The newspapers had been full of it – unusually so for something scientific. A couple of them had even managed to write a decent piece, proving they’d not just read the press release but the accompanying documents as well. Most hadn’t of course but, although a tad repetitious for Clarissa to plough through them all, at least she could report they weren’t going off piste and making a hash of things.
When she’d left work to bring up the children, she’d known she would miss the stimulation of the lab. But they’d both been absolutely determined that one of them would be a full-time parent and, after a trial period when Dougal gave it a go, she’d quickly decided her need for order and routine simply wouldn’t survive his laid back ways. It had worked out surprisingly well. Her organisational skills meant she’d kept up with her reading faithfully, helped along by Dougal bringing home all the relevant periodicals for her to catch up on whenever she had a quiet moment. She hadn’t read a work of fiction in quite a while, but something always had to give, and fiction had been it for Clarissa.
It was shortly after the littlest had started school when she spotted it. With a little more time on her hands, she’d contacted friends in the lab to get a copy of the full paper after seeing mention in the broadsheets. Reading the paper she spotted what appeared to be a glaring a inconsistency, except it couldn’t be. Had she somehow misread the newspaper article? It took a while for Clarissa to check, for the paper had long been recycled. But once the archive copy arrived yes, there was a mistake in the newspaper’s piece. A pretty big one actually.
She told Dougal, who told his line manager, who told … well, it went rather rapidly up the chain. Turned out they were paying an agency to check this sort of thing. Problem was, the person at the agency simply didn’t have the specialist knowledge and hadn’t realised that the paper had got things back-to-front. All the right words were there, they were simply in the wrong order – and that made a total nonsense of it.
A few weeks later, Dougal had come home with a smile on his face. They’d been delighted, if surprised, to learn how Clarissa had kept up to speed. Talks with with HR had followed, and Dougal had an invitation for Clarissa to discuss taking over this task from the agency. They’d wanted her to work freelance so they only paid her when they needed to, and while she’d thought that was rather mean, it had allowed her to develop a nice little business working for a number of others in the scientific community. For Clarissa was good at her job. She was assiduous in doing her research, always following up with the full reports of work she was specifically being paid to monitor.
That was how she came to be in Miranda’s office that fateful day. Loaded down with a bundle of reports being returned to the library now she’d completed the last task, she’d spotted Miranda looking less than her usually composed self. There was an ink streak across her cheek, a really bad run in her tights, and her hair was standing up at an odd angle. When the phone rang, it became clear that was because she kept running her hand through it as she listened.
Saying not one word on the phone, Miranda sighed before heading for the department kitchenette. Pointing to the crowded meeting room, she beckoned Clarissa to join her.
“What’s going on in there? ”
“They’ve been closeted away for an absolute age! I’ve been stuck out here, unable to leave my desk or they get all stressed and tetchy if I’m not here when they ring for something. I’ve been running back & forth with reports & reference materials from the library. Worse, they keep calling for coffee and tea, a constant stream of biscuits, then sandwiches, then fruit, then coffee and tea, and biscuits again. I keep saying I need to take a break, but they’re in one of their excited states and aren’t listening to me. Typical that this happens as soon as Genevieve goes on her honeymoon!”
The phone started ringing again and Miranda rushed to get it, before returning muttering under her breath.
“I asked what did they want first – the coffee and teas or the research materials – and they just said both, then hung up! I’m getting fed up with it. I can’t get any of my own work done and there’ll be hell to pay if this goes on much longer.”
“Give me the list of research materials, I’ll pull it together while you do the coffee & tea stuff. Once we’ve watered the geese, you can tell me where everything is and I’ll spell you for a short while so you can grab a breath of fresh air and a loo break.”
Once Miranda had left, expressing her grateful thanks breathlessly, Clarissa sat down to look at the second copies of the research materials she’d put casually onto a shelf. She had a quick flick through, then went more slowly. She couldn’t gain much from the reference books, but the reports were interesting. She was just wondering whether there’d been some form of breakthrough, when the phone rang again. Answering automatically with her name, she head a surprised silence at the other end. Explaining quickly that she was spelling Miranda, and what did they need, she was not thrilled to hear the phone’s receiver being replaced.
The meeting room door flew open and Dougal appeared clutching a sheet of paper.
“Hello darling, sorry – I’ve got another list. Are you OK doing this? Kids alright?”
“It’s fine Dougal, give me your list, I’ll wheel them in in a minute.”
Planting a quick peck on his wife’s cheek, Dougal returned to the meeting room, relieved that she’d not pounced on him for details. He hated not being able to talk to her about work stuff when it was still confidential, but … this was one of those times. Still, he’d not be surprised if she worked out where it was all going after seeing the latest list.
Repeating her previous action of taking out duplicate copies, Clarissa pushed the trolley containing the first set of items into the meeting room before returning to Miranda’s office. She felt the frustration of needing to switch into Mummy-mode soon, but school pick-up time was in no way flexible. She was surprised when Miranda assumed the pile she had beside her was the reading material for her latest project and signed it all out to her. Borrowing a trolley, Clarissa wheeled the substantive pile out to her car. She’d not have time till after the kids went to bed to take more than a passing look but, if she was reading things in the meeting room right, Dougal would be calling later to let her know he was pulling an all-nighter.
Dougal appeared the next morning when she returned from the school drop off. Looking bleary eyed, he headed off for a shower and clothes change after accepting her offer of a cooked breakfast with a look of pathetic gratitude. Clarissa had made sure the pile of papers she’d brought home was well out of sight before going to bed – for it wouldn’t do to get Miranda into trouble over this. Waving Dougal off with a wifely kiss on the cheek and a cheery “have a good day darling” she returned rapidly to her reading.
There was another phone call and another all-nighter but, by then, Clarissa knew what they’d cracked even if she didn’t know how. When Dougal appeared bleary-eyed and hungry again, she’d been overcome and greeted him with a teary hug. Later, over a cooked breakfast, she told him …
“I’m so proud of you Dougal darling. I don’t need to know how yet, but the papers you asked for let me work out what, and it truly is an amazing achievement. Can you tell me what you’re calling it yet?”
“We decided on The Continuity Index.”
The Continuity Index had made it into the headline of the broadsheets – Clarissa couldn’t have been prouder of Dougal.
© Debra Carey, 2020
The Continuity Index
The agent, typical of the kind, stood, hands clasped behind their back. Behind them, bright light spilled out through large windows which revealed very little except rat-runs of cubicles and the occasional conference room. In front of them, an even larger window ran the length of the hallway-cum-viewing platform. For some, the view would be less than interesting. It looked like a load of machinery, badly lit by bright lights that were too few and far between to fight back all the darkness that threatened to engulf the cavernous space. But those who had made a study of the device – or rather the interlinked devices – could lose hours contemplating the engineering marvels that were contained there. If you knew where to look, for example, you could spot the tenth iteration of the Antikythera Mechanism. It had been rebuilt many times over the years of course, tweaked, refined, and was considerably more complex than the prototype that had gone down in a shipwreck. The coverup for that, when the lost architype had been rescued from the sea-bed, had been ingenious, although it was difficult to believe that anyone could really believe that it was a glorified alarm clock for the ancient Olympic Games.
No, the Mechanism, was a part, not even the oldest part, of the Continuity Index. The agent was one of a handful who combined an interest in the scholarship of the Index, and its operation, with the hands-on application of the knowledge it provided. Not everyone who worked for the Institute would see this view, see the
Pipe-work was traced and mentally reviewed against memorised diagrams. Other key features were observed. Hairs on the back of the neck began to prickle as the air became charged. The agent recognised the signs and stirred a split second before the Index began to change.
Away in the distance a steam whistle sounded. Nearer, but off to the right, a mirror moved just as small hatch opened in the ceiling and beam of sunlight descended as from heaven. Its progress to the floor was arrested by the mirror and diverted towards a prism which split the light into a rainbow, before other glassware split and reconstituted the light in different ways, sending it off into the interior of the Index. Flywheels whirred. Gears turned. Belts transferred motion from one place to another.
The cavern was flooded with anticipation as the Index ponderously roused itself. Technically, the agglomeration of glass, silver, the finest milled brass, and of course cold iron, was merely a unique calculation engine, designed to make the measurements and perform the complex mathematics required to determine a deviation from normality. To determine the current Continuity. But everyone called the vast enterprise the continuity index If Charles Babbage had applied himself then he might have come close to emulating perhaps ten percent of the contents of this hall, but of course he had been easily distractible. Thankfully.
There was an entire team that were looking into replacement materials, but none had yet been deemed stable enough by the Chief Artificer. All in due course. The one concession to modern technology, in the name of reducing the time that it took to turn a calculation into an order, was that the punchcards that the device outputted were automatically fed into a scanner, and consequently translated into machine-code to be sent to waiting analysts using the closed network. The agent watched as the cards were spat out of the device at high speed, passed in front of the scanner and away to be double checked and archived.
What would it be? The agent mused? Incursion from another dimension? Renegade monster from the old world? Not another time-traveller, the agent prayed silently. For three thousand years, this device and its predecessors had attempted to keep the Continuity of the world intact and on course. There were those who felt that perhaps the Earth was big enough and ugly enough to deal with any issues that arose. They viewed the Directors of the Continuity Index Institute as just another group of NIMBYs – so what if an alien species decided it wanted to take over the Earth? Let us welcome our new overlords, they said. How could it be worse than what we have now? Well, they would say that if they didn’t cause severe problems with the index…
The flow of cards stopped. An amber light above the scanner started blinking and then stopped. A minute later a door opened from one of the cubicle packed offices. An analyst stepped out, shirt sleeves rolled up. The agent glanced over and mentally rolled their eyes at the waist-coat, left open to reveal a t-shirt with and ironically cool motif. The analyst held out a piece of paper and the agent took it, scanning the message it contained.
The intensity of their focus on the message increased and the paper began to wrinkle under the agent’s grip. Suddenly they started running off down the hall. The analyst gaped.
“Summon the Directors” the agent called, not bothering to turn around. “Tell them it’s a code red!”
©David Jesson, 2020