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Monday, 10 September 2012

Chpt. 5 - Don't Shoot the Messenger

Irene glared at Jude as she put her hand down on the ancient chest.
“I do appreciate your willingness to share your opinion, Mr. Stone, even if it is baseless,” she said flatly, diverting her eyes past him.  “Do not be mistaken, the gun under your Nativity costume doesn't make up for a brain, etiquette or common decency.”
Irene brushed back the midnight-brown curls escaping the scarf around her head she had been given to wear.
“We've had two successful time travels already without a pretend doctor giving us a history lesson,” he smirked, “can't see how you coming is going to do anything but get in the way.  But hey, as long as I get a big fat pay cheque when we return, I don't really give a shit.  Just do as you're told and don't get us into trouble.”
Jude let his eyes linger on Irene for a few moments, before snorting and addressing the other seven mercenaries with their hands on the ancient time chest.
“I don't need to tell you boys that this will be a difficult operation.  We've all fought with terrorist factions, like al-Qaeda, who are good at playing hide-and-go-seek.  This group is just as elusive.”  Jude looked at Irene out of the corner of his eyes.  She held her line of vision on the box, breathing sharply.  “Doctor Hadar will help us get information from the locals.  She will explain to citizens we meet that we have come a long way to hear this Joshua guy speak, and that she is taking us about as a request from her father.  When she is not being told what to do, she will submissively melt into the background and get out of our way.”  He turned to her.  “Got it, doctor?”
“Everybody ready?” came a voice through a speaker.
“Doctor Hadar, are you ready?” Jude chuckled, looking at her grip the box with whitening knuckles.
“If you are asking me whether I am ready to run a highly unstable current through my head, using a relatively untested device we know next to nothing about, developed by a civilisation not even documented in history, who inexplicably disappeared,” she said, nodding at Jude, “then yes, I am ready."
“And that attitude is exactly why you shouldn't be here," he laughed.  “We've done this twice now and had no problem.”
“Thanks,” she replied, staring at him.  “Your anecdotal evidence and 'extensive' study is very reassuring.”
Jude grinned and gave the camera in the corner of the room a thumbs-up. 
As soon as he did, the ancient chest began to rattle louder and louder.  Then, a flurry of electric tentacles leapt out from it.
Everything began to swirl and tiny lights whizzed about the room.
Irene gasped softly as the walls fell away to reveal what looked like outer space dotted with distant stars.  Even the chest had now disappeared.
“Do not worry, Doctor Hadar,” said Jude, and then in a pre-rehearsed way added: “This is all part of the process.  The box is sending signals to your brain that create neural pathways to change your perception to the new reality - the reality of 31 A.D. Palestine.  This is not space, but within your mind.”
“I am well aware of the process, Mr. Stone,” she murmured, straightening her clothing.  “I spent all last night becoming very familiar with the machine.  I read all those funny pieces of paper with squiggly lines and lots of numbers on them.  It gave me a little more than the Reader's Digest version.  But I thank you for your explanation all the same.”
With great force, the team was sucked towards a distant light that eventually enveloped them.
When the light faded away, the team found themselves in a crowded marketplace filled with clouds of thick incense and noisy livestock.  The sun blazed down upon them and their bodies began to sweat.
People pushed past the team as if they had not noticed them appearing.
One man with a thick ebony moustache and a twitching eye grabbed Irene.  He began rambling to her in Aramaic.
Jude grabbed the man's tattered cloak and shoved him backwards into the sea of people passing by.
“You should leave our first impressions to me,” Irene said, rolling her eyes at the stone-faced leader.  “He was simply asking if we could spare some food.  He was a beggar.”  She then added with a huff: “God, what sort of testosterone-boosting hormones are you taking?”
Jude peered down at Irene.  “Next time he might be a thief who sticks a knife in you and puts a spanner in the whole operation.  I'm not willing to take that chance.  Are you?”
Spider put a hand on Jude's shoulder.  “Let's split up.  We’ll be less likely to arouse suspicion, sir.”
“Good point, Spider.  Zhang, you come with me.  Spider with Holland...” started Jude.
“No,” Spider interrupted.  “I think you better go with Doctor Hadar.”  He leaned in and whispered, “Sorry, pal.  You're the best one at questioning locals and following leads.  You'll need her to translate between punches.”
“Fine,” agreed Jude.  “I'll find somewhere safe for the doctor to stay.  Spider, you split the team up and move ahead as planned.  We'll convene at position 'A' tomorrow at fourteen hundred hours.  According to intel, this will be our first contact with the target.  Until then, no contact between groups, and get as much information as you possibly can on the target and the tunnels he may use.  As only Silverman can speak any Hebrew, you will need to gather most of your intel by observation.”
“Do I have any say on who I go with?” protested Irene half-heartedly.  Her eyes drifted over the sights and a grin spread across her face.  “Mind you, I don't really care which of you dirty barbarians chaperones me, provided I get to explore this place.”
Spider set his unwavering eyes on Irene.  “You'll be thankful you went with Jude.  Believe me.  There's no better soldier on this planet.”
“And that means something because...?” she challenged as they parted.
"You'll need to get rough with her," Spider warned Jude with a grin.  "She's too cocky for her own good."
He nodded, and said before following the doctor, "I know.  Tame the wild beast."
Irene wandered through the markets without muttering a word, inspecting items in the backstreets.  Jude followed a pace behind.
After a few moments, she decided to break the silence.
“You don't have to keep your eye on me every second I'm with you,” she said, having noticed his attention to her every move.  “I mightn't be trained to be a killer, but I can handle myself.  I've lived and worked in some pretty hairy places.”
"Just making sure you don't do anything stupid."
He glanced away, but when she started sorting through the artwork at a market stand, his attention returned.  Every item she picked up she inspected with delight, and she was soon lost in her own world, forgetting the soldier shadowing her.
“What do you see in this junk?  If I buried something worthless, and you found it thousands of years later, would you find it interesting,” Jude started. 
"I would never find anything of yours interesting, even in a million years," she grinned.  "Besides, Neanderthals aren't really my expertise."
“That joke is a bit tired.  You are the smart one, I'm the dumb grunt, I get it.  Think of a new taunt to use when you're trying to flirt with me.”
"I am not trying to flirt with you, you, idiot," she snapped.
He chuckled.  "So I can get under your skin too then."
Irene glared at Jude with a raised eyebrow, before returning to float from one stall to the next.
“You are not special.  I don't hate you, it is just that everything about you and your type makes me physically ill.  And besides, why should I respect you and your job, when you and your team have not one shred of respect for me and my life's work,” she called back to him.  “This might look like junk to you that someone will simply bury to get rid of, but to me it tells an incredible story from a world so foreign from our own, yet a world that ultimately shaped it – and shaped us.  There is nothing more incredible and awe-inspiring than being here, in the time and place I've been studying and imagining for ten years.”
“Your goofy smile gives that away.”
“And to be honest, I wouldn't bother with helping you if it didn't have such a big, amazing, unbelievable pay-off,” Irene continued.  “The money will definitely help my projects…”  She paused to roll her eyes.  “But that’s not the pay-off I am talking about so you can wipe that goofy grin off your face.  The real pay-off is getting to live amongst the stories and study it from within them...”
“Is that why you came on this trip?” Jude sneered, interrupting her.  “To have an opportunity to see all this junk in the flesh?”
“Isn't that obvious?  What better opportunity for someone in my field?”  Irene paused and brushed back some more locks dangling out of her hijab.  “That and trying to stop you all from screwing up too much history.  Righting a few wrongs, I can justify that to myself, but let's keep changing history books to a minimum.  My conscience would never let me forget it if we made a mistake with disastrous repercussions.”
"You would make the worst soldier."
"Why?  Because I have no respect for your stupid chain of command."
“Well, that's one reason.  Another is that you analyse every bloody thing.  In a military situation, you’ve got to just get the job done, compromise on the means to achieve the end ... or the bad guy gets away ... or kills you.  I have had my conscience and 'feelings' silenced long ago,” chuckled Jude.  “Right now, for example, I just trust that the scientists calling the shots are making the right ethical decisions, and making the world a better place, like you said.  And hey, if I'm helping them do that, maybe I'm cleaning some bad karma that I earned from my days in the Special Forces.  But truth be known, I don't think about any of that because it would take my focus away from my job.”
“Is that why you disappeared?” asked Irene offhandedly.
“Is what why I disappeared?”
Irene turned to Jude with a dusty parchment.  “Do you think we could buy something here?”
“This is not one of your digs, honey.”
"Don't dare call me that again."
He shrugged at her.  "The answer remains 'no'."
“You have no idea what this could mean to our research if I could bring a copy like this back,” she pleaded, putting the scriptures back on the table but unable to peel her fingers off it.  “In the labs, we were looking at copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of this scripture.  And at best, after piecing all the fragments together, we could only read half of what was written.
“I would have to get this analysed, but I think this could be a complete copy of the original text we were trying to piece together.  And the thing is, Mr. Stone, every time something like this is copied, especially when it has been translated into another language, the message becomes distorted.  But with this document, we could have a very good understanding of the original meaning.”
The owner of the stall began chattering to Jude in Hebrew.  He had deep sunken eyes with heavy bags under them, and spoke with a soft voice.
“Nobody will believe it's an original.  The carbon dating will look like you made it yourself and your reputation will be in a worse state than the scrolls in your lab,” Jude pointed out.
The doctor nodded her head, raising her eyebrows in surprise at the soldier’s knowledge.  “Fame doesn't drive me at all, Mr. Stone.  It's getting the answers to the greatest questions in history.  Questions about the beliefs that shaped our world.  I'll keep my findings to myself until the time travel operation is revealed to the public.”
“I don't know, Doctor Hadar.”  Jude scratched his chin.  “How much is the merchant asking?”
Irene conversed with the merchant and then beamed at Jude.  “Five gold pieces.  He claims it is an original, but I doubt him.”
“Somehow I feel we are being ripped off,” Jude replied.
“Perhaps in this man's day the value he has placed is questionable and is merely a yardstick for the upper and optimistic end of bartering presumed to take place in this cultural setting, but in our day a piece like this would be deemed priceless,” Irene pointed out.  "And so in this cross timeline exchange, this deal greatly satisfies both parties.  I would call that a good deal."
The soldier smirked and shook his head.  “You could’ve just said, ‘we are getting a good deal’.”
The merchant and Irene animatedly conversed some more.  Jude interrupted to ask what the man wanted.
Irene turned to Jude.  “He says we look like a sweet couple, and so he wants to throw in a bottle of Arak for an extra two gold pieces.  I said I'd rather die than be with you, and told him I was offended by the assumption, but he's still insisting we buy it.  He jokes that it'll act like a love potion.  I think he's trying to up-sell us as I keep on insisting that we're not interested in his booze.”
“Tell him we'll take it,” Jude said, handing the gold coins to the scrawny man.  Alexander always provided the soldiers with local currency for emergencies, no matter how difficult it was for him to acquire.  However, what Jude deemed an emergency was never the same thing as what Alexander deemed an emergency.  And the bottle of Arak would no doubt fall into that category.  “Some liquor might help me get through the nights in this stinking desert.  I don't sleep without sex or something to knock me out.  And I don't see the former happening while I am stuck here with my soldiers and you.  Although, you do have that librarian look going for you, and with your hair out and some makeup, anything is possible.”
Irene ground her teeth, but bit her proverbial tongue, not wanting him to change his mind on the purchase.
Jude scrutinised the delighted merchant as he put the gold coins in a box underneath the table.
“Tell him we have traveled many miles to hear a prophet named Yēšûă speak at this town,” said Jude to Irene.  “And see if he can give us any details.”
Irene spoke with the merchant.  The man's smile faded and he shook his head.
“He said he doesn't know who we are talking about,” said Irene.  “But he also suggested that perhaps we not talk of such a man in a crowded marketplace.”  She paused as he whispered something to her.  “He wants us to meet him by the town well tonight.  If we bring some gold coins, he might be able to introduce us to someone who can help us out.”
“All right,” nodded Jude, “we'll find a place to stay first, and stay there until dark.  Tell him that he'd be wise not to take us for a ride.”
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