Time

ESA-satellite-2‘What time is it?’ Dr Honor Smith, senior lecturer in women’s history at the University of Royal Tunbridge Wells, stood in the doorway.

Once upon a time, the ‘situation room’, as Honor liked to call it, had been a pretty, high-ceilinged study-cum-spare-bedroom that caught the first rays of the morning sun in the Georgian house she shared with her civil partner and their daughter, Charlie. Now it was filled with technology, and the troublesome sun had been blocked with a blackout blind. A bank of six twenty-seven-inch screens hung on one wall, beneath which sat wire racks of matt black boxes in a variety of sizes, winking with blue, green and red LEDs. Set back from the wall, surveying the kit and filling the width of the room, was the control desk on which sat a variety of input devices, piles of papers and half-filled notebooks containing calculations, theories and jottings that Honor had no hope of deciphering and three printers—one A3, one colour and one laser. An anglepoise lamp was emitting the only light in the room, apart from the blueish ambience coming from the screens. In addition, at a quick count, there were four dirty coffee mugs. There was probably another one lurking somewhere.

Sat at the desk was Dr Brogan Miller, professor of biophysics and computer engineering at the same university. Her short dark hair was sticking up where she had unconsciously run her hands through it. Honor knew from experience this meant that things were not going smoothly. In the first months of their relationship, Brogan had tried patiently to explain what it was that wasn’t going smoothly and Honor had tried to understand the laws, mechanics, computer models and algorithms that drove Brogan’s world, but it had been a lost cause. Brogan, for her part, still endeavoured to share her passion for her subject but Honor had long since given up trying to understand and, twenty years later, she knew simply to read the signs that pre-empted a problem.

She stepped forward and ran a hand across Brogan’s shoulders. Beneath her palm, Brogan’s muscles were tense. She continued to run her hand back and forth, smoothing the mini crumples in Brogan’s un-ironed pale blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up so that, Brogan said, the cuffs did not fray from rubbing on the desk. Honor had stopped counting how many of these identical shirts Brogan owned. It was what her partner liked to wear and, having no interest in fashion, it was easier for Brogan to keep buying the same. Honor wished she would not wear them straight from the laundry basket without putting an iron to them first, though.

‘Are you coming to bed?’

‘In a minute,’ Brogan mumbled.

‘You said that—what time is it?’ Honor looked at the bottom right-hand corner of one of the screens. ‘Jesus! Four hours ago.’

Brogan didn’t say anything and continued to edit the code she was working on.

Honor leaned over and put her arms around Brogan’s neck, pressing her cheek to her wife’s ear.

‘What’s the problem?’

It did not occur to Brogan to ask how Honor knew there was a problem. Instead she said, ‘The satellite’s up, she’s powered and sending and receiving okay, but I’m just not getting a picture.’

‘Okay. Would sleeping on it help?’

Brogan didn’t answer Honor’s question.

‘Brogue, it’s three o’clock in the morning. C’mon.’

Honor rubbed her cheek against Brogan’s, and Brogan caught the scent of her perfume mixed with clean bed linen, and that peculiarly warm smell that a body exudes after just waking from sleep.

Brogan reached up and squeezed Honor’s arm. ‘In a minute. Just let me finish this line of code.’

Honor sighed and, releasing Brogan’s neck, sat on the spare chair she had insisted Brogan install in the situation room for occasions such as this. Honor pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on them.

Brogan flicked a glance at her. Honor was dressed in those silky pyjamas that she liked because the hang of the satin showed off the curve of Honor’s breasts. ‘Cold?’ she said, without stopping the stream of typing.

‘No. I’m fine.’

‘My big fleece is on the back of the door.’

‘You’re not going to be more than a minute so I won’t need it,’ Honor said, being provocative.

Brogan ignored her.

Honor looked at the screens. One of them was showing a live feed of her. She must have sat in front of the camera on Brogan’s desk. She looked at the screen and ran her fingers through her honey-blonde hair, trying to comb its sleep-disturbed state into some semblance of the soft wavy bob that she liked to see in the mirror before she left the house each morning. She gave up.

Brogan stopped typing and said, ‘You see your image? Well, that’s what I should be getting there.’ Brogan pointed to the blank screen on the top row. ‘And I’m not. It all worked when we tested it in the lab. I’m completely stumped.’

‘Would the distance be a factor?’ Honor attempted.

‘No. The signal’s really strong. Look.’ Brogan indicated a line of green dots illuminated on one of the smaller black boxes in the rack. ‘And I’m sending and receiving the data with no problem. Unless…’

Brogan brought up another screen of code, tapped at one of the keyboards again and ran the revision. Brogan shook her head. She leaned back and ran her hands through her hair. ‘I don’t get it. It should work. It worked down here. Why doesn’t it work up there? Something has to have changed with the satellite between here and there.’

Honor yawned. ‘Maybe she knows what time it is and that she can shut down because all sane people are in bed.’

‘No, she doesn’t.’ Brogan’s eyes lit up and she stared at Honor. She clicked her fingers. ‘No. She doesn’t.’

Brogan brought up the screen of code again and started typing feverishly.

Honor stood up. ‘I can see you’re going to be ages yet. Charlie’s got to be up for football in three hours and I’m guessing you’re not taking her.’

Without looking up from the code, Brogan said, ‘I’ll take her. I promised I would.’

‘Yeah, right.’

‘Sit down. Sit down again.’

Honor sighed. She was here for a while longer. ‘Okay, but if this doesn’t work, I’m going to bed, and I don’t want to be disturbed just as I drop off so you’re sleeping on the couch.’

She took the fleece from the back of the door and pulled it on. As she sat down, she tipped the chair backwards slightly to zip up the fleece.

Brogan compiled the code and ran it. The blank screen on the top row fritzed into life and the image of the chair appeared. After two seconds, the chair tilted, seemingly of its own accord.

Brogan laughed and punched the air. ‘You’re a genius.’

‘Great! What just happened?’

‘The fourth dimension,’ said Brogan animatedly. ‘The satellite knew where in space to pick up the signal, in other words that camera there, but not when. I added an extra variable—time—and it came bouncing back. The question is: why did our baby need a date and time? Why would distance mean that time becomes a factor? The only thing that’s changed is she’s just got further away. Everything else is the same.’

‘I don’t know. Can we talk about it tomorrow? We’ve established I’m a genius but geniuses need their beauty sleep before they can conduct semi-sensible conversations about quantum physics. I’m really happy it works, darling. Now, please can we go to bed?’

‘One second,’ said Brogan frowning.

‘What now?’

‘Where are you?’

‘Here?’

‘No, where are you?’ Brogan pointed to the screen.

‘Oh, I see. I should be in the picture, shouldn’t I?’

Brogan’s frown deepened. ‘Do something for me, spin the chair.’

‘Why?’

‘Just spin it. Go on.’

Honor shrugged. ‘Okay.’

Honor spun the chair like a child visiting their parent’s office, going round twice. She stopped and they both looked at the screen. Two seconds later, the chair spun around, twice.

Brogan shook her head. ‘That’s what I thought.’

‘What? Why can we only see the furniture?’

‘I don’t know, but that’s not what’s worrying me. There was a time delay. Did you see it? There shouldn’t have been a delay. There was a gap between you spinning the chair, the code being relayed and the screen showing the chair spinning. That’s not possible.’

‘A couple of seconds, tops.’

‘But there shouldn’t be. It should be live. The picture should be only milliseconds behind you.’

‘It has a long way to travel,’ Honor suggested. It seemed reasonable to her that the return signal might be delayed on its journey from outer space.

‘No, no, I coded the time so that it used the variable Now. At the point at which the programme ran, the variable was calculated; at which moment, you were sitting down doing up the fleece which made the chair tip. Do you see? It means that the feed isn’t live. When I introduced time as a factor, the feed wasn’t live any longer.’

‘I don’t get it.’

‘Neither do I.’ Brogan tapped at the code again. ‘What time did you say it was when you walked in?’

‘About three.’

‘Can you be more exact?’

‘Er, the screen said, three-oh-two.’

‘Okay.’ Brogan ran the code again. The image on the screen jumped as the chair changed position.

‘If I’m right,’ Brogan said, ‘in about a minute, the chair will move.’

‘Brogue, this is weird.’

They watched the screen carefully. Brogan was right; about a minute into the feed, the chair swung out slightly and then settled back to sit opposite the desk.

‘What was that?’ Honor asked.

‘That was the moment you first sat down after putting your arms around my neck.’

‘But how did…?’ Honor let her question hang. She wasn’t sure what she was asking. It was too late at night, or too early in the morning, for physics, computers and Brogan’s world.

Brogan grinned and her eyes sparkled. ‘I don’t know, but it’s massive.’

Honor smiled sympathetically. ‘It’s not much good if you can’t see anyone.’

‘Don’t you get it? We’ve just travelled backwards in time.’

‘Nooo.’ Honor’s eyes widened.

‘Yes,’ Brogan nodded. ‘You’re a historian. Let’s see how far back we can go. Pick a date.’

‘Don’t be silly.’

‘Pick a date.’

‘Okay, the twenty-fifth of December 1890.’

Brogan ran the code and entered the date in the request box she had just made. The screen jumped and Brogan’s familiar office chair disappeared to be replaced by the end of a single bed. The bedpost was a utilitarian iron one, painted, with a brass knob capping it.

‘What the…? Brogue, what is this?’

‘I think it’s this room on the twenty-fifth of December 1890 at eleven in the morning. Reach over and spin the camera. Let’s see if we can see any more.’

Gingerly, Honor leaned across the desk and turned the little camera on its stand. The picture on the screen panned with her movement. There was no doubt that it was the same room. The dimensions were the same but the decor was unrecognisable. The walls were covered in a rich flock wallpaper from the skirting to a picture rail at eye level. From the picture rail hung a set of accomplished watercolours of country scenes. The window was framed with a pelmet and a set of heavily embroidered curtains in peacock blue and green. A wintry light poured through the large sash window and semi-circles of frost were visible in the corners of the panes.

‘Take the camera over to the window and look out. There should be enough cable to reach.’

Honor watched her own progress on the screen as she moved the camera around the desk and pointed it at the blackout blind. The picture showed the view from the window of a well-kept formal garden, white with frost, mostly laid to lawn with an ornate bird bath marking the intersection of two treacherous-looking paths; the water in the bird bath was frozen over. The borders on either side of the garden were bare, silvered earth but their collection of brown spiny twigs hinted at a profusion of summer roses.

‘Nice garden,’ said Brogan.

As she made the observation, the gate at the bottom of the garden opened and two girls who might have been aged anywhere between thirteen and eighteen came through. They were dressed identically in long velvet skirts, with a small bustle and a nipped-in waist, with a half-cape about their shoulders, each carrying a fur muff that hid their hands. Following them was an older woman, her right arm held at an angle that suggested she was leaning on someone. Dressed in a long over-cape of heavy cloth with fur trim and an elaborate wide brimmed hat set forward on her head, she was talking and gesturing to her invisible companion.

Behind her came three more women. The first was somewhere between the girls and the older woman in age, her waist painfully small and her sleeves fashionably puffed between shoulder and elbow. To Honor, the black silk tie at her neck suggested a scholar, an educated woman.

There was no mistaking the class of the last two women of the party. Their skirts were not fashionably tight about the waist and the cloth, even from a distance, was coarse. Their plaid shawls looked thin against the cold of the day and their small black bonnets were suited to a time thirty years previous. They spoke quietly to each other, their heads bowed in a servile manner.

As the party disappeared under the lea of the house and out of the camera’s range, Honor said, ‘Brogue, what have you done? What is this?’

‘I’m not sure. I need to speak to George tomorrow. He’s the physical cosmologist, not me.’

‘Why can we see them? When you used the chair, we couldn’t see me. How are we seeing them?’

‘I don’t know. It needs investigation. Did you notice the older, well-dressed woman? She was on someone’s arm. Why couldn’t we see him? Assuming it was a him.’

Honor shook her head. ‘I don’t believe what we just witnessed; history happening live.’

Honor began to laugh. As she did so, the door of the room opened on screen and the educated younger woman entered. Removing her hat pin and then her hat, she threw them down on the bed, revealing a simple low chignon at the back of her blonde head. She walked forward to the window and stood where Honor was standing one hundred and twenty-four years in the future. Honor moved back to frame the woman better on the screen.

Honor and Brogan watched as the young woman’s lower lip trembled and she began to cry. Taking a handkerchief from her sleeve, she wiped her face, trying to control her tears. There was a knock at the bedroom door. The young woman sniffed and said, ‘One moment.’

Her caller didn’t wait and entered the room. It was the older woman from the garden, her outer garments discarded, wearing a red silk day dress, her reddish-brown hair piled in curls on top of her head. Seeing the younger woman upset, she rushed to embrace her, reassuring her with soft hushes.

‘What am I to do?’ asked the younger woman. ‘Your husband tells me your daughters are to be married and will no longer require a governess.’

‘Ssh. My husband does not make the domestic arrangements, I do. If I require your services, he will permit you to stay. I promise.’

The younger woman looked up into the face of the older. The older woman took the handkerchief from her and tenderly wiped the younger woman’s tear-stained face.

‘Now, no more.’

The younger woman nodded obediently.

‘That’s better.’

The older woman stroked the younger woman’s face with the back of her fingers and, putting her arm about the younger woman’s waist, leaned in and kissed her. The younger woman responded, twisting her fingers into the back of the older woman’s hair.

The kiss ended and they stayed in one another’s arms for a moment longer.

‘Will you join us for luncheon?’

The younger woman nodded.

‘Wash your face and come down.’

The younger woman kissed the older woman lightly, with less passion but no less affection than before. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered.

The older woman smiled and, turning, left the room.

Brogan cut the feed, and the screen that, seconds before, had been filled with marvels from another age went black. They sat in silence for a moment, reliving what they had just witnessed.

‘Wow,’ Honor exclaimed. ‘When I looked up the 1891 census for this house, I had no idea that we had a couple of “sisters” living here.’

‘Oh, please! Even I know that they didn’t call themselves “sisters” in those days.’ Brogan grinned at Honor who, shaking her head in disbelief, grinned back.

‘Brogue, you know that this is beyond significant, don’t you? Not just for your field but for mine, too.’

Brogan nodded slowly.

‘This has the power to revolutionise the way history is taught. What we’ve just seen reveals a hidden history not evident from any surviving documents. It’s huge.’

They sat in silence again, absorbing the enormity of their discovery. Then Brogan said, ‘Do you still want to go to bed?’

‘Seriously? D’you think either of us could sleep now? I want to know what happens to the governess. Wait while I dig out my research about this house.’

Honor turned to go but Brogan caught her hand and stopped her. Catching Brogan’s intent, Honor bent down and kissed her.

‘I have a very clever wife,’ Honor said.

Brogan smiled. ‘We make a good team.’

Honor stood up. ‘Don’t think this gets you out of taking Charlie to football, though.’

Brogan’s smile widened.

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