Clocks and Boxes — Part 29: Homewards

Delia opened her eyes slowly and took in her surroundings. She was lying on an old-fashioned chaise-lounge, fully dressed but covered by a light blanket. The chaise-lounge was up against one wall of a modestly sized living room, decorated with green patterned wallpaper, some potted ferns and a portrait of a stern looking moustachioed man in a crimson uniform. Other than the lounge, there were a couple of leather-upholstered armchairs and a coffee table. There was no sign of a television, or any other electronics for that matter.

A loud ticking sound seemed to come from several sources at once – a huge dark-wooded grandfather clock at one end of the room and a mantle clock over the fireplace at the other end. Delia noticed that the grandfather clock ticked slightly more quickly than the mantle clock, as if their mechanisms were running at different rates. In a way, this pleased her. After coming here in such a bizarre way, it would be unfortunate if 'here' was not a desperately odd place.

The door opened, and in walked a woman, a short Aboriginal woman in a white lace Victorian dress. She carried a tea-tray which she deposited on the coffee table. "Awake, aye?" she said.

"I'm awake," Delia said. Should she also ask where she was? No, the answer was probably coming whether she asked or not.

"Tea?"

"Please."

Delia rose from the lounge and took a seat in a leather armchair.

"Do you know who I am?" the woman said in a thick accent.

"You're Sarah Hertling, aren't you?" Delia guessed. "Wife of Colonel Frederick Hertling. Our whole suburb was named after him."

"I was named after him, too," Sarah said. "Do you think I was born with the name 'Hertling'? And my mob didn't name your suburb after the first white bloke to show his muttonchops. Milk?"

"Please. What did you call it?"

Sarah said a word that Delia wisely did not attempt to pronounce. "Translated, it means 'place of excessive weirdness, do not camp there.' I told Freddy that. 'Don't build your shit here,' I said. 'No good will come of it,' I said. Did he listen? Course not!"

"He was a man, wasn't he?"

Sarah laughed. "Yes he was. He was also a white bloke. I say that so you understand that the 'we're all women here together' talk will only get you so far, understand?"

"Understood."

"Anyway, silly old Fred Hertling decided this place would be a good place to set up a town. Oh, he meant well, I guess. It was his way of taking my people's land without putting any of us out – take the part we try to avoid. Thought we avoided the area because of superstition. It didn’t matter how much I argued, he built right on top of it. Put our house right in the centre of everything. Silly man. Sometimes I wonder why I married him."

Delia sipped her tea. "I always assumed 'married' was a euphemism," she said, carefully.

"Surprisingly, it wasn't," Sarah said. "Oh, he was an awful, thoughtless greedy, pig-headed colonist. But he wasn't a rapist. That's a pretty low bar but, fair does, he cleared it. He asked me nicely to marry him, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Huh. They could write that on my gravestone – 'seemed like a good idea at the time.' They could write it on Fred's too."

"That could be anybody's epitaph."

Delia looked around the room. They weren't on Earth. She was pretty sure of that. She was just beginning to get used to the idea of not being on Earth all the time. There's often a race in these situations between 'getting used to' and 'freaking out completely' and here 'getting used to' seemed to be winning. This was pleasing. Spatial order was her specialty, but ordering things in time was another important antidote to chaos.

"Where are we?" Delia said.

"Where do you think?"

"Well, that clock is going faster than that one at the other end of the room, so we must be moving at a pretty fair fraction of the speed of light."

"Well done," Sarah said. "When my beloved husband broke Space, it threw our house across the galaxy. I was home alone when it happened. I was alone on an alien world for a very long time. A very long time. Years. Centuries maybe. I discovered a derelict spaceship. Had no idea what it was or how it worked, but I had all the time in the world to figure it out. Eventually, I got some help and I was able to launch it again. I've been accelerating back to Earth since then."

Delia stood and went to the window. She pulled the curtain aside and saw nothing but empty space and a few distant stars.

"How long until we get home?"

Sarah shrugged. "Relativity, yeah? Time as you know it doesn't have much meaning at the speeds we're travelling, and we're still accelerating. I don't seem to be aging, so I'll probably live until we get home. As for you, well, we'll just have to see."

Delia felt into the pocket of her jacket and found the Measure there, but she could not find the watch. Could she use it perhaps to shorten the journey?

"Who did you get help from?" Delia said.

"He – or she – said not to tell you when I saw you," Sarah said. "They said you'd be coming. I hoped it would be sooner. I could use the company. I already went mad from lonliness, but after about ten years or so I got so bored with being mad that I went sane again."

"Oh, you're from South Hertling alright," Delia said with a shake of her head, "if you think that's how mental illness works."

Sarah laughed again. "I like you," she said, "though admittedly you don't have a lot of competition. Another tea?"

"Please."

"There's a question you haven't asked yet," Sarah said. "'How did Fred break space?'"

Delia gazed up at the ceiling. "It was a question I was considering. And I suspect the answer has something to do with a glass skull?"

Sarah stopped buttering a scone and smiled at her guest. "Well done," she said. "Now, did you ever wonder why there isn't a North Hertling?"

Delia didn't know why, but somehow the very question made her stomach churn.

Next -- Part 30: Imprisoned

Previously -- Part 28: Accompli

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