by Brian K. Asbury
“It’s starting to get dark,” Lodestone observed, looking up at the sky.
Firebrand, sitting nearby and munching on a bar of chocolate filched from the Time Sphere’s supplies, chuckled. “It’s a good thing Lionheart is helping out with the repairs to the Sphere, or he’d no doubt make some snide remark about you stating the blindingly obvious, Rhea.”
“Yeah. Whatever,” muttered the American girl, who was mind-numbingly bored. She studied her companion. “Y’know, I’ve never seen anybody thin as you eat so much! You haven’t stopped since I ferried you all here.”
“Well, I’ve had a lot to make up.”
“An’ still a bit to go, I reckon,” said Rhea Jones.
Becca Bennett swallowed the last of the chocolate. “I wonder if Jeff’s got any more of this in there?”
“Oh, jeez! Steady on, girl, you’ll burst!”
“I don’t think so,” said the red, white, and black-clad Englishwoman. “Actually, though, I think I’ve probably recovered enough strength now to try for the rest directly, without stuffing myself any more with food.”
“Let’s hope so. The rest of us wanna eat, too, y’know!”
Just then, the Bowman of Britain appeared through the trees. He was carrying a brace of rabbits. “So who’s for doing some cooking?” he said.
“Don’t look at me,” said Becca. “I don’t do the C word.”
“Oh, give ’em here,” said Lodestone. “And your knife?”
The Bowman flipped a hunting knife from his belt and handed it to her. She moved a short distance away and started to skin the coneys. “Useful girl to have around, or what?” he said to Becca.
“She spent a long time surviving alone,” she replied. “She’s certainly better equipped to survive out here than I am, anyway. I wouldn’t know where to begin skinning a rabbit, much less cooking one.”
Tom Archer dropped down on his haunches beside her. “How’s the repairs going?” he asked.
“Last time one of them reported, pretty well. The water didn’t get into the Time Sphere’s works, and Jeff was pretty sure he could jury-rig a temporary replacement for the damaged power coil. He’s also got Sandie and Lionheart working with him, of course, and Sandie’s a genius with this sort of stuff — although both of them have had a good old moan about antiquated technology.”
“I can imagine. It’s pretty amazing that Jeff and this Hunter chap actually got the thing to work at all. They built it in the ’50s, incredibly — at least fifteen years before the first microchips became available. God, it must still be working on valves!”
“Actually, Jeff’s rather indignant description was ‘state-of-the-art transistor banks — the best Stark Industries could supply’!”
“Oh, well — transistors. That makes all the difference, doesn’t it?”
They both fell about laughing. “Seriously, though,” said Becca. “He’s also got ’50s and ’60s attitudes. I thought Sandie was going to clobber him at one point!”
“I think it was the ‘you’re not a bad little scientist for a colored girl’ remark that did it. You should’ve seen her face!”
“Bloody hell! I should think so!”
“Fortunately, he isn’t stupid. He realized he’d caused offense and apologized. Talk about a clash of cultures, though.”
At this point, their companions began to emerge from the Time Sphere, looking tired and slightly grubby. Lionheart looked up at the sky. “It’s starting to get dark,” he observed.
“Give that guy a silver dollar,” muttered Rhea, who had by now skinned and cleaned the rabbits and was fashioning a crude spit.
“Made any progress?” asked Tom, getting back up to his feet.
“Yes and no,” said Cameo.
“We’ve managed to replace the power coil,” said Jeff Smith, “but trouble is, it’s shutting the corral after the cattle have stampeded.”
“There were far too many Westerns on TV in the ’60s,” muttered Cameo. “What he means is that when the original coil burnt out, the power cells drained almost completely. There’s barely enough juice left to power a light bulb, much less take us through time.”
“Bad news. Any way of recharging them?”
“You see any electric sockets nearby?” said Lionheart dryly.
“There is a contingency device,” Jeff said. “It’s what Corky dubbed the ‘Frankenstein gizmo.'”
“It’s an extendable lightning rod,” the black-haired scientist explained. “The idea is to send it up in a thunderstorm, and…”
“I think they probably get the picture,” interrupted Lionheart. “But as I said in there, this is hardly thunderstorm weather, is it?” He pointed to the clear, cloudless sky. “We could wait weeks to get a thunderstorm at this time of year.”
There was silence. Then Becca struggled to her feet. “OK, I get the message. It’s time for me to start pulling my weight around here instead of acting like an invalid, right?”
“Becca,” began Tom, “you’re still weak from…”
“Cobblers! If I can’t do this now, I never will be able to.” She looked around and started towards a small bush.
“What are you going to do?” asked Cameo.
“You’ll see.” Becca grasped branches in both hands and closed her eyes. Suddenly she vanished in a blaze of light and flame, accompanied by a report as loud as a thunderclap.
Jeff staggered back against the metal hull of the Time Sphere in shock. “Holy cow! What happened?”
In reply, the brilliant ball of light that had replaced Becca flashed over to him. “It’s OK, Jeff. This is my other form. I convert my mass into energy. Didn’t the others tell you?”
There was another, less loud report, and the ball of energy coalesced into a human woman once more — however, one who was somewhat changed.
“You did it!” said Sandie Bremmer. “You replaced your lost mass from that bush!”
Firebrand grinned. “Told you I could do it!” She now looked back to her old self again — still slim, but no longer gaunt and wasted.
“Well, you sure look fit and healthy enough now,” said Rhea, joining them. “Guess you won’t be wanting any rabbit, then?”
“In your dreams!” She turned to Jeff. “Well? You want to put up this Frankenstein rod thingamajig or what?”
“I don’t understand. What–?”
Becca sighed. She held out her hands, palms facing one another. Spectral flames danced around them, and then a bright arc of electricity shot between them. She grinned. “I’ve got all the power you need right here,” she said. “All you have to do is give me some means of getting it into your ship, and then we can get out of here!”
“OK, this is more like it,” said Jeff Smith as he powered up the Time Sphere and studied its displays. “The old girl isn’t a hundred percent, but she’s alive and kicking again.”
“But will she take us back to the twentieth century?” asked Lionheart, jostling for elbow room in the slightly overcrowded space.
“Sure. No problem.” Jeff looked around. “But I think I’d better take you guys back before I see about finding Rip and the others. There sure as heck isn’t gonna be room in here for another four besides us.”
“No!” said the Bowman. “That can wait. We promised we’d help you find your friends, and that’s what we’ll do.”
“Yeah. Appreciate the offer, folks, but us Time Masters take care of our own. And no offense, but it’s bad enough having ordinary twentieth century people wandering around in this time without guys and girls with weird powers scaring the locals. It could really screw up history if any more people see you, and it gets recorded in official documents somewhere.”
“Sorry. Much as I want to find Rip and the others, preserving history comes first. Here we go. Up to power now.” He pulled a lever, and the Time Sphere’s round door closed with a clang. Another part of the display lit up like a Christmas tree. Jeff turned several knobs, and the time indicator changed.
“All mechanical dials, note,” Sandie whispered to Becca. “Not an LED in sight.” The red-haired young woman grinned in response.
“All set,” Jeff announced. “Five minutes or so, and we’ll be right back where you came from — just a few seconds after you left, with any luck.”
“You mean, we’re, y’know, moving through time already?” gasped Lodestone.
As they watched, the dials changed, shifting from the present date of June 13th, 1645, and accelerating through the remainder of the seventeenth century. True to Jeff’s word, within just a few minutes they had crossed into their own century and were speeding towards the year 1987.
“Will you be able to take us directly back to London?” asked Tom.
“Probably best not to,” Jeff replied. “You didn’t tell me what was going on when you left, but I figure it must be something I wouldn’t want the Time Sphere caught up in, especially not functioning at less than a hundred percent. If you folks don’t mind, I’ll take you to somewhere outside the city.”
“Here,” said Tom, picking up a map and stabbing a finger at it to indicate a location to Jeff. “Wordenshire Castle. That’s a safe location to drop us off.”
“OK, if you say so.” Jeff manipulated several more knobs to guide the Sphere to a new destination. By now, the date indicators had reached the 1950s and were visibly flowing.
Less than half a minute later, they stopped altogether, now showing July 11, 1987, the date from which the Paladins had been hurled into the past. However, Jeff made no announcement of arrival. He instead made further adjustments to the controls. Finally he stepped back and frowned. “That’s odd.”
“What’s odd?” said Firebrand.
“We’re still in the time stream. The Time Sphere hasn’t materialized.”
“And that isn’t normal, right?”
“No. For some reason, the safeties kicked in and stopped it. Hang on — maybe there’s some disturbance outside that it doesn’t like. I’ll take us forward a few days.”
“That’s not a good idea,” said Lionheart. “We’ve got unfinished business to take care of.”
“And there are people who’ll be missing us,” added Cameo.
“Can’t be helped, folks. OK, try again…” He studied the controls. “Nope. Doesn’t want to go.”
Cameo rubbed her chin. “Without giving too much away, Jeff, when we departed there was a lot of weird stuff going on. There could have been energies discharged that had a lingering effect.”
“OK, let’s try moving well away from your departure point, then. I’m setting the controls for Australia. Can’t get much farther away than that!” Again, a pause. “Nope. Still doesn’t like that.”
“Right, then,” said Lionheart. “How about this, then? Take us back to before we left. That way, any problematic energies won’t be around.”
Jeff smiled weakly. “No can do, guys. If we were to materialize in a time when you were already present, we’d do so as immaterial phantoms. In fact, the Sphere is programmed not to even attempt to do so. I don’t know what would happen if the Sphere became immaterial, and I don’t want to know!”
“But what’s the alternative?”
Jeff started to manipulate the controls once more. “Well, first thing is to see if we can return back to the seventeenth century.” The Sphere’s mechanisms hummed as the date counter started running backwards. “If we can’t dematerialize back there, we’ve got real problems.”
Over the next few minutes, there was scarcely a sound in the Time Sphere. No one spoke, and they barely even breathed. Then, as the counter clicked back to June 13th, 1645, Jeff made an audible sigh of relief. “We’re materializing,” he announced. He opened the door, and they reemerged into the cool summer night air.
“Now what?” asked Becca, speaking for them all.
Jeff shrugged. “This one’s got me beat, folks. We need to find Rip — he’s the real expert when it comes to solving puzzles. And nobody knows more about the science behind time travel. If he can’t figure it out, nobody can.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” said Lionheart. “Let’s do what we said we’d do in the first place, and find your friends!”