You may find it extremely beneficial to read this story first the Cataloguers of Time: Fort Phantom Hill
There was a special air of excitement at the Smithsonian’s Historical Discovery Unit tonight. For months, their crack team of EOT (Eyes of Time) pilots had been narrowing down the chain of events that led to demise of the 15th century knight, Polonus Vorstius. Sir Vorstius had the extremely dubious distinction of being the first recorded case of Spontaneous Human Combustion in human history. Expectedly, the crew at the HDU were tremendously psyched to watch the true story of how this once revered knight would catch his fiery end. The primary source on this incident comes from the published word of Thomas Bartholin, a prominent Danish physician who was the first to discover and describe the lymphatic system in humans, when he interviewed a descendant of the knight in 1654. Bartholin’s text has been expertly translated to conclude that Vorstius was a Polish Knight at the time of Queen Bona Sforza (1468-1503), consuming two of cups of brandy, belched flame, and was burnt up. Other, less reputable texts indicate that the knight was in Milan, Italy during the late 1400s when the incident occurred, that he was possibly Italian (not Polish) and that he burst in flames in front of his parents. There was not much of note known about Sir Vorstius, but the team had corroborated through various EOT drone missions, the stories that he over-indulged in drink, song and the company of women regularly. Their investigation had taken the better part of 3 months, but it was all going to be worth it after tonight’s recording of the jolly knight’s unexplained blaze of glory.
There had been expansions within the HDU team, and with that came growing pains. Whereas crack UAV pilot Jarrod McMichaels had been singlehandedly running their drone operations, he now shared that responsibility with 2 new pilots, Dwight Sharp and Lucretia Crabtree. Both excellent pilots in their own right, adding them to the mix made coordinating efforts more difficult, and also meant that more could possibly go wrong in the field if more than one drone were to malfunction. Jarrod wasn’t the only one feeling the stress, Holly Nightingale – the resident time travelling specialist was now responsible for traveling in the field with the drones at all times to monitor their performance and to ensure that any malfunctions were dealt with quickly and without altering time. However, not only had her time travelling responsibilities grown, she was also responsible for training a new recruit on the intricacies of using the specialized cloaking flight suit that was used for field work. Her new recruit, Jillian Hart, had been an exotic dancer by night and grad student by day, now a PhD holder that was just starting to get the hang of life inside “the suit”. As impressive as her progression had been, Jillian was not ready for prime time yet, and that left Holly juggling all of the variables on her own.
The Project Manager, Mr. Simon, gave the all clear signal to the team. “Danger is GO!” he would holler, and off everyone went like busy insects accomplishing their goals with brutal efficiency. A few minutes later, all systems were “go”, and their specialized time travel machine that created the temporary wormhole, the Kerr Device, was set into motion. The customary wormhole opened in a 36 inch glowing ring of brilliance, and a portal to Milan, Italy circa 1470 was now available for travel. Drones 1 through 3 flew into the past in a steady procession as Holly eagerly waited for her turn. She always paused a brief second or two before jumping through the wormhole, so that she could appreciate the scope of her role in discovering human history. It was a privilege that had only been granted to 3 other people thus far, and to date she had logged over 20 times the amount of field time than any other time documented time traveler. A conceited smile rolled across her lips and as she jumped through the portal she turned her head to the drone pilots and shouted, “see ya’ later, present day losers!”
A barrel roll through time and space later, and she arrived safely in 1470. After gaining her bearings, she activated the head ups display on her visor and got eyes on all 3 drones. Holly gave the all clear order to the drone team, and the mission began in earnest. The goal was simple, go to the home of the elder Vorstius, and wait for the event to happen. The team had located the home a few weeks back, and through trial and error were able to narrow the knight’s date of death to this specific day in 1470. Feeling overly ambitious, the team stalked the knight to a local pub, where he was singing the night away with friends, already a few drinks in his system. Everything fell in line with the profile that they had already established for Polonus Vorstius. He drank, he sang, he laughed, he flirted and groped the ladies, and eventually found a lady to his liking and went upstairs to lay with her. Following this knight had become quite a lot like watching a show on HBO, there was plenty of profanity, violence and copious amounts of naked sex. Unfortunately, most of the people that were engaging in these activities were nowhere near as pretty as the Hollywood types that portray them in the modern day entertainment. This was a fact not lost on Holly, as she had a front row seat to the nastiest sex imaginable multiple nights per week for the last few months as they tracked this poor fellow. Eventually, he tired of the pub and drunkenly staggered his way to his parent’s home. The knight had been travelling a lot lately, in service to his Queen, and was due to leave on another assignment in 2 more days. Needless to say, he was living it up to the fullest until such time as when he would have to sober up.
The mission was going well, and the drone pilots were flying in better unison than they had for the last few missions. The problems usually occurred when Dwight would break from the established flight patterns to better observe a situation. Dwight Sharp was a gifted pilot and an intelligent man, but he was also young and eager to prove himself to the team. He seemed to put a lot of effort into trying to be the pilot that films the big discovery, instead of being the pilot that expressly follows orders. Lucretia, on the other hand, was as good and disciplined a pilot as Jarrod was, if not slightly better. She had been flying remote vehicles since before she could remember, and went on to work in aerospace and robotics throughout her college career. Her flight work married very well with Jarrod’s and as such they held tight flight patterns with great video and audio coverage. Yet tonight, Dwight was in sync with his fellow pilots, and all was operating well within the established mission perameters.
Soon, they arrived at the humble home of the Vorstius family. Polonus greeted his father heartily and they sat down to drink a cup of brandy together. The knight started to regale his father with a tale of daring do that he had accomplished a few months back. They laughed and sipped their brandies heartily. A small fire was burning in the hearth a solid 15 feet away from the men. It was speculated by the majority of the HDU team that the knight would trip and his head would fly into the hearth, catching fire, and then poof he burns to a crisp. The conventional wisdom suggesting that the family concocted the whole Spontaneous Human Combustion story so that their son would not lose his honor as a knight. Regardless, the moment of truth was close at hand. The knight’s mother had just entered the room as the knight moved around to pour his second cup of brandy, forcing the EOT to necessitate a shift in their formation.
“I can’t see shit, stuck behind the dad,” Dwight griped.
“Roger that,” Jarrod replied. “EOT team, movie to position delta on my mark: 3, 2, 1, mark!”
The drones began their maneuver to their new position when out of nowhere the knight stretched his arms out to yawn and incidentally punched Dwight’s drone into the wall.
“What the… that wasn’t my fault this time!” Dwight defended.
“Holly-ston, we have a problem,” Lucretia chimed in.
“Yeah I can see that,” Holly acknowledged. “I’ve gotta let this play out for a mo’, ok? Let’s see if Dwight can get his EOT out of the way discretely.”
“Negative Ms. Nightingale,” Jarrod protested. “My console shows that the cloaking on his EOT is failing, full extraction of EOT 3 is absolutely necessary.”
“Oh crap,” Holly lamented as the knight started to notice the strange form of the drone that was beginning to appear on the floor near him. “My options are limited here, kiddos. I’ve got make a play for it now.”
“Do it now!” Mr. Simon ordered.
Holly made a b-line for the drone when the knight’s hand reached out and intercepted her invisible arm in mid drone catch. It was sheer dumb luck, murphy’s law, that Polonus had been able to connect with her suit, but now that he had this invisible cylinder trapped in his hand, he tightened his grip so that he could use his other hand to investigate this potential specter in front of him. The good news, he had mostly forgotten about the drone, although the bad news is that he was able to grab a portion of Holly’s torso with his other hand. He started shaking her about rather violently. Fortunately, her cloak was maintaining a consistent signal, which gave her time to think of a way to wiggle out of his death grip.
“Should I jump through?” Jillian asked Mr. Simon.
“No, I’ve got this,” Holly retorted. “Get ready sports fans, here comes your free light show!”
Holly snapped her wrist up, which would normally set a series of lights to go off as a distraction (a very last ditch emergency mechanism), but because of the valiant knight’s grip the mechanism had been damaged and the attempt to power the light circuit made it overload and shot a series of sparks out of her wrist and onto his beard, which damp with brandy caught fire quickly. Pollens relinquished his hold on Holly and stood to face his parents as the fire on his beard had already seared his face, hair and had quickly travelled down the alcohol soaked clothing he was wearing. He flailed about in manic craze, as his parents attempted to put the blaze out with a blanket. During the insanity, Holly grabbed the decollated EOT, and took it outside the house immediately. A few tweaks of an active panel on the damaged EOT and it was just like new-ish. With the cloak reactivated, EOT 3 went back into the house to finish collecting the video and audio data. Holly followed the drone into the home to watch the knight burn to his death.
You could hear a pin drop as the Holly and the drones quietly left the house. They made it to the extraction point with zero incidents and flew through the wormhole back to the HDU lab. Holly took her helmet off and took a good long look at the portal. As the wormhole closed down a single tear fell from her left eye. In her adventures, she had to insert herself in history to save a drone, or by accident, but never had the consequence of any of her decisions resulted in the loss of human life.
“There was nothing else you could do, you know that, don’t you?” Jarryd said in an attempt to comfort Holly.
“Tell that to his parents.” Holly responded with defeat in her voice. “Now they are going to tell the world that their son just erupted into flames, and by their perspective they are absolutely correct. If we had never prayed into the past he would still be alive.”
“You know that’s not true,” Mr. Simon interjected. “He was already dead, suspected of being the first recorded case of Spontaneous Human Combustion. Whether you like it or not, this knight was always destined to die, and as we now know by your hand Ms. Nightingale. If we have learned nothing else about time, we now know for sure that there is no way that we can alter it. Whatever has happened will happen, and nothing we can do will stop it, and for all we know we may even cause it. It is the risk we run overtime we send anything or anyone through the Kerr Device’s wormhole. You knew this when you signed on for the project.”
“Doesn’t mean I gotta like it,” Holly responded as she tossed her helmet across the lab. She then proceeded to slip out of her uniform and then headed toward the locker room.
“And your report, Ms. Nightingale?” Mr. Simon asked.
“I came, I saw, I blew him up.” Holly replied with a half-hearted chuckle. “If you need any more detail than that, it’ll have to wait till I have a drink or two… or twenty.”
And with that snide remark, she left the main lab floor. The rest of the evening was a somber affair. No one said anything that wasn’t necessary, and unfortunately no one walked away from this one with any feelings of grand accomplishments. Eventually, all of the reports were typed up, even Holly’s, and everyone went home. Mr. Simon turned the lights off to the lab as he locked up and left.
“Finally,” a voice said in an unused corner of the lab. The undisclosed male came out of the shadows and looked around to verify that nobody was left in the facility. He seemed to be wearing an enhanced version of “the suit”, and from his belt he reached for a device. Manipulating the device with a few finger presses, a wormhole then suddenly appeared a few feet away from him. “This has been a most enlightening trip to the past,” he remarked as he stepped into the portal, away from the lab and into the future.
To be continued…