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The Fatal Tree
By Stephen R. Lawhead
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Stephen Lawhead
All rights reserved.
In Which the World Takes a Turn for the Weird
Gordon Seiferts looked out the window of the operations module of Skybase Alpha. He blinked and looked again because he saw something that should not have been there: the moon.
Captain Seiferts was undertaking his daily background radiation reading and thermal image of Earth, but the blue planet was nowhere to be seen in his field of vision. He swivelled the camera 230 degrees and was able to bring Earth into view, but the metrics were all skewed. Fearing that the space station had somehow drifted out of orbit, he hurried down to the command module, where the mystery was compounded.
Instead of his colleagues and fellow scientists—men who had been working and sharing living space for the last three months—he found a crew of extremely astonished Russian cosmonauts. Seiferts did not speak Russian, and the cosmonauts did not speak English, so it took some time to work out that Seiferts was not aboard Skybase Alpha as he supposed, but on Mir 2, which was on a survey expedition to map the moon. Following this revelation, Seiferts grew so agitated and incoherent he had to be sedated and bound to a hammock for the duration of the mission.
* * *
Near Tacoma, Washington, fourteen vehicles plunged into Puget Sound when the highway bridge on which they were travelling disappeared beneath them. In all, thirty-two people were killed. However, local fishermen passing through the sound on their way out to sea were able to pull three extremely confused survivors from the water—none of whom could give a credible account of what had happened.
Able Seaman Mike Taylor of the Orca IV expressed utter incomprehension of the event. He was quoted in the Tacoma Times: "It was the craziest thing I've ever seen. I mean, those cars came from nowhere—it was like they just fell out of the sky. I still can't figure what happened. Those poor people ..." The accident occurred in the area of the newly proposed Tacoma Narrows Bridge—a fact that was not lost on the Puget Port Authority, whose public relations office commented, "Obviously, a disaster like this is tragic for those involved. But whatever the explanation turns out to be, it does raise serious questions about whether that is the best place for a bridge at all."
The incident was put down to a severe weather inversion resulting in a freak tornado. Such extreme weather conditions, although rare, are not unknown. In the Midwest, tornados have been known to pluck objects from the ground and transport them over many miles before depositing them in unlikely places.
* * *
Howard Smith went to sleep in his bed in Carol Stream, Illinois, and woke up on a floating agricultural island on the edge of Lake Texacoco in Mexico.
After kissing Julie—his wife of thirty-five years—good night, he closed his eyes in the bedroom of his suburban Chicago home, slept soundly, and awoke the next morning to find himself surrounded by wary Aztec farmers discussing the baffling presence of this pale-skinned alien who had appeared in their midst. They decided he was a sky god and, despite his strong protests—uttered in a language they could not understand—the farmers took him to the priest, who gave him a collar of gold and established him in the temple at Tenochtitlan.
* * *
In the Laxmi Nagar district of Mumbai, India, Sireena Shah prepared breakfast for her three children who were getting ready for school. She fed them and sent them out the door with their lunch pails—only to return to the kitchen to find them still dawdling over their food. She assumed they were playing a trick on her and was giving them a good scolding when her husband appeared on the scene, wanting his breakfast. She would have gladly given him something to eat, except for the fact that he had eaten and departed for the office forty minutes previously; his dirty dishes were still in the sink.
* * *
The entire R&D team of Arcosoft Games of Cupertino, California, disappeared while on a conference call with executives at Gyrotek, a marketing firm in San Francisco. When repeated attempts to reestablish contact failed, a secretary sent to the boardroom reported that the team had apparently staged a walkout as some kind of protest and left the building.
From the team members' point of view, however, the boardroom simply vanished—to be instantly replaced by a battlefield occupied by two opposing forces during what would later be called the Battle of Balaclava in the second month of the Crimean War. All eight men and five women of the Arcosoft team were slaughtered during a cavalry charge when British troops failed to identify them as noncombatants.
* * *
In Damascus, Rosemary Peelstick stood in front of a greengrocer with a sack of oranges in her hand. What am I doing here? she wondered. She looked down at the net bag, but had no memory of purchasing the oranges. The grocer smiled and offered his familiar greeting; she gave him an embarrassed wave, then walked home. It was, she decided, a sign of age, what was called a senior moment. She had another such moment later that day when, on the way to the genizah to join the discussion there, she turned into the hallway and found herself in the front room, again wondering why she was there.
Later, when talking to Tess Tildy, she suddenly heard herself saying the same words in the same conversation they had exchanged not an hour before. When she mentioned this to Tess, the elder woman confessed to having similar memory lapses. "It happens when you get older, dear," she said. "I don't think there's anything worth worrying about."
But when Mrs. Peelstick saw Gianni Becarria in the courtyard talking to Brendan Hanno and then, not three seconds later, turned around and saw him sitting in the front room reading a book, she knew there was something very much worth worrying about. The sight of the Italian priest nonchalantly thumbing the pages of the History of the Ottoman Empire sent her running back to the courtyard to find another Gianni and Brendan still immersed in conversation. She grabbed Cassandra Clarke, who happened to be passing by, and instructed her to look in the courtyard. "What did you see?"
"Well, Gianni and Brendan are talking physics, from what I can gather. Why?"
"That's what I thought. Now," said Mrs. Peelstick, "go and look in the front room and meet me in the kitchen. But don't say anything to anyone before you speak to me."
Cass regarded her curiously. "You're white as a sheet, Mrs. P. What's up?"
"Just do as I ask, please. There's a good girl."
Cass moved through the hallway and put her head through the door into the front reception room. There she saw Gianni reading his book; she did a double take and ran back to where Mrs. Peelstick was waiting in the kitchen. "Okay, what's going on?" she demanded.
"Shh! Keep your voice down," warned Mrs. Peelstick. "You saw them too?"
"I saw two Giannis, yes," Cass confirmed in a harsh whisper. "Why? What's happening?"
"I think we have a problem," she said.
"I'll say. This is deeply weird." Cass turned her wide-eyed stare toward the hallway as if fearing what would come through the door next. "We've got to tell somebody."
A hasty kitchen summit was convened—to which neither Gianni was invited—where Mrs. Peelstick informed certain key members of the Zetetics of her alarming observations. "I don't want to start a panic," she told them, "but we have a situation." It quickly transpired that she was not alone in noticing a range of small but significant anomalies: "odd little wrinkles in reality" was how Tess put it. When those wrinkles began to proliferate, the company knew that the dimensional reality they presently inhabited was growing increasingly unstable. The instability, Tony Clarke informed them, would only increase as the underlying structure of reality grew ever more volatile.
"Worst case?" said Tony. "When the anomalies accumulate to a level that can no longer be sustained, the dimension will collapse."
"Collapse," mouthed Brendan. "By that you mean be destroyed."
"Not destroyed, per se—more like extinguished. It would be as if this reality had never existed."
"What would happen to us?" asked Wilhelmina Klug.
"You, me, and everyone else who happened to inhabit this dimensional reality would simply cease to exist too."
The temperature in the room seemed to plummet. Kit Livingstone gazed around at his fellow questors. "Is this it?" he wondered. "Is this the End of Everything?"
"Merely the first wave, I would say," replied Tony. "Toward the end, the destruction will be far more devastating."
His words were still hanging in the air when the first of three explosions rocked the building, breaking glass in the windows, rattling the furniture, and sending stucco from the ceiling crashing to the floor. Kit was struck by a chunk of falling plaster. "What the—" he sputtered, shaking white rubble out of his hair. He jumped up and ran down the hall.
"Kit!" shouted Cass as the second explosion sent dishes from the cupboards crashing to the floor.
"Stay back!" cried Kit. "I'm going to check it out."
He raced to the reception room. Gianni was gone. Pausing at the front door, Kit pressed his ear to the wood and listened, then opened the door a crack and peered out. He saw nothing unusual, so he stepped out onto the threshold and looked down the smoke-filled street, where he saw something that had not been seen in Syria in two hundred years: a horse-drawn caisson pulling a cannon into position. Soldiers in tall, black square-topped hats, blue coats, and white trousers accompanied the cannon; they wore black boots and carried muskets fitted with bayonets. An officer with a red cockade and white ostrich plume on his bicorne hat observed the operation from the saddle of a brown horse. The officer carried a naked sabre and shouted orders in French to a company of soldiers who appeared to be moving house-to-house and pulling out residents. The air reverberated with the screams and cries of frightened citizens and the shouts of the soldiers.
Kit had seen enough. He darted back inside, almost colliding with Cass as he turned around. "Don't go out there!" he shouted. Grabbing her arm, he slammed the door.
"What is it? What's out there?"
"I think Napoleon has invaded Syria."
She gave him a blank look, shook off his hand, opened the door, and looked cautiously outside. "You must be—"
"Back to the kitchen," Kit told her, pulling her away with him.
They rushed back to the dust-filled room, where more Zetetics had crowded in—Richard, Robert, and Muriel among them. Tess was sitting in a chair and Mrs. Peelstick was dabbing at a cut to the old woman's head. Wilhelmina was picking up broken crockery; Tony and Brendan were assessing the damage.
"What did you find out?" asked Richard as Kit and Cass hurried back into the room. "Are we under attack?"
"Shh!" said Mrs. Peelstick. "Let him speak."
"We are under attack," Kit told them. "But"—he hesitated"—this is the weird part—"
"Yes?" said Mina. "Tell us already."
"It's the French. Napoleon, I think." He flung a hand in the direction of the street. "There are foot soldiers and men on horseback, and there's a cannon at the end of the street. They're going door-to-door and rounding up the locals."
"Napoleon?" said Robert. "Is this some kind of joke?"
"Do I look like I'm joking?" demanded Kit.
"It's true," said Cass. "I saw them too."
"How do you know they're French?" asked Mina.
"The bloody uniforms!" cried Kit. "That's not the point. Whoever they are, they'll be here any minute."
"Right," said Brendan. "We cannot stay here. We've got to get out while we can."
"What about the mission?" said Tony. "We cannot abandon the mission."
"It will have to continue elsewhere," said Brendan.
They quickly hashed out a plan. Tasks were assigned, times and meeting places agreed upon.
"I will inform the rest of the Zetetics," said Mrs. Peelstick. "We will migrate to safer places and continue to provide support for those of you in the field. Leave that to me. I'll see everyone safely away."
"Don't worry about us," said Tess. "We can take care of ourselves."
"That's it, then," said Brendan. "Use the ley line in the alley. That's the closest." He gazed around at the tight circle of anxious faces. "Just do your best and pray we are not too late."
"Tch! Listen to you," scolded Tess. She rose shakily from her chair, steadied herself, and said, "Too late? I don't believe it for a moment." She glanced defiantly around at her fellow Zetetics and threw out a challenge. "Does anyone here doubt that mitigating this catastrophe is the reason we have been brought to this place and time?"
When no one made bold to reply, she continued, "For this purpose we were formed, and to this place our steps have been directed. This is the battle to which we have been called, and we must trust in Him who has led us here to lead us on."
With those words still ringing in their ears, the questors fled Damascus.CHAPTER 2
In Which a Lesson Is Learned the Hard Way
Kit Livingstone and Cassandra Clarke stared at one another over the breakfast table. "She should have been here by now—we both know it. I'm afraid something bad has happened to her. Something really bad."
"You don't know that," Cass told him.
"You don't know that it hasn't."
"Listen, you said yourself that Mina's the most accomplished ley leaper among us. Whatever's happened, she can handle it."
They were sitting in a corner of the Grand Imperial Kaffeehaus eating krapfen and drinking coffee as the place filled up with its early clientele. "The question is, should we go on without her?" said Cass, taking a sip of coffee.
Kit stuffed the last of a doughnut into his mouth and chewed for a moment. The three of them were to have journeyed to Prague and met up before going on to Big Valley to see if they could discover a way to get back to the Spirit Well. The problem was that on their last visit to the portal, they found it guarded by an enormous yew tree that had grown up and blocked the way. Whatever else happened, they were going to have to find a way around that. "I hate to say it," Kit said at last, "but I think we have to go without her. We're sure not doing anything by cooling our heels here."
"Then we'll go." Cass set down her cup. "We'll write Mina a note and leave it with Etzel. She can come on and join us at the tree when she gets here."
"If she gets here," added Kit gloomily.
"Just stop it, okay?" Cass gave him a stern look. "We've got to stay positive or we might as well give up right now. And you know what? We can't give up."
"You're right," sighed Kit. "All this sitting around waiting has got to me. We'll leave this evening when the ley becomes active." He pushed back his chair and stood up. "I'll get our gear together. We'll need a few bits and bobs to take with us because we might be there a few days."
"Not so fast, Speedy. We're not going anywhere until we finish this plate of lovely pastry and have at least one more cup of coffee. Sit down and eat—it's the most important meal of the day."
After breakfast, they assembled some basic items that Kit reckoned they would need to make life in camp a little less spartan: a flint and steel, two hand axes, water flasks, fishing line and a handful of hooks, a hank of hemp rope, an assortment of knives, a pound of almonds, and four rolls of fruit leather. They divided these items and a few others into two sturdy canvas rucksacks. The idea was to travel light, and anyway, Kit reasoned, this was a fact-finding mission and they did not plan to stay very long.
They napped in the afternoon, and as the shadows began to stretch across the Old Town Square, Kit thanked Etzel for taking care of them and, handing him the note to give to Mina, wished him farewell. Then he and Cass left the city and made their way at a leisurely pace along the river road to the shaded path containing the ley line that led to Big Valley. The leap went off without incident, but they landed hard—buffeted by a fierce wind and stinging sleet. Cass threw up and Kit, for the first time in a long time, felt queasy and disoriented. It took them both a few minutes to pull themselves together; when they did, they saw that it was late afternoon and the sun was already sinking below the rim of the great limestone canyon to the west.
The Big Valley Ley deposited the two travellers on the path leading down to the river at the bottom of the gorge and, at first glance, everything seemed to be just as Kit remembered it, with no sign of the dimensional instability that had infected Damascus. Cass watched him for a moment, then asked, "Well? What do you think?"
"So far so good," Kit replied. "All appears to be in order, but time will tell. I think we call it safe until we find out otherwise." He glanced around. "I want to go to the tree, but we'll have to hurry if we hope to get back to the gorge before dark."
He led them back up the path to the canyon rim, where he paused a moment to get his bearings and take another reading of the sky before heading off across a plain of waist-high grass toward the woods in the near distance. "It's this way. Stay close and keep an eye peeled for predators, okay?"
Excerpted from The Fatal Tree by Stephen R. Lawhead. Copyright © 2014 Stephen Lawhead. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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Table of Contents
ContentsImportant People in the Bright Empires Series, ix,
Previously in the Bright Empires Series, 1,
The Fatal Tree, 5,
On What Happens Next: An Essay by Stephen R. Lawhead, 336,