12 May 1940
Westminster, London, England
I crouched in the painful embrace of a hawthorn hedge, the screams of a dying world still echoing in my ears.
Hot sweat tickled my scalp. But I shivered from chills, nausea, and the lingering touch of the Eidolons. I hadn’t realized just how ill I felt until those demons took me apart and reassembled me twenty-three years in the past.
I was a time traveler. A refugee from the world’s end. The sole survivor of a cataclysm that I had caused.
The western sky blushed orange and pink beyond a swath of royal parkland. The last traces of gloaming silhouetted lampposts in St. James’. All dark, all unlit. The only other light came from a narrow gap in the opaque curtain covering the window overhead; a shaft of pale light speared through the shadows above my hiding spot. London itself was a hulking presence sensed but unseen in the night. The Admiralty building loomed behind me, cloaked in blackout. I could smell the dampness from a recent rainstorm and woody sap from where I’d cracked a few hawthorn branches in my hasty exit through the window. Everything was silent but for the occasional distant hum of a car along Whitehall.
The darkness lent an unexpected familiarity to this place and time. Like encountering an old lover after leaving her behind long ago, and discovering she hadn’t changed a jot.
This was the spring of 1940. Those early days of the Second World War, before France had fallen and we’d lost an army on the beaches of Dunkirk. Before the first dominoes had toppled in that long chain of events culminating decades later in a demonic apocalypse.
My job was to break that chain. Somehow.
The suffocating weight of that task left me breathless. I couldn’t take in the sheer enormity of it all without becoming dizzy. A spasm cramped my gut.
I took a steadying breath and tried to ground myself in the here and now. In a previous life I had been a gardener, and so I concentrated on my immediate surroundings.
Long thin shoots poked randomly from the top of the unkempt hedge. They broke the clean, level lines of the shrubbery. The slender branches had just begun to swell with white May blossoms, and my shivering caused green thorns to skitter against the window glass of the Admiralty. Thorns like those had pierced my shirt when I leaped from the window. They raked my skin from waist to armpit.
It was probably a quickset hedge, a century old or more. But now there was a war on, and people had more pressing concerns than keeping the hedges tidy.
That simple observation, more than anything else, even more than the blackout, forced me to accept the reality of it all. Will had done it. He’d sent me back.
Picture this, if you will: A man, not quite fifty-three years old, a bit heavier than he ought to be, plagued with a bad knee and a worse temper, his face and voice ruined by fire. Make him nauseated, feverish, alone. Now watch his back bend, his shoulders slump with despair, as he grapples with the enormity of his impossible task.
That was me.
Footsteps rattled floorboards inside the Admiralty, approaching the window where I’d made my escape. I retreated deeper into the hawthorn, clamping my jaw as thorns pierced me in a dozen new places. I put the cold, unyielding stone of the Admiralty building at my back and tried not to breathe. My muscles ached with the effort not to tremble lest somebody heard the bramble rattling against the windowsill. My stomach gurgled.
Somebody fixed the blackout curtains. Darkness engulfed me.
And then a woman’s voice floated through the shadows. She had to be standing in the room where I’d landed, just a few feet from where I now hunched in the cold and dark. What she said was muffled by the window and the curtains, but I could still make it out. I think she intended that.
I knew that voice. Another spasm twisted my gut.
A man said, gruffly, “What?”
Of course, I recognized his voice as well. But I wasn’t ready to think about that yet.
“It worked,” said the woman.
God as my witness, I could hear the corner of her mouth curling up as she said it. Only two words, but more than enough to send another volley of chills rattling through me.
Gretel. The clairvoyant who manipulated the world for decades—and killed my daughter and destroyed my marriage—in her paradoxical bid to elude the Eidolons on the last day of history. I and the people I cared for had been nothing more than unwitting pieces in Gretel’s long, elaborate chess game. As had Great Britain itself, and the Third Reich, and the Soviet Union. Puppets all. I trembled again, this time with rage.
Yes, it had. She’d tricked me into unleashing the Eidolons. And then, as the world had ended around us, she’d dangled an irresistible carrot before me: the chance to save my dead daughter. Because she knew Agnes was the only lure strong enough to yank me out of my apathy; by that point, I didn’t much care the world was ending.
And now she knew I was here. Knew that she’d won.
Or had she?
For my Gretel, my bête noire—the Gretel who instigated the bombing raid that killed Agnes; the Gretel whose specter had haunted every day of my life in the decades since war’s end—had perished along with everybody else when the Eidolons ended the world. But, of course, she didn’t care. For though she was mad, she wielded the power of the gods. Thus her long game amounted to nothing more than a convoluted self-sacrifice. A feint at the Eidolons, a bit of supernatural sleight of hand, so that another version of herself could thrive. So that a different Gretel, the Gretel of this new splinter time line, could live free of the Eidolons.
What a privileged perspective I enjoyed. A sickening thing, this insider’s view of her cold-blooded machinations. Revolting, the extent of that madwoman’s psychosis. Terrifying.
I doubled over and retched while the footsteps receded and he took the prisoner back to her cell. I knew he was doing that because I had been there.
I am there. Right now. But so is he.
Was this me, shivering and sweating and bleeding in the darkness? Or was I that other person, safe and warm inside the Admiralty? I had his memories, but he didn’t share mine. Didn’t share my wounds. Didn’t share my disfigurement, didn’t feel the constant pain in my throat. He hadn’t endured two failed attempts to start a family.
Tears squeezed through the corners of my clenched eyelids when I thought of family. My darling daughter, Agnes, dead so young. My son, John, a soulless vessel carved by the Eidolons to facilitate the eradication of humanity. And my wife, Liv, with her freckles, cutting wit, and poisonous resentment.
A new realization hit me in the gut so sharply that it threatened to loose my watery bowels. This was 1940. None of that had happened yet. Liv still loved him. Loved him in a way that had long since withered and died for me. Loved him in a way he didn’t deserve. It wasn’t fair. I hated him for it.
But the seed of an idea lodged in the fertile soil at the back of my mind. I couldn’t dislodge it. Nor did I want to.
I waited until I was certain Gretel and her escort had gone downstairs and nobody inside would hear me shaking the hedge. An owl hooted in St. James’ while I extricated myself from the hawthorn. Several minutes of cursing earned my freedom along with a bevy of fresh scratches. They bled freely as I staggered across Horse Guards to the park.
Footing was precarious; many of the city’s parks had been turned over to gardening and home defense. I took a tumble in a trench that had probably been dug for the sake of filling sandbags.
My head throbbed in time with the pulse of sweat down my temples. Another wave of nausea rippled through me. The watery churning lent an urgency to my wanderings. But I knew the park had no public loo. Not in 1940. And I couldn’t spare the time to find one.
As I squatted in the mud beside the lake, it occurred to me that I’d once seen this shoreline studded with tents. A staging area. That memory dredged up others in its wake, most particularly of a strange and frightening encounter. But my thoughts skittered away again; I was reluctant to dwell on that, though I couldn’t put my finger on why.
My relief was short-lived. I had just pulled up my trousers when a light shone in my face. The mild throbbing in my temples flared into a mature headache.
“Oy now, what are you about?”
Oh, dear God, no. Not now.
I couldn’t see for the light in my eyes. Something pale fluttered in the shadows outside the torchlight. Possibly a handkerchief. A second voice with a plugged nose said, “Christ. I think he shitted in the lake.”
“I’m ill,” I mumbled. Each word a fire in my throat.
The full extent of the humiliation slowly dawned on me, easily the worst in all my miserable life. The possibility Gretel knew about this made it even worse. At that moment I didn’t care about saving the world. I wanted it all to go away.
“Maybe so,” said the second voice, “but the royal parks aren’t your personal toilet. That’s rotten disgusting.”
The first man tipped his electric torch so that it wasn’t aimed directly into my eyes. I made out the glint of a badge and the silhouette of a bobby’s helmet.
“I’d like to see your identity card, sir.”
And that’s when I realized I was in trouble. The dread lay so heavy upon me I thought I might sink into the mud.
HMG had issued ID cards to all its citizens at the start of the war, back in 1939. We’d carried them until the early 50s, when the wretched National Registration program was finally scrapped.
But none of that mattered. Because today, in 1940, in wartime, I was required by law to produce my ID card for the coppers. I was required by law to never venture outside the house without the card on my person. But ID cards had been far from my mind as the Eidolons devoured the world.
I started to shiver again. “Lost it,” I rasped.
“Is that so? How’d you lose it, then?”
I couldn’t tell the copper that I tossed it during a bout of spring cleaning ten or twelve years ago. But the second copper sensed my hesitation before I could concoct a plausible lie.
“I won’t ask again. Where’s your identity card, sir?”
“I … I haven’t got it.”
“Right,” he said. “You do know we could haul you in for that? And for that.” He gesturing at the lakeshore with his truncheon. “Bloody public indecency, that is.”
“Francis,” said the first copper. “C’mere a sec. You,” he said, pointing to me, “stay put.”
I’d been hauled in by the coppers enough times to recognize when a difference of opinion was brewing. I eavesdropped and considered making a run for it. The still night air carried their whispered conversation to me. I had to strain to hear it over the lapping of the lake, but I knew they were arguing.
“We’re taking him in,” said Francis, still holding the handkerchief over his nose.
“He needs a hospital,” said the other copper.
“You can’t be serious.”
“You can tell the poor old duffer is confused. Look at his eyes. Probably half senile. Could be somebody’s da.”
“Maybe that’s what the Jerries want us to think.”
“Look at his scars. He’s seen some action. Bet he fought in the Great War.”
“Maybe he fought for the Boche.”
“Being a bit extreme, aren’t you?”
“No. You’re being a bit lazy.”
“Let me try to sort the poor fellow out, what?”
They returned. I hadn’t moved. I knew I was in no state to make a proper fugitive. They’d catch me, and that would spike my mission before it ever started.
In my younger days I might have considered taking them both by surprise. And on a very lucky day I might have succeeded. But I was older and wiser now, which is to say slower, so I knew it would take but one well-placed truncheon to make an even bigger hash of things.
The first copper took the lead again, and that gave me hope. “What’s your name, sir?”
His speculation about me being a vet of the Great War gave me an idea. I said, “John Stephenson, officer.”
“Where do you live, Mr. Stephenson?”
“St. Pancras.” I gave him the old man’s address. Still knew it by heart; I’d been married there.
“Haven’t you got any ID on you? A billfold, perhaps?”
The sense of dread lifted, leaving behind a damp layer of sweat. I tried not to let my relief show. I’d been through this with the coppers enough times to know when I was off the hook. They might haul me to a hospital, but that wasn’t a problem. Any hospital was a damn sight better than jail.
“Yeah,” I told him. “I’ve got a billfold.”
“May I see it?”
I nodded, and reached for my coat pocket. I used one hand, moving slowly and deliberately so that I didn’t startle him. I dug out the billfold and offered it to him. He handed the torch to Francis, who kept the beam trained on me. He held the billfold in the edge of the torch beam and flipped through it. He frowned. Then he looked at me again.
Now it was his turn to hesitate.
“What did you say your name is?”
“Stephenson,” I repeated.
“Right. So you did.” He said it kindly, calmly. But his free hand fell gently to the truncheon hanging at his waist. Right then I knew I was well and truly buggered.
His eyes didn’t leave the billfold. “Thing is, if that’s the case, mind telling me who William Beauclerk is?”
“Shit,” I said.
Francis chuckled. “Well. You’ve already seen to that, haven’t you?”
Somewhere in the darkness, I heard the rattle of cuffs.
12 May 1940
Milkweed Headquarters, London, England
Blinding agony lanced through the stump of Will’s severed finger. He’d never known such pain, never could have imagined such pain, as when Marsh had snapped shut the gardening shears. But the cauterization was worse because it never seemed to end. Pain like white-hot lava erupted from his mangled hand. It filled his veins, reduced his heart to charcoal, his brain to ash.
Will flinched, hard enough to yank his hand from the doctor’s grasp. The doctor scowled.
“Sorry,” Will managed. It came out as a hoarse whisper. The ravages of Enochian, combined with mindless screaming through the wooden bit clenched in his teeth, had torn his throat raw. His teeth felt loose.
The doctor aimed a pointed look at Stephenson. Will didn’t know the man’s name. He was a naval medic, but probably attached to SIS rather than the Admiralty. That was a guess, but the doctor and Stephenson clearly knew each other. And the doc hadn’t asked about the cause of Will’s dismemberment, nor shown interest in anything other than treating the wound. Or so Will had gathered during the scant moments when pain wasn’t threatening to drive him mad. He’d passed out just after the ceremony and felt like he might again any moment.
Stephenson grumbled, “For God’s sake, Beauclerk. You’ve nothing to prove. Take the bloody morphine. Or at the very least let brandy dull the worst of it.”
He tried to push a full tumbler into Will’s free hand, but Will waved it away. The effort left his head spinning.
“No.” The pain threatened to make him sick up. But he’d endure anything to avoid the danger of becoming his grandfather. He’d never let himself follow in the footsteps of that wretched, twisted old drunk. Will had sworn off alcohol long ago. No amount of physical agony could make him relent. Not even this torture. He’d be a better man than grandfather, even if the effort destroyed him.
Will realized that sooner or later he’d have to explain the injury to Aubrey. Was it too severe for a plausible gardening mishap? That at least had a patina of truth to it. The shears had belonged to one of Bestwood’s gardeners, long ago. Back in their grandfather’s day.
Will almost passed out when he extended his arm to put his bad hand back within the doctor’s reach. He managed to say, “Please continue, doctor.”
The doctor sighed, looking wistfully at the morphine syrette lying unused on the desk. Stephenson leaned over Will’s chair and used his weight to pin Will’s forearm to the armrest. The one-armed man had a grip like bands of steel. The doctor hefted the iron again.
Will gritted his teeth. Yes, definitely loose.
A faint sizzle accompanied the wave of incandescent pain, hotter than the soul of the earth, that flooded Will’s body. Delicate curlicues of blue-black smoke wafted around the stump, tracing greasy tendrils across the back of his hand. The stink of burnt flesh filled the old man’s office.
Will cast about for a mental diversion lest the pain overwhelm him again. The few threads of his mind capable of conscious thought flailed for something upon which to focus. How did he get here?
The gypsy waif. Eidolons. Marsh.
What was she? What could she do? Why did she have wires implanted in her skull? What had von Westarp done to her? And how could the men and women on the Tarragona film perform such blatantly unnatural feats without appealing to the Eidolons? It was impossible. Yet the Eidolon’s answer had been as unambiguous at its rage. The waif was not their handiwork.
What a straightforward answer. And all it had cost was a fingertip. This had been the height of foolishness, thinking he possessed skill enough to negotiate with the Eidolons. He had been fortunate. The blood price might have been far worse.
Stranger still … why would the Eidolons bestow a name upon somebody? What did it mean? And why had they chosen Marsh? It was as though they knew him. Acknowledged him. But the Eidolons didn’t recognize individual humans. They perceived humanity as a stain upon the cosmos, an abomination, an infestation to be eradicated. Nothing more.
It was too disturbing to contemplate. Will forced his attention toward less chilling mysteries.
He had warned the others to expect strangeness. Though nothing could truly prepare a person for the way the world tended to warp and sag around the Eidolons like candles on the mantel of a burning house. Even seasoned warlocks had been known to go mad from time to time. Will remembered the servants’ tales of his own father.
Tonight’s negotiation hadn’t been any different. Phantom scents, mysterious noises, alien sensations. Effects without causes. There had been a thump, as though something heavy had landed on the floorboards. And then Will’s own voice, crying out in abject terror and mindless panic. More strident even than the scream that escaped him when Marsh severed his fingertip. The relentless pain made rational thought impossible. Was there another William Beauclerk somewhere, one who had experienced something worse than a severed finger? Witnessed something more dreadful than a Third Reich with superhuman soldiers?
Surely that was impossible.
12 May 1940
Walworth, London, England
Agnes’s wrinkled red face traced drool on Marsh’s shirt as he held her to his chest. He pressed his nose to her soft scalp and inhaled her scent, tickling himself with wisps of silken baby hair. She smelled so clean. So fresh, so wonderful. Like family.
“Our poor daughter will never know proper sleep,” Liv whispered, “if you keep taking her from the bassinet.”
She came up behind him, slid an arm around his waist. A swollen breast brushed against his elbow. She winced.
“I’m making up for lost time,” he said. “I’m so sorry I missed this.”
He’d been in France when Liv had gone into labor. Based on the time listed on Agnes’s birth certificate, he’d been crossing the Channel with the Frankensteined gypsy girl when Agnes was born. He’d been doing his job. So why did serving the country feel like infidelity? The guilt clung to him tighter than a second skin.
Congratulations. It’s a girl.
He’d rushed to the hospital as soon as he found Liv’s note. But not before indulging in a fair bit of panic after finding the front door open, Liv gone, and the bedroom in disarray. The prisoner had found her way under his skin.
What was she? What were those hideous wires for? And how on God’s earth did she know about Liv and the baby?
Liv said, “Agnes might forgive you. Someday.”
“Depends on how stubborn she is. Whether she takes after her father.”
“I’m not stubborn.”
Liv laughed into his shoulder. Long auburn hair draped across her face, tickling his arm. She hadn’t put her hair up since returning from the hospital. “Mulish, then.”
“That’s better. And you? Am I forgiven?”
“There’s nothing to forgive, love. You’re here now.”
He said, “I’ll do everything I can not to leave again. I promise.”
Marsh brushed his lips across Agnes’s scalp. He leaned over, gently cradling his daughter’s head as he set her down. Her arm twitched, and her face scrunched into a new pattern of wrinkles while he covered her with the baby blanket. It was pink and embroidered with jolly elephants.
Liv laid her head against his shoulder. They stood together, quietly watching their daughter sleep.
“You should be resting,” he said. He took her hand, led her to the den.
“I’m not infirm, Raybould.” She clicked her tongue. “You men. I had to tell Will the very same thing.”
Will’s scream kept echoing in his ears. He couldn’t forget the feel of the shears, the sensation of the handles in his fists as the blades crunched through flesh and bone.
But the Eidolon had been so much worse: the way it studied him like an insect under a magnifying glass, the intangible pressure of its presence, the titanic sense of malevolence, the skin-crawling dread. Marsh wondered if he’d ever sleep again. He drew a long, shuddery breath.
Christ. What a bloody wretched evening.
“Just because Will is Agnes’s father,” said Liv, “doesn’t entitle you to be so jealous of him. You should be bigger than that.”
“Yes, you’re right,” Marsh murmured. Then something she’d said snapped him back to the present. He frowned. “Wait. What was that about Will?”
Liv tipped her head back and filled the room with melodious laughter. “You went somewhere just now. I can always tell. It’s in your eyes. But when you crack your knuckles…” She touched the back of one slender hand to her face, pantomiming his habit. “That’s when I know you’re entertaining particularly deep thoughts.”
She eased herself to the sofa. Marsh tried to help her, but she swatted his hands away. He sat beside her. Yawned. Rubbed his burning eyes.
Marsh said, “Speaking of Will.” He pointed toward the entryway. “Did you know he left the door open when he took you to the hospital?”
“I do believe you’ve mentioned it. Once or twice.”
Congratulations. It’s a girl.
“Liv, has anybody come around lately? While I was away?”
She shook her head. “Just auntie. And Will.”
“Nobody at all?” Marsh thought about all the means the Jerries might be using to keep tabs on him and Liv. There were so many. How long had they been watched? It was the only explanation. He stood, paced around the room, double-checking the blackout curtains. “What about ARP wardens?”
“You’d tell me if there had been, wouldn’t you?”
A frown creased the space between her eyebrows. “You know I would.”
“Has Will mentioned anything unusual? Strange visitors?”
“Raybould. Sit.” She patted the sofa cushion beside her. “What is this about?”
He sighed. “I worry about you and Agnes being alone while I’m at work all day.”
“And you’re a dear for it. Now do stop before you smother us.”
He assumed a new tack. “Perhaps the two of you could take a vacation in Williton. Go visit your aunt, rather than making her come to London.”
Liv said, “We’ve already discussed this. I’m not leaving.” Her voice was tight with irritation. “The first evacuation of mothers and toddlers was an utter waste of time. They all came back. It’ll be the same again.”
“What if the Germans start bombing in earnest?”
“Stop it! You’re frightening me.” She narrowed her eyes, looked him up and down. “Did something happen while you were visiting the Yanks?”
Liv didn’t know her husband was a spy for His Majesty’s Government. As far as she knew, Marsh was a mid-level bureaucrat in the Office of the Foreign Secretary. Before Stephenson had sent him to the Continent to scrounge up information about von Westarp, they’d concocted an appropriate cover story. Marsh had told Liv that he was being sent to America, as part of a delegation hoping to procure aid from the Yanks. He’d worried that Will, who had no background in tradecraft and showed little facility for it, would inadvertently contradict that.
“Nothing. The entire outing was a loss, I’m afraid.”
That didn’t allay her suspicions. “Is something happening in France they haven’t reported on the wireless?”
“I don’t know any more than you,” he lied.
“They say the BEF is regrouping.”
Scrambling was more like it. Marsh had been just a few miles from the German advance. He’d seen firsthand the utter disarray of the British Expeditionary Forces as the Jerries sidestepped them on their lightning-fast incursions across the border. The Germans have burned through Ardennes. France would fall. Not immediately, but sooner than later. He knew it in his bones.
But he didn’t want to alarm Liv more than he already had. So he said, “They’ll sort the Jerries out soon enough.”
“Then we have no reason to worry.”
“No. But I would feel better if you’d discuss the possibility of a visit with Margaret.” Liv answered silently with a scowl and a cocked eyebrow. The eyebrow meant she was sharpening the verbal barbs. Marsh quickly added, “Tell you what. Things get bad here, we’ll stay put, but send Agnes safely out of the city.”
Liv sighed. “Well, that’s a start.” She snuggled against him. “It’s settled, then. The Tommies agree to deal with Hitler. The Foreign Office agrees it won’t send you away again. And Agnes agrees to go to Williton if she absolutely must.”
Copyright © 2013 by Ian Tregillis
Necessary Evil is the third title in IAN TREGILLIS's alternate history series, the first of which, Bitter Seeds, was highly praised. Tregillis lives near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he works as a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. In addition, he is a member of the George R. R. Martin Wild Cards writing collective.