Article 17 Part 1
‘Come in and sit down. We’ve got big trouble,’ said Southey.
I closed the door and sat down. I’d never seen him in such a state, and believe me, that’s saying something. He’s due to retire in about two years, in 2378 to be precise, but he won’t make it unless he learns how to relax. He became Head of Department just after I qualified as a chrono-pilot five years ago, and in that time I’ve seen his hair turn grey.
‘What’s the matter? Are they trying to close us down again?’ I asked. He passed me a hand-written letter. I scanned it quickly, then went back over it slowly and carefully. I recognised the writing. Southey was right. We’d got big trouble.
Most people think time travel is all about finding out who built Stonehenge, what happened to the dinosaurs and romantic things like that. Don’t you believe it. Most of the time it’s reporting on weather conditions, checking census predictions, monitoring irrigation projects and so forth. The routine, functional, bread-and-butter stuff of the profession. Deep Time missions are few and far between, which is a shame, because they’re where the excitement lies. I’ve known pilots who’ve talked to Napoleon, watched sabre-toothed tigers stalk herds of woolly mammoths, heard the sound of continents breaking apart.
It’s the chance of getting a crack at something like that which makes you want to be a chrono-pilot in the first place.
Article 17 Part 2
Of course, we’d all like to do more Deep Time shots, but the fact is they’re terribly expensive. A routine observation trip two years into the future to monitor a plankton shoal, for instance, costs the entire Photon output of Wolverhampton and Uttoxeter for a fortnight. A mission to the 14th century costs eighty times as much. Imagine! And, they can be terribly dangerous. Back in the early days, accidents were frequent. One pilot went back to the Cretaceous era, got her co-ordinates wrong and materialised forty feet above the ground. When they went to rescue her, all they found was the wreckage of her machine and what was left of her being eaten by a dinosaur. Another got himself burnt at the stake by a medieval lynch mob, and one character was thought to have materialised in the middle of a mountain, though naturally enough no trace was ever found of him or his machine. The resultant mental strain can be unbearable, making you develop TDPD (trans-dimensional psychotic disorientation) or, as the psychiatrists say, go off your head. Where d’you think Joan of Arc came from?
Eventually they tightened up the rules. You can’t blame them. It takes seven years to train a chrono-jock.
Seven long, hard years of paraphysics, advanced triometry, linguistics, survival skills and all the rest of it. Only one in a thousand applicants gets accepted for training, and only one in a hundred makes it through the course. The rest fail, and go to medical school. And still things go wrong. Pilots go missing or get marooned, ships break down… it all adds up to a lot of expense. No wonder a lot of powerful people wanted to close the Service down. And not just because of the cost. A chrono-pilot has the potential to do enormous harm. Forget all this guff about the Space-Time Paradox, and what would happen if you went back and shot your grandfather. Someone who exists is capable of altering the course of history, and that is that. Hence Article 17 of the Codex Chronomicon. No chrono-personnel may alter, or allow others to alter, the course of events as they unfold. All time-travel must be purely observational, or words to that effect. I could tell you some stories about that, mind… in due course I will… but let’s stick to the subject for now. Which is the letter I held in my hand. It was, quite frankly, terrifying. And it had been written by Grosmont, the hottest pilot in the business.
Article 17 Part 3
Three years before, scientists in the Antarctic had bred a virus called the Gneisenau B strain. It was carried by human fleas, and had been intended for use as a cure for the common cold. All the tests had proved positive, so the time came to try it out on a human host. Then they found that they’d developed the most powerful pathogen known to Man. The first volunteers exposed to the virus died within twenty minutes of being bitten. That might not sound so bad, but for the victims it must have seemed like an eternity. The first symptom was a hot, prickly rash which rapidly spread all over the body. Uncontrollable itching followed, which made the victims strip off and practically flay themselves alive in their frantic efforts to stop the itching. I’ll never forget the clip of film I once saw, of a woman frantically scrubbing her eyeballs with a toothbrush, with a chap in the background playing a blowtorch on his face.
The last pictures out showed thousands of naked people, covered in blood and shreds of skin, rolling around in the snow and running into the freezing sea to try and find some relief. Those that didn’t die of hypothermic shock were finished off by the neuromuscular paralysis that formed the last stage of the disease. In other words, they suffocated to death. Within twelve hours, all four million people on Antarctica were dead.
For three years, indecision reigned. No-one went near the place in case the fleas were still alive and carrying the virus, though the flea concerned was a short-lived variety and the virus was thought not to outlive its victims
Eventually someone decided to send a chrono-pilot back to try and stop it all happening - an unprecedented decision in the annals of the Service. And, clearly, they had to send the best.
Article 17 Part 4
Grosmont was the obvious choice for the job. The only person ever to have commanded the Blue Squadron more than once, he passed out First in his year (I came bottom in mine) and since then had distinguished himself in every way imaginable. He looked the part, too. The scion of an ancient Huguenot line, he was tall, dark and handsome, and sickeningly good at everything. And for this mission he’d need every ounce of skill at his disposal - persuasive tact and diplomacy if possible, resolute and forceful action if necessary. Scientists aren’t easily talked into stopping on the verge of a great discovery, nor are they noted for meekly handing over things which they’ve worked on, usually for years, without a struggle. If anyone could manage it, Grosmont could.
I suppose it says more about me than him when I say that I’ve never been able to like Grosmont. I don’t know him well. In fact, I hardly ever see him. We inhabit different ends of the time-travel spectrum. While he goes off doing all the glamorous, high-spec Deep Time missions, I stooge around mapping ozone-holes. I’ve only ever done one Deep Time shot, and then I was just a glorified chauffeur for some historian who wanted to check out the manorial rolls of a fifteenth-century chatelaine.
I don’t think they trust me with anything more adventurous. It’s not that I mind his obvious ability. It’s how he behaves that gets me. When we do chance to meet he slaps me on the back, says “Hello, Plum-Duff, how’s that irrigation project in the Sahara doing?”, then strides grandly off before I can answer. I’m not sure he even knows my name, the arrogant so-and-so.
Now, however, I had reason to dislike him. His letter was nothing less than blackmail. Instead of doing what he’d been supposed to do, according to his letter he’d kept the infected fleas alive and take them back to nineteenth-century New York, where he was hiding out. Unless we paid him an outlandish amount of money, he’d release them into the twenty-first century. The consequences were unthinkable. Even with the primitive communication systems of that era, Mankind would be extinct within a year. It wouldn’t worry him. He’d be safe as houses - we wouldn’t be around to go back and find him. But if we paid him the money he’d let us have the fleas back. Once the news got out it’d be the end of the Service, but that was of no concern to him. Whichever way you looked at it, he’d got us over a barrel.
Article 17 Part 5
‘What are we going to do?’ said Southey, staring with haggard eyes at the letter.
‘There’s not much we can do, is there?’ I replied, ‘We’ll just have to do as he says’. Southey groaned and drew a hand over his face, smearing the sweat.
‘Why New York? Why the nineteenth century?’ he asked.
‘He always had a soft spot for the place … I heard him say more than once that he’d like to retire there,’ I replied.
One of the perks of being a chrono-pilot in the Service is that you can choose where you want to retire, once you’ve been de-activated and no longer present a threat to the Space-Time continuum. One chap I knew struck up a friendship with the Emperor Claudius, and went back to live on a pig-farm in Apulia.
Another took a tent and gun and went off to hunt pteranodons (delicious roasted over an open fire, he assured me). So New York during the Belle Epoque came as no surprise, though, knowing Grosmont, Edith Wharton was probably less of a draw than Edgar Allan Poe.
Anyway, after a hurried trip to Costumes and Camouflage (given the short notice it was a choice between impersonating either a Peace Officer or Abraham Lincoln - I figured that the former was probably a better bet) and a series of frantic phone calls to get Tynwald clearance for the money, I got ready to go.
‘Bang goes my pension,’ said Southey, burying his face in his hands, ‘wait ‘til news of this gets out… we’ll be lucky to get jobs as lavatory attendants…’
‘I’d better get cracking,’ I replied, ‘he’ll be waiting…’
Article 17 Part 6
Grosmont snapped the bag shut, put it on the floor and sat up straight in the high-backed chair, regarding me in the way that I knew so well.
‘That looks about right,’ he said, ‘I won’t bother counting it all just now.’
We were in a hotel room, his designated meeting place, in the docklands of New York. Out of the window, past chimneys and rooftops, I could see the tops of ships’ masts. He was dressed much as you’ expect for the time, in breeches, frockcoat and cravat. I’d hurriedly flung on the blue coat, white helmet and badge of the role I’d selected.
‘So… where are the fleas?’ I asked. He laughed contemptuously.
‘You don’t imagine I’ve got them here, do you? They’re in safe hands, don’t you worry,’ he said.
‘But the deal…’ I began.
‘There’s a seaman I know called Swede Larssen. I’ve worked with him before. He’s a good man. He’ll be leaving within minutes for Europe, on a clipper called the ‘Per Lundqvist’. I shouldn’t even think about trying to stop him if I were you. He’s a pretty rough character and he’d eat you for breakfast. But even if you did try, he’s got the fleas in a glass laboratory jar. It’s robust enough to do its job, but I’ve told him to smash it if anyone tries to take it. He’s being very well paid to do exactly as I tell him,’ he said.
‘So when do we get them back? DO we get them back? Or have you got something else in mind?’ I asked.
‘Oh, you’ll get them back all right, provided you do as I say. I may have a few faults, but breaking my word isn’t among them. Larssen will be back in about two months. I’ll meet him and he’ll return the fleas. If I’m not there he’ll smash the jar, so don’t get any fancy ideas about trying to nab me before then. You need me alive, free and here,’ he concluded.
Article 17 Part 7
‘But I still don’t know if you’ve really got them,’ I said. ‘All those people in Antarctica are still dead. You were supposed to save them. How do I know if you ever got hold of the fleas at all?’
‘My dear boy,’ he said, ‘getting hold of them was a piece of cake… even you could have done it. I timed my arrival to coincide with the release of the first batch of fleas into the lab’s Human Guinea Pig unit. Unless the boffins could see the results of their efforts, there’d have been little point in trying to argue them out of it. Anyway, they were horrified at what they’d done, poor fellows, and were only too glad to let me take the rest of the fleas off them, together with all their eggs. So far, so according to plan. But then it occurred to me what a great opportunity this was. After all, what would have happened if I’d completed my mission as planned? Back to work as usual. Good old Grosmont,’ he said, his face darkening with bitterness, ‘always doing the most dangerous jobs, taking the greatest risks, lengthening the odds with every mission.
Do you know what it’s like, each time you set off, wondering whether you’re going to end up with a knife in your back in some oriental court, or get devoured by a creature you haven’t seen because your motion-sensor decides to go on the blink… or whether you’re going to get bitten by a flea?’
Despite myself, I found that I was nodding in sympathy. The one Deep Time mission I’d done had been a doddle and we’d only been there for an hour, but all the time my insides had been crawling with fear. Did I have the right costume? Would I speak the right dialect of Middle English? If I needed it, would my combat judo be up to scratch? And that had been a milk-run…
‘The alternative,’ he continued, ‘was to do what I’ve done, hold the future to ransom. Of course, without a full-blown epidemic of Gneisenau’s disease I’d have little to bargain with. So, before I left I released a few more of the fleas outside the lab… the rest you know…’ he finished.
Article 17 Part 8
I stood looking dumbly at him as the implications of what he’d said sunk in. After a moment I turned and wandered out of the room, then out of the hotel and onto the cobbled streets, aimlessly drifting. I was in no hurry to get home. What was there to return to? Reporters, enquiries, the sack. I looked about at Grosmont’s chosen city as I wandered along. I could see why he liked it so. It was vibrant and busy, yet had a gaslit and horse-drawn charm which I could see might appeal to someone tired of travelling.
Eventually, surrounded by warehouses and towering masts, I found myself among the docks themselves. I stood for a moment staring unseeingly at a large sailing-ship, moored and with its sailed furled. I saw its name. ‘Per Lundqvist’. For a moment it didn’t mean anything - then the penny dropped. Swede Larssen’s ship.
It hadn’t sailed yet. My heart pounding, I ran up the gangplank. Maybe I could persuade him to hand the fleas over, try and bribe him, do something…
I was stopped at the top of the gangplank by a burly seaman with a beard and a scar, probably the bosun. He looked as if he ate bricks for breakfast and punched the bark off trees for fun. I wasn’t going to try and force my way past. I like my face the way it is.
‘Is Swede Larssen aboard? I’ve got to see him,’ I said. The bosun cocked his head and looked at me quizzically. I remembered that I was dressed as a cop.
‘It’s all right,’ I said, ‘he’s not in trouble. I just need to speak to him.’
The bosun laughed. ‘Larssen not in trouble? That makes a change. Anyway, you’re too late. He’s not on board. We sprung a leak and missed the tide. He seemed mighty anxious to get out to sea, so I let him take a berth on that brig just crossing the bar,’ he said, jerking his thumb seaward.
‘Where? Show me,’ I said. He led me across the deck to the seaward taffrail.
‘Got a telescope?’ I asked. He dug into his pocket and produced one. I opened it and focussed on the square-rigger putting out to sea. If I could see her name I could find out where she was bound for and be there to meet her.
I found the name painted on the stern, focussed until I could read it, then snapped the telescope shut and returned it to its owner. I smiled at the bosun and clapped him on the shoulder.
‘Thanks very much indeed,’ I said, ‘ have a nice day’.
I bounced with brio back down the gangplank and headed off back to the hotel, savouring the glow of warmth that was beginning to suffuse me. I knew now that Grosmont had been telling me the truth. I also knew that he and the ransom money would be returning with me to our time. No doubt there would be ructions for the service, but we would survive. There might even be the chance of some more Deep Time missions for me, though after what Grosmont had said I’d think twice about taking them on.
The name of the ship, you see, had been the ‘Mary Celeste’.