Friday, September 7, 2012

Yesterday and Today - Chapter Two

This is the second installment of my serialized free story, Out of Time. The first installment is here.

10 Downing Street
10 January 1806

“You knew, sir! You knew!

William Pitt was red-faced, and probably not from anger alone. Mary figured he’d already consumed a bottle of port, and it was eleven o’clock in the morning. Pitt the Younger’s fondness for the wine was well known to his contemporaries as well as later historians; his death in 1806 (in another thirteen days, if the timeline held, and there was no reason to assume it would) was generally assumed by historians to have been hastened by over consumption. Nineteenth century wine and liquor bottles were smaller than those of the twenty-first, but even so—Regency gentlemen drank a hell of a lot.

And most of the gentlemen currently serving in His Majesty’s government had been drinking even more since Mary, Group Captain Hullin, and their 7.8 million fellow temporal exiles had shown up.

She hated “temporal exile,” but the geeks from GCQH had coined the phrase and it stuck.

They were down to less than 4 million.

“Mr. Pitt, please, if you’ll allow me to--”

Captain Hullin broke off and Mary flinched as Mr. Pitt continued to pound the table between them, a gorgeous, though scarred, gouged and generally dilapidated, example of the Chippendale style. She still wasn’t used to treating antiques as normal furniture.

“You knew we would lose our greatest champion, our most brilliant strategist, at this most crucial and dangerous moment, and yet you chose not to warn us!”

There were two other men in the room, members of the minister’s staff whose names she hadn’t bothered to remember and who now stared intently at Captain Hullin while their boss continued his tirade.

She was certain that if she opened the door, a large crowd of eavesdroppers would fall, Marx Brothers style, into the small, stuffy room.

“You refused to share vital information concerning the safety of this country, our country—and yours, sir! Your country as well, or so you say, yet you--”

Oh, what the hell.

“It’s the Prince Regent, sir. The Prince Regent is the problem. And the Butterfly Effect.”

The two men flanking Pitt started, like someone had pinched them, and now they were staring at her instead of the Captain next to her. Pitt had stopped midsentence to gape at her as well

There was silence in the antechamber on the other side of the door; not the silence of an empty space, but the silence of a group of people holding their breath.

Or maybe she was just imagining that part. She was operating on very little sleep, and sitting across from three people who were determined to pretend she didn’t exist was making her peevish.
Hullin turned to look at her in bemusement. “What the hell are you doing?” he whispered.

“Sir, I assure you, we can hear you,” Pitt said.

Hullin took a deep breath, glanced at Mary once more, then turned back to face the aggrieved PM.

“Mr. Pitt, I have no idea what Dr. Lilley is talk—excuse me, that’s not precisely true, I do know what she’s talking about, but I have no bloody idea why she’s bringing it up.”

Now it was Pitt who started, clearly surprised that Hullin would use such language in the presence of a female.

Pitt wasn’t particularly comfortable around women, but that wasn’t why he and his two inferiors had ignored her thus far. Even though almost two years had passed since The Event, a lot of people—maybe most people, and certainly most men—still couldn’t conceive of women possessing advanced degrees and inhabiting the same professional spheres as men.

But as she was the only PhD temp ex on the British mainland whose area of scholarship was 19th century European history in general, British military history specifically, she’d become the de facto liaison between the military personnel representing the temp exes and the men who represented the Crown.

So she took a deep breath, pulled her chair up closer to the table, tucked one leg under her to give herself some height, and leaned forward across the table. Feeling the outer perimeter of his personal space being invaded, Pitt stepped back and frowned, clearly disconcerted.

Which was just how she wanted him.

“Let’s start with the Butterfly Effect, shall we?”

Pitt looked like he was about to say something, so she just kept talking, keeping her tone confident but conversational, neither aggressive nor submissive.  This was how she found herself addressing all the contemporary men she dealt with, in order not to challenge or provoke them while not allowing them to challenge or provoke her.

Rather like training dogs and horses, actually.

“It’s a theoretical device, and it describes how a hurricane might or might not form, depending on whether or not a butterfly far away did or did not flap its wings. We use the term to describe the phenomenon of very small, seemingly inconsequential actions or events which end up having very profound or far-reaching effects.”

Pitt was still frowning but seemed calmer as he mused, “Ripples in a stream.  A pebble thrown into a lake will generate ripples that constantly widen.”

She nodded with a smile. “Precisely so.”

Good boy!

“But what has this to do with…ah. I think I may see--”

And he probably did, because William Pitt was a brilliant man.

“I’ll wager you do.” Wager you do? She was beginning to speak like them even when she didn’t mean to. “We—and by ‘we’ I mean all of us who came through in The Event—have generated a massive Butterfly Effect, quite without meaning to. We know this because the events that have transpired since we arrived in 1804 have not followed the historical timeline as we knew it in 2013.”

She paused while he considered this, resisting the urge to ask, “Do you understand?” He would understand once he thought on it, and she of all people had to be sensitive to the danger of condescending to contemporaries.

After a few beats, his face took on a quizzical cast. “Are you saying that your presence has changed history?”

“History as we know it—yes. For instance, in our history the King was still in his right mind in 1806; the Regency Act wasn’t passed until 1810.  On the other hand, Napoleon hasn’t yet gotten to Vienna, whereas in our time, he entered the city in November 1805. And Arth—that is, I mean-- I mean the point is, there are numerous other examples as well.” She paused to take a deep breath, flustered and ever conscious of Stephen Faraday’s warnings.  “Now. We have to assume that it is our presence that’s caused these changes to the timeline, yes? And if that’s the case, we must try to limit our disruptions as much as possible, you see, because…”

She paused again, trying to figure out how to say it. Finally she gave up. Spreading her hands helplessly she said, “Look. The point is, we want to try avoid screwing things up as much as we can. As we’ve told you, Britain was victorious over Napoleon—but that’s not inevitable and even in our time, it was a very close run thing.”

She glanced over to Captain Hullin, who’d raised an eyebrow at her choice of phrasing. Having nearly blurted out Arthur Wellesley’s name, she now couldn’t get him out of her mind.

Pitt was shaking his head. “I believe I understand what you’re saying, but surely in the case of momentous events such as Trafalgar--”

“No, sir. No. Please, pardon my interruption, but…no. It’s the momentous events that we feel are most particularly at risk of being altered! Look. If we had told you that Admiral Nelson would die in battle on 21 October 1805, then obviously—surely—people would have taken steps to avoid that, yes? Someone, somewhere, would have sought to make sure Nelson wasn’t aboard Victory that day, or that he didn’t order the maneuvers that he did, or…something like that. And it’s impossible, absolutely impossible, to predict the multitude of outcomes that could have resulted from any one of those alterations. Any of them could have resulted in Britain losing the battle, but she didn't. She won, and so Napoleon’s opportunity to invade is gone for good.”

He was pacing around the table now, stroking his chin. He stopped a couple of chairs away from her and said, “But the threat is not removed, he is still marching across Europe, and we must still confront him.”

Captain Hullin, clearly done with sitting on the sidelines, stood up to face the prime minster. “Yes sir, exactly. And as Dr. Lilley has explained, in order for that to happen—in order for Britain to finally prevail, once and for all, over France--our experts believe very strongly that we must refrain from telling you too much of what is coming. We’ve given you a general outline of history as we know it, from your time to ours, but to ensure that this history happens again, as it were, we must withhold a great deal of information.”

Hullin was a man of impeccable breeding, well used to formality, and so he didn’t have to try as hard as she did to speak in the manner of contemporaries. It was clear from their earlier meetings with the prime minister that Pitt respected Hullin, recognizing him as a gentleman.

As Tom Carr liked to say, “an aristo will always recognize another aristo, even from two hundred years away.”

Pitt frowned once more, stared at the ground, and then looked up with a sigh. “Very well. I accept your answer—for now. I do plan to discuss the matter with my colleagues, possibly with some of our own scientists.”

Captain Hullin nodded with a slight bow.

“Now,” the prime minister continued. “To the Prince Regent.”

“Excuse me?” she and Hullin asked at the same time.

“Oh!” she exclaimed a second later. “I did mention him, didn’t I?”

Pitt raised his eyebrows but didn’t respond.

“Hmm. Well, you see, we…”

Goddamn it. Why had she blurted that out? What the hell was wrong with her? There was no way to…

“The Prince Regent cannot be told what we’ve discussed with you today, or what we’ll discuss with you—and with your colleagues—in the future,” Hullin said briskly. “I do apologize, and I know that this will cause you some difficulty, but I’m afraid there really is no choice.”

“And for what reason am I to withhold such important information from the Regent?”

“For the reason that, although he is a man of above average intelligence, he is utterly lacking in judgment, discretion, discipline or common sense. e HeH He cannot be trusted.”

“Oh bloody hell!” exclaimed the prime minister.

But he didn’t argue.

1 comment:

Kristy Atkinson said...

OK, after this chapter I can see where this story is coming from. I was a little befuddled during chapter one - the date at the top, combined with Diana's death had my little brain confused! By the end of it I had an inkling of what was going on though and chapter 2 confirmed it.

I love this idea and would really like to read more!