The woman sat, defiantly, in the middle of the room.
Gerald Carter studied her carefully. He’d been skeptical at first but his source’s report as to her potential was too hard to ignore.
He slipped the cylinder from his pocket and carefully rolled it toward the center of the room. Within moments the air began to shimmer, flecks of silver nearly obscuring the image that arose from haze. Shouts and overturned chairs marked the students’ exit from the room.
Harriet Derbyshire, moving against the tide, calmly picked up the cylinder and studied it curiously.
Gerald smiled. She was definitely Torchwood material.
Harriet hurried down the steps. The unusual incident in Professor Halifax’s lecture had made her late, and she’d promised her uncle she’d be home for tea. If she hurried, she’d have a few hours this afternoon to examine the curious device that was deep in the pocket of her coat, bouncing heavily against her hip. The cylinder was so small and dense, her fingers tingled at the memory of picking it up from the floor of the lecture hall.
Bother. She stopped, schooling her face into bland pleasantness before turning to greet the gentleman rushing toward her. Harriet told the girls at Sommerville it was her “Oxford armor”.
Harriet looked at the man with curiosity. He was considerably older than her, by at least a decade, but had a brightness about him that she easily recognized from watching countless eager first years cutting their teeth on new discoveries. His clothes were impeccably cut, however he wore them with an air of carelessness that nearly made her smile. It reminded her of her uncle, who barely noticed if his jacket was buttoned properly in the morning.
Glancing at the top button, dangling by a mere thread from the stranger’s jacket, she allowed herself to unthaw slightly.
“Miss Derbyshire, allow me to introduce myself.” He held out a hand. “My name is Gerald Carter.”
Holding out a gloved hand and watching it get swallowed in his large grip, Harriet nodded.
“Mr. Carter, you find me at a disadvantage,” she replied pleasantly, her brain scrabbling to recall when they might have crossed paths. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“Ah, yes,” he replied, tipping his head slightly in the direction of her coat pocket. “I believe you have something of mine.”
Stiffening, she took a half step back. “I’m sorry, Mr. Carter, but I can assure you that I do not, in fact, have anything that belongs to you.”
His taciturn face broke into a grin. The unexpectedness of the expression startled her. Harriet had the feeling this man knew something that she didn’t, and if there was anything Harriet disliked, it was feeling that she was one step behind.
“A small cylinder perhaps? Approximately three inches long. It, err… slipped from my pocket while I was sitting in on Professor Halifax’s lecture.”
The weight of the cylinder in her pocket seemed to double, but she’d been through this scenario one too many times to back down from one Gerald Carter. Since she’d begun at Oxford, it had been a constant battle to have her efforts recognized or her discoveries credited. All too often a male colleague would step in to offer assistance, which, in Harriet’s experience, meant claiming the credit for her hard work. She wasn’t going to let this object out of her sight until she’d had a chance to examine it at her leisure.
“Again, Mr. Carter, I have no idea what you are talking about. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Harriet turned to go when she felt a slight burning sensation at her hip. After a few steps, the intensity became too much. Casually slipping her hand into her pocket, she withdrew the device. Harriet gasped as she unfolded her fingers, her books falling from her grip and landing on the pavement in a flurry of paper.
“Hmm…I was afraid that would happen,” a voice entirely too close to her ear said softly.
She looked up, startled, and found Gerald Carter staring at the device in her hand, a look that seemed almost fond gracing his features.
Reaching over, he plucked the cylinder, now pulsing with a golden light, from her palm and deposited it into a shiny brass canister. He gave the lid a twist and it appeared to seal itself with soft popping sound.
“Unfortunately the cylinder is only stable for period of less than an hour. Caldwell’s been working on extending the time frame, but after the last seismic event, we decided…”
He paused, realizing Harriett was staring at him intently.
“Yes, well.” Gerald cleared his throat. “That really doesn’t matter now, does it? I’ll just take this back and make sure that it is safely secured.”
“Back where?” Harriet quizzed him. “What is it? What is its purpose? And for goodness sake, who are you?”
“Miss Derbyshire, I’m afraid I don’t have time for questions today, but rest assured, this will not be the last time we meet.” Gerald bent down and picked up her fallen books. Handing them to her with a small smile, he tipped his hat and walked toward the gates, getting lost in the crowd of students heading back to their rooms.
“Mr. Carter!” she called, stopping him before he reached the road. “I…”
Before she could ask any one of a hundred questions currently buzzing around her head, Gerald called out, “Miss Derbyshire, why did you walk toward the device when everyone else in the room fled?”
Closing the gap between him, she answered simply, “I was curious.”
“Were you not frightened? Terrified of the noise and the distortion?” Gerald asked.
“I am no fan of Mr. Houdini,” she said curtly. “Magic is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. There is nothing that can’t be explained with science and logic.”
Another unexpected grin lit up his face.
“Oh, I think you’d be surprised, Miss Derbyshire,” Gerald chuckled. “You are quite a remarkable young woman. I look forward to our next meeting.”
With a slight bow, he once again slipped into the crowd and was gone.
“Uncle Charles!” Harriet called as she walked into the vestibule of the neat townhome she shared with her only surviving relative. “The most extraordinary thing happened…”
She entered the drawing room to find it empty, the small coal fire as of yet unlit. Sighing, she dropped her books on the settee and plucked a match from the mantle. As the fire began to chase the chill from the room, she gathered her books and papers. She knew from experience that if her uncle had not yet returned home from the college, then she could be in for a long wait, and there was no sense in letting the time go to waste. She almost didn’t notice the small vellum card that fluttered from in between the pages of Aether and Matter . She stooped to pick it up. The thick, creamy card held only one word:
She turned the card over. “Until we meet again, Gerald Carter” was penned neatly on the back.
With a small sigh of frustration, she moved to toss the card into the fire. Then, thinking better of it, she slid it back in between the pages of her book. Harriet Derbyshire was a curious woman, and nothing had aroused her curiosity quite as much as Gerald Carter.
Until we meet again, indeed, she thought. But for now she had work to do.