be to be an ordinary fourteen-year-old girl. An ordinary girl with ordinary girl problems.
That made her smile, made her think of something else. There was actually someone she wished would do just a little more than shyly wave at her every time they caught sight of each other. She found his tall awkwardness, his gentlemanly ways – even his shyness – cute.