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Joby was more nervous than he cared to admit. It scared him that he had been singled out in this way, because out of the three of them he had thought he was the least conspicuous. But that morning the guard who had arrived with the breakfast tray and the day's supply of wood for the stove, had pointed at him and indicated for him to follow. Joby had left the cell for the first time in over sixty days without any idea of where he was going, or whether he would see it again.
He had been escorted past row upon row of closed cell doors, down a flight of stairs and into a large octagonal room. This chamber was completely windowless, featureless and devoid of any other life-form. The guard had stood him squarely in the middle of the room, and then departed in unnerving haste.
"You are Joby Long?" came a deep, male voice that seemed to arrange itself all around him "That is what you call yourself?"
"Yes", Joby forced the word out like bile.
All the time his eyes darted nervously about the room, trying to find an opening of some kind, or anything that might indicate what was producing the voice, and where it was coming from. There was nothing. The walls were without blemish.
"Date of birth?"
"Second of the seventh, 2024".
"Date of conception?"
"I haven't the faintest idea. I wasn't there at the time", he giggled, nervously.
"Do you joke a lot Joby Long?"
"I try to. Particularly when I'm nervous".
"You time-crossed with your colleagues in July of this year. What was your intention?"
"There was no intent", Joby snapped, aggrieved that the voice hadn't tried to soothe his nervousness in any way "We were investigating a node, that's a place where ley lines cross. This one was in Yorkshire. We were trying to see if it accounted for some apparitions seen in the area, and paranormal disturbances at a house nearby ..."
"Joby Long, if you were born in 2024, you are aware of the theory of time-cusps", the voice rasped, impatiently "Medieval gabblings about ghosts and haunted houses will not suffice as an excuse".
"That's so. But many people in our time still believed in an after-life, and our job was to try and prove its existence. It ... er ... seemed like a good idea at the time".
"Old religions and superstitions die hard", the voice sounded marginally more understanding "It took severe climatic changes and social upheaval to destroy them for good. We know all about your time because we were careful to store some archive material, with the exception of all religious copy. We felt enough trouble had been caused by all that. Your experiences only serve to emphasise how right we were. You may come through now".
A door slid open noiselessly, and Joby cautiously went towards it.
"He's been gone a long time", Adam pulled on a finger restlessly, and then reached for the last cigarette of that day's ration "I wish someone'd speak in this bloody place. Tell us what's going on sometimes".
"Usually because there's nothing going on", Kieran replied "Why Joby? I thought they'd have gone for you".
"No doubt you wish they had".
"Now don't start that! Not now, not at a time like this".
"Perhaps Joby was considered the less of a risk, insurance wise. He's the calmest of us, at most times. His character's an open book. He's not complicated like us".
"Speak for yourself! I thought I was one of the least complicated people I know".
"There speaks your insufferable ego once more".
"I have no insufferable ego", Kieran retorted "I am uncomplicated. It's you that makes me less so".
Suddenly Adam rose and swiped Kieran across the side of his face, catching the younger man's lip on his signet ring in the process. Kieran stared at him silently in horror. His face had gone momentarily numb. That such a thing could have happened would previously have been deemed unthinkable. Adam was known for his aggression against humanity, but to lash out at an employee ...
Kieran ran to the window and hauled himself up over the ledge. He charged out onto the balcony, in the full knowledge that his running away would be severely curtailed. Adam hitting him, Joby missing, the world had gone insane. Nothing was normal. Even the fog had gone from over the Grey Sea.
Adam followed him outside.
The man that faced Joby wore a very pleasant expression. He was short, stocky and middle-aged, with grey hair cut roughly in a pudding-basin style. His small dark eyes even twinkled when he smiled. The voice, when attached to the body, became less authoritative and more fatherly instead.
Joby had stepped into a warm, white-tiled courtyard, dotted with shrubs and small trees. The man had been tending a bush, covered in round, green fruit, that looked rather like oversized peas.
"They're called Bunders", he said, picking one and offering it to Joby "I dare say you've never heard of them. They were first grown in the last century by the man who gave them their name. I adore them. Sadly though, our climate up here isn't up producing them at their best. We don't get the continuous sunshine up here which they need to mature fully. But this summer has been a good one, so we can't complain too much. Here, try one".
Joby accepted, feeling it was the polite thing to do, and instantly regretted it. The fruit was sharp, like an over-ripe gooseberry. He winced his appreciation. The man nodded in satisfaction.
"I am rather proud of them", he said "It gives me something fulfilling to do. Running a prison is so deeply unsatisfying nowadays, but at least, or I sincerely hope, we've seen the back of the Cage. Nevertheless the eternal call for severe punishment is like a greedy dog that has to be constantly fed. Shutting the inmates away from public gaze seemed to be the most convenient solution all round".
"We're not criminals though", Joby exclaimed "Not in our time at least".
"Quite so, and neither are you in this one. Doubtless you are anxious to know when you can return home. Sadly, the news isn't good. Your particular time-cusp has shifted ..."
"We can re-locate it", Joby protested.
"That is not possible. It has shifted north. There is very little land to the north, and so the barest minimum of chances for locating a time-door".
"When will it come round again?"
"That is very hard to predict. Our climate is still volatile, any dramatic change in the weather could affect the cusp shifts. It could even cause this particular one to close off for good, although I must add that that is very much the worse case scenario. Now come, don't look so distressed. You are not treated badly here are you? We have a high success rate with prisoners adapting peacefully to the regime".
"Because they have no choice! It's either this or Isolation. And anyway there is no regime as such, there's just ... well, nothing".
"Joby, I have worries of my own", said the man, placing a hand on his arm "Your cusp shift has presented us with problems".
"In that if it shifts much further to the north and the time-door remains open, it can spell problems for your time".
"What sort of problems?"
"Did you see the Skirra Fludd lighthouse when the fog cleared yesterday?"
"I thought as much. So did most of the prison unfortunately. Our inmates always get restless when it is sighted, because it is only when the fog clears that they fully realise how close it really is. At times such as that, prison walls do not feel so impregnable".
"If the cusp shifts towards the lighthouse, could we get a boat out there and try to locate a door?"
"No one will take you to Skirra Fludd, I am positive of that".
"We could take ourselves. You'd be rid of us then".
"We don't wish to be rid of you in that way", the Governor smiled "We are not vindictive here Joby".
"But if it's our best chance ..."
"No. I can say no more than that. You see, Joby, a force for evil awaits any visitor to the lighthouse. It has no form or shape, so it is impossible to fight. We live in a constant state of awareness over its close proximity to us here at Henang. Plus the fear that a time-cusp may open on that rock, and if that should happen we would all instantly cease to exist".
"It could destroy history", the man shrugged, in a way that was almost casual "And without history, none of us would be alive. Not now, not then, not ever. All of it would become simply chaos".
It was getting dark. Thunder clouds were gathering overhead and blocking out the sun. Slowly and dimly, in the far distance, the beams of the lighthouse were becoming more distinct and visible in the gloom.
Kieran spreadeagled himself against the stone wall of the parapet, and faced his pursuer fiercely.
"If you hit me again I'll kill you", he growled "I mean it. I don't cared if I do get sent to Isolation, at least then I wouldn't be near you".
"I'm not interested in lashing out ..."
"You just did you bastard!"
"I lost my head", Adam raised his hands in a gesture of surrender "Suddenly it felt as if my brain went snap. It was horrible, I've been cooped up for too long I suppose. Believe me, I would never want to hurt you. Instead ..."
He rapidly advanced on Kieran and leaned towards him, bending his head to make contact. For Kieran it was a physical assault on the senses severer than the slap had been. The whole world had been turned on its head and liquified.
"But I don't fancy you!" Kieran gasped, when he could find air.
"I think you do. Perhaps not as much as I fancy you, but then I find it hard to believe anyone could, when I want you so much".
"I can't though. Not that!"
"You'll be ready. One day".
As Joby was leaving up the Governor's green-carpeted stairway, he met an elderly man coming down, escorted by two guards. The man was small, and gave a good resemblance to a terrified rabbit. He was gabbling excitedly.
"What's the matter with him?" Joby asked, as he and his guard stepped aside to let them pass.
"His cell-mate died in his sleep during the night", was the reply "They'd shared the same cell for years. He's taken it bad. We think the Governor might be able to calm him down".
Feed him those bloody Bunderses, thought Joby, that should take his mind off things!
The little man, with an astonishing show of strength for his age, broke free of his guards, and bounded down the steps towards Joby. His face wore an expression of such terror that his wrinkled skin seemed to be stretched tautly over his bones like a surgical glove.
"He didn't die in his sleep!" he shrieked hysterically "Don't let them tell you that boy. He was shanghaied, taken off during the night. I saw it all. Hoisted out of his bed he was, and carted, screaming, from the cell. I saw it all".
"Who took him?" asked Joby, resisting the urgings of his own personal attendant to move on.
"The Blue Men. They never told you about them I suppose? They always come at night, and conveniently someone always "dies". That's what they call it anyway. They keep us all apart, so we can never tell each other when it happens to a cell-mate. Well I've told you, and you must pass it on. You must!"
"Stir-crazy", said the guard, unlocking the gate at the top of the stairs "It happens sometimes".
There was a strange atmosphere in the cell when he returned. Even though his head was swimming with tales of evil forces lurking at lighthouses, and nocturnal visitations by the Blue Men, Joby was sharp enough to notice that all was not exactly normal in his own domain. Adam was brewing coffee on the stove, and was watching it morosely. Kieran was nowhere to be seen, and the only other place he could be was out on the balcony, even though rain had started splattering against the window.
Joby's news that the time-cusp had shifted, and so they were unlikely to leave the prison in the foreseeable future merely caused Adam to sigh heavily, as though this was mildly disagreeable news, but he had more important things on his mind. Joby felt this wasn't the time to mention the Blue Men, as Adam looked too distracted to take it in.
Kieran was sitting in one corner of the balcony, the soft rain pattering directly onto his fair hair. He ignored it and stared absently at the lighthouse in the far distance.
"It's been quite an afternoon", he mumbled, numbly, as Joby neared him.
"That lighthouse over there is our key to getting home", the other man remarked.
"Oh yes, and what do you suggest then? Fly?" Kieran snapped, irritably.
Joby had planned to stay out on the balcony all night, and watch. But for what? Blue Men? They must have arrived somehow, he reasoned to himself, and up here he had a good view of the countryside for miles around. But what would be the point? The old man could have been suffering delusions, and even if the Blue Men had visited no one could say that they would be returning tonight or any other night. They might even have come from within the prison itself.
A flash of lightning split the sky on the horizon, accompanied by a discontented rumbling in the distance.
"We'd better get indoors", said Kieran.
Joby finished telling them of his adventures as the storm reached its climax, a little after midnight (if anyone had been aware of the time). He had included the tale of the Blue Men, which was greeted in a more low-key fashion than he had expected. It seemed that after two months of a sloth-like existence, even improbable stories such as this met with little reception. The other two men seemed too wrapped up in their own private misery to absorb it properly.
"It sounds eerie, I grant you", said Adam, wrapping himself in his blanket "But it'd be obvious to a halfwit that the old man was imagining things. Why should they cart off an old lag in the middle of the night, who's been here since the year dot, and who was no trouble to anyone as far as we can tell? It doesn't make sense. Goodnight".
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