Alexander Shuttleworth leaned back in the easy chair and drummed his fingers rhythmically on his stomach. 'You may call it cake,' he told his small audience, regarding the small saucer with the last few crumbs that sat on his lap, 'but it goes beyond cake. Call it Ultrasponge, Victoria Maximus, empress of icing sugar.'
The ladies of Joan Redfern's WI group looked at him and then at each other nervously. A few giggled or laughed in a more civilised fashion. Alexander felt as if he was addressing a flock of sheep in hatpins.
'Well, Mr. Shuttleworth,' Joan began, replacing her own plate delicately on the table, 'may we move on to the subject of our talk for today, The Archaeology of the Bronze Age?'
One of the ladies leaned over to her friend and whispered in her ear. 'I can't imagine what Joan was thinking of, inviting that man into our circle. One might as well call upon the Serbs to come and ravage us all.'
'Oh, I don't know,' the younger woman replied. 'I think he's quite sweet.'
'That's what all his conquests think, all those young girls ruined in their prime. His reputation should preclude him from the Institute.'
'Reputations!' roared Alexander, causing the two ladies to jump guiltily from each other's ear. 'Reputations are made and broken in British archaeology on the matter of Bronze Age burials. Are we looking at a matriarchal culture, the kind of thing that led to Boadicea's easy assumption of the reins of power… or do we deal with chieftains?' He had stood up now, pacing back and forth before the curtains of the little front room in the sunshine.
'Perhaps the inhabitants of long barrows are not even warriors, but priests… Oh, hullo, Wolsey.'
He bent to smooth back the ears of the tabby cat that was rubbing itself against his ankles.
'She's quite infra dig herself, of course.' The older woman had quietly resumed her conversation with her fellow. 'Mrs. Redfern, I mean. A thoroughly decent sort.'
'Mrs?' The younger woman was surprised.
'Widow. Her husband died in the campaign against the Boer.'
'And do you think that she has plans to civilise the notorious Mr. Shuttleworth?'
'Goodness, no! I hope not, anyhow. If she aims to remarry then I'm sure she must pick a more honourable soul. I have heard that she is linked to Mr. Rocastle, her employer.'
'The headmaster? He's a bit stiff.'
'He doesn't go up in flying machines carrying piglets, if that's what you mean.'
The younger woman stared at her, open-mouthed. 'How did you come to hear of that? I was ever so slightly squiffy, but -'
'Piglets!' called Shuttleworth, standing to his full height once more. 'Sheep! And even horse skulls have been found in burial mounds. Now, were these animals owned by the incumbents?'
Joan was following his gestures politely sipping at her tea, but her thoughts were elsewhere. Last night she had had a dream. She taught science at Hulton College and she disliked it, all those chemical mixtures, and no idea of anything behind it. Like the world was reductable to simple elements. She wasn't tremendously fond of the open declamation of ethics and, while watching all those young boys destined to be military officers mixing chemicals, she often associated the two. Two parts this to one part that, God and country and a straight back. No inner knowledge of what made these things elements, no questioning of how God's goodness translated into things like patriotism and bravery.
Maybe when she met Arthur again in heaven she'd gain an understanding of the greater things, but for now she hated honour and sacrifice, the things that had made him die proudly. She knew the other women linked her and Rocastle. He'd proposed, the foolish man. That had made her life harder. But she had her dream. She'd dreamt of the constellations, of Orion hunting the animals. Amongst them was a new one, a group made up of stars from here and there, with two red nebulous hearts. A man had stood looking, staring up at Orion with a mixture of awe and whimsy on his face; a very British expression. He seemed also to be looking down at the spring of 1914.
What had made this dream memorable was that the constellation was in some way associated - this was the unique thing about dreams, that they could suggest the feeling of association without any real connection - with Dr. John Smith, Joan's new colleague at the school, the history teacher. Joan had woken up from that sleep feeling quite flushed but refreshed, as if something pure and distant had come to her like a falling star.
Inspiration, in its most literal sense had filled her, and the notion it brought that morning was that, for the first time in several years, she no longer felt quite so alone.
Dr. Smith was small and Scottish, from Aberdeen as a matter of fact, and he had a charmingly mobile face. Full of laughter. If it ever stayed still, it would present a truly terrible image, a frightening strength. But it never did stop moving. That would be bad, if it stopped. Like a tiger. As it stood he was the sort of man that one wanted to mother. Very vulnerable, but with that potential to be exceedingly strong. A tiger cub, then.
'Cubs, and their master -' Alexander stopped, turned a fraction, and looked down at Joan, puzzled. 'I say, I haven't said anything too risqué, have I?'
'No… ' Joan flinched, broken out of her daydream. 'Why do you say that, Mr. Shuttleworth?'
'Because, my dear, you're blushing.'
'Oh.' Joan picked up Wolsey, and smoothed his fur, aware of the eyes of the other women on her. 'It's a medical condition.'
'they seem, in places, to address me so directly it's almost uncomfortable'
'either the wallow in the sudden realisation that every single sad song in the world is written for me alone, or the overwhelming, distracting power of a lot of very loud noise'
From the diary of Prof Bernice Summerfield
Long ago and far away. That's one way of looking at it. But I still sat on the edge of the bathtub and bit my knuckles.
I'm trying to ignore it, and I hope you are as well. An unfortunate episode. If Ace was here, I could say to her: 'Yes, I understand it now, once again. I remember that grief is like having somebody sit on your chest and punch you in the face.' Pain is always forgotten. That's what allows us to have babies. It is a pity she's not here, actually, because now we have so much more in common.
Post-It note covering the above
I will not become maudlin. This is all meaningless. I met someone called Guy, he took on overwhelming odds and then he happened to die. May have died. Did die. Perhaps.
Post-It note covering the above
'These words are not my own they only come when I'm alone'
Post-It note covering the above
Those five minutes… I remember seeing the look on Clive's face when he heard that a dear friend of his had hanged himself. The most frightening thing I've ever seen. Because it was so different. I didn't think that I could make that face if I tried. What was so bad was that Clive had suddenly, in that moment, discovered how to. Now I can do it too.
From the diary of Prof Bernice Summerfield
'Aren't there any alien monsters we can go and destroy?' I asked the Doctor, on one of the few occasions when I met him in the TARDIS corridors. I mean, granted, I'd been hiding away for a few weeks, and I looked so white that you could put a tail on me and call me Flopsy, but he'd been hiding too. He hadn't followed up on his pledge to take me to Blackpool, or somewhere else exciting. He'd just become sad, at exactly the time I needed him to be happy. Whenever I'd gone into the console room, he'd been absent, and at night I'd just hear the occasional cry from one of those terrible nightmares of his.
'Alien monsters… ' he mused now, tapping his finger on the tip of his nose. 'No. They're all gone. Little Johnny Piper - no, sorry, different train of thought. No alien monsters, I'm afraid.' He had that troubled look about his eyes, and wouldn't quite look at me.
I wanted rather desperately to touch him, hug him or something, but everything about him said that that wouldn't be a good idea. He seemed embarrassed about seeing me, which wasn't really him at all. If I didn't know better, I'd say that he was thinking as hard about the last five minutes of Guy's life as I was.
Post-It note covering the above
Summerfield, B.S. Subject: Human Nature: 3/10, must try harder. (The 'Human' is crossed out and then replaced. There is evidence of correcting fluid.)
From the diary of Prof Bernice Summerfield
We wandered into the console room, me still trying to think of some way to break the ice. One of the many trivial things I'd been doing over the last few days was to try and repair my portable history unit. It's a little screen that lets you access archives while in the field. Or, in my case, while in the bath. Normally you'd need an account with whatever library you're accessing, but, with a bit of help from one of those beardie-weirdie computer experts you trip over in spaceports, I'd put together a program that makes the library think you're a member. The thing broke down, of course, just before Heaven, and I'd been carrying it in my luggage ever since. So, as part of my great campaign to do things, I had hefted one of the Doctor's folding work-tables into the console room and set about dismantling the thing, on and off, with gaps for tea and crying.
As we entered the console room, then, I was surprised to see the unit sitting atop the folding table, complete and repaired. I picked it up and switched it on, while the Doctor glanced offhandedly at various monitors on the console. He'd repaired the unit's hardware, but the programming was all over the place. Travelling through the time vortex isn't the best place to deal in electronic media, of course. It's like trying to follow a soap opera that's being performed on a series of trains as they speed by, while other trains with different stories… well, it's difficult, all right? Anyhow, the Doctor had succeeded in creating some weird protocols, with new files half set-up all over the place, and error messages demanding attention everywhere.
I pressed a few buttons and cleared everything, discovering, to my relief, that the Doctor had got the thing functioning correctly at least. I turned to him, grateful to have something to ask him about. 'Thanks for fixing this up.'
He glanced up from the console. 'I just wanted to work out what it was… how it worked. I reversed the polarity of the communications coil, by the way, so you can write into archives too, but to do that I had to connect it through the TARDIS information processors, because I know how to work with those. So you might get information from the past. Or the future. Which in some cases wouldn't be a good idea, so don't use it when we land anywhere. Please.'
I sighed. 'So you repaired it so well that I can't use it?'
'Repaired? Oh, did it need repairing?'
I smiled, which was good. I got the feeling that the module was a sort of present. 'What have you been doing in the last few days, then?'
'Jigsaws. Chinese cookery. I made clay models. Of the Zygons. I did what I normally do when I'm investigating something… with your unit, I mean. I dived in and messed it up. Threw away the manual, ignored the notes and laughed in the face of Balloon Help.' He left the console, and perched in the wicker chair, his hands folded into a spire. 'That's what I did with the TARDIS when I first got her. You can't do everything for a long time. In the case of the TARDIS, for far too long. But when you do get where you want to go, you've learnt all sorts of useful stuff about the system you're investigating.'
'No wonder your cakes are so awful.' I grabbed a cushion and sat down facing him.
'The ducks like them.'
'The ducks are programmed to like them. Besides, it all sounds rather dangerous to me. You can get terribly hurt, mucking around like that. I prefer to read the manual from cover to cover, hopefully in the bath with a good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.'
'Mmmm… ' The Doctor frowned again, and jumped up. He started to pace around the console once more, tapping controls seemingly at random. Maybe it was me using the words 'terribly hurt' that had set him off again.
God, I was being careful of his feelings!
His glance fastened on a monitor and an uneasy grin spread over his features. 'Found it. Good girl.' He tapped a few buttons and straightened up. 'There's a planet called Crex in the Augon system. They have a market there. Would you like to go?'
I had the feeling that saying no would invalidate several days' worth of hovering in the vortex. 'A sort of spacecraft boot sale? Is there something particular you're after?'
'A white elephant. Maybe a pink one.'
'Is this an item or an acquaintance?
He paused for a moment, and then smiled one of his more dangerous secret smiles. 'Both.'
The TARDIS materialised with that noise it has (sorry, I've never been able to come up with a good description) amidst a tight little knot of stalls, under the shade of purple silks and great canopies of striped fabric. The first thing that caught my attention as the Doctor locked the door behind us was the smell, a wonderfully jumbled mixture of spices and cooking scents, a hundred different cultures in one place.
Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid at the TARDIS landing. They must have been fairly used to materialisations. The Doctor raised his umbrella like an aerial, and turned it and his nose until he'd settled on a direction. 'This way.' He walked off in a straight line, tossing a memory module from the TARDIS databanks in his hand thoughtfully.
I followed him through the masses of alien species, both humanoid and otherwise, their bargainings and gestures and laughter merging in one great shout. Felt odd to be out and about, a bit vulnerable. Shrugged it off. The Doctor led the way to a little hillock, its surface once grassy, but now a churned patch of mud. He pulled me after him up to the top of it, and from there we got a good look at the whole market.
It went on for miles, all the way to one cloudy horizon, a brilliant jumble of tents and awnings. The other way, it petered out a bit in the direction of some mountains, and a big dark square with some buildings indicated a rough spaceport. 'It's wonderful,' I opined. 'How did it start?'
'Tax concessions.' The Doctor was still turning like a weather vane. His eyes suddenly focused on something in the distance. He nodded, and then turned to me. 'I'll be gone for an hour. Maybe two. I'll find you.'
'What, in that lot?'
'Back at the TARDIS then.' He seemed eager to get away, flustered and impatient.
In the middle distance I glimpsed the solution to our problem. 'Tell you what,' I said, pointing. 'I'll meet you over there.'
The beer tent seems to be a universal icon, and one, to paraphrase a recent acquaintance, about which I may write a short monograph one day. The atmosphere's always different to a pub or a bar, slightly edgy and hot under the canvas, relaxed and cool outside. You see more undone buttons and exposed podge outside a beer tent than anywhere short of the Flaborama on Boojus 5. I bought a pint of The Admiral's Old Antisocial at the, thankfully currency-unspecific, bar, and wandered out to the plastic tables.
Now, you may well be thinking: 'Beer? What a terrible idea. That's no solution.' I would reply that you're wrong. It's a solution of hops, barley and yeast, and it is so transcendently wonderful that I long ago made the decision to sacrifice any chance of trim thighs in favour of it.
Company is always an issue at this juncture. There's no point, in my view, in being a solitary drinker. You can do that at home, given a certain degree of sadness which I wouldn't dream of sinking to. Usually. Well, three out of ten times. And it's been a difficult time for me lately. Anyway, there were the usual tables of dangerous-looking space pirates, penniless backpackers with their glasses of iced water, and traders waving their hands and complaining that business wasn't what it once was. Most of them were aliens of some sort.
Therefore, it was with a rather xenophobic sort of glee that I came across a table whose occupants were doubly interesting. They were A: human and B: female. They looked like they all came from different places, and had clustered together out of the familiar realisation that internal gonads are best, actually. So I sat down and introduced myself. Professor Bernice Summerfield, FRAS (Fairly Rotten At Scrabble), current occupier of the Proxima University Chair Of Archaeology (it's in my room, by the begonias), holder of the Martian Gallantry Medal (I found one and thought I thoroughly deserved it). They were suitably impressed. They laughed out loud.
'Jac,' said a young woman with short hair and interesting ear-rings. 'I'm here researching the origins of the market for Ellerycorp. They're thinking of doing something similar.' She introduced the others. There was another short- haired woman with the eyes of a Traveller Priestess, who was called Sarah. I don't think I ever found out why she was there. And there was a feisty-looking woman with tanned olive skin, wearing an assortment of charity shop relics that she somehow made stylish. She was looking at me with a world-weary expression that I found instantly charming, her head propped up on one hand.
'How's it going?' she asked. For a moment I thought of telling her. But no. 'Fine.'
'Your round, Lucy,' Sarah told her, placing her empty glass definitively down on the table.
'You're not exactly svelte either,' Lucy replied, reaching for the glasses and winking.
I smiled at that, too. 'Same again, please,' I said. As soon as Lucy had departed, Jac told Sarah that the woman was a Psychology tutor, who'd been here for a month, waiting for an interplanetary lift that never seemed to arrive.
Well, that was a familiar story, and I went on to tell them some of my own history. As regular readers of my diary (if that's you, Doctor, put it down now) know, there are certain portions of my life that I can't readily account for. I tend to gloss over these with a post-it note, but on this occasion I have enough recollections to fill a page, disconnected as they may be. I said all these things, but some of the words may be in the wrong order.
Pint two: I'm arguing with them. 'But that's ridiculous. You can't expect an internal market to operate for any extended period of time - '
Pint three: They're laughing at me. 'There is not a God! Listen, if this coin lands on the same side… several times… then - '
Pint four: They're falling over themselves, holding up their hands like anglers talking about the fish that got away. 'Short and stubby. Well, I've only ever encountered five of them, but - what are you laughing at? Did I say something funny?'
Pint five: They're listening intently, nodding every now and then. 'So we had to go away. There were so many of them. I think… I hope it was quick for him.'
Pint six: Sarah is looking at me, concerned and sweet.
'It's not far from here, really. Just a quick hopper ride over the hill. I've got this really great Alcorian wine that you ought to try. And we could, you know, just hang around for a while. Play tennis. What do you think?'
The next thing I knew, a familiar hand was tapping me on the shoulder, and something cold attached itself to my cheek. I was thinking about Sarah's offer, and I tried to swat the hand away like a fly, but then, suddenly-
I was utterly sober.
I unpeeled the medi-patch that the Doctor had slapped on to my cheek and looked up at him. 'What - ?'
'Alcohol dispersion pad. We haven't got much time, and there's a lot you need to know.' He grabbed my hand and pulled me to my feet.
'Hey… ' Sarah said foggily, gazing up at me. 'Wait a minute… '
'Leave her alone!' Jac was halfway to her feet. 'Who is this guy?'
'It's all right,' I reassured them. 'He's a friend.' I felt suddenly rather foolish, as if my dad had arrived to pick me up. Rather awkwardly, I shook Sarah's hand. 'Thanks for being so nice. I appreciated the offer.'
She shrugged. 'No problem. I hope it all works out.' 'It will,' I told her. But then I glanced at the Doctor.
'Quickly,' he said.
His pupils were glowing silver. I got the feeling that it wasn't going to be that easy.
I let the Doctor lead me back to the TARDIS. He was walking quickly, urgently. I glanced back to see if he was being followed, but that wasn't it. He was walking like he was about to explode or throw up, as if something terrible was about to happen and he had to be in a particular place when it did.
'Could I have a few of those patches?' I asked, still banjaxed by my instant sobriety. 'They're already my favourite bit of TARDIS equipment.'
'Yes. No. I don't know, it isn't important!' The Doctor turned a corner, saw the TARDIS ahead and broke into a run. He fumbled the door open and leapt inside, diving at the co-ordinate keyboard and tapping in instructions faster than I could follow. 'Catch!' he called, and threw me a rolled-up scroll. I noted that it was sealed with his thumbprint.
The TARDIS doors closed, and the familiar take-off sound began. The central column started to rise and fall. 'The letter will tell you everything!' the Doctor shouted. 'And pay attention to the list! See you in three months! Eck.'
The last was a little click from his throat, like something switching itself off. The Doctor's eyes flicked back to their normal colour. Then he closed them, and his mouth twisted into a giddy smile.
Then he fell into a crumpled heap.
A red ball rolled from his pocket, and settled in one comer of the console room.
'Doctor?' I ran to his side, and checked his pulses. One seemed to have stopped altogether. The other was racing. My first impulse was to rush him straight into the TARDIS medical bay, but I restrained myself. I broke the seal on the scroll and quickly read the several sheets it contained. 'Oh no… ' I groaned when I'd finished, flopping back against the console. I turned to address the unconscious, still grinning, body. 'I may have remarked on this on several occasions in the past, but let me say it definitively this time. You are such a git!'
And, feeling a bit better, I left him there and headed for the wardrobe room.
This adventure was going to require a serious frock.
Diary Entry Ends
A solemn old humanoid with a grey beard stood outside a tent in the marketplace. He put his hand up to shade his eyes against the setting sun. Out of it, from the direction of the spaceport, a hopper was approaching. With a great shouting and a roar of turbos, it descended next to the tent, and the old man walked forward to greet the occupants.
The first of them leapt out, dressed in a long cloak and breeches, his two swords crossed in scabbards across his back. He was a young man, well-muscled and vital. His green eyes flashed in happiness as he embraced the old man. 'Well met, my son! You meant what you said in the message? You finally got one?'
'Indeed I have, Greeneye. It has been a long wait, but a Time Lord finally responded to our signal. I had thought that we hadn't tried enough channels, but -'
'Oh, they heard. Those bastards always hear.' Greeneye glanced at the sky involuntarily. 'Are you coming with us, then? You've waited so long, it'd be a shame if you weren't there for the kill.'
'I wish you wouldn't put it like that.' The old man frowned. He brightened when he saw the latest arrival stepping from the hopper. It was a child, a girl of ten or so, carrying a balloon. 'Aphasia, my dear daughter, how are you?'
'I'm not talking,' the girl told him. 'I'm sulking.'
'I told her she couldn't… ' Greeneye looked around again, stopping himself. 'Get up to her usual tricks. But quickly now, have you prepared the tunnel?'
'All is ready. Are the others here?'
'We are here!' a hissing voice emanated from the hopper. A dark figure in a wide-brimmed hat jumped to the ground, and pointed a white glove at the old man. 'If you have failed, Laylock, I shall make you suffer. You know I shall.'
'Don't threaten me, Serif. You wouldn't harm your own flesh.'
'Wouldn't I?' Serif glanced at Aphasia, a grin twisting his mouth. He would have said something more, but another hopper was approaching. It landed, with a swirl, of soil, and two more figures stepped from it. One was a big, bearded man, carrying a huge backpack and wearing a belt from which hung numerous weapons. The other was a thin, precise-looking man, his hair neatly back- combed and his cape enclosing an elegant suit.
'Good,' he muttered, looking around. 'We're all here. Into the tent then, quickly now. We don't want to attract attention.'
They went into Laylock's Emporium, as a sign referred to it. Laylock himself remained outside for a moment, glancing about worriedly, before he followed.
Inside, the thin man looked around appreciatively. A polished consultation table, with various computer reference devices atop it, stood at the very centre of the tent, the big roof spar through the middle of it. Brightly coloured canvas avenues led off in all directions, access to the other tents where the real work was done. Gentle music tinkled throughout. 'Very professional. You've gone to a lot of trouble.'
Laylock inclined his head. 'Thank you, August. I've made quite a profit in all this time.'
Serif hissed. 'That is unimportant. The cover story has been successful, that is all.'
'No, no… ' August raised a hand. 'I think it's a great achievement. It's not as if our own projects haven't blossomed in this last decade. Now then, I believe Hoff thinks that the Time Lords could be tracking us.'
The big man grunted in the affirmative. 'If they knew everything, they might divert an asteroid, cleanse the whole site.'
'Well, I disagree with that, they haven't the will these days, they'd probably just send an agent. But anyhow, we really should be going. Lead the way, Laylock.'
The old man did so, glancing nervously at the roof.
The cabinet was a rusty old gothic thing, hidden away under a cloth in a comer of Laylock's surgical supplies area. He pulled the cloth aside and slapped a control. The front of the cabinet, previously a metal door, dissolved into the butterfly tunnel of the time vortex.
'Don't stare into it, daughter.' Greeneye hid Aphasia's eyes. 'After a while, you see terrible things.'
Aphasia slapped his hand away. 'I want to see terrible things.'
'The tracer's working,' Laylock confirmed. 'I activated it as soon as he left. There.' A golden thread snaked down the vortex tunnel and spiralled off into the distance. 'That'll lead you to wherever he's going. Estimated travel time… about nine weeks.'
'Yes. Good.' August stared into the tunnel with some trepidation. Behind him, Hoff and Greeneye were bringing in several large packs of equipment. 'We'll need to keep this link open, so you'll remain here, Laylock. That won't be too much of a burden for you, will it?'
Laylock nodded. 'Thank you.;
'Any idea of what he got?'
'No, he brought it himself. They often do, those who think of themselves as composers. He'd been in contact with me for several days, asking for tech specs, wondering if I could really do what I said I could. I had to be discreet; I wondered for a while if he was an Intervention Agent.'
'Opek to a Grotzi he is!' muttered Greeneye. 'If this is a set up - '
'It isn't, I'm certain,' Laylock told him. 'He was going through real quantum rearrangement effects when he left, at any rate.' He handed August a memory pad. 'This is everything I learnt about him, including a description. I did try to persuade him to give up the pod, but - '
'That's too much to expect, yes.' August clapped his hands for quiet. 'All right then. This is the best shot we're going to get. Follow me.' He took a deep breath, pinched his nose, and leapt into the tunnel. He shot off into the distance, a doll-like figure, buffeted to and fro until he vanished, his form curling around the path of the golden thread.
'Hey!' shouted Aphasia. 'Wait for me!' And she leapt in too.
Greeneye and Hoff followed, carrying the bundles they'd brought from the hopper. Before he left, Serif turned and pointed at Laylock. 'If you have betrayed us- '
'Of course I haven't, son. Off you go.' Scowling, Serif leapt into the vortex. A moment later, they were all gone. Laylock patted the cabinet in satisfaction, and threw the cloth back over it. Just the hoppers to hide, and then he could get back to his regular routine.
He just couldn't shake the terrible feeling that he was being watched.
In the long, dark room, all that could be heard was the ticking of a clock and the occasional snore.
Two lines of beds ran along the walls. In them slept boys in their late teens.
But one didn't sleep.
He was sitting up in bed, his hands to his mouth, his eyes staring into the distance. His name was Tim. His mother was dead, and his father, abroad on business, had transferred him to this place.
He'd just had such a dream. A nightmare, full of people and places he'd never seen before. They seemed to address him so directly that it was terrifying.
'I've seen the future,' he whispered. 'And everybody dies. '
She appeared at the end of his bed then, and showed him her skeletal hands. 'Yes,' she whispered. 'Everybody dies.'
Lamps were lit, there were cries of alarm and annoyance, and of course she was gone when the light flooded along the dormitory.
From the window came a great beat of wings. Tim spun and stared.
An owl was flapping off into the night.
Nine weeks later.
The bicycle sped down the little cobbled hill, the juddering motion making the items in its basket leap about, in imminent danger of falling on to the road.
Bernice didn't care. The sun was up, and, for the first time in weeks, so were her spirits. The little town of Farringham was basking in the glow of a balmy summer day, and the sweet smell of roses was wafting across it on the breeze. 'Good morning, Jill! Good morning, Jenny!' she called as she whizzed past a row of little cottages.
'Morning, Bernice!' the two housewives chorused. Then they resumed their argument across the fence. This time it was about an overhanging tree, tomorrow it would be about barking dogs. They liked to argue, it seemed, and whenever one of them met Bernice, the other would wander up, get involved in the conversation and end up disagreeing with the first.
The bike took the comer at the bottom of the hill far too fast, and she narrowly missed her landlord, Alexander Shuttleworth. He was a jolly, bearded fellow in a white colonial suit and a loud tie, the curator of the local museum. 'Sorry!' she called over her shoulder.
'Charmed, dear girl, charmed!' he boomed back. 'I'll take my medical bills out of your rent!'
Mrs Windrush, her hair bound up in a headscarf and her mouth full of pegs, waved from her garden, where she was putting out her washing. She was proud of her little patch of grass, although she wished that her husband could afford a maid. 'Perhaps next year,' she always said when she and Bernice chatted. They'd been married a year, and Mrs W kept dropping hints about the pattering of little feet, so it was probably just as well that Mr W was up for promotion at his office job in Norwich.
Benny had to wait at the T-junction for Mr Hodges' wagon to trundle by, the horses already sweating in the sunshine. Hodges was a greengrocer, and delivered door to door every morning. His and Benny's routines had become so predictable that they had started to nod at each other, and complain if the other was late.
'Give you a penny for your boots!' he called out this time, winking. Benny smiled back, wondering just how vulgar the catchphrase was. She probably ought to have blushed.
Bernice's target was the Lyons teahouse in the centre of town. A convenient cycle-rack stood on the wall near by, which she reached, as she always did, just as the town- hall clock was striking its precise twelve o'clock. She dismounted carefully, remembering when she'd ripped the hem out of a skirt by catching it on a pedal. The fashions of 1914 were a lot easier to wear than Victorian gowns would have been, at least. There wasn't any upholstery under the skirt, and no bustle to deal with. Electing to be the paragon of fashion today, she'd chosen a (rather extraordinary) black and navy-blue checked skirt, with a buttoned jacket and lace collar. She had toyed with the idea of a mourning band, to hint that she was well-connected enough to miss the Duke of Argyll, but there was the possibility that somebody would think it was more personal than that and ask about it, and that would be too horrid. She untied the ribbon on her hat, and propped it on the handlebars, shaking her hair extensions to and fro. They still didn't feel natural, but her own short bob would have required some vast and incredible explanation.
The teahouse served a wonderful fruit-cake. Benny ordered a slice with her customary pot of tea.
'Will that be all, madam?' the smartly uniformed waitress asked her.
'Yes, thanks. That's a strange accent, where are you from?'
'Germany.' The waitress giggled. 'I am from Baden Baden, and I am working here for the summer. Mr Condon, the manager, he is my uncle.'
'Oh, right, well, that's… good.' Benny flashed the woman a smile. She curtsied and went back to the till.
The other tables held groups of housewives, maids who'd saved their pennies for a weekly lunch date, and a travelling salesman, his case of samples on the floor beside him as he scanned the racing form in the paper. Benny flipped through a copy of The Tatler, making a mental calculation. It was April now, getting really hot and summery. Everybody was talking about holding dances, and whether or not one should offer favours to guests, and if looping the loop in a flying machine clutching two piglets was infra dig or not. The papers had scarcely a thought for matters further abroad than Ireland, where the Liberals' plans to give the whole island home rule had the Unionists threatening civil war.
The magazine in Benny's hands complimented the Kaiser's daughter on her grasp of English as demonstrated at various English social events that month.
Benny shook her head and sighed. She put it out of her mind and tipped the waitress generously as she handed her her cake.
'Excuse me,' a voice asked. 'Could I please sit down? There isn't anywhere else.'
'Of course.' Bernice glanced up. An elegantly dressed, painfully thin young woman in a very ornate lace collar was standing there. She could only have been seventeen or so, but her face, as well as being gaunt, was lined with experience. The odd thing was that, a minute before, Benny had been sure that there were lots of places free, on tables across the cafe. But now all the seats had bags on them. Even the travelling salesman had propped his case on the seat opposite him. A great many people suddenly seemed to be watching Bernice's table.
Oh no, she thought. It's one of those people.
So Benny did what she did whenever she encountered somebody who was generally despised. She said: 'Please sit down here, there's plenty of room,' in a rather loud voice.
The woman did so. The German waitress, obviously not understanding whatever cultural malaise afflicted the newcomer, came over at once.
'Could I please have three slices of cake, and a plate of scones, with quite a lot of cream?' the woman asked.
'Hungry?' Bernice asked when the waitress had left.
'I'll say. I'm on the Cat, you see. Got to build myself up'
'I beg your pardon?'
'The Cat and Mouse Act. I'm on a hunger strike in Holloway. Every now and then, they release me, let me get my strength back. Then they arrest me again, and I go on hunger strike again. I've been in and out three times now. It's getting to be a matter of routine.'
'What did you, erm, do?'
'Stuck a pole through the wheels of the King's pony and trap. He nearly went flying. I suppose that God saved him. I'm a bit of an Emily Davison, you see, only not so brave.'
'Sorry, I'm being a bit dim, I know, but why did you do that?'
'To draw attention to the WSPU's campaign for universal suffrage. I'm an adult woman and thus deserve the vote. Goodness, you're still smiling. You've listened longer than most people do.'
'Because I agree with you. You're going to win, by the the way. I'm Bernice Summerfield.'
The woman shook her hand. 'Constance Harding. I was going to go to my first dance this year, but now, obviously, I can't. When did you come out, by the way?'
A forkful of cake stopped halfway to Benny's mouth. 'Sorry?'
'Your accent gives you away.'
'Yes, my dear.' Constance sighed. 'Do you know, I was hoping to go cruising before I came out … '
Benny frowned. 'Isn't that rather the wrong way round?'
'I suppose so. My mother was going to come too.'
'Yes, she's very gay.'
'Obviously.' Benny ate her cake thoughtfully. She raised a finger to ask a question, then lowered it again. 'You know, I think we've been talking at cross-purposes… '
Constance glanced up. A plodding blue figure was moving down the street outside. 'Oops. Terribly glad to meet you, must be going.' She took off her hat, dropped the cake and scones into it and ran for the door. 'Do have the cream.' And she was gone.
Benny laughed out loud, once more incurring the displeasure of her fellow customers. She didn't mind paying Constance's bill at all.
After lunch, Bernice returned to her lodgings at Station Cottage. She'd popped into the art shop where Mr Sangster had provided her with some oils that she needed. He'd regaled her with stories of the Boer War, straight, she suspected, out of some cheap paperback he was reading.
Station Cottage, as the name implied, was right next to the level-crossing over the branch line. Every two hours, a little train went past, carrying commuters to and from Norwich. The cottage had a little garden with just the right sort of light and facing, and Benny had set up her easel there, intent on painting the gentle hills above the town. Atop one of them was a monument of an old woman, sitting with her basket. This, she had been informed, was Old Meg, who, sometime last century, used to walk all the way to Shellhampton and back every day to sell her small goods. Good to be remembered, Benny thought, for something so everyday and difficult.
She made herself some sandwiches, and wandered out into the garden, putting a hand up to her brow to get a good, distant look at the work in progress. Quite good, really, for a novice.
'It's utterly wonderful!' boomed a familiar voice from the street. Alexander Shuttleworth was leaning on the fence, fanning his florid face with his panama hat. 'You must have been exhibited, surely? Have you sent anything to the National?'
'If I did -' Benny munched her sandwich, '- they would send it back with a note saying that it does not suit their present needs, and there would be a PS asking what it was actually of.'
'Oh, you sell yourself short, Miss Summerfield. I had a lady friend once who was an art lover, and she taught me some of the basics.'
'Really?' Benny arched an eyebrow. 'So do you think it's actually any good?'
'Absolutely topping. Sorry to intrude, by the way. I just popped over because I was bored. There's nothing to do at the museum, young Alec's sitting at the desk, and he's bored too, but I employ him to be bored so that I don't have to be. I wondered if I might watch you paint?'
'It's not exactly a spectator sport, but do come in. It is your garden.'
'Like a malevolent spirit, I can only enter where I am invited.' Alexander opened the garden gate and settled into a deckchair. 'Besides, that's the reason I started to rent the cottage when my sister died. I like meeting new people. Especially those down from Cambridge.'
Benny bit her lip. So far she'd managed to avoid the topic of her supposed studies at Newnham College. 'I'm afraid that I've never been to your old college.'
'King's, it was. They rather disapprove of you roving about, don't they?'
'Rather. Oh, listen, I met a woman on the run from the police today… ' And she told the story of her encounter with Constance.
Alexander humphed. 'Damn Liberals! Pardon my French, loved one, but it's really going too far when you're in and out of prison like billyoh. I don't know why Asquith doesn't just give them the vote, well, for householders, anyway. What do you think?'
'I think that grown-ups should vote, full stop.'
'Good for you. You ought to meet my chum Richard Hadleman. He's chairman of the local Labour group. Young firebrand, just in his twenties. It'll be chaps like him that'll lead us into the next decade.'
'Probably.' Bernice turned back to her painting, not wanting Alexander to see her face.
A great commotion arose from behind the cottage, and the gates of the level crossing were raised. A moment later, plumes of smoke rose from a tank engine as it chuffed past, the warm smell of its boiler drifting through the garden and mingling with the roses. Alexander glanced at his watch. 'Dead on two. The world may be changing, but at least the trains still run on time.'
The scream caused some of the younger boys to look up for a moment.
The Upper School room in Farrar House had two balconies, each one with a cluster of chairs around it. One window was for the boys in general, the other for the Captains, four boys given special responsibilities for their house at Hulton College School.
At that moment, the Captains were beating Timothy with a tarred and knotted rope.
'Gag him, for God's sake,' Hutchinson, a tall boy with cropped fair hair, muttered. 'We don't want Wolvercote to think we're squealers.'
Timothy looked over his shoulder, clutching the cold metal of the radiator which he was bent up against. 'I had a dream, Hutchinson, a nightmare. Death was in it. We all died. We were all killed. The whole of Farrar.'
'We all have nightmares from time to time,' Hutchinson told him, 'but one learns not to wake up screaming. Only four more now. If you can refrain from making a noise, we shan't gag you. D'you think you can?'
Alton wandered in at that moment. He was rather laconic for the Captains' taste, but had passed the tests and pull-throughs designed for the new bugs with startling resilience. Especially impressive was his time on the gym rings, where he'd hung for a whole afternoon without the usual bleating. 'Excuse me, Captain,' he called, 'but form master's on his way up here. Saw him on the front stairs.'
'What on earth does Smith want?' Hutchinson muttered 'Oh well, let's not disturb his fair senses. Let bug up, we'll finish him later.'
Dr Smith entered, his fingers tapping his lip thoughtfully, just as Timothy was skulking back to the boys' side of the room. He was a short, dark-haired man, wearing a brown suit and an outrageous tie. The design of that tie summed up what the Captains thought of their new form master. It was colonial in nature, a swirling and colourful pattern such as one might expect to see on some foreign woman's clothing. As part of a teacher's kit, though, it was frankly inappropriate. The younger boys adored him, because he was homely and full of childish things. That was desperately bad for morale.
Still, the Captains stood to attention and saluted him.
'House master in the Upper!' bellowed Hutchinson, and the boys stood up.
'Who's that?' Smith turned back to the door, as if some one had come in behind him, then, realizing they mean him, grinned for a millisecond and waved a distracted hand. He was still wearing his usual bemused expression, as if he was continually missing the point of some joke. 'No, no, sit down. I came to ask… about cricket.' He suddenly pulled a tiny rubber ball from his pocket, and bowled it over arm at a startled lad reading Boy’s Own in the corner. Gamely, the boy used the rolled-up paper to knock it back.
Smith caught it, grinning. 'Howzat? Oh yes, we'll put you in to bat.' There was general laughter.
The Captains exchanged glances. Hutchinson said, 'If you wanted to ask about the cricket team, sir, you could have summoned me to your rooms.'
'Oh good, do you know about cricket?'
Yes, sir. I was team captain last year.'
'Only I was wondering - ' Smith threw the ball into the air, caught it in his mouth, appeared to swallow it, and produced it again from his sleeve, why are there only seven people batting? Couldn't we include everybody who wants to play?'
'I assume that's a rhetorical question, sir,' said Hutchinson.
In the corner of the room, Timothy was biting his bottom lip, trying desperately not to cry.
'Tell him,' urged Anand, his friend. 'He could stop them. He would.' Anand's father ruled a small independent state in India. He and Timothy were best friends, probably because the rest of the House seemed to hate them equally. 'Yes,' Tim whispered. 'That's the most terrible thing. He would.'
'It seems very odd,' Smith concluded. 'When I was away, in Aberdeen, we used to get a couple of planks, knock a ball about.'
'Perhaps we could try that,' piped up Captain Merryweather. 'It might catch on, sir, and they'd all start using planks at Lords.' Hutchinson glanced at him warningly. His sarcasm had been a bit too obvious. But Smith was grinning that insane grin again.
'Yes… Well, I'll put the team up on the notice-board. We'll start with eleven and work up. Many hands spoil the broth, or not, as my father used to say. Or perhaps he said the opposite. Goodbye.' And he left, tossing the ball thoughtfully.
'Quiet!' Hutchinson called as soon as the door had closed. The laughter that man always left in his wake - what sort of example was that? 'We were in the process of beating Dean, if I recall.'
Timothy stood up, his eyes dark with pain, and stiffly walked back to the radiator. 'It will go the worse for you,' he whispered as he leant against it once more.
'I said,' Tim said, in a louder voice, 'it will go the worse for you.'
Hutchinson exchanged bemused glances with his fellow captains. The tone of Timothy's voice was resigned rather than scared. 'Dare say it will,' Timbo!' He laughed.' you're the one it's going badly for at the moment. Now where were we?'
In the forest on the hills above the town, a red squirrel looked up, started, and ran.
In mid-air, a shape was forming, a flowing fractal vortex that grew out of thin air, swirling out from a point to become a spinning upright disc, the size of a barn door.
There were five figures in the vortex, in the distance, rushing towards the disc. They were frozen like statues in leaping postures. They became larger, larger still, and then the first of them fell straight out into the wood.
August got to his feet instantly, letting go of his nose, and caught Aphasia as she fell from the vortex gate. He left her to recover, and slapped the shoulders of Greeneye and Hoff as they stumbled out, carrying their large packs. 'Quickly, assemble the frame.'
The two of them started, with smooth, practised speed, to pull a metal structure from the backpacks. By the time Serif jumped from the vortex, hissing, they'd completed the job. They slammed the final connections together, and a thin metal ring encompassed the fluttering lightshow. Hoff's stubby fingers punched a series of buttons on the base of the ring. The vortex disc flexed, and a single clear note rang out across the woodland. The travellers held their breath. Then the disc stabilized, and a series reassuring lights illuminated on the control deck.
'Vortex tunnel stable,' Hoff declared.
'Thank my ancestors,' August breathed. 'Now the are Greeneye - '
'I'm just doing it, Father.' Greeneye turned a slow circle, sweeping a handheld device across the ground. H' circle complete, he flicked a control.
A shimmering curtain of light rose from the circle around the group, arched itself into a dome above them, and, as soon as it had become complete, shimmered and blurred into an exact recreation of the woodlands around . Birds flew across the holographic dome, and the branches portrayed on its surface bent and rustled in he wind.
From the inside, the dome was transparent. August and the others sat down in a circle, paused, and then let out a deep sigh.
'This place smells,' Aphasia declared.
'Indeed!' Greeneye laughed. 'Most places do. But I, for one, am just grateful to be on solid ground, and move my limbs again. We might not have been aware of the passage of time in the vortex, but my bones ache with it. Where are we, anyhow?'
'Planet called Sol 3, in the Stellarian Galaxy.' Hoff was checking the readings on his wrist scanner. 'Many, many library entries for it.'
'Near Gallifrey, then,' breathed Greeneye.
'It is not "near Gallifrey"!' August laughed. 'We're in an arm of Mutter's Spiral, Gallifrey's right at the core. If being in the same galaxy is near, then the Sontarans are near the Rutans, for goodness' sake!'
'No harm in being wary,' Greeneye replied, a dangerous glint in his eye. 'You know that those bastards specialize in the stab in the back.'
'You're right, son, you're right. We ought to change anyway. Hoff, activate that media scanner you got on Tauntala, give us a feel for the local culture.'
Hoff fished a screen from the pack and handed out headsets, each of the group programming theirs for their particular interests. Then they set to the business of examining the data that the media scanner was picking up. For some hours, the only sounds that could be heard in the forest were the usual movements of small animals and birds.
Through the bushes crept a great hunter.
He was a tabby tom-cat, and his name was Wolsey. He was far from his own territory, and thus constantly on the lookout for rivals and new things to explore.
The dome was something very new indeed. It was twilight, and he had been about to turn and head home for some food, but the new thing caught his attention.
He approached it cautiously, skirting right round before venturing towards it. Visually, it was hard to see that there was anything strange there, but Wolsey didn't rely on sight as much as a human would, and he perceived the strange construction as a bundle of strange sounds and absolutely new smells. He stalked right up to the edge of it, and leaned his nose forward until his whiskers were nearly touching the mysterious surface. In a moment, the great hunter would mark the thing with scent from the side of his head, and then it would be his.
A sudden sound. Wolsey looked up. And jumped. Aphasia landed right where he'd been, her hands snatching at the air as the cat bounded off into the under- growth.
The little girl bared her teeth and stood up, brushing the dirt from her dress. 'A cat!' she called to the others. 'It was one of those cat things!'
'A cat?' Greeneye leapt out of the dome, his hand reflexively grasping for the top of his sword. 'A Gallifreyan creature!' He was dressed in relaxed summer whites and blazer, a pristine boater perched atop his newly cropped hair. The only strange things about him now were the two swords still harnessed to his back.
'Would you please relax?' August emerged from the dome behind him, in a dapper business suit. 'You're making me nervous.' He slapped a control on Greeneye's harness and the swords vanished. 'We could only find test transmissions in the radio spectrum, remember? The media scanner had to concentrate on how the locals perceive their print culture. Unless they want to use it as an observatory, I can't see what the Time Lords would want with somewhere as primitive as this.'
'But the cat - '
'There are lots of worlds with cats,' Hoff muttered. He was wearing the medals and uniform of a Boer War veteran. 'Don't let it bother you.'
Serif was still in his long black cape and wide-brimmed hat. He turned his head silently, examining the foliage. 'I will explore with stealth,' he told the others, 'by night.' And he was gone into the forest.
'Serif - ' August called after him, but he was gone. 'Oh well, I'm sure he knows best. Hoff - '
Hoff was about to flick a wrist control, but Aphasia jumped up, shouting, 'Wait! Wait! Balloon!'
From out of the square panel that had opened in the dome, a red balloon floated, its string dangling. It hovered to Aphasia's hand, and she grabbed hold of it. 'You can close it up now.'
Hoff did so. The construction hummed with power as a defence shield activated.
'Let's explore, see what we're about,' August decided, pointing vaguely in the direction of town. 'If anybody sees the subject, or this companion of his, then call it in. And there's a TARDIS about somewhere, remember, which is very probably where the target is.'
They set off, Greeneye tossing his boater from hand to hand. Glancing at some animal movement in the bushes, possibly the dreaded cat, he missed, and the hat fell to the floor. He winced, as if bruised, as the evening breeze sent it tumbling across the ground. He halted briefly, concentrating.
The boater steadied itself, and, on some unseen means of propulsion, ran back across the forest floor to Greeneye, hopping back on to his head.
'Whatever this Time Lord's doing here,' he muttered, 'I hope he's enjoying it, because, let me tell you, it's going to be his lifetime's work.'
'Miaow… ' said Hoff.