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Assignment '68

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Assignment '68


"London." Sapphire looked about at the towering buildings, her expression one of critical appraisal. "1968 in the local dating system." She frowned, cocking her head slightly on one side. "Mid-March; and, I believe, a Friday."

"Don't show off." Steel walked past her, displaying no interest at all in their surroundings. "Can you tell where we're heading?"

"I can feel a displacement, certainly." Her head turned one way and then the other, her eyes gleaming with a blue light. "Bear slightly to your right. The building is a few hundred yards that way."

"A few hundred yards?" He threw her a look over his shoulder. "You sound like a native."

"It does help to blend in. You should try it occasionally." A faint smile flickered into life as she spoke, for the idea of Steel making anything other than the most rudimentary attempt to pass for an ordinary Londoner amused her greatly. He showed no reaction to the suggestion – nor to the smile, although she was quite sure that, even with his back turned, he would have seen it.

"The yards are the ones that are smaller than miles, aren't they?" he asked instead, and she hurried to catch up, indicating a tall building set back a little from the road.

"This one. It feels... I'm not sure. Different. Not local, but not threatening."

"Threatening or not, if it's an aberration, it needs to be dealt with. Time only needs the smallest of cracks, and then before we know it all of existence is crumbling away." Steel pulled ahead slightly, entering the building with his eyes closed. Sapphire could feel his senses moving ahead of them both, investigating, testing, probing. She followed on. The building was large and dark, and mostly empty. The sunlight outside had been pale and grey, but it had been warmer than this place, with its walls and floor of plain concrete, and its intermittent concrete pillars. Heat stood no chance in such a place. It would be sucked away before it had any opportunity to take hold.

"What is this place used for?" asked Steel, running a hand across one of the pillars, testing it for its solidity within the present. Sapphire cast a brief glance through its recent history, watching the coming and going of humans over a twenty-four hour period.

"It's a car park," she said after a moment. Then, expecting a further question, "Where humans store their vehicles."

"Ah yes. The era of the combustion engine. Charming, I'm sure." He pulled ahead again, moving away across the space, towards a metal door set roughly in the middle of the building. He touched it briefly, and gave a satisfied nod. "We're close. Are you ready?"

"Always." She touched the door as well, and a moment later it opened, revealing a small, box-like room beyond. "An elevator. We'll be expected, when we get to the top. These things do rather announce their arrival."

"Then why use it?"

"Because they're fun." She smiled at him, and on an impulse caught his hand and pulled him inside. He glowered, but did not resist.


"There are things here that shouldn't be, but there's nothing malevolent. Not yet. Trust me."

"Why would I do that?" But he gave no further objection, and in moments the lift had reached the top of its shaft, and was opening into what was clearly a place of residence. A thick, warm carpet lay on the floor, and various ornaments stood about. Steel hissed through his teeth.

"Antiques. Why do humans hold them in such regard?"

"Humans love things that are old. To be old is to be considered better. More distinguished. In art and literature anyway. It's very different with living things."

"They should look more to their present. It's a good deal less likely to develop teeth, and bite back." Steel looked about. "I thought we would be expected?"

"Perhaps they're not at home." Sapphire walked past him, into a living room that opened out of the hall in which they had arrived. Rich furniture and ornaments filled a not over-large space, creating an atmosphere of comfortable, carefully ordered chaos. "It's not hard to see why we were drawn here. Most of these things date from the Victorian or Edwardian eras. Not as old as many of the objects that we've encountered in the past, but it is quite a collection."

"Victorian and Edwardian?"

"Periods of recent, local history named after monarchical rulers. Queen Victoria, and her son King Edward. Between them they reigned from 1837 to 1910." Sapphire passed her hands across a number of the ornaments and items of furniture. "Hmm. 1857, 1898, 1901, 1907... As I said, quite a collection."


"Anything can be dangerous. At the moment it's no more than a... than an itch, shall we say."

"You can sense no evidence of Time lying in wait?"

"Time lies in wait everywhere." She gave a little shrug, and went back to dating the furniture. "But there's nothing untoward here, no. We'd both know it if there were."

"True." He moved past her, glancing into several other rooms. "A kitchen, I think. Reasonably modern, although I can feel the pull of history here as well."

"Yes, there's a definite love of period detail, isn't there." She took a look over his shoulder, seeing a mixture of appliances both modern and vintage. "Still, those modern aspects should help to provide an anchor. See if you can test how strong it is. I'm going to look at some of these antiques. This place is... odd."

"Yes, I feel that too. There's a sense of the past that goes far beyond the accoutrements. As though somebody had tried to recreate something?"

"Yes. There's a feeling of something lost. It's beneath the surface; infused into the apartment itself. Presumably that's why we came here."

"Well, it shouldn't be difficult to handle. If it proves unsteady, I can isolate this lot easily enough, and whoever is behind it as well. If they're removed from the timestream, they'll cease to exist in this section of reality. Time will be unable to do anything with them."

"Messy," said Sapphire. He gave the slightest shrug of his grey-clad shoulders.

"Not necessarily. It wouldn't be the neatest piece of surgery that we've ever accomplished, but if it protects the universe, then I don't have a problem with it." He picked up one of the more modern items in the kitchen, and turned it over in his hands, using it to test for the solidity of all that was Present; all that was 1968 in this secluded little pit of antiques. "Hmm."

"What is it?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe nothing. It's just that there's a strange sensation here. These pieces – the more modern pieces. They feel unduly strong."

"Let me." She picked up one of the pieces herself – an egg timer, she thought, although she was not as well versed in such things as some. In a clashing contrast to the sombre Edwardian period detail of so much of the place, it was a riot of red and orange plastic, fashioned into the shape of a Wellington boot. She turned it over in her hands, and her eyes once again glowed blue.

"You're right," she said after a moment. "From a distance this place feels like the worst kind of Time trap, but when you get in close... somehow it's a lot more modern than it appears. It feels like..." She closed her unearthly blue eyes, searching the strange sensations that filled the building for the means with which to express herself. "Like something lost in Time, washed up in the wrong place, but finding it's where it belongs after all. All these antiques, all this history, and yet underneath it... I don't know. Perhaps there's no danger here after all."

"We've been wrong before."

"You, admitting to being wrong?" She smiled at him, her eyes, now returned to their more familiar colour, warmly teasing. He threw her the object he had been examining – a pair of tongs, bright yellow, and as gaudy as the egg timer.

"Occasionally," he said, with quiet gravity. "Occasionally." It was as close to humour as he usually got, and she rewarded it with a smile that most human men would have died for – only for the smile to wither on her lips as a sudden sensation stirred the senses within her. Her eyes met with Steel's, and unspoken communication raced between them. Yes, he had felt it too; yes, he had also felt the danger. Something misplaced in Time. Something not of this place, this era. Something wrong. A moment later, the whirring of the lift made two golden heads wrench around to face the door.

"Could be trouble," said Sapphire. Her head was prickling with the sensation of approaching wrongness, and yet within it all she could not dislodge the feeling of before; that the wrongness here was somehow also a rightness. That the dangers they had felt from afar were perhaps not everything that they appeared. Steel's mouth was set in a firm line.

"Could be. I suggest we observe. Remain out of sight for now."

"I agree." They moved silently back into the living room, holding hands and retreating toward the curtains. They were visible to each other, but to any human observer they would have been nothing more than indistinct shadows, lurking in the corner of an eye. They had been just quick enough. A moment later the lift door slid open, and two humans stepped out into the hallway.

The first was a man, tall and lean, and his appearance cased both Elements to catch their breath momentarily. From head to toe he was clad in the attire of a previous era; a cascade of bygone fashion obvious even to the fashion-clueless Steel. It was more than his clothes that set him apart, however. The aura around him, the cells of his body, the blood that warmed his flesh – all of it was wrong. All of it came from another Time, long gone. The Time of the trappings of his flat; the Time of the clothes in which he was dressed; the Time that Sapphire and Steel could smell and taste and feel in the air that his presence displaced. Steel's teeth bared momentarily, his consciousness dividing itself as he immediately scanned the vicinity for any sign of their great enemy. This man was a gaping door for it; a blatant invitation for it to descend upon them and do its worst. He could sense nothing. The silence did little to ease his tension.

The second person, a woman, was very different to the first. Smaller, younger – by some eighty years, Sapphire realised, and her surprise leapt across to Steel as though transmitted by their joined hands. They were not as fluent in the ways of humanity as some of their fellow Elements, but the human man did not appear to be so old. The woman was as modern as the man was archaic, dressed unmissably in the fashions of the present era. 1968 all but sang from the bright colours of her clothing, and from the vivid, floral print scarf tied into her hair. There was a flat, square-shaped object in her hands, also brightly coloured, and she turned it about to admire it as the pair entered the living room.

("It's an LP," said Sapphire, in answer to Steel's unspoken question. He nodded quietly.

"Ah," he answered, although none the wiser.)

"My dear Miss Jones," the man was saying to his companion, "I quite concede that you were the best dancer in the establishment, I merely contend that what you were doing was not dancing as I see it. It was..." He cocked his head on one side, clearly searching for an appropriate word. "It was wiggling, Miss Jones. Hardly proper conduct in a public place."

"Oh, Adam." The young woman laughed, threading her virulently orange-clad arm though his own black suited one. She performed a few minor dance steps as she did so, her orange shoes capering capably about his impeccably polished black ones. She was a riot of colour, made all the more so by her proximity to him, and together they made an impressively mismatched duo. After a moment the man extracted his arm, removing his cape with a magnificent flourish.

"You are quite incorrigible. Pray be seated. I fear for my ornaments."

"Oh, you're just jealous because so many strange men asked me to dance. And because I won this whizzo new record, and you didn't." Beaming widely, she dropped down into the nearest chair, and began to examine her LP. It bore the legend Disraeli Gears, which did nothing to enlighten Steel. "Any chance of a cuppa? All that dancing has made me thirsty."

"As long as you promise not to play that gramophone record in my presence, yes. Simms is away for a few days, but no doubt I am equal to the task."

"Ooh, if you're going to be doing things in the kitchen, can I watch?"

"Miss Jones..." The man had taken on a slightly wounded air. "I am quite capable, I assure you. The wonders of modern kitchenalia are no longer so great a mystery. I have even become quite fond of the electric toaster."

"Just don't try to make a cup of tea in it."

"I have spent a lifetime battling evil, in all its many forms. I think I can successfully produce a hot beverage."

"I'm joking! Anyway, you've bought every working antique in London. There's plenty to make you feel at home."

"And an increasing amount to do the same for you. Do not think that I am oblivious to the gradual encroachment of bafflingly coloured plastic objects." He headed towards the kitchen, dropping his cape over a large, marble bust, and pausing momentarily to pick up a book that had been left on one of his bookshelves. Amid the rows of dark, leather-bound volumes, it could not easily have looked more out of place.

"Octopussy, Miss Jones?"

"It's about a spy. You should try it."

"Thank you, but I think I have enough violence and subterfuge in my life." He raised an eyebrow. "And that is just in my dealings with you, let alone the criminal underworld."

"Hey!" He smiled faintly at her mock outrage, and vanished into the kitchen. She stared after him, then with a determined smile, lifted up her LP, and headed towards his bulbous gramophone player. As the notes of the first song began to fill the little room, Sapphire gave a rather delighted laugh.

"I think this is a false alarm," she told her partner. He shot her a curious glance.

"That man is practically a walking calamity."

"In a way. The past infuses him and his belongings, yes. But so do hers. She's everywhere here, and everywhere that he is. Look about you, Steel. Look beneath the surface. A jacket here, a book there. A laugh, a joke, a night out on the town. That man belongs in Edwardian England. In 1902, to be precise. But he also belongs here, in 1968. I don't think there's anything here that Time can use. The past might fill this building enough to have alerted us, but she's weakened it." Sapphire bent, lifting something up off the floor. It was a lipstick, a gleaming purple cylinder, that fell open to reveal a stick of resounding pink. "What do your instincts tell you, Steel?"

"To destroy this place," he told her. She rolled her eyes.

"Those aren't your instincts. Those are your destructive tendencies. Look beyond them."

"I like my destructive tendencies." He hesitated, clearly listening, feeling, sensing the world around him, as only an Element could. "I do see what you mean," he admitted after a moment. "It's like the veining of a leaf. All that history, and all that present spreading through it. But is it enough?"

"I think so." Her eyes gleamed blue, as bright as anything that Miss Jones might have worn. "Yes. It runs deep. Those two are tied together, and the ties show no signs of breaking."

"So we walk away? From all of this?"

"We keep an eye on it. We don't forget it. But yes, I think we should walk away. Don't you?"

"I don't know." He turned his attention back to the room. Miss Jones had returned to her seat, and was sprawled now in great comfort, listening to her music. Her companion opened the kitchen door, standing there with an air of wounded elegance, as a clamour of drums and guitars assailed his ears.

"Miss Jones..." he protested. She flashed him a smile over her shoulder.


"I..." He sighed. "Would you like a currant bun with your tea?"

"That would be lovely, Adam."

"Very well then." He disappeared once more. Sapphire's laugh bounced back out for an encore, and she linked her arm through Steel's.

"And that, as they say, is that," she said, and promptly vanished. A moment later, one eyebrow quirked in a manner highly reminiscent of their walking echo of 1902, Steel followed suit. The air fell soundlessly into the hole left by their passing, and Georgie Jones did not look up. Instead she began to drum along with the record, singing softly under her breath. If Time had indeed cast its evil eye upon the flat, in search of an opening into the world, then Miss Jones would have seemed a most unusual barrier. And yet, as the music of Cream played across the dust of previous generations, that was precisely what she presented. She was the present. Adam Adamant was the past. Together, perhaps they had a future. And perhaps that was precisely what Sapphire had seen, from behind her shining eyes.


The End