When Ch. LCdr. Francis came out of seclusion, the captain of the lifeboat had a million questions for her young officer. But there was something about the grim determination on his face that made her stop in her tracks. She had seen that expression only a few times before in her career, but it was unmistakeable, and worn only by people whose mettle had been forged in the fires of loss, reflection, and ultimately enlightenment, to become leaders. In the presence of people with that expression on their face, the XO had the wisdom to let them plot the course.
As if to echo the XO’s thoughts, when Francis looked back at her, he rebuffed any further inquiry, even by a senior officer, by uttering a single, preemptory warning, “Paradox protocol.”
“Doctor, how is your patient?” the lieutenant commander asked the Medic. “Can he travel?”
The Medic looked quizzically at the young officer; then the captain of their lifeboat; and in response to her subtle nod, he answered. “I just finished doing everything for him that I can with the resources at my disposal,” he said as he put away his arcane instruments. “I’ve stabilized him for the moment, but he needs to be in an operating room. I’ve given him painkillers, but they’ll wear off soon and he’ll be in agony without further treatment. I adapted a few cybernetic implants to take the place of his damaged eyes. I had no other choice. As a side effect, he’ll see the Nowhen the same way we do: as a black void with a timeline running through it, instead of as a mathematical abstraction—”
Turning abruptly to the XO, the doctor added, “I hope that won’t be a problem, Captain. After all, he’s from the past and I’ve just put future tech into his body.” The XO looked around, counted heads, then said, “Well, no one seems to have vanished from existence in a catastrophic explosion, so I’d guess your medical instincts were justified.”
Francis interrupted, “Doctor, please answer my question. Can this man travel?”
“Yes. Yes, I think he can,” the chief medic said, taken aback by the young officer’s single-mindedness, but pleasantly surprised by his leadership. “He’s starting to come around now. You can ask him yourself.”
Alarmed, Francis said, “No! He can’t be allowed to see too much of us.” Ever since Francis’ field promotion and subsequent upgrade to his cybernetic implants, his sense of impending paradoxes had been tingling like an alarm clock that keeps ringing no matter how often you hit the snooze button. “Can you do something to make him forget what he’s seen?” Francis suggested.
“I can give him drugs that will give him partial amnesia, but the effects won’t be specific or uniform,” the Medic said. “His memory will probably be a patchwork quilt of recollections due to his trauma alone. With drugs, it’ll be in tatters. Is that what you want for him?”
Without bothering to explain himself, and despite his regrets, he told the Medic to administer the drugs. Then he immediately turned to the Navigator and the Oracle and held up the cylindrical event log in his hand. He told them to reprogram the log to retrace its trajectory so it would return the injured man to near the time and place he came from. “Doctor, when they’re done, please reinsert the event log, in stealth mode again, back within the patient’s body.”
The XO sidled up to Francis and said sotto voce, “I’ll be happy when this man is off my boat—my cybernetics are screaming to me that he doesn’t belong here—but is sending him back to the same place where he received his horrible injuries the best thing to do?”
“I’m not at liberty to say why, Captain,” the young lieutenant commander said, “but believe me, it’s the only thing to do.”
In short order, the patient was levitating above the floor of the lifeboat, about to be cocooned in the event log’s protective force field again and sent back into the Nowhen. The patient was conscious and curious, looking around as best as he was able at the strange people, the glowing force fields, and the mysteries surrounding him. Unexpectedly, a familiar face leaned down to him, although the face looked much younger than he remembered, almost as if it was Fr. Francis’ distant relative; a grandson perhaps.
“I’m sending you home,” the young Francis whispered into the Ranger’s ear so only he could hear. “You probably won’t remember most of what happened here, but if you do, don’t pay it too much mind. The only thing for you to remember is that when the time is right, you have a decision to make. I can’t tell you how to make that decision—or how in the name of the Cosmos anyone could decide. But I will pray that you get home safely, until someday, we meet again.”
The event log and the Ranger slipped out the lifeboat and began retracing their trajectory through the Nowhen. The injured lawman was delirious, with his pain and wits dulled by medication, and slipping in and out of consciousness. When he looked around, it was with what felt like new eyes. He saw hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bodies falling slowly through an infinite, black, void toward some distant point far below. He lost consciousness again, but the event log continued to ferry him back to the epoch where it was originally launched by Fr. Francis.
When the event log delivered the Ranger back to ordinary time, it arrived several hours after the priest and the New Texas Rangers had been attacked by a mysterious gunship, and hundreds of meters away in a brush-covered, hidden arroyo. In fleeting moments of consciousness, the Ranger realized the blackness that he had seen in the Nowhen and the darkness he had seen in unconsciousness, was now replaced by the black velvet of night. Bright stars held fixedly in the firmament, unlike the figures falling through the Nowhen, and shined roughly through twisted branches of woody brush.
In the Ranger’s delirium, the silver-child in him called out for help, and Caleb Rajesh Anderson’s Walking Stick, Edgar, heard him. As consciousness fled the Ranger yet again, Edgar pulled aside the brush and said, “You’re a human, and yet I heard you. I heard you! You must be… special.”