The Cartwright Manor. Present Day.
Irene Hadar shifted about in the back of the limo, alternating between sipping the champagne the driver had poured and biting furiously at her lip.
She gazed out at the manicured gardens as the car pulled into the heated marble driveway approaching Lord Cartwright's mansion.
The car came to a stop and the driver rushed to her door to open it for her. She quickly downed her drink before stepping out.
Lord Cartwright hobbled down the stairs of his mansion to meet Irene, flashing a sparkling-white grin that seemed to glow against the contrast of his spray-tan-happy face.
“I am glad you accepted my invitation, doctor,” he called melodically. “Of course, as they say, nobody says 'no' to an invitation from Lord Alexander Cartwright.”
He moved into her personal space and kissed her on both cheeks.
“I have heard much in the news about your work in helping to translate one of the forbidden texts the Vatican tried to hide. What was it again?” He paused a beat. “The Revelation of the Magi manuscript, that's it. And I must say, the contents do sound all very groundbreaking for the archeological world, although perhaps heretical to the Christians, I'm guessing, no? The Pope better hide with his circumcised tail between his legs.”
"God, another artifact-chasing imbecile," Irene muttered under her breath. She stared at him blankly. “I can ignore the crudity of your statement, Lord Cartwright. It is, I imagine, probably the result of a social awkwardness… no doubt that stems from a lifelong need to be accepted and relate to new acquaintances. Perhaps a habit cemented at the single-sex, socially-inept, private high school your parents no doubt sent you to during the teenage years that were always going to shape you forever more. Yes, an ideal institution to make important contacts and enter exclusive and beneficial circles … but not an ideal place for learning to talk to women.
"But even so, I will have to bluntly correct you on blatant factual inaccuracies. The Roman Catholic Church condemned the religious practice of circumcision as far back as 1442, during the Ecumenical Council of Basel-Florence. As far as I am aware the church's stance has not changed, and therefore I would think it highly unlikely that the Pope adheres to this custom, given he is the figurehead representation of the religion."
Alexander paused and grinned even wider. “I hear along the grapevine that I should congratulate you on a recent discovery regarding layers of text beneath the Dead Sea Scrolls. I'm guessing the government has you a little hush-hush on the exact nature of these findings at the moment. Sounds very interesting all the same, too.”
He gave her a wink, and although she remained stone faced, a thin dark eyebrow raised rebelliously momentarily.
“Thank you, Lord Cartwright. Seems like you have done much of your own research on me, although perhaps intriguingly not as much on the actual content of my chosen area of study,” she said, taking a step back to readjust the distance between herself and the wafting mix of twelve-year-old scotch and generous application of aftershave he applied before coming out to greet her. “It takes a lot to drag me half way around the world and away from one of my digs, but I am obligated to investigate possible sponsorships, as well as potential projects. Although, to be honest, Lord Cartwright, the incessant reminder calls from your secretary and the man you sent around to my apartment at 2 a.m. had a part to play in my coming, too.” She smiled politely. "I am sure you will make this visit worthwhile."
“Please, call me Alex or Alexander, and I shall call you Irene,” he beamed. “Lord Cartwright is just what I have my gardeners and drivers call me, not my historians and scientists.”
Irene raised her eyebrow again.
Alexander hesitated, before continuing. “Well, come inside. We have work to do and I'm not one for wasting a moment.”
“I'm sorry to be abrupt, but I would like clarification. What is the purpose of this initial meeting, and how long will it take?” Irene asked, following Alexander up the stairs leading to his manor and through the large double doorway. “Are you wanting to fund a new research project or...?”
Alexander turned around and threw his hands in the air. “An opportunity of a lifetime, my dear.”
“Yes, that is what the invitation said, but...” she started. “Such a phrase lends itself more to a 'pyramid scheme' than funding a study into Ancient Egypt, for example. I need assurance my time is not being wasted here and...”
Alexander interrupted her. “Believe me, your time is definitely not being wasted. But, you see, the reason for me flying you out here is not something I can just tell you about. I must show you. So please, let's not get antsy.”
She adjusted her stride to keep up with him as he waddled – at a surprisingly quick pace – down a few large hallways decorated with antiques from across the globe, and into an extensive library.
“Most of this manor has been inspired by classic art and primitive cultures, but this was inspired by Adam West and Batman,” he giggled, pulling back the head of a bust from what looked like Ancient Egypt. As he did, one of the room's bookcases swivelled to reveal a passageway.
Alexander chuckled at Irene's unchanging face. “You should have seen the look on your face when my bookcase opened." He paused to witness any reaction, but was disappointed to see her face didn’t react like the others he had shown. "This, my dear girl, is the part of my life you don't read about in the papers. A secret hobby of mine. Follow me.”
Irene followed Alexander behind the bookcase and through a dark tunnel to an elevator. The bookcase closed behind them and the elevator door opened.
Standing before them was a soldier dressed in camouflage. He held the elevator door open.
The soldier nodded at Alexander and Irene. “Lord Cartwright. Doctor Hadar.”
“Have our fine explorers returned?” Alexander asked, before adding to Irene, “That's what I call our field team.”
“No, sir, they haven't,” stated the soldier. “They are expected back any moment.”
“Just as I thought,” laughed Alexander, clapping his hands together.
“Take us to the observation deck, soldier. Beam us down, Scotty. Or whatever your name is.”
The soldier attempted to mask a smirk as he turned to press a series of buttons. The elevator began descending so fast it almost felt like it was free falling.
“How far are we going down?” asked Irene, swallowing the lump forming in her throat. "I trust this meets all building regulations?"
“We are going down four hundred meters into the earth,” smiled the rich lord. “Do not worry though, this is all safe. My so-called 'eccentric persona' portrayed in the media is completely unsubstantiated. A wild fabrication drummed up by bored journalists, no doubt.
“Stories derived and inspired by those blasted photos they caught of me with the two Argentinean prostitutes. I had however explained to the media at the time that I didn't even know there was cocaine on the table, and that I had only just met the girls at the party.
“But you know, no story there, so they keep rolling out those photos every slow news day, and attach a new story of outlandish fantasy. That one picture where I look like I am using the drugs, especially, has been a cash cow for them.
“In the real world, however, you will quickly learn that I am actually a calculating man who takes all risks and possibilities into consideration. A very different kettle of fish.”
Before too long the heavy elevator doors parted to reveal a huge chamber fitted with a vast array of controls and LCD screens, and with a number of men and women in lab coats furiously taking notes or tapping computer keys.
Irene paused and scanned the room. Her forehead creased.
“I recognize some of the scientists and researchers working for you - they are top in their field. Some more so than others, but very impressive all the same,” she whispered to Alexander as he escorted her to the back of the room towards a screen that almost filled the entire wall. “What sort of project is this? How did a man like you attract this talent? And don't say it was just the money or you will destroy the shining pedestals these men and women stand on in my mind in one fell swoop.”
Alexander's eyes lit up. “Something very exciting attracted them to my payroll, and I assure you that it will have a similar effect on you, sweetheart. You have signed the confidentiality documents, haven't you?”
“I put a signature on the dotted line, but signed another name to cloud any potential legal liabilities,” Irene responded flatly. “I didn't get time to read all 86 pages. Your people expected me to read it in the car
from the airport to your home. But I think I'll just read the summary your lawyers made especially for you, no doubt with lots of pictures and a place for you to make your mark with coloured crayons.” The second half of that sentence she said under her breath.
“You put a pen on the dotted line? That's good enough for my publicity and legal team, so let the show begin,” chuckled Alexander. He pointed at the screen. “See that box down there?”
The screen displayed a dark empty room with what looked like reinforced, armoured walls. In the middle of the room was a chest about one metre by one metre, made of oak, and decorated with carved ancient characters and symbols.
“That box was discovered at the bottom of the Sea of Japan, back in1941, by Japanese military researchers. It was named the 'Box of Urashima Tarō'. The Japanese believed there was an unimaginable power stored somewhere inside, and that if they could harness it, they could win the war.”
Irene glanced at Alexander before looking back at the chest. “What does it do?”
“The Japanese were not entirely sure, and at the end of the war the project was abandoned because of lack of financial resources.
“However, ten years ago I bought the item at a private auction in Saint Thomas, as well as the notes made by the military scientists. It's a beautiful Caribbean island I frequent often. A great place for the rich to indulge, have wild parties, and buy rare, secret and forbidden items. I'd invite you if you ever were to put make-up on that pretty face, were a little less smart and a little skinnier...”
Irene didn't bat an eyelid at the magnate's remark.
“Anyway, last year my team of researchers cracked the code, somewhat accidentally. They uncovered the power of Urashima Tarō'.”
Alexander paused for dramatic effect. “The 'Box of Urashima Tarō' can pass through and manipulate space and time. I have discovered time travel, my dear doctor.”
“You are joking?” Irene blurted, before adding more quietly: “How on earth is that even possible? I thought that was just the playpen for theoretical physicists. If somebody is elaborately stitching me up...”
“We don't really know how it works, actually. We know how to activate it, and how to send a 'field team' across time and space to a particular destination. That is easy, with the help of some advanced technology we hook up to the box. But how it works, or who created it, remains a mystery.
“From our research it does not seem to work on the widely theorised and highly popularised wormhole explanation of time travel, but more likely through some sort of energetic connection with a part of our brain’s neural pathways previously never activated before.
“It seems that all times and all possibilities since the beginning of time exist in infinite dimensions, and through this device our brain can somehow tap into, perceive and live within these times and possibilities.
“One of my scientists explained it to me like this: Say the universe is a hologram. If you shine a torch light through the hologram you can perceive a different time or dimension as though it were current.
If you changed the angle of the light, you can change the time and destination. Or something like that. I sort of drifted off into my own thoughts part way through the explanation to be honest.
“Anyway, it would be an understatement to say that this box has opened up a few new theories about the relationship between the human mind and the universe for our resident quantum physicists to squabble over. Very exciting times here, I can tell you.”
Irene attempted to insert a question between Alexander's uninformed ramblings, but the lord was difficult to interrupt.
“And as for who created it? We have even less of an idea, my dear Irene. Obviously an ancient culture with technological capabilities way beyond our own. Perhaps extraterrestrial. Perhaps the Atlanteans. Or perhaps something even stranger, like beings on another dimension.
“There is a story in Japanese myth about a man named Urashima Tarō. The man the Japanese named the box after. It was said that after saving the princess of an underwater kingdom, he was given gills and taken to visit the king deep under the ocean.
“The king gave Urashima Tarō a box that made him immortal, to show his gratitude. However, when he went back to the surface to see his family and friends, they had all passed away hundreds of years before.
He had somehow moved forward in time. How about that?”
“I am familiar with this story,” Irene said, distracted in deep thought.
“And when he opened the box, he aged in minutes before turning to dust. The box held his mortality.”
Alexander screwed his face up. “Umm... yes, that's the one. I see your knowledge of ancient cultures and their beliefs extends past the Middle East. Anyway, we don't work with myth here; we work with hard science.” Alexander's eyes lit up and he clapped his gloved hands together. “Look, how exciting, the countdown has begun! Our travelers are returning.”
“Travelers?” mouthed Irene. “Do you mean...?”
All of a sudden bolts of lightning streaked across the room displayed on the LCD screen. The researchers all stopped what they were doing, and silently watched on.
The screen was filled with pulsing flashes. Irene had to shade her eyes and squint.
Then, as quickly as they had come, the flashes stopped, and in the room were eight muscular soldiers.
The researchers and scientists clapped and cheered, and the soldiers looked up at the screen. One lifted a fist in the air, which was met with more cheers from the crowded observation deck.
“What just happened exactly?” Irene managed to say.
“The second successful time travel expedition,” beamed Alexander.
Irene peered at the screen before shaking her head in disbelief.
“I told you I had the opportunity of a lifetime for you,” he giggled. “I'll introduce you to the leader of the field team once the doctors have given them a positive bill of health. We don't want to be bringing the black plague to the 21st Century.”
“These soldiers have been sent back in time?” she asked. “This is unbelievable.”
Irene's critical eye roved over the new arrivals before her attention fell on one particular man. He had short-cropped hair, a half-smile and a bit of a swagger.
“That's Jude Stone,” Alexander grinned, noticing her attention. “He's the leader of my field team. An ex-Australian-SAS and spy who came with the highest recommendation ... been behind enemy lines in Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Columbia, Brazil and a few Black Ops I am not privy to ... responsible for taking out a number of terrorist leaders, drug lords and dictators around the world ... he was the elite of the elite.
“After he retired he disappeared and became a ghost. Not even the world's best intelligence agencies could track him down. And it was almost impossible for me, too.” Alexander raised his eyebrows and huffed, “Great soldier, but I think they've trained any last bit of human and humour out of him to be frank. I don't think he even speaks to, let alone has any sort of acquaintance, with anyone outside the field team and myself.”
“So he's a soldier, got it,” Irene said dryly, quickly diverting her attention to the others. "And the others?"
“The tall lad with no hair and a spider tattoo on the side of his head is Blake McAllan, affectionately known as 'Spider' because of the way he could infiltrate any terrorist splinter or organised crime web.
“He's ex-British-SAS and ex-MI-6, and second in the chain of command here. He loves a laugh and a joke. But don't be lulled into thinking he isn't a professional, he was known throughout the Black Ops for his knack of getting enemy co-operation, if you know what I mean?
“And the other members of our field team I do not know, to be honest. They are a bunch of elite soldiers from across the globe that were assembled by Stone and Spider for these missions.”
Alexander picked up a clipboard on a nearby desk and scanned down the page. “All with time in the SAS, MI-6, SEALs, Spetsnaz, Green Berets, GROM, KSK, JTF2, commandos, marines or elite 'unidentified' special agencies.
“In fact, you'll be the first time-traveler that the boys haven't chosen. But I believe they will see your expertise as imperative when I give them the brief for this next mission. Oh, by the way, I haven't mentioned to them you'll be accompanying them yet, so you might like to do that during the brief. You leave tomorrow. Which of course leaves you no time to second guess your decision, let alone talk yourself out of it.”
He chuckled and put a chubby hand around her slim olive shoulder, which she shrugged off.
“What?” Irene exploded, her eyes widening. “You never said anything about swirling in an unstable time travel experiment with a pack of smelly, dirty mercenaries. I'm sorry, that is not happening...” She paused to glare at the chubby millionaire with piercing dark brown eyes, before then shooting sentences at him. “You didn't tell me anything, and I didn't agree to anything of the sort… and if I am forced to make a rushed decision, I'll err on the safer side of caution. I do not trust nor like you.” She paused once more, counting her breathing as a friend studying psychology once taught her for handling her anger. She continued, flustered, but in control. “Yes, I admit the prospect of time travel is appealing, but... Start talking facts fast or I slam the door on your proposal. I need to know things like... Which researchers were on the previous two missions? How do we know this box is even safe? And ... things that ease a left-hemisphere-dominated brain. Do you even know where they really are going?”
“No researchers as yet, but believe me, you could not be safer with these soldiers,” said Alexander. He grabbed her hand and led her out of the observation room. “You will be the first researcher to travel back in time, Doctor Hadar. That in itself should be extremely exciting for an active searcher of truth like yourself. And when you hear where you will be going, you will be even more excited. Mind you, your actions will go unrecognised until we can release our project results to the public.”
“I concede the possibility is amazing but you spring it on me like this and... I don't get it,” admitted Irene as Alexander pulled her through an array of corridors. “How can you properly study ancient cultures without scientists, archeologists and historians? And why was I chosen to be the first? I mean, to say the history of humanity is important is the biggest understatement of all time, but would it be possible for an astrophysicist to observe the birth of our universe, or...”
“Who said anything about research?” he smirked. “There will be time for research later. We are doing a much more important duty for mankind.”
“Why am I getting a bad feeling about this, Lord Cartwright?”