by Brian K. Asbury
“We’re trying to do just that,” Tom Archer said. “But our first attempt didn’t work. We’re trying to rescue some other time travellers so they can help us.”
Herne the Hunter approached the frozen Rip Hunter and Steve Cleaves. “Indeed, I sense that these two are also alien to this time,” he said. “As are several others. This cannot be tolerated — all must depart.”
“Then will you help us?” asked Tom. “I need to get these two to safety, and there’s also still one member of their party missing — a boy.”
“I can help thee,” Herne said. “But this displeases me, and as I offer my hand to aid thee, there must be a reckoning — a price to pay. Wouldst thou be willing to pay that price?”
“I…” Tom began uncertainly. “What kind of price? What do you mean?”
“That I will not reveal until it suits me to do so,” said Herne. “But choose! Wilt thou payest my price, or no? Choose ere my patience exceeds its bounds. Do not delay!”
Tom took a deep breath. “Very well. I will pay whatever price you exact, to help my comrades. So will you help me find the missing boy, Corky?”
“Is this the one?” Herne gestured, and the scene suddenly changed. They were now on a different part of the battlefield, one not shrouded in the smoke from Tom’s trick arrows. An ugly dark-haired man, his helmet tucked under one arm, seemed to be consulting with other men in uniform. A horse, which Tom supposed belonged to that man, stood nearby. Holding its reins was a red-haired, freckle-faced boy in the uniform of a military drummer.
“Yes, he fits the description,” said Tom. But his eyes were drawn to the ugly man. “My God,” he breathed, approaching him. “That’s Oliver Cromwell himself!” His mind raced again. This was the man who would engineer the execution of King Charles I and usher in a temporary era of Puritanical republicanism in England. To many he was a hero — the man who had tried to end the British monarchy and usher in a form of democracy long before the revolutions in America or France. To others he was a devil — a tyrant and religious fanatic who would launch a brutal campaign of subjugation and massacre against the Catholics of Ireland, which would in no small way set the stage for all the troubles in that land in the centuries to come.
Despite his earlier entreaties to his comrades of the dangers of changing history, a tempting thought came to Tom’s mind. One arrow, he mused, and I could change all that. I could kill him here and now, and alter the course of history. But for good or ill? Who can say?
“No! That is forbidden!” said Herne. Tom stared at him. Had his mystical mentor read his mind? “Thou shalt return to thine rightful place and time, and shall not interfere in what transpires here and now!”
The hooded and robed figure gestured once again, and the scene changed for the second time. This time they appeared to be on a hilltop — where, it was difficult to say, but it was obviously nowhere in the vicinity of the battle. The red-haired boy was still in the same position relative to Tom, but no longer holding the reins of a horse. A little beyond him were Rip Hunter and Steve Cleaves, and dangling frozen in the air to his right was a rope ladder. He looked up and saw the Time Sphere hovering above them.
“Herne, what are…?” But Herne was gone. He looked around to see the boy staring at him in disbelief, and Hunter and Cleaves also looking baffled, but once more animated. Time had restarted again.
Oh, boy, he thought. How in the world am I going to explain this?
“None of this makes sense,” said Steve Cleaves. The Time Sphere had now landed, and the assembled Time Masters and Paladins were clustered around it on the hilltop.
“You’re telling me!” Jeff Smith said. “One minute we’re hovering above the battlefield at Naseby, and the next we’re over a hundred miles north of there, on the Yorkshire moors.”
“Well, come on, then!” Steve said. “You guys are used to all sorts o’ weird stuff, right? This kinda thing happens to you all the time, right? So what happened?”
He looks really scared, thought Tom. In some ways I don’t blame him, but given his reputation as a movie tough guy, it’s a bit incongruous!
Rip Hunter emerged from the Sphere, now changed into his green uniform. “I’ve checked out the Time Sphere’s systems. Whatever caused us to jump like that, it wasn’t another malfunction.”
“Even if it had been, Rip,” said Corky Baxter, “that doesn’t explain how I ended up with the rest of you. I was with General Cromwell, and nowhere near you and Steve.”
Cameo looked at her teammate with a curious expression on her face. “Are you sure you didn’t see anything strange, Bowman?”
“Uh… no,” he lied. “I’m as much in the dark as everyone else.”
“Hmm…” Her eyes narrowed, but she did not press the point.
“Look, whatever happened, it’s done us all a favor,” said Lionheart. “Could we all just get out of here and try to figure it out afterwards?”
“That might be the best course of action,” Rip said. “There are clearly some unknown forces at work here, although they do seem to be benign, not hostile.”
“Even so, Rip,” said Bonnie Baxter, “we’ve encountered supernatural forces before that have seemed friendly at first, but later turned against us. I don’t think we should push our luck here.”
“Supernatural?” scoffed Steve. “That’s bull, babe! Whatever happened back there, there’s gotta be a rational explanation that doesn’t involve some superstitious mumbo-jumbo… doesn’t there?” His eyes appealed to them.
“I’d like to reassure you, Steve,” said Rip, “but we’ve encountered magic and sorcery a number of times in our time travels, and I can tell by the reactions of our friends from the future that they accept its existence, too.”
“You could say that,” said Tom dryly. He wished he could tell them what had really happened, but he had sworn to Herne long before that he would not speak of him. He had decided that the simplest course of action in this case was just to plead ignorance.
“Anyway,” Firebrand said, speaking for the first time, “I hate to agree with Lionheart, but I think getting back to our own times should be getting priority here. We can argue about the existence or otherwise of the supernatural later.”
“You’re right,” said Jeff. “But how do we get you back? When I tried before, you know what happened. The Time Sphere wouldn’t materialize out of the time stream.”
Rip Hunter rubbed his slightly bristly chin. “Maybe there’s a simple reason for that, Jeff.”
“What? I couldn’t figure it out, and there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the Sphere.”
The blond scientist/adventurer grinned and put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Don’t forget, Jeff, that the Sphere is programmed not to materialize if any of its occupants are already present in that time. They’d become immaterial phantoms.”
“Rip — there was no danger of that. I deliberately tried to materialize after our friends left their own time. They weren’t already there.”
“Maybe not. But you might have been!”
There was a stunned silence. Then Jeff struck his forehead with the heel of his hand. “Of course! Heck, how could I have been so dumb as to not think of that? It was me preventing the Sphere from materializing, not them!”
“So how do we get around that?” said Bonnie. “We can’t know what any of us will be doing in 1987, or even if we’ll still be alive, much less still travelling in time.”
Rip looked thoughtful. “OK, we know Jeff failed to get our friends home, so he’s obviously still around in that time. But we don’t know if I am — or you, Bonnie, or Corky. I’ll try taking them back myself, and come back for the rest of you later. There isn’t room for all of us in the Time Sphere, anyway. If I fail, the two of you will each have to try. Hopefully, though, if we are still around in 1987, now that we know about this, my future self can arrange to be away on a time trip at the required time, so that my present self will be able to materialize at that time.”
“Come again?” said a confused Lionheart. “Would you care to explain that in plain English?”
“Time travel can be a strain on the language,” said Rip with a smile. “Come on — let’s see if I can get you home.”
“OK,” Rip said, bending over the Time Sphere’s controls. “We’ve arrived at the time you left, and this confirms what Jeff told me — the Sphere won’t leave the time stream.”
“So what now?” asked Lodestone.
“At this point, Jeff took us forward a few days, then shifted us in space,” Cameo said to Rip.
“And that didn’t work.”
“OK, then, let’s try something different,” Rip said. He worked several controls. “I’m programming a sequence that will jump the Time Sphere forward one day at a time and attempt to exit the time stream after each jump. That way we should at least be able to confirm when it will be possible!”
“In how many years’ time?” muttered Lionheart.
“Have faith,” said the Bowman. “Rip knows what he’s doing.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. But we could still end up not being able to materialize until he dies of old age in the real world.”
“If that’s the case, we’ll have to go back and try something different,” said Rip. “But, as I said before, I should be able to arrange for my older self to leave on a time trip to give us a window in which we can safely materialize.”
“Assuming your ‘older self’ is still travelling in time,” pointed out Firebrand.
Rip sighed. “OK, point to you, miss. I suppose it is possible that I might have retired by then, or I’ll have lost the Time Sphere… but once, on a visit to ancient Herculaneum, we came across evidence that a descendant of mine had been there previously in the Sphere. If that’s the case, there should be nothing to stop me doing what I said.”
“Yes, well… I don’t want to put a damper on the mood, Dr. Hunter, but according to your counter, we’ve already moved forward more than six weeks since our leaving point,” said Cameo. “The Sphere has tried and failed forty-five times now to materialize.”
“Forty-six,” said Lodestone. “Forty-seven…”
“We get the idea,” Lionheart said. “We don’t need a running commentary, thanks.”
Rip shook his head. “If all else fails, I’ll just have to return without you to my own time and contact Superboy for help,” he said. “Maybe he can succeed where I’ve apparently failed.”
“I don’t see how that would work,” said the Bowman. “He’s still around in our time as Superman. He’d have the same problem, surely?”
“Maybe. But I’ve heard a rumor that he has time-travelling friends from the future — much further in the future than you. If he could persuade them to help, that would get around any problems of anyone trying to materialize where they’re already present.”
He rubbed his chin in his characteristic way. “You did mention, however, that great energies were released when you were sent back in time. It may be that they caused a local disruption in the time stream, making time travel impossible for a while. It’s been known to happen elsewhere. However, it usually dies down after a short time. With any luck…”
“Dr. Hunter…” Firebrand was pointing excitedly at the readouts. “Something’s happening!”
He turned towards them. “Yes, you’re right. We’re materializing. Let’s see… October 31st, 1987… more than four months after you left, but better than nothing.”
“Halloween,” observed Lionheart. “Pretty appropriate, given the weird way that the business at Naseby finished…”
Rip grinned. “OK, folks, here goes. Prepare to say hello to the twentieth century once more!”
At that moment, an indicator flashed, heralding that materialization was complete…
…and Lodestone screamed and fell to the floor of the Time Sphere.