Variel Martinez had prepared well for her fall from grace. She’d consulted San Diego’s best temporal lawyers on how the statute of limitations applied to time travel. She’d laid the groundwork to dampen the coming blow at work by detailing her retirement plans to her boss and working long, backbreaking hours throughout the year to ensure her status as a model supervisor. The administrator had even called her personally to congratulate her on her Deputy Director of the Year Award: a real honor among the TSA’s army of employees spread across two centuries.
Variel had gone further: She’d tucked her life savings away in three bank accounts, each on a separate island nation. She’d even sent Che, her rambunctious Siberian Husky, to stay with her estranged mother for the month. “Guests with dog allergies are staying with me for an extended visit,” went her alibi.
Of course, all this effort was merely to cushion her fall, not stop her plunge. No amount of preparation could prevent her summary termination. She’d probably still lose her house and her money.
But prison. Could she avoid prison?
The lawyers said it was possible. They advised she call Homeland Security and confess immediately—the better to obtain a plea bargain should their statute of limitations argument not hold.
Variel wanted to confess. There’d been little excuse for not disclosing everything during her initial job interview, over forty years ago now. She shuddered at that expanse of time: half of her life. That she’d managed to keep her secret all these years was a knife as deep in her own back as in the TSA’s.
Still, there was no stopping the inevitable, so she swallowed her dread, observed her morning routine, and accepted that today was going to be a very bad day.
The blood bank was full, as usual. Two hundred or so over-eighties, many in their 130s or 140s, reclined in cushioned armchairs as young blood plasma trickled into their veins. Variel had aligned her schedule so her biweekly transfusion would take place this morning; she’d need all the stamina and neuroplasticity she could get for what lay ahead. MEND THE TISSUE DAMAGE AND COGNITIVE DECLINE THAT COME WITH NATURAL AGING! read a big ad on the wall. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t, but everyone did it as part of the standard aging-delaying regimen. As Variel’s body absorbed the plasma, unfriendly glances accumulated from the blood bank’s non-regular clientele, who weren’t used to seeing Variel.
“Aren’t you a little young to be in here?” the woman who sat next to Variel finally said.
Variel tried to take it as a compliment: a fitness nut, she looked closer to sixty than to her actual age of seventy-nine. On any other day, the comment would have irritated her. She balled her hands closed, then spread her fingertips wide again to relieve her hands of their morning stiffness.
“I have special permission,” Variel replied. “I signed up for early retirement benefits.”
The woman cursed under her breath: “I swear these ankle biters get more uppity every year.” She plucked the cannula out of her arm, stood, and lumbered away.
“Have an excellent day,” Variel said quickly, feigning complete sincerity. She suppressed any urge to respond otherwise. Other customers’ eyes were scrutinizing the exchange with the bitter hope that she’d flub, that she’d respond with anger and they’d have grounds to kick her out. She refused to grant them their wish. She would not publicly disrespect one of their own.
One of my own, she thought. A strange thought. She’d turn eighty later this week. Were it not for her pending arrest, she’d at last be allowed to retire. She would live the next seventy years in relative leisure, her basic expenses paid for by the government, her status respected by all. She’d finally have the right to vote.
But she’d screwed it all up. She’d known that, yet she’d let herself hope anyway, and now the battle between her hope and time’s intractability threatened to strangle her as she plodded through the rain two blocks down from the blood bank, toward the actual bank. Her umbrella swayed in the wind. She wouldn’t get to enjoy the same future as the rest of her peers, but maybe enough damage control could mitigate some upcoming loss.
She’d spent untold sleepless nights plagued by futile notions about warding off the inevitable. But nothing could be changed. At least that was what was said. No matter who ventured to what time, and no matter what steps they took to adjust the course of events, the past remained fixed. What happened had always happened, and always would happen. If Variel tried to change it by confessing, she’d just end up causing it somehow.
Daydreams of a worry-free future cropped up, as they sometimes did during hopeless moments. Variel muzzled their illusory comfort and wrapped her arms around herself in defiance of the cold. Across the street, a young woman placing armfuls of groceries into her taxi’s trunk dropped a bag when she noticed Variel shivering as she approached the bank. She ran through the rain to open one of the double doors for her elder. Variel nodded appreciation.
“Thank you for your service,” the young woman’s security drone said from above her head as she departed. She looked thin. Starvation-level thin. No doubt penniless at her age, this might be her only grocery run for the month.
Variel forced pity from her mind. More important problems gnawed at her.
Once alone with her safe deposit box, Variel emptied its contents into her purse. In her haste to fortify her life, she’d nearly forgotten about this junk, stored here years ago so Jayden wouldn’t come across it at the house. Old handwritten letters, paperwork, fake IDs, hard drives full of who knew what. A pang of guilt struck her when she found a family photo from her teenage years. She hadn’t spoken with many of the people in that photo for years.
Most alarmingly, she found a necklace, its band holding a small vial with a screw-on cap. Were its contents still inside? Untouched for fifty-six years? Variel pointedly avoided lingering on the necklace. She threw it in a plastic bag with the rest of her keepsakes.
She checked her phone for the time. Less than an hour until her shift started. What ridiculous nostalgia compelled me to come get this crap right at the last minute? Still, she could make it to the storage unit if she hurried.
Could Variel trust her ex-husband with the unit, rented under his name? She wasn’t exactly Jayden’s favorite person these days, but he respected her more than he did the authorities. He’d probably keep quiet about it, even after learning the full extent of her crimes. Hiding her most cherished possessions here was far preferable to keeping them in her house, which the FBI could take by civil forfeiture at a moment’s notice.
Rain pummeled concrete as she waited in her car for the gate to open. The Secure Storage sign tracked across her vision from left to right, and its counterpart underneath: Under-40s must be accompanied by an adult. Vigilant, she drove to her 20ʹx20ʹ unit in the back, peering out at a world distorted by the rain on her windows. She again tried to shake her old fear of federal agents behind dark corners, shadowing her, waiting to ambush.
The door roared open as Variel lifted it by the handle, culminating in a loud clang. She stepped inside the unit to avoid the downpour. Only meager space was left unoccupied by her possessions, so large rain droplets kept spattering her calves. She flung her plastic bag onto her mahogany-and-leather sofa.
How’d I ever accumulate so much stuff? Her silver Tesla Circuit, high-end entertainment system, Mizuno golf clubs, racks full of formalwear, and drawers laded with jewelry concealed smaller, humbler belongings: her wedding ring buried at the bottom of a cardboard box, a small vault of seeds she’d stored but never planted, pictures of friends who’d died in the future long ago.
She noted that when she’d filled this storage unit last week, she’d subconsciously arranged her paintings so that many would be visible to anyone standing at the entrance. I was here, and I created, the arrangement seemed to proclaim, as if Variel expected herself to be silenced, expected her artistic legacy would need to speak for her.
And would it? Decades’ worth of landscape and greenery paintings, all oil on canvas, combined Kahlo’s magical realism with Pou’s impressionism. Variel had studied enough to make her work more than a hobby, but her intermediate skill couldn’t come close to matching that of her idols. In recent years, her subjects had shifted from flowers and vegetables to bright blooms of light within shells of total darkness. Over a dozen such paintings sat atop Variel’s junk, leaning against one of the storage unit’s walls. She hadn’t quite captured the true immensity and splendor of the Big Bang yet. Perhaps she needed a bigger canvas. Or perhaps it was hubris to even try fitting the event that had generated the universe into a mere painting.
Why the hell do you keep painting that space stuff? I thought you liked plants? Jayden had once asked from the sofa, peering at her over a bottle of his favorite beer. If only he knew.
No people appeared in any of her paintings, with one striking exception. Variel’s sole portrait depicted a young androgynous face set against a desert landscape. Tousled hair, a mole on one cheek, a circular golden earring on the right ear. One of her earliest paintings, its fine, stark lines and lifelike shading rendered it abnormally realistic for Variel’s art. Even now, the subject’s amber eyes peered through the canvas as if through time and memory to meet Variel’s. She could almost feel that face nuzzling her neck again to ease grief or to initiate intimacy. Lips sharing dreams and kisses beneath a full moon.
An old wound seemed to reopen. Variel leaned over her futon and turned the picture around.
Half an hour later, she was in uniform, plus a business jacket, trekking through a security entrance into the San Diego International Timeport. The concrete brick walls of the access hallways seemed to press in on both sides, somehow narrower than usual. Even after Variel emerged into the expansive terminal, her claustrophobia did not subside. The roof high above curved in waves that might crash down on her at any moment. A passing woman coughed like she wanted to rid her body of her lungs. A shrill, repetitive voice droning about departing gates on the announcement system clashed with a slightly off-key live cover of the Beatles’ “Revolution” grating from a coffee shop.
“Time only happens once!” declared a smiling, uniformed man on a two-story-tall video screen above Variel. “No one can change it. And that’s why, at the inception of time travel, you chose to secure our future by creating us, the Temporal Security Administration. We keep profiteers, terrorists, and criminals at bay throughout the one chance we have at a prosperous timeline. So you can enjoy your travels free from worry. We’re on the job, and we’re here to keep you safe.”
Variel quickened her pace to match the rhythm of her heartbeat. Nausea threatened her stomach, so she focused on breathing: in, out, calm, slow. Tiny drones buzzed overhead, each one tracking a citizen under age forty. The crowd wove around her in chaotic, random currents, but she pushed aside her fear and cut a path through them as straight as the arrow of time.
This is happening. Today is the day.
Beyond the food court’s five-story-tall glass wall, the rain was subsiding. Variel found the man she was looking for—a heavyset business type in an off-white suit—standing at a Southern joint, squinting up at its menu screens, apparently perplexed by them. She stood next to him for twenty seconds before he noticed her.
“Can you believe these prices?” he asked. “Eleven seventy-five for a sleeve of French fries for a guy in my fifties? Sixteen bucks for a milkshake? Those are like prices for a thirty-year-old.”
“It’s illegal for most young people to time travel,” Variel replied. “They don’t expect many people your age to be in the timeport.”
He glanced sideways at her, then down at her uniform. “I’m here on official business,” he said.
Variel smiled amiably. “Of course. Mr. Ward?”
Recognition lit his eyes. “Ah, I thought I knew your voice. Ms. Martinez?”
She nodded. He shook her hand.
“Nice to meet you in person. And Variel’s fine. Welcome to San Diego.”
“How did you find me here?”
“Our facial recognition software is excellent.”
Astonished, Ward searched their surroundings for security cameras. “With security this tight, what do you need with a hostage negotiator?” he said, chuckling at his own joke.
“I want my people to be ready for anything.”
Ward’s smile faded at her terseness. She’d let her anxiety show. She recovered quickly, saying, “I’m grateful you could reschedule your Denver trip to do this class for us. I wanted to get an expert hostage negotiator, not the person from the local PD.”
Ward’s grin returned. He waved her flattery away. “You say it’s important to do a class today, I do a class today. I go where the help is needed.”
“How was your drive?”
They exchanged small talk as Ward ate breakfast. Variel declined a meal. She eyed the time every minute, then led her guest across the atrium and down long walkways lined with shops and restaurants, toward the time gates. They crossed through the TSA checkpoint at the entrance to Concourse E.
“Does the TSA often encounter hostage situations?” Ward asked as he removed his belt and suitcase from the bin.
“I’ve never encountered one in my career,” Variel said. Gathering her own belongings, she eyed two adult children on the other side of the metal detector hefting several bulky suitcases onto the conveyor belt for their parents. “But you never know,” Variel added.
“What about illegals trying to cross? Do you ever encounter them?”
Variel bristled inwardly but let the slur slide. “Not as often as you’d think,” she said. “Intellectual property crime is more common. Some guy’ll go forward a century, memorize schematics for advanced tech of some kind, and bring it back through in his noggin, hoping to strike it rich.”
“Huh. Why’s that a problem? Don’t all times trade with each other anyway?”
“Well, if everyone could get rich that way, then everyone would do it. Say someone wants to take their favorite pen to the past with them. We say no, because for all we know, they’ve printed the microscopic diagram of a flying car on it, and if that info gets smuggled through to the past without the World Business Consortium verifying it won’t cause an economic meltdown…”
“Then the future economy would stagnate because all the innovation would happen in the past, since idea thieves can strike it the most rich in the past?” Ward said.
“Bingo. It’s why we won’t let people take luggage through a time gate without a mountain of documentation and do such thorough scans of their clothes.”
“I had investments in the future, you know. The economy there isn’t great. Do you think the system is working?”
Variel shrugged. Ward seemed to take the hint that her interest in this subject matter stopped where her job duties ended. She’d theorized about temporal economics enough in her younger years; in a way, her driving goal today was to protect herself from those very theories.
Behind Ward, beyond the metal detector, the adult children had placed the last of their parents’ luggage on the conveyor belt. The parents kissed them on their foreheads and sent them back the way they’d come.
Variel and Ward made their way past the vast storage warehouses, where a steady flow of travelers entered to store their luggage in one of the timeport’s five million lockers. One woman was directing her assistants as they wheeled what appeared to be her entire wardrobe into the warehouse: dozens of wooden boxes, each taller than a person. Further down the rows of lockers, someone was backing a red Lamborghini into a garage.
They finally arrived at Gate E28, where Owens was working. Even from a distance, Variel could see the line of travelers stretching down past E30. Tyrone Owens, a Black supervising officer in his late forties, had his arms raised in a placating gesture as he tried to console the crowd, all of them old, and all of them angry the line didn’t appear to be moving much.
“Everyone who has a ticket will get through,” Owens called, loud enough so the back of the line could hear him. “We are working as fast as we can. Thank you for your continued patience.”
“You wanna talk about tickets?” a woman yelled from the line’s midpoint. “I’ve got tickets for a bike tour of the North American levee system. I’ve got tickets for the inauguration of the first gender-nonconforming president. I’ve got a reservation at the Shimizu Pyramid. Do you want me to miss my bookings?” A chorus of angry travelers joined her complaint with annoyed chatter.
Owens adjusted his glasses. His utterly perplexed expression seemed to ask the impatient woman, Do you not understand how time travel works? Unenthused, he continued his appeal: “Please do not attempt to smuggle items in any bodily crevice. This includes medication, perfume, cigars, money, small pets, and sex toys. If it is in your body, we will find it, and it will hold up the line.”
“What’s going on?” Ward asked Variel.
“Not sure. Wait here.” Variel’s time was running short now, but the incident shouldn’t have happened quite yet. And not at this gate. She struggled to keep her heart from racing as she approached the security clearance area at the front of the line.
But all she found there was Dex Brennan and an old man with his shirt torn almost completely down the middle. They were gesturing wildly and yelling at each other.
“I said spit it out or go home!” Brennan, a white, musclebound officer, was saying.
The old man retorted with fury, but Variel couldn’t understand his garbled words. He sounded like his mouth was full of food.
“What’s going on here?” Variel asked.
“He’s got toothpaste in his mouth,” Owens said, approaching behind her.
“Do you want to puke your guts out?” Brennan asked the man. “Do you wanna be barfing all afternoon? And then I bet you’ll try to sue us for your health problems.”
“Brennan, chill,” Variel said. She stopped in front of the belligerent elder. “Sir, you must have fasted for twenty-four hours prior to travel. If it’s in your mouth, that still counts as eating.”
Again, she couldn’t decipher a thing he said through the toothpaste in his mouth. In his rage, fluoridated spittle sprayed. Variel had to step back to avoid it.
Brennan chuckled, a little too smugly for Variel’s taste.
“I don’t care,” Variel told the man. “Traveling with that inside you will make you sick.” She checked his ticket. Had he been traveling to the past, she’d have chided him to do his part to protect the temporal economy, of which toothpaste was a part. But his ticket was for twenty years into the future.
The old man grimaced at her. He swallowed everything in his mouth in one huge gulp, then opened wide so she could see the back of his throat.
“All right, buddy, I’m taking you back up front,” Brennan said, grabbing the man’s arm.
“Gentle, Dex,” Owens warned.
Brennan nodded deference and loosened his grip on the would-be traveler.
“You can’t blame a guy for wanting to save a few bucks on toothpaste,” the old man said. “The past is cheap, the future’s expensive. I’ll be back. I’ll get it past you barnacles.”
“Sure you will,” Brennan said, patting the standard-issue kinetic cannon at his hip.
Owens motioned for the other officers to get the line moving briskly again. The travelers at the front of the line stepped forward for their body scan and security check.
“Sorry, boss,” Owens said. “That guy wouldn’t budge. I was about to arrest him.”
“You did your best,” Variel said.
“Maybe we should toughen up our screening at the concourse checkpoint.”
“Or,” Ward cut in, “you kiddos could learn a thing or two about negotiating with troublesome people.” He smiled like he’d made a clever joke.
Owens lowered his gaze, the slight tint in his glasses almost hiding his skepticism. He held out his hand. “Hi, I’m Tyrone Owens.”
“Jonathan Ward.” Still grinning, Ward was apparently unaware he’d insulted him.
“Jonathan is our instructor for the hostage negotiation training,” Variel explained to Owens. “Is everyone here yet?”
Owens glanced over his shoulder at the foot traffic in the concourse, then back at Gate E28, where the steady stream of travelers was departing through the gate one at a time. Vigilant even in mid-conversation. “Yeah, I think about a hundred of ’em showed up,” he said.
A hundred! Variel rejoiced. She caught herself smiling and straightened her lips so as not to tip her hand to Owens. A hundred extra officers in the concourse wouldn’t save her outright, but it would at least lessen today’s fallout on her future.
“Some aren’t too happy about coming in on their day off,” Owens continued, “but I added plenty of coffee to their overtime pay to sweeten the deal. Hey, why’d you want them to bring their sidearms? They keep asking, and I don’t know what to tell them.”
“Just to get the newbies used to having it on their person at all times.”
“Not the call you would’ve made?”
“No, it’s fine.”
Variel elbowed him gently in the arm. “You’re like a vulture circling my job.”
Owens laughed. “I am an eagle proudly serving my country in any position it sees fit to grant one so young as me.”
“You’d better apply when I’m gone.” In about fifteen minutes.
“My cover letter’s already ready.”
“So I hate to do this to you on your last week of work,” Owens said, “but there’s a tour group here, English language,” Owens said. “I was gonna send Wu to guide it, but it turns out there’s some TSA bigwig in it. She’s one of the assistant administrators, I think. Stopped by for a surprise visit. I’m not sure if the class is more important to you, or…”
A tour for an assistant administrator? No, not today. I don’t have time for that. In a few minutes this whole place will be locked down and—
Did they know? Was the bureaucrat’s presence more than mere coincidence?
Variel suppressed her worries. Nothing could change what would happen today. Not even a last-minute tour request. Events would happen in exactly the same way they’d happened before.
And why not spend her last moments in society’s good graces chaperoning her boss’s boss’s boss? If humiliation would soon strike her in front of all her coworkers, she might as well go all out.
“I’ll meet the tour group,” Variel said. “Can you show Ward to the training room?”
“Sure thing. This way, Mr. Ward.”
She found the tour group back at the entrance to Concourse E: about twenty people, mostly young. The last tour she’d given had been much the same, full of ingratiating questions about how to interview well, internship opportunities, and if Variel would be interested in providing them with one-on-one consulting. The people in the tour groups were usually almost forty and therefore almost old enough to work. She couldn’t blame them for putting their best foot forward.
This group featured some unique variances from the norm: a couple around Variel’s age towing suitcases and wearing matching aloha shirts, and indeed, a truly aged woman in a navy blazer and gray wool dress pants. Seated in a motorized chair, she wore a silver pin in the shape of the TSA’s hourglass emblem fastened to her lapel.
Did Variel’s boss know she was here? Variel almost picked up her cell and called her about the surprise visit, but her fatalism—or maybe nihilism—got in the way. Why do the job well when I’m about to lose it?
“Hi, everyone. My name is Variel Martinez. I’ll be your guide today. Esta gira será en inglés, pero hay otra giras separados disponibles en español. We’ll start here in Concourse E, which is our largest concourse, then walk through our power plant and our fire station. Does anyone have any questions before we begin?”
She looked directly at the assistant administrator as she asked this, but instead of introducing herself, the elderly woman smiled and waited, her hands in her lap. Constellations of warts, age spots, skin tags, and bruises dotted the woman’s deeply wrinkled skin. She must be in her one-fifties or one-sixties. Variel, who fantasized about retiring at eighty, could at least respect the devotion of someone who chose to continue working at such an advanced age.
“I have a question,” one of the aloha-shirt men said. “Why do the lines take so long? Are there any tricks to get us through faster?”
Variel diverted her attention from the bigwig and gave the pat, agency-approved answer. She went on to explain how the Temporal Security Administration originated, and that it ran the entire time travel industry as a business, despite being a public organization. She fielded questions about why private timeports were outlawed, how large the government’s traveling stipend for new retirees was, and how genealogy records ensured no one birthed their own parents.
“And of course, time gates can only lead to other time gates,” Variel explained as she stopped to let the group catch up with her halfway back down Concourse E. She was reciting her rote script, unable to focus. Sweat stained her armpits. Her fist kept unclenching, then clenching again. “The farthest back in time we can travel is the moment when the first gate opened fifty years ago. I don’t recommend it, though. It’s one of the most popular destinations. When they opened that gate for the first time, over a million people poured through from the future. A few got trampled to death. We usually recommend traveling to times that have a greater number of operational gates.”
“And what about the future?” the assistant administrator interrupted in a voice both soft with age and firm with authority. Her chair stopped short of Variel, at the front of the group. “We can only go two hundred years after the first gate opened. What’s stopping us from traveling farther in the future than then?”
Variel wrested her gaze away from the double doors of the training auditorium where a hundred TSA officers waited, weapons in hand. The old woman, a smug smile worming across her lips, clearly knew the answer to her own question. Was she testing her? Confirming her response to the provocative query would toe the agency line?
The TSA had indeed sanctioned a comfortable response to such questions, and Variel had memorized that script as well. But today, she wasn’t in the mood. Today was not a day for anyone to be comfortable. She wanted to know why people couldn’t travel too far into the future? She wanted the frank, simple truth? Fine.
“The world ends,” Variel said.
The group murmured concern, as if the fact that human civilization would end in about a hundred and fifty years wasn’t common knowledge—or at least, common knowledge no one ever discussed in polite company. Certainly not in an official setting like this. A few women near the back of the group crossed their arms in protest of Variel’s rudeness.
“I’m not familiar with the details,” Variel lied, “but it has something to do with destabilization of the Earth’s crust following deep-mantle resource extraction. There’ll be some time gates and some people who do survive. But of course, that’s the bad part of time, when all our infrastructure and ecosystems will have collapsed. It’s a horrible time to travel to, full of criminals and terrorists, with no amenities or safety or guarantee of return, so we don’t offer any gates to there.”
“I’ve heard there are actually a lot of people who survive,” the assistant administrator countered. “Millions, at least. What will happen to them?”
What was this lady getting at? She wanted something from Variel. Did she want her to slip up, say something inappropriate? She’d already achieved that. Did she want information? Then why ask these questions during a tour? Why not meet Variel in her office like any other TSA higher-up?
“I don’t know what will happen to those people,” Variel lied again. She repeated a popular sound-bite from the news: “Maybe they’ll innovate their own way out of their predicament and rebuild civilization.”
“Some people do try to stop the apocalypse,” offered a thirtysomething woman at the front of the group. “I applied to work at a nonprofit called End the End that recruits business and government leaders to invest in technologies to prevent it.”
“They won’t stop it, though,” said one of the men in the aloha shirts. “Last year we vacationed right before the big earthquake that ends it all—we’re thrill-seekers—and we left right when it started. So I mean, it’s in our past. In a way, it already happened. You can’t change it without creating a paradox, right?”
The old woman’s eyes grew stern as the group debated the end of all things. Variel tried to read the intent behind her gaze. Did she want Variel to steer the conversation back toward more pleasant topics so the TSA wouldn’t get sued by a sensitive young person? You’re the one who brought it up, lady.
“Fortunately,” Variel said, adopting her best impression of a grin, “we do have two hundred years of travel opportunities. If we want to, we and our descendants can keep living in a loop: when our family reaches the end of the good times, they can travel right back two hundred years and start over.”
“That’s right,” said a scruffy man at the group’s periphery. He clapped like Variel had finished an especially salient political or religious speech. Variel could tell by his tone what he was thinking. She’d met others just like him. Who cared if the world ended when humanity had time travel? Not them. They’d be long dead in a hundred and fifty years.
“Doesn’t it eat up our resources faster if our population keeps growing during these two hundred years?” asked someone else.
A third person dove into a tangent: “And there are only so many jobs to go around, right? Isn’t the world too full to accept any refugees from the bad times?”
To Variel, the end of the world suddenly seemed quite distant. All at once, Gate E10 absorbed her entire attention. An arrival gate. The closest time gate to the tour group. Variel had been so involved in the discussion that she hadn’t even noticed they’d stopped beside it.
A young woman in her early twenties with hazel hair and intense dark-brown eyes had just stepped through the gate.