Time quake, p.12
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       TIME QUAKE, p.12

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  ‘I’ve spent time in the Sahara Desert,’ said Dr Pirretti. ‘And if I didn’t know better, I’d say that I was looking at a mirage . . . Except that’s impossible . . .’

  At first, the circle of people gathered around the computer screen had watched in fascination but soon a creeping horror overtook them. The most terrifying moving images had been sent to the BBC’s website from an office worker’s mobile phone. The undulating, echoing, unworldly sounds that he had recorded cast terror into everyone’s hearts. Figures appeared and disappeared, vivid one moment and hazy the next, like ghosts in mist, figures not only from our century but from all centuries. There was an old gentleman in a three-cornered hat, his mouth gaping open in horror, clutching to his chest a small white dog with a black spot over one eye. Then, running as if death itself was upon him, a Roman soldier, breastplate gleaming, stared through the centuries with terrified eyes. Two horses, pulling an ornate carriage, reared up, their hooves pawing the air. A woman in a lavender crinoline stood stock-still, her pale face betraying no emotion while a young child in knickerbockers buried his face in her skirts.

  ‘Could it be some kind of mass hallucination?’ asked Mrs Dyer. ‘I mean, it only lasted two or three minutes . . .’

  Dr Dyer scratched his head. ‘A mass hallucination? How would that work? But if it’s not a mirage and we’re not hallucinating, what could it be? What’s your take on this, Anita?’

  Dr Pirretti merely looked straight ahead, deep in thought.

  ‘We’re seeing ghosts, aren’t we?’ said Megan. ‘What else could it be? It’s a massive sighting of ghosts!’

  Mrs Dyer shut down the computer. Milly, who was gripping her father’s desk with her plump fingers, suddenly started to cry, her chest heaving in sudden, juddering sobs. Her father scooped her up and bounced her gently up and down until she returned his smile. The room went suddenly quiet. The floral print curtain flapped in the warm breeze and the sounds of summer drifted through the window: birdsong and crickets and the buzzing of insects. Megan looked over at Sam and saw that he was clenching his fists tight together. He seemed to be holding in his breath. A deep crease had formed between his eyebrows and he was trembling. Megan touched Sam’s arm.

  ‘Are you okay?’ she whispered.

  But he did not reply. His eyes burned into his father and Dr Pirretti. ‘You started all this!’ he suddenly exploded. ‘Why did you have to mess with stuff even you don’t understand? You’re supposed to be experts but you’re not! Now there’s . . . weird earthquakes . . . and ghosts! The whole world’s been damaged! And you don’t even know how to get Kate back, do you?’

  Sam didn’t wait for a reply but ran out of his father’s study slamming the door behind him. They heard him thunder up the rickety wooden staircase to his bedroom and then there was a second, muffled slam and the squeal of bedsprings as he threw himself onto his bed. His mother and father stared blankly at each other.

  ‘I’ll go to him,’ murmured Mrs Dyer in a flat voice.

  ‘No. Best let him calm down first.’

  Dr Pirretti let out a deep sigh. ‘Sam’s right, of course. We couldn’t be certain that producing anti-gravity was risk-free. But still we went ahead . . .’

  ‘Madame,’ said the Marquis de Montfaron. ‘Surely it is the pursuit of knowledge that makes us human? What has ever been achieved without taking risks?’

  ‘Thank you, sir, although right now that is of little comfort. You talk about the pursuit of knowledge which puts me in mind of a phrase in the Declaration of Independence – a document, written at the birth of my country, which talks about a person’s rights to—’

  ‘I know of it, madame. Benjamin Franklin spoke of it to me in Paris.’

  ‘My, my! You are full of surprises, Monsieur le Marquis! You actually knew Ben Franklin?’

  ‘I did. After all, we French emptied our coffers helping the American Patriots win their independence – although I admit that our rivalry with the British might have had something to do with it.’ The Marquis gave a small bow in the direction of Dr and Mrs Dyer. ‘It goes without saying that I, personally, have always found the British a charming nation.’

  Dr Pirretti smiled. ‘Then you’ll know that the Declaration upholds all men’s unalienable right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.’

  Montfaron nodded. ‘A most memorable turn of phrase – and with much wisdom therein . . .’

  ‘I agree. But isn’t it the case that the pursuit of knowledge, our pursuit of knowledge, our appetite for pushing scientific knowledge to its limits, our discovery of time travel, in particular, just tramples all over everyone else’s basic human rights?’

  ‘Oh, please!’ snapped Dr Dyer. ‘This is hardly the moment for a philosophical discussion!’

  ‘On the contrary, my friend,’ said the Marquis, ‘a crisis of this magnitude surely demands that we listen both to our minds and our hearts . . . Science is not immune from the laws of ethics.’

  ‘Well, my heart and my mind,’ exclaimed Dr Dyer, ‘say the same thing – that we’ve got to find a way to get Kate and Peter back as soon as possible before who knows what else happens! Right now, debating the rights and wrongs of all this falls so far back down the line of my list of priorities, it’s out of sight.’

  The Marquis de Montfaron took hold of Dr Dyer’s shoulder. ‘Courage, my friend. Courage. Do not lose hope, all yet may be well.’

  Mrs Dyer, if not her husband, smiled at him.

  ‘Sam is right about something else, too,’ said Dr Pirretti. ‘Or at least he wasn’t so very far off. I’ve been warned that this would happen . . .’

  ‘You’ve been warned?’ said Dr Dyer. ‘Ah, this would be your other self, speaking to you from a parallel universe . . .’

  Mrs Dyer gave her husband a sharp look. ‘Andrew—’

  ‘It’s okay,’ said Dr Pirretti to Mrs Dyer. ‘It’s a scientist’s duty to be sceptical. But, as it happens, yes, I have been warned that the proliferation of parallel worlds caused by time travel is beginning to damage the time mantle. I believe we have just witnessed a time quake . . .’

  ‘A time quake!’ repeated Megan.

  ‘Yes, though I suspect this wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last . . .’

  CHAPTER TEN

  A Curious Duet

  In which Peter vows to do his best for his friends

  and the party makes the acquaintance of a singing dog

  Leaving St Bartholomew’s Fair was a frustrating process, for the surrounding roads were still, even at this hour, jammed with carriages and sedan chairs. Yet at least the flaming torches carried by the revellers allowed them to see where they were going. Once they drew closer to St Paul’s Cathedral even the bright moon, three-quarters full, did little to lighten the darkness of the narrow medieval streets. Here, Sir Richard took the reins while his driver walked ahead, the rumble of the carriage announcing their arrival as clear as any bugle call to the army of throat-slitting rogues that, in the wretched driver’s mind, lurked in every shadow ready to run him through with a dagger – or worse. He held up his lantern and peered anxiously into the darkness, starting at every shop sign swinging and creaking in the strong wind and at every rat that scuttled across the cobbles into the foul-smelling gutters. From time to time a noise would make the driver stop in his tracks and he would grab hold of the bridle of the leader horse until the sweating animals drew to a standstill, their eyes rolling and their ears pricked, probing the stillness of the night-bound city. At such moments it seemed that animals and men were holding their breath, straining to hear whispers drifting from an alleyway or the sound of footfall. Once they heard sudden, raucous laughter that reverberated through the maze of streets and echoed like a pistol shot across St Paul’s churchyard.

  Peter sat between Hannah and a sleeping Kate and both held on to him. Hannah’s hand was warm and solid but Kate’s fingers scarcely left any impression. They felt cool and insubstantial, as if the laws of gravity no longer acted on her i
n the same way. What would happen if Kate kept on fading? And even if they managed to get her home, could she get better? What if she were permanently damaged?

  ‘You must be chilled, Master Peter!’ exclaimed Hannah as she felt him shudder. ‘Here, let me wrap my shawl around you.’

  Peter thanked Hannah as she struggled to cover him, for it was so dark inside the carriage that she could not see her hand in front of her face. Peter felt coarse wool brush against his skin. They lapsed into silence once more. Peter suspected that if what was happening to Kate were happening to him instead, he would not have coped as well as she had. She was brave, much braver than he was. He wondered how he would have reacted if the Tar Man had threatened to cut his fingers off.

  Invisible in the inky blackness, Gideon moaned in his sleep. It would be better for Gideon, he thought, if the Tar Man did manage to elude them once more, for he was in no shape for another encounter with his elder brother. Gideon had done so much for them and yet he had never asked for anything in return. As the horses trotted on through the empty streets, the weight of responsibility slowly settled on Peter’s shoulders. He sensed Kate’s ephemeral touch on his arm and listened to Gideon’s laboured breathing. Peter made his friends a silent promise in the dark. I won’t let you down.

  It was almost midnight when, to the driver’s amazement, they emerged unscathed from the maze of streets below St Paul’s and came to a halt on the moonlit waterfront. Now they would continue their search on foot.

  ‘The Thames, the Thames!’ called out Parson Ledbury. ‘Never was I better pleased to smell its stink. I hope from my soul that the fortune-teller has not sent us on a fool’s errand! Come, Mr Seymour, rouse yourself! We cannot idle here!’

  Gideon groaned and Peter started to disentangle himself from Hannah and the still-sleeping Kate whose fingers he gently unpeeled, one by one. When Peter had extricated himself from her grasp she rolled over to one side, tangling her legs in her long skirts. A shaft of moonlight cut through the darkness of the carriage and the state of Kate’s, dirty, swollen and bleeding feet was suddenly revealed. Why hadn’t she said something?

  ‘Hannah, look.’

  ‘What is it, Master Peter?’

  He pointed to Kate’s feet.

  Hannah gasped. ‘What has happened to her shoes?’

  ‘It was the Tar Man – he stole them.’

  ‘He is a wicked man,’ said Hannah with feeling, ‘to take the shoes of a sick young girl.’ She peered at the soles of Kate’s feet. ‘I shall need to bathe and bind them – not that there’s anything to be done until we return to Lincoln’s Inn Fields.’

  Hannah propped Kate up in the corner of the carriage and covered her with the shawl. She rested her hand tenderly on Kate’s head. ‘She is in a deep sleep. I think it is best we do not waken the poor soul. I shall stay with her.’

  Gideon was now awake; he sucked his breath in through his teeth as he tried to find the least painful way to manoeuvre himself out of the carriage. He looked over at Kate as, wincing with every movement, he finally managed to get down. ‘Let her sleep while she can,’ he whispered to Hannah. ‘She has been through enough for one night.’

  ‘And she is not alone in that!’ said Hannah softly as she caught sight of Gideon’s eye. The flesh around it was now so swollen the lid had completely closed.

  Peter glanced at Kate’s pale face as he followed Gideon out of the carriage. I know she prefers being with me at the moment, he reasoned, but I’m not leaving her on her own: Hannah will be with her . . . and I’ve got to look out for Gideon, too. Besides, he thought, while she’s asleep Kate won’t know whether I’m here or not.

  It was good to be out of the stuffy carriage and, as rivers draw the eye and soothe the soul, Peter stood for a time watching the moonlight dance on the water. Fast-moving currents and swirling eddies corrugated its surface while, directly below him, gentle waves lapped against the quayside where a line of barges was moored. The wind drove them incessantly one against the other so that a succession of hollow, percussive sounds rang out towards the opposite bank like irregular drumbeats. He watched a handful of small ferry-boats, their lanterns reflected in the black water, picking their way precariously through the currents from Bankside. They bobbed up and down on the waves, dwarfed by two sailing ships, anchored for the night, whose masts creaked and groaned in the wind.

  Parson Ledbury cleared his throat noisily and stretched. ‘And now to find that slippery brother of yours, Mr Seymour—’

  ‘I have already told you that he is no brother of mine!’

  ‘All families have their black sheep, Mr Seymour. You must not permit the existence of a freshly acquired relative to trouble your peace of mind, unsavoury though he is. Besides, what is the purpose of a sibling if not to vex us?’

  ‘And the same could be said of parsons!’ quipped Sir Richard. ‘The relationship is not yet proven.’

  Gideon looked so put out that Peter felt he should say something. ‘Even if the Tar Man is your brother – and I’m not saying he is – but even if he is, it doesn’t change anything. You’re still the same person. You’re still Gideon Seymour.’

  Gideon met Peter’s gaze but did not trust himself to reply.

  ‘I mean,’ said Peter, ‘no one’s going to make you go round to the Tar Man’s house for tea every Sunday or anything.’

  Even over Parson Ledbury’s laughter Peter could hear Gideon’s sharp intake of breath.

  ‘I didn’t mean to—’

  ‘Best not to say any more,’ whispered Sir Richard into Peter’s ear.

  Peter walked over to look at the boats while Gideon, Sir Richard and the Parson pored over the fortune-teller’s map trying to work out the whereabouts of the Tar Man’s lodgings. He looked down at the river flowing quickly past him. Sometimes this century really got to him. Mostly he avoided thinking in that way because it was pointless, but everything was so primitive. Everything took so long. How difficult could it be to find the Tar Man, for crying out loud? For a boy born into an age when information travels at the speed of light, it was cruelly hard at times to accept that in this century news could only travel as fast as the fleetest horse. Scotland could have sunk into the sea and all its inhabitants been consumed by dinosaurs yet it would still be three or four days before anyone in London even heard a whisper of it. Even if someone spotted the Tar Man in the next street, by the time news got back to them he’d be far away. A niggling doubt crept, uninvited, into the back of his mind, as it occasionally did. A persistent, negative voice taunted him: you’re going to be stuck here for ever just like your alternative self and there’s nothing that you or Kate or Gideon or anyone back home can do about it.

  A random memory of home – the soft glow of street lamps on Richmond Green, shining through thin, striped curtains – reminded him how badly he missed electricity. He closed his eyes and pictured that other, illuminated London, his London, ablaze with a million lights, like a gigantic flare sent up from an ocean of darkness, announcing our presence to the universe. Whenever his dad took him into the city they would never take the tube from Waterloo station but would always catch a black cab so they could see his favourite view of the city from the bridge. He could hear his father saying to him – Look, Peter, look around you! Where else in the world would you rather be? Then Peter opened his eyes again. How dark it was in comparison. And yet he knew that this younger, smaller city was the parent of the London that was to come.

  Suddenly he became aware of raised voices.

  ‘Hold the lantern still,’ cried Sir Richard to the driver, trying to marry up the fortune-teller’s map with the rows of neat terraced houses, some whitewashed and some red-brick, that jutted onto the cobbled quayside. He screwed up his eyes. ‘I cannot make it out. What say you, Parson? Has the fortune-teller deceived us?’

  ‘I pictured some hideous hovel, dripping with slime and damp,’ said Parson Ledbury. ‘These are respectable dwellings . . . I fear that the wretched woman is in the pay of the Tar M
an.’

  ‘What’s to be done?’ exclaimed Sir Richard angrily. ‘Even if the woman did not set out to deceive us her map is useless. The Tar Man could be hiding in any one of these houses!’

  ‘Ssssshhh!’

  Gideon put a finger to his lips. He looked around as if he were listening for something. The Parson took out his pistol and started to tiptoe away from the river and towards the impenetrable black shadows behind them. Gideon, Peter and Sir Richard followed.

  It was Peter who spotted it first. ‘There’s nothing to be scared of – it’s a dog! It’s just a little dog!’

  ‘Peter! Wait!’ shouted Gideon in alarm.

  But Peter had already plunged into an alleyway between the rows of houses. A moment later he reappeared carrying a small white dog with a black patch over one eye which he deposited gently onto the cobblestones. The animal stood wagging its stumpy tail and observed the party expectantly. The Parson leaned over, picked up the dog by the scruff of its neck and lifted it up to eye level. The creature let out a strangulated growl while its short legs kicked back and forth in mid-air like a clockwork toy running down.

  ‘I’ll thank you, gentlemen, to unhand my dog!’ cried a croaky voice from within the shadows.

  The Parson dropped the dog like a hot coal and all eyes followed the indistinct white shape as it scampered, whimpering, back into the shadows.

  ‘Show yourself, sir!’ roared the Parson. ‘I do not care to be addressed by a fellow that cowers up an alley!’

  Presently an old gentleman, thin and bent, shuffled into view. He held a cane in one hand and clamped the dog protectively to his chest with the other.

  ‘You do not have the look of robbers,’ the old man said, peering out at them.

 
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