By Sarah Hapgood

There were three of them. Two blondes and a rather indeterminate dark-haired one. The depressing orange light inside the elevator bathed them in an unsympathetic glow. Adam Jensen, on the left, was approaching the age of forty at what he felt was a terrifying speed. His hair, cut roughly, was dry and straw-coloured. His face, looking tired, reflected the man within.

Kieran Flannery, standing in the middle, was a short, slim young Irishman with startling blue eyes, and very fair hair which curled when it reached his shoulders.

Joby Long, standing on the right, cadaverously thin, was the one with chocolate-coloured hair and five o'clock shadow on his chin. His angular face wore an expression of blank distrust, with which he viewed the world at all times.

None of them spoke. As the red light directly ahead of them skipped across the panel over the elevator doors, they watched it intently. They had no idea as to what awaited them when the doors slid open. All that they did know was that they were to be incarcerated, locked-up, put away, for an indefinite period, and all for simply crossing through time.

It was hard to believe, considering how few inmates ever came out of the penal colony once inside it, but rehabilitation was now considered to be the name of the game. There was to be no more stringing up of the guilty, no more hanging in cages along the City walls. It was true that the death penalty HAD been resurrected (due to popular demand), but for five years only. At first it had been greeted rapturously by a public frustrated and sickened by the corruption and cruelty at all levels of Society. Something would now be done, it seemed. But the honeymoon period was brief. When the first killer was hung in a cage outside the City walls, it was an action that had initially been cheered. As the weeks passed though and the rapidly shrinking form of the killer starved and froze in the pitiless climate, the cheers turned to wails of dismay. He seemed to take such an indecently long time to die, and what's more the City populace were forced to watch him doing it, in public. It was obscene.

It was felt that these sort of things should be done quickly behind closed doors. Only there were no executioners to be found. The profession had died out decades before when the death penalty had first been repealed. Now, out of all the length and breadth of Society, no suitably sane candidate could be found to lower the blade, plunge in the syringe, or pull the drop-lever. And that was why it had been decided to bring back the ancient method of the Cage, whereby the guilty party would be hung above the City and left to rot. That way the execution could be accomplished without anyone having to have the responsibility of doing the actual executing.

It was a method that hadn't been used for over 3000 years, and it was riddled with flaws. As one pathetic victim after another was paraded high above the City, and left there to remain until the sun bleached his carcass, the people in the streets below hurled missiles in a futile attempt to finish the wretched creature off, as much to put themselves out of their misery as he out of his.

Nowadays the Cage was still in use. In theory. But in practice few of the convicted ever sat in it. Instead, the penal colony at Henang (escape-proof) was under strict instructions to decipher exactly what it was, that elusive formula, that turned people into hardened criminals. Only this was as big a farce as the death penalty. The penal colony hadn't the manpower, patience or resources to plough through the psychological minutiae of each inmate. Instead they simply locked them up, and the very worst cases were kept in Isolation. The authorities knew, without a shadow of doubt, that those on the outside would forget they had ever existed, however terrible their crimes had once been. And no one, no matter what was said when the prisoners first arrived, ever came out.

Henang, or rather the area around it, was on a time-cusp. Some found it astonishing to reflect that when the place was built nobody had considered this as a potentially serious problem. For centuries there had been reports of "ghosts", later described as "aliens", seen at the barren coastal headland of Henang. It had a bleak, edge of the world feel that many sceptics of ancient times had said contributed to the "strange feelings" that some people got when visiting the place.

In ancient times (the middle of the 21st century in fact), an eminent physicist by the name of Podden, sprung the theory of time-cusps on the world, and not one, but several mysteries, were now believed to be solved at once. Apparitions and extraterrestrials were really ordinary people that had slipped through an invisible door from a parallel universe. The extraterrestrials were Earthlings from the future, and the ghostly apparitions were Earthlings from the past. It was all so simple.

Once the theory had been proved several times under laboratory conditions, and debated and written about there was really little more to be said. Time-cusps became a fact of life. Many people still lived in morbid fear of slipping into one, in a way that their ancestors had feared slipping under a bus or falling down a well. But many time-cusps were now well-mapped and documented in the same way that fire lines were (ley-ish type lines which, which when they crossed over, were believed to be where a high level of spontaneous human combustion had occurred). Occasionally when a victim slipped through a time-cusp that had hitherto lain dormant, it was counted as a tragedy, but anything was possible and so they might return one day.

The three time-crossers had been caught and incarcerated in a very brusque way. As far as the authorities were concerned they were just another problem to be caged and fed. The three men were well aware what had happened, they had grown up in the post-Podden era after all and knew all about the dangers of time-crossing. Even so, they were unprepared for quite how dramatically times had changed, and couldn't even hazard a guess as to how far into the future they had strayed. In their time countries had still been separated by borders, both geographical and political, and were thus so named and bagged. The culture they had stumbled into now was a large, amorphous mess, where no one could class himself as different to anyone else. There was only one nation, one country, one land mass left in the entire world, because the landscape of the world had altered beyond recognition. Severe climatic changes had caused some seas to disappear, or in other cases, to rise up and overwhelm entire continents. All that was left in the world was one enormous land mass isolated in the northern hemisphere.

The Henang penal colony stood in the midst of a barren, treeless wilderness of granite mountains and scrubland, which stretched for many miles to the east, west and south, and to the north lay only the Grey Sea, a hostile area with its turbulence and dank fogs. And no one cared to go too close to that.

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