The Terminal Cycle
Summary: On a warm spring evening in Terminas, an unfortunate man blunders into a time loop.
Notes: This takes place in the Southern Gothic city of Terminas, part of the world of the "Sword of Nerdom" podcast. Go listen to it!
Terminas was, is, and will always be an interesting place. I believe that my perspective is a uniquely qualified one to make such a statement. Here in Terminas, we always appreciate a good tall tale, even if we don't believe it deep down. My prior profession involved occasional estimation of outlandish claims, and even then, I found quite a few were true. Truth is stranger than fiction, as fiction must make sense, at least from the author's point of view.
Allow me to introduce myself, if I haven't before. I am Professor Marcus Montaigne of the University of Saint Kristoval, particularly the School of Engineering. I grew up in the Barony of Exos, along a small stream of the Moldevay River. My parents were not exceedingly wealthy in material means, but I was well-educated for my age. My older brother became a successful businessman, and my two sisters became knights in the Holy Orders. As the youngest child, I sought my own path in research and intellectual pursuits. After commerce and combat, I suppose it was the most unique path left.
I sought to achieve immortality in my own way, though research and writing. In retrospect, I may have succeeded, just not in the way first intended. I lacked my brother's instinct for numbers and my sisters' diligence, so my first years in formal education were nevertheless a challenge for me. I had a habit for breaking things, which is why I became an engineer. Given the gas-driven paddleboats that now ply the rivers, I suppose I wanted to see the shape of things to come. I also succeeded in those regards, just not the way I first intended.
It started on the way home one day, shortly after the publication of the Loneward Account. Needless to say, I was quite incredulous when I heard about it from my faculty colleagues. Extraordinary claims required extraordinary evidence, and I'd found this out directly. I will admit that otherwise, I would have been dismissive of the claims of a lost civilization rediscovered in the backwaters of Strova up north. I did not have a chance to read the document until after I beheld its significance directly.
The controversial thesis of Newkirk's Alan Ritter claimed that modern Adelosian innovations were largely recent imports from distant Xianjing. The technologies that followed my own present were similarly derivative, although from farther in the past. It was as though Sjora itself was a graveyard of grander, older civilizations, and we only beheld the proverbial tip of the iceberg. I was about to dunk my head in that dark, frigid water, in hopes of expanding that knowledge.
Professor Navid Havarra from Newkirk University visited us a week before the experiment. He brought with him a relic of that long-lost culture, the Red City of Amaranth. Dr. Hypatia Boyle, our new hire from Newkirk, helped the Dean design a chemical battery and capacitor bank for the experiment. Given my expertise in the new field of electrical engineering, I was given the responsibility to close the circuit that would activate the device. According to Havarra, the application of power would enable us to directly read the contents of the stone, as it would project onto a nearby wall like a magic lantern show.
We dimmed the lights in the room, out of anticipation of what was to come. I flipped the switch, and electricity surged from the voltaic pile, our batteries. A thin red light rose on the nearby wall, and wedge-like cuneiformic characters marched like soldiers on parade. For a moment, we stood mesmerized by a script I'd never seen in my decades of life. I could not read it, but I heard Havarra reading aloud. "The Clockwork King is but a shard of Yog-Sothoth," he said. "The serpent swallows its tail, and the traveler takes the circle road."
I squinted as the script's glow intensified. I thought I saw a symbol resembling an eight-pointed cog, which hovered at the bottom of the page. I rubbed my glasses for a clearer view, but something else seized my attention. I smelt the crackle of ozone in the air. I heard the crack of high voltage. I felt a tingle run down my fingers, and I saw my apparatus combust. I felt Havarra tugging on my arm, as though trying to pull me to safety. However, I stood catatonically, a prisoner in my own body. The projection on the wall flickered, and I blacked out.
When I came to, I was on the floor with my back to the wall. I groaned as I pulled myself up, my joints creaking with stress from a lifetime of avoiding lab accidents. I looked around, and I saw no signs of my colleagues. On the table I set up my apparatus, I saw black scorch marks from where it had been. My entire laboratory was emptied, and I wondered how long I'd been out. I found it curious that no one would try to evacuate me to the medical school in the event of an injury. I hoped they'd had good reasons not to.
First, I decided to orient myself. As the laboratory was windowless, I decided to check outside. Pressing my hands against the wall for balance, I staggered towards the rear door. I threw open the door with all the strength I could muster, and I felt a blast of hot, fetid air. The sunlight nearly blinded me after hours in the darkened lab, but I allowed my eyes to adjust as I took in the scenery around me.
I blinked, but the campus green did not change. Instead of the lush, green foliage of summer, I beheld the brown, orange, and red leaves of late autumn. Even though I'd spent most of my life in Terminas' warm winters, the campus had imported trees that changed seasonally. The last I recalled, it had been late spring. I cautiously walked towards the edge of campus, and I saw a bench outside the back door. While I did not consciously recall it, a bench was something I could have ignored on my walk to and from campus. Despite the slight nausea I felt, I found myself reading it: "In memory of Professor Marcus Montaigne, Founder of the Electrical Engineering Department."
I heard myself scream, and I found myself running back home. At first, I felt as though I was in some bad dream. I saw others in the street, peculiar stares from students and citizens alike. I sprinted away from the university, towards the docks. I ignored them, while noting the differences around me. I saw a building that I'd remember as gutted in a fire being rebuilt. I saw a new pier out over the distant river. I saw the smokestack of a new riverboat being repaired in a drydock. As I reached my house, I should have expected something to transpire.
My house was still there, but the area around it was drastically different. What had once been a fashionable part of town was now as decrepit and decayed as Ashfall. The veranda I'd once painstakingly repaired was now weathered and cracked. With great caution, I moved closer. Two young men, covered in scars and clad in thick overcoats, noted my bewilderment and moved in. It was only natural to assume they had malign intentions, so I hurried to the front gate.
My house was separated from the street by a wrought iron fence. Now, the front gate was rusted shut, with a thick padlock wrapped around it. I jammed my key into it, but it was no avail. I reflected that I should have run. The two thugs were now for, as another pair of lowlifes joined them. One drew and pointed a weapon at me, which I'd only seen in illustration beforehand.
I recalled chatting with a colleague who'd visited the Newkirk Arsenal, with all the prototype weapons developed there. She showed me an illustration of a firearm resembling a cutdown pepperbox pistol with a single barrel, which she called a revolver. This one had the name, "Naval Caliber, 0.36 Percussion Revolver, Mfg. by Newkirk Arsenal." It might have been interesting; had it not been pointed at my head. The fact the weapon was timeworn and rusted suggested it was an antique, despite such weapons not yet being available on the market. The thug cocked the hammer back, and I reacted.
Self-defense was a skill many in the University practiced, both armed and unarmed. The city's fanatical Correctors and angry mobs had beaten, and occasionally murdered, students and researchers while the corrupt city guard stood by watching. It was nothing for them to watch hated skeptics or troublesome academics getting murdered, so we took such matters into our own hands. Even the University's security, as professional as they were, could not be present under all circumstances. So, recalling a move from an archaic Xianjing martial arts manual, I stepped forward, struck him in the throat with one hand, and I secured the weapon with the other. Before he reacted, I stepped back to a safe distance and kept the weapon trained on his head.
The ruffians retreated, and I kept the weapon trained on them the whole time. One looked back at me, and I discharged the brass-framed weapon at a nearby wall. He wisely turned his attentions back to tactically withdrawing, and I found myself breathing heavily. Despite the thunderous report of the weapon, I imagined this was not the part of town that even the guard would venture unless they had to, and even then, in large numbers. I vaulted myself over the wrought iron fence, and I stumbled to the door of the house. Needless to say, I was not what I expected.
I found myself in a home I no longer recognized. Instead of the ramshackle interior, the inside was well-lit and clean. I cautiously took a step forwards, and I saw things I did not recognize. Instead of candles and gas lighting, my home was illuminated by wires inside glass spheres. My hand approached one, and I foolishly grasped it for a second. I gasped as the heat singed my hand, and I turned to see I was no longer alone. A young woman, no older than twelve, looked up at me. "Who are you?!" she asked. "I'm gonna call Pa!" With that, I sprinted out the door.
If my former house was an appetizer, the street I walked out onto was a main course. The cobblestone street now had a pair of thick steel rails running down the center of it, a larger version of those used for mine carts. Overhead each was a bundle of wires, which buzzed with the distinctive hum of electricity. I saw men walking with strange hats I'd later learn were called fedoras, and robe-like trench-coats. A bell rang somewhere, and a vehicle moved down the tracks, presumably drawing power from the rails. I stood mesmerized as the behemoth rolled past, as it was stranger to me than all the cryptids and cults reported in my Terminas.
I sprinted after it, hoping to find some clue of where I was, or more precisely, when. I saw a boy in a flat cap hawking papers to passersby, and I avoided making eye contact. This era had newspapers, much like my own, but the pages were of a different, cheaper style with photographs and illustrations covering it. I saw a few words I recognized: Rosilica, Xianjing, Stormberg, and presumably, whatever wars, gossip, or scandals moved papers that day. What I was seeing, I hypothesized, was the future of my home city, or a possible one.
As a child, I'd gone swimming out in a creek, when the current caught me. My father came out to save me, but it was weak enough that even a single man could resist it. The river of time would not be so easily overcome, although I began to realize what was happening to me. I moved past the boy, trying to orientate myself with respect to familiar landmarks. I wondered about Cathedral Square, with its massive statue of Adelos, or if the campus had been substantially remodeled. Perhaps even the Moldevay River had been diverted or shifted course over all those generations.
I recalled the next sight was a city avenue with wider streets. Small, motorized coaches stood jammed before an electric light with colored lenses. I joined a crowd of people waiting to cross the streets, half of them mesmerized by small devices with colored, miniature screens. They displayed news, games, moving pictures, and other amusements while waiting for an electric signal to change. A red hand transformed into a green stick figure, and I joined the throng of people crossing the street. Far above, I saw towers of glass and steel. Yet beyond them, I saw something grander.
It called to me, that lattice of steel and metal. It was like a cathedral tower reaching for the stars, which would have dwarfed any monument the Holy Kingdom of Adelos was capable of producing. A large metal cylinder arose beside it, far more massive than any grain solo or smokestack from my own era. Then, with a tremendous roar, it rose above the flat horizon. I covered my ears, and a plume of chemical exhaust glowed behind it. It ascended out of sight, much to the cheering of the others who witnessed it beside me. I ran down an alley to get closer, only to find myself further into the future.
I saw the streets were cleaner than I'd last seen them. There were more pedestrians, a crowd with far more ethnicities and shades of humanity than I'd ever seen outside the Terminas docks. Their clothing was of synthetic materials I'd not seen before, and many had prosthetics seeming grafted onto, and into, their bodies. Beyond their spotless towers, I saw even the launch center was different. There was now a tether reaching high into the sky, a fated strand connecting earth to the distant stars. Something descended along that tether, a white-hot capsule, and I realized the sky was no longer the limit for my city. Something about that filled me with pride, as far and alien as this Terminas was from my own.
Before I could comprehend the Terminas Aerospace Complex and its signature space elevator, I found myself in a far more primitive environment. I waded through a swamp as Kharsi tribesmen hunted an alligator with a stone-tipped spear. I moved closer to investigate, and I heard an explosion echo behind me. I frantically searched for cover as I found myself on a battlefield. Adelosian knights, clad in silver platemail, advanced on a broken Devlosi star-fortress as their artillery covered their march. I ran for cover, and I found myself on a crowded Terminas street. An angry mob chased after an armored man with a boy slung over his shoulder, his peculiar female companions, and a handful of animals. Darting into an alley, I found myself back in my lab.
That was my first trip through time. In the cycles since, I acquired a few other odds and ends: an archaic sacrificial dagger, one of those electronic computer-handphones, my old tools, the percussion revolver I relieved from the thug, a stone club, and other curios. Such things do not weigh me down, but rather remind me of the eras I'd visited and people I'd met.
The one constant across time has been Terminas. Even if some disaster struck me down, I nevertheless awoke in a different era and place. I do not know why, or how, my experiment consigned me to my fate. Across these cycles, I'd heard of strange interactions of magic and technology, and of forgotten gods that control time as I once controlled electric current. Perhaps my crude experimental apparatus triggered some long-forgotten invocation, drew the ire of an eldritch entity, or perhaps it simply malfunctioned. I now exist apart from time, yet still a part of Terminas.
In a certain way, I have achieved my life's goal. I have found immortality, both of my works and of my person. I do not know when, or if, we shall meet again, stranger, but I thank you for giving me company. I hope we can meet again next cycle. Perhaps I will be a little closer to understanding my predicament.