There’s a moment, just after an unexpected disaster, when you try to scramble back to the moment before - like a man who, as he feels rotten ice give way beneath his tread, flings himself backwards and tries to flounder back onto solid footing, you clutch at the last moment which made sense, when your life was going according to plan. When those doors had swung back, it had seemed to be almost the end of the story; we had Volkoff, we had his accomplices dead or in our hands, all that remained now was to gather up the last few threads and make our way back out of the mountains. Now, I felt as though I had broken loose and was falling free.
The monks of the Tolong La, now that their part of the play was over, were quite willing to explain everything they could. Their own language was some mountain dialect that sounded like nothing you’d find to the north or the south of the great ranges, but enough of them could struggle through in Hindustani that we could carry out a reasonable interrogation.
And they had the advantage of not having to fight against disbelief in us, their listeners; I had seen Volkoff vanish into the air, not in a great flare of lightning and a clap of thunder like a stage magician, but as simply as a man who steps through a door.
He had gone, the abbot explained calmly, into the past.
“We have different views on the nature of time. Some say: How can it mean anything to say that we can go into the past? Events in the past are gone, events in the future do not yet exist, that is the definition of past and future; it is meaningless to say we can go into the past, like saying that you can walk up a staircase beyond the top step, or travel to the north of the north pole.”
We had locked the abbot in a separate cell from the other monks. Sacks of meal lined the walls, and we had pulled a few down to make seats for ourselves while we questioned him. This had uncovered the inroads made by mice and rats during the previous few months - their smell was growing stronger as the room warmed in the fat lamps which lit it. Only a narrow horizontal slit for air near the ceiling admitted light from outside, and the short afternoon was ending in overcast gloom - night was not more than a couple of hours away, and we could hear from outside the noise of the ‘plane crews securing their craft to the ground against the chance that the wind would rise in the night.
“And if it were possible to travel to the past, how could we hope to change anything? Yesterday, you did not meet me. If I were to travel back, now, to yesterday, to meet you, would your memories, now, change, to include meeting me? Would the ‘you’ here now, who did not meet me yesterday, die, or be obliterated? And what would happen to the ‘me’ who is here now, and who is having this conversation with a man who has never met him before? Had you met me yesterday, perhaps you would decide not to meet me today, and we would not now be talking. As you change, so would the entire universe.”
Let him talk himself out, the inspector in Calcutta had muttered to me all those weeks and miles ago. Let him talk, it’s what we all want to do; we’re only human, we’re chattering apes, and being silent isn’t in our nature. Once they start talking they’ll lead you on to the meat of it sooner or later.
“Or would some force prevent me from meeting you yesterday, to preserve the story of your life as you now remember it? To preserve, in fact, the course of the universe?
“We have argued these questions for many, many years. Two monks, three opinions. Certainly, when we step from the temple, we go somewhere that seems to be the past; sometimes for just a few minutes, sometimes for many days or months. Our actions there seem to dictate how long we remain. If we are quiet, inactive, isolated, then we seem to be accepted and can stay and observe; if we are active and try to change the flow of events, there follows sickness, tearing pain, and eventually we are thrown back to the present - or die.”
The abbot was younger than I had imagined him from O’Hara’s description: I had pictured a wizened old villain, cackling and half-mad from vice, but he was a robust soul of about fifty. Two of the fingers on one hand were cut to stubs, and the ice and wind over the years had left his face and ears raddled with frostburn. Like his monks he was wrapped in a thick woollen cloak dyed a muddy red, but his was hemmed with silver thread and the undertunic beneath it was yellowed silk rather than linen.
“Have we ever succeeded in changing the past? We do not know. As I say, if we try to bring about great changes, the pain and confusion can become too much to endure. Small changes - perhaps. We have tried to prove the question but the results have never been clear. Sometimes, we have left traces of ourselves in the past and found them again when we returned - more often, the traces are gone, or different from the way we left them.
“Have any men ever visited us from the future? We do not know of any - but, if they are like us, they would keep themselves from making too much of a stir. We hide ourselves here at the end of the world, we have little traffic with the outside, we have no children, all this to keep from affecting the course of the world - if we were too much part of the world, perhaps we would be unable to travel at all. Here we are detached, one day, one year is like another, we touch the world very lightly even when we do not travel to the past - perhaps this is why we are able to do so.
“Some say: the nature of time is a path through a garden. As we live, we walk from flagstone to flagstone, and we can look behind us and see what has happened; we can walk back along the path and look more closely at the garden behind us. But we cannot change the Path - it is bedded in the ground. The past is fixed - so is the future, except we cannot see or reach it.
“Another group argues for the Tree - we sit on one branch, we can travel back, and if we change something then we return along a different branch. If I step back, and - let us say - burn this building to the ground, and then step forwards again, it will be on a different branch in which this building is ashes. If I fail to change anything, I will return to the same branch which I left. So every history will be consistent with the memories of the people in it. I cannot change the history of this branch - but I can journey to, or perhaps even create, a new branch in which things are as I would have them.
“Those who believe that there is one, changeable line of history describe their belief as the Rope - one strand, unbranching, which can be moved from side to side. We can make changes, and their effects occur immediately - so if I step back and burn this building yesterday, it will always have been burned today, and our memories will reflect that. We will never know that the past has been changed.
“I personally believe in the fourth answer, that of the Stone. The present moment is a single flagstone. There is no past, because its events have already happened. Yesterday’s bread has been eaten; tomorrow’s has not been baked. Where we go when we step away, I do not know - perhaps we only imagine that we travel, and we are dreaming, or seeing visions. But we do not go into the past at all, and therefore of course we cannot change it.
“And the fifth faction is the Sheaf - a combination of the Tree and the Path. Imagine a series of histories as threads laid out next to each other, not joined, but offset, each one a moment ahead of its neighbour.” This made me start and I thought again of the offset-alphabet grids we had pored over for hours on that night long ago in Zurich, breaking the Vigenere cipher. “You do not travel, for example, a year into the past of our own history - you travel across the Sheaf until you reach the thread whose year-ago is opposite our present-day. So, again, there is no way of changing the past of your own thread - that past is gone, and its future is not yet. We do not travel into the past at all - we travel to somewhere completely different, another world, that simply happens to look like the past of our own world. Perhaps, they say, this explains why our attempts to leave traces in our own past so often fail; we are leaving them in the past of another thread of history. And also -” he leaned closer to me and the reek of cumin and fat from his breath reached me – “men from other threads might visit the past of our thread, and leave their own signs; sometimes the same as ours, sometimes different. I must admit this faction’s ideas are appealing, but I remain a believer in the Stone.”
He sat back again and glanced around him at the walls of the store; the sacks of meal, the fat-lamps, the window-slit under the ceiling where the yellow light of the late winter afternoon was seeping in.
“The white men who came here, your enemies, read their own sages, and talked a great deal about the force of Will, and the nature of historical inevitability, and developed a sixth answer: the River. They believed that the world floats through time like a boat in a river - great events will occur, whatever you do, but it should be possible for men of sufficiently strong will to take a place in the vanguard of history, to push us forward through the river faster than the current would otherwise take us, and so to make these events happen more quickly. If this monastery is doomed to burn, it will burn; but by my actions perhaps I can make it burn sooner. Strong-willed men, they believed, would be able to withstand the sickness that sets on a traveller, and by their actions move the course of history forwards.”
Did the abbot believe them?
“Not at all.” His face creased into a horrible grin. “No, I thought they were fools. The training which we provide for our novices in their first years toughens their minds against the shock of the transport, but the idea that will alone can allow a traveller to affect the course of history is a childish error. But,” and he sighed, “the pay was good - gold, opium, fragrant wood, arms, many slaves to work here for us.” That much I knew already. The basement of the monastery had yielded up, from a pair of low-roofed cellars, a huddle of unfortunate peasants from the valleys below, herded up at gunpoint by the Shield Order to serve the abbot and his miserable crew for the rest of their lives. The Gurkhas had muttered and looked darkly at each other on this discovery, and I had had to speak strongly to the subedar, who I feared would otherwise have turned his back and let their revenge take its course on our few surviving German captives.
Where had the Germans wanted to send Volkoff?
“Twelve years back. And not to this monastery. There are other places in the world where its skin is thin enough to push through. Benares is one; the others are much further away. A ruined wooden temple somewhere in a mountainous desert; a pass in high hills, covered with jungle; a plain of wind, ice and little trees. We do not know where any of these are; we have tried to walk from them, but the journey has been too hard. There was another place, by the salt water called the Golden Horn, but...somehow the ground there is scorched now, and we cannot pass to it. My dear right hand, the Light of Sar, was to have helped the traveller pass through there, but I fear greatly he has come to grief.” He gave a great sigh while trying not particularly hard to stifle a smirk. No love lost, obviously, between the abbot and his ambitious second in command.
“And there is another place - a cellar, in a city somewhere in the white men’s country. That is where the men of the Shield Order wished to send their traveller, when you and your mercenaries arrived. He had had some little preparation, not the months of training which we give our own people, but as much as we could provide in the time. We held off sending him as long as we could, as you saw, but he is still grievously unprepared.” He sniggered. “Perhaps his willpower will help him.”
I caught my breath at this and the abbot noticed and grinned again.
“You want to know where he went? I have told you - he went nowhere. Remember I am of the faction of the Stone. The past no longer exists. Maybe he is dreaming of the past, as any man may, but he cannot reach it. Can you follow a man into his dream? As for the city he is dreaming of - I do not know its name. Cold, and many great stone buildings, and a great filth and stink of burning and animals and crowds, but I think all white men’s cities are like this.”
I almost broke his jaw but choked back my rage, sitting there fuming at this complacent old villain. He was a smuggler and a slaver, he had cynically encouraged the Germans for his own benefit while not believing they had any chance of success, he had done his best to undermine the Empire - and the incident on the Golden Horn which he was so artfully mourning was whatever had started poor O’Hara’s decline into death.
And I knew, too, at last, what the Shield Order’s plan had been. Volkoff was to travel to Russia indeed - but to Russia before the war even broke out. From the police file I remembered that he had been active in politics in Russia in 1905, at the time of an abortive movement by the Liberals and Socialists against the Tsar; he would return to this time armed with twelve years’ worth of hindsight, and turn the movement into a rising and the rising into a revolution. Perhaps he would end up on top after the inevitable bloodshed; perhaps, more likely, he would simply plunge Russia into a revolutionary chaos. Either would suit the Shield Order; by ensuring that Russia could not join the War on its outbreak, they would ensure themselves a free hand in central Europe . Serbia would be crushed, Italy cowed, the Balkans brought to heel, Holland and Belgium and even France beaten down, and the German Empire and its Austrian ally would dominate the continent; perhaps they would even extend their hand into the ruins of the Russian Empire to pick up a province or two, and put German Junkers on ducal thrones in Kiev and Odessa and Reval and Sebastopol.
It had to be stopped; and even as I said the words, I knew that he was anticipating them.
“Send me back.”