Like a punch in the face, blocks of reality assembled around Steve Orbison-Daltrey. The trans-temporal process completed and the world crashed together. Light, sound and gravity hammered his re-constituted senses.
“Jesus,” he said and swayed back and forth. He looked down at his body and quickly patted his chest. It felt real; relief washed through him. He’d never been that deep before. Thank God he’d done it in two jumps and not one big one.
He licked his lips, tasted the dust in the air, and squinted up at the hot sun. Already, it began to burn his pale skin.
It was the right sort of climate, the right sort of geography. It should be the Holy Land, about twenty-nine years after the birth of Christ–well, he corrected himself, twenty-nine years after the birth of some guy people later called Christ.
We’ll wait and see regarding the whole Messiah score, he thought with a wry smile.
Steve looked behind him.
In the distance a flock of birds wheeled in the heat haze over, what he assumed was, the City of Jerusalem. There were clutches of tents scattered here and there near the high city walls. A few beasts—camels and donkeys mostly–wandered among them. Through the great city gates people, carts and the odd horseman flowed in a constant stream.
The sun glinted off the helmets of a group of five legionnaires who sat in a circle by the gate, eating. Three other legionnaires leaned on spears and watched the traffic pass through the gate.
Steve pulled up the sleeve of his robe and his chrono-gen slithered playfully down his arm like a tiny silver snake. It pooled in his palm like liquid mercury and formed into a small three-dimensional woman’s face. It smiled up at him.
“Time and location co-ordinates match precisely those you requested, Steve. The jump was a complete success.”
“Thank you, Kali,” he told the personality. The chrono-gen morphed into a silver cricket that hopped back up his arm. It turned its head and looked at him.
“I have also updated your cortical terra-wires with local customs and language.”
“Thanks, Kali. You think of everything, as usual.”
“It’s my bloody job, you numbskull,” the cricket winked at him.
The air next to Steve crackled and fizzled. A dark tear appeared and a blast of air knocked him a few steps back. Andy Gelo stumbled from the rent.
Andy looked about, his eyes wild and unfocussed—jump-dazed, Steve guessed. Big jumps could do that.
Steve grabbed Andy’s swaying shoulder and steadied him. Andy wore the same, nondescript, off-white robe as Steve.
Steve waited while Andy’s brain de-fragmented.
He knew that his Dad would send someone as soon as Chrono-Central identified that he’d activated the stolen chrono-gen. He’d not expected his Dad’s right-hand man to show up quite so soon—but then, he smiled, there was no such thing as a twelve hour head-start.
Andy glanced around quickly as though to get his bearings. He noticed Steve, a hint of a smile on his lips.
“My, you have been naughty, haven’t you? Thought you got away with it, did you Steve?”
“Nah, I knew he would send you.” He looked at Andy levelly. “So, what did old George say, eh?”
“Geor—the professor, your father, said you are to return immediately. You haven’t completed any of the advanced courses required for solo time-travelling; the paradox-avoidance training is essential for this type of deep-time exploration. You’re not even cleared to travel back more than a month at your level, and this time you have travelled back…” He paused as a tiny silver lizard climbed from his shoulder and whispered something into his ear. “…nearly three thousand years. You have to come back.”
“Why?” Steve reached under his robe and pulled out a packet of cigarettes.
Andy looked in amazement at the Marlboros, and then up at Steve.
“Where did you get those?”
“I stopped off in the late twentieth century and got them—they’re real. Want one?” Steve lit one and inhaled deeply. He offered the packet to Andy. “It’s an acquired taste.”
“No, no.” Andy glance about. “You can’t smoke here. It hasn’t been invented yet. Someone might see you.”
“Neither has a chrono-gen, doesn’t stop you having one, does it?” Steve took another puff and blew a smoke ring.
“A chrono-gen is a highly advanced liqua-life technology—it can hide, change shape—it’s cleverer than you are. A cigarette isn’t—it’s not an acquired taste it’s a drug adddiction. Besides, your chrono-gen is what got you here, so you can hardly not have it, can you?” Andy waved a hand in the air and shook his head. “Anyway, forget it–let’s just get going. We can sync-up and jump together.”
“No.” Steve lifted his chin. “Andy, you know when I get back I’ll be barred for ten years at least.” He gave Andy a nervous grin. ”I’m not coming back until I’m good and ready. I re-programmed my chrono-gen so you can’t force-sync it.” He shrugged. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, I know, I tried. Your father thought you would do that. He told me to give you this.” He handed Steve a small silver sphere. “It’s inactive, but no-one travels this deep and alone without a spare chrono-gen.” He looked wearily at Steve. “You would have to be an idiot to do so.” A small grin.
Steve took the sphere and slipped into the pocket of his robe.
Andy raised an eyebrow and looked suspiciously at Steve. “Tell me you did at least complete ‘The Dire Implications of Time Travel’ course, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I completed it but…” He paused.
Steve looked sheepish. “I failed.”
“Oh, my god.” Andy shook his head and rolled his eyes.
He grabbed Steve’s shoulders and shook him.
“Remember you have to be like a ghost. You must have as little impact in this time zone as possible. Even if you buy some bread to eat, you could change the life of a child who was destined to survive by stealing that bit of bread. It’s just an example.” He looked earnestly in Steve’s eyes. “Do as little as possible, okay?”
Steve nodded but was uncomfortably aware of the twenty Swiss Army penknives he had stashed in his robe to trade with.
“Yeah, sure Andy. I promise…I’ll be like a ghost. No-one will know I was here.”
“Okay, well, be responsible. Just eat your Last-4-Ever ration pack while you are here and don’t forget to sterilise any water before you drink.” He looked Steve in the eyes. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I just want to look around a few days, then I’ll be back”
Andy Gelo grinned. “See you around. Any trouble, send a tachyon pulse and I’ll pop back.”
With a nod Andy disappeared. The air rushed into the void with a whump.
“Easier than I thought.”
Steve grinned, stumped out his cigarette, and started walking towards Jerusalem.
Steve bit his fingernails as he waited. He slid down the wall onto the stony ground. It was early evening and a cool wind was dissipating the heat of the day, but it did little to calm him.
“So? Did it work?” Steve said as the chrono-gen stopped shimmering.
The chrono-gen morphed into Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ on Steve’s leg. It looked up at Steve with a grin. “No, I can’t access any quantum level data, not even to send a tachyon pulse. We seem to be locked out.”
The wedding party inside seemed to be in full swing, judging by the sounds coming from the open window above him, but Steve felt only a rising panic; to be trapped for the rest of his life in biblical times was unthinkable.
There was tearing sound from the air a few feet away. Steve looked suspiciously at the chrono-gen.
“I thought you said it hadn’t worked.”
“It didn’t work…”
A blast of air sent Steve crashing back against the wall. A jump-drunk Andy Gelo stumbled from the rent in space-time fabric.
Steve grabbed Andy before he fell and lowered him to the ground. Andy’s eyes rolled around for a few moments before locking onto Steve’s. Andy’s eyes narrowed and he looked at Steve oddly.
“Who are you?”
“Steve,” Steve felt a spike of worry. Brain damage wasn’t a known side-effect of jumping. “You know me, Andy.” He gave the confused Andy his most reassuring smile. “S-t-e-v-e.” He patted his chest.
“Okay, I get it, I think.” Andy sat up and looked about quickly.
“We’re safe here, Andy.” Steve reassured him. “The wedding is round the front—no-one is going to come back here. They are having too much fun.”
Andy pulled out a small device and scanned Steve from head to foot. The device made a burping noise when it finished. Andy glanced at its small display.
“You have no idea what has happened, do you?” Andy looked serious and grabbed Steve’s robe, pulling his face close to his. “Something profound has happened.”
Andy let go and fumbled in a bundle he carried around his waist. He pulled out a disc of polished silver and handed it Steve.
“Look,” he said. Then his face softened. “Brace yourself, Steve.”
Steve frowned as he took the mirror. He slowly turned it and looked into it. He gasped. Somehow he’d got a beard and green eyes–it wasn’t his face–it was the face of Jesus staring back.
“What the f…I don’t…”
Andy put a hand on Steve’s shoulder and shook him. “Don’t panic. You are in a localised paradox bubble, Steve. At least I think so. The universe is trying to correct the mistake you made. That’s why your chrono-gen won’t work on you. It’s like the universe has put a filter around you, so you now conform to what has gone missing—at least as far as everyone here is concerned. You have become Jesus, for all intents and purposes, and history unfolds as it should, get it?” Andy frowned. “Your Dad sent me to find out exactly what happened—see what we can do to help you–” Andy’s chrono-gen scurried back to his ear and whispered something. “I have only a few moments with you—any more could theoretically trigger the bubble to…well, let’s just say we haven’t ever come across this before, but we don’t want to find out, quite yet. So what happened?”
Steve’s mouth dropped open as he tried to understand what Andy had said—
Steve felt the sting as Andy slapped him round the face.
“Focus, Steve—what exactly did you do?”
Steve put his palm on his stinging cheek.
“Er…okay, Andy, no need to hit me, Jeez.” He looked about the darkening skies. “Well, I met the Jesus guy a few weeks ago—good guy, by the way—very funny. He’s pretty clever and has his followers tied up tight around him with all this hocus-pocus stuff. But I never saw any miracles. I thought it would be fun to show him the chrono-gen.” Steve glanced quickly at Andy Gelo. “Just quickly. I thought he would think of it as real miracle or something. Y’know, impress him…”
Andy sighed. “Then what happened?”
“Well, I gave him the dormant one to look at…” Steve paused and narrowed his eyes, “I’m not completely stupid y’know.” He continued, “Jesus looked at it and prodded it a bit and then all of a sudden it wasn’t dormant anymore, but wriggling around on his palm. Jesus winked at me and then just puffed out of existence.” Steve looked about with a shake of his head. “That was about fifteen minutes ago.”
Andy nodded. “Well, we rigged that spare one to bring you directly back to Chrono-Central if you used it. So imagine our surprise when Jesus suddenly popped into being in the Return room yesterday. He’s said he won’t come back. He’s been watching holo-vis shows and shopping.” Andy grinned. “He is very funny…” Andy frowned. “The fact is we can’t force him to come back—it would be …unethical—so you’re gonna have to stay here be him until we can come up with some idea of how to extract you.”
Steve nodded, “Shit.”
Andy waved at the sounds of the party, going on inside. “This is The Wedding at Cana, isn’t it?”
Andy lifted an eyebrow. “This is Cana, and it’s A wedding, sure. What do you mean by the wedding?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t know the anything about the story of Jesus?”
Steve looked at the dirt.
“I know enough. He’s meant to be the some messiah–saves the world, and all that–but I don’t know ALL the details, no.” Steve admitted—no point lying. “It was a long time ago, and virtually no-one believes this stuff anymore.”
Andy sighed. “This is where Jesus did his first miracle. Soon they are going to run out of wine and you are going to have to turn a couple of urns of water into wine.”
“I brought these sachets, they contain flavour concentrates, mild psychoactive sedatives, which will replicate the effect of alcohol, and colourings. Your chrono-gen can stick them in the water urns for you when no-one is looking.”
Steve nodded as he considered the task.
“Okay, but what about later, aren’t there other miracles…?”
Andy grabbed Steve’s robe. “Look you’re gonna have to wing it, Steve. I can’t stay any longer. Here’s my notes… read what you can before they auto-dustify,” he said shoving some paper in Steve’s hand.
Andy blinked out of existence and the resulting vacuum sucked Steve off balance and he crashed forward onto the dirt.
Steve looked up from where he was lying on the ground to see Peter frowning down at him.
“Unh?” He paused, remembering the situation, “Yes, Peter?”
“Master, the party is over; they have run out of wine.”
Steve shook his head. Shit. This, of all the moments of his life, was one when he could have really handled a drink. Then he remembered the sachets. “Give me a minute…”
* * *
“Peter,” Steve said, “I must go to, er, yonder grove of olive trees and spend some time alone in the presence of my father, God.”
“We shall wait for you here, master,” said Peter.
“Good—do that…er, I mean remain here until I return.”
Steve gave a quick smile, then–trying not to run– he crossed to the olive trees on the far side of the Garden of Gethsemane.
As soon as he was hidden from sight, he pulled out a battered packet of Marlboro’s from his tunic and lit up. He inhaled deeply.
“Thank god,” he muttered, blowing a smoke ring.
The air next to him fizzled and Andy popped into existence. He brought with him a brown paper bag in one hand and a cup of coffee from Starbucks in the other.
“Hi,” Andy said, glancing about suspiciously. “Are we safe here?”
Steve grabbed the coffee from Andy and lifted it to his mouth.
“Yeah. I wouldn’t be smoking, would I? What, do you think I’m an idiot?”
Steve paused, coffee cup near his mouth and looked at Andy’s face for a moment.
“Don’t answer that, Andy. Did you bring more cigarettes? I’m nearly out again.”
“Yeah, in the bag.” Andy offered the bag to Steve.
Steve handed him the coffee cup.
“Take this cup from me, Andy.”
Andy took the cup and Steve took the paper bag.
“I have some bad news too, Steve.”
Steve lit another cigarette.
“Oh, yeah? How bad?” He lifted an eyebrow, “Spit out then, what did the professor say?”
“He won’t drug Jesus to make him come back. Says it’s ethically wrong and besides, what with him being the Son of God, it could be a mortal sin, so no-one is prepared to take the risk.”
Andy gave a dreamy smile. “Jesus did say to wish you good luck. Which I thought was nice of him, wasn’t it? Nice chap–always thinks of others.”
“…always thinks of others?” Steve spluttered. “What about bloody me?” He grabbed Andy’s robe and shook him. “You do realise this is the goddamn Garden of Gethsemane and that prick, Judas, has been giving me a funny look all night. My knowledge of the scriptures may be hazy at best, but I seem to remember this being somewhere near the end of the story.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have let him use the spare Chrono-gen then, should you?” Andy snapped, but quickly looked away.
Steve let go of Andy’s robe and slumped to the ground. “I know it’s not your fault. This is just doing my head in—constant holiness—it’s just not me, I’m not like that.” He pulled on the last bit of the cigarette and stumped it on the dusty ground. “So what’s the plan, how do you get me out?”
“Well, we are brainstorming again.”
“Brainstorming? You’ve kept me hanging on here for three sodding years and you’re telling me you’re back at the brainstorming stage–again?” Steve’s shoulders slumped, “So, give me my briefing, then. What happens next? What am I allowed to know?”
Andy’s face blanched and he shuffled from one foot to the other.
“Well, there’s some more bad news, I am afraid. We weren’t sure whether to tell you.”
“Spit it out,” Steve said suspiciously.
“Well, there is some, er…flogging, and then they crucify you…” Andy smiled brightly, but not very convincingly, “but I am sure we will come up with something before that happens.”
“Flogging? Crucify me?” Steve looked at him, struggling to comprehend. “Well, sod it, I simply won’t do it. I’ll just live in this time zone. Fuck it.”
“Yeah, the professor thought you might say that…”
“Did he? So what else did Professor George, know-it-all, Orbison-Daltrey have to say about that?”
“He said the paradox bubble would expand until it encompassed the known universe, at which point it would collapse to a nil-point causing the de-existence of everything.” Andy looked at the floor for a moment before looking up. “We will all die, mate. It’s up to you to save us all.”
Steve looked at him.
“You’re shitting me?”
* * *
Steve felt the agony straining at the boundaries of the pain-killers, as it tried to force its way into his mind and tear it apart.
A constant stream of blood ran from his shredded back, down his thighs and dripped, from his knees, onto the dusty road. The crown of thorns dug into his head and the wooden cross was bloody, bloody heavy. He dragged it down the narrow crowd-lined street like a robot.
At least the stimulants helped.
The Roman soldier cracked his whip and his back burned briefly from the lash. At least the med-implant Andy inserted was working. He looked dully at the jeering crowd on each side of the street. He could see their mouths moving, but heard only a dull roar.
Where the hell was Andy? He had said he would be here, said he was certain they would have solved the paradox problem by now.
Steve shook the blood out of his eyes and trudged on.
Why the hell did this have to happen to him?
Suddenly a figure darted out from the crowd and mopped his brow with a damp cloth.
“Steve,” He heard the whisper, “It’s me–Andy. Shit, you look awful, Steve. Man, what have they done to you?”
Steve lifted his head and looked into Andy’s worried eyes.
“Andy?” He said with a croaky voice, ”You gotta get me outta here, man–now. I mean it—I don’t know if I can take anymore.”
“The professor is running some incredibly complex time-line models to see which will give us a way out for you, he said to tell you just to hang on in there for a while until the program completes.”
Steve looked at him blankly.
“Hang on in there…? You don’t mean hang,” he croaked, “as in hang on a cross while being crucified, with big iron nails pounded through your hands and feet, do you?”
“Er, no…” Andy rubbed his chin, “Well, maybe. That’s what he said anyway. So–”
“Hey, that’s enough,” said legionnaire as he thrust Andy away.
* * *
He meant well. Steve knew that. The legionnaire had meant to help him by jabbing him with the spear, but it hit the implant under his ribs, damaging it. The red stimulant/analgesia medication ran down his side mixed with the blood from the flesh wound.
Pain—a symphony of pain beyond description—erupted and enveloped his total being as the effects of the meds ran out.
“My god, Dad…” he screamed as writhed in agony against the nails trapping his body to the cross, “why aren’t you fucking helping me…?”
Gasping, Steve turned to look at the man on the cross next to him. The man’s eyes were sunken.
“If you’re the Son of God… then get down from the cross and save yourself.”
Sweat and blood dripped into Steve’s eyes as he looked at the man; fleeting thoughts of lashing out at this idiot by ending the entire universe passed through his mind.
The paradox bubble could tolerate a little swearing, he knew that.
Then he saw Andy standing with the small crowd at the foot of the cross, a smile on his face. He seemed to be holding something. He mouthed something a few times at Steve.
Steve struggled to understand. See you soon. Was that it?
But then all the lights went out.
* * *
“Welcome back, son.”
Steve opened his eyes. Everything was white and glowed with a brilliance beyond imagining. He lifted a hand to his shield his eyes.
“What the fu…where?”
George Orbison-Daltrey’s face blocked the bright light above him.
“We got you out. Touch and go for a moment, I can tell you. We played out all the simulations, but it was no-use. The only way was to go through with it. You did a sterling job.”
Steve lifted himself onto an elbow as his eyes adjusted to the bright light and looked around. Andy Gelo stood leaning against the white wall of the med-room a lazy grin on his face. Small med-bots scurried around.
He was back in Chrono-Central, in the med-centre. Steve felt relief wash over him. He glanced at his hand. It was as though a massive iron nail hand never been pounded through it—not even a scar.
Steve’s father carried on, “There was nothing we could do. No point telling you. The paradox bubble only disappeared when you’d played the role fully. Nanites kept you ticking over in a suspended state until we could zap you out of the cave.” He smiled. “Course it helped that Jesus agreed to go back for forty days, as long as we promised to record all his holo-vision shows for him to watch when he gets back.”
Steve shook his head. “So aren’t you mad with me, Dad? No big lecture?”
George smiled. “I suppose I should be, but the truth is you’re just like I was at your age–inquisitive. I travelled back to Nazareth when I was a young man to see if Jesus really was the product of an immaculate conception or, she was so beautiful…” he trailed off and looked at the floor. “Well, there’s no need to re-hash ancient history. Water under the bridge and all that, eh?”
George Orbison-Daltrey smiled and patted Steve’s arm.
Adam Colston lives in Exeter in the United Kingdom with his partner and son. He mostly writes science-fiction or fantasy, but dabbles in horror/dark fantasy when the mood grabs him by the ankle and hauls him into the shadows. He is a recent winner of Writers of the Future; his sci-fi story, ‘Not in the Flesh’, appears in the twenty-sixth anthology of the series (2010). Adam’s works have also appeared in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Dark Spires Anthology as well as other print and online venues. You can keep up with Adam at his blog: www.adamcolston.co.uk/wordpress.