READ A SAMPLE


ABACUS

by

Chris McGowan


Contents

Chapter 1: Past Times

Chapter 2: Lost in the Forest

Chapter 3: Castles in the Air

Chapter 4: The Young Warrior

Chapter 5: Floating Phantoms

Chapter 6: Battle Plans

Chapter 7: The Vipers’ Nest

Chapter 8: Marooned

Chapter 9: A Poisonous Plot

Chapter 10:  Counting the Seconds

Chapter 11: The Old Routine

Chapter 12:  Buffalo!

Chapter 13: Talking Cloud

Chapter 14: Robert Drew

Chapter 15: Counting Coup

Chapter 16: The Sacred Hills

Chapter 17: Ho-Ka Hey!

Chapter 18: Wagons Roll

Chapter 19: Tracking Trouble

Chapter 20: Joining the Army

Chapter 21: Cocky Custer

Chapter 22: Signs in the Sand

Chapter 23: The Battle of the Little Bighorn

Chapter 24: Watch Out!

Chapter 25: Future Shock

Chapter 26: Anyone for the Sun?

Chapter 27: Wab World

Chapter 28:  Mummies

Chapter 29: Conjuring up Magic

Chapter 30: Ramesses the Great

Chapter 31: Black Magnet

Chapter 32: Tomb Robber

Chapter 33: Fleeing the Pharaoh

Further Reading

Notes

How to Repeat the Experiments in the Book


Chapter 1: Past Times

Kate stared out the window as the cabin crew demonstrated the safety features of the Boeing 767. They were about to take off from Boston’s Logan International Airport.

“It’s not fair,” she grumbled. She was quite capable of looking after herself while the rest of the family went to England. Summer was almost over and Kate wanted to spend the last of it with her friends. She’d be missing baseball too, and she was one of the best players on her team. Sure, Uncle Miles had died suddenly, but her parents could sort out his things without her help. And the last thing she wanted was to spend the next two weeks with her twelve-year-old brother.

“Have you buckled up?” asked her father, turning around from the seat in front.

“Do you want some gum to stop your ears popping?” added her mother beside him.

“My buckle’s done up,” Kate snapped. “And no, I don’t want any gum. I am fifteen, remember, not three.” Heaving a loud sigh she turned toward the window again. Her fair hair reflected in the glass like gold—she’d spent ages getting it just right.

“How about you, AP?” asked Mr. Littleton.

“I’m good,” his son replied, glancing up from his book. He was excited about visiting England again. “I put on my seat belt when I sat down.”

“You’re so perfect,” sneered his sister. “Lucky me to be sitting with a world traveler.”

AP, ignoring the taunt, continued reading.

Like father, like son—Mr. Littleton had his nose in a book too. His wife, Samantha, began chatting with the woman across the aisle.

“Are you folks traveling back home to England?” asked the woman, detecting Mrs. Littleton’s English accent.

“No. We’re from England, originally, but we live in the States now.” She nodded toward her husband. “Ken got a job at Woods Hole—the Oceanographic Institution. He’s a marine biologist.”

“That covers a wide area,” said the woman, thinking of everything from plankton to whales. “What’s his specialty?”

“Large open-sea fishes, like sharks and tunas,” replied Mrs. Littleton, surprised at the question—most people had little idea what marine biology was about. “I think that’s where AP, our son, gets his love of science.”

“AP?” queried the woman. “That’s your son’s name?”

“No, not exactly. Those are just his initials.” She lowered her voice and leaned closer. “He can’t stand his real names—Arthur Percival. Ken chose them. We agreed that I’d name our first child and he’d name the second. He’s always been interested in the Arthurian legend.”

“Arthur Percival,” repeated the woman, looking puzzled.

“You know, King Arthur and Sir Percival.”

The woman smiled vaguely.

“Sir Percival was one of the Knights of the Round Table. Ken’s read a lot about them. Of course, there’s no evidence King Arthur ever existed—writers made up the legend during the Middle Ages. Anyway, that’s how our son became AP.” Samantha smiled, “Kate’s lucky she was born first. Otherwise she’d have been named Guinevere!"

The woman nodded. If she’d been christened Arthur Percival she would have kept it quiet too.

“Look at that, Kate,” said AP, pointing out the window as their airplane gained height. “See the mist above the wing?” Being short for his age, he had to stretch up to see properly. “Millions of tiny water droplets, condensed from the moist air. It’s caused by…”

Kate cut him off. “I don’t want one of your dumb lectures. Science is boring and you’re even worse.” With that, she popped in her ear buds and turned her iPod to full volume. AP returned to his book, Basic Aerodynamics for Inquisitive Flyers.

After the in-flight supper, AP read for a while and then nodded off. Kate, unable to text her friends, flipped through the magazine she’d bought. An article on career choices caught her attention. Then she filled out a quiz on music groups.

She glanced at her sleeping brother. Between science and schoolwork, she doubted he could name a single band. She nibbled on some pretzels, watched two movies, and stayed awake all night.

Their plane landed at London’s Heathrow Airport at 10 o’clock the next morning. The Littletons trudged over to the baggage claim area with the other jet-lagged passengers. With the time difference between England and Boston, it was only 5 a.m. as far as their bodies were concerned.

* * *

“How far is it to Uncle Miles’s place?” moaned Kate.

“Two or three hours,” said her mother, settling into the passenger seat of their rental car. “Try catching up on your sleep.”

“I would if I had any room back here!” she growled. “How come England has no decent-sized cars?” She banged her hand against the door to emphasize the point.

“I’ll move my seat,” said her father, inching forward until his knees almost touched the dashboard. “How’s that?”

“Better. At least I can breathe again. As for you, shrimp...” She glowered at AP, who was minding his own business. “Keep your distance!”

“For goodness’ sake, leave your brother alone!” snapped her mother. “Don’t spoil this trip for everybody.”

Mr. Littleton started the engine for what promised to be a long journey. AP buried himself in another book: A Field Guide to British Birds.

Soon they were on the highway, leaving London. As Mr. Littleton got used to the new car and driving on the left side of the road, he started to relax.

“Neither of you knew Uncle Miles,” he began. “Nor did I really—he was much older than me. Strange too.”

“You shouldn’t talk about your brother like that,” admonished his wife. “Especially now he’s dead.”

“Well, he was odd. He had no friends—never married.”

“How odd?” asked Kate, taking a sudden interest.

“He lived a solitary life,” replied her father. “He never seemed to want—or need—other people.”

“Like someone else we know!” said Kate, nudging her brother in the ribs. “Was he into books and science too?” AP refused to take the bait.

“Not so much books,” continued Mr. Littleton. “His big thing was antiques—antiques and travel. He lived in many different parts of the world.”

“Wasn’t he in Africa for the last few years?” asked AP.

“Yes, until his health began to fail. He caught malaria on an earlier trip there. Goodness knows what else he picked up.”

“How long did he have his antique shop?” asked AP, fending off Kate’s attempt to claim more of the back seat.

“A couple of years. Long enough to fill the place with all his stuff. Plus the antiques that were already there.”

“So it was an antique shop before Uncle Miles took it over?” asked AP.

“Past Times has been an antique shop for as long as anyone in Saxton Burleigh can remember,” replied his father. “And it’s several hundred years old, like the rest of the village.”

AP sat back, visualizing thatched roofs and timber-framed walls. Kate, already bored with the conversation, opened her magazine.

They left the highway soon after stopping for lunch and were now driving down country lanes. The conversation between Mrs. Littleton, who was trying to read the map, and her husband, who was trying to follow her instructions, showed they were lost. “We should have paid the extra and rented the GPS,” said Mr. Littleton.

“Give me the map,” snapped Kate. “I’ll navigate.”

Kate’s sense of direction was legendary in the Littleton family. After studying the map, she glanced at the afternoon sun. “We’re heading southeast and Saxton Burleigh is southwest,” said Kate confidently. “Make a right at the next intersection.”

Her father knew from experience that she would be right.

The trees on either side of the lane arched overhead, concealing the sky and making the Littletons feel as if they were driving though a living green tunnel. Minutes later the lane opened up into a road just wide enough for two cars to pass each other.

“This is it?” gasped Kate. “Saxton Burleigh?”

A medieval church stood on one side of the road, overlooking a cluster of thatched cottages. Strung along the other side were a post office and a row of small stores. And there, at the end, was the antique shop. Mr. Littleton parked outside and fumbled for the spare key. “Here we are,” he announced. “Let’s go and check it out.”

Past Times was just as AP had imagined it. Everything was old and musty, from the creaking floorboards to the low-beamed ceilings. Antiques and curios filled every space. There were rickety chairs with spindly legs, grandfather clocks, stuffed birds, flintlock pistols, African masks, Chinese vases, shelves of books, darkened oil paintings, and a suit of armor with one leg missing.

“Wow,” gasped AP, staring around him. “This place is amazing.”

“I’ll say,” muttered Mr. Littleton. Taking care of Uncle Miles’s affairs included the enormous task of listing everything in the shop. “Where do we start?”

“This is a big job,” agreed his wife. “But it’ll be easier once we get organized.”

They found a small kitchen at the back of the shop, with a sink, stove and tiny fridge. Upstairs were Uncle Miles’s living quarters. A small dining table with four chairs stood in the front room, with a threadbare sofa and television in one corner. Dominating the room was an antique cabinet, its polished top cluttered with old TV guides and unopened bills. The drawers, crammed with papers, were too much of a temptation for AP.

“Hey!” snapped Kate. “Stop poking in other people’s things!”

“Carry on, AP,” said his father decisively. He rarely lost his temper and Kate, hearing the anger in his voice, was smart enough to back off.

“Kate, see if there’s anything on TV,” suggested her mother. “English television’s different from ours.”

Kate fiddled with the knobs and tried changing the channels, but all she got was snow. Exasperated, she went downstairs to see if there were any cold drinks in the fridge.

“Look what I just found!” AP was waving a black book in his hand. “A diary that Uncle Miles wrote in Africa. The bottom drawer’s jammed full with them.”

“Let’s see,” said his father.

While they scanned the diaries, Mrs. Littleton examined two wooden crates, which were taking up most of the floor space. The shipping labels showed they were from Kenya—Uncle Miles’s last address before returning to England. Both had been opened. One was empty, aside from a single wooden mask lying on the bottom. With its enormous forehead and long morbid face, the carving looked ominous. The other crate was still full.

Mr. and Mrs. Littleton wanted to complete their list before an antique dealer came to price everything the following week. But they knew nothing would get done unless Kate could be kept occupied, so Mrs. Littleton slipped downstairs to tell her about the crate.

“All sorts of treasures might lurk inside,” she began. “You could unpack while AP makes a list.”

Reluctantly, Kate agreed—maybe she would find some neat jewelry among all that stuff.

Kate turned on the radio and, to her surprise, found a station with “real” music.

“Look at the size of that elephant!” exclaimed AP minutes later as his sister unwrapped another animal carving. “The biggest so far.” He patted the rich red wood. “Which do you like—the rosewood or the ebony ones?” He picked up a small rhino that was as black as night and surprisingly heavy.

“Red, black, wildebeest, warthog—who cares?”

Kate found a variety of bracelets and necklaces made from colored beads, and tried several on. Some animal pendants, threaded on thin leather cords, caught her eye too. Then she came across one that was unique—a finger-length rectangular frame, with nine vertical rows of beads.

“Here, try this,” she said slipping it over AP’s head.

“Hey, it’s an abacus. A tiny one. But why is it with all this stuff? The abacus came from the east, not Africa.”

“An abacus?”

“You know, an ancient calculator. I used to have one when I was little, remember? Mine was way bigger though. I played with it for hours.”

“You would!”

“This one works the same way mine did, except the rods are vertical instead of horizontal—that’s the ‘traditional’ way of making them.”

“So how does it work?”

“See the beads in this row?” He pointed to the far right. “They each count as one unit.”

“Okay,” said Kate.

“Each row has ten beads. If I move one of these beads to the top, that counts as one.” The beads fitted the rods tightly, so they stayed in place when he moved them. “Now, if I add four more beads, I’ve got five. Each of the beads in the next row counts for ten. So if I move three of them up to the top of their rod, I’ve got thirty. Thirty plus the others makes thirty-five.”

“Brilliant! What would we do without an abacus?”

“It gets harder. The third-row beads are each worth one hundred, then one thousand…”

Kate stifled a yawn.

“With nine rows of beads you can count up to hundreds of millions.”

She sighed.

“Watch this,” he continued, pushing the beads in the two rows on the right back to the bottom again. “Say you wanted to enter 1524—a random number. You start with the fourth row from the right and move one of the beads to the top of its rod. That’s the one thousand.” He then moved five beads to the top of the third rod. “That’s the five hundred.” Next, he moved two beads to the top on the second rod, finishing off by sliding four beads to the top of the right-hand rod. “And that’s the twenty-four. See? It’s easy.”

“If you say so.”

Crowded Planet’s latest hit, “High Water,” blared from the radio.

“What’s that tiny black button at the bottom for?” Leaning on his shoulder, Kate reached down and pushed it with her finger. Suddenly, the room filled with brilliant blue light, silhouetting AP and his sister like shadows.

Then they disappeared.



Chapter 2: Lost in the Forest

AP and Kate found themselves lying on the ground, dazed and in the dark.

“Where are we?” Kate whispered. AP felt the ground—it was hard and bumpy. When he looked up, he saw branches. Beyond them were stars and a magnificent full moon.

“We’re in a forest!” he exclaimed. “This makes no sense. What’s happened?”

AP tried pinching himself. Sure enough, it hurt. Then he pinched Kate. “Stop it!” she snapped. So they were not dreaming. They really were in a forest. But where? And how did they get there?

“This isn’t funny,” said Kate, as if it were all AP’s fault. “I want to go back, right now.”

“We can’t go anywhere until it gets light. We don’t even know where we are.” He shook his head as if to clear it. “I’m feeling so dizzy I don’t think I can stand, let alone walk.”

  Kate was groggy too.

“Let’s stay here till morning,” AP suggested. “Maybe we can sleep it off.”

“Right here, on the ground, in the middle of nowhere? You must be joking!”

“Do we have any choice?”

Kate groaned.

“Look, we can make a mattress out of dry leaves.” He began raking up armfuls. “And cover ourselves if we get cold.”

“Great!” Kate muttered, and grudgingly followed his example.

Forests can be scary, especially at night. AP reasoned this was because dangerous animals could sneak up on a person without being seen. Fortunately, Britain’s animals were harmless. Luckily, this wasn’t happening back in North America, where there were bears and wolves to worry about.

Just as they were getting comfortable, a bloodcurdling screech ripped through the silence.

“What’s that?” gasped Kate.

“Only an owl—I think. Let’s forget it and try to sleep. I’m exhausted.”

They both slept fitfully. At one point AP sat bolt upright, convinced he’d just seen a bear ambling through the trees. But bears didn’t exist in England. He lay down again, closed his eyes, and tried blotting out the forest.

When they awoke the following morning and discovered how they were dressed, Kate was horrified.

“What am I doing in this?” she shrieked. A drab blue dress hung shapelessly from her shoulders to her ankles. “It’s so gross.” She wore flat-soled shoes of soft leather, like moccasins. They reached up to her ankles and were tied with leather strips.

“What about me?” AP groaned, sounding equally offended, though he had no interest in clothes.

His long-sleeved tunic was knee-length and made of coarse brown material, like the burlap used to wrap shrubs in the fall. A wide leather belt with a heavy buckle held up his pants.

“You look good for a change,” she quipped, unable to suppress a grin.

Suddenly remembering the African crate, AP put a hand to his chest. The abacus was still there. Surely this all had to do with the pendant. Pulling it out from beneath his tunic, he started turning it over in his hands. He could only see the beads from one side and the back looked like a plain rectangle of wood. Then, for the first time, he noticed a tiny white button. “Hey, look at this! Should I give it a try?”

“Sure. Whatever.”

As soon as AP pressed the button, the abacus lit up with a map of the world, each country outlined in brilliant blue.

Both stared down with gaping mouths.

“How does it do that?” asked Kate incredulously. “And how come the map’s tiny, yet we can see each country in detail, like an enlargement?”

“No idea,” admitted AP, shaking his head.

“And what’s all that?” She pointed to the bottom of the map where the South Pacific was filled with numbers. The first was 2009, the year, but she didn’t recognize the second.

“That’s the number I picked to show how an abacus works.” A red circle in front of the 1524 had a flashing minus sign inside.

Ignoring this for the moment, he pointed to the numbers beneath it: s = 2,551,442.9s.

“Looks like some sort of equation. But I can’t figure it out.” Then AP had an idea. “Look,” he said, tapping the flashing sign in front of the number 1524. Each time he did so it changed from plus to minus. “The map’s a touch-screen.”

Then he noticed a flashing red dot over England, surrounded by a circle. When he tried touching this, nothing happened. But when he slid his finger along the map, the dot followed. He parked the spot on Sweden and it stayed there, but stopped flashing. When he moved it back to its circle over England, it began flashing again.

“I know what’s happened,” AP began. “This is some sort of time machine and we’ve been—”

Suddenly the sound of voices drifted through the forest.

“Quick!” whispered AP, grabbing Kate’s arm. “Get behind that tree.”

Safely hidden from view, they watched in silence as a small procession made its way along a well-worn footpath. Thirty or forty people walked by—men, women and children—dressed in simple clothes like Kate and AP’s. Most carried wicker baskets on their backs, filled with vegetables, apples, loaves of bread, sacks of grain and balls of coarse wool. Two of the men carried a live pig, slung from a pole between its tethered feet.

“Come on,” said AP when the procession was out of sight, “let’s follow them.”

“Follow them?” Kate repeated. “Why would we do that?”

“Well, we can’t stay here with nothing to eat or drink. It’s a matter of survival!”

In exasperation, Kate agreed and they set off.

Walking through the forest, well out of earshot, they discussed their predicament.

“You can’t seriously think we’ve traveled back in time,” Kate challenged. “Sure, the number on the abacus is 1524, but those people aren’t dressed for the Middle Ages. Henry VIII never looked like that!”

“We haven’t traveled back to the year 1524. I think we’ve traveled back 1524 years. That explains the minus sign in front of the number. And the flashing spot over England shows where we are.”

He held out the abacus and pressed the white button again. “See? We’ve gone back 1524 years from the year 2009. He did a quick calculation. “So this must be the year 485!”

“Oh no!” he exclaimed, in horror. “That was a bear I saw in the forest last night.” Kate looked puzzled. “Bears existed in Britain during medieval times. Wolves and wild boars too.”

“What?” bawled Kate. “Reset that thing and take us back to the present! This place is dangerous.”

AP thought about it for a moment. “Okay, that should be simple. The number on the abacus is still set for 1524.” He changed the minus to a plus. “Then if we press the black button we should be back in Saxton Burleigh in the present. Hold tight, you don’t want to be left behind.”

Grabbing his arm she closed her eyes, expecting everything to return to normal. “What are you waiting for?” she snapped. “Press the button!”

“I did,” he shot back. “Nothing’s happening.”

“Oh, great. Perfect! We’re stuck in 485. I have no friends and nothing to wear but this— rag.” She tugged at the formless dress. “We have no phone, no iPod, no computer, no shower, no toilet...there’s NOTHING HERE!”

“Look on the bright side,” said AP grinning. “You’ve got me!”

They walked on for much of the morning, through gently sloping countryside. The forest was far behind now and there were few trees for cover. Keeping to the higher ground, they kept a watchful eye on the travelers below. “How long have we been following them?” she asked, keeping her voice low to avoid being overheard.

“A couple of hours, maybe.”

“Feels more like seven or eight to me,” she grumbled.

Eventually the procession came to a halt beside a large lake. Putting down their loads, the people began preparing a meal. AP and Kate stared longingly from behind a lone willow—starving.

Although feeling safely hidden from sight, something must have given them away and they watched in horror as people began pointing up at the tree. Then some of the strangers started calling and gesturing for them to come down. They seemed friendly enough, so, after much hesitation, Kate and AP left their safe haven and descended to the lake.

Most of the men were clean-shaven, with neatly trimmed hair. Some had beards and shoulder-length locks. All the women had long hair, worn loosely or in braids. Fair hair predominated, with a sprinkling of redheads, including a wild-looking man with a mane like a lion. Kate, with her blond hair, and AP, with his blue eyes, fit right in.

Kate and AP learned that the people lived in a far-off village and had been traveling for two days. As they chatted with the villagers, something remarkable dawned on them—they were both speaking in an ancient form of English they wouldn’t have understood in their modern world. How had the abacus transported them through time and transformed them to blend in so perfectly?

“It’s a bit like a computer,” suggested AP when nobody was listening. “I can hook up a new device to my laptop and the software makes it work properly.”

Kate gave him one of her blank stares.

“The abacus does the same thing,” he continued, “changing the way we look and speak to match our surroundings.”

“How does it do that?”

“Maybe it rearranges the molecules of our clothing and reprograms the speech part of our brain.”

Kate was about to ask him what that all meant when some of the children came to say hello.

The villagers invited them to share their meal. They began with flat bread, which looked like a pancake.

“Chewy,” said AP, taking his first bite. “Like a day-old bagel.”

When pencil-sized sticks were handed around, Kate exchanged puzzled looks with her brother. Taking a cautious nibble, AP rolled it around in his mouth. Salty, like beef jerky, he realized it was dried meat and took some more. Kate tried some too and was surprised at how good it tasted.

Then someone passed Kate a string bag containing a creamy white ball the size of a grapefruit. Some pieces had already been cut off, giving her a clue what to do with it. Most villagers wore a dagger in their belt and, seeing that Kate didn’t have one, a man handed her his. Wanting to fit in, she hacked off a generous slice, put it on a piece of bread, and took a bite. It tasted worse than sour milk, but she pretended to enjoy it. She figured it was some kind of cheese. They offered her more.

“No thank you. It’s so good, but I want to leave some for my brother.” She took one last bite, followed by lots of bread.

“You’ll like this.” Kate smiled. “Here, I’ll cut you a piece.” She speared a hunk on the end of the knife and handed it to him. AP was suspicious—Kate never looked that happy when she was doing him a favor.

All eyes switched from Kate to AP.

AP guessed the stuff would taste terrible so he made a snap decision and rammed the whole thing into his mouth. Without any doubt, this was the most disgusting thing AP had ever eaten. He had to put on a brave face though, partly to convince the villagers, but mostly to fool his sister. So he smiled, patted his stomach and rolled his eyes. Even Kate was taken in by his performance.  

Everyone except the youngest children drank beer, served from earthenware bottles into pottery goblets. AP remembered reading that beer was the everyday drink during medieval times. He disliked the bitterness but, after the white stuff, it tasted good. Kate, who had tried beer a few times, didn’t like it, even though she boasted otherwise to her friends. They finished off the meal with freshly picked apples, the first crop of summer.

After packing away the food, the people gathered in small groups, occasionally glancing out across the lake. By piecing together snippets of overheard conversations, Kate and AP realized the people were awaiting the arrival of someone important. And it was for him and his cause that they had brought all the goods. But who was he? Nobody had told Kate and AP because everybody assumed they knew.

They waited beside the lake for most of the day. AP and Kate began wondering whether anyone would ever show up. Many of the villagers were stretched out in the sun, asleep. Some of the men spent their time whittling wood, and one was making a bow. He worked with skilled hands—the kind that develop from years of practice. As AP watched, the craftsman beckoned him over for a closer look.

“Don’t boys know how to make bows where you come from?” he asked.

“Um, no,” replied AP, trying hard to think of a likely explanation. “Only the boys chosen to become master bow-makers are taught.” Feeling pleased with his effort he added, “The rest of us miss the chance.”

“That’s a pity because there are so many interesting things to learn.” The man patted the half-formed bow with an enormous hand. “This is yew,” he continued. “We always use that because of its natural springiness.” He ran his hands along the length of the wood. “The grain’s good and straight from one end to the other. You must choose your wood carefully.”

AP stroked the bow, admiring its gentle curvature.

“The curve will be greater when the bow’s been strung,” the man continued. “See those notches at either end of the bow?”

AP nodded.

“We tie a loop at each end of a string, making sure it’s shorter than the distance between the notches.” He traced an imaginary line between the two ends of the bow. “Next, you lean down on the bow and slip the loops into the notches.”

AP knew how bows worked: pulling back the string made the bow arch more, storing energy in the wood like a spring. When the string was released, the energy was transferred to the arrow, causing it to fly.

“I made this one for hunting,” said the man, picking up a second bow. “Here, try it.”

AP found it hard to pull the string all the way back, but his instructor said that didn’t matter. “The important thing is your aim.”

AP practiced on a nearby tree. Kate looked on, amused, as he kept missing.

“Anyone could do better than that!” she taunted. “Try an easier target.”

“Such as?” he snapped.

“How about the lake?”

“Funny. Let’s see if you can do better.” He handed her the bow.

Her first arrow stuck into the ground nearby. The second one flew over the tree. The third arrow skimmed the ground, but missed by a long way. Kate, frustrated, returned the bow.

AP continued practicing for about an hour, by which time he was hitting the target with almost every arrow. His instructor told him he had all the makings of a marksman, providing he kept practicing. Meanwhile Kate, who got on well with youngsters, had been having fun with some of the children. They’d shown her their games, involving sticks, wooden balls and pieces of string. Kate, in turn, taught them how to play baseball. They enjoyed themselves so much they would have continued all afternoon. Feeling hot and tired, Kate called a time-out and wandered down to the lake for a drink. AP went along too.

“How’s our being here going to affect the people?” she asked her brother. Kate was especially thinking of the children. “I’ve just shown them how to play baseball, more than a thousand years before the game’s been invented. Will there be major-league baseball in England in the Middle Ages?”

AP shook his head. “Nothing we do here in the past will have any lasting effect. As soon as we’re gone, everything we did will disappear with us.”

“Why?”

“That’s part of the time-travel paradox. I read about it once.”

“So, let’s hear it.”

“Say you’ve got a time machine set up in your house. You’ve just got up. It’s 7:30 on a Saturday morning.”

“Who gets up that early on the weekend?” Kate interrupted.

“Do you want me to explain or not?”

“Sorry. Keep going. I’m all ears.”

“Okay, so you have some pancakes and check your e-mails. Then it’s time to go traveling. You look at your watch and it’s now 9 a.m.” He glanced down at his bare wrist. “You enter your time machine and set it for one hour earlier.”

“That’s 8 a.m. Saturday morning?” she asked, to clarify.

“Exactly. So you set the time, press the button, the machine activates, then you step outside and it’s 8 a.m. again.”

Kate nodded.

“You can smell the pancakes. You look into the kitchen and see yourself eating. Then you delete all your messages, which stops you reading your e-mails. But you already know you read them before you entered the time machine.”

“That makes no sense!” Kate exclaimed.

“Of course it doesn’t. That’s the whole point of the time-travel paradox.”

He paused for a moment.

“After you erased your e-mails, suppose you tied yourself up. That’d stop you getting into the time machine you just stepped out of a few minutes earlier.”

“That’s impossible!”

“Which is why it’s called a paradox. A paradox is something completely contradictory.”

“Okay, so what’s the point?”

“The time-travel paradox is the reason most people think time travel’s impossible. They say that if people could travel back to the past they could change the future, which is not feasible. The alternative is that time travel is possible but doing anything in the past which changes the future is not possible. You and I both know time travel is real, so we can be equally sure that altering the past is impossible.

“So when we return to the future—if we ever do—it’ll be just as if we were never here—no baseball and everybody will have forgotten we came.”

“Exactly. We won’t ever have existed in these times.”

Kate let it all sink in, slowly. AP idly tossed a stone into the water.

“How do you know all this stuff?” she asked. “It’s so weird.”

“Books.” AP shrugged. “I like to read.”

Kate broke the silence that followed.

“When are we going back to our own time?” she sounded anxious. “Why didn’t the abacus work when we tried it?”

“I don’t know—maybe it needed time to recharge its batteries.”

“So it could work right now?”

“We can try,” he said.

Glancing around to make sure nobody was watching, he pulled out the abacus and turned on the screen. Instantly the map lit up, along with the numbers 2009 and 1524. A plus sign was still in front of the number 1524.

“Everything’s set. Ready?”

Kate linked an arm through his and nodded.

He pressed the black button. Nothing happened. Again. Nothing. “Forget it.”

“Is it broken?”

“Not sure. The screen’s still working, so it’s probably okay.”

“We’ve got to get home,” she blurted. “I want to see Mum and Dad, and everyone else again…” Her eyes filled with tears.

“We will,” he said, laying an arm across her shoulders. “I promise. Let’s give it a rest for now, and try again later.”

The water looked so inviting in the afternoon sun. If only the time travelers had bathing suits and towels, but they had to be content with getting just their feet wet.

“There’d be no risk of hitting your head diving into this lake,” said AP, staring down at the sandy bottom. “See how it slopes away? It must be fairly deep.”

“Isn’t it weird that nobody goes swimming, not even the children?” said Kate. “And the ones who stripped off to bathe keep close to the water’s edge. Maybe it’s too deep.”

“Or they’re afraid of water.”

* * *

A shout from the shore broke the tranquility of the late afternoon. Boats had been spotted. Sleepers were woken, babies were gathered up, and children ran down to the shore. Everyone was buzzing with excitement and shading their eyes to catch a first glimpse.

Kate and AP, wanting to keep a low profile, strolled a short distance away. Both wondered what sort of a man inspired such an enthusiastic and loyal following.

AP expected a fleet of longboats, with dragon-head prows and square sails, like the Vikings used. But the four rowing boats that came into sight looked unspectacular. They were large, with three rowers on each side and space in between for cargo. As they neared shore, the occupants raised oars, threw lines across and prepared to land.

Standing at the prow of the lead boat was a tall muscular man with broad shoulders, neatly-trimmed long hair, and a well-clipped beard. An impressive figure, it was obvious from the way the men jumped to his orders that he was their leader. As he leaned forward, something slipped from his belt and fell overboard. Judging from the commotion that followed it was something valuable.

One of the men tried to reach the object with an oar, but this was too unwieldy and it would take forever to nudge the object into the shallows. Amidst the shouting and arguing nobody seemed to know what to do.

“This is crazy!” exclaimed AP. “Why doesn’t somebody just jump in and get it?”

Within seconds he’d slipped off his clothes and dived into the water. Taking a deep breath, he headed for the leader’s boat.

When the people saw AP cutting through the water they gasped in astonishment. Then he reached the boat and disappeared beneath the surface. Shouts of confusion came from those standing on shore, but those in the boats could see him streaking to the bottom.

By now, Kate realized the people had never seen anyone swimming before. She guessed swimming hadn’t been invented yet, at least not in Britain. “Come on, AP,” she murmured to herself. “You can do it.”

AP felt the pressure against his ears, like being in the deep end of a swimming pool. In the crystal clear water, he easily spotted the object, glinting against the sandy bottom. It was a dagger! AP’s fingers closed upon the hilt.

Minutes later AP, wet and dripping, was standing on shore, surrounded by the men from the boats. The villagers watched in hushed anticipation as AP handed the ornate weapon back to its owner. The leader took it from him in silence, and then he spoke.

“This dagger is sacred,” he began, facing the crowd. He held it high for all to see. The gold handle was inlaid with rubies, which burned in the sun. “My father’s father gave it to me.” Then, turning to AP, “And who have I the honor of thanking?”

AP, hardly feeling honorable in his baggy undergarments, drew himself up to his full height of four feet ten and three-quarters inches. “Arthur,” he announced solemnly, though it was pronounced “Artorius” in the ancient tongue he was speaking. His proper name seemed to fit the occasion.

“What a coincidence,” replied the leader with a broad smile. “That’s my name too.” He waved the dagger above his head and the crowd roared their approval. Then, with a flourish, he slipped it back into the scabbard on his belt. From that moment Arthur—who would be known in legend as King Arthur—held AP and his sister in the highest regard.

“Please honor me by traveling back to my home,” said the leader. “You will be special guests in the most beautiful place on this verdant isle.”

The villagers spent almost an hour exchanging news with Arthur. They were pleased to report that all was peaceful and quiet in their part of the land. Then the men began loading the goods into the boats. By the time they had finished, the sun was low on the horizon. The warmth of the day had been replaced by an early evening chill, and Arthur was anxious to get underway. Kate and AP made their hurried farewells and clambered aboard. Then the expedition set off, leaving the villagers to set up camp for the night.

Several miles away, a hooded figure hunched over a small fire, watching the flames lick the fading daylight. A black cloak was pulled tightly about his bony frame, concealing everything but his sharply pointed nose and piercing eyes. He was about to spend his second night alone in the forest—lost. Like Kate and AP, he had traveled through time, but not by accident. Although unaware of their identity, he knew someone had activated the abacus. He also knew they must be close by. Whatever it took, he would track them down and recover the device. He desperately wanted to get his hands on it, and would stop at nothing to do so.



END OF SAMPLE



You can purchase the complete book at the Bitingduckpress Online Store