Madi, McKissick and I looked to one another but before we could respond, Dr. Boerum let out a sharp short whistle, something that seemed out of character for my initial impression of her. Shortly after, a wiry man appeared and Boerum conversed with him in their bizarre, possibly native, tongue that was still unrecognizable to me.
“Everything is ready for your arrival,” said Boerum. “Permit me to lead the way.”
“After you, Doctor,” I said.
We followed Boerum; and as soon as we had stepped through the door, we found the space between the cars had been surrounded by some sort of material that resembled a carbon fiber wrap, presumably to shield the doctor and her crew from the effects of unfiltered time as they passed from car to car. As I stepped over the train car coupling and moved to the door of the next car it opened automatically.
We entered what appeared to be a dining car decorated and furnished in a style that might have been considered elegant at one point in time when extravagances were in short supply. Despite its minimalism, the car still echoed the natural world of Italy in 1911. Booths dominated the space, rectangles of oak with polished tapered edges with chairs that looked as if they had come from the same tree, each one beautiful in its simplicity, all clean straight lines and high backs. The floor beneath it all was carpeted, not a runner rug like in the last car but a full coverage that ran the entirety of the floor. The walls were papered in an old-fashioned floral design which would have given the room a pleasant feel if not juxtaposed against the ugly metal plates welded over the windows.
One of the booth tables was richly laid out with foodstuffs that looked familiar then I realized it was from our rations, the meals packed by our administrative professional, Penny.
“Help yourselves,” Boerum gestured at the spread. “It is all yours, all the food you brought with you and I assure you it has not been tampered with in any way, but you will find that you do not need it.”
Though we said nothing, Dr. Boerum looked at us, guessing our thoughts and answered of her own accord the question which entered our minds simultaneously.
“Do any of you feel hungry?” she had not waited for the answer. “No? How long have you been here, on the train, locked in the caboose? You cannot rightfully say, can you? That is because time does not pass here, not for us, or if it does it creeps at such a petty pace as to seem like it is standing still. We have chronometers that mark how time should move and they have not budged since our arrival. I cannot tell you how long we have been here for my perception of space/time has been interrupted but I would hazard a guess that it has been months if not years and neither myself or my team has felt the slightest hunger pang or the need to relieve ourselves.”
“If what you say is correct, if time is frozen here, how are we able to move, able to breathe, able to communicate?” asked McKissick.
It was a solid question. According to my limited knowledge of the laws of physics, if time stopped and we were somehow immune to the effects of the stoppage, we would be unable to maneuver around the frozen air molecules and could not very well take motionless air into our lungs. Nor could we use the atmosphere to transmit sound waves making speech impossible.
“And wouldn’t we freeze to death?” Madi added. “There’d be no way to generate heat.”
“Yes, yes, and sight would also be affected as well as gravity,” Boerum said impatiently. “We have considered all this and the only logical explanation is that here, within the vein of God, the laws of physics either do not apply or operate differently from our Earth-based understanding of them.”
“In other words, you have no clue,” I said.
“There is no shame, Mr. Quaice, when standing in the face of the unknown to admit you do not know the answer. In your line of work, surely you have found yourself in this position at least once, no?”
I sensed her annoyance at having to admit the simple truth that she was just as much in the dark as we were and I could have apologized, could have explained how no harm was meant, but at the moment I was not overly concerned with her feelings. Instead, I moved on to the next booth. On this table lay our phones, each one field stripped with the individual components carefully placed around the phone casings. Again, Boerum anticipated my question and answered:
“Before engaging with you directly, we dismantled your devices to determine what time period you originated from. Have no worries, I will have one of my team reassemble them in working order and returned to you.”
Our personal effects were also situated on the table. “You have no objections, I am sure,” I said after I plucked my wallet and belongings off the table and began arranging them in my pockets. Madi and McKissick gathered their things as well.
“Of course not,” Boerum waved the notion away as if it was foolish. “They belong to you.”
“So, you are a historian, Dr. Boerum,” I said.
“Historian? What would lead you to believe that?”
“You told us you were conducting a historical research experiment.”
“Ah, yes, so I did,” Boerum nodded, “and we were but if I am honest it was more a time travel experiment than a historical one. You see, I shared my father’s fascination with time and how could I not? It is everything and everywhere. It gave birth to the universe and will serve as a marker when all we know as existence dies a natural death. It is the stuff of life, the foundation on which reality is built, always of the essence, on our side and running out simultaneously. It is the beautiful thing that awaits us all, embraces us all and leaves us all in its eternal wake. Do you not concur, Mr. Quaice?”
“I have to admit that I have never given it much thought, doctor. I strive to live in the present and not worry about what the future holds or waste my waking hours with how much time I frivolously squandered in my youth in my attempts to find myself,” I answered but what I had not said was:
Now that I had met Dr. Boerum and she presumably existed in a time after my death—why else would she be seeking me in 2020 if I was still alive in her time?—I could not help but worry about the future, could not help but contemplate the infinitesimal speck my life inhabited in the Earth’s timeline. I foolishly believed I had time enough to accomplish all my goals, so much time that I failed to notice how much of it I let slip through my fingers like quicksilver, all the possibilities that no longer lay ahead of me as I stand here on this impossible horizon in a time-frozen moment that may very well be my last yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Dr. Boerum remained silent for a long moment after my reply, seeming slightly agitated but then she regained her accustomed cold expression and turned to me.
“Mr. Quaice,” she said, “would you care to press on?”
The table in the next booth was littered with the contents of our backpacks and the one after that held assorted items, odd items, apparently future items belonging to Dr. Boerum and her team. One such item caught my attention. I thought it was a sheet of black paper until I saw an image dart across it, not on top of it but within it. I instinctively reached for it but caught myself and turned to Boerum.
“May I?” I asked.
Boerum considered the request for a moment before gesturing to the item. “Be my guest,” she said.
It took me several attempts to lift the paper that was not a paper. It was gossamer thin and I was afraid it might rip during my clumsy attempt to lift it from the tabletop.
“You needn’t be so gentle, it is more durable than it looks,” Boerum said, showing me how to hold the sheet. Left forefinger and thumb holding the upper left corner, right forefinger and thumb pinching the right lower corner and when pulled tautly, a ripple ran across the sheet and when it subsided it became as rigid as plastic.
“What type of material is this?” I asked.
“Something that will not be available in your lifetime, therefore I am not at liberty to discuss it or its properties. I should not allow you to interact with it but I am afraid I need to speed your assimilation along. Now concentrate on the screen and think the word, wake,” Boerum instructed.
I did and nothing happened. Taking a deep breath, I concentrated hard on the word wake and felt my brow knotting with the effort. As I was about to abandon the effort, the sheet flickered. I called it a sheet because I still thought of it as a paper-like substance although technically it could be called a sheet of plastic or whatever material it was. Then the image of a door appeared on the sheet.
“Is this a computer?”
Boerum laughed and it was an intriguing thing to experience. It was not simply a noise that issued from her mouth. The laughter was in her eyes, in the way her face changed into a surprising vision of relaxed joy and unrestrained mirth.
“Mr. Quaice, we have not had a computer model that large in ages. This is merely a reader, an ancient one, the newer models are smaller as well. This one belongs to my father. He is attached to it as it was a gift from my mother.” Boerum’s expression returned to its stoicism at the mention of her mother. “Focus on the door and just as you did to activate the reader, concentrate on the word open.”
No sooner than I knitted my brow, was I transported away from the train car. My eyes went out of focus for a moment and when they adjusted, I scanned the new room as fast as I could, trying to take it all in. I was now standing in the middle of an old library, stacks of books towered towards the tall ceiling in every direction I looked at in the round room. The bookshelves themselves were crafted of solid burl wood in a rich finish, with black trim and inlaid floral designs. The lower part of one of the shelves contained a recessed compartment for a settee, intricately carved detailing on the wooden base and rolled arms with tan upholstered seat and back that was luxuriously soft to the touch. In the center of the room was a distressed finish Mappa burl reading table set on caster wheels.
I ran my fingers along the spines of a row of books at eye level, breathing in the woody aroma of the library. It was the smell of a congregation of books of varying ages that was part smoky and earthy with just a hint of vanilla. I knew this place was an illusion but the smell, the smell was real.
The books were hardcover bound to have the same appearance and only by touching a book’s spine was I able to read the book’s title as it appeared in glowing letters beneath my fingertips. I mindlessly touched books and let my eyes absorb the titles, some of them known to me but most not, until I came upon a book that froze me to the spot. The glowing letters read, Qui Dubitat, the name of my company.
I open the book slowly, cautiously, afraid of what I might find and my suspicions were warranted for in this book there was a record of my company and the cases that we handled. The covert cases. All of them. The Sign of The Cosmic Chimera. The Mystery of The Hallowed Boudoir. The Ethereal Empire. The Case of The Griffon Biographer. The Quest of The Frantic Spider Silk Collector. The Riddle of The Dangerous Stained-Glass Sawmill. The Wailing Sand Conundrum. All the codenames I had given the cases and the pseudonyms to protect the identities of my clients, each marked with asterisks associated with an addendum to each case revealing the secrets of the coded information. They were documented in chronological order and were mostly accurate save minor details here and there and after my most recent case, one that I had not had time to sit and commit to the case log, the one I had thought to name The Three Courtesan Solution which was written here in full detail as if I had written it myself, after that was a case named The Pneuma Paradox. It described my meeting with Duffy and Thompson, both names asterisked, the discovery of Beach’s train station, the encounter with the subway shroud, the meeting with Cariad Boerum, my immersion into the library and finding the book I was currently reading and though I knew better, though my every urge was to shut the book in order to prevent me knowing the future, I turned the page.