Sample chapters of Escape Velocity by Steven J Pemberton

Sample Chapters of Escape Velocity
by Steven J Pemberton

© 2012. All rights reserved.

 

Chapter 1

Jennie, my wife, phoned late one Thursday evening. Not exactly what I expected, seeing as she’d been dead over a year. Then again, she’d always viewed the laws of physics as being open to interpretation.

“Sam? It’s me, Jennie.” She sounded… just as she always did, as if she was calling to tell me she’d be late tonight and ask me to buy something for dinner on my way home.

I couldn’t speak. I could barely move. I might’ve made some mewling noises.

“Sam? Are you there, love? I need to talk to you. Look, I know this will be quite a shock, but I’m not dead.”

By now, I’d fallen to my knees, coughing violently.

“Sam, we don’t have much time. Your phone may well be tapped. Be at… at the place we used to meet before lunch, on Saturday night, with the clock mirrored. Bring cash—​a hundred pounds. Come alone. Don’t tell anyone you’re going. A taxi will pick you up.”

I stood up, holding on to the table for support. “Look, Miss,” I said, “if this is your idea of a joke, you can just fuck off.”

“I knew you’d be like this,” she replied, “but you have to believe me.”

“You really do sound like my wife, but you didn’t bother to check how she died, did you?”

“Hit by a speeding car.” Her voice trembled. “He didn’t stop. Multiple broken bones. Massive internal bleeding. I was dead by the time the ambulance arrived.” She started to cry. “You had to identify me. I’m so sorry, love.”

Her words provoked memories I couldn’t face and couldn’t run away from. Doctor Samuel Grainger? I’m afraid we have some bad news…

“The story was everywhere,” I mumbled. I should’ve been used to the crank calls by now. I didn’t know which type was worse—​the lonely hearts who claimed to feel my loss every bit as keenly as I did, or the amateur physicists who thought Jennie and I were the new Michelson and Morley—​and they were the new Einstein. I usually hit the mute button and walked away from the phone for a few minutes. They tended to lose interest when they realised no one was listening.

“So I couldn’t have survived,” she said, “but I did. And I really, really need to see you.”

“Then I’ll see you in Hell,” I growled.

“I know you’ll come, Sam. You could never resist a good mystery.” Her voice softened as she added, “I love you.” Just like the first time she’d said them to me, those words melted my insides. By the time I’d recovered enough to say anything, she’d hung up. I collapsed into the nearest armchair, buried my face in my hands, and wept.

Eventually, my tears stopped. I wanted to write the phone call off as another dream. I dreamed of Jennie… probably every second night. The worst ones were those where she knew she was dead, but I hadn’t figured it out yet. Amazing how being asleep can make you forget even the most basic facts of your existence. Waking up was like being bereaved all over again.

There were just two problems with the call being part of a dream. The first was it meant I was still dreaming now—​and when I dreamed, it never occurred to me that I might be dreaming. The second was in all the times I’d dreamed of talking to Jennie since she died, I’d never reacted to her as I just had.

I levered myself out of the chair and pressed the phone’s “last caller” button. The display showed “number not available.” But I’d set the phone to ignore any calls that didn’t provide the caller’s number. How had she even been able to make it ring? Well, she’d made her living as a software engineer. She’d hinted that before she met me, she’d had a habit of finding her way into systems she had no business being in. Surely my security would have presented no obstacle.

Except that she was dead. And Heaven has the best firewall in the universe.

I went to the kitchen. Jennie wouldn’t approve of what I was about to do, but she wasn’t here to tell me not to do it. And if she had been here, I wouldn’t have needed to do it, would I?

I opened a cupboard. A bottle of cheap whisky stared back at me. Half was left—​more than I’d expected. Half-empty or half-full? I poured a glass and gulped enough to make me splutter. As it burned on the way down, I remembered I hadn’t eaten since lunchtime.

Good, I thought. That means I won’t have to drink so much of this paint stripper. I had to smirk. This was the most efficient solution to the problem. Being an engineer, I liked efficient solutions.

I carried the glass and the bottle back to where I’d been sitting. I took another gulp and glowered at the phone, daring it to ring. On the message pad by the phone, I scribbled today’s date, followed by, “Jennie called tonight! She’s alive!” I stared at my scrappy handwriting, fully expecting the page to be blank in the morning.

I sat down and finished the glass. Poured another. There might have been a third before my head drooped.

I jerked awake, sweating from a nightmare about a fire on board Dragonfly. The alarms were so loud that I couldn’t concentrate on how to put it out. I’d fallen asleep in the chair that got the sun in the mornings, and the phone was ringing. That must’ve been what made me imagine fire and alarms on the ship.

I sat up and immediately regretted it. I felt like a nightclub doormat. The answering machine should’ve taken the call by now, but the ringing continued, seeming to get louder until my skull vibrated in sympathy. I clenched my teeth and pushed and pulled myself upright. Against expectations, I stayed standing. I swayed over to the phone and managed to grab the receiver.

“Sam! Sam, are you there?” A man’s voice, frantic.

“I’m there,” I croaked. The caller gave a grateful sigh, as if he’d finally reached the urinal he’d needed for the last hour.

“It’s Bill,” he said. “Bill Norris,” he added, after I hadn’t replied.

“Oh.” Bill was a colleague—​I suppose I should say former colleague, since the Dragonfly team was disbanded. He’d overseen the design of the boosters that helped the rocket into the upper atmosphere. Though I thought of him as a friend, at least a month had passed since we’d last spoken. “Why the early call?”

“It’s eleven o’clock, mate.”

Great. Another day half-gone. Another reason to be glad I no longer had a job.

“Are you OK?” Bill asked. “You sound really rough.”

“I’m fine,” I said. It was a blatant lie, but I wasn’t in the mood for a long conversation. “Can I call you back?”

“You haven’t heard, have you?”

“Heard what?”

“Richmond’s disappeared.” Bill, on the whole, was a laid-back sort of chap, and the way he said that made the event sound like the death of an elderly aunt: regrettable but far from unexpected.

“Who’s Richmond?” I wondered if he was their dog. The Norrises’ kitchen, I recalled, was the territory of a small, yappy creature I would happily have dispatched myself.

“Rich-mond,” he repeated. “As in London Borough of.”

“What?” I looked around for the calendar, willing to entertain the possibility that today might be the first of April. My gaze fell on the message pad next to the phone. On it, I’d written yesterday’s date and the words, “Jennie called tonight! She’s alive!”

Oh God… that was why I was hung over, wasn’t it? Be at the place we used to meet before lunch… I wanted to write it off as part of the dream of Dragonfly. But despite the haze of whisky I’d put between myself and the call, it had a clarity in my mind that remembered dreams didn’t.

“Sam?” Bill’s petulant tone brought me back to the present.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. “Not quite awake yet.”

Bill sighed, as if suburbs went AWOL every week, and I was the only person in the world unaware of it. “At 4:20 this morning, Richmond disappeared off the face of the earth, as if it was never there.”

“What—​someone nuked it?” I asked.

“No—​it’s just—​gone. There’s no gap where it used to be. It’s like… like someone cut a hole in space-time and sewed the edges together.”

“Oh…”

“Is that all you’ve got to say?”

“What do you expect me to say?”

From Bill’s end, I heard another phone ringing. “Hold on,” he said. He answered—​I couldn’t quite hear what he was saying.

What did you expect me to say—​that this isn’t as shocking as you thought, because I have evidence that my allegedly deceased wife is still alive, and I can’t dismiss it out of hand?

“Sam? I’ve got to go. I’ll try to call you back later, OK?”

Only “try to?” I wondered who’d called him. A journalist, most likely. I allowed myself a twinge of jealousy that none of them had called me. For about six months after Jennie and I had flown on the rocket, I’d been their tame expert on anything even vaguely science-related. Now I was grateful they were leaving me alone—​partly because they weren’t nearly as deferential these days, and partly because I didn’t have a clue what I’d say to them about Richmond.

I dragged myself into the kitchen and drank what little orange juice I had left in the fridge. I set a pot of coffee brewing. I’d run out of bread, and the milk had gone sour. I finished off the few biscuits that skulked at the bottom of their jar.

I found some painkillers. I wanted to swallow the whole box, but rationed myself to two and took some coffee back to the living room. With a deep breath, I switched on the television and flicked over to BBC News.

“—solutely unprecedented development. A large area of the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames has vanished—​over a square mile, apparently no longer of this earth.” The newsreader looked flustered but sounded calm. I suppose they’re trained not to cause panic, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if this fellow dozed off mid-sentence. He’d probably been presenting this same story for the last three hours. “At least a thousand people have been reported missing. That number is expected to grow considerably in the coming hours. The Prime Minister has appealed for calm. The governments of the United States, Russia and China have all said they know nothing about what has happened, and that they have not attacked us. Scientists admit they are baffled. Mike Sloan is on the A305, one of the roads leading into Richmond.”

The picture cut to a stony-faced reporter standing in the middle of a deserted road. Behind him, two police cars blocked the road. Several armed officers stood near them.

The reporter said, “Thanks, Kenneth. I’m standing on the A305, St Margaret’s Road, in Twickenham. At this time on a Friday, this road, like countless others in the capital, would normally be filling up with motorists heading away for an early start to the bank holiday weekend.

“It now stands empty. This is as close as the police will allow us, a quarter of a mile from the edge of what some are already calling the ‘space warp.’ Further along from here, the A305 crosses the Thames at Richmond Bridge.”

The picture cut to a view from higher up, blurred by heat haze. The camera wobbled: it must be zoomed in as far as it would go. It showed a bridge across a river. The bridge appeared to intersect buildings on the far bank, as though the architect had made it too long, and the builders had truncated it to make it fit. Then I noticed that the buildings the bridge touched were right on the edge of the river: the water lapped at their walls. Land was scarce in London, but not that scarce.

“From what we’ve been able to see with our telephoto camera,” the reporter continued, “Richmond Bridge has been—​well, sheared off, I suppose, is the best way I can put it—​sheared off three-quarters of the way across the Thames. The buildings that the bridge appears to be touching in this picture, as far as we can tell, are in East Sheen, which is, or should be, over a mile from this part of the river.”

“This phenomenon is visible all around Richmond, isn’t it?” said the newsreader.

The picture cut back to Mike. “Yes. Davinder reported earlier from Petersham Road, and the pictures from his crew showed the Old Deer Park, a mile to the north, near enough to touch. The buildings that should have been blocking the view were—​well, nobody knows where they are. The area that’s been affected is roughly square, about a mile across.”

The picture returned to the studio, with the image of Mike on a large monitor. “Are there any theories as to what’s happened to Richmond?” the newsreader asked.

“Nothing definite as yet, Kenneth. Reports earlier suggested a major earthquake, but seismographs didn’t detect any tremors. And as you can see, there’s been no damage to the area around Richmond.”

“Do you think—​despite the denials by other governments—​that this is an attack? Are we at war?”

Mike frowned. They’d probably had this conversation two or three times already. “There’s no known weapon that could make a square mile of a city disappear, and yet leave such neat edges. And if anyone had such a weapon, it would surely make more sense to use it against the centre of London and destroy the Houses of Parliament.” But how many politicians, I wondered, would’ve been there at 4:20am?

Kenneth nodded and asked, “Has there been any communication from inside Richmond since 4:20 this morning?”

“Well, arguably, Kenneth, there is no ‘inside’ any more. But no, nobody and nothing has come out of the town. The radio and TV transmitters within it have fallen silent. Phone calls aren’t answered or go straight to voicemail.”

“So we have no idea of what’s happened to anyone who was in Richmond at the time it disappeared?”

“No. At this stage, we don’t even know how many people are affected. The number who’ve officially been reported missing currently stands at about twelve hundred, but that’s much less than the population of the area. As well as residents, a lot of commuters pass through here on their journey into the centre of the city. Several A-roads go through the affected area, as does a main railway line. Richmond is also under the approach path for Heathrow. Estimates of the number of people who’ve disappeared vary from five thousand to as many as twenty thousand.”

“You say ‘disappeared,’ Mike,” said Kenneth, “rather than ‘died.’ Is that definite? Are those people likely to turn up alive and well?”

“No one knows. The Metropolitan Police have set up a special helpline for anyone who’s affected by this.”

“That number is on the bottom of the screen now,” Kenneth remarked.

“They’ve been absolutely swamped, and they’ve asked people please not to call unless you know a family member was in Richmond at the time it disappeared. That was at 4:20 this morning, so the only people likely to have vanished would be those who live there, and workers on a night shift or with an early start. Back to you, Kenneth.”

“Thanks,” said Kenneth. “Mike Sloan there, reporting from Twickenham in West London. With me in the studio now is Professor Joseph Cook from the University of Cambr—”

I jabbed the standby button on the remote control. Whatever Cook had to say might be interesting from a dispassionate scientific viewpoint, but I knew as soon as that bastard opened his mouth, I’d want to put my fist through the TV screen. He’d run the Board of Inquiry like a witch-hunt, and had left Jennie and me in no doubt that he thought we were the witches.

My gaze fell on the whisky bottle again. It held enough to take the edge off my pain. I stopped even as I stretched out for it. Wherever the answers might be, they weren’t there. But did I want answers? Of course. I was a scientist, wasn’t I? Not according to Professor Cook, I wasn’t.

I took another mouthful of coffee, grimacing as I realised it had gone cold. I got another cup and switched on the computer.

I don’t know who first likened the Internet to a million monkeys hammering away at typewriters, but he or she was a prescient genius. The truth about Richmond might have been out there, but it was buried under layers of uninformed speculation, conspiracy theory and outright lies.

After about an hour, I stood up to stretch, and decided to stop trying to find meaning where none existed. Should I call Bill? What was there to tell him? Besides, I needed to get food.

I found a couple of carrier bags. I checked my wallet to make sure I had enough cash, and the photo of Jennie gazed out at me. My heart and my head throbbed in unison. The picture was one she’d rejected for her passport. Her eyelids heavy, she was looking some way above the camera lens. That adorable lopsided smile completed an expression I’d described as “come-to-bed-with-me” and she’d called “stoned.”

“Look, I know this will be quite a shock, but I’m not dead.”

I spun round, convinced I’d heard her voice behind me. Of course, no one was there.

“Be at the place we used to meet before lunch.”

Now she seemed to be whispering in my ear. I swung my arms, hitting nothing. “Fuck off!” I yelled. “Leave me alone!” With a jolt, I fell to my knees. Blinking away tears, I looked up, daring Jennie to speak again. I heard nothing. I stood and turned through a slow circle, seeing nothing that shouldn’t be there.

Shaking, I sat down. Was I going mad? I’d heard that people who were truly insane never asked themselves if they were. I didn’t find the thought reassuring.

I spotted the whisky bottle once more. I twisted its cap half-open, and then scowled and took it back to the cupboard. A bit of the liquid that had trickled down the neck stuck to my palm. I raised my hand to lick the stuff off, but stopped before tasting it. Pathetic. I held my hand under the tap, rubbing with my other hand until my skin wrinkled.

Outside, the sun seemed unnaturally bright, as if some cosmic observer had me under a magnifying glass. I headed towards the shops, on foot—​it wasn’t far, and besides, I was in no state to drive.

I saw fewer people than I expected. Workers and schoolchildren should’ve been at lunch. Those I did see seemed fretful, looking around as though startled by things on the edges of sight or hearing—​perhaps wondering whether what had happened to Richmond might happen here. One or two stared at me.

The shop I usually visited for small things was closed—​“due to unforeseen circumstances,” according to a handwritten note in the door. I went to another a few doors down. It was a long time since I’d been in here, and I remembered why as soon as I stepped inside. Cramped, dusty, with no apparent logic to the arrangement of the overpriced merchandise… it was a miracle the place was still in business. I caught myself staring longingly at the rows of brightly-coloured bottles behind the counter, and felt some small measure of pride in not asking for one.

The total for my purchases came to about 30 pence more than I had with me. I fumbled for my debit card and handed it to the shopkeeper, a gangly Asian lad in a football shirt who looked as though he’d just left school.

He looked at my card and then stared at me. “Sorry, mate,” he said in a broad Midlands accent, “I don’t mean to be rude. Are you the Sam Grainger?”

“Which is the one?” I replied.

“The professor. The rocket scientist.” He studied me more closely. “You are, ain’t you?”

“Yes, I’m that Sam Grainger,” I sighed, “but I’m a doctor, not a professor.” Many people had thought the project would be a fast track to a professorship.

“Oh,” he said, perhaps unaware there was any difference. “What do you think about Richmond?”

“What about it?” I asked. I knew exactly what he meant, but I didn’t want to get sucked into trying to help him. I couldn’t manage my own problems, never mind anyone else’s.

“Ain’t you heard the news?” he replied, exasperated. “Richmond’s disappeared—​like, the whole town, gone.” He brought his hands together as though crushing something. “Like—​like God just… just highlighted it and hit the delete key.”

I nodded. “I’d heard,” I said softly. “Do you know someone there?”

“My auntie,” he said.

“I’m sorry.” A conditioned response.

“We’ve been ringing her all morning.” He looked as if he wanted to cry. “Dad’s driving there now. Mum told him not to go—​it was too dangerous, and he’d never get through the cordon. You got any idea what’s happened?” His eyes begged me for an answer—​any answer.

I shrugged. I didn’t even understand the problem. “I don’t know. But we’ll find out. That’s what makes science so exciting.”

He stared at me, open-mouthed. “I don’t give a-a… monkey’s about science, mate. I just want to know what’s happened to my auntie.”

“I’m afraid I can’t help you.” I gave what I hoped was an encouraging smile. “I expect she’ll be all right.”

Chapter 2

When I got home, I made myself a toasted sandwich. I was halfway through eating it when Bill called again.

“That was Andy who rang just now,” he said.

I gulped. “Andy Kirk?”

“Yeah.”

“And?”

“Someone at the Home Office told him to investigate what’s happened to Richmond. He’s putting a team together, and I’ve agreed to join him.”

“Oh,” I said. “Congratulations.”

“Don’t sound as if you mean it, will you? Anyway, I asked him who else he wanted on the team, and yours was the first name he mentioned.”

My mouth hung open for several seconds before I thought to say, “What?”

Bill sighed. “I know what you think of him. But this is going to be a big project. I don’t expect you’ll actually have to work with him.”

“He must be desperate,” I said, “if I’m top of his list.”

Bill gave a discreet cough, as though to indicate that, actually, he and an unspecified—​possibly quite large—​number of other scientists were ahead of me. “Look,” he said, “I know you and Andy were at each other’s throats half the time on Dragonfly. But a lot of that was just a clash of personalities.”

Just? I thought.

“Believe it or not, he respects you as a scientist and an engineer.”

Just not as a human being. “Well, thanks for the warning,” I said.

I’d just finished my sandwich when Andy phoned. “Sam,” he said brightly, “how are you?”

“I’ve been better,” I mumbled.

“I take it you’ve heard the news?” Andy was one of those people who asked “How are you?” because it’s a customary opening to a conversation, not because he was actually interested in the answer.

“About Richmond? Yeah. I spoke to Bill Norris earlier.”

“I’m putting together a team to investigate.” I tensed, ready to refuse his invitation. “I can’t say much over an unsecured line, but I’d like you to join us.”

I hesitated, trying to choose an excuse, before deciding I didn’t have to explain myself to him. “No, thanks,” I said.

“Oh,” he replied, obviously quite taken aback. “I’d’ve thought this would be right up your street.”

I sighed. “Despite what you read in the tabloids, Andy, I’m not a maverick on the fringes of science, solving mysteries that baffle the orthodoxy. I design rocket engines. That’s about as orthodox as you can get. Or at least I did, before Lord What’s-his-name cut our funding.”

Andy breathed in sharply. The reasons for Dragonfly’s grounding were evidently still a sore point between us. He’d never said as much, but I got the impression he thought I should’ve done more to persuade the FAA the ship was safe. “Sam,” he said, “what happened with Dragonfly… I regret it. We all do. But there’s nothing any of us can do now. You should let it go.”

Platitudes. Just what I don’t need. “Who says I haven’t?”

“Well, that’s good,” Andy replied. “But I don’t want you on side because you know how to make a rocket fly. I know you can think outside the box, and once you’ve got your teeth into a problem, you won’t let go until you’ve solved it.”

That sounded like any of the numerous pep talks he’d given me (straight out of The Drooling Moron’s Guide to Being a Manager) when the project wasn’t going well. “Who says I’m going to bite?” I asked. “Rope in your post-grads. I’m sure they’ll jump at the chance of material for a thesis.” That was uncalled-for, and I immediately regretted saying it. Andy was a distinguished scientist, and I didn’t want him to think I was jealous of the respect he had among his peers.

“I’m sure they would,” Andy replied, “if any of them had a security clearance.”

Shit. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Of course this was a matter of national security. Departments and agencies that officially didn’t exist would be all over it. My clearance was good for another year or so. It was one of the few things Professor Cook hadn’t been able to take from me.

“I need everyone I can get, Sam,” Andy said. “We can’t afford to waste any time. We need to find out what’s happened to Richmond and the people in it, and figure out what we need to do to bring them back.”

Assuming we can bring them back, I thought. Assuming they’re not already dead. Not that that seems to have stopped Jennie. My stomach flipped as I remembered the call from last night.

“We need to discuss this face-to-face, so you can make an informed decision,” Andy said. “There won’t be much for you to do today, so come to Richmond about ten o’clock tomorrow morning. Tell you what, I’ll send a taxi. Bring some photo ID.”

Oh. Don’t I get any say in the matter?

“I’ll see you tomorrow, OK?”

I made some more coffee and took another couple of painkillers. By now, my headache had eased to manageable proportions. I dug out my passport. A younger, more optimistic man smiled at me. Is that really me? I had the same name and date of birth, but what else did I have in common with him? Eight years ago, both Dragonfly and Jennie were still in the future. They’d defined my life so completely that earlier events might as well have happened to a different person.

I put my passport next to the phone. My gaze fell on the message pad again. Yesterday’s date and the words, “Jennie called tonight! She’s alive!” And why would I write that? Because it had happened, obviously. Or because I thought it had happened. But I’d been drunk when I wrote the words. People do stupid things when they’re drunk. Like getting into a car and running someone over.

Are you Doctor Samuel Grainger?

Yes…

Are you married to a Jennifer Sandra Grainger?

Yes—​what’s wrong, officers?

I’m afraid we have some bad news. May we come in?

I sank into an armchair, my head in my hands. The night she died, we’d planned to visit Jennie’s friend Maria, who lived about fifteen minutes’ walk away. I’d decided not to go, as I’d had a heavy cold. No matter how many times I told myself I couldn’t have known, I kept asking—​what if? What if I hadn’t been sick? What if I hadn’t insisted I could look after myself for a few hours? What if she hadn’t argued I needed her, and she’d gone ten minutes earlier than she did? What if she’d been even more determined to mother me, and she’d gone ten minutes later?

On the way home from Maria’s, Jennie had been knocked down crossing Furzehill Road. That was another question that nagged at me. She would’ve walked along that road for a hundred yards or so, but hadn’t needed to cross it. For weeks, I’d clung to that apparent inconsistency, as if it would prove the victim was someone else entirely.

Witness accounts were sketchy. The car was a light-coloured Ford Mondeo—​one of about half a million on Britain’s roads. No one saw the number plate. The car had come hurtling round the corner, well above the speed limit. She hadn’t stood a chance. The only CCTV camera with a view of the crash, one in a newsagent’s window, had no tape that night. Not that that sort of incompetence was anything unusual.

She was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death. Nobody’s fault. I’d expected him—​wanted him—​to say unlawful killing, but there wasn’t enough evidence the driver meant to harm Jennie.

So the bastard got away with it. Got away with thoughtlessly snuffing out one life and wrecking another. I wondered if he even realised what he’d done. Or was he so drunk or high that he thought he’d just hit a speed bump or clipped another car?

Of course, the verdict meant it hadn’t been my fault either. Sometimes I thought that was the only thing that had kept me halfway sane.

So—​was I going to meet this mysterious woman tomorrow night? Once more, I picked up the note I’d left myself. I couldn’t still be dreaming this, could I? The call had to be a hoax. There were plenty of recordings of Jennie for the caller to study to perfect her imitation—​all the interviews she’d given about going into space and what our “anomalous observations” might mean.

What if Jennie really was alive? Impossible. It would mean the witnesses who’d seen the car hit her, the ambulance crew who’d tried to revive her, the doctor who’d signed her death certificate—​all had been mistaken. Or lying. I’d seen her body. My tears had splashed her face. I’d held her cold hand tight in mine, rubbing it as if I believed that if only I could make her warm, it might bring her back.

But what if? What if she was still alive? I couldn’t imagine how it might be possible, but allowed myself to suppose for a moment it was true. Hope soared within me. Jennie had been my world. In every sense that mattered, my life had ended on the same night as hers. But if she was alive, why had she gone? Why had she stayed away so long? Why had she put me through this… this hell?

She’d told me to be at the place we used to meet to go for lunch. That was under the library bridge at the University of Bracknell. Bracknell was where we’d first met, and where most of the British contingent of Dragonfly had been based. She’d mentioned the clock being mirrored. We usually went to lunch at one o’clock, so that meant she wanted me to be there at eleven.

Careful detective work might have allowed the caller to find out when and where Jennie and I used to meet, but why not just state a time and place plainly? Of course—​my phone might be tapped. Was that true, or a clever lie to feed my paranoia—​to encourage me to comply with her request to come alone and not tell anyone?

Bill called at about six o’clock. He’d already started work with Andy. So far, they’d looked for any unusual electromagnetic radiation coming from where Richmond used to be, and found none. They’d used GPS to measure the positions of numerous buildings and junctions near the “space warp,” and had found everything where it should be.

I sat in front of the computer for a while, my attention drifting between the Internet and TV news. I didn’t learn anything.

I cooked a bit of supper. I didn’t eat as much as I should these days. It usually didn’t seem worth the bother.

After eating, I drank the last of the whisky. Maybe I should’ve bought another bottle. What I had was enough to make me groggy, but not enough to put me to sleep. At least tonight I managed to climb upstairs and collapse into bed.

The places on the wall where Jennie’s movie posters had hung gaped like windows in an abandoned house. If I closed my eyes, I could see them: Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’d put them, and everything else that belonged to Jennie, into boxes in the spare room. I’d hoped it would stop me thinking of her. It hadn’t. It wasn’t that I wanted to forget her; just that I couldn’t think of her without thinking of how she’d been taken from me.

I switched off the light. Jennie usually came to bed about an hour after I did. I lifted the other side of the duvet. Some habits were too hard to break. If I held my breath, I could just hear running water from the bathroom. A minute or so after it stopped, she’d walk the few yards to the bedroom and snuggle up beside me. I breathed in. She always washed with lavender soap in the evenings. I almost convinced myself that the scent lingered on her pillow, before whisky and stale sweat crowded it out.

Chapter 3

The sun woke me just after eight. Today was Saturday—​the day Jennie had told me to meet her. I still hadn’t made up my mind whether to go. For that matter, I hadn’t made up my mind whether the call had been genuine, or even if it had really happened. There was the note I’d left myself, but I’d been drunk when I wrote that.

I dragged myself into the shower, and then forced myself to eat some breakfast. Richmond still dominated the news. The tone of the reports had shifted from disbelief to curiosity. There had been no new developments overnight—​at least, none that the media knew of.

The doorbell rang. That must be the car Andy said he’d send. I had half a mind to refuse him. Part of me wanted to help, to find out what had happened and how to undo it. But part of me felt there was nothing I could do—​nothing any of us could do. Richmond was gone, everyone inside was dead or as good as, and that was the end of it.

The doorbell rang again. The letterbox clattered. “Doctor Grainger?” a man called. “Are you there?”

There’s always something you can do. Pre-judging a situation was something I’d always detested in other people. The whole point of being a scientist is that you know you don’t know everything, but you’re always ready to find out more. I put on my coat and went to the door.

The caller was a tall, middle-aged man in a dark grey suit. I glanced past him to the end of the drive, where a black limousine waited in the street. “Professor Kirk sent me to pick you up, sir.” He spoke with a faint London accent.

We got into the car, an air-conditioned, soundproofed, leather-upholstered cocoon. A few minutes into the journey, the driver asked, “So, you’re going to help bring Richmond back, sir?”

I shrugged. Beyond wanting me because of my security clearance, Andy hadn’t been very specific about what he wanted me to do. “I can’t say much about it,” I replied.

“I understand, sir.” He sounded disappointed. After a few more minutes, he asked, “I hope you don’t mind my asking, sir, but are you the Doctor Grainger who was involved in the Dragonfly project?”

Here we go again… There was no point in denying that. “I am,” I sighed.

“I expect you get recognised a lot, do you?”

When I make the effort to go out, it seems I do. “Not much,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “I’m surprised. My nephew’s a big admirer of yours, you see.”

“Really?” I didn’t think I had any admirers now. I didn’t think I’d ever had any, in fact.

“Yeah. He’s starting his GCSEs in September. He’s doing all the sciences—​physics, chemistry, biology. Says he wants to design rockets or aeroplanes for a living.”

“Oh. Good.” I forced a smile.

“I reckon you inspired him. He was glued to the programme your lot did. He’ll be really impressed when I tell him I met you.” The driver glanced at me. “Would you mind signing an autograph for him?”

I shrugged. “Why not?”

“Thanks. It’ll mean a lot to him. He was really disappointed when the project was cancelled, you know?”

Not nearly as disappointed as I was.

“He wanted to take a trip on it, too.” The driver laughed. “I told him he’d better plan on winning the lottery first.”

“We intended to sell flights for a million dollars each,” I said, “about six hundred thousand pounds at the time.”

He winced. “So he said if he designed his own rocket, he could go for nothing.” He laughed again.

Nothing except maybe ten years learning how to do it, and five more fighting bean counters who won’t give you the money to do it properly and marketing drones who think press releases and artists’ impressions trump the laws of physics.

“So why was it cancelled, then?” he asked.

I tried not to sigh. “You have to understand it was a big project,” I began. “Four or five hundred people over five years. Several hundred million dollars invested. I was quite high up in the organisation, but I didn’t know everything that was going on. As well as that, there’s a lot of stuff I’m still not allowed to talk about.”

“Oh! Sorry—​I didn’t realise. I don’t mean to go poking my nose into private matters.”

I could’ve left it at that. But an opportunity like this—​to talk to someone who hadn’t already made up his mind—​didn’t come along very often these days. “There are a lot of things I would’ve done differently,” I said, “given the chance to do it again. But I don’t know if I could’ve changed the outcome. There were lots of contributing factors, and I don’t think any one of them was the reason why it failed.” Did Dragonfly really fail, or was it cancelled before it had a chance to fail? I still wasn’t sure.

I took a few moments to collect my thoughts and continued, “I suppose what stopped it dead was that the FAA—​that’s the American authority in charge of civil aviation—​wouldn’t give us an airworthiness certificate. Or not one that let us carry paying passengers, anyway.”

“So…” The driver hesitated, obviously in two minds about what to say next. “They were saying it wasn’t safe?”

I grimaced. “Essentially, yes. They let us do test flights, of course, with people who understood the risks and accepted that their insurance wouldn’t pay out if anything went wrong. But every time we applied for a standard airworthiness certificate, they’d give a new reason for rejecting us.”

“Moving the goalposts, eh?”

Never mind that—​sometimes it seemed we were playing a completely different game each time we met with Doctor Lebowski and his wretched sub-committee. “You could say that. Though one reason they kept throwing at us was that the launch sequence was very short, and the ground crew was tiny. I mean, to launch the Space Shuttle, NASA needs enough people to fill a good-sized town, and it takes weeks to get everything ready. Dragonfly’s investors told me—​us—​they wanted a rocket that could go from being in a hangar to being in orbit, two hundred miles above sea level, in eight hours or less, with a ground crew of twelve. And we bloody well did it.”

“But the authorities must’ve thought you were cutting corners, surely?” said the driver.

“Exactly,” I said. “And after we’d been round that loop a few times, the investors decided to cut their losses and withdraw their funding. The first I knew about it was when a journalist stopped me in the street and asked what my next project was going to be.”

“Was it safe, then?” he asked. My mouth dropped open, and an angry retort gathered itself. He quickly added, “Or were they taking the Michael?”

I took a deep breath. There was no point in losing my temper with him. It was a perfectly reasonable question for a layman to ask. “All the flight tests and computer simulations convinced me the ship was safe. Nobody was ever injured or killed.”

“Sorry,” the driver mumbled. “Stupid question, really. If you didn’t think it was safe, you wouldn’t have gone on the first flight, would you?”

“First manned flight,” I said. “A lot of people thought that was a publicity stunt. But you’re right, I wouldn’t. More to the point, I wouldn’t have let my wife come with me.”

“And to think,” he said, “you did something so dangerous, and then…”

I closed my eyes. My fists clenched involuntarily. You really do sound like my wife…

“The irony isn’t lost on me,” I managed to say.

“Sorry,” the driver said. “You must miss her terribly.”

I couldn’t speak. I just nodded.

“My younger brother. His fiancĂ©e died in a car crash. For a long time we all thought he wouldn’t get over it, but eventually he found someone else. Their silver anniversary’s coming up in July, actually.”

I tried to smile. “It took a couple of months,” I said, “before I really accepted she was gone.” I know this will be quite a shock, but I’m not dead. I snorted. “I’m a scientist—​always searching for truth. Always questioning what I think I know. Looking for the assumption that’s buried so deep in my thought processes I don’t even know it’s there. And yet I couldn’t accept she was gone.” I looked down. My fingers meshed and unmeshed, seemingly of their own accord. “You’d think having to identify her body would be proof enough for anyone.”

The driver gasped. “Sorry. I never thought of that.”

I looked up, in time to see a sign for the M3 flick past. “It’s not something anyone ever expects they’ll have to do.” The image of Jennie stretched out on the mortuary table remained in my mind, clear as a photograph. “I suppose I started to accept it when I visited her grave for the first time after the funeral. Someone had put flowers on it.”

“That’s always a nice gesture, isn’t it?”

I sighed. “Life goes on and all that crap, but Jennie was… everything. Nobody could ever take her place.” I was well on my way to thinking nobody ever would.

“Wasn’t there a public inquiry?” he said. “About the ship, I mean, not…”

I tensed. I wasn’t sure I wanted to answer questions about that. After a deep breath, I said, “There was, but it wasn’t about whether the ship was safe. Jennie and I got some public funding to investigate a…” I hesitated, considering how best to phrase it.

“An anomaly in your telemetry,” he said. “That was what my nephew called it.”

I shrugged. “As good a name as any. When our investigation didn’t produce any conclusive results, somebody”—​that somebody being mainly Professor Cook—​”got it into his head that we’d misappropriated the money.”

The driver chuckled. “Reckoned you’d spent it on champagne and caviare, did he?”

Maybe we should’ve. Things would’ve been a lot simpler. “No,” I said. “They thought we hadn’t done our experiments rigorously enough—​hadn’t accounted for all known factors that could influence the outcome. Or we’d just lied about the results. Eventually, we were exonerated, but by then enough people had decided we were frauds or crackpots that it made no difference.”

“What was this ‘anomaly,’ then? My nephew seemed to think you were on the verge of inventing something out of Star Trek.

“The transporter?” I said. “‘Beam me up, Scotty’?” Jennie had loved that programme. You really do sound like my wife…

“That’s the one.” He paused. “Obviously you didn’t.”

His tone implied we could’ve, if we’d had more money. “Well, teleportation is impossible,” I said. I couldn’t have survived… “As far as anyone knows. What we found was an oddity in the timings of the radio signals.” The driver nodded, which I took as an invitation to continue. “When the ship’s in orbit, it broadcasts a signal that basically says, ‘Hi, I’m Dragonfly.’ The signal includes the time shown by a clock on the ship. Tracking stations on the ground detect the signal and record the time when they receive it. Work out the difference between those times, and you know how long the signal took to travel from the ship to the tracking station.”

“With you so far,” said the driver.

“Knowing how long the signal took to travel tells you the distance between the ship and the tracking station. With several tracking stations, you can determine the ship’s position.”

“I thought you had GPS for that.”

“We did,” I said. “This is a backup system, in case the GPS receivers on the ship fail, or we lose the GPS signal.” I sighed. GPS had never let us down, which was one reason we took so long to notice the anomaly. There were times I wished we hadn’t gone looking. It wasn’t as if we were short of other problems to solve. “The anomaly was that every five or ten seconds, the signal would arrive at the tracking stations about a millisecond late. Doesn’t sound like much, I know, but it takes only two or three milliseconds normally, so one more is a third to a half as much again.”

“Was the clock faulty, then?” he asked.

“That’s the obvious explanation,” I said. “But most of the transmissions were on time, down to the microsecond, and we couldn’t find any pattern in the late ones. The clock worked perfectly on the ground. We took it into space, it started glitching. We brought it back to Earth, it behaved itself again. We checked everything, and we couldn’t account for the anomaly.”

“I don’t understand,” said the driver. “Why was this so important?”

“Because it shouldn’t have happened,” I said. “And because we couldn’t explain why it did. It wasn’t a fault in the spaceship. It wasn’t a fault in the tracking stations, because the signal arrived late at all of them. And there’s no known physical process that can delay a radio signal by that much through the atmosphere. So what are you left with?”

The driver glanced at me, nonplussed.

“Sorry,” I said. “Rhetorical question. The problem was that when the clock was behaving, the position we calculated from the signal agreed with the GPS. When the signal was late, we couldn’t calculate a position consistent with all the times recorded at the different tracking stations.”

“So the stations couldn’t agree on where the ship was?” he said. “They were telling you something impossible?”

“Yeah—​or something that didn’t make sense, anyway. Results like that sometimes lead to breakthroughs in science—​or at least, new understanding of something you thought you already knew inside out.”

“But not this time, I take it?”

I sighed. “Well, I still think there’s something current theories can’t account for. But just about everyone else thinks I’m bullshitting.”

“Oh.”

“And I suppose that didn’t help the chances of Dragonfly getting a standard airworthiness certificate either—​that two of its key personnel appeared to be on a crusade to rewrite a good chunk of modern physics.”

“I guess not,” he said. He paused, checking road signs. “Hang on, though. You saw this effect every time you launched the ship?”

“Yes.”

“Then why doesn’t NASA see this on the Space Shuttle?” Again he paused. “Or do they?”

I swallowed carefully. “They wouldn’t talk to us about it.”

“Oh… I bet the conspiracy theorists had a field day with that.”

The whole damn project had brought them swarming like flies round a jam jar. They thought such a small company couldn’t have built a working spaceship in such a short time. Half of them said we must have had help from NASA or aliens. The other half claimed our inability to bring the ship into commercial operation meant it was a hoax or a tax write-off. Entire websites were dedicated to exposing inconsistencies in the videos of our flights. Someone actually came up to me at a conference and said, perfectly straight-faced, that it was “scientifically impossible” for me to have been into orbit.

And then one of Dragonfly’s key personnel was hit by a car. You see? the conspiracy theorists shrieked. You see?! We were right all along! She was about to lift the lid on the whole sordid mess, so she had to be silenced! Part of me—​a tiny part, to be sure—​wanted it to be true, because at least that would mean Jennie had died for something.

Except there was no conspiracy. I could say that with certainty because I would’ve had to be in on it.

What would the nutters say if they heard Jennie wasn’t dead? For a start, they’d have an easier time accepting it than I did. Oh yes, they’d say. We knew she faked her death. The police and coroner’s reports are full of obvious holes. The conspiracy goes higher than she thought, and her snooping had upset some very important people. She had to pretend to be dead so they’d leave her alone. But they can’t touch her now, and what she’s found will change the world…

“What do you reckon caused these delays, then?” the driver asked. “My nephew says it’s some kind of extra dimension.”

How many times have I heard that one? “Jennie and I never advocated any particular hypothesis to account for our observations,” I said, parroting a phrase I’d prepared for interviews. “All we ever said was that they couldn’t be accounted for solely by causes internal to our communications systems.”

“Oh…”

“In short, we didn’t prove we were right. Just that we weren’t wrong. More to the point, we proved everyone else had to be wrong.” I don’t imagine that had helped our cause, either. Science is supposed to be self-correcting, but nobody likes to be made to look a fool.

We came off the motorway and went back on to the A-roads. Soon I noticed signs for Richmond. Traffic was much lighter than I expected. We stopped outside a car park filled with unmarked lorries and vans. People with clipboards hurried about.

“Here we are, sir,” said the driver. “Nice talking to you. I hope this job goes well for you.”

“How much do I owe you?” I asked.

“It’s on account, sir.”

As I opened the door, I remembered something. “The autograph.”

“Of course,” he said. From the glove box he took a pen and a copy of the London A-Z. “His name’s Kevin.”

“Are you sure you want me to sign this?” I asked.

“Yeah. Inside back cover will do. It’s time I bought another one anyway. That one’s out-of-date.”

It seemed to be in good condition, and I wondered if he meant it was out-of-date as of yesterday. I wrote, “To Kevin, wishing you success in your chosen career. Dr Sam Grainger.”

“Thank you, sir,” the driver said. “It’ll mean a lot to him.”

Chapter 4

As the car drove off, I noticed policemen with submachine guns standing at the edges of the car park. One of them approached me, a hand resting on the top of his gun. I tensed.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “this is a restricted area.”

For a moment I couldn’t speak. When words came, I tripped over them. “Oh. I, er—​I think, um, someone in there wants to see me.” He frowned. I was probably the hundredth person he’d turned away that morning. “Professor Kirk?” I said, my voice squeaking.

The policeman nodded. “And who are you, sir?”

“Grainger. Doctor Sam Grainger.”

“Do you have some ID, sir?”

I showed him my passport, which he studied carefully, comparing my face with the photo. He spoke into his radio, announcing my arrival.

After a couple of minutes, a short, dark-haired woman in a lab coat came to the car park entrance. “Sam Grainger!” she said in a broad Glaswegian accent. She thrust a hand towards me. I shook it awkwardly.

I took a chance I’d remembered her name. “Vicki Reid,” I said. I’d last seen her at Jennie’s funeral. She’d been part of the Dragonfly team, helping to design the orbiter’s heatshield.

“How’ve you been?” she said.

“Coping,” I said.

“Are you working?”

I shook my head.

The policeman cleared his throat. “Would you move along please, sir, madam?”

Vicki led me into the car park. “Andy’s calling in everybody he knows,” she said. “The place is like a Dragonfly reunion.”

I looked for familiar faces, but saw none. People were unloading and moving all manner of equipment from the whole spectrum of scientific disciplines. It reminded me of the open days at Bracknell, when every department wheeled out their most impressive pieces of kit to show off to potential undergraduates. If I hadn’t known why these scientists were here, I’d never have guessed what they were investigating. Then it occurred to me they probably didn’t know either.

“Andy’s quite busy at the moment,” Vicki said. “I’ll take you to Richmond Bridge—​or what’s left of it—​so you can see what’s happening.”

“What have you been up to since I last saw you?” I said.

She sighed. “Not much. I did a three-month contract in the crystallography lab at Durham University last year, but they didn’t renew it. My brother runs a restaurant, and I help there a few days a week.”

After we lost our funding, many of the British contingent had struggled to find jobs. Being part of a company that fails as publicly as Dragonfly did seems to taint you. Other employers become reluctant to take a chance on you, as though the failure was somehow your fault. They needn’t worry. By the time Dragonfly’s failure was widely known, the people whom I held responsible were already busy fucking up other companies and being handsomely rewarded for it.

For my part, Jennie’s insurance had paid off the mortgage and would provide a comfortable income for a few years yet. I’d have surrendered the lot to have her back. I know this will be quite a shock…

“Sam?”

I shuddered. “Sorry—​miles away.”

She gave me a worried look, and breathed in, as if about to say something. Then she seemed to change her mind.

We came to another exit from the car park. Two armed police officers stood there. Vicki waved an identity badge at them and said, “Doctor Vicki Reid, going to the bridge. This is Doctor Sam Grainger. He’s with me.”

One officer repeated this information into his radio and received an order to accompany us. “Follow me, please,” he said.

We went along a narrow cobbled street. Several times we had to step into the road to go around a parked car. It never ceases to amaze me how many people think putting two wheels on the pavement allows them to park on double yellow lines. Elegant white-walled houses rose high on both sides of the street. A thicket of “for sale” signs protruded from one of the buildings. I imagined a lot more would appear soon if we couldn’t figure out what had happened here.

My first clue that something had gone wrong was the silence. Well, not silence, exactly. I heard our footsteps on the flagstones and the rustle of our clothing. Birds twittered. A faint breeze moved the leaves of the trees. What was missing was the sounds of the city—​the rumble of traffic, the wash of a thousand conversations in a dozen languages, the booming of stereos from open windows.

As we walked, the policeman kept glancing all around. Twice, he turned around and walked backwards for a few paces, looking behind us.

When he faced forwards again, I said to Vicki, “What’s with all the firepower? And why’s he so edgy? Anyone would think this was a war zone.”

“Maybe it is,” she said quietly, “and we just haven’t realised yet.”

The end of the street joined a main road. To the left, a hundred yards away, several police cars formed a roadblock, and a dozen or more officers stood on this side of them.

We turned right. Fifty yards ahead, a white van was parked at the start of the bridge, in the middle of the road. Another armed police officer stood next to it.

I glanced at the clouds. When they crossed the river, they started to disappear. It was as if someone had taken a huge piece of cardboard, painted it the same colour as the sky, and hung it a few thousand feet in the air, hiding the clouds from view as they moved above it. Except that this piece of cardboard didn’t stop the sunlight from reaching the ground.

“That’s weird,” I said, pointing upwards.

“Wait ’til you see the other side of the river,” Vicki said.

By now, buildings on the opposite bank had become visible. “Stop a minute,” I said. The others did. “Stay there,” I said to Vicki. I stood about six feet from her, positioning myself so that she appeared in front of an office block on the far bank. I covered one of my eyes, then the other. Then I walked around her, to put her in front of the roadblock. Again, I covered my eyes in turn.

“And that’s weird,” I said.

“I wondered when you’d notice that,” said Vicki as we started walking again. “The perspective looks wrong, doesn’t it? Objects on the opposite bank don’t show as much parallax as they should. I reckon what makes them look close enough to touch is that they don’t shimmer in the heat, and there’s no haze muting their colours.”

A man emerged from the van, carrying a small object in each hand. He gave one to the policeman who stood nearby. He then waved to us. “Oh, there you are, Sam. I heard you’d come.” It was Bill Norris. I hadn’t recognised him at first. “Tea?”

“I’d love some, thanks,” said Vicki. “White, one sugar.”

Bill looked at the policeman who’d come with us. “That’s very kind of you, sir,” he said, “but I need to return to my post.”

“You can relieve me, mate,” the other one said. “I’ll go back to the car park.”

The man who’d escorted us nodded. “White, no sugar, please,” he said to Bill.

“Sam?” Bill said.

“The same,” I replied.

Bill retreated into the van and emerged a minute later with three plastic cups, balanced in a precarious triangle between his fingers. “Front one’s yours,” he said to me. I took it and sipped at the contents.

Bill was ten years older than me. He seemed much more haggard and weary than when I’d last seen him, perhaps six months ago. I wondered if he’d aged in the last day or so. Whenever someone on Dragonfly came up with a new idea, we usually ran it past Bill before investing any significant effort in it. He was typically the first to say why something wouldn’t work. I’d known him for a year or so before I accepted that he was right about four times out of five and stopped fighting him.

“Sam,” said Bill, once he’d given out the other two cups. He shook my hand. “Good to see you. How are you?”

“I’ve been better.”

“Well,” Bill said, “you’ve come at a good time. I’m doing some rangefinding experiments, and I could use a hand setting up the laser. I’ll show you where I want to put it.” He led Vicki and me along the bridge.

The buildings ahead of us stayed the same apparent size, reinforcing my belief that they were really a mile away. A long, narrow wooded island lay in the river, about a hundred yards to my left. The river was almost straight at this point, but the opposite bank looked to have been marked out with a ruler. Then I realised there was no opposite bank. The water just stopped. The buildings I’d seen stood right next to the grey-brown water. What was left of the river flowed as normal. At the edge, ripples and eddies moved as if the rest of the water was still there. I saw no sign of waves being reflected from a solid surface. We came to the top of the arch. I stopped after a few paces.

“Bloody hell!” I said. “Where’s the rest of it?” The bridge came to an abrupt end ten yards from where I stood, the last quarter of it neatly guillotined off.

“Wherever the rest of Richmond is, I suppose,” said Vicki.

“You saw the TV pictures, didn’t you?” Bill asked.

“Yeah, but… they don’t show you what it’s really like.”

“The TV cameras are further back,” Vicki said.

The bridge ended at the same line that marked the new edge of the river. The ground on the other side of the river was a good bit lower than the river itself, as though one side of a fault line had suddenly risen or dropped. I could see only the roofs of the nearest buildings.

“What’s keeping the river in place?” I asked. “Why hasn’t it flooded the far side?”

“Your guess is as good as mine, mate,” said Bill.

I turned slowly from left to right, taking in the view. At the extreme left, beyond the island, the river seemed to get its missing bank back before passing another bridge and fading into the distance. To the right of this bridge were some trees on the bank. Then were some buildings that appeared to have been sheared through and squashed into a narrow space. I came now to the line formed by the new edge of the river. Beyond that was a large open space where flat areas alternated with low, sinuous mounds—​a golf course? Then came a dense mass of houses and offices, and then another open space bordered by trees. Two main roads started next to the river, seemingly connected to it. Finally, the river turned a bend to the right, taking it away from the “space warp.”

“Wow,” I breathed.

I dug a handful of change from my pocket and selected a ten-pence piece: the least-valuable coin that was heavy enough not to be deflected by air resistance. I aimed along the white line on the road and threw the coin. I expected it to bounce off a force field, or be vaporised with a loud bang, but as soon as it passed the end of the bridge, it simply vanished. I listened for a splash or clink of it hitting water or tarmac, but heard nothing.

“I could’ve told you that would happen,” Bill said, “and saved you the expense.”

“Even if you had,” I replied, “I’d still have done it. Experiments should be reproducible, right?”

“‘They should all fail in the same way,’” said Bill, quoting an old joke. He drained the last of his tea. “Right. Let’s get this laser set up.”

The laser came packed in several metal flight cases. Even the smallest, briefcase-sized, needed two people to move them. Vicki had marked a chalk X on the ground, about five yards past the highest point of the arch, and this was where we assembled the laser.

Bill took a piece of paper from his coat pocket, a photocopied map of this part of London. A roughly square area, about a quarter of the page, had been outlined with a blue highlighter pen. Several red Xs were marked around the edge of the square. “The outlined area is what’s disappeared. About a square mile,” he said. He pointed to an X on the left-hand edge of the square, which lay along part of the river. “We’re here,” he said. He pointed ahead. “That building is about here.” He jabbed at the square’s top-right corner.

“We put a retro-reflector in that road there,” Vicki said, pointing to a small, glittering object that lay on the continuation of the white line in the middle of the road. This was a clever arrangement of mirrors that bounced an incoming beam of light back to its source, no matter what angle it came from. Evidently, we were going to try to bounce the laser beam off the reflector and measure the time it took to return. If the local speed of light was still the same as elsewhere in the universe—​perhaps not a wise assumption—​this would tell us the distance between the laser and the reflector.

“What do the GPS measurements say?” I asked.

“Utpal and I walked all around the edges of the space warp yesterday,” said Vicki, “and took readings about every fifty metres. To within the unit’s margin of error, the coordinates agree with what the Ordnance Survey says they should be.”

“Oh,” I said. “So you haven’t detected any local distortion of spacetime?”

“No.”

“Everything’s where it should be.”

“Outside this area, yes.”

“So why are we lugging all this kit around?”

Bill lowered his end of the case and said, “Because the GPS satellites are twenty thousand kilometres that way,” pointing straight overhead. “And because if there is any distortion in spacetime, it’s obviously very localised. We can’t trust a GPS receiver to detect it.”

“Essentially,” Vicki said, “those devices are designed around a set of assumptions that might no longer hold true in this region.”

“You’ve a positive gift for understatement, Ms Reid,” Bill muttered.

Vicki handed me an electrical plug on the end of a long cable, which I plugged into a generator near the van. After a couple of attempts, I got it chugging away.

When I returned to the laser, Vicki was twiddling knobs and adjusting levers to aim it. After a few minutes, she said, “Here goes,” and pressed a button. Predictably, it was big and red. There was no visible beam: this laser worked in the near infrared.

Graphs appeared on a laptop next to the laser. “That’s odd,” she said as she studied them.

“What?” I asked, peering over her shoulder.

“I’d expected the distance to the retro-reflector to be… well, a couple of hundred metres at the most—​but it’s the same as ever. 1,709.7 metres.”

“Are you sure that’s the number the Ordnance Survey bloke gave us?” Bill asked.

Vicki flipped over to a spreadsheet. “Yes, I… oh. He quoted us 1,709.2 metres.”

“Try it again,” said Bill.

Vicki sighted along the laser to make sure she hadn’t nudged it out of alignment and pressed the red button again. She went back to the laptop. “1,709.8 metres,” she announced.

“What I tell you three times is true,” Bill murmured.

“I’m sorry?”

“Try it once more,” he said. “Then I’ll believe you.”

Vicki repeated the procedure. “1,709.7 metres,” she said. “Same as the first time.”

“Well, well, well,” said Bill, rubbing his chin.

“What’s the error in these measurements?” I asked.

“The laser’s accurate to about ten millimetres,” said Vicki.

Bill said, “And the GPS measurements have an error of about a hundred millimetres. So straightaway, that’s an error of at least 210 millimetres. But that leaves 290 millimetres unaccounted for.”

“I wonder,” I said, “why the distortion hasn’t affected the path the beam takes. We aimed the laser at the retro-reflector and the beam bounced straight back into the detector.”

Bill shook his head. “Kids these days,” he sighed. “You should’ve paid more attention in those relativity lectures, Sam.” I rolled my eyes. “How do we know where the retro-reflector is?”

“Light from the sun bounces off it and travels to our eyes,” I said.

“So if there’s any distortion in spacetime, the light will travel a path that isn’t a straight line. But when we aim the laser at where we think the retro-reflector is, the beam follows that same distorted path in the opposite direction, and hits the retro-reflector exactly as it would if the path was straight. On the other hand, it seems suspiciously convenient that the distance is nearly the same. Let’s set up another retro-reflector somewhere else.” He headed towards the van.

“Before we do that,” I said, “this is a tunable laser, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” said Vicki.

“So it might be worth getting a spectrum of the reflected light.” Whatever was inside the space warp would absorb certain wavelengths of the laser’s light and allow others to pass through. Knowing which wavelengths were absorbed would tell us something about the matter in the warp.

“I’ll see if I can rustle up a spectrometer,” said Bill. “You two go and set up a reflector somewhere over there.” He gestured to the north-west, where the golf course was.

Vicki tossed me a bunch of keys. She nodded towards the van. “Reckon you know this part of the world better than me.”

A phone rang. Bill took a mobile from his pocket. “Hi Michael,” he said. “Yeah, he’s here.” He passed the phone to me. “Michael Cormick.”

Michael, a Cornishman, was another of the Dragonfly team, who’d worked on the orbiter’s avionics. “Sam,” he said, “I heard you’d joined us. I’ve found something that might interest you.”

“What?” I said.

He sighed. “I’m not allowed to say over an unsecured line.”

Your phone may well be tapped… That sort of crap would slow us down by an order of magnitude until we got some secure communications gear. “How long will it take to show me this whatever-it-is?”

“Ten minutes, maybe?”

“Hold on,” I said. I told Bill what Michael had proposed.

“Go on then,” Bill said wearily. “I’m sure Andy can spare one of his post-grads to take your place here.” Michael told me to come to the Rose and Crown, a pub next to the car park that had been commandeered as a headquarters.

As I turned to leave, the policeman said, “I’m sorry, sir, you can’t go alone. You have to be escorted.”

I shrugged. “Well, escort me, then.”

“I can’t leave your colleagues unguarded. I’ll get someone to come here.” He spoke into his radio. “Five minutes,” he said after a brief exchange.

Great. Another order of magnitude slow-down.

A policeman arrived as promised and escorted me to the pub. It was a large, rambling building that probably dated back to the Tudors, whose symbol it was named for. Two police officers stood guard at the door. One of them checked my passport and waved me in.

Michael was waiting inside. He was a heavily-built man with a thick blond moustache. We shook hands, and he took me through the pub. People with clipboards scurried around. Others sat in dense huddles. I recognised a few faces, but names eluded me. Almost every table had at least one laptop or piece of lab equipment on it. More than once, I nearly tripped over the power and network cables that snaked all over the floor.

Michael opened a door that bore the name “Jane Grey Room.” Inside was dark, except for a large screen on which was projected what looked like a CCTV image.

“Sam’s here,” said Michael.

“Ah, good,” said a man. I recognised the voice as Andy Kirk.

Shit. What have I let myself in for?

Chapter 5

As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw about two dozen people sitting facing the screen. Several turned to look at me. A few, Andy among them, had been in management roles on Dragonfly. One woman I guessed was a senior police officer; two men wore military uniforms.

“Everybody, this is Doctor Sam Grainger,” said Andy. “He worked for me on the Dragonfly project a few years ago.”

The Sam Grainger?” said someone.

“Probably,” I said with a sigh. I sat in the only empty chair, one row from the front.

“Sam,” said Andy, “what you’re about to see, and any discussion that results from it, is classified ‘Secret.’”

“I understand,” I said.

“What we’ve got is footage from CCTV cameras in Richmond station yesterday morning, just before Richmond disappeared.”

“The station’s inside the space warp, isn’t it?” I said, wondering how Andy had come by the tapes.

“Yes. All the cameras on that branch of the District Line are recorded at a control centre at Earl’s Court. Play it from the top, please, Gwyneth.”

The picture was in colour, but in grainy, bilious hues that indicated there wasn’t as much light as the camera would’ve liked. It showed a platform at the station and part of the track next to it. On the left of the picture was a building that housed the gents’ toilets. A clock superimposed at the top right showed 4:10 yesterday morning. At the bottom left, a rubbish bag hung from a ring attached to a pillar. A breath of wind from the far end of the platform disturbed the bag.

A cleaner came from behind the toilets towards the camera. He picked up a cardboard cup from the side of the toilets, which he put into the rubbish bag on the pillar. He removed the bag and put an empty one in its place. Then he went back in the direction he had come from.

About ten seconds after the cleaner had gone, four men emerged from the toilets. They wore dark suits, and each carried a briefcase. How’d they get there? I’d assumed the station wasn’t open yet. They might’ve been drunk and missed the last train on Thursday night, but they moved as though fully alert. They walked in the same direction as the cleaner.

The view switched to another camera, which looked the opposite way from the first, across a couple of the platforms. A slice of deep red sky was visible between two distant buildings. The four men walked towards the camera. One veered off to approach the cleaner, who had just entered the picture from the bottom right. The cleaner and this man appeared to speak for a few seconds, while the other three walked out of the picture.

Then the man put a hand on the cleaner’s shoulder. The cleaner crumpled to the floor. I gasped.

“It gets better,” said Andy.

The view changed again, to show the ticket barriers. The three men approached, with the one who had assaulted the cleaner following. Each of the four went to a different barrier and touched a panel on the front of it. The barriers opened, and the men passed through. They ascended a wide staircase to the ticket hall. There they stood in a square, ten feet apart, facing each other. Each man held his briefcase in front of him at stomach height. A thin tripod unfolded from each briefcase to meet the floor. The men opened their briefcases to reveal what looked to be large rugged laptops. Each man performed exactly the same movements, as if they were some avant garde dance troupe.

They began to type, staring fixedly at their screens. The view switched from camera to camera, and I wondered if whoever had compiled this sequence had been trying to get a good look at a laptop screen. The cameras’ low resolution meant the screens were never more than a smear of colour.

This activity continued for about five minutes. At 4:18, the picture started to break up, showing odd blocks of random pixels. This effect became progressively worse. At 4:20, a white flash blotted out everything. Then the picture went blue, and the words “no signal” blinked in the middle of the screen.

“And that’s when Richmond vanished,” said Andy. “Every camera in the station cut out at the same time.”

The lights came on, and the picture on the screen changed to someone’s computer desktop.

“Any thoughts?” said Andy.

“What makes you think this has anything to do with Richmond disappearing?” I said.

“At the moment,” said the policewoman, “we have no reason to believe the events are connected. But this is the only footage we have from inside the affected region that shows anything unusual.”

“Do we know who these four men are?” I said.

“My department is trying to find out,” said the policewoman.

“Why Richmond station, then?” I said. “And why that part of it? I mean, they didn’t have to go through the ticket barriers—​the area between the platforms and the barriers is big enough for what they wanted to do.”

“The ticket hall is on higher ground,” said one of the military men. “They must have wanted the weapon’s effects to spread as far as possible.”

“I see,” I said. “We might be getting ahead of ourselves in assuming whatever they had was a weapon. Do we have a map that shows the height of the ground?”

Gwyneth clicked an icon on the computer. A street map appeared, overlaid on an undulating three-dimensional surface.

“Well, the ticket hall’s higher than the platforms,” I said, “but the station is by no means the highest point in the surrounding area. The ground to the south is quite a bit higher. The ground north of the station is lower than the station, but it hasn’t been affected.”

“Yet,” said the other military man.

“So maybe the surrounding terrain is irrelevant,” I said. “Anything that spreads out from a point should affect a circle or sphere, not a square. And the station is near the northern edge of the vanished area.”

“So you think these men had nothing to do with it?” said Andy.

“I can’t say,” I said. “Did anyone outside the area see the white flash?”

“My officers are still working through witness statements and CCTV,” said the policewoman.

“What about those gadgets the men used to bypass the ticket barriers?” I asked.

“Oyster cards,” said the policewoman. “A sort of electronic ticket. They don’t have to be registered, unfortunately, and these weren’t.”

“But they’re numbered, right?” I said. She nodded. “Have they been used anywhere else?”

“No.”

“How did they get into the station, then?” I said.

“They probably used a different set of Oyster cards,” she said, “or paid cash for paper tickets.”

“But you must have footage of them entering the toilets,” I said. “Or at least coming into the station.”

“Not yet,” she said. Seeing my disbelief, she added, “Twenty thousand people a day use that station. If the suspects entered during the evening peak, it could take a couple of days to find them in the footage.”

“I see,” I said. I looked up at the ceiling, trying to let my sight become unfocused. Sometimes that helped me to gain insight into a problem.

“What do you think, Doctor Grainger?” said a man who hadn’t spoken before. I held up a hand to request silence. Something nagged at me.

“This is an important matter—​time’s of the essence.”

My eyes wouldn’t defocus. The ceiling was all white. The oak beams that supported it had been painted over, as if the landlord had wanted to hide them. Something in the footage didn’t add up.

I looked at the other people. I wasn’t sure who’d spoken, so I fixed on Andy. “I didn’t ask to come here,” I said. “Can we see the footage again, please?”

Andy nodded to Gwyneth. The lights dimmed, and the sequence played. No new insight presented itself.

When the screen went blue, Michael said, “Has anybody checked when the first and last trains are from this station?”

“The first train’s at 5:30 am,” said Andy. “The last one’s about 1am.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” said one of the military men. “If we didn’t see those four men come into the station, they must’ve been sitting in the toilets since the previous evening. If they were waiting for the station to empty, why didn’t they act sooner?”

“Maybe they were asleep,” said Michael.

“Or waiting for the planets to align properly,” I said.

“That makes more sense than some hypotheses I’ve heard this morning,” muttered Andy.

The feeling I’d missed something wouldn’t let go of me. “Do you have the rest of the footage from the camera that shows the toilet door?” I said.

“Yes,” said Gwyneth. She flipped through files and folders on the computer for a few moments, and then the view from that camera filled the screen again.

“Rewind it, please,” I said, “and we’ll see if anything jumps out at us.”

The footage raced backwards. Until we got to 1am, the time of the last train, no one was to be seen. Before 1am, a few people milled about. Trains arrived and departed. Nobody entered the toilets, though a couple of people approached the door. When we got to 10pm, people started going in and coming out.

“Of course,” I said. “The toilets were locked.” People stared at me. “Go back to 10pm.” Gwyneth did this, and played the recording forward from that time. After a few minutes, a member of staff went into the toilets. He came out a minute later and locked the door.

“They must’ve been there overnight,” said Michael.

“But that man wouldn’t have locked up unless the toilets were empty,” I said.

“Maybe they were hiding,” said Andy.

“There can’t be anywhere to hide,” I said. “If any cubicles were locked, he would’ve waited for the occupant to come out.”

“Maybe they got in through a window,” said the policewoman.

“They’re all closed,” someone said.

“So they couldn’t have been there when the man locked up,” I said. “And they couldn’t have got in afterwards.”

“What are you suggesting?” said Michael. “Scotty beamed them up?”

“Beamed them down,” I said. Jennie had loved Star Trek. Had? Did? You really do sound like my wife…

“What?” said Michael.

I coughed. “Beamed down, not beamed up. Beaming up was when they left whatever planet they were visiting that week to go back to the ship.”

“Oh,” said Michael. “I see.”

“And are you suggesting that?” said Andy.

The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. “Just pointing out that if we’re going to use the terminology of science fiction to discuss these events, it should at least be the right terminology.”

“Be serious,” said one of the military men. “Everyone knows teleportation is impossible.”

“Of course,” I said, giving him an insincere smile. “And everyone knows it’s impossible for a square mile of a city to go AWOL. When we find these men, I’m sure they’ll be charged with flagrant disregard for the laws of physics.”

Andy scowled at me. “Sam, I really don’t think—” A mobile rang, and he stopped speaking. A moment passed before I realised the phone was mine.

“Excuse me,” I said. Normally I would’ve let the call go to voicemail, but I was grateful for the chance to escape what was becoming an awkward situation. I left the room to answer the call. It was Bill.

“I got that spectrum you wanted,” he said.

“Spectrum?” I said.

“From the rangefinding laser.”

“Oh. Yes.”

“Across all the wavelengths we tried, we didn’t find any absorption or emission lines.”

“Oh…” I said. “That means there’s nothing there, doesn’t it?”

“That would be the obvious conclusion,” said Bill. “Though I’m not sure the obvious has any place here. But it prompted me to re-check the distances we got—​you know, always look for the hidden assumption? And it turns out the computer program that converts the round-trip times of the laser pulses into a distance assumes that the light is passing through air at sea level.”

“Not an entirely unreasonable assumption,” I said. “Ah… but if there’s only vacuum between the laser and the reflector, the program’s value for the speed of light is going to be too low. So the distance will be too low as well.”

“Indeed,” said Bill. “So I recalculated all the distances on the assumption that the beam was passing through vacuum. Guess what I got?”

I pondered this for a second. The speed of light in air was only slightly less than in a vacuum… “They were the same as what the Ordnance Survey bloke said they should be.”

“Good guess,” he said.

“So what does it mean?” I asked.

Bill breathed in sharply. “That’ll cost you, that will.” I pictured him rubbing his chin and shaking his head, like a mechanic who’s just discovered some fault with your car that’ll let him triple his price.

“Put it on my account,” I said. “What do you think it means?”

“No idea,” he replied.

When I ended the call, the phone’s display reverted to showing the time. Nearly six o’clock. How did that happen? Be at the place we used to meet before lunch… I ought to leave now if I wanted to be sure of reaching Bracknell in time.

I put my head round the door of the Jane Grey Room. “I’ve got to go now,” I said. “Prior engagement.”

“Really,” said Andy, in a tone that told me he knew I didn’t have engagements of any sort these days. “It can wait, I’m sure.”

I shook my head. “It can’t. Sorry.”

He gave me a look I knew too well from the Dragonfly days. I thought of it as his “You’re not seeing the big picture” face. “Sam,” he said, “what’s happened here is unprecedented. There must be three or four Nobel prizes to be won. People will be writing papers about what we learn here for decades.”

“Well,” I said, trying not to lay the sarcasm on too thickly, “I’ll be sure to read some of them when they’re published.” I made a show of checking my watch and left the room. I braced myself for Andy to call me back, but he didn’t.

A man in a smart suit with a clipboard sorted out a taxi to take me home. Unlike this morning’s cabbie, this one spoke only to confirm my name and destination.

On the drive home, I considered what we’d discovered, trying to find patterns. But my thoughts wouldn’t stay focused on Richmond, or lasers, or mysterious men who recklessly used laptops in public places.

Doctor Samuel Grainger? I know this will be quite a shock, but I’m not dead.

After what I’d seen today, what I’d heard on Thursday night didn’t seem quite so impossible.

Chapter 6

I got home at about seven thirty—​traffic was a lot heavier than on the way in. I went to the bank for money—​a hundred pounds, just like Jennie had said. It was twice what I normally withdrew.

The University was an hour’s drive away, so I left at nine thirty to be there in good time. I got into my car, a road-weary midnight blue Vauxhall Astra. In sodium light, familiar landmarks took on a distorted, threatening aspect. I caught myself checking the rear-view mirror more often than usual, trying to work out if someone was following me. Twice, I thought a car had been behind me too long, only for it to turn off almost as soon as I decided that.

The minutes stretched. I’d felt like this on the morning when I’d decided to ask Jennie for a date—​wanting the crucial moment to arrive, and yet dreading what might happen when it eventually did. I still remember the way her face lit up when I asked. What would I have done if she’d said no? Well, I wouldn’t be on this road now, for a start.

At last I came to the edge of Bracknell. I wondered whether to park off-campus and walk the rest of the way. If I’d been followed, leaving my car might be an opportunity to lose them. But they might already know where I was going… in which case, I’d be safer staying in the car.

What was I thinking? No one was following me—​and no one was waiting for me under the library bridge.

Out of habit, I parked by the Physics Department. I shivered in the clear night air as I pulled on my coat. I looked up at the uncompromising concrete forms of the Heaviside Building or, as undergrads called it, the Toastrack. It had apparently won an award, though I’d never found out what for. A tiny, windowless room in the depths of this monstrosity had been my office for the four years of the Dragonfly project.

I checked my watch: ten forty-five. I trotted along tarmac footpaths, struggling to remember the route I used to take to meet Jennie. I usually came out of the other end of the Heaviside Building, and I suspected I’d taken a wrong turning.

A group of drunken students staggered towards me. One or two looked at me curiously. No doubt I seemed out of place—​sober, dressed for the outdoors rather than a warm campus bar, and old enough to be their father. Who would I claim to be if they challenged me? A research assistant seemed the safest bet. Undergrads rarely came into contact with them, so they wouldn’t suspect I was lying. And what would I say I was doing here?

Stop it, Sam. I didn’t have to explain myself to these people. They passed me without comment, trailing fumes of beer and cigarettes. I went another five yards before I realised I’d been holding my breath.

At the next junction was a sign for the library. I followed it, recognising the more modern buildings of the Arts and Humanities Faculty.

At last I came to the library bridge, two minutes before eleven o’clock. The library stood on the other side of a busy road, isolated from the rest of the campus. The land on that side was a good forty feet higher than on this, and a high, wide bridge crossed the road. Underneath this, long queues of students had formed on both sides of the road, waiting for buses or lifts from friends.

I stayed on this side of the road, standing apart from the queue. I expect I attracted more strange looks.

“Taxi for Sam, mate?”

Shit. I stared at the car that had appeared on the opposite side of the road. I scurried across to it. As I fastened my seatbelt, I realised the car was a silver Mondeo… the same kind that had hit Jennie. Coincidence, I told myself, but I couldn’t quite believe it.

“Finchley Close, right?” the driver asked as he pulled away.

“Yeah,” I gasped. Of course, I had no idea where he was supposed to take me. I snatched glances at him, hoping I wouldn’t have to describe him to the police. White, mid-fifties, heavily-built, dark hair going grey, indistinct tattoo on the outside of his left forearm…

The trip took an uneventful ten minutes. We stopped in a short cul-de-sac in a well-to-do suburb. I watched him drive off, making an effort to memorise his registration number.

Finchley Close consisted of large 1930s houses with manicured lawns and extensive drives. Those that didn’t have Mercedes or BMWs parked outside were home to spotless Land Rovers.

What now? Would “Jennie” come out of one of the houses, or in from the main road? Or was this a ploy to see how long I’d wait before going home?

After a few minutes, a car pulled up alongside me—​another taxi, belonging to a different company. The passenger’s window slid open, and the driver leaned towards me. This man was black, probably about thirty.

“Taxi for Sam?” he asked. I nearly fell over with surprise. Not knowing what else to do, I got into the car.

He drove me to a much more run-down part of town and stopped on a main road beside a little parade of shops. At least half were empty or boarded up. Litter swirled around the pavement. On the other side of the road, a gang of about a dozen young men lurched around a corner. They wore football shirts and were making a brave assault on We Are The Champions. I retreated into the shadows until they passed.

Gravel crunched behind me. Idiot. I’d backed into the entrance of an alley. This was probably where I parted company with my wallet and mobile. I got ready to run. The person behind advanced slowly. I risked a glance over my shoulder. I saw nothing, but heard a gasp. Not the reaction I’d expected, but I hurried towards the curb. The person came after me.

“Excuse me…” A woman’s voice. I stopped as though suddenly manacled.

Oh God. Oh dear God. It can’t be.

She came closer. “Sam?” My heart pounded. My mouth opened, but no sound came.

Impossible. Absolutely, utterly impossible.

She stepped in front of me.

Jennie!

Chapter 7

She smiled—​just like she had when I first asked her for a date.

She flung her arms around me—​tight enough to knock the breath out of me. I stumbled, but she kept me upright.

She kissed me. My heart seemed to stop, and then galloped ahead. Her tongue touched my lips, and I remembered I was supposed to open my mouth. She clung desperately to me, kissing me as though the world would end if she stopped. I tried to return the favour, my tongue wrestling with hers. I floundered like a schoolboy. My head swam, and I broke off the kiss, gasping.

She gazed into my eyes. Hers were deep blue—​the colour of the morning sky straight overhead. “Jennie,” I whispered, struggling to speak past the lump in my throat. “I’ve missed you so much…” I touched her hair—​as soft as ever. Her hand slid up my spine and cradled the back of my head, pulling me closer to her. “Don’t leave me… please don’t ever leave me…” Heat spread through me, seeming to come from her hands. I felt an awkward tightness in my trousers.

Eventually, she eased out of my arms, trembling, and took a step back. This gave me my first proper look at her. She seemed much as she had when I’d last seen her alive—​five feet nine, medium build, round face, brown hair—​longer than she usually kept it. She wore a dark-coloured macintosh with a belt that looked long enough to go around her twice. Her legs were bare underneath it. On her feet were a pair of tatty trainers. The way she stood suggested she was ready to run—​from me? No—​her gaze flicked from point to point, as though looking for danger.

“It’s not safe for us to be standing in the open,” she said. Taking my hand, she led me back to the alley. There were no lights here; the only illumination came from the street. As we entered, she tripped, shoving me against the wall. I cried out as the back of my other hand scraped on rough bricks.

“Sorry, love,” she said. “Let me see.” I showed her my hand. I’d taken quite a bit of skin off, and a small amount of blood oozed from the wound. She touched it, and I winced at the stinging.

She nuzzled my nose and kissed me gently. I touched her lips with my tongue, but she moved her head back and looked at me, studying every detail of my face.

“It’s you,” she whispered. “It really is you.”

“What?” Sweat stuck my clothes to me. A vein pulsed in my hand where I’d grazed it. “Shouldn’t I be saying that?”

She smiled. “You can if you like.”

“What’s going on? Why did you fake your death?”

She shook her head, and sadness crept into her eyes. “I didn’t.”

My mouth hung open. That had to mean…

“I died. Really.” Her eyes glistened. “But I came back.”

“Impossible,” I mumbled.

“Yes. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

Tears stung my eyes. “Why are you lying to me? What’s so secret that you couldn’t trust me with it?”

“There is no secret, love. At least not in that sense.” She brushed away some of my tears.

“Then what happened?”

“It’s like I said—​I died and I came back to life.”

I pulled away from her. “If Jennie really died, you can’t be her.” But she looked and sounded—​and felt—​so much like her. Why would anyone go to such lengths? What was there to gain from such deception?

She sighed. “Jennifer Sandra Grainger, maiden name Hathaway, born seventeenth of November, 1967. We met on the fourth of February, 1998. The attraction was mutual almost from the start. You asked me out on the sixth of March. The following evening, you took me to the Star of India in Woking. You wanted to pay for everything, but I insisted on going Dutch. You persuaded me to let you buy me a drink in the Mulberry Bush next door—​not that I needed much persuading.” She gave a hopeful smile.

My teeth clenched. My heart thumped. Everything she’d said was true. I wanted to believe. But—​“All that information is in the public domain.”

She nodded. “What about the first time we made love, then?”

I gulped. My throat had gone dry. “What about it?”

“It was a Saturday, three weeks after our first date. I came to you. We were planning to go to the cinema—​I don’t remember which film. But as we were leaving, we looked into one another’s eyes, and we kissed.” Her eyes took on a misty, faraway look. “That old song was right, you know? I wanted you so much—​I mean, I already did, but that kiss pushed me over the edge. I think we had some clothes left when we got to the bedroom.”

And this was true. “A lot of couples’ first times are like that,” I said. My throat seemed to be full of sand. The date could’ve been a lucky guess—​we’d made no secret of how much in love we were.

She put her arms around my waist. Without thinking, I embraced her. I wanted to believe—​wanted to take her home and pretend the last fifteen months hadn’t happened. But any second now, I was going to wake up, or she was going to rip off a mask and shout, “Fooled you!”

“What…” I paused, trying to think of some shared knowledge. “What’s your usual name for a computer file that you expect to use once and then delete?”

She raised her eyebrows. “I call most of my temporary files ‘arse,’ because they’re scratch files. But anybody who’s worked with me knows that. Ask me something only you and I know.”

Difficult, given that we’d been public figures for most of the time we were together. “Your thirty-second birthday,” I said. “You told me it was more depressing than when you turned thirty. Why?”

“Thirty-two is a power of two,” she said, “so going from thirty-one to thirty-two, the number of digits you need to write it in binary increases from five to six. When I worked through the maths with you, you told me to cheer up, because it won’t happen again until I’m sixty-four. You gave me a vinyl copy of Bookends that year.” My grip tightened. She caressed my cheek. “We said we were going to visit all the places they name-checked in America.

Oh God. No one else could’ve known that. Blood pounded through me. She gazed into my eyes. “Now do you believe me?”

I couldn’t speak. I could barely nod. She rocked me back and forth as sobs heaved through me. “Hush, love. There’s no need to cry.” But from the way her voice trembled, I knew she was crying too.

Questions battled within me. “How…?” I managed to say. She didn’t respond. “Why…?”

She put a finger to my lips. “Answers can wait. For now, just accept that a miracle happened.” She kissed me again, and I tasted salt. “Did you tell anyone you were meeting me tonight?”

“No.”

“Did you tell anyone I phoned you?”

“No.”

“Did anyone ask where you were going? Or show any—​well, unusual interest in you?”

“No. Well—​I don’t know about the last bit. I was in Richmond today.”

“Richmond?” She stared at me as if I’d said I’d taken a day trip to Mars. “What were you doing there?”

Now I stared at her. “You haven’t heard?” She shook her head. “It’s… disappeared.”

“Disappeared?”

“Yeah—​a big chunk of London’s just… gone.” I told her what I knew. I got the impression this wasn’t the shocking news it had been to everyone else. She was surprised, yes, but more as if she’d been handed the answer to a puzzle that had been baffling her, and it had proven to be much simpler than she’d expected. “Why don’t you join us?” I said.

She coughed. “I really don’t think that would be a good idea, love.”

“Why not?”

“Being alive again… it takes a lot of getting used to.”

“No shit.”

She looked down. “I don’t think I’m ready to—​to go back to how we were.”

“What’s the problem?” I gripped her shoulders. “Surely we can work something out.”

She sighed and shook her head. “Maybe. But not yet.” She kissed me softly. “Look… I don’t want to do this, but… I’m going to have to leave you again…”

“No!” I threw my arms around her, sobbing like a child. This was how too many of my dreams ended, as the facts of my life swam into focus just before I woke up.

“Hush, love, hush.” She rubbed my back and rocked me gently.

“Don’t go,” I whimpered. “Please don’t go.”

“Only for a few days,” she said. She let go of me and stepped back. “I have things I need to do.”

“What things?” I asked. “And why can’t I be there?”

She gave me an awkward “you don’t want to know” look. She dug an ancient mobile phone from her pocket and pressed it into my hand. “I’ll call you on this in a couple of days.” It looked oddly familiar, and I wondered how she’d come by it. “The PIN is 4892.”

“4892,” I repeated, to help it stick in my memory.

“Don’t make any calls, and don’t give the number to anyone else.”

I shook my head as I slipped the phone into my coat pocket. “Why all the secrecy, love?” I asked. “You really think my phone’s tapped?”

“I don’t know,” she said, frowning. “I don’t think it’s you they’re after.”

Of course not. Jennie had risen from the dead, apparently good as new. Who wouldn’t be trying to find her, if they knew she’d done that?

“Look, I have to go now. Did you bring the money I asked for?” I gave her the hundred pounds I’d withdrawn that evening. “There’s a cab office down the road, that way.” She put an arm around my waist, the other hand on my cheek, and pressed her lips firmly to mine. As our mouths opened, warmth spread once more from her into me. A thought struck me—​this wasn’t merely heat, but life. In a very real sense, I’d died too on the night of the crash. Jennie had somehow resurrected herself. Now she was starting on me. When we finally separated, I swayed, as though drunk.

“Don’t tell anybody you’ve seen me,” Jennie said. “I’ll be in touch soon, love, I promise. This isn’t goodbye, only farewell. I love you.”

“I love you, too,” I whispered.

“Now go. Don’t look back.”

“What happens if I do?”

“Nothing,” she said. “That’s just the problem.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I hope you will, soon.”

I left the alley and walked in the direction she’d indicated. To this day, I don’t know why I obeyed. I heard her footsteps on the damp ground, which stopped abruptly. I paused in mid-step. As I debated whether to find out what it was she didn’t want me to see, white light flashed behind me, casting a shadow of myself on the ground. Instinctively I spun round. Litter in front of the alley stirred in a sudden breeze that stopped barely a second later.

Trembling, I walked down the alley as quickly as I dared. I splashed through a puddle, stirring up a stench of decay. I’d gone thirty or forty feet when I collided with something. Metal clattered on metal as I staggered backwards. Up ahead, a dog began to bark. I reached out, finding a solid wooden gate. Patting the sides of it, I found the latch on the right. I pressed it, but the gate didn’t move. The dog came nearer. As I moved my hand from the latch, about to push the gate, I touched a heavy chain that held the gate closed.

How the hell had Jennie gone through the gate—​or over it—​without any noise? She could’ve come out of the alley and gone the opposite way from me, but I would’ve heard her or seen her. There had to be another way out of the alley. I turned and put a hand on each wall. As I walked back towards the street, the dog stopped barking. I felt nothing at the sides of the alley except rough brickwork.

My foot caught on something. I cried out as I sprawled on the ground. The dog crashed against the gate, barking furiously. As I stood up, a light went on in an upstairs window. I hurtled down the street, not stopping until I realised I’d gone past the cab office Jennie had mentioned. I bent over, my heart hammering, sweat dripping from me. My throat felt like sandpaper.

I looked up. No one had followed me, but even from here, I could still hear the dog. Once I had my breath back, I entered the cab office.

“Where you going, mate?” the receptionist asked.

I was about to reply, “The University,” and was surprised to hear myself say, “Rougier Street,” a road that ran along the western edge of the campus, a third of a mile from the Heaviside Building car park. Jennie’s paranoia was evidently contagious.

“No problem, mate,” he said, writing something in a log book. “Be about twenty minutes, all right?”

I sat on a rickety chair—​with my back to the window, in case whoever I’d disturbed in the alley came looking for me. My right knee and left forearm hurt from falling over. My left hand still stung from scraping it off the wall.

My head filled with, She’s alive, she’s alive! I took out the phone she’d given me, turning it over and over. I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d seen it before. It must’ve been a model that had sold well. Maybe Andy had owned one—​his phone had been practically glued to his ear during Dragonfly.

Jennifer Sandra Grainger, maiden name Hathaway. That kiss pushed me over the edge. It’s you. It’s really you. That had to be the oddest part of the whole thing. Why on Earth would she think my identity was in question?

“Your taxi’s here, mate,” the receptionist said.

So soon? I returned the phone to my pocket, wincing as the fabric rubbed my injured hand. I thanked the receptionist and walked out to the waiting vehicle. When we reached Rougier Street, I headed back to where I’d left my car. My route was a footpath, uneven and poorly-lit, along the southern edge of the University’s playing fields. I tripped a couple of times, but managed not to fall over. Normally, I would’ve taken a less isolated way, but nothing could harm me tonight. To the rhythm of my footsteps, I whispered, “Jennie’s alive, Jennie’s alive!”

I reached the car park without seeing anyone else. A few lights still glowed on the upper floors of the Heaviside Building—​someone as dedicated as I’d been when I worked there, or someone who’d forgotten to switch them off last night?

In the car, I let out a loud yawn. Exhaustion had suddenly overcome exhilaration. I’d done a lot more today than I had in months. Probably it was best if I didn’t set off for home just yet. A few hours’ sleep should see me right. I swapped over to the passenger seat and wound the back down. I locked the doors and did my best to make myself comfortable.

Chapter 8

Flickering light and a growing warmth woke me. I stretched, and my hands hit something. I was in my car… I’d fallen asleep in my car… how the hell had that happened? The sun peered through the trees in front of me. I’d parked at the University… what had possessed me to come here? I was stiff, with a dry mouth and a stinking headache… oh shit, I hadn’t been stupid enough to drink and drive, had I?

I tried to sit up straight. Something pulled at my forearm. Dried blood stuck my sleeve to my skin. What the…?

I’ll be in touch soon, love. I promise. This isn’t goodbye, only farewell. I love you.

Oh God. Memories of last night steamrollered over me. Oh dear God… I fumbled in my coat pocket. Please let it be there, please…

My fingers closed around a small, heavy object. I took a deep breath and pulled it out.

I stared at the phone Jennie had given me. Tears of joy welled in my eyes. My hands trembled as I found the power button. It seemed to take several minutes to boot and ask for the PIN. I typed in 4892. It accepted this and displayed the main screen. Then it beeped loudly, and I almost dropped it in surprise. I’d received a text message. It read, “Hope u got home ok. I’m well. Will text again 2moro. Delete this msg. Love j xxx.” She’d sent it at 1:14 this morning. I wanted to reply, but she’d told me not to make any calls on it—​presumably that meant no texts either.

Well, it would wait. Right now, I had to get myself home. I got out of the car and stretched. Then I jumped in the air and let out a yell that must have woken the students on the other side of campus. Jennie was alive! I ran up and down the car park, punching the air and jumping. Jennie was alive! The football fans I’d seen last night couldn’t have been happier.

Gradually, I calmed down, my euphoria tempered by the thought that someone might be watching. I leaned on the roof of the car, getting my breath back. Last night’s events played through my mind like a video tape in fast forward. The experience had seemed real, and I couldn’t spot any inconsistencies that would reveal it as a dream or a hallucination. Except one, of course: Jennie had apparently vanished from the alley after saying goodbye. Either there was another exit I hadn’t seen in the dark, or she’d never been there at all. Given that she was supposed to be dead, my rational scepticism favoured the latter explanation. But that would mean I’d made the whole thing up—​not a possibility I wanted to face.

Was this the start of delirium tremens? I’d thought it took decades of heavy drinking to reach that stage, but I’d been downing a lot more than was good for me. As far as I knew, the delusions that accompanied it weren’t very much like what I’d been experiencing, but I drew little comfort from that.

Had I seen a ghost, perhaps? I didn’t believe in them… any more than I believed a square mile of a city could disappear without a trace. And how could a ghost or a hallucination give me a mobile phone? I might’ve found it (or stolen it, God forbid), but how had I known the PIN? And if Jennie hadn’t given it to me, how had a text message from her arrived as soon as I’d switched it on?

I wanted last night’s events to be real. But I couldn’t reconcile them with the fifteen months since the police officers had come to my door and told me they had some bad news. I needed more data. I ought to find the alley and see if there really was no other way out of it.

A mobile rang—​my own, not the one Jennie had given me. It was Bill. “Wake up, sleepy head,” he said. “There’s a taxi waiting outside.”

“What?” I said, looking around. “Why?”

“He’s bringing you to Richmond.”

“Oh! Of course. I… I’m not at home.”

“That must’ve been some night,” said Bill.

My throat went dry. “You… could say that.”

“Are you coming in, then?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’d best make my own way there. Can you tell the driver I’m sorry for messing him about?”

“Will do,” said Bill. “I’ll see you later.”

After checking the road atlas, I decided to stop at home on the way—​it wasn’t far off the route to Richmond, and I needed some breakfast. I hadn’t eaten since this time yesterday.

Traffic was almost non-existent at this hour on a Sunday morning. Just as well, really: I probably wasn’t paying as much attention to the road as I should’ve. Whenever I waited at traffic lights, I found myself tapping the wheel to the rhythm of, “Jennie’s alive, Jennie’s alive.”

Would I be able to resist telling my colleagues I’d seen her? Maybe someone would have an explanation that didn’t involve her faking her death or my being insane. I imagined Bill saying something like, “You must’ve missed the seminar on reversing the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Hung over, knowing you.”

Back home, a big bowl of cornflakes and a mug of coffee with as much sugar as I could stand took the edge off my hunger.

I fetched the mobile Jennie had given me and sat in an armchair, reading and re-reading the message from her like a treasured love letter. She’d told me to delete it, but I couldn’t bring myself to obey. It was evidence that she really had come back.

A traffic jam of memories filled my head. How could she be alive? I took the photo of Jennie from my wallet. The woman I’d seen last night looked amazingly like her. Could I be sure they were the same person? The light had been poor—​was that why she’d wanted to meet at night?—​and my memory was far from perfect, even over such a short time.

Might the woman have been someone who resembled her, disguised with prosthetic make-up or even cosmetic surgery? Why would anyone go to such lengths?

Could she really have returned from beyond the grave? Medicine continued to push back the line between “alive” and “dead,” but she’d been gone fifteen months. To suggest that her consciousness could continue to exist and then reanimate her body, or a new, identical one… “impossible” didn’t even begin to describe it. I’d have to invent a new vocabulary of impossibility, to specify how far beyond the ordinary, everyday impossible it was for all this to be true.

But I’d seen her. Spoken with her. Held her. Kissed her. She’d looked, sounded and felt very much alive.

The other alternative, of course, was that Jennie had never died at all, and the corpse I’d cradled in the mortuary had been someone—​or something—​else. Modern science might not be able to reverse death, but imitating it… A fake corpse would have fooled me, grief-stricken as I was. Could it have fooled the ambulance crew, or the pathologist?

And what about the things only she and I knew? It’s you. It’s really you…

This should be the happiest day of my life—​better than when she said, “Of course I’ll marry you,” or when we flew on Dragonfly. I wanted—​desperately wanted—​to believe she was alive. Trouble was, all the possible explanations for that had negative consequences, from unpalatable to impossible.

Sighing, I put on my coat and headed for the front door. In the hallway, a ringing phone stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t the landline. It was Jennie’s mobile.

Chapter 9

I pulled the phone from my coat pocket. My hand shook so much that I nearly dropped it.

“H-hello?” I said.

“What’s my name?” the caller asked.

My throat was abruptly dry. “Jennie,” I managed to say. I leaned against the wall, trying to breathe. Alive alive alive— I imagined her lips on mine, my hands on her waist…

“Where are you?”

“At home.”

“Good. We don’t have much time.”

Not again, I thought.

“I’ve done my best to hide this call, but the longer we stay talking, the more likely it is to be traced.”

“Who’s chasing you, love?”

She didn’t answer. She sounded as though she was trying to stop herself from crying.

“Jennie?” I wanted to hug her—​rest her head against my shoulder—​rock her back and forth—​tell her everything was going to be all right. But somehow I knew it would be a long time before things were anywhere near all right.

“I’m—” She gulped. “I’m here.” She paused. When she spoke again, her voice had steadied. “I need you to do a little job for me. Have you got a pen and paper?”

“Yes,” I said as I went to the message pad in the living room. The note I’d left myself on Thursday night was still there. I tore it off.

“As soon as you can,” she said, “I want you to find a pay phone, a long way away—​preferably one where there are lots of people, but out of view of any CCTV cameras.” She gave me a number to call. I didn’t recognise the area code. “You won’t hear anything when the line’s answered. Don’t speak—​if the line’s tapped, your voice might be recognised. Type in this code.” It was seventeen digits, and she made me repeat it twice to be sure I’d got it. “If you’ve entered the code right, you’ll hear a beep, and you can hang up. Otherwise, you won’t hear anything. Hang up and try again.”

“What is it?” I asked. “The launch code for a Trident?”

“Don’t be daft,” she said.

“What then?”

“Better if you don’t know.”

“Come on, love,” I said. “This is like something out of a bad thriller…”

She sighed. “Truer than you know.”

“Well, why can’t you do it yourself, if it’s that important?”

“Too much risk of being traced.”

For a moment, I didn’t reply, as I worked through the implications of her words.

“Sam?”

“I’m here.” I paused again, unsure of whether to speak my mind. “So you want me to do your dirty work. You’re setting me up to take the rap.”

“No,” she said, sounding surprised. “It’s not like that. I mean… it’s nothing bad—​nothing illegal…”

“Then you won’t mind telling me what it does, will you?”

“I… I can’t…” I pictured her pouting, her bottom lip trembling.

“Fine!” I snapped. “Then I won’t do it.”

“Don’t go!” Jennie sobbed.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

She sniffed. “You have a right to know what I’m asking you to get yourself into. The truth is I don’t know what’ll happen. What I’m hoping is that Richmond will come back.”

I wondered if I’d misheard. “That’s impossible.”

“I think I’ve got a better idea than you of what’s impossible, love.”

I couldn’t answer that. I imagined her tilting her head and raising one eyebrow, Spock-like.

“Look,” she said, “if it is impossible, what have you got to lose? Think of it as another of those pointless things your dear wife asks you to do… like—​like buying me flowers, or a soppy card on Valentine’s Day.”

“All right,” I sighed. Some things didn’t change. It had been a long time since I’d even tried to win this sort of argument with her.

“Thanks, love,” she said. “I’d better go now. Don’t tell anyone about that code if it works—​or even if it doesn’t.”

“My lips are sealed,” I replied with a trace of sarcasm.

“Good.”

“When do I get to see you again?”

She breathed in sharply, as if she’d hoped I wouldn’t ask that. “Maybe tomorrow. More likely Tuesday.”

“Why the uncertainty?”

“It’ll take a while to set everything up. I wish it could be now. But some things are better if you make yourself wait for them.”

Heat flushed through my body. I felt the phone slipping from my hand, and had to transfer it to the other while I wiped the sweat off my palm.

“Do you have any of my old clothes?”

I sniffed. “I couldn’t bear to part with anything of yours.”

“Oh, Sam…” Her voice choked with tears. “Bring some—​please bring some everyday clothes—​whatever you can get into a suitcase. I’d better go. But remember it’s only farewell. I love you.”

A lump formed in my throat, and I gripped the phone more tightly, as if that would prevent her from hanging up.

“Sam?”

“I love you too,” I whispered. I closed my eyes as tears brimmed in them.

“Bye, then.”

“Bye.”

I heard a click, and then silence. I tore off the sheet I’d written on and put it in my pocket, together with the phone. Bowing my head, I wrapped my arms around myself.

You should be happy, I told myself. You’re going to see her tomorrow or the day after. This time she won’t have to run off. You’ll make love. You might finally get some answers.

Why was I crying, then? Why did I feel so alone?

Chapter 10

Eventually, my tears stopped. Somewhere with a lot of people…

Half an hour’s drive brought me to a crowded service station on the M3. A group of twenty or thirty football supporters in blue shirts milled around the corridor that led to the toilets. I bought a coffee and a doughnut and sat down within sight of the pay phones.

The coffee tasted as if it might have been brewed sometime today, though I wouldn’t have taken any bets. I spotted a CCTV camera near the pay phones. It had a pan-and-tilt mechanism, so it could point elsewhere, but at the moment, it stared fixedly at the phones.

I nibbled on my doughnut, trying not to get my fingers sticky. I decided to try the next service station closer to London. If I had no luck there, I’d head for the seaside to mingle with the bank holiday crowds.

A cold draught made me look towards the doors. A group of twenty or so scruffily-dressed young people entered. They carried placards with slogans such as, “Repent,” “Their wealth could not save them,” “Christ is risen.” In twos and threes, they spread among the customers, thrusting leaflets at them. A few stayed near the doors. One of these, an older man with a long beard, raised his arms and spoke in a booming voice.

“People, listen to the word of the Lord, that you may be saved from eternal damnation. What happened to Richmond was only a warning. Far worse is to come. As is foretold in holy scripture, the end of days is nigh.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. There’s always someone who’ll try to turn a disaster to their own advantage. A few customers began to heckle. The preacher ignored them.

“The Lord will punish the unjust, the wicked, the blasphemers. Fire and famine, flood and plague will sweep away all those who have not been saved through Jesus Christ. But it is not too late to accept Him into your life. Behold, said the Lord, I stand at the door, and knock. If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”

I hadn’t paid much attention in RE classes at school, but I didn’t recall anything in the Bible about part of a city softly and suddenly vanishing. I’d always thought God loved spectacle as much as any Hollywood director. Whenever He was wrathful with someone, He left everyone nearby in no doubt about it.

Some of the leaflet distributors were heading towards me. Time I wasn’t here. I didn’t want to risk being recognised.

As I stood, I heard shouting from the direction of the football fans. Some of the God-botherers had got into an altercation with them, and it looked to be turning violent. The people who’d been approaching my table ran to help their friends. The preacher rambled on, oblivious to the commotion. I looked for another exit, but couldn’t see one. The situation rapidly deteriorated into a full-scale brawl.

I don’t know what made me look back at the phones. The camera that had been monitoring them had turned to look at the fight. That meant the police would be here soon. To judge from what Jennie had said, I should be somewhere else when they arrived—​not that I needed any more encouragement. But the fight provided perfect cover for what she wanted me to do.

I shoved my way through the crowd. At last, I reached the phones. To use one, I had to turn my back on the fight. I was convinced someone would attack me before I could finish typing in Jennie’s code. I took the lid off my coffee, thinking that if I could throw it over an assailant, that would give me enough time to get away.

I lifted the receiver and put fifty pence in the slot. When I dialled the phone number, I heard two rings, a click, and then silence. The noises around me seemed to quieten, as though they came from a TV in another room. The lights dimmed, and a deep cold crept over me.

The silence at the other end of the phone longed to be filled. I raised my finger to press the first digit of Jennie’s code. My actions seemed to be in slow motion. I’d become acutely aware of the operation of muscles and tendons, as if the layers of abstraction between them and my conscious mind had been bypassed, leaving me to plan every detail of every movement.

Oddly, I found myself enjoying the challenge. Only I should’ve been panicked and sweaty, expecting to be struck from behind by a yob, or trampled by fleeing bystanders. I tried to feel afraid, and couldn’t. It wasn’t that I’d been made calm: rather, my capacity for fear no longer existed. I didn’t need it. My sole reason for being was to enter this code on this keypad.

As I neared the end of the code, my movements approached normal speed. The noise and harsh light of the world crept back into my awareness. A slow beat, like a bass drum, spread upwards from my feet. A rumbling joined it, like an ensemble of discordant cellos.

Last digit, I thought as my finger pressed it. A tone came from the earpiece, longer than I would’ve considered a beep to be.

And then I was back in the world. A brown-skinned man had his arm around my throat. His skin was unnaturally cold. Behind me, someone else screamed.

“This is all your fault!” the man yelled. He’d pinned my left arm to my side. “Always fucking with things you don’t understand!” I kicked, but didn’t hit him. My right hand was free. I grabbed the arm around my throat and tried to pull it away. I couldn’t budge it.

“Twenty thousand people, gone!”

Great. So he was angry about Richmond, and he was taking it out on the one person who might be able to do something about it. I tried to say, “Let go,” but only a gurgling came out. My breath was almost gone. My vision blurred. The chill from the man spread through me, and I wondered which would kill me first—​that or the lack of oxygen. The tone from the phone grew louder, added harmonics, became a chord. I clenched my fist and tried to hit his face. Pain jabbed at my knuckles as I connected with flesh, but the bastard didn’t let go. I tried to punch him again. This time I missed.

“What’s that noise?” the man demanded. He let go of me, violently, as if someone had pulled him off me. Darkness smothered me before I hit the floor.

End of Free Sample

Thank you for reading. Escape Velocity is on sale now—​see here for where to buy.

Last update: 23/10/2019 00:54