While I was still inside, the AIs decided to tell Professor Spelthorne how to build a time machine. The newsfeed said he was to build it at the Institute and that he had permission to build only one. Some things are sent to try us, others to set us free.
McNulty had been talking about getting out for some time. We drank coffee in the refectory and planned our escape for, gosh, entire moments.
"Stuart, let's just get the fuck out of here." McNulty flexed her brawny arms over her head, glaring at the human volunteers and the animatronic canteen staff.
And that was it. We both knew we could walk off campus any time; turn our back on the Bright buildings, the manicured (and occasionally fire-scorched) lawns, the non-stop mayhem that was whatever we wanted it to be whenever we wanted it. It was the decision that mattered, the actual moment when one person said, "Let's go" and another said, "Why not?" That was when you felt the start of the burn, the thrill that filled you all the way up so you just wanted to run and run for the hell of it. Run so fast they couldn't catch you.
Except they always did.
Leaving was easy. Finding something worth doing was going to take some thought.
"What's the plan?" I prodded.
McNulty leaned forwards, forearms on broad thighs. The material of her denim shirt pulled tight across her broad back. If she stretched the cloth would rip; it was one of her favorite first moves. "Have a few beers. See who's hanging. Have a few more beers."
"I've always respected the grand scope of your vision."
"Fuck off. I'll run away to sea and become a pirate, OK?"
"What about you?"
"I need some time."
McNulty looked me up and down. A certain look came into her eyes. "Wanna cop? It might help you think."
There was nothing wrong with big women.
That night we tried to paint the campus red. Again. McNulty got acquainted with some long-necked bottles and I played the tables. I won a bit, I lost some more. Then I got the deal, changed the deck and started winning properly. For a while it almost felt sweet, as if it wasn't really the campus casino and it wasn't all fake. Then it went flat and I just went through the motions. It was a relief when one of the droids called me out.
McNulty tossed the smart-dressed robot through a window and pitched another into the mirrors behind the bar. Then we broke a few chairs across a few metal heads, ran outside, dragged two creeps out of a rag-top Corvette and burned away down the main strip.
Seconds later we had blue lights in the rear mirror and a black-and-white swinging in our wake. Feet on the dash, McNulty drank beers and tossed the empties over the back. One bounced off the patrol car's hood, another starred the windshield.
There's a dirt road round the campus perimeter, five miles of wide curves and swinging dips. I roared round it flat out. On the second lap I found myself going slower and slower. Eventually we were crawling, the patrol car keeping pace behind. McNulty jumped over the side and started jogging. When I stopped she got back in and fastened her belt.
The patrolman parked twenty yards behind, headlights on high beam, pursuit lights flashing. He got out the car, tall and leggy in mirrorshades and Stetson, and stood a way back, hands on hips.
"You guys all done here?" he called.
McNulty's arm hung over the side. The dregs of her beer spilled onto the dirt. "Officer, sir, what's this feeling I got? I'm doing what I want to but I'm tired of it."
"It's called ennui," the patrolman said.
"Yes, it is," I said.
"I thought it might be existential despair," McNulty said.
The patrolman pushed back the brim on his hat. "Ma'am, do you believe life lacks purpose and comprises nothing beyond a series of meaningless postures?"
McNulty thought about it then shook her head. "Na, it's just full of shit."
"Sometimes drink can give you ennui," the patrolman said.
McNulty pointedly looked away.
"You two take it easy." The patrolman turned back to his car.
McNulty opened two beers and passed one to me. "At least he was human."
The bottle was a dead weight in my hand. "Yeah."
The next morning we walked out of the University of Self Expression. Juliette was waiting on the sidewalk, young beautiful and perfect. Her hair shone like black silk and she smelled great. I knew I should be grateful she was still my reintegration consultant, but we'd been here too many times before.
A few meters down the pavement, McNulty's own consultant waited. The AIs and dolphins partnered us up, but they never quite got it right for her. This time the guy was over two meters and pumped, a total contrast to the chinless apology they'd tried before. I had to admit this one had the look; he'd got the muscles, the shades, the haircut and the retro combats, but there was a softness about him, a kindness in his eyes, and I knew McNulty already had him made.
She must have meant it about life on the ocean wave, because as well as her usual camo pants and sleeveless vest she wore a red bandana, bucket-top boots and a fake eye patch. McNulty had never been beautiful but she was a sight more fun than Juliette.
"So, what's up?" Juliette slipped her arm through mine and steered me along the pavement. She wore low boots, dark pants and a loose cream blouse. Simple, elegant, a little old-fashioned, almost my style.
I gave McNulty a farewell nod. She swung her black holdall over a shoulder, tattooed biceps bulging, and walked out into the traffic. Horns sounded, tires screeched. On the curb her consultant hopped from one foot to the other.
"Why did you leave the campus, Stuart?" Juliette studied me.
"Bored with the same old same old."
Juliette's smile grew radiant; a little swagger came into her walk. "Stuart, that's real progress. I'm so pleased."
I even got a peck on the cheek. I wondered if I could take advantage. "Wanna cop?"
She patted my hand. "I don't think that would be appropriate, considering the mentor-student nature of our relationship."
"It works for me."
Juliette sighed. "I do worry about you."
"There's no need."
She pulled back and looked at me. "Stuart, look at yourself. Your ketones are sky high, you're eating far too much dairy and not enough brassicas. You've drunk alcohol every night for a fortnight and your caffeine levels are ridiculous. Think of your Chakras. How are you're going to harmoniously reintegrate?"
"Put my liver on danger money?"
"You're impossible," Juliette snapped. "I'm here to help you, you don't even listen."
"You didn't say 'no.'"
OK, that was clear.
"You're a bad man, Stuart Greensmith."
"I can't help it."
"You're saying you're out of control? That your passions rule your intellect? That sounds like self-justification, a poor excuse not to change. Come to the classes, eat more fruit, keep your appointments and keep out of trouble."
"I like you, Juliette, but you have no idea how to have a good time."
"I don't need that sort of fun. I'm happy."
I am a bad man, I admit it. I live in a perfect world, we've solved all its problems (or rather, we let the AIs and dolphins solve them for us), and everything is fine and dandy. People aren't brainwashed clones; society is democratic and citizens are genuinely fulfilled. Nobody does dangerous stuff for kicks, there's no conflict. Gender, race, faith, and football team: everything gets mutual respect. It's a peaceful, creative world, a really good place to bring up children. We eat our burgers with a knife and fork.
It's so great.
That night McNulty's voluntary admission to the gated self-criticism center was broadcast on the city feed. She was on some tree-lined shopping boulevard lit by stored sunlight, and she was fighting drunk. Bare-handed, she flipped over one of those squishy little round cars that can't hurt anyone onto a road that goes soft when you fall over.
She was trying to smash shop windows with a waste bin, but the silicon-lattice smart glass decided it was safer not to break and the bin bounced back onto the soft sidewalk.
Her new integration consultant tried to talk to her. McNulty hoisted him over her head by thigh and armpit and lobbed him at the window. This time the window decided it would break and collapsed into a cascade of blunt little pieces.
McNulty went looking for more people.
The center administrators moved in and tried to Gentle McNulty with electric batons. She tossed them around like dolls until they crawled away. Then a couple of Permitted patrolmen showed McNulty their certificates and Gentled her with extreme prejudice. Her voluntary status was affirmed.
Watching McNulty go down, I realized this was her life in microcosm: she was doing the same things time and again and going nowhere. With a queasy shudder I also realized I was exactly the same, the course of my life an exercise in short-term gratification and long-term futility. I wondered if this was what it was like to be an AI, to see the future and know you're right. It gave me the cold sweats. I had to get out but there was nowhere to go.
Then I remembered Spelthorne.
They knew I was going to do it.
Of course they did. We'd been surveilled, scanned, monitored, mediated and diagnosed since birth. The AIs knew what I thought before I did.
I went after dark. I'd always done my thieving at night, it felt right. I could have gone at lunchtime, it wouldn't have made any difference. This time it wasn't for kicks, I wasn't looking for the chance to stick two fingers to society. I was running away, I was beat, I was slinking off and wanted as few people as possible to notice.
The institute was surrounded by dense planting, deep shadow and good cover. I hurried up the broad, stone steps and through the high, double doors into the quiet emptiness of the atrium.
Juliette was already there with a bald old doctor who's name tag said "Hanworth." They stood behind a trestle table laid out with bottles, syringes, latex gloves and paperwork.
Juliette came round to the front of the table, her face drawn, her eyes tired. "Are you really going through with this, Stuart?"
I don't know why but I felt ashamed. "Yes, I am."
She touched my arm. "You don't have to."
It all welled up in me. "Yes, I do."
"Then go to the doctor." She looked so serene I realized she knew my answer and had accepted it.
Hanworth was as excited as a kid on illegal food coloring. "Wherever you're going, it's going to be absolutely filthy. I've got vaccinations for all the extincts. The killers." Hanworth licked his lips. "Typhoid, typhus, cholera, botulism, leprosy, plague, malaria, smallpox, rabies, polio, black death and the STDs. Colds and influenza won't kill you, just sweat them out."
I rolled up my sleeve.
Hanworth took up the first syringe. A bead of clear liquid swelled at the end of the needle. "Fleas and lice, bed bugs, pubic crabs," he said gleefully. "Biting things, sucking things, gnawing the skin off the soles of your feet while you sleep, all injecting you with their infected dribble."
Then he stuck the needle in my vein and followed it with a few more. When he'd finished my arm felt like it was on fire.
"And there's this." Hanworth held up a pill the size of my little finger.
"I can't swallow that," I protested.
"It's a suppository."
"You can stick that up your own--"
Hanworth grinned as he pulled on latex gloves. "Tapeworms, liver flukes, hook worm, bilharzia, amoebic dysentery."
Juliette actually stifled a laugh as I dropped my trousers and bent over.
"We're done," Hanworth said. "Sign here, please."
I scrawled on the paper without looking at it.
"You know you won't be able to come back," Juliette said.
"I won't want to."
"Case closed, then." She spun on her heel and walked away, clattering off in the broken silence.
I headed deeper into the Institute, a little uncomfortable in the trouser department.
The time machine looked like a small lounge with fish tanks for walls. There were no trailing power cables or patch panels, it was slick and complete. When AIs delivered it was always the finished thing, they didn't do prototypes. Human science was flat-pack assembly followed by trying to work out why the thing you'd just put together worked.
I spent some time admiring the angel fish and neon tetras in the ceiling-high tanks then sat down in the comfy red armchair they enclosed. One of the wide arms opened to reveal a control panel of thumbwheels and switches, and a small display screen. There was a green button, and a red one under a clear cover. I pressed the green button and the screen displayed a single word:
It was that easy. The thumbwheels let me set year, date and time, AM or PM. I dialled it in: 1645. Lunchtime.
Across the room a door banged open and lanky old Professor Spelthorne scurried towards me, barefoot in striped pyjamas. "Stop. What are you doing?"
"I'm borrowing your time machine."
Spelthorne set his shoulders and advanced. "It's mine. The AI's gave it to me, I made it and I don't want to lend."
"Isn't that rather selfish?"
Spelthorne clutched his hair. "It's not finished. The temporal radar, the density anticipators, the mini-bar."
That last one nearly stopped me, but no, I was here to do a job.
"Why the fish tanks?"
"I'm not sure. Possibly tachyon shielding. The water is pure deuterium, the extra neutrons must be important. The fish are for relaxation."
Spelthorne loomed over me, trying to be threatening.
"You're invading my personal space, Professor."
"And you are a thorough spoil-sport."
Amateur, I thought. "Self-obsessed bully-boy. Inappropriate authority figure. Materialist hyena."
Spelthorne's lower lip trembled. "That's actually quite hurtful. This is the Institute for the Advancement of Understanding, not one of your dialectical primal-hostility love-ins."
"Step back, Professor. You're disrupting my Kirlian aura."
"What you're doing is wrong. You're taking without asking."
"All right," I sighed. "Please, professor, may I have it?"
"Look, I'm only borrowing it."
"No, you idiot, what do you think I'm doing?"
"I'm not the one interfering with the fundamental laws of nature."
"You're stealing my machine!" Spelthorne screeched.
"I'm a thief," I said equably. "It's what I do."
"You need to visit the dolphins for ego-balancing."
"Maybe I should, but if you want to stop me you're going to have to use more than words."
"You mean physical interposition and non-voluntary restraint? Lay my hands upon your corporeal persona against your will?" The professor was horrified.
Poor Spelthorne, he was the exact opposite of McNulty. She'd have just laid me out.
I flipped up the cover and put my finger on the red button. "Step aside."
Spelthorne stuck out his lower lip. "Shan't."
"Fine." I pressed the button.
I glared at Spelthorne. "It's broken."
He peered over my shoulder and tentatively pointed down at the arm console. "You haven't set a destination. It's all very well going back in time, but where 'here' is now could be parsecs away in the past."
"Ok, so show me."
"This is so unfair," Spelthorne whined. "I never get my way."
"Just show me," I said. "Pweease."
Spelthorne sighed, his shoulders drooped. "Where?"
This was it. There was nothing I could do for McNulty, but she'd hear about this and I knew it would make her smile.
"Tortuga." I would join the Brethren of the Coast and sail the Windward Passage. I was going to be a pirate.
There I was, sitting in a big red armchair in a field of cows. The sun was high, the sky was blue and the air had a bovine aroma. One thing was certain: this was not the Caribbean. The AIs had screwed up or Spelthorne had jinxed it at the last moment. Perhaps the temporal radar was more than an optional extra.
Where the hell was I?
The chair blinked out of existence. I dropped onto my still-sensitive fundament, narrowly avoiding a fresh cow pat.
I breathed deep and looked around. I wondered what McNulty was doing, whether she'd finally earned the right for non-optional voluntary electro-shock therapy. I only stole things; McNulty liked to fight, and eventually society got tired.
It would be good to have her around.
Beyond the hedgerow a muddy lane led towards a village. Cutting along behind the track I came at the scattered houses from the rear. I stole a set of clothes hanging on a line, made a bundle of my own and headed down the lane.
After half an hour I came to a wider track. A large stone was set into the soil to one side and carved into it was an arrow and "London 14 M". I knew exactly where I was. A few hundred years from now the field I had arrived in would form part of Institute for the Advancement of Understanding.
London, 1845. The time machine had not only failed to deliver me where I wanted, I was also two hundred years in the future.
I sulked. I raged. I held my breath. Then I decided to make the most of it. I even started to see it as a good thing. To be honest I wasn't really cut out to be a pirate. The roistering, the rum, and pieces-of-eight were all well and good--and I'd carefully selected the year on that basis; 1645 was when the French governor imported 1,650 women of easy virtue in an attempt to normalize the society of Tortuga. The rest of it--the cannons, cutlasses and setting your beard on fire--did not float my boat.
London should be a crook's paradise. The place was filthy, but I had my jabs and it couldn't be any more dangerous than Hispaniola. It was a dangerous, brutal place but there was no surveillance, no profiling, no bloody DNA. They couldn't even fingerprint. An "Ai" was still something that hung upside down in trees in Brazil, and the dolphins hadn't been put in charge of the asylum.
I looked at the people of the 19th century: the men and women in their ugly, awkward clothes, reading words printed on paper, eating their unspeakable food, riding in vehicles pulled by enslaved animals, and thought they were as primitive as their technology. I thought I'd broken the system--I was looking forwards to taking a piss without the bowl titrating my urine and emailing the assay to a machine a million times smarter than I was.
It didn't occur to me that the people of these times were part of the unsteadily rising curve that ended in a society fit for almost everyone.
I lifted my first purse from a portly, drunken theater-goer sleeping it off on a tavern bench. I made a great show of recognizing him, got him across my shoulder and staggered outside, down a narrow, deserted alley.
With cash in hand, I pawned his pocket watch, bought some better clothes and rented a room. Onwards and upwards.
At first I didn't understand why Cranford kept his dogs, three great brindled hounds he walked down to the park most afternoons. They sat obediently at his feet and took turns to retrieve the scented rag balls he threw.
"Away, Kaiser," he'd shout. "Fetch, Leopold. Horatio, go." And off they'd bound.
Cranford was a short muscular man, middling wealthy and well turned-out. His house was just on the inside of the "right" area, mine just on the outside. I didn't like him but I left him alone. He lived too close and you never make mess on your own doorstep.
"These dogs will track a stag over ten miles," Cranford boasted. "Or a man, for that matter. A scent once taken is never forgotten."
Other days he'd ride his carriage, pulled by a pair of dappled greys. He drove at a fast trot and snapped an over-long whip over their heads. Hawkers had to scramble out the way, but he'd slow for a pretty pair of ankles and tip his hat. "Good day to you, M'amselle," he'd call, then crack the whip. "Away! Hi-hi!"
It hadn't been easy but I'd finally settled in. The work was a joy, I'd quickly moved up from picking pockets to burgling shops, and once I had funds for clothing and equipment, the city homes of merchants, industrialists and gentry. I did it for real, and the night was my friend.
What was tough to take was the stink--not the organic smells of horse flop and putrescent litter, but the rancid, acrid reek of the people themselves. That and the food, great gobbets of fatty meat swimming in greasy stews of flaccid, overcooked vegetables. The wine was expensive, the port over-sweet, but the beer could be good. McNulty would have liked the beer, and I occasionally raised a cup in her memory.
I explained away my accent by saying I had travelled in the Far East, returning to prepare my memoirs for publication. I didn't mind a small reputation and mine was for cleanliness and vegetarianism, affectations the locals considered the mildly deviant result of time spent in foreign parts.
Everything was different, often in ways I didn't anticipate. Old London was crude, violent and unfair. I knew it was like that but I didn't think I'd grow to dislike it. I didn't expect I'd be lonely either. The evenings were long, slow times. I missed McNulty. It wasn't the copulation, it was the company.
A group of homeless urchins scavenged the local streets, their pipe-cleaner arms and legs were wrapped in rags, their feet bare. They possessed a haunted, feral cunning I thought I recognized.
I started adding proper food to the scraps in my bin: a half-eaten loaf, a rind with an inch of good cheddar on it. I spied on them as if I were putting food out for stray cats or wild birds.
There were two in particular, a square-faced girl with rat tails of dirty blonde hair, and a taller, painfully thin boy whose eyes had a preoccupied intensity. One day I saw the girl and the boy raid my bin. He stood watch while she rummaged inside, leaning so far in her dirty feet left the ground. She found the slightly bruised apple I'd left there, cleaned it on her skirt, bit it in two and gave half to the boy. She actually skipped with happiness.
The next day I saw the boy standing aimlessly at a street corner. On an impulse I bought a bag of apples and took them over.
He ignored me until I was close, then scuttled away.
He looked around but I was on him. Shoulders drooping he looked down at the pavement.
"Here," I held out the bag of apples.
He didn't even move.
Seizing his cold, light hands I wrapped them round the bag. "Take them."
The next morning the girl was there too. I gave them a small loaf and cheese.
The children never spoke to me; they took my gifts reluctantly, tormented by hunger and suspicion. At night I crept through the darkened studies and drawing rooms of merchants, landlords and industrialists. Somehow I was no longer alone.
As the weeks passed the children became livelier, the boy's complexion was no longer pure white. The season turned, I bought a bundle of second-hand clothes, had them cleaned and left them in an old potato sack.
One day Cranford saw me giving the boy and girl food as he took his hounds to the park.
"By God, Greensmith," he called."Throw your spare change down the drain, it's less wasteful."
I wondered what he'd say if he knew it was other people's money I was spending.
Cranford marched on. "Give them a penny and they'll have your pocket watch. I'd lock them in the scullery with my dogs."
Some days later, Cranford whipped up his carriage to impress a lady he'd seen before in the park. The stray children were playing some chasing game in a side street. Suddenly they dashed out and the girl went under the horses' hooves. She went without a cry, kicked along like a bundle of rags.
Hearing a commotion, I came out my house and saw the girl under the carriage. All the other children had run off except for the thin boy. Cranford was in his seat, white as a sheet. Seeing me approach he climbed unsteadily down and tried to calm the horses.
"Damned urchins," he hissed. "You see how those brats ran out in front of me? If they think they'll get a farthing for their bruises they have another think coming!"
A small crowd of passers-by and shopkeepers gathered on the opposite pavement. Seeing his woman friend among them Cranford became more solicitous.
"Well, come on then, lad," he ordered the boy. "Get her out from under there."
Slowly, almost painfully, the boy knelt and crawled under the carriage. He pulled at the girl ineffectually and so I got down with him and lifted her out. She weighed next to nothing and she was still breathing.
"You'll be fine, my lass." Cranford spoke to his horses.
The girl stirred fitfully, twitched, kicked her legs and moaned. I let her down and she stood beside me, waxy skinned and breathing fast.
Leaving the horses, Cranford glowered down at the girl. "If those horses had gone down they would have damned broken their legs. I'd have taken my whip to you."
"I..." The girl wrung her hands. "I... I..."
The horses whinnied and Cranford called across the street to his lady friend. "Madam, I am sorry to see you so distressed. I hope you will accept my offer of a ride home."
The woman was clearly upset and tearfully made her way to the carriage with several glances towards the girl.
"You see where your misguided charity leads, Greensmith?" Cranford said as he helped the woman into his carriage. "Decent folk put at risk."
For a fact the girl seemed fine, if severely shocked. Taking her hand we walked round a corner. Standing out of the sun the girl squeezed my hand and smiled up at me. Then she frowned and touched her ear. When she brought her hand away there was blood on it. She looked up at me again, puzzled, and fell.
I swept her up but she was dead before I had her in my arms.
I could have lived with that. It was a genuine accident, Cranford was a man of his times and behaved no worse than many. Then he did something unforgivable.
The street was quiet for several days. Although the girl was a vagrant and plain she was still a child. Cranford absented himself to the country. The thin boy and one or two other urchins reappeared.
The incident was tragic but I put it behind me. I returned to my routines. I observed the wealthier citizens, visited the museums, galleries, theatres and salons, and occasionally introduced myself. I updated my notebook with names and addresses, announcements of holidays, country weddings and foreign tours. I even met a publisher.
Then the children vanished.
It wasn't unusual not to see them for a day or two, but after a week there was still no sign.
I met Cranford, back from the country and marching down the street, his three hounds sniffing everything. Cranford looked pleased as punch. "Good day to you, Greensmith."
"Good morning, Cranford."
"A quiet and peaceful one." Cranford puffed out his chest and beamed at me significantly, then tugged on the leads. "Sit, boys." Obediently the dogs went down on their haunches.
"How was your trip?" I asked.
"Splendid. Madeleine has consented to become my wife."
"My congratulations to you both."
"You're invited of course."
Once he had my assurance Cranford gave me another knowing look. "I'm off to see my banker--a loan for the ring. Women must have their pretty things, eh? And talking of money, I've saved you a bob or two."
Cranford's voice dropped to a hostile whisper. "Those damned urchins. Had 'em rounded up and shipped to the Antipodes. Enough is enough, vagrancy is a crime and I'm damned if my bride will have her purse cut by those brats."
I still don't know why I did it, even now as I sit in the stinking bilges of one of the same ships those children had been herded into. Back in my own time... Well, that was it, you see? Back in my own time children like that didn't exist. That level of poverty and privation, that inequality of wealth and opportunity was a thing of the past. McNulty and I had been like children, daring the grown-ups to do their worst. We'd been nothing better than delinquents who refused to grow up.
I'd never liked being told what was best for me but at least when the dolphins said it was for your own good it was true. Cranford had hurt those children when he could just as easily have helped them. Now he'd mortgaged himself for a diamond ring and I wanted to hurt him back.
I made myself wait. I needed to calm down. Anger and larceny don't mix. I went for long walks, to a concert, the theater. When I felt ready I went to the general grocers. To my usual supplies I added two ounces of snuff, eight of peppercorns, and a pepper mill.
The storekeeper was called Jenks, a thin, congenitally deferential man. His wife, Ivy, was short, plump and competent.
"Such a shame," she said as she weighed out my goods. "That poor girl."
"A tragedy," I agreed.
She leaned closer. "We know what you do."
My blood chilled before I realized she meant feeding the urchins. "Simple charity," I managed.
As she gave me my change she touched my hand. "You're a good man, Mr. Greensmith."
That afternoon I ground the peppercorns in the mill, mixed in the snuff and distributed it between two muslin pouches. Cranford's locks and doors didn't bother me but his dogs did. He said he kept them in the scullery at night, I hoped it was true.
Cranford's house stood in a quarter acre of garden with rails at the front and a gravel approach. I loaded my bag, set my alarm and slept until 2:00 AM. When I woke, I dressed for work: cork-soled shoes, dark gloves, russet trousers, and a dark burgundy jacket with a bottle-green scarf. Dark colors give better cover than black, which makes the shadows too deep and makes me feel guilty. I put the pepper pouches in my jacket pockets and left the house.
The streets of London between two and three AM are empty and dark, the few lanterns and house lights easy to avoid. I cut the glass on a sash window, it opened easily and I was in Cranford's dining room.
The house was silent but not empty. A low, yellow light showed under the door, a night lamp in the hallway. Pulling the scarf over my face I banged the pepper pads together, dusting the sill and carpets. I listened at the door then eased it ajar. A wide flight of carpeted stairs rose at the back of the hall, the banisters flanked by potted palms. Two doors were on the far wall and I found his study was the rear one. I stood in the hall a moment and listened. Deep in the house I could hear a faint snoring. Of the dogs, there was no sign.
Like most people Cranford was proud of his safe and had it on display. It was a good one, and took me forty minutes to open it. Inside, in a small, black velvet case, was the diamond ring. It was gorgeous, catching even the faint amber light under the door, twinkling like low coals.
I'd made myself wait, but not long enough. As I studied the ring anger flared in me, burning deep in my stomach. I had what I wanted and Cranford would suffer, but I also wanted him to know that this was not some random theft. I wanted him to understand that it had been done by someone who held an opinion of him.
So I clambered up onto the tooled leather surface of his mahogany desk, dropped my trousers and squeezed out a coil-pot of significant proportions.
After dusting the safe with pepper I made my escape.
I took the ring to the side street where the girl had died and did what Cranford had once advised me to do with my own money. I dropped it down the drain.
That single theft satisfied me more than any other crime.
One winter morning the sun was shining, the air crisp. I decided to stretch my legs, took my hat and cane and made my way down to the park.
Cranford was there, exercising his hounds. Some of his bluster had gone since the theft, his bulk flabbier.
I watched from a distance as he threw the rag balls and his dogs fetched them back. As usual a few people were watching, including one of the park keepers.
The dogs raced away again. Then, one by one, they stopped, raised their heads, and sniffed the air.
"Leopold, Kaiser, fetch!" Cranford shouted.
The dogs turned to face me, set up a baying and hurtled forwards. Before I knew it they had me backed up against a tree, growling and pacing from side to side.
Cranford hurried across the grass followed by the park keeper. "I'm so sorry, Greensmith. I don't know what's got into them. Down, boys! Down Horatio. Down."
I stood against the tree holding the cane in front of my face. "Just get them off me."
"I swear they've never done this before. I have no idea--" Cranford's mouth drooped open. He took a step back and pointed at me with a hand that trembled with outrage. "It was you," he croaked, and his face darkened. "Damn it to hell, Greensmith, it was you. The dogs have your scent. You are the thief! This man is a bloody thief!"
I tried to break away but the dogs seized my coattails. I shrugged free but a second park keeper was closing in, blowing his whistle. I swung at Cranford with my cane, caught him across the face, and ran. The park keepers tripped me and I fell heavily. The pavement didn't go soft.
"'Twas a turd, m'lud." Speaking for the Crown, Whitton's jowls trembled as he spoke.The courtroom fell silent, the court recorder's pen stopped scratching. Judge Harmondsworth looked at me, coughed, and settled his wig. "A turd?"
"Yes, m'lud. A human turd."
The recorder's pen began scratching again.
"These dogs of Cranford's, his hounds remembered his scent?"
Judge Harmondsworth nodded. "Remarkable." Then he looked at me again. "Deportation, seven years."
Shackled in the bilges of a prison ship I was feeling pretty sorry for myself.
Juliette materialised in the overstuffed red armchair. Her hair was in a bun, her collar was high and her cuffs were lacy. She was clearly unimpressed with my general situation, filthy clothing and rank odor.
"Juliette! Thank God." I tried to stand, tripped over my own shackles and crashed against the timbers. All the other prisoners in the gloomy hold were motionless. Motes of dust hung frozen in a beam of light shining through the decking. "How...?"
"Temporal hiatus," Juliette said. "Spelthorne finished the time machine."
"It's good to see you, Juliette. How are you?"
"I'm fine," she said absently. "Life is back to normal. Everything is fine."
I didn't like the sound of that. "They caught me."
"The dolphins say you should have been held down as a child."
"Until the bubbles stopped."
Nothing had changed. She'd come here to mock me.
"And these--these animals are to whom you look for moral guidance?"
"We are privileged to know them. They are our intellectual equals with proud and ancient traditions."
"Traditions of infanticide, Juliette. They kill the ones that don't fit in and you think that gives them the moral high ground?"
"Stuart. It was a joke."
That's the trouble with high horses. You feel a damned fool getting down off one.
I crouched beside her in an inch of reeking water and held up my shackled hands. "I'm ready to go back. I've learned my lessons."
Juliette didn't meet my eye, as she spoke a chill of horror grew inside me. "I've talked this through with my team leader and she's discussed it with the dolphins. We all agree you'll be better off here."
My voice was a whisper, "What about the AIs?"
"The dolphins asked the AIs to let Spelthorne build the time machine so you could steal it."
"They used him."
"He needed to learn to be less possessive."
I felt cold. The AIs and dolphins influence reached out through time and space. I started to babble. "You can't do this. The food, Juliette. The food is terrible. It's cut up and boiled. They do the same to the meat, the vegetables, the fruit, everything. You can't do this to me. You're violating my rights."
Her smile was cold. "We debated the principle in your absence. I was your advocate. We concluded human rights cannot be applied retroactively. To do so would be cultural imperialism of the most arrogant kind."
"Yes, of course, but--"
Despite my filthy state Juliette put her hand on my shoulder. "Stuart, you've discovered so much about yourself. You've become someone you could never have been, back home."
"I know I've grown," I hung my head and tried to sound humble. "Doesn't that mean...?"
"We feel you should complete your sentence."
I felt like I'd stepped outside my own body. "They're deporting me to Australia!"
"The AIs calculated 96.99% probability."
"And the other three percent?"
"You wouldn't make it this far."
She meant I'd be dead. They set me up, let me put myself here in a kind of lethal alternative therapy. I felt hollow. I seriously needed reassurance.
"Wanna cop?" I tried rather weepily.
Juliette tugged at the hem of her sensible jacket. "I'm afraid that would violate contemporary mores. Goodbye Stuart."
"Please don't go."
"Don't be silly. We're not abandoning you, we're just leaving you here."
Australia. The land where everything with more or less than two legs will poison you or eat you. Then I remembered the snakes and jellyfish. They didn't even have legs. I supposed that counted as "less than two."
The ship rolled, began a long turn to the left followed by a slow, rhythmic fore-and-aft pitching. I realised we were leaving the English channel and heading into the Atlantic. One or two people puked, the sour acid stink adding to the stench from the slop buckets.
I wondered what Juliette meant when she said she wasn't abandoning me. Was she going to keep coming back? Would the dolphins one day relent and let me home? I could only hope. Meanwhile I had to stay alive. I wondered what probability the AIs gave for surviving the voyage.
We were fed once a day. The rest of the time I crouched in the dark between the ship's ribs and kept to myself. Biscuits and water, cheese every other day and salt fish once a week. I hoped it was dolphin-unfriendly tuna, I hoped this was an alternate universe where cetaceans were hunted to extinction. I hoped Alan Turing was stillborn. Sailors dumped the food in our laps or in the bilges, or simply laid into you with truncheons if they didn't like the way you looked.
Fights broke out after each food delivery: nasty, quiet little wars of the strong against the weak. Our shackles were locked to running chains with enough slack to move around. I was big enough not to be troubled; some of the smaller men, and women, hadn't eaten for days. Of course the women could always trade for their food back, though it wasn't going to stay a choice forever. The vibe was that things would get desperate.
Days blurred together. Once we were pulled up on deck for exercise. Buckets of sea water were dumped on us and we went back down, soaked through. A lot of us caught chills, a few died. They were hauled out and replaced with prisoners from another hold. Troublemakers. A scrap started as they were brought down, fists and legs flying. The sailors wading in with knotted ropes and truncheons.
I knew that voice. Was I finally going mad, delirious from bad food and despair? It was hard to make out individuals in the dim tumult, but I thought I recognised a broad and muscular female who had a sailor by his throat.
"McNulty," I croaked, then tried again. "McNulty!"
She looked round, saw me and grinned. "Hey, Greensmith."
A sailor took the opportunity and sapped her across the back of the head. She staggered, slack-faced, and he booted her down the hold. I caught her and she collapsed at my feet.
She looked beautiful lying there. She had old bruises all over her arms, skinned knuckles, a fading black eye and a split lip. Beautiful.
She was still unconscious when they chained us together. "Have fun, matey," the sailor said. "This one's a right lark."
I stroked her brow until she came round.
"I heard what you did and asked Juliette for a transfer. Stole a loaf of bread and here I am."
She'd also lost her two front teeth, it gave her a slight lisp.
Suddenly things didn't seem so bad after all.
"It's been pretty rough," I told her.
McNulty looked round the hold. Everywhere she looked people lowered their eyes. "I rather fancy my chances."
Apart from her bruises McNulty was in good shape. She and some others in her hold had taken over the food supply.
"That won't do here," I told her.
She considered my words. "You gone soft or what?"
No doubt the crew thought they had a ship full of cutthroats, rapists and criminal masterminds. I saw petty thieves, the homeless and starving poor.
"They're not society, McNulty. They're not even like us. They're here because they're desperate. We always had a choice."
I told her about the children.
McNulty sucked at the gap in her teeth. "OK. So what do we do?"
"We organize the hold. We'll make sure everyone gets fair shares, try and take care of the sick, keep order. We look after each other."
McNulty cleared a space by the simple tactic of picking up a few convicts and moving them aside. Then she pushed herself upright, one hand on the crossbeam.
"Listen up! We're in charge and this hold is going be run like a fucking Sunday school. Any objections?"
The hold was the quietest it had ever been.
"Good, because I'd hate to stomp you." McNulty sat beside me. "How's that?"
"Fine." It wasn't quite how I'd have put it, but it would do.
We put our backs against a bulkhead and settled to a companionable silence.
I could feel the heat from her body where our shoulders touched and knew then that we'd survive. We'd make it to Australia and do our time. When we were free we'd set up somewhere, a bar, a whorehouse, maybe a homestead. Kids. I was filled with a burst of optimism.
"Hey, McNulty," I said. "Wanna cop?"
Then she grabbed me.