‘What’s it like though?’ a momentary lull in activity for Emily and Peter had allowed her to ask about the jump.
Peter took a moment to think about it. ‘To be honest it was so quick I hardly noticed. Could be my imagination but it felt like there was a slight change in air pressure, although that’s daft ‘cause I only moved about three metres across the room. I guess it’s probably that any draught is coming from a different direction. It was weird.’
Somebody shouted ‘Done’ from the back of the truck and a few of the team disembarked, meaning they had to start packing their own kit. Robert stayed inside, Peter handed him pieces of equipment, none of which Emily recognised. She only had a number of notebooks for transcribing symbols she hadn’t encountered before and, if it came to it, writing messages in case languages didn’t sound like she expected them to. She therefore felt a little underprepared compared to the rest of the team.
The rear cabin of the truck looked like a very expensive school science experiment, filled with packs of test tubes, shiny steel things she didn’t recognise and a number of devices with digital and analogue displays which were to be used for taking measurements. When Emily had stowed the writing pads under her seat she climbed down the ladder, jumping off the last step, then took a seat on some benches which had been placed around the rear of the vehicle as a final briefing area. Masterson was last out of the truck and turned to face them, looking across the motley crew. ‘Right, we’re all packed and ready to go, we’ve got ten minutes until the jump, could you tell me again what your tasks are when we get there.’
Michael was first up, ‘I’m just checking the Jump Box has performed how we’re expecting it to. I’ll be carrying out some checksums on the data we’ve projected, against what we actually record.’
Emily’s eyes darted away to look at Celia, the next to speak, in order to make sure no one thought she was staring at Michael. ‘I’ll be checking the QSG against our anticipated results, pretty much the same as Mike but with my toy instead of his.’ She turned towards Andrea, who was sitting next to her.
‘I’ll be photographing any animals and plants we come across and taking samples of leaf litter and scat.’ She noticed the blank looks from five sixths of her compatriots, ‘Sorry, I mean animal shit!’ The others laughed.
Moulder was next, ‘I’ll be taking sediment and water samples and measuring things like air temperature, pressure and humidity.’ Celia suggested David was the team weatherman and he gave her a nondescript half-smile.
Peter had sniggered at this as if it was derisive, then realised he was next in line. ‘I’ll be staying with Mike and Celia, giving the Cougar a once over when we arrive and before we leave to check nothing has upset it. If anything’s up then I’ll fix it.’
It was finally Emily’s turn, she noticed Michael was staring into the middle distance rather than at her. ‘I’ll accompany David and Andrea in case they meet any natives. If we come across any writings or carvings I’ll take pictures,’ she removed a compact camera from her jacket pocket and waved it about as if to prove the point. ‘I also have this,‘ she produced a small Dictaphone from another pocket, ‘which I’ll use if I have to talk to anyone.’
Masterson was the last to speak. ‘I’ll be patrolling the surrounding area, ensuring nothing interrupts our work, and that we don’t disturb anything or anyone who may stumble upon us. As mentioned, we’ll keep in contact with the AN/PRC-148s if and when we need to.’ He held up an ugly looking thing which seemed to hail back to the early days of mobile telephony, he had shown each of them how to use it. After some derision over the stone-age styling, it turned out to be a rather effective military version of a walkie-talkie. ‘Just to remind you, it’s effective to around 12 miles, so there’s no way we should lose contact with each other, and it’s waterproof well past any depth you should need to go and also, frankly, hard as nails. We all know what we’re meant to be doing on this first jump, does anyone have any questions?’ At this, each person in the team looked up from their own introspections and checked their neighbours, to see if any of them would be forthcoming. No one was. Masterson scanned down the line and, after giving them some time to think, continued. ‘In that case you can strap yourselves in and get ready to go. We have six minutes, feel free to chat.’
Peter James carried out an exaggerated salute. ‘Yes sir,’ but there weren’t a lot in the way of laughs because, without exception, the team were nervous and not really listening. This was exactly why Masterson had only told them things they already knew and had only wanted to get them talking to take their minds off what they were about to do. They may not have been forces personnel but, when it came down to it, all people act the same way. This was why they now had a few minutes in the truck, to calm down and talk naturally before they travelled.
The team climbed into their allocated positions, Masterson was at the wheel and Cooke sat in the passenger seat next to him. Evans’s seat had been moved out from the side and turned ninety degrees in a modification which allowed her to see Michael’s controls, while working on her own.
Peter James was in the first seat behind Masterson, in case his engineering knowledge was needed in a hurry, Andrea was next to him and Moulder closest to the rear doors. On the right hand side of the cabin Emily sat, facing the Jameses but offset between the two of them. There was a storage area next to her containing most of the tools and equipment people didn’t want to keep with them. Each crew member wriggled into and snapped shut their five point seat belts, then tried to get comfortable. There was silence while they all wondered what to say next.
Michael and Celia were both concentrating on their work, it didn’t stop Celia from being the first to talk though. ‘I don’t know about you guys but I’m really excited.’ Masterson was pleased because she had broken the stalemate that seemed to be arising, at this the rest of the team started to get a little more animated.
Andrea responded first. ‘Not sure about excited, I’m a little terrified to be honest!’
‘Glad it’s not just me then.’ This was from Michael in the front, Peter asked him what he had to be afraid of. ‘Well, unlike you guys who’ve known about this for a matter of hours, I’ve been working on this thing for years. This is the ultimate test of all my theories and practice. If it goes wrong not only do I spread our atoms across who knows how many dimensions. I also have the possibility of ripping a hole in the fabric of reality and destroying a multitude of worlds in parallel universes. I’ve got a lot to lose here.’ Any smiles on the faces of those present had become stony, at which point Michael looked towards Masterson. ‘You know that joke never gets old! Don’t worry guys you’re all safe.’
Again there was a hubbub of noise as the others threw, almost, good natured insults at him and likened their current situation to their first time on an aeroplane or, as David suggested, when he went to the Isle of Wight on a hovercraft at the age of 12. Emily said she quite liked flying and started to tell a story of her first trip to Geneva. She had reached what she considered to be quite an exciting bit, about landing while there was a blizzard engulfing most of the city, Michael asked if he could interrupt for a moment. Emily paused, failing to look through both Celia and the back of Michael’s chair to actually see him, and said it was fine.
Four necks twisted to peer out of the windows. They hadn’t felt the jump itself so it was shocking to find they were almost two hundred years, and five thousand miles from where they had been seconds before. Outside the truck was encircled by a rock face which rose five metres into the air. There was an opening in the wall ahead of the truck, which Celia noted was good work on the part of the drone. Michael wound down his window. Everyone listened carefully, it was quiet but there were occasional noises, like the stridulations of a cricket or the song of a bird.
‘Okay, we have one hour. I’ve given us extra time as this is the first trip and I thought you might need to get your sea legs, so to speak. We have ten minutes to prepare ourselves here, then we’ll head out, find what we’re looking for, take our measurements and get back.’ The sentence was terminated with a crunch, as Masterson shut his door. There was a sudden scrabbling as everyone tried to be the first to unclip their harness and get out of the truck.
Emily was left, muttering, ‘Stupid, uncoordinated fingers,’ as she was left alone in her seat, looking at the mechanism across her chest which held the straps in place. The door was open and she could hear the others outside, not talking too loud to hear if she tried calling for assistance but she didn’t want to raise her voice when she had no idea what was out there. After ten seconds, which seemed much longer, Michael hauled himself up the rear steps. Emily waited to see if anyone was following him before she said, ‘Are you sure you should have come in here?’
‘It’s fine Harrison. I was the one who noticed you weren’t with us so it seemed obvious I should be the one to come and check if you were okay.’ He maneuvered himself around the gear and supplies then reached automatically for the circular clip, looking slightly abashed as he realised his hands were brushing against her breasts.
‘You needn’t worry, I’m quite enjoying it.’ His face blossomed into a full grown blush. After a moment he had to kneel down to look more closely at the mechanism. ‘Strange feeling of déjà vu.’ Emily caught his glance. ‘Sorry, I’ll stop talking now.’
Michael placed his hands carefully around the centre of the lock. ‘Could you just pull these two?‘ motioning at the top two straps. Emily grabbed them pulling in opposite directions, as Michael pushed, then pulled. In an instant there was a distinct click and the harness did what it should have done with little effort. She was ejected at high speed into Michael’s outstretched arms and ended up on top of him. He gave her a quick peck on the cheek then suggested they should go outside. He led the way and made sure she was okay getting down the stairs.
Then Emily remembered where, and when they were and looked at the surrounding landscape. ‘Wow, this is like an amphitheatre. It is natural, isn’t it?’ Andrea and David both nodded in confirmation. The team stood to the left of the truck, most of them were just staring at the surrounding rock face. A couple were looking out of the opening, in front of which was forestry but definitely not western forestry. It consisted of thickets of bamboo rising up from central colonies of rhizomes, some of which were several metres across. It gave the area a sinister feeling, with clumps of bare canes rising from the ground, topped by enormous umbrellas of dark green leaves. ‘It feels like a film set!’
Masterson was the first to break away from the scenery. ‘Right then, split into your groups and find what you’re looking for to do your jobs. We’ll see you back here as soon as you’re done.’ Peter was first to move and unceremoniously clambered between the wheels of the truck, from where rhythmic banging started to emanate. As they had practised back at base David and Andrea collected their gear and Emily grabbed her notebook, feeling like it was a little pointless as the likelihood of meeting anyone, or finding any written languages in the middle of this wilderness, seemed slim. Emily glanced back, to see Michael disappearing into the passenger side door to look at his instruments.
They rounded the corner of the entrance to the “amphitheatre”, as she had christened it and there was just the sound of nature. Andrea turned to her as Emily voiced what was in her head. ‘Feels weird, doesn’t it? I’ve been in some pretty odd places but there’s something about this that makes me feel like I’m on another planet.’
Andrea was leading the way and responded in an offhand manner while she was concentrating on which path to take. ‘I know what you mean but I think it’s probably just our imaginations playing tricks on us. After all, there shouldn’t be any appreciable difference in the overall nature of the atmosphere, other than the fact we’re on the other side of the planet. I think it’s a bit like getting off a plane. The sudden change in temperature and pressure feels weird, it’s only our psyche that’s telling us we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ She returned to her inspection of the forest floor, to find the easiest route through the undergrowth.
After being quiet for so long it was a bit of a surprise when Moulder barked, ‘There,’ pointing to their right. Andrea was already a few steps ahead, Emily had to stop suddenly so as not to walk into him. They traced the invisible line from his finger, which led to a small clearing between the crowded woody stems, where a small stream flowed over some compacted soil and rocks. Loose earth surrounded the water and there was space enough for the two environmental scientists to do what they had to. Emily took a seat on a smooth flat rock and watched, with interest, as David started taking cores of the soil and Andrea inspected the plants, taking samples of leaves and bark and placing them in protective bags, pre-labelled with the date and location they had jumped to.
Emily was enjoying the cool sun, fruitlessly scanning around for any signs of habitation when David, who had packed his cores away, asked if she could hold a couple of steel poles with rubber feet. He proficiently attached them to a couple more, making a tripod only a foot or so shorter than she was. To this he attached a black box, like a dumpy briefcase. He flicked a couple of catches and opened it, to reveal a device with a simple monochrome readout and a small selection of buttons. Pressing a couple of them he stepped back, then sat down on another rock near to her own. ‘That’s it for me, until that thing has a few minutes’ worth of data.’
‘What’s it measuring?’
‘Temperature, air pressure, wind, precipitation, radioactivity, stuff like that. It’s a weather station, more or less. Anything interesting, Andrea?’ He called across the clearing.
‘Seems pretty standard for this part of the world. I haven’t seen anything surprising, but then we’ve only got an hour. Hardly enough time for a single pass, let alone anything in depth.’
Moulder stayed focussed on his device, Emily watched him for a few moments, ‘You look comfortable David.’
His eyes flicked towards her for a moment, then back to the readout on his weather station. ‘That’s because we’re in the middle of nowhere, the only people in view are you and Andrea, I can hear nature, and the concentration of humans in the surrounding few miles is tiny. I like being out in the field. To me it seems much preferable to being in a city, with all the people and cars and concrete and artificiality. I’m happy here.’
Emily shifted on her makeshift seat, ‘Actually, you misunderstood. I was kind of wondering how you manage to look so relaxed sitting on one of these,’ she patted the boulder beneath her. ‘My backside needs a cushion or something, but I can see what you mean. It’s nice out here isn’t it?’ David nodded, although it hadn’t really been a question.
Just then Andrea finished, placing plastic folders with biological and botanical matter in a case, ‘I’m done. How long David?’
‘Give it ten minutes. That should give me enough to make some kind of guestimates. That’s about all they’ll be though with the amount of time we have.’ Andrea nodded in agreement, as Emily moved over to make room for her to sit down.
The three of them stared at their surroundings, Emily had mainly visited well-populated areas on her journeys around the planet, so this was fairly new to her. The only bamboos she had seen were used as scaffolding throughout the Far East. To see them growing in their natural habitat seemed pretty special. Suddenly, Andrea seemed to remember something and she swung her backpack down to put it on the ground. Unzipping it, with a grin, she pulled out a thermos flask and three plastic cups. ‘Anyone for tea?’ Emily looked at David and they both smiled and agreed. As they were drinking they made inconsequential small talk, wondering where and when they would be going on the next jump. David finished his tea first, handed the cup back to Andrea and started to disassemble the tripod. They headed back to the jump site, using a box that Masterson had said emitted “electronic breadcrumbs”, as there were no GPS satellites before 1978. It appeared to use a built in compass, accelerometer and gyroscope to show you where you came from, so you could get back without needing a map.
After a walk which seemed much longer than the one they had taken to get where they were going, Emily finally saw the rock and dirt wall of the jump site rising up through the cage of bamboo trunks. She breathed a sigh of relief as they neared the opening.
Her sigh turned to a gasp as they rounded the corner. The back end of the truck had moved five feet to the right and resting against the rear left mudguard was a boulder, which was at least her equal in height. There was rocky debris strewn around it and a path of destruction down the steep side of the amphitheatre, leading to where there had obviously been a collision between the rock and the truck.
Moulder lurched away from her, swiftly followed by Andrea. Emily dumbly stared in the direction they had run, finally noticing that Peter James and Masterson were on either side of the boulder attempting to shift it away from the truck. She presumed that it would otherwise be carried with them when they jumped back home. She wondered where the other two were but then her eye was inexorably drawn to the side of the truck, which had been forced forwards by the impact.
Celia was kneeling in the dirt supporting Michael’s slumped head. Without thinking Emily sprinted towards them and crouched, looking at the tennis ball sized lump on his forehead which was changing colour before her eyes. ‘What happened?’ She asked, trying, and almost managing to keep the quiver out of her voice.
Celia looked up, seeming to notice her for the first time while trying to gather her thoughts, then glancing down at Cooke’s face as if to remind herself how she got there. ‘We’d just finished checking our data,’ she paused for a moment, like the memory wasn’t where it should have been, ‘I mean Mike and I. I’d put my stuff in the back of the truck and was speaking to Masterson about how long it was likely to take to analyse our results when we got back.’ She hesitated again, realising she wasn’t really covering the important parts of the story. ‘Anyway Pete had just climbed out from underneath the wheels, he was really lucky! Just as he stood up that rock came loose at the top of the cliff, rolled down the side and hit the truck, it missed Pete by a matter of inches. He saw it coming and managed to get out of the way, but Mike was on the other side of the truck carrying his stuff back. I saw him stop as he heard the noise but he couldn’t see it. By the time he realised what was happening the truck had been knocked sideways and hit him. He seems okay but he’s out cold, no idea how long it’s likely to take for him to come round.’
‘He’ll be alright though, won’t he?’
‘Should be, I’ve definitely seen worse. Although he could do with proper checks for concussion and probably internal injuries. The main issue is that the truck’s fine but the Jump Box is a bit more delicate and it rebooted with the impact. I know how to restart it but I appear to have the numbers out somehow.’ Emily raised an eyebrow. ‘You need to enter the equation when it starts up to confirm, well frankly to confirm that you’re Michael…or me! But I think I’ve got one of the important bits wrong.’ She looked distraught but then noticed the pained look on Emily’s face, ‘What is it?’
Emily looked round to check there was no one else within earshot, the rest of the team were gathered around the boulder straining to move it away from the truck. She whispered anyway. ‘I think I might know where to find what we need to get back.’ The physicist looked up, not quite sure Emily knew what she was actually looking for. ‘You mean the equation don’t you?’ Celia nodded. ‘Did you know Michael has a tattoo?’
A startled look crossed Celia’s face. ‘What! Michael?’ She looked down at him as if checking they were talking about the same man. She forgot about the problem at hand and asked, ‘Where?’
Emily looked a little more uncomfortable and tried to think of a way of stating what she knew without revealing too much, but realised it was all or nothing. She leaned forward and carefully unbuttoned the shirt Michael was wearing, a relatively plain one, which was just tight enough to show off his nicely muscled chest. ‘Help me turn him over.’ They carefully twisted him on to his front and placed a rolled up blanket under his head. Emily struggled to pull the shirt down over his left arm, revealing the entire equation scrawled across his shoulder blade.
Celia stared for a few moments, her eyes racing across the characters. ‘Wouldn’t you know? It was one of my sections I’d forgotten, the bit I derived from the harmonic oscillator. I was using the classical version instead of my modified one.’ Emily looked more than blank. ‘I’ll be back in a second.’ She jumped into the cabin of the truck.
Emily managed to manoeuvre Michael back to a more comfortable looking position. She finished doing his shirt up, leaving the top three buttons undone so as not to restrict his airway. Just as she finished Celia crouched next to her and smiled. ‘It worked then?’ Celia nodded but kept grinning. ‘What are you smiling at?’
Celia’s smile became wider still. ‘That was pretty lucky. I mean you knowing that Mike has that tattoo.’ The two stared at each other, neither one wanting to be the first to break the silence. Emily with a straight, emotionless face, Celia still smiling. She realised Emily wasn’t going to bite and added, ‘On his shoulder,’ again a pause. ‘Under his shirt.’ If anything Emily’s face became even more wooden. ‘Oh come on woman, tell me why you’ve seen Mike without a shirt on?’
The deadpan expression held fast for a couple of moments before Emily finally smiled back. ‘Okay, please don’t get the impression I’ve ever done anything like this before. Michael and I seem to have some kind of connection.’ She faltered briefly. ‘We kind of got chatting after the briefing yesterday and one thing led to another…’
Celia didn’t stop smiling. ‘Don’t worry I’m not judging you. Or him,’ she prodded Michael, then remembered he was unconscious and withdrew her finger from his motionless body, apologising to nobody in particular. ‘How was it?’
Emily wasn’t sure she was comfortable answering questions about her personal relationship and didn’t want to make a faux pas, by answering a question she wasn’t sure was actually being asked. Thankfully, just as she was trying to find something to say Masterson appeared from behind the truck, ‘Have you figured it out yet Celia?’
‘Yep, all ship shape and Bristol fashion sir.’ She did a mock salute, aping the one Peter had pulled off what seemed like an age ago just before they had made the jump. ‘Emily helped me figure out what I missed, she has some incredible memory recall techniques.’ Thankfully Emily had her face turned towards the ground so her crimson cheeks went unnoticed. ‘We’re ready to go whenever you guys are.’
‘Well the rock is well away from the back of the vehicle, so now is as good a time as any.’ At this Peter, David and Robert manhandled Michael through the rear of the truck then climbed back into their seats.
Celia climbed in through the back door and whispered to Emily, that she probably needed to tell Robert about the relationship when they returned to the present. Emily nodded in despondent agreement, as Celia clambered across to take the seat previously inhabited by Michael for the jump home.
Emily watched as Michael was stretchered away from the loading bay, he hadn’t come round yet but the paramedics said there should be no lasting damage. Peter James was having an argument with Masterson, suggesting that leaving the AN/PRC-148 unattended near the truck may not have been the best idea, as he held the flattened remnants of the device out in front of the Colonel’s face.
After the truck had been cleared, each member of the team packed their equipment away, in the storage area assigned for the purpose. Emily stood and watched as a discussion raged in her head. One of the inner Emily’s was suggesting that there was no really good reason that Masterson needed to know about her relationship with Michael, the other Emily was shouting that if he found out about it from someone else she’d probably get kicked out of the team and be barred from seeing Michael again. The second Emily won out with this argument and she resolved to talk to Robert immediately. However when she looked around the remaining members of the team, still packing up, he wasn’t amongst them.
She scanned again to check she hadn’t missed him then attracted Andrea’s attention. ‘Any idea where Masterson went?’
‘He said he had some paperwork to complete, I assume he went back to his office.’
Emily frowned, she hadn’t been to his office but assumed it would be unpleasantly formal. Not really somewhere she would have chosen for this discussion, but needs must. She said thanks to Andrea and headed in the direction she thought Robert’s office lay in. After a few false turns and dead ends she managed to find it.
She stared at the nameplate on the front of the unpainted pine door, it said “Colonel R. Masterson” in a clear, bold typeface. After a while she realised she had been looking at it for somewhat too long, and scanned up and down the corridor to check no one was watching her. She was alone. She shuffled her feet then edged towards the door until she was within knocking distance. Again she waited, wondering how to start an awkward conversation like this. Perhaps “I’ve been having sex with your lead physicist!” or maybe, “You’ll never guess what I was doing last night?”
Then she realised that he may not even have come back to his room so thought about calling it off completely, but Emily two shouted something unpleasant from a quiet corner at the back of her mind. So she reached out and, with only a brief hesitation, rapped on the wood, crossing the fingers on her other hand that he’d be somewhere else.
Time seemed to stand still. The thoughts in her head raced through all the possible scenarios that might play out in there, which seemed to take a lot longer than it actually did, so much so that she was just about to turn around and run away when she heard a muffled invitation. She hesitantly pushed the door and squeezed through without opening it fully, so the frame brushed against her back. ‘Hi.’
‘Oh, hello Emily. What can I do for you?’ He put down his pen and placed the papers he had been working on in a desk drawer.
‘Um, could I have a chat please?’
‘Of course, take a seat.’
Emily looked at the plain wooden desk, which was remarkably similar in material to the door. She imagined that whoever had built the place must have had a job lot of timber, cutting the relevant shapes out as they went. She sat down in the surprisingly comfortable sheet metal seat, pulling it closer to the desk. Masterson looked expectant, Emily held her breath for a moment. ‘It’s about the jump.’ Yes, that seemed like a good way to start off. Robert waited, ‘Well, the problem Celia had with the truck.’
‘You mean the jump device resetting itself? Yes, I’m going to talk to Michael about fixing that, we don’t want to be caught somewhere in prehistory with no way back do we?’ He gave a quick smile.
‘Yes, I mean no. Anyway, it’s not exactly that I want to talk to you about. It’s more to do with Michael,’ Masterson put his head on one side, as if waiting for more details, ‘…and me.’
‘What about you?’ He looked slightly worried at this turn of phrase.
‘When Celia managed to restart the Jump Box it wasn’t because she had remembered the correct formula.’ Emily didn’t wait for a reaction to this and rushed on, ‘It was because I knew where there was a copy of it.’ A surprised look crossed Masterson’s face. ‘Michael has a tattoo on his shoulder blade with the full notation. Once I showed it to Celia she didn’t take long to get the Box started again.’
Masterson’s face seemed caught between two conflicting emotions, neither of which appeared particularly positive. When he spoke again it looked like he was being very careful, picking his words in case there was any possibility she might misconstrue what he was saying. ‘So, what you’re telling me is that our lead technician has the formula for time travel indelibly transcribed onto his own skin?’ He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘Along with the fact that, what you are inelegantly attempting to get across to me is that you have seen this tattoo, which would be on a part of his body not normally on public display?’ His expression was without emotion but the tone of his voice had a distinctly cold undercurrent.
Emily felt like she was seventeen again, being told off by a head teacher for crimes against school policy. Not that she had ever been in such a situation but she imagined this must be what it was like. She decided to try and explain the situation without reverting to immature turns of phrase. ‘It was completely out of character for both of us,’ she realised she had no real idea if it was out of character for Michael, ‘but yes, we slept together.’
Instead of following her natural instinct to stare towards her own feet, or at the back of her hands, she gazed into Masterson’s eyes, willing him to get it over with quickly. He failed to oblige. ‘Give me five minutes. There’s a seat in the corridor, please wait there. I’ll come and get you when I’ve had a chance to think.’ Emily did a slow sprint away, Robert stared at the blank surface of his desk as the door closed gently behind her. He rubbed his temples and his shoulders sagged as he relaxed into thought.
Outside, Emily did as she had been instructed and sat in the seat, which she had completely failed to notice due to the maelström of nervous tension she had arrived with. This was not a comfortable chair, she suspected this was a deliberate move to stop people from needlessly booking meetings with the Colonel. She tried to keep her mind blank, but kept going back over what she had said and Robert’s responses. Had telling him actually been the right thing to do? Would she have been better to keep it private, or even break it off with Michael altogether? This final thought was interrupted by one of the Emilys in her head, who had previously been arguing about the efficacy of coming here in the first place. She wasn’t sure which one, possibly both of them told her not to be stupid, that Cooke was probably the best thing to happen to her recently, and that she should just get a grip on herself and face the consequences like a grown up. Her internal dialogue was still going on when it was interrupted by the door opening. ‘Come back in Emily.’ She hoped that the fact he hadn’t used her formal title meant that she probably wasn’t in for too much of a reprimand. ‘Sit down please.’
She settled back into the seat, which seemed more uncomfortable than it had ten minutes before. The foot of the chair scraped on the concrete floor as she pulled it forwards. Masterson’s face was its usual impassive, unreadable self. Emily adjusted her trouser legs as she sat down, then folded her hands on to her lap, waiting to see what Robert would say.
‘Okay Harrison, this is how I see it,’ she recoiled internally at the use of her surname, but tried not to show it. ‘You and Cooke are seeing each other, this doesn’t affect the mission. However the fact that you have feelings for each other means you may be less than logical in difficult or dangerous situations.’ He drew a breath before continuing, ‘My problem is that there isn’t another person in the world with your language skills and I don’t think I could find two other translators that know as much as you do.’ Emily couldn’t help but smile. ‘This is the main reason I’m allowing you to continue to accompany the team on future jumps. Please remember that you have endangered your own place on this project, therefore I will expect you to behave in a way conducive to the future welfare of the team and your position in it. I will not be revealing your association with Cooke to the other members of the team, whether it becomes public knowledge is up to you and Michael. I would prefer it if you didn’t make it overt if the others do find out, I think it could cause trouble for the team that we worked so hard to assemble.’
Emily realised Masterson had stopped talking and noticed she was breathing quite heavily, now the room was silent. She attempted to calm herself a little before she spoke again. ‘Thank you Robert. Just so you know, I will talk to Michael about this as soon as he’s up and about. I assure you that I will act professionally from here on in. You won’t have any more problems, if there are any other things you need to know about I’ll tell you straight away.’
Masterson stood up, obviously expecting her to follow, she did so. They proceeded back through the maze of corridors, while Robert told Emily he would be speaking both to Cooke and Evans, in order to make sure they also understood the situation. Eventually they arrived in the common room, which the team were using for downtime. Andrea and Celia were sitting on either side of a small table nursing hot drinks, which were put down as they entered. ‘Could I speak to you please Celia?’
Celia looked first at Emily, then at Robert. She threw the remnants of her coffee down the drain and binned the thin plastic cup in the recycling bin. As she walked past Emily she winked, then disappeared from sight towards Masterson’s office.
Emily filled a cup with coffee, milk and a couple of spoons of sugar. She didn’t usually drink the unpleasant, bitter stuff but felt that she needed something to give her a bit of a boost at the moment, settling for the caffeine and sugar concoction. Andrea waited patiently until she sat down and then said, ‘any idea what that’s about?’ Emily decided it was best not to reveal anything until after she had a chance to talk to Michael, shaking her head. ‘I think he likes her, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d made up some excuse just so he could spend some time.’ She fluttered her eyelashes in jest and Emily grinned back. ‘There’s no way he’s actually brave enough to broach the subject though, the man lacks the everyday social niceties that most normal people have. He probably doesn’t even realise he likes her.’
Emily couldn’t help but be influenced by the subject at hand and her resolve broke in two, as she started to tell Andrea all about what had happened between herself and Michael.
‘Come on then Masterson, what’s this all about?’ Celia did a passable impression of Michael, which wasn’t too difficult after working as closely as they had been the last couple of months. Her black painted nails gripped the edge of the boring pine table as she pulled the chair forward. She noticed a small chip at the edge of a nail and thought she’d need to redo them before long. Looking up she found Masterson waiting patiently for her to start concentrating, his brown eyes almost black in the windowless office. ‘Sorry, I’m listening now.’
‘I know that you’re aware of the situation between Michael and Emily,’ Celia’s smile faltered for a moment, before remembering she had been the one telling Emily to come clean. ‘I just wanted to let you know that I’ve talked to Harrison about it and will be talking to Cooke too, when he’s recovered.’
It was obvious that Robert wasn’t comfortable discussing the emotional and physical aspects of what had happened, as he had skirted them completely, so Celia decided to try and get him to go into more detail. Partly for her own amusement, but also to make him feel uncomfortable. ‘Emily told me about the tattoo, I don’t know a lot more than that. What is the situation exactly, Rob?’ She put an elbow on the table and put her chin in her hand, as if she was really interested in what he had to say.
Masterson glanced at nothing much for a moment, before refocusing. ‘I believe they are involved with each other.’
‘So what, they’re, like, going out?’
‘I suppose you could put it that way.’ His eyes followed one of Celia’s fingernails, as it traced out patterns on the desktop. He noticed a sliver of chipped polish showing the pale pink colour beneath. ‘I’ve given them the option of keeping it between themselves. You may wish to offer them the same courtesy.’ He broke his stare from hers and looked at his own hands, placed one on top of the other on the notepad in front of him.
Celia’s eyes followed his, she noticed his fingers were moving around like he was nervous about talking to her. ‘So what, do you think they’re just kissing and cuddling or is it full on bedroom antics?’ She wondered if this might have taken it a bit far and decided she wouldn’t push any more, in case she broke Robert’s delicate sensibilities.
‘Actually she didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask, but I’d guess it involves swinging from the chandeliers, steamy nights of passion and full contact intercourse.’ He didn’t smile as he saw Celia’s black rimmed eyes open to their full extent, her red painted lips fell apart. ‘Is there anything else I can do for you Miss Harrison?
Emily shook her head and Robert told her he would speak to her again soon, ushering her speedily out of the office. She stood in the corridor and wondered to herself if she had just imagined what she heard coming out of his mouth. In the office Robert leant against the door, breathed a sigh of relief and grinned to himself, hoping that would be the last time she would try and goad him.
If Emily had seen the room she would have recognised it as being a mirror image of Michael’s. It was nothing special, just a double version of the standard accommodation that the single members of the team were using. This particular double room showed signs of both sexes inhabiting it, there were clothes of both genders on hangers over the back of the bathroom door and two toothbrushes in the glass next to the sink. However, neither of the inhabitants was currently taking much notice of the accoutrements as they were in the middle of a heated discussion.
‘Don’t be bloody stupid, this is the best opportunity we, that’s we, not I, have ever had. Do you think that everyone gets offered the chance to go back in time as part of their regular jobs? No, of course they don’t, you idiot.’
‘Well I still don’t like it. We could have been killed on that jump, it’s not safe. There are so many unknowns. It’d be a lot more surprising if nothing went wrong on a trip than if we had some major incident. Let alone the fact that we could destroy the entire spacetime continuum if we really fuck up.’
Andrea knew that Peter was really angry now, he rarely swore directly at her unless he really meant what he was saying. She sat silently for a while before trying again. ‘Come on Pete, Mike said that wasn’t going to be a problem. Whatever happens just happens, it won’t make a damned bit of difference what we do. Can’t you see what this could do for us?’
‘Yes, it could kill us! I don’t mind being put in danger, after all I’ve been in jobs where they’ve had to carry guns to make sure we didn’t come to any harm, but you haven’t.’ He saw the look on her face and pre-empted her with a sigh, ‘The dig in Sierra Leone was an anomaly as far as I’m concerned. You aren’t used to these kind of situations, I don’t think you should go again.’
Andrea stood up straight in an attempt to come face to face with him, but ended up staring at his chin. ‘So what you are saying is you would prefer to pull out of this and let me be pig-headed and go on the jumps myself, so you’re not even there to protect me if it all goes pear shaped?’
‘That’s about the size of it, yep.’ Peter sat on the bed and looked his wife up and down.
Andrea put her hands on her hips and tried to find a reasonable way to respond, all she managed was, ‘You’re an ass!’
Peter lay back and stared at the ceiling, in a slightly louder voice than was necessary he said, ‘I may be an ass but at least I’m an ass who is alive, rather than strewn across multiple dimensions of space and time. It’s too dangerous and I’m not going to go back. One close shave is quite enough for me.’
Andrea turned and looked at his reflection in the mirror, she was just about to say something else she might regret when there was a solid knock at the door. Peter sat up again and they looked at each other, he shrugged as she walked past him and opened it.
Masterson was standing squarely in the doorway. ‘Can I come in please?’ Andrea stepped aside and Robert walked in, the room felt a little more than overfull with three people in it. She closed the door and moved, so she was next to her husband staring at the Colonel. ‘We did our best when we built this place but the money never goes quite far enough, for instance we didn’t think it would be necessary to soundproof the living quarters. I was down the corridor when I heard you arguing.’ He waited to see if that would elicit a response. It didn’t. ‘Look, I don’t mind if you’re disagreeing about something but could you try not to have your discussions at such a high volume. I wouldn’t mind but I think some of the others who are working with you might.’
Andrea turned to look at Pete, who was staring at Masterson with a barely concealed scowl on his face, she realised he wasn’t going to be the first to come forward with an apology. ‘Sorry, I realise how it must sound. We’ll try and keep it down from now on.’ Peter made a harrumph sound, which she flinched at. She noticed Masterson was returning his look and hadn’t really given her apology the attention it should have warranted. She decided not to worry about it.
Masterson didn’t turn away and leave as might have been expected at this point. ‘In fact it was possible to tell what your discussion was about in quite some detail. I thought I should make it as plain as I can, you need to consider what you are thinking about as carefully as possible before you make any kind of decision. Andrea is entirely correct when she says this is a hell of an opportunity, the very thorough tests Michael and Celia carried out seem to suggest that we’re unlikely to cause any major catastrophes.’
Peter’s face stayed in the same unpleasant mask of derision. ‘You know Bob, I believe you one hundred percent but it’s the unknown unknowns I’m worried about, things like trees falling on us when we appear. That machine weighs nearly twenty tonnes, do you realise the effect that could have on unstable land. That’s the reason that rock nearly flattened me, and why it’ll happen again before too long.’
‘All I want to make clear is that if you leave you won’t be able to come back. The invite isn’t open ended!’
‘Yes well, thank you for putting that in such simple terms. I am, after all, almost as witless as you and would have had difficulty dealing with anything involving more complex concepts.’
Andrea was impressed at how passive Robert managed to stay under Pete’s cutting remarks. After he was certain the engineer had stopped trying to put him down he continued to look into his eyes, repeating himself to reiterate the point. ‘As I said, the offer of a place on the team is not up for negotiation, once a decision is made to leave there is no return. Especially so in your case Mr James. You have the knowledge we need, however you also have an abrasive personality and the ability to rub people up the wrong way. That, along with some questionable decisions and life choices we discovered you made in the past, means it was a close run thing as to whether you were offered this post in the first place. Therefore, just to make it completely clear. If you leave you will not come back. Your wife may be persuasive but now we have actually met I am willing to go with my initial instinct and turn her request for your inclusion down.’
Peter sat down heavily on the bed again. Andrea expected him to argue, or at least defend himself, but he just stared into the mirror. Masterson looked at her as if noticing she was there, ‘I have things to do. If the two of you have any further problems please come and see me in the first instance.’ He turned and marched out of the door, closing it firmly behind himself. Andrea had followed him, unsure of whether to say anything but failing to find any words until after he had gone. She faced Pete again but he was still staring at the mirror, whether at his own reflection or nothing in particular, his silence said everything.
A pleasant leafy cul-de-sac was just far enough from any main road to be almost deathly silent at this time of night. The only light was escaping from the blinds, through the windows and glass of the front doors. The houses themselves were relatively new and of assorted sizes and shapes. Outside one of them was parked a sporty car, similar in age to the house. Inside the house Jessica was on the phone. ‘Yes Mum, I’m absolutely fine. No, I don’t need anything. Yes, I know you worry about me living here all on my own, but I’m a big girl now, and just because you heard Mrs Stephens telling her friend there have been all manner of terrible deeds happening around here lately doesn’t mean I’m going to get mugged, on my way home…in my car!’
Jessica was silent for a few minutes as she wandered around the sitting room, looking in at her fish and occasionally pressing keys on the laptop sitting on the kitchen bench. She stared around the room waiting for a chance to fit a word in edgeways, when it came she decided that she was in more of a listening than a talking mood. ‘To change the subject completely tell me about the holiday you and Dad are going on.’ She sat down on one of the two sofas, tucked her feet underneath her legs and stared at the subtitles on the muted television, while her Mother enjoyed telling her about the minutiae of their upcoming holiday to Tobago.
She glanced out through the half open roller blind into the darkness beyond, completely failing to see the person hunkered down in the back garden, staring directly at her while she relaxed. The observer was well concealed between a couple of handy bushes and was virtually motionless, in order not to draw the attention of the householder. The onlooker had discovered enough from their reconnoitring to give them all the information they required, so they could proceed with what now seemed like the obvious next phase of their plan. Jessica’s eyes returned to the moving pictures on the television. The person viewing the live action of Jessica’s evening moved back through the bushes with an almost rolling motion, then easily slipped through a space between two pieces of loose fencing.