Roger M. Wilcox

Copyright © 2022 by Roger M. Wilcox. All rights reserved.

chapter 1 | chapter 2 | chapter 3 | chapter 4
chapter 5 | chapter 6 | chapter 7 | chapter 8

— Chapter seven: SIGNAL —

The circuit was too big, and frankly too delicate, to put in my burlap sack. I had to carry it fully assembled on a tray. (The one exception being the antenna, which I was able to coil up.) Windboy volunteered to carry my hang glider this time. As we walked out of the inn and toward the outskirts of Deftshire, a woman about my own age whom I'd never seen before walked up to us. "Windboy!" she said.

Uh oh. She knew his super hero name. Did that mean she also knew about his wind powers?

"Hi!" Windboy said. "Jason, this is my new friend Clara."

"Uh, hi," I said to Clara. I was a little nervous — and not just because I didn't want anybody to know we were time travellers, and that Windboy had powers that might get us run out of town as witches. I was also a little nervous because she was . . . rather easy on the eyes. If I'd met her in 1967 instead of 1127, I probably would have asked her out. Until I got used to her, she might make it hard for me to focus.

"What's that on your tray?" Clara asked.

Uh oh, again. What to tell her? I couldn't lie to her about it, because the wind couldn't handle lies. So —

Windboy piped right up. "It's a radio detector. We're going to use it to find my way home."

My heart skipped a beat. "Windboy!" I yelped. He told her?! How would she react? How would "radio" even translate into 12th century English?

"Don't worry, Jason," Windboy said. "I've told her about things. She knows I talk to the wind, and that we're from the future."

Clara looked at me and shrugged. "That's . . . what he tells me. So, what's this 'radio' thing?"

"It's . . ." Well, we were already in it this deep. I might as well come clean. "Invisible energy. Like light, except you can't see it and it can pass right through some objects. When a radio wave hits a piece of metal, it induces a very weak electric current. Uh, like the electric zap you get when you shuffle your feet on a rug and then touch metal, only a lot weaker. I'm hoping we can use this bundle of wires and components to detect the radio waves given off by a time-warp hurricane. If all works well, this" — I held up the diaphragm — "should turn the electrical signal into a faint crackling hiss."

I sighed. Well, there it was. Everything laid bare. I held my breath waiting for her to accuse us of witchcraft.

Instead, she tossed her head back and laughed. "Invisible energy!" she said between chortles. "Invisible waves that move through the air! That's so cute. It's even better than the whole 'we're from the future' bit. Well, you two have fun listening for your magical sky waves!" She started walking away. "Ohhh, you made my day!"

I stared after her, dumbfounded with relief. "Well, that went a lot better than I thought it might. You took a pretty big risk, telling her our secrets."

"Not really," Windboy said. "The wind told me she wouldn't be scared." He frowned. "Then again, the wind didn't tell me it was because she wouldn't believe us."

We made our way out of town, to the same meadow we'd been using as our airport. I set the tray down, and began digging a small hole. "What's that for?" Windboy asked.

"Grounding," I replied. I reached moist earth, and stuck one end of a long wire into the hole, then buried it about a foot deep. "It helps increase the effective length of the antenna." I twisted the other end of the wire around one of the exposed copper poles on the diode assembly, making what I hoped was a firm electrical contact.

I looked at the even longer coil of wire that would be our antenna. It had required an entire spool of the thin copper wire we'd bought in London. I looked up at the empty sky around me. "The antenna will work best if it's stuck straight up in the air. I wish I'd picked a spot with a tall tree instead of this open area."

Windboy said, "I could lift the wire up high for you."

"You mean, by blowing it upward? That would take a pretty strong wind, and at that intensity your winds can get pretty gusty. I'd be afraid of it jostling loose from the circ—" Then, I noticed the hang glider, still folded up, sitting on the ground next to us. "The glider!" I said. "I could tie the wire to the glider's handle bars, and you could lift it into the air. It'd take a lot less breeze and would probably be a lot more stable."

We unfolded the glider, and I wrapped one end of the wire around the bottom of the handle bars three times. Windboy gestured and made a soft vertical breeze; and the glider started pulling the wire straight up. "Careful," I warned him, "This wire's not the strongest I've ever seen, and if you yank on it too hard it might break."

Windboy nodded, but truth be told, he was being pretty gentle with the wire already. The glider rose slowly until the far end of the full 50-foot antenna dangled off the ground. I plucked it out of the air in front of me and twisted it around the other exposed copper pole on the diode assembly. Now all I had to hook up was my makeshift earpiece, and all the circuit components would be in place.

There were two remaining contacts on the diode assembly for just this purpose. I attached one of the two wires coming from the back of the quartz flake to the cat's whisker rocker-arm. I held the diaphragm up to my ear as closely as I could. Finally, I brandished the other wire coming off the quartz flake. "This is it," I said.

I pressed the remaning wire onto the remaining pole on the diode assembly, closing the circuit.

The diaphragm remained utterly silent.

This wasn't too surprising. Maybe the cat's whisker wire wasn't touching the semiconductor in a sensitive spot. I moved the wire around on the surface of the dark brown copper, listening to the diaphragm all the while. I still heard nothing. Damn. Maybe the sounds were too faint. I hadn't built a true earpiece, and even a gentle breeze might make too much noise for me to hear it.

"Windboy," I said, "Could you make a zone of completely calm air around me? I need to get rid of all wind noise and other ambient noises so I can hear the diaphragm."

"Sure," he said, and made a gesture roughly like screwing in a light bulb. The world grew eerily quiet. I could hear my own heartbeat, and the very faint sounds of my own early tinnitus, like when you enter a completely silent room.

But still, I couldn't hear anything coming out of my makeshift earpiece. I moved the cat's whisker again, touching every point on the semiconductor that my little wooden rig would let it reach. Did I hear something there? Even in this dead quiet, I couldn't be sure. Double damn. I wish I'd built a real earpiece.

I shook my head, and grunted "Ugh." It was silent immediately around me, but I assumed Windboy could still hear me. "I wish I'd had a way to test the diaphragm, and this piezo crystal." I touched the quartz crystal with my finger for emphasis . . . and gasped.

"It's buzzing!" I yelped. I felt the surface of the crystal more carefully. "Yes! No doubt about it, I can feel tiny vibrations when I touch the quartz flake." It was faint, super faint, but something was definitely there. "Oh my God. Lemme make sure . . ."

I popped one of the wires loose from the diode rig, while keeping my finger on the crystal. The buzzing sensation instantly stopped. I put it back. It was hard to tell at first, but after a second or two I could feel the buzzing again.

"Hah hah!" I cheered. "That's it! That's got to be a radio signal! HAH!" I was beside myself with excitement. "I was so worried about turning the signal into something we could see or hear, that I didn't think about turning it into something we could feel! C'mere! C'mere, and feel it yourself!"

Windboy shut off the silence bubble around me, and trotted up to where I was standing. He looked excited too, feeding off my enthusiasm, but never let his control over my glider falter. I held out the diaphragm, quartz flake facing outward, and he gently touched it with an index finger. He furrowed his brow for a few seconds, then exclaimed "Oh! Yeah! I can feel it buzzing just a tiny little bit. But . . . it just stopped. Oh, and there it came back again. And now it's fading again. The buzzing's going in and out every couple of seconds."

Now it was my turn to furrow my brow. I took it back, then laid my finger on it and left it there. He was right. The buzzing got stronger and stronger over the course of a couple of seconds, then got weaker and weaker over the next couple seconds until it disappeared entirely. Then the cycle repeated. Every . . .

"Every three or four seconds," I said. I blinked. "I only know of two things in nature that generate a signal like that . . . a time-warp tornado, and a time-warp hurricane."

Windboy was elated. "Time-warp tornadoes only happen a couple of times a year. You must be picking up the time-warp hurricane!"

"I know!" I barked with glee. "It's still there! It didn't disappear!"

Windboy chuckled. "Didn't I tell you they always last for 17 days?"

"Well, yeah," I said, "But this is — I mean, to actually confirm it, it's — Heck, there's theory, and there's practice, and to have the one actually match the other — I can't tell you how many times in my physics lab classes the experiment just plain flopped, even when we were following all the steps that Milliken or Rutherford or Ørsted did. I was terrified that this radio here wouldn't work at all."

"But it does!" Windboy smiled broadly. "And you can hear the time-warp hurricane! So that means you know where it is, right?"

The big, elated grin on my face faded away. I looked up at the tall copper wire dangling from my glider. "Uh . . ." Oh gosh. Oh no. My heart fell. "A radio receiver isn't directional," I said, still staring up at the antenna for fear of looking Windboy in the eye. "I can pick up the signal, but I have no idea which direction it's coming from."

Windboy plopped down on the grass, deflated. "So . . . so how does it even help us, then?"

"I . . ." I almost felt like crying. "I didn't think that far ahead."

Windboy closed his eyes and winced. Now what, big man? Were you just going to crumple up and beg for a time-warp tornado back home again? Were you gonna give up on this kid? Wasn't there any . . . hmmm . . . well . . . there was always the inverse square law. I said, "Well, um, the signal . . . the strength. Any radio signal will be stronger the closer you are to its source, and weaker the farther away you are. Maybe if we take off, and fly somewhere else — say, back west to Cornwall, where we first arrived in England. Then we set up the radio and try again. If the signal's stronger, we know we're getting closer to the hurricane, and if it's weaker, we know we're getting farther away and can go the other way."

Windboy blinked. "Okay." He gestured, and my glider descended gently back to the ground. I coiled the antenna wire up again as it came down from the sky. As I put the whole contraption back onto its tray, I realized there was no way I'd be able to carry it out loose like this while I was hang gliding. I needed something to wrap the tray up in, even if it were just a big sheaf of burlap.

Back to town. My clothes were getting grungy and my anti-perspirant had worn off ages ago, but that just meant I was starting to smell more like the locals. Get burlap. More pence spent. Another meal purchased and consumed. Back out to the meadow. Fly to Cornwall. Make sure there were no knights wandering around this time. Set up the radio again. Finger on the quartz while moving the cat's whisker until I felt a buzz that faded in and out every few seconds.

It was still there, but it was hard to tell if the buzzing felt stronger or weaker. I thought it felt stronger, but remembering exactly how it felt before was tricky. The capriciousness of the cat's whisker diode didn't help, either — was the signal stronger because we were closer to its source, or because I happened to find a more sensitive spot on the semiconductor?

I figured we needed more data points. Maybe we could head south next. But the sun was setting, and we needed to either head back to Deftshire or camp out for the night. We chose the latter, partly as a cost saving measure. The hang glider made a rather passable tent, and lying there beneath it I recalled Peter the jeweler back in London, who had guessed that it was a tent. When the sun rose again, it was day 8.

Fly south. We crossed the English Channel into northern France. Seek out breakfast in a French tavern. Hope they take English pence. Go out after breakfast and find a place to set up the radio again. Hoist the antenna into the sky. Feel the quartz flake. Remember. Compare. . . . The piezo crystal's vibrations felt a little weaker, then I moved the cat's whisker to a different spot on the semiconductor and they felt a lot weaker. Damn. Maybe we needed to go a lot farther afield, so the difference would be more noticeable. We packed up and headed all the way to the Belgian border in the northeast. It was nightfall when we arrived. We were tired and hungry, and I was cold. We found a town and holed up in an inn for the night.

Next morning, day 9. Bought portable food rations that wouldn't spoil, and a skin for carrying water. My coin pouch was nearly empty. Head to a hilltop and try the radio again. And I'll be damned if I could tell the difference between the buzzing now and the buzzing back west. Then when reeling in the antenna, the wire broke. I twisted the broken ends together as best I could, then had Windboy loft it back up to test it . . . and the twist joint fell apart before the antenna wire was half way back up.

Damn. We couldn't afford more wire even if we could find it, and with no solder or soldering iron my only recourse was to glue the joint together. We still had some glue left back in our old room in Deftshire. Time to fly back to our old base of operations. I caught a glimpse of Clara when we got there, but just a glimpse. Our old room had been rented out to a new patron and, frustratingly, they'd either stolen or thrown out all of our tools, including the glue I needed.

We camped outside of town and chowed down on ration cakes while the sun went down. It rose again to me twisting the ends of the antenna wire even more tightly together, in hope that they would stay together this time. Day 10. We tested my new splice job, and this time it held. I thought maybe we could try farther north today, but Windboy insisted that hurricanes wouldn't go that far north, butterfly effects or not. So we flew south again. Maybe the time-warp hurricane was over the Mediterranean Sea.

After many hours, we ended up at the southern coast of France. Set up the radio again. Feel and compare. This time, there was no doubt, the signal was noticeably weaker. No contact point on the semiconductor could make the buzzing approach the strength it had before. Then I second-guessed myself, and realized that the splice job I'd done to the antenna might have reduced its overall conductance — or worse, introduced a tiny amount of capacitance or (with all the twisting) inductance. I kicked myself for not having tested the signal strength back near Deftshire.

The sun was getting low again. There wasn't time to fly back this evening. We camped out again. The dawn greeted us with day 11.

Before we left the southern French coast, we set up the radio once more to compare the signal with what we'd measured the previous evening. I made sure the whisker wire was touching the dark brown semiconductor plate at exactly the same point as before. This time, there was no buzzing at all. I nearly panicked, then I remembered that early diodes frequently had this problem; in fact, that was the main reason the cat's whisker was movable on those old crystal radio sets in the first place. I moved the cat's whisker to a different point, and the buzzing returned — but this time, it felt stronger than it had the previous night. Uh oh. Either my memory of how strongly it vibrated was worthless, or the contact point I'd used on the semiconductor last night wasn't as good, or the grounding wire was in a better patch of earth, . . . or . . .

"Windboy?" I asked. He must have noticed the pained expression on my face. "How often do time-warp hurricanes move from place to place?"

He shrugged. "They move around all the time. It's continuous. I've had to memorize the path of every hurricane I've used, so I could be sure of finding it again."

"Oh, no," I said, and slumped to the ground. "We've been trying to home in on a moving target."

"Yeah, I knew that since we started," Windboy said. "I figured all this relocating and comparing how much the crystal buzzed might be a long shot. But it was still our only shot, so I went along. And besides," he flashed a grin at me, "It was nice getting to be around a friend for so many days."

"Well, I . . ." I fumbled for words. I couldn't let this kid down. "I'm not ready to give up yet. Maybe, maybe we can at least narrow down the hurricane's location somewhat. I mean, it can only move so fast, right? What if we take readings from way far away. Let's go all the way west, out to the northwest corner of Spain. That's at about the same latitude we're at now, right? We can at least tell if the hurricane's farther to the east or the west that way."

Windboy considered it, with far less enthusiasm than he'd shown for our previous adventures. "I guess it couldn't hurt. At 700 miles it'll take us all day to fly there, even if we use hurricane-force winds. We'd better start now, if we want to make it there by sunset."

The trip was as long as Windboy said it would be. And it was tiring. Even with my hang glider, staying up there in the wind for so long took its toll on me. I was cold, and fatigued, and sleepy, and hungry, and thirsty, and miserable when Windboy finally set my glider down on the Spanish coast. Then he collapsed from exhaustion. I buried my radio's grounding wire and got set up alone, and Windboy finally went from a crumpled heap on the ground to a sleeping boy snoring. It seemed cruel to wake him, but the sun was setting and I needed him to lift the antenna wire into the air. With a low moan, he roused himself and did his duty, and I fidgeted with the cat's whisker and the quartz flake.

No doubt about it. The signal was stronger here than it had been in southern France. But . . . was it stronger than it had been in northern France? Or in Deftshire? Damn, again. I wished there was a way to quantify the strength of the buzzing, to put a number to it, instead of relying on remembering how it felt before.

We ate more rations, drained the water skin dry, and fell asleep exhausted under the glider's wings.

The next morning — day 12 — we found a little stream to refill the water skin, and figured we should try the southwest coast of Portugal. That was only 500 miles away, instead of the 700 we'd travelled yesterday. We arrived there by mid-afternoon, and the reading we got there was noticeably weaker than it had been on the northwest coast. Stronger to the west, weaker to the south; northwest, then? There was no land to the west, only back to the north. We spent the rest of the day returning to northwest Spain, and taking another reading there as dusk darkened. It was . . . sligtly? . .  weaker than it had been last night, but still stronger than it had been 500 miles to the south.

"Maybe the time-warp hurrincane is in the Bay of Biscay somewhere," Windboy suggested. "Tomorrow morning, let's fly over the bay and see if we see any storm systems."

I agreed. One more night passed by. Day 13 dawned. We crossed northeast over the Bay of Biscay, headed toward the French province known in both the 12th century and the 20th as Brittany. As dull as flying for hours over land was, it was even duller flying over water. Worse, the skies were clear the entire way. There wasn't even a chance of a mild rain shower, let alone a hurricane. We landed somewhere in Brittany near its western coast, and set up the radio again. The signal was almost exactly as strong there as it had been in northwest Spain. Had the hurricane been elsewhere in the Bay of Biscay, and we'd missed it?

I sighed. "Windboy, if I hadn't built a radio detector, how would you have searched for the time-warp hurricane?"

Windboy shrugged. "I was thinking I'd have to fly a search pattern over open water. I don't think I've ever seen a time-warp hurricane make landfall. Maybe they like the ocean too much."

"Then," I offered, "Then let's do that. Will . . . will I slow you down if I come along?"

"Only a little," he said. "It doesn't slow the wind down much to pull double duty. And having a second pair of eyes might help."

And with that, we packed our gear and began criss-crossing the Bay of Biscay, somewhat farther east than we'd been that morning. We kept our eyes out for storm systems. Windboy assured me that, yes, time-warp hurricanes were always accompanied by the same kinds of storm clouds that surrounded regular hurricanes. We spotted a storm out over the middle of the bay just as the sun went down, and gave chase. Thankfully, the moon was nearly full, so we could keep on the storm's heels even after nightfall; but when we caught up to it, we passed under the storm clouds, and that meant no more moonlight. Only the occasional lightning flash gave us anything to see by.

I wasn't a fan of the rain pelting my canvas glider, either. We decided to back up and go around the storm instead, observing it from the sides. It wasn't a huge storm system, and it soon became apparent that it was just a regular storm. There was no hurricane in sight. We made our way to the east coast of France near Bordeaux, and camped for the night.

Next day — day 14 of the 17-day deadline — we finished searching the rest of the Bay of Biscay. Last night's storm had moved south and was probably drenching the coast of northern Spain; there were no other storms to be found. It was time to search farther north. We chose the English Channel, moving north and south across the water at its widest points and working our way eastward. We got as far as the northern tip of Normandy before giving up in exhaustion for the night. More camping out, and it was now day 15.

Should we scout the eastern half of the English Channel, or head west to the much larger Celtic Sea? The signals we'd gotten seemed to be stronger in the west — assuming the hurricane hadn't moved much since then — and with only a day or two left before the hurricane would dissipate, that seemed like our best option. We packed up again, flew along the French coast until the tip of Brittany, and then ventured out to sea.

There were a lot of scattered clouds, and one nimbus that could maybe be called a storm if you squinted hard enough . . . but no hurricanes anywhere we looked. Day 15 was over. We headed back to England, utterly defeated, and camped out in Cornwall again.

"Well," I breathed the next morning, "It's the sixteenth day. The last day of the time-warp hurricane."

"Actually," Windboy corrected me, "Since the hurricane started mid-morning on day 1, it won't dissipate until early in the morning on day 18. So I've got two days before . . . before it's all over for me."

I felt so sick, and so sorry, in the pit of my stomach. I'd lifted his hopes, and then let him down.

"I can take you back to tornado alley," he said. "Conjure you up another time-warp tornado. No reason you should be stuck in the 12th century because of me."

I nodded, closing my eyes so he wouldn't see my tears. "Well, well look. We've still got a couple of pence left. We can at least afford another night in the inn over in Deftshire. It's right next to tornado alley, isn't it? No reason you should have to camp out alone tonight, is there?"

"Thanks," he said calmly. "And I'll get to be with a friend for another night, too."

We ate the last of our ration discs for breakfast; then, with a couple of pats on each others' backs, we took off again for the closest thing we'd had to a home in 1127.

While hanging from my glider, coasting along on Windboy's updrafts, I thought back over all that had happened to bring us to this point. I realized there was a lot more I still wanted to know about Windboy, and about the futures he'd seen. "Windboy," I asked, "Was there a time period you didn't want to go back to?"

He nodded vigorously. "There's one hurricane eye exit angle I've definitely learned to avoid. That's the one that brings me to 2808."

"What happens in 2808?" I asked.

Windboy said, "The time-warp hurricane of 2808 doesn't happen on Earth. It happens inside the atmosphere of Jupiter."

"Ju—" I stammered. "You've visited other planets?!"

"Yep," Windboy said. "The one trip I made to the Jupiter hurricane, I stayed for all of 15 seconds. I can protect myself from the cold, and the force of the winds, but I still need to breathe. Plus, down that deep in Jupiter's atmosphere it was utterly dark, so I couldn't do any sightseeing."

"Then how do you know it was Jupiter, and not, say, Saturn?"

Windboy answered, "Because the time-warp hurricane in 3116 does happen on Earth, and the historical records in 3116 show that the 2808 hurricane most definitely occurred on Jupiter."

Historical records. Hmmm. "Did my name ever appear in any historical records?"

"Not that I noticed," Windboy said. "But then, I didn't know to look for your name before." He blinked, hard. "It's kinda sad that now I'll never get to."

I shook my head. "Maybe the wind was wrong. Maybe you won't disappear if you're not in the eye of the time-warp hurricane when it dissipates. Maybe you'll reset regardless, and —"

Windboy shot me an angry glance. "Don't go there."

"Sorry," I said. "Um . . . did you have a favorite time period you liked to go back to? Besides the one with your parents, I mean?"

"Oh!" Windboy said, then seemed to blush. "2250. Er, but . . . that's a little embarrassing. I'll tell you about it tomorrow."

Windboy is continued in chapter 8.
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