I finally managed to get my legs under me, to straighten them to a standing position but my personal sense of time was still off so I wasn’t sure how long it took for me to accomplish the feat. I gave Madi, who was equally as drained as I, a hand up and held on until she could steady herself and then we saw to McKissick.
“You’re telling us that maelstrom out there, that was time?” I asked.
“The entirety of time,” the woman nodded. “Unfiltered.”
“Time, like many vast things—though nothing is quite as vast as time—consists of layers and we experience these layers separately through our limited perceptions of space/time. There is a popular theory that we are all made of stardust, which I subscribe to, but we are also made of time particles that pass through us from the moment of our conception long past the day we die. Being exposed to time in its raw state can be quite maddening as it overloads our personal capacity for time retention.”
“Why weren’t you affected?”
“I stood to the side of the door and shielded myself.”
“You didn’t stare into the abyss.”
“The only effective method of avoiding its gaze upon you,” the woman said. “Now, I have been civil toward your party, Mr. Quaice, distant but civil and this was done out of respect for you and the aid you may eventually bring. Understand that I do not need them.”
“If it’s gratitude you want,” I answered, “you’re looking at the wrong person.”
“Gratitude is a capricious creature that I have no interest in,” replied the woman, quickly. “Understanding is what I seek. I am not what you would call a patient woman. In my historical research experiment, I have made certain calculations that I believed to be accurate and foolproof though the results have been less than desirable causing fracture points in time and now I find I must further splinter the timeline in order to rectify the original error which should then undo each of my missteps thereafter.”
Although her tone was level there was a flash of pain in her eyes, perhaps anger, perhaps something else. Had she done something terrible in the past to the past, to my past as well as her own and in a blatant disregard for protecting and maintaining the past was willing to unravel all of history to correct her original sin that might very well be uncorrectable, leaving none of us with a familiar present to return home to?
If this vehicle had the capability to pierce the barrier of time, past, present and future, what force would exist that could stop her, what authority could hold her accountable for her actions and if her conscience was not to be her guide whom would she fear answering to for any and all damages done in her name, by her hand, for her own selfish ends?
I realized I had not enough information to form a rational opinion and as much as I hated wild speculate, these questions ran through my mind immediately nonetheless while the woman remained silent, apparently lost in thought. She gave no notice to us as if we were insects, things beneath her notice which made me despise her but that was mixed with a healthy dose of fear, interest and something that might have been the beginnings of admiration which was to be expected, especially if her claims were true for I had never encountered a person from the future before.
I could see Madi chomping at the bit to break the silence but I shook my head and inconspicuously waved her down. Shortly after, the woman continued speaking.
“Perhaps my comments might have appeared threatening,” said the woman, “but that is not my intent. Your party has committed no crime against me and therefore will not be treated as a hostile. Fate has brought us together so perhaps you all have a part to play that may be of service us. You are welcomed aboard, free to travel beyond this area with the stipulation that you do not touch anything unless so directed and will not inquire about or note future events. I have enough mess to clean up on my own doing and would not care to add additional troubles to the task ahead. What say you all, are we in agreement?”
“And you would take us at our word?” I answered.
“Yes, I would. As I see it, I am your only means of returning home safely so it would be foolish of you to break your oath if given. You will not be granted full access and may sometimes be consigned to what we deem to be a holding area at times as that would be to our mutual benefit. I am not violent by nature and my initial assessment of your party is that we share this in common. Behave civilly and you will be treated civilly. If you accept and obey my condition regarding your non-interference of my research, I will endeavor to deliver you home to your time safely. Do you accept?”
I was not so arrogant as to be blinded to the reality that there were things about the future which I shouldn’t know, things about my future or society’s which might affect my actions in a way as to thwart the direction of my destiny and the woman had a point for none of us knew how to return to our own time and so must therefore put our trust in her hands and hope for the best.
“Do we have a choice in the matter?” I asked although I knew I would accept still I felt the need to test the waters if nothing more than to gauge the type of person we were dealing with.
“Certainly. You may remain in this car if you wish. I will even leave the rear door unlocked which means you are free to take your chances outside.”
“And if we accept, we would be allowed to wander through the rest of your time vessel?”
“You would be free to travel between these train cars and observe as you see fit as long as you remain out of the way and leave an area if instructed by myself or my team. And for clarification’s sake, these cars are not my time vessel.”
“I don’t understand.”
“All will be made clear.”
“So, we are granted limited access to your mysterious prison?”
“We occupy the same space so if this is indeed a prison then we are cellmates. I am not your jailor and you are free to leave at any time. There are reasons governing our inability to return you to your point of origin that you will learn if you are patient with our distribution method of knowledge. Remember, you came here to me, you are essentially guests in my home and will be treated accordingly but being my guest does not grant you full access to all my and the future’s secrets. At this point in your lives, my existence should unknown to all of you, as I’ve said before Mr. Quaice, we are meeting two of your years ahead of time. I need to protect my research, my mission and myself from the unknown and you three have brought that unknown to my doorstep.”
It was apparent from her tone that her feet were firmly planted in the soil of her resolution and she would not be budged.
“So, we must voluntarily offer up our obedience and possible assistance in your mission which you refuse to divulge even if that mission goes against our own principles in exchange for your promise to attempt our return home?”
“Simply put, yes. But I am fairly certain that none of you will have much to complain about once you have seen what lies beyond this car. You will encounter technology and theories that will astound you and may even find yourselves impressed against your will by what we have accomplished and if you are truly open-minded you will come to see that despite all you think you know, you actually know nothing at all. Can I marvel you, Mr. Quaice?” the woman smiled.
I was not sure if it was her words or her smile or the temptation to view the unknown that lured me in but I was hooked. I forgot for a moment of the potential danger we were in the potential danger we could cause and all I wanted to do was follow this woman into her casual world which for me was the undiscovered country. So, I answered, without consulting Madi or McKissick, I answered for all of us:
“We accept your terms, Ms.—”
“Ah, we have not been formally introduced, have we?” replied the woman. “My apologies. First, allow me to welcome you on board as passengers of the Pneuma; and I am Dr. Boerum, Cariad Boerum, the daughter of Professor Rupert Boerum, the creator of time travel.”