As soon as the woman looked at the hillside, Carthage knew he had screwed up. He swore to himself as he flipped the lens cover down over his rifle scope. It was a rookie mistake, but he might be able to forgive himself. The last day and a half had been a bizarre challenge.
It had started with Carthage dozing off around 3 am. In his ten years of military service, he had never fallen asleep when he wasn’t authorized. He would have sworn he was only asleep for five minutes, but the sun was rising when he awoke. He wasn’t even remotely tired when it happened. Such a lapse in the past could have gotten himself or his squad killed. Shaking off this previously unforgiveable offense, he returned to the ship to collect a few more things.
The forward section of deck three was in bad shape, as it had taken the brunt of the impact with the ground. As such, he wasn’t able to access the galley stores for extra rations. He was successful in retrieving more ammo, along with an extra pistol, and stopped by the medbay for a few more Dermaplast bandages, some antibiotics, and anti-rads.
Standard tactical doctrine would advise against traveling during daytime, but it was unavoidable if Carthage wanted to reach the town in three days. It would also allow him to use his solar collimator to recharge his PDA while he was on the move. So, content that he had enough with him, Carthage set off to the west. That’s when things started to get weird. After only a few miles, a sudden, severe headache forced him to stop in his tracks. He instinctively closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them, he was not in the same place. The forest and valley had been replaced with rolling plains, and the line of mountaintops that had been to his southwest were now south. The sun, which had been up for an hour, had retreated to just below the eastern horizon. The map on his PDA showed him to be fifty miles west of where he was a moment ago.
Using the map, Carthage double-checked the distance from the crash site to the town. It was sixty miles, same as before. However, it was easy to use the current landmarks to confirm his location. The town was only ten miles west. It didn’t make any sense; if he had incorrectly calibrated the map to the stellar references, the landmarks and terrain wouldn’t have matched. The headache subsided as quickly as it had come, and he considered the possibilities. Occam’s Razor seemed to suggest that he had been in a fugue state, with no memory of the journey, but a quick check of his food and water confirmed that he hadn’t consumed any. If he had walked for over two days without them, he would feel awful. Carthage felt fine, the itinerant headache notwithstanding.
Even though such a thing had never been encountered, Carthage suspected some kind of temporal anomaly. He had read theories on micro wormholes; anything other than a basic theory was well beyond his ken. For now, whatever it was had done him a favor, as he would arrive at the town in just two or three hours… unless he wandered into another anomaly. That prospect caused a rush of adrenaline to course through his body. It would be a strange fate indeed to be cursed to wander the surface of Skye for eternity, never reaching anywhere of any use.
Though he was not a scientist, Carthage had been trained to master any equipment he might be issued. As such, he was well familiar with the kinds of scans his PDA could make. He sat down, and pondered if he could use the device to scan for whatever this thing was before he blundered into another one. That meant checking the sensor logs for the last hour, and doing so revealed two notable things. One, there was a significant increase in ionizing radiation right before that headache hit. It was still not enough to be dangerous, but nothing else in the environment could explain it. Second, the altimeter had recorded a two hundred meter drop in elevation about thirty seconds before the headache, when in reality the terrain he had crossed should have put him sixty meters higher than where he had started.
Carthage had already set the PDA to warn him if radiation levels became dangerous, so he simply set the threshold lower to match the spike it recorded. Then, he set it to warn him if his elevation changed by more than ten meters. The latter warning would doubtlessly go off frequently, but it would be obvious if it didn’t match the actual terrain. Combining those two factors might just work.
At a loss for any further ideas, Carthage continued west. Mercifully, he received no alerts during the rest of his trek. Romanby was easy to find after that. He found a hill that afforded a great view, so he headed for the top. His Geiger counter started going nuts as he climbed the hill, registering a radiation level that would be fatal to a normal human. Carthage could withstand it for at least an hour without injury. The town itself was bisected by a nearly straight river, crossed by three bridges. The blocky nuclear power plant in the northwest corner dominated the town, and probably employed at least ten percent of its residents. The rest of Romanby resembled a typical American Midwest town from the late 20th or early 21st century, with a town hall, library, church, and schools all readily apparent. He could immediately tell that it was occupied, though it was impossible to tell the population from there. Electric cars sparsely traveled its roads, and the traffic lights were working. People were walking around downtown. He noted that some carried rifles on their backs.
Farmland bordered Romanby on three sides, and while he could see fields of crops, he couldn’t see livestock. At least one large geodesic dome was at each farm, the largest about 200 meters in diameter. If he had to guess, he’d say the livestock were in there, protected from the ambient radiation. And though the power was working, the town had apparently lost its water distribution system, as a well at the center of town was getting a lot of traffic. There were also individual wells, like the one the woman was using when she spotted him.
Either the woman was excellent at keeping her composure, or she had disregarded the light reflecting off of Carthage’s scope, as she went back inside without further scrutiny. As it happened, her house was at the edge of town, away from the farms, and that made her a good choice for him to approach. If she freaked out, he should be able to egress Romanby before anyone else could pursue him. He sincerely hoped that she would be open to a dialogue, because at the moment Carthage didn’t really have a Plan B, but it was a good sign that the townsfolk didn’t feel the need to post sentries. However, the danger of the surrounding environment might seem adequate to accomplish the same goal. Either way, he had to get the hell off this hill.
As he made his way down the hill, Carthage thought about how he could appear less threatening. In a town this small he would for sure be recognized as the stranger he was. He decided to stash his rifle and rucksack in an unassuming thicket before entering; his Beretta was concealed under his flight jacket if he needed it. He had already cleaned himself up as much as possible, and he wasn’t the worst looking man ever born. He wished his outfit didn’t scream soldier so much, but he didn’t have civilian clothes. He confirmed the street in front of the house was empty, and approached the front door. There was a sign out front: Siobhan NicKennon, Firearms and Smithing, and another inside the window that said Open. So, Carthage went in.
Siobhan was utterly astonished to see an outsider enter her shop. He was the same height as her, at 68”, and had a tan complexion and a buzz cut. He was wearing a field jacket, cargo pants of the same olive color, and black boots. He said good morning to her in a distinctly Terran accent. She was too surprised to reply, and only moved again when the plastic bottle she was filling from the carboy overflowed onto the floor. She set the bottles down next to the fridge and casually moved toward the other side of the counter, where her Makarov pistol sat on a shelf.
“We don’t get a lot of strangers out this way,” she said, trying and probably failing to sound at ease.
“Relax,” he began, “if I wanted to hurt you I would have done it already. I’m here seeking answers, and if you don’t want to talk to me then I’ll leave right now.”
Siobhan sat behind the counter and put her hand on her pistol. “I’m not going to dismiss you without finding out how you got into town first. Where are you from?”
“Earth. I was sent as part of an expedition by the Planetary Union to find out what happened to Skye. The name’s Carthage. The rest of my crew is waiting just outside of town for confirmation that we’ll be welcomed here.”
“Why did you come here? Why not Edinburgh?”
“We had a little problem with our ship and had to land nearby. We know that not every settlement is aligned with the global government, so we decided to approach Romanby with caution. Our ship will be fixed soon, but we figured we would start gathering information right away.”
Carthage must have known Siobhan had her hand on a weapon, because he motioned slowly toward his chest pocket. “I can show you whatever proof you’d like on my PDA. Do you mind?”
“Nice and slow, please.”
Carthage carefully took out his PDA and put it on the far side of the counter. “From the main screen, access the folder labeled ‘Operation Stormfront.’ You can see our operation orders, ship configuration, crew dossier, log entries, whatever you want.”
Siobhan picked up the PDA with her left hand, and noticed it was in perfect condition for such an old model. Most electronic devices in Romanby had long since ceased to function. She mulled over the files. If Carthage was lying, he had gone to great lengths to fabricate his story. It wasn’t until she read the operation order that she found something outright suspicious.
“What’s the date on the operation order?” she asked, her fingers tensing around her pistol.
“May something, 2267.”
“Twenty years ago? Was the mission postponed or something? Don’t tell me you decided to fly at two c the whole trip.”
Carthage raised an eyebrow. “No, we left five weeks ago and hauled ass at full speed. Are you telling me it’s been twenty years since you lost contact with Earth?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. Is it possible you forgot to account for relativistic effects? Just how fast were you going?”
“It’s well established that 400 c only doubles UGT. Add the two weeks that we were initially out of contact and only three months should have passed here.”
Siobhan pondered this for a minute. “The only reason I’m inclined to believe this is because of the temporal anomalies that cropped up since the Wave. Is it possible that time has been moving more quickly on Skye than the rest of the galaxy?”
Carthage shrugged. “I can’t answer that, but we did encounter an anomaly on the way here. We were somehow transported fifty miles west in the blink of an eye.”
“We’re familiar with those anomalies, Mister Carthage. At least, those of us that found our way home to tell the tale.”
“It’s just Carthage, thanks. And I think you’d better tell me about this Wave you mentioned.”
Smiling wanly, Siobhan gestured toward a chair by the fridge. “In that case, flip that sign around and have a seat. This is going to take awhile.”