Authors: Alex Scarrow
Bentham’s Pie Shop (‘Steaming Hot Pies All Day Long!’) was Sal’s find. She’d come across the little eatery on one of her many trips to Exmouth Market. A narrow three-storey building of uneven floors and oak beams askew. Each floor was a maze of nooks and crannies and cosy side rooms, each room filled with wooden tables and stools that wobbled on the undulating bare floor. They were sitting in a lead-lined bay window on the top floor, looking down through fogged glass on to the narrow street and a busy fishmonger below.
Inside Bentham’s it was quiet now. The breakfast rush of early-morning pie-eating patrons had subsided and the lunchtime rush was yet to come.
The seven of them were crowded around one small table, and the perforated, oven-browned pie crusts spilling small smokestack plumes of beef-flavour steam into the air made the pie feast between them look like a miniature table-top village of round houses.
‘Smells good,’ said Adam. ‘I haven’t eaten anything warm in days.’
‘The meat is real beef,’ said Rashim, plunging a fork into his crust. ‘Not synthetic protein jelly but actual meat.’
Liam made a yummy sound as he hung his nose over his own pie. ‘I’m starving, so I am.’
‘All right. I suppose I better start,’ said Maddy, ‘since this was all my big idea.’ She tapped her fingers together. ‘Becks – who you now know, Adam, is a support unit – dumped out a whole load of data and what we got from it,
we got from it, was the word “Windtalkers”. So that’s why we came to get you, Adam. That’s the only lead we have here.’
‘A lead to cracking that message –’ Adam glanced at Becks – ‘in her head?’
‘Yup. So, the truth is we’ve found ourselves kind of cast adrift from the agency that set us up in the time-policing business.’
‘Cast adrift?’ Liam shook his head. ‘That’s putting it mildly. More like “hiding from them for fear of our lives”.’
‘All right, we’ve gone and done something that’s made the agency want us all dead for some reason.’ Maddy shrugged. ‘I think it’s because I made the mistake of asking what the hell “Pandora” was.’
‘You didn’t just ask,’ said Sal. ‘You sent a message saying we weren’t going to correct any more contaminations until someone gave us an answer. That was pretty stupid, saying it like that. You made us sound like we were turning against them.’
Maddy did a double-take at Sal. It was so unlike her to lash out like that. She’d been withdrawn and quiet recently, more so than normal. Then this – there was even the tone of a direct challenge in her voice. So unlike her.
‘Well, yes … I might have worded it a bit better, I guess,’ she replied. ‘And, so, because I made it sound like they had a problem with us – sorry, guys – we ended up with a squad of goons, like Bob here, knocking on our door intent on massacring us. A slight over-reaction, I think. But there you go. Something obviously got lost in the translation. They figured we’d gone rogue. But more than that … I think we clearly weren’t meant to know anything about Pandora.’
‘And this Pandora is …?’ asked Adam.
‘We think it’s the codename for the end of the world. Or, more specifically, a specific extinction event for mankind.’
‘What specific event?’
‘A genetically engineered virus,’ said Rashim. ‘There will be a war between Japan and North Korea in 2070, one of many wars, in fact, that are due in the later half of the twenty-first century. During the opening stages of the Japan–North Korea war, one side will release a Von Neumann virus.’
‘A type of smart-virus that feeds on human organic material and breaks it down into an organic soup, which it in turn uses to fuel the propagation of more virus spores.’
‘So,’ continued Maddy, ‘we’ve pieced together the theory that the Waldstein guy I was telling you about earlier – you remember …?’
‘He set this agency up with one specific goal, which is to ensure the historical timeline is not deflected in any way and that we end up with this virus eventually happening in the year 2070.’ She blew on to a wooden spoonful of piping hot beef stew. ‘We didn’t realize that was our job, making sure this happens, until a while after we’d been trained and were up and running. But someone somewhere has been trying to warn us that that’s what our function is. So basically we were kept in the dark. Basically we’ve been suckered into ensuring that happens.’
‘Duped into being the agents of mankind’s demise,’ added Liam. He nodded with satisfaction at how poetic that sounded.
Maddy tested the stew with her lip. ‘Quite.’
Sal looked like she was going to say something.
‘Sal?’ prompted Maddy.
She shook her head. ‘Nothing. Just … just that’s our theory. That’s what we think.’ The words ‘our’ and ‘we’ sounded decidedly forced.
Maddy was tempted to stop things for a moment and talk to Sal. It seemed like, even though she was prepared to tag along with things, her heart wasn’t in it. Her thinking was elsewhere on this. Perhaps later she’d ask her what was going on inside her head. But not now.
‘So, what? You want to change history so this doesn’t happen?’ Adam looked at them. ‘Surely that’s easy? Just go change something, right? Just pick a historical moment and make it happen differently. That’ll send your timeline off in a different direction. Problem solved. No viral apocalypse.’
‘Yes … yes, we
do that. But, well, at least my take on it is we need to know more information before we commit to making that decision. Before we become what Waldstein thinks we currently are … traitors. We need to know why it’s important to him that this virus happens. I mean, maybe there’s a perfectly valid reason.’ She shrugged. ‘Or it might simply be that he’s some lunatic that has some hate-thing for mankind.’
‘Or it could be Waldstein is trying to save mankind from something far worse,’ said Sal.
‘Tell me now,’ Liam said, sitting back, ‘what the devil is worse than mankind all but wiping itself out?’
‘Wait … we don’t even know if mankind is totally wiped out, do we?’ replied Sal. ‘We know from Rashim – well, the other one, the old one – that
of humanity on Earth was wiped out. But what if some of them survived? Perhaps that’s the thing? Perhaps Waldstein has seen the future. That virus happens, ninety per cent of humans or something are wiped out, but the remaining ten per cent survive and go on to do wonderful things?’ It was her turn to shrug. ‘Perhaps it’s a
necessary thing for humankind? A way to save this planet from being mined to exhaustion or complete ecological collapse.’
‘Waldstein, the eco-warrior?’ said Rashim.
Maddy nodded slowly. ‘That’s one possible reading of his motives. Another equally valid reading is that he’s just plain nuts; some kind of ultimate eco-warrior who wants to erase mankind completely and give this world back to nature.’
‘So that is what this agency has been all about? An act of eco-terrorism? A way to rebalance this world, de-clutter the planet of humans and set up a new beginning?’
Rashim nodded thoughtfully. ‘A global culling of humanity for the greater good?’
Sal nodded. ‘Maybe then we
be doing what Waldstein wants? And save the planet?’
Liam glanced at her. ‘Nature versus humans?’ He gave her an incredulous look. ‘Jay-zus, I vote for humans then! Whose side are you on, Sal? The plants or the people?’ He laughed at that. It was a joke question, but not entirely so.
‘You might be right, Sal,’ Maddy stepped in. ‘It could be we need to follow Waldstein’s doctrine for some purpose that delivers a greater good. On the other hand, we could be the patsies, the dumb suckers carrying out the plans of a guy who’s simply sick in the head! Because some bitter and twisted old billionaire has, for some self-aggrandizing reason, decided he wants the world to die along with him?’ Maddy cocked her head. ‘Maybe Waldstein’s simply totally lost it?’
She looked up and out of the lead-lined windows. ‘So then, we’ve also got to take on board the fact that someone else has been trying to get through to us. Someone has been trying to warn us about this. Trying to alert us about this event. Why?’
‘Maybe this other person is mad?’ said Sal.
‘I think Waldstein’s the one that’s mad,’ said Liam.
‘Or maybe Waldstein’s this world’s only chance to survive,’ said Sal. ‘Our saviour.’
They sat in silence, contemplating that for a moment.
‘Point is … we don’t know,’ said Maddy after a while. ‘Evil madman bent on destroying everything? Or really good guy trying to save humanity from itself. Take your pick, folks. We have our guesses, but that’s really all we have. We’re completely in the dark.’
‘And that message in Becks’s head – the answer she won’t give us – will tell us one way or the other?’ said Liam.
‘Exactly.’ Maddy nodded. ‘We need to find out more. Someone drew our attention to the word “Pandora”. That word led us to the Voynich.’ She looked at Adam. ‘Which is where
come into the picture.’
Adam paused, a spoon halfway to his mouth. ‘You … you’re saying … what? The future of humankind depends on … on me?’
Maddy smiled sympathetically. ‘Well, kinda.’
‘Seems it all boils down to that cave, then,’ added Liam. ‘Your cave … that’s what we’re after. The cave. The writing.’
‘You reckon you could find it again, Adam?’ Maddy glanced at his tattered backpack. In his bedsit, she and Liam had watched him pile tattered exercise books, pads of paper covered in writing and sketches, and a laptop that looked like an old brick into it as they’d waited for him to come along. He seemed keen. But not exactly methodical. She hoped he’d brought everything he needed to lead them there.
Adam shrugged. ‘I … errr … I’m pretty sure I can find it. I kept a field diary. I’ve got a load of notes.’
‘So then that’s the
taken care of, if Adam can guide us to the cave,’ said Liam. ‘But what about the
Rashim nodded. ‘So now we have to decide. The cave in 1994? The cave now – 1889? Or the cave when these Indian people lived?’
‘I’d say when these Windwalker Indians were alive,’ said Liam.
,’ corrected Adam.
Maddy was thinking it through. ‘I suspect travelling through dense jungle in 1994 would be way easier than 1889? Know what I mean? Motorboats instead of paddle canoes and stuff.’
‘Can we not get to the cave in 1994, then beam back in time to when the Windtalkers were alive?’ asked Adam. ‘Does your, uh … time machine allow you to do that?’
Rashim pushed his glasses up his nose. ‘It is possible to do that. If you locate the cave in 1994, then we would place a beacon there as a location marker. Then from here, in London, I could charge up the displacement machine, open a portal to bring you back. Then we set up another time-stamp, same location, but for whenever these Indians lived …’ Rashim looked over the top of his glasses at Adam. ‘Which was?’
‘I’m not sure exactly. Somewhere between thirteen hundred and five hundred years ago at a guess?’
‘That is a span of eight hundred years!’ Rashim’s eyes narrowed. ‘Could you be more precise than that?’
‘Have we got enough energy to reach back that far anyway?’ asked Maddy.
‘Hmmm, I will need to think how I can boost our reach. It is possible. I will need to do some calculations.’
‘So, if we can, we open a portal some time back then,’ said Maddy. ‘And maybe we can, y’know, talk to these Indians? See what they know?’
‘What if the Indians know nothing, Maddy?’ said Sal. ‘What if it’s nothing to do with them? Somebody turned up and wrote something on that cave wall and then left?’
‘Or, we could just go back in time until the wall writing
there,’ said Liam, ‘and wait there until whoever painted it turns up and then we grab the poor fella and beat the answer out of him?’
She turned to him sharply.
‘Uh, I wasn’t making a joke of –’
‘No, Liam.’ She was nodding at the idea. ‘I was just going to say, brilliant idea.’ She shook her head. ‘I have a habit of overcomplicating things. On the other hand you, Liam, seem to cut directly through the crud. That’s what we’ll do. Once we find the cave we can open a pinhole image of the wall, and take image samples going back in time until it’s blank. Then we can zero in on the precise moment that the writing was made.’
‘We could actually do that?’ gasped Adam. ‘We could actually witness the moment … the
moment that writing was daubed on the wall?’
‘Uh-huh. Duh. Of course! Time travel? That’s the kind of thing you can do.’
‘My God!’ Adam lowered his wooden spoon into his pie with a heavy splat. ‘That would be … simply … incredible!’ he whispered.
‘Welcome to the wonderful wacky world of time travel,’ said Sal drily. ‘We get to do lots of crazy-fun things like that.’
‘That nice man was very helpful,’ said Maddy.
She looked both ways at the pedestrian crossing. A red double-decker bus rumbled past them. Across the street a giant billboard was showing a poster for the movie
Back to the Future Part II
. Maddy remembered seeing the movie, one of many they’d watched together in their Brooklyn field office. The film’s depiction of 2015 had been laughably naive and upbeat: colourful, fun, optimistic. Hoverboards instead of skateboards, for God’s sake. She wondered how much more fun life would be if God was a Hollywood movie director.
‘Indeed the man was,’ replied Rashim. ‘Very helpful. Although, I have to ask, are you sure it is such a good idea having him deliver it right outside our door?’
‘Sure, yeah. I reckon it’ll be OK.’
Right now – London 1989 – England’s Prime Minister was a woman called Margaret Thatcher. Mobile phones were the size of bricks. Everyone seemed to be wearing brightly coloured tracksuits made of cheap polyester … The small oak side door that led from their dungeon on to Farringdon Street was the entrance leading to a place called ‘Bernie’s Tattoos and Piercings’.
‘It’s no big deal. I’ll just pretend I work there, taking delivery for my boss.’
‘Why would a tattooist want a generator?’
The pedestrian lights changed, the green man beckoned them to cross the road.
‘Come on,’ she said.
They made their way across the road, stopping almost at once to dodge a motorcycle courier who’d threaded his way through the stationary cars and was running over the pedestrian crossing no matter what light was showing.
Maddy cursed and flipped her hand at him as he sped away. ‘Moron!’
‘It seems more dangerous on foot than New York, I think.’
They crossed just as the lights changed and traffic resumed rumbling past behind them.
‘Seriously, relax,’ said Maddy. ‘The delivery guy won’t give a second thought to why a tattooist wants to hire a portable generator and a dozen gallon drums of diesel.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s business for his boss. Somebody needs a generator for hire. Done deal.’
business for the man.’
Maddy winced guiltily. So the poor chap running ‘Webster and Sons Equipment Hire’ was going to lose one generator through a portal back to 1889. But at least he had the deposit money they’d paid up front. She pulled a face; that was going to cover
of his loss.
They turned into Plumtree Court. Mr Webster (if that was, in fact, his name) was going to bring it round in the back of his white van in about half an hour’s time. Maddy and Rashim would help him unload it and make as if they were about to wheel it in through the small oak doorway into ‘Bernie’s Tattoos and Piercings’ beneath Holborn Viaduct and wait for him to go. Then they were going to drag it down a rat run a few dozen yards along, all but lost in the darkness beneath the viaduct. The portal was scheduled to open there in about an hour’s time.
They’d step through it, then quickly wheel the generator and drums of diesel back up to the very same small oak doorway in 1889 and then into their dungeon. It would be gone midnight back in 1889. Hopefully nobody was going to be around to snoop at them. Or if they were, at that hour they were likely to be gin-soaked drunks and too gone to notice, or even care.
Really quite simple.
Rashim was going to wire it into their system and hopefully the additional boost of power streaming into the capacitor array was going to give them a lot more stored charge to play around with.
‘I, uhh … I am wondering …’ started Rashim.
‘About this young man, Adam Lewis …?’
She looked at him. ‘What’s on your mind?’
Rashim stepped aside for a man striding towards them in a pinstripe suit and wide red braces. He was barking loudly into a large black phone with a telescoped aerial. ‘Yeah, mate, several smart little properties in a well nice up-and-coming area. Great investment, mate – seriously pukka …’
The man strode past, oblivious to Rashim’s courtesy.
‘Given you have been very wary, so very careful about secrecy,’ he continued, ‘now, it seems, you are welcoming a complete stranger into our little group? It strikes me as … odd.’
‘Well, we let you and your ridiculous pet robot in, didn’t we?’
‘Out of necessity perhaps? Because I am useful?’
‘Oh, come on, you’re making me sound so manipulative and cynical.’ She smiled and nudged him gently. ‘You’re one of us now. One of the gang. But Adam? Look, we
need him. He knows exactly where this cave is. That’s it.’
‘You know we could just have stolen all his notes. After all, that’s all we need from him.’
‘True, but he may also be able to help us decode that writing.’
‘I would imagine Bob or Becks would be able to run pattern and symbol frequency analysis on the message.’
we’ve also worked with him before, Rashim. Remember? I told you he came and found us in 2001. He was incredibly useful then. In fact we’d never have been able to figure out how to decode that manuscript without him.’
Rashim narrowed his eyes suspiciously. ‘I think, with Adam, maybe you have some feelings for him?’
She stopped dead. ‘What?’
Rashim cleared his throat. ‘Is that
the case? Am I misreading –?’
‘What?! No!’ She felt her cheeks beginning to burn. ‘Oh c’mon, please …
‘All right then. Perhaps not. I am mistaken. I thought it might be worth raising the question.’ Rashim shrugged. ‘You make a reasonably compelling case for bringing him along, I suppose.’
‘Jeeez. I’m not sweet on him, Rashim,’ she huffed. ‘And, by the way, that is such a sexist frikkin’ thing to assume. Because I’m a girl? Right? Means I’m not happy unless I’m hanging off the arm of some guy?’
‘You are right, an inappropriate assumption.’ He nodded politely. ‘Please accept my apologies.’
She huffed again for show. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
They passed a record shop. Music pumped out on to the pavement from within: some male vocalist pronouncing that he was ‘
never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down …
Feelings for Adam?
She shook her head at that. Of course she didn’t have feelings for him. The guy was useful, and that was the top and bottom of it.
Oh, Maddy, don’t you remember? That moment …?
Yes, all right, there was just that one awkward, fleeting
moment when they’d been round to his Manhattan apartment to quickly pick up the hard drive he’d been hanging on to all those years. The hard drive that contained the very same information that was in his backpack right now. She remembered, and she inwardly cringed.
I was weak, OK? I was feeling stressed, I was feeling lonely, dammit!
But she’d also – just for a few seconds – allowed herself to imagine, to fantasize, what it might feel like to have those gym-toned and firm arms of his wrapped round her shoulders. To bury her face into the warmth of his neck. To feel the firm contours of his chest –
Oh God, get a grip, Maddy!
‘Seriously, Rashim … I’ve got way better things to do with my time than – y’know? – recruit potential boyfriend material!’ She shook her head irritably. ‘Anyway, he’s not my type. Too scrawny. Too scruffy and nerdy.’
‘I can’t believe your displacement machine,’ said Adam. ‘It’s not just a time machine, it’s also a teleportation device. Incredible!’
On a screen further along the table, something caught Adam’s eye: a looped piece of footage of a plane crashing into a building. ‘My God … what’s that?’
‘That?’ Liam looked at it. ‘Oh that. A horrible day. It happened the day after you came to visit us in New York. Or, I should say, a day after the time
you will come
to visit us in New York.’
‘What happened? Was it an accident?’
Liam shook his head. ‘Maddy says it was an act of terrorism. Some crazy religious people decided to take over some planes and crash them into buildings. Thousands of people in New York will die on that day. Thousands.’
‘That’s the World Trade Center, isn’t it? In Lower Manhattan?’
‘Aye. Where all them banks and the like are based. We got to see that day far, far too many times.’ Liam leaned over and hit a key on one of the keyboards. The looping footage disappeared from the screen. ‘You of all people shouldn’t have seen that,’ he added. Then immediately regretted the slip.
Adam looked at him. ‘Why?’
‘Just that it’s the future, Adam. It’s not your business to know it.’ Liam decided to draw Adam’s attention quickly away from that. ‘You and I, we’ve got work to do, so we have.’
Maddy had briefed Adam that she intended to open a portal to send them over to Central America, as opposed to all of them flying over there, or taking a ship. She’d been hoping he was going to be able to hand over to her a precise GPS location. But that wasn’t what Adam had. In 1994 the only people who had access to GPS technology were military types.
have, however, was his journal: a tatty exercise book filled with notes, sketches and several local maps of Nicaragua and Honduras pulled out of a travel book and pasted in. Adam seemed confident he could replicate the exact route Professor Brian had led his six students on. The journey had taken them down the Coco River, deep into the jungle, stopping along the way at several remote villages. Adam assured her he’d be able to retrace their steps. The river flowed just one way and villages would still be there. He said he’d be able to piece together where they’d made their last camp – it was off a tributary the locals called the Green River. And from there he said the cliff was clearly visible; the looming cliff-face rose out of the jungle mists like the sheer side of an iceberg on an arctic sea.
‘So now then –’ Liam nodded at the computer monitor in front of them – ‘where is it we need to open that portal?’
‘Well, we set off down the Río Coco from a place called San Marcos de Colón.’ Adam studied the image on the screen: a detailed map of the border area between Nicaragua and Honduras. ‘There.’ He pointed. ‘That’s it! That’s the place where Professor Brian hired our boat and the guide.’
‘Right.’ Liam nodded. ‘Computer-Bob?’
On the next monitor along, a dialogue box suddenly appeared.
> Yes, Liam?
‘Can you provide a location stamp for …’ He leaned forward to read the name of the town. ‘For San Marcos de Colón, in the country Honduras.’
> Of course. One moment … retrieving data.
Adam sat back in the chair and whistled. ‘Oh, that is just sooo mint! Voice-recognition-enabled AI!’
Liam grinned. ‘Let me guess, that would be the fancy technical term for a computer that you can talk to, I presume?’
‘Oh, yeah.’ Adam nodded. ‘Jesus … this is so
! Can I have a go at talking to it?’
Liam shrugged. ‘Be my guest.’
Adam looked around the cluttered table. ‘Do I need to talk into a mic or something?’
‘Nope. You just need to talk. He’ll hear you.’
He craned his neck forward. ‘Uhh … hello? Computer? You there?’
‘He answers to the name computer-Bob.’
‘Computer-Bob? Really? Who came up with
> Liam, I detect a voice pattern that has 99.87% probability of belonging to previously authorized user – Adam Lewis.
Liam was taken aback for a moment. But then he remembered Adam had been here before. ‘Ah, of course! I forgot. You two
have actually already met.’ It was a seven-years-older Adam Lewis who had worked with Maddy and computer-Bob while Liam, Bob and Becks had been back in 1194.
Adam looked boggle-eyed. ‘Really?’
‘Aye. You were some years older than you are now, but I suppose your voice never completely changes.’ He turned back to look at the dialogue box. ‘Aye, computer-Bob, the voice you just heard belongs to Adam Lewis. He’s come back to help us again.’ He nodded at Adam. ‘Go on … why don’t you say hello to him.’
‘Errr … OK. Computer-Bob? Hellooo?’
> Hello, Adam Lewis. Welcome back.
Adam slapped the table with his hand. ‘That is just … incredible!’
Out of a dark corner of the dungeon, something squat, yellow and cubed waddled towards them, drawn by the noise of Adam’s laughter – curious, like a moth drawn to light.
Liam smiled as he saw that SpongeBubba had been roused from his ‘slumber’ and was shuffling towards them. ‘Well now, Adam, if you enjoyed that you’ll probably love
Liam nodded into the dark and Adam followed his gaze. Two bulbous eyes framed with thick cartoon eyelashes; beneath them, a wobbling gherkin nose and two goofy tombstone teeth. The lab unit stared back at Adam.
‘Howdy! Howdy! I’m SpongeBubba! What’s
Adam stared down at the unlikely creature and for a moment considered that maybe, just maybe, he really had experienced some kind of complete nervous breakdown and was locked into a completely convincing delusion. Perhaps, right now in the REAL world, he was busy rocking to and fro on a creaky sanitarium bed, wrapped up snugly in a
restraining harness, all glassy-eyed and drooling from a generous dose of pentobarbitone.
‘No,’ said Liam. ‘You’ve not gone insane. That thing’s Rashim’s pet.’