July 25, 2119—The lace tablecloth was almost real beneath my fingers. Settings of fine china, sterling silverware, and crystal goblets glimmered before me. I wore a burgundy gown in the Empire fashion; it was pretty, but the fabric was stiff and chafed under the arms. The waistband of my underwear was too tight. I pulled at it; did anyone notice? My leg itched, and I couldn’t help but scratch it.
The hostess gave me no clues about how to conduct myself in the formal setting. She was a woman several years my senior, wearing a silvery satin gown. The other guests seated around the table made small talk about the weather. One large-busted lady with pudgy hands asked me, with a sneer, about my journey from
“Lovely,” “Delightful,” “Nauseating…” I tried all of the above, but she merely rolled her eyes and looked away.
An elderly man, with a hump on his back, stared at me sullenly from under his bushy eyebrows without saying a word. A plain younger lady, dressed in lavender silk, snickered at my responses.
A glass of ruby wine sat before me on the table, beckoning. Though I was thirsty, I did not pick it up. Finally, a servant came from behind and ladled a greenish soup into the bowl at my place. To my right were several spoons laid out, all similar in size. I chose the one furthest from the bowl, and, after waiting for the hostess, began to eat. The soup was bland, but I was hungry, and devoured it. Suddenly, the conversation flagged. I looked up to see the other guests staring at me, aghast. I dropped the spoon into my bowl, and the room and the people all faded away.
I was left sitting in the black simulation room on a folding chair with a card table in front of me, on which there was a bowl of soup and a glass of wine. Jake’s voice boomed out of the darkness.
“Cassie! What was that?”
“I was hungry.”
“It doesn’t matter! If you’re at a dinner party, you have to eat like you’re barely interested in the food. You’ve got to make conversation between delicate bites, not down the meal like a football player!”
“I’m sorry. Can we start again?”
“We’ll start from when the soup gets served.”
I repeated the dinner party simulation five times before getting every detail correct.
—Cassandra Reilly, prep-journal
Cassandra’s son burst into her office, startling her. “Doing a little shopping, Mom?”
She laughed. It was always good to see him. Above her desk, a holographic, brown velvet gown slowly rotated. “Yes, this one is nice. What do you think?”
“I have no opinion.” He pushed his shaggy black hair out of his face and plopped into a chair.
“I think it will do. I shall have
Shannon put it together for me and
fit it, then that will make six dresses. They are quite lightweight for winter
gowns; it’s a miracle, I mean, it is a miracle women did not freeze to death.
But, then, I will be wearing a heavy cloak and winter shoes, so there will be
less to pack. I shall order more in London
when I get there and have them sent down to Hampshire. I wonder how long will it take.”
James opened his mouth, but Cassandra cut him off before he could speak, “probably a couple of weeks,” with a command, she called up an array of shoes, gloves, and bags on the display. “Women then did not have as many changes of clothes as we do now, six should be enough. Well, maybe one more for good measure.”
“Mom, don’t go crazy. Remember, you’ll also be carrying nightclothes, underwear, and God knows what else women needed back then.”
“They did not have heavy undergarments in 1820. No corsets or bustles—I do not think I could deal with that.”
“Yeah, but you also have to take a cosmetics case with all your potions and creams and stuff.”
“Yes, you are right. I will just be carrying my luggage from the portal exit to The White Hart Inn, but it cannot be so much that I’m not able to handle it by myself.”
“You used a contraction.”
“You said, ‘I’m’ instead of ‘I am.’”
“Oh, thank you.”
“By the way, how did the inquest go?” James’s dark eyes sparkled.
Cassandra chuckled. “It was not exactly an inquest. Just a ritual we have to go through with the Board of Trustees every year to make sure we have the funds for the next project.”
“Which hopefully will be my journey.”
“Yes, but you have to pick a time and place, and if you do not submit a proposal soon, you might get passed over. Suhan is next in line after you, you know.”
“Yeah. Anyway, I came in here to tell you that we’ll be ready to put Jake through the portal on January second, and as soon as he has all your details secure and he’s back, you go.”
“Excellent.” What a gorgeous evening shawl that now spun in the air before her eyes!
“I wish I could go with him,” James said suddenly.
She turned from the shawl. “Why?”
“Because I want to make sure he gets everything right.”
“Oh, please, Jake is an experienced time-traveler. I trust him completely.”
“Yeah, but I’m worried about you going for so long, and if I were there, at least I could be certain that he finds you the perfect house, in the perfect place—”
“I have never known you to be so concerned about me. I think you just want in on the action.”
“No, that’s not true. I’m very concerned about you. You’re going to be gone a long time, and you’re going to be all on your own. I’ll be worried about you.”
“I appreciate that, sweetheart,” she said. Could he possibly be sincere? “However, the more we just focus on getting the details of my trip right in the here and now, the better off I shall be. Speaking of which, how is the coin duplication going?”
“Slowly. I still don’t see why Jake can’t just open your account with bills. Everyone used them then, especially in such large quantities.”
“James, we have been over this. If we used bills, it would just be counterfeiting, and frankly, it would be a little harder to reproduce the look and feel of them as accurately as gold coins, since we have almost no examples of the bills. And, just like counterfeiting, introducing that many bills into the circulation that have no silver or gold to back them up would impact the economy negatively. Not hugely, and not for a while, but the last thing we want to do is cause any significant impact, negative or not.”
“The good old Bank of England will sure be surprised when Jake walks in with a bag full of gold. I just hope he can get it safely from the portal exit to The White Hart, and then from there to the bank.”
“It will be a challenge, but Jake can handle it. He is a strong man, and he does not have to carry many other things, like I do.”
“Too bad they didn’t have hover-luggage back then.”
“Or at least luggage with wheels. Has Jake identified a realtor?”
“Mom, I’m sure they weren’t called realtors.”
“Right you are—purveyors of property. Thank you.”
“Well, the research shows that one of the most reputable ‘purveyors of property’ was Hacket and Smith, so Jake’s going to try them first. And January’s a good time to put a house up for rent.”
“‘Let’ a house James, say ‘let.’ I have to get used to using the right words.”
“Okay, ‘let’ a house. You’re the one who has to say it, not me.”
“I am practicing.”
“I know. Anyway, everyone will be in town for ‘the season,’ as they say, including those who may have great property wealth but little cash to speak of. It won’t be hard to find the sort of family that’s eager to let their estate, complete with furniture and all but their own personal servants for at least a year; especially if you’re willing to pay well, which you are.”
“Just like in Persuasion,” mused Cassandra.
“Right,” James said, rolling his eyes.
“Well, I know you do not understand, but that is the life I want to experience. I want to go, be a good little Hampshire tenant, live quietly in 1820 for a year, mingle as unobtrusively as possible in society, and just live life as closely as I can to how Jane Austen lived it. I will actually be there three years after her death; as you know, I will also be richer than she was, and I will not have my family about me like she did. I am older than she was when she died, and a widow (she never married), but I will be a single woman in more or less her class of society. I am just going to soak in Jane’s countryside, her home, her England.”
“Well, you do not have to comprehend my reasons. I am just glad you are part of the team. You know the technical aspect almost better than I do, and that makes me feel safe.”
James leaned forward in his chair. “Could you just tell me one more time why you’re not going a few years earlier so you can meet ole’ Jane herself? I don’t get it.”
Cassandra sighed. “Because I do not want to…it is too…” She’d had trouble explaining this before, even to the Board. “I guess I do not want to intrude on her life. Meeting her is not the object; understanding the world she lived in is.”
“Whatever you say.” James stood and ruffled the top of his mother’s hair.
Twenty-four years old, and still a pest. “Please refrain from doing that, James. You know I do not like it.” She rearranged her auburn curls.
“That’s why I do it,” he returned with a grin. “See ya later, mom.” He bounded out the door.
She shook her head with a smile, and went back to the hologram of a particularly adorable pair of evening slippers that were slowly twirling around in space above her desk.
Jan 1st, 2120—First day of the New Year. I’m so excited about my upcoming journey, my stomach is churning, my mind is racing, and I’m trying not to turn into a complete nervous wreck. Jake leaves tomorrow to get things set up for me. Depending on how long it takes him to get everything ready, I’ll go about two weeks later. So today, I spent some time checking in on my townhouse in Boston with the virtual-cam, just to make sure everything’s in good order there. I’ve been doing it every couple of weeks since we moved to our temporary lab in London, and I probably won’t have another chance before I leave.
As I virtually walked through the old house, I realized how much I miss it. I remember when Franklin and I bought it; we couldn’t believe our luck at finding a place that, though nearly three hundred years old, was large enough to accommodate the Steinway (which I also desperately miss). Going from room to room in that home we made together brought back so many memories about our life, and raising James there.
When James asked me a few days ago why I’m making this journey, I realized I hadn’t been totally honest with myself, with him, or with the Board. Yes, of course, the main reason is to experience Regency England thoroughly, as no mere historian could. Franklin always knew I wanted to visit that time, and would have been so supportive, though if he’d still been living, I wouldn’t have gone for an entire year. He sacrificed so much…even his life, to further understand and perfect time-travel, so, in a way, this trip is to honor him. To that end, I’ll be using his first name as my last. However, in another sense, I’ll be finally leaving him and his death behind. It’s been five years. Five years of struggling to do my work, and to see James through the loss, and to deal with it the best I could. Now, just let me escape. Let me fall into a world where no-one knows me, where I can see new things and meet new people in a place where nothing reminds me of him. Maybe doing that for a year will make me feel like a new person. Then I can return fresh, having taken a break from the present for 365 days.
-Cassandra Reilly, prep-journal
It was nine-thirty at night, Tuesday, January second. The entire team, including Cassandra, gathered in the crowded lab that had been constructed in a London alleyway. From the outside, it resembled a long rectangular metal box with a door at the front, essentially a glorified trailer. It took up every square centimeter of the alley, which dead-ended after about thirty meters, and was about two and a half meters wide, situated just off Long Acre in Covent Garden. It seemed nothing about it had changed at all in the last three hundred years, other than in present day it was used for the recycling waste of the buildings on either side. The Chronology Department had paid the building managers well to make other arrangements for the fourteen months or so that the lab would be in place. Tonight, the passersby and residents of the area had stared at Cassandra as she entered, like they always did, and at the strange edifice with many odd antennae, poles, and wires protruding from the roof. Its true purpose was a secret, at least for now. Although the general population had known of Carver’s discovery of time-travel for many years, it wasn’t helpful to have the curious snooping about.
At the back of the lab was the pod, a vertical tube accessed by a sliding door. In many ways, it resembled nothing more than a shower stall. Jake stood in front of it, ready to go, in a brown waistcoat and high-collared white shirt, slim, high-waisted trousers covering black boots, a double-breasted frock coat for warmth, and a tall, black hat on his head. In one hand, he held a small satchel of extra clothing, in the other a bag filled with the equivalent of five hundred British pounds in gold coins. He would fit in just fine with his pale skin, light brown, wavy hair, blue eyes, and open, friendly face. He and Cassandra had practiced the speech and mannerisms of Regency England endlessly while they participated in the virtual reality simulations. She was confident he was prepared for this moment.
Small flickers of light darted back and forth on the heat sensor monitor—cats and rats, by the size of them—but no humans in the alley. Cassandra chewed on her nail. Another half hour ticked by. Come on, let’s do this! It would be cold and dark in that alleyway when Jake emerged; the date would even be two days later just because of the change of calendar from one year to the next. The streets would probably be empty on a frigid January fourth, which was good, but if they waited much longer, the inn might be closed for the night. Jake stepped into the pod with his bags, and everyone stood ready at their stations. James was manning the travel mode. Cassandra looked over his shoulder. Yes, the functions were correctly set; all systems were go. Jake waved enthusiastically, the pod door slid closed, the computer sounded a tone, the pod hummed, and within a second, he was gone. In a matter of days, it would be her turn.
Why is it so dark? Cassandra groped around, trying to grasp something that would let her know for sure she’d emerged from the portal exit. A faint flicker came into her field of vision: firelight glowing in the few small windows of thick glass that shone onto the alleyway. A gas lamp softly glowed out on the street. Of course! Electricity made a huge difference to the brightness of a city, and here there was none. She turned her head skyward. Above her were a million stars—a peculiarly vivid night sky for London. She shook her head to clear it; she had to hurry. It would be dangerous to be caught there alone; she clutched the knife in her cloak pocket. A second later, the cold hit her. She wasn’t dressed for it. She let the knife fall back into her pocket, grabbed her two bags, and ran to the street. She turned left; the inn was just one short block away. She passed only two or three people hurrying through the freezing night air. In a matter of minutes, she arrived at The White Hart Inn and breathed a sigh of relief. A doorman showed her in with a look of surprise and immediately relieved her of her bags, which were then passed off to the bellman...