Pull Up A Seat

dml_logosmallJump is a fast paced adventure through space and time but grounded firmly in the real world, encompassing millions of years into the past, two weeks into the future and a good percentage of the landmasses of the planet.

I recently started rewriting some bits of it and thought it might be a good idea to serialise it, so people can give me feedback and advice as to all the horrifyingly inconsistent plot holes I’ve probably left in it. If you really wanted a paper copy of the original version you could get it here, but otherwise…pull up a chair, grab a drink and start reading.

Enjoy.

Acknowledgements

I never used to like this bit of a book, as I thought it was a kind of personal indulgence to the author and their mates. However, having written this I now see that it is important to make sure that all those people who put up with your ridiculous ideas and flights of fancy get a mention so…

Thanks to Rich, Steve and Nige, who listened for a year or so and very rarely moaned when I was talking at them about all the ideas clanking about inside my head.

Thanks also to all the beta readers, including colleagues, friends and family, especially to my Mum, Lilian, who was my alpha-beta-gamma tester.

Last, but wholeheartedly not least, is Deanne, my wife and my kids, Joshua and Emilia, who support me with whatever crazy ideas I happen to be having at the time. I love you!

Prologue

Index

‘Where did you even find a deckchair out here?’ Andrea looked amused and slightly nervous, as if he might have stolen it from an unsuspecting, undeserving old lady.

Peter glanced up from the magazine he had appropriated and took a good swig from the can of beer in his other hand before considering his response. Then he swung his legs, one on either side of the seat and sat up as best as he could. ‘It’s amazing what you can get out here if you’re willing to barter. They love a bit of bartering these archaeologists.’ He smiled, indicating that the word bartering was being used in a wildly loose sense. Andrea picked up a stone from the small spoil heap she had built up. With a flourish she sent it at him as fast as she could, it hit the tin can with a noise that sounded a little bit like “tonk”, and then got back to her work.

For his part Peter tried to ignore the conversations of the people surrounding him. A lot of the men talking had beards, which seemed to be a prerequisite for being a successful archaeologist, it made his face itch just looking at them. He couldn’t help hearing some of the things that the men were saying. A lot of the talk seemed to be around just how famous they would all become when the findings from this site were published. He knew Andrea was indifferent to fame and fortune, especially since they had taken possession of quite a large sum of money from the Colonel. However a number of the hairy guys, and a few of the marginally less hairy women, seemed to think they might become the talk of the excavating community. One of the men was saying, ‘It’s got to be worth something, it’s the earliest proto-settlement anyone’s found. Sure, there’s not a lot of it, but the remains we’ve got so far are something else. These burials are unlike any I’ve ever heard about…’

Thankfully Pete managed to drift away from the conversation at this point, trying to concentrate on the magazine in front of him, which was suggesting that wool was this year’s new black. He dropped it on to his chest, staring forlornly at the dark shadow cast by a tree nearby. The African sun seemed to laugh in the faces of the fashion people who had written the article. He looked towards the pit his wife was kneeling in. She was quietly involved in something. She looked up nervously and saw him staring, then blinked and realised he was scrutinising her, smiled and returned to her work. Peter lifted the magazine and tried to find a less depressing article…

7FFF7722

Part One

 PAST

The door of the lab was open as usual, the nameplate on it read “Michael Cooke, PhD”. The office looked like a well-organised mess with pieces of wire, circuit boards and scientific journals, as well as typed and hand written notes on the work which took place there. It was obvious that Michael Cooke, PhD knew his way around, as he wheeled himself back and forth between desks and equipment on his office chair.

After a while he came to a halt in front of a metallic box, connected to a computer by a number of hefty cables. There was another seemingly identical box on the other side of the lab, connected to another seemingly identical set of cables. The only discernible difference between the boxes was that the one in front of Cooke was labelled “Transmit”, the other “Receive”.

He reached out to press a button and the word “scanning” appeared on the monitor of both of the computers. After a couple of minutes watching the cursor move across the screen there was a bleep and “scan completed successfully” appeared. The back rest of his chair creaked slightly as he leaned his full weight upon it. He ran his hand through his very short hair, the colour of which was indistinct in the halogen lighting, then took a deep breath, which he held as he pressed the same mushroom-shaped red button he had initiated the scan with a few moments before.

There was a faint, almost imperceptible sound, similar to the noise a sheet of paper makes when drawn out of an envelope and the screen of the computer which had been showing a shower of numbers now exclaimed “transmission complete, performance check started”, followed by “scan completed successfully – T/R = 1”.

Cooke let out the breath he had been holding in, smiled to himself, then stood up, his 180 centimetres meaning he had to stoop to miss a couple of the more unrestrained cables. He drummed out a quick rhythm on top of the unpolished steel before flipping the catch that released the door, gently opening it and leaning down to peer inside.

When he was preparing to carry out the test he had scanned around the office for something to use, his eyes had alighted on the rather unassuming plastic lunchbox he brought to work every day. He had walked over, opened it and wasn’t particularly surprised to find the cheese and salad sandwich, chocolate bar and finally the apple, which he had packed before leaving for work that morning. Although the apple was probably the least atomically complex of the three items it seemed, to him at least, the most apposite. Of course it meant that if it all went wrong he’d still have the unhealthy but tasty options left when he got hungry.

Michael reached into the small metal box, pulled out the apple, gave it a quick visual inspection, rubbed it vigorously on his trouser leg then took a bite, smiling to himself.

 

***

 

Originally published in the Guardian newspaper.

Eco-terrorists threaten climate change negotiations

…however events have come to light regarding the Environmental Assistance, Rehabilitation, Training and Health (EARTH) Force. This band of previously harmless environmental activists has recently taken to staging more elaborate, and in some cases disruptive, action which has interfered with a number of high profile events, including the EcoBuild2021 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan and the more recent World Summit held in Birmingham, resulting in the recall of the 23 representatives from the USA and Ghana.

This may have set back talks on climate change by up to ten years. Stephen Smythe, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Management from the University of Western Australia, one of the attendees at the conference, told the Guardian, ‘If these people are trying to improve matters for the planet they are going about it the wrong way…

 

***

 

Kerry was fairly new to the job. Sure, waitressing wasn’t exactly top of her list of ideal jobs and didn’t register up there on the glamor scale, but she felt lucky to have got it as it was fairly quiet and didn’t require too much thought, so she could concentrate on writing her short stories in the evenings.

She was currently wiping the work surface down in an absent-minded fashion, then realised she had been doing so for almost five minutes, as she stared at the sole occupant of the café sitting with his back towards her. He had arrived three quarters of an hour earlier while there was a bit of a rush on and she had barely noticed him, taking his order and placing the flat white on the table an unreasonable fifteen minutes later. He hadn’t complained or even said anything. He was just staring into space.

As the place emptied over the next twenty minutes the man appeared to become more self-conscious and had picked up a newspaper left by another customer. Kerry had offered him more coffee but he had waved her aside without even looking up.

The reason she was staring now was because the man’s shoulders were bobbing up and down, it looked very much like he was crying but it was a little hard to tell as the movements were so slight. Kerry was in two minds about what to do. Should she go and ask him what was wrong or just wait and see what happened. Her mind had drifted away, as it had given her an idea for a new story, but before she got back to considering what to do the guy had pulled himself together, stood up and walked towards the exit. She tried to fix his features in her head, in order that she could make the character in her story as realistic as possible but all she could seem to take in was that he was about her height, had a recent, quite badly executed, grade one haircut and a pair of wire rimmed glasses that made her think he might work in a university.

After the door had closed Kerry picked up the disinfectant spray, went over to collect his cup and saucer and cleaned the table, while things were still quiet. He had left the newspaper on the table. It was the Guardian, seemingly one of the more popular papers with the customers but not one she read very often. There were a number of small wet circles on the open page so he obviously had been crying, but there was also a section ripped out with only part of the headline “The EARTH Fo…” left amongst the teardrops.

She considered what it might mean but once again her mind wandered away, snapping back to earth as a young couple came in with their arms tightly round each other’s waists, obviously in the first throes of romance. She thought no more about the man as she went over to take their order and considered what their story might be.

 

***

 

It was quiet where they had dropped him off, he had been expecting that. He turned round to look at the truck but it had, of course, disappeared. Which was more of a surprise than it should have been after his briefing.

He looked around to get his bearings, then purposefully strode down a narrow path between two buildings. He was fairly sure where he was headed but it still took an effort of concentration for him to look confident. Eventually he stepped out from the maze of corridor-like pathways on to the high street. He looked up and down the rows of shops and cafés, scanning to find one which offered wireless connectivity.

He chose a place which seemed fairly quiet, went in and sat down. The waitress, who looked as if she wasn’t really thinking about what she was doing, came over. After spending a few moments looking at him she stared into the middle distance asking, ‘What can I get you?’

‘Just a coke please, oh and can I get the SSID to log on as well?’ The waitress had a blank look on her face until he realised that being a waitress she may not be super technical, ‘Um sorry, I mean can I have the details so I can get on the wireless service with my laptop please?’ She smiled at him and headed for the counter, saying that shouldn’t be a problem.

He unzipped his backpack, leaning it against the chair leg, removed a laptop and flipped open the lid, hitting the power button as he did so. The machine stirred into life and was at the log on prompt before the waitress had returned, bringing his drink and a slip of paper with the wireless details scrawled on it. He clicked on the screen where it displayed the username “AlanScott”, deftly entering his password.

As soon as the OS was up and running Alan muttered ‘amateurs’ to himself, adjusting the time and date. After fiddling with a few other settings, to get it working the way he wanted he got online and set Google as his homepage, then typed in ‘EARTH Force’. After a momentary delay a list of about 170,000,000 results came up. Better be a bit more specific he thought, as he started searching for regional links to the group. It took him a while to pin down what he was looking for but eventually he had a name and an email address.

‘Can I get you anything else?’ Alan was a little unnerved, he had been concentrating on the computer so hard he hadn’t seen the waitress approaching.

‘Actually yes, could I get a cup of coffee please…’ Alan glanced at the shiny new nametag pinned to the waitress’s breast, ‘Kerry. Black, no sugar. And do you do some kind of bacon sandwich?’

She smiled, surprised someone had actually bothered to find out what she was called. ‘No worries, I’ll add it to your bill.’ She was looking straight at him and he figured she didn’t see a lot of people with naturally red hair and green eyes. Especially well-built six foot tall men. He was kind of used to people staring at his features but that could be good, it meant they weren’t actually taking any notice of the rest of you and what you were doing. She hadn’t even looked at the laptop screen.

He decided to relax until his food turned up, idly leafing through a magazine someone had left on the adjacent table. It was a glossy wildlife thing and the main story seemed to be about a famine in Southern Mongolia, and how it would have been less severe if new power plants hadn’t been set up in Northern China over the past ten years. Alan put the magazine down as his order was gently placed on the table and said, ‘Thanks Kerry,’ to which he was offered a shy smile and a blush.

After taking a bite of his sandwich he shuffled his finger over the track pad of the laptop to wake it up again and typed in “bedsits”, before narrowing down his search results to the local area. ‘Nothing fancy,’ is what had been suggested to him, he understood the implication and only selected the worst parts of town.

 

***

 

The small room seemed crowded, even with only three men sitting around the table, this was due in part to the fact that all of them had personalities far too big to fit in one country. They all looked very serious. Two of them were in serious looking military uniforms, the other looked a little less honed but was in an expensive suit, which didn’t really hide his languid lifestyle choices.

One of the uniformed individuals, a man who would nicely fit into a description involving the words “world-weary” was talking to the other two, who were paying him some of their attention. The insignia on his shoulder had a crown and three rectangles denoting the rank of Brigadier, but he was still the lowest ranking individual there.

‘…Masterson has been in my Division for twelve years now and served under William before that. He has an outstanding record and I realise he may not be exactly what you were looking for, but I think it needs to be taken into account that this assignment will involve civilians.’ The two men listening had an air of apprehension about them and the Brigadier was about to start listing all the commands, posts and what had been achieved at each, when there were two short, sharp blows on the door.

‘Ah, that’ll be him now. Come in.’ The last words were aimed roughly towards the door, which opened immediately. ‘General, Minister, this is Colonel Robert Masterson.’ Robert figured they already knew exactly who he was, as he closed the door and stood to attention.

Without noticing the irony, the slightly rounded man in the almost well-fitted suit said ‘Don’t stand on ceremony man, take a seat.’ Robert didn’t smile because he had been in the armed forces for 19 years. You learnt quickly not to smile in the company of people higher up the food chain than yourself.

‘Thank you sir,’ the Minister obviously hadn’t meant what he said as he didn’t correct the use of his formal title.

Without any preamble the General asked, ‘You know why you’re here?’

‘I’ve been briefed on the specifics of the task at hand but have no information on the mission itself, sir.’ He made his answer as succinct as possible, because he knew these men all had short attention spans and still less time to listen.

Robert’s commanding officer, the Brigadier gave a nod to the unspoken question the General asked, with a swift glance in his direction before continuing, ‘I’m sure you know everything necessary at this time. We’re still receiving information and the project itself is at a very early stage. However we need to be ready when the time comes. So collect the inventory from the desk outside as you leave, and ensure all items on it are acquired and securely stored.’

Robert nodded, saluted then left the room, closing the door and breathing an internal sigh of relief as he asked the military assistant on the desk for the list. He gave her a wry smile, trying to intonate that he didn’t envy her job, being the aide-de-camp to the General. She smiled woodenly back and returned to her work immediately, utterly failing to catch the hidden meaning in his expression.

7FFFCABF

The stainless steel blinds were drawn so the room was only bathed in the pale white illumination from the monitor. The man’s hands moved quickly, his eyes were directed at the screen rather than the keyboard as he typed without much input from his brain.

His hair looked like it hadn’t been properly washed for a number of days, the black t-shirt he wore was emblazoned with a few words in an Indonesian language and a picture of a cartoon orang-utan hanging between two branches.

“EF branch, tigers” was the last thing he had written. After hitting the Enter key he flipped through page after page of search results until he found one nestling between Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. He grinned, thinking that it was at least keeping good company. The underlined title was “Dolphin” and after clicking the link, a badly formatted page showed up with details of what he was looking for.

The email address was copied from the page and the name was memorised, as he opened a new tab. An email was created and a short message was keyed asking if it would be possible to meet.

As soon as a confirmation appeared saying the message had been sent the computer was turned off and the blind was opened, he blinked his blue eyes until they had got used to the light again and left the room, softly closing the door. The poster hanging from two drawing pins, filling most of the door’s surface, settled back into position. The pod of dolphins in the picture continued to look like they were having a whale of a time.

 

***

 

He gazed into the eyes of the giant reptile, it blinked at him and turned away to stare blankly at some of the children crowding around its enclosure. The sound of the servos making its eyelids and neck move was the main giveaway as to the creature’s mechanical origins. Admittedly the skin was a bit rubbery but to be fair to its creators no one had ever seen a live tyrannosaur, so they might well have looked just like that!

Alan kept moving quickly around the exhibit. He had arrived early and spent some time sitting in the Central Hall, watching people come and go and keeping an eye out for the man he was meeting. As soon as the guy had walked past looking slightly bewildered, as if he wasn’t quite sure where he was, Alan stood up and headed towards the Dinosaurs. He always went there first when he visited the Natural History Museum, which he assumed was a bit of a hang up from when he was young, forcing his parents into that exhibit first with all the teeth, claws and bones.

Although Alan knew what the bloke he’d arranged to meet looked like, the man had no idea who he was, so he had sat, effectively invisible in one of the recesses as the man passed him by. However it was getting close to the time they had arranged to meet, so he made a right turn out of the “terrible lizards”, walked back to the main hall and up the stairs behind the tail of the diplodocus, giving a relaxed salute to Darwin’s statue as he passed, then going up the right hand side of the split stairway and heading past the hominids posed in various states of evolution. After a left turn things started to get a bit quieter as he made his way through the minerals gallery. There were usually less people around this part of the museum and today appeared to be no exception. The various bits of rock were no doubt interesting in their own way and people seemed to start off with an enthralled look on their faces, but by the time they passed the third or fourth cabinet their eyes had started to resemble those of the latex tyrannosaur. By the twelfth or thirteenth, most had turned back in despair, gazing despondently at the remaining half of the hall.

This is why very few people ever reached the far end of the hall, and the Vault with its precious metals and shiny minerals which were, to be honest, just more types of stone! This was exactly the reason Alan had arranged to meet here and why he was pretty sure there would be little interruption. Any wandering academic looking through the cabinets would be more interested in the rocks than in anything the two men might be whispering to each other.

The Vault always made Alan think of Salvador Dali in its colouring and styling, but it adhered far too closely to the laws of physics to come from one of his pieces. There was a slight change in ambience each time he walked between the classically-styled Victorian columns, until he reached the far end of the hall. He stood just to the side of the man, who was even now staring blankly into the middle distance and humming a tuneless little refrain to himself.

Alan coughed to announce his presence and the man came to with a start. ‘Sorry, was I doing it again?’ He asked, without actually pertaining to what he had been doing. Alan shrugged his shoulders in a nondescript manner. ‘Well it’s nice to meet you Mr Scott, oh, actually you said Alan in your email didn’t you?’ Alan nodded.

‘You must be Jonathan Dent.’ It wasn’t a question as the man had been in the agreed place at the specified time and didn’t seem enormously surprised to see him, after his initial jolt. Alan sat down once they had shaken hands.

‘Actually I’d prefer it if you call me Jonny, although whenever the group meet we go by pseudonyms, mine is actually Dolphin. I tend to let members pick for themselves but I prefer it if I’m the only person who knows everybody’s real names!’

‘That’s fair enough. Probably a wise precaution considering you’re deemed to be a “terrorist organisation”,’ Alan made quote marks with his fingers, ‘by the authorities, which if you ask me is madness. You’re just looking for ways to make the world a better place!’ Alan was carefully referring to the group separately to himself, he didn’t want to presume he would be invited to be a member.

‘Exactly,’ Jonny smiled and nodded at this, ‘I’ve never seen that we do anything to cause harm to people. I’ll admit there have been a few disturbances of the peace, I think that’s what the police called them, but always non-violent. Terrorism these days seems to have much darker connotations, to me at least!’ He suddenly seemed lost in contemplation, then shook his head as if trying to reorganise his thoughts. ‘Anyway Alan, could you tell me a bit about yourself so I know what your interest is, why you’d like to be part of the group?’

Alan knew this question was coming and made a quick trawl of his memory for the relevant information. ‘I did a degree in environmental sciences and met some interesting people along the way. A few of them were involved in similar groups to the EF.’ Jonny shot him a nervous glance, suggesting he wasn’t happy hearing the initials in public, ‘So I looked into it and decided that none of them were actually making any kind of impact. After I’d finished at university I headed off on a kind of world tour. Only I didn’t go to all those places people normally go, I headed for the Congo Basin, Kakadu in Australia, the Amazon, Galapagos, all the world heritage sites I could bluff my way into. I found out as much as I could about environmental and ecological protection. After I got sick of the travelling I worked in a couple of less-than-reputable places on my way back…’

As Alan started talking, Jonny had taken a sturdy, well-used notepad out of the inconspicuous canvas messenger bag, sitting behind his feet, and began taking notes. Jonny looked up when Alan paused and explained, ‘It means I can decide on what useful skills or talents people have and how the group could benefit from them!’

Alan nodded and continued. ‘So when I got back I started searching for a group where I could, as you say, be of some benefit. I couldn’t find anything. I’ve been looking ever since, and yours is the first organisation I’ve found which actually appears to be trying to change things. You took a lot of searching out, but hopefully now I’ve found you we can accomplish something.’

Of course this wasn’t his full history and, by omission or slight misrepresentation, he’d managed to leave out any of the things which may have given Jonny the wrong impression, or affected his chances of being accepted as a kindred spirit.

‘Well frankly, you’re a lot better placed than the other members of the group to make an impact, we’re all just rank amateurs really. We don’t have your scientific background or your breadth of field experience to back us up so, yes, I do think we might be able to have a greater impact with you in the team,’ Alan nodded. ‘Our meetings are every month or so, but I’m afraid you’ve just missed one. Hang on, the details for the next one are here somewhere.’ He tapped his temple, then dug around in his bag and eventually came out again with a small box, which was opened to reveal business cards, only they had nothing printed on them. Jonny pressed the button on top of his pen and wrote an address, a date and a time on one of them, handing it to Alan.

‘You’re happy with my joining the group then?’ It seemed a stupid question but he felt like he had to ask.

‘More than happy Alan. But now I have a few things to do, unfortunately real life often seems to interrupt the important things that we should be concentrating on.’ With that he packed away his notebook and shambled off in the direction of the mineral gallery. Alan sat for five minutes trying to make sure he remembered everything they had talked about, before standing up and deciding that, with three weeks to spare, he could probably take an hour out to look at the trilobites.

 

***

 

Michael had been expecting a visit like this ever since he had performed his first experiment with the Jump Box. He had been thinking it would happen sooner, but knew it would happen. He had always suspected that military intelligence had a lot more knowledge of day-to-day goings on in peoples’ lives than anyone would like to imagine. The reception desk staff at the entrance to the building had been instructed that someone in uniform would be showing up at ten o’clock, asking to see him, so could they be shown to his office.

In deference to the visit, Michael was unusually in his office rather than the lab. He was reading a recently published paper on quantum complexity theory, musing on the fact that he still wasn’t certain if Colonel Masterson was a man or a woman, when two sharp bangs rattled the door. He stood up, though the size of his office made this unnecessary, and turned the door handle. Standing to attention on the other side of the doorway was a uniformed officer who was, in build, relatively generously furnished with muscles and was also at least five or six centimetres taller than Michael’s 180. It was also, very definitely, a man!

His face was cast in a frown, or to be more precise, he looked like he didn’t get the opportunity to smile very often. His hair was styled unimaginatively, slightly longer on top than on the closely trimmed back and sides. He was standing still, as if waiting for something. Michael realised he hadn’t actually said anything yet. ‘Hi, I’m Michael Cooke,’ realising only after saying it that it was written on the door. ‘You’re Colonel Masterson?’

‘Yes, Robert Masterson.’ Michael assumed that was as much of an introduction as he would get so he remained silent to see what would come next. ‘I’m here to ask some questions about your Jump Box,’ Michael was slightly surprised that the correct name had been used, but realised the guy probably had an inventory of what he had eaten for breakfast that morning. He wondered how much “they” knew about the device already, but decided not to worry about it, waiting to see what the first question would be. ‘Could I see it in action?’

That wasn’t what he was expecting. He thought the questions would come first but he agreed and led the man out of the office, along a corridor, through some double doors then down the stairs to the basement of the building, where he grabbed his lab coat from a hanger and proceeded through to the laboratory. As soon as they entered Michael noticed that, although Masterson’s face stayed impassive and he looked to all intents and purposes disinterested, his brown eyes were roving about, taking in every detail.

‘This is my lab,’ he pointed to a box which he could see Masterson wasn’t overly impressed with, ‘and these are the Jump Boxes! Do you have anything on you that might fit in here?’ He opened the door of the transmitter. Masterson reached into his back pocket and handed his wallet to Michael. ‘Thanks.’ Michael placed the wallet in the box, running through the initiation and transfer without any showmanship. He wasn’t an entertainer and thought it would distract from the technology. As soon as the display read “transmission complete” Michael opened the receiver and handed the wallet back to Masterson, who felt it for any sign of abnormality before placing it back in his pocket.

‘Okay, now let’s talk about what we can do for you?’ Michael was slightly taken aback, expecting to be told what the military wanted the device for, but instead being offered assistance.

‘Okay, let’s get back to my office then.’ They headed back along the corridors and once again Masterson was silent, it wasn’t possible to tell if it was in contemplation or simply through lacking anything to say. When they were both within the confines of the small office Masterson, entering last, closed the door firmly. Michael relocated some CD cases and discarded crisp packets, wiping the surface then inviting him to sit, on a badly worn chair with one slightly squeaky wheel, only marginally less healthy than Michael’s permanent seat.

Michael assumed Masterson would get to the point without further prompting and didn’t have to wait. ‘I assume you remember our telephone conversation?’ Michael nodded, ‘Well we’re hoping that your work is proceeding as planned and we would very much like to help, if possible!’

After a moments’ thought Michael responded. ‘What’s in it for you?’ He knew he didn’t have to elaborate on his meaning.

‘We’re hoping it might be possible to build the device into some kind of transportation, in order to offer relief in difficult situations, food, water, clothing, that sort of thing!’

‘Funnily enough that was going to be one of my conditions of use. I’m hoping the device will be used to help people, I don’t want to be another Oppenheimer. I’m guessing you know this or you wouldn’t even be approaching me. The military wouldn’t be my first choice of collaborators, but I have a suspicion you might be able to offer me what I need.’

‘Which is?’ Masterson raised an eyebrow.

‘An assistant.’ the man in uniform looked nonplussed so Michael continued, ‘I need someone to help me develop this. I can furnish you with details of the kind of skills I’m looking for. This place,’ he waved his arm about vaguely, ‘has a lot of administrative hoops to jump through, we don’t really have the funding to get someone of the calibre I’m looking for. I suspect you already have access to information regarding peoples’ skills and background that it would take me a long time to gather.’ Cooke paused momentarily, as if he wasn’t sure whether he should continue but then went on. ‘I’ve also hit a bit of a dead end on a few of the different things I’m trying. It’d be nice to have someone who…understands, to throw ideas at. Plus, I’ve been working on this alone for the last few years and I’m pretty sure if I continue this way I’ll need some kind of psychiatric help.’

Masterson’s face stayed impassive but he was obviously unsure if he should take Michael seriously. After hesitating, he removed a small notebook and a pen from his breast pocket and said ‘What skills?’

Without any delay Michael told him. ‘Any of the classics, in physics obviously, as a base. Then particle physics and quantum theory, plus higher maths and anything that shows they are happy doing their own research and are interested in their subject.’

Masterson finished writing and offered his hand, Michael shook it, ‘That shouldn’t be too much trouble. The details will be on your desk as soon as we have them.’ Shutting the door behind himself he left Michael alone, wondering why there hadn’t been more questions or limitations forced upon him.

 

***

 

Michael thought himself unusual as he quite enjoyed sorting through paperwork. However the people whose details were on the papers laying on his desk would have been a pleasure to look at, even if he were not that way inclined.

The first reference he had picked up had all of the requirements Michael had listed to Masterson two days before. A man named Richard Chamberlain, he assumed no relation of Owen, one of the discoverers of the antiproton in 1955. As he leafed through the documents he realised he might need to rethink his usual method of shortlisting, which was to discount any irrelevant ones then come up with a valid sounding excuse for their non-inclusion, so Human Resources didn’t ask a lot of questions afterwards.

But these people were all more than adequately qualified, so he had been forced to be a little more rigorous. He had finished with three in the “most suitable” pile, and the other seventeen lying face down at the far end of his desk with no hope of recovery. Not that these people were in need of a job, they were all gainfully employed in successful, prestigious roles already. Masterson had said that their current employment status wasn’t important, when he had visited for the second time earlier that day.

Michael put the three documents side by side, looking at them for a moment before picking up the leftmost one and reading straight through it to get an idea of his gut instinct. The man was called Andrew Kirkwood. For the past five years he’d been working at CERN, after seven years in a private laboratory in Cambridge where he’d spent part of his time on a secondment to the University teaching and informing new research. There wasn’t a thing wrong with the list of talents but something about Kirkwood wasn’t quite right. Michael couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

The second candidate’s name was Ethan Birch. He was younger than Kirkwood but had a, literally, stratospheric rise through the ranks of his University. Becoming a senior lecturer at 26 and taking the department he worked for in a completely different direction, leading to some new discoveries about the relation of gravitational and inertial mass to quantum entanglement, which was still a relatively new field of study. However, like Kirkwood, Birch just seemed to be missing something.

Michael was racking his brain to work out what it was that these guys didn’t have, worrying that if the last curriculum was lacking the same unidentified spark he might need to start from scratch, reading through all twenty again.

He picked up the final résumé. He felt justified calling it that as it was shorter than all but one of the others. He hadn’t looked at the names or ages while he was initially shortlisting, he thought it might cloud his judgement. The second time through he had taken a cursory glance at them. Now though, he looked to see if he had any knowledge of their names from his own reading and research. The name on this list of accomplishments was the only one he hadn’t recognised! The other thing that this person had, in common with just one of the other contenders, was that it was a woman. Although in this case Michael thought that “girl” was probably closer to the mark. She was only 25. Her name was Celia Evans and she was one year past the end of her MSc in physics. Michael could easily see how she had ended up in the pile but thought she was a bit of a wildcard. Although, to be fair, he had considered himself pretty talented at 25 and it hadn’t been all that long ago.

Reading through her academic qualifications, she had advanced classical physics, with advanced mathematical techniques and research skills training, as core subjects for her MSc. She had also taken advanced particle physics, dynamical systems and chaos, then finally the quantum theory of matter as optional modules, leaving the course at the top of her class. The institution she had been at wasn’t one Michael would consider to be highly distinguished, nevertheless she had grades in the high nineties for all of her subjects. As he read on she had spent the last year travelling around Europe, seemingly lacking any particular plan as she had drifted between jobs in different cities, but had managed to pick up work in laboratories in every place she had stayed, no matter how long she was there.

The final part of Evans’s information was very different to that of her competitors. She actually listed her interests, which apparently consisted of reading science-fiction, following fashion and listening to loud rock and punk bands. Michael had started smiling to himself upon reading these pieces of inconsequential information. Although there was no one else there to hear him say it he said, ‘That’s it!’ The other contenders were leaders in their fields, but hadn’t shown any kind of individuality or personality. And although Evans was young she had shown more imagination than the other nineteen put together.

He picked up the phone and hit nine for an outside line, then carefully dialled the number on the card, which had been left with the forms. ‘Hello, yes, could you put me through to Colonel Robert Masterson please?’ He leant back in his chair waiting to be connected, scanning through the well-played collection of compact discs, randomly strewn around the small stereo on the windowsill at the far end of his room.

80001539

‘So, how are you feeling?’

Celia didn’t have to think for long before answering. ‘Overwhelmed!’ She smiled and shrugged at Michael before adding, ‘However, after spending most of today looking at your results and the tests you’ve been doing, I did wonder if it might be a good idea to adjust the equations, so the output from the probability current density feeds into a harmonic oscillator function?’ She seemed slightly embarrassed by the suggestion, she wouldn’t meet Michael’s blue eyes with her own while she was talking.

When she looked back, his forehead was ridged, then contorted into a grin, momentarily aping her own permanently beaming face. ‘You know, I’ve been trying to figure out how to overcome the disruption from digitisation since I first discovered this. You’ve just done it in less than a day.’ He stepped back to the computer and started scrolling through the lines of code.

Celia stood behind him. She had dressed casually for the first day of her new job, in a pair of faded jeans and boots which, she had been told by some men she would prefer to forget, made her look masculine. This was part of the reason she also wore colourful, abstract, feminine tops. Blonde, bobbed hair hung on either side of her face making her look younger than she actually was, but she felt old enough to be grasping at youth already.

He stopped scrolling and found the section of programme he was looking for then turned back to her. She thought it was funny that he hadn’t mentioned her appearance, even once. Usually it was the first thing people commented on when they met her and, looking straight at her, he surely couldn’t have failed to notice the dark eye liner, along with the other makeup which she liked to think of as dusky, but which she had to admit probably made her look like she was in a rock band to the casual observer. ‘Astounding!’ he said, ‘What you’ve suggested actually makes the probability of successful transfer about eighty per cent more likely. Good work, Evans.’ She had already almost got used to Michael calling everyone by their surname.

She had been contacted just after getting back to her hotel, having spent the day mooching around Meyrin Centre and taking some time out from hunting for another job. Meyrin was a municipality of Geneva, the town she had been living in and, obviously, the home of the European Organization for Nuclear Research. She had spent a few days there when she first arrived in the city but had decided to take a temporary job in the library which, although not specifically scientific had enough material on CERN to keep her interested and also meant she got to meet and interact with the locals, which was what she had set off on her travels to do in the first place.

A letter had been waiting for her in the pigeon hole, which was slightly unusual. Made more so by the fact that it had her name on it, as she didn’t think anyone currently knew where she was staying, let alone anybody who would be local enough to deliver a letter by hand, or at least it didn’t have any stamps on.

After taking off her jacket she lay on the bed, carefully unpicking the seal on the back of the envelope. Some of the adhesive stuck to her thumbnail but she didn’t really notice as she pulled the piece of paper out, spotting the official looking crest at the top. The letter stated, very clearly, that she should pack up any necessary items, be ready to leave at seventeen hundred hours sharp and that it was an important matter of national security. The crest at the top wasn’t one she recognised, but the signature at the bottom, written rather than printed and relatively fresh according to the date at the top, was underwritten with the man’s details. It appeared to be from the British Minister of Defence.

So she packed her stuff up, then went and grabbed a bite to eat after missing out on lunch, having lost track of time due to finding a particularly interesting boutique she had never noticed before. Getting back to the apartment and still chewing the last remnants of a grilled cheese sandwich, the thought occurred that she was still disappointed that not all the cheese in Switzerland had holes in it, but forgot about that when she noticed there was an official looking black car waiting near the entrance. Within the building a uniformed man was standing at her door.

‘Hi,’ Celia wasn’t sure if she should apologise, as she assumed the guy would have waited longer if he’d had to.

‘Miss Celia Evans?’ She confirmed. ‘You are ready to go!’ It didn’t seem like a question but she involuntarily nodded anyway. The officer waited patiently outside her door as she entered the room, took off the boots she had been wearing, looked at them, frowned and threw them in the bin. She pulled on a pair of black trainers, which she thought nicely complemented the asymmetrically cut zippy top she was wearing, and were probably more comfortable than her heeled boots if she was going to be doing some travelling. She had a final scan round the room and shut the door behind her, posting the keys through the letterbox. Then followed the man to the car she had passed ten minutes before, getting in as he held the door open for her. Out of duty, rather than courtesy, she assumed.

She sat in silence, contemplating what this whole thing might be about while staring at the scenery. After half an hour of driving her inquisitiveness got the better of her. She turned to the man in the uniform sitting beside her, who looked about her age even though his expression suggested experiences beyond his years. ‘Can I ask where we’re going, please?’

The young man faced her and raised an eyebrow. ‘Sorry, do you not know?’ She shook her head and he looked slightly surprised. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know very much myself. A colonel put in a request to track you down and get you back to the UK, other than that I don’t really have a lot of information. I do know you’re not in trouble, if that makes you feel any better.’

Celia hadn’t been worried anyway, she figured things normally worked out for the best. ‘I don’t suppose you know where we’re going?’

The man smiled, which made him look even more boyish. ‘Well it probably won’t help you any but this car is heading to our local air base, I’m leaving you there in the capable hands of one of our NCOs who’ll debrief you then send you on your way.’

That was the last thing he said to her, for the rest of the journey they sat in silence. Her time at the base was not drawn out, she had her “briefing” and the onward journey continued before she had a chance to digest the information she had been fed.

Looking back on it now she realised that the reason there hadn’t been a lot of information for her was because no one actually knew anything about this project. The NCO had merely told her where she was flying to, and at the other end the officer in charge told her where the next part of the trip would take her. She eventually arrived at the office of one Colonel Robert Masterson who, after confirming a few of Celia’s details, had sat quietly for a few moments. Celia stared straight at him, which she found to be a good device for making people feel slightly uncomfortable. She had never been an enormous fan of the armed forces, thinking there must be a better way to do things than hitting each other with sticks to solve problems. That was part of the reason she became a scientist.

Apart from the uniform, Celia had to admit to herself that the man obviously worked out in one way or another, probably outside as he had tanned skin which complemented his brown eyes pretty well. He talked in short sentences, each delivering everything he needed to without actually giving anything away about himself. The information was enough and Celia asked few questions. He finished talking to her about the project, which she had apparently been selected for, ‘due to her diligence, intelligence,’ blah, blah, blah… and then told her how much she would be paid and where she would be staying. She was accompanied out of the office to another waiting car, which drove her to her new digs. It wasn’t until ten minutes into the journey that she stopped looking slightly stunned and started smiling again, in fact smiling more than normal. Thinking to herself that the money she would get for this would fund several trips, to places a lot further afield than Switzerland.

Thinking about what Michael had asked her, as she waved goodbye to him at the end of her first day, she decided that she was feeling good, possibly even great. Colonel Masterson had talked to her about the device, which seemed important though not necessarily interesting the way he referred to it. Now, having seen the prototype working it actually seemed like something from the movies or science fiction. And she was being paid to help Michael develop it. She decided that when the project was finished she would do a bit of searching to find out if that clothes shop in Meyrin did deliveries.

 

***

 

Alan Scott walked down another deserted street. This seemed to have been his life for the past three weeks, investigating the local area and finding out what he could about the EARTH Force. Thankfully he had finally reached the day of the meeting, all preparations complete and useful information stored in his head for recollection, if necessary. He turned towards a door in a brick wall between two buildings, which was no more or less interesting than all the others, and knocked hard enough to redden his knuckles.

The door opened and a woman looked up, ‘Hello, can I help you?’ She asked expectantly.

Alan smiled his most disarming smile at her and repeated the memorised phrase, ‘Good gardening weather, I’ve heard this is the place for advice on perennials.’ He felt embarrassed and could see from the crinkles around her green eyes that she was less than comfortable hearing it spoken.

‘If you think that’s bad, you should have heard the last one! Please, follow me,’ and without waiting she turned, hurrying past the bare, flaking plaster walls towards a stairway. Scott shut the door and ran a few steps to catch up with her. ‘I know Jonny doesn’t like me telling people, but I’m Jessica. You must be Alan, because the other newbie has turned up already and, frankly, he’s a bit…odd!’

She hadn’t turned while talking to him so Alan had taken in what he could about her. She was dressed in a well-fitting, grey, pinstriped business jacket and skirt. The black patent stilettoes she wore meant she was only eight centimetres shorter than him, instead of 16. The glasses only added to the secretarial image. It was actually quite a professional look, if you ignored the way the heels made her hips move. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

Jessica turned the handle on the heavy, rusty door at the bottom of the stairway and entered an off square room, around four metres in length, too well lit by a fluorescent tube for the unpleasant fading green paint job and threadbare grey patchwork carpet it was festooned with.

The room contained a circle of chairs, currently vacant but obviously waiting for attendants to take their places. Jonny recognised Alan and headed towards him, after disengaging himself from a short man, who had a scowl and an introspective look on his face in addition to a scar, running across his right temple, which looked relatively new as it was still a lighter shade of pink than the rest of his face. Scott made a mental note to keep an eye on the man, who appeared to be doing the same thing as himself and weighing up the other people in the room.

‘Aardwolf, isn’t it?’ Jonny seemed pleased that he’d remembered the chosen name.

‘That’s the one Dolphin,’ Alan thought that this name was another example of the fact that Jonny seemed a bit too closely aligned to the men you found in city centres complaining about animal experiments. They shook hands and exchanged pleasantries before Alan continued, ‘Who’s the bloke you were just talking to?’ Jonny turned back to look but the stranger’s eyes were fixed on Alan.

‘It’s funny you should ask. He hasn’t actually introduced himself yet. I don’t know what his name will be within the group, let alone his real name. He started emailing me at about the same time you did. His email address didn’t tell me anything about him. He more or less insisted he be allowed to join the group. Then told me when and where the next meeting was, so I couldn’t very well turn him down. His investigative skills alone might be of use to the cause. Hopefully he’ll introduce himself properly when we get going, talking of which.’ Jonny turned and gave a good impression of someone with some leadership skills, calling the room to order and asking everyone to sit down.

After a small interlude, where seats were found and apologies were made for a bit of a late start, Jonny became the focus of attention. ‘Welcome one and all, nice to see you again. Although you can probably see we have a couple of new animals tonight, any chance you could introduce yourselves fellers? Just a little bit about why you’ve joined us and your chosen names, if that’s okay?’ Jonny looked first at the man-with-no-name, who stared blank eyed back at him, so he turned his attention towards Alan, looking hopeful.

Scott started to stand, then realised he probably didn’t need to, merely shuffling about on the uncomfortable plastic seat. ‘I’m calling myself Aardwolf which, in case you don’t know,’ he looked briefly around the room, thinking if there is one thing these people know about it must be animals, but forged on anyway, ‘is a South African insectivorous relative of the hyena. Its name literally translates as earth wolf, which I thought was rather apt. It’s nocturnal and eats things like termites, it’s careful not to destroy the colony so it can come back at a later date, after the termites have re-established themselves. I thought that was pretty nifty!’ The rest of the room chuckled, with the exception of the other first timer.

Scott continued with much the same details he had furnished Jonny with when they had met previously. He could see by the looks on a lot of the faces that they were jealous of his exotic comings and goings. Still the other newcomer sat, staring at each person in turn. When his gaze returned to Alan there was, if anything, more of a frown, like he wasn’t sure what to make of him. Reaching the end of his brief autobiography Alan turned the floor back to Jonny, ‘That’s pretty much it for me Dolphin.’

Jonny realised he was being addressed and snapped out of the fantasy world he had been exploring in his head, ‘Cool, okay, thanks for that. I guess before we get on with the main topic for this week, which is the council’s proposal to expand the municipal tip and how we can influence their decision, we should meet our other new member.’ Jonny suddenly remembered he didn’t know the guy’s name, ‘Um, over to you.’ He sat down with a vague feeling that he should have found something out about the man before the meeting had started.

Unlike Alan this man did stand up, the scowl he had been sporting all through the meeting showed no signs of abating. Physically he wasn’t distinctive, apart from the scar on his temple and a more impressive looking one which was visible from the wrist on his right forearm, disappearing under the shirt sleeve which was rolled down to just below his elbow. This one looked surgical rather than gained by misadventure. Unlike the one on his head it was a perfectly straight line but looked no older than the other mark. When he started speaking his voice was low and throaty, sounding as though it was coming from a distance. ‘You can call me Darwin,’ there was no question, it was an edict which you couldn’t misinterpret.

Jonny pushed himself up from his seat across the circle and, matching the other man’s height, looked him directly in the eye, Darwin didn’t blink or look away. ‘I think you may have misunderstood, our names should be from animals or, I guess, even plants. Something which you have an affinity for, or to show your strengths.’

Darwin returned his gaze and Jonny felt uncomfortable enough to glance away towards Jessica for a moment, when he looked back Darwin was still facing him down. ‘No, I took your meaning and I’m naming myself after Sapphirina darwinii. It’s a small ocean going insect which I thought was suitable. It doesn’t have an anglicised name, so I thought I’d shorten it to Darwin.’ Jonny muttered something about that being okay and took his seat again, running his hands across the top of his head and down his ponytail, pulling a couple of tangled wavy hairs apart as he reached the split ends. Jessica was keeping her eyes on Jonny. He just stared at nothing, either deep in thought or without anything going on in his head. It was hard to tell.

Because Jonny was lost in himself Jessica took the reins, ‘Could you explain a bit about yourself please Darwin?’

He looked at her with his piercing eyes. It felt as if her mind was being scrutinised without her consent. ‘Mankind is a blight on the planet and I believe that we can do something about it, so I have come to direct you, help show you what needs to happen.’ Although the words were vitriolic he showed little sign of emotion while relaying them.

Jessica looked again at Jonny, to see if there were any signs of life, none were obvious so she moved on. ‘Okay, I guess you two would like to know a little about the rest of the group, I’m Rabbit, but I’d prefer not to reveal why I’m called that,’ Jonny finally looked up at her and one side of his mouth lifted into a smile. ‘You’ll get to know me well enough, I guess you could say I’m the secretary to Dolphin’s chairman. Sitting next to me here is Cheetah, probably the newest member of the group after you two. He’s only been here a few months and I believe the name is because he’s a fast mover. I understand that he has quite a lot in common with you Aardwolf, so you might like to have a chat to each other after the meeting.’

Rabbit continued around the circle giving peoples’ pseudonyms and a little information about each of them, finally getting round to the discussion about the council’s stance on rubbish. It was a lively debate with some good ideas, but Alan spent most of the time furtively watching Darwin, trying to figure out whether he should be worried about him. He also took note of Cheetah, thinking there was more to the name than speed. He looked taller than Scott, which meant he was pretty tall, but he was thin too so wasn’t as imposing. He was quite vocal, his ideas all seemed to be well thought out and worthy of further consideration.

As the meeting drew to a close Jonny dismissed them, shaking everyone by the hand, while Jessica reminded those with actions what they needed to do. She headed over to see Darwin, while Jonny intercepted Alan before he left, ‘It was nice to have you here. Hopefully you’re still interested because we’d love to have you come again.’ Alan confirmed he would be and that if there was anything he could do then Jonny had his contact details. While they were talking Scott watched Jessica and Darwin. Wondering if he was getting the same address, or if she were trying to tell him that he should find another group. He suspected that would be easier said than done as he bid Jonny a final farewell, leaving Dolphin and Rabbit alone.

 

***

 

The door of the lab was open as usual, the nameplate on the door read “Michael Cooke, PhD”. Underneath was a slightly less burnished one reading “Celia Evans, MSc”. The office still looked like a well-organised mess with pieces of wire, circuit boards and scientific journals, as well as both typed and hand written notes on the work which took place in the room. It was obvious that the two people working in the lab, occasionally firing questions and instructions across the chaos, were relaxed in each other’s company. ‘Right, nearly there Evans. Can you plug in the receiver?’

Celia reached underneath a dinner plate sized glass platform and pushed a cable into a socket, she hand turned the screws on the connector until they wouldn’t go any further, then found a screwdriver lying next to a pile of Michael’s music and made sure they were tight. ‘Done! Guess we’re ready?’

Cooke checked a couple of figures on the computer screen in front of him and looked in her direction. ‘Okay then Evans, chuck me your watch.’

Celia looked down at her wristwatch. She had picked it specifically to match her necklace this morning, as she had entertained the suspicion that today would be the day they tested the Jump Box. She wanted to feel good about her appearance, in case all the hard work didn’t pay off. ‘No way! Do you know how hard I had to search for this thing? Hadn’t you noticed that the stainless steel and the black leather go perfectly with this,’ she carefully lifted her necklace away from her chest and attempted to look hurt at the suggestion. ‘Use your watch, you’ve certainly got less to lose if anything goes wrong. Which it won’t, of course!’

He obviously hadn’t even considered how important having matching accessories was and looked down at his own timepiece, like he’d forgotten it was there. ‘Oh right, yes, of course.’ He undid the clasp on the metal strap and placed it on the receiver Celia had plugged in a minute before, after starting its stop watch. Celia maneuvered herself around the electronics and papers strewn around and the two of them stared at the screens in anticipation. One screen was a simple terminal with a readout showing what the machine was currently doing, the other monitor had images from two video cameras, pointing directly at the platforms. Celia started the cameras recording and then Michael pressed the button, which was the only thing in the office not surrounded by detritus. They stared in silence at the screens. The watch disappeared from the first picture, with a papery noise just on the edge of hearing. A second later it appeared in the second image, the other monitor read “transmission completed successfully”.

Of course both scientists had been expecting that message, but Celia glanced across at Michael before stopping the recording then hitting play. The video advanced, frame by frame. They both watched intently. As soon as the timepiece disappeared from the leftmost picture they wound back one frame, to make sure they had seen the watch before it was gone. She left this image on screen, but then hit a separate button, which continued the video playing from the second recorder. It moved forward one frame at a time, she held her finger over the pause button, both of them seemed nervous. Suddenly there was a watch on the second picture where there had not been before, she hit the pause button again and they stared at the two images, then looked at each other.

Celia was already smiling but Michael joined in and they both started laughing. Although, in real world terms, the watch had been gone for over a second the stopwatch on both images read 00:23:62.

After they had reset all the instrumentation and adjusted the settings Michael retrieved his timepiece from the second pedestal and restarted the timer. This time, after starting the video, Celia turned around to view the transfer, Michael got ready to press the button. A second before he hit it he heard her gasp, then he started the jump.

He didn’t really need to ask if it had worked, but professional as she was, she turned back to the screen and went through the process of winding through the videos one by one. This time, when the watch reappeared Celia paused both screens. The two physicists just sat and stared for a few moments. ‘What do you think Evans?’ Cooke didn’t move his eyes away from the images.

Celia, still staring, still smiling, tried to think of something suitably momentous to say and could only come up with, ‘Incredible!’ After another couple of minutes of silence, interspersed only with the occasional mutter of amazement, they turned back to the other screen and Michael started typing in commands, to ensure that their eyes and the recording equipment hadn’t somehow failed in parallel.

The left hand image on the video screen showed the stopwatch reading 00:18:87, on the right the timer read 00:17:87.

 

***

 

‘What do you think?’ Jessica was stacking chairs up as she watched Jonny, picking up the leaflets he had brought along to that night’s meeting from the pasting table which served as the meeting rooms only storage.

‘That guy Darwin makes me uneasy. For one thing there’s no such creature as a “Darwin”, he could at least have chosen Darwin’s bark spider or something. He put no real effort into it. Also, I’m not sure what his problem is but those eyes of his seem to drill down through your brain, like he’s trying to see inside it. I was going to tell you to ask him not to come again.’

‘Funny you say that, it’s exactly what I was going to do, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He wasn’t exactly rude, he just kept telling me that he would see me again and that the group couldn’t do without him. Still, we’ve had oddballs before, he might just have been nervous!’

Jonny obviously thought that wasn’t an option but decided not to pursue the matter any further. ‘What about the other one, Aardwolf?’

‘At least he put some thought into his alias,’ Jessica grinned at Jonny.

Jonny’s face crumpled a bit, like he wasn’t sure what to make of the comment. ‘I’m not really sure if he’s exactly suitable, he seems a bit of an action man to me, and we don’t really do a lot of adventuring in the group. I think he’d probably prefer to be part of a rock climbing club or something.’ He sounded hopeful when he said this, as if willing Jessica to agree with him.

‘I don’t know, it might be nice to have someone who can help with the physical stuff. I mean, he’s a well-built guy.’ The slightly pained look on Jonny’s face intensified somewhat at this description. Jessica didn’t look in his direction to notice. ‘Seriously though, he seems to know his stuff and from what you told me, I reckon he could be an asset.’ She placed the last chair on the pile and finally turned to look at him. ‘You don’t like change much, do you Jonny?’

‘It’s not that. It’s just that we seem to have been getting some more intense members recently, like that Cheetah guy and the two tonight. I’m a bit worried that…’

‘Don’t fret Jonny,’ Jessica smiled at him and his nerves instantly melted, ‘I reckon they just need to be broken in properly. Once they have the hang of things it’ll be back to normal again and we can get on with the important job of saving the world.’

Jonny finished bundling all his papers into a cardboard file, ‘Let me walk you to your car. I do worry about you being in this part of town.’

‘There’s no need. You know I could puncture flesh with these things,’ she stuck her right foot out and wiggled it back and forth, resting on the dangerous looking heel. Jonny stared at it for a little longer than was necessary before remembering what they were talking about.

‘That’s not really the point, come on.’ He turned the handle and leaned against the heavy door to open it but felt too self-conscious to say ladies first in case she thought he was staring at her from behind. They walked along the corridor, emerging together into the orange glow of the few functioning street lights in the area. He tried his best to make small talk but always felt a little out of his depth with her, like she was on a different level of intelligence to him. They eventually reached the reasonably new and relatively sporty car, which was in the closest safe area of street parking to the meeting hall.

Jessica said goodbye and climbed in, wriggling about to get comfortable then securing the seatbelt. Jonny turned away after waving one final time and trudged down the street. She watched him for a while, wondering why he was personality dysmorphic, only recognising the good in other people without realising he was actually a pretty nice guy himself. She mumbled, ‘No one’s perfect,’ turned the key and pulled away, being glad to be heading home from a thoroughly weird night.

 

***

 

Celia was watching the two men trying to come to a decision, Cooke was only marginally shorter than Masterson but Robert was bulkier and had an ingrained stern appearance, which made him appear larger than the other man. Michael was currently holding forth on how to proceed, ‘Yesterday would be a good place to start. It means we’ll have jumped far enough back to make sure it’s working, but not so far that we can’t just hang around until we’ve caught up with ourselves again today!’

‘But would we not be better going back five minutes to start off with. Just to make sure it’s working?’

‘The interval doesn’t really matter from our calculations.’ He glanced towards Celia who nodded, which accentuated her smile, after Masterson followed Cooke’s glance towards her looking mystified. ‘Sorry, an “interval” is what they measure spacetime in. Like a metre of distance, or an hour of time.’

‘What if it doesn’t work?’

‘Well,’ Michael thought for a moment, ‘if it doesn’t work we’ll probably, all three of us, end up with our atoms torn to shreds and scattered through space and time.’ Robert’s impassive face twitched slightly, ‘But we’d know if that was going to happen because it would have left a terrible mess in the laboratory.’

Masterson aimed a sneer towards Michael before making his mind up, ‘Okay, I’m willing to take the risk.’ Celia thought he might actually be kidding, but he showed no outward sign other than the words he’d used. ‘How long will it take you to program it?’

‘Not long, give me ten minutes to make all the necessary calculations, then we can try.’ Masterson agreed and left him to his own devices, marching over to Celia who attempted to get up to help Cooke, but he waved her back down.

Masterson sat down deep in thought, or at least he didn’t talk and didn’t seem like he was in any hurry to say anything. Celia was never comfortable in silence for too long but couldn’t think of anything to say, so came out with an opening gambit which she probably wouldn’t have used had she actually spent a little more time considering her options. ‘I’ve never really been big on the armed forces, you know!’ She had the decency to look embarrassed at this, but waited to see if this would secure any kind of response.

Masterson continued to stare at Michael and she initially thought he was going to treat the comment like it hadn’t been made, so was a little surprised when he said, ‘Yes. I get that a lot. Although to be honest, rarely from people I’ve been assigned to work with. I actually thought I might get a relatively easy day today, talking with two scientists. But that guy,’ he nodded his head towards Cooke, ‘is passionate enough about his toy to actually ask relevant and shrewd questions. I think I might like him, to say we’ve only met a couple of times!’ He lapsed into silence once again and it was as if he hadn’t been talking.

Celia felt slightly worse after his response like she had been unfair, so decided to try and start again. ‘How long have you been doing it? The job I mean.’ She actually turned to look at him this time, instead of staring into the middle distance.

Masterson regarded her with his brown eyes and seemed to reflect on his past deeds, ‘A long time! I’ve actually been in the military longer than I haven’t. Nineteen years now, although it doesn’t seem that long.’

‘I have to say you look good on it.’ She hoped this would make up for her opener, but then wondered if it was a bit much. He didn’t seem to notice, ‘I guess you get to travel a lot, whereabouts have you been?’ She figured, at least if she turned the conversation to something she knew, she wouldn’t make any more faux pas.

‘I’m actually not allowed to tell you. But if you think about all the places that you wouldn’t want to go, then multiply that by all the places you wouldn’t consider hospitable you get some idea of where I’ve served. That’s why I was picked for this mission,’ his head twisted to face front again, ‘that and my open minded nature, obviously.’ Celia still couldn’t tell if he was jesting but their conversation was interrupted at this point anyway.

‘All done! Can you come over here and check this please Evans, make sure I’m not sending us to the wrong era, or into the future or something.’ Celia sprang off her seat and looked at the screen. They had created a simple interface allowing them to input times and dates, with only a few manual calculations necessary to ensure that all the figures calculated by the jump device, then displayed on screen, were correct. She did a few bits of mental arithmetic, running her finger along some of the longer numbers displayed at the foot of the screen.

‘Fine Mike, guess we’re ready then. Come on Colonel.’ Masterson paced over to where they were standing. The office looked kind of similar to how it had when Cooke had flicked the switch for the very first time, but now in one cleared corner there was a small, self-contained platform made of some kind of dull ceramic material. There was only one solid surface, with what looked like a laptop computer screen and keyboard wired into it. This was what Michael had been typing the information into and where he was still standing, with Celia peering over his shoulder. ‘Step in, there’s room for a little one,’ at Celia’s invite Masterson moved into the limited space behind her, glancing at the clock on the laboratory wall, then he stood still, waiting. ‘This is cosy,’ were the final words to ring out before there was a silent, empty space, where the three of them had been standing.

 

***

 

It was dark in the empty laboratory. A few flashing green and red LEDs reflecting from metallic surfaces gave momentary light to the gloom. Apart from the low hum of computers analysing numbers the room was silent. There was a momentary noise, like someone running their fingertip across a polished wooden table top, and the atmosphere of the room seemed to change in an indistinguishable way. ‘Whoa!’ The noise was sudden and obviously human in origin, ‘That was cool!’ Celia edged out from between the two men and felt her way around the tables, flicking the switch on the desk lamp beside the window. She turned to look at them, still standing within the frame. ‘It seemed to work, unless no one told us about the total eclipse,’ she smiled at this but Michael was busy typing. Masterson stepped gingerly out of the jump device and leaned over to peer out of the window, as if checking on what she had said.

After a few moments Cooke turned from the screen and smiled back at her, ‘The computer would appear to agree, all the numbers are as they should be and suggest we’ve arrived at 11:30 last night. I wonder if there’s something small we can do to mark our visit. So we know we were actually here when we get back, rather than in some parallel dimension.’

Masterson was staring at the wall clock in the corner of the room, ‘That thing is still ten minutes slow, I noticed it just before we jumped, I wonder if we should change the time so it’s right?’

‘Celia ran over and reached for the clock but it was just beyond her grasp, Robert easily stretched over her head and lifted it from the hook, carrying out the manual dexterity challenge that consisted of turning the small dial on the back, while looking at the face, until the minute hand was in the right position.

He carefully set it back in place then looked down to find Evans, still in front of him looking up at his face. ‘You could have waited until I moved, army man.’ Masterson wasn’t sure how to take this due to Celia’s inability to sound anything other than cheerful, so he stepped back allowing her the space to move again.

‘Actually that gives me an idea too.’ Michael looked briefly round the room, walked to his desk and did a quick scan across the surface until he found what he was looking for. Celia couldn’t see what he had picked up, but after doing something intricate he put it back, took up his place in front of the jump interface and turned to the other two. ‘Are you staying then?’

Celia got back first, standing at an angle to try and make the most of the restricted space. Masterson turned the light off and stepped in, filling the rest of it and forcing Evans to move her face backwards, to try and keep from having her hairline pressed into his chin. He adjusted, so as not to be resting on her head. They were still excusing themselves when, with the faintest whisper, the lab was empty again.

 

***

 

Exactly one second after the office was vacated there were three people standing in it again, two of whom were still apologising as they realised they could stop and remove themselves from each other’s vicinity. After a few moments they remembered where they were and turned to look at the hands of the clock. Michael was already staring at it.

‘That can’t be right?’ Masterson looked at his watch, confused. ‘It’s nearly five minutes fast now, what happened?’

He turned to Cooke for an answer but only got a shrug, Celia had already considered this situation during the jump and reminded them of one important detail. ‘How long were we there?’ The puzzled look on their faces broke apart as they realised their own watches hadn’t stopped, just because they had travelled to the night before.

Michael moved to his desk, motioning for them to come and see what he had done. ‘I’ve had this thing on my desk for a while, I was going to get the strap fixed but then forgot about it and bought a new one, he was pointing at a beaten up analogue watch on the desk. ‘I wound it on to read eleven thirty while we were there, then left the crown out so it didn’t keep going. You can see the results for yourselves.’ The hands were stuck at half past eleven until he picked it up and pressed the little knob back in, at which point the second hand sprang back to life.

Masterson still had questions. ‘So what does all this mean? Is it okay to change things or do we have to be careful we don’t step on butterflies?’

Michael turned to him, ‘Well the most likely effect of us having made changes to things in the past, then jumping back to the present, is some kind of bending of spacetime, resulting in a degradation of current conditions and a reduction in the probability that we’d actually manage to relocate ourselves…’ His voice trailed off as his brain took over the train of thought.

Robert looked at Celia, ‘I think, what he’s trying to tell you is that if we shouldn’t have done that, then we probably wouldn’t have been able to jump back again. In essence changes prohibited by natural laws would destroy the universe.’ She gave a little laugh at this, like it wasn’t as serious as it sounded.

‘You mean we could have wound up destroying, well, everything by playing with that?’ He pointed at the clock on the other side of the lab, looking slightly harassed.

‘That’s pretty much the extent of it, yes. That’s why we wanted to go back far enough for changes to make an impact, but not so far it would rip the whole structure of everything apart if we were wrong. You don’t imagine we’d have tried that without doing some calculations first, do you?’

Masterson looked rightfully ashamed at not having realised this, made his excuses, suggesting that he needed to report their results and left quickly. Michael’s thoughts finally derailed themselves and he asked, ‘What do you think, Evans? I’ve been wracking my brain and I can’t come up with any simple way of measuring changes. Have you got anything?’

Celia’s smooth brow wrinkled slightly as she sifted her memory for anything relevant. ‘The box takes measurements of local conditions, if I remember what you told me right, then it feeds the measurements into the calculations for the jumps. Can we get the measurements as a list?’ Michael shrugged his shoulders and appeared to agree in principle. ‘In that case we need to get those details. I’m pretty sure the numbers will tell me what I’ve been expecting. It’s just I need to look at them to figure out how to get them into a meaningful state.’

Michael set to outputting the results, Celia stared abstractedly out of the doorway. When Cooke finished she was still looking in the same direction. ‘What’s up, Evans?’

Celia realised what she had been doing and failed to look innocent, ‘I’m sorry it’s just that soldier man gets under my skin, I can’t figure out why! You know I don’t usually have any problems getting along with people but I find it hard to be civil to that bloke.’

‘If that’s you being impolite then I’d love to see you trying to be malicious. I wouldn’t worry about it, for one thing he probably didn’t notice you being slightly less nice than usual. For another, even if he noticed I’m guessing he won’t be crying himself to sleep about it. Anyway take a look at these and see if you’re right, as usual!’

Celia bent over the numbers and was quiet for a few minutes while Cooke looked at the overall results. She grabbed a pen from his desktop and scrawled down some figures, finally sitting back. Michael looked across to see what she had come up with and ran his hand through his short hair. ‘Damn it Evans, how do you do it? Every time I’m at a dead end you look at the work and know how to get to the next stage. I’d never have thought about using selection rules but it seems to make sense. It’ll also be simple enough for anyone to read. Which is helpful with Masterson overseeing us,’ he raised his eyebrows to show he agreed with her earlier statement. ‘Can you turn it into something practical?’

‘Probably. I was thinking of calling it a Quantum State Gauge, a QSG maybe? Sounds better than a Quantascope,’ she looked towards him for confirmation, he gestured that he didn’t mind one way or another. ‘In any case there’s no way I could have come up with any of this stuff without your groundwork. You’re the genius Mike.’

He smiled at her then remembered something, ‘By the way, the Colonel told me the plan for what his military friends want to do with the Jump Box.’ Celia looked nervous. ‘Don’t worry, it’s nothing martial. They’re interested in taking jumps back to check out environment and ecology at different times, to see if there’s anything that can be done to get the planet out of the hole it’s currently in.’ Celia made a face at him. ‘I know, you’re no more surprised than me, but I had a suspicion since he first met us that his branch of the forces isn’t exactly what you’d term “regular”. Also, anyone can see the world is in a bad way, maybe ecosystems have gone up the list of priorities.’

He looked doubtful himself but continued, ‘in any case, he said he has a list of people who can investigate the right things, they’ll be contacted as soon as we’re ready so I guess we need to get on.’

800026B2

The air in the room felt strained. The meeting hadn’t started in earnest, in fact it wasn’t due to start for another twenty minutes but for some reason Darwin and Aardwolf had both shown up early, although independently. Jonny glanced at Jessica as he placed the last of the chairs in a circle, then went to the table to pick up his notes. Before he had decided on a seat Darwin was standing in front of him, staring levelly into his eyes and almost barked. ‘Just what is this thing about, Dolphin?’ He made the last word sound like a put down.

Jonny looked a little bewildered at the unexpected outburst but recovered surprisingly quickly. ‘I thought I’d made that clear, we’re trying to reduce man’s footprint on the planet, you know, by making sure big companies don’t always get their way. And that when laws are passed they take the health of the world into account, so things can be improved.’ Jonny tried to sidestep Darwin and take a seat but the other man blocked his path.

‘Do you not think the best way to reduce humans’,’ the last word was almost spat out in disgust, ‘impact on the Earth is to reduce the number of humans?’ He smiled as he said this, as if the thought pleased him.

Jonny’s face was looking for ways to show how he was feeling but couldn’t find any, settling between disbelief and anxiety. ‘What are you suggesting exactly, Mr Darwin?’

Darwin finally let him pass and Jonny placed his paperwork on a seat, before turning back to face his aggressor. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ He waited impatiently for any of them to respond, Jessica just sat next to where Jonny had placed his papers, looking querulous. Aardwolf was standing near the door leaning against a drainpipe, which ran inexplicably through the inside of the building. Jonny held his ground, mechanistically running his fingers through his long ponytail but making no attempt to respond. ‘I would have thought anyone with half a brain,’ his gaze moved away from Jessica back to Jonny as he said this, ‘could figure it out. All that needs to happen is for the number of human beings on the planet to be reduced. It’s fairly simple really, there are a whole host of ways you could do it!’

It was at this point that Aardwolf joined the exchange. ‘Are you suggesting that we become, what, maybe serial killers or something? Carry out some kind of mass genocide. I mean, how hard could it be?’ His eyes caught the other two’s after he said this, to show them he was trying to make a point rather than actually agreeing.

Darwin sat down opposite Jonny and continued staring at the three of them in turn as the door opened. This early arrival was Cheetah, who realised he was walking in on a disagreement but decided he would like to watch, to see who the victor would be. He leant on the other side of the downpipe Aardwolf was observing from, nodding his head in greeting. Darwin’s scowl kept its position and he snarled, ‘That’s amateurish, there are ways and means for these kind of things. If you can find the weak spots in society you can make adjustments so things go slowly downhill. My namesake pointed out how natural selection works, and Tennyson wasn’t wrong when he said “red in tooth and claw”. All it needs is a slight change in conditions to wipe out many of the less well evolved Homo sapiens. I’m certain that there are those amongst us now who wouldn’t live if it came to fighting for their own survival.’ Again he gazed, for a little too long, at Jonny. ‘I’m not talking about a sudden loss of life, I’m talking about making it more of a challenge, thereby eliminating the weak and weak minded.’

Jessica had been staring at Cheetah since he’d entered but turned to Jonny at this, in an attempt to make him feel like he had backup. ‘But that’s not what we’re about, is it!’ It wasn’t a question, just a way of allowing Jonny to find his way back into the conversation.

‘No, not at all. Sure, there may be too many people on planet Earth and not really enough resources, but we’re trying to find non-aggressive ways of solving the problems. I’m sure it can be done, we just need imaginative people to help us make the right changes.’ He valiantly tried to make the best of the situation, ‘With ideas like yours I’m sure you could make a big difference to the way we do things here.’

‘Yes I could, and don’t worry, I will.’ As Darwin stopped speaking the door opened again and a few more of the usual suspects started flowing into the room. Jonny tried to compose himself and kicked off the meeting proper, as Aardwolf and Cheetah took their seats pretending they hadn’t been party to the overheated debate.

Jonny introduced the get-together as per normal, then decided to remind everyone what the group was about for good measure. ‘Before the rest of you arrived, Darwin,’ he shot a glance at the less than formidable presence of the other man, ‘and I were discussing the modus operandi and purpose of the EARTH Force. I just wanted to let you all know that we’re still looking to make a difference to the world. By persuading organisations and individuals to change the way they think. Sure it may not be earth shattering, if you’ll excuse the expression, but I certainly feel like I’m making a difference.’ The meeting advanced without further interruption or discussion about Darwin’s thoughts and the man himself stayed passive throughout.

When Jessica drew things to a close there was the usual lurch of people getting up and mingling for a quick chat before they headed home, but Jessica noticed that Darwin seemed to have some kind of agenda, as he moved from member to member of the group. She imagined he wasn’t getting to know them, as that would be a sudden turnaround from how he had behaved so far. She attempted to mingle towards him and heard the end of what he was saying to Bill Fraser, known as Fox to the other group members. ‘…so you can see that it’s obviously the most sensible way to make use of our limited resources. If we work together this way we can make a big difference in five years, rather than twenty five!’

Bill looked sceptical, but was obviously willing to agree with some of the points Darwin had been making. Darwin noticed Jessica over his shoulder and moved swiftly away to his next quarry, out of her earshot. She moved close to Bill and spoke quietly, ‘Do you mind if I ask what Mr Intense was saying to you, Fox?’

Bill thought for a moment. ‘Nothing much really, he just seems to think there might be a better way of effecting a change.’ He rubbed his jowly cheek adding, ‘He’s a little bit scary but I have to say he has a good turn of phrase. Quite a lot of what he was telling me makes sense.’ Jessica said that was okay and moved over to Jonny, currently speaking to Ruth Archer, who had surprisingly chosen Python as her EF name. Mainly surprising because she was only about five foot two and slight in build, hardly someone you’d associate with snakes. When asked she always responded that it was a long story and would go no further.

Jonny was saying that her idea was good and he’d see if he had a chance to get it on the agenda for the next meeting. While he was talking his eyes seemed to be trying to drift towards Jessica, to let her know he would be with her in a second. He disengaged himself after a few more kind words, which seemed to be Jonny’s speciality. He finally got face to face with her and was quick to ask, ‘What have you found out then, Miss Rabbit?’

Jessica held his gaze and felt a little sorry for the man. He was genuinely considerate and tried to take everybody’s feelings into account, however the end result tended to be that others ignored him, doing whatever they wanted. She considered that they had known each other nearly three years now and was pretty certain he found her attractive. Being Jonny though, he had never so much as asked to go out for a coffee, let alone a bite to eat or a drink. ‘Well, it sounds like our new friend is trying to change everyone’s mind about what we should be doing. I wouldn’t worry too much though, they’re pretty resilient,’ she gestured towards the others, who were on their way out. ‘I don’t think we need to worry. Yet, at least!’ Aardwolf had packed the chairs up this time so she went to the table to help him collect his stuff.

Jonny looked around the room to check that everyone had gone and almost started speaking, but before he gathered the sentence in his head Jessica interrupted. ‘I think we have one more meeting before we kick the guy out. He’s upsetting a few of the regulars and, worse than that, he’s getting you down. It’s one thing to be opinionated, it’s quite another to try and turn the group against its natural leader.’ Jonny wasn’t sure whether she was being serious or not but didn’t like to ask in case she wasn’t. He finished gathering his odds and ends and they moved towards the exit, hitting the switch to leave the dank room in darkness and pulling the heavy door closed. It made an uncomfortable grating noise as it did so, interrupting the heavy silence they took with them.

 

***

 

Robert knew he’d never understand the workings of the thing and was attempting to get the information put into simpler terms, so he could at least grasp the basic concepts. Cooke was a little out of his depth speaking to someone with no understanding of, what he considered to be, the basic physical laws of the universe. However Celia had spent time conducting tours at a number of radio telescopes and had worked in more than one library, so was a little more at home with spoon-feeding members of the public who had little scientific knowledge.

‘All you have to think is that each second, every atom in existence is in a particular state.’ Masterson nodded his head. ‘Okay, so the QSG takes a measurement of local conditions for a few seconds, from that it extrapolates the current state of the Universe, pretty much!’ His forehead creased and he almost asked her to explain but thought better of it. ‘The numbers it produces are turned into an equation which gives you the current state of all things,’ she felt that this time she was almost at the finish line. Turning to see if Michael was listening she saw he was shaking his head in incredulity.

Robert rubbed his temples and tried to think of the best way to ask a question without looking stupid, but couldn’t hope to aspire to a level which didn’t sound childlike to the other two. ‘So this thing measures everything in existence?’

‘Sort of. It actually does an approximation of what everything in existence is, by extrapolating from a small sample.’

‘Right, I’m guessing that the results it outputs are going to be so mind-numbingly complicated that I’d need a PhD to understand them?’

You’d think that wouldn’t you. But funnily enough, it turns out that because the universe runs in such an orderly fashion, you know something happens and that causes something else to happen, it was fairly easy to figure out a way to make the numbers sequential.’ She seemed pleased at this, Robert just stared at her. ‘This is what we’ve ended up with. Relatively simple but pretty effective.’ She reached behind herself and brought out a flat black box, about the size of a paperback book, pressed a switch on top of the device and Masterson looked at the screen as it blinked into life. It took a little while before the screen read 80003B1C. He looked confused but Celia pre-empted him, ‘It’s hexadecimal, otherwise we’d have the slim possibility of running out of numbers too quickly. This way we can go about four thousand years either way before we’re out of its range, but even if we go beyond there it should still give us the same result when we get back, unless we’ve unintentionally altered something during the jump.’

‘Why isn’t it changing?’

‘We decided it would be more effective and more reliable if we count minutes, rather than seconds. Then it has time for further measurements and adjusts the calculations automatically.’ She paused for a second as the screen updated to 80003B1D. ‘Of course it’s never going to be one hundred percent reliable, it’s an extrapolation rather than a good solid measurement, but it should give us a fairly good idea of what’s going on. It may not be perfect but it should at least provide us with an indication of whether we’ve made any massive cock-ups, history wise. The other bonus being that because of the way it measures it’ll give us an idea of how big a change has been made in the past, also how much work we’re likely to need to do to fix it.’

Masterson seemed to have understood enough about the measurements for his own requirements. ‘Is there any kind of error checking?’

Cooke spoke before Celia had a chance, ‘We’ve got this.’ He held up an identical device lying on his desk, which had the same readout and in fact the same number on the screen as the QSG that Evans was clutching. ‘We made two of them so this one can stay in the present, the other can come back with us. The numbers on each probably won’t correspond if anything has changed.’

‘Probably?’

‘Well, to be honest no one has ever tried anything remotely like this before. Most of the functionality of these things, and the Jump Box actually, are working on conjecture and hope. Frankly I’m surprised when it does what I expect it to!’

Robert didn’t look overly happy to hear this, Celia mock-glared at Michael in exasperation at his frankness.

 

***

 

The empty laboratory was suddenly party to the end of a conversation, ‘…ou sure we shouldn’t have been a little more subtle?’ There had been enough tests now that they were all comfortable enough to converse while jumping. The Jump Frame had appeared in the corner of the lab and the voice was that of Masterson, always the naysayer.

Michael was coming to think of him as a muscular administrator, who asked questions that weren’t relevant and were based around time, money and effort rather than spacetime and results. He did occasionally come up with a surprise point which changed their tack, but Michael assumed this was more luck than good management, not holding out too much hope for him being any real help in the field. ‘It was still only a local change in the continuum. Although it may have had a knock on effect the universe appears to have survived.’ He rapped his fist on the solid surface of the workbench he was standing beside.

Celia thought the conversation between the two men had got a little tense and decided to try steering it back to smoother ground, ‘Mike’s kind of right anyway, the way this thing works I suspect we’d know about it pretty quickly if we did anything really crazy. In any case, I don’t think it’s that big a deal to have locked that door, it’s hardly a major thoroughfare for the building and we just needed to see if it registered on this when we got back. Mike, what’s the reading of the QSG we left here?’

Cooke flicked the on button, waiting as the device warmed up, then said, ‘Pretty much what we were expecting, eight, treble zero, four, zero, a, zero.’

Masterson was incredulous, as if he was expecting Michael to be incorrect somehow, but Celia backed him up, ‘Right enough. Hang on I’ll just check the QSG,’ she unclipped the other device from the jump cage and turned it on. She frowned as the number appeared on screen, walking over to Michael. She held it beside its twin as Masterson peered over her shoulder to see what they were looking at. ‘Well that can’t be right, can it?’ This was directed at Michael. The readout on the Quantum State Gauge they had taken with them was almost the same, but the final figure was one higher and they weren’t changing at quite the same instant.

Cooke turned to her, ‘I think we need to look into this. On the bright side we know what we did and how that might have affected reality, so we shouldn’t have too much trouble figuring it out.’ Although this was directed at Evans, Masterson realised it was an open invite for him to leave while they were brainstorming. He turned and strode out of the door with a couple of blunt words of departure, leaving them to their investigations.

 

***

 

‘So from what we’ve been able to figure out, the reason the two boxes were different is because the measurements this one took, while they were separated, affected the measurements the other one took, while it was in situ. We’re thinking the act of measuring while they’re separated is interrupting the entanglement state of the second device. So it’s running slightly faster?’

‘Sounds about right,’ said Celia, confirming what Michael already knew. She took over the explanation they were giving to themselves, to get it straight in their heads. ‘Not a problem though as we can actually calibrate the second device, to take into account the changes which have happened and how long they’ve been separated, adjusting the figures so they line up again whenever we return.’

Michael was gazing into nothingness, thinking rather than daydreaming, as he started talking again. ‘Just one thing I’m worried about.’

‘What’s that?’

‘How big a discrepancy do we allow before we start to worry about it? I think the differences might be the key to knowing what’s actually changed, but we don’t really want to know about every single change of state, do we? I think the best thing we can do now we’ve crunched these numbers, is to come up with some kind of rules for jumping, so everyone involved is clear on what they can or can’t do.’

‘Sounds like a plan. Hang on a second,’ Celia pulled a pen from her lab coat breast pocket and opened a pad of paper to a blank page. She wrote a number one in the margin, putting a full stop after it to show it was the first entry in a list. ‘Come on then, give me something to start with. Michael figuratively, if not literally scratched his head, then said, ‘Well first things first, we know from the experiments with the flies, death isn’t such a big game changer as we expected it to be. Obviously Mother Nature isn’t a Buddhist, but I think I’d feel more comfortable if we had something about trying not to kill anything…or anybody.’ Celia thought for a second and transcribed this then looked at him, before starting to write the next rule without prompting.

After half an hour they sat back and looked at their handiwork. There were ten points and a few scribbled notes for later revision or explanation.

  1. Do not kill (anything), unless there’s no other choice.
  2. Do not attempt to interact with locals.
  3. Do not leave objects from the present.
  4. Stay with assigned team members at all times.
  5. Follow orders.
  6. Ensure radio contact, at all times.
  7. Reveal nothing about yourself if confronted by locals.
  8. Go no further than 500m from jump site.
  9. Do not eat local flora/fauna.
  10. Listen to the Scientists.

Celia didn’t look as happy as usual so Michael questioned her. ‘I think we can improve these, I just don’t know how at the moment. I feel like I’ve missed something important.’

Cooke looked again to see if an answer would spring to mind, sadly nothing did. ‘I’m pretty sure we’ve taken everything into consideration. I mean, people aren’t stupid are they? Also I think we’ve probably worded it so Masterson will agree, but frankly who knows? We’ll hand it to him and see if he wants to make it more difficult for us.’

They were still staring at the list when Robert walked in, unannounced as usual and stopped, almost standing to attention through force of habit. Michael handed him the list, telling him why they had come up with the rules. He said he’d take it away to see if it needed any further editing. ‘What I really came to tell you is the team has been finalised. We’re just in the process of drawing them together. Once that’s done you’ll need to show them the truck, give them some kind of presentation on how this stuff works and what we want them to do for us.’ He used the word “us” like it was the three of them whose ideas were being put into practice, Celia was pretty sure the decisions were not being made by anyone currently standing in the laboratory. ‘You have 24 hours before the team is assembled for debriefing. I have to go now, there are a few things which need my attention before we start.’ He left as quickly as he had entered, the two physicists held each other’s gaze for a moment before Michael gave a heavy sigh.

Celia smiled at him, ‘Don’t worry, I had an idea he might be planning something like this, I’ve been working on it. We should be able to cobble a few words together from what I’ve done,’ Michael relaxed a little. ‘The truck is ready, isn’t it?’

Cooke pulled his phone out of a trouser pocket to check the messages, ‘They say so, I’ve not seen it yet but I’m assuming we’ll get a few minutes of tinker time before we start tomorrow. Come on, show me what you’ve got,’ and they turned to read through Celia’s overflowing notebook.

80006A52

One of the street lights was smashed. It looked like something had been thrown at it in a fit of drunken exuberance, which had unusually ended in a direct hit and the protagonists probably running away in panicked guilt as the shards hit the floor. Where the small pool of darkness lay on the ground a park gate stood slightly ajar. The gate was surrounded by a high hedge which was vaguely creepy in the light-free zone.

Without looking closely it would have been quite impossible to notice the dark clad figure standing on the far side of the hedge. In fact a young woman, on her way to wherever it was a young woman may have been going at ten o’clock at night, completely failed to see someone watching her pass. The camera was almost invisible, due to the camouflaged cover which had been added for just this purpose. The lens extended into the hedge but was focussed on a house across the wide street. The person in black was obviously practised in the art of surveillance as they sat silently, unmoving, with an eye fixed on the viewfinder of the camera and a finger touching the remote shutter release, obviously waiting for something to happen, but whatever it was hadn’t occurred yet.

With no more than a miniscule change to the stillness, the button was pressed down and the camera quietly took picture after picture through the nearly closed blinds of the house opposite. The silence was broken with a whispered, ‘Smile!’

At the same moment the person inside the flat obviously realised that their blinds weren’t quite shut, flipping the few remaining slats so there was no light escaping. The observer no longer cared, carefully disassembling the camera and tripod, quietly closing the clasps on the box they were returned to and walking across the park, removing their hood as they went.

 

***

 

Emily wasn’t really sure what was going on, she had been happily working on a newly discovered piece of cuneiform Luwian script yesterday when her boss had almost run through the office door struggling to tell her that some ‘…um, men…’ were asking to see her. When she had met them they turned out to be clad in military uniforms and were pretty imposing, stature wise. They told her she was needed for an important role on an important project, but wouldn’t budge any further when pressed for more details. She had agreed, after they had shown her a document signed by some important looking people. The black car she was ushered into drove to her flat and the men accompanied her, to collect whatever clothes she might need for an extended field trip. She was swiftly reinstalled in the car and driven to goodness knows wherever she was now.

The room they left her in was by no means homely but had everything you would need to survive. She had very little human interaction from that point until ten minutes ago, when she was brought into a large warehouse-type room and left with three other slightly startled looking people.

At five foot six she was the second shortest person there. The other people seemed deep in contemplation, which gave her a good chance to look each one over without them noticing. The aforementioned shorter person was another woman, at least a couple of inches smaller than she was, but made up for it with comparatively long legs which she wasn’t afraid of showing off. She wore denim shorts and tights with a top which almost reached the hem of the shorts which, even then, didn’t make it an incredibly long top. Slightly curled, long, blonde hair reached the middle of her back. Her blue eyes were looking around the room, then returning to the man standing next to her as she said the occasional word to him.

The man was not exactly tall, probably shorter than the average UK male these days. He had incredibly black hair and a darkening of his chin where he obviously hadn’t shaved for a while. This made him seem like he was taking up more space than another person of the same physique would have. He was dressed in a plain, short sleeved shirt, dark jeans and trainers. Before her eyes left the two she noticed the man put his arm around the woman’s waist and rest it on her hip, confirming what Emily had suspected.

The last of the three was taller, although not quite as obviously there as the shorter man. He was definitely over six feet but was, what Emily thought of as, lanky. His grey hair reached to his shoulders and he was dressed, if anything, more inappropriately than the woman. In cut-off jeans and a faded blue t-shirt with the logo of some long forgotten metal band’s tour emblazoned across the front. He seemed decidedly nervous so she tried to break the ice, ‘I don’t suppose any of you know why we’re here, do you?’

The tall man shrugged, which accentuated the angularity of his thin body. The woman simply looked towards Emily, as if she hadn’t noticed anyone else was in the room. The dark haired bloke actually responded, ‘Afraid not. I’m Pete by the way. Peter James, and this is my wife,’ he held out the woman’s left hand, proving the point with a sparkling ring, ‘Andrea.’ He let go and gently hit her on the backside, ‘Go on, say hello love.’ Andrea smiled at him and put her hand out to shake Emily’s, as she apologised for Peter’s behaviour.

Emily turned to the other guy and extended her hand towards him. He unfolded his arms, reaching out to shake, briefly. ‘I’m Dave. David if you like.’ With that he crossed his arms and became silent and worried again. Emily wondered if she would be getting to know these people and if she should try and make more effort to bring David out of his shell, as someone who looked like they thought they were important walked in through the double doors on the left hand side of the cavernous space.

The man was dressed in a uniform, not unlike those of the men who had turned up at work the day before, only he looked less formal and more self-assured. He walked up to the wooden lectern standing in front of a large and worryingly military looking truck, which was remarkably and incongruously parked in the centre of the large room. ‘Hello. I’m Colonel Robert Masterson, I’ve brought you all together to assist with a project which we believe may affect the future of the planet. I’m not sure if you’ve introduced yourselves yet, if you have I don’t mind you just giving your full names and an idea of what you do, so I can get to know you too.’ He looked fleetingly at his watch, as if waiting for something to happen and was rewarded with the doors swinging open again. A man and woman entered together then stood beside him.

Emily looked first at the woman, who was noticeably confident for someone so young. Unlike Emily’s, which was dyed a dark red colour, her hair was blonde, probably naturally so, and cut in a short bob which lent her face a kind of friendliness. She looked like a student, by virtue of the fact that her clothes seemed to be strange shapes and cuts. Despite this they were also incredibly well thought out and had a coordinated look to them. Her eyes were blue, the dark ring of make-up around them making her look a lot more intense than she would have without it.

Emily’s attention turned to the man, who had entered at the same time, as the woman started speaking. ‘My name’s Celia Evans and up to this point in my life I’ve been a theoretical physicist. However, since meeting him,’ she pointed at the man standing next to her, ‘I suppose you could call me a practical physicist.’ She continued to smile and looked at the other recent entrant, waiting for him to speak.

Emily’s eyes stayed on the man, who looked slightly ill at ease standing in front of the small group. He wore jeans, well fitted from Emily’s point of view, a stylish checked shirt which seemed, if anything, slightly tighter than should be allowed in a working environment. It showed off his athletic figure and the fact he completely lacked anything in the way of excess body fat. He was a good three inches taller than Celia, although he wasn’t massively imposing and seemed slightly uncomfortable at being the centre of attention. As he was about to start speaking his eyes roved across the gathering, looking at everyone else, before settling on Emily.

She stared at him, he stared back at her stumbling out his first words, then tried again. ‘I’m Michael Cooke, um, I’m a physicist too and I’ve invented and built a machine, it’s called the Jump Box and it, um, can disassemble and reconstitute things into their constituent components through spacetime.’ He looked a little embarrassed but Emily didn’t notice. Frankly she hadn’t really been listening, being drawn to his distinctive blue eyes which had been returning her stare all the time he was talking.

Celia jumped in, to try and remove the blank looks from all the observers’ faces. ‘I tell you what, would you like a demonstration?’ There was a muttered, unsure agreement from the three standing next to Emily, whose stare had become hazy. She was alarmed to find herself still looking straight into Michael’s eyes. He didn’t moved until Celia prodded him with her elbow, ‘Come on, it’s time to show them what this beast does!’

Michael stirred and climbed into the cab of the truck, which was just behind him. He was surprisingly graceful for someone who had just claimed to be a physicist, Emily would have expected him to trip over his own feet, if he had acted as scientists were always portrayed on the television. He started pressing buttons on a console within the truck, all the while glancing at Emily, occasionally smiling in a distracted way. After a couple of minutes, while Celia and the Colonel had been talking in the background about what they were expecting of this “mission” Michael caught their attention, declaring his readiness. Celia turned back to the waiting quintet, seeming pleased with proceedings and telling them, ‘Watch this. It’s cool.’

She nodded her head at Michael while he reached out to manipulate something, hidden behind the seriously armoured door. Immediately there was a very noticeable lack of lorry in the centre of the room. Emily wasn’t the only one of the four of them to give a sharp intake of breath. ‘That’s a clever trick, how’s it done?’ was the first thing to come out of her mouth, before her brain had a chance to intervene.

Celia turned to look straight into the eyes that, a moment before, had been fixed on those of her co-worker. Without a hint of sarcasm or mockery she told Emily, ‘There’s no trick to it, it’s gone. Feel free to come and have a look if you want?’ The four observers tentatively stepped towards where Celia and the Colonel were standing, looking at the blank space of concrete floor where the truck, which must have measured more than twenty feet long, was standing only seconds before. As they drew close to the spot where it had been Celia suggested, ‘It might be a good idea to look up to about this point here.’ As their gazes converged on the end of her finger there was a noise, as if someone had split a pack of cards, and the truck reappeared, where it had been previously. Emily noticed that Michael was still in the same position and still staring at the spot she had been standing in before the truck had disappeared.

‘It’s a time machine, isn’t it?’ This was Peter, Emily wasn’t the only one who had noticed Michael’s lack of movement. Pete obviously had an analytical, logical mind, deducing things with minimal facts.

Celia smiled but Michael looked slightly deflated, as if wanting to have revealed the secret himself. He climbed down from the cabin, ‘Yes, I worked out the theory a good while back but this is the first functioning vehicle we’ve managed to put together, Masterson.’ Michael handed the floor back to Robert.

‘You probably realise there are a whole host of applications this machine could be put to but, due to a number of considerations, we’re going to be making observations in the past about prevailing habitats and conditions. This will allow us to make necessary adjustments to current processes and technologies, so we can balance the use of resources against the preservation of ecological diversity and environmental stability.’ Emily noticed that Celia was looking at Masterson out of the corner of her eyes, finding it hard to tell if she was impressed or troubled by what he was saying. She also became aware that Michael had his gaze fixed in her direction again. When he saw she was returning his look he gave a start and turned away, just as the Colonel finished by asking, ‘Does anyone have any questions?’

Peter spoke, without raising his arm as Emily would have done. ‘Yes, why did you pick us?’

Masterson didn’t hesitate before stating, ‘Because we had a very specific set of requirements. You are the individuals who best matched those constraints.’

‘That’s not entirely true though, is it?’

Masterson looked slightly uncomfortable at the veiled accusation but saw no sense in denying it. ‘Your wife was very persuasive. I’ll admit that we did have another first choice for someone with your skillset, but as you know Mrs James is the best in her field and wouldn’t agree to be part of the project without your involvement. To be honest, the scores were so close that you were only marginally less attractive to the project than your competitor.’

‘What made me,’ Peter waggled his fingers in the air so Masterson understood he was quoting, ‘”marginally less attractive”?’

Masterson hesitated, as if weighing up whether to tell the truth or not. ‘Your personality profile appeared to suggest that you’re more likely to cause turmoil within the team, due to your disrespect of authority figures.’ Masterson stared intently at Peter to see what he would do. Everyone else had turned to look at him too, as if he was a lab rat in a cage.

He shrugged his shoulders and managed to carry off looking nonchalant, ‘Sounds about right, Masterson,’ he emphasised the Colonel’s name in just the right way to make it sound almost offensive. ‘Let me know if I upset you and I’ll unequivocally ignore your moaning.’ He smiled and looked at his wife, who was rubbing her creased forehead in exasperation.

Masterson’s face had stayed impassive through this. He had dealt with much worse and wasn’t particularly worried about leading such a small team, ‘Well I’m glad we’ve got that cleared up. Now, if you wouldn’t mind introducing yourselves, we’re going to be working quite closely together, Doctor Cooke and Miss Evans haven’t had a formal introduction yet. I think you would be a good person to start Mr James.’

Peter took his time to start, as he casually looked from face to face of the others present, Masterson last of all, with a sneer. He waited until he could see the Colonel was about to tell him to get going before he began. ‘I’m Peter James. I’m a mechanical engineer by training and experience, I fix things for a living. I like to take stuff to pieces in my spare time, then put them back together so they work better.’ He nodded towards the large vehicle behind the podium, ‘I see you have a modified Mastiff, also called a Cougar 6×6, that’s six wheel drive, with a Caterpillar C7 diesel engine, capable of about 55 miles an hour and around 330 brake horse power with 860 foot-pounds of torque. I notice that one of the modifications you’ve made is removing the weapons assemblies, which I assume means you aren’t planning on sending us anywhere massively dangerous, or else you are but don’t want us to have the capacity to make big dents in local conditions. That’s pretty much me!’ He stopped talking and looked at Andrea, assuming she would go next. No one seemed to disagree.

‘I’m Andrea James. This is my husband,’ she punched Peter on the arm. ‘My field will probably require a little more explanation! I have an MSc in environmental history and another in environmental archaeology. My actual work is on sedimentological analysis and, my particular favourite which is, looking at animal bones or fossils and classifying them into species by phenotypic features.’ She seemed to come out of a trance at this point and looked around the faces staring at her. ‘Sorry, too much geek speak. I look at fossils and decide what type of animal or plant they came from. I met this smart-arse when I was at university,’ she smiled at a distant memory, ‘at a party, funnily enough. He was working for a less-than-wonderful company, repairing some kind of big ugly machines, I was studying Geology. A natural fit you might think, but he had to do an awful lot of begging before I realised he wasn’t just a loser with a steady wage, who wanted to support me through my schooling. Eventually I gave in and, after uni’, he benefited from spending all that money travelling around the world with me so I could look at fossils, while he fixed more ugly bits of machinery for international conglomerates. He seemed to enjoy it more than I expected so I eventually made him come home with me and get a proper, boring job.’

Emily was next in line but appeared to be lost in thought with her eyes defocussed, or possibly not as they were pointing vaguely towards the three on the other side of the pedestal. She came to with a very nearly undiscernible jump, almost immediately realising what she was meant to be doing. ‘I’m Emily Harrison, I’m a translator. I can speak twelve or so modern languages but I’m really interested in extinct ones. I know quite a lot of the Europeans, including various Celtic, Germanic and Romance variants, her eyes rested on Cooke again as she said this. I can also do a number of African and Indonesian as well as a couple of the South American ones you probably didn’t even know existed. Of course talking them isn’t the same as being able to read them. Knowing which parts of a word to accent or emphasise can get you in a lot of trouble. I’ve heard people get the tone wrong in Mandarin before for the word ma, which can mean mother, scold, hemp or horse. And let me tell you, you don’t want to tell someone their horse is ugly by mistake!’ She shrugged before going on as the others smiled, ‘I seem to have spent most of my working life locked in a dungeon of an office in the bottom of a museum, looking at old bits of paper. That’s probably why I have these,’ she tapped the bridge of the stylish glasses she was wearing and her brown eyes flicked towards Michael again. ‘I’m assuming you’re looking for an on the spot interpreter, which I may be able to do, but please try not to expect miracles.’

She looked up at the tall, nervous man standing next to her, prompting him to start. ‘Hi, I’m David Moulder, I’m an environmental scientist and I do a lot of work for the European Union and the United Nations Environment Programme. I’ve been all over the world collecting information on carbon emissions and environmental impact from man’s activities, I looked at animal behaviour and biological ecosystem interactions at the same time.’ He then returned to his prior state of saying little and looking uncomfortable, until everyone realised he had finished.

Robert Masterson was the next man standing. ‘I’m Colonel Robert Masterson. I’ve been in the forces for about 19 years and I’ve been in all the places you wouldn’t want to go. I specialise in reconnaissance and concealment and I’ve managed to stay alive through it all, which is surprising.’ Masterson realised he was the last to have spoken when he looked at Celia, standing beside him. ‘Just the health and safety stuff now really! As Mr James rightly pointed out this is a specialised armoured vehicle, mostly used in harsh environments, which is why we chose it. The modifications he alluded to include the addition of the Jump Box, and clearing out a lot of the standard internal kit so we can store all the equipment required for the measurements and observations we need to make. There’s also a camouflage net which can be deployed when we’re in populous regions, so it doesn’t draw unwanted attention. Finally, in case you were wondering. Although this place isn’t exactly where I would have wanted to set this project up,’ as he indicated the building they were standing inside he remembered the heated conversation between himself and Cooke, with Michael insisting he wouldn’t allow the use of his technology in militarised premises, ‘has full medical facilities, so if there are any untoward incidents while we’re in the field we can be back in…’ He seemed unsure of how to talk about the complex concept of time travel.

‘The blink of an eye,’ Celia kindly obliged him. ‘Also, I’m relatively up to date with my first aiding. So if you graze your knee while we’re out and about I can put a plaster on and kiss it better.’ She was still looking at Masterson as she said this, it was obvious the suggestion made him feel slightly awkward.

He recovered quickly, ‘That’s pretty much it for the introductions and technical stuff. If you go through that door,’ he pointed towards the entrance Cooke, Evans and himself had appeared through, ‘behind the third door on the left, there are drinks and seating. Spend some time getting to know each other. We’re expecting you to work closely and trust each other, so now is a good time to start.’ He nodded at the two physicists, ‘We’ll take any questions now before we go through.’

To no one’s surprise Peter James talked first, ‘Can I have a go in it? The truck, I mean!’

Masterson looked at Cooke who said, ‘Why not!’ He turned again and clambered back through the drivers’ side door, as James walked round and athletically pulled himself into the passenger seat. ‘Are you ready?’ Before Peter could respond there was an unobtrusive hiss and he looked up out of the windscreen into his own face, staring at him from an identical truck.

The newly arrived version of himself completed a sentence, ‘…cking way. That’s unbelievable!’

At this, the pre-jump Peter started, ‘No fu…’ and the truck slid out of view with a gasp of displaced air. The rest of the teams’ mouths hung open, as their eyes moved back and forth between where one truck had been and another now stood.

The reconstituted James silently climbed out of the truck, walked back and stood next to his wife. He didn’t say anything for a few moments before managing to construct a sentence. ‘It’s not a trick,’ was all he could muster.

Celia was grinning at the situation. ‘Any more questions?’

Emily put her hand up, then realised that probably wasn’t necessary and took it down again. ‘Any clues as to where, and I guess when we’re going?

The Colonel spoke first this time. ‘We have a number of locations and times we’ve identified. I’ll wait until after the first jump before we make any further plans. The initial trip though will be to 118 years ago in Northern China. Some information has recently come to light that there was an unexplained mass exodus of local fauna. No one’s been able to figure out why.’

Moulder finally built up the courage to speak unprompted. ‘How safe is it. The jumping?’

Cooke checked Celia wasn’t going to respond then thought for a moment. ‘Pretty safe. I built in a scanner, which is buried within the main Jump Box. Before the jump starts the sensor independently travels to the spacetime interval you’re jumping to, checks the local environmental temperature and things like the angle of the ground, surrounding environs and if there are any biological entities hanging around. If it’s not happy it jumps randomly to somewhere in the same locale until it finds somewhere suitable. The scanner comes back and informs the main unit before the truck moves. Of course you don’t even notice this, it leaves and returns in a fraction of a second.’

David appeared to be happy with this answer and returned to his introspection. Andrea took the opportunity to display what little she knew about physics. ‘I’m assuming there are some things we’d be best not to do? I’ve heard of the “grandfather paradox”. I’m assuming it isn’t just in movies like Back to the Future, or Terminator, where changing the past affects the future?’ She seemed a little embarrassed at her own reference to popular culture but shrugged it off.

Michael looked at Celia again, this time with a raised eyebrow. She took this correctly as an intimation that movies were her field rather than his. ‘We’ve carried out a number of experiments around the various, hypothesised paradoxes and come up with some rules. These are pinned to the inside of the Jump Truck. But in essence, we’ve discovered that there seems to be an exponential growth in the effect that actions have as you go further back in time.’ She waited a moment to see if anyone was going to query this, when they didn’t she continued. ‘It appears that causality somehow ensures that things don’t change too much unless they’re given time to do so. As a theoretical example, if you jumped to yesterday you couldn’t set off an explosion. It would have too big an effect on the present. If you went back a million years you might because the damage would be able to heal itself, however you might end up with different conditions in the present. From our tests it looks like you’d have to go back quite a long way to have any appreciable effect, that’s not to say we should be too slapdash about what we do when we’re there. Oh yes, the other thing we’ve found is that those travelling back in time aren’t effected by causal consistency. So we can be injured when we’re in the past!’

Masterson took over, ‘As Celia said the rules are in here.’ He moved to the rear of the truck and opened the doors, which looked like the entrance to an airlock. ‘I would suggest you all take a look. Thank you.’

 

***

 

Ground Rules

  1. Don’t eat anything local

(Could be poisonous or may affect timelines)

  1. Don’t touch local flora/fauna

(As above)

  1. Don’t leave anything behind

(We don’t want people like Andrea digging up a ballpoint pen from the Triassic. Also if you leave e.g. a modern stainless steel knife in the Pliocene it could give the australopithecines some funny ideas)

  1. No intervention in local situations

(We don’t want to unduly affect things which may have a bearing on the present)

  1. Leave the talking up to Emily

(Emily is the only team member who should converse with locals. Some modern words may sound like historical words so it’s best not to say anything)

  1. Leave the driving up to Robert

(This vehicle is not a minibus, Robert is the only one with experience driving it in real world situations)

  1. Leave the decision making up to Robert, then Michael

(Robert runs this mission, he will defer to Michael on scientific matters)

  1. Ask before doing

(If in doubt, ask!)

  1. Do your job then get out

(The less time we spend in a given location, the less chance we have of cocking things up)

  • Don’t kill your grandfather/start a fire/send your future self any messages

(If you don’t understand this please ask Celia about Grandfather/Predestination/Bootstrap Paradoxes)

  • BE CAREFUL!!!

 

***

 

The seven team members were standing, or sitting around the small room discussing the nature of the job they had been handed and what it might mean to them. Snippets of conversation could be heard, such as Celia explaining to Andrea and Emily that the bootstrap paradox is when an item gets sent back from the future, becoming the item which is sent back, meaning it was never actually created as it has always been trapped in that time loop. Michael was trying to get David to talk about his time in the Galapagos Islands and what sort of observations he had carried out while he was there. Peter and Robert were having a heated discussion about the Mastiff and how it handled under different conditions. There was a gentle Brownian motion as everyone drifted around, talking about shared interests or areas of expertise.

Andrea and Peter James eventually came together in the corner of the room, next to the drinks. Andrea poured herself a cup of tea, Peter watched her intently as she was doing this then, in an accusatory tone, ‘What?’

She shot a look around, checking they weren’t too close to the others to be overheard, asking conspiratorially, ‘So what do you think of them?’

Peter’s shoulders dropped, as if he had been expecting a less touchy feely question, and deciding he wouldn’t give her the answer she was looking for anyway. ‘Masterson is run of the mill forces, follows orders but doesn’t seem to think. Cooke seems like a good physicist, pretty single minded though. Evans thinks outside the box. Moulder doesn’t seem to know if he’s coming or going and Harrison seems so used to understanding other languages that she has difficulty processing when it’s plain old English.’

Andrea sighed, ‘You’ve been interviewing them for jobs! Haven’t you got to know them at all?’ She didn’t wait for a reply, muttering something about it being typical. ‘Of course you haven’t, you engineer. Robert is single and seems to be desperately in need of someone to look after him. Michael and Emily were making eyes at each other all through the presentation, I didn’t even have to find out about them. David is a bit of a poor lost lamb, pretty sure he spends a lot of time on the internet, and Celia is a lovely girl, seems to be entirely happy doing anything she’s asked to.’

Peter raised his right eyebrow, indicating that he didn’t think any of the information she had just supplied was of relevance, but thanks anyway. Andrea was waiting for him to make a snide comment when Celia edged up to them, took Andrea by the elbow and moved her away from her husband, who seemed slightly relieved he no longer had to find something witty to say. ‘It’s not just me is it?’ She nodded towards Emily who seemed to be lost in a deep conversation, on the other side of the room with Michael. The snatches that could be heard didn’t seem to be about languages or physics.

‘If they don’t leave this room together, I’ll be surprised.’ Andrea agreed. ‘Mr Engineer had no idea. Amazing, isn’t it?’ She pointed at Peter who resolutely ignored her, while working out how to improve the tap and thermostat on the tea urn.

‘Men just have no clue do they! What do you think of Emily, by the way?’

‘She seems like a really nice girl, might just be what Michael needs to make sure he doesn’t lose himself in his work.’

Celia nodded. ‘I’m a little surprised he doesn’t have women flocking around him, I mean he’s relatively attractive, if you like that sort of thing. He seems to look after himself quite well but, as you say, he doesn’t appear to have any interests outside his work.’

Masterson walked towards them and tapped a spoon on the side of the urn until all the conversations had died down. ‘Thanks for listening today. We have a couple of days until we do our first jump, feel free to take advantage of the facilities on site. I won’t be patronising and tell you where everything is because there are signs outside every door. You can also get food and drink delivered to your rooms. We’re going to be working hard, so we’ve tried to make it as relaxing as it can be when you’re off duty.’ He wasn’t sure why Celia and Andrea were giggling at this, but decided to ignore it. ‘Anyway, there are packs for the first jump in your rooms, read them carefully. I would suggest getting some rest until we meet, at oh eight hundred the day after tomorrow. Until then if you have any questions please come to my office.’ He turned and left the room.

Everyone else stood, looking slightly bewildered for a few moments before they started to leave in ones and twos. Peter walked out in front of Andrea and Celia, who were both staring back into the room where Michael and Emily were still chatting. The two women looked at each other and smiled before the doors flapped shut behind them, leaving the last two occupants together, oblivious of the sudden silence around them.

 

***

 

‘This wouldn’t have been my first choice for dinner, but we’re a little limited in this place. I did, however, manage to get hold of these,’ Michael opened one of the cupboards in his room. The apartment was somewhat more spacious than her own, which she could only really think of as “sleeping quarters”. ‘You do like red wine, I hope?’ She nodded her head and gestured a large glass as he was pouring it into some unsuitable multi-purpose beakers.

‘I feel a little like I’m imposing!’ She didn’t really, but wanted to make sure he knew she could leave if he wanted. She was sitting at an undistinguished table, with minimal cutlery and crockery piled up in the middle. Michael was doing his best to serve a portion of the meal delivered to his room. He had, mistakenly, assumed that ordering two portions would be sufficient for the two of them, rather than the six people that it appeared to have been prepared for. ‘You were telling me about your Jump Box, before the food arrived?’

‘Oh yes,’ he tried to remember where he had got to, ‘anyway I knew I was on to something. Most experiments have only ever managed to transport photons, that’s particles of light, some have moved chunks of a few billion particles but it’s all to do with quantum entanglement. Sorry I keep forgetting I know a lot about this stuff.’

‘It’s okay, if you like I’ll start talking Sumerian. It’s probably about as comprehensible,’ she stuck her tongue out and he laughed.

‘What I mean is, they’ve only managed it with things which share their state so, for instance, when one particle is in a particular molecular state it has a kind of twin particle, which shares that state. It means you can send data over large distances almost instantaneously. Good for secure data transfers. I started from first principles and came up with an idea of how to measure the state of an entire object, rather than individual particles. Of course I used the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics…sorry, doing it again! It’s just a well bedded in framework of how things exist. The measurements allowed me to calculate a kind of number, which represented “the thing”, after that it was just a case of putting together a device which disassembled, then reconstituted, “the thing” which that number represented at the other end.’

‘That’s not the same as time travel though is it?’

‘Well, no! But I’d been working on a program which used a different type of processor to the sort a normal computer does. It was a simple-ish thing. I programmed it to find the fastest way of transferring information, looking for a way to do what the quantum entanglement guys have been doing, only better. The stupid thing only came up with a way to do it faster. It invented a way of moving data back in time. Once it had done that I found that you could send data as a precursor to the main event, kind of open up a hole with the photons, or the data if you like, and follow it with physical objects. That’s how I came up with the idea of the safety scanner, which jumps before the truck.’

Emily thought about pretending that made any sense to her then gave up. ‘It obviously works anyway, the look on Peters face was brilliant.’

‘I thought he’d be the best person to try it on and he offered himself up for it, quite lucky really.’ The room descended into silence as Michael gave up trying to make the food look pretty and placed the two plates down on the intimate, or at least small table, next to the overfull glasses of wine. ‘It’s a bit odd having a team brought together this way, I don’t really feel like I’ve had any hand in it. I’m surprised it’s turned out so well.’

Emily wasn’t sure if he’d meant it as a veiled compliment to her, ‘Any you’re not sure about?’

‘Well, James is obviously a bit of a personality, but he seems to know his stuff. I wouldn’t have had the first clue about that truck and, if it comes to it we should at least have another driver.’ Emily pointed out that Peter wouldn’t understand the first law of thermodynamics and Michael shrugged. ‘I have a suspicion Masterson hasn’t really revealed himself yet. I get the impression he’s got talents that have yet to make themselves known, but we’ll see soon enough.’

‘What about David?’

‘That’s one guy who isn’t comfortable in his own skin. Pretty sure he’d be happier sitting in a rainforest somewhere being groomed by chimpanzees.’ Michael navigated a small forkful of carbonara from the mountain on his plate into his mouth, chewed for a while then swallowed, ‘Not bad! I’m sure if we give him some space he’ll come out of his shell.’

‘You’re probably right, I just don’t understand why people are like that, the guy is obviously intelligent and adept in most of the areas that make for a well-balanced human being, he just doesn’t seem to have any confidence in himself. I wonder if he’s had interpersonal relationship issues in the past,’ she grinned at her impression of a psychiatrist, Cooke smiled too. ‘It must be terrible not being from a boring middle class upbringing, but I wouldn’t know. I’m about as ordinary as they come.‘

‘No, really, you’re not.’ Michael’s smile seemed warmer when he said this and Emily blushed. ‘I’ve always felt the same way. My parents weren’t exactly rich but we definitely got by. I remember when I was at school, some of the kids had to have the latest “whatever-it-was”. All I cared about was reading. That’s probably why I turned out without any noticeable people skills.’ He smiled at Emily, who didn’t take the bait.

‘You’re just fishing for compliments now, I’m not falling for it. Tell me more about yourself.’ The conversation segued off to distant times and places and both of them enjoyed the food and the company and got to know as much as it was possible to learn about each other in one evening.

Emily finally put her glass down on the table, after emptying it for the last time. Seeing there was no more wine she started to make her excuses. She was almost as far as the door before Michael, who seemed deep in thought, put his glass down next to hers, almost stumbling out of his seat to get to her before she reached for the handle. ‘Wait a minute!’ Emily turned back to him and searched his face for clues as to what he was doing, but couldn’t find any, he just looked slightly worried. ‘Before I say this just understand that I’ve never, ever, done anything like this before.’ Emily looked even more confused. ‘Would you like to stay?’

Emily didn’t move, her face frozen in perplexity. She realised she needed to say something. ‘I know you’re not talking about a sleepover, are you? No, I can tell you’re not from that look on your face. Let’s just get something straight, before I answer, seeing as you made a point of it. I, also,’ she took his hand, ‘never do anything like this,’ and she opened the bedroom door with a flourish, slamming it shut as Michael was dragged through behind her.

 

***

 

The small lamp on the bedside table didn’t really cast enough light to read by, it was just bright enough to make everything look like it was in soft focus, which Emily considered was just as well. She was lying next to Michael, who had his hand across her stomach. The light covering of hair on his arm was tickling her, but she was quite enjoying the sensation so hadn’t attempted to move. She was absently surveying the room, while they were talking about whether it was a good idea to reveal what they had just done, obviously not in detail, to the other members of the team. They decided against it on the grounds that it was probably best to be discreet until they actually knew what was going on with the team and the project.

They lapsed into a contented silence which Michael broke, asking if she would like anything else to eat, ‘No thanks, although I’m quite thirsty, I might get myself a drink of water.’ Michael was off the bed, into, then out of the kitchen before Emily had a chance to tell him not to worry and that she would get it herself. He apologised once again for the lack of appropriate crockery, handing her a pint glass three quarters full and placing another down on his own bedside table. After drinking enough to slake her thirst and watching him do likewise she asked, ‘What’s the tattoo?’

Michael craned his neck in a failed attempt to look at his own shoulder blade, where there were numbers, mathematical characters and symbols which obviously denoted something. Although some of the characters were from languages she understood she had no idea what to make of the overall design. ‘Oh yes, I’d kind of forgotten about that. I got it when I was certain that my calculations were right. It’s the mathematics that run the Jump Box. Do you like it?’

Emily stared at the intricacies of the physical equation and was lost in thought for a while, ‘It’s amazing. Is that really what makes it work?’

‘Well, you obviously need the relevant hardware but without these numbers it couldn’t function. When I finished working on the equation I was impressed by how it looked. I’d always wanted a tattoo so I figured, why not? The other nice thing is that I have a dated photograph and a receipt from the place that did it. Which means that I can, at least, prove it was my discovery.’

‘I never knew physics was such a cutthroat world?’

‘It’s not, really. I was just trying to give myself another excuse.’

‘Well I like it. You’re right, it does have a certain symmetry, or maybe that’s not the right word, perhaps I mean elegance. You could put it on t-shirts and people would pay good money for it.’

Michael climbed back under the covers and Emily rested her head on his shoulder. ‘Probably wouldn’t be a bad idea, I suspect the equations will never be released though. I’m the only one who knows them in full. Celia has a fair idea but she’s more interested in the application and theory of the measurements. All I want is to make sure it works right.’

Emily moved her arm, took his right hand and suggested something unrelated to physics. They agreed the conversation had reached a suitable place to adjourn.

 

8000C475

Jonny had been worried that the meeting was going to be another difficult one, thankfully it turned out his fears had been unfounded. The troublemaker had been surprisingly quiet and the other new members were starting to come out of their shells. Aardwolf had commented on a few things Jonny and Jessica had talked about, all his ideas were a world away from anything they could have imagined themselves, seeming like they might actually raise funds for the group and help turn around some accepted ideas “the establishment” had, but still allow the group to remain anonymous.

They discussed the points raised by Scott for a while, this led on to some other business about a supermarket chain planning to start construction on a section of green belt land in two months’ time. When this conversation wound down one of the members put their hand up, saying they had inadvertently become part of a project they thought the group might like to know about. Jonny handed the floor over and took his seat, failing to find a comfortable way to sit on the hard plastic chair.

‘Without sounding too self-possessed, I’m very good at what I do. That’s why I was picked.’ Everyone waited to see what was coming next after such a bold statement. ‘Apparently there’s a physicist who’s figured out a serviceable way of transporting things through spacetime.’ The other group members looked blank, ‘Yeah, I didn’t understand most of what they were talking about. To put it bluntly, time travel!’

There was a protracted silence while the other people in the room looked at the crazy person, then at each other for reassurance they had heard right. ‘I know! And I know you’re thinking I’ve lost my marbles. Sounds mental but I’ve seen it and it was an incredibly persuasive demonstration. Of course it’s all top secret, hush-hush. We’ve had to be secured in the place it’s all being done. What they haven’t realised though is that if you’re smart you can get access to the time machine and jump to, for instance, this meeting.’ Everyone was now slightly more concerned that the lunatic thought they were an actual time traveller, as well as having paranoid delusions. ‘So the point of this mission is apparently to go back in time and take environmental measurements, to allow scientists to come up with ways of improving things for the planet. Yes, I know that also sounds a bit far-fetched but apparently things are in a worse state than even we thought they were.’

‘So this guy invented a time machine and the first thing the government thought of was that they would make things better. That’s why I took the chance of coming here with the machine and telling you all about it. Obviously you can’t pass this information on to anybody but feel free to discuss it amongst yourselves, within the confines of the meetings. I’ll try and jump back each time we meet to update you and let you know what’s happening. Any questions?’

Once again silence prevailed, until Ruth Archer put her hand up, ‘How have you managed to break out of a secure facility without being noticed? More importantly, how are you going to get back in without someone seeing you?’

‘That wasn’t too difficult. I’ve got a photographic memory, I watched how the machine was programmed and activated then managed to figure out what the coordinates they keyed in meant and set it to bring me here, it was quite fun. I’ll be back before they’ve noticed I’m gone, as I said, it’s a time machine so you can do crazy things like that.’ A smile passed across the otherwise impassive face, thinking about the cunningly executed plan.

‘Where is it then?’ This was Bill Fraser, as usual asking the obvious question no one else had thought of.

‘Well Fox, I thought the best way of showing you all would be to put it somewhere close by. There’s a room adjoining this one, how many of you have actually looked through that door?’ He pointed at a door, squeezed into the far corner where it didn’t get a lot of attention. One or two of the people around the room grunted that they’d sneaked a peek. ‘Have a look. You’ll need to turn the light on.’

Fox stood up, with some effort, and headed over, flicking the old fashioned toggle light switch down as he got there. The other members of the group followed closely behind as he opened the door. The room was quite big with similarly drab décor to the meeting room. A single fluorescent tube hung in the middle of the ceiling, the only entrance was the one through which they had just got in. After a couple of minutes they all filed out slowly and sat in their seats, without talking to each other. Finally Fox finished processing what he had seen, ‘Okay, so there’s a truck in there!’ Without going any further he managed to convey that there was a large military vehicle, parked in a room with one seven by three foot opening and no other way in.

‘Yup, they didn’t figure that anyone else in the team would know how to program coordinates. But I’ve done a lot of travelling, most of which has been off the beaten track, so its second nature to me. The damn thing does most of the work for you anyway. Of course I only really did it because I fancied the challenge and thought it was worth showing you.’

Jonny watched then, as the meeting became a series of discussions on what could be done with such a machine, as people started collecting their things together to leave for the night. He glanced towards Jessica, who was watching Darwin. He had been staring at the crazy person, whose unbalanced story had now been corroborated. Darwin sidled up close and started whispering to the time traveller. Then, just as the first people were reaching for the door, Darwin knocked on the table to draw everybody’s attention. They all turned to look at him.

‘Our esteemed colleague has agreed to give us a demonstration of the machine working. It has to be taken back, so now seems as good a time as any.’ Once again they trailed into the room, only this time dressed in an assortment of coats scarves and hats due to the weather being particularly unpleasant for the time of year. After a short delay the machine was ready to return to its original coordinates, something was done inside the cabin of the overbearing truck and in an instant it was gone, accompanied by a noise like a wave rolling over a shingle beach.

There was an intake of breath from all present, a few exclamations then nothing more as people left the room lost in their own thoughts.

 

***

 

As the last of the group were walking out of the door, Jonny watched Jessica head for the exit. When he was sure that Scott, who had preceded her, was out of earshot he attracted her attention. ‘Jessica, could you give me a hand with some of this stuff please?’ She turned round and looked towards him, apologising for not realising he had so much paperwork with him tonight. She was wearing a figure-hugging trench coat, which completely covered the figure-hugging dress she had on underneath it, and a knee length pair of black leather boots. Jonny considered that she must still be cold but tried not to brood on it. ‘That’s fine. Now that everybody has left, I wanted to chat to you anyway!’

‘About that machine, I guess. It was pretty impressive, wasn’t it?’ Jonny nodded his agreement. ‘Who’d have thought it was possible? Frankly I’m not entirely certain I believe it, even now. But how on earth could he get a truck in that room without some kind of tunnel digging machine, and a team of magicians to make it disappear.’

‘Where’s the car?’ While talking they had climbed the stairway and passed through the front door, after a quick scan Jonny hadn’t been able to see where Jessica had parked.

‘I left it a couple of streets away tonight, I was a little worried there’d be ice here. Any chance I could grab on to you? These heels weren’t really made for the wet or cold.’ Jonny held the crook of his arm out and Jessica took a firm grip as they walked along the side streets.

‘I know you were a little way away from them, did you hear what Darwin was saying at all?’

‘You mean to our time travelling friend?‘ They both smiled at the surrealism of this. ‘I couldn’t get a lot, he was speaking pretty quietly but I heard a few words here and there.’ They had reached Jessica’s car now and she stood next to the passenger door, searching her memory to see what was in there. Jonny waited patiently, briefly glancing down in vain to see if there were goose bumps on her legs from the cold. ‘There was a mention of “everything being different”, and he said “change” at least once. Then a couple of times I’m sure I heard him say “go back”. You don’t think he’s going to try and do anything stupid do you?’

Jonny lifted his shoulders to emphasise what he was saying, ‘From our time so far with that guy, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. I think it might be a good idea if we track down his background, maybe check out the other new blokes too. Things have seemed a little strange since they joined us.’

Jessica concurred while unlocking her door, then she seemed to look at Jonny properly for the first time since they had left the building. ‘Did you actually walk here? Wearing that? With all this stuff?’ Jonny looked down. He hadn’t really thought about it when he had left the house with a jumper, but no coat. His hands did look a slightly odd colour now he came to consider them, rather than Jessica’s comfort. ‘Here, chuck that stuff in the boot and get in, I’ll drop you off. Jonny was about to say it wasn’t necessary, then realised he was freezing so acceded, climbing in. The car coughed into life in the cold air and pulled slowly away on the icy tarmac.

8000B672

Part Two

PAST

‘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.

‘We’re here!’

 

***

 

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.