I swear I’m going to start wrapping this up soon; it’s gone on way too long. But I was having fun. A friend’s dog sent in a new plot bunny, and I’ve still got Walter’s story to finish, so… I’m not going to be bored anytime soon.
“Time travel?” Helen smiled. “Think about it. You can’t bring physical objects through time, that’s ridiculous. It’s not that. I don’t know what it is, mind, but so far Curnow and I are convinced it’s staying within this dimension. Inverting antimatter? Could be, but it would take an awful lot more antimatter than anyone’s detected in the entire history of physics. And indoor use is just a party trick, that’s not what it’s for. Magic? There we go invoking Clarke again. It’s not fairy-tale magic, it’s not capricious enough for that. These substances have rules, and so far, they all seem to follow the rules. The fractionation liquid dilutes the effect, part for part so far as we can tell.”
This time when Sylvia came back, she managed not to do it silently. Possibly this was partly because she wasn’t alone: the man following her into the lab, staring around probably about as curiously as I had been before Helen floored me with the concept of self-filling sinks. He looked like an insurance adjuster, or an accountant, or something of that nature. Completely forgettable, black suit, subdued tie, neatly combed hair and polished shoes. No embellishment, but all else complete and correct, down to the monogrammed briefcase in his hand.
“Mrs. Harvelle,” he began formally, but Helen held up her hand to stop him.
“Mrs. Harvelle hasn’t been here in a couple decades, Jim. Try again.” I was kind of stunned, hearing that: Helen was another of the ageless kind, mid-thirties forever. Only she couldn’t be, could she, since she’d been married and now been in the Hollow twenty years? (I knew the second part of that was right, being as how I’d been living not half a mile from the Hollow house for all of those twenty years and then some.)
“Oh, hi, how can I help you? And –” to me “– you can stay. Jim gets to say his piece every year or so, and then I get to send him away. Go ahead, Jim.”
“Helen, you have to come to Paris.”
“No. No, I do not have to come to Paris. I left Paris. I left Tony, I left CNRS, I left my lab, I left my entire life in Paris and I came all the way East of Nowhere to start over, living in a row of spare rooms in the attic of the Hollow and working real mad-scientist stuff that’s barely two steps shy of magic. And I’m happy here. But you and Tony just can’t leave me alone, can you?”
“He’s dead.” Helen set down the beaker, and turned slowly to face Jim. Sylvia slipped her hand into mine, and tugged gently.
“We should go to the study for now.”
“Not even a tiny bit,” Helen contradicted. “Both of you should stay. Ring Curnow in the kitchen and ask him to come down here as well, actually. Carry on, Jim.”
“Mrs. Harvelle, I’m here to tell you that your husband is dead. He was on a motoring trip in Corsica. His brakes failed at a critical moment, and the car plunged over a cliff. Mr. Harvelle and the passenger in the car were both killed. I’ll be contacting her family shortly, but the protocol is to inform spouses before parents.”
“Tony died driving with his girlfriend, and you came and interrupted my work – which is extremely important and on a very tight deadline, by the way – to tell me. Leave it, Jim, we both know you change his will every time he changes to a new ballerina or two-bit movie star. You’ve told me, that’s super, now leave.”
Jim shrugged. “I’m staying at the motel in Nowhere. I’ll be there until the day after tomorrow. There was no will, so this is going to be messy, unless I can locate Sophie and Chris in the next week or so. Uh… your husband died intestate, Mrs. Harvelle. Between drafts of a will, if you like. His estate would normally go to you, unless there is some compelling reason otherwise.” Jim turned and left, shiny lawyer shoes clicking on the linoleum.
As if nothing had happened, Sylvia wandered over to the glass-fronted cabinet and shoved the door up into its housing, to turn off the hotplate under the flask of purple fluid. “The color will clear up as it cools, Helen. Going off Dean’s notes, this will probably be a little slower-release, so we’ll have to tell Opi not to freak out when it doesn’t flood immediately. Don’t we have a delta flood up north in a few weeks?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “what exactly is the use of flooding liquid?”
“Well, flooding, of course.” Helen smiled. “I’m sure you’ve heard about how the annual flood of the Nile fertilized the fields, made the entire ancient Egyptian civilization possible. Turns out it works for a lot of the rest of the rivers too. Floods… silt… good soil… good crops… it’s a boring, boring job, but someone has to keep it all tidy, otherwise things would just flood up and down exactly as they pleased, and you’d never get it back under control. You know how it is – a storm continues until it has corrected the imbalance that created it. We provide enough water to fix the imbalance just enough, for just long enough, to prevent the real thing getting too bad.”
By this point I was firmly convinced I was going mad. Yes, I knew Helen and Curnow and Sylvia – apparently ‘Misty’ – were odd, the whole town knew that. I knew they kept to themselves and Lou trucked strange things to the house in the Hollow practically every supply run. But now it seemed like Helen was saying she, or Curnow, or both, were responsible for causing floods. So, I asked.
The explanation I got in answer to my question was like the worst nightmare of that kid who sat up the back of science class and didn’t really listen. It started out very long, with Helen and Sylvia debating obscure laws of physics at every turn, and Curnow appearing in the middle of the conversation – turns out his first name was Jeffrey, which nobody except maybe Lou Bell and Rickard at Hart’s Corner knew.
Apparently flooding liquid is a compound or mixture – I never understood the difference – that Sylvia and Dean and the unnamed couple in Hampstead knew how to make, but the details as to what it was, other than green and unusual, or how it was made, other than very carefully and with a bubbling purple stage somewhere in the middle, were pretty hazy. All I could get nailed down for definite was that a tiny amount of it had a huge effect, so a teaspoonful would handle a lake quite comfortably; the fractioning liquid, equally mysterious except that the smoky appearance was down to it being easy to evaporate at low temperatures, mixed with the flooding stuff to determine what fraction of ‘full’ the container would get. Half-and-half flooding and fractioning? Halfway to ‘as full as it gets’. For some reason that they hadn’t worked out yet, it only applied to the container it was directly placed in: tipping flooding liquid into a sink, and letting it run down the drain, would flood only the sink, not the drain, and not the sewer system, and not the water-treatment works.
“And we’re always careful never to put any directly in the sea, or inlets or estuaries or the tidal end of a river – so nobody’s ever done the Thames, or the Manhattan end of the Hudson. Ocean’s too dangerous, because nobody knows how high the sea will rise before it considers itself full. Sure, the global flood rising above the highest mountains isn’t widely considered to be an historical fact anymore, not in the West anyway, but there’s enough data that could be read both ways that we’re a thousand kinds of not willing to run the risk.” Helen laughed. “And Curnow believes it.”
“And Curnow takes all the interesting risks in anything that doesn’t involve floods,” Curnow interjected. “Do we have to talk in the laboratory, Helen? I’m decaffeinated.” So we all decamped to the study.