The sway of the train and the steady clacking of wheels across joints in the track might have lulled Stirling to sleep, if the dull throb of pain from wrist and knee hadn’t kept up a steady counterpoint to the rhythm of the rails. He’d sat stiffly upright and correct in his seat for the first quarter of an hour out of the station, before giving up all pretense of appearances and simply eased himself into the least uncomfortable position he could manage. The newspaper he’d picked up in London lay in untidy folds on the seat, unable to hold his interest despite articles on Northern Ireland’s continuing Troubles and some archaeologist’s claim that a major volcanic eruption on Krakatoa in the middle of the sixth century a.d. had disrupted worldwide weather patterns for more than a decade, triggering the worldwide failure of agriculture, the mass migration of various peoples and a spread of plague throughout Britain, all across Europe, even creating population upheavals in Ireland. The bloke quoted in the article even blamed the eruption for the Dark Age’s collapse of European civilization—including the defeat of King Arthur’s Britons by Saxon invaders.
Somehow, he couldn’t work up much enthusiasm about events from the year 538 a.d. when his body ached from still-mending injuries sustained in a firefight he should never have been involved in, in the first bloody place. He had, at least, come a long way since his initial discharge from hospital. Belfast to Blackpool by military airlift, down through Manchester and Derbyshire by rail to London and a battery of surgical specialists to repair his knee, then from London to York and points north by rail, on his way to a new posting he didn’t particularly want. In fact, the only good thing he could find in the assignment Ogilvie had handed him, his first day out of rehab in London hospital, was the location.
Trevor Stirling hadn’t been home in four years.
He’d forgotten how much he loved the dour Scottish hills until the train plunged over the edge of the Southern Uplands, revealing Edinburgh spread out in the late afternoon, golden light spilling across the Lothians and the Pentland Hills which swept down to the very edge of town. A storm front was moving in, scudding low over Arthur’s Seat, an achingly familiar mountain that lifted its brooding black profile well above the prominence of Calton Hill. The Palace of Holyroodhouse and Edinburgh Castle dominated the skyline along the rocky spine known as Royal Mile, which ran slap through the heart of Old Town. The train roared its way across the high spans of the Forth rail bridge, far above the glimmering waters of the Firth of Forth, while the leading edge of the storm obscured all but a smudge of the Highland ranges in the distance.
Stirling leaned back against the seat, abruptly exhausted by the hours-long train ride up from London. His wrist, broken in several places beneath the cast, ached and his newly repaired knee had swollen up and gone stiff inside its brace. It had needed surgery to repair damaged cartilage and torn ligaments. He wouldn’t be seeing combat for a good, long while yet, a prospect that both dismayed and relieved him. Lying about in hospital with far too much time on his hands had eaten ragged holes in his self-confidence. When finally released, he’d left the hospital with a cane, a bad limp, and a gnawing fear that he’d be useless to the regiment.
And Ogilvie, never the fool, had spotted the trouble at once. His final debriefing flashed through a memory still raw from his own inadequacy: the slow limp toward a chair, the stiff knee and the stiffer scotch Ogilvie poured and pressed into his hand, the embarrassed flush of awkwardness, easing himself down into the chair.
“I’ve been giving some thought to your future with the regiment, Stirling,” Ogilvie said quietly, steepling his fingertips. “Your record is exemplary, your loyalty unquestionable, which is why I’m considering you for special assignment.”
Stirling lowered his glass cautiously. “Special assignment, sir?”
“We’ve had a request from the Home Secretary’s Office for someone with experience in Belfast. Seems the IRA’s been showing interest in a research facility they’ve tucked away in a nice, quiet little spot in the Scottish Lowlands. They want someone up there who understands the IRA. I’ve recommended you.”
Dismay rose like bile in his gorge. “Research facility? Are you fobbing me off with an assignment to guard a bunch of ruddy scientists?”
Ogilvie grinned. “Pegged it straight off, didn’t you? I know what you’re thinking and you’re not far wrong. This business has shaken you, lad, whether you admit it or don’t, and frankly, I can’t afford to send anyone up there who’s not already sick-listed. We’re short-handed until we can bring in replacements. You can’t function on the streets with a partially rehabilitated knee and a broken wrist, but you’re certainly up to handling this little job. Think of it as a holiday, if you like. Or call it a belated birthday present from your colonel. I think,” he added with a quirk of the lips, “you’ll rather fancy the research site.”
The colonel chuckled. “You hale from the Highlands, don’t you?”
“Stirling, actually,” he nodded, “gateway to the Highlands. Straddles the only mountain pass between the Highlands and the Scottish Lowlands.” Stirling Castle, whose walls overlooked seven major battlefields, including Robert the Bruce’s resounding victory over England’s Edward II at Bannockburn, was legendary in the annals of Scottish history. And if legend were to be trusted, even King Arthur had understood its strategic value, wresting a much older fortress on the site from a Saxon army. “My ancestors go back a ways,” he added with a wry twist of the lips. “There’ve been Stirlings in Stirling since time immemorial.”
“That’s grand, then. You’ll be familiar with the countryside and the locals will trust you as one of their own. It’s a delicate situation, calls for a man good with people. I’ve half a dozen other men sick-listed that I might’ve recommended for this job, but they haven’t either the people skills or the Scots background we want. You’re the man for it, no mistake. Study the file on your way up,” Ogilvie added, handing over a sealed manila envelope. “Your train leaves for Edinburgh in two hours, the best transportation I could manage on short notice, since you’re in no shape to be driving, and I can’t commandeer military transport for one man. Wouldn’t send the message we want, anyway. We’re not taking them over, at the lab, we’re protecting them. You’ll be met by a car from the research site when you reach Edinburgh. Stop in and say hello to your family for a few days, when the job’s done. You’ve earned that much, at least.”
“Yes, sir,” he said, trying to conceal the glum disappointment settling over him. Sent packing to stand watch over a gaggle of scientists… “Thank you, sir,” he added unhappily, finishing the scotch and accepting the envelope with his new orders.
Ogilvie just grinned and clapped him on the shoulder.
Two hours later, he had limped aboard the train, found his seat, and rumbled northward through a wet English morning, heading home for an assignment no SAS man in his right mind would have volunteered for.
They hit a delay on the line when the train was forced to stop while crews worked to clear wet leaves from the rails. The weight of trains crushed the leaves into a gluelike sludge so slick trains had literally slid through stations, on occasion, unable to brake and ending derailed with passengers injured. The bane of British rail travel, thousands of pounds of fallen leaves every year required work crews to strip the rails by hand with sandpaper and cleaning solvents. Accustomed to military transport, Stirling had forgotten how frustrating such delays could be, particularly when he was tired and hurting.
They finally jerked into motion again, houses and familiar landmarks flashing wetly past. Castle Rock, the Scott Monument with its Gothic spires, and the porticoes of Greek-style art galleries… By the time they finally chugged into Waverly Station at city center, depositing Stirling on the pavement along with the rest of the bleary-eyed flotsam spilling out through the station doors, the storm front had rolled across the city. A cold rain was pouring, typical of Scotland’s weather, although Edinburgh’s was generally drier than Glasgow’s, farther west.
Limping through the station, Stirling fought a running battle just to keep his eyes open.
He finally reached the curb and scanned the line of cars queued up there, squinting against drenching gusts of rain, hopeful he wouldn’t have to wait long. He spotted an ancient Land Rover, allowed his gaze to slide past, then snapped it back with a rising sense of dismay. The driver, a boyish chap who at second glance might have been as much as thirty, was leaning patiently against the battered fender, holding a ratty umbrella and a hand-scrawled sign that said, innocuously enough,
“You’d be Captain Stirling, then?”
“I would,” he allowed.
“Marc Blundell, project liaison and dog’s body. If anything wants fetching, I’m the one to do it.” Blundell eyed the wrist cast and the crutch-cane with a dubious glance. “Training accident?”
“No.” It came out stiffer than his knee. “Clonard.”
Blundell’s eyes widened. “Bugger, you say? The
Stirling didn’t bother to respond. No civilian could possibly understand, anyway.
A flush crept up Blundell’s neck. “Right. Well. Let’s be off, shall we? Beastly weather, it usually is.” Blundell hunted through pockets for keys, unlocked the doors, and tossed Stirling’s duffel into the backseat. “Put yourself in the passenger’s seat, Captain. Would you be needing to go the messages before we leave town?”
Stirling paused in the midst of wrestling one-handed with the door latch, surprised into a faint smile. Scots dialect, its English idiom influenced to an improbable degree by past ties to France, sounded at once alien and the most heartwarming thing he’d heard in four years. “Thanks, but no, I did my shopping in London before the train went.”
Blundell gave him another quick, narrow-eyed once-over, followed abruptly by a cheery grin. “You’re a Scots lad, then? No lowland Englishman would’ve understood that.”
Stirling finally wrenched open the passenger door with a scream of rusted hinges, legacy of Scotland’s eternal damp. The interior of the Land Rover smelled of mildew and stale pipe smoke; the pipe lay upended in the ash tray. He eased himself into the seat. “I was born in Stirling, as a matter of fact. Took a university degree from Edinburgh before signing on with the SAS.”
“A university man, now?” Blundell muttered, brows twitching upward as he slid behind the wheel. “That’s one we didn’t expect. What was it you studied?”
“History, as it happens. Military history, mostly.”
Blundell’s second once-over was even keener than the first. “You’ll fit the bill better than we thought, then. Belt yourself in, Captain, and we’ll be off. It’s a bit of a drive to Stirling and the weather’s supposed to worsen toward evening.”
That, at least, was no surprise. The Land Rover roared away from the curb with a surprising burst of speed which spoke of careful maintenance to the engine, whatever the condition of the chassis and hinges. Blundell negotiated afternoon rush-hour traffic with ease while the windscreen wipers played a slap-swash melody against the glass. As he made the turning onto the M9 Motorway northwest out of Edinburgh, Blundell said, “The site is well away from town, between Culross and Stirling proper, so make yourself comfortable.”
Stirling grimaced. “Right.” He eased his leg into a new position.
“There’s coffee in the thermos, if you want it,” he added, nodding toward a large canister between the seats, along with two plastic cups. “Might warm you up a bit, after that drenching rain.”
Given the lack of heat emanating from the Land Rover’s vents—simple openings onto the engine block, not a proper heater at all—Stirling poured coffee and gulped it gratefully. Not as satisfying as tea, but warm and chock-full of caffeine, which he needed rather badly.
“Were you posted to Belfast long?” Blundell asked at length.
“Long enough. A year.”
“Not a good one, this last year. Bit of a mess.”
There wasn’t much point in answering.
Blundell glanced his way again “You’ve experience with the IRA, at least. We’ll need that.”
Stirling studied Blundell’s profile. Despite his apparent youthfulness, the skin around his eyes was taut and the muscles along his jaw had bunched into corded knots. “Trouble?”
“Not yet. We’re expecting it, though. Leastways, I am. Some of the others…” Blundell paused, reddening slightly. “You’ll see when we arrive, I’m afraid. Security is a joke.”
Much like the project, Stirling thought uncharitably. Time travel… He’d be a laughingstock when word got round the regiment. He could hear it now: Have you heard about Stirling’s latest conquest? Went haring off into the bloody Lowlands, chasing terrorists who’ve better sense than fall for a hare-brained scheme like time travel. Poor bugger, never was the same after Clonard…
“I brought along employment dossiers,” Blundell interrupted his glum maunderings. The project liaison was rummaging in a file box behind the thermos. “Thought you might like to get started,” he added with an uncertain smile, “since it’s a bit of a drive up and there’s not much to see, with this rain.”
“Thanks.” He hoped it hadn’t come out quite as dryly as he feared.
Blundell glanced rather sharply at him, then switched his attention back to the road, which flowed like a creek with runoff from the storm. “Don’t mention it. I’ll leave you to study our profiles, then.”
The chatty project liaison fell silent at last. Stirling opened the first file as the tires whined along the broad motorway, skirting the long reach of the Firth of Forth estuary. Paper rattled and crinkled as he read through the dossiers, the sound quiet against a backdrop of drumming rain and occasional rumbles of thunder. The staff were a mixed lot, which he already knew, of course, having read Ogilvie’s files, but the employment dossiers gave him a different slant on the resident scientific team. At the very least, the files drew his attention away from the aches in wrist and knee.
The first on his list was Terrance Beckett, project director and quantum physicist, with degrees from Oxford and an American university called MIT. His chief assistant, London-born Zenon Mylonas, obviously of Greek immigrant descent, had advanced degrees in quantum mechanics and theoretical mathematics. They jointly supervised the work of graduate student Fairfax Dempsey, another quantum physicist. All three men haled from England, with unimpeachable backgrounds, and all three had been with the project for more than a year. Irma Hubert, the only female mathematician among them, had joined the project six months previously, and Wilbur Rosswald, physicist, had come aboard five weeks ago.
Cedric Banning, one of the six senior scientists, was involved with an unlikely field called psychoneuroimmunology, with a specialty in bioenergetic plasma fields, whatever those were. He, too, supervised a graduate student, a fairly recent addition to the staff. Jill Dearborne had been recruited by Terrance Beckett himself, three weeks previously. Banning had been with the project for two months, replacing a plasma-field specialist killed in a motor crack-up, victim of a blinding rainstorm and wet pavements. Banning hailed from Australia originally, but had been raised in Manchester, according to his security clearance paperwork.
Marc Blundell, intent on his driving and fumbling tobacco into his pipe, might not look the part, but evidently was a quantum mechanics genius, thus proving that appearances had very little in common with talent. He was the official project liaison with the Home Secretary’s Office, as well, which suggested shortcomings in Terrance Beckett’s personality. Indrani Bhaskar, Whitechapel native, had won a scholarship to Oxford, where she had distinguished herself to the point of winning a professorship of history early in her career. Clayton Crandall and Amber Darnell served Bhaskar as assistant historians.
Quite a mixed bag, and he hadn’t even reached the bottom of the pile.
Norvell Mann was resident computer programmer, working with Elsa Maynard, computer hardware technician. Then there was Edsel Cuthbert, data analyst; Leo Hobart, who performed complicated computer modeling scenarios; and Sergio Donatelli, computer data tech. The entire computer technical staff hailed from London. Not one had reached their thirtieth birthday, yet. Twenty-odd was plenty of time to develop clandestine connections, of course, but none seemed to
In fact, there was only one person on the entire team who
Stirling narrowed his eyes. He wanted a word with Mr. Cameron Blair. Several words, in fact. Although he disliked snap judgements, the leading candidate for IRA activity was clearly Brenna McEgan. He frowned and pulled thoughtfully at his lower lip. There were plenty of other newcomers to the staff, of course, and the IRA certainly wasn’t above paying someone to do their snooping for them, although it wasn’t their usual
He read them through twice, then set the last one aside, fishing through pockets for an anti-inflammatory which he swallowed with coffee from Blundell’s thoughtful thermos. He sipped, grateful for the warmth. As they rounded a long, sweeping curve in the road, he said, “You haven’t included the peripherals in these dossiers.”
“Peripherals?” Blundell echoed, eyes widening in uncertain surprise. “What d’you mean?”
“Cleaning crews, groundskeepers, maintenance men, what have you. Peripheral staff.”
A look of utter chagrin stole a march across the liaison’s boyish face. “Hadn’t thought of that.”
Stirling held back a sigh. “How many?”
“Let’s see… Four—no, five. A charwoman, she comes every day for the cleaning; the groundsman and his assistant, they come round weekly; the equipment technician, he comes every five days or so for adjustments and spot checks. Then there’s the lady who runs the concession, she comes in every couple of days to fill the machines. Oh, make it six, some days she sends her eldest daughter. Girl’s sharp as a razor, but a sweet little thing. Completely wasted filling machines with candy bars and suchlike. Ought to be at college, someplace, but they haven’t the funds and her father’s that sick, her mother needs her at home.”
A good candidate for bribe money, then, from any IRA mole wanting access or information. “Any of them housed on site?”
“Not the peripherals, as you call them. Not all the staff, for that matter. Team’s grown, these last few months, and we haven’t enough space in the cottages to accommodate everyone. McEgan lives off site, so do Banning and Mylonas, from the senior group, and most of the assistants rent rooms, as well.”
“There’s a gatekeeper, surely, acting as a security checkpoint?”
Blundell’s chagrin deepened visibly. “Well, actually, we haven’t needed any such precautions. Until now.” He cleared his throat. “We’re accustomed to civilian status, y’see. It’s only recently, with the Home Office’s interest, that we’ve realized there might be military or terrorist applications to our work.”
Stirling sighed aloud this time. Blundell was right. If this were their notion of security, it
It was nearly dark by the time they turned off the main road, several kilometers short of Stirling, with its century-spanning history of warfare and its high cliff where Stirling Castle sat—if legend was correct—atop the remains of a Dark Ages stronghold that had been named as one of King Arthur’s fortresses, possibly even ranking as a “second Camelot.” Caerleon and Carlisle, down in the border counties, vied for the honor of “first Camelot.”
The familiar, much loved countryside stirred long-forgotten memories, adventures with schoolmates, playing rough-and-tumble war games up the slopes surrounding Stirling Castle, pretending he and his mates were knights of the Round Table. No remains had been found, of course, but neither he nor his mates had cared one whit for archaeological evidence. It was the romance of it that mattered.
As he glanced out the Land Rover’s windows at the rain-darkened slopes, Trevor Stirling allowed himself a slightly bitter smile. What fools they’d been, playing at war in these hills. Warfare in the sixth century had doubtless been a bloody business, as grimly devastating to civilian populations as it was in the twenty-first century. Stirling was no longer interested in the tales which both his grandfathers—Scots and Welsh—had recounted, of brave British chieftains holding back incursions of barbarians from Saxony, from Jutland in Denmark, from Ireland and the Pictish Highlands.
Fighting a sixth-century war would’ve been bloody hard business, even against more favorable odds than the Britons had faced. When all was said and done, what had Arthur really accomplished? A delay of the inevitable for a few decades? Stirling closed his eyes. God, he was tired of the fighting… Which was exactly why Ogilvie had sent him up here, rather than posting him back to Belfast. He wasn’t fit for duty any longer.
As the Land Rover’s headlamps picked out the rough asphalt track Blundell followed up into the mountains, Stirling’s low opinion of security dropped even further. There
A row of cottages stood along the access road, prefab affairs lacking any remotely attractive features, just dull little buildings of concrete where some of the on-site staff lived. “That largest cottage, there,” Blundell pointed, “is Terrance Beckett’s. You couldn’t pry him away from here with all the whiskey in Whitechapel.”
“What, he never goes into town at all? Doesn’t he fancy a night at the pub now and again?”
Blundell grinned. “Oh, aye, now and again. But with the Falkland Arms just a few hundred meters down the road, why go all the way to Stirling? The Falklands run a nice pub, the local girls are pretty enough to suit, and the fish and chips better than any you’ll find in Stirling proper.”
“Yes, I know the Falklands, by reputation at least. We didn’t move in the same circles. Where do your people stay, then? Surely not Stirling?” he added, eying the map.
“No, the Falklands rent rooms in some cottages that were put in last year, catering to summer tourists, birders and fishermen and the like. Everyone who lives off site stays in the Falklands’ cots. We’ll settle you there, as well.”
“Huh.” Stirling wondered just how friendly the local girls were and what sort of security risks they might pose. He probably knew a fair number of them by sight. Stirling found himself hoping the Falklands’ cottages, at least, were a bit more picturesque than these drab concrete huts.
They swung round a final bend and Stirling got his first good look at the main facility. It was a larger version of the squat concrete cottages, but windowless, with steel security doors and a sizeable power plant visible off to one side. Rain squalls slashed across ugly walls and rooftops, racing past with a storm-lashed rhythm before writhing across the mountain slopes beyond.
He knew the valley, from childhood summer excursions. High, cloud-shrouded ridgelines, all but invisible in the rainy twilight, fenced the facility in, with only one access road leading out. If they’d bothered setting a gate guard, the place might have been virtually impregnable, by dint of sheer isolation. It was at least two kilometers from the nearest major huddle of farm cottages, a fair distance to hike through mountainous terrain with a load of unpleasantness strapped to one’s back, but not far at all to come by car bomb. He wondered how amenable the researchers would be to the changes he intended imposing.
Not that he thought much additional security would prove necessary, but having come all this way, he might as well do a proper job of it. The Land Rover halted near the main doors and Stirling sighed, extricating himself gingerly with crutch-cane and compressed lips. There was, at least, a card reader at the front door, so no one could simply stroll straight in. Blundell swiped his identity card through it and the heavy steel door clicked open. “We’ll get you a card, first thing,” Blundell assured him as they stepped through.
“Second thing. Where’s the bog? It’s been a long drive and I drank most of that coffee.”
Blundell grinned and pointed the way to the men’s room, where Stirling took advantage of the sink and mirror to repair the worst of the travel damage and wash grit and sleepiness from his eyes. Ten minutes later Stirling was in the project director’s office, with Blundell making introductions.
Terrance Beckett was a stringy sort of fellow one might have called rangy, had he possessed any decent physical conditioning. He glanced around at their entry, a scowl flickering into existence beneath a hawksbill nose. He glared down the long length of that nose, clearly resenting Stirling’s intrusive presence in the lab’s affairs as much as his more famous namesake, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had resented the intrusive presence of Henry II in the church. Come to think of it, Henry II was directly responsible for the present mess in Ireland, since he was the English king who’d first invaded the Irish.
Stirling produced a nasty smile. “I often question the wisdom of the Home Ministry.”
Beckett reddened, then bit out, “You’ll want the tour, I suppose?”
“Bit of a problem designing security measures without one.”
“Well, there’s no one here tonight, so you’ll bloody well have to wait. Gone to the damned pub, they have, bunch of lazy bastards. See to it our
The moment the door was closed, Blundell started to apologize.
“No, don’t bother,” Stirling waved off the flood of embarrassed words. “He doesn’t want me here any more than I care to be here myself, so we’re even on that score. Show me round the place anyway, then we’ll stop at the Falkland Arms and meet everyone, shall we?”
Blundell’s worry faded at once. “Right. Frightfully glad you understand about Dr. Beckett. He’s a bit of a stickler, you see, utterly dedicated, doesn’t see the need for all the security fuss.”
“Let’s hope he’s right,” Stirling muttered.
Blundell gulped, quivering like a frightened rabbit, then escorted him on a bizarre tour of an utterly empty facility, allowing him to memorize the laboratory’s layout, the location of every door—particularly those left unlocked—and the placement of each piece of equipment. He was careful to ask which equipment required outside maintenance. The laboratory wasn’t much to look at, really, just a lot of computers, an innocuous enough hospital-style ward with several beds and a cabinet for medical supplies, and a tangle of high-tech equipment that might have come straight out of some American science fiction film. If there were a time machine hidden amongst the jumble, he couldn’t place it by sight.
When Blundell attempted to explain what each item did, Stirling’s eyes crossed.
“You can give me the detailed explanations tomorrow,” he muttered, vowing to get a decent night’s sleep before attempting to comprehend the science behind this crackpot setup. “I’d like to meet the staff now, if you please.”
“Of course, Captain.”
A quarter of an hour later, the battered Land Rover pulled to a halt in a muddy carpark outside the brightly lit pub where Stirling had occasionally stopped for a pint on his way to and from university classes at Edinburgh. Blundell set the brake and shut off the engine. “We’ll speak to Mrs. Falkland about a room at one of the cottages, shall we? Get you settled, then join the others?”
“No,” Stirling shook his head, “introduce me round, then speak to Mrs. Falkland yourself, while I’m busy making everyone’s acquaintance. I’d rather make my impressions of them before they’ve a chance to make them of me, which won’t happen if I arrange lodgings first. Get a room as close to the road as possible, even if it means shifting someone else, so I can keep track of comings and goings.”
“Very well.” His request clearly disgruntled Blundell, who probably didn’t relish being spied upon any more than the others would, once they found out.
The roisterous interior of the Falkland Arms public house hadn’t changed much in four years. A wave of nostalgia washed over him, accompanied by the scent of ale and bitters, chips in the deep-fryer, tobacco smoke, and spiced curry and popadums, a London import. The pub was full to capacity, mostly with tourists who’d come for the region’s favorite outdoor pastimes. The roar of voices talking incessantly about the fish, the weather, the grouse, and the golf, was punctuated by spurts of laughter and the clink of glassware. The research team comprised the largest group in the pub, occupying one whole corner, tables scooted together to accommodate a clutter of empty dinner plates and an impressive collection of glasses.
It looked to Trevor Stirling like a major celebration was under way.
“Ah, there they are.” Blundell spotted them at least sixty seconds after Stirling did.
Stirling navigated the crowded pub with care, not wanting to trip himself up with the crutch-cane, which would leave a fine first impression. They’d nearly reached the table when one of the women, a graduate student, Stirling realized, placing her from her dossier photo, spotted them. Young and pretty, her whole face lit up. “Blundy! You’re back!”
Marc Blundell turned red to the roots of his hair.
The curious stares leveled his way led Stirling to a singularly unpalatable conclusion: nobody had told the research staff they were to be saddled with SAS security.
“Where’ve you been, old bean?” one of the men asked in a teasing tone. Cedrick Banning, Stirling nodded to himself, the Australian—decked out in the polo-snobbery variety of high style, with a paisley silk scarf tucked into his shirt collar and some fraternal pin Stirling didn’t recognize decorating his lapel. Christ, another bloody colonial from the outback, trying to prove how very English he was.
Banning grinned in a friendly fashion. “You’ve ruddy well missed all the fun!”
“Fun?” Blundell blinked uncertainly.
“Beckett’s Breakthrough,” the Aussie chuckled, capitalizing both words. “Couldn’t tear the old bastard away from the lab tonight with an atom bomb. We,” he swept a gesture at the gathered team, “decided to celebrate in style, since he won’t.” Banning’s friendly gaze landed on Stirling, and the Aussie greeted him with a cheery grin and an outstretched hand. “I say, old man, frightfully good to see you. SAS, isn’t it? Jolly good, a captain, no less. Bit of a cock-up with that leg, eh?”
Christ, the man sounded more like Oxford than Outback. Must have an inferiority complex a kilometer long. Stirling shook his hand, anyway. “You could say that,” he allowed tightly. “Belfast.”
Banning’s eyes widened and several of the women emitted sharp little gasps and cooing sounds of sympathy. Stirling’s gaze, however, was riveted on Brenna McEgan, whose admittedly lovely mouth had tightened at mention of Belfast. One of the dark-haired brand of Irish women, with a complexion like cream-colored silk, sparks of suppressed anger jumped in her eyes—and she wasn’t at all shy about returning his narrow gaze. Her own was as cold as glittering sapphires. “I see you ran afoul of our Orange brethren,” she said coolly. “At least, they’re claiming the victory from the fighting, aren’t they?”
Dismay ran like lightning round the conjoined pub tables, as party mood abruptly gave way to realization that the unpleasantness occurring across the Irish Sea might well overtake
“In my experience,” Stirling said quietly, holding those chilly eyes in a steady gaze, “Belfast has no winners.”
A vertical line twitched into existence between her brows. “How very odd. An SAS captain who actually understands Northern Ireland?”
Blundell cleared his throat nervously. “Captain Stirling will be joining us for a bit. He wanted to meet everyone, this evening. I’d love to hear about the breakthrough, Ceddie. I’ll, ah, just go and arrange the captain’s lodgings, then rejoin you.”
Blundell fled, leaving Stirling to cope with social niceties on his own. He shook hands all round as introductions were made. Brenna McEgan watched him narrowly as he greeted each team member in turn. It took a concentrated effort to study the others, distracted as he was by her disturbing attractiveness, combined with her equally disturbing connections to Belfast. Stirling scolded himself for attempting security work while short of sleep and concentrated on the half-dozen senior staff, promising to sort out everyone else later.
“Sit down, Captain,” Banning invited, leaning over to hook an empty chair from a nearby table. “Name your poison,” he added, waggling fingers to gain the barmaid’s attention.
The barmaid took one look and broke into a broad smile. “Trevor Stirling! Whatever brings you home, luv? Does your mum know?”
“Ah, no,” he cleared his throat, aware of stares from every quarter. “I’m on duty, as it happens. How’ve you been, angel?”
Cassiopia McArdle had blossomed in his absence, filling that barmaid’s uniform to an improbable degree, looking, at eighteen, like a soldier’s favorite wet dream. He remembered her in braids and orthodontic braces. She winked. “I’ve been lonely. You look to need a bit of R and R, Trevor. I’m off at eleven. Pint of stout?”
She grinned and went in search of his pint. He held back a sigh and met the surprised stares of the scientific team. “Well, then, what’s this about a breakthrough?” he asked too brightly.
Cedric Banning recovered first, although his eyes continued to blaze with unspoken curiosity. “Beckett’s Breakthrough. Yes. Old Terrance has finally done it, is what. We’re no longer a theoretical concern.”
Fairfax Dempsey, one of the graduate students, leaned forward eagerly. “He’s done it, Captain! Went back in time! Full translation for sixteen minutes, right into the court of King Henry II, he said. He listened to Henry discussing the invasion of Ireland with his privy council! Beckett’s bloody well made history today!” The young man chuckled as he realized the double meaning. “Twice, in fact. Once going
“Why he chose
Stirling scarcely heard her, wondering if the sickening lurch in his gut were disbelief or terror. “D’you mean to say, you’ve actually
“Perfected it?” Brenna McEgan echoed, her tone droll. “Hardly. Beckett very nearly died, before we managed to retrieve his consciousness.” Stirling gave her a sharp stare, which she returned with uplifted brow, faintly amused at his shock. “Dr. Beckett may have succeeded in testing his apparatus today, but we are a very long way, indeed, from running a full-bore field test. Naturally, that is precisely what he intends to do, first thing tomorrow morning. He wanted to go again today, but we managed to veto the notion. His heart did not cope well with the first translation—and he was gone only a quarter of an hour. Frankly, the last thing we need is for Beckett to drop dead.”
Stirling tried to digest that, while wishing the room would stop lurching about as his equilibrium played catch-up. “Perhaps,” he cleared his throat and tried again. “Perhaps someone had better explain all this in more detail?” Like it or not—tired or not—he needed to absorb the science
Zenon Mylonas, who’d remained silent until now, nodded. “Very well, Captain.”
Dr. Mylonas was one of those perpetually mournful-looking chaps one expects to find in a mortuary, but seldom does. Sitting in the crowded pub, with his lesser colleagues ranged about him, he reminded Stirling of a gawky adolescent, all elbows and knobby shoulders and a discomfited awareness of not quite fitting in properly. His eyes held the look of a man who’s faced the worst humanity has to offer itself and has not come up on the winning side.
Realization struck like an electric shock: Mylonas was utterly terrified.
The implications were sickening, like a bottomless hole opening out under his feet, when he hadn’t expected so much as a crack in the pavement. What the IRA could do with
“We’ll begin with the basic physics of the project,” Mylonas leaned forward, rolling his own empty bar glass between his hands. “You understand, surely, the concept of infinite potential futures? If I do
“Well, I suppose so,” Stirling frowned, “but look here, this doesn’t make logical sense. How can
“It’s a matter of quantum physics,” Mylonas said patiently, “or rather, a matter of
“A bloody Nobel Prize,” Cedric Banning grinned, raising his half-drained glass in a salute.
Mylonas shot Banning a quelling glance. “Quite.
“Go on, please,” Stirling said quietly, sipping from his second glass of stout. “What
“A mathematical way of describing, of accounting for, the impossibilities in observation which neither quantum physics nor its mathematical system can explain. Surely you knew, already, that the simple act of observation literally brings a thing into being, at the quantum level? Observation equals creation. If you ask the right question, in other words, the universe obliges you by providing a previously nonexistent answer. And if a thing exists, it can be fractured into something else; time is no exception. In fact, without fractural physics, nothing would—or could—exist.”
It sounded barmy to Stirling, but then, he’d barely squeaked past subjects like tensor calculus and non-Euclidian geometry, never mind quantum relativity.
“What we’ve done here,” Mylonas nodded toward the distant research lab, “is the elementary work of understanding how fractural physical laws operate. And what we’ve discovered is both infinite futures and infinite pasts, all coexisting in fractured planes, sliding over and past and through one another, a bit like a child’s kaleidoscope, where the patterns and colors shift as the colored pebbles tumble about. Fractural physics provides the only scientific explanation of psychic phenomena, in fact. The human mind has billions of neural connections hardwired into the nervous system and the senses. We haven’t manufactured an instrument, yet, of that complexity.
“I rather fancy that precognition occurs when an individual with particularly acute senses encounters the intersection of fractural planes and is abruptly confronted by two possible futures. Two or more. There are people attuned to the future of fractural planes, just as others are attuned to a fractural plane’s past. You might think in terms of one set of instruments tuned to ham radio frequencies and another tuned to microwave transmissions. People who have learned to shift their own consciousness from one plane to another—so called astral projection or out-of-body experience—are actually moving the pattern of their consciousness from one plane to another, or to some other referent point on their own plane. What
“Wait, slow down!” Stirling resisted the temptation to massage aching temples.
Mylonas halted, brows climbing into his receding hairline. “What don’t you understand? It’s perfectly simple, at least in concept. It’s the engineering that’s a bit tricky.”
“May be simple to you,” Stirling muttered, “but it’s perfectly impossible from where I sit. Look, perhaps I’ll grant you that bit about consciousness being a shifting energy pattern. I’ve seen some pretty odd things, ran across a fellow once who swore on stacks of holy treatises he had yearly out-of-body experiences, and he wasn’t a candidate for the loony bin, either. So maybe, for the sake of argument, I’ll buy your story about projecting someone’s consciousness some
“Neither am I,” Mylonas said very quietly. Stirling was struck again by the depth of fright in those dark eyes.
“Suppose you explain it again. Pretend I’m a newspaper reporter or some chap on the dole, with no more science education than, say, that keg of ale can lay claim to. On second thought, perhaps you’d better leave off telling me
“They might well be interested,” Mylonas said patiently, “because of the potential for
The level of tension at the crowded table rose abruptly, like a nasty miasma over a swamp, compounded of equal parts suspicion, fear, and anger. More than one set of eyes flicked uncertainly toward Brenna McEgan. She sat cool as a queen at her corner of the table, sapphire eyes focused on a speck of dust that floated somewhere over the center of the untidy tabletop. When nobody broke the awkward silence, Stirling cleared his throat.
“Surely there’s no way to actually change anything in the past? It’s already happened, with no way to undo it. And even if you could, wouldn’t paradox destroy any possibility of changing things, stop you before you got started?”
Mylonas shook his head. “You’re forgetting the infinite pasts part of the equation. If you projected the energy pattern of your consciousness into
Cedric Banning snorted into his pint of bitters without quite laughing out loud. One of the graduate students dug her elbow into his ribs. As Mylonas reddened, Indrani Bhaskar put in mildly, “There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that King Arthur was quite genuine. Not a king, perhaps, but a real historical figure.”
Stirling grinned. “Yes, Dux Bellorum, and all that. Sixth century A.D., wasn’t it? Last of the great Romanized Briton Lords of Battle.”
“Quite,” she smiled. “I see you’re a well-read man, Captain Stirling. Mind your manners, Cedric.”
Banning laughed, clearly unrepentant, and lifted his glass in a mock salute.
Mylonas cleared his throat. “Yes. Well. If you project yourself into
“Then it isn’t changing history at all, is it?” Stirling’s mind had filled with images of vast sheets of multihued crystal fragmenting and crashing into one another, until the universe resembled a pile of shattered quartz, pulverized under a geologist’s hammer. The longer he thought about it, the more the image disturbed him.
Mylonas sighed. “It’s a bit of both actually. It isn’t as simple as you imagine.”
“What do you mean by that? Either it is or it isn’t.”
“Not in fractural physics. The key word is
“Catastrophic?” Stirling blinked. “What, exactly, are we talking about here? What scale? Do you mean the traveler’s energy pattern is violently disrupted? As in, fatally? Or do you mean something else? Something… worse?”
“That,” Mylonas said tiredly, “is precisely what we do
“But suppose the dissonance affects the old fractural plane, the Prime you originally came from. This one.” Mylonas rapped bony knuckles against the tabletop. “What do you have, then? Your action in moving from Fractural Prime to Fractural Secondary destroys both the present
“Dear God,” Stirling whispered, staring into Mylonas’ haunted eyes. “You’re talking about the murder of
“Yes.” Mylonas swallowed. “That is the reason the Home Office insisted on sending a chap who understands counterterrorism.”
Stirling struggled to reorder his entire view of the tactical situation. Indeed, his view of the entire universe. He glanced around the table, finding stunned eyes and expressions of rising horror. Clearly, none of them had fully grasped the project’s lethal potential until now. Unless, of course, one of them
Stirling cast back over those dossiers he’d read, both Colonel Ogilvie’s and Marc Blundell’s, trying to recall everything documented on Brenna McEgan. There hadn’t been much, which left him cursing the incompleteness of the material. Dammit, he needed to know how many times the people at this table had wet themselves in their prams, and the Home Office handed him a synopsis measured in thirty-second sound bites.
Whoever his terrorist proved to be, if there even
Northern Ireland’s madmen perpetrated the unthinkable every day.