A Message from Dan

Thanks for reading Jump, I hope you enjoyed it.

When I was writing the book I never imagined how involved I would become with the welfare of Cooke, Harrison and even, in a way, poor old Oliver Cornell. Having created and got to know all the characters so well I am now thinking about what, if anything, I can do with them next. If you have any ideas or suggestions please get in touch with me, via the contact page here.

Before I go, let me ask a favour of you. If you enjoyed Jump, or if you thought it could be improved please take a few minutes to leave a review on the book’s page at Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00RAWMUIG.

Alternatively head to my Author Page at: https://www.amazon.com/author/danladle and start a discussion about the story (no spoilers please), my writing style, or anything else which takes your fancy.

As a final challenge, six of the characters in the book have set up their own Twitter accounts, you should be able to locate them if you get your thinking hats on. If you find them drop them a message and they’ll be happy to talk about time travel, languages or how to save the planet.

Epilogue

‘So I heard they were going to be extending leave this year, something to do with cutting back costs. Knowing our luck it’ll be unpaid leave.’ The two men dried their hands and left the wash room, turning down a side corridor, which looked exactly like all the other passageways leading away from the central walkway. The walls were dull metal and there was no way of telling which way to go. If you were in this place you were meant to be in it.

There was silence throughout, apart from the occasional subdued conversation of passing uniformed men. Continuing further down the corridors only increased the feeling of isolation. Eventually the straight path stopped at a large, extremely secure looking entrance. There were holes for keys and two swipe card readers, one on either side. Plus a numeric keypad above the steel handle. There came, from within the door, the sound of the locking mechanisms being deactivated. There was a final noisy click, almost deafening in the silence, and the door swung outwards into the deathly stillness of the hallway.

One man came out of the room, followed by another in matching military regalia. They closed the door behind themselves and proceeded away at a quick march. One of them was gripping a blown-up colour photograph, which looked very much like numbers and letters inked on flesh. He slipped the photograph into an envelope, turned the first corner and they were gone.

Within the recently vacated room the sensor driven lights had not yet responded to the signal that the room was empty. They were halogen and made the room appear quite unpleasant, but they did make it certain that you couldn’t be there without being seen.

The room itself was huge, dwarfing what it contained. In the centre of the space there was a metallic box, almost ten metres high, although box probably wasn’t quite the right word. It was curved and almost took the form of a sphere, apart from the devices which seemed to erupt from almost fifty percent of its surface. The vehicle, for once you looked it was obviously intended to carry people, gave the impression it could withstand incredible pressure and tension. It was currently sealed, but an opening was obvious from the outside, where a large metallic handle had a sign above it, “WARNING – PULL TO RELEASE”. On the hull of the capsule the name “HMS Explorer” was engraved.

Inside it was illuminated by emergency lighting, which cast an evil red glow across every surface. There seemed to be instruments everywhere. As you progressed deeper towards the heart of the ship it became more recognisable for what it was. At the very centre, surrounded by a sea of cleared space, was a small black box, it looked like a flight recorder from an aeroplane. There were two lines of text etched in the dull dark metal.

“Military Aerospace Designs”, followed by, “Jump Box – Version 2.0”.

 

THE END

ERR

Like any other forest this one emanated the quiet hiss of wind through the leaves, along with the cries of distant creatures trying to survive. The tranquillity was only marginally upset by the crunching of twigs as Darwin walked aimlessly southwards. He had no particular destination in mind and this far back in time there probably was no particular destination for which he could head with any sense of purpose. Even the birdsong sounded foreign, or perhaps alien would be a more suitable description.

He had been walking in this interminable forest for what seemed like a full day, in reality it was closer to a couple of hours. At any minute he was expecting the emergence of a team of heavily clad, weapon clutching men from the vegetation, but as the minutes went by it was starting to seem ever less likely. He started to consider what it might mean to be imprisoned in the Middle Pleistocene. Certainly he would have the run of the place, but what that opportunity would actually offer him in real terms was uncertain, to put it mildly. Although these thoughts were in his head, they were at the very furthest reaches of his subconscious. He hadn’t planned to wind up stranded, two hundred thousand years away, it was a spur of the moment decision after finding the details of the base in which the time machine had been developed and stored. It wasn’t difficult, even with his mind clouded by emotion and animal desperation, to find his way past the rather slack security and electronic protection, which had been set up as a makeshift solution to keep intruders away from the vehicle.

Not that it mattered now. Even if they found him they wouldn’t get much out of him, his mental state was unstable at best. He had all but forgotten the incidents he had been instigating over the past few months. Although his mind was in no fit state to make decisions his body came to the conclusion that it needed a rest and he slumped down on the floor at the base of a tree trunk, resting his back against the rough bark and doing his best to collect what thoughts he could find in his disarrayed brain.

After ten minutes, his body was ready to start the aimless wandering again but he wasn’t sure that he wanted to. He thought he might just sit there until nightfall to see how cold it would get in the currently pleasant forest. He almost jumped out of his skin when there was an all too familiar sound from somewhere nearby. It started as a screeching, ascending to the higher registers of hearing. Without thinking he was on his feet heading in the direction from which it appeared to have originated. The sound kept cutting off and starting again, getting quieter each time. After no time at all, he broke through the cover of the wood and emerged on a small natural platform in front of a vertical drop, with a deep, sheer sided lake below.

Just below the surface of the water something was slipping away from sight. He checked there was a safe way out and dived as far towards the sinking object as he could. The water was cold but not uncomfortably so and he reached out and kicked upwards clasping the inert form to himself. He lay on his back and slowly veered towards the only sloped ledge leading into the pool. He dragged himself out, then looked towards the heavy weight he had just risked his life for. He lay on his back panting with the unexpected exertion, his consciousness drifted slowly away until he was only vaguely aware of a new noise. He shook his head, spraying water across the rock underneath, turned onto his front and faced the direction of the commotion.

A woman was staring at him and quietly panicking to herself. She was quite thin and her skin was a beautiful chocolate colour. Her dark eyes were fixed on his and he thought that she would have looked quite at home in any twenty first century situation, excepting the fact that her clothing was, perhaps, a little on the revealing side. What there was of the clothing looked functional and hard wearing, rather than decorative. He breathed in a substantial lungful of air and sighed, hoping that he wasn’t doing anything offensive. The noises she was making were unintelligible, sounding vaguely like a mix of the clicks and whistles of a Bantu language with some Slavic leanings and accents borrowed from some of the Austronesian dialects he had heard, but frankly he was no expert and came to the conclusion that it was something else entirely. Definitely a language of sorts though!

When he made no move to attack her she slowly calmed and appeared to realise he had saved her from drowning. After many attempts to speak to him she thought for a moment then, with an exaggerated movement, gestured towards herself and spoke a single word. Oliver scratched his head and tried to find a way of asking her to repeat it. While he was thinking she said it again. He shook his head and smiled. It appeared that he had just met a very early human and she was called something that sounded very much like “Eve”! He thought any anthropologists hearing that wouldn’t believe it. He repeated what she had said and after a few false starts and corrections she smiled. He was unsure if this was a sign of happiness or a threat, but she didn’t make any further moves so he decided to try and tell her his name. She also had issues getting her tongue around the modern lexicon he was presenting her with, but did her best and was soon there, ‘Darwin.’ He hadn’t even thought about it, it just seemed the most suitable of his given or chosen names.

Eve reached out a hand and took his forearm, she was surprisingly strong. She led him up the sloped rock and into the trees, Darwin let her lead him away. He wasn’t sure why but he followed, finally leaving all responsibility for himself in someone else’s hands.

 

***

 

After Peter’s outburst, which was actually a group decision that Peter said would seem most realistic coming from him, he had been led away and Andrea had been taken to a small secure room with a single wooden seat. She whistled to herself while staring at her fingernails, which looked like they could do with a good soak in a warm bath and some serious filing. There wasn’t a lot to see in the room, as a description the word “box” seemed to nicely fit the bill.

A clanking signified that a key was being inserted and twisted in the lock. Andrea stood up and turned towards the open door where a large, dangerous looking man stood disagreeably in the space. ‘Come with me please Mrs James.’ She shrugged and followed him down a long corridor which ended in a solid looking door. The man in front of her knocked hard on the serious surface and it was pulled open from within.

Peter was standing, flanked by two more enormous security men, grinning. ‘Hello gorgeous.’ He seemed not the least bit bothered about whatever he had undergone in the past couple of hours. He attempted to conceal his happy demeanour as another door opened and Ian Brookfield walked into the room, glaring at him.

The guards on either side of Peter manoeuvred him over to where Andrea was, then stood back allowing Brookfield to be the centre of attention. ‘After the incident earlier we believe that the best course of action is to lead you both off the premises and ensure you don’t return. You will of course be reimbursed for your time on the project and your expertise, but don’t expect to be contacted again with regards to the events which you experienced. You’ve both signed the Official Secrets Act and therefore the knowledge and technology you have been party to is restricted. Any breach of those laws will be prosecuted against, at the first opportunity and in the strictest manner.’ He nodded to one of the gorillas standing behind the couple, turned and left the room without saying anything further.

Two of the men stood on either side of them, the one who had been the recipient of Brookfield’s nod passed them, turning to suggest it would be a good idea if they followed him. They were led down a long winding corridor and up a number of staircases. The hulks surrounding them seemed to have no problem at all with the climb, but after the fifth staircase both Peter and Andrea were starting to find it quite hard going. After turning another corner there was a hallway, rather than more stairs, and they started to get their breath back. Andrea turned as they were walking along the seemingly infinite passages, ‘You know I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve decided that I actually want to get back into fieldwork anyway, I’m sick of all the reading and writing. I fancy going out and digging some ancient dead people up again.’

‘Well as it goes,’ Peter retorted, ‘it appears that Masterson did us all a favour before he departed.’ He paused long enough for Andrea to raise an eyebrow and start prodding him to keep going. ‘He wrote us a letter, here take a look.’

Andrea unfolded the paper as Peter took her elbow to stop her bumping into anything. After getting half way down the page Andrea stopped, almost upsetting the men who were walking just behind them now. ‘Is that number right?’ Peter nodded and said that Ian had confirmed the amount. ‘And it’s in our bank account?’ He repeated the affirmation as she looked down at the paper again.

They walked on in silence, eventually being thrust through a large sturdy set of double doors into an entrance foyer which gleamed with chrome and marble. They were led out through sliding glass doors and asked to wait. The guards stayed with them so they didn’t have a lot of choice. Peter vaguely looked around, but couldn’t see anything which might prove to give an idea of where they were. He turned to his wife. ‘You know how you’ve always wanted to go dig in Africa? Well, I think this is the best chance we’re going to get. We should go home, pack up and book some flights.’

Andrea looked, for a final time, at the numbers written on the sheet of headed paper. Then folded it up and put it in the back pocket of her jeans. A black car slowed, then stopped in front of them and a door was opened. They were asked nicely to climb in and did so, the door was shut and the car pulled away. They sat in the darkened interior for a few minutes before Andrea spoke again. ‘I agree, do you fancy going first class?’

 

***

 

From this high up, the six lanes looked like a scar running through the blocks of green, brown and occasionally yellow and blue. The landscape was accelerating towards him at a terrifying rate but he wasn’t worried. Slowly it appeared he was focussing and moving towards a specific car, not particularly special in any way, it looked pretty much like all the other vehicles roaring along the tarmac. However there was something familiar about this one. He came to hover in front of it, as if joined to the bonnet by an invisible wire and smiled as he saw three familiar faces, one of which was his own. They looked happy, almost happier than he felt they should.

There was an unexpected blur of movement, veering around the three lanes behind the car. His point of view flipped to that of himself, driving the car. In the rear-view mirror a dark green estate was attempting to stay within the confines of the middle lane, but still tracking over the white lines as it did so. He mentioned this to his wife, who turned in her seat and tried to spy the offending machine from her position beside him. She said something he didn’t quite hear, due to the volume of the revving engine coming from the vehicle which had just drawn level with them. He looked through his window, and seeing a young man who didn’t appear to be in charge of his faculties decided to slow down. At that moment the eccentricity of the other car seemed to become more conspicuous. In a split second it turned wildly across the fast lane, tried to right itself as it hit the central reservation, slowed slightly and then, as if propelled by elastic, was catapulted back across the two lanes into the rear of their car.

Time kept moving at the same rate, but so much happened in such a short period that his brain expanded each thing to take up its correct temporal position. Their car, shunted by the other, hit the barrier on the outside of the road. The fence was meant to stop cars leaving the road and it did so. There seemed to be a moment when physics was trying to make up its mind about the correct way to react, then the car’s front nearside, which was scraping against the ugly steel of the fencing, lifted serenely into the air. The car flipped over, coming down on the tarmac with a bone shuddering crunch. The outside world was spinning at a terrifying rate, but as it started to slow it was noticeable that the other vehicle, which had hit them initially, had been suffering some problems of its own. It was facing backwards but still moving down the motorway at a tremendous rate and a small articulated truck, which had to swerve to avoid being rammed, failed to see it was headed straight towards the now barely moving but unprotected passenger side of their vehicle.

He tried to warn both of them to brace but he could see she was only just conscious, the boy was barely five years old and likely wouldn’t understand anyway. He braced himself against the collision, hoping the speed wasn’t as extreme as it looked.

This time there was the sound of twisting metal as the machines were reunited, after that there was silence and blackness. He awoke as if from a bad dream, slowly finding his way back to consciousness, noticing they were at least the right way up now. He looked down at his arm, which was covered in blood and showing quite a lot of the inner workings of his muscles and circulatory system, surprisingly it still seemed to function. He wiped his head and saw more blood, now covering the back of his hand. He wasn’t sure what had happened and it took shouting voices from outside the car to knit his memory back together.

He tried to move his leg but discovered he was trapped. Finally succumbing to the inevitable he twisted as far as he could, to ask the woman beside him if she was okay. Her head was turned away from him so he reached out with his, superficially, good arm and placed his hand on her shoulder. She seemed cold and limp so he tried to turn her head, his fingers rested on her neck and it wasn’t until he had processed the senses that he realised she had no pulse. He shook her, gently at first, then more firmly. Then he shouted, first towards her then, turning painfully, to the people outside the car, who were uneasy about getting too close after seeing too many feature films where vehicles exploded after rolling over.

He started crying and then remembered there weren’t just two of them in the car, he gritted his teeth and hauled his protesting body as far round as he could. His son was sitting peacefully in his seat, as he tended to do on longer drives. He looked happy, the barest hint of a smile on his lips. That was what his wife called his “contented face”. He was staring towards his father but staring in the way that a painting looks at you, without movement or emotion. The boy’s eyes continued to watch, without blinking, until the man was cut from the car by the emergency services and strapped, screaming, to a waiting stretcher.

 

***

 

He woke up, covered in sweat. He had learned, almost fatally, that making any kind of noise in your sleep was not wise. He rolled over and pushed himself easily onto his feet, walking towards the glaring sunlight rubbing his eyes. With purpose he paced through the ramshackle settlement, weaving around the pools of people going about their daily business. He leaned down and whispered in one of the men’s ears. The man looked up towards his child, revealing a number of raised markings on his face, his little girl was inexpertly attempting to skin a small mammal and he laughed, nodding towards the child and speaking to the woman sitting alongside him, who followed the two men’s gazes, smiling as she did so.

The man from two hundred thousand years in the future looked a little out of place, if you only considered his skin colour, but as he walked through the camp he seemed at ease and confident. He reached out as he stopped, touching the shoulder of the girl he had saved from drowning, the scar on his right arm was matched now by an artfully recreated version on his left. His cheeks were crisscrossed with similar lines and, as the woman turned it was obvious that she had her own marks, which matched his.

They started chattering. The language was interesting, Emily Harrison would have enjoyed trying to identify the constituents of it, but she would never have that chance. In the throng of conversation the man and woman only repeated a small number of words but two which continued to be heard were “Darwin” and “Eve”. The man who was once Oliver Cornell reached down as he sat next to his companion and his hand came to rest on her stomach, which was nicely rounded and looking very much like it would soon be expelling its passenger.

 

***

 

…Andrea reached out for her trowel and flipped it around in her fingers, it ended up in the right position, the handle being well enough worn to find its place in her palm again. She looked at the bones in front of her. Initially she had been interested in these remains because of the healed breaks and fractures, which seemed to cover a large part of the skeleton. After excavating a good part of it she had noticed something firmly clenched in the long deceased fingers. She poked at the object, attempting to dislodge it without causing any damage. Setting her tool down at the edge of the hole she scratched her head. After a few moments she looked around anxiously then, against all her training, instincts and better judgement, she reached out and with dirt-ingrained nails, slowly eased the relic up from the dirt where it was as good as fused to the bones. She kept holding it, down low where there would be little chance of anyone seeing and turned the thing around and around in her fingers. She knew that all hell would break loose if she allowed it to be catalogued with the rest of the finds. Although there were no traces of paint any more she knew that it should have been red, with a white cross painted on one side. There was no mistaking the familiar shape of a Swiss Army knife. She asked herself if there could be any other explanation but decided that, in the words of Arthur Conan Doyle, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. So she slipped it in her pocket and continued, carefully scraping away at the remains of the first ever time traveller to be disinterred.

Peter, meanwhile, had given up completely on the trashy men’s magazine and thrown it down beside his seat in disgust, instead opting to concentrate mostly on his beer but also, partly, to chew over the ideas which had been swirling about in his head since the final jumps, to Shropshire and Japan. There was something about seeing the iron being heated to liquid, then the craftsmanship which had gone into folding and strengthening the steel blades of the swords. He had a suspicion that an important breakthrough in metal production techniques was tantalisingly close to the surface of his consciousness, but decided it could keep for another day, took a big swig of beer and relaxed back into the appropriated deckchair for a snooze.

 

***

 

Emily searched for the straw sticking out of the piña colada, finally found it and sucked back some more of the intoxicating creamy cocktail. She had been reading something in Portuguese, which she had picked up during one of the stopovers on the circuitous route they had taken to get across the planet. The penultimate continent had been South America, but they had finished their journey here in the West Indies and decided they liked it and wanted to hang around for a while. The alcohol was blurring her usually accomplished grip of other languages and she decided it was a job worth doing well, so she put down the papers, leaving a broken piece of coral on top of them as a paperweight and gestured, a little too overtly at one of the waiters to bring more of the same please.

As her drink arrived she looked up to see a vision of loveliness emerging from the water. It would have looked like a scene from a movie, only Michael hadn’t yet remembered to remove his flippers, so he was flapping along, splashing water in his face and almost falling over every time a wave washed over his feet. He leaned down, fumbling with the straps round the back of his ankles and was finally free, looking a little more composed and a lot sexier as he walked up the beach, flippers in one hand, mask and snorkel in the other. He reached Emily, almost dancing on the hot sand underfoot. ‘Can you pretend you didn’t see that?’ He beamed his biggest smile and she pretended she would be able to do just that.

He kneeled down on the large towel, which was big enough for both of them, and kissed her on the forehead, still losing the odd droplet of sea water from his hair onto her face. Grabbing another towel from the small table behind them he rubbed himself down, but not too vigorously, so there was some moisture left on him to help catch the afternoon breeze blowing around the bay. ‘What did you say this place was called again? The snorkelling is brilliant! I was almost bitten by a moray eel and the barracudas are swimming around like they own the place. Oh, is that mine?’ he motioned towards the creamy cocktail on the table.

Emily nodded her head, she wasn’t entirely certain that her definition of “brilliant” matched his. ‘Tobago, oh hang on you mean the actual place don’t you, I think it’s called Arnos Vale. It’s nice here, isn’t it?’

Michael settled himself down, lifting the drink to his lips and taking a mouthful, then stopping to breathe heavily as he discovered there was more rum than he had expected in the mixture. He looked out towards the large saline pool he had just been swimming in. On the left was a steep rocky bank which to all intents and purposes stopped access. On the right, the beach curved round to enclose the bay leaving only a small entrance at the far end to the open sea, through which diving boats could gain entry to the hotel grounds. There were very few people on the beach but that wasn’t too surprising, even with the islands proximity to the States. American visitors tended to expect all mod cons and the hotel was not the most innovative, or well-appointed Cooke had ever stayed at. But the cove held more marine life than he had ever seen in one place, and the water was warm and calm enough to allow a good view, without too much work to stop yourself drifting.

‘Do you know how to prepare a fish?’ Emily looked slightly confused at the question, nodding slowly. Thankfully Michael went on. ‘You see that old guy fishing on the rocks over there? I climbed out to take a look around the headland and told him that his fish looked appetising. He said he was trying to catch one for the landlady of his holiday apartment, but had landed a bigger one and wanted to know if we wanted the spare. The weirdest thing about it was his eyes.’ She crinkled her forehead, in lieu of asking with a mouthful of drink, ‘His iris wasn’t black! Apart from you, and the other guys we jumped with, I think I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I’ve ever seen with green, blue, brown, or frankly yellow, pink or ultraviolet eyes.’

‘That’s weird.’

Yeah, he said he has a blog. Posts pictures of his fish when he’s been on holiday, it was called,’ Michael closed his eyes trying to remember, bryantfish dot com, I think. We’ll have to check it out if we get a chance. Anyway, the fish is a snapper. Which is meant to be fantastic if you barbecue it, apparently. I said I’d go back to grab the thing if you agreed!’

Emily nodded noncommittally, taking another slurp of her drink. Cooke headed towards the old man on the headland returning after a few minutes of peaceful silence, clutching a mottled grey brown fish, which he wrapped in a spare towel appropriated from the hotel. She turned to look him directly in the eyes. ‘What’s next for us Cooke, what do we do now?’ She looked quite serious and Michael could see from her face she was talking about the Jump Truck, the missions they had been on, and the possibility of future involvement in the development of the technology. She had even put her drink down to concentrate on the answer to the question. She rolled onto her side, leaning her head on her hand to regard him, the sand underneath the towel was displaced as her elbow sunk into it.

Cooke sat up, placing his own drink next to hers on the little wicker table and seemed to be deep in thought. She held her breath, waiting to see whether he could answer any of the questions which had been bouncing about in her head for the past few weeks. Eventually he turned to her and looked on the verge of an important idea, then grabbed a handful of hot dry sand, threw it across her bare stomach, leaped up and declared, ‘I don’t know about you Harrison but I’m going to get another cocktail.’ Emily collapsed back onto the sand, staring up at the parasol covering their little patch of paradise, then heaved herself up and ran along the fiery beach, reaching him and winding her arms around his middle then biting him, hard enough to leave teeth marks, on the colourful tattoo on his shoulder.

80049F07

Ian scratched his head. He certainly hadn’t been expecting that call. He thought that Bob might have mentioned if he was thinking about eloping to the eighteenth century, with a woman! But then the pressure of life in the forces eventually took its toll on everyone, it was just providence that had offered this opportunity to his friend. He tried to place the thought at the back of his mind, after all there were currently other things he had to worry about.

He could still see the man, walking nonchalantly along in front of him. He hadn’t visited this part of Soho before but in his job he had to know how to act casual, under any circumstances. London was a breeze compared to a lot of the places he’d tried to fit in. The man was about 178 centimetres tall and had messy tufts of dark hair sticking up in places around his head. He occasionally paused in front of a shop window to look at something, then moved on again. Eventually he stopped on a nearly deserted street, shaded by the buildings on either side of it.

Ian decided that now was probably the time. It looked like few people ever ventured this far into the dim, unwelcoming backwaters of the area, so if the guy tried to struggle it would be less bothersome to restrain him without rubberneckers. He casually proceeded to the window the man was staring at. The shop sold computers, a scruffy sign outside declared “REPAIRS, HARDWARE UPGRADES, SOFTWARE INSTALLS. CHEAPEAST PRICES AROUND”. Ian looked up and down the forbidding street and considered that the claim was probably accurate. A small hand written message stuck to the inside of the window warned, “We are very happy with our telephone/internet/sandwich/other utility suppliers, so please don’t bother trying to persuade us you could do better”.

The other man hadn’t shown any sign that he had noticed Ian standing there, so he tried to engage him in conversation. ‘Do you know if these guys are any good?’

The man turned towards him and slowly looked him up and down, as if inspecting something he had discovered crawling across his bathroom floor. ‘I couldn’t say, I’m just browsing.’ He stopped talking and seemed like he was thinking about leaving.

Ian made a split second decision, ‘Are you Phillip?’ The other man paused, mid-turn and regarded him again, ‘Phillip Croxton?’

‘You have the advantage of me, sir. May I ask who you are?’

‘I’m Captain Ian Brookfield. I’ve been investigating a group called the EARTH Force and I believe that you, Mr Croxton, have supervised and coordinated the movements of the group, who have carried out extremist activities including, but not limited to, attempting to disrupt historical events, forcing individuals to assist in acts of terror and endeavouring to obliterate the human race from spacetime. I am therefore here to take you in for questioning, on the grounds that you have carried out these acts, under the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008.’

Croxton was unmoved by Ian’s speech, Brookfield fleetingly scanned the man from head to foot, to ascertain the best way to neutralise him efficiently. He reached out to grip the man’s arm and at the same moment stepped forward, to take advantage of his own greater size and weight. Before his hand reached Croxton there was a sudden movement and Ian’s vision shimmered as if he was standing in a desert. His body convulsed as a hundred thousand volts discharged from the small hand-held stun gun into his exposed lower arm. He collapsed to the floor and was still.

Croxton looked down at the Captain’s, now useless heavyweight form, sneered, turned and walked casually away. After he had turned the corner, it was another minute before Ian was able to lever himself back up to a sitting position, from where he had fallen when his muscles were disrupted by the electronic signal arcing out of the small device. He rubbed his head which had hit the floor, thankfully not too hard and tried to regain some semblance of composure. ‘Bastard!’ Was all he could think to say! He had been Tasered before in training when they were learning to use the things, but apparently it felt different when you weren’t expecting it, or possibly just more surprising. He stood up wobbling slightly and put his hand against the brick wall next to the doorway to steady himself. By the time he was able to move with any real confidence a couple of minutes had passed, the other man would likely have been on a tube train heading to the other side of London.

He looked into the window of the shop again, scanning to see if he could get any clues as to what Croxton was searching for, but the piles of hardware, software and adverts weren’t willing to offer any counsel. The experience hadn’t put him in the best of moods and as he walked back to his rendezvous site he decided he was going to go meet the jump team, who had obviously driven his friend to relocate to a different century, so he could make them feel bad about whatever it was they had done to Bob.

 

***

 

‘Come on guys, you know you want to?’ Cooke was almost pleading with them but, unusually, Andrea seemed most concerned about the suggestion.

‘Won’t it be dangerous?’ We could end up not being able to breathe or, or…’ She faltered, trying to think of other reasons it might be a bad idea, ‘…what happens if this Brookfield guy turns up? He’d surely not condone a trip like this?’

‘He’s not here now is he? So he won’t be here when we return, will he! As for the danger I, erm, may have done a bit of investigation to find a suitable place for us to park. It’s removed from the action and high enough up so we won’t get in any trouble. We should be fine.’

‘I’m up for it,’ Peter gave his wife a pointed stare as she looked in two minds, one of which was thinking about arguing, the other weighing up the opportunity she was being offered.

‘Look I know it’s a bit crazy, but I’ve dreamed about this since I was a boy. I’m certain you’re right and it won’t be permitted if we wait to ask, so it’s now or never.’

Emily slowly raised her hand, as if she was nervous to draw attention to herself. She looked a little out of sorts, as if spending almost a week in the early eighteenth century without baths, showers or any reliable way of cleaning their temporary eighteenth century clothing had upset her normally affable temperament. ‘I trust Michael. If he says he’s made sure it’s safe then I believe him. I’m going to say yes, let’s do it.’

Andrea felt three pairs of eyes settle on her and tried not to let it cloud her judgement. Certainly it was a dangerous suggestion. Where any number of horrible things could happen to any of the four of them. Or all of them together. Also, while Michael was reliable and trustworthy, although Emily was probably not judging him from the same perspective, he had also been wrong on a number of notable occasions. The team had suffered some almost serious injuries on a few of the jumps, and all in all it seemed like a crazy thing to do.

Then again it did sound like something from a dream. Admittedly the dream of a seven year old boy, but that didn’t change the fact that it was an exciting prospect and not something that anyone else in the world had ever been offered, let alone experienced. The negatives certainly outweighed the positives. Or, in fact, positive! But the positive was one which probably outweighed anything she could come up with to negate it.

She sighed, ‘Let’s go, before I change my mind,’ and without another word she swung the door of the truck open and hopped up the steps, leaving the other three staring at each other before they too scrambled in.

 

***

 

The sun was shining through the jagged opening, making the cave darker against the contrast of the blue sky, which could be seen from the truck as it materialised in the lower recesses of the large hole. Michael pushed his door open telling the others, ‘You probably want to grab a pair of binoculars,’ as he walked up the slope towards the entrance.

Peter turned from the driver’s seat to see what Andrea and Emily were doing. Emily appeared to be in the middle of undressing herself and when he came to consider, it did seem pretty warm here. He took his jacket off and folded it up, placing it on the seat as he clumsily jumped from the cabin onto the rough stone floor. ‘Where are we exactly, Mike?’

Cooke seemed to ignore him, eventually answering in a far off tone but keeping his eyes firmly pointed in the same direction. ‘As far as I can figure it’s somewhere around Utah. Only it’s not actually Utah!’

Peter didn’t bother asking again and waited for the women to catch him up. They all gripped each other as they traversed the dangerous rocky surface. The cave was quite steep, so it wasn’t possible to see the outside world until you got quite close to the edge. Michael warned them to be careful, as the cavity was terminated by a sheer drop of about thirty metres. Emily got to him first, as Peter chivalrously held out his hand for Andrea to drag herself up the last section. ‘Holy crap!’

Emily wasn’t prone to assertions of this kind, having enough trouble remembering to speak English over the multitude of other languages she was familiar with, so the Jameses both looked at her, pushing themselves to reach the small plateau at the edge of the cave as quickly as they could. They all stood in silence until Andrea, as was often the case, shattered the serenity. ‘What the bloody hell are they?’

Peter stared down at the vista stretching out in front of them, ‘now, I’m no expert but I’m reasonably convinced that they would be, what you call, dinosaurs.’ He lifted up his binoculars to observe the scene confronting them in more detail. ‘Yep, definitely dinosaurs.’

Michael pointed his finger, answering Andrea’s question, ‘I’m not certain, but these ones here are various sorts of sauropod. Things like Diplodocus and Apatosaurus.’ His finger started to wave about as he identified some of the other monsters, padding around on the vast plain below them. ‘Those ones are something like an Ankylosaur, and then I’ve no idea what all the rest are. Frankly, I only know what I remember learning as a youngster, so I can’t enlighten you too much. Sorry.’

No one seemed to mind that Michael’s knowledge of the fauna of the Mesozoic was less than perfect, it was as if each of them was alone looking out over the spectacle. They were either far enough away or were too far removed and too small, from the animals’ limited olfactory repertoire, to be anything but invisible. None of the leviathans gave them anything more than a cursory glance.

Each of the humans retreated to their binocular world and only gave the merest suggestion of movement, with the lenses weaving from one creature to the next. The air was comfortably warm, similar to a modern day semi-tropical island, but it was possible to see that this was no island. The plain stretched off into the far distance, with clumps of forest consisting of giant conifers and large lakes dotted throughout, some of which were acting as food and drink, cover, toys, bathing areas or scratching posts to a number of the animals. ‘Look there,’ Andrea’s finger aimed in the direction her field glasses were pointing and the others scanned until they found what she was regarding.

Emily gave a sharp intake of breathe. ‘They’re moving so fast. Those big jobs don’t look like they stand a chance. What are they?’

Michael finally caught up with the others’ line of sight. ‘Pretty sure they’re Allosaurs of some sort, I’m guessing they’re after the younger Brachiosaurs. You’re right, I never expected them to move so fast, those carnivores must be going at least as fast as the truck can. They don’t really look like they’re even trying very hard, do they? Oh.’

Peter lowered his binoculars for a moment, ‘that wasn’t pretty,’ he lifted them back up, ‘they’re the poor thing’s guts I can see on the ground, aren’t they? Those things don’t seem very picky, it’s like they’re trying to eat everything at once. Nasty.’

Again silence reigned over them, until Michael dragged himself away from the scenes playing out on the prehistoric stage. ‘I think it’s time to go guys. Try and remember this, I’d guess we’ll be the only people ever to experience it.’

The rest of the team slowly disengaged from the dramas taking place below and turned to him. ‘Surely the jump technology will be reused, this potential can’t just go to waste.’

Cooke looked towards the truck, ‘The problem isn’t the technology. I’ve come to the conclusion that Masterson was the one who was really running this project, without him it’s quite probable that someone higher up in his organisation will take control, have a bright idea about stopping a war that took place, or “making things better” somehow. I don’t think they should be playing with this stuff, we’ve already had to fix one set of issues. I don’t want to have to do it again.’

Emily blinked, as she turned from the darkness of the cave to the blue hazy sky above, then back to Michael’s face. ‘But don’t they have the plans for the Jump Box and the truck?’

They do, but I was always very careful not to reveal the most important part of the whole thing.’ The others looked at him as he turned his back to them and attempted to pat his shoulder with his outstretched hand, ‘The equation which makes the whole thing work. I never wrote it down anywhere and, as you know, not even Celia knew it well. Even if she did, there’s no way they can get it back from her now.’

‘What about that?’ Peter indicated the large, military looking vehicle, which gave the impression of regarding the conversation with interest from the lower recesses of the cave.

‘My favourite plan would be finding some way of destroying it, but that’s easier said than done. Although I guess, to be fair, most of the technology is already under their control. The only thing we really need to do is work out how to kill the box so it’s unrecoverable. It’s a shame Celia’s gone, she was good with this kind of thing.’

‘I have an idea.’ Andrea was suddenly the centre of attention, ‘but it’ll mean making one more jump. You’ll have to tell us when and where though Pete.’ They continued the discussion as they climbed into the truck and within a couple of minutes it was as if they had never been there.

 

***

 

The doors of the hangar swung open noisily, almost loud enough for the team to look up as they unpacked their gear. The man entering the room stood impatiently, waiting for everyone to finish what they were doing. He didn’t look particularly happy about something but that just made the team want to take their time, and waste his even more. Eventually there was stillness and silence. The newcomer took in the assorted looks of disdain and continued unabashed, ‘I’m Ian Brookfield. I’m Robert Masterson’s colleague. And friend! Thank you for following Bob’s instructions and calling me, you did exactly the right thing.’ He slowed down here, as if remembering what someone else had told him to say. ‘I’ve discussed the situation with my senior officers and they asked me to inform you that the project is being put on hold, indefinitely.’

He paused, expecting some kind of protest, but there was just unqualified silence from the assembled remains of the team, who were standing staring at him. So he continued, ‘In the first instance the Jump Truck is to be decommissioned and placed in storage, until such time as a full analysis has been made of the results from your experiments. At that stage if your assistance is required, we’ll contact you and request your continued collaboration. For now you can return to your rooms, pack your belongings and proceed to the main entrance for transportation home.’

He looked up, as if finally seeing the people standing in front of him, discounting Michael immediately after having met him before. ‘There should be four of you, where’s Mr James?’

Peter onerously disembarked from the rear door of the truck, moving over to stand next to Andrea. He looked Brookfield straight in the eye with thinly veiled contempt, ‘Decommissioned my arse. You’re going to take the Jump Truck and turn it into whatever you need to use it for, to get an advantage over whichever organisation you’re currently quarrelling with. Either that or try and make things better, the same way that Darwin guy did! It should be used for what Mike designed the damn thing for, humanitarian aid.’

Ian stared at Peter for a few moments deciding how best to address his concerns, then elected for not being bothered. ‘I’m afraid it’s out of your hands now Mr James, if you wish to lodge your concerns with the Ministry of Defence I’m sure they’ll suitably address each of your questions.’

Peter was silent, his gaze dropped to stare at a small black box on the table in front of him, wires trailed from it, making it look like it may recently have been detached from some kind of housing. Brookfield’s gaze fell on the item and his memory did it’s best to draw his attention to the thing, but just as the penny dropped Peter reached behind his back and pulled out an intricate looking, incredibly shiny blade. In one movement he stepped forward and swung the weapon downwards. The black box fell in two pieces and the table beneath shuddered, as a gap opened to three quarters of the way through its surface.

James made no effort to run or escape, he just released the handle of the blade, which resolutely remained embedded in the wood, vibrating slightly. ‘They don’t make them like that anymore. That’s a Hochogata Tantō. It was awfully nice of Masamune to be so forthcoming, but it turns out that as well as being the most talented swordsmith the world has ever known, he’s also a great believer in being friendly to people who turn up in large metal monsters in the middle of the night.’ He crossed his arms and smiled to himself without saying another word as a look of sudden realisation and shock took over Brookfield’s previously hardened face.

800494E3

Celia’s eyes seemed to drill into Michael, ‘I think they should use it for what you originally planned, but the chances of that are slim to none.’

‘I don’t see why, it’d be easy enough to create jump-able platforms that you could stack supplies on, then send to wherever they needed to go.’ He took a tentative sip of his chocolate and put it down on the table, returning her gaze.

‘It’s not a question of ease or money, it’s a question of intent. Do you know if the military, or the government, have even revealed the existence of the jump technology to anyone outside this project?’ Cooke shook his head noncommittally. ‘Exactly! I’ll bet you any money they haven’t and aren’t planning to. They’re going to keep hold, so they can use it to get the upper hand the next time they think it’s necessary, which it won’t be!’ She crossed her arms and looked down at the floor, showing her heavily applied, nearly-black eye shadow.

Michael took another mouthful then carefully placed the cup down. He sighed and looked out of one of the small horizontal windows high up on the walls, then placed his hands on the back of his head, fingers intertwined. ‘I’ve always had difficulty seeing ulterior motives and agendas, and what people are actually thinking seems to go over my head. You’re probably right to ask what’s going to happen with our toy though, maybe this guy will be able to shed some light on it.’ Michael waved his arms towards the corridor, ‘Masterson, have you got a minute?’ He looked back at Celia and noticed one side of her dark red, glossy lipstick painted mouth turn down.

Robert marched into the room, standing almost to attention. Michael noticed Celia’s eyes, which seemed to be dragged further towards the ground the closer Masterson got. ‘What is it Michael?’

‘We were just wondering what’s going to happen?’ He stopped then realised he hadn’t actually told the other man what they were talking about, ‘With the project, that is. What’s the future of it?’

Robert scratched the top of his head, eliciting a rustling sound from his recently trimmed short back and sides. He sat down on one of the seats opposite them. ‘Well, first and foremost we need to sort out all the problems Darwin caused. Obviously that’s going to require quite a lot of work, after that you two,’ he looked from one to the other, Celia’s eyes flicked upwards, but ricocheted down again with a more distressed expression, ‘need to make sure you can measure current conditions to a high enough level of confidence, that we can be certain things are as close to normal as they can be.’ He moved forward to perch on the edge of the seat. ‘After that we have to decide what to do with the Jump Box. There are any number of applications, but I don’t think we can do anything until we’ve successfully repaired the damage done, and made sure there are a more thorough set of properly enforced rules now we have a better understanding of the consequences, of time travel.’

He made his apologies for having to be somewhere else and quickly left the room. As soon as his footfalls had receded from hearing Celia looked away from where her eyes had trailed him out of the door, back to Cooke. ‘What a load of crap!’ Michael looked mildly surprised at the invective, but she wasn’t really looking at him so much as through him. ‘They know full well what they’re going to do after this, and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t involve weapons research, or military intelligence. Although that’s an oxymoron, especially for that man!‘ She realised what she had said and her cheeks coloured visibly, even under the pale foundation.

The worry on Cooke’s face seemed more intense, ‘What’s the matter, Celia?’

Evans’ surprise at hearing Michael use her first name almost disarmed her into talking, but she stumbled over her tongue and stopped herself. Her face writhed around, trying to find an expression it was comfortable with and settled on resigned. ‘I can’t tell you Mike, I need to speak to him. But I’ve been having trouble finding the words… or the opportunity. For that matter, the courage.’

‘Well you know you can talk to me if you need to Evans. Don’t wait too long, it’s affecting you and Masterson for the worse.’ Celia smiled at him, realising the moment was over and he was back to surnames. His normal state of slightly vacant, or at least distant and thoughtful returned, so she said goodbye and sauntered back to her room to think about what she should do next.

 

***

 

It was, predictably, hot. Jessica stepped out of the big glass doors onto the balcony of the room they were currently occupying, wearing a rather attractive, diaphanous, brightly coloured dress she had picked up at a market not far from the hotel entrance. She was carrying a drink in a tall, fluted glass with fruit floating in it. Jonny was luxuriating, or at least attempting to relax on one of the canvas loungers. He looked like he was constantly falling off the mutable material, but eventually managed to find the sweet spot and lay reasonably still. Jessica leant against the railing of the balcony and looked towards the ground, ‘These are nice, you should try one.’

Jonny scrutinised the colourful concoction and shook his head, ‘This is fine for me. thanks,’ he said, making a cheers-ing motion with his own slim glass, which was the closest he had been able to find to a pint from the room service menu. The movement unbalanced him and he started swaying back and forth again. Rather upsettingly, Jessica swung herself on to the other hammock and was settled and comfortably drinking her cocktail before Jonny had come to a standstill. ‘So what do you think will happen, if Darwin succeeds?’

Jessica smoothed her dress down over her legs and looked out at the almost red, early evening sky floating over Bali’s capital city. She sucked noisily at the straw sticking out of the glass, then stared at Jonny who was wearing dark green shorts with big pockets on the side of each leg and a faded black t-shirt with the word “RUTS” over a red warning triangle. ‘I think,’ she said after mulling the question over, ‘that the best thing we can do is hope he doesn’t bring the whole of existence to a crashing conclusion. In the meantime we should just do our best to fit as much into our trip as we can. Starting off by seeing how many of these cocktails I can drink.’

‘You certainly seem to be enjoying them.’ He finally stopped the impractical lounger wobbling too much and picked his drink up, watching the emerging, changing cloud patterns in the vermillion sky. He nearly fell off as Jessica let out an alcoholically uninhibited exclamation. ‘What is it?’

‘We forgot the package.’ Jonny’s blank expression stayed put, ‘That box Alan, I mean Ian, whatever his name was, gave us at the airport.’ There was no change from the face at the other side of the small wooden table separating them, so she effortlessly rolled on to her feet and hastened into the well-appointed apartment. Jonny carefully, wobblingly, put his beer down on the table, finally succumbing to the temptation to fall on the decking without the indignity of being watched. He followed Jessica and pulled the door closed to allow the air conditioning to do its job. The slightly muffled voice said something about being badly organised, from where her head was lodged in the top of Jonny’s hand luggage, then she emerged holding the large, plain paper bag that had been stuffed in there, what seemed like days ago but which was probably less than twenty four hours earlier.

Jonny started shuffling his flip-flop clad feet around and looking agitated, he had never really grown out of the excitement of receiving a gift. Jessica pulled a reasonably sized box out of the bag and set it down on the bed, Jonny ran over and looked over her shoulder. Being smart enough to know he should let her open it, even though he wanted to tear the box to pieces himself. Inside were two more boxes, wrapped and carefully labelled. Jessica removed one of the boxes and handed it to Jonny. ‘This one’s for you, apparently.’

Jonny took the box and bounced away, trying to find a flat surface on which to unwrap it. Jessica just stared at hers until she heard tearing coming from the other end of the room. She meticulously removed the paper and lifted the lid, letting out an audible sigh of joy. She lifted one of the beautiful things out of the package and looked at it in awe. A second item was retrieved carefully and placed with its partner. She delicately lifted them from the bed and placed them, as gently as possible, onto the floor. She had forgotten Jonny was even in the room until she heard him from beyond the bathroom, which created a thin corridor splitting the room in two. He was making similarly pleased noises. ‘What did he get you, Jonny?’

‘Um. I’m still not sure how comfortable I am with showing you my,’ he paused, searching for a way to say what he didn’t want to, ‘hobby!’

She sighed, wondering if she had imagined going through this already. A number of times! ‘I tell you what, I’ll show you mine then you can show me yours, how’s that?’ Jonny mumbled something that sounded a bit like an agreement, so Jessica slipped on the fabulous footwear and stepped nervously into the small hallway. Jonny’s breath halted when he saw her. She paraded back and forth a couple of times, then turned her head to look at him. ‘Who would have thought the military budget stretched to Yves Saint Laurent? Look, the red matches my nails perfectly, and they fit like gloves.’

Jonny stared for a while before he could think of anything to say. ‘I like those.’

‘You should, they must have cost four hundred quid. Okay, now show me what you got, Mr Reticent. I’ll go behind the wall again if it makes you feel any better.’ She dipped back to the bed, sat down and eased the fabulous footwear off, symbolically placing them back in the container and putting the lid on to keep them safe.

‘I’m kind of ready. Or at least worried.’ Jessica stepped from behind the partition wall again and waited until Jonny appeared at the other side. She wasn’t sure how she was going to take to this new side of him but she relaxed, a little, when she saw how nervous he was.

‘Well the legs make more sense now. You actually look good, better than me I think. What size are they, can I try them?’

Jonny looked overwhelmed, like he had been expecting her to run out of the room, but raised his shoulders in supplication and stepped aside for her. Jessica ran barefoot through the space between them, then tittered, ‘Damn, slightly too big. Means I can’t have a borrow.’ She stepped lightly away, pulled the big curtains across and flicked on the light switch. ‘Go on then, I want the full effect.’

Jonny’s hunted countenance slowly dropped away and he nodded his head and unzipped the rucksack laying in the corner of the room, meticulously pulling things out and discounting them as he went. Finally he settled on something which matched, Jessica smiled at him encouragingly, ‘Just go for it. I’m pretty sure I love you Jonny, it makes no difference to me if you’re dressed in a crappy old punk t-shirt and shorts or…’ and she nodded at what he’d laid out on top of the suitcase, ‘a slinky black dress and stilettos which, from the look of them, made a bigger dent in the army’s budget than mine did!’

 

***

 

Striding heavily through the building wasn’t really helping lighten Robert’s mood. He had been asking himself what might have put him on the wrong side of Celia, as it had seemed like she was finally dropping her barrage of anti-military comments until the jump before last. But since then she had clammed up completely, ignoring him at every opportunity. He rounded a corner and stamped a bit more but it didn’t improve his temper any. His footfalls eased off slightly as he passed a few doors, some of which were open. Then he stopped completely as he saw Evans, sitting, staring into space with her big blue eyes, behind the glass of the rec’ room door. He fought with himself as to whether he would make things any more uncomfortable by broaching the subject, but figured it couldn’t get much worse and turned the handle.

Celia twitched as if she had just been woken up, looked round and turned back, then her eyes glazed over once more. Robert stood directly in front of her so she couldn’t easily ignore him. ‘Celia?’ There was no visible sign of recognition so he tried a little louder, ‘Celia?’ Nothing! He reached his hand out to touch her shoulder and she twisted round to stop the contact, leaping up from the chair like she’d had an electric shock. She looked a little humiliated at her own action but quickly regained her self-control. ‘Well I know I have your attention now. Can you tell me, what’s the matter?’

‘Nothing’s the matter. I’m perfectly fine.’

He heard the extra hint of cynicism in the first person pronoun. ‘I realise I’ve obviously done something wrong. Whatever it is I’m sure it can be explained.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Could you give me a hint?’

‘On that jump, I saw you kill David.’ Masterson’s shoulders dropped and he stepped backwards to sit, ponderously, on a chair opposite her. ‘I couldn’t believe my eyes at first, I saw it happen and tried to trick myself into thinking it was something other than what it actually was. You’re a murderer Masterson and I’m not sure I can be friends with someone who can take a life.’

Robert rubbed his forehead and shut his eyes. A number of responses went through his head but he discounted most of them quickly, on the grounds they probably wouldn’t improve matters. ‘That wasn’t what was meant to happen, David wasn’t a bad man. He was just…misguided. You do know what he had done, don’t you?’ Celia barely shook her head, ‘He delivered the Jump Truck into the hands of a psychotic individual, seemingly without undue pressure, then continued to do so as the terrorist’s plans became more extreme. Without Moulder we wouldn’t be having to fix the past and save the universe. In any case my orders were to neutralise him and return him to base, so he could be interrogated about the fanatics’ activities. When I confronted him he attacked me. I had to fight back, quite hard actually, to stop him from killing me! I pushed him. It was just bad luck that he fell where he did. I really didn’t mean to hurt him but he wouldn’t stop fighting.’

‘Why did you lie?’

Masterson hadn’t been expecting this and it showed on his face. ‘I don’t know. I guess I didn’t want you to know what had happened,’ his head turned towards the ceiling and then stayed looking upwards, ‘which is stupid, because some of the things I’ve seen and done would make you cry. At least this one was just an accident.’

‘What sort of things?’ Celia didn’t look as cold as she had before, but Robert was wary about divulging his experiences.

‘To tell you the truth I’ve actually had enough of what I do. I often wake up in the night dripping with sweat. I don’t want my retirement, assuming I make it that far, to be memories of the things I’ve been through in my life so far.’ He started talking, going right back to his early days in training and just kept going, finding it helped to share his burden with someone else. Celia spent the time looking concerned, but it seemed to be for his state of mind, rather than for any acts he had been party to, and as the time passed so did some of his guilt.

 

***

 

The mood in the truck was noticeably a little more positive, with everyone talking and the knowledge of one successful, if interesting, trip under their belts. Masterson turned to address the team. ‘So, we’re back in China. We’ve landed half a kilometre away and half a day later than our previous jump. It appears the fanatics drove the inhabitants out of Beijing, then released a rice boring insect which successively debilitated the crops and prevented the locals from returning. These,’ he held up a clear box containing several canisters, stuffed with insects which looked a lot like moths, ‘are Eoreuma loftini,’ he looked up at Andrea to check his pronunciation. ‘It’s a Mexican rice pest that the terrorists introduced as an experiment, to see if it would affect the crops. It appeared to have the desired effect. We’ve created these ones,’ he held up one of the boxes, ‘to try and control them. They’re the same species but we’ve infected them with a disease, which should stop the next generation being viable for reproduction. That means in around ninety to one hundred and eighty days they should all be gone, as we’ve tampered with these to make them more prolific than the introduced variety. Hopefully this is all we need to do and it should bring the local rice production back to normal within a year or so.’

Peter James looked at the boxes full of insects, ‘Is this not a little like introducing cane toads to Australia, or rats to Madagascar? Is there not the possibility they might cause more harm than they fix?’

Masterson barely registered his observance of James’s question, ‘Nothing’s certain, but in this case we’ve been quite lucky. The terrorists picked a bug with a small range, because they wanted to keep the blight localised to the city and its surrounds. This is why I need you to pair up, take a couple of containers of these each and head away in different directions to release them.’ He walked up the length of the truck handing out the transparent packages of fluttering insects as he went, then took two himself and opened the rear door. Once outside he paired people up, Michael with Celia, Peter with Andrea and himself with Emily. Celia wondered if that had been on purpose, but didn’t have to wait to find out, ‘Emily and I are heading this way, we need to speak to the locals and persuade them to move back in. Give it a ten minute walk, then circle round to do the second release before you head for the truck again.’

Emily looked perplexed but followed him anyway, as the others walked diametrically away from them. ‘How are we going to find these locals? And come to think of it, how exactly are we going to convince them it’s a good idea to go back?’

Masterson fixed her with a nervous stare, ‘I was rather hoping you might have some idea about that, you’re the expert after all.’

They walked in silence for a couple of minutes, then Emily looked up from the ground in front of her, ‘I think I may have an idea, but you have to forgive me if it doesn’t go to plan. This is a little different to anything I’ve done before. For one thing I know quite a lot about social customs, but that would be social customs from a hundred and twenty years in the future. I don’t know if they translate, if you’ll excuse the expression,’

She half smiled at him but he didn’t really notice, as he was staring at a large, rocky protuberance a few hundred metres away. ‘From what we’ve been able to gather, it looks like the braver members of the city holed themselves up in some caves. We’ll head for that opening,‘ he pointed to a vertical slit in the rock face. ‘I’d guess there won’t be too many of them but I’ll go first, you follow.’

They reached the entrance and Masterson put his finger to his lips to signal silence. Emily made a complicated and slightly rude gesture, which ended with her hammering on her forehead. She assumed he didn’t know British Sign Language and grinned at his uncomprehending face. He sneered and led on. The crack in the rocks was only just wide enough for him to squeeze his muscular torso through, Emily’s front and back touched the stone on either side as she slid through. Once inside they stood, motionless, listening. There was muted conversation coming from one side of a fork in the tunnel, so they went that way.

Emily looked down and saw that her black top was now slightly grey where it had touched the walls at the cave opening. She quietly brushed herself down, wondering why she was bothering as the cobwebs drew in on either side of the slightly more negotiable passageway. Cracks of light illuminated the tunnels from small holes bored through to the outside. As they went on there were less of them and finally the light from the wall gave out, just as it became possible to discern an orange glow up ahead.

In another hundred metres there was a ninety degree bend. Robert pulled a circular mirror from his top pocket and held it in front of him. He turned and nodded to Emily whose gaze settled on a dark corner, then clearly but quietly pronounced ‘Ní hào’. Masterson recognised it as a greeting and nearly said it was a bit of a weak start, but there was a string of words in reply from beyond the turn. Emily started talking quickly to the unseen respondent, who butted in every so often, Robert guessed with questions, although it was hard to tell with the speed, and the naturally sing song sound of the language. He drifted off until Emily prodded him in the chest, ‘Time to meet them, come on.’ She stepped out into the opening and Robert, feeling unusually helpless, trailed after her.

There was a small group of men, who looked like they had been in various states of repose around the fire in the centre of the cave. They had just stood up and gathered together, seeming scared and confused at this intrusion into their previously safe environment. The faces didn’t improve when a European man, who was almost twice their size, stepped out of the shadows. Emily started speaking and slowly the consternation ebbed away and they began to relax again. Drinks were offered to the visitors and Masterson looked at Emily for the correct etiquette. She motioned what he needed to do as she kept talking, then nodded to him that it was time to leave. She closed the conversation, ‘Zài jiàn’ and they retreated down the corridor, followed by a loud exchange of views between the men they were leaving behind, and eventually blinked their eyes as they returned to the light of day.

‘So what did you tell them?’ Robert asked as they walked back towards the truck.

‘I started off by saying that a dragon had found their city on its nest. It was displeased and couldn’t control itself, attacking the city walls in anger,’ Robert looked incredulous. ‘You have to understand that a lot of these people still wholeheartedly believe the myths and legends. Anyway, I said that once the beast had realised its mistake it retreated back to Tiān, that’s the sky, kind of like heaven in this context, and told me to relay the message that it was sorry and had retrieved it’s eggs, imploring them to move back to their homes and do their best to get through the next couple of harvests. I told them that removing the dragon’s eggs might have turned the soil bad but it would recover and become more bountiful if they were patient.’

The truck was in their line of sight now. Robert whistled softly through his teeth. When they were almost back he said, ‘You really are very imaginative. I can see why Michael likes you.’ He smiled to show a certain level of truth behind the witticism.

‘If you must know, it’s not the language skills he’s really interested in,’ she ran to the truck and jumped through the back door, leaving Robert regretting his flippancy.

 

***

 

Michael turned in his seat at the front of the truck to survey the other occupants. He smiled at Emily, who had a stack of papers on her knees, parish records for the village of Coalbrookdale on the river Severn, in Shropshire. The plans recovered from Darwin’s office appeared to indicate that a fire had been started, burning down part of the village which would, later in the eighteenth century, become the centre of iron smelting for Britain. The fire hadn’t injured anyone but had caused most of the residents to seek shelter on the other side of the village. It had also razed the factory of Abraham Darby almost to the ground, leaving the bare bones of the building, which should have been destined to become the longest successfully trading blast furnace in Europe, in the early part of that century.

Cooke turned away from Emily to regard Celia, who seemed much more herself than she had been recently. However for this jump she seemed on edge again, he thought about asking her what was up but decided it could wait until they got home, after all this mission was likely to be quite a difficult one to successfully accomplish. They were going to try and help rebuild the Coalbrookdale ironworks. This required them to find Darby, persuade him that the factory was worth restoring, then gather enough people to repair the building and the machinery.

The plan was for Emily to make contact with the locals then introduce Peter, who would direct the engineering and reconstruction alongside Darby. The rest of the team would, to all intents and purposes, be working as hired hands. Doing whatever was necessary to hasten the job.

The Jump Truck appeared right next to the factory, the taste of smoke was pervasive, even though the doors and windows of the vehicle were closed. Peter was first out this time and his movements filled the truck with fumes. Masterson opened his window and shouted, ‘I’m going to find somewhere to park this thing,’ wound it back up and drove towards a densely packed bank of trees, carefully twisting the wheel, navigating through to find a well hidden dip and a truck sized recess in the plant life.

The rest of the team climbed out and headed back, to find Peter standing next to a hole in the floor, within the building. They gathered round him and looked down to see an ovoid tunnel leading down to a metal container at the bottom. ‘That’s the crucible, it’s where the iron collected from the ironstone, when they poured it in here with the limestone and coke. If it was working there’d be fire shooting out of the mouth of it here.’

Masterson had camouflaged the truck, circled the perimeter of the building then returned. ‘Okay, now I’m not sure how long this is going to take, it could be a week if we’re unlucky, so find yourselves somewhere comfortable to stay. Then Peter, Emily and I will go search for this Abraham Darby guy.

As it turned out, Darby was a lot more amenable to the help being offered than the team expected. The local residents seemed to treat him with the regard that his hard work had earned. The shell of the building was cleaned up, and with Peter’s purposefully well-masked modern knowledge, the inner workings were close to repaired within five days. The team were finally preparing to make the jump back home. Andrea and Peter were sitting with Darby, on the small brick wall near the factory entrance. It had turned out that Emily’s skills had not been all that important. The accent of the inhabitants of Coalbrookdale had sounded surprisingly like a West Country drawl, with American inflections. Abraham stood up and shook Peter’s hand, ignoring Andrea, telling him he would never be able to repay the obligation.

Peter shook the other man’s hand firmly, ‘Seeing your machinery in action has returned on my investment more than you can know. It’s been a pleasure Mr Darby, but we have to be going now. I’ll watch your ongoing career with interest.’ Peter enunciated everything carefully, as they had discovered while working in this time that the best way to make themselves understood was to talk slowly and not to contract words or use slang. Darby headed away, checking his pocket watch as he hastened back into the burning hot innards of the workshop. Peter watched him leave and sighed, ‘I like that guy. Sure he’s a bit seventeen hundreds, but who isn’t round here? Shame he only has eight years left.’

Andrea raised an eyebrow, ‘You mean he’s going to die? But he’s only young.’

‘Unfortunately, that wasn’t so unusual back here. He’s thirty, he’ll be thirty eight when it happens. He’s going to get ill in about six years, then get worse until it takes his life. It’s a shame.’ Peter seemed resigned to the man’s fate. Andrea put her hand on his knee and wondered out loud if there was anything they could do to help. ‘Probably antibiotics, but they’re not going to be discovered for another couple of hundred years. Mike told me, we can’t interfere with things to that sort of extent or we’ll end up coming back again, to fix what we break. And that wouldn’t be much fun!’ He stood up and went to the door of the factory, glancing at the large clock hanging in the entryway. Walking back he tapped his wrist, where a watch would normally have been strapped, ‘Time to get going. When I saw Cooke earlier he said he needed to get some stuff sorted and told us to meet him at the truck at five o’clock, which is getting close. Come on Mrs James.’ He took Andrea’s hand and they walked between the large, wrought iron gates of the premises. They meandered through the burnt grass and tree stumps, which currently surrounded the factory, towards where Robert had secreted the Jump Truck.

As they drew closer they could see Michael, standing at the door of the truck with Emily, looking agitated. ‘What’s up, guys?’

Cooke turned his attention away from Emily and massaged his hand through his lengthening, due to lack of attention, buzz-cut hair. ‘You know I said I had to do something?’ Peter nodded, ‘Well what I had to do was find Masterson and Evans, but I can’t. They’ve gone!’

Andrea looked at Emily, who nodded. Peter couldn’t help but ask the question that immediately came to mind, ‘Gone where?’

‘I don’t know, they just disappeared. We were meant to be meeting at three this afternoon to get going, but there was no sign of them at half two. I went to the house they’ve been staying at, all their stuff had gone. It’s like they were never here.’

Andrea thought quicker than her husband, ‘Is there any point looking for them? What are the consequences if we don’t find them?’

Emily shook her head this time, ‘We’ve been from one end of the village to the other, knocking at every door. Which was less fun than it sounds in seventeen hundreds Shropshire…when you’re a woman. We can’t use the truck to find them, it’d be a little bit like showing these people a digital watch or a television.’

Michael stopped tapping his fingers in sequence on the truck door handle, gripped it and pulled it open. He turned around to face the others, ‘I think our only option is to go home and see if we can find anything out about what happened to them. If we can glean any information from newspapers or records of births, marriages and deaths then we can come back and collect them.’ He swung himself into the truck and looked down at Peter, ‘Guess you’re driving, James.’

Peter looked at the two remaining team members he was standing with, ‘You’d better get in then, we’re going.’

Emily jumped up the stairs at the rear of the truck, offering a hand to Andrea who gratefully accepted. They strapped themselves in and with a final, ‘Ready,’ from Michael the Jump Truck winked out of existence, leaving the chirruping of birds in the trees and the distant sounds of the industrial revolution getting started.

 

***

 

The hard suspension of the heavy vehicle meant that Ian was only just able to skim the printed email during the drive. The sender’s address was familiar as it belonged to Darwin, or at least one of his alter egos. The second address on there was new, and also unusual in that it wasn’t possible to track down any details of the individual who owned the account. Even though it was formatted as first name, followed by a dot, then surname. The mail was in Cornell’s outbox when they broke into his accounts, but there were no other details of the addressee. Luckily, during Ian’s numerous searches of Darwin’s house and office, he had discovered a single small scrap of paper left in a locked drawer, for which they had found no other explanation. So he raised his team to go to the location written on the note and find out if it was what he hoped.

The wheels ground to a halt on a bed of gravel and Brookfield hopped out. Something didn’t seem right and he was almost certain he knew what it was. Although the small cottage was still exhaling smoke from the chimney it seemed a little too quiet and serene, even considering that the place was situated in the wilds of Dorset, amongst old trees and a small brook, which flowed past the bottom of the garden. Ian knelt down to get a better look at the shadows falling across the tyre marks on the driveway, which was expansive if not well kempt. A single set of tracks led away from the house, it looked like a small car had made them, something like a Ford Fiesta or a Vauxhall Corsa. He turned back to the driver of the truck and signalled for the team to disembark, even though he was sure they weren’t going to find a thing.

Ian crunched across the stones, stood in front of the door and knocked twice with as much force as he could muster, on the heavy oak. After a minute it was clear no one was going to answer, so he turned to regard his troops as he bent down and lifted a plant pot from the doorstep. A small piece of tape was holding a key to its base. He effortlessly pulled it away and eased it into the barrel of the lock. With a little effort he managed to find the bite point and force the key round in the partly rusted mechanism. The door creaked open revealing an empty but still warm house.

It was just starting to rain so he motioned the guys inside and told them, without much conviction to, ‘Search the place for anything worth finding’. After ten minutes the only piece of constructive information appeared to be that whoever had been here had vacated the place too swiftly to bother taking anything, apart from a laptop. The docking station they had been using in the small upstairs office was still plugged in, the network lead in the back flashing sporadically.

Ian pointed his men back to the truck and sat down in the armchair, which was a little too close to the large fireplace, burning large chunks of wood like it had never heard of climate change. His eyes roved about looking for anything useful, then settled on a weathered cabinet sitting next to the telephone. He heaved himself from the overly forgiving seat and paced over to it, picking up the handset piece and listening for a dialling tone, which rang out clearly in the silence of the room. He trawled his memory for the digits, carefully pressing the buttons as he recalled each one. After a small delay a woman’s digitised voice stated the phone number he was calling from.

He placed the receiver down and picked up the phone book, which was resting on a shelf of the small cabinet. Leafing through the pages he tried to find the surname referenced in the email address. It was there on the page in black and white. More surprisingly there was only one instance of the name. It matched the phone number, which Ian had just established belonged to this house. ‘Beginners oversight,’ he muttered to himself, before pulling a mobile from his top pocket and making a call. ‘I’ve found the house. No one was here but at least I know the guy’s name is right. He doesn’t appear to be a big fan of pseudonyms, so hopefully a quick scan of bank details should point us towards him. Yes sir. Yes, I’ll find him and bring him in for questioning.’ He pressed the button to end the call, putting the phone back in his pocket and whistling as he returned to the truck. He always enjoyed the chases more than the theorising and surmising which precluded them.

 

***

 

The hiss of rearranging atoms signalled the return of the Jump Truck from 1709. The remains of the team silently got ready to disembark. Emily let out a small gasp as she freed herself from the seat, the others looked at her. ‘This was in my pocket, I don’t know how it got there?’ She held up a modern envelope, with the words “Read me!” carefully penned on the front. The text was quite obviously written using a quill pen, of the sort that had been popular where and when they had been staying for the past week.

They extracted themselves from the truck and gathered round her, as she slid a dark red painted nail into the seal and ripped it open, slipping the letter out. She wasn’t the only one of the four that had a small shiver run down the spine at the likeness of the noise to that of the Jump Box. She unfolded the paper and held it out at a comfortable distance, adjusting her glasses to make sure she could focus. ‘It’s from Celia.’ Nobody seemed particularly surprised.

She read it out loud. ‘”Dear all, you’ve probably realised by now that Robert and I aren’t with you! We’ve decided to stay here in the eighteenth century, as it seems to suit us. Certainly a lot more than the modern world, which is somewhere that both of us have seen far too much of. We’re going to find somewhere out of the way and set up home”,’ Emily glanced towards Michael for a moment then went back to the message, ‘”maybe get a few chickens and sheep. You know, old school! There’s no point attempting to track us down because, as you may have noticed, I happen to be travelling with one of the best covert operatives there is, talking of which…”’ Emily turned the page over, ‘Oh right, it looks like Robert has written this bit.’

Andrea tapped her foot for a couple of seconds in anticipation before she couldn’t wait any longer, ‘Go on then, what does he say?’

Emily adjusted her glasses again then rubbed her forehead, before looking down at the paper once more. ‘Okay, he’s continued where she left off. He says, “If you want to check how good I am you can talk to Ian, Cooke knows him from the drop off we did. I would actually strongly suggest you contact him anyway, because I would recommend that he takes over from me, in an unofficial capacity, as supervisor of any further jumps”.’ She stopped and looked at Michael, ‘There’s a phone number here. Do you want to call him?’

‘Is there any more in the letter?’ Emily nodded, continuing to stare into Michael’s eyes, ‘Finish it off first, then I’ll give him a ring to discuss our options. He seemed like a pretty smart guy. I’m guessing Masterson didn’t want us to inform his superiors just yet, if he’s asking us to contact Brookfield. Sorry, that’s the Ian he mentioned.’

Emily found her place again on the page, ‘Celia takes over again here. “Hopefully my knowledge of the nature of spacetime means we’re not going to cause the end of the universe by being here. And if we really need to we can always find a way to send you a message, after all we know when and where to address a postcard! I’ll really miss you guys but am looking forward to setting up shop somewhere a little less complicated. Rob says it’s been the most fun he’s had since he finished training. Lots of love. Celia and Robert.”’

The four of them stood motionless, looking at each other until Cooke broke the spell. He walked over to the storage containers and rifled through one of them until he found his phone. He turned it on and walked back, reaching out towards Emily for the letter, she handed it to him and he dialled the numbers. ‘Hello, is that Ian Brookfield?’

8004824B

Brookfield was five metres down the corridor before he remembered he needed Rob to sign off an AFCS. He did an about turn and knocked on the door again. Hearing a muted, ‘Come’, from within he opened the door, pulling the paperwork out of his back pocket as he entered.

Robert looked slightly guilty as he took his hand from his mouth and rested it on the table. ‘Sorry mate, completely forgot about this crap. Could you do me the honours please?’ He finished unfolding the small stack of papers, smoothing them out as he lay them on the desk.’ Rob looked down at the pile pulling a face, but produced a pen from his desk drawer and signed on the dotted lines, without looking at the details.

After a couple of minutes of small talk he finished them off, folded them up and handed them back. ‘That’s the last time I send you out by yourself! See you later.’

Ian retraced his steps to the door. Just as he reached for the handle there was a sharp ringing sound, ‘That’s my phone,’ Robert announced as he pulled it out of his pocket. ‘Hang on a minute,’ he said, after looking at the number. ‘Hello. Yes. Oh.’ Robert’s face became more serious as he continued, with single word responses. He swore after terminating the call and looked at his friend. ‘Darwin has escaped. Somehow he tricked the psychiatrist into leaving the door unlocked. Killed two guards on his way out. They don’t know where he is now, he’s disappeared.’

Ian’s hands hung limp by his side for a moment before he regained his composure. ‘I assume you want me to try and find him?’

‘Yes, check out all the places you know or suspect he might be. Get back to me as soon as you know anything.’

‘Of course,’ and Brookfield left for the second time.

Masterson sat back with his palm to his temple, he lifted his other hand to his mouth but noticed the nails were as short as they could get and dropped it heavily onto the desk.

 

***

 

Cooke raised his clenched fist to his forehead, beating out a repetitive slow rhythm, trying to tempt his brain into offering something helpful. He had been in the lab for the better part of an hour, looking at the same figures again and again until they blurred into a large, amorphous mass of nondescript shapes on the page. He told himself it shouldn’t be this hard to see what the problem was. Shuffling the papers into an untidy heap he put them at arm’s length, endeavouring to distance himself from the puzzle, to think. He picked up his coffee and slurped the hot drink in an attempt not to burn his mouth, which almost worked.

He pushed the chair round so he was facing in the opposite direction and stared down at the surface of the drink. It had a vague film on the top from where he hadn’t cleaned the mug properly, he let his mind wander as he watched it move and felt the beginnings of an idea trying to make itself known to him. He did his best not to concentrate on the thought in case it skittered away back to the deeper recesses of his mind. He let it sit in his subconscious and simmer for a while, to see if anything would happen. He got a feeling he was ever so close to the answer.

‘I’ve got it!’

Michael almost threw his coffee in the air as Celia flew through the doors, hardly slowing down until she was tightly gripping the desk next to him, looking into his surprised blue eyes. ‘I wish you hadn’t done that, I almost had an unplanned shower of caffeine.’ He placed his drink down on top of the pile of papers and looked up at her. ‘Got what, Evans?’

She grabbed a crumpled sheet of paper from a hidden pocket in her top, then slowed her breathing, trying to get it back to some semblance of normality before she spoke. ‘You remember we were worried about the entanglement states, when we were setting up the rules for jumping?’ Michael scratched his head but agreed they probably had. ‘Well, we were wrong. The records from the Quantum State Gauge and the Jump Box are both right. Only, if we take them both with us they read the same amount of wrong when we return from a jump. Are you with me?’ Michael nodded, without much vigour. ‘So we take the reading from the QSG before we leave, the reading from the same gauge when we get back, then cross check them. The numbers will always look like they’ve lined up perfectly. But I’ve checked, and there are disparities between the readings from jump start to jump finish. We need to go down to a finer level of detail. I’ve tried it and my sums seem to work.’

‘What have you tried exactly?’

Celia turned her attention to the paper, without checking to see if Michael was watching. ‘This number here is the reading from before a jump. This one is from the same measuring device after the same jump. Now we always thought these numbers,’ she indicated the last five digits on each, ‘weren’t important. But it turns out they’re our error checking, we just didn’t know at the time. So I took the last five from the outgoing jump, multiplied it by the square root of the last five from the return jump,’ she pointed at two other numbers, ‘then the full readout from the return jump, minus the full readout from the outgoing jump. Subtract the previous multiplied root off and it gives you this.’

Although the tongue twisting English would have defeated anyone else Cooke just stared at the number for a moment, before raising his eyebrows. ‘Is that what it looks like, Evans?’

‘Sure is boss. It appears that it gives us a spacetime interval which, after a couple of small experiments with the test rigs, gives us the time plus the location of the jumps. We should be able to use it to find out exactly where and when the saboteurs were.’

Michael placed his elbow on the table and leant on his hand to stare at the numbers, it was a full minute before he picked up his coffee and took a mouthful, it hadn’t cooled enough to do so but he did it anyway. ‘Dammit Evans I thought I was getting somewhere, then you come along and solve it just before I have a breakthrough. Of course we can’t change things, can we,’ It was a rhetorical question but Celia shook her head anyway, ‘but at least we’ll know where and when we’re going. It might also give us an idea of what we need to do when we get there. This means we can start fixing things. We need to tell Masterson, immediately.’

Celia’s face turned sour at the mention of Robert’s name but Michael didn’t notice. ‘Would you mind doing that Mike, there are a couple of things I need to do.’ Without waiting for an answer she left the slightly bewildered man, still staring at the sums.

 

***

 

‘I thought we weren’t allowed to hang around?’ Peter put his usual vaguely sarcastic drawl on the question, Robert assumed it was a special tone of voice reserved especially for him.

‘It turns out it’s not the length that matters, it’s what you do with it,’ he responded in an offhanded manner, hearing a couple of chuckles as he scanned the distant horizon with a pair of binoculars. ‘I think they went that way.’ He pointed to a part of the sky slightly redder than the surrounding area. ‘It looks like something’s there, I can only hope it’s our target.’

Andrea put her hand up to shield against the sun and half closed her eyes, to try and see what he had been looking at. ‘I wish you wouldn’t call them the “target”, it makes it sound like we’re going to hunt the poor things. Do you think we can catch up without disturbing them even more?’

Robert shot her a glance, suggesting she hadn’t really thought the question through. He ushered her back into the truck closely followed by Peter, who hadn’t allowed her out of the vehicle without his accompaniment. The rest of the team were waiting patiently, still secured in their respective seats with the notable exception of Moulder, whose absence seemed to make the truck a lot less crowded, even though he had been the quietest member of the team. Masterson climbed in beside Michael. ‘About three miles that way Cooke, is that right?’ He glanced at Andrea, who nodded. After a couple of moments the sun was shining from a different direction and the surrounding country had been replaced by a similar but alternate stretch of savannah, with a large area of dense undergrowth running along one side of the landscape. ‘Okay Andrea, how do we divert them?’

She looked at him for a second before staring at the heavy rifle, partially disguised by its rigid nylon cover and strapped to the wall of the truck. ‘We need to subdue the alpha male. If we can do that the rest should at least hang around to see what happens to him.’ She stood up, unbuckling the firearm from the serious looking straps and carefully removed the weapon from the security of its case, casually slung the strap across her shoulder, unlocked the back door of the truck and climbed out, whistling to herself. The rest of the team followed warily, to find her staring at a small dust cloud in the distance. Robert was standing next to her, holding a more functional and terminal looking firearm.

Celia glanced nervously at Michael, he shrugged and looked at Andrea who was standing upright, holding the rifle in a relaxed posture, peering through the sight as if she was looking at bacteria through a microscope. Everyone stayed silent, they were all aware that the mission was to attempt to relocate a family of predators who had been disturbed and driven from their home range by the terrorists. They were also highly aware that they were two hundred thousand years in the past and weren’t exactly certain what form the animals would take. There was the odd nervous titter from someone each time a noise was heard, but for the most part they were well-behaved and waited quietly to see what would turn up.

After ten minutes the shimmer of darker air, which seemed to signal the whereabouts of the beasts, was close enough to make out small travelling dots at the bottom of it, moving slowly but steadily in the direction of the truck and its crew. Andrea stood firm as Emily whispered to Michael, ‘I don’t think I’d be able to hold my arm in that position for so long.’

Michael turned back to look at her and smiled, ‘Masterson told me she’s done a lot of this when she and Peter were travelling a few years back. Makes you think doesn’t it?’ Emily nodded her head, surreptitiously intertwining her fingers with his as all attention was on the muzzles of the two guns.

In five more minutes it was possible to make out the general form of the animals. They appeared to be feline. Robert moved his sight about, trying to count the number in the group they were looking at, and get an idea of exactly what they were. Andrea quietly, but firmly, suggested he should stop fidgeting and that it would be another couple of minutes before she would take any action.

The time seemed to crawl while everyone was waiting but eventually, when the animals were on the verge of being big enough to see clearly with the naked eye, there was a noise, not unlike the sound a punctured tyre emits. The animals continued to move forward for a short while before there was some kind of disturbance and they drew to a halt. Andrea dropped the tip of the weapon to her side and turned to the rest of the team. ‘Right. Now we need to go lay a trail for them to follow home. Back in the truck.’

Robert, still brandishing his own hardware, rounded the rear of the truck as the half closed door swung open fiercely, hitting him squarely in the face. He stepped back a couple of paces before collapsing unceremoniously to the ground. A man emerged from the truck, staring directly at the assembled onlookers with their mouths hanging open. He was similar in height to Peter who was the first to make a decision and pounce towards the man, whose eyes flashed defiance as his head twisted this way and that searching the landscape, before he bolted, with purpose, towards the trees at the side of the truck. Peter was close enough to touch the man’s shoulder, before they were far enough into the forest for the stranger to twist around and push him backwards. Pete stumbled and fell as the intruder made good his escape through the dark cover of foliage.

After a minute Peter emerged again. ‘What on Earth was that about? Who was that?’

The rest of the team, gathered around Robert, giving their best approximation of people with no answers. Masterson, shaking his head clear, looked towards where the now absent interloper had left them. ‘That was Oliver Cornell. Darwin! The man whose been planning and leading the terrorist jumps. We captured him but he escaped from a secure psychiatric unit about two days ago. I’ve had teams out looking for him but apparently he found a way into the base. And the truck.

They gathered around the rear door and saw that the cargo space had been uncovered, the tarpaulin thrown down, from where Darwin had been shrouded for at least the last hour, while they had been packing the truck and starting the mission. Robert gazed into the cover of the vegetation again then looked back towards the animals they had almost forgotten about. Wiping the streak of blood running from his lip onto his sleeve, he pointed towards the animals in the middle distance. ‘We need to get going, that thing isn’t going to stay asleep forever. Get in.’ He climbed in the back of the truck and told Peter to take over driving, ‘Head towards them. Leave a gap of about five metres, then stop the truck with the rear doors facing towards them. Can you manage that without too much protest?’ James sneered and climbed in beside Michael, activating the ignition and kicking it into gear as Robert offered a hand to Celia, who ignored him and climbed the few steps herself.

Masterson’s brow furrowed but his face quickly regained its usual inimitable veneer, as he got in himself pulling the door shut and telling Peter to get going, before sitting down on the seat closest to the door, previously occupied by David. He leant down without strapping himself in, removing the top of a large polystyrene box on the floor, it turned out to be full of raw meat. He knelt down next to the box and pulled on a pair of thick gloves, readying himself for the oncoming task. When he was entirely prepared his eyes skimmed past Celia, who had a look of disgust on her face. He couldn’t tell if it was the meat or himself the look was intended for but decided to worry about it later when he wasn’t otherwise engaged.

The vibration of their movement slowed, then stopped altogether as Peter drew the machine to a halt. Robert glanced out of one of the small, rectangular porthole-like windows at the rear of the Cougar and laughed quietly to himself, then leant down to pick up one of the small chunks of bloodied meat. In one swift movement he opened the door, threw the carrion towards the assembled, wary, creatures and pulled it shut again. Andrea, sitting closest to the door, watched attentively but Emily, following the action, made a confused noise. Andrea looked around at her questioningly. ‘Was it me, or was that actually just a lion?’

Andrea smiled, ‘We’re only two hundred millennia back! Lions have been around for about a million years. Compared to Panthera leo we’re relative newcomers. They’ve been a distinct species for three or four times longer than Homo sapiens. Most of the African mega-fauna are the same.’ Masterson gave Peter an instruction to drive south, in the direction the cats needed to be led back towards. Andrea continued after his interruption, ‘It’s probable that because these animals evolved beside us they had coping tactics. A lot of the bigger wildlife in America and Europe didn’t have that luxury and helped to make way for us, by being unable to survive our onslaught as we radiated out from here. Which is just about to happen! I think that’s why the terrorists came to this place, to dislodge the predators from the area. If the cats had gone it’s probable that the herbivores would have run rife and caused a fairly catastrophic drop in plant life, which would have led to famines. Then, when there were no longer any roots to absorb and hold moisture, instability of the land followed by drought after the next wet season. He was quite smart really!’

Masterson looked at Andrea who nodded, then called for James to stop again and carried out the same process of opening the rear door of the truck, throwing another piece of the bloody flesh onto the ground, then giving the signal to keep going. After another couple of stops of this sort Andrea placed her hand on Robert’s shoulder, ‘I think we should check now Bob.’ She unbuckled her seatbelt then levered herself out, picking up the binoculars she had been clutching. Swinging them up to her eyes she spent a few minutes scanning the distant horizon until she found what she was looking for. ‘All good, they’re following us. We can keep going until we’re back to where the original terrorist jump arrived.’

After a couple of hours Peter drew the truck to a halt, Michael confirmed the coordinates, nodding to Masterson. Robert allowed Andrea room to take another look with the binoculars. She took longer this time, finally fixing on a spot almost directly behind them. ‘They’re still there. Still following the trail.’

‘Do we need to wait around, to make sure they get here?’

‘I doubt it. From their behaviour they seem to have calmed down a lot since we first saw them. They should get back and go find something more interesting to do. After all, what we were feeding them won’t keep them going for too long. They’ll get hungry pretty soon and want to start hunting for something more worthwhile.’

The feeling of pressure in the truck started to lift slightly, Masterson said they should get ready to leave. Celia stared at him, then glared around the truck to see if anybody else was going to point out his all too obvious mistake, but no one did. They were all too pleased at the fact that their first, and most distant clean up mission had gone well. She sat tight for a while, keeping her fingers crossed before it became obvious that it was her or no one. ‘Have you forgotten about that man?’ All eyes turned towards her and waited to see whether she would reveal what she was talking about. ‘You know, the one who hit Masterson in the face with the truck door? The one from home who ran into the forest?’

Expressions of dawning comprehension flowed from one end of the truck to the other, but Robert turned to her and with an expressionless voice fired back, ‘I’ve been thinking about it and I believe the chances of him surviving the night by himself, in his current mental state, let alone having any major impact on the spacetime continuum, are negligible. I think we should just forget about him and hope he doesn’t suffer too much. If anything goes wrong we can always return to investigate, now that you and Michael have figured out the error checking.’

Celia found herself staring at him slack-jawed, trying to find something to say but realising he was probably right, even if it was against all her principles and emotions. She slumped downwards eyes towards the floor so she didn’t have to keep looking at him. Masterson’s gaze stayed on her for a few seconds, then raised back up to regard the rest of the team, ‘If there are no more questions, are we in agreement that we can go?’ There were a few mumbled consents so he suggested to Michael that they should get out of there, before they caused any further problems. There was a slithering sound on the edge of hearing and the truck was gone.

 

***

 

Ian wasn’t particularly happy about this. He was standing in front of his team, who were waiting eagerly for the command to proceed. After his time in what he now thought of as his own branch of the EF, he knew that most of the members were just normal people who had become mixed up in something that was beyond their control or comprehension. He was pretty sure the people here would be the same, inadvertently conscripted into activities which they shouldn’t, or wouldn’t normally be. He knew what they had to do and turned to face his troops, trying to think of a way to send them in which sounded less like an order to attack. ‘Okay guys, you know what you need to do. Only…be gentle.’ Every single man shifted their stare from the distant door to their Captain who, looking embarrassed, shrugged and pointed at the small building. ‘Come on!’

The structure looked like an old converted farmhouse from the outside, which was pretty much what it actually was. The latest plans available revealed that it had been gutted and turned into a kind of large, open plan space. Ian drew up first, a couple of metres from the pedestrian entrance. There was another door further along the wall, but it reached above any of the team’s heads and was at least as wide. Ian made a number of movements with his free arm while still gripping the SA80 rifle with his other hand, the actions ended with him swinging a flat vertical palm upwards. He turned to check the team had been watching and saw the two lead men repeating the signals, to confirm they had received and understood. Four of them split off and circled the building, looking for other points of entry.

A minute later two of the men returned, one from each direction signalling that there were no other doors but two windows, which were now under surveillance by the absent second lieutenants. Ian turned and the remaining men displayed their readiness, so he made a quick chopping movement in the direction of the door and moved towards the old wooden entrance, pausing only for one man to produce a metal rod from his pack, swing it backwards and then into the door, near the handle. The solid looking wood creaked before it smashed, shattering into kindling on the floor. The soldiers followed him in file formation, hastening into the large open room then spreading out, with their weapons pointed towards several people bearing shocked faces, who were now standing like uninspiring statues, around an old Land Rover which occupied much of the space in the building. Ian took in their faces and postures, then gave the order for his team to lead them away and load them in the truck, brought along for the purpose.

He waited for the room to empty then walked up to the vehicle and opened the passenger side door. Leaning over the seat he immediately saw what he was looking for. He pushed himself upright and headed for a tool rack he had noticed as he entered the building, procuring a robust and weighty crowbar. Walking back to the car he whistled a cheerful song to himself. He placed the flattened point between the seat and the device, which was secured behind the hand brake. Then pushed down on the other end of the lever until there was a satisfying crunch and the small black box detached from the console. He nonchalantly placed the crowbar back on its hook, grabbed a stiff cardboard tube laying on the bench underneath it, then headed back towards the door, picking up the song from where he had paused while working to remove the object.

 

 

80046BFC

Anyone who had come into contact with Oliver Cornell over the past year or so would have been surprised, to see pictures of him with his arm around a woman, or with a small boy sitting on his shoulders. Smiling in all of them. It would probably have astonished them to find him sitting with his legs resting on a footstool, drinking a cup of coffee and surfing the internet. However upon inspecting the screen they would have been less surprised, to see him in the middle of a search for historical data about food yields around the world.

He continued staring at the screen when the noise of disintegrating wood arose from the front entrance. His eyes didn’t turn away from the text, even when a number of threatening looking men took up all the empty space in his living room. One of the men, the insignia on his sleeve showing him to be a captain, stood patiently, but when there was no reaction the man, looking slightly distressed, spoke. ‘Oliver Cornell, you have endangered the lives of the people living on this planet and are to be tried in front of a group of suitably qualified technical experts then sentenced. Most likely to a secure location for the protection of yourself, along with the rest of humanity.’

The small man stayed sitting, didn’t react in any way, so the Captain scratched the top of his head through his red hair and tried something else, ‘Darwin!’ This time Cornell looked up from his computer, ‘You need to come with us. You’ve threatened the entire fabric of reality and it’s going to take some concerted effort to fix things.’ He repeated his previous statement, ‘You need to come with us. Now.’

Darwin folded the screen down, carefully placing the laptop on the ottoman. He stood up and without arguing, or even speaking, left the room accompanied by two of Masterson’s men. Ian watched him go saying, more to himself than any of the people left with him, ‘he’s going to need some serious psychological evaluation.’ He turned back to his men, barking an order. They immediately dispersed throughout the house and started searching, as per the command.

Ian supplanted Cornell in the chair and lifted the machine onto his lap, flipping the screen open to see what, if anything, he could find. He tried to ignore the bustle of activity and concentrated purely on the small display. It appeared that Cornell only used the thing for searching as there were no saved documents. He left the machine turned on and secured the lid again, so it could be handed to the IT guys back in the office for a more thorough investigation.

He got up and paced through the small neat house but all of the men seemed to be reaching the conclusion of their investigations, without anything obvious to show for it. So Brookfield headed back to the sitting room, then realised he hadn’t looked right in front of his nose. He flipped up the lid of the ottoman and found a well organised filing system, with labels including dates and locations. He looked at the two men in the room and sighed, shaking his head at them. He shouted that he had found what he needed and the soldiers emptied back into the two vans waiting outside. As Ian sat in the passenger seat he read the address on the piece of paper, pondering how he hadn’t guessed Darwin would have a business-premises that he used for work, then for what he had been doing when work no longer seemed important. The trucks pulled away, leaving the other inhabitants of the street staring at a smashed front door and wondering what on earth had just happened.

 

***

 

The atmosphere in the small building was one of calm and serenity. Each of the doorways was open when not in use, leading to identically magnolia coloured rooms with thick luxurious carpets, containing nothing more than a couple of comfortable looking armchairs. Inspecting the doors more closely it was possible to see that the locking mechanism was, perhaps, a little more ornate and robust than would be expected. The overall effect was spoiled slightly by two men, each almost as big as one of the doorways, dressed in solid black clothing and tightly gripping handguns, as if their lives depended on it.

The door they were flanking was shut. It was quite obvious that whoever was inside the room would be staying there, until a definite decision was made that they would be leaving again by someone in authority. The small glass panel three quarters of the way up the white wood gave a view of two men sitting on the comfy chairs, facing each other. One of the men, wearing a shirt which matched the decor, buttoned down to his chest and dark business trousers with smart, shiny black shoes poking out the bottom, was speaking. ‘I think perhaps if you actually talked to me it might help you to explore your feelings, Mr Cornell.’

The dismissive look on the other man’s face was particularly obvious because of the ugly scar on his right temple. He remained silent.

The psychiatrist decided to try a new line of questions, after making a swift note on the pad resting on the arm of his seat. ‘How did you get involved in the EARTH Force, Darwin?’ Although his face was steadily inert he smiled inwardly, as the other man’s gaze rose to meet his own.

‘I was looking for a way to spend my time when I happened upon a newspaper, in a café. I read it, for want of anything better to do. There was an article on the EF so I looked them up. They were exactly what I was looking for.’

‘And what were you looking for?’

Cornell put his elbow on the arm of the chair, resting his head against his hand while he thought for a moment. The analyst didn’t attempt to hurry him. ‘I guess at first I was looking for a way to change things for the better. I’m not really a people person. That’s why I became a private detective, you don’t have to be good with people, just good at keeping quiet. That was when I…’ his monologue stopped, as if he had been about to reveal something which he wasn’t comfortable talking about.

The other man ran his fingertips across his smoothly shaven chin, ‘So what did you actually get, from the group?’

Again there was silence, then words, starting slowly and speeding up as Cornell continued. ‘I don’t think I realised what I was doing at first. Then I discovered that I could really change things. So I tried to formulate a plan, for how to make the world a better place. I was slowly getting there too, you know I only had another couple of missions before I was going to try and fix things completely.’

‘How exactly would the world have improved, if your scheme had been brought to fruition?’

‘Well, you know how there are billions of people all over the surface of the planet? How they’re all living their lives, using up the Earth’s resources and generally wasting what they are lucky enough to possess?’ The psychiatrist nodded his head with a look of interest on his face. ‘Well, ultimately my trips would have led to no more humans on the planet. I guess I was lucky to be part of a group who had access to that device. As soon as we had it I knew what I needed to do, it was just a case of testing the water. After all, when you’ve lost someone…’ He stopped again, only this time his eyes misted up, it was more as if he wasn’t able to continue.

‘Ah yes, you had a family didn’t you. Can you tell me about them?’ The glazed eyes of the interviewee continued to stare at nothing, so the doctor tried asking questions relating to Oliver’s wife and child in several different ways, none of which seemed to elicit a response. That was until he had almost given up questioning while the blank face looked straight through him. He asked a question, which he thought probably wasn’t really professionally sound, but wasn’t sure what else to try. ‘What happened to them?’

There was a small change in Cornell’s posture and he started to talk, as if he wasn’t really in control or aware of what he was saying. ‘Elizabeth, that’s my wife’s name, and Luke, he’s only five, such a funny boy.’ He paused briefly, the psychiatrist, after speaking to him for some time over the past couple of days, was expecting Cornell to confess to some kind of psychotic episode and morbid, if not actual, physically and emotionally destructive behaviour to those around him, but the small frame of the other man started to judder slightly as if he were suffering from a neurological impairment. He bent over, placing his head in his hands. The words he said came out through the shield of his interlocked fingers. His voice was suddenly hoarse. ‘It was only one day.’

The statement hung in the air but was soon followed in a clearer voice, which seemed disjointed from the mouth it was emanating from, the words coming out sporadically. ‘I remember the darkness as I came round. We were taking a trip to Elizabeth’s parents’ house. They live about fifty or so miles away. It was her dad’s birthday. We were going to spend some time with him. I almost didn’t go, I’d just been offered a new case. It was worth a lot of money and I couldn’t pass it up, but I decided I’d start when we got back. It was quite an interesting case,’ Cornell seemed to lose focus and his discourse petered out.

The psychiatrist shuffled uncomfortably, the material of the chairs was starting to make him sweat as he sat listening, but he tried to ignore the occasional bead of perspiration trickling down the side of his body, under his shirt. He realised that Cornell, or the assumed personality of Darwin which he seemed to respond more willingly to, was on the brink of revealing something of himself. He was swaying back and forth between lucidity and disorientation, which is why the information was coming with a scattergun effect. He decided to steer slightly away from the obviously painful memories, hoping it would clear up the man’s thought processes again. ‘What was the case about Oliver?’

Cornell flinched at the interruption, failing to notice the use of his given name. ‘A man thought his business partner was defrauding him, I think it made the news when the full story came out, but I wasn’t involved, obviously. It turned out the guy wasn’t only channelling earnings through separate accounts to launder the money, he was also having an affair with his partner’s wife. My prospective client hadn’t known a thing about it!’ Once again there was silence.

‘You look upset about that?’

Darwin rubbed his forehead and stared at nothing in particular on the floor. ‘I was good at my job you know, the only problem being I was so good that I had to deal with all the worst people. If not directly then by observing their behaviour. Elizabeth and Luke helped keep me functioning normally, while dealing with the dregs of society.’ He looked up at the other man hoping for some recognition, which was offered freely. He reached up and scratched the ugly scar on his head, revealing the larger, matching disfigurement on his forearm.

‘You lost your guidance?’

‘We spent the day at Tony and Julia’s house, that’s her mum and dad. We were on the way back driving on the motorway and some,’ he searched for a suitably bad word but settled for descriptive instead, ‘drunk tried to overtake us. There wasn’t enough room and he hit us. The other driver had minor bruising and concussion but our car flipped.’ A heavy breath broke his sentence in two and he pointed at the mark on his still raised arm, ‘That’s how I got these. The car span on its roof for about twenty metres, rebounded off the barrier at the side of the carriageway then hit the back of another car and jumped the central reservation. The car stopped. After a truck hit it.’ This time Cornell fell silent and the man questioning him knew he wouldn’t be speaking again for some time so he quietly stood up and left Cornell to work through his tragic experience.

 

***

 

The door to the unit was of a solid construction and also belonged to a civilian facility so Ian, rather embarrassingly, had to seek out the owner of the building in order to obtain a means of entry. His soldiers snapped to attention as he came round the corner of the corridor and wiggled the key into the lock.

The scene behind the door was surprising, not least because it resembled the kind of thing you see on a police crime drama. The wall opposite the door was covered in a large piece of cork board, on top of which was a map of the world, then a blown up map of Britain. There were pictures, newspaper clippings, topographic and political maps and sections of books and scientific papers, cut out and pinned across the surface. Pieces of string were secured to each of the cuttings and snaked out to join one, or more, of the other items on the board. It looked like a spider’s web spun by a drug addled tarantula. Ian scanned the surface briefly then turned to one of his men, ‘Photograph this,’ he nodded at the wall, ‘Make sure you get close ups of every detail. Use a tripod, we need to be able to reconstruct the entire thing when we get back.’

He turned away from the massive mind map, delving into the desk drawers along the left hand wall. Most of them surrendered no useful evidence but as Brookfield was nearing the last few he lifted some pieces of paper and a second key presented itself. He held it up against the one supplied by the owner and the profiles were similar, different enough to be noticeable though. He turned round and perched on the desk, being careful to choose a spot which didn’t have paperwork neatly lined up, ordered and allocated into workflows.

He turned the key over and over, staring down at his fingers hoping that he might be able to fathom what it was for, when his lieutenant looked up from the other end of the desk where he was double checking each drawer. ‘Sir, do you not think it might be for that door, Sir?’

Ian followed his lieutenants pointing finger and realised he had completely failed to notice a second door, identical to the one which they had entered the room through, on the right hand wall. As he walked towards the newly discovered portal he turned his head and said, ‘Thanks Jim, I knew I’d appointed you for a reason.’ The key didn’t catch at all as it was eased into the keyhole and turned easily, resulting in a satisfying click as the heavy-duty latches sprung out of the frame. The door swung open invitingly.

Like the two keys, this room was similar but different to the one he had just left. It had the same dull white paint job and the same style of fittings but it was much smaller, with a large drafting table in the centre. The table was tilted away from the door. Loose paper could be seen overhanging the edges, held in place by the integrated rulers part way up the length of the desk’s surface. Ian stood in the doorway scratching his head, looking at the inner workings of the adjustable desk, before he squeezed through the gap between the wall and the table. Reaching the surface he looked down.

It took a few moments to understand what the drawing on the table described, but then he muttered a series of expletives as he removed a small camera from his top pocket and photographed everything on the board. He put the camera away and tiptoed through the gap on the other side of the board, leaving the room and locking the door again then pocketing the key and making a mental note to hand it to Robert, with instructions to get a team to remove everything within. The photographer had finished in the main office, so Ian gave the order to pack up and get out. The team swiftly disappeared leaving Ian to lock the door, again placing the key in his pocket and dialling the owner to let him know they were finished, and that the room was off limits until further notice. He saluted smartly to the Lance Corporal, left guarding the room until a clean-up team arrived, and headed for the cars.

 

***

 

‘This is the best I can do with the facts we have. If we hadn’t been tipped off as to their movements I wouldn’t have gotten this far.’

Masterson leafed through Cooke’s papers, studying a couple of the planned jump randomly to get a feel for what needed doing. ‘Looks reasonable Michael. The timescales may be a little harsh but I guess we need to get this stuff sorted as soon as.’ He looked down at a few more of the items in the list, then looked up when there was a knock on the door. ‘Come.’

Ian walked in, looking questioningly at Michael as he did so. Robert indicated that Michael was staying in the room, so he began by throwing the casual salute which Robert returned, ‘Not good I’m afraid,’ he said as he handed over a small bag. ‘This has copies of all the pictures we took on site. Encrypted of course, I’ve sent you the password.’

Masterson said, ‘Darwin’s office,’ Michael nodded his understanding.

‘The main room consisted of a pin-board which showed all the targets and locations of the EARTH Force trips and suggestions as to what they did while they were there.’

‘That should help with this,’ Cooke interrupted as he waved the papers picked up from Robert’s desk. ‘Can Celia and I get a copy of it?’ Masterson bobbed his head as permission and made a note on the pad laying on his desk.

Robert folded his arms and looked up. ‘That reminds me, the shrink called. You probably both want to know about this. It appears that Oliver Cornell had been disturbed through a massive psychological trauma. His psyche broke down and he took on a new persona. He wouldn’t answer to any name other than his assumed one. It was to do with an accident, he lost his wife and child.’ Ian looked surprised at the news that the cold, calculating, manipulative individual he had been working with could have been in a relationship, let alone had a child. ‘The damage to his personality is permanent. Unfortunately, it looks like he isn’t able to recall what’s been happening since his initial episode with any clarity. So we’re not going to be able to question him. All we have to go on is the evidence we’ve gathered.’

At this, Ian placed a hand on his breast pocket, ‘There was something else but I’d prefer to discuss it in private, if that’s okay?’ He glanced towards the scientist and Michael took the hint, pulling the door closed on his way out. ‘It was bad. Cornell had schematics for the device, look.’ He retrieved the camera, from where he had secreted it after taking the photographs, turned it on and passed it to Masterson, who scrolled through the pictures. ‘It looks like they were thinking about building their own time machine.’ He looked down at the screen as Robert was flipping through. ‘That’s an address. I assume it’s where they were attempting to assemble the thing.’

‘Okay, gather your team. Get observations on the address, then shut down whatever operation they have in progress. We need to make sure no one else has access to this.’ Ian gave a formal salute without thinking about it and stood up, leaving Masterson chewing what was left of his fingernails.

 

 

800456F2

‘Yes, we packed our own bags. Didn’t we Simon?’ Jessica glanced sideways at Jonny, rolling her eyes. How many times had they practised calling each other by their assumed names? Jonny just wasn’t a natural liar. Which was one of the things that endeared him to her, but also a bit of a problem when taking on alternative identities.

He came around shortly, ‘Sure thing Alice, haven’t left my sight.’

The stern girl behind the desk continued with the drudgery of labelling up the bags and listing the hand luggage terms and conditions. When the bags had been dragged away by the conveyor belt she looked one last time at their passports, then handed them back to Jessica, who was obviously the one in control of the whole situation, as well as the relationship. ‘If you can proceed to the departure lounge, the flight leaves at 15:40. Enjoy your trip Mr and Mrs Hopkins.’

Jessica grabbed Jonny’s hand and quickly led him away, in case he started grinning. He followed placidly until they found a quiet corner underneath the escalators. She pushed him up against the polished stainless steel wall and, much to his surprise, kissed him on the lips. As she pulled away Jonny raised an eyebrow, ‘I’m still having trouble getting used to you with blonde hair, you look…’ He stopped for a moment, trying to figure out exactly what it was she looked like. ‘…um, blonde.’

He felt a little embarrassed at his own inarticulacy but Jessica smiled and pointed at the reflective surface behind him, ‘Have you looked in a mirror lately?’ He turned round and was still surprised to see a nearly bare face and head staring back at him, the day or two’s worth of stubble growth made him look a little like an action movie hero, or at least that’s what he chose to believe. Possibly more disconcerting was the clothing. His reflection was wearing blue jeans, dark trainers and a smart button-up shirt, next to him was a beautiful woman in an overly, and overtly, colourful summer dress and flip flops. She had suggested this change of appearance and at first Jonny had dismissed it out of hand. He had started growing his hair when he was a teenager, and was terrified at the thought of being shorn of it, but Jessica had persuaded him by bluntly stating that Darwin might find them if they didn’t go out of their way to disappear, then suggesting what kind of things Mr and Mrs Hopkins might get up to in the privacy of a hotel room in Denpasar. This swung his vote, so they had spent a night leaning over the bath dyeing her hair and removing his.

The new, visibly happy couple looked at themselves, hugged and headed towards the departure gates. Jonny held his breath as their luggage was passed through the x-ray machine. Jessica went through the scanner first and a warning light started flashing. Jonny followed through and was allowed to collect their now examined luggage, he turned back to see what was happening and felt a pang of jealousy as the burly security guard patted her down, in his estimation a little too intimately. After a couple of nerve racking moments it was identified that an unobtrusive anklet she was wearing around her bare leg had caused the alarm. The guard apologised for the inconvenience and told them to have a good flight as they locked their fingers together, aiming themselves at the departure lounge.

After browsing the books, perfumes and holiday clothes Jessica turned to Jonny, ‘I don’t know about you Simon but I always need a trip to the ladies room before getting on an aeroplane.’ He concurred and they untangled themselves, heading for their respective facilities. After washing his hands Jonny wound his way back down the long corridor, leading back to the lower level shops.

He sat on an unoccupied plastic bench, only starting to get a little edgy when five minutes had passed. His nerves were hardly soothed when a woman sat next to him and said ‘Hello jet setter, looking to join the mile high club?’ Jessica had changed her clothes and tied her hair up into a loose bun, just off centre on the back of her head. ‘Thought I’d go for another look.’ She was now wearing a pair of jeans and a slightly too tight white t-shirt, from which Jonny had difficulty averting his attention. ‘Come on, let’s walk.’ She stood up and dragged him along behind her. He let her lead the way as they weaved around the pillars, liberally scattered throughout the departure lounge.

Eventually the details of their flight were fully furnished on the big screens so they curtailed the stroll, which Jessica had hoped would be partially obscuring them from any interested parties, and headed for gate fifty seven, walking with more purpose than before. On the way a large flock of Japanese tourists were obscuring their path. They had to hold on tightly to each other’s hands so as not to be split up in the throng. As they managed to delicately extricate themselves from the wall of people, breathing a sigh of relief, they found themselves face to face with an actual wall. Jonny led the way past the crowd and around the corner towards their destination, to be drawn up short once again. ‘Hello Jonny. Hi Jessica. I think it would be prudent if you followed me.’

Both of them had to tear their gaze away from the army fatigues directly in front of their eyes to look up at a familiar, but somehow different face topped by an unkempt head of red hair. ‘Alan!’ they exclaimed together.

‘Could you please follow me, there’s something I need to discuss with you.’ Jessica’s peripheral vision picked up at least two other men, dressed in matching outfits, standing just close enough to block any route other than the one which was being offered by Alan. They were led up an escalator, into a small room just away from the main thoroughfare. They were offered seats and drinks. It wasn’t the kind of thing you expected when being escorted to an interview room in an airport, but the congenial treatment didn’t allay the concern on either of their faces. Jessica noticed Jonny’s eyes were spinning round, like a trapped animal looking for an escape route. She hoped she looked a little more composed and had this endorsed when the large ginger man started talking to her in the first instance, even though the words were obviously aimed at both of them.

‘Okay, so you’ve probably already figured this out, but my name isn’t Alan Scott and although I’ve been to a lot of places I wasn’t looking at the local wildlife, or taking photographs. My name is Ian Brookfield and I’m a Captain in a branch of the armed forces, probably not one you’d have heard of though.’ If anything, Jonny’s face became more distorted at hearing this news but Jessica did quite a good job of looking relaxed, although she didn’t feel it. The door opened and another man, of a similar solid construction to the ones already standing in the room, strode in. He sported a military haircut and brown eyes, which Jessica noticed complemented each other quite nicely. ‘This is Colonel Robert Masterson. An old friend of mine and also, you may be interested to learn, the head of a project involving a machine with some rather special features. I suspect you know what I’m talking about! Over to you, Bob.’

The man who had walked in pulled a chair out from the small wooden table in the middle of the room and sat down, rubbing his eyes as if he hadn’t been getting enough sleep lately. He leant an elbow on the desk and ran his hand through his bristly hair before taking in first Jonny’s appearance, then Jessica’s. He paused momentarily then scratched the side of his face, while looking at nothing in particular. Jessica was starting to wonder if she should say anything when he finally talked. ‘Thanks Ian. Yes, I’ve been heading the Jump Project. That’s the one involving the time machine.’ His sentences seemed clipped, like his mind was on something other than the here and now. ‘My friend has been acting on my behalf for the past six months. He discovered that your group has been borrowing our Jump Truck. Don’t worry, we already know how it was taken, along with the details of what’s been happening on those trips! All I want you to tell me is, what do you know about Darwin?’

The sound of the name spoken was enough to send a small shiver down Jessica’s spine, she noticed Jonny was now sitting a little more upright. The Colonel seemed to have run out of steam so she asked, ‘What do you already know?’

Ian sat on the corner of the table next to his senior officer and, thankfully, took over. ‘We’ve got pretty much everything, the only problem being we don’t know his name or address.’ He had the good grace to look slightly humiliated as he admitted this.

Jessica tried to hide her smile but gave up after a moment, ‘Let me guess, you tried to follow him, didn’t you Alan? I mean Ian, sorry, whatever your name is.’ Ian nodded awkwardly. ‘So you didn’t actually try and find anything out about the guy?’ This time a stilted shake of his head. That means you don’t actually know what happened to him?’

At this point both the Colonel and the Captain looked at her, Masterson’s face twisted to one side, ‘What do you mean?’

Jessica reached into her handbag, then stopped because there were still two armed men in the room with them who were suddenly looking nervous and touching the holsters clipped round their waists. ‘Don’t worry, the only slightly offensive thing I have in here is my lipstick.’ She pulled a device out of her bag, pressed a button then made a complicated gesture to unlock it. Soon she was browsing for something specific. She brought up a piece of text, placed the tablet on the table and angled it so the screen flipped its orientation, showing them an address. ‘That’s where he lives, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves, not being able to find this out. People skills is what you need.’ She flipped the screen orientation again and clicked and swiped a few times to find what she was looking for, ‘And this is what you don’t know!’

The two men read what they were being shown. The Colonel said something, which sounded like nothing in particular, to one of the lesser men standing at ease, this prompted the man to find his phone and leave the room. Jonny was still looking uptight but he relaxed after Masterson stood up. ‘You people are worse than my team, I can see what you were talking about Ian! You can go now.’ The last sentence was aimed squarely at Jonny and Jessica. They spent very little time collecting their stuff together and ran out of the room. ‘You’re sure we can trust them?’ Ian looked down at his swiftly scribbled copy of the address, fleetingly nodding his head. ‘In that case take the men and see if you can find this Cornell.’

Brookfield saluted properly, after all there were subordinates in the room, so he thought he should at least attempt to give the impression that his friend’s rank should be respected. ‘Permission to waste five minutes before departure, sir?’ Robert raised an eyebrow, shrugged and offered the desired response, so Ian went to the corner of the room, picked up an unobtrusive bag and closed the door as he left.

At gate fifty seven Jonny was standing with his face pressed against the glass looking at the enormous aircraft that would be carrying them, into uncharted territories and hopefully a more interesting, less orthodox life. Jessica was browsing for somewhere to stay when they arrived but stopped, to look up at him. ‘You really haven’t travelled overseas before?’

Jonny gave a sort of half smile and looked back at her, ‘I just never got my backside in gear. I always fancied it though.’ He turned back to the window and watched the men on the tarmac placing anonymous bags, packages and boxes into the luggage hold of the plane. One of them dropped a case but, after checking it for holes and dents, put it back amongst the others. ‘Is it scary?’

Jessica closed her tablet, placing it in its slim case, then looked up at Jonny. ‘Is what scary?’

He turned away from his contemplation and sat down next to her. ‘Flying. You know, you hear a lot of stories about it but if you’ve never been on a plane before there’s no frame of reference. The closest I’ve been is a bus and frankly that can be a bit hairy at times.’

Jessica gave him a big affectionate smile and put her hand on his knee. ‘That is so cute! The only time I’ve ever been scared is when a plane I was on landed during a thunder storm. There was lightning flashing across the wings and out the other side, then hitting the ground. It looked scary but I found out later that a plane works as quite an effective Faraday cage.’ Jonny’s face was blank, ‘The lightning surrounds it but can’t get in. So the next time I was on a plane it was happening on I was quite excited to watch it. Don’t worry big man, I’ll hold your hand.’ She winked, then wrapped her arms around him, kissing him gently on the lips.

They were separated again by the sound of someone clearing their throat in a subtle manner. Upon breaking apart they were confronted by Ian, trying not to look too imposing, standing far enough away to remain unnoticed until he had made an effort to be. ‘Um, hi.’

Jonny lost the reticence he had formerly shown in front of the uniformed men. ‘Alan, what do you want?’

‘I understand if you’re upset, believe me I never had the intention of deceiving you both. Frankly you were the only ones in the group that didn’t freak me out.’

Jessica stood up so she was almost face to face with the big man. ‘Sorry Ian but I think what Jonny is trying to find out is, do you military types require some further assistance?’

Ian looked a little taken aback, then figured out what his presence must seem like to them, ‘Actually, no. I just wanted to say it was a pleasure working with you and I hope you can find somewhere nice to settle down and enjoy life. I…’ He shuffled his feet then continued, ‘I got you both something to say thanks for all the help. I don’t think I’d have had such a pleasant time if you weren’t running the whole thing. I’d suggest you open this when you’re not in public, hope they’re right!’ He brought his hands out from behind his back, in one of them he held a carrier bag which he handed to Jonny, who stared at it in disbelief. His other hand delved into his top pocket and produced a small envelope, which he handed to Jessica. ‘This, however, is probably worth opening now. It should make your flights a little more enjoyable! Anyway, I have to go now, people to find, etcetera. See you around,’ and with that he was gone from the waiting room and their lives.

Jonny looked at the bag in his hand, surprised himself by running his hand through the air where his hair used to be, then put the package in his hand luggage. Jessica opened the envelope and pulled out two tickets which, when shown to a nice lady standing by some rather luxurious looking doors, allowed them access to the first class lounge. This made Jonny feel slightly uncomfortable, but Jessica said she could do with a stiff drink after the last few months and dragged him after her into the lap of luxury, which they took full advantage of until they were ushered onto the plane and seated in some chairs, which looked like something a slightly eccentric designer might do if asked to come up with the “chair of the future”.

After being asked a number of times if they were comfortable or needed anything for the journey they were left in peace. Jonny was still staring around the cabin in wonder but then turned to Jessica. ‘I’ve decided, I’m not worried anymore…’

 

***

 

Robert stood nervously next to the truck. He had decided to run this last trip before being ordered to confront the interloper. The pretence was that of a final calibration check of the instruments, however Robert wanted to spend the journey observing the infiltrator’s behaviour. His orders hadn’t included this, but he was used to interpreting commands from senior officers and had bent the rules on more than one occasion. His reasoning was, with the sudden disappearance of the two who ran the group there would probably be a period of upset, so there shouldn’t be any further meddling from the terrorists.

He had asked Michael to organise the details, without revealing exactly what the jump was for. What that meant however was that most of the team were sitting around, watching Cooke and Evans fiddling with pieces of equipment, so Robert had to find things for them to do. He nodded his head towards Emily and Andrea, ‘Could you two take him,’ this was directed at Peter James who had returned from his self-imposed exile, ‘and head southwards. There should be some caves which we think have markings on the walls, hopefully that will make your trip worthwhile Emily. ‘You’re with me David, there’s a stream a few hundred metres that way,’ he pointed towards a clump of woodland, ‘which we need to check for signs of introduced foreign substances.’

Moulder picked up an instrument from the back of the truck, shook his listless, greying ponytail and followed Masterson into the trees. They kept up a good pace through the scrubby undergrowth and were on location in a matter of minutes. David opened the bag he was carrying and took out a tripod, with a pole ending in a translucent plastic sensor hanging between the legs and a cable at the other end, connected to a handset. He pushed the rubberised feet into the sediment, adjusted the probe so it dangled in the water just above the riverbed, then sat on the trunk of a tree which had suffered from a serious case of storm damage and stared at the screen in his hand.

Masterson waited patiently until the small machine let out a high pitched squeal and David started packing his equipment back into its case, as he figured they may at least get some decent readings before he attempted to bring the man to justice. He realised he was starting to think like the scientists but dismissed the thought as an annoyance, to be considered when he had the time. ‘David,’ the other man looked up from his work, ‘it’s been brought to our attention that somebody in the team has been misappropriating the Jump Truck and travelling back in time to obstruct events, which could have a serious effect on the future of the planet, or from what I’ve been told the entire universe.’

Moulder continued with his work as if the news wasn’t deserving of his attention, slowly and carefully zipping up the case of the multi-meter and muttering, ‘The quality looks fine from a first scan of the numbers. The pH is okay and oxygen levels are about what I expected.’

Robert moved towards the oblivious environmental scientist and placed a hand gently on his shoulder, ‘I’m not sure you quite understood what I was saying David, the jump device has been taken by a member of our team and used by a terrorist group for illegal, or at least spacetime threatening activities. We know it was you, Moulder.’

The man lifted his head upwards and stared at the pale blue cloudiness for a moment. ‘It’s beautiful back here isn’t it? The sky I mean. I think it’d be a nice place to stay.’ He sighed and without another sound his elbow swung back into Robert’s unprepared stomach, making solid contact and knocking all the air from his lungs. Masterson stumbled backwards into a tree but quickly focussed again, to see the bag of equipment being raised off the ground and gripped firmly for a swing. Masterson, used to situations involving aggressive behaviour, forgot where he was and what he was doing and his body automatically prepared itself to deflect the blow being readied in front of him. His eyes focussed and he let his subconscious take over.

 

***

 

‘Stupid man!’ Celia grasped another grappling hook branch and pulled it out of her hair. The exclamation was intended for both Cooke and Masterson. Robert for bringing them on this pointless jump and Mike for allowing the Colonel to do so. Without slowing her pace she had a brief mental image of Robert, confidently striding through the foliage and smiled to herself, before remembering she was angry at him for putting her in this situation.

She and Cooke had completed their scans and independently come up with exactly the details they thought they should. Which in one way was good, but in another didn’t prove anything they hadn’t known already. She had some idea the jump was purely capricious on Robert’s part, she just didn’t know what had informed his decision to make this trip. As the tests had completed Emily ran up to them, alone and waving her arms. She came to a halt breathing heavily and pointing back to where the Jameses were, in the distance. ‘We’re catching the distinct whiff of smoke. Andrea thinks there’s a fire coming, possibly quite a big one in this scrub. Pete said we had to pack up so I came to tell you to put your equipment away.’

Celia had looked beyond the couple in the distance, seeing what she had assumed to be mist or low clouds, but after the suggestion was made it was obvious that it was something more treacherous. She made a quick decision, based both on the fact that Michael was more proficient at packing up, along with the fact she wanted to make sure Masterson was warned. ‘You finish up here,’ she told Cooke, ‘I’m going to get Rob and David.’ Michael nodded without turning away from the heavy, ugly looking digital display he was doing his best to unscrew from a stand, so she sprang up and ran towards the trees where the two men had disappeared from view fifteen minutes earlier. This was how she had become a walking thorn attractor.

Finally she heard sounds and assumed she was getting close, as the pre-jump scanner wouldn’t have deposited them anywhere too close to other life forms, at least ones big enough to make the sort of noises she was hearing. As she got closer still she began to wonder exactly what it was she could hear. There was definitely movement, but along with that the occasional thud and crack of something breaking, so she slowed her approach. When she guessed they were on the other side of the branches in front of her she tentatively moved one upwards, to peer through the gap. She nearly dived headlong through the vegetation when she saw Moulder standing over Robert with a raised clenched fist ready to forcefully drop into Masterson’s prone face. But before she could react Robert was up and facing his assailant.

They were definitely participating in some kind of conflict. Reasons raced through Celia’s head, like the fire and choking smoke which she suddenly remembered was approaching them. She decided she couldn’t wait long before making her presence known, but thought it would probably be better if they were allowed to finish their masculine posturing before she interrupted. She watched with a grisly attentiveness, there were broken branches and dirt kicked up from the altercation. David was obviously overshadowed by Robert’s trained fighting skills, but the environmental scientist surprised her by being quite ruthless, every time Robert seemed to be on top David would do something unexpected and wrong foot him. She assumed they would be finished directly, but nearly stepped out a couple of times when it looked like they might need splitting up.

Suddenly she was surprised to see Robert floored, by a wildly swung knee which caught him in the side of the chest. Moulder quickly reached to the ground and picked up a decent sized rock, lifting it above his head, by the look of it to strike a potentially fatal blow. Celia almost shouted, but Masterson artfully catapulted himself from the floor into David’s prone stomach. Moulder was unbalanced, pacing heavily backwards, only to be hit again by the Colonel’s oncoming shoulder. This final strike was too much for the tall man’s always limp looking body and he fell backwards towards a tree. The forest abruptly became very quiet. Celia thought to herself that they must have finished, then noticed David looking downwards towards the Thai style writing on his black t-shirt, she followed his gaze and saw the object of his attention. One of the broken branches on the storm damaged tree was in front of him, however it was still attached to the tree behind him too, and therefore had created a rather unpleasant and ragged hole through his lower intestines. Blood had already started oozing out of the wound and colouring the water of the small stream nearby, the slow flowing water became a pale crimson colour. Celia watched in shock as the man fell forwards, collapsing into an unnaturally shaped heap between the foot of the tree and the edge of the river.

Masterson stood over the prone figure as Celia let go of the branch and trod, anxiously back the way she had come. When she was far enough away she tried to shout but her voice wouldn’t come. She tried again and managed a quiet, ‘Robert. David.’ She figured it would be best to conceal her unintended voyeurism and pretend she was trying to locate the two men through the mess of trees.

She almost jumped when Robert stepped lightly out in front of her. ‘What’s up? What are you doing here?’ He looked concerned.

Celia nearly tripped over her own tongue, as she tried to stop saying anything which might give her away. ‘You need to come back. There’s a big fire headed in this direction, Peter said we need to get out of here. What the hell happened to you? Where’s David?’ She feigned surprise at the cuts and bruises which were all too obvious across his face, the back of his hands and lower arms.

She expected an explanation or remorse but Robert looked nonplussed. His expression changed slightly as he was speaking and his face became slightly more solemn. ‘There’s been an accident, there must have been something wrong with the scanner! As we were getting ready to come back we were attacked by a pack of wolves. I only managed to escape because they got to Moulder first. We need to get away from them in case they follow me.’ He grabbed her by the hand and led her rapidly through the forest.

Even if Robert had not been dragging her behind him Celia would have been speechless. In the first instance, she couldn’t believe he had despatched David and left his body in this prehistoric wasteland. Then there was the fact that he blatantly lied about what had happened. She felt numb inside and unable to think straight. She had been so sure that Robert was one of the good guys, now she didn’t know what to think anymore. So she just trailed behind him through the trees with a churning stomach and conflicting emotions fighting for dominance in her head.

When they got back to the truck the rest of the team were already strapped in. Robert gave a brief explanation of his fabricated truth, adding that there was nothing he could have done. The pall of smoke was now unmistakeable. Celia found herself sitting in her customary position, secured in her seat without remembering the act of fastening the harness. On recent jumps she had spent her time in the truck contemplating the side of Robert’s head, now she just stared through the windscreen to the grey air outside. She didn’t hear Michael’s question to everyone in the truck until he redirected it at her, ‘you there Evans? Are you ready?’ She nodded in agreement and the tone of light was suddenly electrical instead of natural. The team left the vehicle and collected their things together. Celia wandered through the doors, back to her room before anyone noticed her absence. She lay on the bed, putting her hands over her eyes, trying to process what she had seen and what it might mean.

7FFF7722

The road terminated in a dead end, a plain brick wall. The bricks were all different colours, as if they had been acquired in a host of places then shaken around to mix them up before being assembled. The weather wasn’t exactly miserable but a greyish pall hung over the closely packed buildings. The scene was made only marginally more pleasing to the eye when a cumbersome looking olive-green truck appeared, as if by sleight of hand. Although the occupants of the truck were well aware of the fact there was no one there to see their clever trick.

After a spurt of inactivity the rear doors swung open and a man climbed out. He was tall and well-built, wearing a heavy, dark coat which came down past his knees. The boots he sported looked well worn, but were almost silent as he turned to speak to the other occupants of the vehicle. ‘This is certainly the strangest thing I’ve ever done. You’re sure this thing’s right, are you?’ He raised his sleeve and pointed at the timepiece on his wrist.

A voice from within responded, ‘As near as any watch. There should be a clock on the high street you can check it against if you don’t trust me.’

‘It’s not you Bob, it’s the technology.’ There was a muffled sound of affront from further inside the truck, it was ignored by both men. ‘In that case I guess I’ll see you in six months’ time, hopefully I’ll be able to find out all the details you’re after.’

‘As long as you discover the lead on this, and where we can find him. We should be able to do the rest when you get back. Good luck Ian, not that you’ll need it. This should be easy compared to that one in Tajikistan. At least you can pop to the shops for a Coke here if you get thirsty.’

There was a lull in the conversation then the man standing behind the truck gave an exaggerated salute and headed away. He turned round as he reached the end of the street but there was just an ugly wall and a space, where there had previously been a Mastiff truck. He let out a surprised sigh, turned the corner and followed the route he had been given, while he went over his assumed identity, consulting his learned mental map for the nearest place he could stop for a drink and a bite to eat, while he was thinking.

 

***

 

‘What do you think will happen?’ Michael was suddenly aware his mind had been wandering, while he lazily stared at the sinuous patterns Emily’s red hair made as it snaked across his chest. Then he realised this was the first thing she had said to him for some considerable time, so he relaxed.

‘Give me some context here, gorgeous?’

Emily shuffled further under the covers, craning her neck to look in his eyes. ‘I mean the whole spacetime continuum thing. Is the world going to end? Or will we be left in some weird parallel reality? Or will nothing change? If anyone can hazard a guess, it’s you.’ She obviously found her new position to be preferable as she made no further attempt to relocate.

Michael reached out and smoothed her hair across his stomach, so he could continue to admire the waves of unnaturally claret coloured strands. He started to run his hands through it, at which her tension seemed to succumb a little. ‘To be honest it’s a little hard to say, but if you ask me, I think that there have probably been similar natural phenomena in the past, it’s just that no one’s been around to witness them so they’ve never been recorded.’ Michael laid his head back and stared at a rainbow, reflected on the ceiling from the bevelled edges of the mirror over the desk. He felt slightly dishonest, even though he wasn’t actually lying. Robert had told him that he and Celia mustn’t discuss the situation with other members of the team, so he was doing his best to make sweeping statements which didn’t actually reveal anything about what was going on. ‘How do you feel, are you okay?’

There was no movement below him, so he raised his head from the comfort of the pillow to see whether Emily was listening. He saw her chest rise and fall, but not slowly enough to signal she had fallen asleep. He waited, without trying to hurry her, eventually she moved her head from where it rested lightly on his belly. Quietly and slowly she spoke, ‘I’m not sure, all this stuff is so far out of my comfort zone, I don’t really know what to make of any of it. If you’re asking how I feel, then it’s a lot safer with you here.’ Her head seemed to press further into his prone stomach, her words became indistinct as she continued. ‘You seem so calm about everything. It makes me feel like there’s no need to worry. I think I…’ Her voice trailed off, as if she was unsure whether to continue.

She lay silently again and Michael kept running his hand through her hair, he suspected he knew what was coming and decided to interrupt, for better or worse. ‘I love you?’ He twisted his head to the side and looked down to see her peacefully snoozing face, her mouth showing the remnants of a smile, which faded as her breathing deepened. ‘Shit!’ Of course he had known she was exhausted. They all were. But if he could have picked a time for her to fall asleep it wouldn’t have been now. He carefully reached his hands underneath her arms and tried, ever so gently, to haul her further up the bed without rousing her. He was surprised how light her unresponsive body was, managing to get her to a reasonable height without waking her, or injuring himself. He pulled the covers up and tucked them around her relaxed shoulders, planting a kiss on her forehead as he tucked a stray strand of cherry hair behind her ear.

He reached over her to turn the light off, but instead picked up the paper, laying on the bedside table, and continued from where he had left off. He could never sleep well without reading first and this was quite an interesting piece of research, on oscillations between different flavours of neutrinos. He was pretty drained himself though and within five minutes his eyelids were meeting of their own accord. So he placed the paper down again, switched off the light, getting comfortable and quietly repeated his earlier, unheard statement. For his own benefit more than hers. ‘I love you.’

 

***

 

Once again Robert was early. This time he kept an eye on the door while searching for a usable paddle, then sat on the bench to wait for his friend. As the clock over the door’s minute hand ticked to the hour position Ian walked in. Although it had only been a day since they had met there was something different about his colleague, possibly just the merest hint of a new wrinkle around the edges of his eyes. He certainly looked more tired, but then being in the field unaided always had that effect.

Ian moved straight towards the far end of the table and picked up a well-used paddle, hefting it a couple of times before spinning it through the air and catching the handle again. He held out a file, which had “PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL” embossed across both surfaces, then picked up the ball. Masterson followed his lead, placing the folder on the bench and stepping into position. At the same time as he threw the ball up to serve, with a vaguely manic tone in his voice he began. ‘I tell you what, I’ve had quite enough of hanging out with that bunch of odd characters and, frankly, being one myself. It was all a bit surreal. Nothing like our normal missions. I’m not sure whether to thank you or hit you for dumping that one on me. Sir!’

Robert smiled at the stressed affectation at the end of the sentence and made a mental note not to try and win the game. Although to be fair, he wasn’t having to try very hard. Ian appeared to have been practising and seemed to have the upper hand. ‘Yes, I thought it might be an unusual one, any chance you can summarise?’

‘Sure,’ and the ball rocketed past Robert’s ear to win the point, ‘love, one.’ It was retrieved and Robert served again, having to concentrate to keep the rally going. ‘The group seemed fairly stable when I joined, they were small and didn’t seem to be too dangerous. Then three new people arrived. One of them was your mole, they joined before becoming part of your project. But significantly only just before. Run of the mill member really, just wanted to talk to other people with similar interests and try and make a difference, “no matter how small”.’ Masterson parried an almost fatal shot, only to have it returned with interest and hit the floor before he was ready again, ‘love, two’.

Ian continued, ‘The other was a bit of a strange one. He disrupted the dynamics, the bloke and the woman who ran it were slowly relieved of their leadership, not that you could call what they were doing that really. As soon as the truck was revealed he went about the business of subverting the group to his own ends. He secretly met with members outside the get-togethers and organised his own trips. The guy was more focussed than is healthy. He seemed to have skills in surveillance and reconnaissance that were almost military. He knew a lot about everybody and that’s how he persuaded them to conform. He followed them, took photos, recordings, anything he could do to get them to follow him. He was pretty underhanded about a lot of it. I’d have been more comfortable taking him out, but you told me not to interfere so I just watched.’

‘How was the timing? One, two.’ Robert finally won a point, sending the ball diagonally across the table and off the far wall with some force.

‘Not bad, but as you may be able to tell I had some time to spare. I joined a table tennis club and got a bit of practice in this last month.’ He smiled as the ball sailed over Masterson’s head again. ‘One, three. But you did tell me not to report until today, so I entertained myself as best as I could.’

Robert threw his paddle down on the table in mock disgust and sighed, ‘Yes, I see that! I’m going to have to up my game.’

Ian gently put his own weapon down near the net, and placed both hands on the edge of the table to lean towards his friend. ‘There’s something else, isn’t there?’

Masterson looked the captain in the face and drummed his fingers on the table top, ‘You know how I said you could have a nice long sabbatical when this mission finished?’

Ian shrugged, ‘I kind of assumed you’d want me to clean up afterwards, I’ve already got my team in place. I was just awaiting your go ahead.’

The Colonel shook his head and looked up at the ceiling. ‘You’ve always been just that little bit too sharp for your own good, Ian.’

Brookfield gave their customary relaxed salute as he headed for the doorway, then turned back. ‘By the way. If I never hear the name “Alan” bloody “Scott” again it’ll be too soon. I’ve had quite enough of being that man, he was far too insipid for my liking.’ Brookfield was out of the door before Robert had a chance to respond, so he lifted the report up and leant against the bench, leafing through the thin white pages.

 

***

 

Crushed between two hefty, well armoured men, who could be described using words such as “beefcake”, Celia was wondering why she had been brought along. She looked across to see Michael in a similar situation, and smiled to confirm that they were both just as uncomfortable. When Robert had told them where they were going she had assumed it would be all guns blazing and flashing lights leading the way, in fact the drive was quite serene, stopping at all the red lights and allowing people to cross the road in front of them as they went. There was another identical people carrier in front of theirs, into which Masterson had climbed, instructing them to take the rearmost one.

The short convoy slowly wound its way through less and less reputable parts of town until it pulled up outside a block of terraced houses, each subdivided into two flats. The doors of the car in front opened and six men, similar to those flanking Michael and herself, climbed out. Robert looked different to normal in the dark, heavy clothing and acted like part of the team, rather than the thoughtful, introspective man she had got to know. It was a little disconcerting. He seemed to be deep in conversation with one of the other men, the only other individual in the collective that was easily recognisable due to the shock of natural ginger hair that showed in places underneath his helmet. Celia turned back to Michael. ‘I feel a little underdressed,’ Cooke smiled back at her this time.

The men on either side of them also climbed, gracefully for their bulk, out of the car and joined their companions. Then they all entered the building, although exactly how they had managed to get the front door open, without smashing it down, she hadn’t seen. The two physicists waited patiently, without talking, until Celia could bear the silence no longer. ‘Do you have any idea why they brought us with them? We seem rather surplus to requirements.’

Cooke glanced towards the door, still standing wide open. ‘Well, my guess would be… Ah, in fact I think we’re about to find out, come on,’ and he opened the door, sliding onto the pavement. Celia looked towards the house to see a black clad figure disappearing through the doorway. She hopped out and followed Michael in.

The exterior of the house was, perhaps, a little worn but the stairway and the hall, leading off to the upstairs apartments, could have done with some kind of incendiary to clean them up. The entrance to the living area was not much better, although it did at least look like someone had attempted to spruce it up with some pictures and a little paint on the woodchip wallpaper. It hadn’t helped a great deal! They were led through a door on the right into a sitting room, which also doubled as a computer room. An old, faded beige box, plugged straight into a decrepit looking router was carelessly set up in one corner. The redheaded military man was standing with Robert. They appeared to be discussing something, but as Evans and Cooke were shown in Robert turned to Celia and smiled. ‘We haven’t touched this yet as we thought it might need a more delicate hand than ours. This is Ian, by the way.’ His colleague, now separated from his headwear, nodded his orange hair towards them and gave a cheerful grin.

Celia sat in the old fashioned, unstable wooden chair in front of the keyboard. ‘You do know I don’t really do computer forensics?’ She looked up to see that they didn’t care particularly.

Masterson rubbed his chin slowly, ‘I just didn’t want to involve anyone more than I had to. And none of these lot,’ he gestured around the room at the men, staring into space for want of anything better to do now they had realised there wasn’t going to be any kind of action, ‘have the remotest interest in things of a technological nature. I’ve seen you playing with those computers, so I knew you were probably my best bet.’

‘Okay, well I’ll do my best. But if it gets more complicated than pressing the “any” key you might need to look for someone else.’ No one seemed to get the joke, so she reached down and depressed the yellowing power button. The computer wheezed into life. Slowly. Very slowly! After a five minute wait an image appeared, Celia had an idea while it was booting but the splash screen revealed that her suspicion was right, the operating system was in the region of three or four iterations out of date. She pressed the keys it was offering up as a method of getting to the log on prompt and two boxes were revealed. The top one had a username, which was probably the one the machine had been delivered with. It said “HOME”.

The password field below it was empty, Celia turned to Robert who gave a blank look. His colleague, looking like he wasn’t sure, suggested, ‘Jessica Rabbit?’ Celia raised an eyebrow then typed it in, leaving out the space between the words and hoped the number of characters wouldn’t be too much for the antique workstation. A message eventually appeared, suggesting that this wasn’t the correct username or password and could she please try again. This time she attempted to type the two words with a space. This didn’t work either, so she sat back in the chair, then sat up again because that wasn’t very comfortable. ‘Hang on a minute, I’m just trying to get myself into the mind-set of the kind of person who would use a computer like this.’ Robert, Michael and Ian didn’t say anything, they allowed her to think as she had asked. Eventually she reached out and very carefully tapped the Caps Lock key then wrote “JESSICA RABBIT”, and pressed the Enter key. There was a momentary pause as the screen went black.

Celia put her head in her hands thinking she had locked it up by trying too many times, but then Robert said, ‘Well done, that seems to have done it.’ She removed her hands from in front of her eyes and was unfortunate enough to have to witness a very low resolution display, with a small number of icons and an unpleasant green background. She rubbed her forehead with a finger for a second, then started investigating the files and folders on the hard drive, digging down to attempt to find anything which might reveal what it was last used for. Nothing made itself obvious, so she fired up the browser and tried to get online, after the hard drive finished whirring and clanking she looked in the favourites and selected an email site from the list, logging in with the saved email address, and the same password as before. It didn’t take her long to find what they were looking for, she showed it to the men standing around her.

Masterson turned to one of the corporals who was standing at ease. ‘Get a photograph of that,’ he nudged Ian, ‘Could you get there and intercept them before they leave.’ The other man nodded, collected half of the assembled forces staff and left, looking at his watch and grinning.

 

***

 

For some reason Masterson felt nervous, this was unusual because he had recently faced down a herd of mammoths, as well as dealing with civilians wanting better rooms. However, it was probably right that he was uncomfortable, an appointment with the top brass rarely revealed things he wished to know about. His body was poker straight, hands folded behind his back outside the unwelcoming door, staring indifferently at the eye level nameplate. It read “Brigadier S. MacAlister, MPhil”, he looked through the words to the man he knew hidden behind them. Steve was alright but, in Robert’s estimation, spent a little too much time sitting in his office reading and signing paperwork. It wasn’t his fault, that’s just what happened when you headed up the ranks these days. A voice called out, ‘Come,’ so he entered and stood at ease.

As had been the case when the Jump Project was initiated, the Brigadier was flanked by the Minister and the General, who were looking at Steve, rather than anywhere near Robert. ‘These facts are the literal truth Masterson!’ This wasn’t a question so Robert merely nodded, carefully watching his ranking officer and waited patiently. ‘We’ve decided on a course of action. This infiltrator is to be apprehended. But we want to make sure the report is substantiated, so you need to wait until he’s seen acting illicitly before taking action. Understood?’ Again Robert nodded his head. You need to ensure this happens on the next trip you take, we don’t want this business to continue any longer than it has to, now we have the answers to our…’

The Minister coughed and took over, ‘What Stephen is trying to say is, it would be best if the situation were drawn to a close before any further disruptions are made to the spacetime continuum.’ Robert almost smiled at the minister’s ability to take over a conversation, then distract attention from whatever unwelcome fact was inadvertently about to be revealed. Almost in the nick of time, but not quite early enough to save the blunder.

The General looked unpleasantly at the Brigadier so Robert decided it was time to try and save his colleague’s embarrassment. ‘That’s good sir, because I was expecting you to tell me to go back in time to kill someone’s father before they were conceived.’

The three men, as one, looked at Masterson and frowned. Steve almost breathed a sigh of relief as he reprimanded, ‘This is no time for humour Colonel. Dismissed.’ Robert stepped out of the room, wondering how many pints he was now owed by his competent, but often careless, senior officer. Deciding that he should try and catch up with him sometime soon to call in the debt.

80041154

The cavernous room in which the Jump Truck was stored seemed strangely tranquil when no one was there. With the lights off there was only a dim, green cast from the fire exit sign hanging over the big double doors. Because the room was large there was a constant echo, bouncing back and forth around the vehicle. The repetitive sound had hints of the sea about it but with no one there to reflect on this, it just kept up its Brownian motion of particles around the empty space.

Without the doors opening, the area was suddenly a little brighter than it had been and the tone of the silence changed. A thin beam of light bobbed across the floor then over a couple of the walls. Destroying the serenity completely a female voice said, ‘This is the future then? Doesn’t seem much different to me,’ and Robert walked out of the frame which the three of them had used on their initial travails across spacetime, leaving Cooke checking the controls of the small machine and Evans hitting her own torch against her hand to get it to turn on, which it eventually did, stuttering to life just as Robert found the switch for the overhead lights, making it an unnecessary expenditure of energy. She shrugged, turned it off and put it back in her jacket pocket. Robert glanced back towards them, then slid between the double doors to keep an eye out for anything which might disturb their work.

They had appeared right next to the nearside of the truck. Celia quickly swung the passenger door open and climbed in, carrying a laptop. Before long numbers were flashing across the screen as the computer made a virtual copy of every bit and byte that was stored, or had been erased on the Jump Box. She glanced out of the driver side window as she waited for the task to finish, waving at Michael who winked at her, which she thought was a little out of character for him. She looked down at the screen again, then spotted something out of the corner of her eye and turned to see Cooke, on her right. A curious expression passed across her features as her head turned from side to side, seeing one Mike, then another. After a few moments of confusion she leaped out of the open door and ran to the front of the truck to stand between the two men, or man, as she concluded would be the right way to handle the challenging situational vocabulary. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ She said.

In unison the two Cookes responded, ‘Who, me?’ and then started laughing, as the newer…or possibly older arrival said, ‘I knew I was going to say that.’

The Michael who had travelled forward in time with Celia five minutes before was still smiling, staring at his doppelgänger. He asked Celia to excuse himself and the mirror image men stepped around her, walking into the shadow of a shelf stacked high with protective clothing at the far side of the room. Celia was in two minds as to whether she should allow him to speak to himself, but then the fire doors opened again and Masterson strode back in, skirting the truck to reach her. ‘How much longer is this going to take?’

‘Oh, I’d completely forgotten. I’ll just check.’ She returned to the cab of the truck and pulled herself back in, Robert asked where Cooke was as she scanned the characters on the screen. She wasn’t sure how, or if she should respond, but then came up with a useful half-truth. ‘He’s over there talking to himself.’ Robert relaxed a little, after knowing Michael for any amount of time this seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing for him to be doing. He turned back to continue surveying the entrance for any signs of life.

Within a couple of minutes the screen stopped scrolling and a cursor flashed up, signalling that the operation was over. Celia unplugged the machine, turned to climb out of the high seat and was surprised to find Robert standing in front of her, holding out his arm to help her down. She thought about shooing him away, but realised it was the most gallant thing to happen to her in goodness knows how long. So she took the proffered hand and stepped out, taking care not to let go of the laptop as she did so. When she was down she realised that she was standing uncomfortably close to Robert. He seemed to come to the same conclusion at the same moment, as they stepped away from each other, him turning to look towards the shelves she had said Michael was behind and her slotting the computer into the small bag, which had been attached to the three person Jump Frame they made the trip in.

She moved back to the front of the truck and stood beside Robert. ‘Are you finished over there?’ she called, in response to which came two muffled voices. She looked towards Masterson whose face appeared puzzled, as if his ears were deceiving him. Then Michael walked out from behind the shelving, shortly followed by Michael. For the first time since she had met him Robert seemed unable to comprehend the situation that was unfolding in front of them. His mouth hung limply open and he kept looking from one man to the other, until they got up to within touching distance. Then, without warning he said in a loud and clear voice, ‘What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?’

The two Michaels stepped back a little and, as before, said, “Who, me?’ and chuckled, then one of them went on, ‘That’ll never get old. Sorry Masterson, I worked something out last week and I think it may be important.’ Robert looked expectant and the Michael who was two weeks younger took over. ‘It appears the technological interference that has been taking place is a little more important than we first thought, you need to get James back. He needs to go with you guys on the jumps and fix things before they get too much worse.’ He pointed at the older version of himself. ‘Cooke here has been a little surprised to find that some of our kit seems to have been failing in odd ways. It turns out he can’t find anyone to fix it, people seem to have forgotten the technical details. He’s having to do on the fly repairs himself.’

Masterson thought for a moment, ‘How does he still know how to repair them?’

The other Cooke turned away from contemplating his younger countenance, ‘It seems like those of us who’ve been travelling back and forth across the depths of spacetime in our little truck have retained any knowledge they may have had, from the very first jump they went on. Somehow we’re excluded from the effects of the degradation that’s taking place.’

Celia and Robert looked at the two men, then at each other. Silence reigned while this news was smashing about inside their heads. Evans was the first to work out the possible consequences. ‘Doesn’t that mean any of the devices we’ve had on board when we’ve jumped will be affected in the same way?’ Future Michael shrugged, ‘Because if that’s the case, the QSG will have been measuring the state of the original reality we jumped from. It’s no wonder the figures don’t show any inconsistencies.’

Masterson stared blankly at the floor for a second, then looked up sharply. ‘We have to get back and get working on this as soon as we can.’

Celia glanced at their own Michael, who seemed to be thinking about whether he should speak or not, then decided just to go for it. ‘Michael’s given me some suggestions which, frankly, I’d have thought of myself given long enough,’ he smirked at this time sequitur. ‘I think we might be able to come up with a way of setting a kind of immoveable base measurement, which shouldn’t change even if we jump. But we’ll have to work on it.’ He looked at Celia who nodded in agreement at the implied task.’

Future Michael stepped away and winked at his past-self, ‘I’ll be seeing you then, Cooke.’ He headed towards the door and exited, without looking back. An uncertain look crossed Celia’s face but she didn’t say anything and the three visitors squeezed themselves into the small frame, which disappeared leaving the room bathed in the echoing silence again.

 

***

 

The black car pulled up outside the house, the door opened stiffly and Robert stepped out into the faintly misty air. He leaned back in and suggested a good place for the driver to park while he was busy. After he closed the door the car rolled slowly towards the end of the street, manoeuvring around another vehicle to find a space.

Robert turned mechanically towards the house and approached the front door. He rubbed his temples then raised his hand to knock on the middle of the obscure glass filling the top half of the door. He faltered and drew it back, murmuring something which included the phrase, ‘What on earth do I say?’ He seemed to be frozen while deciding how to proceed.

The slightest of noises came from inside the house and that seemed to bring him out of his reflection, he tapped the glass three times and stood, almost to attention, bracing himself for the inevitable turning of the handle and the look of distaste which would likely greet him.

It turned out he was only disappointed in one of the two respects, there was the click of keys being turned in the lock and the door handle turned, followed closely by the door swinging open to reveal Peter James, wearing a red flannelette dressing gown and grinning an evil grin, which showed his slightly uneven teeth. This could have meant any number of things, Robert suspected it was a kind of challenge.

‘Can I help you Bob?’

Masterson stood, immobile, trying magnificently to make it look like he was in control of the situation. ‘Actually, it’s a possibility Peter. We have an unforeseen situation which requires the kind of specialist attention you might be able to provide.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘Can I come in?’

James stood back and held his arm out to shepherd Robert in the right direction. The hallway was a pleasant magnolia derivative and had a couple of small oriental styled swords hanging up. The living room was a large, open space. On the hearth over the fire was a much larger blade, ‘That’s impressive,’ Robert said, pointing towards the sword.

‘It’s a dao. Or at least a copy of a relatively early one from the Han dynasty, used by the cavalry at the time. It was their standard weapon. Nice, isn’t it? Take a seat, I’ll just be a minute’. He left the room, reappearing before too long in a pair of olive coloured cargo trousers and a black polo shirt. He plonked himself down in a seat so they were almost facing each other. ‘Right then, first things first, how’s my wife? Then you can tell me what’s going on!’

Robert mentally kicked himself at his own wrong footedness, for not having expected James to ask how Andrea was. After all they hadn’t seen each other since Peter left, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise. ‘She’s fine, I think she’s relatively happy at some of the stuff she’s been finding, and don’t worry, the team haven’t had any further incidents while we’ve been jumping. It’s all gone pretty smoothly, sort of…’ He left the unfinished declaration hanging to see if Peter would take the bait.

Although he was bloody minded he was still inquisitive enough to have to ask. ‘Go on then, what’s happening?’

Robert noticed that Peter was now sitting forward and guessed he wouldn’t have to work very hard to draw him back into the project, but he kept his guard up. ‘We’re not entirely sure what’s been done but we have an idea that you might be able to give us more details. It looks like a terrorist group have been using the Jump Truck to go back in time and make changes to things, to try and disrupt modern technology.’ Robert waved his hands, to indicate he wanted to know how this was happening, so Masterson took some time explaining the situation. ‘Anyway, we’ve had to do a lot of digging through the data to figure out where and when they’ve been going, but we finally have a list.’ He passed a sheet of paper to the engineer and waited.

As James looked down the list his eyes got wider and he looked more and more astonished. ‘You know what these dates and places are don’t you?’ Robert shrugged and suggested they had an idea. ‘All of these are places and times that major technological or industrial leaps forward were made. If someone has disrupted these it could mean the end of society as we know it. Hang on though, you said this has already happened, so they can’t have made any changes or everything would be different?’

‘Do you remember what Michael said? The further you go back in time, the bigger the impact you have on the future. Even then it can be unpredictable. We think these changes probably won’t have a massive effect on present day conditions, but in a few thousand years’ time conditions could be much worse than they should be!’

Peter seemed to relax at this news, ‘So we don’t actually have to worry then, do we? Things will sort themselves out.’

‘Well, according to Michael and Celia’s best guesses they might not. It’s possible that we’re in a sort of grace period, where the consequences haven’t fully taken hold yet. If and when the future is inextricably changed it might have a knock on effect and destroy, well, everything!’

‘What kind of grace period are we talking about?’

‘Uncertain, but it’s probable we’ll soon see some kind of introductory problems, like failing power supplies. More worryingly though, they suggested there might be unusual weather conditions.’ He looked at the bland, off-white sky visible through the window, then looked back at Peter.

‘So we probably don’t have a huge amount of time then! Do you suppose we have enough time for you to apologise, then ask me nicely to join the project again?’

Masterson put an elbow on his knee and placed his head in his hand. After a short interval he ruffled his hair and looked up at Peter. ‘Mr James, I apologise for the way I discounted your ideas without consideration and didn’t show you the respect that your knowledge and skills merit. Please would you forgive me, in order that you can return to work on the project and, hopefully, save the planet from a future marred by environmental terrorists.’

Peter was smiling, obviously enjoying the moment but, thankfully didn’t drag it out for too long. He stood up motioning for Robert to follow him, went into the hallway, pulled on some sturdy boots, grabbed his coat from the hanger next to the door and said, ‘I accept your apology. It’ll be a pleasure to be working with almost the whole team again.’ Masterson ignored the obvious suggestion that he was the “almost”. ‘Let’s go, before the world ends.’

 

***

 

The mechanism of the lock made a small rattling noise as the keys were turned. The door opened little by little, as Jessica tentatively stepped into her own hallway. Jonny trailed in behind her, closing the door. ‘You’re sure, are you?’

Jessica tried to act a little more confidently as she headed towards her bedroom, ‘Craig is a reliable bloke and he has his fingers in a lot more pies than I really want to know about. If he says he’s cleaned the house of bugs, or “surveillance devices”, or whatever he called them, then we can be sure there isn’t anything in the house monitoring our activities.’ As if to prove the point she pulled off her top as she stepped through the doorway.

Jonny was still unsure as to how forward he should be, so he stood in the hallway shuffling his feet and staring at the light fitting above his head, while he waited for Jessica to finish changing her clothes and pack a couple of bags for the flights. After a couple of minutes Jessica called through, ‘What are you doing out there, come and give me a hand will you.’ He ran his fingers through his hair, which wasn’t tied back for a change and walked in, to find the bed covered with all manner of jackets, tops, trousers, skirts, dresses, boots and shoes. ‘What do you think?’ When Jonny looked unsure as to her meaning she continued, ‘I mean what should I take with me? I suddenly have the feeling that I may possibly have overdone it, while kitting out my wardrobe.’

Jonny stared in fascination at the items laid out in front of him, seeming surprised to find sections of the bed covered by things which weren’t just dark coloured business cuts. Jessica noticed his wonder and asked if he thought she should take the shiny things with them. ‘Well, it’s pretty hot where we’re headed and they certainly look, um, small! I’m sure that kind of thing would fit in quite nicely, with the added bonus that you can get them all into your suitcase without actually taking up any room.’ He made himself comfortable in a chair near the cupboard and nodded or shook his head at Jessica, who placed the things in the suitcase or threw them haphazardly into the corner of the room.

He was quite enjoying the exercise but eventually she held up the final item, a pair of patent knee length boots with a particularly high and spiky heel, which he vigorously nodded his head to. She put them in then picked up a cosmetics bag, which handily filled the remaining space, and zipped the whole thing shut with a bit of leaning-on-the-top assistance from Jonny. When she had finished they sat next to each other and Jonny finally built up the courage to put his arm around her waist, planting a kiss on her cheek as they relaxed for a moment. ‘Are you sure we’re doing the right thing?’

Jessica mirrored his arm movement so they were holding on to each other, then put her head on his shoulder. ‘I don’t really see what else we can do, and frankly I’ve been wanting to get away now for a good while but haven’t had the impetus and also, I couldn’t leave. You were here!’

Jonny smiled, ‘In that case, let’s get going beautiful. He detached himself, turned and heaved the case off the bed, wheeling it out of the room towards the stairs.

When she caught up with him he was at the front door. ‘What about your stuff Jonny?’

He grabbed her hand as they left and walked towards the car, which was parked on the road facing away from the house for easy access to the boot. ‘Don’t worry, I picked it up when we booked the flights on my, what did you call it, “ancient piece of crap”? Nearly all my stuff is at the hotel now. If my bag wasn’t canvas it’d need to be bigger than yours. You might like some of my stuff, I’ll have to show you it.’ Jessica’s mouth hung open as Jonny heaved the bag into the small boot, shuffling it around to ease it in. He closed the boot with the utmost care and gave her a hug as he went past, then hopped in the passenger side. After she climbed in he looked into her eyes, ‘I think I’ve finally come to terms with the idea of being a kept man, all I need do is supply you with whatever you ask for and try to keep myself looking pretty.’ He fluttered his eyelashes comically, ‘To be honest it’s exactly what I’ve wanted since we met, I’m just a little amazed at the circumstances that have brought it about.’

Jessica turned the engine over until the car purred into life, pulled the seatbelt across and plugged it in then put her hand on Jonny’s knee. ‘Don’t you get carried away young man, you just remember who wears the trousers in this relationship,’ and with a raised eyebrow she wiggled the gearstick into place and the car tyres screeched along the road, as they sped away from the house for the last time.