Buried in Time
by Kathleen Ann Goonan
Three months after Dallas, 1963, Bette sipped black coffee, looked at her watch, and drummed her fingernails on the Formica tabletop of her booth in People’s Drug on 10th Street.
It was lunch time. Secretaries, construction workers, shoppers, and store clerks took up every available counter stool and seat, and those waiting in line glared at her for hogging an entire booth.
She wanted to recheck her Q, but as she was one of at most a dozen people in this timestream who had one, she did not want to get out the small screen—rather like a mini-Etch-a-Sketch—and see if she’d perhaps made a mistake in thinking that Eliani Hadntz wanted to meet her.
She had her own reasons for wanting to meet Hadntz. The cold knot of fear she now lived with needed to be accepted or sliced out.
She had arrived in Washington by a roundabout route. She had no doubt that some of her enemies were in this timestream as well as in the last, the one in which she had killed Kennedy’s would-be murderers. They might be terrifically puzzled, and thrown off the scent, but their energy and resolve would not easily be left behind.
She had gazed on her family from afar: watched eleven-year-old Brian, now bereft of his mother, ramble through the gully on the way to school, picking up pop bottles to trade in for candy bars at Al’s Grocery. She saw eight-year-old Megan fall on the playground and lie there, crying. Bette started to run to pick her up before remembering that she should not, could not, and turned away, aching. And she saw fourteen-year-old Jill, her bike basket full of books, riding incessantly to and from the library, her face always serious, as if she could solve the mysteries of the universe by reading day and night.
Bette’s chief conundrum was this: if she removed herself, as one of the central facilitators of the situation—although ‘situation’ seemed like a mild, small word for a paradigm shift that had so changed the world—perhaps those who lusted after the secret of the Hadntz Device would follow her, like hounds on a scent, and leave her family alone. She had decided that she must vanish more completely, leaving a trail that would draw them away from her family.
Which meant that there would be no end to her anguish. Even now, the pain of not being with them was overwhelming. All the walls erected by her training so long ago had evaporated, leaving her in a world of crystalline pain. She stood at a lonely crossroads.
She needed help.
She was just picking up her briefcase when Hadntz slid into the booth, opposite her.
“I’m sorry,” Hadntz pulled off a wool hat and set it on the table to her right, next to the ketchup. She stuffed gloves into her coat pocket, which she shrugged from her shoulders.
“Were there. . .difficulties?”
“Always.” She seemed detached, as usual. Bette assumed that she was just one of many agents working with Hadntz across a spectrum of spacetime and worlds. She was sure that Hadntz had no need of a timebusting plane. Her ways of movement were more subtle—like Wink’s, who said that when the time was correct, it was like turning a corner, or walking through a gate where the landscape was subtly different, maintained by different gardeners, the plants influenced by a slightly different climate.
“Think of me as a child in a new environment,” continued Hadntz. “I am learning—as, perhaps, we all must, eventually—how to live in the newly discovered territory we have opened—a frontier of the mind, with its own mountains and impenetrable forests. I am clumsy. I hope you will forgive me.” She held out a hand and Bette squeezed it, briefly. “Coffee, please, and a grilled cheese sandwich on rye with mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato,” she said to the hovering waitress.
“I’m not sure how they’ll put that on a grilled cheese,” said the waitress.
“Let them figure it out as best they can.”
Bette ordered the blue plate special. She lit a cigarette and took another sip of coffee.
Hadntz said, “I want to talk to you about the prepared environment.”
Bette was startled. “The prepared?—oh,” she said, remembering that was what a Montessori classroom was called. “I have something a little more important to talk about.”
“I think I know what that is.” Hadntz’s dark eyes were sympathetic. “I have dealt with those problems for years. Indulge me, though, for a minute.”
“I don’t have another minute!” Bette half-rose from her seat, leaned across the table, and shouted, “I don’t even have another goddamned second!” If Hadntz had been wearing a tie, she would have grabbed it and choked the woman.
Hadntz said, calmly, “You are drawing a lot of interest.”
“I don’t care! I—”
All conversation had stopped. Everyone was looking at her.
She sat down, stuck another cigarette in her mouth, lit it with a shaking hand, inhaled. Conversations resumed.
Hadntz said, “Bette, your family is well, despite being in mourning. You are not well. I understand that. Better than you might think. But to reconcile this situation—” She took a sip of coffee. “It is. . .mathematical. There are probabilities. We are working on a new way of seeing, a new way of knowing—wait, wait—” She held up one hand, seeing that Bette was once again opening her mouth to scream. Finally, she just said, quietly, both hands held out beseechingly and her large, dark eyes looking directly into Bette’s, “Trust me, Bette, as I have trusted you. Put simply, right now, there is nothing else we can do.”
“But it has all gone so horribly wrong.” Bette ripped paper napkins from the holder and mopped her face.
Hadntz grabbed more napkins, reached over, and rubbed Bette’s cheek. “Mascara.” She began to speak slowly, as if to a child. As if she were a child, Bette listened, desperately tired, desperately wanting to hope. “This is an interim situation, not at all unpredictable in the abstract, but almost impossible, now, to pinpoint in individual terms. This shows us a problem. I have lived this problem. We must turn our attention to discovering how to resolve it. We need to. . .prepare an environment, as it were. I have long been interested in Montessori education, as you know, but haven’t been able to pursue its ramifications to my satisfaction. You have become my expert. Let’s go over it, please, so I can make sure that I understand all the important points. We have met with an unexpected barrier. This is just something we don’t know enough about yet. When one does a scientific experiment—”
“Experiment! This is no—”
Hadntz held up one hand. “This is life, now, and we must find a solution, work our way through the problem that has arisen. You could go back home now. But I can’t predict what might happen. Your family is here, in a timestream in which Kennedy was not assassinated. The Device—in this timestream, we will call it “Q”—can incorporate, analyze, and disseminate an astonishing amount of information. Yet we are still in the branching environment in which humans have always lived. Our conscious minds mesh with it, and perhaps even create it, just through the act of observing. But before the cusp created by Q, which you and Jill and Sam and Wink helped bring about, we could not know or access other possible avenues as easily.”
Bette said, “Easily? You call this easy? I’ve had just about enough of all this mumbo-jumbo. What about me? What about my family?”
“Knowing about this mumbo-jumbo, as you refer to it right now, or quantum physics, as you usually do, led to the atomic bomb. It is powerful knowledge, Bette. Until a. . .critical reaction takes place—”
“Like in atomic fission?” asked Bette. “As if all of human life and emotion were some kind of. . .bomb?”
“Yes,” said Hadntz, but seriously and with her same Zen-like calm, “but this is a critical reaction that will change the deep human instinct for violence and war. You know all this, Bette. You’ve known it for years. From its inception.”
“Maybe it just didn’t seem real before.” As if the horrors of Europe had not been real. They had been, and she had known them intimately. But she had not caused them, and she had not made those dear to her targets.
“We are at a place that might tip this balance, ripple out through all timestreams. But there are factors that may well arise that could tip the balance in ways that you and I would not want to see. We could tip back into the process of never-ending war, which has been our species’ unfortunate past. If you want to see this just in terms of your own family, that is your great fortune. Seriously. That is the hope that will propel you. I have only hope for everyone, everywhere. It could be a crippling weight if I allowed it to be. Let me tell you some personal things. I haven’t spoken of them, much.” She bowed her head for a moment, almost as if in prayer, then gazed at Bette. Her eyes seemed to grow darker, and drew Bette into their darkness.
“In 1940, I began to experience what I called splintering. I could see down various timelines. I could even visit them, briefly, but with enormous pain and difficulty. I did so, but in the process I lost my own mother, Rosa, forever. She is nowhere, now, not in any timeline. It was my fault, completely. I know she would have understood my choice. I know that anyone who outlives loved ones experiences complete and absolute loss, and always has.”
She took a deep breath.
“But I could have made the decision to not lose her. The Device, however, showed me the statistical probabilities of that course of action. If I saved her, that small change could lead to unspeakable possibilities. And so I left her to her fate.”
Hadntz’s expression had not changed. Her face was still calm, serious, knowing. But from her eyes welled large tears, which moved down her cheeks and dripped from her chin like a small waterfalls emerging from a hidden, seasonal source. She did not acknowledge them. Bette wasn’t sure she even knew they were there. She felt the sudden sense that Hadntz was always weeping in this way, behind her face, within her heart, across timestreams. . .
She reached across and grasped Handtz’s hand with hers and squeezed it tight.
“We will do what we can,” said Bette.
“Yes,” Hadntz said, her voice rough, as if she had been weeping for hours. “We have. And we will.”
The waitress returned with their food. “Are you ladies all right?”
Bette managed to say, as Hadntz blew her nose, “We could use more coffee.”
They ate silently for a few minutes. Finally, Bette said, “What do you want to know?”
Hadntz swallowed the last of her sandwich, drank some coffee, and smiled weakly. “Thank you, Bette.” After a moment, she continued. “I, and Q, learn through many avenues. Perhaps, for Q, this is a poem, and it needs more models, more metaphors, to absorb, to compare, to sift. I am not speaking lightly; I believe that poetry is one of the most serious and deep endeavors of humanity. You have taught in Montessori classrooms, and you know the theory. We are preparing an environment, one in which humanity can live and prosper optimally. Montessori, through scientific research, was able to devise one that is optimal for education. Perhaps Q can absorb and use your own particular point of view. Tell me about the Montessori prepared environment.”
Bette frowned, shook her head. “This isn’t the—”
“I know. But humor me. You are my expert. I am trying to make some connections, here.”
Bette nodded and found that, after a moment, just talking about it helped her relax. Her knowledge took over and came out as if she were talking to a few interested students at American University, where she had been working on her doctorate. That was in 1968, before. . .
Forget that. Think about now.
“Okay. The prepared environment is filled with separate tasks which have to do with taking care of yourself, taking care of the environment, math, and language. Let’s say that we have an ideal classroom.”
“Children come into the classroom when they are two and a half, roughly. They see other children, older, choosing activities from the shelves, taking them to a table or to a mat on the floor, completing them, and putting them away. Generally, these are activities they choose which take twenty minutes to several days to complete—in which case the child can leave their work out until it is completed. Often they choose to do the same task time after time, or day after day. The directress does not interfere.”
“What might take several days?”
“A child might decide to do all of the number chains. They hang in an open cabinet. Each chain is actually a square. The one chain is, of course, a single bead. The two chain is two sets of two, and so on. Each chain can be folded to make a square. Each chain has a corresponding set of numbered arrows. The four chain, for instance, has arrows inscribed with the numbers 4, 8, 12, and 16. The children place each arrow at the appropriate bead. But there are always multiple ways of gaining information in the environment. Brains are different. Learning styles are different. There is never just one path.”
“How old would the child be who does this work?”
“It depends. They would of course have to know how to count, how to read numbers, what the numbers meant—84 is eight tens and four units—and so on. They might be anywhere from, oh, three years and a few months to five years old.”
“So by the age of five, they understand multiplication.”
“Four would be normal. There are many other pieces of equipment they can use to understand the process. The entire point is that they have to handle, touch, explore the quantities. Before we can extrapolate an abstract concept, humans must have a concrete grounding. Their hands have to touch and move real objects in order to create neural pathways. That’s what’s missing in a mathematical approach in which a teacher just puts equations on a blackboard, or the child reads them in a book.”
“They write before they read. Generally, they are able to write words—sequence the sounds—but are unable to read back what they have written. That’s a later developmental task. In order to separate the task of composing words from the laborious task of controlling a pencil, which can be frustrating at their age, they simply pick the letters from something that resembles a large typesetter’s box.”
“And they actually choose their own tasks?”
“For the most part. That’s where the directress comes in. It is her job—so far, I haven’t seen many male preschool teachers— to notice when a child is ready for the next stage of whatever they are doing, and introduce that work—to improvise, even, to help them understand some step that they might not be able to get right away. The teacher is trained to be a very careful observer. Quite often the children learn from watching older children, or actually are taught by them.”
“So the children are basically running wild?”
“No, because they always choose to challenge themselves. If they don’t have any choice in what they do, though, they never know that joy, and never learn how to consider choices, possibilities. Instead, they learn it is best to wait, mouths open, for the teacher to stuff down the next task, which was often determined by some government agency, and which is almost always incorrectly synced with their innate learning progression. So somewhere along the way, that desire to learn, and that early autodidactic confidence, is snuffed out. For me, it was never lost, nor, probably, for you. But most children reach only a small fraction of their human potential.”
“That’s why love of learning often vanishes?”
“I’m convinced of it. We need to provide children and young adults with an optimal learning environment. We need to make education science-based. We’re talking about optimal conditions. Good nutrition; shelter, an ordered society. Freedom from fear. Freedom to improvise. Big change, for most of the world.”
Hadntz sighed. “From Communism to Fascism, utopian plans are the same. First, we have to have a cataclysmic upheaval, burn everything to the ground and kill everyone who disagrees and then—viola! Everything takes care of itself. There is never any middle ground, any plan, any gradual procession. Who am I to think that. . .well. . .“ She stared into some distance for a moment, then looked back at Bette. “Perhaps, as basic needs are met, the great mass of humanity can finally discover even more sensitive periods as they age, learn more about one another, learn more how to prevent war, and thus envision new goals with their new minds.” She looked uncharacteristically downcast.
“Why does this have to be such a big secret?” asked Bette. “If more people were involved—thinktanks—”
“That is what I once hoped for, but Q is too malleable at this point to withstand attacks. It is, however, working on its own protective models. The main thing Q requires is universal participation. It must spread. The criminally inclined are the smallest percentage of humanity, but they are the most powerful simply because they lack empathy, lack a conscience. So that is another ambition of mine—finding out how to inflict sociopaths of varying degrees with a conscience, with extreme empathy, so that they know how it feels to be hurt by people like them.” She frowned. “I suppose I want to push them into a deep depression, self-examination, reparation, to commit their lives to an expanding community of people who unselfishly help, and learn the necessary skills to do so. And then, the powerless of the world—generally, women—must also be empowered, through literacy, supported and protected by law, given choices and the power to enforce their choices. By distributing the Spacies, you have taken the first step in worldwide distribution. Now, perhaps, you might think about ways to get it into the hands of other children throughout the world, as well as adults. Are you finished? Yes? Let’s walk.”
They emerged into a drizzly Washington day and walked randomly.
Hadntz said, “You now have a very difficult problem. You and I, and to a lesser extent, your husband, are targets, here, of ongoing investigation. Investigation is perhaps not a strong enough word. Pursuit? A race for information. We are not so far removed from the timestream you just left.”
“Why did you have to get my daughter Jill involved?” asked Bette with vehemence.
“You did that, Bette.” Hadntz spoke gently, but that did not remove the sting of truth. “She had access to the Device in your house. But it might not be good for you to think this. I accept full blame.”
“What is she doing now?” asked Bette, her voice choked. “Now!” She said the word as if she wanted to grind it into little pieces. “The word barely has any meaning to me any longer. Let’s see. ‘After’ I have done this. The place in their timestream when Jill returns to her old life in 1970 but it isn’t her old life, because that’s all been wiped out. What is she doing in the timestream where I never came home, but, instead, stayed here, or went. . .elsewhen? You know. You were there.”
“All I know is that they miss you desperately.”
Bette dropped into a park bench, hugged her knees, and sobbed. Hadntz sat next to her, pulled her close. When Bette was finished, she sat up, found a hankie in her purse, and blew her nose. “So it’s best, for them, if I remain lost? Right here, in their 1964, right from the very beginning of the change?”
“That is up to you to decide. Maybe it would be better for all of you if you went back, revealed everything to them.”
“But you just said—”
“Everything is fluid.”
“In the other timestream, things didn’t get better just because more and more people were able to make atomic weapons,” said Bette. “I’m not sure that things will get better here just because of the Device.”
“This timestream has a different past than the one in which we were before,” replied Hadntz. “A better one, it seems. It’s true that we are counting on the inferred goodness of humanity to rise to the forefront. We’re counting on certain brain changes, much like the changes that have taken place over millennia to create homo erectus.” She smiled, but only briefly. “Homo conscious? Bette, I think that we will, eventually, be able to reunite all of these segments of time. It’s not possible for us to understand how that would seem to the person experiencing the simultaneity. I think it would be an entirely new human brain development—like the way humans use memory, now. It seems effortless to us, because it happened gradually, and everyone takes for granted that our stories have a past and that they constantly shift and are reworked. We are children in that regard, which is one reason I am so deeply interested in how children learn. We need a new, universal model of education to fit us, from the beginning, as children, for the huge, fast conversion humans have experienced from being farmers to being technologists. We now have the tools to mindfully plan our own evolution, to decide what is really best for us, and to manage our environment wisely. But our brains haven’t changed, and we’re stuck in the habits and conflicts of the past. Time itself is more like a rhizome now, something organic that is related to the original, yet takes root and grows in new territories. It is a network, an increasingly human construction. Therefore, humanity must grow in order to be ready, to be worthy, to be responsible, in whatever milieu is developing. We must become prepared. One can’t learn to read in a day. Perhaps we cannot absorb the rudiments of true self-governance for decades. I simply, deeply hope that people become more aware of the astonishing fact that they are alive at all, and treat themselves and others accordingly, with respect. ”
Bette retied her scarf; it was growing cold as evening fell. “You’re talking to a trained spy. What if I say that you want to remove that which defends us against others: fear, preparedness, willingness to fight and to die. Those who plot and plan and amass wealth or weapons and move on to more and more harmful means to do so would have a huge advantage over those who are trusting and altruistic.”
Hadntz shook her head. “I only would like people to be able to defend themselves with more wisdom; I do not want humanity to become more childish. Here, already, we have Q. Facilitated communication. Limited and exclusive, now, but it will expand, and you can help with this. You could distribute Q throughout countries and continents—even timestreams. I see education as the vital center of any change that might take place. Montessori is a good starting point, but when we are able to actually see and know what is happening in the brain, on a neuronal and synaptic level, and associate those changes with specific physical activities or surroundings, we will be able to move forward at an accelerated rate.”
Hadntz continued, in a voice tinged with sadness. “Oddly enough, there are many people in this world who would be completely against this idea—a lot of them educators, who are heavily invested in our present way of doing things. But many of them are also politicians, military experts, and your own intelligence organizations.”
She turned to face Bette, and looked into her eyes. “But back to your terrible decision—which I, too, have gone through. I am, simply, very much afraid that if you return to your family now, it will put them in extreme danger.”
Bette bowed her head. Her voice was a hoarse whisper. “I’m afraid you’re right. I have to let Sam know.”
Hadntz nodded. “You must do whatever you think is best. You always have. So far, that has worked.”
She walked off into the fog, down an avenue lined with leafless trees, and then was gone.
For a week that seemed like a decade, Bette weighed her options. The recent shock of finding herself in a timestream in which her family did not exist—her phone call to Washington had been followed by much more extensive research—was the dark, irrational shadow with which she struggled. Yes, they didn’t have her here, but Jill, Brian, and Megan were together, at least. They were not pursued by assassins or kidnappers, as they might well be if she went home and said Hi, kids, I’m back from—wherever!
She wept, she watched them, and then, one day, she realized that she was being watched and noticed herself. By one person, or by many? By her old colleagues at the CIA, or new, Q-seeking enemies now much more aware of Q’s power? She now knew what it could do. And so did they.
One day in March, after her hundredth meeting with Sam, during which they argued, wept, and agonized, they decided.
She got in her plane and buried herself in Asia, then in Africa, and then in time, making sure to leave clues to lead her enemies from this present, where her precious family lived, so that they would follow her, and leave Jill, Brian, and Megan to grow.
About the Author
Kathleen Ann Goonan has published many stories and novels, including her famed Nanotech Quartet, set in New Orleans: Queen City Jazz, Mississippii Blues, Crescent City Rhapsody, and Light Music. Her latest novel, In War Times, appeared to wide acclaim in 2007.
This Flurb contribution is a "lost chapter" that was originally meant for her novel, This Shared Dream, but was set aside in the final edit, and is now "buried in Flurb." This Shared Dream is due out from Tor Books soon.
Goonan lives in Florida and Tennessee. And this year she's complicating things by teaching creative writing and the history of science-fiction at Georgia Tech.
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