Time quake, p.18
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       TIME QUAKE, p.18

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  Anjali nodded, satisfied. ‘Thought as much. So, do you know Vega Riaza, then? You know, the Tar Man?’

  Montfaron raised his eyebrows. ‘The Tar Man and I shared neither the same decade, nor the same country, nor, I am relieved to say, the same acquaintances . . .’

  ‘Only asking,’ Anjali grinned. ‘Vega’s all right once you get to know him . . .’

  While the children played hide and seek and gathered more dry kindling for the bonfire, the grown-ups talked in earnest. Mrs Dyer was listening with one ear but kept looking anxiously back towards the farmhouse, hoping to see that Montfaron had persuaded Sam to come and join them.

  ‘Has Tim admitted leaking the story to the US press?’ asked Dr Dyer.

  ‘No,’ Dr Pirretti replied, ‘and I’m still hoping it might blow over. Even if Tim has approached journalists directly, the serious papers aren’t going to be fool enough to print the story without proof and confirmation from NASA. All we’ve got to do is to continue to deny everything.’

  Mrs Dyer pulled a face. ‘Anita! What newspaper editor would show restraint if there’s even a remote possibility that someone’s discovered time travel? And after what the whole world has just witnessed, how long do you think it’ll be before people start putting two and two together? Sooner or later all hell is going to break loose, you know it will.’

  Dr Dyer and Dr Pirretti exchanged glances. Dr Pirretti tore up a handful of grass and scattered it in front of her. ‘In which case we’d better get moving while we still can.’

  ‘How long do you think it will take you both to build another anti-gravity machine?’ asked Mrs Dyer.

  ‘Two weeks?’ said Dr Pirretti. ‘Maybe.’

  ‘At least,’ said Dr Dyer. ‘But with both of us suspended from duties, the biggest problem will be getting hold of the materials. I might have to resort to breaking into my own lab.’

  ‘Ah. That, at least, we don’t have to worry about,’ said Dr Pirretti.

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘I mean that Inspector Wheeler is going to lend us a hand.’

  ‘Inspector Wheeler! You’ve been in contact with him?’

  ‘Yes. He’s been looking into something for me. I got an email, the same day that the New York Post published a piece entitled Is time travel possible? The writer preferred to remain anonymous. They had contacted the journalist who wrote the piece. He told them, in turn, that it was our anti-gravity project that was implicated in the rumours . . .’

  ‘You mean Tim actually told them it was us?’ exclaimed Dr Dyer.

  ‘How else would the journalist have known?’

  ‘But what was the email about, Anita?’ asked Mrs Dyer.

  ‘They suspect that a man they’ve recently got to know actually comes from the past. They’ve even attached a couple of photographs of some guy in New York.’

  ‘How strange!’ said Mrs Dyer.

  ‘It’s bound to turn out to be a hoax – but in the circumstances I asked Dan Wheeler if it would be possible for him to check the identity of the sender.’

  ‘Dan?’ said Dr Dyer. ‘So you’re on first name terms now!’

  Dr Pirretti laughed. ‘He’s kind of sweet – in a gruff, Scottish, don’t-mess-with-me sort of way. But the point is, while I was talking to him about the email, I told him about our decision to build a second replica of Tim’s machine. I also mentioned how tough it was going to be to getting hold of the materials. And straight away he offered us his support.’

  ‘That’s excellent news!’ exclaimed Dr Dyer. ‘It makes a change to have a policeman on our side!’

  ‘I know. He even said that if necessary he’d go to the NCRDM management and confiscate laboratory equipment “for analysis”.’

  Mrs Dyer smiled at Dr Pirretti. ‘Well done, Anita!’

  As the summer afternoon wore on, long fingers of violet shadow started to creep down one side of the valley. Crickets chirruped, feathery grasses rippled in waves across the fields, whilst, overhead, larks called anxiously as the children strayed too near their nests, picking blue harebells and scarlet poppies. Unseen as yet by the three adults sitting in a circle around the growing pile of logs and twigs, four figures were approaching them from the farmhouse and an unmarked police car had just drawn to a halt in the drive.

  Mrs Dyer stared absently at the beauty that surrounded her. But she saw none of it. Her shoulders hunched and her eyebrows were knotted together in a little frown.

  Dr Dyer leaned towards her. ‘Penny for them,’ he whispered.

  Suddenly Mrs Dyer sat up straight and looked up at her two companions. She looked as if she had finally come to some kind of decision. ‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you ever since Kate came back the first time – but there’s been so much else to worry about that I haven’t wanted to add to it. And in any case, I’m still not sure whether it was my imagination or not . . .’

  Dr Dyer looked sharply at his wife. ‘What is it? Is it to do with Kate?’

  Mrs Dyer described how she thought she had seen Kate moving faster than a human being could possibly move and how Kate had been entirely unaware of what was happening to her.

  ‘We’d just done the milking. It was beginning to snow – you know how much Kate loves snow. One minute she was behaving perfectly normally and the next she was flitting about as fast as a bat. No faster than that, a humming bird . . . Far faster, at any rate, than is normal.’

  ‘Now that is weird,’ said Dr Pirretti. ‘Are you sure it couldn’t have been a trick of the light – something flickering perhaps?’

  ‘Well, exactly, it’s what I’ve been trying to tell myself. I wondered if I was just imagining things – after all we’d been under so much stress. But you see, Kate then asked me why I’d been staying still for so long – but I hadn’t. I realised that relative to the speed at which she was travelling, it must have seemed like I was standing still. Of course, I didn’t tell Kate what I was thinking.’

  ‘But why didn’t you tell me, for goodness’ sake?’ cried her husband.

  ‘What could you have done about it? Look, I suppose I doubted the evidence of my own eyes. It was like she’d been . . . disconnected from normal time. She was moving so quickly she was blurred – any faster and I think she would have disappeared altogether.’

  ‘And she didn’t notice anything?’

  ‘No, nothing. And am I the only one who noticed a change in Kate before the Tar Man carried them both off? There was something about her appearance that reminded me of a colour photograph that is beginning to fade – even the red of her hair seemed less intense. Oh, I don’t know . . . it was all very subtle, nothing dramatic.’

  ‘I didn’t notice anything,’ said Dr Dyer.

  Mrs Dyer looked relieved. ‘Oh, I hope you’re right. The imagination can play such strange tricks.’

  ‘I noticed it, too,’ said Dr Pirretti.

  Dr Dyer looked crestfallen.

  ‘What could be happening to her to cause such a thing?’ cried Mrs Dyer.

  ‘I suspect it means that time travel is having a physical effect on her . . .’ replied her husband.

  ‘My – alternative self – has a theory,’ said Dr Pirretti.

  Dr Dyer gave her a sharp look which made Dr Pirretti hesitate.

  ‘A theory about Kate? How does she know about Kate if she’s in a parallel world?’ asked Mrs Dyer.

  ‘In the same way that she can sense me, she can sense Kate. If you accept the possibility that parallel worlds exist, it doesn’t require a great leap of faith to believe that there might be some kind of link between them. She believes that Kate is pivotal to finding a solution to all this. The first time event happened in our world. Change things here and the rest follows.’

  ‘And because Kate belongs to the original world, she has the power to change things?’ asked Mrs Dyer.

  ‘That’s my alter ego’s theory . . .’

  ‘And can she talk with Kate?’

  ‘She tells me she is trying to.’
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  ‘So she’s definitely alive?’ cried Mrs Dyer joyfully.

  Dr Dyer opened and closed his mouth, torn between conflicting emotions.

  ‘I know, I know,’ said Dr Pirretti. ‘Beware of false hopes. But for what it’s worth, Andrew, I am a hundred per cent certain that – no matter how ludicrous it seems -I am able to communicate with an alternative me in a parallel world which would not have existed were it not for our little fiasco with an anti-gravity machine. And this other Anita Pirretti is equally convinced that she is on the verge of being able to communicate with Kate.’

  ‘All right, I agree to suspend my disbelief for a minute,’ said Dr Dyer. ‘Tell us about her/your theory about what is happening to Kate.’

  ‘She compares what is happening to the universe to what is happening to the atoms in Kate’s body . . .’

  Mrs Dyer’s face creased into anxious lines. ‘Kate’s atoms?’

  Dr Dyer took hold of her hand. ‘Remember that this is to be taken with a large pinch of salt . . .’

  Mrs Dyer withdrew her hand. ‘I’m fine! Go on, Anita! I’m listening.’

  ‘Okay. We know that left to its own devices gravity would slow and then reverse the expansion of the universe, ultimately squeezing everything down to a single point where even time itself would stop. But this isn’t happening. It seems that something is countering it. And that something is pushing the stars and galaxies apart so that rather than the expansion of the universe slowing down, in fact the expansion is accelerating, with the distances between galaxies becoming greater and greater . . .’

  ‘And although we don’t yet understand what that something is, we’re calling it dark energy,’ said Dr Dyer.

  ‘Exactly. And dark energy appears to be acting as a counter-force to gravity. This battle of the forces seems to be shaping the way the Universe expands, the way galaxies and stars move – and, according my alternative self, how the atoms in our bodies behave.’

  Suddenly Dr Dyer stood up and started to pace around. ‘Of course!’ He turned to his wife. ‘You know how I always said that what puzzled me in all of this was why the anti-gravity machine chose the precise moment that Kate and Peter bumped into it to become a time machine? And I said that it must be something akin to oxygen making a flame burn more brightly?’

  Dr Pirretti started to nod her head. ‘Go on,’ she said.

  ‘Could it be possible that there are circumstances in which people can act as a kind of conduit – a kind of conductor – for dark energy . . .’

  ‘Precisely the conclusion my alter ego came to,’ said Dr Pirretti. ‘It makes sense, doesn’t it?’

  ‘And if that is the case,’ continued Dr Dyer, ‘it would be more accurate to say that people are powering the anti-gravity machine than it would be to say that the anti-gravity machine is transporting passengers across time . . .’

  Squeals of laughter suddenly carried over to them on the warm breeze and they all turned to watch the children chasing each other in the meadow.

  ‘My alternative self has another theory,’ said Dr Pirretti. ‘She believes that some people are better conductors of dark energy than others. Using her logic, Kate, for instance, is a particularly good conductor. She likens it to copper being a better conductor of electricity than rubber. Kate is copper – and my instincts tell me that the Tar Man is, too. Peter, on the other hand, seems to be less sensitive to the side effects of time travel which makes me think he could be a much poorer conductor.’

  ‘I can see her reasoning,’ said Dr Dyer. ‘She would argue that in Kate, the balance between gravity and dark energy has become unstable – dark energy is getting the upper hand. And it’s the excess of dark energy in Kate that makes her susceptible to slipping out of the normal flow of time.’

  Dr Pirretti spread out her hands in agreement. ‘Exactly – although we can’t yet prove any of this, of course. And I am beginning to suspect that the reason I am able to communicate with a parallel world is that I, too, am a good conductor of dark energy. Perhaps we all have the capacity to do this.’

  ‘You’re seriously suggesting that we can all communicate with our alternative selves in parallel worlds!’

  ‘Perhaps. I don’t know! But think of it this way – and there’s been a lot of speculation about this: imagine parallel worlds as a series of ponds. While we are stuck in our own pond we are convinced that there is nothing else – until, one day, we stick our heads above the surface and we realise that our pond is just one of many. And what if all these ponds are linked in so far as they sit in the same earth? Would it be such a crazy idea to think that communication between ponds ought to be possible?’

  Dr Dyer ran his hands through red hair. ‘Anita, this is a step too far for me – I honestly don’t know what I think any more . . .’

  ‘All right . . . but, in any case, if we take the idea that Kate has been conducting dark energy to its logical conclusion, do you see what effect this might have on the human body?’

  Mrs Dyer’s eyes darted from one to another and caught her husband’s expression change from one of excitement to dismay in half a second.

  ‘What is it?’ she cried.

  ‘I’ve just understood your reference to the link between the galaxies in the universe and the atoms in Kate’s body . . . If dark energy fills the spaces in atoms in the same way that it fills the empty spaces in the universe, then Kate’s atoms could, quite literally, like the universe itself, be drifting apart . . .’

  Mrs Dyer’s eyes opened wide with horror. ‘Which would explain why Kate looks like she’s fading! Oh, Andrew, we’ve got to get her back! We’ve got to get her back and reverse it!’

  Dr Dyer held his wife in his arms but over her shoulder his eyes met those of Dr Pirretti. Both knew what the other was thinking. Suddenly Mrs Dyer pushed her husband away and turned to Dr Pirretti.

  ‘Anita, you’ve got to tell your alter ego to hurry. Tell her to keep trying to contact her. If she can give Kate the security code for the machine they might stand a chance. What is the code, Andrew?’

  ‘One that she won’t have any problem remembering – it’s her date of birth.’

  ‘Tell her, Anita! Tell her that we’re doing everything we can to get her back!’

  ‘I will. Of course, I will.’

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  The Law of Temporal Osmosis

  In which Kate makes a scientific

  discovery and keeps company with

  The Tar Man on his boat

  It took Kate an unbearably long time to extricate her hand from Sir Richard’s grasp. He felt like a corpse: cold, stiff and unresponsive. She had to tear back his fingers with every last scrap of her strength until she went red in the face and her forehead became drenched in sweat. Finally she managed to slide her hand out. It seemed to her that her ability to interact with the physical world was diminishing with each new episode of fast-forwarding. Relative to her own mass, everything she touched now seemed so much denser. It was as if she were losing her strength in this dimension – a butterfly beating its wings against a windowpane. Just how fast must she now be hurtling through time?

  Kate was anxious to get out of the room. In the same way as London pavements bear witness to the passage of an underground train tens of feet below, the air that she breathed transmitted Sir Richard’s pulsing cry even though it was no longer audible. Glancing around the Tar Man’s sitting room, she tried to avoid letting her gaze settle on Sir Richard’s arm or the expression on his face, or the pool of someone’s blood under the table. The room was furnished with taste and care, which both surprised and intrigued Kate. The surface of the table was strewn with ancient-looking objects. Kate wondered if the Tar Man liked to collect beautiful things, or whether this was merely where he stashed his stolen goods. Most of the items would have looked at home in the British Museum – amulets and urns, small statues of athletes and wood nymphs and the like. There was a tinderbox, too, similar to the one she had often seen Gideon use to light fires.

/>   Stepping over Sir Richard’s sprawling legs, Kate hurried out of the door, down the stairs, past the old gentleman and the Parson, and stood looking down into the mouth of the trapdoor. The yawning hole was pitch-black and smelled bad. The candle was still burning in the centre of the hall and Kate decided that she would have to requisition it. After all, the old gentleman and the Parson would not miss it – it would be back again within a blink of one of their eyes. But when she crouched down, expecting to pick it up in one hand, she found that she needed two. It was a peculiar sensation: it was not that it felt enormously heavy, it was more a case of her own flesh seeming insubstantial compared with the density of the candlestick. After a short while she felt as if her arms might tear like tissue paper if she didn’t put the candlestick down. Kate placed it back on the floor. Trying to convince herself that her flesh did not look as fragile as it felt, Kate held out her hands in front of her, reassuring herself that their waxen translucence was merely an effect of the candlelight. At length she decided to go outside to look for Gideon and Peter rather than descending into that black hole by herself and without a light.

  She looked over at the old gentleman who was now passing his flask over to the Parson. The latter was looking very pleased at the prospect of another mouthful of brandy.

  ‘See you later, you poor little thing,’ she said to Toby the dog, and planted a loud kiss on its head. ‘Bye, Parson Ledbury and your new friend! Don’t drink too much bingo while I’m away!’

  Kate stole out into the night and walked painfully over the cobblestones towards the river. At the quayside she stopped and turned a full three hundred and sixty degrees, searching the darkness for any sign of Gideon or Peter. Time had turned the Thames into a great slab of black glass. Silhouettes of houses and church steeples rose up all around, dwarfed by the towering dome of St Paul’s which glowed in the moonlight like a gigantic beacon over the city. The night was exceptionally clear. The longer Kate gazed at the sky, the more layers of stars she could see; an infinity of stars shining down on her from the farthest stretches of the universe. Kate sighed and looked out at this still and silent world where she was its only fully-functioning inhabitant. It was like having her own desert island or, which was nearer the mark, like being the only inmate of a vast prison whose sole key holder, to the best of her knowledge, was Peter Schock, who was currently nowhere to be seen.

 

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