Time quake, p.27
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       TIME QUAKE, p.27

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  They had not intended to bring with them Sally, Sergeant Thomas’s faithful, if hideous, hound. As they embarked on their fateful journey to the past, she had leaped onto her master at the very moment the anti-gravity machine left one century for another. As there was no way to send her back without disrupting their plans, Sergeant Thomas had entrusted her to William while he did his duty for King and country. Powerful scents met the dog’s sensitive nostrils: of horses and gunpowder, and wounded, unwashed men. And she sniffed the air, alert and fearful. There were unfamiliar sounds, too, that sent her off kilter: the incessant trudge of thousands of feet through snow, the murmur of a great crowd echoing over the empty distances, the whinnying and snorting of horses, reluctant to step onto icy ferries, the crunch of cannon wheels over frozen ground . . . For a city dog, more used to the honking of horns and the smell of pizzas and gutters, this overload of her senses was too much to bear. She lifted her large head and barked repeatedly. The wind carried her cries away from the river and into the starless night. Lord Luxon kicked the animal mercilessly in the ribs, pushing her onto her side. She struggled to get back up again, whimpering pitifully, her coat covered in snow. When William approached her she snarled at him.

  ‘Shhh!’ whispered William into her ear. ‘We are within a hundred yards of the enemy. Would you have us all killed?!’

  William crouched down in the snow and tied his handkerchief around the animal’s muzzle to muffle her cries before Lord Luxon carried out his repeated threat to silence her himself. When he had finished, William grabbed her by the collar, pushed down her rear so that she sat, whining through her gag, on the frozen earth. He stroked her head and caressed her floppy ears to comfort her.

  Lord Luxon, meanwhile, peered out at the army massing on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. The night was very dark but long tongues of flames from the bonfires, dancing and spluttering in the gusts of air, cast enough light over the scene for Lord Luxon’s purposes.

  He watched ranks of men stamping their feet and blowing on their fingers and rotating close to the fires. Behind them, a ghostly flotilla of ferries and boats waited on the black river.

  ‘One would think we were gathered on the banks of the River Styx!’ exclaimed Lord Luxon. ‘But where is the ferryman to transport these wretched sinners to hell?’

  William said nothing, assuming, rightly, that no response was required. But, he thought to himself, they had their own Cerberus, watchdog of Hades, in Sally. She might not have three heads but she was, without doubt, the ugliest dog he had ever clapped eyes on . . .

  Presently, above the howling wind, they heard the deep bass voice of Colonel Henry Knox ordering parties of men to shift the great slabs of ice that were gathering at the river’s edge making embarkation impossible. Lord Luxon caught a flash of steel as the big man waved his sabre in the air, directing the men.

  ‘There is our man, at last!’ exclaimed Lord Luxon, steam coming from his mouth with every breath. ‘But where the devil are Sergeant Thomas and Corporal Starling?’

  He took out his night-vision binoculars and scanned the faces of the soldiers. After several minutes he gave up looking for his own men and concentrated on looking for the whereabouts of the commander-in-chief of the American army. The sound of men hacking at the ice and levering it away from the bank with poles punctuated Lord Luxon’s feverish thoughts. Adrenaline raced through his veins and made him forget the cold and the wind. He thought of glory, and of his father’s disapproval of him, and of his dead uncles, and of sweeping aside once and for all the mistakes of his youth. This, he thought, would be his legacy to England, and England would forever be in his debt.

  Suddenly, Lord Luxon saw what he had been waiting for and his heart missed a beat. The time had come! General Washington was climbing into a boat manned by perhaps a dozen men. Through sheets of snowflakes Lord Luxon could distinguish his hat and cape and sabre, and saw the mariners holding up their oars and poles to attention whilst blocks of ice smacked against the side of the boat. The rim of the boat had been painted yellow and Lord Luxon watched this thin stripe bob up and down in the water as General Washington climbed in, causing the vessel to list from side to side. General Washington seemed to be about to sit down but then changed his mind on account of the freezing water sloshing about at the bottom of the boat. He remained standing, legs wide apart for balance.

  ‘William, do you see Sergeant Thomas?’

  ‘I do not, sir.’

  ‘Damn his eyes! Where is the fellow?’

  Lord Luxon was becoming agitated. He reached up and tore off a bare branch from the tree that swayed above them. Sally, who had not taken her eyes off Lord Luxon, flinched, fearing another beating. She whimpered despite William’s handkerchief. Lord Luxon glared at her.

  ‘And confound his wretched hound!’

  He took a swipe at her and William cried out as the animal yanked her head from his grasp and bounded away from her tormentor and towards her beloved master. Sally knew he was near. She could detect his scent even amidst thousands of others. Lord Luxon and William both ran after her but even with her clumsy, lolloping gait, she could outrun them with ease. They stopped under cover of trees some fifty yards from the bank. Lord Luxon stood white-faced and grim-jawed. He surveyed General Washington standing proud in his boat and Colonel Knox cupping his hands to his mouth and bellowing orders to the watermen from high on the bank. He could see the ripple of movement as men moved out of the way of the rampaging canine.

  ‘Shoot, damn you, shoot!’ hissed Lord Luxon. ‘Before all is lost . . .’

  Astride in the boat amidst the seated mariners, General Washington made an easy target. Sergeant Thomas stood in the dark willing him to turn around for he had no desire to shoot the man in the back. The wind was very strong now. His ears were full of the howling wind and Colonel Knox’s incessant commands bellowing out across the river. Flurries of snow swirled in front of his eyes, sometimes making his victim disappear completely. Twenty yards and two bonfires separated Sergeant Thomas from Corporal Starling and each had managed to catch the other’s eye. Now that the General’s boat was ten or fifteen yards from the bank, the moment had come. This was it. They had arrived at the tipping point of history. Sergeant Thomas’s stomach lurched. His mouth had gone dry. He gave the prearranged signal, a double nod of the head, which Corporal Starling repeated back to him. Sergeant Thomas started to count to thirty which he knew his accomplice would be doing at the same time. Then Sergeant Thomas knelt down, placed his musket on the ground and took out the small twenty-first-century revolver from his pocket. He screwed on the silencer as they had practised a hundred times. Under cover of the snow and the wind and the dark, and in the midst of all this frantic activity, not a soul noticed him taking aim.

  ‘Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four—’

  Sally’s forelegs landed square in the middle of his back, pushing him forward onto the hard ground. His forehead hit something hard and for several moments he saw stars and was unable to move. After hours in the freezing wind he suddenly felt warm. Sally lay on top of him. As he tried to get up, the dog nuzzled his neck and William’s handkerchief, now soaked with slobber, wet his ear. Sergeant Thomas pushed himself up, aghast, and thrust Sally roughly away from him. A terrible panic came over Sergeant Thomas as he heard shouting and the sound of running feet. He stood up. Hundreds of men were rushing in the direction of Colonel Knox. Confusion reigned. Soldiers raced around the bank as if someone had kicked over an ants’ nest. He glanced at the river. General Washington was shouting at the oarsmen to return to shore. The gun! The gun! Sergeant Thomas dropped to the ground and felt blindly for the weapon. His fingers closed over the barrel of the gun and he leaped to his feet, feeling for the trigger as he took aim. Sally bumped up against him.

  ‘Heel!’ he cried.

  The gagged animal sat down obediently and looked up at her master as he pointed his gun at George Washington’s heart. She whimpered. Sergeant Thomas glanced
down at her and the thought scorched through his mind like a fork of lightning that the animal was Washington’s guardian angel. Was she telling him that he was not meant to assassinate the first President of the United States? The faces of the blacksmith and Michael in his bar in SoHo appeared to him. He thought of the people going about their business in Prince Street, and then of all the people who must have come to America from every corner of the globe to start a new life. And then he thought of the corrupt aristocrat who had hired him, whose wish it was that General Washington should die so that Britain should retain its colony. And for what purpose? Who would benefit? Ever so slowly, as if his arm had a mind of its own, Sergeant Thomas lowered the gun . . .

  Neither man nor beast saw the slight figure pushing his way through crowds of running men, hurtling towards them through the wind and snow. Sally was as slow to react as her master when Lord Luxon tore the gun from his hand.

  ‘No!’ shouted Sergeant Thomas into the wind.

  The cry reached General Washington who turned instinctively towards it, even in the midst of all the commotion on shore, his keen eyes searching the darkness. By the flickering light of a bonfire, he saw first the shape of a man and then the shape of a great dog collapse to the ground. As he opened his mouth to raise the alarm he glimpsed the glint of metal and a hand wielding a strange weapon that pointed directly at him. Lord Luxon squeezed the trigger. It weighed so little, the bullet that sped across the stormy night to lodge in a human heart, and yet it had gathered enough momentum to topple a nation. Without a sound, the commander-in-chief of the Patriot forces fell into the Delaware River, his blood staining the blocks of ice that knocked against the boat. Four brave mariners jumped into the freezing waters to rescue their leader. By the time General Washington’s lifeless body was heaved onto dry land, Lord Luxon had disappeared into the night and the Patriot cause was already lost.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  The Veil

  In which Peter finally learns of the problems that

  have beset his friend, and the consequences

  of time travel become impossible to ignore

  In the middle of the night, when all was silent and she could not even see her hand in front of her face, Kate would sit up in bed and stare all around her, searching for signs that she had slipped into a world where time flowed faster. She would reach out to Peter, and listen to his even, easy breath and know that for now, at least, she was not alone. Reassured, Kate slept fitfully on.

  It was past midday when a pale and bleary-eyed Hannah knocked on Peter’s bedroom door bearing a bowl of steaming hot water. She deposited it on the dressing table by the casement window. The blackbirds sang and the sun shone down on Sir Richard’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields as if all were right with the world. She found not only Peter but also Kate. They had dragged the mattress from the bed, turned it sideways and had taken half each, so that their top halves were cushioned whilst their legs lay sprawled out over bare floorboards. Both wore long white nightshirts. Peter slept on his back, with his mouth open, whilst Kate lay on her stomach. A lace fichu, that had decorated the neckline of Kate’s dress, now bound the children’s wrists together. Hannah wondered which of them thought the other was going to get away in the night. She sighed. But in a topsy-turvy world such as this, what did it matter? She knelt down next to them.

  ‘It grieves me to wake you after such a night, but the Tar Man is waiting on you and Master Gideon in the drawing room. Though it does not seem right to see a rogue like him sitting in Sir Richard’s armchair and sipping tea from a china cup . . .’

  Peter pushed himself up a fraction and muttered: ‘Could you tell him we’ll be down in a minute?’

  Kate kept her head buried in the mattress. All she could manage was a groan. Hannah was, herself, too tired to cajole. ‘Very well,’ she said, closing the door, ‘I shall tell the Tar Man you will join him presently.’

  When Peter tried to get up he discovered that he was tied to Kate. All of this was really getting to her. He untied the fichu and got up as quietly as he could. He splashed his face with the hot water. He looked down at the sleeping Kate and then dried his face with the linen cloth. When he took the towel away from his eyes, a second or two later, he was shocked to see Kate standing next to him, touching his hand.

  ‘I didn’t see you—’

  But Peter stopped mid-sentence and stared at Kate open-mouthed. His hand flew to his mouth. Suddenly Kate vanished and reappeared simultaneously on his other side. Peter cried out in shock.

  ‘Don’t let go of me,’ she said. ‘Every time you do I fast-forward.’

  ‘Fast-forward?’ Peter just stared at her. ‘What are you talking about?’

  ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’

  ‘You . . . I . . . I think you’d better look in the mirror . . .’

  There was a small, oval mirror in a gold frame above the dressing table. Kate looked into it for a long moment. Her contours were hazy, and the colour of her skin, and even that of her hair, was as diluted and delicate as the finest silk chiffon. A single ray of afternoon sunshine penetrated the room through a high window and passed right through her shoulder. Kate showed no expression but hot tears started to flow down Peter’s cheeks. His friend could no longer be said to be solid.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. ‘I can’t help it. You look . . . like a ghost.’

  Kate merely nodded in agreement.

  ‘What’s happening to you, Kate? I don’t understand!’

  And so the conversation that Kate had been dreading for so long took place. Things had gone too far for it not to. She could no longer pretend that nothing was wrong – either to herself or anyone else. Something was very wrong indeed. They sat down side by side on the mattress and Kate told Peter about fast-forwarding and seeing the future and what had happened when she touched the Tar Man and about being able to talk with Dr Pirretti – or at least an alternative Dr Pirretti in a parallel world. At first Peter just listened but soon the questions started.

  ‘You mean you were fast-forwarding and seeing the future when you were with my dad and the grown-up version of me?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Did I know what was happening to you?’

  ‘A little . . . not everything.’

  ‘Well, why couldn’t you tell me? It was obvious something was wrong, that you were beginning to fade. Did you think I was too stupid to understand?’

  ‘I’m telling you now . . .’

  ‘I might have been able to help!’

  ‘This isn’t about you! I didn’t want to talk about it! I thought I might stop doing it, acclimatise, or something. Like getting used to the heat on holiday . . . We stopped blurring after a while, didn’t we?’

  Peter nodded miserably.

  ‘And anyway, you’re the only one who can help.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘You’re my lightning conductor. You ground me.’

  ‘Is that why you won’t let go of me?’

  ‘Yes. Why do you think I tied our wrists together? Without you I just spin off at a million miles an hour. It might seem like one night to you. For me these past twenty-four hours feel like a year. I lost count of the number of times I fast-forwarded before I tied us up. I was talking to Dr Pirretti during the night and—’

  ‘Can you hear her now?’

  ‘I only hear her while I’m fast-forwarding.’

  ‘But why?’

  ‘She’s got a theory – which I couldn’t follow. Something to do with parallel worlds and dark energy. I can see the future much more easily when I’m fast-forwarding, too.’

  ‘Can you see my future?’

  Kate nodded. ‘I’ve seen something. I didn’t understand it – you were upset. You were standing on a tall building with a city in the distance that looked a bit like London but I’m not sure.’

  ‘Eighteenth or twenty-first century?’

  ‘Definitely not eighteenth . . .’<
br />
  ‘But that’s fantastic! It means we get back! Can you see your future?’

  ‘No . . . I’ve tried.’

  ‘Maybe no one’s supposed to see their own future.’

  Kate shrugged. ‘Maybe I don’t have a future.’

  ‘Don’t talk like that!’

  Kate shrugged again and turned to look at the fluffy clouds through the high window. Peter heard the call of swallows and observed the light penetrating through Kate’s skull. He could scarcely feel her hand. Her touch was feather-light. Peter squeezed Kate’s hand very gently. Kate turned around and shot a look at him. She knew what he was doing. She squeezed back. Peter looked down and saw how she was straining – Kate was gripping him as hard as she could and yet he could barely feel it.

  ‘Maybe another Kate Dyer has a future—’

  ‘Stop it!’

  ‘No, no I mean it! I saw myself. I guess I saw a version of me from one of Dr Pirretti’s parallel worlds.’

  ‘Are you serious?’

  ‘I was terrified.’

  ‘What did you do?’

  ‘I hid. She – I – was moving at a slower rate than me. It was funny, I looked like I was gliding on ice skates or something. If I hadn’t been so scared I would have laughed. But seeing yourself like that, like others see you, but being on the outside looking in, not being able to know what’s going on in your head . . . it’s weird. Horrible weird. The other me had an expression on her face like Sam when I told him I’d put his name down for a bungee jump from the church steeple on April Fool’s Day . . .’

  ‘If there’s an alternative Kate Dyer out there . . .’

  ‘Not just one, loads of them if Dr Pirretti’s right.’

  ‘All right, if there are loads of Kate Dyers out there, does that mean there are loads of Peter Schocks, too?’

 
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