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The Cave and Peter Targa

New Fiction, By William Angle

      AN INFERNO was rising in the east. Shadows shifted among dunes scoured by a cold wind, and dawn spilled over the bleak Sahara.

     An old man the color of charred wood emerged from the back of the tent, warming his knotted hands on a copper teapot. Although Targa took no notice, the Arab tipped a bit more tea into his cup and then backed away like a ghost.

     Peter Targa slouched on a bench drawn close to the rough wooden table. The flapping canvas overhead creaked over a few splitting sticks lashed together with wire. The source of the wood was a mystery — as far as Targa knew, there was no tree within a hundred miles. He sat with the collar of his scuffed leatherjacket turned up, his face puffy from spending the night in the back of his land rover. A couple of desiccated dates lay on a ceramic dish, but Targa left them untouched. He sipped warmth from the bitter tea, chewed a couple of granola bars, and watching the tricky shapes of the dunes slowly materialize. Behind him, the hunched foothills of teacakes mountains emerged from the sand sea, their shadows melting under the blaze of the new day.

     As the temperature rose, Targa unzipped his jacket and slapped away the biting flies. It was not so easy to ignore the doubts that nibbled at his mind.

     Forty-eight hours ago Targa had been enjoying the plush Mediterranean comforts of a tourist hotel in Algiers. The international conference had deteriorated into a boozy party on the hotel roof top where tired physics professors slaked their tropical thirst with warm beer, fanned themselves with menus and sketched pictures of Calabi-Yau manifolds in their notebooks. As the conversations dwindled and the lights began flickering on the vine-covered slopes below the hotel, Targa shared cigars and a bottle of expensive wine with an Libyan colleague eager to practice his English. The Mouton-Rothschild '82 proved a good investment — Faud's father was a high-ranking general. Lubricated by alcohol and flattery, the new acquaintance had made a few phone calls that resulted in a special visa and a free ride aboard an Ilyushin-76 Libyan transport plane to Sabha. Targa's  handwritten letter of recommendation and a few high denomination Dinar were effective passports through military barricades, and Targa soon found himself driving a battered land rover over an empty gravel road deep into the Marzuq desert.

     It was a region few white men had ever seen, or would want to see. But Targa was not an ordinary man.

     Although he was still only in his early thirties, Peters Targa's work in theoretical physics was often compared to Einstein's — a sudden burst of brilliant papers that rocked the scientific community, and shook the foundations of accepted theory. But Targa — like Einstein — seemed to have peaked in his late twenties. In recent years, Targa's work became more abstract and difficult. Few openly challenged Targa's strange ideas, but the mainstream of the physics community was more interested in projects that could be tested with particle accelerators, telescopes, space probes or other expensive government experiments. Targa became eccentric. Then he became isolated. Ultimately — forgotten.

     The scimitar dunes had many shades and textures that caught the rays of the rising sun, creating visions of bizarre beauty. The Sahara was vast beyond all human description, its scalloped roads drifted over in places by crescents of rippled sand. Targa's cargo consisted of two dozen plastic gasoline cans and two big cans of water. For food he had taken a couple of sandwiches and candy bars. On the outskirts of Sabha he had eaten his last meal —a western-style hamburger cooked in a tidy restaurant near the desert’s edge. He drove past a few tethered camels. A few hours later —it was hard to say exactly how long — he passed a 12th century slave trading post of Moorish architecture — a ruined shell ofmulti -storied dwarf arches opened like a piece of rotted honeycomb in the sea of sand. Beyond — the empty desert.

     Time stretched as Targa drove through sterile landscape that seemed to have a shifting, ever-changing life of its own. A few centuries or a few minutes — they were all the same out here. His eyes were teased by the jittering distant dune-tops distorted through waves of heat. In the late evening, he finally spied the ancient spine of the Akakus mountains looming like some prehistoric skeleton through the Muzark desert, and had known he had reached his destination.

     The old man advanced upon him again with the copper teapot, but Targa waved him away.

     "How long much longer?" demanded Targa.He reached into his wallet and pulled out a thick wad of Dinars, and spread them out in a fan over the table top. He put the plate of dates over it to keep the money from blowing away.

     The old man did not appear to understand English, but grinned anyway revealing a blacked and incomplete dentition. Then he raised a gnarled finger in the air as though pointing at something between them. Targa scowled at him, but then a minute later he heard it too. The sound of an engine.

     It proved to be a black smoking motorcycle, pistons scored by years of breathing dust. A young man cut the engine and began tearing off a dusty plastic raincoat. He was plump, dark-skinned, with slight cheeks. He pulled a dusky rucksack off the back of the motorcycle, and gave Targa a friendly smile that showed two silver chipmunk teeth.

     "Good morning sir, I am Housam."

     Targa did not offer his name in return. “Do you see this money?"

     Housam smile grew and gestured at the rucksack. "Perhaps you are interested in buying some heroin. I can get it in large amounts in almost pure state."

     "No."

     "Perhaps this then." Housam reached into the sack and removed a small object covered in newspaper. Unwrapped, it proved to be a small and surprisingly heavy skull of tiny perfection. “This monkey fossil is very old. It would be worth a great fortune in the west."

     "No," said Targa, glancing at the skull. “Not that either."

     "Perhaps this," he said, removing another package. "A fragment of a meteorite that fell in the desert— it sticks to steel like a magnet, and is filled with tiny green gems."

     "No," said Targa. "I want something else."

     Housam shrugged helplessly.

     "I want to see the cave."

     Housam and the old man exchanged glances, but neither appeared surprised. Housam allowed a respectful moment to pass, then said: "You must tell no one."

     "I promise," said Targa.

     Housam picked up the bills, slowly counted them, and placed them into a money belt under his shirt.

     Housam piloted the land Rover with easy skill of a taxi driver, continuously prodding Targa with friendly questions. He inquired about what kind of shoes Targa preferred, and solicited his opinion of different American automobiles. He asked ifTarga had ever visited Hollywood, and what he thought of country-western music. Targa tried to deflect some of the questions by asking a few of his own.

     "Do you have a family?"

     "No," confided Housam. "Not even wife. The Sahara is bigger than your whole country, but all of Libya contains only five million. In the desert — there are beta handful."

     "It looks pretty desolate, "Targaagreed.

     "Once it was different," Housam said. “Soon you will see for yourself."

     "You like it here?"

     The silver teeth vanished as Housam'sready smile turned to a frown. "I dream of other places,” he admitted. “But you cannot eat dreams."

     "You can't eat sand either. What are you doing out here? You seem like an intelligent guy."

     Housam's teeth winked on again in a smile. "I speak seven languages," he said. "But I cannot even write one."

     "The old man," asked Targa," —your father?"

     "My Uncle." Housam shook his head. “My father and mother are dead. One day soon I will leave this place. "Now it was Housam that seemed eager to change the subject. "You are a scientist?" Housam asked. "What do you study?"

     "Time," said Targa, wiping dust off his forehead. "I study Time."

     "History, you mean?" asked Housam doubtfully.

     "History is only part of time," said Targa. "There are also the many futures that spring like hydra-heads from every instant."

     Housam listened carefully. "Like a throw of the dice?" he offered. "The gambler may win or lose?"

     "They win and lose at the same time,” said Targa. "That's quantum uncertainty."

     "So which world is real?" asked Housam." The one where you win, or where you lose?"

     "They are both real," said Targa.

     "It is too bad you cannot turn the clock back, eh?" said Housam. "Flip the coin again? Choose the other world?"

     Targa stared at him. After glancing at his face, Housam suddenly switched the conversation off.

     They were now driving into a winding canyon filled with rubble. Plateaus of rock were worn into yardangs byte wind. One nearby cliff had slumped upon itself into a cascade of enormous boulders. The wind had eroded jagged rocks into shapes as round as eggs. They parked the Rover at the top of the hill and gathered their equipment. When he saw Targa's camera, Housam snatched it away from him.

     "Hey," said Targa. "Give that back."

     "I cannot," Housam pleaded. "No pictures. That must be understood."

     Targa let him keep the camera. He clipped a flashlight around his forehead, pulled on his backpack, and filled his canteen from one of the cans. Housam was already waiting on the rock above them. Targa followed, using his elbows and knees to negotiate his way between the rocks. They drifted down between the interstices of the huge boulders, where it quickly became dark and very cold. He was thankful that he had not removed his long pants in the early heat of the morning. Targa switched on his head lamp, and saw the more jagged boulders deeper down had never been dulled by the desert wind. A fine dust surrounded them. Slipping between two boulders, Targa landed on a fine flat bed, and watched Housam wiggle deeper underground. How he could find his way in this maze of passage ways was a mystery to Targa. With grunts and occasional hops through the darkness, Housam led them at a more horizontal angle into the base of the mountain. After another thirty minutes of heavy physical labor, they began to feel a strong current of air, and Targa knew they had reached the cave.

* * * * * * * *

     BEFORE THEM was an opening only a foot or two across. A stiff breeze was blowing out the hole, carrying a strange cold smell. Housam spread his hands, offering to let Targa go ahead. Targa shook his head.

     "You first," he said.

     Housam squirmed through the hole, until only his kicking feet were visible. A few seconds later they were gone too. Targa found himself alone underground — a very unpleasant feeling.

     It was also unpleasant crawling into the hole. The opening seemed to be come tighter and tighter until it seemed his shoulders were wedged solidly in the rock. Finally, with huge struggle, he pushed his way, gasping, into a sizable chamber where the air seemed suddenly damp. He gathered himself upright and shone his head lamp around as he regained his breath. Spidery insects everywhere retreated before the spot of light.

     "Cave crickets," said Housam. "They are harmless." In the total silence, his voice seemed loud.

     Targa shuddered slightly at the dank air and at the thought of the millions of tiny insects crawling through the darkness all around him. He shook the feeling off, pushed Housam aside and took the lead, walking deeper into the cavern.

     Then he stopped short. Framed in the circle of his head lamp was a figure on the wall. It was a sad-eyed giraffe, scratched with exquisite skill into the blackened wall.

     "What's that doing here?" he asked. “There are no giraffes in North Africa."

     "There were once," said Housam softly at his elbow. "That picture is older than the pyramids of Egypt —much older. Come — there is more."

     Beyond the giraffe was a bird, sitting on a tropical tree. The head and body were delicately etched with scratches, and traces of color still clinging to the rock under a glittering coat of calcite.

     "How old?" asked Targa

     Housam shrugged. "Ten thousand years? Fifteen — maybe more."

     Next was a crocodile, leering from the edge of a river over hung by tall trees. A rhinoceros browsed nearby. There was another animal that was less easy to identify. "What's that,” asked Targa.

     Housam shrugged again. "Who is to say? Their kind is gone forever."

     "Rivers and trees included."

     Housam ducked under a low overhang, and like an usher, waved him into the cavern that lay beyond.

     Targa did not immediately grasp the size of the room until he played his light down the walls, and realized that one side had no wall — it was a room, with arched ceiling that ran high overhead. His foot disturbed a rock, and Targa heard the faint, liquid echoes vanish into the darkness.

     One wall held a gallery of figures.

     "I knew there were cave paintings,” murmured Targa at length. "But I never imagined anything like this."

     "Look at this," said Housam quietly. He reached down at Targa's foot and raised a handful of dust. "These were once fine fern branches. They crumble to dust at a touch."

     Targa cautiously approached the mural to study it more closely. Human figures are rare in cave paintings, but this was done with unusual skill. A huge multitude of humans were shown on a richly forested hillside. They were all face-down, as though suddenly fainting. Above the hill were two figures, drawn much larger. The woman was magnificent, her face perfectly formed with a beauty that transcended time. The man — the king — stood next to her. But his face was indistinct. Somebody had clumsily beaten out the exquisite etching of the head with a cobble, leaving an area of chipped rock.

     "Do you recognize it?" asked Housam, his voice still a whisper, but easily understood in the intense silence. “That is the valley outside, but instead of sand, it is full of trees and rivers. The top of the mountain has since collapsed, covering up the cave entrance."

     "It looks like somebody defaced the picture," said Targa.

     "My uncle says it was always like this. It is almost as though they were trying to send us a message. Then —there is the other half."

     Targa followed Housam's headhight, and saw, faintly illuminated, a second mural. Or it only seemed faintly illuminated — it was the same valley and mountains, but was drawn more indistinctly, as though the artist had been in a hurry. There were no details of trees, and only a few human figures were lying on their stomachs. And there were no two figures at the top. Between the two murals was a stone box.

     "Looks like a sarcophagus. Have you ever looked inside?"

     "I am not a grave robber."

     "You never even peeked?"

     "Nothing must be touched," said Housam with uncharacteristic sharpness. For an instant Targa saw a glint of something stronger beneath the smiling personality. Then Housam returned to normal. "Perhaps you can explain the drawings— for example, what is that?"

     He pointed at the top, where a strange halo surrounded a black spot.

     "Total solar eclipse," said Targa. "Nineteen thousand years ago —19,235 BC. August fifteenth at 2 PM, to be exact."

     House's head lamp turned to Targa's face, temporarily blinding him. "How do you know that," he asked. "You could not have known that. Or are you joking?"

     "I'm not joking," said Targa, and pulled off his backpack. "You see, Housam, your dream world is real."

     Housam watched in stupefaction as Targa hauled the time machine out of his backpack. His mouth open in that dead-cod look people always got when they saw it for the first time. It was fully charged, and shimmered with a soft glow that was plainly visible in the darkness. Targa grabbed Housam's shoulder and pulled his nose close to a dial on the machine. "See? No joke. The dial is already set."

     "You — you," sputtered Housam. "You will become their god? Marry the beautiful lady of the valley."

     "No," said Targa, thrusting the machine into Housam hands. "You will."

     Housam reeled as though he had been punched. He was too confused to resist as Targa began hooking the straps to him.

     "What's wrong," asked Targa. "Don’t you feel like making the trip?"

     "I don't understand . . ."

     "Time travel," said Targa. "My specialty, remember? Push the button and you can take a one-way trip to the past. Make your dream come true."

     "One way?"

     "That's all the machine will do. No coming back. Of course, you could never return to your own time anyway. As soon as you arrive in the past, you change the future. So you and I will never meet again. This is good-bye."

     Housam was a quick learner. He took a couple of gulps of air, but Targa was impressed at how quickly he regained control. Housam sat on the stone sarcophagus.

     "But— what if I were to. . ." Housam groped for a moment ". . . accidentally kill one of your ancestors. You would never be born — you would cease to exist."

     "I'll skip the math," said Targa. "You wouldn’t understand it anyway. But we live in one version of reality, like one card in a deck. We're just shuffling the cards a little by sending you back to the past. For all I know you can recreate the world with yourself as eternal savior. You will have the advantage of arriving before a solar eclipse — one of the most awesome natural phenomena that humans can witness. The natives will be impressed. Don't worry— the date is right. I checked it with a computer program."

     "How will I be able to talk to them— to communicate . . . "

     "You speak seven languages, remember?" said Targa. "You are a very adaptable and intelligent man. You will have many advantages — your knowledge of fire, the wheel, smelting steel."

     "It is true," murmured Housam." I know these things.

     "If you can survive in the desert,” said Targa, "you can probably survive anywhere. Better take this stuff." Targa handed over the backpack, stuffed with granola bars and small plastic containers of orange juice. He threw in his canteen for good measure. Wordlessly, Housam handed Targa his rucksack in return. Targa dug around inside it.

     "Here," he said. "Keep the heroin. It might come in handy. And take these." He dropped in a handful of plastic butane lighters. Targa stuck the monkey fossil onto a nearby rock shelf — an interesting puzzle for future archaeologists. "OK," he said. "That's it. Push the button and go twenty thousand years into the past, and leave your starving miserable life here forever. Anything you want to say to your Uncle?"

     Housam's finger hovered over the red button, but he hesitated. "Push it and walk out of the cave into new world," advised Targa. "Where the ferns are fresh."

     Housam was not listening to him. He was staring at the girl on the mural, his expression transformed by sublime vision.

     "Will there never be a way to thank you?" he whispered finally.

     "I'm sure you'll think of something," said Targa, and watched him push the button.

* * * * * * * *

     AFTER HE faded away, in the silence that followed, Targa wondered if it was his own ears he heard ringing, or the chirping of cave crickets, undisturbed for twenty thousand years.

     His headlight turned back to the second mural as he mused over the drawing. Housam had never understood the picture. The trees and extra human figures were missing — not because the artist was rushed. It was because they no longer existed. The outlines of the valley were bare, the hills stripped of trees, the land grown barren from over-farming. Housam's technology introduced to a primitive people who were not ready for it would prove explosive and instantly destructive — a torch that would scorch the land so intensely that twenty thousand years later it was still desert. But, Targa smiled to himself — that was the necessary part of the plan.

     It might have taken generations for them to realize what was happening. Perhaps even Housam himself had realized what was happening too late to stop it. His portrait had been selectively destroyed — was it out of guilt, or perhaps rage? But by that time he would have lived a long life as a wealthy king. Housam would always remain personally grateful, even if he was a cat’s-paw for Targa — an unwitting tool for destroying a whole culture.

     The "hurried" mural on the other side was actually an accurate view of eco-disaster. But that disaster was necessary in order to wipe out any trace of Housam's appearance —to keep him from affecting the main river of time. Targa wanted that river to flow uninterrupted back to the vicinity of his own time-line. Housam was willing to abandon his world, but Targa was not yet ready to make a big jump.

     Targa began sliding the rocks off the stone sarcophagus. They were heavy, and Targa went slowly. He had all the time in the world.

     Somewhere in the universe of time and probability, Housam was going to have a very busy few weeks. But someday, he would stop and wonder how Targa had engineered the whole thing —how he had strung together the coincidences that had sent him to the past. Targa chuckled as he lugged the last stone block off the sarcophagus. Fortunately he had all the main points copied down on a piece of engineering paper in his pocket — scribbled down two days ago in an Algerian hotel when he had gotten a long-distance phone call from himself — placed from his own home in New York. Targa always enjoyed talking to himself on the phone. It was always such a relief to talk to someone intelligent — made even more intelligent in this case by two weeks hindsight.

     Underneath the stone, he found a dusty skull, still recognizable with two silver chipmunk teeth. Although, Targa observed, they had been the last to go. Housam had lived to a ripe and satisfied old age.

     Below that, he found the gold.

— THE END —

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