| - A Sceptic's story - (a long read)
“So, you’re probably wondering why you’re here,” Oxard queried...
Marcus Duroc nervously set down from his bike outside his destination. It was a grand mansion house within Regent’s Park’s Outer Circle, you couldn't get a better address in the city. He pressed a button on the gate and was surprised when it clicked open without asking his name. Annoyed he was arriving sweaty; he was a little bewildered to be here at all. Lunch with the entrepreneur Erin Oxard was quite a privilege. He was something of a recluse, even though only in his early thirties. His surprise at being invited was a puzzle because he was one of Oxard’s fiercest critics in science journals and the popular press too. Critical of a company that burned through millions on research yet never produced any results. Even this mansion house was a provocation. It was probably worth something in the region of thirty million, or more, all paid for by gullible investors who would never see a penny back. So many SPACS ended up worthless, why wouldn’t Oxard’s SDY-30 go the same way. People weren’t even sure what SDY-30 stood for. It employed many leading-edge scientists, all sworn to secrecy. The company had all the hallmarks of a cult with zero transparency. It had risen quickly, almost without trace and been valued at four billion last time he looked. Crazy. He left his bike on the rack besides a muddy Canyon Grail. Not at all jealous ...
Marcus approached the front steps. He noted the SDY-30 logo on the wall and their slogan ‘Tempus Vincitur’. Which made it sound suspiciously like a watch company. Trying to be the next Rolex didn’t seem to Marcus to be a billion-dollar idea. As Marcus climbed the stone steps the front door opened, and a young woman stepped out. She seemed startled to see him and Marcus thought he saw tears in her eyes.
“Oh, are you Marcus Duroc?” She asked, grabbing a tissue to blow her nose.
“Yes, sorry, I’m running late. Protestors blocked the road in from Hammersmith.”
She wasn’t listening. “Just go up. I have to go, sorry. Erin knows you’re coming.”
He noticed she was carrying a small travel bag. He noted an Uber arrived at the outer gates. She hurried away as Marcus held the door open, then stepped inside.
The hallway was unexpectantly ultra-modern for a Regency house. Very sparse, no ornamentation at all. A magnificent staircase led to the first floor where a huge stained-glass window looked out over the Park. He left his helmet on a small table covered in unopened letters. That little detail interested him. Maybe they were all final demands.
He mounted the solid oak stairs. He had an unaccountable feeling of dread.
“Ah, Marcus Duroc, you came. I was beginning to think I was losing my cachet.”
Marcus looked up and saw the slim figure of Erin Oxard framed by the stained-glass window.
Marcus faked a smile.
“I’m hoping my friend Elspeth has left us something to eat. Smells good at least. She had to go. Urgent family business.”
Marcus joined the man on the landing, noted that Oxard was only about one inch taller than himself but decidedly better kept, except for his wild, messy hair.
Oxard led the way towards some imposing double doors with rather fetching Art Nouveau women clutching some purple flowers. “When my Uncle modernized this house, I wouldn’t let them remove these doors. Lord Leighton was the artist I believe. I was only ten then but had a keen interest in history. This was Henry De Vere’s home. Made a pile from supplying the army in the first world war. David Knot was something of a philistine, unfortunately.
Marcus suddenly understood where all the money came from. “David Knot, the oilman?”
“Oil and Power. All the useful rooms are on this floor. He slept downstairs. He was deathly afraid of fire. Which is ironic since …”
Marcus remembered. “His Tesla caught fire and he couldn’t get out in time.”
“Tragic really, but I do love an ironic story, don’t you? He only had one leg, must have been hard for him to act quickly. He left me this place and half his fortune. Which was a surprise to me as I thought he hated me.”
“Who got the other half?” Marcus asked, recalling a tawdry tale of rival mistresses taking the estate to court.
“The lawyers, the taxman, a lovechild in Brazil who blew the lot in a year.”
They entered the kitchen/dining room. Marcus paused, stunned by the opulence, the miles of granite and a twelve-seater all glass dining table. The kitchen boasted with a vast area of granite and ceramic hob with six heating options, two ovens, all finished off in an understated pale hint of steel green.
Oxard opened the fridge and extracted a bottle of Chardonnay.
“I hope you still drink wine at lunch. Have to ask these days, don’t want to drink on my own. After you’ve heard what I have to say, you’ll be needing it.”
Oxard didn’t elaborate, he gestured towards the kitchen apologetically. “Designs no reflection on me, I’m afraid. Before my Uncle died, I was renting a one room apartment and could barely afford that. I was working towards my PhD at Imperial when I got the call he’d died. Turned out he had been monitoring my progress from a distance. I was pretty surprised he’d made me his heir and left me the company to run. Fortunately, Elspeth came with it. She keeps the company going really. I just spend all the money on research. By the way, I enjoyed your little book on Conspiracy Theories. I had no idea that some of them dated back a couple of thousand years and are just updated and recycled.”
Marcus was surprised he’d read it. Hardly anyone else had. Debunking conspiracies and scams were his raison d’etre. He was especially concerned because he remembered he’d listed SDY-30 as a potential scam in progress.
“My Uncle liked to entertain here. Invited all kinds of people, artists, drunks, dancers, never dull scientists like me. Perhaps he needed to pretend they all liked him, like Gatsby.”
Marcus made no comment. He was beginning to wonder why he was here.
“I only came once. On my twenty-first. He insisted. I got blind drunk actually and was never asked back.”
Marcus attempted a smile. Been there, done that a few times himself.
“I’d better look in the oven and see what Elspeth has done for us. We had a chef, but we let him go. Dipped into the wine list a bit too often. Let a lot of people go lately, actually.”
“Oh?” Marcus scented a confession. The business was going tits up, just as he predicted.
“I inherited a lot of staff my Uncle liked to keep around and it’s not something I’m used to or want. I eat out a lot anyway. I can make my own bed. You’re always having to worry about what they want instead of getting on with your own life.”
Marcus kept his silence. He’d never grown up in a world of ‘staff’ either and couldn’t imagine having them around, watching, judging, creeping up behind you.
Oxard pulled oven gloves on, opened up one of the ovens and took out a large casserole dish. “Smells great. Bouillabaisse by the smell of it.” He extracted two baguettes wrapped in tinfoil as well. “A feast. Poor Elspeth will regret leaving so quickly. Her mother is in Madrid. Fell ill. She had to go.”
“Naturally,” Marcus muttered. The fish stew did smell good.
“So, you’re wondering why you’re here.” Oxard queried as he poured them the wine.
Oxard placed the dish on a metal plate and found them large white ceramic bowls to eat from. “Come and help yourself. I can’t judge for other people. You’ve got halibut, crayfish, and tiger prawns in there I think.”
They served themselves and brought the food to the table. Oxard indicated that Marcus should sit opposite him. He unwrapped one of the baguettes and smiled. “With garlic. Nice. I’m quite hungry. Had a ride in the park earlier, just after the rain.”
“I saw your bike. Must be convenient to live so close to the park.”
“I don’t get to ride as often as I’d like.” Oxard declared somewhat wistfully.
The two of them concentrated on eating for a few moments and savoring the wine. Marcus dipped his bread into the stew and soaked up some of the sauce. “Yes, um, I was wondering why you invited me.” He began.
“We’ve met before,” Oxard told him, sipping his wine.
Marcus frowned. He had an excellent memory for faces, if not names, and had no recollection of meeting Oxard before.
“Your sister’s wedding in Winchester.” Oxard told him.
Marcus winced. “Oh god. Really?”
Oxard laughed, revealing a very good set of white teeth. “I drove you back to London with Poppy.”
Marcus went slightly red with embarrassment. “Oh god, Poppy.”
“She went sick out of the back window. Practically stripped all the paint off my Mini.”
“I’m so sorry. I have no memory of this. None whatsoever.”
“But you do remember Poppy.”
“God yes. I proposed to her. Luckily, she turned me down.”
“Bad luck. She inherited the DeVere fortune. Married a cousin to the King.”
Marcus nodded. He’d tried not to follow Poppy’s rise in society.
“She lives next door actually with her three children.” Oxard revealed.
Marcus stared at him at a loss for words. He was reassessing the situation, reflecting on his own one room flat in Hackney he could barely afford the mortgage on. Poppy was right of course; he didn’t quite have the prospects she was expecting of a husband. He wondered if Oxard was trying to rub his nose in it. It was awkward he couldn’t recall meeting him or indeed anything about his sister’s wedding.
“So, tell me. Why am I here?” He asked, possibly a bit more forcibly than he had intended.
Oxard smiled as he ate another mouthful of food. “Because you’re the most sceptical person I know.”
Marcus tried to ascertain whether this was a good thing or bad.
“You hate everything we’re trying to do here, and you debunk pretty much every modern idea out there, including the threat of Ai, or whether man will ever colonise anything in outer space, or overcome climate change. You are literally against everything.”
Marcus sipped his wine and thought about a defence but no, couldn’t, wouldn’t, in fact. He was sceptical about everything in scientific or climate theory and all dystopian concepts about the end of mankind on a planet that had withstood everything for billions of years.
“And that’s why I’m here,” Marcus asked. “Because I hate your work, work that no one has any idea of what it is exactly you are researching.”
Oxard finished his bowl of stew and scraped his bread around the bowl for the last of the juices. “Must remember to thank Elspeth for this stew.” He looked up at Marcus. “You’re here because I know what is going to happen next.”
“Next?” Marcus queried. “You’re a mind reader now?”
Oxard giggled. “No. By next, I mean the future. The future you debunk. After all I’m a scientist.”
“Is this more dystopian shit?” Marcus asked. “Are there zombies is this future? I think I will have another glass of wine if you don’t mind.”
Oxard poured them both a decent amount, as he did so he noticed a large bird fly past the window towards the park. “Are you familiar with the Antil Theory?”
Marcus shook his head.
“Antil says that you can only go forward in time, it’s impossible to go back.”
Marcus resisted a snort of derision. “I always thought it was the opposite. At least, if you could go back in time, you could pinpoint a time and place, an event.”
“Quite and you have all those people wanting to go back and kill Hitler or save JFK or maybe take out one of the Caesars, Caligula, maybe.”
“Bunk,” Marcus declared.
Oxard nodded. “Antil claimed that just by going back you would automatically obliterate the future, or the present at least.”
Marcus took a healthy slug of his wine. “Nonsense, of course. You would alter something perhaps but not everything. I am aware of the butterfly effect.”
“Maybe you’re right. One person couldn’t alter everything.”
“And?” Marcus wondered where this conversation was going.
“SDY-30 has been researching time for the last ten years. I’ve only been part of it for the last two.”
Marcus laughed, couldn’t help himself. “Have they now. Any success?”
Oxard took another sip of his wine. It was perfectly dry.
“Yes?” Marcus queried, all pretence of taking this conversation seriously gone.
“Yes. They have successfully sent probes into the future.”
“Small electronic devices equipped with a camera and sound recording ability.”
“Which you send to the future.”
Marcus sat back in his chair and put his hands up. “Ok, nice joke. Get a sceptic in and make fun of him. Nice wine though. Probes?”
“Unmanned probes,” Oxard informed him, standing up and heading to a side table. He lifted up a small but heavy rectangular box and brought it back to the table. “This was the first prototype. Each one costs around a million.”
Marcus looked at the small box stuffed with electronics and scoffed. “A million.”
“We send them to a definitive point in a well-protected area and record what they see or hear.”
“Like sending a probe to Mars, I suppose.” Marcus suggested.
“Exactly. Same principle. Decide where you want to go, what you want to see and then bring it back.”
“And did it come back?” Marcus asked, a sarcastic smile on his face.
Oxard shrugged. “Not the first one. No. Or the second actually.”
“So, it’s another great British fuck up.” Marcus stated.
“Not quite. You lost two million quid sending stuff to the future and it didn’t come back. Did it even go anywhere?”
Oxard took out his phone and opened up a video to show him.
Marcus focused on the screen. He saw the box vanish. He snorted with derision. “Special effects. Happens all the time on Star Trek and other rubbish.”
Oxard agreed. “It does, but it so happens this isn’t special effects.” He pressed the video button again. “Test subject Number 3,” someone said off camera. There was a countdown and the object vanished again. Hardly a second passed when it returned.
Marcus shook his head. “A recording glitch. It didn’t go anywhere.”
“Well maybe. But in that second it returned highly radioactive.”
“Extremely. Two scientists had to be taken to hospital and have never returned to the project. It caused no end of trouble. People wanted to know how they had been exposed and it took a while to calm things down.”
The video continued with appropriately suited scientists taking radiation readings. “At first, they surmised the very act of time travel was the cause of it, but I doubted that. They tried to retrieve photos or sounds but radioactivity had corrupted everything and burned out the chips inside.”
“What could you have gotten in a second anyway,” Marcus asked. “Not that I’m accepting any of this is real.”
“The clock showed that the device had been there a week before it returned. That was what it was programmed to do. Return to a single moment after it had left.”
Marcus shook his head. “It’s a nice story. H. G. Wells would have enjoyed it. I’m disappointed there aren’t any Morlocks on tape, however.”
Oxard agreed. “Morlocks would have been interesting at least. We sent another probe to an earlier date. Same result.”
“This is costing you a lot of money. No wonder you burned through so much cash.”
“Not to mention the salaries, upkeep, the power bills are huge.”
“But you didn’t invite me here to believe any of this. You realise I’ll be writing something about this meeting.”
Oxard stood up. “Coffee?"
“Yes, thanks. You have any almond milk or oat?”
Marcus nodded. “How many probes were sent?”
“Twelve in the first batch.”
Marcus whistled. “That’s a lot of money to lose.”
“Each one sent to an earlier date each time. And each one returned radioactive.”
“Which proves that adage about insanity is repeating the same old experiments and expecting different results, right?”
“Einstein actually believed in time travel.”
“Really? I doubt it.”
“So, either time travel itself somehow causes objects to become radioactive or …”
“Or?” Marcus asked.
“It’s the ‘or’ that got my attention. After all, all this was proving was that time travel to the future was impossible. After the twelfth probe returned radioactive it would have seemed to any reasonable person that time travel can’t be done.” Oxard brought the coffees to the table. “So, I prevailed upon the remaining scientists, we were running low on funds now, to send two probes. One to the beginning of next month, they had always sent them years ahead and the other to a fixed point in the past.”
“The Queen’s funeral. We know when, where. We set the probe to go to the Mall at a specific time so we could compare to the TV coverage that day.”
“Logical but a little bit unimaginative.”
“The Queen’s funeral probe returned late, an hour late as it happens but that might be a lab issue forgetting that the clocks went forward or back, I forget now. But it did return.”
“And it was still radioactive.”
“We sent to that destination because one of the staff knew exactly where he was standing and what time, on top of a letter box to get a better view of the passing coffin. And there he was. We compared it to BBC footage of the day, a different angle, and he’s briefly glimpsed there too. It’s a proof at least that we can go back.”
Marcus wasn’t convinced. “Could be faked with AI.”
“Maybe but why would anyone fake that? You’re forgetting probe fourteen.” Oxard stated.
“Which went to the first of the month.”
“Which is now next week, in fact.”
Marcus sensed something was off here. “And did this one return?”
“Yes. And no, it wasn’t radioactive either.”
Marcus sipped his coffee and frowned. “So, time travel doesn’t…”
“Make things radioactive. No.”
“And did you get pictures? Sounds?”
Oxard opened up his phone again and searched for the video.
“We sent the probe to a particular coffee shop nearby where we knew no one would notice it arriving or leaving. One that Elspeth uses where they have Radio 4 on all the time. Not music. I think she times going there every day to catch up on the Archers.”
Marcus laughed. “Funny.”
Oxard played the video. Marcus watched with a detached interest. He was in distinct danger of believing this nonsense if he didn’t keep a clear head.
Oxard fast forwarded a moment. “Just people having coffee and cake, the usual … then this.” He let the video play again.
“One o’clock news.” Marcus noted.
“Listen,” Oxard told him.
“There’s shock in the cricket world today as Gerald Forbes the commentator collapsed and died on air in Australia. Tributes to follow. Tension rises in Ukraine, huge losses on both sides as the war of attrition escalates. There is also rising tension in the USA where voters will go to the polls on November 4th. This will be the first election where the Republican candidate is running for president from jail. President Harris, who isn’t standing for election, having lost her nomination in the primary to Governor Gavin Newsome has ordered the National Guard to be ready for dis…”
Oxard hit pause. “The news isn’t what interests us, except for the cricket commentator I suppose. It’s what happens next.” He pressed play again.
A man, young, slightly balding is heading towards the door with a takeaway coffee in his hands is suddenly called by his name. He turns, surprised. A young woman wearing sunglasses stands up and opens fire, shooting him dead.
Marcus stared at the ensuring chaos and screaming from panicked customers, some crawling under tables. The woman remains serenely calm and walks forward, stepping over the dead man and out the door. The video stops.
Marcus looked at Oxard with confusion on his face. “Someone gets shot in a London coffeeshop. Not so unusual these days. Is this why you asked me here? To see this?”
Oxard drained his coffee. “First of all, do you accept this is real.”
Marcus tilted his head and he thought about his answer. “Your story is convincing but so far everything I have seen could have been faked by AI.”
“Even the cricket commentator? He’s still alive by the way. Would you like to warn him.”
Marcus pulled back at little and straightened his back. “Me? What the hell would I say? How would I prove it? And anyway, isn’t he more likely to have a heart attack if he believes he’s going to have one? Did you warn him?”
Oxard shook his head. “Same dilemma. Even if we showed him the video, he’d think it’s a set-up of some kind.”
“Hmm, I find it hard to accept but it’s interesting at least.”
“I thought you were a sceptic.” Oxard allowed himself a sly smile.
Marcus screwed up his face. He smiled back. “Yeah, I admit I am intrigued. I still don’t know why I’m here or what I’m supposed to write. I can’t see any credible editor going for this.”
“We identified the dead man in the coffee shop. Earl Farnham.”
“Name means nothing to me.”
“Intelligence officer with MI5.”
“Oh. And you know this how?”
“We have access to facial recognition software. The woman, we think is a Russian agent.”
“I thought they only used poison.”
“Lovers tiff we’re guessing. I had someone check his home address. She was seen leaving early in the morning two days ago. Days before this event happened.”
“Bit more than a tiff, don’t you think?”
Oxard shrugged. “So, we sent another probe to a different location to arrive late on November 5th. Another place where we know we’d have TV news being broadcast.”
“Ah ha, so you can make a killing on the betting on the outcome of the election. I knew there would be a money angle somewhere.”
“No bets. This is a science project. The probe came back.” Oxard paused.
“It was radioactive.”
Marcus was puzzled now. “You said time travel doesn’t trigger radiation.”
“I did. It doesn’t.”
“We’re thinking London disappears somewhere between midnight on the 4th and midday on the 5th.”
Marcus scoffed. “But there’s no sign of war. You heard the news. No, no, that can’t be right. It’s an error in your calculations. Send another probe.”
“That’s why you’re here. On the 4th of November there are NATO naval exercises off the coast of Scandinavia. For some reason that was left off the news but one of our people glimpsed it on the front page of the Guardian someone was reading in the cafe. These things are scheduled years ahead, so we were easily able to confirm that.”
“This is just a week away,” Marcus protested. He checked his phone and showed Oxard the Politico website. “Protests about it in St Petersburg and Denmark right now.” He frowned. “You’re saying there’s going to be a nuclear war? There’s nothing to indicate that anything is happening except these protests.”
Oxard sighed. “It seems we are. Or rather the UK is. We are unable to say if it’s going worldwide. We were going to send a probe to New York and send that into the future from there but there were logistical problems - not least with customs.”
“Shouldn’t we warn people?” Marcus asked.
Oxard smiled, wondering if he could manage another cup of coffee.
“It was hard enough convincing you. How would we convince anyone else? How much panic would you like to start? At best we would be investigated by MI5 or MI6, traduced as conspiracy theorists and it wouldn’t stop a thing.”
“So why did you invite me? Seriously?”
“Because there’s no future, I’m going into the past.”
“You’re going! But the probes are tiny. I don’t understand.”
Oxard stood up and stretched. “I asked them to build me a bigger box. Last thing they did before they all quit. Some of the scientists think they’ll be better off in Australia or New Zealand. Even Elspeth deserted me, as you saw.”
Marcus nodded. “I’m thinking the same thing.”
Oxard shrugged. “As you should. But I’m heading in the other direction, the past. London in 1925, to be exact.”
Marcus let loose a short sharp laugh. “1925? Good grief why? They haven’t invented antibiotics, I’m not even sure aspirin was available, everyone smokes, and everything stinks of coal fumes.”
“Maybe so, but I intend to ship out to New York. I have acquired genuine dollars and pound notes from the period to get by for a time, at least.” He smiled. “I have all the data on stock market transactions on both sides of the Atlantic. As long as I don’t draw attention to myself, I will get by.”
“And what about the butterfly effect. Aren’t there rules about this? You can’t change things; you might not be born or something.”
“I’m an optimist. Of course, I might not survive. No time to test the thing.”
“You’ll go crazy like Biff in Back to the Future. You taking sports scores as well?”
Oxard laughed. “Biff was an idiot. I’m merely selfish. Perhaps I can make life better, who knows. I’m a quantum mechanics scientist remember.”
“But one change can change everything.” Marcus exploded.
“I thought you were a sceptic.”
Marcus reddened. “I am.”
“Then you won’t mind flipping the switch.”
“I can’t send myself. Needs someone outside the force field to do that. It’s a one-time, one-way event, Marcus.”
“Are you serious?”
“And if I stay, I’ll get a good view of the end of the world. It’s tempting but …”
Marcus rubbed his head, definitely uncomfortable with this idea. “I pull the switch and then what?”
“I’d take the next flight to New Zealand. Somewhere remote. Don’t wait.”
Marcus was clearly agitated now. “I’m just supposed to do this. What if you die? I’ll be accused of murder.”
“Who will know? Unless you write about it. Probably too late to get it into print I’m guessing. As you said, editors are sceptics too. Listen Marcus, I chose you because you’re a heartless critic who doesn’t care about any destruction you might cause when you unload your strident opinions. You’d have no moral compunction to save me from myself. I need you to pull the switch and go home. You have five and a half days before all this comes to an end.”
“And if it doesn’t – come to an end?”
“You can publish a story about a mad scientist who sent himself to 1925 to avoid a nuclear war. Hell, you can even live in this house if you like, next to the lovely Poppy, she’s lonely I hear. I won’t be back. Council tax is horrendous, so is the electricity bill. You have no idea how much power it takes to send someone back in time.”
“When what?” Oxard asked.
“When do you want me to flip the switch?”
Oxard smiled. “Today. Now. I just need to pee, get changed. I loaded up the box with everything I think I’ll need.”
“Dressed?” Marcus asked, confused.
“Edwardian suit and appropriate shoes.”
“You don’t go naked then.”
Oxard grinned. “It’s not The Terminator, Marcus. I’m taking antibiotics, indigestion tablets, paracetamol, thermal underwear, a few other essentials.”
“Where is it?”
“We’re set up in the lab at the side of the garden. Underground, three floors. Could be it might survive a nuclear attack, but I don’t want to test that particular theory. There’s an underground passage to the park, dug in 1905. A previous owner had a predilection for nocturnal liaisons I suspect. That way I can emerge into 1925 discretely.”
Oxard took the cups back to the counter and picked up a lemon from the bowl. One of the scientists had suggested that he’d need to test his sense of smell after transmission.
“You’ll do it?” Oxard asked again.
Marcus thought about it and then shrugged. Be worth it to watch someone disappear at least. “Don’t you have any friends who could do this?” He asked.
Oxard grimaced. “Not really. None that would have the courage to flip the switch. It needed to be a sceptic, like you, Marcus. I’d ask my mother but she’s in France. Wouldn’t want to spoil her holiday.”
Marcus looked across at the kitchen. Worst case scenario he’d live like a king for five and half days. He could host an end of the world party, if he had any friends. It was a plan, at least.
“I’ll do it. Then fly to New Zealand.”
“Good man. They do an excellent Sauvignon Blanc.” Oxard agreed. “I’ll just get changed. Make yourself another coffee or finish the wine.”
Marcus watched him go and briefly wondered if he had gone completely mad.
Marcus followed Oxard out into the garden, amused at his Edwardian suit and black brogues. “I hope you’ve worn them in, brogues are a real bitch if you’re not used to them. You’re carrying an iPad. That’s not very authentic.”
Oxard smiled as he punched in the security numbers for the lab. “That’s for you. The start sequence. There isn’t an actual switch. It’s a start code. Can’t take it into the box as the electromagnets would fry it. I’ll show you what to do.”
“You’re crazy for doing this without sending a guinea pig first.” Marcus told him.
“No time. No one left to build another, no money either. This is frontier science, Marcus.”
They entered the lab lobby. A huge world map was painted on the facing wall. There was something odd about it. He looked more closely. It was from the 17th Century.
“Something my Uncle had painted. No idea why.”
“What happens if you die…?” Marcus asked as they walked down to the next level.
“Just lock up and leave. Go home. This will be my mausoleum.”
“A lonely death.”
“You’ll be here. Who knows it might be a new beginning. Maybe I’ll change everything. No World War Two, no Cold War.”
Marcus wrinkled his nose. “Now who’s got a god complex.”
There were thick power cables everywhere snaking around the walls. Marcus was beginning to understand that it would take a lot of energy to make this happen.
“What if you’re wrong?” He asked Oxard. “I mean, aren’t you scared?”
“Yes, I’m scared. But not as scared of being vaporized by an atomic bomb.”
Oxard climbed into the box and tried to get comfortable, it was a very tight squeeze.
“I might not change a single thing Marcus or die of smallpox on the ship across the Atlantic. Come here, let me show you the start sequence.”
Marcus approached. “You’re absolutely sure you want me to press the start sequence, Erin? Not that I think anything will happen.”
Oxard was irritated now. “Yes, damnit. Start it before I lose my bloody nerve.”
Marcus shrugged. “OK, but I absolve myself of any responsibility here.”
Oxard let escape a short nervous laugh. “That’s why I chose you, Marcus. You never take responsibility for anything you do. Start it now!”
Marcus initiated the start sequence and retreated behind the safety screen. He could feel the power surging around the room and a growing high-pitched whine that was increasingly unbearable. “You OK in there?” He shouted above the din.
“It takes 44 seconds to warm up,” Oxard shouted back.
Marcus could see the countdown on the iPad. The air pressure was building, he could barely breathe, and he realized his nose was bleeding. He heard Oxard screaming, he couldn’t move a muscle to help him as the whole room vibrated. He was hallucinating now as he saw the iPad float in the air up towards the ceiling. Marcus pressed his hand over his ears convinced his head was going to explode, his body convulsed and shook and then he abruptly lost consciousness.
He awoke sometime later, the taste of blood in his mouth. All the lights were out. There was a smell of bacon in the air and curiously he could feel each one of his teeth. Disorientated, he stood up, feeling lightheaded and nauseous. He flipped on the torch element on his iPhone. The big box was still there but smoking. He staggered over to look inside. “Are you gone?”
Oxard had been fried to a crisp along with everything else in there.
“You should have sent that guinea pig first, Oxard.” Marcus said, then turned away to throw up.
On the way back up the stairs Marcus reflected on the absurdity of this time travel charade. Was any of it true or an elaborate hoax to make him believe it? Invite a professional sceptic to lunch and then prove time travel isn’t possible. Ironic but why?
He paused by the map of the 17th Century world. For a long while people hadn’t believed the New World existed either until explorers proved it did. Was that the message?
It was evening when he emerged. London was dark. That power surge must have knocked out the power everywhere. The garden door was locked. He made his way towards the front of the house. Oxard had given him the key code.
“Good Evening sir, are you here for Miss Poppy’s engagement party?”
A man dressed as a butler, or something, approached him holding an oil lamp aloft.
Marcus blinked. “Poppy is getting engaged? Again?” He mumbled. He hadn’t realized she’d even got divorced.
The butler person chuckled. “I hope you’re not one of the disappointed suitors, sir. It was a sudden decision I understand. Electric power seems to be out if you’d follow me. I’ve asked the rest of the servants to dig out the candles. It’s been a while since we had to use them. The reception is upstairs in the ballroom. Sir James will be here soon.
Marcus saw a car arriving. A vintage, or was that veteran, Bentley. An enormous beast of a car with huge but inadequate headlights. He looked up at the house again in the glare of the headlights. It seemed to have changed, but it was hard to tell in the light. He mounted the stairs in confusion. The house should be empty. Why was Poppy having an engagement party in Oxard’s house and not her own?
A servant stood in the lobby with a lamp illuminated with a single candle.
Marcus approached her and spoke softly. “Erm, to whom is Poppy getting engaged to?”
“Sir Henry DeVere sir. Supposed to be a secret but everyone knows.”
“But …” Marcus blinked. Sir Henry De Vere was Poppy’s grandfather, how… Then he remembered that Poppy was named after her grandmother who was a great supporter of opera and the arts in pre-war London. Pre-war London. This was not his Poppy at all. Not his time. He swore as he climbed the ornate stairs. Damn Oxard, damn him forever. This was 1925. He was stuck forever in the past without a penny to his name.
He heard chattering ahead and the clink of glasses. He passed through the great ornate wooden doors and was immediately handed a glass of champagne. Luckily it was dark, he wasn’t exactly dressed right for the occasion, but he quickly downed his glass. Time to network. He was an Oxford man when it came down to it. He knew the future. Had to be worth something to someone in this gathering. Yes, if he played his cards right, he could make a living here. He knew a little of the history of Opera and Sadler’s Wells through his famous grandfather, Mathew Duroc. Memo to self, find a place to live and learn to use a typewriter pronto.
“Ah, Poppy. So good to see you again. Congratulations. Quite a coup.”
She blinked, smiled and although she couldn’t quite place him offered him her gloved hand to kiss.
“Marcus Duroc,” he reminded her. “We met at Sir Thomas’s Beecham’s little party, my cousin Mathew …”
“Oh, Matty is your cousin. Yes, you even look alike. You're both so handsome.” She giggled. “I hope I haven’t made an awful mistake, but my mother tells me handsome men make terrible husbands.”
Marcus dutifully laughed. “Very wise, I’m sure.”
“Come and meet my fiancé, Marcus. He’s very bored already. I do hope you know something about the future. He’s all about modern living and how we must take control of the future. Doesn’t seem to live in 1925 at all.”
||© Sam Hawksmoor - December 2023
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