Time Differences Ch. 01bySpinneret©
Part 1: An Impossible Situation I was still waking up in what we were arbitrarily calling the morning when Clarissa and Augusta came to visit me, which was unfortunate, because I'd taken to sleeping naked -- the House was happy to keep my room warm enough, we still didn't have much choice in clothes, and I didn't feel inclined to sleep in a shapeless robe-gown-thing. Anyway, it was only a problem if someone chose to walk in on me unexpected, which the girls, being very well-brought-up young ladies, weren't usually inclined to do. Sure, I might have expected them to knock, as polite young ladies surely should. However, the House wasn't built that way -- the walls and doors were dense and sound-proof, and it had a habit of opening doors helpfully when anyone walked up to them -- so it wasn't their fault.
So the first thing I knew was when I was brought fully awake by a gasp and a squeal of girlish conversation. I looked up to see them standing in the doorway with their backs to me. I apologised and grabbed a gown, told the House to switch the windows to fully clear, then told them they could turn round now.
"Sorry," I said again.
"No," said Augusta, "it was entirely our fault."
"And anyway," said Clarissa, "we have seen you before."
That was true. These two were the most adventurous of the seven women who'd been here when I first arrived, and had discovered me lying in the field outside the House.
"Well, anyway," I said, waving them to two of the stools which were scattered round my room while I sat on the bed, "what can I do for you?"
"We wish to talk about ... matters," said Augusta, looking nervous. It didn't suit her; she was the tallest of the girls, blonde and quite Amazonian. She was quite a looker, really, but also slightly intimidating; she not only wore her hair plaited, like most of the girls, but she somehow persuaded it to wrap around her head in a formal sort of style that made her look seriously stern.
"The House," said Clarissa, in more of a rush. "We are unsure of its intentions -- for all of us."
"Well, yes," I agreed, "but it's not done us any harm yet, and it seems to try to give us what we ask for."
"Except for sending us home," Augusta said.
"We have to believe that it's telling the truth -- that it can't do that," I said, as gently as I could manage. "It's studying us, I'm sure, but I don't think that we're in danger."
"Yes," said Clarissa, fixing me with her rather scary stare, "but what does it wish of us?"
I sighed, while trying not to show it. The crazy thing was that she wasn't sounding at all crazy, and this was a good question.
I'd got into this situation by not maintaining my car's brakes properly, and by getting angry about my job when I had to drive home along the cliff road. So I'd been driving too fast when I hit the sharp bend, and the brakes didn't work, and I went through the barrier and suddenly I was looking straight at the rocks below the cliff through the windscreen. I assume that I was scared at that moment, but I didn't have time to think anything beyond a boringly predictable shit as the rocks got bigger fast. Then the view changed.
At first, I just saw a black space with a slight swirling effect at the edges, and I fell into that. I did have time to think then, and I guessed that this was dying. I'd never had strong opinions about what might come next, and it crossed my mind that maybe I should have, especially when the blackness suddenly filled with sparkling lights and things moving too fast to watch. I was still falling, though, and for a moment I looked around. Then two of the objects -- oval shapes, grey, with some kind of arm or clamp on the front -- latched onto me and the car seat, and slowed me down sharply.
It struck me that bringing the car seat (and the steering wheel) with me into the afterlife was odd, and that nothing I'd ever heard in a church seemed to fit here. Then a smaller object, metallic silver and covered in projecting spikes, came up to my face. For a moment, it paused, and I had the bizarre feeling that it was looking at me. I tried to find something to say to it, but before I thought of a word, it sprayed me with a cloud of something that smelled metallic, and I passed out.
I looked at Clarissa. All of us were having difficulty handling the situation we were in, but of the seven women, she was the one who seemed to me to be closest to going really crazy, while at the same time she was the most determined to understand what had happened -- in fact, perhaps that was why she was cracking. She was a little plump, in a puppy-fat sort of way, with rosy cheeks that might have been cute if it wasn't for that fixed stare; she wore her dark hair in a very simple plait down her back.
"In fact," Augusta interrupted, "we have tried to ask the House about this."
"Good luck getting a clear answer," I said.
"We put some suggestions to it," Augusta said. "And that helped a little." Okay, so they'd been working at this; they were a determined pair, which was presumably why they hung out together, and Clarissa for one was smart. "We believe that it is interested in recreating the human race," Augusta went on.
"That's possible," I agreed.
"But then," said Clarissa, "where does that place ourselves, Mr Evans?"
"How do you mean? And please, I keep saying, do call me Simon. I think that we've been introduced now." That was meant as a joke, but it fell flat.
"I mean," said Clarissa, "that we would be the parents of a new race, Mr... Simon. And we are not stupid or ignorant girls; we do understand what that would imply."
"Oh," I said. "Look, this is all guesswork. And I don't think that the House would force you ... us to do anything."
"Nonetheless," Clarissa answered, "some people might say that we had something of a duty, Simon."
"Really? Well, I wouldn't. Anyway, we don't know what the House is capable of..."
"In what sense?" Augusta interrupted.
"I don't know -- I'm not a doctor -- but it's entirely possible that the House -- or whatever is behind it -- could create new people -- could make babies, I suppose you'd say -- from whatever it's got from studying us medically. It might grow them in vats or something."
"Oh," said Clarissa, "is that really possible?"
"I don't know. It wasn't in my time, but it was the kind of thing that people talked about."
"It sounds -- bizarre," Augusta said, "quite unnatural."
"Maybe," I said, "but it'd save you from -- whatever you might have been worrying about."
"Please, Simon," said Clarissa, "we are not stupid ignorant girls. We believed that we might be obliged to be -- intimate -- with you, or with poor Mr Frake. And we have some idea what that would entail. Some of us had sweethearts, or prospects of marriage, and our mothers had spoke to us."
I looked at the two of them, feeling a rush of sympathy. "Did you two have sweethearts?" I asked.
Augusta nodded, with a small sigh; I guessed that she felt a real loss there. But Clarissa shook her head. "I did not, Mr... Simon. I had no immediate prospects there, and indeed I had more hopes of continuing my education." (And turning into another Miss Halstead, I thought but didn't say.) "However, there was talk in the dormitory, you understand."
"Okay, I get it -- you know where babies come from. But I don't think that there'll be any coming round here in the near future, okay?"
"Perhaps you are right, Mr... Simon," said Clarissa. "But -- excuse me -- are you perhaps being quite noble here?"
"How do you mean?"
"We were warned, sometimes, of men," said Clarissa. "Some of us have been told that their desires can be most pressing. That is why it is considered unsafe as well as improper to be alone in male company. We have all but abandoned such propriety, because the situation is -- as it is -- and you have behaved quite properly, after your own fashion." I suspected that my manners and upbringing had just been insulted, but Clarissa could be like that. "Nonetheless, if we are to be here for the rest of our lives, might you not be tempted to propose some attachment with one of us, perhaps? Or even to press the idea forcefully?"
"Good grief," I said, strangling back the stronger words that I knew would just shock these two. "I'm not a rapist, if that's what you're implying -- men aren't all that bad, you know. If I've been polite, well, it's partly because I've had the weirdness of this situation on my mind, but mostly because I like to think I'm a nice guy. And even if I was the kind of bas... bad guy to try anything, well, you have me outnumbered seven to one. Men aren't that much stronger than women, you know."
The girls paused to take that in. Then Augusta gave me a hard look before dipping her eyes and mumbling "Thank you, Mr Evans."
"Yes, thank you," Clarissa said with a deep breath. "It would seem that we may have underestimated you, Mr Evans."
"No offence taken. Anyway, I can understand that you may have a weird view of me -- after all, as you say, you first saw me in that weird situation..."
I recovered consciousness lying on the ground. By the feel of it, I was lying on longish grass or similar; I was also stark naked. Fortunately, it seemed to be a warm day. But then my eyes came into focus, and I decided that I was indoors -- in some kind of weird greenhouse or something -- because the sky above me was plain bizarre.
"There he is!"
I sat up when I heard the young woman's voice, and that was how I first saw Augusta and Clarissa. They were much as I'd see them later when they came to my room, including the plain, baggy, white dress-things they were wearing. As I looked at them, they saw that I was naked; they'd been trotting towards me, but at that they squealed, stopped, and turned away from me, shielding their eyes from the sight.
"Hello," I said, "sorry about this... Look, I seem to be having memory problems or something; the last thing I remember is being in a car crash. Is this a hospital?"
They didn't answer, but talked quietly but furiously to each other, still avoiding looking at me. I wondered if they were nurses, but if so, they didn't seem very professional. Other patients, perhaps?
If I'd somehow survived the crash -- God knows how -- I might well have suffered head injuries. I stopped looking around for clothes -- there weren't any -- and very tentatively began to feel my head. No sign of scars or tenderness...
The speaker was a new arrival, an older woman -- in her thirties, I guessed -- with red hair in a single plait similar to Clarissa's, and wearing an identical dress.
"Miss Halstead," the two responded in unison.
"Please stop being foolish girls and go and fetch this unfortunate gentleman something to wear!" the newcomer commanded.
"Miss Halstead," the two replied, sounding almost military and dropping old-fashioned curtsies. They scurried off and left me with this one woman, who looked me hard in the eye and then turned her gaze away almost as nervously as the first two.
"I apologise for those two, Mr..."
"Evans," I said, "Simon Evans. Look, where is this?"
"A very difficult question, I'm afraid, Mr Evans. The House's explanations make little sense to me. But I will do what I can to explain. First, however, I must ask -- what year do you believe this to be?"
"Please, humour me."
"Okay. It was two thousand and ten, last I remember."
She gasped, and I stared at her. I was wondering now if I was in a mental hospital -- and also what the hell was up with the sky.
"No, Simon," Clarissa said, "you were courteous from the first."
"Thanks. But if we're going to be honest..." I took a deep breath.
"You were right in one respect. I'm human enough. One day, some time, I might get fond enough of one of you to suggest something. I know that the lack of a vicar would make things a bit tricky for you all, but if and when the time comes, we'll work around that somehow. In the meantime, though, I promise to be a gentleman."
"Oh," the girls said together. Then Augusta bit her lip and looked at me. "That would lead to many difficulties, though, would it not? We have no doctors, no nursemaids, no ... arrangements for children..."
"Oh yes, in your time, that's what marriage is all about, isn't it? Well, I'm sure that the House could help... But sorry, that's really not the point."
"Mr Evans," said Clarissa, "we are not ignorant. A marriage formed to relieve male desires would surely very likely lead to children. Or was that not so in your time?"
"Not entirely." The pair looked puzzled. "Okay, your mothers didn't tell you absolutely everything. But let's just say that there are ways round the problem -- and by my time, the technology had advanced a bit."
The girls evidently didn't know what to say to that; Augusta was blushing furiously, and Clarissa was giving me another of her half-mad fixed stares. "So intimacy is possible without children?" she asked eventually, in a flat voice.
"Yes," I said. "Oh heck... Let's answer this flat out right now. Hey, House?"
"Yes?" the voice, flat and smooth and sexless as ever, seemed to come from every wall at once, also as ever -- and those walls were now glowing slightly. Whatever the mind was behind the House, it had promised that it wouldn't intrude on our privacy, and yet it responded instantly when addressed.
"Where the hell are we?" I demanded of the Halstead woman. She winced at my choice of words. "Look," I went on, "I don't know if you're another patient or what, but I want to talk to someone who can talk sense."
She sighed. "I think that you should speak to the House," she said, looking at me out of the corner of her eye.
"Okay, if he can give me some answers."
"Oh, the House gives plentiful answers," she answered. "But I will ask that you dress first, and not shock my pupils."
"As you wish. But who are you? What are you doing here?"
"My name is Miss Jane Halstead. I am here because I took a group of my girls on a sailing trip as a last treat before they went out into the world, and we encountered a sudden gale, and our vessel overturned. And we drowned, Mr Evans. It was not a pleasant experience."
I didn't know what the hell to make of that, but I decided that this must indeed be a mental hospital; maybe a head injury had done something to me... Fortunately perhaps, at that moment, I glimpsed Clarissa running towards us with a bundle in her arms. She stopped well short of me, and passed what she held to Miss Halstead, who approached me carefully and handed it on to me without looking at me properly.
It was another smock-dress, identical to the ones the three women were wearing. A hospital gown, no doubt. Oh well, it'd have to do. I pulled it on.
Miss Halstead looked at me, shook her head, and turned on her heel without a word, leading off the way that the girl had just come. As she went striding ahead, I found that Clarissa was walking beside me, matching my pace. "Hey," I said to her quietly, "what's with this building?"
"Yes, this giant glasshouse or whatever it is. The big arch over us, the glittering stuff up there..."
"Oh," she said, "that is simply how the sky is, in this place."
Okay... I tried a change of tack. "Look," I said, "who is this House character? The chief doctor?"
"We would love to know," she said. "Jemima and Sarah believe that he is some kind of evil stage magician, hiding behind a secret panel and pulling on strings. Georgiana believes that he is Lucifer himself, I fear -- as does Mr Frake, for that matter."
"And what do you think?"
"I? I choose to take the House at its word. I believe that the House is simply a machine."
"House -- could you provide medical help with things like childbirth? Or contraception, for that matter?"
"All of the humans here have had reproductive functions suspended."
"Suspended? What? Why?"
"I assumed that sexual activity was a possibility. As facilities do not yet exist for children, I judged this action expedient."
"You've made us -- not women? Clarissa snarled at the wall.
"The function can be restored by a simple hormone adjustment," the walls told us blandly.
Clarissa was gasping, on edge of hysteria as it seemed to me. I raised what I hoped was a placating hand. "House," I said, "please stop monitoring this room." The walls stopped glowing, and I turned back to the girls. "Okay," I said, "you heard it. This is just another of its little ideas -- but it's completely reversible. No harm done, and good sense from its point of view."
"Hah!" Clarissa snapped.
"Excuse me," said Augusta, "what did it mean -- activity was possible?"
"Oh that -- remember it probably knows less about men than you do, or for that matter about women. And it could have caught practically anyone when it scooped us up. Someone might have decided to be, um, intimate much sooner."
"Why?" Clarissa demanded.
"Oh, Clarissa," Augusta replied before I could think what to say, "don't be a goose. Even if most men don't press too unkindly, many men and women do seem to take pleasure in these things."
Clarissa glowered at her. "Some of you, perhaps. I know that you're given to foolish mooning over memories of your Walter..."
"Hold it," I interrupted, "that's enough. If Augusta has lost a ... sweetheart, there's no call to be cruel to her."
"Thank you, Mr... Simon," Augusta said, composing herself visibly. We sat in cold silence for a moment. Eventually, Clarissa, calm again, looked at me.
"And so, if men and women are intimate for pleasure in your time, without prospect of childbirth, what is the purpose of marriage?" she demanded. Oh dear, I thought, she's getting philosophical on me.
"Many things," I answered, "aside from the fact that most married people do have children, that is. But I wasn't married myself, you understand."
"Of course," said Augusta, "those of us who are missing our sweethearts were not all merely thinking of becoming mothers, dear Clarissa. My own mother assured me that ... the marriage bed could be a pleasant thing."
"It would seem," Clarissa said towards me, "that you will have your own pick of sweethearts, Simon."
"Please, Clarissa..." I began, but then I noticed that Augusta had broken down in sobs. For a moment, I hoped that Clarissa would comfort her, but neither girl moved. I couldn't just leave Augusta like that, so I stepped across the room and put my arm around her carefully. She didn't object, so I mumbled "there, there" a few times.
She looked at me through red eyes. "I do apologise, Simon," she said.
"Not at all. This is an impossible situation. You're handling it very well."
"Thank you." She wiped her eyes with her sleeve. "Do you know, Walter kissed me just once? But it was pleasant, and I looked forward to kissing him again... And now I have no such comfort..."
I continued to hold her slightly, not knowing what to say. Then, suddenly, she twisted round and put her own arms around me. "Kiss me, please, Simon," she said.
I paused for a second, knowing that anything I could do would be wrong. But it was too long since I'd had a girl embracing me, so I just succumbed to temptation and kissed her carefully, but full on the lips.
She pressed herself against me in the kiss, and I remembered that we had just two garments between us, and the fabric that the House used to make our clothes was soft and not thick, although it was enough for its purpose. Augusta had nice young breasts, as it felt to me.