Reality/ShiftsChapter 1 - The Rescue: part 1, part 2, part 3
CHAPTER TWO - The Celebration: part 1
Lost in his musings Pete almost missed the change in air that announced the beginning of song. Women's voices filled the night sky and there was a definite melody, at once melancholic and energising, carried on the breeze to where he lay. Delicate, as though it were far away, but in truth merely dulled by the walls between the stable and the hunting hall. No instruments were played, but harmonies rose and fell in guttural Germanic tones, shifting this way and that, all balanced on a scale that he recalled from his own home and would not have sounded out of place on the radio. He listened, enjoying the sound, taking in the smells around him, and would have fallen to sleep were it not for the almost sudden change into what was clearly less high-minded fare. Where the first melodies had been refined, guttural but Latinate in places, there was now a deeper rumble, instruments joined in the melodies, other voices took up the sounds and the language became lower, more like the gibberish that the knight had been speaking.
A drum played the beat, a stringed instrument took up accompaniment and there were flutes. Voices rose and fell like waves, the notes began to deviate from what he was used to hearing, and he almost knew that he was listening to scale that had never been codified. It was the accordion that brought the standardised scale to Europe, his lecturer had said as a tangent many years ago, before then the notes were different from place to place. Now those notes were haunting, ribald, pugnacious, dirty and sweaty all at once. Moments of sorrow, near keening, replaced inexplicably with joyous rousting and shouted chorus, then back to melancholy before something that sounded almost certain to carry swear words and lewd remarks. Laughter carried with it. Shifting nervously, the knight's horse shook its head and then returned to something approximating sleep.
Pete started and looked to the door of the stable. The Page had entered, his rough face scowling through the gloom for no one had set any lights. In the gathering gloam there was evidence of things in the boy's hands, though he did not look as young as he ought, Pete guessed his age at about fourteen which would surely have made him an adult. Such observations were solely based on his own knowledge of the period and the fact that there was a female knight had told him enough of the time he was now in that he could take nothing for granted.
"Ego sum... hier?" I am with here in German, Pete was having trouble recalling enough Latin."Minne mast-uh bid may gave yoo theese." The Page laboured with the words like one taught them by rote. "Fee-ar mee-din." Making an awkward bow he laid an earthenware jug and a hunk of bread at Pete's feet before retreating, "Minne Mast-uh bid may tell yoo no fair, see yoo morr-neng." With that, the Page left, leaving Pete wondering if the boy, man, was just illiterate or drunk.
A sniff of the jug confirmed his suspicions: the yeasty odour was indicative of a stronger brew than he had been treated to on the journey and was probably supposed to be a treat. Which it would have been had the bonds allowed him to actually pick the damn' thing up. As it was, Pete slaked his thirst with some of the water in trough, it would have to be clean for the knight's horse after all, a few hours earlier. Luckily he was able to rescue the bread with his teeth and found it pleasantly spiced with cinnamon. Dropping it into his hands, Pete made short work of the rest and managed to get enough water from the trough to slake his thirsdt, leaving the strong beer untouched. After that it was an uncomfortable, but functional, toilet and then he practically fell asleep where he lay without further ado. As he was drifting off, Pete wondered just how far things would go.
Predator. A predator hunted prey, was invariably carnivorous and inevitably fit and lithe. She had been called worse things in her time and so accepted the epithet with as much good grace as she could muster. True, she had hunted him down and had enjoyed the experience but, in all honesty, she thought of herself as beyond a mere animal. When she grinned she showed all of her teeth and was aware that this was not an inviting look. "You could say that, yes, I suppose that I am."
"I haven't done anything wrong, you know."
A moment while she pretended to mull it over. "I don't much care," it never hurt to be honest about things, "You talk like that should mean something."
"Don't you have a conscience?"
"Conscience?" Not so much an echo as a genuine philosophical musing. "A conscience," this time she scoffed, "It's an invention of a middle-class." Laughter followed, semi-real and mostly sarcastic and bitter, "Conscience." Her eyes hardened and brow furrowed with purpose. "I take it that you do?"
She enjoyed watching the realisation pass across his face, playing over his features like some zhĭ yĭng xì, paper tigers marching over thin white background, illuminated only by his own slow horror."You already called me an animal," she reminded him, "Whatever made you think I would behave any differently?"
Levelling the technology as if orientation made the slightest change to how it would work she tapped in the fuzzy logic command and waited. No light show greeted the result, there was nothing to suggest that anything changed, her target simply was there one moment and gone the next, nothing replaced him and the only sound was a small 'bang' as the air rushed to fill the resultant vacuum. And the hint of wet slopping as food that had been somewhere within his body hit the floor, not yet digested enough to have been considered 'part' of her target but foul-smelling enough to keep her from hanging around too long.
An insistent red light on the display caught her attention. "Ah," she announced to no one in particular, her ebullience fading, "They were quicker than last time." Changing the settings to a saved pattern she selected the randomiser and hit the 'execute' command. A sensation that she never got used to followed, the tang of copper at the back of her throat and the dry sensation over her skin like a day spent at a beach, and then she was in some kind of woodland setting. It wouldn't be enough to hold them at bay for very long, she walked a few paces, physical differences in location of a few metres could produce wildly different destinations for reasons that she'd never bothered looking into, and then hit the command a second time.
Something about the air was wrong, she decided, there was a smell that she didn't recognise and there was something... missing."
You must be the famous Anastasia Cable I've heard so much about."Whirling to face the source of the comment she instinctively began the process of retargeting, only to find that the device was not there any more.
"One should never meet one's heroes, it's always such a disappointment." She saw the man, leaning nonchalantly against a tree and smiling in a way that she decided was much like her own expression had been. "Still, I can't say everything about this has been a complete waste of time."
Anastasia knew he wanted some kind of comment or response, she forced herself to remain silent and tried to map the terrain as best she could. He couldn't have known she was going to arrive here without some pretty sophisticated kit and so he would have to have-
"Don't worry about that," he interjected calmly, almost chidingly, "I've been waiting here long enough to make sure you won't get that sort of chance at my equipment. My dear Anastasia, you forget how these things work. My, I had thought that perhaps they had underestimated you and that you were merely stringing them along, how very upsetting that they turn out to be correct."
She gave him a level stare. Time travel.
"Yes, time travel, I never liked the term. I know you're no fan. Seems almost... vulgar for the finesse of our operation. But oft over-looked due to it being so little understood." He hadn't even bothered to move from his position, just out of reach. "My, but where are my manners? Hedley Scott, at your service." He bowed low but his eyes never left her for a moment. It was very clear that he was treating her with a great deal of professional respect. "I have," pausing, he straightened up, "A proposition for you." A shrug. "You don't have to agree, of course, I respect any wounded pride, but I feel that I should offer nevertheless."
The merest hint of playing for time was rejected. "Go on."
"Have you ever considered playing your part for real? A knight-errant in the proper sense of the term, rather than merely playing that role for your own amusement? Derring-do, rescues, that kind of thing?"
"Mister Scott, I don't know what psych-evaluation you've been reading but let me assure you tha-"
"Oh come come, my dear Anastasia, I've been reading your journal."
"No, you didn't," he corrected carefully, "In multiple Universe theory, however, the rest of you did. None of us is unique, you know, there are no special snowflakes. Probability is a harsh mistress."
Grudgingly she had to admit his logic worked with a slow nod.
"Of course, I did wonder why you tracked the way you did. Tell me, for my own curiosity: was it because of vanity or fear?"
"Mister Scott, I suspect you already know. Of course it was fear." Fear of meeting herself, of seeing what she could have become if she had chosen differently.
"Anastasia, this has been enchanting. My earlier disappointment was misplaced. You spoke in the past tense." This time his smile had real warmth, almost affection, and a definite respect beyond professionalism. "For that, I shall do what I can to make this easy for you."
"Thank you," she meant it, "Perhaps we can meet again one day."
A curt nod. "Perhaps."
Copper, salt-water and paper-cuts...
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