Angus McIntosh is an ex-pat, a British professional who had come to America as part of the famed Brain Drain over the last couple of decades. He had been in America for 10 years and much of the stoic nature that seemed to pervade his version of a British character had been slothed off. His friends had even begun to think he was becoming bubbly, effervescent even and, though they dare use the words only rarely, a happy person. He was confident and successful, doing what he loved and was good at it, and in the way America works, he was being rewarded for his efforts. But there was something hammering away in the back of Angus' brain, a certain little demon wanted to escape, but every day it found it harder to get out and make trouble.
The sky was blue, a rich blue, a velvety, yet crisp blue. It was a blue devoid of rain clouds. It was a blue that he could see in his wife's eyes. There was a gentle breeze, enough only to slightly flutter the new leaves in the trees. It was a serene day at the start of another Spring. Angus climbed into his car, pulled out of the drive and joined the flow of morning commuters. Today he would set in motion the future and the past.
Amid the usual emails on his computer was a spam email from the travel website Expedia proclaiming that he could get tickets to go from Newark, New Jersey to London for just a bit more than a song. He deleted it.
He looked at the BBC website and read their morning news. A farmer had committed suicide in Northern England, the Ministry of Agriculture was getting some terrible press, it seems the farmer had just got over the Foot and Mouth epidemic and was re-building his flocks and herds, he was said to have even come up with a new way of doing his farming that would revolutionise the farming system. The whole village in which he lived was in a sorry state following the suicide.
Angus phone rang, he looked away from the farmers story as an old familiar voice jerked his brain 3500 miles across the Atlantic, back to Britain. On the other end of the line was Gail. She seemed in a terrible way, crying and saying she was feeling really down. There didn't seem to be any reason for it, unless Angus supposed the long English winter was still in force. Gail though said that she had been in the North when this feeling of dire concerns had zapped here enthusiasm for, …for whatever it was she had gone there for. She sounded to be in a mess. The conversation petered out after a few minutes and they said their good-byes.
It was just about 5pm, almost time to think about what he was going to work on in the quiet time after most of his office mates had gone home, when he noticed that he had an email from Gail. It was a short note.
Awesome! Just talking to you makes me feel so much better, I really appreciated your encouragement. See you soon, Gail.
While not an old flame, Gail still had her place in Angus heart. "Damn it, I'm going home!" He said to himself. He brought up the browser on his computer and 5 minutes later was looking at the confirmation printout showing his Virgin Atlantic flight back to Britain.
A gray sky, drizzle and the blood leaking from last nights wound made Slagrav wince. He was following the column of his tribesmen and woman as they snaked along an old trail that clung to the edge of the woods. They had hunted these woods for a thousand years, his ancestors probably could care less. The drips from the leaves were getting him down, it was cold. Too cold, his old bones were having a hard time with this. He stopped a moment, Dajah, his wife pushed past him along the trail, gave him a cursory glare and went on. He looked at her back, she was bearing the cot that had held their last child. The child was gone, but she didn't seem to want to forget about it. He looked to the sky and down into the valley below him. His eyebrows rose in surprise and he honked a cry to raise everyone's attention.
Down in the valley was an equally surprised person. He was standing there not really knowing what he was doing there. It was not where he had been. But… yuck, it's raining. He looked around for his coat. It wasn't there. He heard a noise in the woods up the hill, suddenly about 15 figures, dressed in matted brown skins and pelts were racing towards him. Certainly not what he expected of London shoppers.
He said nothing as the hunters looked him over, they were being careful to make sure he could see that they were armed to the teeth with stone tipped spears and bronze knives. He was not overly impressed, but then the smell hit him… he fainted.
This strange person they had in their midst had brown skin and wore clothes they had never seen before, he wore covers that went down his legs, very thin covers, not the usual dear skins. He had a strange tail that came from the base of his throat, it was brightly coloured, with strange patterns all over it. The tribe encamped at the edge of the clearing, they moved this stranger under the cover of one of the freshly erected skins. He came too a short time later. He seemed confused and disoriented, like he had been hit on the head, yet there were no marks, well, other than the fact he had this brown skin. Very unusual.
It was not long before the stranger had taken over the tribe, they found a broad valley and he ordered then to camp there. It was the sort of place he felt was somewhere he had seen before. On a dark night, screams suddenly rose from camp, they were under attack. At great cost they fended off the attackers, but suddenly he knew what he had to do: he had to create a defense against these foes. And he knew exactly what he needed to build, but he was going to have to educate his friends and build a prototype first. So on this windswept vale they erected a small version of what he had worked on. After a few years, in fact in the 5th year of Patel, which we would know as 2516BC, they had completed a large stone ring. It was a thing of beauty, the stones topped by others, copper and bronze in vast quantities and the secret stones, And at the centre the glowing stone, where Patel controlled the machine from. Patel armed it. It worked as he expected. He smirked.
The tribe felt that this person was a deity. He did strange things they failed to understand. One that perplexed them the most was his insistence on drawing a large square on the ground, breaking its lines, forming smaller squares, then making symbols in some of the squares, while just scratching out other squares. He seemed to be entertained by this activity, he would often mutter how he though The Times version of his 'cross word' was so much better. To the tribes men, rather the mutter than the alternative: use of a sword made of hard black metal.
They thought the name Patel was unusual but it seemed to go with his soft lilting voice, and they only used names in the most cursory of manners, a grunt would generally suffice, afterall. When he suggested they call the new stone ring Stonehenge they were completely mystified, what word was that? Then one day he wanted the tribe to do something bigger, he ordered them to start moving to the east, head for a river, a big river. They would build the big working version of this prototype amid the rush filled marshes of a river that 3000 years later would be called the Thames. A vast ring that would defend against all comers, defend the native people by bringing down a mist of terror in the minds of the attackers.
Patel died amid the reeds. His body was buried in a small mound on some raised ground. By the time Winston Churchill's bunker was dug into what had been the mound, Mr. Patel had been long forgotten. His machine however continued, sometimes temperamentally, sometimes at lowered power, but always running, always humming.
The airport terminal at Heathrow was awash in bodies. He pressed on into the passport and then the customs areas and headed for the Green lane, tired with a pounding headache, he burst into the main concourse. The sound of a far off alarm bell sounding barely made an impression on Angus. He stopped for a moment to get his bearings, then headed for the underground station and the Victoria line train he had taken so often.
He was armed with a train travel ticket good for his seven day holiday to Britain. He was going to need it and use it. He had few friends spread over Britain and of course they all wanted to see him. He had had to plan a strange travel itinerary that was to have him quite familiar with the Buffet car services on the main line trains.
Gail was tired looking as she pulled open the door of her Leeds home. Her face lit up when she saw the tired frame of the "American Brit" she had know from her days at University. Angus dragged his bags wearily into the small hallway, dumped his umbrella and coat then turned and gave Gail a big bear hug. Her feet left the floor, she didn't mind.
Some wine and a cup of chicken noodle soup later - Angus always liked those dried packet soups and Gail knew it - they got down to chatting about life and how things were going. Gail was now working for a local paper. She was using her talents as a great orator for the Bradford Chronicle. She had even won some awards for the quality of her stories, though she still dismissed the importance of hospitals over-ordering toilet paper and the languid life of a lollypop crossing guard as just stories she's had to write because her boss told her to. It turned out that she had been up in the Dales when the strange suicide of the farmer occurred. She had been up there to write about how he was improving the way farming was going to be done on his farm. She had interviewed him the day before he killed himself, he had not seemed to be in all that much of a state when she saw him, but then no one seemed to be quite the same after that morning. Gail looked at the ceiling tiles, looking at a scene only she could see, and told him of how she was in the depths of depression when she had called him, how hearing his voice had been like throwing open the shutters in a dark room and letting in the light. How she had felt a warmth once more course through her veins, just hearing his voice.
Angus told of his trips in America, of his wife, though it was clear that Gail was less than interested to hear about Tanja. The trips though, and his work, they… well they somehow lifted her spirit even now. He spoke of the people he had met, the clients he had won over, the spoils of victory he had laid claim to. His new found confidence shone into her face and warmed her soul.
Next day was gray, cold and rainy like the last. Angus pulled his great coat around his neck, carefully pointed his umbrella into the wind and walked forward to the waiting taxi, Gail was radiant behind him, slipping quietly behind her door as the taxi drew away.
Angus had a few hours to kill so headed down to London to see something he had not seen before. It had opened only a little before he drained his brain into America, but now Winston Churchill's underground bunker at Whitehall was a big tourist attraction, he decided that he could allow himself to do the tourist thing at home.
The small rooms in the bunker had him imagining he could hear sirens and alarms, bombs going off and the thump of anti-aircraft guns firing at invisible foes. The rooms held those memories, but the alarm sound was real he soon realised. Very faint but he could hear the busy clanger rattling back and forth. As he passed a small, ill lit door the sound seemed to get stronger. Angus looked round once, saw no one in his tour party had any interest in him or this door, stepped sideways, turned the door handle and slipped into another world.
The alarm bells in the Ministry rang loudly whenever a problem arose with one of the Queens subjects. Adjustments were made to compensate for someone's feeling of superiority or confidence, then status quo was re-established and the alarms stopped. It had not always been this way; Winnie had asked that the machines power be decreased in the tumultuous days of the Second World War, just so the British would not get too depressed and give in. But generally the machine hummed along sucking the confidence out of these Saxons, these invaders! The problem was the Saxons owned this place now, along with Jamaicans, French, Italians, Spanish, Germans, Indians, Pakistanis, Orientals and many other peoples, but the machine had never been reprogrammed to account for them. It just got on with demoralising them, too.
In the best traditions of British government the very presence of the machine was completely disavowed, in fact no mention of it had ever been made. The operators and officials of The Ministry that operated the machine were hand picked only by existing members of The Ministry, no one ever had another job, no word was ever spoken out about it. Prime Ministers were secretly visited late at night, on their second day in Downing Street, where they are told about it. A few Prime Ministers had tried to have the parameters tweak for their own ends, or have the Bureaucrats set up committees to investigate what could be done to generally relieve the gloom and doom the machine endowed, but mostly they just forgot about its existence. A rumour long held in The Ministry was that the machine was used on the Prime Ministers to make sure they forgot about it, though this was definitely not a talk to have with the uppers.
Magdalene Fortesque was the sort of woman that most men would fear, her broad shoulders borne of the swimming she did as a youngster and then here predilection for Roses chocolates made sure she was going to be a person you looked up to. She was also the head of the Ministry, she was in charge of the Machine. She ran a tidy shop, except for the occasional Roses Chocolate wrappers that mysteriously appeared in quiet corners of the building; this building had many quiet corners. The machine ensured that all corners in the building were well lit, but there were just a lot of corners available to an unrepentant chocoholic.
She was disturbed to hear about the alarm bells at Heathrow. The alarms had caused a panic, they last went off in 1967, it had taken weeks to get the Beetles back down to some semblance of dowdy outlook after their foray to America. And while these alarms bells would once in a while lightly click, they very rarely broke into a full clanging song. So the news that the master bell in Whitehall was also now going berserk was an omen to be taken extremely seriously.
Ernest Patel was a quiet man. Born of a Swedish university professor mother and Indian father who owned at least two trading companies, he was an intellectual, liking a good challenge that made his head hurt. He was in charge of the device they called the inviserator, its task was to put out a beam that searched out confident feelings in people and suck them out. It worked quiet well, though Ernest had detected what he considered a failing in the design, and was working on an update. The phone rang on his crowded desk, summoning him up to Miss Fortesques 2nd floor office.
He approached the Ministerial offices, a shouting match was in progress, he could hear the booming voice of Magdalene Fortesque doing to a sad operator what his inviserator was intended to do to all alien invaders. He waited to see if the shouting would abate, but it didn't, so he knocked on the door anyway. Instantly the screams stopped, a moment passed and the large door silently swung open. Miss Fortesque was at her desk, she commanded Ernest to come in and sit down. He took the chair next to a very pale David Osbournby, the operator of the alarms desk.
"We need to specifically deconfidence someone, someone that could present problems as they are showing all the signs of an over abundance of confidence. It could be a difficult and dangerous process." Said Magdalene. "Mr. Osbournby, here, tells me that you have been thinking of improvements that may help in this, erm, effort."
"I have some ideas," said Ernest, "but they are nowhere near complete." He lied.
Why had he lied he thought to himself, if anyone could present him with the clearance to do this, it was Miss Fortesque, but he had said his bit and Magdalene was not about to open the door again.
"We need this person deconfidenced in short order, do whatever you need to do." Said the Minister.
The main machine hall sat underground, it had ever since a flood in Bodiceas time had covered the site. They had always had a problem with the water table, being so near to an old bed of the Thames here, so in a room off behind the stairs a set of bilge pumps slowly grumbled away. The main room was huge, not high, but wide and long. It stretched over a half mile to the right and fully a mile straight forward from the door at the base of the stairs. A warm light emanated from rows of old candescent bulbs in the vaulted ceiling. The vaulting was made of huge green cast iron beams, some more that a hundred feet long, at one point the beams spelt out three letters I K B. Mr. Brunel had been quite a wit and on seeing the machine in its old wooden roofed condition had been delirious to assist in the improvements. Stepping down onto the smooth concrete floor, a refinement introduced by Mr. McAlpine replacing an original concrete floor put there by Gridius Melitorus the 2nd Roman Governors machine caretaker, Edward was always struck by the simple almost austere look of the stone circle. It was covered in a tracery of copper and bronze wires and plates, all draped over the stones, with what looked like veins of bronze leading across the floor to the large stone at the center which emitted a constant low hum and a pail light making the stone look translucent.
The nearest stone stood 30 feet high, topped by a large bronze plate, the plate covered in runes that looked to all the world like the clues to an ancient crossword.
The previous night Ernest had quietly set about applying the updates he had been working on for months to the machine, they had been unauthorised but that would seem to be no longer a problem, he also happened to be the only person that knew how the stone circle system worked anyway. The inviserator was to be made much stronger and have the ability to more accurately pin point individuals now, there had been cases where it effectively depressed whole streets of people at a time, with these modifications and changes that would no longer be an issue.
That previous night he tied the improvement into the main system, a clever set of matched length bronze pipes and some highly polished gray marble tubes set inside them. There was a flickering of the lights and for a moment the central stones' hum ceased, then things returned to normal, with the hum maybe a slight pitch higher.
Today he would get to try his modifications. He set about doing the calculations on the central control panel, the hum of the machine building as he neared the solution. As he waited he thought to himself, thinking how he should look good for the Minister when this was complete, he might get that promotion, and that required wearing a tie all the time. He scanned his desk, then remembered he had his best red Paddington bear tie in the lower drawer.
Past And Future:
Angus looked along the corridor. There was no one there. At one end he could see a door with a small window, through which scurrying people were just visible. He looked the other way. A plain oak door stood there. It was unmarked except for a small plaque about half way up. The plaque was unusually ornate, it had the word "Ministry" surrounded by colourful images of what looked like stones and bears.
The alarm bell was quite distinctly coming from behind this old oak door. He had not been out of Britain long enough to recall how self-protective the government was of its own stuff, but in this case he felt that it couldn't possibly hurt just to go into the front lobby of the office.
The door stiffly opened as he pushed on the handle. The alarm noise burst out as he hurried into the lobby, hurrying to try and make sure no one behind him would be startled by the crescendo. The door clicked shut. Angus looked around in the small room, it looked like it had been last decorated in George III's time, flock wallpaper in what would have been deep greens but now just faded gray-greens, three high backed arm chairs and a small, yet lavishly carved, coffee table. There was no one here though. A corridor elbow at the other side of the room hide whatever exit door there may have been, so he headed that way. He turned the corner of the room but instead of a door he found he was looking at a narrow single corridor, that must have been, well, a mile long. About 3/4 mile away someone walked from one room, across the corridor, into another room. The corridor was oddly lit, seeming to be illuminated from all sides at once, though not by lights, it was as if the walls themselves were shining.
As he took a closer look at the wall he was standing beside, a voice boomed out. "Mr McIntosh! What are you doing here?"
It was Miss Fortesque, though Angus had no idea of her name, he just looked up and smiled at the large woman now moving with great speed along the corridor at him. She started to shout commands into the rooms she was passing, a general panic ensued behind here, people rushing this way and that with armfuls of paper.
Miss Fortesque stopped abruptly about 100 feet from Angus. Her cheeks flushed and her demeanor anything but kind. She scowled at him then turning to look into the room beside here she said, "Mr. Osbournby, NOW!"
There was silence.
The Machine Lives:
Ernest Patel was just fluffing up his best Windsor knot in the main hall beneath Miss Fortesques feet when the room lighting started to flash on and off. He knew this was the signal he had been waiting for. He rushed back to the central stone, placed both hands on it and let his fingers sink into the depressions. With just a slight variation in the tone of the hum coming from beneath him, the ring of stones around him suddenly went translucent. A pinkish white light grew in intensity till it was nearly unbearable for Ernest to look around. Then in a dance of colours a red whirlwind of light formed, built up speed between the rows of stones; the air was singing, crackling, then the red light surged up to the ceiling and exited from the upper loop of the B in Isanbard Kingdom Brunel's initials. Sudden peace and calm descended on the hall, the stones faded back to gray. Ernest stood transfixed by the departure.
Corridors of Light and Dark:
Angus heard something, it was like a far away wind, he thought Tornado! having been close to one in Missouri one time. But this was coming from inside the building. The large lady ahead of him had stopped. There was just silence.
Suddenly the walls turned red, a terrible dread entered his bones, the very fabric of his mind was being ripped apart by an absurd amount of noise. The sound of a million Sitars pounded through his skull.
He felt the floor shaking. The doors in the corridor near him started to open and close on their own, coffee cups and tea urns were crashing to the floor. Surprise seemed to be in the eyes of the people down the corridor. A blinding flash shot through the walls, everything for a moment was translucent, Angus could see through is own hands, even as they shielded his eyes from the picture before him. Then it was dark. The sound of crashing books and clattering pencils ebbed away. Only silence remained. And darkness.
Groping to find some semblance of normality, Angus realised that there were no lights in the corridor as his eyes tried to adjust to the stunning darkness, he could only see the dying impression in the purple of his eyes of see-through people, offices and furniture that had been so brightly illuminated a moment before. He knew he was just around the corner from the lobby door, he fumbled his way across the floor till he reached the oak door. Finding the handle he twisted it and fell into the outer hall. The light from the small pain in the front door burst into his life. There was elation at the sudden sight of light. He stumbled to the external door and fell into Whitehall. People were standing still all around. They were just looking about themselves as if this was the first time they had realised where they were, and it was. Angus knew he was going to have a good day now his demon was dead, and so were a whole country load of people.
Ernest looked around, it had never been that bright before. He had fired the machine only a few weeks ago at Northern England, and it had not been like that. He suddenly realised his hands were still on the controls, he pulled them off and rubbed his sweating palms on his chest. He took a step back from the control stone and noticed the ceiling started to shake. It glowed red initially, not a hot red, more a colouration change, then suddenly, as if the girders themselves were made of pure light the ceiling exploded. Ernest couldn't move fast enough. The machine had shot itself, but with a vastly more powerful bolt than he had ever predicted. He fell to the floor, but his knees didn't hit concrete. His hands made the distinction first, Ernest was lying in grass, wet grass. He could hear people moving in the trees on the ridge above him. He was outside. In the rain.
|© Copyright A. Maclean 2002 -|