Bethany Flett is out on the shore collecting driftwood when she notices the falling star. She watches it disappear into the open sea beyond the navigation lights of the British Grand Fleet and the encircling hills of Scapa Flow.
Although she wasn’t taught such things at school, she knows from the books she’s borrowed from Kirkwall Library that shooting stars are merely stray lumps of rock heating up as they pass through the atmosphere, even if many in her village would insist they’re souls cast down from heaven.
She picks her way back to the family longhouse, where tonight’s supper of neeps and mutton is waiting, even if it consists mostly of last year’s potatoes. But Bethany knows Ma does her best and the proper meat is kept for the men of the household, who are out catching fish in the sailboat and won’t be back until morning.
Seeing to the twins afterward, she notices how cramped their bunks have become and wonders where they will fit with the longhouse already so overcrowded. Something has to give and she can guess what that something might be, seeing as she’s the only grown daughter in the family. Become a herring girl, she supposes, following the shoals up and down the mainland docks. That, or marry a fisherman.
“Give us a story, Beth.”
“Yes—give us a story.”
The twins love a tale from history, the more gruesome the better, and wriggle with excitement as she tells them about King Henry VIII of England, although they’re disappointed that he only lopped off two of his six wives’ heads and not at all interested to know they’d all be Roman Catholics if he hadn’t divorced Catherine of Aragon. When they’re finally settled, and with Ma drowsing in her chair beside the fire, Bethany unrolls her straw mattress across the flagging and thinks of that shooting star as she drifts toward sleep.
* * *
The Flett sailboat returns with the morning tide and the men on board are shouting excitedly. Maybe a surprisingly rich catch, or some contraband tobacco or whisky? The whole village gathers on the stone quay to find out and gasps as the body of a man is laid there, wet and naked.
“We caught him out yonder.” Cousin Murdo points toward the lip of the Pentland Firth.
He’s breathing, but there’s an ugly rent in his left thigh. Pale and ill though he is, there’s a brownish hue to his skin, and his hair is golden-curly. He looks, there’s no other word for it, foreign.
He coughs. His eyes flicker. Everyone steps back.
“Where… am… I…” He tries to sit up. “You…” Each word is clear enough in its own way, but oddly mangled. “Rescued me from the water… in that…” His young-seeming face creases. “…antique vessel…”
Nobody says anything. Everyone is watching.
“Where is this…?”
“You’re in Kellness, son.” Bethany’s Pa steps forward. “On the Islands of Orkney.”
“And you’re really here? You’re not virtuals? And why the old-time clothing…?”
One or two puzzled laughs.
Pained though he looks, he almost laughs as well. “This sure as hell ain’t Kansas, Toto.”
“Toto?” Pa frowns. “Is that your name? And isn’t Kansas over in America?”
A short debate follows as to what to do with him. The villagers certainly won’t hand him over to the Police in Kirkwall, as they have little time for the authorities. And the idea of sending for Doctor Harkness is soon vetoed; he’s from far-off Aberdeen and isn’t to be trusted. In the end, it’s agreed to put him in the old smokehouse and see what happens.
* * *
All day, the children run around the smokehouse, shrieking and excited, as Bethany gets on with her regular chores. In the afternoon, deep booms echo around the hills as the ships of the Grand Fleet test their guns, preparing for the coming war against Germany. Then, as evening grows, she heads out to the shore again to collect driftwood. No sign of any shooting stars tonight, but she notices the heads of maybe half a dozen seals out in the bay, looking inland. The men might say they’re a fish-killing nuisance, but she finds their presence companionable.
She walks on, picking up a few odd lumps of coal, which are always useful, then notices something shining at the edge of the waves. A jellyfish? The thing is there as she stoops to prod it in a shallow rockpool. Then, somehow, it isn’t. It seems to be flickering with bits of the sky and the sea, almost like a mirror, and when she finally manages to lay it across a rock, it’s surprisingly heavy.
Now that she has some idea of the shape of it, the sense of its strangeness grows rather than diminishes. Although it’s still trying to take on the colors of the surrounding shore—even her own silhouette—it has the definite outline of a human body. It’s even topped by a sort of bubble where the head might be. It looks almost alive, but she somehow knows it isn’t. That, and there’s a tear where the left thigh might be.
After checking she’s still alone, she grasps the thing, which feels dry and smooth instead of wet and slippery, and heads across the shore toward the far promontory. There, she shifts a few rocks, shoves it into a crevice, and covers it over.
* * *
She’s the last to unroll her mattress in the crowded longhouse that evening, but even then sleep won’t come. There’s so much superstitious nonsense talked in Kellness that it’s hard to know where the truth begins. Eating a fish from the tail being bad luck and washing a man’s clothes while he’s out at sea meaning certain drowning. White cats and black cats and whistling in the wind and not clicking glasses to save the souls of sailors. And selkies.
Not mermaids, but nevertheless creatures of the sea who come to the land in the shape of seals, cast off their outer skin, and then seem almost entirely human. Not just that, but they’re so beautiful people can’t help but fall in love with them, although the stories generally end badly. For selkies pine for the sea and long to return to it. At least, that is, unless you can find their shed skin on the shore and hide it away from them. Then they have to stay with you forever.
* * *
Another morning dawns bright and clear and Bethany heads over to the smokehouse as soon as she’s finished turning the peat.
The stranger looks even paler and the smell of old fish and smoke is overpowered by sweat and illness. The blankets he’s been given are the ones used to clean up the ewes at lambing and the rags that bind his wound aren’t much better. And he’s mumbling odd words. Stuff about jugships—jump ships?—and enemy host-isles—hostiles? and nukes—dukes?—and a lost slipsuit, and something about incoming.
“What am I doing here…?” he asks, in a brief moment of clarity.
“We’re taking care of you,” she says. Still, she’s shocked to see how little effort has been made, when she knows from reading about Florence Nightingale in the Crimea that the proper treatment of wounded patients begins with simple hygiene.
She scrubs her hands raw and collects some of the clean rags that the women use for their monthlies. The man’s eyes roll and his moans rise as she washes out the sodden wound, which looks more as if it’s been burned than cut into him. Runners of infection are spreading toward his groin and she doubts if cleanliness alone will save him.
* * *
Over the next couple of days and nights, she spares what time she can to change the man’s dressing. She does other things for him as well, of course, and the whole village is soon tutting and nodding—saying he’ll be Bethany Flett’s man if he happens to survive, will that Toto from Kansas.
Sometimes he curses, or cries out more strange phrases. Stuff about shield cities and seeker mines and slipsuits and backjumps, or what might be people’s names, and even odder sounds that barely seem like words at all. Just like the strange object she found out on the shore, her sense of who and what he is feels flickery and blurry.
But there’s one thing she’s sure about. There’s another book she’s borrowed from Kirkwall Library—a rather fanciful novel—and she knows he’s no more Toto from Kansas than she’s Dorothy.
* * *
Finally, toward the end of the third day, his flesh starts to cool and he settles into something closer to sleep than unconsciousness. Stepping out from the smokehouse, Bethany finds that the glow of another sunset still fills the sky, vying with the stars and the twinkle of the Grand Fleet’s navigation lights.
After checking that nobody’s watching, she crosses the shore to the promontory, shifts the pile of stones and reaches into the crevice. It’s still there, dry and smooth to the touch, like no skin or fabric she’s ever encountered.
Laying it out on the heather, she notices a kind of a barnacle-like protrusion on the right hip as it assumes the colors of twilight. It comes loose when she touches it, feels solid. Yet, amazingly, it makes an exact fit for her fingers and gives off a deep humming. Not only that, but something odd has happened to her vision. Everything’s suddenly incredibly clear, with lines and figures forming around things as she looks at them. Her gaze spins toward the Grand Fleet and the humming intensifies and the letters and numbers solidify into a sharp cross centered on the hull of HMS Dreadnought, the pride of the Royal Navy, which seems so close she can see the faces of the sailors at their stations.
Her palms sweat. Her skin tingles. The thing in her hand is waiting. With the slightest effort of will, she could… But no, no. No. Something untwists and the power subsides and ordinary twilight returns even before she’s placed the thing back into its barnacle-like protrusion.
She stuffs what must be a slipsuit back into the crack and covers it back over with rocks, vowing never again to touch it.
The man’s eyes are open and his temperature has faded when she looks in next morning.
“Where I am, it used to be part of a place called… Scotland? Right?”
“Was the last time I heard,” she says, deciding to put his odd use of tense down to the residue of his fever. “Although we Orcadians like to think we’re our own people.”
“What’s your name?”
“You saved my life.”
“The men in the sailboat did that. I just helped with your wound and fever.”
“What time is it?”
“I don’t own a pocket watch, but I’d say just past noon.”
“I mean the date.”
“I’d have to check that, too. But it’s about the tenth of June. And it’s definitely a Wednesday.”
“And the year?”
He closes his eyes and seems almost to stop breathing.
* * *
Even as he recovers, he keeps asking ridiculous questions.
“Those guns I keep hearing—are they real?”
“That would be the Grand Fleet.”
“Who are they fighting?”
“No one at the moment. They’re just testing their artillery. But it’ll probably be the Germans.”
“Germany—isn’t that a country in old Europe?”
Sometimes his fever returns but that happens less and less as he recovers and soon he’s able to get up and see to his own needs, and gains an appetite, and pretends to box with the kids as they run in and out of the smokehouse, and learns to talk more slowly so people can understand him. Although, along with his gaining strength, Bethany detects an increased wariness.
There’s loss and puzzlement in his eyes, too. He’ll stare for ages at everyday things—a bowl, a rowboat, the clogs he’s been lent to wear, the battleships across the water—as if they’re entirely new to him. But he can smile as well as anyone, and hobble about using a stick for support, poking here and there along the shore as if he’s searching for something.
He keeps himself useful by whittling new ash-pegs for the boats, but when Bethany notices him one evening as she returns from collecting driftwood, he’s simply sitting on the quay and staring out at nothing. There’s an odd noise—click whirr—which makes her think of that thing of his, the slipsuit, although as she gets closer she sees that it’s only Pa’s spring-loaded tape measure.
“I’d stop playing with that if I were you. My father bought it in Aberdeen and he won’t want it broken.”
“Oh…!” He starts, then relaxes. “It’s you, Bethany. What gets me is why they made the metal tape flat instead of curving it. That way, it wouldn’t flop about when you use it.”
Bethany puts down her basket of driftwood. “You’re not really called Toto, are you? And you’re not from Kansas.”
“What makes you think that?” Click, whirr. He’s still playing with the tape measure.
“Toto’s a dog from a novel about a girl called Dorothy who gets blown away from Kansas by a tornado. It’s a work of fiction.”
“And here was me thinking it was an old movie. But I suppose you don’t have movies yet? Silents, maybe.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t you even have moving pictures?”
“Kirkwall has two picture houses that show films, if that’s what you mean.”
“Fil-ums? Films! Right, films—picture houses! And there was probably some antique novel about the Wizard of Oz before the old two-dee. But I’m just a grunt, spam in a can, so what the hell do I know…?” Then he falls silent. “So,” he says eventually, “where do you think I’m really from?”
“I believe,” she says, “that you’re probably from the future.”
“What makes you think a thing like that?”
“I—I saw something falling from the sky. It was on the night you were rescued. That, and some of the things you’ve been saying, especially when you had a fever.”
“Not that I’m saying you’re wrong. But I’m surprised you can come up with such an idea.”
“I’m not entirely ignorant. There’s another novel I’ve read. It’s called The Time Machine, although I suppose you’d probably say it was another movie.”
* * *
I’m just a grunt—that’s the one thing he keeps telling her as they walk together and the guns boom out across Scapa Flow. A grunt being a simple soldier, which is all he is, or maybe a sailor, seeing as he talks about a ship, albeit one he calls a jumpship which sails close to space and can somehow do things with its temporal trajectory. It was bearing him and half a dozen other grunts toward their mission target, and they were wearing slipsuits, which was what saved him as he tumbled through the atmosphere and struck the ocean, then released him as water flooded in and he was picked up by the Flett family sailboat.
But his future—the year 2121—is nothing like that encountered by H. G. Wells’ time traveler. No peaceful, ineffectual Eloi, no ape-like Morlocks, but a world composed of power-blocks and shield-cities, and a war which seems to have been going on since before he was born in what he calls a shanty-burrow in a place Bethany would probably think of as the old state of Texas.
He talks of the seas rising and how many of the world’s great cities—at least those that haven’t been turned to glass by nukes—have been flooded. That, and of old diseases returning and new ones arising. And people on the march—vast migrations—and millions starving. And war. Yes, war. Which is why he’s a grunt, for he has no memory implants, no intelligence enhancements, and his genetic profile always meant he’d never amount to anything.
So what he needs to find is his slipsuit. Not that it would help him get back to the time he’s from, but because, as well as having active camouflage and something he calls an AI—she thought at first he was just saying “aye“—it also possesses a disruptor, which can reduce anything which isn’t properly shielded to random atoms.
“So what would you do?” she asks as they pick amid the rockpools looking for debris. “I mean, if you found it?”
He shrugs, leaning against his stick. “I don’t know. But it would sure as hell be something.”
“Would you…” She nods over toward the Grand Fleet. “…join the British Navy?”
He laughs. Shakes his head. “I wouldn’t need to. I’d be the fucking navy!”
She pretends to consider this and ignores the profanity. Perhaps she’s testing her own resolve by bringing him this close to the promontory where his slipsuit lies hidden. That, or she’s seeing if the thing will respond to his presence. But Toto just stands there, wincing and frustrated. After all, he’s just a grunt, and the power of his slipsuit would be extraordinary.
Bethany can almost feel the warning thunder of the thing she now knows is called a disruptor growing inside her. She’d be Cortez conquering the Aztecs, or the British with their modern guns against the empires of India and China. At the very least, people in this village would finally take some proper notice of her…
“But you must know something about what happens in our future,” she says. “Apart, at least, from these things you call movies.”
* * *
It’s Saturday morning and the twins and Ma have agreed to do most of Bethany’s work so that she and Toto can walk over to Kirkwall, now that his leg’s healing. He has to be careful, though, his presence on the Orkneys being unofficial, so he pulls Pa’s old cap over his springy golden hair and one of Cousin Murdo’s smocks covers most of the rest of him.
Still, he’s looking up and around far too much for Bethany’s comfort as they wander the stern granite streets amid cheery crowds of sailors on furlough. She steers him into Kirkwall Library past Mrs. Mellish at the counter, sits him down amid the dozing fisherman in the reference section, and spreads out some recent national newspapers. To her, their headlines make grim reading. Trouble in the Balkans. Germany planning what it calls a preventative strike against Russia. Yet the tone is worryingly jolly.
Perhaps, she whispers, they could invest what little money she has in some up-and-coming business. But the only ones Toto can recollect are either already well-known—Gillette, Mercedes, Coca-Cola, Ford, General Electric—or based on technologies that sound so magical and remote—a company called Apple, for instance—as to be worthless. Neither is it much help that he remembers the sinking of the Titan-something, which might or might not have just been a movie, since everyone knows the Titanic struck an iceberg two years back. And the San Francisco earthquake was in 1906.
Sitting in this calm refuge of thought and knowledge as Mrs. Mellish glares at them disapprovingly, Bethany wonders what she would do, despite all the many books she’s read, if she was suddenly catapulted back into, say, the court of King Henry the Eighth? Tell Anne Boleyn that marrying the king wasn’t a good idea?
“But you must have had some interests. Perhaps before you became a grunt. Back in the—in the shanty-burrows?”
He smiles and shakes his head. He’s doing this thing with the front page of the Scottish Daily Record, pinching at the text and then widening his fingers as if to make it bigger. “You mean, when I wasn’t cocooned in a VR suit playing virtuals?” Then, clumsily and noisily enough to earn another disapproving look from Mrs. Mellish, he works his way back through the paper, flattening out the sports pages. A slow grin spreads across his face.
“Well? What is it?”
“Boxing! It was the one real thing I enjoyed when I was a kid. And it’s barely changed. The discipline, the sweat, and the chalkdust—the history. There!“
He prods a tiny photograph.
“That’s Jack Johnson. He’s just beaten Frank Moran in Paris. And Kid Williams is about to fight Johnny Coulon for the World Bantamweight Title in old California. He’ll win, too. Hey…“ He laughs loudly enough to waken a couple of fishermen. “Maybe old Toto’s not so stupid after all. All we need do is to bet on Kid Williams to win. And that’s just the start of it. In a few years there’s Gene Tunny, Jack Dempsey. It’s a golden age.”
Bethany takes a deep breath. “The problem is, Toto, any gambling that isn’t on horses at a racetrack or in a licensed casino is illegal. Not that anyone would ever think of betting on a sporting event on the other side of the world. Although I suppose you could try taking a steamer across the Atlantic.”
“How could I manage a stunt like that? I’m not even a grunt here. I’m nobody. In any case, World War One is about to start.”
“World War One?”
“You mean there’s more than one of them?”
“We’ve had either three or four. Depends how you count ’em.”
“I’ve no idea why you’re acting surprised. All you have to do is look out at all those battleships.”
“Yeah.” He’s clumsily inspecting the spread newspapers. “But still.” He stops at a photograph which isn’t in the sports pages. “This guy.”
“The Archduke Franz Ferdinand?”
“He’s just a Hapsburg prince. The world’s full of these people, so why on earth—”
“What’s the date again? I mean today?”
“Saturday the 27th of June.”
“So this newspaper’s only a couple of days old. And it says, right here, that he’s visiting Sarajevo to inspect the troops on the 28th, which is tomorrow—Sunday.”
“Don’t you see?” Now he’s laughing again, and Mrs. Mellish is looking annoyed. “But of course, you wouldn’t!”
* * *
Not for the first time, Bethany finds herself wondering if she’d have believed Toto if it wasn’t for that slipsuit. Now, even more so, because it makes no sense that what he calls World War One should be triggered by the death of an obscure Hapsburg prince in a city she’s barely heard of. But he insists that one of the few things anyone still remembers about the twentieth century is the assassination of this Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. That, and the slaughter of millions of soldiers in muddy trenches, and a Second World War which followed soon after, and the rise of Joseph Hitler and Adolph Stalin, and a holo-something, and the invention of nukes, which can destroy whole cities. Then there’s a Cold War which goes on for a very long time, but is really just like the peace of 1914, with all the power-blocks arming themselves with ever more destructive weapons.
In many ways, this feels even more like a game than anticipating sporting results. Not, they rapidly conclude, that it would be possible to reach Sarajevo in time to shout out a warning at the Archduke’s passing car tomorrow, even if they could afford such a journey. But that doesn’t mean they can’t try something.
One of the few things Toto knows about the jumpships he traveled in is that the jumps they made in time and space were incredibly minute, but were still generally enough to avoid disruptor beams. So perhaps something they do now, minute though it might seem, could have a similarly large effect. At least, he says, it’s worth a go until he works out how to make the most of his surprisingly encyclopedic knowledge of boxing. That, and as Bethany still has to point out, the world really isn’t as primitive as he seems to think. There’s a worldwide system of telegraphic communication, for instance.
The Post Office on Victoria Street closes at noon and the clock is already inching up from the quarter when they burst in. Then there’s only Mr. Canning behind the counter, and Mrs. Pimm wants to send a postal order to her son in Australia. Finally, though, he takes the form from them. And, yes, that is the address: the Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina at his official residence in Sarajevo. And yes, THE ARCHDUKE IS IN DANGER is the message. Mr. Canning frowns. Sucks his teeth. But he stamps their form and takes the money.
* * *
Then nothing happens. Nothing, that is, apart from Bethany being stared at by Mrs. Mellish that Sunday in church as if she has no more right to be there than in Kirkwall Library. Meanwhile, the guns of the Grand Fleet continue to boom across Scapa Flow and hulks are scuttled across various inlets as protection against marauding German submarines, much to the consternation of local fishermen. That and, she notices from a scrap of newspaper in the outhouse, that Kid Williams defeated Johnny Coulon by knockout in California almost a month ago.
“All in all,” she says to Toto when she finds him sitting out on the stone pier that evening, “I don’t think it does much to prove your abilities as an oracle.”
“You’re saying I make things up?”
She shakes her head. “I just wonder how much we really know about here and now, let alone the future.”
“But there’s still nothing about that Archduke being killed in Sarajevo?”
“The papers are full of the so-called Irish Question. But I suppose that Archduke Ferdinand is still alive, seeing as it’s hardly frontpage news when someone isn’t assassinated.”
He chuckles. “I guess there is that. Or maybe I got it wrong. It could have been some other prince or archduke. And perhaps not even in Sarajevo—“
“Wait a moment…” Bethany feels a flush of annoyance. “Now you’re telling me…”
She trails off as a motor car comes jolting along the track from Kirkwall. It stops nearby. Three figures emerge. Two are wearing military uniforms, although she recognizes the third as Sargent Boyle of the local constabulary.
“Bethany Flett,” he says, “you and your companion are under arrest on charges of espionage and high treason.”
* * *
The interview room is starkly lit. Her shoulders ache because her arms are handcuffed behind her.
“So you’re saying it was just a hunch,” drawls a man in a dark suit with an English accent, “that made you and your friend send that telegram?”
“How many times do I have to answer the same question?”
He smiles, unamused. “For as many times as I want you to. Did you ever hear him speaking in another language? Say, for instance, German?”
She shakes her head. Neither has she seen any notebooks, guns, maps, or binoculars. Or flashing lights, or any other strange men, for that matter. The telegram was a prank. All she really knows is that Toto is a sailor from Kansas who fell off his ship into the Pentland Firth. Yes, she did visit the library with him here in Kirkwall last Saturday, as she’s sure Mrs. Mellish has already informed them, but reading isn’t a crime, is it?
The night drags on. There’s a difficult moment when the Englishman says they’ve combed Kellness and the surrounding area for suspicious apparatus, but it soon becomes apparent they didn’t find anything.
“So how long do I have to stay here,” she asks, “since you have no proper evidence?”
“Well, that’s not exactly true. At least when it comes to your friend. Who, by the way, can’t even name the ship he’s supposed to have fallen overboard from and plainly isn’t from Kansas. But you, now you, my dear, I think, we probably can afford to let go. But you must remember one thing.”
“That you’re a foolish girl and should count yourself incredibly lucky.”
* * *
The village isn’t the same. Nothing is. Pressmen arrive from the mainland, asking all sorts of questions. Of course, everyone says they knew right away there was something wrong about the man who claimed he was Toto from Kansas. Sure, that young lass was taken in, but she’s not typical of anything.
GERMAN SPY UNMASKED. ESPIONAGE AT SCAPA FLOW. GRAND FLEET CLOAK AND DAGGER. The national press is full of it. And Bethany Flett’s become this silly, besotted creature who should have known better. She can’t visit Kirkwall library now, not with Mrs. Mellish still there, and is trailed across the shore one evening when she’s trying to collect driftwood by a man from the Glasgow Herald asking why she didn’t realize Toto’s name was out of a popular novel. Even the twins no longer want her bedtime stories.
After several weeks of interrogation, the spy still popularly known as Toto, and who apparently still refuses to cooperate, is transferred to Glasgow under great security and tried swiftly and in camera at the City High Court. As the papers and a shocked general public all agree, the guilty verdict and death sentence are mere formalities.
Bethany’s never been to Glasgow before. In fact she’s only once visited the mainland, although every child in Scotland knows about Duke Street Prison. It’s the place you’re threatened with if you don’t eat your neeps or backchat your elders. Even then, its vast, sooty grimness and fortress-like outer walls come as a shock to her.
Knowing smirks greet her enquiry at the gates. Still, she’s let in and shown along endless corridors amid a sea-roar of joyless voices. A final door bangs behind her and she waits in a cell much like the one in Kirkwall police station, but smaller and grimmer. Then the door opens again and Toto shuffles in. He’s chained hand and foot, in frayed gray overalls. There’s a cut beneath his left eye and bruise across his forehead. He looks almost as frail as he did when he was hauled onto Kellness quay.
“Your limp…” she hears herself saying, “…it’s almost gone.”
“That was because you did such a good job of looking after me.”
“I just wish—”
“No, no, Bethany! Don’t you go wishing anything. You did the best you could, which was far more than I deserved. After all, I’m—”
“Just a grunt?”
“Yeah.” He smiles. “But you’re the only person who ever believed me.”
“Although you never did tell me your real name.”
“I didn’t, did I? I think that was what drove people like our friends out there…“ He nods toward the cell door. “…crazy. But I came to like it, even if Toto did turn out to sound far too much like a codename. But what else was I supposed to tell them? At least, if I expected them to believe me?”
“But there’s still no war. And the Archduke Ferdinand’s alive and back in Austria. I saw his name in yesterday’s paper.”
“But everyone still says there’s going to be a war, right? And we don’t even know if our telegram got through.” He frowns. “And there’s this other thing that’s been bothering me. You see, if I really did come from a different future, how can I even have been born?”
It’s a clever thought, to which she has no answer. But she remembers how the fellow-traveler set out again but never returned at the end of H. G. Wells’ novel.
“At least I’ll be dying a grunt’s—a soldier’s—death. Because they think I’m a foreign spy, it’s going to be a firing squad.”
“There must be something…”
“No, there isn’t anything. And anyway—”
Then a bolt slides, a guard reenters, and Bethany has to leave the cell, and soon finds herself standing back outside the gates of Duke Street Prison.
* * *
With nowhere to stay and little money, she compulsively wanders the Glasgow streets, pushing past endless strangers and feeling as lost and distant as Toto must feel. She’s had dreams, visions, of coming here with the slipsuit and the disruptor, of tearing down the prison walls and freeing Toto—and that would only be the beginning. She’d be a vengeful Boadicea, imposing justice, fighting and righting all the world’s many wrongs. But she knows she could never trust herself to wield such power, any more than Toto. Not with the world as full as it already is with blood, grief, and mayhem.
Dawn does nothing to improve the look of Duke Street Prison. If anything, the blood-hued sky makes it even grimmer. Standing outside, she hears a shout from over the walls, then an echoing clatter of gunshots.
That’s it then. And she’s no reason to think anything they’ve done has made any difference. She draws a breath and hurries to catch the train which, with a change at Inverness, and the ferry from Scrabster, will have her back at Kellness and probably collecting driftwood by evening. Then she stops. And turns. And walks briskly toward the growing morning bustle of Queen Street.
* * *
It’s almost four years before she returns to the Orkneys. She’s written many letters, of course, but the whole village seems astonished to see her walking down the track from Kirkwall.
Ma and Pa look so old, and the twins are so grown, and everyone admires her city clothes and treats her as if she’s no longer Bethany Flett, but some important stranger. She gives Pa a new tape measure to replace the one which was worn out by the constant fiddling of the man no one wants to remember. And yes, she really does have a stake in the company that manufactures these things and owns the patent for the way the metal strip is curved to keep it from bending. For something so obvious, it’s strange no one else ever thought of it.
It’s midsummer again, and the light of evening seems endless, and they want to hear all about what it’s like to live in Edinburgh, and visit London, and even Paris, and the sights she must have seen. She doesn’t dwell, as the best plates are set out, on her year-and-a-half following the fleet and gutting fish as a herring girl while she tried to save some money. Neither does she say too much about her work to promote women’s suffrage, which she knows would only cause upset and argument.
You could now count the ships moored across Scapa Flow on the fingers of one hand. There’s a lightboat, two tugs, and maybe a dredger. The British Grand Fleet, or what’s left of it since Mr. Churchill’s cutbacks, now rides anchor in the warmer waters of the Solent, while Kaiser Bill’s lost most of his powers and the Tsar and his family are staying with their English cousins at Osborne House, having been evicted from Russia.
Not that you could say peace has broken out across the world. There’s continued conflict in the Balkans, more trouble in Ireland, and bloody revolution in Mexico. But at least there hasn’t been a world war. In fact, as the major powers sign up one by one to the Community of Nations with its headquarters in Switzerland, a global conflagration seems less rather than more likely.
Does any of this have anything to do with that telegram? Bethany still has no idea, although she’s followed the successes of a highly technical young boxer called Gene Tunney. Not that she’s a huge fan of the sport, but she does keep up an interest. She’s also reinvested some of the money she’s made out of her tape measure patent in companies involved in making films with a sound accompaniment—the so-called talkies—even if most people are certain they’ll never catch on.
There’s a fair deal of drinking, at least by the men, and the children grow tired and grumpy, and the questions become repetitious. Time for bed, especially as she’s leaving so early next morning, although she’s not allowed to lift a finger to help with the clearing. Saying she’d like to stretch her legs, she goes outside, where the sky is still glowing and the air feels like velvet.
She crosses the shore and climbs to the cleft in the promontory and pulls away the rocks. The slipsuit is just as extraordinary as she remembers; the power and the purpose and the weight of it. After filling it with stones and wrapping it in seaweed, she carries it quickly around to the quay and pushes out in one of the village rowboats.
The sea is smooth and still. Even though it’s been years, she dips the oars with quiet ease and skill until she’s out of sight of Kellness, at a place where the water suddenly deepens. Then, as she pushes yet more stones into the slipsuit, her skin crawls with a sense of being watched. When she turns, she laughs. It’s just the local seals, studying her with their heads raised out of the water. They chuff back at her as if equally amused, then disappear in a flicker of fins. Weighted as it is, the slipsuit soon darkens and vanishes into the depths as it follows them.
Bethany sits for a long moment, letting the sky and the sea settle. Then she rows briskly back toward the shore and the lights of the village.
Ian R. MacLeod is the multi-award winning author of seven novels, five collections, and many short stories. He lives in the United Kingdom and is experienced enough to remember the time before Britain joined the European Union. The original “Doctor Who” on BBC sucked him into science fiction, and he loves sad songs, with lots of drumming. His most recent novel, Red Snow, revolves around the mystery of a monster drawn from humanity's darkest myths which still somehow survives, and thrives, and kills, in this modern age. "Selkie" originally appeared in Alternate Peace, edited by Steven H. Silver and Joshua Palmatier.