Simon and his cousin Brad hadn’t wanted to spend the summer together. And the quiet London suburb where Simon lived was the last place they expected anything unusual to happen.
Then the fireball came.
The huge whirling ball of light was like nothing the boys had ever seen before—and they felt compelled to investigate.
They awoke in a world where everything had changed. It’s still England...but an England terrifyingly different from the one they had left behind. They passed through the fireball, and now they will have to learn to survive in the fascinatingly strange world on the other side…
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THE GRANNIES, SITTING DRINKING TEA in the dining room, were talking about the old days, in the war. Simon caught a snatch of their conversation: “. . . the time we went to that dance and then had to spend all night in the air-raid shelter in the Broadway . . .” That was Yankee Granny, which was the obvious way of distinguishing her from his own granny. He heard a ripple of laughter. “I never could stand him.” Granny, this time. It was all right for them, he supposed. They had plenty to talk about, the past to ransack.
He gazed, without much favour, at the chessboard in front of him. He had been playing chess for two or three years, and when Brad admitted becoming acquainted with the game only the previous winter, it had seemed a promising opportunity for putting Brad down. Things had started well, too, with Simon getting the better of the early exchanges. Since then, though, the position had altered; he not only had fewer pieces left, but Brad’s forces were ominously well placed to attack.
There had been a lot of what he now saw as propaganda heralding this visit. The impression had almost been given that it had been planned for his benefit, rather than as a reunion for the two grannies and an opportunity for Brad’s mother to holiday in Europe with his new stepfather. It was going to be fascinating for him, having his American cousin for a couple of weeks in the summer. (Cousin once removed, his father had pointed out—his mother and Brad’s mother were the actual cousins—but that didn’t make it any less interesting, of course.) A broadening experience, and fun at the same time. And now that the families had become reacquainted, there were lots of other possibilities. A return visit by him to Vermont the following year, perhaps?
Looking at the board again, Simon saw a possibility he had not previously noticed. Knight to queen’s five. It offered a threat to Brad’s queen, and when he moved the queen, it would leave a pawn unguarded and also open a route by which Simon’s queen could advance on the other flank. He made the move.
Despite the propaganda, he had not been keen on the idea. In the first place, half his form at school, including his best friend Grendall, were down for the school’s cruise to Greece, and he’d assumed he would be going, too. In the second, it meant sharing a room, and after ten weeks in a school dormitory he didn’t want to share a room with anyone. Not even Grendall, much less some American who most likely talked noisily all the time.
He had pressed his objections with Granny and his mother and thought he might be getting somewhere. By a fortunate coincidence the dates of the projected visit coincided almost exactly with the cruise dates. And the notice about the cruise had arrived at half-term, before the American invasion had been broached even. As far as the Americans were concerned, that could already have been fixed, so there was no question of his seeming discourteous or unwelcoming. It offered the advantage, in fact, that Cousin Brad (once removed) could have a room to himself.
But when he carried the campaign to his father, his hopes were promptly and firmly dashed. There was, it appeared, no question of his going on the cruise in any case. Times were hard, and the extra expense just could not be managed. It was going to be difficult enough coping with the latest increase in school fees, news of which had arrived that morning. There was a look in his father’s eye which Simon recognized, and he did not attempt to argue.
Instead, with no alternative in view, he did his best to look on the bright side of the impending visit. By the time it actually occurred, two weeks after the end of the summer term, he had had time to get bored with his own company and was even, warily, looking forward to it.
The first couple of days were confusing because apart from Brad there were his mother and stepfather (sleeping in a hotel nearby, but filling the house by day) and his grandmother. But Simon’s first impressions were favourable. Brad was smaller than he was, shorter and wirier, with fair hair and blue eyes and a cheerful grin. He looked, Simon reflected, more English than he himself, with his large-boned swarthiness and brown eyes, did. Moreover, he wasn’t as extrovert and noisy as one expected an American to be. In fact, he tended to leave Simon to make the running conversationally, though that could have been due to shyness. Except that shyness would be non-American, too, wouldn’t it?
Simon dutifully did his best to bring his cousin out. It wasn’t too easy. He asked about American football, to be told Brad wasn’t much interested in football. He moved on to baseball, reminding himself not to make any comparison with rounders, or mention the word for that matter. Brad disclaimed any interest in baseball either. Simon asked if he played any sports, preparing to take the generous view that not everyone did, and it was really no defect not to.
“Well, skiing,” Brad told him. “And tennis and golf and surfing. And windsurfing.”
That was when Simon felt the first prickle of unease, verging on hostility.
Brad’s parents departed on their extended tour—London, Paris, Switzerland, Rome, and finally Yugoslavia, where Brad’s stepfather had family ties of his own to renew. It sounded like fun. More fun than his own exercise (or chore) in cementing transatlantic relations, but he applied himself to the task with resolution, if not enthusiasm. The two grannies, reminiscing about the blitz or Mafeking or Sebastopol or whatever, got on like a couple of houses on fire, completely failing to notice that at a junior level any sparking was of quite a different order.
What bugged Simon was that while he had been prepared to make allowances, lend a helping hand and all that, he found no taker for his generosity. And while he had been determined not to say or do anything which might make his American cousin feel inferior or embarrassed, it was more than slightly galling to have evidence of the other’s superiority thrust down his throat instead. The day after Brad’s parents left he overheard Yankee Granny telling her sister about Brad: His IQ was 150, he had an incredible photographic memory so that he could recite whole pages out of an encyclopaedia, and it wasn’t a . . . you know . . . narrow talent. Brad had such wide interests. She’d read an article in Reader’s Digest about the Renaissance Man—taking all of knowledge as his province, you know? That was the way Brad was.
Simon’s grandmother had come back bravely with her own grandchild boast, but she had, Simon recognized, been outgunned; or, to put it more accurately, had been short of similar calibre ammunition. Animosity began crystallizing into a fairly hearty dislike.
The simple fact remained, though, that he was stuck with the situation—and Brad—for another three weeks. He continued putting on as good a show of amiability as possible. When he told Brad the joke about the Red Indian and the eggs, the aim had been to make him feel at home. (He had mentally censored the one about Custer’s Last Stand as possibly offensive to the Spirit of American History.)
The joke, though, did not provoke amusement. Instead, he was treated to a lecture on the American Indian and the wickedness of his exploitation by Europeans. Brad clearly knew a lot about American Indians and their history, and under other circumstances Simon might have found it interesting. But smarting over the failure of his attempt at humour, and the implied charges of both ignorance and racial guilt—Brad presumably being absolved through knowing all that and being pro-Indian—he felt more like choking the lecturer.
There was another clash at the weekend, this time involving his parents. The television news had been on, showing yet another scene of mob violence somewhere, and he had quoted the bit about Napoleon sorting out the Paris mob with a whiff of grapeshot. Brad said that was the sort of idea Hitler had, too, and somehow Simon found himself arguing not just with Brad but with his parents as well. He felt, moreover, that he had been manoeuvred into defending a view he really didn’t hold, but was not prepared to shift sides. He went to bed seething, and turned a glowering back on Brad’s good-night from the other side of the room.
Coming back to chess, Simon realized Brad had spent a longer time than usual considering the position; his earlier moves had been made very quickly, another source of irritation. Simon studied the board himself, with satisfaction. When Brad moved his queen, it offered more than just an attacking position. There was a mate in three—he could see it clearly.
Brad leaned forward, hesitated, then moved not his queen, but one of his castles. His hand hovered above the piece, then lifted. Simon, after another quick look to make sure none of his own pieces was at risk, moved his knight and whipped off Brad’s queen before he had time to try changing his mind. He sat back, feeling pleased.
Brad said: “Castle to knight’s eight. Followed by knight to bishop’s five. Check and mate, whatever you do.”
Simon stared at the arena of black and white squares, seeking for a way out. How had he managed to overlook that knight? He mentally booted himself and thought longingly of doing the same physically to Brad. It was mate all right. No possible doubt.
Brad said: “I was sure you’d spot it. That’s why I did that misdirection—hesitating before I moved, and after. I’m sorry about that. Nothing in the rules against it, but I guess it’s not entirely fair.”
Especially, Simon thought, when you reckon you’re playing against a cretin. He gathered up the pieces in silence. His chess instructor in school had made it a drill that you congratulated your opponent when you lost a game, but the words stuck in his throat.
He had been half aware of a lull in the talk next door. Granny now looked in on them. Brad said: “You feel like another game?”
“How are you two?” Granny asked.
He wanted another game the way he wanted a broken leg, but to admit that would be giving Brad best again. Before he could say anything, though, Granny said: “You really ought not to be stuck indoors, on an afternoon like this. Why don’t you take Tarka out on a badger hunt?”
Simon glanced at Brad, who nodded politely.
“Sure, Mrs. Roberts,” Brad said.
Better to take Tarka for a walk than endure another game of chess. It meant having Brad along, but he was stuck with that anyway. He said: “If you like, Granny. Do you know where her lead is?”
• • •
The house was on the outskirts of the suburb, only a few hundred yards from open country. They headed that way in silence. The morning had been misty, but it was hot now—oppressively so. The present heat wave had lasted a week and was about due to break. The air was heavy, and though the sky overhead was blue, thunderclouds towered on the horizon.
The road ended with Saxmundham Villas, giving way to fields. Simon kept Tarka on her lead while they crossed them; there were cattle, and although she was only a miniature dachshund, she had a disproportionately large streak of aggression in her makeup. He wondered what point the cruise ship had reached. One of the smaller Greek islands? Wherever it was, distinctly preferable to an outer London suburb and the company of Brad and Tarka. They crossed the third field and went through a gate into open wooded country, rising ground. Simon released the dog and watched her gallop uphill on her ludicrous little legs, her nose sweeping the grass like a Hoover.
He supposed he ought to say something to Brad.
“There aren’t any badgers here, as far as we know. It’s sort of Granny’s joke.”
“Sure. Dachshund. Means badger hound. They raised them for badger baiting, in Germany.”
Obviously, Simon thought, it was too much to ask that just once Brad could be told something, instead of knowing it in advance. Thunder rumbled angrily, seeming much closer than the clouds would have led one to think. He felt hot and sticky, and as irrationally angry as the thunder sounded.
He said, with heavy sarcasm: “That makes them a bad breed of dog, I suppose?”
It annoyed him further when Brad at once picked up the reference to the argument on Sunday. “We were talking about Hitler.”
“I like the Germans,” Simon said. “They’ve got some idea of order and discipline. They’re not weak and sloppy, like some countries.”
“Something in that. We’ve still had to fight them twice in this century.”
He put a lot into that monosyllable. He stared at Brad and got a stare back; negative, bland almost. Brad said: “As I recall, the Germans surrendered to Field Marshal Montgomery in 1945 at Lüneburg Heath. As I also recall, he was serving at the time under a guy called Eisenhower.”
Simon said: “Our school caretaker fought alongside the Americans in North Africa. He was in the Guards. He said they always used to say the next war would be between the two yellow nations—the Chinese and the Americans.”
There was another rumble of thunder, seeming almost directly behind Brad. They stood facing each other. A smile was starting on Brad’s face, and Simon had mixed thoughts. He already regretted the remark, but the fact of Brad’s swallowing the insult undoubtedly made up for quite a lot.
He didn’t have time to banish the satisfaction or clear his thoughts before he found himself flat on his back in the rough grass. Brad had pulled the punch out of nowhere and delivered it fast. It had been heavier than he would have expected, too, but it was being off-balance that had felled him. He got to his feet, while Brad watched him expressionlessly.
“Right,” Simon said.
It was soon apparent that, although he had not mentioned it, boxing was also a sport in which Brad had had more than a little practice. He took up a proper stance, though southpaw, and used his fists scientifically. He was fast, too, and at the beginning landed more punches, particularly stinging raps to the face. What he lacked, of course, was weight.
They exchanged punches, circling and stumbling on the uneven ground. Simon had a glimpse of Tarka watching them earnestly from a few feet away, and the distraction earned him a jolting blow to the ribs. He was concentrating on body blows himself; Brad’s guard was weaker there. He dropped Brad, waited for him to get up, and then put him down a second time. As Brad got once more to his feet, Simon suddenly felt ashamed. His opponent was at least three inches shorter and maybe twenty pounds lighter. He stepped back, as Brad squared up.
“Okay, I’m sorry,” Simon said. Brad watched him warily. “It was a stupid thing to say.”
Brad gave him a long considering look, then nodded slowly and grinned. He put a hand forward, and Simon took it. They shook. Brad said: “I was only going to point out you were bleeding. . . . Did you know that? But fine, anyway.”
Simon became aware of a trickle of blood on his right cheek. He wiped it with the arm of his shirt.
“Yes. It’s only a nick.” Brad came closer and examined it. “You won’t need surgery, but it’s something they’ll notice.”
“I ran into a branch. Or got snagged on a bramble.”
“Something like that.” Brad grinned again. “I guess we should have done this a few days ago.”
Tarka was staring up at them. Simon whistled cheerfully to her.
“Come on, you miserable little bitch. Let’s find those badgers.”
• • •
They continued the walk in companionable conversation. Brad, it emerged, had been at least as reluctant over the trip as Simon. He had wanted to travel west, not east. His father, who had also remarried, lived in California.
“On the coast, north of Los Angeles. And I really mean on the coast. His house is right on the beach, and you ought to see the breakers. Fantastic surfing.”
Surfing was an unknown world to Simon, but the regret in Brad’s voice carried conviction. He said: “Your mother wouldn’t let you go?”
“Oh, she’d let me all right. She has to share me, half and half, for the summer vacation, with Dad calling the shots over when.”
“So why not?”
“Because she and Hank just got married. She’s worried that I won’t get along with him. I like him well enough, but short of sending him roses I don’t know how I’m going to convince her.”
“But if your father calls the shots . . .”
“Hank was determined they should go on this trip to Europe. She’d have been miserable if I’d stayed behind.”
“You’ve stayed behind here.”
“I meant, stay behind and visit L.A. She doesn’t mind leaving me here.”
“But she needed to have your father agree?”
“I wrote him and asked. He’s a pretty reasonable guy.”
There was a silence, no longer unfriendly. Cloud had built fast, hiding the sun. The ground, as they walked uphill, had become more wooded, until they were following a path with trees and bushes close on either side. Tarka galloped ahead, stopping occasionally to savour some specially pungent patch of ground.
Brad said: “You had plans, too?”
Simon told him about the cruise. Brad nodded sympathetically. “Tough.”
“Yes, but . . .”
He stopped as Tarka, cravenly yelping, bolted down the path, towards and past them. He turned, calling her, but she continued at full pelt. He was about to give chase when Brad spoke.
“Look at that. . . .”
Simon caught the note of incredulity and turned back. Brad was pointing, but the gesture was unnecessary. It was coming slowly towards them from the spot at which Tarka had taken fright. He felt his hair prickle.
“What is it?”
Brad didn’t answer. It was roughly spherical, eight or ten feet across, blindingly white—a whiteness of sunlight reflected dazzlingly from mist or ice. Except that there was no sun. It appeared to float a foot or so above the ground. Thunder growled, and a heavy drop of rain splashed Simon’s face. He said: “It’s what they call a fireball, isn’t it? I’ve read about them.”
The progress had slowed and now halted. It hovered a dozen feet away from them. That was some relief, but he still didn’t like the look of it. He was trying to reassure himself by adding: “A form of ball lightning. Quite harmless.”
Brad said slowly: “I guess it has to be ball lightning. Only ball lightning’s supposed to be coloured—red or yellow. And nothing so big—no more than inches across.”
He took a step forward.
Simon, alarmed, said: “I’d watch it. Even if it is supposed to be harmless, I wouldn’t try interfering with it.”
“Whatever it is,” Brad said, “I doubt we’ll ever see anything like it again. I want to see it close up.”
The huge ball did not move, but Simon’s hairs still prickled. It could be static electricity causing that, but it could also be the same old-fashioned cowardice which had sent Tarka streaking for home.
Brad continued advancing. For Simon, the thought of Tarka produced the attractive thought that he was responsible for her and maybe ought to go after her and make sure she was all right. The prospect of explaining that to Brad later was something he liked rather less. Or he could just stand his ground, while Brad went forward and investigated. And then listen to Brad’s report on it?
He made a conscious, sweating effort to move his feet, and followed Brad. The fireball stayed on the same spot, but he had a feeling, as much from intuition as from anything he could actually see, that it was spinning on its axis. And somehow inside the dazzling white there seemed to be colours—hundreds and thousands of tiny winking jewels. He said uneasily: “It’s quite pretty.”
He wasn’t sure what happened next—whether the sphere moved like a lightning stroke towards them, or suddenly expanded. There was a weird sensation of rapid motion and absolute stillness at the same time and a quivering in his body as though every joint and every muscle were being violently twitched. He thought, with detachment: So this is what it’s like being electrocuted. Then all the white was black.