Prologue: Escape, in Asymmetric Time

Four solid months in the training program for Arisan Shepherds had given me a case of cabin fever. All of my activities centered on one floor of the Smokey Mountains Complex. I slept in a room at one end of the floor. I ate my meals three times a day in the cafeteria half way down the hall. I studied and received instruction in rooms at the other end of the floor. The room was very nice, the meals tasty, and the instruction interesting and varied, but I repeated this routine over and over again, day after day. My instructors recognized no weekends, honored no holidays, and gave no time off for good or bad behavior. This was the Arisan way. It was now my way.

The curriculum was extensive. First and most importantly, I had to learn how to speak Arisan. Even though I had learned several languages before my “death,” Arisan had concepts that were very difficult to understand. Brian and his medical machines implanted “memories” of the grammar and vocabulary in my head, but it was up to me to hone my skills. I talked in halting Arisan with my instructors (there being less than a half-dozen who had learned enough English to talk with me), but I felt caged by my lack of fluency.

Then there were the rules and policies and procedures and laws and a whole host of other things that constrained my behavior. Arisa was a society bound by manners. Parts of their culture dated back over a millennia and had ossified over time. Even though I was (and probably always would be) a barbarian in the eyes of most Arisans, I was still expected to conform to a long and laborious list of expectations. My instructors were much too polite to say as much, but deviations from the norm could end my reprieve from a cold death in the North Atlantic of 1943. “Proper deportment” formed additional bars of my cage.

Brian and his medical machines were implanting stuff into my body every week or two: in addition to the language “memories”, I received enhanced senses, resistance to disease, and an enhanced desire to exercise on a regular basis. But the purpose of most of the implants were beyond my understanding; Brian would rattle off a string of Arisan. I would catch “useful” and “necessary” but nothing else. The implantations were not painful as such but each one triggered hours of required skill-building exercises. I could feel things changing inside of me as everyone at the Complex pounded and shaped the old 1943-model Eric Stapleton into the new 3749-model Eric Stapleton.

The Study of the Varied Histories, the Ethics of Time Travel, Past-Visitation Protocols, and all manner of studies on the mechanics of time travel loomed in my future. There was no end of the material to be mastered. It was hard to tell how effective my studies were. As the only student, I showed up where and when I was supposed to. I spent almost all of my days and nights sucking up information and organizing it in my head so that I could make effective use of it. There was no failure; I just did it over and over until I was a success. Success would only trigger my instructors to raise the bar and give me more to learn. I kept grinding away but I was burning out.

I wanted to get away from the Complex, to see something new and fresh. I spoke of my discontent to the head instructor, Serena. She said, “Eric, you’re not ready to go into the Arisan society. You don’t speak the language nearly well enough. You don’t understand the rules and procedures well enough. You don’t have the cultural references that you need in order to survive out there. The notion of you going out there, even with an escort from the Complex to keep you out of trouble, is simply out of the question.”

I remained quiet for another month. During that month, something just clicked in my head with regard to the Arisan language. Within a few days, I was able to speak in full sentences with only short pauses to figure out what I wanted to say. I could read most of the materials in the Archive, thus enlarging my cage at least for a while. But around early November I started to burn out again. By now I actually understood why I wasn’t ready to go out into the real world, even though my Arisan was much better and I had most of the rules and procedures and regulations under control.

Had the purpose of all the training been to make me into a proper Arisan, the Complex could have accomplished that in under a month, but that conversion would have erased all of the potential that I represented. No proper Arisan would or could ever be a Shepherd. Although a Shepherd had to live in Arisan society without offending everyone around him (or in rare instances her), the Shepherd also had to be able to visit places in the past that would make World War II look like a tea party. My reaction when I first encountered the rules of Arisa was to consider the Arisans to be what one of my late aunts back in Northern Minnesota would have called “lace-doily proper”, not understanding that the obsession with time travel was the hard surface that lay under the lace doily.

Time travel mattered so much to the Arisa that they almost never spoke of it; it was just something that everybody understood. But valuing time travel was quite a bit different from being capable of doing the things that time travel demanded. As a Shepherd, I was being groomed to do the things that they could not and would not do, but that needed to be done nonetheless. Arisan society would eat the steak, feigning ignorance of its source; I would be the butcher with the blood on my hands, a necessary evil to be hidden away from sensitive eyes.

I was not the first person they had retrieved from the past to be a Shepherd. I wouldn’t be the last. They had danced this dance before. They had to add enough polite civilization without damaging the wild and resourceful primitive in me. The instructors and machines were expending a lot of energy to create a Shepherd the only way they knew how: through a laborious and time-consuming process that would produce a champion that should, among other things, rightly transcend such defects as cabin fever and a will to wander.

One of the advantages of being the barbarian was that I simply didn’t care. I had to find a way to get out of the Complex. I had explored everything inside Complex to the extent that I was permitted. I had explored the gardens around the Complex more times than I could count. I had walked all of the trails around the Complex several hundred times. It was all familiar, safe and numbing. I needed a change.

If interacting with people was the problem, perhaps I could go where there were no people. Perhaps I could camp out in the wilderness. I could put up a tent, start a fire, maybe hunt down and cook a critter over that fire, and sing campfire songs at the top of my lungs. Anything that would get me out of the Complex.

The Complex tried to address some of my needs. I could select the images that the machines would display on the wall in my work area and my sleeping quarters. Scenes of rivers, streams, forests and deserts, virtually anything that was not of the Complex, were my choices. The machines put together a random selection of visual images that were so detailed that it was like looking out of a window. All of the images came with sound. There was one image of a waterfall that was particularly striking, video and voices of water tumbling down over the rocks and wind rustling the leaves in the trees. Because the machines knew everything about me, they knew that I liked this image most of all. The machines would show me other images but they would return to the waterfall again and again.

One of my afternoon training sessions had run long and I did not get back to my work area until well after dark. The lights came on automatically as always. I could hear the sounds of the water but the image was dark. I asked the machines if something were broken, but they said that it was night where the waterfall was. Having just realized that the image was one of the current reality, I asked the machines, “Where is that waterfall?”

The machines replied with more information than needed, as they always did, but that information boiled down to, “It is Pearson’s Falls, about 53 miles to the east of the Complex.”

I thought about that for a minute and then asked, “Is that close enough that I can visit that waterfall?”

The machines replied, “Eric, we have no authority to authorize such a visit. That is something that you should discuss with Serena. She is the one who would make the ultimate decision.”

From the details that the machines gave me, Pearson’s Falls had been a park of some kind for a while, but had been abandoned since The Insane War, but the details were vague as was common with records from before that war. There had been some interest in restoring access to it around 200 years ago but only the live images of the falls displayed on my walls had come of that effort.

My research that evening and then again early the next morning did not reveal any reason that my travel to the falls should be restricted. The machines regarded the area as a wilderness, lacking all amenities. The machines would have to fly me in, but even then the closest “safe” landing spot was over four miles from the site. I would have to hike in from the landing site. I could not have asked for a more perfect place to go. I could get some exercise. I would get to be a tourist. I could camp out. I could try my hand at hunting. I could cook some food over a fire. I would be out of my cage if only for a day or so.

It took me nearly a week to get Serena to agree to this. She regarded the trip as very dangerous. The machines had said that it was going to be a fairly arduous task to get through all of the brush and undergrowth around the falls. I said that’s part of the attraction; it’s an adventure. Serena wanted to send a guide with me. I knew that nobody had gone to Pearson’s Falls since the cameras had been installed two centuries ago; there was no one to guide me. Then she wanted to send a couple of machines to take care of me. I replied she again was just extending the cage out to Pearson’s Falls; I wanted to escape the cage of the Complex for a while.

In the end we compromised. I had permission to go. She would send some machines along to watch over me, but those machines would be very careful to stay out of sight. They would swoop in only if I injured myself in some significant way and needed to be rescued. We spent several hours defining what “injured in some significant way” actually meant: broken bones were significant, a scraped knee was not. The machines all throughout Arisa wrapped all Arisans in what I thought of as a “cocoon of comfort”. If an object was not absolutely safe and comfortable, the machines removed it. If a process operated in a way that might offend anyone, the machines modified it. There were thousands of machines that were devoted to making life at the Complex as safe and comfortable and boring as possible. To deliberately go to a place that was uncomfortable, not to say dangerous, was unthinkable. My requests to escape from that cocoon of comfort merely reinforced my image as a barbarian.

Serena argued that the machines should map the whole route for me, step-by-step and even clear out the brush so that there would be an adequate path for me. I said that she was extending the cage again. In the end, I agreed to allow the Complex to load a fairly detailed map of the route from the landing site to the waterfall into my implants. This would allow me to use my skills that I had learned as a boy in Northern Minnesota to encounter difficulties, to find solutions and to actually work as I made my way up to the waterfall.

The next day at first light, a personal flyer dropped me at a point about four miles southwest of the waterfall. I was dressed in a light jacket, shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and well-fitting hiking boots. My knapsack held a roll-up tent, a sleeping bag and food for a couple of days. I carried a walking stick that took an hour to explain to the machine that fabricated it; Arisans did not limp and did not walk over any surface that was not completely, totally flat. “What is this walking stick of which you speak?” I also had a new implant that gave me a sense of direction that was astonishing. Brian tried to explain how it worked but I could only focus on my waterfall.

By 10 AM, my navigation through a series of ancient and overgrown roads brought me to the base of the mountain. I was surrounded by the trees of autumn that hid all the details of the waterfall except for a creek of insignificant size. It was a beautiful day, partly cloudy and warm for mid-November. My research and my implanted maps showed me that the waterfall was at the top of a gorge cut into the mountain and extending down to where I stood. I started making my way up the mountain; I called it a mountain because climbing a hill does not sound nearly as adventurous.

Even though no one had maintained the park for hundreds of years, there still was a path. The park had constructed a staircase from local rocks. Although sections were dislocated by rains, attacked by tree roots, and blocked by bushes, enough of the staircase had survived to serve my needs. The distance from the base up to the top was not much more than a half mile, but it was a steep half mile; virtually every step presented some kind of challenge for the unwary adventurer. The payback for such effort was that each step up the mountain was accompanied, off to my right, by the sounds of the water tumbling over the rocks as it fell down from the top of the mountain, accompanied in the background by the sound of rustling leaves.

Along the path outlined by the staircase, there were sizable rocks and boulders strewn about, covered with moss and lichen that thrived in the shaded area of the gorge. The trees displayed their colors, mostly yellows with a few oranges, scattered reds and greens. The breeze set the leaves to swaying back and forth, launching a few of them on zigzag flights to the ground. As the mass of leaves moved, they filtered the rays of sunlight that danced across the water and forest floor. Off-white mushrooms grew on old fallen trees that hosted slow moving battles for living space against tiny armies of moss and lichens. Ferns and shrubs filled up the gaps between the tree trunks. Vegetation grew in every available place, including a weed in a patch of dirt that had accumulated in a crevice in one of the large rocks. Birds in the trees added their songs. Dragonflies flitted over the small pools created by the passage of the water down the hill.

I found this all to be very beautiful. There was just one annoying thing. The voices in my head from the implants kept telling me in excessive detail what each of these plants and objects were. “That shrub over there is a Carolina Rhododendron or Rhododendron carolinianum. That tree over here is an Eastern Hemlock or Tsuga Canadensis. There is a fern just in front of you called Silvery Spleenwort or Deparia acrostichoides.” Then there would be bursts of history and statistics. Every fern and rock and shrub and tree and fungus and bird had a story to be told by the voices in my head. I finally stopped, leaned on my walking stick and said to the voices, “Enough, already! If I ask you to tell me about a plant or a rock or anything else, you will give me just enough information to answer my question. If I need more, I will ask for more. But until then, please be silent!” Then there was silence, blessed silence.

The creek meandered back and forth from the path as I climbed the mountain. When it was close enough I could see that although there wasn’t a whole lot of water in the stream, it ran down the mountain as if there were appointments to be kept. There were places I could have easily jumped from one side of the stream to the other. The bed of the stream was packed with various kinds of rocks. The rocks were always wet and the veins in those rocks were visible where they had not been overgrown by moss and lichens.

The staircase started out on the left side of the creek. The gorge got narrower and narrower, the further up I went. After about 250 yards, the left side of the gorge became almost vertical, leaving no way to continue the path up to the top of the mountain. The park had built a foot bridge between the paths on the left and right sides of the gorge. At this point, the creek made its way down the mountain at least 20 feet below the bridge. So far the path up the mountain had merely been difficult to navigate. Some of the rocks were a bit slippery from the water and mist that splashed up from the stream but the biggest risk to me as I climbed would have been a bruised elbow or scratched knee as I slipped and fell. The bridge represented a different kind of danger; even with my implants, a 20-foot fall onto rocks could be quite serious. A return to the Complex on a stretcher borne by a host of “angelic” machines would seal me in my cage forever.

From the records that I had been able to retrieve, I knew that this bridge had been in place for some 600 years. I looked at the surprisingly-intact bridge to ascertain whether it would be safe to cross it. Perhaps the builders had used some extraordinarily durable building materials. Perhaps Serena and her machine minions had been busily fixing things up in spite of my objections. The Complex would let me have an adventure, but I had to assume that the Complex would ensure that it was going to be a fairly tame adventure. I finally broke down and asked the voices in my head if the foot-bridge would hold my weight, both coming and going. Without any hesitation the voices in my head said, “Yes, of course, it is quite safe.”

From the middle of the bridge, I could see water in the up-stream creek pouring over a ledge of stone that spanned the stream bed. I rested on the bridge, leaned on my walking stick and watched the water flow over the ledge and turn into white filigrees of foam. The pattern, chaotic and random, never repeated. I listened to the pleasant sound of the water as it fell down along its path to the bottom of the mountain.

The path to the top of the mountain now continued several hundred yards up on the right side of the stream. There were stretches where the path was relatively level. The path on the left side had been pretty much just rocks laid down in a rough staircase. On the right side above the bridge, there were the remains of railings installed to prevent people from falling into the gorge and striking the rocks some 20 to 30 feet below. I could tell that sections of the railing had been constructed of wood. The railing had long since rotted but I could still see the outlines of the fallen railings by the patterns of vegetation and fungus on the forest floor. Some sections of the railings were made of metal; I could see the fallen and rusted remains half-buried in the forest floor. There was one section of the railing that seemed to be untouched. It felt like some kind of plastic, was a deep forest green, and seemed to have withstood centuries of neglect without any difficulty. It was ugly.

At each step along the way from the base up to the top of the mountain, the sound of the water had been different. It was all white noise, but as I walked slowly up the mountain I could hear the differences. Water going slowly over a few large river rocks sounded different from water going quickly over a ledge. I had listened to the sound on the image displayed on my walls for perhaps 100 hours all told and I had never detected this difference. It was only when I had come to the actual place that I could hear the different voices.

As I approached the top of the mountain, the character of the sound from the water changed yet again and became louder. At the top of the gorge, the water suddenly burst out, cascaded down the rocky face of an outcropping of stone that sloped down, and transformed into white froth which fell in ever-changing lacy curtains. I found a big rock to sit on, took off my pack, leaned my walking stick up against the rock and sat down. The water spread out as a white sheet that spanned 30 foot of the rock face. The sheet rippled and ripped, opening and closing gaps in the lacy whiteness. I spent an hour watching the water fall down that rock, trying to make out the meanings in the murmurings all around me.

There were other players on this stage. The sun sent down rays of sunlight. Breezes gusted and shook the trees, guiding the rays of light to dance and then to dance again on the falling water, on the scattered rocks, on the uneven forest floor, and then back to the water. The sunshine brightened the white foam falling down the mountain. The clouds would take their place on the stage, block the sunlight for a few minutes, and then allow the rays of sun to resume their roles in the dance. Dying leaves, shaken loose from their seasonal homes, sailed on their zigzag paths, to briefly join the dance before falling to the ground or floating down the stream for a while.

The unseen birds added their voices to the performance, joined by two butterflies that, with wings of deep burgundy decorated by lighter spots of tan and pale yellow, flitted into view for a minute or two and then departed, never to return. I could almost hear the voices in my head straining, wanting to tell me what the species of the butterflies was along with the exact wavelength of the color of their wings. I never gave them the chance. I knew something about this gorge that the voices in my head would never know and would never understand: I was standing in the middle of the vivid cycle of life and not the dim echo presented by the machines.

There was enough space along the ledge on the right side of the waterfall that I could move back and forth and get different perceptions: different views, different voices. On the right side where the water was broken up by repeated contact with the face of the rock, the voices were higher. On the left side, where the water retained more of its coherence, the voices were deeper. And always, there was that sense that hidden messages might be gleaned if I only listened carefully enough. The image on my wall in the Complex had never revealed the secrets that were plainly visible here in the forest.

When I had approached the top of the mountain where the path ended on the right side, I had located where the cameras were. I did not know if anybody would be watching the image while I was visiting but I didn’t want to intrude into their experience. Fortunately the machines had mounted the cameras up at a distance perhaps 20 feet above the ledge that I was standing on. Unless I was foolish enough to try to climb the rock face of the water fall, no one would know that I was there.

I loved being a tourist and seeing new places so much that I had joined the Merchant Marine in 1935 so that I could visit castles, sit in formal gardens, tour museums, and venerate great cathedrals. For me, the cathedrals were the most impressive. I had visited Chartres in France a few years ago (in my personal subjective time) on a trip to a cemetery sheltering line after line of fallen soldiers. At Chartres I had marveled at the audacity and tenacity of people who spent generations building these magnificent cathedrals. I might not have been filled with the faith that my mother and father had, but I could still appreciate how the faith of these builders translated into a devotion that lasted over generations.

I bring up the topic of cathedrals because I realized that, sitting there on my rock watching the dance of light and leaves and listening to the ever-changing sounds of water falling and leaves rustling, I was sitting in a cathedral. The meaning of the sermon of sound and light might be forever just beyond my grasp, but there were clearly rules that had to be followed. The water might taunt gravity by flinging itself out as mist but inevitably it must embrace the ground. The sunshine had to defer to the clouds and the trees. The leaves might delay the outcome by zig-zagging as they fell, but there could be no other destination but the forest floor. There was a beauty to the wildness and chaos that I saw but there was also comfort that there were these rules to be obeyed. I didn’t know exactly what or who I was worshiping in this cathedral, but I performed my devotions with solemn reverence.

After a while I opened my knapsack and got out something to eat. There was cheese that had never seen a cow and a ham sausage that had never been anywhere near a pig. But the cheese tasted like cheese and the sausage tasted like ham and who was I to question my own senses.

I knew that it was going to rain in an hour or two. I could’ve asked the voices in my head for the exact millisecond that the rain would start but what was the fun in that. I would have to find a place set up my tent and hide out in it for couple of hours until the rain passed. I knew that it was cheating to know as much as I did about the weather. Had I been camping up in Northern Minnesota a couple thousand years ago, I would not have known and would have had to endure the randomness of it all. But I had agreed not to be an idiot out here and I had no desire to be destroyed, damaged or even significantly discomforted by the weather. I was becoming Arisan, if only in some aspects.

After a while the clouds stopped letting the sunshine through. I decided it was time to set up my tent. The tent was a ridiculous piece of high tech madness. I had not had time to practice setting it up, but Serena had told me that all I had to do was to find a roughly suitable place, place the tent on the ground, and say “deploy” in a clear and confident voice. The tent would unfold and do everything else. The place I picked could be uneven and strewn with rocks and the tent would take care of providing me with a level and comfortable surface upon which I could sleep. There was only one such place near the falls. I could pretty much guess Serena and her machine minions knew exactly where I had to pitch my tent and had perhaps groomed the area so that would be suitable for her prize Shepherd. No matter.

I placed the tent on the ground and positioned it so that when it set itself up, the opening of the tent would face the falls. I said “open sesame” but the machine that controlled the tent didn’t get the joke. I waited for a few seconds and then finally said “deploy!” The tent opened up, the base extruded this puffy looking foam that filled in all of the gaps and holes and made a level floor for the tent. The framing elements of walls and the ceiling of the tent unfolded and locked in place. All I had to do was to tieback the outer flaps and unzip the inner netting that served to keep out both insects and rain. I crawled in just before the rain started, sat there on my comfortable, flat surface and watched the falls through the rain.

The rain stopped after a couple hours, but since everything was wet, I sat in the tent, having pulled out a self-heating container of beef stew and a container of water. Serena had vetoed the hunting and fire building as being way too dangerous. I ate and watched. For a few seconds my mind contemplated the fact that the chunks of beef in the stew weren’t really beef. I tasted the chunks, they tasted like beef and I dismissed that inconvenient thought from my mind.

After dinner, I realized I was really quite tired. I unpacked the rest of my knapsack. Perhaps the most important item in the knapsack was a sleeping bag. This was another one of those high-tech creations. I had tried this out back at the Complex. My first thought was that the un-deployed sleeping bag, no more than the size of two fists, was too small and light by far to be a sleeping bag. Like the tent, all I had to do was to place it roughly where I wanted to sleep and then say “deploy”, triggering the magic. The small lump of material unfolded itself and grew into a full-sized sleeping bag with substantial padding. I had spent a few minutes inside the sleeping bag back at the Complex and declared it to be extremely comfortable.

If I had been in Northern Minnesota camping out, I would have worried a little bit about wild animals showing up. There were wolves and bears and other critters that might have wanted to take a bite out of me. We would leave the fire burning all night and if we were particularly worried we might have somebody sit up and keep watch, taking turns through the night, to make sure that nothing came up to surprise us. I was cheating again, just a bit, because I knew that Serena and the machines wouldn’t let anything get anywhere close to me that could cause me harm. I would not have been surprised if they had made a sweep through the gorge, herding all of the stinging insects and biting snakes out of the gorge so that they couldn’t cause any damage to me. Arisans valued tidiness, perhaps above all else.

I deployed my sleeping bag and crawled into it with my head right next to the opening of the tent. I fell asleep to the sounds of water falling and leaves rustling. Nothing could have been better. I woke in the morning just after first light. I stretched, but only a little bit. The sleeping bag had wrapped me in soft warmth. I could’ve been back in the bed that I slept in at the Complex. A traditionalist, I relieved myself as another aspect, perhaps a bit arcane, of the worship service.

The new day was beautiful, again filled with sun and breezes. I ate some fruit that I had packed. I attended the early morning worship services of light and sound for a couple of hours. Then I collapsed my sleeping bag and my tent, packed up my knapsack, grabbed my walking stick and began my slow descent down the mountain. From time to time I would stop and ask what a particular bush or tree was. The voices in my head would answer me, each time with way too much information. I leaned up against the railing on the bridge that led from one side of the gorge to the other and had my lunch. It was more cheese and some kind of sausage which tasted of venison.

The agreement that I had with Serena and the Complex as a whole was that I would arrive back at the drop off point toward late afternoon of the second day. The personal flying machine would take me back to the Complex. We could have fixed a particular time but this was Arisa and it was merely a machine that was waiting for me. It had nothing better to do. I was certain that the machines had been watching me every second of the time that I been out here on the mountain. They would know exactly when to show up. Not a second later and not a second sooner.

The flyer was waiting for me when I got back to the drop off point. I stowed my gear on board and climbed in. The flyer rose and headed back to the Complex. I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes, to capture as much of the two days that I had spent out of my cage as I could. I knew that if I asked, I could have pictures of every aspect of that mountain and the gorge and the water falling down. But I knew there was a difference between the images on the screen on my wall and the memories in my head; the memories were so much better. Perhaps in time I would get a chance to come back and worship at the Cathedral of Pearson’s Falls. Then again, perhaps I would not. But I had, as another one of my late aunts would have said, “blown the stink off”; I knew that I was ready to go back to my studies.

As the flyer approached the Complex, I realized that I knew something else that was even more important. I was going to serve Arisa as a Shepherd. Not because they would in effect kill me if I didn’t, but rather because I felt the need to be a part of what they were doing. There would be adventures in Arisa as well as in the past. The cage would always be there and I would always seek to slip through the bars whenever I could. But once loosed, I would always return. Perhaps it was one of Brian’s magic implants talking, but I doubted it. I was not now and would not be a Shepherd for many months or perhaps years, but I would be a Shepherd. And I would have adventures.

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