"Purgatory"

By

Reginald Thanos

10:30 hours GMT

3 July 1969

Arizona Desert, United States of America

Dr. Anne MacGreggor's telephone rang, the harsh bells loud in her tiny suite of rooms. A dense scientific report lay ignored on her desk while nearby a bottle of unopened wine offered escapist temptations. She preferred taking her lunch early and in her room, far away from the hordes who, like her, were trapped on this never ending mission. The telephone rang again. She picked it up, pulling the receiver to her ear as the coiled wire dragged her form across the desk and sent it clattering to the floor.

The voice in her ear spoke with cool professional tones skipping all pretense at conversation.

"Waveform coherence is at 85% and rising."

Anne sighed and her shoulders sagged.

"Inform Dr Swain, General Kirk, and call the alert." Another sigh. "I'll be in the control room in ten minutes."

"Yes, ma'am," the voice answered with precise military courtesy, though Anne remained a committed civilian.

She threw on her white lab coat, and pinned her red hair up into a stern and business like bun, producing the illusion of a professional still committed to the mission. Three years earlier she would has sprinted for the control room. Just a year ago Anne would have hurried, but today she forced her feet to carry her out of her small government issues living quarter to the corridor beyond.

A helmeted security guard waited in the little electric cart, ready to drive her to the control room. She more fell than sat into the passenger seat, barely having time to fasten her safety belt, before the little car jerked into motion.

The air in the vast underground Tic-Toc complex smelt of oil, rubber, and the ever-present tang of ozone as millions of relays consumed a nation's worth of electricity every twenty three days. Anne studiously looked away from the enormous shaft on her right that plummeted more than a mile deep.

They turned away from the cool and ventilation shaft and stopped at the entrance to the main control room. She climbed out and hurried inside. All around the cavernous space computers flashed and beeped as she crossed to her station in front of the complex's reason for existence. Taking a seat at the left console, she looked up into the worlds' only time machine.

A tunnel extended away from her; not only in distance but also in time. It's infinite perspective pulled at her vision and even after three years it still induced vertigo.

"Coherence at 89 percent and continuing to rise," a technician called out behind her.

"Bring the visualizer on line," she ordered as she powered up her console and began the delicate operation of isolating Doug and Tony's waveform from space/time's jumble of quantum foam.

Shaped like ten feet tall parentheses, the visualizer moved in from either side of the Tunnel's mouth and roiling mist appeared between them. After a moment images of Doug and Tony tumbling through a kaleidoscope of fractal colors emerged. In actuality the wayward scientists existed merely as a collapsing and dispersing waveforms smeared through the whole of space/time, like surface tension across the world's oceans, only irregularly achieving coherence, erupting like spontaneous bubbles, appearing in a random points anywhere and any when.

"Hello, Anne." Dr. Ray Swain sat to Anne's right, and started powering up the tunnel itself, drawing unimaginable amount of power, dimming lights thought the vast Tic-Toc complex. "Do we have a fix, yet?"

His voice carried undiminished enthusiasm, his confident smile wrinkled his nearly bald scalp.

"No." Anne tried to keep the despair out of her voice.

Ray offered support for collapsed morale. "We'll get them back."

For three long years she had sat at this console and watched as Doug and Tony materialized in the past, in the future, on wayward rockets and distant planets; anywhere here, anywhere but home. That first year she had been so certain that success was just weeks away, that she and Ray would crack the locator troubles and materialize Doug and Tony right there in the Tunnel. She'd kiss them both, and slap Tony silly for throwing himself into the machine to prove his theories.

The second year had dragged on, failure following failure, Doug and Tony suffering endlessly from their incompetence. Despair had taken her and she imagined that Tic-Toc a purgatory with no escape for any of them. She went through the motions, tracking the pair as they appeared in feudal Japan prompting a century of civil war, ancient England where they were threatened by the druids building Stonehenge, and even far future when humanity had forgotten its sensual past and existed into a perpetual state of electronic artificial dreaming.

As the crisis dragged on into a third year apathy transformed into hate. She hated the Tic-Toc complex; she hated the secrecy that forced her to live in government sponsored quarters deep under a desert; she hated the security details and their machine guns. Lately she hated Doug and Tony.

"Coherence 92 percent and rising," the technician announced and she hated him too.

General Heywood 'Woody' Kirk hurried across the control room, crossing the floor's enormous hours-glass icon with several quick military precise strides. He stopped, standing between Anne and Ray, his khaki uniform contrasting sharply with their white lab-coats.

"Is this a spontaneous event?"

"Your guess is as good as ours," Anne said. "We've been running Heisenberg equalization protocols all week, maybe they're stabilizing the waveforms."

"Wouldn't we have seen that when you did the experiments? Why would it start six days later?"

"General," Ray had a more congenial relationship with General Kirk and Anne wondered when she'd start hating them. "Doug and Tony aren't part of space/time, not as we experience it. Cause and effect don't apply. Experiments from last year or even next year might trigger a sudden coherence."

General Kirk started to reply, but Anne sat up in her seat and announced, "They're materializing!"

#

23:30 GMT

3 July 1969

Cosmodrome,

Balkpnur Kazakhstan, USSR

Under midnight-dark skies, Doug and Tony tumbled to the grass of the steppe, rolling with the short fall as they resumed specific existences. Tony straightened his green turtle neck as he stood and tried to determine where he they had landed. Doug brushed dust off from his suit, and noticed that the night's darkness wasn't total. Light from an enormous facility less than a mile away illuminated the area.

Doug faced the complex and let out a low whistle. "Boy," he said. "That is some rocket."

Turning to the launch facility Tony's face fell with shock as he stared at the gargantuan missile. More than three hundred feet tall, the sharply tapered cone pierced into the night like a Manhattan skyscraper. Colossal floodlights cast sharp beams along the silvered hull, throwing the rocket into sharp contrast with the inky blackness of the surrounding night.

"That thing's as big as a Saturn V." Tonty said, still staring.

"Maybe even bigger," Doug agreed. "Look." He pointed at a Soviet red star boldly emblazoned on the hull. "That monster's Russian."

"That didn't have anything like that back in our time," Tony took a short step towards the launch facility. The night air lay still, without any animal or insect noises only the clatter from the pad as the rocket readied for launch. There was a slight chill, but the humid air gave the impression of summer.

"We must be behind the Iron Curtain," Tony said, turning back to look at Doug.

"If there still is a curtain, the Russians might have finally taken over," Doug theorized. Countless adventures in innumerable historical and futuristic times had taught him not to take anything for granted. That rocket didn't seem too much more advanced that NASA's planned Saturn V moon rocket, but appearances had fooled them before.

"We're going have to be careful about what we say," Tony said. He started to continue when a booming voice shattered the night air. With metronome precision it enunciated a series of unintelligent Russian words.

"Why can't we understand?" Tony asked. Throughout their wayward adventures, from ancient Troy to a million years in the future, the pair had never failed to communicate with anyone, always speaking the local dialects.

"Who cares?' Dough said, his voice getting louder. "That's a countdown! We have to find cover and fast!"

"But…"

"Tony, there's no time!" Doug pulled at his friend's arm, and pointed towards the launch pad at a squat concrete bunker a few hundred yards away from them.

They ran, the uneven ground of the steppe was treacherous, threatening to trip them as the sprinted for safety. Maybe this rocket was safe and reliable, having launched scores of missions, but Doug knew from his time at the Cape that even the best vehicles were unpredictable and he didn't want to consider the effect of something this large exploding.

They ran towards the bunker as the countdown echoed off into the vast Russian steppe. From under the base of the missile appeared ignition's first fingers of flame .

Stepping into a gopher hole, Doug stumbled and fell hard. Tony, several yards ahead, skidded to a stop and turned back, dashing to his side.

"Go!" Doug shouted uselessly. "Get out of here you fool!"

"I'm not going to leave you."

He heaved Doug upright, wrapping one of his friend's arms about his shoulders, and they hobbled for shelter. As they reached the bunker, the night erupted into dazzling brilliance as an artificial noonday sun illuminated the steppe.

The engines more than roared. Bass rumbles shook the ground and set the concrete blockhouse quivering. Doug and Tony stumbled, nearly falling, down the short flight of steps into a solid iron door. Tony grabbed the handle and pulled it open. His shouts of joy were inaudible against the world-shattering thunder of the rocket. The bass boom set their internal organ quivering and made each breath a struggle.

They hurried into a cool cramped room, a shaft of blinding light came through the slit of an observation port. Hurrying to the port, they watched the rocket lift.

Under the missile, scores of engines belched flame. The vehicle hadn't even cleared its massive gantry when several motors failed. With inadequate thrust for flight the rocket fell towards the pad. Doug grabbed Tony by the shoulders and threw them both the to bunker's concrete floor.

The ground's quivering turned into an earthquake, sending the pair sliding across the floor like beans on a skillet. Dust and debris fell from the ceiling as overpressure pummeled them unconsciousness.

#

General Heywood, standing between Anne's station and the Time Tunnel, leaned over the console.

"Anne, where are they?"

"When are they?" She retorted automatically. Three years of this and the general still failed to grasp the slippery nature of time travel. "I'm scanning the past first."

He continued as though this was a situation that responded to orders issued in a good strong voice. "We've got to find them."

"Give us time, Woody," Ray said. "We'll get that fix."

"If you do get a time fix, do we have enough power for a transfer?" General Heywood turned and looked at the black picture in the tunnel.

"Not yet," Ray answered. Energizing Tic-Toc's massive capacitors was not like charging a car battery and if they took a short cut they might lose hours or even days. "That's assuming they survived the explosion." Ray added gloomily.

"This is not time to get pessimistic, Ray." He stepped sideways and hovered over Ray's station at the console. "Doug and Tony are counting us, we can't let them down!"

This is the perfect time to get pessimistic, she thought. Hating herself, she wanted Doug and Tony dead, Tic-Toc decommissioned and herself finally purged from this purgatory.

"Ray," General Heywood asked, "Do you understand what was going on with the languages? Why couldn't they understand the Russian?"

"I don't know, Woody." Ray sat back in his seat and swept a hand across his bald head. "The language thing has always confounded us. It's not an effect we expected." He looked down at the console, "Anne, try an expanded searched. They may have landed further forward or back then we expected."

She started to expand the search, ready to go as far as a million years into the past or future, but she stayed her hand. This didn't make any sense, they had seen the Russian rocket as clearly as Doug and Tony and there was no possibility that lay in the far future or the distant past. They had to be close. Acting on a sudden epiphany, she set all the search parameters to zero and initiated the scan.

"Anne!" Ray, looking at her zeroed parameters shouted, "What are you doing?"

"They're not in the past or the future!" She pointed to the perfectly synched sine wave on her screen. "They are in the present. They're home!"

In the visualizer, the picture slowly brightened, the pitch black that had engulfed Doug and Tony in the bunker gave way to smoke and flickering lights. The trio watched as the iron door was pulled open and a rescue crew, wearing miners' helmets with tiny electric lights affixed to the brims, pulled the pair of American scientists from the rubble and out of the bunker.

"Stay with them," General Heywood shouted at her. She ignored his idiotically obvious suggestions, manipulating the scanner, tracking Doug and Tony's movement through the visualizer, desperate not to lose them. They were home, her hate evaporated like an afterimage from a monitor, and she rejoiced. Now, all they need was airfare.

#

Tony awoke in a drab gray hospital ward, a dozen beds filled the room, but he and Doug were the only patients. The universal smell of antiseptics and soap filled his nostrils, as fans hummed combating the oppressive heat. He tried to reach up and touched his throbbing head, but found his wrists shackled to the bed. Doug remained unconscious, his own handcuffed writs plainly visible.

Tony shouted for a nurse, a doctor, for anyone. No one answer and he continued. His throat became raw, burning with then brief exertion. Finally the swinging doors at the end of the ward opened rapidly as a nurse, wisps of blonde hair escaping from under her cap, hurried to his bed.

She spoke to him in fast unintelligible Russian, her tone conveying calm professionalism. He tried to talk to her, but she either spoke no English, or refused to understand him. She busied herself taking his vitals, making brief notes on the chart hanging above his head, and then, mercifully, helping him sip a little water, relieving his dry, burning throat. She eased his head back to the pillow, and moved to Doug.

He woke up as she collected her data, and just as studiously as she had with Tony, she ignored his attempts at communication. After giving Doug some water, she turned back to Tony and smiled, a flicker of real emotion playing at the corner of her eyes and then, as quick as a storm sweeping in across the Big Island, she snapped to attention, expressing no more emotion than a tractor.

Accompanied by the clicking of his heels on the cold linoleum floor, a Soviet officer, stepping with cold military precision, marched to their beds. The nurse stood silent, trembling slightly as the man, his cold grey eyes betraying no sympathy or compassion reviewed her notes and the pair of American scientists. He looked from Doug to Tony and back again, then carefully and slowly, directed a question at Doug.

"I don't speak Russian," Doug explained. The officer turned to Tony and repeated himself.

"I don't understand you. Does anyone here speak English?" Tony asked.

His tone growing angry, the officer began a rapid-fire series of questions and accusations, all in Russian. The helpless men, protesting their linguistic ignorance, succeeded in only further infuriating their interrogator. His control sheering away like a ramshackle building in typhoon he suddenly grabbed Tony by his sweater's thick fabric, pulled him up, the manacles painfully twisting his wrists.

"Do you take me for a fool?" He threw Tony back into the bed. "No American saboteur is ignorant of Russian! Do not play me for an idiot!"

"We're not saboteurs!" Tony insisted, "We're…"

"Lost!" Doug shouted, cutting Tony off and drawing then officer's attention. "We're lost. We didn't mean to trespass. If you…"

"Silence!" He moved to Doug's bed and leaned over him. "Two Americans, inside our most secure rocket facility you expect me to accept this child's story about being lost?"

The officer stood upright. "No matter, you will be tried and you will be convicted for your sabotage of the people's glorious moon rocket, and then you will both be shot."

Turning in his heels, he shot a withering glance towards the nurse, and strode purposefully from the ward. The nurse apoplectically smiled, and hurriedly followed the officer.

"Doug," Tony started, but Doug quickly hushed him and leaned as close as the handcuffs allowed. Tony matched him and in low whispers they spoke.

"I'm sorry I had to be so abrupt," Doug said. "But whatever we do we can't allow them to know the truth. We can't say a word about the complex."

"It can't matter. We're lost and they're…"

"That's the point Tony, we're not lost we home."

Tony took a moment to process Doug's words and then said, "That explains why we don't understand anything they say. The tunnel is no longer forcing our waveform to conform to the dominant local paradigm, because we're no longer displaced in …"

"Exactly," Doug lowered his voice even further. "And Tony there is no way we can let them learn about Tic-Toc, no matter what."

"But how do we get home? I mean really home?"

Dough sighed, tired from endless adventures, and fell back into his bed. "I don't know, but we will. It's just miles now, only miles."

#

Anne fumed as General Heywood spent hours on various secure telephones. Doug and Tony, were merely on the other side of the planet, and now it seemed the insurmountable hurdles keeping them from home were no longer the complex physics of time travel but the childish national antagonisms.

She sat at her station, wanting, more than she had wanted anything in her life, for today to be the last day. If they brought Doug and Tony home, she'd escape, she'd leave this insane underground complex, the sun would warm her face, and she'd life again. Anne fought back tears as the General started yet another call, imploring, pleading for America's colossal military to rescue just two men.

"Good news," General Heywood announced setting down the telephone. "One of our agencies, I'm not at liberty to say which one, has assets in the area and they are going to get them out."

A spontaneous cheer exploded in the control room, technicians leapt for joy, hugging each other, and even Jiggs the dour security chief grinned from ear to ear. Ray and General Heywood were shaking hands, slapping each other backs like they had just won World War II, but Anne didn't shout or even cry. Until touched Doug and Tony with her own hands, shut down the tunnel's power-feed, this purgatory continued and she remained trapped like a scientific Flying Dutchman.

#

They were fed like children, the staff spooning the food into their mouths while Doug and Tony remained securely bound to their beds. As far as they could determine, not one of the nurses spoke or understood English. The officer, Lt Colonel Gregor Andropov, interrogated them repeatedly, often switching machine-gun fast between Russian and English, hoping one would bungled and reveal their 'true' training. They fumbled through badly invented stories, easily exposed by Andropov, trying to placate their captors, while protecting the secret of Tic-Toc and their time travel.

"Bah!" Andropov stood up fast, kicking his chair back across the ward. "This charade wastes our time. You will confess, you will surrender you confederates and detail how you sabotaged the N1, or you will be shot in the morning."

He stormed off to the ward's doors, turned and added, "And summer nights on the steppe are short."

"Tony," Doug said. "Can you get free at all?"

"It's no good," he said struggling against the cold steel of the handcuffs, rattling them nosily against the bed's railing. "We're going to have to tell them the truth."

Futilely, Doug continued trying to slip his wrists through the restraints. "I don't know which would worse, if he believed us or if he didn't."

"We don't have any choice," Tony replied. "We're not going to escape, and he will shoot us."

"Tony, think about it. We can't give the tunnel up to the Russians. Can you imagine the Communists with that sort of the technology?"

"It's a chance we'll have to take."

"I'm scared he's firing squad at dawn is a bluff." Dough jerked hard against the handcuffs, tearing a little skin. "They haven't gotten rough yet. Once they do, sooner or later, we'll talk."

The blood from his cut ran down on his wrist, making it slick. Doug twisted and pulled, trying to free his hand, but even lubricated the cuffs held him tight.

"You have already spoken too much." The blonde nurse stood at the door, her expression hard and unforgiving. She moved to their beds, pulling from her pocket a small pistol.

"Stay quiet," she instructed. "And soon you'll be on your way home."

She knelt beside Doug's bed and dexterously unlocked one of his wrists. She dropped the key on his chest and stepped way.

Doug quickly unlocked himself, climbed out of the bed, and started freeing Tony.

"I don't get it," Tony said. "If you're helping us, why the gun?"

"I don't know who you are," she said, her voice flat and level. "And I don't trust you."

Tony climbed to his feet and Doug asked her, "Then why do it?"

She gestured toward a door at the far end of the ward. "That way, we have a plane to catch."

"We?" Tony asked.

She pointed again with the gun and they started to the end of the ward. Doug pulled opened the door, revealing a flight of stairs leading down.

"You idiots have ended my mission," she said as they climbed down the steps. "Ten years getting in position here at the most sensitive site in the entire Soviet Union, access to all the flight personnel and engineers, and I have to throw it all in the trash to get you two out."

"We're here by accident," Tony said. "We're…"

"I don't want to know." She pointed with pistol to keep them moving. "I do know that you two are considered critical assets that cannot be interrogated. So tonight, before Andropov gets his claws inside you, we're all flying to Tehran." With every twitch of her face and the flat uninflected tones of her voice she expressed her disgust at the ruins of her mission.

The reached the bottom of the stairwell, and exited into the cool summer night's air. Waiting outside a large truck idled, the rear half covered with a green canvas shell. The trio climbed into the back. She pounded hard on the driver's compartment and with a jerk they sped away.

Anne cried silently as people around her cheered the truck speeding away with Doug and Tony. General Heywood grinned like a schoolboy on a date with a cheerleader while Ray simply sat at his station, laughing softly. A plane ride to Tehran, and then another from Iran to the United States and this would all be over.

She fell back in her seat, three years of tension, frustration, and disappointment evaporating like a nightmare on a bright carefree morning. Her hands trembled with relief; her long personal purgatory was over.

The woman put her pistol away, convinced at least provisionally that Doug and Tony were no threat.

"We're going to be flying over some very high mountain on personal oxygen equipment, so I better get you two ready." She looked back and forth at the pair of scientists. "I don't know what you are, but you're not espionage agents, that certain."

"We're scientists." Doug said.

She looked like she was going to lash out and punch him. "Didn't I tell you not to say thing? I can't know. God you have no idea how hot you are, do you?"

A beam suddenly illuminated the truck, a blinding shaft of white searing light. A helicopter, flying low passed over them, machine guns firing across their path. Sharp, harsh orders were shouted over a loudspeaker, and their savior turned pale.

"Maybe we can outrun them," Tony said, getting up and trying to communicate with the driver even as the truck slammed to a stop.

"Don't be a fool." She spat the words as she stood up, first the first time they noticed just how small she was, not even needing to bend over the back of the vehicle.

"Climb on out," she said.

Resigned to their recapture, Doug and Tony climbed to the ground as she pulled out her pistol.

"I'm sorry," she said. "But my orders are clear, you cannot be interrogated."

A lunar silence reigned in the Tic-Toc complex as everyone stood, transfixed by the unfolding drama. Heartbeats passed as they watched Doug and Tony raise their hands, but it was clear that their rescuer had become an executioner.

"Anne! Ray! We need a transfer fast!" General Heywood shouted. Ray began prepping the circuits for another time transfer, and as Anne watched the power levels climbing, her salvation was slipping away.

"You can't do this!" Tony pleaded, while eyeing the distance between him and the pistol.

"I have to." She stood on the tailgate of the truck, the wind whipping around them as the military helicopters landed. She leveled the piston at Tony.

"Anne, do we have enough power for a transfer?" General Heywood asked.

She looked at her board, yes they had the power, but she didn't want to transfer them, she didn't want to spend the rest of her life buried under the desert vainly.

Ray glanced at her board. "Yes, we're ready, Wood."

"We have to rush, Anne," Ray said. "Stand by for transfer." He began the delicate task of adjusting the Time Tunnel's sequencing, confident that Anne would secure the fix.

She stared at her unmoving fingers, the critical adjustments waiting for her, but if she didn't, if she was just slow enough, then Doug and Tony would be dead and she'd be free. No more Tic-Toc, no more military guard, no more living underground, her freedom was hers if she did nothing for the next few seconds.

In the visualizer, Doug and Tony were preparing for a futile charge, fighting until the very end.

"Now!" Ray shouted.

Tears flowing from her eyes, blurring her vision, she set the fix, the tunnel exploded in a shower of sparks and smoke, tumbling the two men again through the vast corridors of time, the assassin's bullets passing through the space that that had just occupied.

Anne didn't know if she'd ever escape purgatory, but she knew she wasn't going to hell.