Some other lad from the colonies perhaps not as keen, nor able to appreciate the opportunity presented, might have felt put off by the odd preliminaries, but not Joel Hudon. He welcomed the adventure that crossed his quiet life the grey February morning the blue shed noisily came and went.
Preliminaries, the stranger's only explanation: the spectacled little Englishman, Mister Marpole, who for half another grey morning sowed doubt among Joel's neighbours that the inexplicable event had ever happened, proffered him only the tantalizing grape of an interesting career at least equal to inheriting his father's dry goods shop. If Joel would but sign the slim folded document presented from Mister Marpole's inside coat pocket, titled Official Secrets Act.
Joel Hudon signed. Four days and half the world ago. But four days and an extraordinay passage, halfway around the world in a silvery airship sprung from fantastical invention. Across a great ocean, such as the fabled one fringing the edge of the world, they came again to earth by night. Mister Marpole brought them by three trains and, at last, a rocket of a hansom cab across the waking capital. London of the Empire in its new century: a schoolboy's picture book passing the windows. The morning a markedly brighter grey than any Joel knew from home.
"This way, Mister Hudon. The baggage shall be along shortly. Meanwhile, I'll see you settled in."
Joel noticed the cab rattled away without taking its fare or tip. He followed Mister Marpole over the pavement toward the front steps of a neat rowhouse in this pleasant district of squares and neat rowhouses. Gauzy curtains still drawn in the windows over the face of its three floors and garret.
Suddenly, Mister Marpole struck to the right, like a sergeant turning on his heel, away from the front steps, dressing his shoulder along the iron railing that edged the steps down. Joel wheeled with him, wheeled again, and followed him down.
The porter at 83B Gower Street swung open the door as they reached it.
"G'morning, Mister Staples."
"As you say, Mister Marpole."
Seeming possibly humourless, his face drawn, Mister Staples unmistakably a policeman, he shut the door behind them, then bolted it. Three solid clicks. The small room they passed through indistinct, though distinctly bluish, as if viewed under a swimming hole, and but one eye open. Before the porter's desk, the one chair especially bluish. The box on the desk the source of the very peculiar blue glow. The outside street a most curious picture flickering inside.
"This way, Mister Hudon. Introductions to be made."
Downstairs at 83B Gower Street had been transformed from the expected for the downstairs in a city house. A kitchen, still, and two voices, both women, Joel noted in passing. The tang of something cooking in butter. And toast. Mister Marpole wove his course past stacks and yet more stacks of tea chests that more than lined the one open way through the place. At intervals beneath the electric lighting, shut doors appeared along both sides between the tea chests.
After a curiously long spell of weaving among the tea chests, beneath yet more electric lighting — quite the extravagant outlay in electric lighting, to Joel's smalltown mind — and noting the doors alongside appearing between the tea chests bore tidy little brass number plates, and this past one numbered 25, he ventured the obvious observation —
"This...seems bigger than the house above, Mister Marpole."
"Right, Mister Hudon. Excellent!" — his reply, turning, smiling, yet continuing among the tea chests, stepping backwards, and expertly, perhaps in the same almost magical manner Joel supposed that a pianist struck only the correct keys.
"We are, actually, much bigger on the inside, Mister Hudon. Thanks in no small part to the minds who've given us the underground railway. Tunneled out under the back garden, y'see. Wouldn't have been possible before those marvellous advancements in surveying. And the Cornishmen. Here now, we've arrived." — and Mister Marpole, without looking, put his hand on the slender handle of the door badged the number 30.
Room 30 struck Joel as extraordinary in every respect. Firstly, after twenty-nine doors of yellow electric lighting, the daylight pouring down from above, from the glass of the ceiling, up through which Joel made out the lush greenery of a hothouse standing under the sky. Right around, against the walls, shelves sagging in books of every colour: the early arrivals standing on their spines, the later laid flat across the tops. Yet more tea chests: some stacked three high. And then, outside of a wall of triple-stacked tea chests from Assam, Mister Marpole halted Joel, with a warning hand flat against his chest. Just there, beside a table piled in loose papers, and unidentifiable objects Joel saw no interest in at the moment, a gentleman waited, thumbs casually hitched in the pockets of his waistcoat. And the young woman, aiming a revolver at his face.
Joel saw immediately the wires curiously trailing from the gentleman's waistcoat, and wondered if he might be an illusionist.
"Perhaps aim lower, Miss Hopchurch."
"...One moment, Mister Hudon."
"Mister Hudon, where are our manners? Welcome to Torchwood House," said Miss Hopchurch, her voice like music, as she dropped the revolver noisily on the table, and started toward him.
"Welcome, young Mister Hudon, from Canada," said the gentleman, smirking. He came only two steps, stopped himself, began fussing with the wires trailing his waistcoat.
Miss Hopchurch's plain dark dress swished as she neared him. Joel could not recall any other woman's clothing before hers producing such an interesting sound.
"And not a moment soon enough," and Miss Hopchurch extended her hand, "for you see we are sorely in need of your aptitude, Mister Hudon. Those who came before us began storing the files in tea chests. Of course, the situation could never reverse itself..."
Her hand lay lightly in his, but for the requisite moment. Her hand that had gripped the revolver, and aimed it steadily. Joel suddenly aware of his heart unsteadily beating.
"Unfortunately...Mister Marpole, our Mister Hudon here has signed the Act, has he?...Fine. Our work here, Mister Hudon, you will see is of the most unusual kind. Consequently, we face the more unusual perils. September 8th, 1915. An airship will destroy 83B Gower Street and all contained. We are looking into the precise hour. Still, it's a foregone. Funnily enough, 83 Gower, standing over our heads, will remain standing another one hundred years, at least..."
Miss Hopchurch laughed. Joel felt her breath on his face.
Her hair shone in the daylight.
From a pocket she produced a toy ducklike thing no longer than a finger: bright yellow, possibly rubies for eyes, and a silvered bill.
"We have a device, Mister Hudon, which this should function with. Your work, Mister Hudon, is clerical. Files and documents. Only the method of information storage a very new one. Using our device, transcribe Torchwood's considerable files inside this...duck..."
"Dangle," said the gentleman, fussing still with his waistcoat.
"It's from the future, Mister Hudon," added Miss Hopchurch, upending the duck dangle from the future, and showing Joel its belly, and the strange glyph, 8GB, inscribed there. "Apparently, this is very good..."
With a start, Joel realized how odd he must seem to her. His silence, through all she had said. His patently rude staring into her eyes. It was too late. The damage done.
"You've had a very long journey, Mister Hudon. You should perhaps eat breakfast." she said, staring back.
Mister Marpole added, "A nice cuppa tea, Mister Hudon. That'll steady a regiment."
That instant, though, staring into her eyes staring back at him, Joel cared nothing even for the most fortifying tea in all the world, because he saw there the spark of some strange and terribly dangerous thing — very nearly upon them — and he knew it in his soul that he had come halfway around the world because of Mary Hopchurch.
Most improper though it was, taking her in his arms he took but one giant step back, just the same as he had once seen a man save a girl from a train.
Where she had stood, at a height approximate to her heart, the air sparked for one instant brighter than Joel's eye could stand. And then a girl in a straw hat stood there. She seemed uninterested in the gentleman suddenly stonelike, holding two wires in his hands. Then, turning on Miss Hopchurch, the girl in straw hat and wearing green pointed a device. Instantly, Joel swatted the thing away. It broke in three against a tea chest.
The strange girl squealed, scrambling after the pieces of her broken device — "No'No'No'No'No' — Now how am I supposed to save you?"
"Save who?!" demanded Miss Hopchurch, her breathing ragged.
"You — You, of course, Mary Hopchurch—"
"Save ME?! — You very nearly KILLED me, child!"