"He's been this way ever since he lost his wife." said the Politician. "The poor man's become eccentric. Believe me, I have his best interests in mind when I say we shouldn't appease him."
"I concur", remarked the Psychologist. "God knows, I like the man. By all accounts he was a devoted husband, and his loss has crippled him with grief. He blames himself. He spends all his time alone in his workshop and when I see him he barely exchanges pleasantries. He speaks only of wild theories. He thinks time is 'fluid'."
The Doctor was crouched by the fireplace, closely studying the curling of the eddies of grey smoke and the glowing flecks of ash which circled like dying stars. He was dressed in a black suit, waistcoat and cravat, and held an ebony cane with what looked like a question mark built into its handle, though this, he knew, was for effect. The fire cast a flicker across the drawing room and its well-heeled occupants. The Doctor felt all eyes landing on him as the resident 'man of science'.
"Oh, I say let him present his theories" said The Doctor. "Look around you at your libraries built on the works of those once deemed of 'unsound mind'. Discovery is a fire to keep stoked!"
He glanced across at Filby sitting on a chair by the door, who had remained silent for most of the evening. Filby looked oddly uncomfortable in his suit and would nervously shift his gaze around the room. Herbert walked in, his hair unkempt, carrying a brown leather satchel, muttering apologies for his lateness.
"Herbert, dear boy, it's so good to see you", said the Lawyer, moving to shake Herbert's hand but, on seeing it occupied, gently squeezing his arm instead. "We've all been looking forward to catching up with your endeavours. We've heard such rumours!"
The maid arrived bearing a silver tray containing a bottle of port, six crystal glasses and a newspaper. She placed the drinks on the table, walked over to The Doctor and gestured toward the periodical with a wink. The Doctor examined the date beneath the title: 3rd April 1895. The stories included the election of Lord Salisbury and the scandal gradually consuming Oscar Wilde at the height of his powers.
"Good work, Ace."
Ace was surprised at how easily she'd slipped back into the role – it had been a long time since she served cocktails on the Ice Planet Svartos. The uniform was hardly flattering, though it at least spared her of the stifling corsets she had become accustomed to during their earlier adventures in the era.
Pausing only to adjust the angle of an ornate clock on the mantelpiece, The Doctor headed to the table where discussion was already underway regarding Herbert's work. Herbert was animated, though distant, his eyes never meeting those of his audience, whose expressions ranged from curiosity to bemusement to sympathy.
"What I'm saying is," said the Politician, "even if the fourth dimension is time, and we've no real proof of that, it is entirely academic. It's clearly of a completely different nature, that much is obvious. For instance, why can we not see time?"
"Are you so sure we cannot?" the Psychologist interjected. "Are our surroundings not changing from one moment to the next, even as we remain static? See the fireplace – in an hour it may not burn for lack of fuel. And the hands of the grandfather clock - we may not see them moving at a glance, but over time we can see this to be true. Time is built into its mechanism."
"Exactly" said Herbert. "We cannot see the dimension of time because we are enveloped in it. As the one intractable force in our lives, we know nothing else. We have no distance. Each of us, and everything that surrounds us, is moving on a steady, unwavering path forward, never back."
"There's no escaping that" said the Lawyer. "There isn't a man here who wouldn't go back and change parts of their history if they could, correcting their miscalculations and prolonging their joys. What do you say, Doctor?"
"It's certainly an intriguing idea. But no, I wouldn't recommend it. And it could never be possible, not with any technology which exists today."
"Are you so sure, Doctor?" questioned Herbert. "You said yourself that science and discovery must move forward. Can we afford to leave this new realm uncharted and accept the cruelties of history? What if... what if wars, famines, pestilence could all be undone? Do we have the moral right to ignore these abhorrent things from our privileged position?"
"Let me get this right," the Politician interjected, "Are you actually proposing that this could be a practical thing? That we could actually turn back or reset time?"
"Maybe not for a whole world, but with a device capable of carrying a man... like a carriage, but traversing a different plane..."
Herbert opened his satchel and removed a selection of items; a large bell jar, a paper packet and what looked like a wooden cube about the size of a pint pot. The cube was patterned on all sides with square panels in grids. He opened the packet and proceeded to pour its contents, which looked like iron filings, around the cube. The spectators looked on, confounded by the whole operation.
"Gentlemen, I want you to be witnesses to this small experiment", Herbert enthused. "Watch carefully - if this is successful I can only do it once."
He lifted off the top of the cube, which came away to reveal a mechanism inside much like the inner workings of a clock, and began to make some adjustments to its workings. The spectators barely had the chance to make out its various cogs and springs before he shut the mechanism back into its housing. Dropping to eye level with the cube, He placed the bell jar over the whole arrangement. There was a prolonged silence, though Herbert didn't register any awkwardness as he gazed into the glass dome, waiting for it to begin. Then, one by one, the spectators began to notice the strange behaviour of the iron filings, which seemed to be drawing toward the cube, then clinging to it on all sides as if it were itself a magnet. After a few seconds, the cube affected a jerky motion, rattling on the table as if subject to a small earthquake, and stranger still, began to radiate an ethereal glow, flickering like a candle, then waxing and waning from view, emitting a dim hum across the table.
"It's... it's vanishing!" exclaimed The Lawyer.
"No, it's simply moving", corrected Herbert.
"Moving? Where to?"
"To the future. Soon, it will be an hour, a day, a week into our future. I haven't perfected the controls yet, all I can say is it will cease to exist in the time we are experiencing now."
"It must be a magic trick", declared the Politician.
The hum grew stronger and soon the device was disappeared from view almost entirely. Then, suddenly, its form sharpened once more and the device bounced around the jar, the hum fading away. A stilled silence occupied the room, eventually broken by a visibly upset Herbert as he tried to piece together the mechanics of what had gone wrong.
"I... I didn't get the settings correct. It's highly temperamental. If I can just..."
"Look, old boy", interjected the Lawyer, "I'm not sure exactly how you achieved that little effect, but I suggest you 'fess up to this demonstration of smoke and mirrors in the spirit of good humour."
"But we just saw..." said the Politician.
"I have been party to several performances by the conjurer Neville Maskelyne at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, whereupon he produced the most remarkable transformations and levitations as you would not believe, though on the insist that he was using deception alone. It is said that he has built an automaton which can beat any audience member at whist! And I have been to fairground sideshows in which projected photographs are seen to move and come to life. I'm told the French call it the 'cinematograph'."
The Psychologist, putting his hand on Herbert's shoulder, took a more consolatory tone: "Herbert, this show has been impressive, and I think you may have something, perhaps a new carnival novelty. But this talk of the forth dimension... did you really think this could bring you together again with Anne? We know many turn to the supernatural in times of grief, and maybe there's something there too, but I cannot condone the lengths you're going to."
The conversation moved onto other affairs of the day with an uncanny ease, and the evening passed without any more mention of what had been witnessed, until eventually, the visitors filed out, leaving only Herbert, The Doctor and Ace, who had dutifully returned to clear the evening's detritus. Herbert leaned with both hands against the mantlepiece, his head slumped toward the dying embers.
"Doctor, you are yourself a scientist. My experiments... am I doing the right thing?"
"I believe in years to come, the world will look back and honour those from this age who built great machines, but be less forgiving of those who became them. I also believe you are following your heart, and that is never the wrong thing, even for a scientist. But perhaps it's the wrong time."
The Doctor lifted the bell jar, picked up the cube device still on the table and studied it closely, rotating it in his fingers like a cob.
"You say that this machine could be made on a larger scale?"
"Yes, I have built the carriage, but the workings are still very early in development, and I fear even with its engine the vehicle will be extremely unsafe without a better understanding of the effect its use would have on a living thing."
"Then I'd very much like to see your vehicle. I can assure you I will treat your work with the greatest confidence."
Herbert jumped to his feet, his spirit returning and a boyish grin spreading across his face. "Then I invite you to my laboratory across town! It's not far and it's not too late to take a cab. I'll give Miss Ace the rest of the evening off."
"Can I come too?" said Ace, "I've always wanted to see a real cyberpunk..."
"I'm sure what she mean is", interrupted The Doctor, silencing her with a nudge, "she would be honoured to become acquainted with her master's work."
"It's alright Doctor, I have noticed my housemaid's streak of wild curiosity, and indeed an interest in things scientific. It's quite endearing. In my circle such things are strictly of a male concern, though one hears of the like of Florence Nightingale, a statistician of Mayfair who's work is every part that of a medic like yourself. Perhaps you become acquainted at a medical conference?" Herbert paused, his memory failing him momentarily. "Er, remind me, where exactly was it we met, Doctor?
The Doctor was in the process of formulating a suitably cryptic reply when the room echoed with a distant sound; an animalistic screech of anguish and defence, yet broken like the chirp of a cricket, and unlike that of any known urban dweller. Herbert froze, a deathly look in his eyes.
"The sound... we must leave this place."
"You've heard it before haven't you?" said Ace.
"Yes, yes, I am haunted by it. I know not the nature of the beast, only that we are not safe here".
The Doctor and Ace exchanged glances as Herbert purposefully grabbed his satchel and coat and headed for the front door.
"There's no time to lose, please, accompany me, I can hear a hansom cab, if we are swift we can catch it."