She – for there was no doubt of her sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was interrupted in the act of picking up her pen, frowning at the blank sheet before her, and putting it down again, over and over again, without ever making a mark. It was the twelfth of October. It was nineteen twenty-eight. She had no idea what to do next.
The intrusion of the American con-man, therefore, came more as a relief than otherwise, for it put off the inevitable moment of writing the first word that came after the end of The Oak Tree. The first word is invariably the most difficult – so much depends on it – and the author may well find herself borrowing someone else's, meaning to put it back when she has come up with a better, and never quite getting round to it. It is as well, then, that before Orlando succumbed to this unworthy impulse, Captain Jack Harkness was announced.
'Show him in,' she said, suppressing an equally unworthy impulse to sulk, because even a welcome interruption can be irritating.
He was not, of course, a captain, and she had her doubts about his being Jack Harkness. His accent was American – or was it? America, its existence, politics and fashions, had rather passed Orlando by – and his profession was not obvious. In short, Orlando was not clear what was the point of his existence, but had she had him shown out she would have had to go back to writing – writing what? - and so she ordered tea.
He came straight to the point; he was exactly the sort of person who would. 'Your house,' he said.
Orlando looked around her; the house was, indeed, still there. 'Yes?'
'How on earth do you keep it standing?'
Hardly the sort of question one ought to answer, but the blank sheet of paper was still there on the table, staring up at her from among the tea things, murmuring to her that the moment she dismissed him she would have to turn her attention back to it, and write her first word... She said, 'Well, it's difficult these days, isn't it, everyone is having the same difficulty, and thank goodness we don't have the death duties to worry about.'
'That wasn't what I meant,' Harkness said.
'In which case,' Orlando said, 'I would be grateful if you could tell me what exactly you did mean.'
'This place,' said Harkness, 'Your house, your grounds. It shouldn't exist. I've heard that there's a spot from which you can see the Hebrides, Cardiff, Normandy. It just shouldn't happen, but it does, and I think I know why.'
'Oh, indeed?' said Orlando, and silently bet herself five pounds that the bluebottle that was presently buzzing hugely, lazily, around the picture rail would land, if it ever landed, on the sugar lump that was just on the near side of the sugar bowl.
'There's something here,' Harkness said, 'that is warping all of time and space around it. This is the central point of a massive dip in reality. You can see far further here than is possible, and time goes much slower than it should do.'
Orlando shook her head. 'Faster. Or perhaps exactly right.' She thought about it seriously, for some moments. Over the course of her four hundred years time had, she knew, sometimes passed slowly and sometimes passed quickly. She had been under the impression that such was the case for all sentient beings, according to the nature of their employment, being dull or diverting.
'This is what I mean,' Harkness pursued. 'You've lived for centuries and you can't be more than thirty-five, and, what's more worrying, you don't even seem to realise it's all impossible.'
'Not impossible. Merely improbable. And in any case, what's it to you?'
'There's no reason for it,' Harkness said, 'and that makes me nervous. Why should you want to see the whole of Britain? Why should you want to live for four centuries? What about your staff? They're living a very long time as well. Did you get in the way of the Time Vortex? I'd have thought I'd have heard of you, but maybe not.
'More to the point, whatever's going on here is putting the planet in danger. I would bet you a small fortune that, when this place was built, you could see maybe as far as Maidstone. When I first got to Earth, I nosed around here a bit, and I could see Carlisle. That's not normal. Now you can see the Hebrides. If it carries on at this rate, the curvature of the earth will be completely reversed, and eventually this one stately pile will have swallowed the entire planet.'
Orlando rose. 'I hardly think so,' she said, dangerously, for she would sooner have suffered an assault on her person than an insult to her property. Her hand hovered over the bell-pull.
'Lady Orlando,' he said, 'I have the power to arrest you.'
There was only one possible response. Orlando laughed. 'On what grounds? That I'm a man? That I'm a woman? That I'm dead? That I'm alive? My dear man, we went through all this in the eighteenth century.'
'I represent the Torchwood Institute. I can and will arrest you on suspicion of being a dangerous alien.'
The second laugh was more incredulous than the first had been. 'You can't seriously – I mean, I'm more English than you are. Quite considerably.'
'I believe,' the Captain said, 'that you're a Timelord.'
'I'm afraid I don't quite follow you. A time lord? Certainly I have been a lord, but not any more...'
'Timelord. Alien. From Gallifrey. Master of time and space? Oh, come on. You've lived for centuries, you've regenerated at least once. Next thing, you'll be telling me you don't have a TARDIS...' Some kind of realisation passed over Harkness' face, but Orlando was none the wiser. 'Oh, my god. This is your TARDIS. This house. What kind of megalomaniac are you? You must be immensely powerful. Immensely dangerous. Why the hell are you still here? What are you waiting for?'
'I'm sorry, I don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about. I can assure you that, whatever sex, I have never been anything other than human. Look at me.' Possibly the man was mad. Possibly he was mistaken. Certainly he was dangerous. Orlando rang the bell.
'Timelords,' he insisted, '
human. All over. Trust me, I'd know.' He cocked an eyebrow. For he had appended to his employer's motto,
If it's alien, it's ours
, his own:
and if it's sentient, it's worth a try
'In which case,' Orlando said coldly, 'it is hardly worth your while examining me.' She turned to the maid. 'Thank you Evans; will you remain here?'
'You have two hearts,' he persisted. 'Timelords, you look human but you have two hearts.'
'Not I,' said Orlando.
'I have brought a stethoscope,' Harkness said, meaningfully.
'And if I prove to have but one heart, will that satisfy you?' Orlando said.
'For the present it will have to.'
And for once those three nervous ladies Chastity, Purity and Modesty have graced us with their presence, drawn a veil (much against the spirit of the age) over the examination. And so:
He apologised, but it seemed to be more a matter of form, and no doubt he would be back once he had dreamt up another physiological peculiarity to accuse her of possessing.
'I will not receive Captain Harkness again,' she said to Evans. 'Not without a warrant, at least.'
And (for she did not entirely trust time, now, with its habit of passing not in a regular, decent, tick-tock-tick-tock, but sluggishly or in whorls and eddies) she drew her watch from her pocket. It was odd, she thought, for perhaps the first time, that she had owned a watch before Queen Elizabeth had been presented with hers; odd in the extreme. But there...
She turned once more to the blank sheet of paper, and found to her delight that she had something to put upon it.