On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The Railway Station
“Damnably hot,” Landron said, wiping his too-pink brow without bothering to take off the broad-brimmed hat first. “Don’t know how the natives can stand it.”
Cairns decided not to say anything. He had known the other man for all of seven hours now, spending much of it travelling alongside him, first in a light aircraft and then in an all-terrain truck. Landron was right about the weather, but Cairns already knew that the other man was also the kind of Englishman who somehow still despised everyone who hadn’t been born and raised in his own home country.
And he seems to have a particular enmity for Arabian people, he thought.
The heat was relentless, as would be expected for a little after 1 PM in the Middle East. They had passed through three checkpoints of NATO-aligned nations and coalitions during their journey so far, and their vehicle — and documentation — identified them as UN specialists in landmine clearance.
Cairns couldn’t speak for Landron, but personally he’d never even seen a landmine. There weren’t many to be found in the string of universities he’d attended, nor in the laboratories of their faculties of physics. None of the security personnel had asked him anything, though, and indeed he’d been told that he didn’t need to worry about it. One of the men at the second checkpoint, rifle in his arms but held casually, had given Cairns a look that he would always remember. It was a look of fear.
“Nearly there,” Landron said as he drove on, his upper-class accent becoming thicker to match the dry air. Perhaps it was his attempt at self-defence. The man’s pudgy fingers reached into a compartment in the door and retrieved a small packet, which he handed to Cairns. It was over-the-counter travel sickness medication. Cairns frowned.
“I’m feeling fine,” he said, and Landron glanced at him.
“Take two anyway,” he said. “You’ll need them shortly.”
It was a strange request, but everything about the situation was strange, so Cairns just sighed and swallowed two of the little pink oblongs from the blister pack. They tasted disgustingly of synthetic strawberries, and were almost enough to cause the malady they were intended to prevent.
“Christ,” Cairns said, and Landron nodded several times in acknowledgement, chuckling without much actual mirth.
Another forty minutes of driving on the barely-marked and uneven road brought them to the blessed shade of a natural canyon amidst the rocky hills, and Cairns knew it was the sort of place favoured by those who didn’t want to be found by western governments. Terrorists, true believers, radical religionists, all under the burning sun, with omnipresent dust and sand. A hellish place, but now at least cooler than before. His loose shirt was sticking to his back and he was struggling to remain even-tempered.
He quickly forgot his complaints when he saw the camouflage-painted outpost and vehicles up ahead, with at least twenty very serious-looking soldiers in UN desert battle uniform — and these rifles were held ready and aimed. Landron made a tutting noise, and Cairns somehow knew that the man resented not just being waved through and into wherever it was they were going. He’d been told very little, but had signed a legal agreement that was eighty pages long. He’d also been paid half a million Euros, tax free, and it was strongly implied that any disclosure would result in the abrupt termination of more than just his mysterious employment.
“Children with guns,” Landron was muttering, but he showed the relevant identification to the soldier who approached the vehicle, and after both men had been photographed, fingerprinted, and the luggage compartment of the car checked, they were allowed to step out into the arid air. Landron immediately gestured towards what looked like a cave entrance nearby.
“This way,” he said, and Cairns followed without saying anything, his attention still focused on the armed men all around them. They went into the cave, which was much deeper than Cairns expected, and after a hundred metres or so there was another group of armed troops, and a set of steel doors set into the rock face. Surveillance cameras dotted the walls.
Landron waved away any potential remark, and the two men silently stepped into what turned out to be an elevator, which began to descend automatically. Cairns felt a discomfort in his ears after half a minute, and he swallowed to equalise the pressure.
“Soon you’ll be glad of the car-sickness pills,” Landron said, and there was something in his tone that Cairns didn’t much like. Something smug, as if he was playing a prank, or withholding some vital information.
He’s withholding almost every piece of information, Cairns thought, because I have no idea at all what I’m doing h—
He never had the chance to finish the thought, because the elevator abruptly ended its descent, the doors opened, and Cairns saw the chamber beyond.
It was natural to an extent, but showed clear signs of excavation, shaping, reinforcement, and extension. Cabling ran in neat ductwork around walls and along the ceiling, and soft lighting was rigged everywhere, on tracks bolted to the rock. Scientists, technicians, and military personnel were everywhere. The chamber was very approximately spherical in overall shape, many football-fields in diameter, and in the very centre, which was some way above and in front of Cairns’s head, there was a vast hole.
He blinked, trying to understand what he was seeing, and as his eyes adjusted to the dim surroundings, he thought he could see faint points of light within the hole. Without warning, the thing flickered, and he felt a wave of nausea that never quite seemed to reach the intensity required for him to vomit.
“Told you so,” Landron said from just beside and behind him. “About the sickness. It’s the lack of gravity in the centre.”
“In the centre,” Cairns said, repeating the words without really understanding them. Landron seemed to take it as a question, and apparently it was the question he’d been waiting for. He clapped a clammy hand on Cairns’s shoulder, and then gestured expansively at their surroundings.
“It’s, oh, about 1400 through there,” Landron continued, and when Cairns mechanically looked at his wristwatch to see that it was indeed drawing near to 2 PM, Landron laughed.
“No,” he said. “Fourteen hundred. Year of our Lord. Death of Richard II, and all that. Just a bit over six hundred years back. But you can see the problem immediately.”
Landron gestured to the spherical area of darkness above, within which Cairns could now see what looked like stars. “It’s space,” Cairns said, his mind starting to work. “Because… because our solar system moves too.”
“Precisely,” Landron said, grudgingly impressed. Most people, when confronted with the reality of a doorway back through time, were unable to process the experience at all, much less make deductions. But scientists were trained to do just that.
“How many of these are there?” Cairns asked, his voice barely more than a whisper.
“Just the two,” Landron said. “One in the West proper, and one here amongst the sands. Naturally occurring, and the only such things for hundreds of thousands of light years. We control both, of course, hence the endless wars of control and suppression in this charming part of the world. But lamentably we can’t yet do very much with them ourselves, since the exit point of this doorway is very, very far away from the Earth of that time.”
Cairns nodded. The physics of the matter were elementary. Unlike all the rest of it. “But if we can’t use them, then why all this?”
“We may not be able to make the trains yet,” Landron replied, “but we own the railway station, and so we set the fare.”
“And the… passengers?” Cairns asked, mind spinning.
Landron pointed ahead and upwards, where some of the points of light within the darkness were now obscured by something. It was far away, but still large, and it was coming closer. Perhaps black, or grey, irregular in shape, blotting out more and more stars as it came.
“They’ll be here momentarily,” Landron replied.
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