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They had warned us that we might feel strange at first, not ourselves. But when I opened my eyes to sky and treetops, colors as indistinct as a grisaille painting, my first astonished thought was that the journey had injured my sight. I sat up, heart racing, rubbing my eyes, lining up facts. Local time at the portal site, 20:48:13. Dusk, a phenomenon I’d previously had little reason to notice. Cones yielding to rods, which do not mediate color vision.
I was in damp grass, at the edge of a field, not far from a clump of trees that shone white in the gloom. The word came with an effort: birch. I should have stood up at once, to salvage my dress, but I sat blinking and shivering, and it took me a moment to wonder whether I was alone.
I was not. Liam, my colleague, was about two meters away, just as when we had stood in the airlock doing the countdown. But he was facedown, as still as if carved of marble, and my heart leaped again and began to bang in my chest. Could he be dead? Fatal arrhythmia, though never reported yet, was considered a potential side effect.
He shuddered and groaned. I let my breath out slowly.
“Are you unwell, my brother?” This archaic sentence emerged from my mouth so naturally that I almost laughed, and I began to feel better. I glanced around again, eyes adjusting. Field. Trees. Twilight. A hedgerow. No one seemed to have witnessed our arrival. Everything was fine. It would be fine. There was no cause for alarm.
Liam rolled over and sat up, head in his hands. “Jesus. Like death warmed up.” But then he lifted his head and looked around. “And you? Are you all right…” He looked at me and paused, like he had forgotten who I was. “Rachel?” he finished, with a rising note of relief that furthered this suspicion. But then I had, myself, just groped for the name of well-known tree.
“I am well. Yet, William, recollect: we will go by other names here.” I felt his pulse at the carotid, rapid but steady. “Breathe slowly and deeply.”
“Ah. Caroline. My blunder.” Our heads were close together. “Why did they decide to call you that? One of the most annoying characters in all of Jane Austen. Do you not fear it will prejudice her against you?”
Now feeling able to, I stood up. “I will worry about that later.” I brushed myself off. Was my dress damp from the ground? Was it dirty? I smelled earth and grass, something floral, and something like rot, as if everything here was festering. What I heard: the rustle of leaves and grass stirred by a light wind.
Not far off, a road, which forked; beyond it, a field stretching into gray indistinctness. And in the Y of the fork, an upright post with a projecting arm, and hanging from it, an iron frame like a sinister, enormous birdcage, holding something that had been a man.
I pointed. “You see that?”
“So they really were everywhere.” Liam sprang to his feet, straightening his wig. “Or we are just lucky.”
A strengthening breeze brought the stink of rot more clearly, and now I understood what I was smelling. “A highwayman?” I tried to match his detached tone. I took a few stiff steps, brushing off my dress again, fighting nausea. They liked to put condemned criminals on display near the scene of their crimes: a warning to others. I felt for the reassuring bulk of the money belt under my corset, a fortune wrapped around my torso, and hoped the warning had worked.