About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A Sterkarm Tryst
By Susan Price
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Susan Price
All rights reserved.
21st Side: Dilsmead Hall, Headquarters of Farquharson-Upp Products
The computers hummed, buzzed, and pinged. The geeks peering worshipfully at the screens were ecstatic because they'd just brought a time machine safely home from the 16th-century Dimension B to their own 21st century, in whatever dimension it existed. Or, as they put it, from 16th-side B to 21st-side.
And now, oh joy, they could prepare it for another jump of five hundred years, to 16th-side A. Geek paradise.
James Windsor, who was not a geek, stood with his back to the office window, watching them at play. He felt the kindly indulgence of a god toward his frail creations. Bless the little geeks. They wouldn't have their shiny toys without him. And did they bow down before him in humble gratitude? No. He should probably smite them but couldn't be arsed.
He turned his back on his minions to look at out at the impressive redbrick pile of FUP's headquarters, Dilsmead Hall. It was busy out there. The economy's wheel was being turned and all because of him. Land Rovers, big and square, were ruining the lawn and gravel paths as they queued to drive up the ramp into the Tube.
The ramp rose from the gravel to the platform in front of the enormous, custom-made concrete tube that housed the Tube. From where Windsor stood, the Tube was mostly out of sight. The office had been built alongside it, and even if Windsor had pressed his face against the window and peered to one side — which he wasn't going to do: dignity, always dignity — he would only have glimpsed a little of one steel-and-concrete end.
Windsor studied the assembled mercenaries. Some leaned on the Land Rovers or sprawled inside them. Others gawped at the Tube, through which they would be traveling shortly, on a journey lasting five hundred years. The majority lay on the grass or played with phones. Their addiction to the gadgets was amusing. On the 16th side, there were no satellites or cable or Wi-Fi of any kind. The moment they arrived, their dongles would be useless. The horror of cold turkey would be upon them.
A few kicked a football about. Windsor wondered if they planned on taking the football with them, maybe giving the Sterkarms a game. Sport mimicked warfare, went the theory — well, the Sterkarms dropped the mimicry. Their football games were a pitched battle with a blown-up pig's bladder somewhere in the middle.
He doubted if any of the yobbos appreciated the wonder of the machinery they were about to enter. It had been spun to them as "the next advance in high-speed travel." They were being taken, at high speed, to deal with "terrorists" — that useful word — who were making trouble for FUP. Reducing FUP's profit meant less income for Great Britain, which meant less money in their wage packets. So, obviously, those terrorists needed sorting out at the double. Luckily, it was all happening in a distant part of the world, too remote and lawless for British or international law to apply. The yobbos had been happy to believe it. Windsor doubted that men who became mercenaries had much interest in human rights.
A ringing clang drew his attention to the Tube. He went out onto the viewing platform, from which he could see the Tube, slung in its frame of red painted steel. Its 21st end had just "come home" from "traveling" — that was how the geeks phrased it — and its passengers were disembarking, fresh from the 16th century. Or, one dimension of the 16th century anyway.
At the top of the ramp, a man struggled to lead a horse from the Tube's mouth. The horse stamped, and the ramp resounded like a drum under its hooves. Other horses were already on the lawn. They weren't clipped, glossy 21st-century pets, but stocky beasts with short, thick necks — more pony than horse. Their coats were shaggy, their long manes and tails hung to the ground, and they didn't like the ramp, or the Land Rovers, or the plane that flew overhead, or anything about the 21st century at all. They threw up their heads and lifted the men who fought them off their feet.
Windsor looked among the the 16th siders for one person in particular: a tall, slim, fair-haired young man. Several matched that description. They all wore their working gear: sleeveless leather jerkins over gray woolen shirts and long, thigh-high leather boots over woolen breeches.
Windsor spotted Per Toorkildsson Sterkarm. Per, son of Big Toorkild, had coaxed his horse down the ramp almost to the gravel. He wore a pair of cut-off blue jeans with his long boots. Windsor had given him those jeans. Now he watched him with close attention, even though he was not the Per Sterkarm who'd put a lance through Windsor's guts, thereby granting him months of pain, operations, ongoing medical treatment, and steep bills. This was not the Per Sterkarm who'd made a fool of Windsor. This was not that Per Sterkarm, not his Per Sterkarm.
The boy on the ramp, fresh out of the Tube, was Per Sterkarm-B, from 16th-Side B, the second dimension of the 16th Century opened by the Time Tube. Per-B didn't know it, but he was the little pal who was going to help Windsor settle the score with his Per Sterkarm.
Settling the score was going to be sweet, sweet, so sweet.
He'd been in a hard corner after Per Sterkarm-A — his Per Sterkarm — had burned down the Tube, losing FUP millions of pounds of expensive technology. He and his robber gang had murdered FUP operatives too, resulting in lots of fuss about compensation, insurance, and hush money so shareholders wouldn't piddle themselves.
Windsor had his enemies: shed-loads of them. Of course he did. Any successful man had enemies; it was a badge of honor. Those enemies had swiftly blamed the whole shebang on him. They'd done it while he'd been nearly dead, making it hard to defend himself. The Tube had always been his project, so they accused him of managing it badly, letting things get out of control, running it as a vanity project without regard to profit, etc, etc. Accounts had always hated him.
He could have taken the easy way: resigned, walked away with a golden handshake, spent a relaxing year somewhere sunny before looking around for another job. Plenty of companies would have welcomed someone with his talent, contacts, and vision.
But that would have given accounts the victory. It would have meant that the Sterkarm kid — the thuggish, uneducated, bred-in-a-pigsty, illiterate Sterkarm kid — had beaten him. Not even Oxbridge graduates with titles and PhDs beat him. That situation just didn't exist in this world. Or any other.
So, starting from his sickbed, he'd worked harder than he had since joining the company. He'd pulled in favors, played the wounded soldier, sweated blood, oozed charm, grinned, phoned people, schmoozed, paid for dinners and tickets ... He'd worked to stay at FUP because only FUP had a Time Tube, and only with the Time Tube could he settle up with Per Sterkarm.
And when he'd convinced the directors and all of upper management that James Windsor was the coming Messiah, when he was sure he'd keep his job, then he'd worked to keep the Tube operational. How much had been sunk into drilling before the oil business showed a profit? How much into research before stem-cell technology had gone into the black? It would be criminally shortsighted to close the Tube now, when they'd learned so much.
Plenty of people in upper management didn't understand the Tube project at all, but would never admit it. "Reopen the Tube, and we save our investment," he'd told them. "Open another dimension and we limit our resource expenditure by limiting the Tube's range. At the same time, we double our gains."
If they weren't bold — they loved the idea of being bold — then some other company would learn from their lessons and make the billions. He even convinced some in accounts that glory, knighthoods, wealth, and marriage into the minor bloody royal family lay with keeping the Tube open and James Windsor in charge of it.
He'd razzle-dazzled. He'd never worked harder.
Every inch he'd had to crawl to keep his job, every backstabber he'd had to befriend, every little extra humiliation he'd had to go through in order to stay, every bean counter he'd had to charm ... he'd added it all, with interest, to the bill he had to settle with Per Sterkarm of 16th-side A.
Windsor stepped back into the office, looking around for the shift supervisor. The man was leaning over a keyboard geek, their heads cozily together as they stared at the same screen. Windsor waited until he looked up. Once he caught Windsor's eye, he came over. Six-foot and skinny, wearing specs instead of having his eyes fixed. Nerd.
"Have you set up the arrival?" Windsor asked. "I want the Tube arriving 16thside A at that exact time. No sooner, no later."
"Yes, all done." The head geek stooped down from his great height, rubbing his hands together.
Windsor had no intention of explaining why arrival was to be so exact. He didn't want people thinking about it. On that date, at that time, Andrea Mitchell had conned her way through the Tube with a forged pass stolen from his office. Off she'd gone, a bitch in heat, chasing her 16th-side-A lover boy to warn him that they were coming. Betraying her own people in the process.
They'd had to let her go because they hadn't been ready. It had taken time to organize the mercenaries, and more time to muster and bring the Sterkarms-B through from 16th-side B. But that was the beauty of a Time Tube. They could have organized for ten years and still arrive in 16th-side A thirty seconds behind Mitchell.
Windsor would have loved to have arrived before Mitchell, catching her as she emerged from the Tube, 16th side, but the very idea of crossing the time lines sent the geeks into such a panic that it became boring. Thirty seconds after was close enough.
His Per Sterkarm might even now be happily looting and murdering 16th-side A, but he was soon going to find out what it meant to get on the wrong side of James Windsor. Ruined towers. Burned fields. Starvation and exposure. Dead family.
Windsor returned to the window, and saw Patterson come out of Dilsmead Hall. Time to go and make sure Patterson was still onside. And to charm Per-B. They were the very best of friends, he and Per-B. Buddies. Pals. Mates to the very end.
Patterson, head of Windsor's private army, stood with Tuzzio, their heads stooped over the clipboards they each held.
Tuzzio was to stay behind, in the 21st, with a backup force, in case of emergencies. They were making sure they both had all the same details.
Land Rovers, spare parts. Fuel. Ammo. Ration ... Patterson's mind roamed around proliferating detail, checking, double-checking, and rethinking.
Now all they had to do was finish bringing the Sterkarms-B and their horses through the Tube from 16th-side B, then turn them around and take them back through it again — only, this time, to 16th-side A. Same place, same time, but a whole different dimension. Easy.
The Sterkarms believed that 21st siders were Elves, and that Windsor — "Elf-Windsor" — was the Elves' clan chief or some such bollocks. Laird Windsor had spun the Sterkarms some bull about bringing them into Elf-Land to fight on his side in an Elvish civil war. But watch out, because Windsor's dastardly Elvish enemies had cast spells to make themselves and Elf-Land look like the Sterkarms' own world and people. The Sterkarms seemed to have bought it. Well, when you saw what educated 21st-century people would believe, you couldn't blame them.
A boom from the Tube's platform made both Patterson and Tuzzio look up. Per Sterkarm was struggling with his horse. He'd wrapped a blanket around the animal's head, presumably reasoning that if it couldn't see anything frightening, it wouldn't be frightened. Patterson wasn't surprised that this didn't help much. If somebody stuck a bag over his head, he'd be more scared, not less. Young Sterkarm stroked the horse and crooned to it long past the point that Patterson would have given up, and slowly, slowly, the animal came down the ramp onto the gravel. Hoo-bloody-ray. At this rate, they'd be ready to leave in another fortnight.
A smaller, faster animal raced down the ramp, darted to Per and rose on its hind legs to put its front paws on his shoulders. His dog. The one like a huge, shaggy greyhound. "Fuck's sake," Patterson said. Why the Hell had he brought his doggy? They weren't going through the Tube to win Best of Breed.
Clapping his clipboard under his arm, Patterson looked around for Gareth, and impatiently waved him over. He had picked up a few words of Sterkarm but probably not enough for the little chat he needed to have.
Gareth hurried over, his face like a wee bunny's that had just watched its team stuffed 10–1. Never a happy bunny, little Gareth. Bunnies never were when asked to live in a fox's den. Gareth had been embedded 16th side with the Sterkarms-B, taking over the job of reporting back from Andrea Mitchell. You couldn't imagine a man worse fitted for the job. When it came to getting on with Sterkarm men, he lacked Mitchell's two big assets. The Sterkarms hadn't eaten him, but you could tell he knew it was only because they'd never yet been hungry enough.
"With me," Patterson snapped, as Gareth caught up with him, and strode off, leaving Tuzzio to get on by himself.
Gareth scuttled after Patterson, taking no offense at the brusque order, even though he was supposedly Patterson's boss. Both of them knew Patterson was never going to take orders from Gareth, and Gareth was never going to try giving any.
If anybody had ever had the word stooge lettered all the way through him, it was poor little Gareth. He was supposed to be Windsor's eyes and ears among the Sterkarms, but his ability to speak their lingo was the only reason he was here and not locked up 16th side in some Sterkarm equivalent of a bank vault. Windsor had tried to convince the Sterkarms of his good faith by giving them Gareth as a hostage. Basically, if Windsor double-crossed the Sterkarms, they got to murder Gareth. Patterson thought that made Gareth's life expectancy the same as the bunny's in the fox's lair. None of his business, though.
Per Sterkarm stood a little distance from the ramp, stroking his still nervous, shivering horse. Patterson said, "Gareth, if you'd be so good, please ask young Master Sterkarm why he's seen fit to bring his dog walkies?"
Gareth looked sick but called out, "Master Sterkarm!" Per turned, and Gareth said something that Patterson couldn't follow, though he caught "vorfor," or "why," and the word hund.
Young Sterkarm patted his horse's nose while glowering at them like a sulky teenager. Fair play, Patterson thought: He was a sulky teenager. He snarled something, his voice hoarse. None of the Sterkarms ever seemed to talk at normal volume. They always yelled. When they weren't yelling at one another across damp valleys, they were yelling at one another in smoky hovels, so their voices were always dry, strained and ragged. Listening to them yell their language of hard, throaty sounds was like standing outside a bronchial ward full of thirty-a-day smokers first thing in the morning.
"He says," Gareth reported, "that it's his dog, Cuddy."
"I didn't think it was his fucking mother, and I don't care what bloody name he gives it. I want to know why it's here instead of back in that flea pit they call home."
Gareth, bless him, earnestly translated this — probably turning it into "Lord Patterson is worried that your lovely doggy might get a wee splinter in its pawsie-paw." Patterson's gaze wandered and he spotted James Windsor coming down the steps of the Tube's office. Oh, bollocks. The perfect bloody day was complete. At least Windsor wore a suit, instead of pitching up in battle dress, as he'd done the last time they'd gone through, complete with beret and a swagger stick. That had been bloody embarrassing.
Windsor was the paymaster, so what he said went, but Patterson didn't have to like him, and he didn't. The man was another soft-fingered civilian arsehole who wanted Patterson to sort out his messes. For instance, he wanted Patterson to kill Andrea Mitchell for him. He hadn't said so, not straight out. He was cleverer than that. Instead, he'd muttered about "friendly fire" and smirked and nodded, but the message was clear. Mitchell was a problem to Windsor, so Windsor wanted rid, without getting his quiff mussed. Or upsetting the shareholders.
Excerpted from A Sterkarm Tryst by Susan Price. Copyright © 2017 Susan Price. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.