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Cave and Peter Targa
New Fiction, By William Angle
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
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
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."
"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
"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
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,
"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
"The old man," asked Targa,"
"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
"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
"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.
* * * * * * * *
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
"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
"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
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
One wall held a gallery of figures.
"I knew there were cave paintings,”
murmured Targa at length. "But I never imagined anything like
"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
"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
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 , 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."
"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
"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
"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
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
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
Below that, he found the gold.
— THE END —
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