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by Rob MacGregor
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Description: TIME CATCHER, the latest science fiction/fantasy thriller from New York Times Bestselling author and Edgar Allen Poe Award Winner Rob MacGregor! An ancient Hopi prophecy, the end of the Fourth World, a mysterious ruin, and a window between worlds. Anthropologist Will Lansa grew up as a privileged child in Aspen, Colorado, but spent summers on the Hopi reservation, where his father was chief of police. Now Lansa grudgingly returns to his roots on the reservation after receiving a baffling message from Vina Lansa, his aged grandmother. Vina sends him on the quest of a lifetime-- to find Pahana, the Hopi's returned savior. But Will soon encounters strange and disturbing events, and becomes a suspect in a murder. Pursued by FBI agent Ellie Fletcher, the two find themselves literally lost in another world, unable to get home, and hunted by Masau'u, the manifestation of the god of death and the Underworld.
eBook Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press, 2011
eBookwise Release Date: October 2011
6 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [430 KB]
Reading time: 271-379 min.
Stick to the present moment. That was the answer to all the ominous predictions, Will Lansa thought as he pedaled his mountain bike along a narrow trail amid a tight forest of ghostly white aspens. The warm December morning air brushed across his cheeks and arms; the earthy scent of composting leaves and humus filled his nostrils. Beams of sunlight filtered through the canopy, dappling the trail ahead. Yes, there was no time like now to enjoy life.
After all, the day after tomorrow was Friday, December 21, when the Mayan/Aztec calendar, which began five thousand one hundred twenty-five years ago, would end. The finality of the day fit snugly with longstanding biblical apocalyptic revelations, and reflected the chaos created by a series of natural disasters that even disrupted the death and destruction from on-going warfare. The popular theme of the day was that Planet Earth was under siege and fighting back. He'd even read a letter from a ten-year-old girl who had compared the planet to a flea-ridden dog that was about to get a long overdue treatment with a powerful insecticide.
In spite of it all, most people continued on with their everyday lives, as if everything was normal, and Lansa was confident the world would survive next week. The sun would rise Saturday. Period. If he was wrong, it wouldn't matter. So why not enjoy himself? Apocalyptic considerations aside, he had good reason to get away.
He'd finished fall semester at Colorado Mountain College and left Carbondale early this morning with a sense of purpose and urgency, a need to refresh and revive. At thirty-one, he'd been teaching cultural anthropology for six years. He enjoyed the lectures and discussions and academic life, but as soon as he'd finished his last class, the small town seemed to close in around him, a prison harboring uncomfortable memories.
Even after three months without Kristin, his townhouse on Vito's Way still felt empty. The more miles behind him, the farther she would be from his thoughts, or so he hoped. He needed new scenery, long trail rides, and relaxing evenings far from home. He would forget her and all that happened. For the next week, he would escape his life, flee his everyday world, and shut out the continuous battering of bad news from television, radio, and newspapers.
A knee-high pile of logs, stacked like fuel for a campfire, blocked the trail in front of him. Lansa picked up speed and bunny-hopped the jump, then slid to the back of his seat to avoid catapulting over the handlebars as the bike dropped down on the far side. He turned sharply as the trail veered. The turns were so frequent and the landscape so wooded that he rarely could see more than ten or fifteen feet in front of him.
He and several friends had built Secret Trail, as they called it, on Aspen Mountain one summer several years ago. Every spring and fall, he and the crew got together for a workday to maintain the trail, repair the jumps, and upgrade or expand stretches of it. The trail wasn't listed in any guide to Colorado mountain biking. It began near an old silver mine, called the John Wayne Tunnel, a place of some notoriety from Lansa's youth when he'd discovered a drug lab within the mine.
He vaulted over another stack of logs, then glanced at his wrist heart monitor, which read one-sixty. Even though he wasn't going fast, in comparison to road cycling, the jumps and turns required coordination and concentration, and inevitably elevated his heart rate.
He continued on, twisting and turning, jumping and dipping. A film of perspiration covered his brow and the warming day combined with his exertion wrapped an invisible cloak of heat around him. Until a couple of years ago, he'd never ridden trails in December. But now it was unbelievably warm, hitting the mid-to-upper 70s day after day this month. But then the weather was out-of-sync everywhere--as were a lot of people.
This morning as he'd left home he'd automatically turned his gaze toward nearby Mount Sopris. The thirteen thousand-foot peak dominated the skyline, an elephant in his backyard. It was a comforting constant, a strong, silent ever-present companion. But Sopris should've been covered with snow by now. Instead, a few anemic patches of gray spotted the mountain near its peak. Melting glaciers were old news and even now the "pollution lobby"--as some called those who rejected climate change--argued that the temperature spikes and flooding in coastal cities were a natural cycle, unrelated to global warming. Meanwhile, hurricanes had wreaked havoc as far north as Nova Scotia and earthquakes battered cities on every continent.
The mountains were the best place to live, but Colorado was getting too crowded, and the state was taking drastic measures to stop immigration. For the past six months, it was illegal for most businesses to hire anyone who hadn't been a resident for at least two years. Anyone driving a car with out-of-state plates was given thirty days to leave.
Focus. Stay in the present. Lansa concentrated now as he neared a dangerous stretch of trail, a two-foot-wide ledge that extended for two hundred yards. The landscape dropped steeply to his left into a forested valley and rose sharply on his right. Deadman's Ledge, as they called it, was not for beginners and it was one of the reasons he and his friends kept the trail secret.
Ten yards onto the ledge, he braked momentarily, distracted by a glint of light reflecting off something shiny in the distance. He gazed across the forested valley to the far ridge where a lone, toy-sized pickup sped along a winding dirt road, then disappeared from sight. He turned his attention back to the ledge. He'd long since gotten over his nervousness about the crossing. It seemed about as difficult as riding along a narrow sidewalk. But, now, oddly, he felt uneasy and suddenly wanted to get to the other side as fast as possible.
Halfway across, the ledge curved, blocking his view of the trail. He never liked this part, definitely the scariest stretch. There was always the possibility that a piece of the ledge would break away, and leave a deadly gap. However, Diego, one of the trail's co-creators, e-mailed him yesterday to say that the entire single track was in good shape, the ledge open and clear of debris. Then the bad news. He couldn't go. Too busy. Next time.
Yeah, fuck you, Diego. If the world ends, there won't be a next time. Hell, he'd planned to go on his own in the first place, but Frank, his other regular riding partner, said Will needed companionship after his breakup. The three agreed to go together, although Frank said he'd have to limit his journey to three or four days. A week later, he opted out. At least he didn't wait until the last minute.
Another fifty yards, he told himself, and imagined riding into the safety of the forest. At that moment a dark form, a black hole, filled his vision. He clamped down on the brakes and instinctively veered away. Just a couple of bike lengths in front of him a black bear rubbed its back against the wall.
His breath hissed through his teeth as the front tire skidded over the edge, and he sprawled over the handlebars. Everything moved in slow motion, his feet flew over his head, the tops of the pines blurred far below.
He was about to tumble down the mountain, breaking bones, ripping flesh. No one would find him...not for days, not while he was still alive.
He clung to the handlebars; his back banged against the steep terrain. He expected the bike to flip over on top of him, but the back wheel caught and he found himself hanging precariously, his feet dangling in mid-air. He pulled himself up several inches, hoping the bike would hold him. His heels dug into the earth, loosening a landslide of fist-sized rocks. Spiny brambles clawed into his back as his heels found purchase.
He gasped for air, tasted dirt. His heart raced off the scale of the heart monitor. For a few moments, everything spun, the world listed to the right, then left. He winced at the pain, then squinted up to see the wheel hooked on a broken root.
Stay calm. Don't move.
He waited until his breath slowed, then made a mental sweep of his body. Actually, he wasn't so bad off, he told himself. His leather gloves had protected his hands, and his camel pack with its seventy-two ounce water bladder had saved his back. He felt bruised, but nothing was broken.
Slowly, he eased sideways and reached for a hanging root with his free hand. He made sure that the bike was secure before he released his grip on the five thousand dollar Stumpjumper. If he was worrying about the bike, he must not be so bad off, he told himself.
Carefully, he started to climb the rugged wall. His head was about six feet below the ledge. If he were riding with Diego and Frank, one or both would be reaching for him now. Once they'd found he wasn't seriously injured, Diego would ask why he was showing off, and Frank would want him to do it again so he could video it on his cell.
His breath hitched in his chest as a dark form hovered above him, sunlight radiating around its head. Oh shit, the goddamn bear. He froze, clinging to a broken shrub, pressing his cheek against earth and rock, hoping the bear would saunter away. A sickly, putrid odor, like rancid meat, reached his nostrils. Its raspy breath assaulted him. He'd only seen one other bear on this trail, and it had crashed off into the underbrush. But bears had become a common sight in Aspen and Carbondale, especially over the past few months, and everyone had stories of bears pawing window screens, smashing flowerpots, tossing trash. A nuisance by day, a fright at night, the bears prowled through town at will. They should be off in their dens, hibernating for the winter, but the mild temperatures were keeping them active.
A minute passed, then another. How long was it going to stay there? He still sensed a presence above him. Or was he imagining it? Slowly, he craned his neck, then ducked back down like a turtle snapping into its shell. The creature was there, hunkering over the ledge.
There was something odd about the bear, though. It wasn't moving and the horrid smell and raspy breath were missing. Suddenly the bike shifted; the root gave way. He grabbed the frame, clinging to the bike with one hand, gripping the corner of a buried rock with the other. He steadied himself, gathered his strength, and shoved the bike upward toward a sapling just below the ledge, hoping to secure the handlebar around its slender trunk, and maybe scare away the bear. The front wheel bumped up against the sapling; the bike slid back.
Shit. Stay calm. Don't lose the bike, don't fall.
He gathered his strength and tried again, pushed harder, and this time the handlebar hooked around the supple trunk. The sapling bent, but held it in place. Fortunately, the frame was carbon fiber, tough and lightweight. His heart was pounding again.
He looked up, measuring the bear's reaction, and nearly lost his grip. The creature still hovered over him, but it wasn't a bear. The head was shaped like a cylinder and painted red and blue and yellow, and three feathers protruded out of the top. It had button-like eyes and mouth. The legs were wrapped in a kilt and a cloak was draped over its shoulder. A trickle of blood rolled down from the eyes and the corners of the mouth.
Lansa squeezed his eyes shut, praying that it would vanish. Tension crackled in the air. Nothing like this had happened since his teen years. Masau'u, god of the underworld, a symbol of death, often appeared to Hopis in a time of crisis. Hanging from a cliff no doubt qualified, even if he was a lapsed Hopi. Then he realized that Masau'u was talking to him, whispering, but not with his voice. Lansa didn't hear any words, but felt them taking shape inside of him, as though he were a blind man reading Braille.
You almost died, but you still have more time. That's why I'm here. Every human comes into the world with a certain amount of time. Some come with a short time and quickly leave. I am not here as a human. I have no time. So I must steal it.
Knockin' on Heaven's Door played in his jacket pocket, but he wasn't about to answer his cell phone. He felt a sense of release, raised his gaze again. Masau'u was gone. Had he really been there at all?
He waited another minute, then slowly, cautiously, crawled to the ledge. To his relief, he was alone--no bear, no kachina god. He leaned over, grabbed the handlebar and pulled his bike up. He sat down and ran his hands over his arms, legs, back. He touched the side of his head just below his helmet and winced. A scrape here and there, sore ribs, nothing serious. He was damned lucky he hadn't broken a leg or arm.
In spite of the fall, he felt more shaken by the encounter with Masau'u and wondered what his message meant. The appearance of a kachina, according to Hopi elders, could be one's imagination or it could be a flesh and blood entity. He'd never been sure what he'd seen during his initiation into the Fire Clan or later, after a concussion while playing high school football. He wasn't any more certain now. The kachina had looked as real as the bear, but he'd fallen off a ledge, was looking up from below, and his judgment might've been impaired.
Suddenly, the cell went off again. He slipped off his camel pack, unzipped a pocket, and reached inside. He didn't recognize the 561-area code, then the location popped up: West Palm Beach. He didn't know anyone who lived there and wondered if it was a telemarketing call.
"Hello," he whispered hoarsely.
"Will Lansa? Is that you? Oh, good. I'm so glad I got you."
He didn't recognize the woman's breathy voice, but figured it was a student calling from her parent's house in West Palm Beach, probably something mundane, a late paper or a grade.
"It's about your grandmother, Vina."
"What? Who are you?"
"Oh, sorry. I'm..."
"Hello...hello. Shit." The battery had gone dead. He'd forgotten to charge it last night. He turned it off and stuffed it into his pocket. Nothing to do but finish the ride and plug the phone into his dashboard. He walked the bike along the rest of the ledge, keeping an eye out for the bear. Fifteen more minutes, he told himself, and he would be back to the parking lot.
His grandmother must be dead or dying. What else could it be? She'd never wanted to see him, wouldn't even help him with his research. His father had apologized for her, explaining that it was about him, not Will. Vina was a traditional Hopi and she'd disavowed her son when he married a white woman. He was the police chief of the Hopi nation, a job that previously had always been held by non-Hopis, and Vina didn't like that, either. She'd called Will's father quochata, meaning he was no longer Hopi and it was a shame.
She had a similar sounding name for Will. He was quachata, simply a white person. That designation was especially true after his parents were divorced when Will was just three. He'd grown up in Aspen with his mother, the daughter of a wealthy silver mining family.
He'd made several visits to the reservation while growing up, had spent a summer, and his senior year at Hopi High. He'd always felt like an outsider, though, even after he was initiated into the Fire Clan, even after he'd encountered Masau'u. Maybe that feeling was connected to the way Vina had treated him as a child, or maybe it was just his own sensitivity that made him feel more like an observer of the Hopi rather than one himself.
As soon as he was off the ledge and back into dense forest, he crouched down and studied the soft earth. Fresh bear tracks penetrated the soil and humus and headed down the trail. He climbed onto his bike, grimaced at the pain in his ribs and legs. He shifted to a lower gear so he could proceed slowly. He figured the bear would turn off the trail within a few yards. He cruised past droppings and caught the acrid scent of urine. What if the bear was waiting for him? The path was narrow and it would take several seconds to turn around.
He stopped, uncertain what to do: ten minutes ahead to the parking lot, or forty minutes back, including another crossing of the ledge. Then he noticed paw prints disappearing from the trail. Broken twigs marked the bear's new route. Suddenly, he heard a thrashing sound from the underbrush.
Get out of here! Now!
He leaped onto the bike and pedaled ahead as fast as he could, quickly leaving the bear--or whatever it was--behind.
What a way to start off his winter break. Maybe there was no escaping the chaos that had seized the world, not even out in the woods. Maybe it really was the end...the end of something, or the end of everything. And what about his grandmother, the keeper of legends? What role, if any, did she play in his future?