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The Sterkarm Handshake
By Susan Price
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Susan Price
All rights reserved.
16TH SIDE: A ROBBERY
From out of the surrounding hills came a ringing silence that was only deepened by the plodding of the pack ponies' hooves on the turf and the flirting of their tails against their sides. Above, the sky was a clear pale blue, but the breeze was strong.
There were four members of the Geological Survey Team: Malc, Tim, Dave and Caro. They'd left the 21st that morning at eight, coming through the Tube to the 16th, where the plan was to spend four days. None of them had ever been so far from home before, and they often looked back at the Tube, their only way back.
It was when they lost sight of the Tube among the folds of the hills that trouble arrived.
Three horses, with riders, picked their way down the hillside toward them. The horses were all black and thickset and shaggy, with manes and tails hanging almost to the ground. The riders' helmets had been blackened with soot and grease, to keep them from rust, or covered with sheepskin so they looked like hats. Their other clothes were all buffs and browns, blending into the buffs, browns and greens all around them. Long leather riding boots rose over their knees. On they came with a clumping of hooves and a jangling of harness, carrying eight-foot-long lances with ease.
"It's all right," Malc said. "Don't worry. They're just coming to check us out."
"There's others," Caro said. There were men on foot, about eight of them, running behind the riders.
The riders reached them first, and circled them, making the geologists crowd closer together, while still clinging to the halters of the pack ponies. The riders' lances remained in the upright, carrying position, but this wasn't reassuring.
Up came the men on foot, and the riders reined in to let them through. The footmen were all bearded and longhaired, and had long knives and clubs in their hands. A couple had pikes. Without any preamble, they laid hands on the ponies' halters and tugged them out of the geologists' hands.
"Don't argue," Malc said. "Dave, let it go. Let them have whatever they want."
Two of the riders reached down from their saddles and placed their lances on the turf before dismounting and handing their reins to the third — a boy of about fourteen — who remained on his horse. They had a look of each other, the riders, like brothers. The first to dismount was probably the eldest. He was bearded, but no older than about twenty. He went straight up to Malc and began to pull the backpack from his shoulders.
"I thought they'd agreed not to rob us anymore," Caro said, taking off her own backpack as the other dismounted rider came toward her.
"Just don't annoy them," Malc said.
As Dave and Tim shrugged out of their backpacks, one of the bearded footmen called out something — in a speech that sounded like coughing and snarling. His companions all laughed.
The geologists looked anxiously at each other. They didn't understand the joke, and were afraid of how far it might be taken.
The second dismounted rider suddenly caught Tim's hand and pulled his arm out straight. For a moment Tim looked into an almost beardless and strikingly pretty face — and then the young man was dragging at his wristwatch, pulling the expandable bracelet off over his hand. He stared Tim in the face for a moment, and then snatched off the geologist's spectacles before moving on to Dave and grabbing at his hands too. Dave took his wristwatch off and gave it to him.
Malc and Caro, catching on, quickly took off their wristwatches and handed them over.
The first rider, the bearded one, seemed not to like the pretty one having all the watches, and a coughing, snarling argument started between them. While it went on, Malc caught sight of Caro's face, set in a grimace of fright. The other two looked much the same, and he supposed that his own face also reflected his painful uncertainty and fear.
The argument ended with the pretty thief handing two of the wristwatches to the bearded one, who immediately turned to Malc, grabbed his waterproof and pulled at it, snarling something.
Malc pulled his waterproof off over his head. The others hurried to do the same.
The pretty rider gestured at their other clothes. Take them all off, he seemed to mean. Certainly, when they hesitated, there were more peremptory gestures and snarled words.
Caro saw the way the footmen gathered closer as she pulled off her sweater, and she stopped, only to be shoved, and staggered on her feet, by the horseman with the lance. When she still hesitated, he grabbed at her shirt, pulling the buttons undone and exposing her bra.
"Caro, do as they want," Tim said. "It'll be all right. We're here."
Malc, Tim and Dave all edged closer to her, trying to shield her, but she knew perfectly well that there was nothing they could do to protect her, outnumbered and unarmed as they were. She took off her shirt, shaking with fear. There was nothing remotely exhilarating about the feeling. She felt sick and desperate, and wished she'd never left the humdrum safety of the 21st side.
They took off all their upper clothing, but still weren't undressing quickly enough for the liking of their attackers, who dragged at their arms, and pushed them, to hurry them up. One of the footmen, by pointing, made it clear that he wanted their boots — and then, when they were seen to be wearing thick socks, the socks were pulled off their feet and their trousers tugged at.
They stripped down to their underpants, which caused hilarity, and the pointing and jeering was as threatening as the shoves.
Despite being so funny, their underpants were taken too, leaving the survey team standing naked in the breeze. As their skin roughened with goose pimples, their attackers walked around them, examining them from all sides, pointing, making remarks and laughing.
Caro closed her eyes and held her breath, feeling her heart thumping heavily under her breastbone.
But then the riders mounted again, took up their lances, and the whole party left with their loot, the footmen leading the pack ponies.
The survey team were left, shaking but still alive, to walk over rough country, naked and barefoot, all the way back to the Tube and the 21st.CHAPTER 2
21ST SIDE: THE OTHER END OF THE TUBE
Bryce was trying to make his budget work, and thinking of opening up a game of X-Fighters instead, when his phone rang. He reached for it with relief.
"Mr. Bryce? Alex here." The head of the guards at the Tube. "I think we need you. The Sterkarms are playing games again."
"Be right there."
Dilsmead Hall was a large and beautiful mansion built by a nineteenth-century manufacturer, and Bryce's office was on its upper floor. FUP had taken it over, to house their northern enterprise, but had taken a much-publicized pride in preserving as much of the house as possible. Bryce hurried along a wide landing of golden, polished wood. Framed portraits hung on the walls, and a large arrangement of silk flowers stood in a copper vase on a small table. A sweet smell of polish hung in the air.
Bryce didn't bother waiting for an elevator but ran down the polished wooden stairs. A big window on the half landing gave him a view over the Hall's grounds: green lawns, bright flower beds and big, spreading trees.
On the ground floor he followed what had once been a service corridor — narrow and dark, with plastered, painted walls — toward the rear of the house. He emerged onto the wide graveled drive that ran all around the Hall. On the other side of the drive, on the grass of the lawn, were the buildings that housed the most expensive, secret and technologically advanced of all FUP's projects: the Time Tube.
Nearest to him was a small shed, painted a drab olive green. A notice on its door said, "Danger! No unauthorized entry." Inside was what made the whole project possible: a cold-fusion reactor, no bigger than a small family car. Until it had been developed, the Tube itself had been merely theoretical.
Beside the generator was a small prefabricated office, one of those raised above the ground on stilts, with steps leading up to its door. It had the flimsy, temporary appearance of all such buildings, and looked shoddy beside the solid redbrick of the Hall. Its paintwork, a bright, pale yellow, had rapidly become grubby and grayed as the rain had layered it with dirt. The office held the control room for the Tube. Technicians seated at computer consoles monitored the power output from the generator, the degree of torque on the Tube, the electromagnetic field, and many other things that Bryce, as head of security, didn't pretend to understand.
The Tube itself ran along the side of the office, from front to back. Bryce noted that its whole length was visible — that was, its whole length was here in the twenty-first century. Which meant that it had been closed down. Which meant trouble. Which usually meant the Sterkarms.
The Tube was housed in a piece of huge industrial concrete piping, raised about six feet off the ground, and supported by a framework of steel girders painted a harsh, flat blue. It was open at either end, and in front of each huge round mouth was a platform, big enough for a truck to drive onto and park when it emerged from the Tube. The platform nearest Bryce was aligned with the control room, and a door opened onto it from the office. The platform at the other end projected well beyond the office and was supported in the air, aligned with nothing. The mouths of the Tube, at both ends, were masked by hanging fringes of plastic strips.
From each platform a ramp with a surface of textured rubber sloped down to the ground. The one nearer Bryce touched the gravel drive. The one that sloped down from the rear platform didn't quite touch the grass of the lawn, and concrete blocks had been placed to support it, when it was present. That ramp hadn't been built for Dilsmead Hall in the twenty-first century. That end of the Tube spent a lot of time in the sixteenth century. It was easy to tell which end was which, because the end that spent all its time in the 21st was dirty. The concrete was gray, and streaked and stained where it touched its supporting girders. The concrete of the half that spent much of its time in the 16th was still white and unstained. The rain of the sixteenth century wasn't full of dirt, and it wasn't acid.
Bryce, like almost everyone else involved in the project, had made the experiment of climbing the cleaner ramp, while it was "home" in the 21st, and lifting the plastic strips so that he could look through it. Usually there would be some colleague standing at the other end, on the platform outside the control room, waving and smiling.
When the Tube was operational, the cleaner end of the Tube disappeared. Bryce had stood on the graveled drive and watched. You heard the noise of the Tube spinning — some part of it, hidden inside the concrete pipe, spun, so he was told. A roar, increasing in pitch to a whine, and then passing almost out of hearing. And then one end of the Tube vanished. It didn't fade, as he'd imagined it might when first told about it. As fast as a light switching off, it blinked out of sight. The Tube then appeared to end in midair, halfway along its length. The girders seemed to end — you could see their squared ends, apparently cut through.
He'd stood and watched as people walked through. From the platform you simply saw them walk through a tunnel, quite straightforwardly, to the other end. If you were outside, standing on the gravel path, it was much stranger. Only half the pipe was visible. You might know that someone was walking through it, but no one fell out of the apparently open end of the pipe. Whoever was in the Tube vanished halfway along, just as the pipe itself did.
Neither the pipe nor the girders were broken off, the control room's supervisor assured him — a pretty woman far too young, in Bryce's opinion, to understand such things, and with a head far too small to contain such knowledge. The cars didn't vanish either. The whole Tube still existed, but one half had passed through to another dimension. It was as if the Tube had been pushed halfway through a hole in a wall. It was still whole and complete. You just couldn't see half of it.
But in that case, Bryce had said, he would be able to see the wall, and he wouldn't be able to see the ends of the girders, looking as if they'd been cut through.
Ah, well, said the supervisor. The analogy didn't follow through in every detail. She'd tried to explain about dimensions, drawing diagrams on her notepad, but Bryce had to admit he couldn't follow a word of it. There were dozens of these dimensions, it seemed. What he had always thought of — and still liked to think of — as the "real world" was just one of them. The idea worried him.
The Tube was enough to give anyone the heebie-jeebies. While the business end was "traveling" — that is, was away in the 16th — you could look through the Tube from the platform outside the control room, and look into the sixteenth century. You couldn't see much except the hanging plastic strips masking the Tube's other end, but you were looking down a tunnel five hundred years long.
But if the people in the 21st looked through from the other end of the Tube while it was "traveling"? This was difficult, because the "broken end" of the Tube was raised off the ground, but some had managed it by sitting on the shoulders of others. They reported that it was just as the physicists had said — you simply looked through to the platform outside the 21st control room. Yet colleagues standing on that platform were simultaneously looking through to the 16th.
Thinking about the Tube too much made his head spin. There was some talk among the physicists, for instance, of people leaving the 21st, spending a day in the 16th, and then being fetched back to the 21st only a minute after they'd left. So they'd have gained a day, except for that minute.
Bryce was grateful that, early on, it had been decided not to attempt anything like this. The two time streams were to be kept compatible, simply to reduce the stress on the human operatives. No one wanted to spend a difficult day in the 16th and then, on returning to the 21st, find another full day of work stretching before them. Time-Tube lag, it was agreed, would be even worse than jet lag.
For himself, Bryce tried to think about the Time Tube as he did about his fridge, and his multimedia console. He wasn't sure how any of them worked. He just expected that they would, was glad when they did and got on with his life.
He ran up the outside steps of the control room and went in, pushing past some people who were standing in the doorway.
The control room was usually a pleasant, well-ordered place, the loudest sound the hum of the air-conditioning and the occasional beep from a computer, the light dimmed by blinds over the windows. But at the moment almost everyone was standing and everyone was chattering and exclaiming.
Bryce was allowed through to the center of the room, where four people were sitting on chairs pulled away from the desks. All of them had on white lab coats, but their legs and feet were bare. All of them were drinking from plastic cups.
"I thought they were going to kill us!" the woman said. "I was so scared! I thought they'd kill us!"
Bryce recognized the Geological Survey Team that had been scheduled to go through to the 16th that morning, taking pack ponies loaded with all the equipment they would need to spend four days over there. "Anyone hurt?" he said.
One of the men — longhaired and bearded, as all male geologists seemed to be — got to his feet. "This isn't good enough! I want to see Windsor! We all want to see Windsor!" His colleagues nodded. "We could have been killed!"
"Have you phoned through to the med room?" Bryce asked the supervisor. She nodded. "I think we should get you to med, don't you?" All of the geologists' bare feet were cut, bleeding and bruised. "They can't walk over gravel in that state. I want some volunteers. You, you, you and you." Bryce had held a command in the army. "Make chairs with your arms — you know how to do that?" A couple of the men he'd chosen clasped their hands together and made a chair for the young woman. "Yes, like that. You, you, you and you. Come on, move."
The geologists were lifted and carried away. One, over his shoulder, said, "We want to see Windsor!"
Bryce took his mobile phone from his pocket and showed it to him. "I'm calling him." But before he did, he turned and looked up at the overhead monitors. "Damn!" The monitors were connected to security cameras on the other end of the Tube, 16th side. One of the screens still showed a distant corner of the chain-link fence around the compound, and the other a beautiful view of the sky. "Haven't they fixed them yet?"
The supervisor came to stand beside him. "They sent someone to look at them."
The motor that swiveled one of the cameras had failed, and before maintenance had got around to fixing it, a bad storm 16th side had damaged the other. "It'd be quicker to fix 'em meself," Bryce said. "But no, can't do that. That's maintenance's job. God, I thought it was hard getting things done in the army."
Excerpted from The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price. Copyright © 1998 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.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. 16th Side: A Robbery,
2. 21st Side: The Other End of the Tube,
3. 16th Side: At Home with the Sterkarms,
4. 16th Side: The Alarm,
5. 16th Side: The Ride,
6. 16th Side: Lunch with the Sterkarms,
7. 16th Side: Per Bairt Hyemma,
8. 21st Side: In Elf-Land,
9. 21st Side: A Hospital Visit,
10. 21st Side: Joe Sterkarm,
11. 21st Side: Per Gaw Hyemma,
12. 16th Side: Burning Down the Elf-House,
13. 21st Side: A Short, Sharp Shock for the Sterkarms,
14. 16th Side: A Council of War,
15. 16th Side: A Falling Out,
16. 21st Side: Land Rovers and Kalashnikovs,
17. 16th Side: An Elf Hunt,
18. 16th Side: Windsor to the Dark Tower Came,
19. 16th Side: Making Promises,
20. 16th Side: Asking a Favor,
21. 16th Side: "Sterkarm!",
22. 16th Side: Hard Going,
23. 16th Side: Making Up,
24. 16th Side: Back to the Tube,
25. 16th Side: Sterkarmer Gaw i Erlf-Lant,
26. 21st Side: Reiving the 21st,
27. 21st Side: The Battle of Dilsmead Hall,
28. 21st Side: "I Have No Wings",
29. 21st and 16th,
Preview: A Sterkarm Kiss,
About the Author,