Welcome to The Year 2013
January 5th 2013, 01:15am
Alan slowly opened his eyes, looking around him, confused. Where was he? He was strapped in a cramped pilot’s seat and in the foreground he could see a cloudy horizon in the dark of night through a windshield, could hear an aircraft’s engine whirring… Of course! He was flying with Derek, Robbins and Julio over New Forest. Oh, drat, did I doze off? How long have I been asleep?
Suddenly, he realised something was wrong. What was this? Julio occupied the left pilot's seat while he was supposed to be seated on the right, in the co-pilot’s seat. Why had he shifted to the pilot’s side? Licking his lips, he tasted blood; his nose was bleeding. He could feel cuts and bruises all over his body, stinging like hell. He was stripped down to only his pants, shoes, and t-shirt, which were tattered, bloodstained and drenched in dirt. There was no sign of Derek, Robbins or Julio anywhere. A sense of fear kicked in.
What the hell’s going on here? Where is everybody? Has there been an accident…? he thought in a panic, taking in his surroundings, No, I’m still airborne and… Looking over his shoulder, he spotted Bigwig, Hazel, Fiver, Pipkin and Hawkbit, lying curled up on the floor of the cabin, also coming round as well now that they were back in a breathable environment, looking dazed and confused.
As the blank spots in his memory caused by the blackout finally cleared, Alan remembered: Julio, Derek and Robbins were all dead, along with Major McEwen and his crew. Of the eight people who had gone through the time warp, he was the only survivor to return. Memories of his incredible journey into the future resurfaced in his mind. Had they made it? Were they back in the 21st century, or had the time warp transported them even further into the past? Could they be in the Blitz, or the Middle Ages, or had they gone as far back as the Jurassic Period? He had to find out.
"SAM Control, this is 232-G. Repeat, 232-G declaring an emergency. I have no fuel and I need guidance. Does anybody copy...?” But then he remembered he had junked the radio, along with most of the plane’s instruments. And now he realised the sheer stupidity of it; without any means of communication, he had no way of knowing what was going on down on the ground, nor any guidance to direct him to the nearest airfield. And with his limited piloting experience, they were still way from being out of the woods yet.
The first thing was to get out of the Forbidden Zone. Just like he had done the first time, he turned the plane around, heading northeast, back towards Hampshire. Although they had made it through, they had the misfortune of coming back out through the warp at night, and in the midst of a furious blizzard, allowing no visual of the ground. With only a compass, airspeed indicator and his watch to navigate with, Alan could only fly using dead reckoning. Both fuel indicators were already blinking red, wavering on zero; another ten or fifteen minutes and the Cessna would become the next Gimli Glider.
Leaving New Forest and the warp behind them, Alan plotted a rough course towards Newtown Common. Figuring the flight club wouldn’t be open at this hour, he might want to try for Greenham Air Force Base, where McEwen’s chopper was based, instead. That depended of course, on whether the fuel held out. Unfortunately, partly due to his excitement of returning to his own time, as well as his inexperience, he didn’t realise he was straying into a busy airway for commercial airliners, strictly off-limits to light planes, until it was too late.
As his eyes looked ahead, trying to see through all that greyness through his windshield, he saw, to his utmost terror, a jet airliner suddenly appear out of the fog, heading straight at them on a collision course!
With death only a second away, he pressed down hard on the rudder pedal and took evasive action, swinging the plane hard to port. But by that time the swift-moving jetliner was only inches away, far too close to avoid it in time. Alan shut his eyes, bracing for impact. This is the end. We’re dead…Then the Cessna's starboard wing grazed the airliner like a giant tin-opener, striking one of the engines and causing it to burst into flame. The heavy jet’s severe wake turbulence threw the Cessna into a violent roll, as both crippled planes parted ways, heading off in opposite directions, each succumbing to its own damage.
Alan slowly opened his eyes, utterly amazed to see that, by a complete stroke of luck, they hadn't been blown up. But that was of little relief, because the plane had been badly damaged in the collision, threatening to fall out of the sky at any moment.
Struggling to keep the plane steady, he assessed the damage: the stick control was damaged and sluggish; the ailerons and stabilizer were barely responding, aside from the damaged left wing, which had an entire chunk missing from the tip where it had grazed the airliner, making it difficult to keep the plane level. He didn’t need to be an aviation mechanic to know that he wouldn't be able to retain control for much longer. A fearful situation broke out.
"What in Frith's name’s happening? What's going on…?" Bigwig bellowed, rocking to and fro, as Alan struggled to keep the shaking aircraft from stalling out. Roaring at Bigwig to shut up and sit down, he called to the rest of his panicking companions over the plane's klaxon alarm wailing in their ears.
"Everybody hold on as tight as you can! Things are about to get ugly!" Whatever happened, they had to get this plane on the ground now, before she fell apart. Fighting to retain control, he began his descent through the cloud cover, heading best he could figure towards the flight club, hoping his seat-of-his-pants navigation wouldn’t send them crash-landing into some farmer’s backyard.
The fuel was almost gone; left-wing tank read bone-dry and only a few drops left in the right one. They would be running on fumes any second now. Then, suddenly, the familiar premises of Sutch and Martin’s Flight Club loomed into view dead ahead. They were almost there! But as he tried to make a turn, to align himself with the runway, the damaged rudder failed, jamming in midships, making any further course adjustments impossible. Although they were more or less still on course, they were going to touch down with a slightly angled alignment, which would probably send them off the side of the runway, and into the fields. Alan cursed.
Damn, it's not working for turns! I hope I can stop this thing in time before we hit the fence or this plane will buy us a farm…and we will be the seeds to be planted into the ground!
He continued their descent, feeling the plane's manoeuvrability going with every second. As they passed 500ft, the Klaxon sounded again as the fuel indicators read zero. The engine started to lose revolutions until the prop ground to a halt, leaving the crippled plane gliding towards the ground without power. Oh, my God. If we come in too long, we won't have enough power to pull up again. But the worst was still to come.
As Alan lowered the flaps to reduce their airspeed for touchdown, suddenly the control lever jammed, leaving the flaps stuck at a twenty-degree angle; although gradually slowing down, they were still coming down too fast for touchdown, at an excessive speed of 110 knots. It was only then that he suddenly realised that the runway was completely overrun by snow. They were about to land in the midst of a snowdrift, which would send the plane cartwheeling into destruction! Unfortunately, there was no more time. They were going in.
He turned to his companions, "Here we go; everybody lie flat on the floor and cover your heads with your forepaws. It's going to be a rough landing." Glancing over his shoulder, he saw his friends follow his instructions as they all curled up against each other, bracing for impact.
With only 100ft to go, Alan felt the stick fail completely, leaving the plane completely out of control. The stall-warning buzzer sounded not a second later as the airspeed dropped below cruising minimums. "Everybody brace for crash landing. BRACE NOW!" Instinctively, Alan reached out and hit the fuel cut-off switch, fearing a fire, but then remembered the tanks were bone-dry and that there was nothing left to explode. Then the wheels touched down in 5ft-deep snow.
The undercarriage instantly buckled and collapsed from the stress of the torque as the plane collapsed on its belly, mowing its way through the snowdrift. Like a snowplough, it ploughed its way across the snowed-up runway, sending up waves of snow and mud in its wake. Inside, the weight of the snow pilling up against the nose caused the windshield to implode, sending a torrent of snow into the cabin, burying the six companions and muffling their screams. The plane crashed through the fence, sliding downhill into a ditch on the edge of the road, before it finally stopped dead…
Sven Shertok was on his way to Buxton Hall, for a conference with the rest of the Brotherhood's inner circle; tonight he was going to announce Red Hand’s inevitable disbanding. Their leader, Sergey, hospitalised for nearly a week now, still showed no change and his chances of survival remained in doubt. So far they had been unable to work out the secret location of the nuclear cores, which had been smuggled into England last week under Sergey’s supervision, forcing them to postpone work on Project Black Inferno. Meanwhile, they had bigger problems on their plate.
As it turned out, Sergey’s brush with death hadn’t been an accident. Whoever had slipped that dud medication slipped to him obviously knew the truth and was working against them. Sven, an MI5 Marshal and Red Hand’s eyes and ears within the Bureau – Robbins had been with MI6, for foreign intelligence concerning Red Hand’s foreign connections -, had so far been unable to locate the cores, or determine the identity of this unknown enemy. The only way to salvage this was to cover up all traces of their work and bury it, before it came out. But, as fate would have it, Red Hand wasn’t going down that easily in this new timeline.
As he drove along the winding road towards Overton, suddenly, looking skywards, Sven spotted a small plane approaching from the southwest, coming in to land. The aircraft was flying erratically, indicating the pilot was in trouble. Wondering what kind of an idiot could be flying in this weather, Sven swung his car around into the opposite lane and sped off towards Shelton’s flight club, to investigate…
Inside the crashed Cessna, six bruised and battered companions dug themselves out of the snow that had forced its way in through the imploded windshield. A weak current from the plane's battery was still running, generating a dim glow from the cabin lights, allowing them to see their surroundings. Although fortunately nobody had suffered any serious injuries, they were hardly a sight for sore eyes, all of them battered, cut and bruised. Fiver remained in a coma.
His face cut from splinters, Alan managed to shove the snow that was pinning him to his seat away and crawled aft, to the rear end of the cabin that was still clear. Coughing and splattering, the six survivors huddled together into the small confined space, shivering from the cold.
"Everybody all right?"
"We’re alive," acknowledged Bigwig, staring at the unfamiliar terrain outside the broken passenger window, "Did we make it? Or are we in some other Frith-forsaken place…?" But the instant he had seen that jet airliner, Alan knew they had made it all right. He was back home in the 21st century. Apparently, HAL’s scientific speculations about backward time travel being impossible had been wrong; they had successfully penetrated the time barrier and travelled into the future - twice - and then successfully reversed it and returned to the present, exactly where he had left off. A smile crossed his battered face.
"Yes, Bigwig, we’ve done it. My friends, welcome to the past, my home!” In spite of their pain and exhaustion, some of the rabbits, including Bigwig and Pipkin couldn’t help but cheer at the news; but then their faces fell, remembering all their friends back in the future who hadn’t made it. This strange human world of the past was beginning to scare them.
"What in Frith's name was that…that thing that hit us? What kind of elil was that?" exclaimed Hawkbit, who had missed the airliner because of his semi-blindness, nursing a badly sprained left forepaw, which he had twisted in the crash. Alan chuckled at his friend’s ignorance, "It wasn’t elil, Hawkbit, just another plane like ours. I suspect they couldn't track us entering their airspace, since we had no transponder…” Staring out of the window, towards the sky, he noticed the airliner had vanished, probably crashed elsewhere.
"So what do we do now, Alan?" asked Bigwig, uncertain of the next logical course of action. All right, so they had escaped Efrafa and the destruction of their world by time-jumping into the past; but in this strange human world, even he was completely out of his element. Before Alan could utter a single word however, suddenly, they heard a sound coming from the bottom of the aircraft; something that sounded like thin glass cracking, which seemed to intensify with every move they made. Alan froze.
"Nobody move! Keep very still!" he hissed, staring out of the window, at the ‘ground’. In an instant, his worst fears were confirmed: underneath the snow where the plane had come to rest was a frozen lake; and the weight of the fuselage was more than the thin ice sheet could support. They could see cracks forming on the ice beneath the fuselage. Any second now, it would give way, plunging them into the freezing water beneath.
"We have to get the hell out of here!” Carefully, he forced open the battered cabin door, causing a chilling gust of wind to blow into the cabin, making them all shudder from the cold. “All right, we go one at a time, real, real carefully towards that tree. Remember, there’s thin ice beneath us, so watch your step! All right, Hawkbit, you’re first. Pipkin, you help him across. Go!"
Slowly and nervously, the grey buck, led by the newly appointed guide-for-the-blind Pipkin, made his way across the ice sheet. Alan and the others watched with anticipation, expecting the thin ice to give way, sending both rabbits plunging to an icy death. But it held. "All right, Hazel, you and Fiver are next. Go!" Carrying his unconscious brother on his back, the Chief Rabbit of Watership Down made his way across the cracking ice without incident, joining Hawkbit on the other side. One by one, the rabbits made it across safely until only Bigwig and Alan were left.
"Go, Bigwig, I’m right behind you!" The Owsla captain took his turn and, despite his massive weight, the ice still held. Alan paused for a moment, as he turned to pick up Robbins’ bag. He had no idea how they were going to go up against Red Hand, and any information Robbins might have left behind could be useful. Unfortunately, his delay by poking around in the snow filling the cabin for the bag was a big mistake; suddenly, with a loud crack, the ice finally gave way and the wrecked plane began to sink into the lake.
Ice-cold water swamped the cabin, as the plane went under, nose-first. Icy pain struck every inch of his body, causing him to yell in agony - a yell that was instantly muffled by the water as the wrecked plane sunk to the bottom, taking him with it. Abandoning his attempts to retrieve the precious bag, he forced himself out of the submerged fuselage, breaking the surface of the water. Oh God, this is cold! The last thought that went through his head was what the Forty Martyrs must have endured during their ordeal in the Frozen Lake. Then he began to sink beneath the surface again…
Seeing their friend fall through the ice chilled the rabbits to the bones with horror. Although they didn't possess half the knowledge Alan did, the effects of hypothermia weren’t unheard of back in their world. Fearlessly, Bigwig darted back across the ice sheet to the rescue; just as Alan's outstretched hand was about to go under, the toughened Owsla veteran grabbed hold, pulling as hard as he could. Ignoring the danger of falling through the ice themselves, Pipkin, Hawkbit and even Hazel also pitched in and pulled. Alan's semiconscious form resurfaced and they dragged him out and onto firm ground. They stared at their friend's trembling and soaked body as he lay shivering in the snow, the effects of exposure getting at him fast.
"We can't stay here Hazel," said Bigwig staring at Alan's freezing form, which was starting to develop ice crystals all over his clothes and hair, as he slowly froze solid. "We have to get him someplace warm, or the Black Rabbit will get him soon."
"But where do we go?" said Pipkin, staring at a loss at the unfamiliar surroundings. Just snow and ice everywhere along this strange man-trail they stood on. But then Bigwig, who had the sharpest eye, suddenly called out, "Over there! I can see a man-burrow up there. Maybe we can find shelter in there." Following the path that the Cessna had made in the snow, the rabbits made their way towards the radio shack on the edge of the flight club. Bigwig carried Alan on his back, while Hazel carried Fiver, Pipkin and Hawkbit bringing up the rear.
Having seen Alan do it several times before in the HAB, Hazel tried to nudge the door open with his nose. It was locked. "We shall have to find shelter elsewhere. Under there!" he said, gesturing at the empty aircraft hanger beside the shack. They laid Alan and Fiver down on the dry concrete floor of the hanger, huddling close to them, giving them all the warmth their furry bodies could provide.
"Frith of Inle, he’s cold as ice!" Hawkbit shuddered, feeling Alan's semi-frozen body pressed against his side. However, a rabbit's warm body works like a hot water bottle and given that there were three near-human-sized rabbits providing heat together, Alan’s core temperature was quickly returning to normal, allowing him to regain consciousness.
"Oh…where…where am I?" the man groaned as he weakly opened his eyes, finding himself engulfed in the warm embrace of his friends, all of them looking overjoyed to see that he was all right. Bigwig gave him a stern glare.
“Don’t you scare us like that again, you duffer! I swear, by the Black Rabbit of Inle, you’ve got more lives that a Hedge Wizard!” he muttered, his usual growling voice having softened out of relief. Alan couldn’t help but smile; although he had returned to the world where he had known so much misery, not to mention the grave task that still lay ahead of them, having his new friends with him made all the difference in the world. Then he suddenly remembered Fiver.
Glancing to his left, he saw the seer buck lying huddled up against his brother’s side in the far corner of the hanger, still unconscious. Hazel was sobbing softly, begging him not to die. Cursing himself for lying around when his friend was clinging to life by a thread, Alan sat bolt upright, causing the freezing air to hit him again, making him shiver in his damp rags. Unless he got someplace warm, to dry off, hypothermia would soon start kicking in again soon. Hurryingly, he got up and headed for the shack, "Come on, we'll find better shelter inside."
He tried to force the door open, but to no avail. Picking up a stone, he broke a glass panel in the window beside the handle, allowing him to stick his arm in and undo the latch from the other side. They all crowded inside the dark radio shack. Alan shut the door behind them, blocking out the cold of the blizzard.
Shivering violently, he hurried over to the gas heater that stood in a corner and lit it using McEwen's lighter. There wasn’t much propane left in the reservoir, just enough for a small flame, but it was enough. Grabbing a fire blanket from the wall, he improvised a thermal wrap to halt the effects of hypothermia from his dipping from kicking in, while the rabbits huddled close to the small fire – something they once feared but had now come to crave -, warming themselves up. Within minutes, they were all warmed up and dry, much more comfortable. But there was no time to rest just yet.
Hastily drying himself off, Alan hurried over to a first aid kit on the wall, looking for medicine for Fiver and Hawkbit. But there was nothing other than some ancient, yellowing band-aids, some expired antiseptic cream and little else. Tom Shelton obviously wasn’t concerned about keeping his club’s emergency equipment in order. Slapping a few band-aids on the claw wounds Woundwort had inflicted on him, to keep them from turning septic until he could find proper medical aid, and bandaging Hawkbit’s eyes, he hurried over to the phone on Shelton's desk.
Hastily browsing through the local phone directory, he dialled the number of the local veterinarian, who happened to be none other than Major McEwen’s wife, who, he remembered, was the town’s veterinarian. If he was going to go ahead with this crazy idea of revealing his friends to the human world, then what better choice than to turn to McEwen’s own family for help? Unfortunately, there was no dial tone, the blizzard having knocked out most of the telephone lines in the area. Meanwhile, Fiver was getting weaker by the minute, and likely to slip away at any moment. There was only one thing for it then.
Hurrying over to the locker room where the pilots kept their belongings, he found his and Derek's anoraks were still there. Putting on his own, covering his ghastly rags, he wrapped Fiver up in Derek’s, like a baby, making him as comfortable as possible, so they could move him. Carrying Fiver in his arms, he led his five friends out of the radio shack, towards the club’s parking lot on the edge of the field, where his jeep was still parked, completely covered with snow.
Ten minutes later, the jeep was speeding along the snow-covered roads with chains on its wheels, heading towards Newtown Common. Although completely overwhelmed by this unique experience of seeing the human world up close for the first time, Fiver's rapidly decaying health kept them all downcast and worrying. Would their seer live to see another day or would they be burying him soon as well? And what would happen when the humans of this world became aware of their presence?
Suddenly, as they swung around a curve on the edge of town, the jeep skidded on a sheet of ice from a leaking fire hydrant, swaying out of control; it slid off the road, slamming head-on into a snowdrift on the side, where it stopped dead, completely immobilised. Killing the engine, Alan turned to his friends, "Everybody out. We’re walking from here." Soon, they were back on the road, heading into Newtown Common on foot, Pipkin leading the blinded and irate-as-ever Hawkbit along, while Alan carried Fiver, stiff and cold as the corpse he might soon be, in his arms…
Sven had reached the flight club. Pulling over, he got out and walked over to the edge of the road, where he had seen the plane go down, for a closer look. Just beyond the collapsed fence, was a frozen lake with a big hole in the middle of the ice, the plane’s tracks still visible in the snow. Staring through the hole in the ice with a flashlight, he saw the battered plane, lying submerged on the bottom, with the identification number 232-G clearly visible on the wing. Sven was struck dumb. It was none other that Dr Johnson's plane, which had supposedly gone down nine days ago over New Forest with all hands!
How is this possible? he wondered in shock, unable to make any sense out of this mystery whatsoever. Tom Shelton had personally assured him that the Cessna had crashed in the Forbidden Zone, and now it shows up out of the blue…piloted by whom? He felt a sense of urgency build up inside him as he realised what this meant; Johnson and Robbins vanishing without a trace; the suspicious circumstances surrounding Sergey’s hospitalisation; Johnson’s plane showing up after he had been declared dead… It all pointed to one logical explanation.
Hurrying back to his car, he set off at full speed for Buxton Hall, to alert his comrades – of whom he was de-facto leader, in Sergey’s absence - that Dr Johnson might still be alive. Could he have somehow unravelled the scam, faked his own death, and had been toying with them all along? But how was that even possible? Nobody among their ranks would have dared blabbed…or could they? If that was the case, whoever the sleeper was, he would have to be found and silenced at all costs, along with Johnson…
While the people of Newtown Common slept soundly in their homes, a group of six exhausted and freezing companions strode up the high street, heading towards the veterinarian’s address listed in the phonebook Alan had found in Shelton's office. The street and houses were all dark from a power failure caused by the weather, turning Newtown Common into an eerie ghost town. As they reached the address, Alan saw, to his greatest relief, they had found what they needed: nailed to the garden wall beside the gate, was a brass sign spelling:
DR JOSIE C. MCEWAN
VETERINARIAN AND ANIMAL HOTEL
Gritting his teeth for the inevitable, he tried ringing the doorbell but then remembered the power was out in the area. So, he resolved to tap the antique brass knocker on the door instead. No answer. He tried pounding, "Hallo! Anybody home? We need help, hallo!" For a few minutes there was no answer and Alan was beginning to think Mrs McEwen wasn't home. Then, suddenly, he heard footsteps inside and next second the door opened ajar, revealing the face of a beautiful young woman of around Alan's age staring at the dishevelled professor by candlelight.
"Hallo? Who are you? What do you mean by calling at this hour…? My goodness!" she explained, cringing at the sight of Alan's ghastly appearance, with his filthy, shredded, bloodstained clothes and all the injuries covering his body. The man spoke in an urgent voice, "Sorry to disturb you, ma’am, but I need your help, please! My friend is dying!"
The woman looked over Alan's shoulder and spotted his rabbit companions, which, mere silhouettes against the darkness, looked like children in rabbit-skin hats, and then at the bundle in Alan’s arms which was Fiver. What was this? Some Boys’ Scouts campers who had an accident in the storm? But why would they come to her? "All right, come in," she finally said and led them to her infirmary in a disused glass greenhouse at the back of the house.
Alan laid Fiver down on the operating table, while the vet lit several battery lanterns. As artificial light filled the room, she realised her visitors were in fact giant, talking rabbits! She was stunned, staring open-mouthed at the humanoid rabbits. It got worse when Bigwig whispered to Alan, in plain view of the veterinarian, “Are you sure that was wise, Alan, coming here? How do we even know she’s trustworthy...?” Alan hissed at him to shut up. He turned to the petrified-with-amazement Dr McEwen. This was no time to dilly-dally.
"Mrs McEwen, I promise I'll explain later. Right now, I need you to focus on your patient!" Fortunately, sensing the urgency in his voice, she snapped out of her trance and reluctantly got to work without argument. Unwrapping Fiver from Derek’s jacket, she spotted the syringe wound, which had turned a horrible shade of blue by now, the poison in his stomach still acting. She frowned, "What caused this?"
"Strychnine poisoning," Alan explained, giving her all the details he could remember, including how he had used 700-year-old chloroform to slow down the effects of the poison. She considered for a moment, trying to determine the appropriate treatment, before getting to work in earnest, moving with the calmness and precision of an experienced professional. Alan felt relieved; this girl knew her business so Fiver was in good hands.
The rabbits watched as this female ithe worked on their friend, silently praying that Fiver would live to see another day. Alan didn't speak a word either as he sat, keeping them company, hoping that whatever treatment Dr McEwen provided would work for these humanoid rabbits of the future. Being a scientist in his own rights, he knew the risks of administering medications meant for 21st century animals to these futuristic human/rabbit hybrids, whose metabolism they knew nothing about, as well as the possibility of lethal complications.
Dr McEwen moved from cabinet to cabinet, taking out drugs and equipment. After introducing a cocktail of tannic acid and activated carbon to neutralise the effects of the strychnine, followed by a fresh dose of anaesthetic to keep Fiver sedated until the effects of the poison wore off entirely, she turned to Alan, "All right, I did everything I could. The only thing we can do now is wait until he awakes. If there’re no complications, he’ll live."
They moved Fiver to a small side room just off the infirmary, where sick animals were kept overnight and gently lay him down in a large fluffy-pillowed basket normally meant for large dogs. His pulse was stronger now and his breathing more or less returned to normal, but still remained unconscious from the anaesthetic.
Dr McEwen then got back to work, treating the rest of the rabbits’ injuries. Luckily, Hawkbit didn’t make a fuss when she applied a number of soothing ointments and bandaged up his injured eyes, leaving him completely blind once again, until the flash burns could heal properly. As Alan had suspected, it was only temporary flash-blindness, the optic nerve and retinas unharmed.
Within minutes, the group, exhausted from all the hardships and fatigue they had endured in the past 24 hours, were sound asleep in the animal hotel along with Fiver. Only Alan remained awake, as he turned to Josie McEwen who was waiting for him; the time for explanations had come.
She led him into the living room. Making themselves comfortable in the fluffy armchairs by the near-extinguished fireplace, they faced each other across the coffee table. Alan felt his guts twist up as he noticed several family pictures of her now-deceased husband sitting on the mantelpiece, as well as a familiar newspaper lying on the table, bearing the outrageous headline of his disappearance, declaring him a suicidal lunatic, which he had seen on HAL’s screen in the HAB back in the future. What did she want with him? Surely, surely she wasn’t about to turn him in to the police or something?
"Now then, AJ…"said Dr McEwen, passing him a mug of steaming-hot coffee, something Alan had really missed while in the future, "I believe you promised me an explanation." The use of his teenage nickname ‘AJ’ instantly jolted Alan's memory. Sure enough, staring back into the girl's beautiful sapphire-like eyes, he suddenly recognised her: it was none other than his own ex-girlfriend, Josie Clayton, who had grown up in the same orphanage with him and Derek, but eventually gone separate ways. He was stunned.
"Josie Clayton? Is it really you…?"
"Josie McEwan," she corrected him, "I’m married to Major James McEwan…or was," she said, her tone suddenly turning serious, "What on earth happened to you, Alan? After all these years, your name suddenly pops up in a missing person investigation; my husband goes in search of you and vanishes off the face of the earth too. And now you suddenly show up on my doorstep injured and accompanied by a group of giant talking rabbits. And there was that accident with your family last year… What on earth is going on here? And where is my husband?"
Finally, Alan understood where she was getting at; she had recognised him in the infirmary when Bigwig had used his name, but had waited patiently until they were alone, so she could question him about her husband’s whereabouts. He considered for a second, uncertain whether or not to tell her about the future. Realising that he was already beyond the point of no return and couldn't hope for anything better than sharing his secret with a familiar face, he decided she deserved to know. But first, a few conditions would have to put forward.
"Josie, before I can tell you anything, you must first swear an oath of absolute secrecy on this. If you want to hear my story, then you must not reveal anything I’m about to tell you to a living soul. Our lives - the future of the world for that matter -, depends on it." Although suspicious of his motives, she promised without objection, and Alan launched into his story of his incredible journey into the future. By the time he was finished, Josie was in tears, not only from the news of her husband's death, but also touched by everything Alan had gone through. Finally, she found her voice.
"So my husband is really…dead?" Alan nodded grimly.
"I am afraid so, Josie, along with Derek and everyone else who went into the future with me." He reached out and gently squeezed her hand comfortingly, "Look, I understand this must be very hard for you, but there is something I have to ask you now: Do you believe my story? And I want an honest answer, please." She looked at him for an instant but then slowly nodded.
"Normally, I would have called you a liar or a lunatic, but after what I saw in my infirmary tonight, I can't help but believe you." Alan shot her a look of gratitude. Something he had always loved about Josie Clayton was her honesty. Reaching into his pocket, he took out her husband’s silver lighter, which he placed into her hand, "Your husband requested that I return this to you just before he died. He was a brave man, Josie. We owe our lives to him." Josie sobbed silently, staring at the lighter. Pulling herself together, she turned back to Alan.
"What can I do to help you? Should we call the police, so you can give them a statement about Robbins and his faction…?" But Alan shook his head firmly.
"No, that's the worst thing we can do. Not only would it be impossible to explain where I got all this information from, but if Red Hand discovers I’m still alive, they won’t hesitate to go on another murder rampage, to get to me. My friends inside have just lost their homeland, and are counting on me to get them out of this mess without being discovered. If the information about the future leaks out, it could destroy all our chances of ever correcting it...if it hasn't already…"
"But what about us?” Josie insisted, looking surprised that Alan was more concerned about those humanoid rabbits’ welfare, rather than about the world coming to an end in the next few years, “Surely, you must at least try and warn the world of what lies ahead…" But Alan remained firm.
"The world as we know it will come to an end in 2029, no matter what we do,” he explained, “But then a new world will be born from the ashes of the old. If we’re to protect the beginnings of that new world, the public must never know about it. Ever. If something – or someone - prevents Drake from undertaking his experiments that will lead to the rise of my friends, the future will be lost. The world I discovered was just fine, until that madman Robbins decided to wipe it out to get to me. Black Inferno must be destroyed, so civilisation can start over fresh when the time comes."
"Start over?” exclaimed Josie, not making any sense out of Alan’s thinking whatsoever, “But, if the human race becomes extinct, how do you expect us to…?" But Alan, who had been thinking along the same lines ever since he got back, calmed her, "Don't worry Josie; I’ve been doing some hard thinking on this. After my job here is finished, and, assuming that I survive, I intend to return to the future with my friends, to stay. My presence there will give civilisation the chance it needs for a new beginning."
"Then I'll come with you, Alan," said Josie, sitting up. Alan stared at her in amazement, "Josie, you don’t understand. Where I’m going, life is anything but easy; I will be completely cut off from civilisation for the rest of my life and forced to fend for myself. Besides, what about your son, your family…?" But Josie interrupted him.
"My son is missing too, Alan; after James's funeral, he took a glider from the flight club and went in search of his father…" In an instant, Alan realised what had happened; the glider had gone through the warp and disappeared into the future just like he had done, taking the boy with it. Could he have ended up in the middle of Black Inferno’s strike? He’d rather not think about it.
"My son has gone where you and my husband went - that's why I was so quick to accept your story,” she said, “If there’s any chance either of them might still be alive after you’ve changed the future, then I have to find them." Realising that she had a say in this matter, not to mention her presence in the future could actually be beneficial, Alan finally nodded in agreement.
"All right, you can come. However, the destruction of Black Inferno takes priority. And above all, remember that absolute secrecy is vital - not a word of this conversation is to go beyond this house. I’m on unfamiliar territory Josie; my return is probably altering the course of history as we speak. If I don't play my cards carefully, I could end up depriving my friends of their world, even their existence, forever."
By now, Alan was feeling dog-tired, struggling to stay awake, fatigue finally kicking in. Josie noticed his exhaustion, "Get some sleep, Al. You need rest." Within seconds, Alan was out on the sofa. Quietly, Josie went back to her infirmary and came back with a first aid kit. Carefully, she doctored his many wounds while Alan slept peacefully. After she was done, she sat in the armchair opposite him, watching him sleep.
Although deeply depressed to learn that her husband was indeed dead, she couldn't help but feel she had been given a fighting chance of putting her life back together again. The unexpected return of Alan had pulled her out of the meaningless life she had been left with, following her husband’s – and her son’s – disappearance. She stared at him, thinking back to all the wonderful times they had had together, as well as her feelings for Alan, which she had kept to herself throughout all the years of marriage to James McEwen. In spite of her thoughts however, she was awfully tired herself and soon drifted off to sleep, for the first time in days…
Meanwhile, Buxton Hall was buzzing with all the faction members who had been who had been dragged out of bed, summoned for an emergency meeting. Sven stood face to face with a trembling Tom Shelton, "...You blithering idiot assured us they had crashed and died!" Shelton grew pale; Sven Shertok was the most ruthless member of the Red Hand Brotherhood, only second-best to Robbins, with a charming reputation of killing other faction members as punishment for failing in their duties.
"I…I assumed they were dead. They just vanished off the screen and were gone! There was no other logical explanation…” the flight controller stammered, trying to think up some excuse to appease Sven, who rolled his eyes sarcastically.
“Is that so? Well, in my vocabulary, ‘assumption’ translates as the mother of all screw-ups!” he growled, giving Shelton a glare implying that if they couldn’t sort out this mess, he would be the one to pay for it. Meanwhile, murmurs and muttering had broken out amongst the rest of the faction, feeling as perplexed at Johnson’s apparent ‘return from the dead’ as Shelton.
“Little man has a point,” pointed out another terrorist with a horribly scarred face called Samir, “If Johnson is still alive, then why does he remain silent for nine days? Where could he have been hiding all this time…?”
"Enough with all this foolish hypothesizing!" bellowed Sven, "If Johnson still breathes, then he has to be found and dealt with quickly. I want each and every one of his known friends and relatives watched around the clock, and their phones tapped; Johnson’s home is also to be watched. The minute we pinpoint his location, I’ll be sending out an alert to the authorities that their ‘wanted murderer’ has been sighted. If Dr Johnson thinks he can outsmart us that easily, he’s in for a big surprise…"
Indeed, ever since Alan and his party had gone missing, Sven had taken a few precautions of his own planning, for just such a contingency; not too far away, their intended victim slept soundly, unaware that, thanks to Red Hand’s doing, he had been declared a fugitive of the law, wanted for murder…