The ground was approaching at an alarming speed and there was nothing they could do about it.
Hugo was twisted in his seat, with his face pressed against the communications panel. “Mayday, mayday, mayday! This is Intrepid 5, we have engine trouble, I repeat -”
Sparks shot out of the panel and he jerked back just in time.
“We’ve lost communications!” Hugo shouted above the high-pitched whine that was emanating from the engines.
Sweat was streaming down Cath’s face as she fought with the controls. A steep hillside appeared in front of them. Cath brought the nose of the craft up just in time. It struck the ground at an angle, bounced off with a bone-rattling thud and dropped down again, finally coming to rest in a thick patch of ferns.
“You alive?” Cath said.
The cockpit was rapidly filling up with smoke. They disentangled themselves from the straps that tied them to their seats. The hatch had buckled but Hugo managed to push it open far enough for them to squeeze out. They put at least a hundred metres between themselves and the craft before they collapsed on the ground.
Whatever was wrong with the craft, it didn’t seem to be exploding.
“I reckon the fuel lines are intact,” Hugo said. He had a nasty cut above one eye and wiped the blood away with his sleeve. “The smoke’s dissipating.”
“Let’s give it a bit more time,” Cath said. She checked the time on her watch and they approached the wreckage of Intrepid 5 exactly an hour later. Two decades of highly experimental technological development lay battered and lifeless amid the ferns. The fire had burned itself out, and as far as Cath could tell there was no danger of imminent destruction. There wasn’t much else either. She crawled into the cockpit again and flicked a few switches. One readout panel blinked sadly but other than that everything was still.
“Any idea as to what caused the crash?” Hugo said.
Cath shook her head. “I don’t understand why the engines would suddenly fail. We need to check the fractal collimator.”
There was a toolkit at the back of the cockpit, and they set to work removing the bulkheads. The fractal collimator was encased in a silicon dome from which dozens of wires sprouted. Cath carefully removed the dome. Inside, it was a mess of molten copper.
Hugo swore loudly.
“Give me a moment,” Cath said. She prodded the copper carefully with the tip of a screwdriver. “The wiring is fused. I think it overheated.”
“And that caused the engines to malfunction?”
“Then our mayday call wasn’t transmitted,” Hugo said. “And we have no way to contact the academy.”
He regarded the fractal collimator. “Can we fix it?”
“I think I can do it. Find out what else is broken.”
The short answer was: everything. Every bit of Intrepid 5 was buckled, scratched or dented. The engines were in pieces and one wing had been almost completely torn off.
Hugo ran his hands through his hair. “Even if we prioritise the wing, the engines and the fractal collimator, and leave the rest as it is, we don’t have enough spare parts.”
“Could we get more parts?”
“The people here know how to work metal. Copper and iron. We won’t get any aluminium or synthetic materials.”
“Fine. We’ll make do. How far to civilisation?”
The landing site for their mission had been chosen with great care. It was half a day’s walk from the nearest town - far enough not to attract attention, but close enough to study the people. Hugo spread out their map and spent some time fiddling around with the compass.
“This map isn’t very accurate,” he said after a while. “That range of hills there is missing. And there should be a stream here.”
Cath leaned over for a look. “Landscapes change. That stream could have been diverted. A thousand years is a long time.”
“What about the hills?”
“Where do you think we are?”
Hugo tapped a spot on the map. “This is the best match for our surroundings. But I can’t explain the hills.”
“An earthquake, perhaps?” Cath said. She scanned the map methodically from bottom left to top right. “I agree, that is our most likely location.”
“About two days’ walk from the town.”
Cath traced a line with her finger. “We should head south, then follow this river downstream.”
“No. It’ll be dark soon. Let’s stay here tonight.”
The small cargo hold of Intrepid 5 contained a chest full of survival gear. There was a tent, sleeping bags, a stove, water purification tablets, rain jackets, mosquito nets, emergency rations, a knife and a small axe. The main water tank had been smashed in the crash, and Hugo thought it best to save what little water they had left.
They took the axe and a few empty bottles and set off downhill in search of water and firewood. The ferns soon gave way to a forest of tall conifers with a soft carpet of fragrant needles underfoot. It was Hugo who found the footprints. They had reached a small stream with muddy banks and the mud was full of strangely angular prints. He crouched down for a better look.
“I don’t recognise these prints,” he said.
“A bird of sorts? Or a lizard?”
“I don’t think there are lizards that big.”
Cath shrugged. She crouched down by the stream to fill the water bottles. Hugo had found a fallen tree and was chopping off branches.
“This is an odd sort of forest, don’t you think?” he said after a while.
“I don’t recognise any of the trees.”
“Hm.” Biology was not Cath’s strong point. There had never been a need to recognise trees or identify lizards from their footprints. She spoke eight languages and had been on the team that developed the fractal collimator. Linking it to both the engines and the communications panel had been her idea, and it had revolutionised the entire project. So despite the extensive damage to Intrepid 5, she was not too worried. Even primitive metallurgists would be able to provide her with what she needed for repairs.
She took as much wood as she could carry and headed back to the crash site. Hugo followed more slowly. He kept glancing over his shoulder, or stopping to investigate a plant or an insect.
“Something is wrong,” he said later that evening, when they had pitched their tent and lit a small fire.
“What do you mean?” Cath said, her mouth full of food. They were eating some unidentifiable stew straight from the just-add-hot-water ration packet. It didn’t taste like anything, but Cath was too hungry to care.
“There are so many new species here. I can accept that some would have died out over time, but not this many.”
“Do you have a hypothesis?”
Hugo put his spoon down. “Do you think we might have overshot?”
“But not impossible?”
“No. How far would we have to have gone, for all the trees to be different?”
“Millions of years.”
Cath dropped her ration packet. “We were aiming for a thousand!”
“And a thousand years ago, I would have expected forests of oak and ash, not these giant ferns and strange conifers.”
The ferns were perhaps a bit on the large side. But there had to be an alternative explanation.
“Do you think we might have crashed in an area with a strange microclimate that causes all the trees to be different?” she said.
“But not impossible?”
Hugo grinned. “No. Looks like we need more information.”
The sun had sunk below the line of distant hills, and above them the first stars were blooming in the sky.
“We just have to wait,” Cath said. “Stars move, you know. If we’ve really gone millions of years into the past, the night sky won’t look anything like ours.”
They waited in silence as the darkness deepened. Their fire died down to glowing embers, and with so little light pollution the sky shimmered with stars. The Milky Way cut a blazing path across the blackness. Cath searched for Orion, the Big Dipper, the Southern Cross, any of the familiar constellations, from any part of the world, but they weren’t there.
The fractal collimator had been built to withstand temporal displacements up to ten thousand years. It couldn’t handle millions. No wonder it had melted. Less than a day ago, this news would have had her frantically checking calculations and wondering why, why, why they hadn’t stopped at a thousand years.
She imagined the engineers at the academy panicking. She and Hugo were missing, presumed dead. The director was probably preparing a eulogy already, just in case they never made contact again. How many men and women had died in the name of science? Cath had always felt cold and breathless at the thought she could be one of them.
But now there was just calm.
She had never seen a night sky like this.
Her voice was barely a whisper when she finally spoke. “I suppose that the giant lizard whose footprints we found is a dinosaur?”
She turned her head sideways and saw that the starlight cast odd shadows across Hugo’s face.
He smiled slightly. “I don’t suppose you can fix the fractal collimator with a bit of pterodactyl wing?”
They lay back with their faces towards the night sky and watched the Milky Way turn overhead.