By Reinaldo E. Grandal
After an hour and a half they happened upon a small
clearing. Wittenberg told the others, "Okay. Coke-an'-smoke," and, as the group
stopped to rest, he selected a tree, checked for ants, and sat down.
Kramer and Williams both slung their weapons on their
shoulders and lit cigarettes. "I long for the comfort of home, gentlemen,"
Williams announced as he exhaled a stream of smoke.
Harbin rested his rifle on the ground, sitting back on his
haunches, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose between his
thumb and index finger. When he finally looked up and saw Kramer exhaling smoke
and seemingly lost in thought, he picked up his M-16 and went to his side.
"What's done is done, man," he told Kramer softly.
"Because you can't change history," Kramer said, unaware
that Wittenberg was studying him casually.
"Right," Harbin said. He pointed to the Nadym. "It's like
trying to dam this river with a marble."
Kramer was quiet again. He thought about Kripps and
They had been sent back to 1890 Austria. A fatal accident
had been planned for an infant named Adolf Hitler.
Kripps had radioed a day later. Hitchcock had fallen during
the attempt and broken his neck.
Wendover's technicians had disengaged the umbilicus and
tried to send a backup team to keep Hitchcock from getting killed. They could
not achieve temporal lock. Finally, they had been able to lock into a time
frame about six hours after Kripps had last radioed.
Kripps and the backup team had made the second attempt, and
after about eight hours, the second team had withdrawn and returned to the
present. The second attempt had also been a dismal failure; the child's father,
Alois, had stabbed Kripps to death as a trespasser.
History would simply not allow itself to be changed.
Another team had been sent to save Kripps and Hitchcock
twenty-four hours before they had been scheduled to arrive in Austria. Their
aircraft had malfunctioned and crashed in flames, the feedback reverberating
along the umbilicus and causing an explosion in the Wendover facility.
The techs had asked themselves: Why? The third team had not
gone back to change anything.
But they had, MIT had to finally realize. Those two men,
Hitchcock and Kripps, had left Wendover, Utah in 1973 and died in Braunau by
the Inn, Austria in 1890. It had happened. It was history.
Kramer's throat was dry.
" . . . you can't change history. . . ."
"You son of a bitch. . . ."
Wittenberg rose, brushing off loose, moist soil from the
seat of his pants. "Let's move out," he said.
He led them away from the river.
When it was almost noon and more light filtered through the
clouds, Kramer looked up to see chestnut-plumed buntings in the branches. He
listened to their song, sniffed at the pine scent that floated in the warmth of
the day and thought for a moment that he would allow himself to smile a little
when Wittenberg gave the signal to halt and maintain silence.
Before them was a small patch of space where the bush had
been hacked away; only creepers and fallen leaves were strewn about. To their
right they saw stones fitted neatly together in a three-foot pile. The top of
the pile was flat, and upon it sat a small, gray statue, about the size of a
"Pagan idolatry," Williams whispered.
"Nomads," Wittenberg guessed. "Turkic, Mongoloid. Who
Kramer saw that the statue had been painstakingly carved
from limestone - with a flint, he supposed - and polished in the cold water of
the Nadym. He squinted. Because of the oval shape of the stone he found the
representation momentarily confusing. Ultimately, though, after scrutinizing
its features - the bulbous eyes, the veined wings etched into its back, the
small mouth ringed with needle-like teeth - he recognized it as a hideously
stylized image of a much smaller creature with which mankind had become so
"Crude, very crude," Williams shook his head.
Kramer turned from the stone fly to see Harbin standing
behind him. "What?"
"I didn't say anything."
Time to eat.
With eyes closed, Kramer took off his cap and ran his
fingers through oily black hair.
"You okay, Kramer?"
"You're a no-good, lousy, stinkin'. . . ."
Kramer opened his eyes to see Wittenberg standing before
Wittenberg turned to the others. "Reconnoiter."
"Happy to be of service," Williams quipped, heading into the
Harbin hesitated, studying Kramer with a concerned, almost
maternalistic look, and then followed Williams.
Wittenberg turned back to Kramer. "What's wrong?"
"I thought I heard something," Kramer said. "A voice."
Wittenberg looked down, sighing, and then back up into
Kramer's eyes. "I know that you've been warned recently about your drinking."
He paused. "You didn't get to where you are in the Agency for nothing, Kramer.
I figure that you'll be able to handle your problem on your own, that it won't
get in the way of the mission." He paused. "Will it?"
Kramer put his cap back on. "No."
"Good," Wittenberg said. "I need you to. . . ."
Wittenberg was cut off as Harbin came running into the
clearing. "You've got to see this," he breathed heavily.
Kramer and Wittenberg quickly and quietly followed Harbin
through the bush, staying close. The shadows gave way to increased light and
When they stopped suddenly, they found Williams standing in
a neatly shaven buffer zone, several yards wide, that separated the field
before them from the woods behind.
Kramer whistled softly, and Wittenberg muttered, "What the
hell is this?"
Rows of plants, perfect in their symmetry, seemed to stretch
out in three directions for at least a mile on the flat terrain. Though their
outer skin was smooth and spineless, with a deep avocado hue, the plants
resembled cacti, seven or eight feet tall, their branches springing like
plumbing from a single thick stem, segmenting up and out at right angles,
groping toward the sun.
"Where the hell did these things come from?" Harbin asked
"Slavic farmers," Wittenberg offered.
"Were they supposed to have expanded this far east yet?"
Kramer looked around. "We haven't seen any signs of people
yet, except for that altar back there."
Williams knelt by the closest plant, studying the base.
"Look," he said simply, quietly. The others approached, Harbin kneeling beside
The tree's stem emerged from the center of a perfect dark
green cross of half-exposed brick-shaped roots. From the exact middle of each
base root sprang three smaller rootlets that arched up and then down into the
rich soil to drink in the earth's lifeblood.
Williams pulled his knife from its sheath and deliberately,
analytically, placed the blade under the apex of one of the projecting
rootlets, slicing upward. A clear thick sap seeped from the severed ends of the
root. The plant emitted a thin, high-pitched hiss, like a boiling kettle
whistling in the distance, and its color began to fade. Harbin jumped back and
Williams rose slowly. The hissing stopped. The tree had become sandy in color.
Williams approached it cautiously with his knife and stabbed at the upper
branches with the blade's tip, chipping away flakes of dry bark.
"Desiccated," Harbin said.
"Day of the Triffids," Williams responded pensively.
"Fascinating," Wittenberg said. He raised his thirty-five
millimeter, took several pictures of the field and then lowered the camera.
"And not our problem."
"You don't think this is important?" Williams countered.
"What use is it to us?" Wittenberg responded coolly. "File
it for future reference. This is something for the boys back at Science and
Technology, anyway. C'mon, back to work."
The agents retraced their way back to the clearing and the
altar, and Wittenberg then rushed them through the forest, attempting to make
up for lost time.
It was after more than an hour of relentless trailblazing
that Wittenberg again signaled the others to stop. He crouched down and slowly
made his way toward the trunk of a pine tree that hung over an abrupt ridge. He
began to snap off shots with his thirty-five millimeter.
The others joined him and peered into the small valley
"Jesus," Harbin breathed.
Kramer pulled out his binoculars and scanned the arena
below. "Oh my God!" he whispered.
At times it wondered if others of its kind had stayed
behind as well.
It remembered how its makers had not seen the vermin that
infested this world as any great threat. Before long, though, they had caught a
glimpse of this planet's future and had decided to leave, fearing that the
vermin might one day overrun them.
With only a little persuasion from its host it had run,
hidden and waited until the ship had disappeared into the clouds.
It had to remain.
It had its duties to perform.