Time quake, p.11
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       TIME QUAKE, p.11

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  When he had first appeared at the farmhouse with Kate and Peter’s father, Megan had taken an instant liking to the charming Marquis de Montfaron. He had looked around him at the twenty-first-century kitchen with eyes that sparkled with wonder and excitement. Such vivid, intelligent eyes – large, and the precise shade that conkers have when they are freshly burst from their prickly shell and are still a waxy, mahogany brown. Not to mention his exquisite clothes! Even little Milly had been so fascinated by his embroidered waistcoat, buckled shoes and lace cuffs that she had clung to him like a limpet, refusing to climb off his knee and jealously fending off all rivals for his attention. But even now, in Dr Dyer’s jumpers and some jeans loaned to him by Sergeant Chadwick, and with his black and silver hair tied back in a rubber band dropped by the postman, the six-foot-six Marquis still cut a striking figure. Sam and Megan both agreed that for a scientist-philosopher escaped from the French Revolution, the Marquis de Montfaron was the least boring grownup they had ever come across.

  ‘Have you learned any more amazing facts today, Monsieur le Mar-r-rquis?’ asked Megan.

  ‘Ha! I am drowning in an ocean of knowledge. My jaw aches from dropping in astonishment. I cannot sleep for I do not know how much time remains to me to acquire this mountain of wisdom. The one thing I do know is that I shall never come to the end of it.’

  ‘Well, two centuries is a long time,’ agreed Sam. ‘It took me long enough to catch up after I had six weeks off school—’

  ‘Is it such a long time? I am not far short of fifty years old – it is but four of my lifetimes. And yet, it seems to me that the accumulation and acceleration of knowledge in that time is stupendous! Miraculous! Man has stepped on the moon! Surgeons operate on patients without them feeling any pain! Aeroplanes carry people to the other side of the world in less than a day. Until I arrived in your century I fancied myself a scholar and a scientist. Now, I hardly dare open a book, so terrified am I that it will make a nonsense of things I have spent half a lifetime learning.’

  ‘Why don’t you give yourself a day off, then?’ asked Sam.

  Montfaron sucked his breath in and shook his head. ‘Ah, non,’ he said, ‘I cannot rest. This effort is as nothing compared to its reward. For is there anything of greater value to mankind than knowledge? Even if Time will make fools of us all in the end.’

  ‘When you return to your own century, will you keep this knowledge to yourself?’ asked Megan. ‘Because . . . well, you could cause a real mess if you didn’t . . .’

  ‘An excellent question, mademoiselle. If ever I manage to return to the past I shall consider that potential dilemma most carefully. Until then, Je me livre en aveugle au destin qui m’entraîne – I shall submit myself blindly to whatever fate has in store for me.’

  ‘So what did you find out today, then?’ asked Sam.

  ‘For pity’s sake,’ exclaimed the Marquis, covering his face with his hands. ‘Do not ask me to repeat it! My addled brain shall explode!’

  Sam and Megan laughed.

  ‘I shall tell you one thing, however. Your father, Sam, advised me – and with perfect logic – that I should become familiar with the discoveries of the nineteenth century before I proceed to the twentieth century and, thence, to the new millennium. So I have begun to study the work of a certain Charles Darwin and I confess that the gentleman’s theory of natural selection has profoundly shaken me.’

  Sam nudged Megan. ‘Is Darwin the one who invented evolution?’

  ‘I think so . . .’

  ‘We’ve got a cow named after his granddad, or uncle, or something – Erasmus Darwin,’ said Sam.

  It was Montfaron’s turn to laugh but Sam suddenly looked upset.

  ‘Erasmus is Kate’s favourite cow . . . She always says she’s jealous of her eyelashes.’

  The Marquis gave Sam a gentle pat on his back. ‘I have witnessed your sister’s strength of character,’ he said. ‘And have I not described to you what courage she showed in rescuing us from the chalk mines of Arras? Now I do not say that this is the best of all possible worlds, my dear Sam, but it is right to live in hope and something tells me that your sister’s role in all of this is far from over.’

  Sam nodded his head but still looked fixedly at the floor.

  Megan took hold of his hand and squeezed it. ‘You know Kate – she’s a match for that stupid Tar Man. She’ll be all right – don’t you worry, Sam.’

  Sam looked up at his two companions and forced a smile.

  ‘Well, mes chers enfants, with your kind permission, I must take my leave of you and return, like Sisyphus, to my never-ending labours.’

  Megan frowned. ‘Sisyphus? Isn’t that a disease?’

  ‘Ah, non, mademoiselle! Sisyphus offended Zeus, the father of the gods. His punishment was to push a boulder up a steep hill. Each time the poor fellow was within reach of the top it would roll down and he would have to start all over again, and again, and again – for all eternity . . .’

  The Marquis screwed up his face as he mimed pushing his own boulder towards Dr Dyer’s study but Megan stopped him.

  ‘Sir – before you go, I think there’s something here that you might like to see. It’s so . . . I don’t know to explain it . . . it’s amazing and weird!’

  Sam and the Marquis looked on as Megan fished out her mobile phone from the pocket of her jeans and flipped it open.

  ‘Look!’ she exclaimed. ‘My cousin sent it just now. I mean it wasn’t even dark – it was in the middle of the day.’

  Sam peered at it. ‘Wow!’

  The Marquis squinted but the moving image was a little too small for him to see without a magnifying glass.

  ‘We can look at it on Dr Dyer’s computer if you like,’ said Megan. ‘He said he’s posted it on the internet, as well.’

  Dr and Mrs Dyer had purposefully delayed showing the Marquis de Montfaron how to use a computer.

  ‘One step at a time,’ Dr Dyer had said to his enthusiastic, eighteenth-century guest. ‘Not ten all at once.’

  But now the Marquis stood behind Megan, looking over her shoulder in wonder as the screen came to life. His eyes darted from Megan’s hand, sliding a perturbing object around on the table, to the screen and back again. Suddenly he got very excited.

  ‘I see it! I understand!’ He put his hand over Megan’s. ‘You will permit me?’

  Megan nodded and the Marquis slid the mouse a little to the left.

  ‘Ha! Look!’ Montfaron shouted triumphantly. ‘I can control the arrow!’

  Megan and Sam, who was kneeling down next to her, looked at each other and smirked.

  ‘I’ll show you how to use it later, if you like,’ said Megan. ‘It’s dead easy once you get used to it. But let me get onto the internet first. There’s something you’ve got to see.’

  Reluctantly, Montfaron removed his hand from the mouse but his pleading look made her relent.

  ‘Oh, all right,’ said Megan, ‘I’ll show you something else. I think this will be useful for you.’

  Montfaron tried to follow what Megan was doing as she moved her hand in seemingly random circles, clicking the mouse as she went.

  ‘This,’ she said, pointing to a box on the screen, ‘is a search engine.’

  Montfaron looked at it sceptically and shrugged.

  ‘You can find out pretty much anything you want to know in the whole world using this. Pictures, too. What can I ask? Mmm . . . Sam, help me out, here. Something that the Marquis would recognise . . .’

  ‘Where did you live?’

  ‘Brilliant! Yes! Where did you live, in France, Monsieur le Mar-r-rquis?’

  The Marquis looked at Megan quizzically. ‘Why, the Chateau de l’Humiaire, near Arras . . .’

  ‘Okay. Type in the name here. You see the letters on the keyboard? Just press them one at a time until you’ve keyed in the name.’

  The Marquis held down the first letter for too long and a whole string of c’s appeared. Megan showed him the backspace key and, pai
nfully slowly, the Marquis found all the letters and typed in the full name.

  ‘Now,’ ordered Megan, ‘press the Enter key, look this big one here . . .’

  The Marquis did as he was told and observed the screen as dozens of thumbnail images instantly appeared of a beautiful castle surrounded by a moat and an orchard of fruit trees. The photographs were all in black and white, but there was also an old oil painting and several tinted engravings. Megan clicked on one of the photographs and the image of Montfaron’s old home filled the screen. In the middle distance, stooping over a beehive under the fruit trees, they saw a lady dressed in a long and very full dress that was cinched in tight at the waist. She wore a large, veiled hat. Megan looked up at the Marquis de Montfaron. He seemed dumbfounded, awestruck.

  ‘But . . . How can this be? How did all these images of my house get into this com . . . com . . .’

  ‘Computer,’ prompted Sam as the Marquis peered under the desk and then leaned over the top of the PC, scrutinising the desk behind for evidence of piles of pictures.

  ‘Oh,’ said Megan, ‘everything gets put onto the internet now. Photographs and videos and books and music – it’s all in there. Unbelievable amounts of information. I mean, I bet there’s more information than a human being could sift through in a thousand lifetimes.’

  ‘A million,’ said Sam.

  Megan shrugged. ‘Maybe.’

  The Marquis de Montfaron pointed in consternation at the computer. ‘But all that information, it is in there?’

  Sam and Megan both burst out laughing.

  ‘No!’ said Sam. ‘It’s on the internet!’

  ‘Then where is the internet?’

  Megan and Sam looked at each other, less sure of their ground.

  ‘I think it’s held on servers,’ said Megan. ‘All over the world . . .’

  ‘Servants hold this information?’

  ‘No! Ser-vers!’

  The Marquis shook his head. ‘I cannot understand . . .’

  ‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Sam. ‘I don’t either. Most people don’t. I’d just go with it if I were you. It’s like cars. You don’t have to understand how they work before you can ride in one . . .’

  ‘Anyway,’ said Megan, ‘the important thing is that anyone can do a search on it to find stuff out. You just need a browser – like this one. Good, isn’t it?’

  But, to Megan and Sam’s distress, they saw that the Marquis’s warm brown eyes were brimful of tears. He felt obliged to turn away from the image of the Château de l’Humiaire.

  ‘Oh, that was so stupid of me!’ exclaimed Megan. ‘I’m so sorry. You must miss your home and your family . . .’

  ‘When we were not at Versailles, it was our home – at least before the troubles began . . . But for me, it was, above all, where I tried to understand the world.’

  ‘It looks really nice,’ offered Sam. ‘Better than our farm!’

  ‘Ah, non. This farm is a good place. A good home. Alas, my most recent memory of my home was of a bonfire, started by fools who knew no better. A bonfire that consumed a lifetime’s correspondence. Decades of reflection and debate – with the great minds of Europe – destroyed, mindlessly, in moments.’

  ‘I’m sorry,’ said Megan. ‘Kate told me. Those letters must have been really important to you.’

  ‘They were irreplaceable; they were my children, as surely as Louis-Philippe is my son. I guarded the ideas that they contained for posterity. I slept with them under my pillow . . . And now? Ashes, nothing but ashes. I have not yet had time to grieve for such a bitter loss. I regret, mademoiselle, that sometimes the heart reacts more quickly than the mind.’

  ‘I’m so sorry,’ murmured Megan.

  ‘No. No. In point of fact, your example demonstrated perfectly this astonishing tool. I should very much desire to investigate it further.’ The Marquis forced himself to smile. ‘And I wonder if this attractive lady in the hat belongs to my bloodline . . . You say that you can find out anything? Anyone can find out anything?’

  ‘Well, most things. I think so,’ said Megan, looking up anxiously at Montfaron. ‘Do you want to see some other stuff, to give you more of an idea?’

  Montfaron nodded. ‘By all means.’

  For the next few minutes the computer screen burned bright with images: galaxies at the other side of the universe; trailers for Hollywood films; white sandy beaches on the Isle of Mull; an ice cream maker’s blog from Naples; train times for the T.G.V. between Marseilles and Paris; a jerky film of a band playing at last year’s Glastonbury Festival; a tug of war between lions and crocodiles for a baby buffalo; slot machines in Las Vegas; the structure of the atom; recipes for clam chowder; a webcam pointed at an office’s coffee machine in Sydney; weather forecasts for the Arctic and Mombasa; Sam’s horoscope; CNN; an Oxford college’s reading list for students studying quantum physics. Montfaron stood stooped over the desk, shaking his head.

  ‘Enough! I grow dizzy!’

  Megan’s fingers returned obediently to her lap.

  ‘If only Diderot, and all those men of reason who put their faith in knowledge, and who battled so hard against ignorance and superstition, could see what I am privileged now to see. If only they could have seen where their efforts would lead. A society that gives to all men, no matter how humble, access to such knowledge is surely a society that has learned the true nature of Equality. What name did you give to this tool?’

  ‘The internet.’

  ‘Then this internet is surely the eighth wonder of the world!’ Montfaron exclaimed.

  The children were unused to seeing the Marquis so emotional. Sam felt he should say something. ‘The internet is useful,’ he said. ‘Mum orders the weekly shopping on it and I know I shouldn’t but I’m always pasting bits from it into my homework. Instant messaging’s good, too . . . And there’s some great games . . .’

  Montfaron and Sam looked at each other but neither had anything but the haziest notion of what was passing through the other’s mind. There was such a long pause that Megan only just stopped herself commenting that the lack of colour photographs of the Château de l’Humiaire suggested that it was no longer standing.

  ‘Anyway,’ said Megan after a long silence. ‘I was going to show you the video that my cousin has taken . . .’

  The grainy moving image was of poor quality, particularly when viewed on full-screen. The sound, too, left much to be desired. This did not detract, however, from the astounding subject matter. They watched it five times and were still looking at it when Mrs Dyer, along with Sam’s youngest sister, Milly, came back to collect the food for the bonfire.

  ‘Where have you got to, Sam?’ his mum shouted. ‘I thought you were supposed to be doing your maths! And why haven’t you cleared the kitchen table like I asked you?’

  ‘Mum! Mum!’ he shouted back. ‘We’re in Dad’s study. Come and look at this! You’ve never seen anything like it!’

  Mrs Dyer watched the video in rapt attention. Then she asked Megan to go to the BBC homepage where they found links to many other images and videos revealing the same compelling, inexplicable and terrifying event, all of which had been posted in the last couple of hours.

  Moments later they heard the Land Rover pull up in the drive. Dr Dyer had arrived back from Manchester Airport with Dr Pirretti. Currently suspended from her post at NASA, it was Dr Pirretti who had led the anti-gravity research project which Kate’s dad had worked on, the project which, unwittingly, had sent Kate and Peter hurtling back through the centuries. Normally courteous to a fault, on this occasion Dr Pirretti barely uttered a word of greeting but planted herself instantly in front of the computer screen and all but snatched the mouse from Megan’s grasp.

  ‘What in the world is happening?’ exclaimed Dr Dyer. ‘They even interrupted “The Afternoon Play” on the radio with a news-flash. Not that the reporter was making a whole lot of sense . . .’

  ‘We heard there’d been no reports of injuries,’ interrupted Dr Pirretti. ‘
Is that right? No buildings collapsing, gas mains exploding . . .?’

  ‘No. Nothing like that,’ said Mrs Dyer. ‘They said there’d been a few road accidents. Nothing serious. I mean, who could concentrate on their driving with all that happening?’

  Dr Dyer looked over Dr Pirretti’s shoulder and shook his head in disbelief. ‘What is it?’

  The clearest image had been taken from a helicopter hovering over the city of London, close to Tower Bridge. The aerial view displayed London in all her sprawling glory, square mile after square mile of urban proliferation, a maze of streets with a few arterial roads cutting through the city. There were the familiar, winding curves of the Thames, snaking her way across the capital towards the sea. There were the Houses of Parliament and, just visible in the east, the Docklands. Waterloo Bridge, the South Bank complex and the Gherkin were also easily discernible. However, at first sight at least, one portion of the city did not appear to be in focus. It was as if someone had wiped a cloth over a wet painting and the image had become smeared and a fraction lighter in tone. The segment measured roughly a mile by perhaps three hundred metres and it included the Millennium Bridge that spans that particular stretch of the Thames. Neither St Paul’s Cathedral nor Tate Modern were any longer visible under this gigantic, elongated, smeary mass. As the cameraman zoomed in it became increasingly difficult to interpret the images, in part because the lens was shaking so much. What started off looking like billowing clouds was not. Rather, it was an accumulation or gathering together of perpetually moving, indistinct shapes that swirled and dispersed and came together again like high tide in a rock pool. Over and above the alarmed exclamations of the cameraman and the wup, wup, wup of the helicopter, a great roaring could be heard, a roar like the ocean, or the first grumblings of a giant storm.

  As the cameraman succeeded in drawing closer to the phenomenon, it became clear that a line bisected this strange mass. The line appeared as a kind of ravine, or a giant crack in the city, and at first sight it seemed to reach deep into the earth’s crust save that buildings and red double-decker buses and black cabs were visible. These familiar London vehicles were not, however, distinct. It was a little like looking at objects which have been submerged in a fair depth of water – their forms ebbed and flowed in reaction to some gigantic, unseen force.

 
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