Clocks and Boxes — Part 39: Romance

Delia arrived at the intersection where Alfred had been cornered by the Huge Evil Bubble. He was pressed against the wall, his hands up in a gesture of surrender. For once, she didn't feel annoyed with Alfred's timidity. She hadn't known exactly what the Huge Evil Bubble would look like, but she hadn't been prepared for… well, a huge bubble. She'd assumed that the description was more poetic than prosaic, and the discovery that it was actually a straightforward, factual description came as a surprise.

The thing was a little under two metres in diameter, translucent and spherical. Some long-forgotten schooling floated to the top of Delia's mind, and she began calculating its volume in cubic centimetres before quashing that foolish equation half completed. The bubble looked basically like a giant white party balloon, except that it was clearly alive and exuded an aura of sheer, unholy menace.

"Don't make any sudden moves," Alfred said, quietly. "I think I've managed to talk it out of eating me, but it won't back off."

"You can communicate with it?" Delia said.

"Sort of. It can't talk. I'm not sure it can understand words, exactly, but it reacts to tone of voice like a pet."

Delia examined the standoff, lost for ideas. Alfred had dropped his comically oversized butterfly net, and Delia's own butterfly net was clearly inadequate for the task, comically oversized though it was itself.

"Perhaps we could lead it somewhere. Trap it. The billiard room, perhaps."

"Why does a spaceship…" Alfred began. "On second thoughts, never mind. I guess I could lead it somewhere, but I'd have to get past it first."

"I could lead it?" Delia asked.

"It's drawn by thoughts of escape," Alfred said. The bubble shuddered at the word and moved towards the stricken shopkeeper. Alfred trembled and closed his eyes, but the Bubble only moved about an inch. "But since you aren't a prisoner in this place, technically you can't esc… you know what."

Delia didn't scratch her head, but she could have.

"What captures bubbles?" she asked.

"That's a good question," Alfred whimpered. "Going to be honest: I've never tried."

"So the Bubble can absorb living creatures…" Delia said. "Can it absorb nonliving matter?"

"If it can, that butterfly net was even more inadequate than I thought."

"Be right back."

"Oh. Good-o."

Delia backtracked up the corridor, past the ballroom, left at the conservatory  and into the kitchen. Most of what she would need was here and so, it happened, was Sarah Hertling.

"How's it going?" she said. "Find the bubble?"

"It has Alfred trapped."

"Oh. Good-o."

"Yes, that's what he said," Delia replied, taking a bucket and a bottle of detergent from the cupboard. "Sarah, do you have one of those very large bubble making sticks? You know, the kind they sell at fairs and kids use once and then end up in the back of the cupboard?"

"Nope."

Delia put down the bucket and the detergent. "There goes that plan then. Sarah, are you sure we need this thing?"

"If we want to restore North Hertling to its rightful place, then yeah. And if we do that, then it will help stabilise the entire Hertling region. And if we do that…"

"Okay, okay," Delia muttered. "How about a vacuum cleaner and a very large balloon?"

Sarah raised an eyebrow. "Are you trying to trap the Bubble in a bigger bubble? Won't work. Even though it can't absorb the bigger bubble, it could still physically break it."

Delia stamped her foot. "Well how were you planning on capturing this thing?" she said. "And holding it until we got back to Earth?"

"I thought you'd just use your magic powers on it. The Watch and the Measure."

Delia's hand slipped into her pocket, coming out again holding the familiar, uncanny brass shape of the Measure. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that between you and Alfred, you have a huge power over space and time," Sarah said. "You could easily use that to trap the Bubble. Thought you'd figure that out yourselves, but I guess a balloon and a vacuum cleaner was more your style?"

Delia reddened. "You haven't been to South Hertling in quite some time. If you had, you'd know that plan was positively sensible by current standards."

Leaving Sarah behind her, she went marching off to find Alfred, who was still  trapped by the Bubble and was now looking almost as bored as he was terrified. "Alfred, dear, do you have the Watch?"

"In my pocket… Oh! Of course! If you have the Measure, then we could…"

"Yeah, yeah. Everyone's a genius. The only trouble is, how do we work these things? The last time we tried, we shot ourselves across the galaxy. And poor Fanaka. How do we actually use these things in a productive and sensible way?"

Slowly, slowly, Alfred extracted the Watch from his blazer pocket. "That's a good question. There's no controls on these things. Perhaps if we concentrated really hard?"

"That doesn't sound likely," Delia said. "On the other hand, it couldn't hurt. Let's concentrate. I shall try to trap it, you try to slow down time."

Taking a deep breath, Delia visualised a box surrounding the Bubble. A cube, slightly bigger than the Bubble. She visualised the faces, angles, lines, vertices, driving all other thoughts from her mind… No. Not all. There was another thought, and insistent thought. It was a thought in Alfred's head, though she could feel it herself. Alfred was imagining a clock, attached to the inside of one face of the box. The second hand ticked slower and slower and slower, until finally it remained suspended between two seconds, moving so slowly that it all but stood still.

"Do you think it worked?" Delia said.

Gingerly, ever so gingerly, Alfred crept sideways past the Bubble. It didn't move so much as a millimetre.

"Do you know, Delia," he said, "I think we did it."

He looked at Delia. She looked at him.

And then they kissed.

Next -- Part 40: Yeeros

Previously -- Part 38: Tulpa

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