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The Timeless Sands

By Ben Chatfield All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Scifi

Short Story

Sheriff Justice Law squinted against the glare of the setting sun, his steel-gray eyes sweeping to and fro across the featureless sands of the desert. His brow drew down in disappointment; nothing but stout cacti and sun bleached rocks. A breath of wind stirred the arid plains, and Law blinked against the fine dust, pulling his hat down to shield his face. 

“Sandstorm's coming. If not tonight, then tomorrow morning.”

His words were addressed to a gold-colored chameleon that sat upon a flat sandstone slab to his left, soaking up the last rays of the day. Its previous owner had named it “Nav”, perhaps short for “Navigator”, or some unpronounceable Iroquois word. Law had renamed it “Nug”, short for “Nugget”, due to its unnaturally metallic coloring.

The odd critter had accompanied him on his last four journeys, and always seemed to fare better than its master in the rugged environment. This, the last of the long missions, was no exception.

“You look right comfortable there, lazy fella. Guess you deserve it, you work harder than I do.”

Nugget didn't even bother opening its eyes.

The Sheriff sighed, leaning forward to stir the metal pot in front of him. The last of the dried meat had gone into that soup, as well as a day's worth of water. Under normal conditions, he would have felt guilty about wasting so much on a single meal, but that was before. Now, it really didn't matter. This night would be the end, one way or the other.

His eyes went again to the desert, and again saw nothing. His quarry had not yet arrived. Unusual. On previous occasions, Law had been the late one. Never too late, thank God, but still...

His mind strayed momentarily to preparation. His enemy would come armed. There was no strategic advantage here on the flat, dead plains. The distant mountains seemed tiny against the edge of the sky, sharp teeth of black upon a backdrop of blue.

“Wonder if we missed him, Nug. Perhaps he has been and gone, and here we are in the desert, waiting for nothing.”

The lizard moved from its perch, crawling through the sand and up Law's pant-leg. Law barely twitched as the tiny claws nipped at his skin, offering his hand to the small chameleon.

“Maybe Meta's smarter than both of us. Maybe he knows we're waiting for him. The doctor didn't tell us much at all. Well, he might have told you, friend. What are the odds we missed our mark?”

Nugget curled itself in his palm, lifting its head to look him in the eye.

“Odds are less than one percent. Jump was precisely timed and calculated based on over four million factors,” it said. “Meta must arrive at this point within the next twenty-four hours, otherwise his objective will be nullified.”

Law blinked at the chameleon, then moved his hand up, allowing Nugget to crawl over onto his shoulder. “Never will get used to hearing you speak. How on earth did the doctor do it?”

The lizard spoke again, its voice an odd, gender-neutral hash of tones. “I could answer, but it would take me forty-nine minutes to state the requested data in a form you would understand.”

Law shook his head. “No sense in that, my friend. So... we shall finally meet the enemy, face to face. Enough of this hide and seek.”

The sun was below the horizon now, it last frail glimmering turning the western clouds to fire. The dunes still radiated heat, but already Law could feel the creeping chill of the desert night. He reached forward, giving the soup another swish of the ladle. It was beginning to bubble, the tiny fire finally bringing the water to simmering temperature.

“Don't suppose you want some broth?”

Nugget did not reply.

The Sheriff sat back, reaching into the saddlebag beside him for a bowl. The horse the bag belonged to, Marie, had remained behind. Nug could only move a certain number of living objects, and Marie was one too many. Law had left her, just as he had left his wife, and family, and town, and...

A jolt of pain shattered his thoughts. His ankle had begun to ache again. Meta's last “surprise” had broken it, or at the very least badly sprained it. Nugget had coughed up the materials for a splint, but even the lizard's miraculous abilities had limitations.

A brilliant flash lit the distant mountains, and Law was instantly alert. Lightning from an otherwise clear night, in the middle of the desert. Unnatural and out of place.

Meta.

The Sheriff squinted into the darkness, drawing a Smith & Wesson six-shot revolver from the folds of his jacket. Six bullets, no spares. Back home, he had something of a reputation as a marksman, and even had a small silver medal from a shooting competition the fair had held one year, but the darkness was on Meta's side. The sands ate up all sound, leaving a dead silence that set Law's hair on end.

“Will you shoot me, cowboy?”

The voice was male, oddly accented, like nothing he had heard before. The speaker seemed to struggle with words, pronouncing cowboy as “caw boay”.

Law drew back the hammer on his revolver, keeping his voice even as he replied. “I don't shoot my friends, only my enemies. Which are you, stranger?”

The man laughed, stepping from the darkness into the ring of light cast by the fire. “I am... friend indeed, friend. My name Masakatsu Ishida. Good to meet you.”

Law followed Ishida with the gun barrel as the oriental man took a seat across from him. Ishida was dressed for cooler climates, his clothing thick and decorative. Red-colored wooden plates, presumably some form of armor, covered his chest and arms, clacking together as he moved. Two swords, clearly of foreign design, hung in ornate scabbards at his side.

Ishida saw him eying the weapons. “Do not need to worry, Mr...?”

“Law. Justice Law. I was... am the county sheriff where I come from.”

“Ah, lawman. Good cowboy. No need worry for my swords. Both are blessed, never will cut the innocent.”

The sheriff coughed out a laugh. “A bunch of hokey, that. Met an Indian once, said he had enchanted feathers in his headband. Supposed to protect him from everything, make him immortal. Ended up dying of an infected cut, from his own knife no less. Superstition will not serve you, my friend.”

Ishida smiled. “Yet you here, talking to lizard, waiting for man who can kill you with shining magic from another land.”

Law blinked. “Different matter there. My gun would likely seem like death magic to those from another time. Meta's got gadgets and gizmos from the future, but they're still just machines someone designed and built. More to 'em than you can see, is all.”

The samurai shrugged. “Maybe more to your Indian friend's feathers, too. Would you let have food?”

“Oh, of course, I'm sorry. Have all you want. I've had plenty, and Nug won't eat the rest.”

“Nug?”

“The doctor's lizard. He's around here somewhere. Must've run off when you showed up.”

Ishida nodded, accepting the bowl and ladle the sheriff offered him. For a short time, the only sound was the samurai's eating and the occasional crackle of the fire.

Eventually, Law broke the silence. “Well, I've got a thousand questions for you, mister Masakatsu. Let's start with how exactly you ended up here. It's not exactly an easy spot to find.”

“I get here same as you. Little lizard show me the way.”

For the first time, Law noticed the red chameleon resting on Ishida's shoulder. Its color matched the armor perfectly, blending in with the carvings of dragons and serpents. The firelight shone in its eyes, black orbs that watched the sheriff, unblinking.

“I used to be Samurai. Brave captain, many victories. Then fighting stop, and I became wanderer. No place for warrior in time of peace. I find odd jobs, walk many miles. Was at peace. Then Naz came to me, with note from... doc-tor.”

Ishida drew a paper from a side pouch, holding it for the Sheriff to see. A quick inspection showed that the note was written in Masakatsu's language, unreadable to the English-educated.

“What's it say?”

“It say, 'Lizard name is Naz. It take you to good man who need help. Broken leg, stop him from doing what he need do'. Naz also translate for us, lets us speak. It learn as we talk. Getting better, yes?”

“What, at speaking? I guess, sure.”

“So, now we wait for... May-tah.”

“Meta, yes.”

“You fight him before?”

The Sheriff sighed, moving the soup pot from the fire to the cool sand. “No. Not yet. I always miss him. Nav... Nug can't track him properly. We always arrived late... except this time.”

“This time, you first.”

“Yes. Nugget says it'll be any time now.”

“And what you do when he get here?”

Law's forehead wrinkled briefly in a frown. “I'll put a bullet in the bastard's skull.”

Ishida nodded solemnly, scraping the last of the food into his mouth. Then, setting the bowl aside, he undid the tethers holding the swords at his side, setting them across his lap.

“And you sure that Met-ta needs, ah, bullet in skull?”

Law stiffened. “Dr. Marigold did not explain it to you?”

The samurai shrugged. “I know what doctor say. I want know what you think.”

“You think Marigold lied about Meta? I've seen the bombs, what they're made of. I've seen what Nav can do, what he's capable of, and he's just a tiny bit of nothing where he comes from. If I make a mistake, if even one of the explosives makes it through, everything will be gone. Everything.”

“But not for you, yes?”

“Not for me, no. That's the far future; I'll be sleeping in my grave before Meta's contraptions go off. But those thousands of lives will be on me. Every one of them.”

Ishida considered for a moment, partially unsheathing one sword. The blade glittered in the firelight, reflecting the stars in its mirror-smooth surface.

“Meta's bombs, they kill people in the future. Hundred, thousand year after you die. But what if people bad? Did you ever think that maybe bombs good thing?”

The sheriff's scowl deepened. “I'm starting to think you're a pal of this Meta fella. That's not a good way to be, friend.”

Ishida laughed. “I am on only one side, and that is mine. I come because you hurt and need help. That is all. However, I do not like it when a man acts without thinking first. That is all. Two thoughts. Maybe Meta like you, a lawman. Maybe he want good, not bad. Bullet to bad man's skull, but not bullet this time. Meta use... bomb.”

Law leaned forward, his gun still in his hand. “Alright, out with it. You didn't get all this yourself. Who have you been talking to?”

“Asked Naz. Asked to see future, see where he come from. He show me. Maybe you ask Nug. Then you see.”

After an uncomfortable pause, the Sheriff turned to Nug.

“Nugget, can you do that?”

“Explaining the events occurring between now and the year of my origin will take approximately three million sixty-”

“No, don't explain. Show. Can you show me?”

Nug's head ticked a notch to one side. “Yes. Estimated time of transfer, two minutes.”

“Then... do it.”

The last thing Law saw was Ishida's face, curling into a small smile... and the world broke apart as memories of the future were force-written into his brain.

Had Nug not paralyzed his motor functions, he most likely would have injured both himself and Ishida with his sudden flailing. As it was, his struggle was only in his mind. Surges of knowledge pulsed blue through his neural pathways, sometimes pictures, sometimes sounds, sometimes just a knowing that came of reasoning and not direct stimulus.

Light, of all spectrum, visible and invisible.

A great room of shining metal that Dr. Marigold occupied; his “laboratory”.

“Time travel, at least through the past, is simple enough. Just look at these equations...”

Four Navigators, living time machines, ate pellets from a jar and conversed with the men that made them.

The passage of time, not long, but days at least.

Meta was there. Law jerked at the memory, seeing his adversary for the first time, knowing what was to come, powerless to stop it. Meta had no form, a great living blackness that sprang from the shadows, consuming Dr. Marigold.

More time, longer.

Meta was in Marigold, and Meta was Marigold.

The bombs were made, ordered by Marigold, but designed by the shapeless monster within.

The Navigators were finished, Nav, Naz, and Nal.

Nax, the fourth Navigator, died. Its master shed a tear, even as Meta forced him on.

The time came. Meta prepared his strike. In that faraway land, man had built such defenses that explosives would be defused and stopped before they could do damage. Detonating from within the city was impossible. But if the bomb was planted in the past... if it were to go off in the city's foundations... from the bedrock underneath, where no man would think to look...

A random bit of imagined thought, Meta's, of the city in ashes, all life silenced under a black cloud of death.

The monster was discovered! Meta panicked. Marigold fought the darkness away, retook command of his body.

A note, scrawled to a man Marigold would never meet, tied to Nav with wire.

“Find someone to stop this. Choose a time, choose a place. Stop me, Nav. Stop Meta!”

The sound of time folding as Nav, the Navigator, began to move.

The wheels of space made a bridge, pulling Nav to the man he had picked; Sheriff Justice Wite, also known as “Law”. One of the greatest men history had record of.

And for a brief second, through a crack in time, Law saw the City. He saw what was in it, what mankind had made itself into. The blackness, the hate, the sadistic evil...

The shock shattered the transfer; he was back in the desert.

“How was it?” smirked Ishida.

Sheriff Law rose to his feet, barely noticing the pain in his leg, and vomited into the sand. His breathing came in ragged gasps, his entire body shaking.

“That city... heaven help us, that city...”

Ishida's customary smile faded. “Yes. That is what we become. Evil, good sheriff. The only word for it is evil. You struggle to save the great cesspool of injustice that is our very future. I have said before, I care only for myself. You, on the other hand... you consider yourself fair. Do we not deserve this end? Does Meta not bring a fitting sentence to it all? Who knows; perhaps from the ruin, new life shall flow.”

Law sat again upon the sandstone slab, digging weakly in his pack for a water pouch. Finding it, he took a deep drink, taking care not to choke in the process. Then, setting it aside, he sat back, staring up into the stars.

His words were slow in coming, slower still in delivery. He spoke his thoughts to the samurai out of time, to the lizard that was a machine in disguise, to the blackness of space and the great wasteland that was that prehistoric desert.

“Do we deserve it? That is what you ask. If one were to look at that... monstrosity we become, they would say a solid yes without hesitation. But to end them all? To sentence the few for the darkness of the many? Any other man you ask, they would see the City and say yes. But I say this. As long as a single light shines in the night, another light may grow from it, till the light is again greater than the dark. I do not fight for the City. I fight for the Choice. The choice of Man. The freedom to chose, till their dying day, to live in black or in white.

“They follow the laws of their time. Sick, twisted laws, but laws they made. Justice they chose. Nav has brought me here, to a land before man, to make a choice as well. I have made it three times before, even at some cost to myself. Here, I reckon I am the law, and I say this. Until they fall to their own wickedness or until they find the error of their ways, until they run their course and the final judgment is upon them, let nothing take from them their choice.

“I don't know their hearts, for only God in heaven knows that. I choose not for them, but for myself. And I choose to save them.”

And he said no more.

Ishida was silent for a good while, his gaze following Law's to the heavens above. The sand around them shifted, rolling in the wind-swept night. The dwindling fire shuddered, but in the end persevered, snapping a spent log in two with a feeble crackle.

“You have clear judgment, cowboy.”

“Where I come from, I have to. Very often, my word is life or death for those accused of breaking the law. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to confirm a suspicion of mine... Nugget, what is the true identity of the man before me?”

“Identifying. Masakatsu Ishida, born 1587, Kanto region, Japan. Occupation: Samurai and bodyguard to local Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.”

Ishida raised an eyebrow. “What did you think, cowboy? I do not-”

“Update: Ishida is currently host to a parasitic non-entity, currently termed 'Meta'. No existing data on parasite. Caution is advised.”

“Thank you. And now, Mr. Masakatsu, or Mr. Meta,” Law brought the gun up, pointing it squarely between Ishida's eyes, “If you'll kindly put your hands where I can see them, and move away from the swords.”

The samurai laughed, more from amazement than amusement. “By heaven, Sheriff. You should have done that to begin with. It would have saved you a great deal of time.”

“Oh, I had a good idea it was you all along, even without Nug to confirm it. What did you do with Dr. Marigold?”

“He fought me from the start. I would not have hurt him, but he took control while I was placing the second bomb, and threw himself off a ravine. I had no choice but to seek out a new host. Masakatsu was the first I came to. A surprisingly good choice; he is much more willing to assist me.”

The fire was beginning to dim, more ember than flame. Law squinted in the growing darkness, his gun never wavering. Ishida hadn't moved since Nug had revealed his identity, neither lifting his hands in compliance to the Sheriff nor making a move to strike.

“What are you?”

“No man shall know. I was here before time, set as a watcher to guard this world. Some say I am a stranger from a distant planet. I am not. Some say I am a spirit, a demon cursed to wander this earth. I am not. I am he who keeps order. I am he who keeps mankind from extinction.”

Ishida's body had grown hazy; the inhuman revealing itself through the human. Meta was blacker than the night, a silky shadow cast on a dimensional plane outside the bounds of reality, a thing beyond Law's comprehension.

“I am tasked to preserve humanity, but there came a time when I asked myself, 'How can I protect them when they kill each other? How can I keep them safe when the they are their own worst enemy?' So I said to myself, 'I will destroy all but a few.' And so I began.”

The phantom sighed through its borrowed mouth.

“I made a mistake. I did not anticipate that they would have grown to posses the ability to detect me. Clumsy from many millennium of inactivity, I tried to end them with their own weapons. I was stopped, but I made use of my host's knowledge to dive through time. Setting the bombs in the past seemed logical. They would not think to look there, remaining unaware until such a time as I returned to trigger the explosion. The city would fall, taking with it the blackest third of humanity. But... something drew at my mind. Was borderline extinction really the best solution? It was the only one I knew, but... I needed more options.”

The truth slowly dawned on Law. “You chose me. To make the decision for you.”

“Yes. Marigold wrote the letter. I sent it. I knew Nav would be able to track me as I set the bombs, so I moved quickly. I take it you have disarmed them?”

Law shrugged. “It wasn't exactly hard. Nav showed me what buttons to press. The fail-safe on the last one knocked me off a cliff, but that was my own darn fault.”

“I am sorry about that. I could not remove it from Marigold's design.”

“So... he made the bombs?”

Meta nodded. “For a war that would have... will destroy half the planet. That was what prompted me to action.”

Law still kept his gun up.“So... do you agree with me?”

“I do.”

Meta rose from his seat, his feudal clothing flaring in the intensifying wind. Sand stung Law's face as he, too, stood as best he could.

The storm was coming.

“I will go. This man longs for his time once more, as I am sure you do. Nav will carry you back to your home, but the navigator must return to its place as well.”

Law released the gun's hammer with his thumb, tucking the weapon back inside his jacket. Nugget curled itself on his shoulder, its tiny lizard eyes closing. Law knew from experience that it was preparing for the jump through time, conserving the necessary energy.

“The last bomb, Meta. Where is it?”

Meta held out his hand. Something like shattered porcelain fell from his fingers, turning to dust as it fell, joining the sand swirling in the whistling wind.

“You need not fear it any longer.”

Meta turned away, facing the oncoming storm. His Navigator crawled into place on his shoulder, assuming the same position as Law's.

“Meta...”

The being turned one last time.

“For what it's worth... I'm sorry. About humanity. We may seem awful to you, but you wait and see. We'll get better. Just... give us time.”

The ghost of a smile played across Meta's face.

“I know.”

Nav's voice rose above the wind, rattling Law's eardrums. “Chronometric energy at 100%. Start point; Saharan desert, prehistoric era, year twenty thousand before B.C. End point; Boulder City, Nevada, 1840 A.D.” It paused, and opened its eyes. “Launch.”

Time stretched and deformed, folding over slowly until two points touched. The Sheriff became a pattern of energy swirling through the juncture in the time plates.

The samurai followed through a similar aperture, leaving only the matter-signature that was the enigmatic Meta.

Meta stayed for several minutes, watching as the sandstorm rolled over the campsite, blanketing the dying coals, burying the rocks the two men had sat upon. Meta did not need a Navigator to pass through time; it was one with time, all-seeing, anchored in one place yet able to move though the stream at will.

It could already hear the war, hundreds of thousands of years ahead. It could feel humanity dying, feel children turning to ash, animals burning, trees stripped to nothingness by mankind's death machines.

And there as well, a single tiny voice, calling out for peace.

Meta had no face, but in its own way, it smiled.

A pulse of unearthly power; the empty sands settled, and silence ruled once more.


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