I felt myself swaying slightly with shock. That saying – you could have knocked me down with a feather – that’s how it was. He saw me, smiled and bowed his head slightly in recognition. I could only stare at him. He did not come to talk to us, though –people hurried to meet him, and he walked off, talking with them. Before he vanished through a door leading away from the hall, he glanced over his shoulder. His eyes locked on mine for a second and then he was gone.
I realized I had been staring at him with my mouth open like an idiot.
“That is one of the gates.” Grandma pointed to the screen. “This place was built around it to protect it. The gate used to be invisible, and moved around the area before it was stabilized – in the past it could be found only by walking through it. If you read the history of this area, you’ll find several references to missing people. The most likely explanation is that they happened to walk through this gate – a local road passed close to it, and people stopped just about here, by the roadside, to rest.”
“Missing… you mean that once they got in there, they did not come back?” I asked and almost unconsciously moved backwards away from the gate.
This time Professor Rowan answered.
“Not all found their way back. And the fact that there are several gates around the world, explains all the stories of people who thought a day had passed, when in fact it had been decades, even hundreds of years. Some never did find their way back, and you could say they died eventually. But they probably did not even notice it, as they were on the Other Side already. They just moved on and probably wondered why everything suddenly seemed more magnificent and their bodies felt lighter. Obviously at some stage they realized the truth – either on their own or when someone told them that they had died. Their physical body sank back to our physical world while their lighter spirit body continued moving on. This may provide an explanation for the fact that sometimes dead bodies cannot be identified. How could they be? They may have been born hundreds of years earlier.”
“So how is it possible for anyone to go through the gate from here and manage to return to their own time?”
“That is what we learn here,” Lilith said. “Well – some people learn it, some don’t. But we never leave anyone wandering about – experienced travelers take care any of new ones, and bring them back safely. We have good trackers who usually quickly find those who are lost in the buffer zone. Daniel, whom I believe you have already met, is one of them.”
She nodded in the direction that he had disappeared. Daniel. So that was his name.
“What happens to them then? The ones who don’t learn whatever it is they are supposed to do there?” I asked.
“They remain here in their normal physical life and help the best they can – through research, for example. We gather vast quantities of data about major events as well as daily life in history. Our researchers are storehouses of knowledge,” Lilith continued with pride.
She seemed to be ready to give me a straight answer to all the questions that were bubbling up in me directly. My intense curiosity meant that I wasn’t too shy to carry on asking, even though my next question was undoubtedly one of the oddest I had ever asked anyone.
“Why? You… time travel?”
Lilith nodded matter-of-factly.
“We do. The timeless buffer zone is connected to every time that ever existed. That means we can move through time there – with certain limitations. It is not easy, and there is a high risk of getting lost, if you don’t know exactly how to do it. Another problem is that if you are not careful, you can mess up the past, which may cause havoc in the future. We avoid it at all costs, but the Immortals, the shadows and their… Masters…don’t, and it can take a lot of work to put right whatever they have changed. They need to be stopped. If we hear of a major disturbance that they have caused, we travel to the time before it, to try to prevent it from happening in the first place. That may result in physical aggression, when we wait for them at their point of exit from the buffer zone.”
“How do you know it has happened, then? I mean if they have changed the past, how do you know it has even happened? And how do you know the changes they have caused are bad?”
The whole concept of changing the past – and altering the future as a consequence – was mind-boggling, but I was trying to keep up. I had glanced round for a clock without finding one, but a surreptitious look at my hand showed that all was as it should be.
“Good questions… usually they kill people, or rob them of their belongings, and we consider that these are crimes that should be stopped. So in the name of humanity we try to do this whenever we can. As for finding out where they have done their deeds, we follow the trails they leave behind. They leave veritable paths in the buffer zone, because they use the same routes year after year. We have our scouts near these paths, and we see them moving there, we follow them, and intervene where we can,” Lilith explained. “Also our history researchers know their specific eras so well that they notice right away if a text in a history book suddenly changes. That is how we know something has happened there, and we send a team to investigate. These changes in the past don’t erase everyone’s memory. What I’m going to say next will probably be no surprise to you. I am sure that you’ve experienced this – you hear about an event in the news, and then, suddenly, you hear another piece of news that completely negates what you know, for a certainty, that you heard before.”
“What exactly… any examples?” I wasn’t quite sure that I understood.
“Well, let’s say that you knew London had lost the vote for the Olympic games. And suddenly you hear in the news that construction work has started on the Olympic stadium in London. You know there is a glitch. But if you talk to other people, most of them have no recollection of things ever being different. The kind of people we want to work with us are those who can remember and note such things happening. They usually have the skills to move in the buffer zone as well, we have found.”
“And so you – gather troops, as the book says.”
“So we do gather troops, yes,” Lilith nodded, “to stop the crimes done by the Immortals, their shadows and their…Masters.”
I made a mental note of her hesitance about naming the Masters of the Immortals.
“But how did these gates come about? Were they always there or did someone make them?”
“Now that’s where it gets interesting,” Professor Rowan positively beamed in his eagerness to explain. “You see… Have you ever heard of…”
“Whoa – stop. It’s best that we talk about these things after everyone gets settled in. Also, I need to call Dana’s parents and come up with a believable explanation of why we are not coming back,” Grandma interrupted.
I did not like the sound of that.
“What do you mean – we are not coming back?”
“As long as the shadows are after you, it is not safe for you to leave this building,” Grandma said, “but leave this to me.”
Lilith left Grandma to her phone call, and led me up the stairs to the second floor. Our steps echoed slightly from the closed doors lining the long corridor, none of which had any nameplates. I noticed how fit Lilith seemed to be – she took long steps and moved with the grace of a dancer. Exactly like Grandma.
Lilith knocked on the last door on the right.
“Diana? May we come in?”
The door swung open and a young woman stood in the doorway, holding a book. She appeared to be about my own age, maybe slightly older. Her dark brown eyes were smiling and I liked her the instant our eyes met.
“Always, Lilith! And whom do we have here? A newcomer?” she smiled broadly.
“Yes, a newcomer. She is here before her time, because the shadows are showing some extra interest in her. She was brought straight in here by Layla, her grandmother.”
“So you are Layla’s granddaughter! Pleased to meet you!”
I could not help smiling back at her.
“Everything will be explained to you when the time is right,” Lilith assured me, “but there’s so much to take in and the priority is to find you a room, so here we are.”
“Welcome, welcome! Glad to have company!” Diana gestured for us to step into the room. I noticed there were two beds there, on opposite walls.
“Dana has brought nothing with her, so maybe you could help her out with some clothes and while she’s getting settled?”
“Of course! Leave that to me!”
Diana seemed to be one of those types who burst with energy. She practically danced back into the room when Lilith turned and left.
“Who is Lilith, anyway?” I took the opportunity to start digging out more information right away.
“She is one of the leaders here. They make the decisions regarding which team goes where. And when. Also she is our expert in waking up sleeping people.”
“I suppose you mean lucid dreaming?”
Diana made a little pirouette. Very elegantly, I might add.
“Yes, you suppose right. She found you too, didn’t she? After you read the book, obviously.”
“Yes… yes, she did. Have you read the book too?”
“But of course. Quite a few of us here have, I think. Though in my case I only saw it after I arrived here. Do you still have it?”
I took the book out of the bag and Diana seized it.
“Just the same as the last time I saw it – there are a few more names at the back…” she leafed through the name list, “but none from my times, as the book did not exist then. Nor could I read then.”
“You said ‘your time’… When was that exactly?”
“The middle of the nineteenth century,” Diana had a look in her eyes that was hard to fathom. “I was the daughter of a slave and a plantation master, sold to my family when I was a child. I worked in the house, because of that. And because I was pretty and had lovely, coffee-colored skin.”
I sat down heavily on the bed.
“So how old are you, exactly?”
“Well, I was sixteen the day I escaped. The date was May seventeenth, 1849. I and the daughter of the house, whose maid I was, were shopping in St Louis. I suspect madam – we had to call our owners ‘master’ and ‘mistress’ – sent us there, because the master of the house had begun to pay attention to my looks and visit my room.”
I looked at her, shocked.
“You mean… are you saying he…” I could not finish the sentence.
“Yes. It was considered his right at the time. But the mistress of the house would not put up with it and decided to send me away. I think she intended to sell me, but as it was, the daughter of the house was very fond of me, and I was allowed to stay,” Diana shrugged and I did not know what to say.
“And that is why we were at the family’s town house when the fire alarm was sounded. Bells started to ring out madly and I was sent to see what it was about. I saw that the steamboat White Cloud was on fire on the river. It floated down the Mississippi, setting twenty-two other boats on fire. The flames leaped onto the buildings on the shore and soon there was an enormous fire. Massive! It all happened so quickly.
“I was too curious and suddenly the flames were close by, and I there was no way I could turn to escape. That’s when Lilith appeared, out of nowhere. She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me away. I fell asleep – now I know I could not stay conscious in the buffer zone – and when I woke up, I was in another part of the country. In Boston, in a house with an elderly lady. She would look after me while I practiced.”
Diana started scooping her stuff off the other bed.
“You mean practiced lucid dreaming?”
“Yes, what else? She taught me, and I would have done even stranger things to please her. If she wanted me to learn to awake in my dreams, then I would do my best to learn. Not a big price to pay for freedom.”
She took the bundle of her clothes and books she had gathered from the bed given to me, dropped them on the floor next to her bed and continued talking.
“Took me three months to finally get there. Lilith was waiting for me. It was enough that I managed to wake up in my dream. She did not put me through any tests or set me searching after any clues – the times were not safe for any young girl to go alone anywhere, slave or free. Lilith simply appeared in our friend’s living room one evening after meeting me in my dream. Stepped through the slit, and took me with her, and brought me here.”
“Slit? What slit?”
“Hmm… it’ll be better if I let Lilith explain some things to you. Your head is probably spinning as it is.”
She was right about that.
“OK. Let’s go and get you some clothes, if you are to stay.”
Diana opened the door and motioned me to go to the corridor.
“How can you live in another time?” I had to ask this young woman who was 160 years old, strictly speaking.
“No problem there. I leave one time-space reality and disappear from there. And I enter another one, where time keeps on ticking just as it would have done in my old life. It really isn’t all that complicated. So I am exactly my physical age, despite the fact I skipped a few decades. Or centuries.”
“Sorry. At the moment all of this feels quite complicated…”
“It won’t, after a while. You’ll get used to the idea. But the rest of it quite boggles the mind, I can assure you.”
She was right.
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