The rat poked its nose out of the grass, just enough to sniff the air. It could tell by the smell that they were all around, walking past, walking quickly. The stench of them was in the air, a smell that didn’t belong. The rat kept as still as it could, apart from a twitching nose. It could smell them better than it could see them, but it could make out that the scaly creatures walking on two legs were everywhere. The rat sniffed again. The air smelled bad; it was dark when it should be bright, it smelled rank when it should be sweet, this was not right. In a very primitive rat-like way, it knew that this wasn’t right. The rat was about to retreat into the cover of the grass, and then…
A thousand years of heavy industry had darkened the Earth’s skies and now the air wrapped around the planet like a soiled blanket, but this had never troubled the dominant species. Reptiles had risen from humble beginnings as lumbering dinosaurs to be technological leviathans. Their cities spread across the globe, their factories belched more and more filth into the atmosphere, their skyscrapers reached upwards connecting cities to clouds.
In the capital city, the Government quarter was the biggest and most impressive. The tallest and most imposing buildings were here, it had the biggest and grandest piazzas surrounding the biggest buildings, and it had the most token attempts at finesse and bringing some suggestion of culture to the spaces. The Ministry of Science building was the biggest of all. Its black and imposing façade rose out of sight into the dirty clouds. It was imposing by design, looking like a body builder towering over weaker mortals.
Of all the reptiles walking around the piazzas of the Government quarter, Creeg was a reptile on a mission. He strode purposefully across the expanse of the piazza towards of the Ministry of Science building. As he got closer, he looked up at the Ministry of Science building. It wasn’t by accident the Ministry of Science was the most powerful Ministry of Government, and it wasn’t by accident that Creeg was a rising Ministerial Aide. He was cunning and ruthless, even by reptile standards. Dressed in his smartest suit, clutching his most professional document case, his ID badge slung around his neck, he marched on towards the Ministry building. A scattering of water features and miniature gardens decorated the piazza, a token attempt at refinement. It was all very pretty, but Creeg had time for none of it. He was on an important mission, perhaps the most important of his career so far.
None other than the Minister of Science had summoned Creeg himself. The brief message on his personal communicator had been concise and clear. There weren’t many of his age or rank who received messages from the Minister, but Creeg was no ordinary Aide. In a reptile-eat-reptile world he was hungry to be top-reptile. He had set about being more ambitious than most, learning how to be more ruthless than most, and when he had entered the inner circle of Minister Vraag he had met the master of ambition and ruthlessness. Vraag had slithered up the ranks of Government, playing the game of politics with a rare blend of meanness and cunning. Vraag was not a Minister to be crossed or underestimated. Vraag was the reason the Ministry of Science was the most powerful Ministry in Government.
One small thing irritated Creeg this dark and ambitious morning, and that was the lack of breakfast. He always ate a small mammal before going to work, but this morning the very other-than-normal message had jerked him out of his normal routine, and now his stomach growled. This wouldn’t do. If he was to meet the Minister, he couldn’t turn up with a noisy digestive system. He needed a small bite to eat. As he walked and pondered his need for food. He passed one of the small ornamental flower beds, a presentation of shrubs and grasses, and a movement caught his eye. And then… in a deft swipe, Creeg snatched the rat from the grass. The rat squealed in Creeg’s grip, wriggling for all it was worth. But Creeg was in no mind to let it go. Nor was he in a mind to enter the Ministry building munching on half a rodent. He stuffed the squirming animal into his pocket. He’d find a moment to eat it before he went up to the Minister’s office suite. A genuine dilemma, eat or move up the ladder to the next rung of success?
Almost before he knew it, he was walking up the steps to the grand sweep of the entrance to the Ministry building. Armed guard-reptiles stood on duty, heavy weaponry in their claws and slung by their sides. Their job was to look as menacing as they could, and they were very good at it. With his Ministry staff ID badge clearly on display, Creeg walked past the guards and passed the long row of reception desks which occupied one entire side of the atrium. Creeg was not signing in as a visitor, Creeg was not asking permission to access a restricted area, Creeg was on a mission for the Minister himself.
He marched purposefully to the far end of the atrium where scores of smartly dressed and official looking reptiles waited for the lifts to take them up to the various floors of the Ministry. On the far left wall was a single lift, guarded by two armed officials. This was the lift that went directly to the Ministerial Suite. The guards were large and threatening, even for reptiles. Creeg approached them and his walk slowed slightly. He wasn’t nervous, he told himself, he was sure the rumours about these guards were completely untrue. He didn’t believe they actually ate those who failed the security checks, he told himself. Creeg clutched his document case tightly to him as he held out his security pass, and he could feel heads turning to look at him. Those waiting for the ordinary lifts would be wondering; who’s he to use that lift? What’s so special about him? How has he managed to use the Minister’s personal lift?
One of the guards held out a portable security scanner. A single flash of light read the codes from his ID badge. The scanner beeped once. The guards looked almost disappointed as they stepped aside and let Creeg approach the lift. He unclipped his ID badge and slipped it into the slot of the security scanner beside the lift call button. Without a pause the lift doors slid aside. Creeg walked in and after a moment the doors shut. He looked up and down the panel of buttons, wondering which floor he needed. He realised then that Minister Vraag hadn’t actually told him where to go, just to come here and to use his personal lift. He wasn’t sure if he needed to go up to the Administration Department, up to the Ministerial Support floor, or all the way to the Minister’s own offices.
Before he could decide, the lift decided for him, and Creeg nearly yelped in surprise as the lift dropped away into the sub-levels of the building. The rat squeaked too, also taken by surprise. The rat. Creeg had forgotten about the rat. He could hardly turn up wherever he was going with a rat in his pocket. First impressions were important and arriving with a squirming rodent wouldn’t make for a good impression at all. Creeg hurriedly pulled the rodent from his jacket pocket and stuffed the wriggling animal into his document case. He zipped it shut and tried to compose himself. He needed to be professional, he needed to be focused.
The lift was still descending. Just how far down was he going? His question was soon answered. The lift halted, and the doors slid open.
Creeg looked out into the room beyond. It was cavernous, an enormous space carved out of the rock deep underneath the Ministry building. Machines and computers filled most of the space around the edge of the room. Creeg had no idea what he was looking at, but the size of the cables made it clear that this was a machine with a voracious thirst for power. It was the machine in the centre of the room that captured his attention. In fact, two machines. Long devices that stretched out on either side, disappearing into tunnels on either side of the room. They were enormous devices that almost, but not quite, met in the middle of the room.
Reptiles in lab’ coats scurried around, operating computer consoles, talking in small groups. Everyone was busy. It reminded him of army-reptiles readying to fight. Off to the right was a slightly raised area, a control platform, and standing on it Creeg recognised the Chief Scientist, and next to him was the imposing figure of Science Minister Vraag.
Actually, Vraag wasn’t that imposing. The Chief Scientist was slightly taller, but he stood with a stooped posture, it was clear who was the authority figure. Creeg moved closer to the platform.
Vraag turned to look at him. ‘I expected you sooner,’ he said, and turned back to the Chief Scientist.
Creeg was close enough now to hear their conversation.
‘The machine is ready, yes?’ Vraag asked, more statement than question. ‘You’ve already done a successful low power test.’
‘Yes, we have,’ the Chief Scientist’s voice was hesitant.
‘Then I want a full power test, now.’
‘But Minister, we should do more proving before we…’
‘No,’ Vraag cut in, his voice dripping with authority. ‘You will do it, now.’
The Chief Scientist dropped his gaze, he was outmatched. ‘Yes, Minister. We will need your authority.’
Vraag stepped down from the platform and came closer to Creeg. Creeg realised he was holding his breath, but Vraag reached past him to the computer console. Vragg slipped his own ID badge into the slot.
A voice boomed out of the walls, ‘Command controls are unlocked, all power levels are available.’
Vraag leaned a little closer to Creeg. ‘You brought your own ID badge, as instructed?’
‘Yes Minister, I did.’
‘Good. Watch, listen, do nothing, and learn where real power comes from.’
Vraag turned to the Chief Scientist, and said in a louder voice, ‘Begin, now.’
The Chief Scientist turned to his colleagues and started giving orders, the instructions spread out through the assembled scientists and engineers, who began operating keyboards and dials. Creeg could feel a vibration through his feet. Beneath them something of enormous power was waking. Whatever this thing did, it was immense. The vibration became a hum and grew into a drone that filled the cavern.
Someone’s voice came over the PA system, loud enough to cut through the droning, which was booming louder and louder. ‘Rift generator now at threshold power.’
Almost in unison, everyone in the cavern turned to look at the centre of the room, where the two arms of the machine met. Crawling so slowly, the two arms glided apart, pulling away from each other, and there was a bright crackling of light as forks of lightning stretched between the separating arms. The air between them started to swirl almost smoke-like, and Creeg had the sense that the two arms were pulling something apart, something that really ought not to be pulled apart. The lighting leapt from each arm of the machine and curled in the space in the centre. As suddenly as it had begun, the lightning stopped, the swirling stopped, and the centre of the room was now occupied with… Creeg wasn’t sure what it was. A hazy image filled in the centre space vacated by the arms of the machine, like a circular image projected by the machine. Creeg looked, the image was of buildings, streets, cars, reptiles walking around. It seemed a tremendous amount of technology to create such a simple image. He had to admit that the 3-D effect was very good. The image was very lifelike.
‘Tell me,’ demanded Vraag, ‘what am I looking at?’
The Chief Scientist consulted with his colleagues, checked some screens, then answered. ‘It’s the Capital, the financial district.’
‘I don’t understand.’ Creeg had spoken almost without realising it.
‘Don’t you?’ Vraag sounded almost disappointed. ‘This machine opens a rift in space, it allows me to see anywhere, it’s the ultimate surveillance tool.’
Creeg stared at the street scene. No wonder it looked real, it was real. It was a window opened in reality, a view directly into another place. Creeg started to wonder just how much power this would give Vraag, when Vraag’s voice interrupted.
‘More, I want to see more. Show me something else.’
‘But Minister,’ the Chief Scientist began, Creeg could hear the hesitation in his voice, no-one won an argument with Minister Vraag. ‘We really must assess the stability of…’
‘No.’ Vraag was adamant. ‘Show me more, now.’
The Chief Scientist gave orders and reptile scientists scurried around, operating their computers. The tone of the machine changed and the space in the centre of the room swirled and danced as reality strained to preserve its secrets, but the power of the machine won out, and a new scene appeared. Huts. A village, a primitive village, small wooden huts, crude thatched roofs. Reptiles walking around, but wearing simple trousers and cloaks. Creeg stared, trying to place where in the world he was seeing.
‘Where is this?’ demanded Vraag. Creeg had the thought that the villagers probably didn’t have any political or military secrets that would interest Vraag. There was no immediate answer. Lots of scientists stared at screens and pressed keys and talked to each other in hushed tones.
There were gasps from the reptiles clustered around a computer screen. The Chief Scientist hurried over, pushing scientists and technicians out of his way. There were intense whisperings, heads shaken, low mutterings.
‘Tell me,’ ordered Vraag, ‘Tell me now, what am I looking at?’
The Chief Scientist stared at Vraag. ‘It’s the capital city, the Northern residential area.’
‘Nonsense,’ Vraag retorted.
The Chief Scientist’s voice remained calm and level. ‘It’s the residential area, about five thousand years ago.’
Silence fell over the reptiles, the only sound the thrumming of the machine. Everyone turned again to look at the village scene, trying to comprehend what they were looking at, “when” they were looking at. Creeg especially was trying to imagine the implications.
Vraag was already there. ‘So this machine allows me to see anywhere, and at any time?’
No-one answered, no answer was needed. Creeg could almost hear the plans forming in Vraag’s mind. Creeg was trying to imagine the power of a machine that could snoop unobtrusively on any conversation that had ever been held, anywhere, at any time. The power it would give someone like Vraag was frightening. But Vraag had gone even further.
‘Can we send something through?’ Vraag asked.
‘What?’ said the Chief Scientist, obviously not as far ahead as Vraag.
‘Send something through, can we send an object back in time?’
Again, silence. Lots of worried glances were exchanged, frowns, stares, but no answers. Finally, the scientists started to whisper and converse. Screens were consulted and keys were pressed. Answers were whispered to the Chief Scientist.
‘Possibly? Can we or can’t we?’
More whisperings. ‘It might be possible, but it’s also possible that the quantum sheer in the rift would render…’
Vraag cut across the Chief Scientist in no uncertain terms. ‘Try it,’ he ordered.
‘I suggest…’ began the Chief Scientist. Vraag’s lip curled. The Scientist hesitated. ‘I suggest we test it, move the rift to somewhere safe, where sending an object back wouldn’t do any damage.’
‘Damage?’ asked Vraag.
‘Well, yes. Imagine something appearing out of nowhere in the middle of some significant event in the past. It could change events, it could change history.
‘Yes,’ murmured Vraag, ‘It could.’ Creeg wasn’t sure he liked the idea of what was probably now going through Vraag’s mind. Vraag’s ambition to write the present was scary, the idea of Vraag re-writing history didn’t bear thinking about.
As Vraag started his mental scheming, the scientists began working their controls. The machine whined and wheezed and the space in the centre of the room twisted and distorted and then finally lay a calm forest scene, trees stretching out for miles.
‘Where is this?’ demanded Vraag.
‘It’s on the Eastern continent, about five hundred years ago. We place it near the region of Tunguska. I don’t recall anything ever having happened there.’
‘Send someone through,’ Vraag ordered.
‘I’d suggest an object,’ said the Chief Scientist, pre-empting Vraag’s eagerness. ‘We don’t know the effect of sending a living reptile through.’
‘What kind of object?’
One of the younger scientists on the level nearer the centre of the room held his claw in the air. In it he held a paper aeroplane.
“As good as anything,” was the look on Vraag’s face.
The Chief Scientist gave the signal to the younger scientist, who turned and in a deft movement threw the paper aeroplane at the forest scene. The plane drifted through the air. It seemed to slow as it entered the space in the centre of the room, almost as though it were uncertain, and then it slipped through and the paper caught the sunlight above the forest.
The explosion was titanic, a light so bright it was painful, a bang and a roar that tore through the laboratory. Reptiles staggered around, not knowing whether to shield their eyes or their ear slits, trying desperately to do both. Vraag was on the floor howling in pain, his hands over his head. Creeg dived behind a computer console, it protected him from some of the light but none of the sound. Eventually, the light started to dim, at least to the point where reptiles could start to uncover their eyes. The sound diminished, finally below the pain threshold. The scientists pulled themselves up and began to operate the computers. As the light receded from the rift, Creeg thought that even through all the rock above them surely the reptiles in the Ministry building above them must have heard something.
‘My Divine Reptile,’ said Vraag, ‘what happened?’
‘An inverse temporal distortion,’ someone said. The Chief Scientist clarified, before Vraag could get angry. ‘Anything going through the rift appears on the other side as pure energy, but the further back in time the more energy.’
‘So we caused the blast at Tunguska,’ someone said from behind the Chief Scientist. ‘We always wondered what caused that.’
‘We have to shut the machine down, now,’ said the Chief Scientist, his voice emphatic.
‘No,’ said Vraag, his voice firm, and then softened as ideas came into his head, ‘no, keep the machine running. I want another test.’
‘Another test?’ the Chief Scientist could hardly believe what Vraag was asking. ‘Send something through any further back in time and the explosion would be colossal.’
‘Another test. How can I direct the machine to a time and place and create just a minor explosion?’
There was quiet now between the scientists as they realised where Vraag’s thinking was going.
‘Small explosion?’ gasped the Chief Scientist, ‘This isn’t a weapon.’
‘Oh, that’s exactly what it is. This is the most powerful weapon ever created, and I want to know exactly what I can do with it.’
More whining and screaming from the machine interrupted the argument. The space in the room dissolved and shifted, it shimmered and flickered and finally stabilised; a scene of wet grassland, blue sky, and little else. Attention soon turned back to the matter at hand.
‘The machine is unstable, we must shut it down, before we do any more damage,’ shouted the Chief Scientist, apparently losing some of his fear of the Minister for Science.
‘You will leave the machine running.’ Vraag’s voice was calm, with a very chilling edge. ‘You will follow my orders, and we will carry out another test.’
‘No.’ It was the Chief Scientist’s turn to be emphatic.
Vraag turned to Creeg. ‘Creeg, enter your security card, please.’ Vraag gestured to the slot in the security scanner. Uncertain what was being asked of him, Creeg unclipped his security card and pushed it into security scanner.
The booming voice came out of the walls again. ‘Command code accepted. All operating modes now under Science Minister Vraag’s verbal command.’
Vraag almost winked at Creeg. ‘I had your security card recoded for more than just the lift.’
‘What have you done?’ gasped the Chief Scientist, ‘We need to shut the machine down, now!’
‘No, the machine stays running, until I say otherwise, literally.’ Vraag had a slight smile on his face, he always enjoyed exercising power.
The argument was interrupted. ‘Look!’ All eyes turned to the space in the centre of the room. In the distance, across the grassland, a large animal lumbered. It was big, that was obvious. It stood on two legs, a tail swishing behind, horns on its head, and its scales glistening in the sun. Unmistakeably a reptile, a very big reptile.
‘When?’ said the Chief Scientist, looking to the scientists around him, ‘When are we looking at?’
There was a pause, more consultation. The Chief Scientist looked up, hardly able to bring himself to say the words. ‘It’s near the shore of the Southern Ocean, about sixty-five million years ago.’
Everyone stared in almost disbelief at the scene in the centre of the room, staring back directly into prehistory.
‘Minister’ said the Chief Scientist in hushed tones, ‘I implore you. We must shut the machine down, now. Remember, the temporal inversion effect.’ The implication was lost on the politician.
There was more movement in the prehistoric scene, a small mammal scurried into view. Its size was hard to judge. Rat-like it scurried, sniffing the air, whiskers twitching. Everyone stared at the mammal, one of the earliest of its kind. Obviously mammals had evolved little over the intervening millions of years. All the scientists were transfixed by the scene, the beginning of their domination over the other creatures of the world, everyone except Creeg. Creeg cursed under his breath, looking around for his document case. It was on the floor where it fell during the explosion. Creeg reached for it, then swore more loudly, getting everyone’s attention.
‘What on earth?’ began Vraag, spinning round, only to see Creeg playing reptile-and-mouse trying to catch the rat which had escaped from the document case.
‘Stop it,’ Creeg shouted at everyone and no-one in particular. The scientists nearby tried to catch the rat, or stamp on it, or simply jumped out of the way, but the rat scurried around them, slipping under desks and then out again across the floor, towards the centre of the room. The sense of panic in the room rose as the rat ran loose, evading all attempts to capture it. Creeg even missed the irony of Vraag screaming and jumping on the nearest chair.
The rat-like animal in the grassland scene stopped and sniffed the air, its nose twitching. The rat in the room stopped and sniffed the air, its nose twitched. It turned towards the centre of the room. Almost as one, all the scientists in stamping range tried to squash the animal, which slipped by them all, heading closer and closer to the shimmering space in the centre of the room.
‘Computer, this is the Chief Scientist, shut down the machine,’ he shouted.
The voice boomed out. ‘Unable to comply, all operations are now under the voice command of the Minister of Science.’
‘Minister, give the order, shut down the machine.’
‘This is Vraag, I order you to…’ but he never completed the sentence. The last thing he saw was the rat passing over the threshold of the space in the centre of the room, almost floating for a moment, before it reappeared sixty-five million years in the past, and vanished in the biggest explosion the world ever saw.
The rat poked its nose out of the grass, just a little, just enough to sniff but still be safe. It could smell, even if not see clearly, the creatures walking around. Tall creatures, walking upright on two legs, mammals, with hair. It sniffed again. The air smelled right in some way. Somehow, in a very primitive rat-like way, the world just seemed okay.