They walked back to the villa in silence and not much later Tom and Craig drove off to the tunnel. Malcolm was out discussing arrangements for the trip to the wastelands leaving Gene alone and free to wonder around.
Slaves were busy, but seemed cheerful and less afraid of him until he found Baydon and his handler. Baydon was resting on a shovel while the boy looked helplessly on. He saw Gene and burst into tears.
"Hello, Kaith. Problems?" Gene asked.
"I'm sorry, Master." Kaith wept, "I just can't make him work properly. I can't obey you."
"You're doing your best." Gene said, "It's not your fault Baydon has blown his chance. What should we do with him?"
"I don't know, Master. Punish him like you're going to punish me?"
"Yes, but I'm not going to punish you. It's not your fault. Well, you could have fitted the heavier chains like I suggested, but you're right. They would just have given him more of an excuse to work slowly."
"I was too scared to order the chains, Master." Kaith said.
"So he was trying to bully his superior, was he?" Gene asked, "No! Don't answer."
"So, Baydon. What do I do with you?"
"May all the wasteland's curses be upon you. Why should I work while you laze around?"
"Put like that, I agree. Kaith, find a couple of volunteers, tie his hands then take him to the blacksmith in the market. Have his collar and chains removed then untie him."
"Yes Master. What then?"
"I think you can charge things to me, so find some treat or something to eat and enjoy."
"Thank you, Master, but I meant what about Baydon?"
"What about him? I've given him what he wanted. He's free and doesn't have to work for anyone while they laze around."
Slaves had gathered around, listening, and a few were beginning to understand. Baydon would be left in the market with nothing, not even a tunic. One or two even understood how devious Gene was and shuddered. People in the market would be curious, and the three slaves would have to explain. Baydon would be worthless, and unemployable. Some would even see helping Baydon as betraying Gene who was still the hero. Gene looked at the gathering slaves.
"There's nothing wrong in helping a friend," he said, "So if you want to speak up for him, go ahead."
There was silence but then a slave stepped forward.
"I don't think we can speak for him, Master. Malcolm tells us you're a kind master, and he certainly wouldn't have lived long with Trader Wilhelm if he spoke to him the way he speaks to you. You're right about Baydon always moaning and not working, so you are giving him what he wants, but he'll starve to death. Master, I may be punished for asking this, but do you want to be that cruel?"
"It's a good point, but I will punish you. You can be one of the guards but while the other two are buying treats, you will arrange for a little job to be set up. The market smells a bit from all the rubbish so if someone collects it all and carries it away, maybe the stallholders will feed him. He'll only need leftovers at the end of the day, if he's worked hard enough and if he doesn't work, someone else can do it and get fed. Is that better?"
The slave grinned as he nodded, "Older beggars could prove they can work hard, couldn't they, Master?"
"Maybe, but Baydon can have the first chance."
"Master, you've cursed Baydon by giving him everything he wanted. I certainly won't annoy you."
"I think I'm very difficult to annoy, and I'm new to owning slaves, so tell me. Should I give Baydon another chance?"
"You are giving him one, Master. The city stinks because of the rubbish. Someone could turn clearing it into a nice little business."
"You've got your chance, Baydon. Don't expect any help from me, though."
Baydon was just bright enough to know Gene would turn anything else he said against him. He thought about the good food and clean water the slaves got, the straw mattress he slept on and realised his life had got so much worse. He had badly underestimated Gene, so he kept quiet, grateful he was still alive and no matter how small it was, he still had a chance.
"Frana is a bit of a hero for standing up to you." Malcolm said when he returned and checked all was in order in the villa, "Most say Baydon got off lightly, but I don't know, I think they know how hard it's going to be."
"What do you think?" Gene asked.
"It is a bit magical, master. Frana's idea you cursed him has stuck, and it scares the slaves. It's muddled though. They also say it's a good curse because you gave him what he wanted and now it's all down to him. It's Kaith who's upset at failing you."
"We need a waiter in here. Someone we can ignore, stand well out of earshot if we're discussing anything wizardly, and who would allow his balls to be pulled up through his nose before he talked about anything he did hear."
"Yes Master. I'll brief Kaith. You must have guessed it, but he's bright and wants to do well."
"And do you want it to be just us tonight, or do you want a toy to play with?"
"I'd like a quiet night with you, Master. I think Kaith could become very playful, but he'll need to learn our ways first."
"Another slave ruined then." Gene chuckled.
"Come here, and I'll show just how ruined I am, Master."
While the villa slaves were processing the idea Gene was no fool and was someone to be wary of, Gene and Malcolm were indulging in an afternoon of love and passion, Tom was surveying the work done at the tunnel. His boys, as he called them, were sitting enjoying chocolate and colas, except for the oldest one who was acting as his guide, but he was still enjoying his treats but carefully licked his hands clean to point anything of interest out. It was incredibly bad behaviour for a slave but Tom did not mind. He had examined the pile of rocks that might contain something and now he was examining the floor of the tunnel which had been completely cleared except for the railway tracks resting on crumbling concrete sleepers.
The track was continuous and Tom knew it was of a type only introduced in the last fifty years of his world. He already knew it in his heart but now he had the proof. He was in the future.
Gene would have gone off to university or something and it was expected his life would change soon, but it had changed sooner than anyone expected and had headed in a bewilderingly unexpected way. Tom had gone through that transition long ago and up until a few weeks ago, had been settled into a safe, predictable life. His visits to Gene still left him in shock, but they had replaced his weekly round of golf. However, Gene had been there to greet him, he was welcome, and apart from the weapons and the nudity, he could almost have been visiting Gene at some youth club's camp site or a re-enactment society. Discovering a railway line had changed things. It added a sinister dimension to his travels and one he would have to deal with.
Tom was upset, and the boy, Tarin, was worried it was his fault, yet he was sure it had something to do with the metal bars they had found, so could they be in trouble for disturbing them? It still did not make sense; Master Tom was usually so kind and considerate. As Tom hurried out of the tunnel, seeking the open air, Tarin hesitated but followed him at a safe distance.
Tom felt better as he felt the sun and a gentle breeze on his face. The tunnel, beyond the flickering light of the torches, had been a menacing blackness. He found a ledge and sat down and only then did he see Tarin standing nervously a little distance away. Tarin's caution calmed Tom as nothing else could.
"It's all right, Tarin." Tom said, "What you've uncovered are called railway lines. How can I put it? They carry a message only wizards can understand, and it shocked me. I'm not ready to explain why, so bear with me."
"Yes, Master. I could comfort other masters, but you don't like me enough do you?"
"Oh, I like you, but I prefer my wife to comfort me in the way you're talking about. I wouldn't object to a cuddle, if you like."
Tarin hurried over, anxious to please his master but hesitated, uncertain what a cuddle was. Tom guided him down onto his lap wrapping his arms round the boy. Tarin nestled in and greatly daring, rested his head on Tom's shoulder. It was simple contact with another human and something shared. Like any teenager, Tarin thought about sex all the time, even wondering if he would ever be allowed a wife but for now, accepting it was his duty to replace free men's wives while they were away. Life was already easier and as an owner, Tom's friendliness and kindness was any slave's dream. Tarin shuddered with the simple pleasure of just sitting there.
"Is something wrong?" Tom asked.
"No, Master. I like cuddling."
"So do I until my backside starts going numb. These rocks are hard."
"Are you still upset, Master?"
"I think I will be for the rest of my life. You've given me time to understand better, so thank you."
"It's my duty to serve you, Master."
"Maybe when I send you for a glass of water but not when I need your warmth and life. You can only give that because you want to."
Tarin smiled happily. He did not fully understand why Master Tom did not want to use him, but he was not going to worry about it because he was going to become Tom's full time slave.
There was little to find in the pile of debris. Tom thought he recognised the remains of plastic cups, broken glass and an array of green diodes: the remains of a signal? Finds like that dated it to the 21st century but for how long did diode technology exist? One advantage of his job back home was that he had contacts, and he knew a small electronics firm. It would be interesting to see what they made of it. He was ready to go back to the city but Craig had returned to the camp and was sitting with Yousif outside a chalet style cabin which had been built for Yousif.
"I don't think there's much point in building stone defences for the tunnel." Yousif said, "The scouts I sent out are discovering other routes. Now we know what to look for, we've found other banks like the ones leading to the tunnel. All my life, I've been told these are impenetrable mountains, but they're not. What I don't get, is why the pirates thought the same as us."
"Yes it is strange." Craig said, "Gene's dad is looking for answers but according to this map, a couple of banks stop at valleys. I wonder if they would find the remains of bridges at the bottom."
"I'll show you the nearest one. No-one could build a bridge that big."
"Yes, please, Master." Craig paused, "I know I can call you Yousif, but it feels strange. It shouldn't do because I'm not used to calling anyone, Master."
Yousif smiled, "Slave, Wizard, General; you're all three. Thanks to you, I'm a great general conquering the pirate lands. I've not fought a battle yet, but my conquest is growing every day. How did you know the pirates would give in so easily?"
"I didn't, but I wondered why men forced to fight did so. For their city? Not really, it kept them poor. For the local commander? He was just nasty. I'd read about a great war back home. The Nazis were cruel and vicious, probably worse than the pirates here because they didn't even want slaves. They wanted to wipe the Russians out. The Russians formed resistance movements and people flocked to them because their best hope for survival was by driving the Nazis out."
Yousif nodded. "So, we let them prosper, only take taxes they can afford, and they'll fight to defend their lives, not to protect us."
"Not quite. There's got to be some organisation, judges to decide disputes and the rest. They'll defend the way of life we're setting up."
"I'm setting up." Yousif snapped.
"Yes, Master. I should have added, under your direction."
"No. I'm just being over-sensitive, and I know what you meant. The only thing that bothers me is you're almost a god over there."
"I don't want to interfere, so I won't go back. I do want to understand what's going on, so I'd like to see this bank you mentioned, and have a good look around. Gene, Tom and I don't like the questions we have."
"All the time you're doing wizard's work, you're not meddling in mine, so ask for whatever you want."
A little later, Tom and Craig were standing in a valley, staring at a pile of rubble. Tom turned to Tarin who was standing a little way back, trying not to be noticed.
"Take a look, Tarin. What do you make of it?" Tom said.
Unhappy at being noticed, Tarin obeyed, before replying, "They're reinforced concrete, Master. Like the tunnel, only this isn't a tunnel, is it?"
"No, it's a pylon for a bridge. Hunt around and see if you can find any more." Turning to Craig, Tom added, "I think this is a motorway bridge or something. The top of the embankment seemed to be asphalt not ballast.
"Does it help figure out when we are."
"No. It confirms what we discovered at the tunnel though. We need to talk to Gene. Will you drive me back?"
"What are you going to do with your shadow?"
"Let him come with us, I suppose. He hasn't left my side since I arrived. Is it OK, though?"
"You're thinking parental rights, not slave boys. If you claim him and no-one has a better claim, he's yours. Would you take him home?"
"How? I couldn't even register him with a doctor, and you know what he thinks slaves are used for. I'd hate to think how he'd behave in front of your mother."
"Don't let it bother you. It's your choice, not his and the slaves of wizards don't do so bad. Look! He's found something."
"It's about where I'd expect the next one. Call him back."
"Yes Master." Craig replied.
Tom grinned, "I suppose it is easy to order slaves around. How come you accept it?"
Craig shrugged, "We keep talking about it because no-one is sure how it works. Gene and I keep fighting battles where no-one gets killed. It's a bit magical, so I'm a wizard who's chosen to be a slave. Only Gene would dare give me orders though, so even if I spend the day sunbathing, everyone assumes it's on his say so. Every one has guessed Tarin wants to be your slave, and you could do worse. He organised most of the work while you were away."
"Yes, but I'm not interested in everything he could do. I still think he should be in school, maybe fretting over his first girlfriend."
"Malcolm, Milo and Trey are all slaves. If they were normal camp slaves, they'd be used by any passing soldier. Malcolm drives the car, is close to Gene, understands a lot about basic health care and other stuff, so no-one dares touch him. He has to say, 'would you do it' instead of just, 'do it', but he's obeyed. Milo is in the same situation as Malcolm while Trey is the wizard of communications. He could ask the army to climb a mountain to move a beacon, and it would be done. The radio equipment has an expected life of about twenty years, so he's training seasoned soldiers in semaphore and asking about basic batteries. We could have a telegraph system by the time the radios die. He's a kid, a slave but heaven help anyone who upsets him. Tarin sees all that, and you're his chance, so he's using you, but don't worry. You're the master, so it's up to you, how much you use him."
"You make it seem very cold and calculating."
It's survival. Back home, how did kids on the street get by? Here, it's all open, and a rich merchant could be shamed if he did not honour a deal with a rent boy. A deal's a deal and if he cheats on one, how many others does he cheat on?"
"So is slavery more of a contract of employment?"
"You don't get to refuse becoming a slave, and slaves can be bought and sold, but it's the master's duty to look after you. If your slaves are half-starved, how shoddy are the rest of your goods?"
"So if I take Tarin on, and he grows up to be the world's leading archaeologist he'll be treated as an academic and not a slave, and it'll reflect well on me."
"On Gene because you're not staying." Craig said.
Tom nodded. "Do I have to sign anything or pay someone?"
"No. He's a prisoner of war and has been given to Gene who's lent him to you, so all you're doing is making it a little more formal."
"Despite what I said, I'd find a way to take him home if I could, but what would happen to him and his children? I wish I knew more about this disaster."
"This barbecue you mentioned. I'll speak to the police if they come but that's all. I don't want to invite friends then hide what I know about their future." Craig said.
"I know how you feel, and it's fine. If the police are still interested, it'll tidy up a loose end, and it'll make coming and going easier for all of us."
Tom had to admit Tarin was an excellent organiser. He had arranged for two slaves to keep Tom's quarters clean and tidy, and a cot for himself at the foot of Tom's bed. It was a compromise. Tarin would have slept on the floor unless needed by Tom, while Tom wanted him to have his own room. Only Craig and Gene assumed Tarin did not have sex with Tom while Malcolm wondered how long Tom would last out.
"Dad's mentioned Tarin likes to be cuddled." Gene said one day, "I can't imagine Dad going further unless this place gets to him."
If Tom was getting used to attitudes in the city, he was also getting used to time travel, and was in no rush to go home. It was taking time to absorb the implications of the discoveries he was making, and he needed to know what was going to happen.
When Gene had asked the torch to help, it had replied, You're discovering the truth for yourself. It is the best way of learning. It also helps hide you. Did you discover radio equipment at a dig? Were you wizards? Serious discussion on time travel would be harmful for a long time.
"Why?" Gene asked.
There would be expectations every problem would be solved. The idea you found stores which wear out or stopped working when you died, means your inventions die with you so it allows the future to develop naturally.
"Yet you are guiding it." Gene said.
Do you expect an answer to that question?
"No." Gene chuckled, "Who are you? I guess you won't answer that either."
Not yet, but you may be able to guess. You understand you cannot save your birth world. For now, you may travel freely, and you may choose who else may travel, but we will intervene if we do not see a reason for the journey. Craig has adapted to the world you now live in. Others may. Others will refuse to become slaves, while some will try to exploit their power here but, your way of doing things must dominate. Your pain may be less if you do something, consider which friends would adapt to your ways.
"What about Mum?"
Be prepared to say goodbye to her.
"She can't travel even if she's part of me like Dad."
Be prepared to say goodbye to her.
"Is something going to happen to her?"
Be prepared to say goodbye to her.
"Now you're scaring me!"
We are preparing you.
"We do time travel, can't I help her?"
No. A woodsman cuts a tree down, so it falls without harming anyone or anything, except one branch digs into the ground and snaps off. Later a traveller steps on it, cuts his foot, so he dies of blood poisoning. Time travel has equally obscure consequences. Remember, Craig was heading for obscurity by ending up in prison, either by killing you or through falling in with his father. You could have ended your existence there by dying or by disappearing. Your mother's choices are limited.
"What about Dad."
"His life is obscure there but is full of potential achievement here."
As he had discovered he was time travelling, and it was now obvious he was in the future, Gene had been thinking about the consequences. He realised he could visit his parents graves and know when they would die. In theory, he could watch them die and discover when Malcolm will die. Gene was sure that in practice, he would be stopped, and he was relieved, because he agreed with Craig about not seeing too many of his old friends. Knowing their future was a curse, not a blessing.
That evening Gene sent everyone out of the room except for Tom and Craig.
"I'd like this barbecue to be at a place I know. It's a waterfall on an island, but I don't know where or when it is. Malcolm, Milo and Tarin can come, and we'll not hide they're slaves. I'd also like to invite Benny Galbraith and Jimmy Smedley from the football team, maybe some others, but we'll fit the arrangements around them."
"Why them?" Craig asked, "I thought Benny was about to be kicked off the team."
"He is. Everyone thinks he's hooked on drugs, and I mean coke or something, not just weed."
"Then why him?" Tom asked.
"He'll be dead in a couple of years, and he's close to jail for shoplifting. Before the drugs, he was into science."
"So you could invite him here like you did me." Craig said, "What about Smedley? How do you know about them?"
"Jimmy is on anti-depressants and is still suicidal. He's bright and fast tracked to our year despite being two years younger. The problem is, his parents can't accept he's only fourteen-years old and put too much pressure on him. I know because I had a couple of conversations with the torch this afternoon. It made me realise I can't stop millions, maybe billions dying in the disaster that's coming, but the torch told me these two will die before their time."
"I've got a cousin who may be the same." Craig said, "Can I invite him?"
"Peanuts?" Gene asked, "I was told you might ask."
Tom was quiet, looking unhappy but finally said, "All right, your Mum has cancer. It started in her breasts, but the doctors are concerned because it's pretty aggressive. If it invades her lymph cells, then it'll only be a matter of time. Can we help her?"
"Why didn't she tell me?" Gene exclaimed angrily, but quickly calmed down as he considered it, "I don't think we can. Imagine taking her fifty years forward. She'd look pretty good for a ninety-year old which is what her papers would show. If she came here, would she accept this world's attitudes towards women?"
"You were coming up for exams, so we didn't want to worry you, and it's not certain. If it's caught in time, she's got a good chance anyway."
"Wait here." Gene commanded.
The screen appeared as soon as he was alone, "We know about your mother. Future treatments focus more on prevention. She is getting the best treatment in any of your zones."
"Will she be all right?" Craig asked then added, "No, you told me to get ready to lose her. She's going to die."
"Yes. You already know you could visit her grave today. As we talk, she has been dead for many centuries, yet you're going to see her again. Does the party she wants and her acceptance of Malcolm, surprise you?"
"Yes." Gene replied uncertainly.
"What do you think focussed her mind?"
Gene was quiet for a moment, "Will this cancer kill her?"
"We cannot tell you. Your mother will reassess her life, and it will mean change. Many changes could mean you having to say goodbye to her. We have given you the chance to be prepared, but your futures must be of your making."
Gene was thoughtful as he returned to the others.
"I'm not allowed to know what's going to happen to her, Dad. She's never talked about becoming a nun or something, has she?"
"No. Why do you ask?"
"I've got to be prepared to say goodbye to her but this cancer scare is going to change things. What would happen to you if she left you?"
Tom was silent for a moment. "Your mother is like a pendulum. When I first met her, she was something of a hippie. When she became pregnant with you, she swung the other way, some described it as building a safe nest for you. You could be saying she's going to swing again. I could see her moving to a third world country to teach but if the pendulum swung again, she would end up organising the school system. I think I would like to move here and become an archaeologist providing I don't have to become your slave."
"No. You're too much of an elder wizard. Won't you miss Mum if she goes off?"
"Miss her? Yes, I will, but to be honest, I'll also be relieved. We've kept going for your sake, but she's tried too hard. Being a good suburban housewife would get you a good education at the best schools, and she is an educator. The trouble is, all her excess energy goes into committees, and she's too intense. Most people hate her and her opinions. You know how obsessed she was with making a nice home. I'll stick by her during this cancer scare but …" Tom trailed off before adding, "This might sound terrible but whichever way it goes …"
As Tom stopped again, Gene hurried over and hugged him.
"I get it." Gene said, "We'll make this party a memorable one for Mum's sake. I don't suppose you want to go into the wastelands yet."
"What are the wastelands?" Tom asked, "I keep hearing about them but what's there?
"I don't know. People mention them. They're haunted which I don't believe. They're the lands of the ancients which is possible. I've wondered whether they're bomb sites and still a bit radioactive. You know, the disaster was a nuclear war."
"I've heard they're just so rocky, farming is impossible." Craig said, "The way I understand it, migrants crossed the hills we're exploring, and the population is spreading into the wastelands but only along the shore. It's all so confused though. Why did everyone think the hills were impassable?"
"I'll fetch a radiation detector and some other equipment." Tom said, "I'm going to change our plans. I'll phone the police and tell them you'll visit for an interview. I'll start buying in what I need, and we'll arrange a proper expedition."
"OK! I've got this place to run, organise expeditions, help with capturing other cities, develop telegraphy and develop good hygiene and other medical stuff. I've got Malcolm who'll run this place for me, Craig who gets on with the army, but I don't know enough about electricity, and I don't know enough about medicine. I need more slaves from back home. OK! Dad, Craig tell me you're shocked by the idea."
"I'm not." Craig said, "Unless you let it all go to your head, anyone who comes here could have a good life."
Gene smiled his thanks. "I don't think the torch would stay if I went bad, but I'm going to push things. Let's get the police off your back, Dad, I want to speak to them before we do anything else." Gene said then raised his voice, "Malcolm!"
The door opened and Malcolm hurried in as Gene added, "So! How much did you hear?"
"Nothing, Master." Malcolm grinned, "I tried, but the door was too thick, and you spoke quietly."
"Hmm! There's a pool in the gardens. I want it drained and thoroughly cleaned. How is it filled."
"From our well, Master. Your drinking water is boiled for you, but we can't do it for everyone."
"And another job for me." Gene chuckled, "I've got to get the plumbing fixed. Er, what happens to our waste?"
"It's collected for manure, Master. Human shit is supposed to produce the best quality. I understand from our time at camp drinking water must not be contaminated with it, but there's not much risk."
That night, as they settled down together in bed, Gene said, "You know all the projects we're working on. I need help, what would you say to more wizards arriving? They'd work on different projects."
"You never send for other slaves, Master, and Kaith is so disappointed. I think you'd like to send for Craig, so why don't you?"
"It would upset you. Yes, I know. You're a slave so what you want doesn't count, but tell me. Who do you want to play with? Yeah, and I don't want the correct answer, your Master."
"You want to be my friend, and I do love you, so I can answer: with my lover. I think Craig, Milo and Kaith would like games which could be fun, but it will always be nice to come back to just me and you. Oh, and Tarin thinks Wizard Tom is too wizardly to be interested in worldly fun."
"Wizardly? Is that spiritual?"
"I think so, Master. I just used his word."
"Tell Tarin he can find a playmate. It's not to affect his duties, but he can have fun when off-duty."
"Yes, Master and tonight my Master will obey his slave. Turn over, so I may make you mine."
They woke up the next morning refreshed and happy, nestling in each other's arms. Kaith entered their bedroom with a tray of fruit, and a carafe of water. He looked at them, placed the tray beside them and quietly left without disturbing them.
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]
* Some browsers may require a right click instead