London was grey. Crowds milled outside theatres for the matinées and children, excited from visiting department stores in the pre-Christmas rush, dragged their tired parents around. Allen strode up Charing Cross Road. He dodged between the cars queuing at the lights on Cranbourn St, ran the gauntlet of a black cab on Great Newport St, almost daring it to hit him, and ducked into the alley next to Henry Portes Books. He was buzzed into Sandringham Flats and, not bothering to wait for the lift, took the stairs two at a time. The door was open. Anna was waiting in darkened hallway, sideways on, with one hand on the door, dark hair hiding half her face. She breathed in.
'What the fuck is so important?' Allen took of his hat and stomped passed her into the lounge. He dropped the hat on the sideboard and slipped the top two buttons on his coat; just enough space to pull out a lighter and a packet of Gitanes. He jammed one between his lips and lit it.
'So?' Anna went to take his coat but he shrugged her off.
'I'm not staying.'
'Well,' she said,'Two things.' Allen waited.
'First, I've got somewhere with the text, the first part at least. There's a change in the second part, it still doesn't make sense.'
'And,' said Allen.
'And, said a voice from the kitchen, 'there are complications.'
Allen blew out a cloud of blue smoke and turned.
‘Who the hell is that?’ he said, ‘what happened to “we work alone?”’
First a rattling tray with three steaming mugs of coffee, then a man emerged from the kitchen . He looked up at Allen, through oval lenses, head askew. He placed the tray on the low glass table and held out his hand to Allen.
“Wheatstone, Auberon Wheatstone.”
Allen kept his left hand firmly in his pocket, and cupped his right over the cigarette.
Anna sidled up to Allen and touched his arm.
‘Professor Wheatstone,’ she said in a stage whisper.
‘Professor of what - domestic science?’
Wheatstone lowered his hand, and smiled. ‘My great-great uncle who devised the so-called Playfair cipher. It is a source of irritation that it's named for a jumped-up postman. I don’t claim any genetic propensity to decipher texts, it is a hobby; my vocation is physics. I saw your friend here at work in the British Library, and I couldn’t help noticing…’
‘Yes, she’s easy on the eye, I know, but you’ll find she’s quite wearing on the ears.’
‘Mr Allen, that’s quite enough. I am here to help. I saw the first half of the transcript on the desk, and I recognised the structure; it’s a heavily obscured statement of M-Theory – the latest attempt at a Theory of Everything. It’s entirely original, and yet more than 1,000 years old.’
‘We pretty much knew that already’, said Allen, tapping his ash into his mug.
‘That’s peculiar in itself, but the second half appears to be a solution to the vacuum catastrophe. I haven’t completed the proof yet, but if it’s true, the consequences are extraordinary. It makes no sense. If it’s true, it will rewrite our understanding of the world.’
'Is this Klauber's negative time hypothesis?'
'Don't you find there's a certain elegance to the idea that for background space, time runs in the opposite direction to ours?'
'That's retarded.' Wheatstone laughed. Something seemed to attract Anna's attention and she left the room.
'But perhaps that explains what it was doing in the Kitab Al-Tanjim? How else should Al-Biruni obtain this information in the Eleventh Century except through …'
'Listen Mister, Al-Biruni might have penned that piece, but it sure wasn't his idea. There's a whole mess of stuff from the Umayyad Caliphate in there and much of that was lifted from Pythagoras.'
'You mean his harmonic theories?'
Allen curled his lip. 'Well yeah. All this string theory stuff goes way back to some Greek strumming a lyre. But I've had enough of this pissing contest, how about you make like a tree and leave?'
'My dear Mr Allen, you're not fooling anyone. Your expressions are pure 50s' Americana, “tree and leave”, “easy on the eye”. And you're smoking indoors, no one does that anymore, especially not Gitanes.' Wheatstone's expression hardened. 'I put it to you that you are not from this time period.'
'Well la-di-da, or whatever the hip kids say nowadays. Give the man a great big hand. Of course, you know that now I'm going to kill you.' Allen smoothly pulled a black plastic box from his overcoat pocket. It looked like a computer mouse. He pointed it a Wheatstone and pressed the button. Nothing seemed to happen. Allen looked down at his weapon. Wheatstone laughed again.
'My dear fellow, those are so 23rd Century, especially when I've got one of these.' He pulled back his cuff to reveal a small yellow dot, glowing just below the wrist.
'Christ on a bicycle,' said Allen and sat back. 'So what do we do now? Why are you here?'
'To stop you doing anything stupid. Our monitoring station picked up ripples of a rather nasty disturbance in Time so I was sent to sort things out.'
'But I'm only doing research. I came here for a translation. Anna was the only person who knew the three ancient languages involved as well as English. I hooked her in with some baloney about a big time American collector. Say, where is she?' He called out but there was no answer. They looked round the flat but Anna and the papers had gone. Someone had really messed up this time.