Siobhan had directed Carthage to fill two tumblers with scotch, and the man sipped slowly from his glass as she began her story.
“I was five when the Wave hit, so most of what I’m going to tell you is second-hand. There are persistent rumors of the true reason for colonizing Skye, other than the pedestrian explanation of manifest destiny. The most popular one involves wormholes and the concept of a galactic Lagrange Point. Do you know what those are?”
Carthage nodded. “Of course. Lagrange Points are spots of gravitational stability in a solar system.”
Siobhan quaffed some scotch. “The idea is that some eggheads speculated that Skye is a Lagrange Point for the entire galaxy. This could, theoretically, allow a stable place for an artificial wormhole that could be used to travel to other Lagrange Points in the galaxy. If true, it could open up exploration and trade routes thousands of light years away. What is known for certain is that a research facility was built about a hundred miles from Edinburgh, and dubbed Dun Ringill. What happened there is shrouded in secrecy. Twenty years ago, there was some kind of disaster at the facility. A wave of radiation circled the entire planet, rendering vast areas uninhabitable, and creating temporal anomalies like the one you encountered. Small towns like Romanby became difficult to reach, and previously safe routes were prone to shifts in stability. This made travel and trade virtually impossible, and in our case, we haven’t had any visitors in five years. More than likely, everyone gave up trying to reach us. As I mentioned, our own scouts often never returned. Fortunately our town is self-sustaining, though life will gradually get more difficult as our mechanical devices wear out or break. Our power station is probably going to have to shut down within a year. We’ve resigned ourselves to scratching out a basic existence, barring some miracle. Anyway, any theories amongst us are pure speculation. No one in Romanby knows what really happened.”
Sipping his drink, Carthage let all of this sink in. “Sounds like you’re right proper fucked. Listen, Siobhan, I have a mission to complete, that’s my motivation. I may be able to help you find a safe route to the next town, but that’s only because I need to find more answers. Unless someone in town has been holding out on you, I can’t get them here. So, I need your help.”
“I thought you said you were going to fix your ship, and go to Edinburgh.”
Carthage grimly swirled his scotch. “The ship crashed. I’m the sole survivor. I lied to you before because I needed you to think I had backup, in case you or your people were hostile to me. I think I can trust you now, but I don’t really have a choice anyway.”
“What went wrong?”
“It’s complicated. Suffice it to say that the ship is unsalvageable. I’m going to have to reach Edinburgh the old fashioned way.”
Siobhan laughed. “You can’t be serious. I hope you’re a good swimmer, Carthage. You’re on the wrong continent. The Wave fried the circuitry of anything electronic that wasn’t indoors, and that included the only Atmo ship in Romanby. Some of our cars survived because they were garaged at the time. I haven’t seen anything fly overhead in twenty years that didn’t have feathers. We assume most ships were disabled, and if any are still flying, they haven’t had a reason to come here. Not to mention the fact that nobody knows how localized the temporal anomalies are. Flying could be just as hazardous as surface travel. Maybe you could find a sailboat to traverse an ocean, but as far as I know, nobody ever needed to build a sailboat capable of such. Even if you could make it to Edinburgh, what do you hope to accomplish?”
“My mission is to find out what caused the Wave, and report back to Earth. I won’t stop until I do.”
“And if you could, would the Planetary Union try to save Skye?”
Carthage shrugged. “I don’t know, that’s beyond my pay grade. I imagine they would at least offer to evacuate anyone who wanted to leave.”
Siobhan finished her scotch. “Gathering the intel you want may be several orders of magnitude easier than getting off this planet, soldier.”
“One step at a time then, I suppose.”
“What’s your next step?”
“I want to talk to any scientists you may have in town. I had a couple of ideas for modifying my PDAs to detect anomalies before I wander into one, but I have no idea if it will work. I’d like to talk to someone more knowledgeable before I resume traveling.”
“You have more than one PDA?” asked Siobhan, her face perking up.
“Then it sounds like you would benefit from taking someone with you on your journey. Two scanners are better than one. As far as a scientist, the only person here who remotely matches that description is Gordon Ludain, the chief engineer of the power plant. As of five years ago there was a fixed anomaly to the north, and he had attempted to study it. I have no idea what the results of his research were, but since then keeping the plant running has occupied all of his time.”
Carthage nodded. “Will you take me to him? How will he and the townsfolk react to seeing me?”
“They’ll want to take you to see the mayor and explain yourself to him. If you have any weapons on you then the constable will take them until they can verify your story.”
“I can’t take the chance that they’ll detain me, Siobhan. You’ll excuse me if I’m skeptical that everyone else will be as friendly as you. Is there any way that you can get Ludain to come here instead?”
“As it happens, he dropped off one of his pistols last night right before I closed. He wanted the burned-out tritium sights replaced with standard sights. I was going to do it first thing today. The job will only take fifteen minutes, why don’t I do that now and then I’ll call him to come pick it up?”
“If he’s busy running the plant, how long will it take him to show up?”
“He asked me to do it as soon as possible. He’s not a patient man. I’m surprised my phone isn’t already ringing. I bet as soon as I call him he’ll come by to get it.”
Carthage smiled. “Sounds like a plan, then. While I’m waiting, can you spare some food? My own supply is somewhat limited.”
Siobhan stood up, and put her pistol in her front pocket. “Help yourself to anything in the fridge. Changing out the sights on a Glock is easy, if you have the right tools. This won’t take long.”
Gordon Ludain had a wide, expressive face, and a narrow nose on which balanced a pair of heavy gold-rimmed glasses. Meeting Carthage, and listening to his story, had given him the opportunity to show surprise, shock, and finally, elation. He shifted back and forth on the edge of his chair and excitedly poked through the mission files on Carthage’s PDA, muttering nearly incomprehensibly as the visitor spoke. Carthage was glad he wasn’t stuck with a guy like this on the journey to Skye, it would have been a much longer trip. He suspected the isolation of Romanby was starting to effect Ludain’s mind. Carthage had just told the older man about the modifications he’d made to his PDA, and had waited a little too long for a reply.
“So,” Carthage prodded, “do you think we can detect an anomaly with these settings?”
“Mmm, yes,” Ludain began, his Scottish brogue as thick as his glasses. “It’s more than what I had to work with, lad. Miss NicKennon, get me the old sights from my pistol. And do you have any CA adhesive?”
“Sure,” said Siobhan, shooting a brief look of impatience at Carthage, and retrieved the requested items from her bench. “Your Glock is ready to…”
“Thank you,” Ludain blurted.
The engineer put a dab of glue on the bottom of the rear sight, and before Carthage could object, stuck it to the top edge of his PDA.
“Okay, then,” said Carthage. “And this is going to accomplish what?”
“The Caimbeul boy has done well as my apprentice, so much so that I’m almost ready to have him assume some of my duties at the plant. As such, I was planning on resuming my research into the anomalies. It occurred to me that phosphorus should luminesce in the presence of one, so I thought these old tritium sights could be used as an early warning measure. It wouldn’t do to wander around with my pistol drawn all the time, so I asked Miss NicKennon to remove them. This, along with your modifications, Mister Carthage, and we might actually stand a chance out there.” Ludain held up the PDA and admired his work. “Shame we don’t have one more, though.”
“It’s just Carthage, thanks. I’ve got another PDA.”
“Perfect! We’ll put the front sight on that one, and we’ll be in business. When should we leave?”
“Respectfully, sir, this mission is going to be extremely arduous. And even if this Campbell guy is ready to help out, Romanby can’t afford to lose you right now.”
Ludain gazed at Carthage over his glasses. “An old sod like me would just slow you down, eh? I think that’s up to the mayor to decide, don’t you agree, Miss NicKennon?”
Siobhan pursed her lips. “He wouldn’t let you go either, Gordon. Best leave the risk-taking to those too young to know better. Are you sure you don’t have any other insights?”
“Aye. Take some golf balls with you. If your sensors are gyrating like burlesque dancers, toss a ball in front of you. The anomaly I found will announce itself with obvious results.”
Carthage stood up, and folded his arms across his chest. “Talk to the mayor if you must. It won’t matter. I’ll be gone by then, and my PDAs with me. Your contributions are appreciated, sir.”
Ludain was flustered. “You’re putting me in a tough spot, stranger. Without you, Romanby is likely to think I’ve gone completely mad. Even if they believe me, what’s the point in putting so much hope on a fool’s errand?”
“You must think I’ve got more of a chance than that, if you wanted to come with me.”
“My hope is mine to give. I can’t trap the townsfolk in the same folly. Better they know nothing, unless you actually return alive.”
Siobhan picked up Ludain’s pistol. “I know it won’t be easy, but it will be the right thing. Keep that plant running as long as you can, Gordon. Let Carthage confront Dun Ringill.”
Ludain nodded, and took the Glock. He fought back tears, and left without another word. Carthage and Siobhan stood in silence for a moment. Carthage sighed.
“I should get going,” he said, “in case he changes his mind.”
Siobhan flipped the sign around on the door. “You seem to be forgetting the advantage of two scanners instead of one. I’m coming with you, unless you think I’ll just slow you down, too.”
Carthage smiled. “You seem sharp enough, and you know your way around firearms. How do you feel about taking orders?”
“I hate it,” she said, and locked the front door.
“Then get your gear. We leave in fifteen minutes.”