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.
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
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 of multi-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.
old man advanced upon him again with the copper teapot, but Targa waved
"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
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 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
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
pretty desolate," Targa agreed.
"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."
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
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
"They win and
lose at the same time," said Targa. "That's quantum
world is real?" asked Housam." The one where you win, or
where you lose?"
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
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
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
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
doing here?" he asked. "There are no giraffes in
"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.
shrugged again. "Who is to say? Their kind is gone forever."
"Rivers and trees
under a low overhang, and like an usher, waved him into the cavern that
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
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
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," 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
said Targa, thrusting the machine into Housam hands. "You
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
"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
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
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."
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.
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.
that, he found the gold.