Southern England, August 1859
Ok, you need to be cool, man, I said to myself. I tried to keep my face blank as I followed the maid up the curved staircase to the second story landing and an even darker hallway, then right, then through a door into -you guessed it- more darkness. The maid lit a few of the candles in the room with the flame of her own and gestured for me to enter. She poured some water from a pitcher that was sitting on a vanity type table into a basin, then walked stiffly to a curtained doorway and in one swift movement she rudely parted the curtains revealing a closet full of hanging dresses. Then she spun on one heel and without saying another word to me, left the room, slamming the door behind her.
“Bitch.” I muttered as I contorted myself to untie the corset strings. It was oddly comforting to discover that assholes transcended time. I somehow managed to “Houdini” my way out of my hideous outfit, and then I kicked it across the room when it was off. I was still wearing my jeans and halter top underneath, but I thought I should try to fit in as best I could (however dismal the chances were of me actually doing that). So I browsed through the dresses that were hanging in the closest and chose the one that looked like it was least likely to choke me. Then I did my best to cinch, lace, and button the voluminous garment, all without the assistance of the lovely and loquacious Clara, bitch maid-lady. There was a full-length mirror in the corner and I decided that I looked, well, not great. But not bad!
The ensemble consisted of two pieces; a long burgundy skirt made of fabric that felt like taffeta and that cinched in the back with laces, and a fitted jacket with a scoop neck that buttoned up the front (and had clearly been designed for someone who needed roominess in that area because it drooped on less-buxom me). I left my bra and halter on underneath. Just in case. I have found over the years that many of life’s most harrowing moments are better met wearing adequate support garments.
My hair was disheveled and stringy from the rain and wind, so after dislodging a few sticks that I must have collected during the 15th Century storm and splashing my face with water, I dug into the pocket of my jeans for an elastic hair band that I employed to whip my hair up into a passable bun (which, no matter what I did, looked more Edwardian than Victorian) so as to enhance my façade as a respectable female. I figured I had put myself together just about the best I could and decided it was almost time to grope my way down the dark staircase and see if I could figure out where the fuck I was. Not just where, but when. And then there was the odd coincidence of Reginald Buchman having a sketch of a solar flare. What the hell was that about? That detail required additional investigation. Still unanswered was the most important question: where was the wormhole terminus? I took in a sharp breath and I my heart started pounding as I considered the possibility of being trapped here. But then I realized that there was no point in assuming that I was totally fucked. At least not yet. Three breaths out. One long breath in. Okay, now for inventory.
I opened my waist pouch that I had been wearing under my 15th century over-skirt and removed my cell phone to examine the battery status- 89%. It was a certified miracle, just short of a Virgin Mary-shaped pancake, that I had left the device on the charger all morning, before I left for the 15th century. I scanned the screen, wishfully looking for a bar of signal. But of course the nearest cell tower was about 150 years in the future. I turned the phone off to conserve energy, as well as powering off the scanner I had been using to pinpoint the location of the missing Anthropologists. The scanner battery was also nearly fully charged, so I said a silent merci to Georges for obsessively returning all our devices to their charging bases, even at the point of ripping them out of my hand. I vowed never to flick him shit about his OCD-like behavior again.
What else was in the fanny pack… let’s see: some lip balm for those crazy Medieval nights, some 15th century coins in case I needed to buy a goat or bribe someone, cell phone charger (because I kept an extra one in every bag I ever used JUST IN CASE), some marginally fancy earrings that I had been wearing that morning and had removed and chucked in the bag so they wouldn’t get lost as I tromped through the stinking mud, a black Sharpie permanent marker, some white electrical tape – because that will fix everything from a sparking wire to a bleeding wound, and surprise! An extra lithium battery for the scanner (Georges again, not me). That was it- a meager list of all my worldly possessions. Ooh, and a mint (yay!)
I popped the mint in my mouth and lit what I assumed to be a mobile luminary unit (AKA a candlestick) and managed to find my way back down to the conservatory. Reginald Buchman was seated on the couch nearest the glass doors, drinking tea from a delicate little cup. I stopped at the doorway before he noticed me and watched him gaze at the ceiling as if lost in thought. He had removed his jacket and was wearing his waistcoat unbuttoned. His hair was a little longer than I recall being fashionable for the time. His face was shaven and his sideburns were positively monumental. I caught a glimpse of his socks and they did not match. He was adorable.
He looked up and saw me and said, “Miss James! I say, you most certainly clean up nicely!” So I guess I was pulling off this look after all. Or Reginald was being polite. Probably the latter.
“Thank you.” I said with a small curtsy. “You can call me Jules. That’s how we do it in America.” I said in what I hoped was a pert yet sophisticated air. I hadn’t been addressed as Miss James since my less-than-illustrious college days when it had been spoken by several of my professors with thinly veiled disappointment, no doubt owing to my much-discussed wasted potential. Regardless, I still ended up working on a high profile PoESA multi-billions dollar project despite my lukewarm GPA. Suck it again, OSU! Ha!
“Very well, then you must call me Reg, as my friends do.” And that name somehow suited him very well, informal yet entirely appropriate. Reg bade me sit down so I settled on the opposite end of the same couch, then he stood up and brought me a cup of tea from the table near the fireplace. I sipped it, fought the urge to shout “Tea, Earl Gray, hot!” and tried to look comfortable even though my nerves were completely frayed and I was starting to pit-out in my fitted taffeta due to the ever-warming fire.
“Reg, what do you do?” I asked conversationally. He tilted his head.
“Do about what?”
“Your job. Your occupation. What do you do for a living?” I pressed.
“Well, I suppose I am a landlord.” Reg replied after a few seconds of thought. “This estate encompasses many acres, which are parceled and rented by farmers who grow lovely things and/or raise lovely pigs. Theoretically, these individuals would render payment for the use of the land. However, only about half of them make enough to pay rent, and farming has lost some of its allure for younger tenants who have left the fields to work in factories. Also, I am the Earl of Darrington. But I’m afraid that position pays even less.” Reg explained how his father, the previous Earl, had depleted eight generations of wealth in less than 20 years through his love of cards, scotch, and ladies who were not Reg’s mother.
“He passed on 10 years ago and left the estate, in all of its present glory, to me the eldest son.” He swept his arm in emphasis. “And yourself, Miss Jules? You appear to be a very modern sort of lady; do you have an ‘occupation’?” He asked in such a way that implied air quotes on the word occupation, as if it was a delightful novelty (although I was fairly certain that air quotes were not yet a thing) that a female might have one. But I didn’t sense any misogynism from him, just curiosity.
“Or perhaps you have a more industrious family than myself?” Reg smiled in self-depreciating way that made my heart jump, just a little. I cursed inwardly for not having thought up a convincing biography while I was upstairs. I thought it best to stick to my “impetuous American explorer” story since I had been found trespassing in an outhouse after supposedly rooting around aimlessly in the countryside. And that was difficult to explain in any century.
“Not really, I spent a lot of time on safaris with my father.” I replied, hoping I wouldn’t be asked to describe riding on an elephant or decapitating a gazelle, or whatever the fuck one actually did on a 19th century safari. And would it be India? Africa? Madagascar?? All I knew is it would not involve a Range Rover. “So now I do a lot of traveling.” I highly doubted that I could explain my actual ‘occupation’ in a way that was comprehensible to a man who had yet to see an electric lightbulb.
“In the hedgerows.” Reg volunteered. I nodded.
“Yes. Exactly.” And to put an end that particular line of questioning, I stood up and wandered over to the table that looked like it contained a small electronics lab. “What is all this?” I asked as I picked up a coil of copper wire. Reg joined me at the table.
“It’s my hobby.” He answered brightly. I saw a blocky magnet on the table and grabbed it with my free hand.
“Is this a generator?” His eyes opened wide. They were green. So vividly green. I looked away, afraid I had been staring.
“Yes! It is! Are you familiar with electrics? I have been reading about advances in generators and motors and it’s all very fascinating.” He effused about Voltaire and Faraday and other long dead scientific pioneers who were his contemporaries. “I’ve been working on a residential lighting source, based on the properties of arc lamps. Something practical and with wider application.”
“Would you patent it and license the design?” I asked.
“Possibly. Mostly, I’m just tired of candles and oil.” As he explained the bits and bobs on the table I wandered over to the other table where I had seen the sketch of a solar flare.
“Have you thought about communications?” I queried.
“Something other than a telegraph? I’m afraid I have not. Do you think that is a lucrative field? What are your thoughts?” He asked in an interested manner that I was not accustomed to hearing from an attractive man. Dating can be a challenge when you are essentially a rocket scientist. You can date people who are also in the sciences, but this line of work tends to attract those who are already socially stunted and occasionally downright weird. These are okay qualities for those of us who sleep in our labs and work for 20 hours straight and obsess on our theories and experiments, because that’s how incredible human breakthroughs are conceived. But it makes for an awkward date and, frankly, I’m already awkward enough by myself. Any conversation on one of those encounters would be animated and two-sided, but the romance factor would be absolute zero.
Conversely, on the few occasions where I have attempted to date outside the scientific community, I have found the opposite; that there might be some physical motivation involved but whenever I would talk about something that matters to me, I had the distinct feeling that my date was hearing, “Blah blah blah lame-science-thing blah blah blah.” So, to the abject horror of my mother, I just don’t bother dating.
But now, here I was with someone who was evidently intelligent, socially normal and (as far as I could tell) not completely out of his mind and he was listening to me as if I was going to reveal the secrets of the universe. At this point, maybe I could. I blinked and realized that Reg was staring at me and waiting for an answer.
“I do. I think instant worldwide communication is the future.” And that was nothing less than the truth. Reg raised an eyebrow.
“How very intriguing!” And it took every molecule in my body working together to keep me from dissolving into a puddle of goo from the way he looked at me. My heart was pounding. Stop it! Stop it, Jules. There is no time for this. Get your shit together or you’re going to be stuck here, working in a fucking hat shop. Or, apparently the night soil man is hiring, that might pay more…hmmm.
“Reg, what is this?” I showed him the sketch of the sun with the outline of a solar flare. He joined me at the other table.
“Another one of my hobbies- astronomy.” That was it, I was going to marry him right at that table. “This is actually very interesting,” he began while walking around the table and selecting various sketches. “Earlier this week while on my roof,” he pointed at the ceiling for emphasis. “At about sunset, I noticed that sun was exhibiting this somewhat unusual behavior. Um..here.” He showed me a small drawing that he had quickly made that evening. “So I set up my box the next day and started recording the progress.”
By “box”, I assumed he was talking about a solar viewer, like my grandmother used to make in grade school. You take a cardboard box, make a pinhole in the front, glue in a white sheet of paper in the rear, then cut another hole in the side as a viewing window, lest you burn your little retinas out. When I was in grade school we conveniently used the SunFilter app on our cell phones when we were studying the sun. However, at my grandmother’s insistence, I did actually attend a hippie camp where we slept in tents and scraped bark off of trees and other seemingly random primitive activities. We may have eaten bugs; I really don’t remember (I probably blocked it out). But we constructed similar boxes to view the solar eclipse that coincided with that particular week from hell, so I understood the concept.
Reg lined up a series of sketches on the table, all showing a white sun with a grid superimposed on it and a dark background. The drawings all showed significant sun spots and other areas of darkness but last few drawings clearly indicated that this sun, here in this time, was exhibiting the same enormous flares as my own 22nd century sun. My heart was pounding again, but this time not with an inconvenient crush. Maybe there was a connection with the solar activity in this century and my own, and, hopefully, the wormhole.
“Reg, can you show me your box?”
“Miss James! We’ve just barely met!”
Twenty minutes later we were on the roof with a plateful of little sandwiches that I had requested in lieu of dinner and that had been served ungraciously by the annoyed and pinch-faced Clara, worst domestic servant ever.
Reg’s “box” was a bit more involved than the version made by myself and my fellow middle school campers. (Roughin’ It! That’s what that fucked up camp was called. I just remembered. That and having an allergic reaction to gnat bites all over my scalp.) It was really a beautiful object, crafted out of wood and joined at the corners with hammered brass fittings. In the front, a square made of a thin piece of metal had a hole precisely drilled in the center and the white material (the projector screen) in the inside in the back was bright cardstock. The entire unit was laquered dark green and had stylized sun icons painted on it in gold.
“Reg, did you make this?” I asked him while he was turned away and fiddling with his telescope, another gorgeous piece of gleaming brass equipment.
“Yes, another hobby I’m afraid.” I thought quickly of being out in the woods at the hippie camp with Reg. He could probably build me a robust shelter out of Douglas fir branches and moss and also a giant toasty campfire, if the blazing monstrosity in the fireplace downstairs was any indication.
“It’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.” The brass fittings were clearly custom made and could not have been cheap. The metal square had been milled and filed, as if by a craftsman. I wondered how someone who could barely afford to have his shitter emptied could manage to pay for materials and workmanship of this quality. “And your telescope is amazing as well. It looks very…expensive.” He turned around self-consciously, not really meeting my gaze.
“Yes, it is. I had to…save up for a long time to buy it.” Then he turned away again, as if to terminate that subject. He was unmistakably hiding something and hoped it wasn’t bodies in the cistern. Then I realized that I still didn’t know what year I had landed in.
“Reg, can you tell me what day it is? I’m still a bit fuzzy from my wandering and I hit my head trying to break out of the privy.” Reg looked up from his task of focusing the telescope. “Indeed! It’s Saturday, the 20th of August.” He checked his pocket watch. “For about another 90 minutes.”
“Uh huh. And what year is it?” I asked nonchalantly while examining the solar viewer.
“That is a very odd question.” Reg said with a tinge of suspicion while he watched me and waited for an explanation.
“Is it?” I said innocently. I looked up and he was staring at me very intensely. He was so sincere and intense and I really wanted to blurt out everything and demand that he hold me and make it all better. But instead I said, “Reg, please. What year is it? I need to know.” His gaze remained for a few seconds.
“It is 1859. I am going to surmise that is the same year in America?” He said tensely. I nodded.
“It is. I’m just- I’m so tired.” And as soon as I said it I was absolutely weary to the bone. Reg’s eyes softened and I stopped breathing for a second.
“Of course you are. Forgive me, Julia. Let’s get you to into bed.” Although parts of my body responded to his suggestion as if it were a request for company, my brain knew that this Victorian gentleman meant by myself. And that was just as well, since I was far too exhausted to shock this lovely man with my impropriety. But I considered it for a minute.