The Cataloguers of Time: Fort Phantom Hill – A Short Story By: Packy Smith
Jarrod flipped a switch on the console in front of him, and a parade of lights and images danced across the machinery and monitors of his workspace. He checked the readings on various devices and made a few input entries into his computer before giving the “thumbs up” to the man on the platform to his left. That man, Mr. Simon, having been given the all clear from downstairs, clapped his hands together and shouted, “hot damn, we’ve got a live one!” Mr. Simon, Project Manager and Head of Operations, gave the order to the chief engineer to activate the Kerr Device. The engineer powered up the Kerr Device and made sure that it purred like a satisfied kitten, as its motors whirred and all the various components went into place. Above the device, a cone of soft lift, nearly 3 feet in diameter, shone ever so brightly across the facility.
This type of frenetic pace and boisterous exuberance were the norm in the Smithsonian’s Historical Discovery Unit – the HDU. Jarrod McMichaels was the best UAV pilot the Navy ever had, and though he was no longer dropping munitions on the enemy, he was now dropping mental bombs on the planet, piloting stealth drones through time and space to record historical events, in real-time, for historical study. The drone, affectionately called the “Eyes of Time” or EOT for short, was a multipurpose device. It was equipped with 18 cameras, which gave it near 360 visual capabilities, as well as multiple microphones with short, mid and long range capabilities, and was fully stealth – silent propulsion system coupled with an outer shell that utilized the best in cloaking technology circa 2038. To the naked eye, even upon close examination, it appeared to be invisible. The EOT had been sent back in time 5 times, successfully recording life in various locations during 1851 – the Old West Era, and it was time to observe a more significant event more directly.
This was the moment that Jarrod had been waiting for. It had been nearly 2 years since he had started with this project and they were about to take on the most significant challenge they had ever attempted. The goal was simple, observe the preliminary establishment of Fort Phantom Hill, located at the clear fork of the Brazos River, near Abilene Texas. Jarrod gripped the stick at his console and slowly guided the EOT to the edge of the cone of light, a small contained wormhole. Mr. Simon gave the all clear and the EOT flew through the diameter of light and quickly down the funnel and then through the other end, now safely in west central Texas 1851.
All of the technology being used at the HDU indicated that all systems for the EOT were nominal. Shortly thereafter, an array of video and audio signals started to display in the viewing room. The viewing room was a special area that housed a feed from all 18 cameras and a sound system that played the received audio as well. All sounds and images were recorded and studied by a group of highly decorated historical professionals.
Jarrod found his bearings on the monitor and then flew the EOT up the Brazos in search of the clear fork. A mob of deer were at the banks of the river and Jarrod used this as an excellent opportunity to verify that the stealth capabilities were working 100%. He flew the EOT near, above, around, and even through a larger buck’s legs, and then all through the herd all without even the slightest hint of detection. Everything was working perfectly. Shortly thereafter, the EOT made it to the clear fork, and just in time. One of the five companies of the fifth infantry, led by Lt. Col. J.J. Abercrombie, approached a clearing by the river. Immediately they started discussing the design of the fort, how it would work, and the logistics necessary to get it done. The information was fascinating, and if nothing else it displayed what a good rapport Abercrombie had with his men. The legend of Fort Phantom Hill was of particular interest, because it came with a ghost story. Apparently, one of the soldiers supposedly saw a ghost, fired upon it, spooking the entire regiment, and giving the fort an infamous story that would live on far longer than the fort did. One of the genuine hopes of the HDU team, was to discover the source of that particular story.
All was seemingly going very well, until a little red light started to blink on Jarrod’s console. The propulsion system on the EOT was malfunctioning. There were very strict protocols in place for the use of time travel as a way to collect historical data, and Jarrod had been following them to the letter. He knew these rules all too well, for even though these protocols took up a manual the size of 2 metropolitan phone books, Jarrod had spent the last 2 years committing their words to memory. Unfortunately, the EOT was failing in such a way that was making it exceptionally difficult for Jarrod to do much more than gently land the from on the edge of the hill facing the river. As delicately as he had put the drone down it both made a slight sound and left an indention in the soil. One of the soldiers heard the sound and turned about to find the source.
There was a protocol for a downed drone, and it was more of a Hail Mary pass. Someone went through the wormhole in a specialized stealth suit, with similar propulsion technology, and they retrieved the drone. Barring that, the EOT could be destroyed via an explosive that burned hot enough to instantly eviscerate the drone to mere ash, but in a crowded area such as this, that type of explosion would certainly be noticed. The goal of historical data collecting through time travel was to collect important factual data without interacting with the past in any way, shape or form. As the soldier advanced towards the location of the downed drone, time was of the essence.
Holly was the someone designated to go through the wormhole in case of this type of emergency. She was already suited up and ready to go, Mr. Simon gives the order and she sprints towards the wormhole. “I’ll bring the door wedge back,” she giggled as her body disappeared from the present. Now in 1851, a few 100 yards away from the EOT, she touched a pressure plate on her helmet and her visor lit up with a ton of information. She could see an outline of the EOT, where all the soldiers were and a whole mess of data, such as: distance to target, telemetry guides, a full flight display with artificial horizon, the works! Before working with the HDU, Holly Nightingale had been an Olympic Gold Medal Gymnast and a white hat hacker, the perfect mix for this kind of job.
As the soldier approached the drone, Holly flew by the riverbed and grabbed a stone. Hugging the ground she silently maneuvered about 20 yards from the drone and tossed the rock as a distraction. The soldier’s eyes followed the sound of the thrown stone, and a small window of opportunity was born. Holly shifted her position and swooped in to grab the fallen EOT. A strange phenomenon happens when 2 pieces of HDU stealth technology come into direct contact: they start to shimmer odd colors attempting to adapt to the stealth surface and not the colors around them. The soldier turns back to look for the original sound he heard and sees the shimmer. Freaking out, he points his rifle at the cornucopia of colors and fires a single round. Hitting his target, Holly’s suit briefly turns all white and discharges a burst of electrical crackles. A few seconds later the suit re-attains stealth mode, and Holly flies away with the EOT in hand. A handful of the other soldiers saw the ghostlike figure floating in the air after hearing the rifle’s blast.
Holly re-emerged in 2038 from the wormhole, and tossed the EOT to Jarrod as she yelled, “order up!” And with that, Mr. Simon gave the order to shut it down. All of the systems powered down and the wormhole closed. Holly popped her helmet off and sighed in relief, glad that it was all over. She looked up to Mr. Simon and apologized for being seen.
“Pish posh,” Mr. Simon retorted. “You may have just inadvertently proved Novikov’s Self-Certainty Principle. We went into the creation of Fort Phantom Hill hoping to find an answer to the ghost story, only to find out that you were the ghost all along, Miss Nightingale. Truly fascinating result.”
Holly looked on in disbelief. How could she have been the ghost all along? But if not her, then who? She asked Mr. Simon if any time distortions had been discovered. “Absolutely zero,” he replied. She began to wonder, if she had always been there, and that had always happened, what other places would the HDU go? And to that point, what other unexplained legends would they create along the way? The possibilities seemed endless, and it was that thought alone that brought a satisfied grin across her face.