By the time my eyes had adjusted to the full glare – once again, even with sunnies on it was a tough prospect – I had clambered out onto the boiling salty sand and pulled the trapdoor closed behind me with a gritty thud and another little three-sided cascade of sand that practically covered the opening from view. I sidestepped a couple of metres for good measure. And I hadn’t been shot in this time, which I took for a positive sign.
I kept my hands up, just in case.
“Civilian,” I said again.
The dark, wavery forms of a pair of uniformed prison camp guards trotted out of the heat haze, guns at the ready and moustaches and sideburns bristling with indignation. Neither of them were Colonel McOldentimes, but I didn’t expect their response to my presence to be all that drastically different.
“Where the deuces did you spring from?” one of them demanded.
Where the deuces? I thought in mild amusement. “I was in the administration office earlier, looking for a friend of mine,” I said, making a wild leap of faith as to just where I was in time. “I spoke to the, um, the chap in there, and he sent me out here,” I looked around, wincing. The camp, or at least the fence and a couple of low buildings, was visible a few hundred metres away, but I wasn’t exactly out on the salt flats, let alone near the lake. I wasn’t sure where that started. “I must have gotten turned around.”
This wasn’t, I freely admit, a watertight story by even the most generous standards. I was depending on the grand unifying don’t-give-a-damn to protect me from suspicious locals, and figured if I could just blather something sufficiently civilianny and daft, they’d wave it off as a daft civilian trying to get himself killed by exposure or a lucky hit from an over-enthusiastic guard. Looking around, I saw more guards stationed around and – away to one side and even further from the camp proper than we were now – the heat-blurred figures of what looked like a chain gang. If they’d stopped to see what all the shouting and shooting was about, it was impossible to make out from here.
The second guard, quite likely the one who had shot me, looked rightly unconvinced but the interest-dampening effect of time travellers was already kicking in. “Could’ve sworn I saw you pop out of a tunnel,” he said.
“I might have … swooned?” I hazarded. The first guard guffawed, and even the shooter hid a smirk in his muttonchops, and I conceded that swooning was probably only something milkmaids did. “The heat must’ve gotten to me,” I said, gesturing around. “I was just sitting down for a moment. Not sure where I would have been making a tunnel from. Or to.”
The trapdoor, at least to my paranoid eyes, was glaringly obvious a few metres to my left as a square outline of indented sand, but neither of the guards glanced at it.
“Probably just didn’t see him in the haze, Wizby,” the first guard said.
“As you say, Captain Gandersmarf,” Wizby said. I spluttered and coughed.
“Something funny about my name, Swoony Joe?” Gandersmarf asked with the sharp immediacy of someone who is very, very used to people laughing at his name.
“No, Captain,” I said, “although to be fair, if your full name is actually Swoony Joe Gandersmarf, as your phrasing left open to misinterpretation … that would be a little bit funny. Almost as funny as me swooning,” I added, to get us back on the not-ridiculing-the-guy-with-a-gun track. It was, I felt, the safest track to be on.
Captain Gandersmarf grunted, shouldered his rifle, and jerked his head back towards the fence. “You’d better get going,” he said, “it’s only going to get hotter out here as the morning continues.”
Huh, I thought. I was pretty sure that when I’d last been here, it had been mid-afternoon. Colonel McOldentimes had been enjoying whatever they’d called siesta back in the days when you didn’t say the word siesta. So this was some other time-frame, but probably not very separated from the one I’d visited – from my perspective – previously.
This tenuous grasp of events lasted the few minutes it took me to walk back across the salty sand to the Barnsley Yard fence, and a minute or so beyond that.
But then it ended.