Summerhouse land, p.15
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       Summerhouse Land, p.15

           Roderick Gordon

  They certainly didn’t look American.

  A small alarm bell goes off in his head.

  ‘They certainly didn’t look American,’ he announces to the ceiling of the room, a sneaking suspicion about why he’s been sent on this pointless errand flaring into something far more tangible.

  Curtis sits up suddenly. ‘Morgan!’ he shouts.

  Throwing everything into his suitcase, Curtis storms downstairs and hands in the key to his room. He waits for the night porter to unlock the door, then runs to where he’s left his car. He drives at some speed through London, forced to stop as he comes to a military checkpoint in White City. The soldier examines his identity card while another checks the boot, then Curtis is off again, soon clearing the last of London as he sweeps along the A40.

  6.41 AM.

  The sun is nosing over the horizon, pushing back the dark sky with citrine intensity. It’s going to be a glorious day, but that doesn’t register with Curtis as he swerves off the A40 and speeds down a winding country lane. As he continues toward the installation, the conviction that he’s been duped is hardening with every mile.

  In that parting meeting with Morgan, the other man’s words about the first implosion come back to Curtis: ‘I know – and that’s why I’m here.’

  But Morgan had never referred to it before.

  Why was that? Was it because it’s been the reason all along that the War Office had dispatched him to snoop on Curtis? Sent him to persuade Curtis to turn his discovery into a weapon?

  And then something else occurs to Curtis; that very first morning when Morgan made an unscheduled appearance, he urged so strongly that the offensive capabilities of the Cube should be explored. Its potential as a bomb. And after hearing Curtis’s unwillingness to do this, Morgan remained strangely silent on the subject.

  He was never there for the good the Cube can do, for its healing powers.

  Curtis is furious with himself that he fell for the deception. And he’s furious with himself that he ever trusted Morgan.

  Taking a corner too fast he struggles to control his car, scraping the wing along the grass verge for nearly twenty feet and losing a wing mirror in the process.

  As the engine stalls and he shudders to a halt, Curtis swears, thumping the steering wheel with his palm several times. ‘What a doggone fool I’ve been!’ he yells at himself before he starts off again.

  7.15 AM.

  ‘Come on!’ Curtis frets because he can’t get any more speed from the engine.

  But as the car finally reaches the brow of the hill, the installation comes into sight. The alternating squares of ripening and harvested wheat that surround it appear even more like a patchwork quilt in the oblique morning light. Curtis keeps his foot full on the throttle as he belts down the incline, encouraged now that he can now clearly see the main gate with the small sentry hut beside it.

  At least one military policeman will be on duty there, and Curtis begins to feel anxious because he has no idea what to expect when he finally shows up. Perhaps the MP won’t let him enter, barring him from his own laboratory and the project he’s labored on for so long. Perhaps he’ll be arrested on the spot.

  Or perhaps he’s just being paranoid, although his instincts are telling him otherwise.

  They didn’t even look American.

  When finally he draws up in front of the barrier after his mad rush to get there, the irony is that he freezes behind the wheel, so full of trepidation that he’s almost unable to draw breath.

  He shakes his head as he gets a grip on himself, then sounds the horn. The MP’s face appears in the window of the hut. Curtis recognizes him right away – he’s a regular at the installation, an old soldier with a red military cap and a red nose to match.

  As the MP steps out into the open, he tries to mask a yawn by maneuvering his mouth into a smile. Curtis is watching him closely. The MP’s movements are a little sluggish – he’s obviously been napping on the job. He lifts a hand in a friendly wave. There’s nothing to suggest any aggression. It’s a good omen.

  ‘Morning, sir. Didn’t expect you back this early.’

  An instant and overwhelming sense of relief.

  ‘A very good morning to you, Carruthers,’ Curtis gushes. ‘Tell you the truth, I couldn’t wait to get home. Cities aren’t for me.’

  ‘Know what you mean, sir,’ Carruthers replies, moving to the barrier. ‘All those people gadding about like bees. Not for me, neither.’

  ‘Carruthers,’ Curtis says, frowning as he spots that something isn’t as it should be. ‘Where are the lorries?’

  There’s no sign of them anywhere in the parking lot. While they were being fitted out with the Generator Square, they’d been parked up close to the side of the building. And the third lorry modified to carry the batteries isn’t in evidence either.

  Then Curtis notices how many cars are already there. That’s unusual because although his team is dedicated and it’s not unknown for them to turn up to work early, there’s no reason for them all to be in. Not at this time in the morning.

  ‘Carruthers!’ Curtis shouts. ‘The lorries! Where are they?’

  Carruthers is halfway through lifting the barrier, using his weight on the counter balance to raise the red and white striped pole when he stops to give Curtis a confused look. ‘But the Lieutenant Colonel has taken them out. I thought you’d have known that, sir.’

  ‘Morgan’s got them?’

  Carruthers turns to point in the direction of the next valley. ‘Yes, toward Bramley End. The Lieutenant Colonel and your team are doing some sort of try-out, I believe, sir.’

  ‘All of them – Jane, Emma, Blinks?’

  Carruthers is trying to tell him that they’ve gone too, but Curtis has slammed the car into reverse and is revving the engine hard. His eyes are staring, his pallor uncharacteristically flushed. Like a man possessed. He crashes up through the gears as he races off again, in the opposite direction he approached from.

  ‘Oh, bye then, sir. So glad to be of help,’ Carruthers shouts contemptuously, knowing that Curtis is too far away to hear. As he ambles back toward his hut, Carruthers rolls his eyes heavenwards. ‘I ask you … flippin’ boffins,’ he mutters. ‘In a flippin’ world of their own.’

  7.35 AM.

  Curtis doesn’t ease off on the speed as he veers straight from the road and into the meadow bordering the experimental crops. The bloom of poppies is thick here, rippling whenever the wind blows, as if a red smoke is hugging the ground. Curtis’s car slides to the left and right as its tires chew up the loose surface, spitting out earth and torn red petals in their wake.

  Even without Carruthers’ help, he had a pretty good idea where Morgan would be because they’d talked about it at some length. The place is relatively isolated, away from prying eyes because it shut down with the onset of war. It’s an ideal location for the first field test – but it was meant to be for the test that Curtis intended, not the one that Morgan’s likely to be conducting behind his back right at this moment.

  The road dips and then goes into a steep incline as it leads into the quarry. The limestone cliffs rise around Curtis as he races downwards, and suddenly he spots the three lorries at the far end of the quarry. Two are parked together – the Generator Square – and then a short distance away is the third with the payload of lead-acid batteries.

  The track levels out and a little farther across the floor of the quarry Curtis sees the Gondola resting on a pair of trestles, separated from the lorries by a good two hundred yards.

  ‘I knew it! The snake was lying to me!’ Immediately steering toward the Gondola, Curtis’s face is resolute and his jaw set. He doesn’t deviate from his course directly toward it, but for a split second he deliberates whether to try to reach the lorries instead. He decides against this because there’s no sign of anyone in the quarry. Curtis knows why that is. If Morgan is following the plan to the letter, then the Generator Square will be set on a timer to power up the Gondola. That way, i
f something goes wrong on this first time out no one gets hurt.

  But Curtis keeps reminding himself, Morgan’s plan won’t be completely to the letter.

  There will be one crucial difference; he’ll be testing its destructive power. That’s what he wanted from the very start – to establish whether Curtis’s technology could be used as a weapon. And more specifically, whether the energy it unleashes could be ramped up to match that of an atom bomb, which is still in development and might not be ready until it’s too late for the war effort.

  Curtis is willing to bet that there’s something ferrous placed inside the Gondola. ‘The Gondola,’ he says, confirming to himself again that’s where he needs to go.

  He drives to around fifty yards from it and then skids to a halt – it’s as close as he dares because the car itself is obviously a risk due to the metal content. Then he throws open the door and leaps out, going into a full sprint over the remaining ground to the Gondola.

  ‘Curtis! Get away from there!’ he hears from somewhere above him. The shout reverberates all around the rough limestone enclave of the quarry.

  Still sprinting as fast as his legs will carry him, Curtis allows himself a quick glance. Morgan is on the top of the cliff, gesticulating wildly, and Emma or Jane is with him – Curtis can’t tell over the distance and, besides, he doesn’t care. He has only one thing in mind.

  ‘Timer! It’s on a timer!’ Morgan cries.

  Curtis can’t run any faster. His feet slip and slide in the damp limestone dust covering everything. It’s like trying to get a grip on soapy lino.

  Morgan shouts something but Curtis only catches the word ‘Seconds’.

  He hears – or rather feels – that sound.

  That vibration.

  Everything grows indistinct, vague.

  The Generator Square has fired up.

  He does have only seconds – that’s what Morgan wants him to know.

  The vibration is so extreme that Curtis can barely see the Gondola.

  Strangely, out there in the open, it feels more intense than in the laboratory. Birds nesting on ledges around the quarry are disturbed by it and take to the wing.

  He reaches the Gondola, almost cannoning straight into the wooden structure.

  He wrenches open the hatch on the end nearest to him.

  7.42 AM.

  Inside he sees the polished faces of the block of pure iron, six inches square.

  ‘No!’ Curtis cries at the top of his lungs.

  It’s huge. Morgan has absolutely no conception what a ferrous object that size will do.

  The power it could release is terrifying.

  ‘You stupid idiot!’ Curtis yells, as he lunges for the block, trying to seize it and get it out.

  But it’s too late.

  The Generator Square has reached the threshold.

  It fires.

  7.43 AM.

  In his hut Carruthers has poured a cup of tea from his Thermos and is raising it to his lips. He will never taste it. His look of anticipation just has time to change to one of surprise as the flash sears his eyes.

  The implosion is enough to take out not only the quarry, but the countryside for several miles all around. The fields, the installation with the laboratory, everything is torn out, gone.

  But what’s left is not a huge crater, because in that millionth of a millionth of a second that everything disappears, the void is filled by material from elsewhere. Thousands of tons of soil and rock appear in its place.

  The official explanation the War Office gives later is that a munitions plant went up due to an accident on the production line. They quickly cordon off the area and draft in men from the Royal Engineers to re-lay the roads. Then there’s a major clean-up operation as earth movers are deployed in an attempt to disguise the extent of the destruction by resurfacing the land.

  It’s only later that Curtis calculates his act of opening the hatch to the Gondola inadvertently modified the field pattern, actually amplifying and making the implosion far greater than it could have been. But of course he didn’t know that in the heat of the moment.

  All he knows when the flash comes is that he’s whipped off his feet and is sucked spinning into blinding light.

  For a moment he can’t tell which way is up or down. Then he’s flung downwards, sideways, upwards, followed by a sense of falling, plunging, with a maelstrom of earth and rocks all around as if he’s smack in the middle of some sort of hyper-landslide.

  He’s being crushed and pummeled and smothered all at the same time.

  It’s happening with such phenomenal speed and force that he knows he can’t survive.

  Every bone in Curtis’s body breaks and then breaks again. The pain is too much for him. He loses consciousness.


  Lying prone and partially buried, Curtis extended an arm, clawing the air. With a jerk he lifted his head and drew his first breath. Using his wrist, he rubbed off the soil clinging to his face, then blinked his eyes open.

  His first attempts to see around him took a great deal of effort. Hazy suggestions of blue sky and sunlight. Eventually he managed to bring his own body into focus. His sports jacket and shirt were in tatters and stained with blood, so he was amazed that when he flexed his arm there wasn’t any pain. He tested his other limbs, making small movements and expecting the worst. But nothing felt as if it was broken. As far as he could tell, he was completely uninjured.

  ‘Where in the heavens am I?’ he croaked, coughing up the soil jammed in his throat. He continued to cough for some minutes, alarmed by how much material he was bringing up. And it wasn’t just soil, but fragments of rock. He wondered why that alone hadn’t killed him, blocking his airway. By rights he should have had more difficulty breathing. If at all.

  Then he renewed his efforts to find out what lay around him. He wasn’t in the quarry any longer – that was for sure, because there was no sign of the pale limestone floor or the cliffs. In fact, for as far as he could see there was only shattered rock and soil.

  It was a disordered, churned up landscape without a touch of green, but approximately twenty feet from him something moved in it. Edging slowly forward on its two oversize hind legs, some sort of animal had its head down as it picked over the loose earth.

  The creature either heard Curtis or found what it was searching for because it suddenly straightened its neck, snapping its head around to him.

  It was a lizard, about the size of a large cockerel, but with scaly gray skin and an orange crest on its head.

  In its large beak with jagged edges it was gripping something.

  Blinking, Curtis couldn’t quite make out what.

  Then he did.

  It was a severed human finger.

  And Curtis could tell that it was his finger, because on it was a signet ring. His signet ring.

  Lifting himself further up on his elbows, he inspected his left hand. There was dried blood all over it, but his fingers were intact. However the ring had gone.

  Curtis looked back at the lizard, frowning.

  Before he sunk back down again, overcome by sheer exhaustion, he managed a last glance at his watch. By some miracle it was still working.

  8.44 AM.

  Sixty-three million years BC.

  Chapter Eleven

  In his dressing gown Sam stands in the middle of the garden as Maxie prances circles around him, tail wagging excitedly. With a light dusting of frost, the lawn sparkles dimly in the moonlight. Although Sam isn’t wearing any slippers and his feet are very cold, the bombers make them feel as if they belong to someone else. He touches the metal plate on his blood-soaked forehead. The rapid transitions begin above him once again.

  ‘Wow,’ Sam exhales, blinking as the sky continuously cycles from day to night as it did before.

  He would be more awestruck by this phenomenon if it wasn’t for the pain in his head, but he still can’t begin to comprehend what he’s witnessing. Perhaps the plate has damaged the optical center
of his brain. Perhaps he should be frantically worried now, but he can’t think straight because his head is all over the place, his thoughts so muddled.

  Two dominant strands emerge from this disorder, disparate voices sounding in his head. One is controlled and calm and assuring. The other is incredibly frightened – it knows that Sam is fatally injured, his brain hemorrhaging. It’s trying to persuade him to fetch his parents.

  Go back into the house. You’ve got to let them know, it says.

  No, keep going, the calm voice says. It’s nice and cool out here. It’s making you feel better.

  ‘Nice and cool,’ Sam repeats, choosing only to listen to the calm voice. It’s true that when he’s suffering from one of his migraines he often goes outside because it seems to help.

  The soles of his bare feet make little crunching sounds as they flatten the frozen grass and he begins slowly toward the end of the garden.

  Sam isn’t touching the plate in his forehead now and can only make out shadows all around as Maxie rustles somewhere unseen in the gloom, sniffing loudly as he finds tracks left by a fox.

  For heck’s sake, go back inside! the worried voice suddenly shouts. Sam has a sobering moment of lucidity as he pictures his parents discovering him stretched out and rigid on the lawn. He sees the scene so clearly, his mother crying in the rawness of the morning.

  Ignore it, the calm voice says. You’re so close now.

  ‘Summerhouse Land,’ Sam says, as quite suddenly an idea pops into his dazed and drugged mind. It grows until there’s no room for anything else. All he can think of is the space at the end of the garden, the space he’s never explored. With each step he can see more of the fence behind the tree. And all the time, the calm voice is urging, coaxing him; Yes, the lost gap. You want to know. You need to know, it says.

  As if he has no choice in the matter, Sam continues unsteadily on his way toward the end of the garden.

  This could be your last chance. You have to know what’s there.

  ‘Yes, I have to know,’ Sam answers out loud, as the ground yaws and rolls under his feet.

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