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Eastern Turkey

Nathan had turned off the kerosene lamp before they made love so they would not be a silhouette show on the side of the tent, but now that they were done, he lighted it again so he could catch up on his reading. Tomorrow they would both be back on the dig desperately trying to get what they could before the ancient city of Zeugma was drowned by the rising waters of the Euphrates River behind the new dam. There was so much to do and so little time to do it.

Darcie turned away and snuggled into the covers. He leaned over and lightly brushed the hair from her eyes and kissed her cheek, and she sighed and settled into sleep. He watched her for a moment and then found his book on the upended cardboard box that served as their bedside table.

Nathan had not read more than a paragraph or two when Darcie sat straight up in bed and said, “I’ve just realized I’m a time traveler with a mission.”

He figured she was coming up out of a dream, so he said, “And I’m a deep sea diver with an octopus in my pants.”


“Never mind.”

“This is going to be hard to believe,” Darcie said, “but I have come back in time to tell you what you must do at the dig tomorrow.”

She got out of bed and found her robe. She squatted on her heels and lighted the camp stove and put the coffee on. She opened a canvas chair and pointed at it, and her message was clear. Get up and sit down.

He got up and got into his pants and sat down.

She handed him a cup of coffee. She got a chair for herself and put it right in front of him and sat down. “I’ll start with the nature of time,” she said.

She was acting so strangely. They had been married for nearly 20 years.

Who was this woman?


The Nature of Time

“Aliens have finally landed,” Darcie said.

“Oh, wonderful, first time travel and now we’ve got aliens,” he said. “What’s really going on here, Darcie?”

“Be patient,” she said. “There is a lot to fill in, and you need to understand it all before morning. In the year 2210, aliens make themselves known to humanity.”

Nathan sipped his coffee and was quiet. He wondered if she were sick. There was nothing much he could do about it tonight. He would sit up with her, all night if necessary, and listen and then tomorrow he could get her back to town or even on to Istanbul for medical attention.

“This was not the first time they had visited Earth, of course,” Darcie said. “They have been dropping in for thousands of years. But in 2210, they figured we might be ready to know about them. But there was a test to pass.”

“Isn’t there always?” Nathan asked.

She flashed a smile on and off to let him know that she had heard him but didn’t really think his remark was very funny. “They had planted Items around the planet over the years. Our job was to find them all and put them together. If we assembled them correctly, the terrible plague that was wiping us out would be cured. But all the pieces could not be found. Or more precisely, one piece could not be found.”

“That’s a lot on our plate,” Nathan said. “Items to assemble and a world wide plague and then one of the pieces is missing.”

“Yes, well, to repeat myself, in order to understand the real problem,” she said in her lecture voice, “you must understand the nature of time.”

Well, time was something she should know about. If she were delusional, wouldn’t it be just this sort of fantasy a geophysicist would come up with?

“Here’s how time works,” she said. “It starts sometime after you’re born and ends when you die. Actually saying when it ends is usually easier than saying when it begins. But both ‘ends’ and ‘begins’ imply something beyond time, and there is nothing beyond time. Each of us is an isolated universe. Your time is not my time and my time is not your time even if we might spend some time together.”

Was she trying to tell him she wanted to leave him? He leaned forward and took her hand. “Darcie?”

She didn’t seem to notice that he held her hand. “The thing is,” she said, “time travel is not only possible it turns out to be relatively easy, but the catch is you can only travel in time when you time travel. That is, you can only travel in your own time — birth to death. And Zee needed to travel back from 2240 to now.”

“I thought you said the aliens come in 2210,” he said. “And who is Zee? Who would call themselves ‘Zee’ anyway?”

“It did not become evident that we did not have all the pieces until 2240,” she said. “And Zee is the guy in charge. This is a time when single names are back in fashion. Oh, and it’s not entirely clear to me that these people are really what we’d call ‘people’ what with augmentation and the increase in computing power and all, but I suppose that doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t matter that our descendants are not really people?”

“You knew that would happen sooner or later, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I suppose, but 240 years seems kind of a short time for it to happen.”

“In order for Zee to send a message to you from 2240, he had to use a chain of people. That is, he had to go back in his own time and find a person who was alive before he, that is to say, Zee, was born and who would carry the message back in his or her own time and find someone who was born before they were and convince them to carry the message back and so on until someone delivered it to Nathan Moore, the archeologist Zee has chosen to change history so the item at Zeugma could be found.”

Her delusion reflected the disappointment they all felt. Soon, the dam would back the water of the Euphrates River up and flood Zeugma. There were decades of work to be done, and even then, they probably wouldn’t find everything. They didn’t have decades. They had been lucky to get the Turkish government to agree on a few more weeks. So much would be lost under the new lake. It was getting to them all. Was this Darcie’s way of handling it?

“Why me?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe he found your name in an old book or something.”

“So, you’ve come back in time to deliver the message to me. Why didn’t Zee just have you deal with the Item yourself?”

“No, it has to be you,” she said. “I won’t be in any shape to do what is required.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Of course, it still might not work,” she said quickly. “You might follow my instructions exactly, and nothing might change. If our great great grandchildren were doomed before, they might still be doomed now.”

“How would we know?” Nathan asked.

“We can’t know,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean Zee’s theory is wrong. There is the problem of introducing error. It’s like that game where everyone gets in a circle and you start it off by whispering a sentence to your neighbor who passes it on and so on all the way around until it gets back to you and you say it out loud and then you say what it was when you started and they are nothing alike.”

“And everyone laughs,” Nathan said.

“If you don’t do it or if it doesn’t work,” Darcie said, “no one will be laughing in the future.”


The Chain

Nathan was still not clear on all the points, so Darcie got a legal pad and drew him a few diagrams.

“Zee was born in 2160,” she said. “He was eighty in 2240 when he started the chain project to change the past. He could travel back in time no further than 2160, so he needed someone who was born before that to carry the message on. There are many things to consider when picking someone to time travel for you. To minimize the number of people you will need to reach your target point in the past, you might pick someone who was already old in your younger days. Zee picked a man named Ralph who was born in 2110 and who died just at the new century in 2200. Zee traveled back to his own past in 2185. Zee was 25 that year and Ralph, his old teacher, was 75. It’s true people live longer and well differently in those days, but in 2185 both Ralph and Zee are still using everyday bodies not too different from those we use today.”

“Were do you get this stuff, Darcie?” Nathan asked.

“I memorized it,” she said. “It’s important to understand all the details, although to be honest like I said before, we have no way of knowing if any of these details are true. Every time the story is passed on to another time traveler, it probably changes.”

“So, Zee went back into his own past and told his old teacher about the emergency with the aliens and the missing Item and taught him how to travel in time and sent him back?”

“Exactly,” Darcie said. “Ralph traveled back to 2120 where he found a woman named Mary Odell who will someday marry our great great grandson.”

“I suppose this means David will get off the sauce and get his life together?”

“Yes,” Darcie said, “It must mean that. Thank goodness. Anyway, when I was nearly eighty, Mary came to me and explained how I must go back in time to the Zeugma dig and get you to make a few changes.”

“Why didn’t she tell me herself?”

“She wasn’t born yet, of course,” Darcie said and looked away again.

It didn’t take Nathan long to figure out that the convoluted math running around in her brain predicted that he would not be alive when she was eighty.

Let’s see, he thought, I was born in 1956 and she was born in 1960 and. . .

“Stop it,” Darcie said. “I see what you’re doing. Just stop it. That’s not the important part.”

“So what did this distant child of our child of our newly dried out child or whatever say to you?”

“His wife, actually,” Darcie said. “Mary is his wife.”


What She’s Not Telling Him

Darcie said, “Listen carefully, Nathan, I have to hurry now. I must make you understand what you have to do while I still can.”

“What do you mean ‘while you still can?’”

“They will discover the sewer system in Seleucia tomorrow or maybe it will be the next day. It will be a big eye opener. You’ll be able to see the whole of the place from an underground perspective. In fact, you will be able to map all of Zeugma in reverse from underneath the city.”

“That sounds wonderful,” he said.

“But it will be quickly clear,” she said, “that there is no time to use this new knowledge. It would take months to map everything. So they will give up on it.”

“Yes, it would happen like that,” he said. “The water will cover everything before we could finish.”

“You must convince Leriche to let you continue exploring the sewers,” she said. “You must find the Item and move it to higher ground, so it may be found when it’s needed in the year 2240.”

“How will I know it?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she slumped forward. He caught her by putting his hands on her shoulders, and her coffee slopped into his lap. He pushed her back up and came around to her side. She was totally limp. He picked her up and carried her to the bed.

He must get a doctor! But he couldn’t leave her. He put his face down close to hers. Yes, she was breathing. He peeled back an eyelid and saw that the pupil was a pinpoint.

“Help!” he said.

Then he was shouting it. And when no one came at once, he ran out of the tent yelling and waving his arms in the air. Soon everyone was awake and a doctor was summoned. It took a long time for him to get there.


Too Late

The sewer system in Seleucia was found the next day, but Nathan didn’t hear about it for over a week. He had ridden with Darcie to the hospital in Istanbul, and he’d seldom left her side since then. The medical staff chased him out, but he always came back, and soon they stopped telling him he should go get some rest and maybe something to eat. The doctors said Darcie had suffered a massive and destructive stroke.

Word was sent from the site that he should take his time and not worry about his work. Darcie came first, of course. As she had predicted, the emphasis was moved away from the sewers.

Later someone told him about the mosaics that had been found in the Roman villa — the Minotaur and his mother Pasiphae and Daedalus who built the labyrinth to contain the monster forever. Mosaics in almost every room. Fabulous finds. Bittersweet since that meant there was probably so much more to be found. It would all be covered by the rising water and lost forever.

He did not really believe Darcie was a time traveler, but he had some trouble understanding how she had known about the sewers, and he felt guilty about the fact that if she were a time traveler and if such travel destroyed the brain of the traveler, she had done it for nothing, since he had not gone into the sewers to find the Item the aliens in the future would insist humanity produce. Even if there were a chain of time travelers from some guy named Zee back to him, it was unlikely any of the details were true. There might not even be any aliens. Did that really matter? Almost certainly they had lost something of immense value when Zeugma was flooded.

So, suppose you’re this Zee guy. You go back and say to Ralph, “It is vital that the strategy of mapping the sewers in Zeugma not be abandoned.” But even as you’re saying it, your mental capacities are in decline, and Ralph probably doesn’t get the whole message, and when he hands it off to Mary, it loses more information. But if that were true, by the time the message got to him, it should be, “abandon the sewer strategy!”

But since that’s exactly what had happened, maybe it had been the other way around. Maybe Zee had wanted them to abandon the sewers and Nathan had somehow conveyed that information to the team leader. Had he talked to Leriche about it? Had he made his opinions known? Maybe it had all happened differently the first time. Maybe the first time they had not abandoned the sewers and somehow that had made them lose the Item. Maybe now Zee had the Item.

Or maybe Nathan had just dropped the ball.

After they’d moved Darcie to this place that was not quite a nursing home, he might have left her for a few days and gone back to the site and climbed down into the sewers and poked around until he found something. Well, if that had ever been an option, it was not an option now. The water was too deep.

In fact, he had few options now. He would take her home. She was not in a total vegetative state. While she didn’t seem to know who he was, she could eat and mostly dress herself, and she seemed to be fascinated by Turkish TV. She could break his heart with a sudden childlike squeal of laughter at something she’d seen.

Her doctors thought she might someday walk again. It could have been worse, they told him. David flew in to see his mother. Nathan could tell the boy, well, the young man now, had been drinking but since he did not disgrace himself, Nathan didn’t make a big deal out of it.

In fact, later maybe they could go out and toss down a few together.

That never happened.

So, Nathan had doomed all of humanity. In a little over two hundred years, it would all be over. Or it might all be nonsense.

If he believed Darcie, he could still do something about it. In the coming months and years, he could keep after her until she told him how to do the time traveling bit, and he could find someone who was born long before he was born and he could go back in his own time and tell such a person about the Item and the sewer and how they must go back in time and tell someone who was born long before they were born and so on until they came to a time when a busy bridge on the Euphrates linked Seleucia on the hillside and Apamea on the plain in what was the greater Zeugma metro area. Such a person could just go get the Item and move it to higher ground.

If it were all true, and he went back, he would cook his own brain. Maybe he and Darcie could get adjoining beds and they could chuckle at Turkish TV together forever.

  Why couldn’t there be some action he could take that would change things in such a way that none of this would have happened in the first place? That was the outcome that most appealed to him — a world where Darcie had never burned her brain traveling back in time to give him information that he had not acted upon anyway.

There was no action he could take.

A couple of days before they left Istanbul, David came back to offer his help, and Nathan could see that the young man was totally sober. His hands shook a little, but he looked a lot better. He seemed to simply be more present somehow.

Darcie was sitting in a chair next the bed of her roommate, an elderly woman who was a lot worse off than Darcie. No one knew if the woman could still hear people talking to her. Darcie talked to her a lot. Darcie was talking to her now.

“What is she saying?” David asked.

That was the question that had been nagging at Nathan all along. He had just not been able to put it into words until now. Of course, Zee would have a Plan B.

Nathan took three great steps across the room just in time to hear Darcie whisper something about the Item in the Sewer and how the old woman should pass it on.

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