A marooned, black-painted cylinder curves smoothly up from the sand, belted with joints and seams. An artificial tor jutting from the sand, girded with tents and crude sun shades. It’s strangled with guy ropes and ladders like a tree in a rainforest, giving the impression the thing's being slowly swallowed by the desert. A fat metal airfoil heaves out from the cylinder at about a third of its length, sprouting stubby opposing arms.

A thick rod of metallic-smelling air is wrapped inside. It used to be seething, thick with the will and exertions of humans. Now, to all intents and purposes, it's in suspension. The zero humidity will keep this construction preserved for decades. Commander Rice really hopes it won't be that long, but a seed of pragmatism is planted.

Rice is still inside the boat. Not entirely voluntarily. She and another woman are gripped by a tightening fist of steel, clenched around the thick, wet atmosphere of her quarters. Condensation glistens on the walls and pipes, and a small lamp squats pathetically on the desk. At sea, this room was snug.

Rice is smoking. Smoking is not allowed on submarines.


"It's a blank piece of paper."

"Yes."

Two women regard each other in a tiny, dimly lit, windowless room. One sits at a desk in a shabby uniform, while the other stands, arms folded, against the opposite wall in a loose-fitting garment that reaches from her shoulders to the floor.

"What is this for?"

"It's for you to list the names, Commander Rice" says the standing woman. She picks up a pencil from the desk, writes down "Freen," then carefully lays the pencil on the paper, sliding both across the desk. "That's my name, to get you started."

"I won't be listing any names."

"Yes, you will."

"I have all the time in the world."

"I think you misunderstand our situation."

"I'm inclined to think you don't understand much of anything. You can't possibly be cleared to know the answers to any of your questions. I'm the commander of this boat."

"It isn't a matter of being cleared. I don't think you know why you're here. I think if you could leave, you would have left by now. I think you're afraid."

"Once again, you don't understand."

"That's true. You haven't said much that makes any sense."

"That is no concern of mine. Leave my ship."

"No. You're going to give me what I came for."


"This is difficult. If we end up having to interact with natives - which we avoid at all costs - we can usually just drop some dazzling fact to make them fall in line. The man outside with the tattoo on his wrist is about to make the biggest sale of his life. Hosiery prices are about to spike because a movie star is about to walk over a subway vent, that sort of thing.

“Unfortunately, you don't seem to know what any of that means. It's difficult to make an impression on you."

"Except that you're here in a submarine in the middle of the desert."

"Yes, we've got that going for us."

"I was serious before. You're going to give me those names. You're going to tell me who else you're going after.”

"I'm not giving you a god damn thing."


“When I was a girl, I used to play with this dog that showed up at our camp,” Freen says. “He always came from a different direction, so I didn't know where he lived.

“He was small and grey. I don't think anyone owned him, but he seemed to keep himself well-groomed. He'd follow me when I went walking through the brush, but he never let me touch him. One time I'd sat down to eat some scraps I stole from father's kitchen. I tried to give him some, but he wouldn't come anywhere near me.

“We kept doing this for weeks - he'd follow me, but jerk away before I could get too close. Then one day, I was walking and he was following me, as usual. I lost sight of him, then tripped and hit my head on a rock. I can't have been out very long, because when I opened my eyes he was licking my ear. He jumped away as soon as I moved. I didn't see him again.”

“My dog died when I was six.”


Rice idly picks at papers on her desk. "We were the lucky ones."

Freen waits. The walls of the room ting and pop like a car engine that’s just been switched off. It is taking a long time for the heat to soak inside. The hull resounds faintly as crew members move around, or a native bumps against the outside.

“I don't know where the others are, but I know I haven't heard about anything else like the Scorpion. "Somewhere in the desert, or otherwise stranded on land."

Rice shifts uncomfortably in her chair. The walls are snaked with a tangle of pipes, some with broken metallic fronds gleaming in the desk light. Holes that once hosted screens gape from the walls.

“All the places we could have ended up. The odds against landing intact are simply staggering. We could be drifting in space, or..."

"Much worse.” Freen nods.

"Fused into the ground. Thousands of feet in the air. Even if we'd re-materialised underwater, we don't know if we would have displaced it. Not much time for testing in wartime.”

“You don't need to enumerate the possibilities to me,” Freen said evenly. “I'm sympathetic, Commander. I am.”

"Sympathetic," Rice hisses. "Why do you keep coming back? Why do they keep letting you on board?"

“Maybe your crew know something you don't.”


“You must have had a contingency. Your mission seems to be heavily concerned with the integrity of your timeline. Dumping a submarine filled with dozens of strangers into a foreign time has...implications. How can you leave something like this to chance?”

“Yes, there is a contingency. The science isn't exact, yet. There were many crews that just did not return. Difficult to motivate sailors for a mission that's 30% suicide, when we can't tell them what they're fighting for. We have no idea where they ended up. But I know what they did.”

She exhaled slowly. “The pills are in my safe, with a detonator. There are charges the length of the ship.” She frowned. “Though I expect your people stripped them already.”

Freen nodded deferentially.

“I won't do it. I've never seen a missing crew brought back, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. Call it hope, call it cowardice. I'm not sure which it is.”


“We gave up hope of locating you a long time ago. We will never be able to replicate the string of failures that led to our landing here.”

Rice shivers.

"There's a sealed, archived copy of a newspaper on the bridge of our command ship, that was printed a couple of days after our target date. Our instructions were to leave a coded message in their classifieds. That's the only way they'll know we landed safely, our only way back."

Rice reached out her hand and then withdrew it, clenching her fingers. "The Hook is a one-way system. We have to be extracted from their end. We don't know where or when we are, so we can't tell them that we succeeded. That we found you, and that we can save them."


"Einstein famously wrote a letter to our leader, at a time when we were at war and our enemy was developing atomics. He insisted we develop atomics first, before our enemies used them to destroy us."

"Yes."

"Most people don't know Einstein didn't actually write that letter. It was written by a bunch of his contemporaries that the public had never heard of, and Einstein just signed his name to it. No-one knows that we're the ones who made them do it.”

"I know that."

"What?!?"

“I also know that you failed. Perhaps that's why you're still here.”

“What do you mean, you 'know'?” Rice paused, and slowly inhaled. “You're not from here either, are you?”

Freen smiled. “Come with me. I've been here much longer than you.”

“I can't leave her. She might be returned at any time, and if I'm not here..." Rice shivers, despite the heat. "We have to keep the Hook running for any extraction attempt. There are ways of scanning from the other end.

“I couldn't stop most of the crew from leaving, which I'll have to answer for later. My Captain's dead. But I'm not abandoning her." Rice looks wretchedly at her gutted work space. Foam pushes through the cracked fabric of her chair.

“Where did the other crews go? The ones who completed their missions and left the messages as instructed?”

“They were extracted to de-con facilities,” Rice says. “The process generates low-level fallout. Mission crews were kept separate to limit the chance of unwanted changes. There were few enough of us that it wouldn't have an operational impact.”

“Did you ever see them?”

“Well, no. There was no reason...” she tailed off. “No reason to see them."

"You were right about one thing," Freen says. "We couldn't tell you what you were fighting for.”

“What do you mean?” Rice is wide-eyed.

“No-one is going home. There are no extractions,” Freen said, gently. “You only remember the ones you thought were lost. No-one goes back.”

“How do you know this?”

“We're the ones who sent you.”

Rice moves her lips, but words don't come out.

“Your mission is over. You passed, Commander. Your Hook is useless. It's time to retire.”

Rice says nothing for a long time. Freen holds out her hand.


Attn: Großadmiral Karl Donitz
Fm: Lt. Yannick Krehl

<Mission successful. Heil Hitler.>

The corpse of the USS Scorpion lies half-buried in the sand of an alien time, abandoned by her crew. Although partly stripped, some parts have remained inviolate. Ephemeral footprints of dust march death down empty corridors. Papers that chronicle an imperilled future rustle and flutter in warm eddies of sterile dust.

A box bound with duct tape huddles in the darkness of a locked iron safe, quietly humming to itself. An amber light illuminates a loop antenna bound to the box on one end, the interior wall on the other. The keeper of an abandoned hope.

The light flickers, and finally turns green. An LCD silently winks on.

ACCEPT CONNECTION? Y/N








This writeup was a theme challenge (in this case coincident with the title) between me and tiger cub.

"They all think I'm crazy, or dangerous"

 

"Jean, you're not crazy"

 

"Do you really think I could be right?"

 

"Honestly? I only pretend to understand the technical bits of what you do. But I think you're amazing, and I think you're on to something."

 

"Ha. Great. I'm really worried here, you know?"

 

"You're a brilliant scientist. Everything will work out. Let's get some sleep, the aftershow was such a drag."

 

In the dark Jean's expression changed. She had begun to think that Mark was a tall, dark, handsome, selfish bastard.

 

"OK. Goodnight"

 

"Night, love"

 

But Jean didn't sleep for a long time. She lay next to Mark, her dark hair spilled out on the pillow, and stared  through the ceiling.

 

One month later Dr. Jean Marlowe was told by her Head of Faculty that her contract at the University would not be renewed. She sat by the river in the sunshine and replayed his kind words and condescending tone. The sympathetic smile that didn't reach his eyes. She lingered for a moment in her mind on the power and privilege gleaming from every polished surface in that office. The walnut desk, the green leather of the Chesterfields, the rimless pince nez, his teeth. She didn't cry. She didn't even want to. She felt empty. Distantly, she was aware of two other things, her despair, and that she would carry on.

She ended her relationship with Mark, calmly and efficiently. He would soon get over it, she was sure. Without a contract, her work visa would quickly expire. She had to leave the UK. There was nothing for her back home. When Hari heard the news he invited her to stay with him in Kathmandu, he was a zoologist at Tribhuvan University, and she had visited him in his hometown a couple of times since they had met at the University, when she had been studying neuroepidemiology. She took the next jump out from London.

By 2133, when Jean was born, human beings had been living and reproducing in the midst of the Information Age for around 100 generations. Jean had become fascinated by the idea that our brains are in constant communication with our environment and during her PhD. had begun to study the possibility that humans could be sensitive to the invisible signals flying through and around our heads. In her final year before defending her thesis, having had to leave this possibility aside while she worked on analysis of emerging data on type-4 diabetes, she was plagued by a recurring dream. In the dream she ran through the streets of an anonymous city, full of people. As she ran, everywhere she looked she could see carrier waves of all different kinds, bouncing and surging and passing through the people all around her, who somehow seemed not to notice. When she tried to stop them, to explain, to show them what she could see, they ignored her, or stared blankly, or slowly looked around before nodding dumbly at her and moving on. Sometimes in the dream the people began to change as the signals passed through them, becoming like strange machines with old fashioned radios where their heads should have been.

Jean almost always woke from these dreams with a half undefined urgent feeling. A need to find the answer to a question asked in a language she didn't quite understand.

Mark hadn't known it at the time, had been speaking in platitudes, but Jean really was a brilliant scientist. The University had been pleased to have her. As a Junior Fellow she had contributed to the work of more established studies and academics, including the pet projects of her Head of Faculty, and had limited support for her own work. It was this work, which focused on probing the interactions between our brains and the electromagnetic environment which had cooled her rising star. Her new results and proposals had begun to be received with more and more scepticism from her overseers. She was encouraged to abandon her research interest in favour of something more in keeping with the Faculty's strategy.

Ignoring the warning signs and sure she could build on the evidence she had already begun to gather, she submitted a plan for further testing on sensitivity to ambient EM waves and possible neurological or psychological effects in the wider population. Outwardly her colleagues were at best dismissive, Jean had become marked as a sheep outside the fold. Privately, her Head of Faculty had become afraid that her work could cause problems, could damage the Faculty's reputation or even its funding relationships. She had to be let go.

In 2164 Kathmandu is still a thriving city. Swayambhunath, Pashupatinath, and Boudhanath have survived, barely. The Bagmati river still flows. It is still ringed by mountains and legends. Rich and poor still live on top of each other, closer than ever and not in a bad way. The earthquakes which began in 2015 collapsed ancient buildings and snatched away saints and sinners but an ancient city survived and rose like a flower from dust and blood.

After the earthquakes and the disasters which followed Nepal became a UN mandate in 2023, was transferred to Chinese control in 2050 and became a People's Republic following a constitutional assembly eight years later. Nepal had become a success story surpassing post WWII Germany. Despite the blade runner sprawl, poverty was no longer tolerated and under the protection of the Chinese, the country had developed an economy based on sustainable energy.

Nepal and Kathmandu had enthralled Jean when she had first visited Hari for a summer 7 years ago, and now she was coming back. From her seat on the wing of the jet she could see the distant mountains floating on a bed of cloud. Closer, she saw the cluster of spires and towers glittering in the sun. She felt hopeful.

She met Hari at an easy to find cafe between the airport and the University. She had become a little nervous during the drive. She had come to him for lots of reasons, but she hadn't really allowed herself to consciously believe that she would be able to make progress on her work until, maybe, now. She had come to Nepal because she loved the country and its people, because she didn't want to go home, because she could afford to live there, because she could get an 8 month visa and she needed a place to regroup. Maybe she could get out and do some hiking in the Himalaya. Maybe Hari could... no.

 

After the two old friends had hugged, and laughed and verbally sparred a little, about Hari's new beard and slightly thicker middle, and Jean's terrible taste in men, Hari became serious.

 

"I want to know what you're working. What have you got? I think you have to have something iinteresting"

 

"Hari, honestly, I was thinking on the way over here, but I don't know anything right now. I'm not sure - "

 

"Bullshit. You're tired, but if it wasn't worth it, if you'd given up, I'd know by now. You'd still be in the UK. You should see yourself when we even get near the topic on VOIP. You light up"

 

"You're right. I'm just exhausted, but I'm not telling you anything today. I want to get drunk and fall asleep. Do they have rakshi here?"

 

"Of course"

 

She turned to a passing waiter. She could still remember some of what Hari had taught her the first time she had visited.

 

"Oh bhai?"

 

"Hajur?"

 

"Rakshi dinus"

 

"Ekse?" The young man was smiling at the Caucasian woman asking for fire-water.

 

She pointed to her friend with her chin "Duita bhai!" She was smiling too.

 

Hari raised an eyebrow. They ended up taking the bottle home.

 

Hari was working and Jean made herself scarce to avoid his questions. A few days after they had recovered from their hangovers they sat down over glasses of sweet chai and she finally told him what she had.

 

"I've got evidence that people are becoming sensitive to the EM frequencies in the environment. Some more than others, young more than old, many not at all. I've controlled it with shielded rooms, I've even, secretly, shown that people can sense a difference between hard rock and classical music when it isn't even playing through speakers. In one study I did, people tended to perform better at tasks when their preferred genre of music was playing, except it wasn't, they seemed to respond to the carrier wave only. There's an interaction between the signals around us and what goes on in our heads...I think."

 

"Wow. That's pretty big if it's real"

 

"Yeah, I think that's why I'm an ex-academic. In a couple of years when the higher ups have figured out how to monetise it and protect their interests, someone else will be allowed to explore it."

 

"Who were your subjects? How did you gather a big enough sample to show this conclusively?"

 

"Er. Students mostly, in the beginning, and I didn't show anything conclusively. The numbers were too small. That was my next step. Try to get approval for a study that might mess with a lot of people's heads at once. If the phenomenon is real, it's already happening, we might as well try to understand it. Didn't fly"

 

"Have you thought about monks?"

 

She hadn't.

 

"It might be interesting for you to meet my friend at Swayambhu. The local abbott. He's a Lama, that means he's lived a lot. He wants to meet you since we talked about you and your situation. The guy has about ten degrees, he guest lectures at my place sometimes."

 

"I don't know... I was just thinking about going hiking"

 

"He hikes. He might even take you into the mountains in his jhelli"

 

Two days later, Jean and Kul-Bahadur, the leader of the monks at Swayambhu Temple, left the jet-copter on a ridge in the lower Himalaya and began walking. The machine would pick them up later. As they walked, they talked. Jean she felt that she could trust Kul-Bahadur. He radiated compassion. When she had met him at the monastery, she had felt peace in the air. She spoke to him unguardedly, allowing herself to sound as she had always felt; that her ideas and the evidence were clear and sure. She told him about her dreams, and her hope that understanding the phenomenon could bring positive change. Kul-Bahadur listened to her outpouring with great happiness. He had some questions.

 

"So you feel sure that with the right resources, you can go further. You want to understand how human minds, nervous systems, can be sensitive, as you put it, to these technological systems, these waves in the air?"

 

"Yes, I do"

 

"You think that on some level people are already able to process these interactions and perhaps preconsciously understand or react to them?"

 

"My research is still immature, but that is the hypothesis I believe I should pursue"

 

"Why pursue the hypothesis that far and no further? Are you really that interested in how people might be interacting with machines?"

 

"I'm not sure what you're asking me."

 

"I like your dream about the people with the radio heads. If my Order supported your research, would you consider undertaking training with us in mindfulness and compassion meditation?"

 

Jean had been aware that there was a chance the Lama could decide to help her, but when she heard this she couldn't help but let out a happy kind of snort

"Kul-Bahadur, if you help me, I'll even cut my hair and change my name!"

 

"Haha! Jean. When you talk about your dream, and about people maybe receiving these signals from the machines around them, you should know that I take it for granted that you are right. People are able to feel much more than they know. Separation is an illusion. When I scan the monks I live with as they meditate on compassion for all life, all existence, at the hospital or university, the machines can surely receive the signals. Why not then the people, the plants and the animals? With the right machines the nervous systems of our monks radiate, transmit, if you prefer. One question is, can you yourself learn to do this? Another, where can that energy go, what can it do?"

 

"Can I?" Jean's ears were ringing, but she felt clear and one-pointed.

 

"Can you go further, would you go beyond? You want to explore and understand? You want to help people?"

 

"Yes I do, more than anything"

 

"Then you can be my teacher"

 

"Do you, you, know the phenomenon I talk about? Tell me"

 

"Ask me if I can feel the sign on the wind. Yes."

 

"How long have you been at Swayambhu?"

 

"The older monks came for me when I was very young. They felt that I had been reborn. I went back home with them"

 

"You really believe that don't you? How long have you been at Swayambhu?"

 

"In the sunshine and the clear air. Before the Buddha, we were here. We have been sitting in these mountains together for thousands of years."

 

"And now I'm here. And you're telling me that the research I've been obsessed with, this paradigm-shifting thing isn't even news to you. But you'll help me."

 

"Sort of. I believe that your karma has brought you here. We have always known that our meditation and our practice changes the world around us. I believe that you will deepen and change this knowledge and enlighten us further. I believe that we will help each other."

 

"With the right training and practice, presumably anyone can demonstrate the kinds of effects we've talked about. This is an inherent, latent capability of human beings? If we can remove any doubt that this property of the mind is real, what will that do to the future?" Jean was happy, the ground had shifted under her feet. It wasn't just about the words that had been said. It was about the attitude, the possibility.

 

"People wouldn't have lived for so long in caves, or deserts, or up a mountain, or in the frozen wilderness, if there wasn't something in it." Kul-Bahadur winced as Jean pretended to take a swipe at him.

 

"So Jean, can we work together? Can we be friends and see where the path leads? I think we may have been waiting for each other for a long time. Lifetimes."

 

"I'll certainly consider it"

 

They laugh together and continue to walk along the path.

 

They say you can't change the world, but the world changes every day, and so do you.

 

The work of Dr. Jean Marlowe, Kul-Bahadur, and the monks of Swayambhu changed the world, more than one hundred years from now.

 

 


 

This writeup was a theme challenge (in this case coincident with the title) between me and archiewood

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