I’m startled by the chilly cleanliness of the street, taste the incredible freshness of the air. The buildings are uniform, blank and alien. A phrase I don’t recognise drops neatly in my mind: reinforced concrete. I should feel more terrified. A ragged man with a ragged beard bends down in front of me, muttering incomprehensibly to himself as he picks up what I recognise as a…cigarette butt. I nibble the concept, trying it on: cigarette butt. He pockets it – a filter with a meagre film of unsmoked tobacco. He glowers at me in kneejerk hatred then boards a.
A. Bus. A beautiful image of a near naked man adorns the side. The technique of the painting is exquisite, but the picture is debauched, disgusting. Women can see this, as can that poor degenerate who apparently wanders freely in this brightly lit Eden-city.
“Mr Sutcliffe? Mr Sutcliffe. Hi. I’m Peterson, I’m calling from SoCal; I represent the Time Warnburg conglomerate.”
I don’t recognise the accent. The words feel strange; an obscure dialectical English, but unsettlingly familiar. Like deja vu.
“You’re probably feeling a little, uh, confused right about now.”
“It’s Dr, actually. And who are you, Mr Peterson? More to the point, where are you; I can’t see you.”
“That’s, aah, a little, uh, complicated. You were the victim of a little, uh, temporal disalignment.”
“Excuse me? A what?”
“A temporal disalignment, a TD. Look, I’m a producer and we’re making a movie about your time and we, ah, there was some unpleasantness a few years back and, basically what I’m trying to say is, uh, we’re legally obliged to have unimpeachable consultants for any period movie we release. Even then there are disclaimers and all kindsa’ hoops; you know what I’m saying?”
A young dark-skinned man knocks into me and walks away shouting obscenities, clearly he’s part brute, one of those vicious savages we hear so much about. His costume is shapeless but garish: he should be sequestered away from decent folk. I feel an odd stab of guilt but force it away.
“Mr Peterson, I’m a little unsettled. And confused. Could you be clearer, perhaps.”
“Nausea, right? Light-headed?”
“Well, yes. But also, your idiom is, forgive me, a little bizarre. More to the point, so is mine. Where am I? How did I get here? And why am I not, um, freaking out?”
“Whoa there, Mr, uh, Dr, Sutcliffe. That’s a lotta’ questions and I bet you gotta’ whole lot more. Ok, the language thing, it’s complicated but it’s a side-effect of the TD. We took you from your time and place in London, 1852. Like I said, we’re making a movie about Jack the Ripper and we needed a medical consultant to advise on Victorian medicine. We also needed one or two Victorian perspectives, that whole accuracy thing I was talking about. Unfortunately there was a problem and you got landed a little too early and in the wrong universe.
Jack the Ripper? But my mouth frames a different question, “I’m sorry, wrong universe?”
“Uh, yeah. Look, this is a little embarrassing. You’re familiar with the many earths theory? Goldilocks theories about radiation levels and general viability, sine waves, that sorta’ thing?”
An elderly lady with a small dachshund on a knotted string gives me a pitying look – I must sound as though I’m talking to myself. My word, is mine a demented mind?
“Sheesh, what did you guys… Right, I’m no science guy, but it’s like this: there’s a, a multitude of universes, it’s where we get the word multiverse, right? Lots of Earths, lots of Dr Sutcliffes. But not every Earth exists, least not as you’d understand it. The, uh, laws of physics don’t apply uniformly everywhere, which is why we’re able to talk. You were carefully selected after a long, believe me it was looong, vetting process. You’re from a different universe – we can’t go back into our own past, not to before the machine was invented. Ask a physicist. Or don’t – those guys don’t speak English! Ha. Sorry, just a joke.”
I remain silent.
“Where was I? Oh just put it over there, Francis, yeah. What? Not that asshole again, tell him we don’t want any more of his shit; he’s finished…What?… Come on, that was 3 years ago. Fucking...Sorry about that Dr Sutcliffe. No rest for the wicked, right?”
“You were telling me what this is all about?”
“Huh? Oh right, yeah. Can I just say Dr Sutcliffe, you’re taking this real well all things considering, even with the TS effect. Ok. So. My time is a long way ahead of your time now and your, uh, home time. Except it kind of isn’t because of fractal universes or something. Like I said, I’m no scientist. That’s why you can’t see me; ‘cause I’m not really there.”
“Wait, TS effect?”
“Yeah, you see some people don’t appreciate being, uh we call it timeshifted, so the timeshift, or TS, is designed to stimulate certain receptors and keep you calm. Don’t worry that at least is temporary. And some people find it, uh, euphoric.”
Machines pass before my eyes at terrifying speeds. I recognise them but don’t know what they are. Some idle in front of me belching…steam? The noise is deafening. They feel intimidating, violent.
“I certainly don’t feel any euphoria.”
“Hey, buddy, I’m trying to help here, no need for the ice-queen routine…Look, we’re still working on the problem but hopefully we can resolve your issue. Think of it like a story for the grandkids, only maybe not ‘cause I’ve seen your crazy people hospitals! Sorry.”
A barely clothed woman swims into focus. She is perfumed and painted and showing so much flesh she’s no doubt a..hooker…odd word. She is so brazen, no chaperone. I’ve little doubt she’ll be raped by nightfall. Again that stab of guilt. She notices my attention and screams gibberish at me as she retreats into the distance.
“We’ve pieced some of it together. You got switched with a local girl about two weeks ago. I say switched…we’re still working out who she is and when she is. Right now all I can say is she’s a girl, sorry, a woman. And it wasn’t a straight switch: I only hope she didn’t get thrown too far back because she’d probably get burned as a witch… Anyway, that’ll account for why your surroundings are a little more, ah, familiar than they should be. Also why you didn’t ask me what a movie is.”
I’ve been here two weeks? That can’t be right. “Is that why I’m talking funny?”
“Uh…sorta’. It’s like, you ever driven a car long haul? What am I saying, of course you haven’t, don’t know what the fu..heck a car is. When you go on a journey you pick things up, right, like parasites and bug splats. This is what you got – only insteada’ a parasite you got the, ah…local vernacular burrowing into your mind. We can limit that here to keep your, I guess you’d call it integrity, um, intact…but out in the field, sadly not.”
Panic rises with Peterson’s words. A couple across the street stare through a window at brightly lit boxes. Their child cries, a thin rasping noise accompanied by the stamp of tiny feet. Why is he allowed to behave like this? Another disembodied voice “There is a good service on the rest of the London Underground.” Another bus, which reads “some people are gay, get over it”. Well, I wouldn’t begrudge a man his joy. I feel I may have missed some nuance.
“Look, Dr Sutcliffe. It’s time to talk consequences.”
Consequences? What consequences? A crowd of people pour down the – station? – stairs, like city rats. They are people of many races and costumes, holding tiny boxes that blare tinny sirens. I shudder involuntarily. Peterson returns, quieter now, more in sorrow than the previous jauntiness.
“Dr Sutcliffe? It’s probably starting to sink in, right? This is the TD – you asked yourself, yes, why you keep feeling guilty? Out of focus? We’re doing what we can, but I gotta’ warn you, if we don’t fix it in time, there’s no point in sending you back, ‘cause you won’t exist. But we still got maybe a few hours to fix it before sending you back would be downright negligent. Not negligent, of course – that’s not an admission.”
“Oh don’t get me wrong, there’ll be a, uh, shell. A person. But not you – see it’s all about language, it frames how you articulate your thoughts, your prejudices, your memories, everything. Even to yourself, especially to yourself. Everything about you is the words you use. We TS’d you but you got TD’d which accelerates the process. Right now you got over a century of linguistic flux and all the cultural baggage that entails, 161 years to be exact, comin’ atcha. To you. Right now you’re mostly the, the you that you know with a piece of someone else in you, but soon…you won’t recognise yourself. She has it worse, wherever she is, believe me.”
I’m not going to exist?
“Can’t you just bring me to wherever you are? You said you could control it?”
“If it were up to me, I’d TS you right here, but the lawyers got me, you know? You’re contaminated so we can’t use you. And we can’t TS just anyone, that’s tampering with the past, and that’s a crime, buddy. I’m sorry, my hands are tied.”
“One other thing, I’m, uh, obligated to say this, don’t even try to sue, hell, right now you’re the one in breach of contract.”
“What contract? I didn’t sign anything, I simply turned up here. I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”
“Nice try, buddy. Anyway, on behalf of Time Warnburg I just want to say sorry for the trouble you’ve found yourself in and we wish you luck with the future.”
“Wait, I thought you said you were going to help me? You can’t just leave me here in this awful place. Anyway wouldn’t the TD simply be reversed if you sent me home? Wouldn’t I just go back to being me? Hello? Where can I go, what do I say? How will I live? Please, I have a wife and child. Hello?”
Preston Peterson – how he hated his parents for that – took a sip of his expensive mineral water. He pressed a few buttons on his phone “We’re probably gonna’ have to shelve ‘Jack’ for a little while.” He hung up then tapped in another, longer number “Hi, Captain Alloway? You’re probably wondering why you’re in Gettysburg in 2226…”