Amber Pine

Before opening the hatch he checked the logbook and the comkit once more to be sure that all the tracks had been wiped out. They were indeed. The Levinson tunnel, a wormhole created in space-time, had been destroyed and return to the departure point was nearly impossible. Even using up all available energy resources he couldn't possibly reach further than XVth century B.C., and he'd probably have to stop earlier. But this didn't worry him any more. Going back to his own time was the last thing he wanted.

What he saw of the landscape through the portholes was more or less what he had expected to see. Indeed, it was also because of this landscape that he had wanted to come here. He had come to stroll along the riverside somewhere over there behind the forest. He had come to look at these big butterflies fluttering over this flowering bush. And to see many more living things he had never met, but expected to meet here. He had been equipped with many sophisticated navigational instruments, but he also had something else, his real compass, his guide through the intricate labyrinths of space-time which his fellow beings were now conquering: at least this was what they thought and said. But first of all he had his own little mission: something to do.

Unwillingly he put his hand into the pocket: yes, it was there. A necklace with a little piece of amber with an insect, a fly in it. An unexceptional piece of amber: except that it had been possible to localise it, to find the exact place in space-time that it came from. Before he was admitted to the Corps and began his chrononaut training this had been his field of research: advanced theoretical physics that had, as in the past, some mystical flavour to it. A theory of loci, of places, worked out by a brilliant theoretician: a man born in a small village in Bhutan, the last stronghold of Mahayana, who was immersed in that paradoxical philosophy. After publishing his seminal papers and teaching in Princeton, the theoretician had said goodbye to America and to science and returned to Asia. Nobody knew exactly what happened to him after that: there were rumours that he had retired into a monastery in Tibet or in his native Bhutan, abandoning science once and for all. Some people claimed to have heard that in fact he continued to work on his theory in the silence of a mountain retreat where he had installed a study with very advanced supercomputing facilities. It was said that he was working on a great synthesis, a universal theory of mind and matter based on some age-old Buddhist treatises. But this could well have been just a myth, one of many muths and anecdotes about this strange oriental genius.

The man in the module had seen him once when he gave a rare lecture to a larger audience of graduate students. The lecturer was very cerebral, he played with formulas and equations like a tamer with his tigers; though a broad childish smile never left his face. He talked only about physics; but introducing his theory he quoted an Indian or Chinese thinker who had tried to prove that everything is in everything. It sounded a bit like Blake: "To see a World in a grain of sand/And a Heaven in a wild flower, /Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour". His idea had been that this poetical dictum was to a large extent true: there is an astonishing amount of information about the rest of the universe in any object, although we cannot usually extract it without adulterating it. But in some cases we can. The lecturer thought this should be possible with living things, which have molecular mechanisms of orientation in space-time. This means that every animal or plant, perhaps even every living cell, is a kind of a perfect navigational instrument which determines its coordinates from instant to instant. Even if we don't know where we are and what time it is, our bodies know.

Some of the Bhutanian's collaborators had been able to find the mechanisms he predicted on the basis of his equations. This was the great breakthrough that had led to the development of a wholly new biophysics or, as its adepts preferred to call it, "physics of the living". But it also had important implications for more established fields of theoretical physics, and had found its way into the application that finally brought the chrononaut here, piloting one of the first time machines.

The chrononaut had liked the idea of everything in everything, wondering whether it would be possible to apply the new theory to fossils, whether some of their space-time logbooks could be preserved and accessible to humans now. He had joined a group of researchers in this field; soon he become a successful specialist in this branch of what they baptized palaeophysics. But later, when the Space-Time Agency began its ambitious Time-Travel Project, he sent his application to the School of Chrononauts and, to his surprise, was accepted and began the five-year long training to become one of the first human beings to cross the barrier between the past and the present.

The project was initiated and financed by a consortium of companies who were primarily interested in what they called "the research and development of space-time resources". In the popular press, mostly financed by the same companies, there was much enthusiastic discussion about the possibility of fishing for lost genes in the Mesozoic or Palaeozoic era; getting hold of the treasures of the Incas or Etruscans before their gold and silver were stolen and melted down; finding out what happened to the Viking colonies in North America; or saving manuscripts from the Library of Alexandria. Such things, if successfully brought back from the past, would be worth billions of dollars and make investment in the project very profitable. Of course, the project was harshly critiziced by some scientists, who pointed to the dangers inherent in it: nobody knew yet for sure what the results of tinkering with the past would be. According to chaos theory even tiny fluctuations, negligible events, could have serious consequences. An ecological activist group published on their web site a short story by a forgotten American science fiction writer. In the story, a time tourist on a trip to the distant past broke the rules, left the protected path and killed a butterfly in the jungle they were passing through. His party returned to the present to find that everything at home had changed and their country was ruled by a bloodthirsty dictator. But these warnings were published in small-circulation academic journals or on the websites of green and anarchist groups, read only by themselves and totally ignored by the mainstream press. The chrononaut himself had read many of these criticisms; but he avoided discussing them or voicing his doubts about the Project. From childhood on he had been a lonely thinker, not eager to share his innermost ideas or aspirations with others.

The first experimental flight was a failure. Fortunately the module with its severely wounded chrononaut could be brought back from the Palestine of the time of the Crusades, though the man never recovered and refused to talk about some of his experiences. He had to be treated by the best psychiatrists available and finally, in hypnosis, he talked. Even some historians who had read the Chronicle reports on the massacres lost their nerve listening to his report.

The man opening the hatch had been through that report too. It had only strengthened his aversion for the world he had been born into, and a longing he had already had as a small kid: even before he had read much history or heard old people telling stories about the last big war, he had felt he wanted to escape from all this. But where to escape, where to find a refuge, safe from horror, war, the torture of humans and animals? - Yes, from his childhood on he had been hypersensitive towards the wrong done to animals. The two or three times he'd witnessed other guys shooting small birds with an air gun he had completely lost self-control and run amock, attacking boys older and stronger than himself. Once he had succeeded in getting hold of the gun and breaking it into pieces against a wall, another time he himself was beaten and left lying in the park with bleeding nose and eyes full of tears. After that incident he became more careful, even secretive, telling nobody his most secret dreams, his fears and aspirations. Already in High School he turned to science, and found it suited him. Ecology, palaeontology, then the new physics. It showed him a way. Earlier he had daydreamed of going to live with Indians or negritos in the primeval forest: but soon enough he discovered that neither tribal peoples nor primeval forests existed any more; or at best they existed only as Hollywood-style aboriginal villages with well-staged dances, exotic cuisine - and, sometimes, exotic prostitution - at the weekends. Most week days the inhabitants spent drinking, loitering around and brawling. They were no longer hunter-gatherers but employees of the tourist industry: which also preserved and maintained strips of rain forest bought from the ever greedier logging companies. This was definitely not what he needed. He had few friends, although at times he could be sociable, went to bars with colleagues and sometimes even dated girls.

Then he met a girl from a small North European country that had, in the past, been under German and Soviet rule. At first he wasn't really in love with her: she seemed so enthusiastic about everything American, having quickly learnt to speak English with a Texan accent and to say 'great', 'fantastic' and 'marvellous' about everything and everybody. They had just been to a club, spent a couple of nights together, and she seemed happy to have a real American as her boyfriend. In fact, he was, at first, more interested in the necklace she wore than in herself: it was a big piece of amber with an insect in it. Then he thought that jewelry, rings and bracelets are signs, they have a meaning. And that if she carried a sign with a special meaning for him, there had to be something special about her too. He decided to take her to a small italian cafe instead of a club, and to talk to her.

To his astonishment she was the first person who really listened to him and then talked about herself. Yes: the necklace had been a sign, a sign to him, he was sure of it, although he had never believed in all the occult hocuspocus blooming in the campuses. She was a bit like him, a sensitive lonely person from childhood on. She told him that as a child she had felt something like a deep sadness for everything and everybody; had felt that life and the world were unbelievably beautiful but also intolerable and ugly because of the suffering and stupidity of people. Her heart ached all the time because of the intolerable beauty and intolerable ugliness of everything. She had thought of suicide, but then decided that she could put it off and make an effort to be like others, to live a normal life, perhaps just to understand other people. And to understand herself. And, perhaps, as she added with a shy smile, to wait for a sign, for something to happen, to meet somebody who could understand her and maybe even explain to her what she sometimes felt was the mystery of the world.

From that evening on they were inseparable. Three months later they married and moved to a small flat not far away from the campus. She had studied medecine - feeling it was or should really be a science of human suffering - and he was finishing his doctoral thesis on palaeophysics. Now he could explain it to her, and little by little introduce his ideas to her.

- Could one then, for example, go and find the tree where this insect is still struggling to get out of the resin? - she asked.

He thought that in theory it could be possible.

She told him a story she had heard from her great-grandmother, a simple peasant woman from a seaside village. It was about an ancestor of theirs, a young woman who had suddenly died: she went to sleep but didn't wake up in the morning. She had already been put in the coffin and people were keeping vigil over it when somebody saw a moth on the other side of the window desperately trying to get in. The same person, who had probably heard some old stories themselves, opened the window. The moth flew in, flew straight to the nose of the young woman, and vanished there. Then suddenly the woman began to breathe, opened her eyes, and finding she was in the coffin with candles burning beside it began to scream and call for help. The funeral was cancelled; she later married and gave birth to many children. And she told others about her experiences: in a strange dream she had visited many distant places including the big city a hundred miles to the South, had seen palaces and churches and many strange people there. Although she had never been to the city herself, people who knew it could recognize the places she described. Later even the local pastor took an interest in her story and wrote it down, but unfortunately his diaries and other manuscripts were lost, and her story was preserved only within the family.

- Sometimes I think that perhaps this little bug in the amber is also somebody's soul, - she told him once at night. - Couldn't it be my own soul? It sounds absurd, but couldn't the soul, at least sometimes, transcend the limits of time and space? Then, if something happens to me, you could let it out from the amber, couldn't you?

It wasn't very serious, just bedtime talk. But somehow he remembered it.

Next summer they visited her country, and spent two weeks in her home village in the house her father had rebuilt as a summer home: her parents were no longer peasants, but had lived and worked in the capital until their retirement. He liked the place. The northern sea was cool and grey, had very little of the lure of the Caribbean, and the people they met astonished him: they could sit in company for hours, speaking only a few words. He wondered whether these were the most taciturn people in the world: but had too little material for comparison to draw any conclusions. Still, they had a language of their own, not related - it was explained to him - to any in Western Europe. Spoken by his wife and her mother, at least, it sounded strangely beautiful. He had been interested in music and learnt to play the piano; but to his disappointment the local people had forgotten their own traditional songs, young people listened mostly to anglo-american pop music and the older songs, including the patriotic ones which had inspired the freedom-fighters, were modifications of German ones. He tried to learn some of the language but it was very difficult and he postponed this: they had to return home soon, and he had to finish his thesis. After that, they thought, they could come back, perhaps even buy an old farmhouse nearby, and make it their own summer home. It would be, she explained, a patriotic project: as the local people were still quite poor, rich people from neighbouring countries were coming in and buying real estate in the seaside villages.

- This is the capitalist style of occupation, - she said. - I feel it could be even more dangerous than the fascist and communist ones. He understood and promised to help. He was sure that he could get a well paid job and out-bid small businessmen and retired clerks from Sweden or Germany. He felt he could do everything for her.

Next Spring he obtained his PhD, and they decided to spend the whole summer in her village. She flew home first in early June. He had to stay for ten more days to put his things in order. Then he would join her. When he drove home after having seen her off on the plane, he found that she had left her amber necklace on the night table. When she had arrived and phoned him, he told her she had forgotten to take her necklace. She answered that her soul was there: she thought it would be safer with him than on the flight over the ocean. Especially after the terrible hijackings of two years ago when the planes had been shot down by Air Force jets, and one of the pilots who did it later committed suicide. He promised to keep her soul safe, and to return it to her soon.

A week later, when he sat at his desk finishing a report, the phone rang. In broken English a voice told him his wife had been hit by a car while cycling to the local shop. The driver, a local teenager, had been drunk. She was flown to the university hospital in the city, and was lying there in coma.

He phoned the travel bureau, booked a ticket on the first flight to Copenhagen, phoned his boss, and drove to the airport. When he arrived at the ICU she was still alive but unconscious. The doctors gave him little hope. He sat there for the whole night, squeezing the piece of amber in his hand. She died next morning.

She was cremated - she had once told him she wouldn't like to be buried - and he threw her ashes into the sea and returned to America. The first night at home he decided not to take any more sleeping pills, in the slight hope that he might meet her in his dreams. She did indeed come, smiled at him, and told him he shouldn't worry; they would surely meet again. Despite of time and space, as she said in her peculiar English. - Don't forget to let my soul loose, were her last words to him in the dream.

After this he began to recover, and little by little went on with his research. When the STA launched its time-travel project, and he was accepted at the school of chrononauts, he was on track again. At least this seemed to be the case. The psychologists who observed and interviewed the applicants and trainees were satisfied with him, and notified the Rector and Board that he had overcome his problems, was balanced and well motivated. His colleagues noticed nothing disturbing in his behaviour: he socialized with them, didn't refuse drinks and even sometimes flirted with local girls. This flirtation couldn't go too far: the trainees had to obey strict rules and for most of the time were confined to the purlieus of the centre. Still he was able to continue his work on localization of fossils; it was even encouraged by the big business bosses sitting on the Board. Thus he was able to get all the information he needed about the piece of amber and the fly in it.

He had to go on mission alone. Building a time module for two people would have been too complicated and expensive. The first mission he was sent on was purely experimental; he had to study some extinct species of fast-growing sequoia trees and other conifers that could perhaps be reintroduced and might be used in commercial plantations on a large scale. There were some other tasks, mostly connected with the flight itself, but he was also expected to do some reconnaissance for a big tourism company which planned to create its own Jurassic Park.

He didn't tell anybody about his own aims, his real aims.

The air he breathed when he opened the hatch was moist and warm, with a strong scent of conifers. Somehow it reminded him of the cedar forests in Washington and British Columbia, though here the smell of pine was stronger. But it was pleasant to breathe after the conditioned and recycled air in the module. He had the map, the electronic localizer (partly his own design) and a laser pistol. Later he would return and take some other things. But first he had to find the tree. He crept out of the module. The earth was covered with moss and ferns, He had landed in a little clearing. Two huge trees had fallen, leaving a space not yet overgrown with bushes and young trees, though he saw seedlings all around: mostly conifers with soft needles, perhaps firs or cedars, perhaps something totally different, some of the trees he knew only by names from textbooks of palaeobotany.

The module had probably frightened away the animals. Now they were coming back. A couple of jay-like birds alighted on the fallen tree trunk, a kind of a squirrel ran out from its hole and followed him with its eyes. He checked his direction once again and set out. Neither the jays nor the squirrel moved.

There seemed to be an animal track going to the direction he had to follow. Probably they used it to go to drink at the river. He had always been interested in botany and ornithology, but what he saw would have too much for any biologist. Birds, squirrels, rats, some animals that reminded him of both miniature horses and swine, were unafraid of him; he could observe them, and of course they could observe him, from close up. Once he even had to step aside to give way to a herd of deer.

Then, just before he reached the river, he saw it: a sabre-toothed tiger. It was a member of one of the smaller species, but probably powerful enough to kill a deer. And a man like him. It came towards him and once again he had to step aside. No longer the overlord, he was just a medium-size animal. The tiger stopped for an instant, smelled the air, looked at him and then trotted on. He wondered whether it wasn't interested in him because it wasn't hungry or because he was too different from the animals it was used to hunt. Probably he smelt strongly and strangely of plastic, chemicals. And the smell of a human being was certainly very different from what it had met so far.

The river was larger than he had imagined and he could even see the sea glimmering in sunlight and feel its salty scent. He turned right along the bank towards it. Here and there he saw deer, and some bear-like furry animals drinking. There was no path along the bank. He had to creep over or climb around fallen trees. Some were real giants: sequoias and taxodia. There more of them now, growing here and there; there were huge ferns and palms: perhaps cycadaceae, he wasn't sure. There were hundreds of birds - perhaps he could call them ducks - some swimming with their young in the river. Looking in the water he could see big fish. These seemed to be afraid of him: perhaps there were other two-legged creatures around here hunting for them. The air was full of chirping, shrieking and cries. He couldn't recognize any familiar bird-calls; the songbirds he knew probably hadn't come into existence yet. High in the air a pair of eagles were circling.

The big tree grew near the river on a small mound, surrounded by lush ferns and some flowers he wasn't able to recognize. He took a magnifying glass from his pocket. Fortunately the insect he was looking for wasn't high up but somewhere close to earth. At least his calculations seemed to indicate that it was where it was. The calculations proved correct. The fly was there. It was even coloured: black with orange like bees and wasps. But it was a fly. Three of its legs and one wing had been caught in resin. It was struggling desperately to get loose but couldn't. He took a knife from his pocket and carefully loosened the insect together with the big drop of resin from the bark. Yes, it must have been a Pinus succinifera, an amber pine. The resin of such trees, falling into the river and carried into the sea by the stream, later became amber. He had a tiny bottle of spirit and a handful of cotton tips in his bag. With extreme care he freed one leg of the fly after another, cleaned them with spirit, and then did the same with the wing. It wasn't broken.

At first the fly didn't fly away. Perhaps it was a bit intoxicated by the alcohol. But then it spread its wings and sped off.

He took the necklace from his pocket. The piece of amber was as it had been before, smooth and glimmering. Only the insect wasn't there any more. It had vanished.

He sat down on a stone and looked around. Now his mind was at peace. In the distance, probably in the sea, he saw a pack of dolphins swimming and jumping. More eagles were circling overhead. Yes: he would come back here. But first he had to get rid of the module.

On his way back, just before he turned left onto the path, he heard a thumping of heavy feet. He stood still for a moment. Then he saw a herd of huge hairy elephants, probably mastodons. They too had come to the river to drink. One of them, probably a female, had a young one with her. She couldn't keep it from stepping into the river, splashing and trumpeting, then starting to swim toward the other shore. The mother rushed into the water, caught up with it, blocked it with her body from swimming further. After a while both returned, shaking water from their hides. Suddenly the female stood still, lifting her ears nervously. The others paused too, then quickly formed a circle around the small elephant. Now he understodd the reason reason: he too saw the shadow of the creeping sabre-tooth between the bushes. The elephants began to trumpet and tramp their feet. The tiger, understanding it had been noticed, stood up, waving its tail, uttered a roar of disappointment and jogged away, vanishing into the fern thicket.

None of the creatures paid any attention to him. He didn't belong here, wasn't in the game. Yes, what he saw was Paradise. A paradise without peace: the title of a book about Amazonian aborigines he had read as a kid. But all paradises are closed to human beings. At best we can look at them for a while from a distance.

He crept into the module and checked the destination once more. It had to reach an active volcano, in what later became the Atlantic, and fall into the crater. The heat would be intense enough to burn and melt everything so that nobody will ever be able to find it in the future, in the time he came from. He picked up a notebook and a small box, put them into his bag, and tapped his last order onto the screen.

- Do you really want me to guide the module to the point TULEMAEGI - asked the computer. He tapped "yes" twice, switched the timer on, and left the module. Three minutes later, when he was at a safe distance, the machine took off with a deafening roar. He watched it disappear into the blue between sparse white clouds. Then he took the path back to the tree.

The elephants were still there, and not far from them he saw a huge peculiar creature, a bit like a gorilla but with a much smaller, oblong head. He realized it wasn't an ape but a giant sloth. Slowly it stretched out its front paw, grabbed a small palm tree with some fruit on top and bent it until it could reach the fruit with its mouth.

He put his pilot's jacket on the ground below the tree, sat on it with his back against the trunk, took the notebook from his bag and opened it. There was the page with her photograph glued on it. This was the notebook he had had when they met. The picture marked the day of their conversation in the café.

- I did what you asked me to do, - he said.

Then he took two pills from the box and put them into his mouth. Soon drowsiness overcame him and the view of the estuary mingled with other images. Then he saw her. She came out from between the trees in her old brown jacket, approached him smiling and put her hand on his shoulder.

- Despite of time and space, - she told him. - Let's go now. It was the last thing he saw or heard.

The brownish furry animal, somehow similar to a small bear, had come to check whether the animal lying under the tree was dead and could be enjoyed yet. It touched the body with its paw: it moved a bit and uttered some sounds. The animal was still alive, and possibly dangerous. The bear had to wait some time before its dinner stopped breathing and moving. The dying creature had a strange smell. But the bear was used to eating even decaying corpses so smell wasn't really a problem for it. Further away two smaller creatures, perhaps close relatives of cats, sat waiting. They were sure the bear would leave something for them too.