The Long Road Home - Part 4
| Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 |
Close the curtains, fetch a tall drink, make some popcorn! It's time for the final part of The Long Road Home. It's been forever in the making, I know; bless you for your patience.
It'll make most sense if you've read the previous parts!
I hope you enjoy.
1 - Carrizozo
Something is coming.
In the sweltering heat of the shaded desert saloon, the bartender dreams of lipstick and low-cut dresses.
Outside, the wind that haunts the New Mexico desert by day and night has lost its voice. Barely a breath of breeze stirs the dust that drifts slowly in the deep shafts of light from the high windows.
The world is uncommonly quiet, but the barman is not surprised. It has been a strange month, a strange year in fact, and he has seen many strange things. He prefers not to think of them.
But he knows that something is coming.
He starts to polish a glass for his first customer of the day, who has yet to arrive, and returns to his burlesque fantasies.
Moments later, he feels it more than hears it. A brief ripple in the air, an unfamiliar fluttering pulse. Involuntarily, he holds his breath. There's a creak from the threshold of the saloon, followed by heavy footsteps and the complaints of old, neglected floorboards. And finally, a bulky figure, wearing a hat and coat that are too heavy for the climate, strides to the edge of shadow in front of the bar.
A huge limb sweeps into the light and deposits a photo onto the counter.
In perfectly accented Spanish, a rumbling voice asks quietly,
Have you seen these men?
Nodding, the bartender points to the west and repeats a single word that has haunted his dreams. He has no idea what it means, but he knows it is the correct answer.
Three hours ago, Señor.
The shape sighs and scratches his gargantuan nose. After a few seconds, a silver dollar spins in the air and lands onto the bar without hesitation.
The whiskey is delivered quickly in a sparkling glass. Diamonds clink gently in amber as the glass vanishes into shadow.
Thirty seconds later, the voice seems refreshed, determined.
And with the same rippling in the air, the shape is gone.
The barman nods, though nobody is there to see it, and pockets the change.
Yes, 1945 is turning out to be a strange year indeed.
2 - White Sands
The third time is the charm.
I finally arrive at my destination. Trial and error is not my style, but today it is necessary. My head spins from three unexpected dimensional hops. But it would have been worse without the bourbon. And I could do with another one.
I survey the scorching July scene before me. It’s a scene that’s been waiting for me, buried in the past, since I took this assignment.
A few hundred yards away, the pyramid hangs silently just above the white sands of the New Mexico desert.
I’ve seen plenty of pyramids in my time, vast stone monuments to ancient kings, on this world and others just like it. But this pyramid is small, modern, and cast from a burnished gold which scatters the sunlight lazily. Lights pulse in slow sequence at each of the four corners of its base and at its peak. And, as if to draw a line under its slacking heritage, the time machine hovers solidly eight feet above the ground, almost as if it’s carelessly forgetting gravity rather than snubbing it.
I shake my head. Typical.
Shading the pinch-nez sunglasses perched on the bridge of my trunk, I can just make out three figures milling about in the pyramid’s shadow. They’re obscured by an inevitable heat haze, but even from this distance, I know it’s two men and a bear. I was expecting the lion to be there too, and possibly the honey from next door, but no.
I gently flap my ears, cooling my neck and my thoughts.
Roth and iDifficult have led me a merry dance today, though I suspect that Roth is just a passenger. Either way, I’m ashamed to admit that they’ve been a step or two ahead of me for most of it. First the trick with the buns. Then stealing my ball of string. And then, worst of all, adjusting the energy barriers that are supposed to prevent dimensional shifts to this forbidden destination.
Not enough to stop me. Not even enough to push me off course. Just enough to slow me down. To give them time to prepare for whatever it is they’re here for.
And that’s my goal. Not just to discharge my responsibilities and close this case.
But to end the mystery that has puzzled me for over a year.
To find out why we’re all here.
And, if necessary, to stop them.
I stride towards the pyramid purposefully.
My name is Elliot Nesh. I’m an elephant. I work for the Agency.
And I’m here on business.
3 - One Mile Out
Why do we always end up in the desert?
I’m standing in the shade of the ship, watching the five-foot long rectangular box begin its weightless descent to the ground. The three of us could have manhandled it down, but letting the grav unit do it gently seems more appropriate.
Sorry matey, did you say something? asks iDifficult, the captain of the voyage, looking round. My best friend is sporting a neat, narrow beard that’s shot with grey, and his hair is cropped short. It’s a good look on him, especially with the dark suit.
I shake my head and dust some sand from the lapels of my own suit; not the smartest fashion choice for a hot day, but the correct choice nonetheless.
Nothing, just thinking out loud.
I’m not complaining; today is too important for selfish grumbles. But I’m really not fond of sand. And while I’m happy to be looking at the sunshine from the shade, I’m glad I’m not out in it. Well, not quite yet, at any rate.
A cough from Bear makes us both turn. He’s here. We follow the line of our ursine friend’s extended paw, and see a distant, heavy figure trudging towards us across the flat white sand. He looks out of place in the desert, but I’m not sure where an elephant in a trenchcoat and trilby hat would look at home.
Careful to avoid the lowering box, 'Difficult turns to greet Elliot, and consults his steampunk-ish pocket watch; I recognise it as the core of the time machine.
Elliot! Glad you could make it! Perfect timing! he roars, offering his cheeriest wave. The elephant nods an almost imperceptible greeting, but continues to walk in silence.
A minute later, he stops and stands a few metres from our shade. The sun glitters in his retro sunglasses as he peers past us to examine the plain metal box. Concern passes across his face as it gently touches down.
And suddenly, he’s all business. He flashes his agency badge, making his position clear for an opening gambit.
Gentlemen. We cannot be here. This place, this time, is off-limits.
My friend smiles and nods. I know! It was a devil of a job getting here. Took me years to work out how to do it. You have access codes, I imagine?
Elliot says nothing, and stands his ground quietly.
Anyway, I’m glad you’ve arrived. Bang on time! We need your help.
Mr . Difficult, none of us can be here. We need to leave. He loosens his trenchcoat. There’s a glimpse of the hardware he used to get here. It could recall all of us and the pyramid in a heartbeat.
This isn’t going quite to plan, and 'Difficult glances my way.
I can tell that Elliot’s bluffing; he wants to know why we’re here. But an Agent’s first responsibility is to get us out of here, and that’s not an option for us. I don’t believe for a moment that he’ll do it; he wants us to talk him round. But he looks worried, and we need to cut to the chase before his training takes over.
I step out into the sun and amble forward between the Agent and my friend, determined to short-circuit this stand-off. I wish Abbey was close at hand; she’s better at this than I am.
Elliot, I understand this is your professional position. You have a job to do. There are Rules for this kind of thing. He’s listening, but the box and 'Difficult still have most of his attention, so I wander a little closer, keeping my voice low, reasonable. I’m not a fan of Rules. Rules are what we need when there’s no Order. When people don’t do the right thing. And Order is better than Rules, right?
The mighty head, all ears and trunk, turns to look at me curiously; okay, now I have his attention.
But we’re here to do the right thing, Elliot. We’re truly here for the best of reasons. Come and see why. I emphasise the word, and his body language betrays the turmoil. I put a hand on his shoulder. Please.
There’s a moment of indecision, but then he sighs and relents. In the shadows behind me, Bear clickety-clicks the latches open on one end of the rectangular coffin. Elliot steps fully under the pyramid and approaches the casket as our woodsman raises the top half of the split lid.
The Agent snatches the hat from his head instinctively.
Inside the coffin, resting eternally on a bed of cushioned crimson silk, is a badger, late of this world. The old boar is heavy, greying, with a resplendent white waxed moustache. It is The General, Yavin’s grandfather. He lays in full Masonic regalia, the head of his Order. The golden chain of office lays on his white chest, his gauntleted arms crossed on top. His monacle is tucked unobtrusively on its string into his top pocket.
We share a moment with the old badger. It’s a cliché to say so, but he looks peaceful.
We lost track of this fella decades ago. Where was he hiding?
I stand to Elliot’s left, 'Difficult to his right. A wind rises from behind us, and sand begins to dance in gentle swirls to the west. My friend says quietly,
Can I explain on the way? We have a mile to walk, there’s plenty of time. The Agent regards my friend levelly. This old boy weighs a ton, and we need your help; you’re our fourth pall bearer.
Inside the elephant, the Agent has clocked off. We’re left with Elliot. I know the Agent will return later, but for now the day just got easier. Elliot nods.
Okay. Let’s go.
A few minutes later, the four of us carry the deep, five-feet-long coffin into the blistering heat, and head west. Elliot and 'Difficult lead the way, with Bear and myself in the rear. Each of us wears a dark suit, as befits the occasion; Elliot’s Agent suit is perfect. All of us are barefoot.
Elliot’s trenchcoat and hat lie abandoned in the sand beneath the pyramid, along with two pair of shoes.
The hot sand seeks out the gaps between my toes. I hate sand.
Yet somehow, we always end up in the desert.
4 - Trinity
Being a bear in this kind of heat isn’t easy.
But it needs to be done, and I accept it.
I’m walking beside Indigo, at the back of the coffin. We’re different heights, but it seems useful to have Elliot and 'Difficult up front. They have a lot of catching up to do.
Their expository conversation goes something like this, with Elliot kicking off:
So, how far will we be carrying this coffin?
A mile. It shouldn’t take too long.
Did we park so far away intentionally?
Yep. A mile is a traditional distance for a badger ceremony.
Is that why we’re barefoot?
Yes. Also traditional. Though traditionally we’d be badgers.
Badgers who wear no shoes?
Exactly. The same as tigers.
I thought the lion and your lady neighbour would be here to help.
They were needed elsewhere.
We walk a few more minutes in silence. I can see something in the distance.
So when did The General die?
This morning. In more than one sense, I suppose.
Did you know about it when I arrived at your place?
No, Yavin arrived at the back door to tell me.
Hence the cakes? Clever.
Hence the cakes. Simple.
I try to interrupt. Guys?
So, why are we in New Mexico? On today of all days, I mean?
The short answer is that I’m keeping a promise.
A promise to The General?
So, how did you meet?
Um, guys? Still no response.
By chance. Yavin had a picture of him that was taken in 1953. The date made no sense to me, as badger’s live just fifteen to twenty years. In fact, most badger’s don’t survive their first year. Did you know that? Anyway, I decided to go and see him.
The General? In 1953?
Sure. Easy enough. I was curious, and he sounded an interesting character. Roth was busy that day, so I went with Abbey. I met up with the old boy just after the photo was taken. And he was, to say the least, an unhappy badger.
Well, he’d been involved in a number of projects as a scientist during the Second World War. He was the first badger to work with the military, you know? One project in particular had haunted him for years before I met him. Really got under his fur.
For pity’s sake, look!
We come to a halt, impressed. A few hundred yards away, a tower is now visible. It’s a simple metal framework, not unlike an armless electricity pylon, and probably a similar height. Even from this distance, we can see the cabling that leads up to an ominous egg inside the tower near its peak.
Good grief, is that what I think it is?
Yes, I expect so.
And this is New Mexico in July 1945?
I sigh. You pick your moments, sir.
Elliot waves a hand towards the tower. I take it this was the project that The General he has a problem with? The Manhattan Project? The world’s first atomic bomb?
Yes, he was a hardware specialist when they made the test device.
This test is codenamed Trinity, right?
That’s right. It was never clear why.
And The General regretted his involvement?
We’re walking again, continuing to the tower.
Well, wouldn’t you?
I don’t know. It saved a lot of lives.
And took a lot more. And those people weren’t soldiers. Anyway, he was being pestered back into service as the Cold War got going, so I offered to take him somewhere they’d never look for him.
And where was that?
That’s rather underhand.
Thank you. Anyway, he liked it there. The music. The hair. The Orwell. He settled down, and tho he was getting on a bit, he had kids. Frisky lads, badgers.
Yes, but that’s another story. Suffice to say, Yavin and his sister were born in 1996. And suddenly all the dates make sense. So, it turns out the reason the dates didn’t make sense was that I was curious about them.
I accept the paradox. These things happen in my line of work.
I figured you’d understand.
So what was the promise you made?
I promised to bring him home. Well, here, anyway. He wanted to return here when he died. I think he thought it fitting, to close the circle of events.
It all sounds rather simple and poetic when you say it like that.
That wasn’t my intention. But yeah, it’s pretty straightforward. Doing it was harder, of course. The energy barrier protecting this place, for one. The work of your Agency?
Sort of. Let’s just say it wasn’t a local decision to protect this historic, world-changing event.
Well, we’re not here to interfere with history or steal secrets or change the world.
No, I see that now. How long was he in the Eighties?
Three years. I left him there as long as I could. He had kids, responsibilities, but I knew he was old and that it was time. He was twenty three, ancient for a badger. I picked him up as soon as I worked out how to bypass the shield here, and took him to Roth’s garden.
Roth's garden? Why there?
Well, he wanted to visit the grandkids and great-grandkids he’d never met; a rare opportunity for everyone. They were pretty much in awe of him. Especially Dantoo, Yavin’s niece. I’d not met her before. Smart little thing.
I’ll bet. Okay, one more question.
Exactly. He was a pro. When will The Bomb be tested?
Tomorrow morning. 5:30am. We’ll watch.
Silence falls. Elliot shifts the coffin’s weight uncomfortably.
Do you need another question, Agent?
Yeah, I do. Why couldn’t you have both put me and Bear at the back? We’re both seven feet tall. With you and Roth at the front, this coffin wouldn’t be so damned wonky.
I didn’t think. Hey look, we’re here.
5 - Farewell
There is a multitude of badgers.
A family or colony of badgers is known as a Clan, but any large gathering of badgers is called a Brock. Today, New Mexico is host to a Brock, the likes which it will never witness again.
As we walk the final twenty yards, I cast my eyes across the gathering of distinguished boars, elegant sows, and a surprising number of cubs. I’m interested and then ashamed to realise that I can tell them all apart easily. The eccentric, colourful clothes help. I notice that they’re all barefoot, and somewhat dusty.
The badgers stand quietly, fifty yards from the tower, a wide straight line centred on a neat rectangular grave. In the centre stands Abbey, my lovely neighbour. Dressed in a simple pink and orange summer dress, her blonde hair moving in the breeze, she is, as ever, barefoot. She smiles my way.
Next to Abbey is King, our resident lion. He’s resplendent in a dark suit and white shirt that matches my own, and a vibrant red necktie that was actually in my wardrobe when I got up this morning. His mane is glorious, and occasionally braided. King is Abbey’s escort for her duties today.
Perhaps sharing my earlier thought, 'Difficult chips in quietly, See how dusty they are? Every one of them helped dig the grave. Even the cubs. They think of it as his final tunnel. I have no reply, but hiss an urgent new question.
How come we’re here unchallenged? I though the military would be all over us?!
See that fella at the back? I notice for the first time a tall, well-groomed man standing nervously just behind King. You’ll never guess who he is. He worked with The General, and has made arrangements to keep the army offsite for a few hours. Abbey explained everything to him. Time travel, Elliot, badgers, everything. Took it all on the chin. The open mind of a scientist, eh?
Good grief, Julius Robert Oppenheimer.
A figure steps from the line and approaches the four of us and our cargo. It’s Yavin, the chief engineer of the Clan from my back garden. It strikes me that I have no idea what the Clan name is? I shake the thought aside, and try to focus. I was expecting my short, black-and-white friend to be dressed formally, but he is in his usual dungarees. His flat cap is folded and tucked into his hip pocket.
We exchange nods, and he indicates that we should bring the coffin forward and lay it alongside the grave. We do this and retreat a few steps as the line of badgers bends around to form a neat circle, a halo around the head of Trinity Tower’s lengthening shadow.
Two young boy badgers in matching black corduroy and bowler hats step from the circle and move to the head of the casket. It’s Hoth and Sollust, Yavin’s nephews. They carefully unclip the top half of the lid, and then move to stand on either side of the coffin, so that one can lift the lid and the other lower it to the ground on the other side. A low murmur moves through the badgers.
The General lies in state.
Abbey steps forward.
Friends, she smiles, extending her arms, welcome. Today, we are a gathering of peoples, united in our love and respect for a grand old traveller.
A snuffling and growling approval finds voice for a moment.
I met The General in his final days, and was moved by his love for his extended family.
Abbey looks down momentarily to glance at her prompt cards. She knows they are inadequate. As her gaze drops, she spies a short figure at her side, a girl-cub. She’s a pretty little thing, dressed for the day in her best white summer dress with pink bows at the hem. A matching bow is clipped into her hair.
I know instinctively that this is Dantoo, Yavin’s niece. I’ve never met her, though of course I know her twin brothers from many adventures. The girl gazes upwards, her two-tone face calm and reassuring, and gently takes Abbey’s hand.
Abbey shakes her head, as if waking. And says simply, in a happily surprised tone,
The prompt cards scatter to the breeze and Abbey begins to speak. Her voice is confident and sad.
She speaks into the heart of all of us, as only a badger can.
Who knows where life may lead?
Who knows the turnings of the unity?
Great grandfather, you knew neither
And were all the greater for it
Your pawprints, broad and sharp
Have left their mark
In five decades, far spread
Three more than any clanborn
You chose and led
Risked fail and fall
And lost contentment at your rest
For your portion of others’ deeds
You did not mark the day
Our friend the stranger came
With tales and questions
Proof and faith
You tunnelled from a barren life
And shared his broken journey
Giving love and life
To an era meant for other eyes
And time passed, happily
But for dreams of Trinity
In fading light of your long day
All friends heard your whisper
From across Time
And hastened to your side
But fearing none
To stand barefoot
With your kin, none closer
To help you on the final mile
Of this Long Road Home
And stand, their hearts and faces warm
As your ashes yet not your shadow
Are scattered by the wind of change
You laboured to create
And then return
Their promise kept
To dream their boundless dreams
Within earshot of your roar
In the world you shaped
I met you for a single day
And wished for just one more
Goodbye, great grandfather
We smile in the knowing of all deeds
And neither regret nor forget
The silence is absolute.
Abbey kneels to meet Dantoo’s gaze. The young badger plants a kiss on my neighbour’s nose and throws her short furry arms around her neck as a hoarse roar erupts from the crowd.
As the sun draws towards the horizon, the growling cheers and applause surround Abbey and the young girl-cub, and ring long and loud.
6 - Oppenheimer
The coffin is laid and covered efficiently.
In a few minutes, it's as if it was never there; no flowers, no gravestone. Just memories.
As the assembly scatters and gathers into smaller pockets, all formalities complete, the playful young badgers set about their "uncle" King, determined to wrestle the tall lion to the ground. It takes five of them, including Hoth and Sollust, and there’s a shriek of giggles and a delighted leonine laugh as the Goliath finally falls to the horde of tugging, growling Davids.
I spy Oppenheimer and 'Difficult shaking hands. I half expect them to be talking shop, but instead I overhear my friend thanking the lanky physicist for his help with the military. The physicist is deflecting the praise affably.
Not at all, Mr. Difficult. Thank you, Sir! My presence today has meant a very great deal to me. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Tomorrow's detonation is just the beginning.
My friend winks at him. Oh, how right you are, Doctor. Good luck.
The physicist nods uncertainly, and turns towards the tower to tend the steel baby that he’ll deliver in the morning. But he starts with surprise, finding Elliot in his path. Oppenheimer smiles pleasantly and tries valiantly to not look nervous in the face of such an enormous concept. He doesn’t quite manage it. The elephant removes his sunglasses and regards him curiously.
Before you go, Dr. Oppenheimer, I’ve been meaning to ask you… why did you call this test Trinity?
Oppenheimer pauses, and shares a sly and fleeting smile as a pat answer trips to his lips. But then he reconsiders and frowns.
It’s simple, really. He shrugs. This thing we’re doing puts the fear of God up me.
Elliot laughs darkly. Thank you, Doctor. That’s more honest that the answers you give in the future.
Again, uncertainty crosses the physicist’s face. He nods vaguely, and moves to step round the Agent, but then hesitates as his curiosity gets the better of him. Standing tall, he waves to indicate the elephant’s physique, his species perhaps.
Are there many like you in the future, Agent Nesh?
Elliot shrugs noncommittally.
Some. Fewer than you might think. But we’re everywhere. He inclines his head slightly, Why do you ask?
Well, it’s silly, I suppose. He looks skyward for a moment, perhaps nervous, perhaps contemplative. It’s just that you bring to mind an image of Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god.
Elliot’s smiles indulgently; he gets this a lot. By way of a reply, he leans closer to tap the doctor gently on the chest.
And you, my dear Doctor, he deadpans, remind me of the Hindu god Shiva. The Destroyer of Worlds.
The physicist pales, and after a few shocked seconds he hurries away without another word.
In the future, he’ll lie about that one too.
7 - The Fat Man Sings
We’re standing by the pyramid.
It’s 5:20am on July 16th 1943, and the sun is low in a gold, rose and indigo sky. It’s been a long night, but we had a lot of folk to move to a safer distance, and for once we were determined not to hurry. There’s been dignity and good manners.
I’m standing with Elliot, discussing the sunrise, when a thought occurs to me.
By the way, I heard what Oppenheimer said to you last night. Isn’t Lord Ganesha also known as the Remover of Obstacles?
Agent Nesh chuckles and scratches a tusk absently. Yes Indigo, he is. The things you know always surprise me. But then he leans in conspiratorially to mutter, Anyone would think that was a coincidence.
This glorious life is never dull.
Shall we do this now? We turn. It’s iDifficult, a resigned look on his face. Reaching into a pocket, he tosses Elliot a ball of string. We have a few minutes.
Elliot catches the string and pockets it. Yes, of course. Let’s do this by the book. He draws his arm from a pocket, revealing several feet of string that is already tied around his gnarly grey wrist. Mr. Roth, would you do the honours?
I look to 'Difficult, uncertain, but he nods encouragingly and presents his own hand.
It’s the work of a moment to tie the knot around my friend’s wrist.
The two stand, entangled again in the early morning light, their roles restored: an Agent and his assignment. Elliot’s voice is equally official.
Mr. Difficult, I have accompanied you to an off-limit historical event and observed your actions. Protocol dictates that I take you in for further questioning. That said, he reaches into a pocket and produces a short fruit knife. And with a flick of his wrist, he severs the string. However, I have determined that your actions are not of interest to The Agency. Thank you for your cooperation in this matter. You’re free to go.
The part-time evil genius stands, somewhat agog. He’s not alone.
To hell with protocol. You two are my kind of Rule breakers.
Good grief, this noble elephant is a bag of tricks. I thought I’d be eating pizza solo while 'Difficult serves five to ten, with time off for less-eccentric behaviour.
Will there be consequences for you, Elliot?
Elliot shrugs. There are always consequences, my friend. He wiggles his wrist and the severed string dances. But I can safely tied up this loose end. Donning his pince nez sunglasses again, he adds darkly, In Red Tape, for years if necessary.
We all sense it’s time to change the subject.
You know, says 'Difficult conversationally, I always thought that your string was some kind of five-dimensional metaphor?
The Agent smiles and shakes his head.
No. It’s just a piece of string.
I’m distracted by a gentle-but-insistent tugging at my knee. Looking down, I find a wide-eyed Dantoo gazing up at me in the early morning light. The young badger regards me with startling maturity; she’s probably not yet two. But she’s still a child. Raising her paws skyward, her look is not imploring, but its meaning is clear. I reach down and pick her up, gathering the end of her dress in neatly, and cradle her easily in one arm. She nuzzles gratefully into my shoulder.
There’s a smell of dirt and loss and bubblegum perfume.
My cheeks feel damp.
Folks? It’s time. My best friend is moving through the crowd, smiling reassuringly. And it’s okay to look. The shields will dampen all the hard light.
There’s movement all around. After a few seconds, I’m aware that 'Difficult is to my left, and Elliot to my right. Abbey wanders in closer and fusses over Dantoo briefly before settling at my side. Bear and King are reassuring presences to our rear. Badgers gather around us all, and Yavin stands stoically in front on me. I pat his shoulder and briefly feel a damp paw as it brushes my hand.
We look to the east and say goodbye.
After an endless moment of calm that we all feel, it begins.
And for the second time that day, the sun rises.
This blog entry is protected by copyright © Indigo Roth, 2011