Summerhouse land, p.29
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       Summerhouse Land, p.29

           Roderick Gordon
 

  Curtis leaned back in his chair. ‘You see, when I opened that hatch in the Gondola, I modified, distorted, the field so it wasn’t an equal exchange. I inadvertently amplified the effect. Thanks to Morgan there was always going to be one doozey of an implosion, but I made it that much worse. We should all be grateful, I suppose, because it also increased the volume of the envelope at this end. We wouldn’t have nearly the amount of space to move around in otherwise.’

  ‘But when your machine blew up, it swapped over what was at both ends,’ Sam reasoned out loud. ‘So that electronic chip, and the man’s new arm with the tattoo you talked about – where did they come from?’

  ‘That poor slob, Dagby,’ Curtis chuckled.

  Sam nodded, waiting for Curtis to answer his question, but he didn’t, instead leaning forward with his elbows on the table. ‘If you’ve understood anything I’ve been telling you, you should be able to answer that yourself,’ he said after a moment.

  ‘From another branch?’ Sam guessed.

  Curtis sat back again, looking delighted. ‘Well done! You’ve got it!’ he exclaimed. ‘Under normal circumstances, I believe my device reproduced what it could find in another branch. So in Dagby’s case, my technology replicated the arm from another Dagby who hadn’t gone out on a bender one night and got himself run over by a lorry. In fact, it chose a very fit Dagby to use as a template. There’s an element of healing involved as the new arm is knitted in place, drawing on the same energy that’s trapped here in the valley, the same energy which is constantly renewing us, making us all immortal.’

  Sam was trying to digest this, his mind racing. ‘So you don’t think there’s another Dagby out there who suddenly lost an arm?’

  Curtis laughed loudly. ‘I sincerely hope not. No, Sam, I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.’

  Sam’s thought process took him somewhere he didn’t much like. ‘But does that mean that …’ he asked hesitantly, ‘That I’m just a copy too? A copy of the real me who’s died back in my garden?’

  Curtis could see how troubled the boy was by this. ‘Not at all. You’re the you that struck it lucky when your unique gift enabled a branch version of yourself to split off and pass through the cliffs. You must understand the unlucky you died back in the world, as you were making the transition to the valley.’

  ‘But I’m still not the same as I was, am I?’ Sam argued.

  ‘You are.’ Curtis shrugged. ‘Let’s put it like this, you’re as much you as you ever were. Besides, there is no other you, is there? Because the other Sam you branched from is dead, so you’re the only one in existence now. Although …’ He appeared to be hesitant about what he was going to say next, exchanging a quick glance with the taciturn Joely. ‘Although of course if I’m right about the validity of branch theory, then right now there will be myriad other Sams talking to other Curtis’s in other valleys.’

  ‘More of us?’ Sam asked incredulously. ‘Really?’

  ‘Yes, though we have no way of accessing those other branches. The accident with the Gondola might have brought us here to this branch, but it was a one-off event,’ Curtis said.

  Sam frowned. ‘Why?’

  ‘If I tried to repeat it here and it misfired, the consequences would be cataclysmic, not just for us but for the world we left behind.’ Curtis put his hands together. ‘Enough of this – I want to show you the setup here if we’re going to work together and make that photograph of yours a reality, and save you in the process.’

  ‘You can do that for me? Are you sure?’ Sam said, his voice a little breathless because he still couldn’t quite accept that Curtis was so prepared to help him.

  ‘It’s up to you. Let’s put branch theory to the test, shall we?’ Curtis proposed. ‘If I were to tell you to leave the room right now, you might pick that door.’ He pointed at the one they’d entered through, then switched his finger to the other end of the kitchen where there was a second door. ‘But, equally, you might choose that one, which is the way to my workshops.’

  A smile flicked across his face. ‘Or, as a third alternative, you could choose to sit here and listen to me wittering on for a while longer. But I’m convinced that I can solve your problem, and that photograph of yours and the message you saw with my name back in the world are proof that we succeed.’ Curtis inclined his head toward the second door where his workshops lay. ‘If you believe I can help you, that’s the one you want.’

  Confident that Sam wasn’t going to refuse his offer, Curtis appeared relaxed as he got up from the table. ‘If not, go through the other door. My car will take you back to the village, no hard feelings.’

  There was silence in the room as Curtis looked at the boy, waiting for his answer. ‘So, Sam, it’s your call. Choose your branch wisely.’

  Chapter Eighteen

  A flight of stone steps took them under the house where Curtis unlocked a door. With a low ceiling, the cellar was around forty feet in length and approximately half that in width. As the last of the lights blinked on, Sam saw benches along the walls, their tops strewn with various tools. Some of these tools appeared to be modern; soldiering irons, screwdrivers and several small devices with screens and dials, but for the most part the cellar resembled a carpenter’s workshop. Many of the benches had vises attached to them and were evidently used for woodworking, with racks of chisels and similar implements nearby.

  Heading directly for the other end of the cellar, Curtis tugged a cover from a large object, sending a shower of dust into the air.

  ‘So this is a Gondola?’ Sam said as soon as he saw it.

  Curtis nodded. ‘Yes. I made another one for old time’s sake, but I never went as far as building a Generator Square to power it.’

  Sam turned toward him. ‘Why not?’

  Curtis hummed what sounded like a ‘No’, then blew a cobweb from the hatch at the end of the boat-like object before he swung it open and stooped to peer inside. ‘That would be tantamount to using a hydrogen bomb to fry an egg,’ he said, his voice made small by the confined space inside.

  ‘Why?’ Sam asked.

  Curtis straightened up again. ‘I already told you ... firing it up here would be an act of insanity. It’s far too potent and unrefined. We’re already in one temporal aberration which somehow links this world with our own, and it’s impossible to predict what another major disturbance might have on it. Maybe nothing, but I couldn’t take the chance.’ Curtis closed the hatch with a thump. ‘The envelope could just fold up on itself and take us all along with it.’

  Sam ran his fingers along the side of the Gondola, feeling the planed wooden surface. ‘But if I go back through the cliffs, isn’t that risky too?’

  Curtis shook his head. ‘If you think about it, newcomers like you have been crossing through over the years and the envelope hasn’t been destabilized. In comparison with any device I could ever make, human transitions are far less traumatic. No, by my reckoning your passage through the cliffs should be safe, even if it’s in the opposite direction.’

  Curtis seemed to slip into a reverie as he continued. ‘You know, Sam, I didn’t realize the significance at the time, but what I did back in 1943 was to find a way to unlock and use this energy all around us, the elemental energy that fuels the universe.’ Curtis stirred his hand through the air as if it was encountering something thick, something invisible. ‘And I was going to use it for good … it was the discovery that was going to change things for all mankind … an end to suffering. The ultimate mass-produced miracle cure. But Morgan put a stop to that in Oxfordshire when he packed ten pounds of pure iron inside my device, set the timer, and legged it.’

  Sam nodded thoughtfully. ‘So you don’t know what happened to him afterwards? After the accident?’ He immediately regretted the question because Curtis looked so profoundly unhappy. All Sam could do was to watch as the man took something from his jacket, gripping it in a clenched fist, then began to speak in a subdued voice.

  The sheep with the shaggy fringes
had multiplied until their flock numbered a hundred or more. But no longer did they follow the human around who talked to himself all his waking hours as he labored feverishly in the factories that went up, one after another, in a row alongside the track.

  In the beginning the sheep hadn’t been deterred by the heat or the objectionable smells because the factories hadn’t been on such a large scale. So they had hung around, chewing grass and idly watching the mad human.

  But with the latest project, a factory building as large as an aircraft hangar, that had changed. Curtis may have cared for them and made sure they’d been protected from predators for many generations, but the sulfurous yellow smoke that poured from the tall chimney and hung heavily over pools in the surrounding fields was too much. So they began to keep away, staying in the pastures higher up the side of the valley.

  In this newest building the furnaces had roared all day as Curtis put the finishing touches to his latest machine. Night had fallen when he finally rolled it toward the open doors of the factory.

  ‘My first combustion engine,’ he said proudly. He stood back to admire the rudimentary vehicle he’d built, which wasn’t much more than his prototype engine mounted on a simple chassis with sold iron wheels, and a seat with a steering wheel and some basic controls.

  A strong wind was blowing outside and he took a couple of steps to the open doors where he wiped the sweat from his brow. He’d dug mines and discovered pockets of coal and some oily shales, but it was punishing work for a man on his own, so he already knew what his next project would be. ‘Wind power,’ he said, putting his head back and relishing the cool breeze on his face.

  ‘But now,’ he told himself, swinging round to his vehicle, ‘the moment of truth.’

  He moved to the front of the vehicle and inserted the starter handle. ‘Make way, Henry Ford,’ he laughed as he began to crank the engine over, trying to get it to engage. Nothing happened with the first couple of attempts, but each time he’d go to the engine and adjust one of the valves or the carburetor. Then, as he tried again with the handle, the engine almost caught, stuttering for a few seconds before it cut out.

  After some more adjustments he made another attempt, and suddenly it was running.

  Curtis leapt back, shouting with joy as the noisy engine chugged over, black fumes pouring from two large exhausts at the rear.

  Letting out another triumphant whoop, he was just about to climb onto the vehicle when there was an explosion.

  The fuel tank had ignited. The vehicle was torn apart, Curtis blown off his feet.

  As one of the wheels rolled past him, he found that he was lying on the ground outside the factory doors. He’d been flung clean through them.

  He hoisted himself up on his elbows. One of his legs was missing and the other broken in several places.

  ‘Drat! It hurts!’ he said, then began to laugh.

  The valley had already begun to heal him, but for the moment he wasn’t going anywhere.

  He was still on his back, watching the fires burning inside the factory when he heard the voice.

  ‘You never learn, do you?’

  Using his arms, Curtis managed to pull himself around. The combination of the darkness and the heavy smoke still billowing from inside the building meant he couldn’t see very far.

  ‘Hello?’ he asked uncertainly.

  Over thousands upon thousands of years he’d been alone, with only the company of animals. For so long he’d prayed for the gift of another human being, for someone to end his solitude, for another person to talk to, so he wondered now if he was hallucinating. Perhaps the explosion had scrambled his brains.

  ‘Hello,’ he called again. ‘Is someone there? Anybody?’

  ‘Just can’t leave well alone, can you?’ reproached the voice.

  ‘Who’s there?’ Curtis cried.

  A shape hobbled from the drifts of smoke and the dark. It was a man, but it resembled a corpse. Its voice was rasping and raw. ‘Did it never occur to you to look for me?’ it growled.

  Curtis couldn’t reply. He was so overwhelmed with gratitude to see another person – any person – that tears flooded his eyes.

  ‘Thank goodness,’ he gabbled. ‘But who are …?’

  ‘I was trapped beneath tons of rock and earth. I couldn’t move. I wanted to die, but something wouldn’t let me go.’

  Then Curtis realized.

  ‘Morgan! It’s you!’ he shouted.

  ‘Can you begin to imagine what that was like?’

  ‘I can’t believe it’s you, Morgan. I just can’t bel—’

  ‘Curtis, do you have any conception what it’s like not to be able to stop thinking, not to stop the torment of life when you’re imprisoned in numbing darkness? The endless agony of being, when there is nothing to be, when all I wanted was to end it, but I couldn’t.’

  The figure punched brutally at its own head. ‘And the unimaginable determination required to claw a way out of that tomb, crumb by crumb, stone by stone, over an eternity? The agony of being devoured by worms and insects again and again, only to rejoice when the day comes that you can feed on them instead?’

  ‘You were buried? But I had no idea you were even here!’ Curtis yelled in exasperation. ‘If only I’d known.’

  A second figure shuffled into view beside Morgan, then another, and finally a fourth.

  Curtis heard a different voice – it was similarly raspy and dry, but he caught the lighter tones of a woman. ‘Yes, if only you’d known,’ she said, repeating his words with disgust. Contempt.

  Then another woman spoke. ‘Morgan didn’t forget us. He came looking for us and dug us out, but you didn’t, did you?’ she accused Curtis, jabbing a withered finger at him.

  ‘Jane? Emma? And is that you, Blinks?’ Curtis said, slow to realize who the tallest of the figures was. His old team was there with Morgan. ‘Thank heavens you’re all alive!’

  ‘No, this is not life,’ Blinks snarled.

  Morgan thrust an arm to the sky – it wasn’t much more than bone, his forearm like two sticks of driftwood loosely bound together by desiccated sinew and vein. ‘Whatever this is, we renounce it,’ he said. ‘And one day you will answer to us. Now this ends.’ The living cadaver clamped its mouth shut, then spat something gray and wet on the ground before it.

  Then one after the other, the ragged human forms shambled off into the darkness.

  ‘No! Come back!’ Curtis cried, knowing he couldn’t do anything to stop them, but frantically trying to crawl after the departing figures. ‘Please … I beg you … don’t leave me!’

  The next morning when it was light and his legs had been restored, Curtis found a human tongue in the grass. The organ was so ulcerated and atrophied as to be barely recognizable – but he was certain of one thing.

  It had been bitten off.

  ‘That was the first and only time I saw him.’ Although it had taken place far in the past, Curtis was visibly upset as he finished telling Sam about the incident. He cleared his throat, but didn’t say anything more, and in the seconds of brittle silence that followed Sam saw what was in his hand.

  It was a glass eye, its once highly polished surface dulled from many lifetimes of being handled. As it lay in his open palm, Curtis was even now tracing a finger over it.

  ‘So Morgan was always here?’ Sam finally said.

  ‘Bad blood is the one thing the valley can’t fix, and they feel so very, very badly toward me.’ As if he was intending to move away, Curtis had half-turned from Sam but didn’t take a step. ‘Being buried for that long filled them with an insane hatred for me … it warped them. They’ve renounced the valley and all it can do for them with a kind of religious fanaticism. And like fasting monks, they don’t take any nourishment, so they’re little more than animated husks.’

  ‘But where are they in the valley?’ Sam asked, frowning because what Curtis had said jarred with everything he’d heard so far; evidently this world wasn’t quite the idyllic paradise he’d believed
it to be. There was a dark side to it, a very dark side, which even the loose-mouthed Baby Pain hadn’t breathed a word about.

  ‘They keep completely to themselves in a place known as the Monastery, toward the coast,’ Curtis replied. ‘A dismal place. Everybody gives it a wide berth.’ As if it was an involuntary spasm, he took a sudden breath. ‘I suppose I should feel wronged … feel injustice. Morgan and my team went behind my back with the test run in the quarry, yet they’ve laid the blame squarely on me for the consequences.’

  With a last glance at the object in his hand, Curtis mumbled, ‘I know they’ll never forgive me. An eye for an eye,’ and slipped it back into his pocket. His mood seemed to lighten as he turned his attention to the boy again. ‘This isn’t getting us anywhere. Are you ready to make a start?’

  Sam moved over to the nearest bench and picked up a well-used chisel, then looked around the rest of the cellar. ‘Of course, yes. What do I need to do?’

  Curtis laughed quietly. ‘Nothing in here – that’s for sure.’ He went to the end wall of the cellar, covered from floor to ceiling with shelves, then extended his hand. The image of the shelves seemed to ripple, as if a stone had been thrown into water, then disappeared altogether to reveal a smooth gray wall.

  ‘What was that?’ Sam asked, blinking.

  ‘A precaution. I set up a veiling device to mask what’s on the other side. I learned a long time ago to keep what I do out of sight.’

  Sam remembered the moment during the journey when the man pushing the cart hadn’t seemed to know anything was there. ‘Like the car? It can’t be seen either?’

  ‘Like the car,’ Curtis confirmed, then turned to Sam. ‘You didn’t seriously think we were in my main workshop, did you?’ He turned back to the gray wall, sweeping his hand over a section of it where a thick door immediately clunked open. There’d been nothing to show it was even there. Then he strode through the opening and down some steps, Sam close behind, eager to see where they were going.

 
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