The Lost Future of Pepperharrow – Natasha Pulley

It’s easy to think that nobody could really arrange the world like clockwork. All sorts of things would get stuck in the mechanisms; history is full of queens and generals who’ve given it a damn good go but failed because of nothing more complicated than the weather. But clairvoyants have a knack for arranging time, and it was not without a sense of irony that Keita Mori was a watchmaker. In his workshop, it was difficult to see what he was making until it was done. A sort of organised chaos characterised the way he worked, so much so that he could be constructing something for months or years and it would only look like a tangle of something generically worrying – right up until it got up, walked off, and turned out to be an octopus. It was even harder to tell what he was making when he was using time and not steel. But if you knew him quite well, it was possible to discern when he was arranging something, and sometimes even sketch the shape of its tentacles. One tentacle began to take a clear shape – to anyone watching closely enough – on the last day of October, in eighteen eighty-eight, in St Petersburg. Pyotr Kuznetsov was surprised when, after not having seen each other for five years, Mori sent him an invitation for coffee at the Hotel Angleterre. ‘Hotel bloody Angleterre,’ Pyotr snarled at nobody as he crossed the road, which startled a boy who’d been shovelling snow. On the great official map, Japan hated everyone. It was one of those deliciously rich but underdeveloped little countries that everyone wanted to invade – Britain, Russia, America – but Russia was closest and so if there had to be a ranking, it was number one on Tokyo’s to-be-stabbed list. Pyotr and Mori shouldn’t have been friends. Officers in enemy countries’ secret police were expected not to be. But they’d always been exact counterparts throughout their service careers.

They both existed with one foot in often unpleasant, boring business, the other at black-tie events at embassies. They both disliked flag-waving and Americans. Mori could drink properly and Pyotr knew all the rules of sumo. They had a lot more in common with each other than with the flag-waving ministers they worked for. One small spanner in the otherwise smooth works was that Mori was, and there was absolutely no getting round this, rich. He did horrible things like invite Pyotr to fancy hotels – as though any normal human would even get through the door at the Angleterre. Tolstoy was staying there now. Pyotr had never lost an instinctive anxiety about places with gilded frescoes and resident novelists. Mori had retired from the Japanese service a few years ago, or so he said. He had been living in a suite at the Angleterre for six months, making clockwork for the Tsarina.

It was the most stupendous cover story Pyotr had ever seen, because Mori actually was making clockwork for the Tsarina. She had given the Home Minister a watch a few months ago and he’d been showing it to everyone, including Pyotr. It was gorgeous. Pyotr was willing to be called Katerina for a year if Mori really was here for clockwork. Pyotr paused outside the hotel. It was still only ten to eleven; he’d left himself extra time in case the doormen wouldn’t let him in. Decently, he’d wait, but it was so cold he couldn’t stand still. The snow had flurried on and off for four days now; along the edges of the pavements it had been shovelled up seven feet high. Like icing sugar, it was fine and dry, and the passing of every cab and carriage blew wisps of it glittering into the air. Just along from the hotel, some men were repairing a telegraph line that must have snapped in the cold.

And still only October; it was going to be a wolf of a winter. In fact, the doormen did let Pyotr in. He didn’t even have to show his Okhrana badge. The cafe was busy, a singing clatter of cakes being delivered on three-tiered plates and women talking – you knew you were somewhere well-heeled when the men spoke more softly than the women – but he saw Mori straightaway by the window, because the spray of mechanical parts on the table caught the light. He was making a toy octopus. He was adjusting something in its insides. The octopus was trying to steal the silver spoon from the sugar bowl. ‘Is that alive?’ Pyotr asked, mainly to avoid exclaiming that Mori didn’t look one single bollocking day older than the last time they’d met up. Pyotr had gone grey. ‘No,’ said Mori in his courtly Russian.

He had the most unexpected voice of anyone Pyotr knew. He was a nymph of a man, but he sounded like petroleum fumes would if they’d had anything to say. ‘Just pretending.’ The octopus was nearly perfectly round, a shiny blob with silver and glass panels. Pyotr gave it the spoon. The little thing made a joyful mechanical noise that sounded a lot like wob wob wob wob and dived under the table, where it hugged his ankle. He leaned down to stroke it, trying hard not to make embarrassing cooing noises at it. It only had seven legs. The eighth was a tiny bronze wheel. Opposite him, Mori was turning his sleeves down.

Pyotr caught a snatch of a tattoo, Japanese writing, just at the top of his forearm. It must have been done today or yesterday, because it still looked sore. Belligerently, he decided not to ask. ‘So,’ said Pyotr. ‘What are you really doing here? Should I expect a clockwork bomb in the Tsar’s bedroom?’ Mori smiled. Life had been treating him so well that he had a glow. He could have illuminated a broom cupboard at least. Pyotr had a fantasy about shoving him in one. ‘You know I’m not working. I’ve lived in London for years; Tokyo wouldn’t be able to talk to me.

Have you met the Royal Mail?’ ‘London could talk to you. Did you defect?’ It came out sounding a lot more hurt than Pyotr had meant. He’d always hoped Mori would come across to Russia. ‘Of course I didn’t defect, I opened a watchmaking shop. I wouldn’t defect without defecting to you, would I? How are you?’ He did look honestly pleased to meet up again. Pyotr melted. Nobody ever looked pleased to see him. ‘Ticking along,’ he said, and Mori was chivalrous enough to laugh. ‘All right for coffee?’ he asked. ‘Yes, thanks,’ said Mori, and bang on cue, a waitress arrived with two new cups.

‘How do you do that?’ Pyotr demanded. ‘I’m ten minutes early.’ If there was an answer, he didn’t catch it. There were three owls sitting on the ledge of the window behind Mori, all lined up and huddled together. They were looking inside as if they were at the theatre. Pyotr found himself cocking his head to see if any of them would copy him. ‘Listen, I heard something from Tokyo you might like,’ Mori said, and then kicked him as Pyotr took out his wallet to ask if he ought to pay. ‘What sort of something?’ Pyotr said, settling finally. ‘A friend of mine’s about to become Prime Minister.’ Mori was lifting the sugar bowl and the coffee pot away from the edge of the table, neat and delicate.

‘Kiyotaka Kuroda. You know—’ ‘The crazy one who keeps invading Korea?’ Pyotr exploded, and banged down his already-empty cup. The table juddered. At least four different waiters frowned. ‘They let him into the Palace? Aren’t there rules? Don’t give me that bloody Pyotr’s-so-naive look, I was waterboarding a trade unionist fifteen minutes ago.’ Mori gave him the pistachio macaron that had come with the coffee. ‘Kuroda’s first order of business will be to establish himself. He’ll take the Kuril Islands and Vladivostok off you if he can.’ Pyotr snorted. ‘Vladivostok? Don’t be stupid—’ ‘He’s about to finalise an order for forty ironclads from Liverpool,’ Mori said over him, without raising his voice.

‘The British will sail them to Nagasaki in February. Each ship will take two hundred sailors.’ There was a long silence. This was not the kind of information they had ever, ever given each other before. They’d mentioned it if their respective mad nationalists were planning anything especially explosive, but that was small stuff. Never on this scale. ‘Mori,’ Pyotr said at last, ‘why are you telling me?’ ‘Because Kuroda needs managing. If he starts invading new places and spouting rubbish about the Glorious Empire of the Sun, he’ll take Korea first and then China, and before you know it we’ll be at war with America.’ Mori stared into his coffee for a strange second. Now that Pyotr was looking at him properly, he didn’t seem like himself.

His collarbones were taut, even under his shirt and waistcoat. The tendons in the backs of his hands showed when he shifted his grip on the cup, as close to the surface as a ballerina’s, and Pyotr felt protective. ‘I’d prefer not to be at war with America,’ Mori said eventually. He tilted his eyes up again. ‘They’ll win, and then you’ll have no buffer zone between Russia and the United States.’ ‘I’ll look into it,’ Pyotr promised faintly. He hesitated. ‘But you know what the Minister will say, don’t you? That if Kuroda’s ordering new ships, then the old ones are clapped out. He’s going to say that this would be the moment to take Nagasaki.’ Mori tipped his head.

He was too well bred to shrug. ‘If Kuroda is fighting for Nagasaki, he is not building an empire.’ ‘Christ,’ said Pyotr. He couldn’t help glancing around. The Japanese must have been livid that Mori was even here. No secret service, surely, let a retired operative set up in an enemy state and invite his old opposite number to tea without at least having him followed. ‘Mori, do you understand how stupid this is? If they even suspect this is coming from you, you’re in the Winter Canal tied to a brick.’ It was stating the obvious, but Mori couldn’t possibly have thought it through. Rich people never thought about consequences. ‘I trust you,’ Mori said quietly.

Pyotr struggled. The shape of it felt wrong. ‘You say he needs managing, but this can’t just be from your great moral sense of the good of nations. What are you really doing?’ Mori set his cup down too precisely. It didn’t make a sound on the saucer. He was losing his colour. Pyotr frowned. ‘Are you all right?’ Mori nodded, but it looked strained. ‘Something is about to happen to me and it’s going to look bad, but I am all right, so you don’t need to call a doctor or anything. But … if you could perhaps see me into the cab?’ ‘What?’ Pyotr said blankly.

Behind Mori, beyond the window, a cab glided up to the edge of the pavement. For the first time, he noticed that Mori had a travelling bag with him. He always packed lightly, and Pyotr knew, without a doubt, that it would be everything. He was leaving St Petersburg. ‘What do you mean, bad?’ ‘I’m about to lose all my Russian.’ He was pushing his fingernails into the tablecloth. Behind him, the owls had straightened up. ‘You’re about to what? What are you talking about?’ ‘It’s going, I’m sorry,’ Mori said, and Pyotr stared at him, because he was right; he was losing his Russian. He had an accent now, and he was having to talk slowly, like he was remembering the words from a textbook. It was nothing like the natural way he’d spoken thirty seconds before.

‘Can you … tell the driver that I need the railway station?’ ‘Mori,’ Pyotr tried, shocked. He went around to him and caught his elbows, and felt a slow wave of horror when he saw that Mori’s eyelashes were full of tears. Poison, it had to be; some kind of toxin that affected the mind. They’d come for him after all. ‘We need to get you to a hospital …’ ‘Ah, cab for Baron Mori?’ a beautifully uniformed doorman interrupted. ‘I don’t need a hospital,’ Mori said to Pyotr, in English now. Pyotr could follow it, just about. ‘I just need to get back to London. This is just – a condition I’ve always had. No need to worry.

’ ‘Well – are you sure?’ ‘I’m sure. Thank you.’ ‘Just to Tsarskoselsky station, please,’ Pyotr said helplessly to the doorman, and handed over Mori’s bag. The clockwork octopus, which had been stealing all the spoons from the free tables, hurried back and swarmed up Mori’s arm. ‘Send me a telegram,’ Pyotr called after Mori. It was so cold today that someone had changed the breakfast menus by hand, because on the short walk between the market and the kitchen, the eggs had frozen in their shells. This was not the weather to travel in even if you were fighting fit. ‘Tell me when you get safe to Paris, all right?’ Mori nodded and let the doorman chaperone him away. Pyotr went to the window to see the cab go. At exactly the same moment the horse clopped out into the white road, the owls glided away too.

Pyotr watched for a long time, trying to work out what in God’s name had just happened. Two days later, the Russian fleet began what they called practice manoeuvres just off the southern coast of Korea. To anybody watching for the shape of arranged things, what was really remarkable was that the exercises began just in time for Kiyotaka Kuroda, the new Prime Minister of Japan, to see them himself. He hadn’t been Prime Minister for long. His bones still thought they belonged to a naval officer, someone solid and normal, and definitely not someone with an entire staff who thought he should be wearing a carnation in his lapel. It was good to be back on the deck of a ship, inspecting harbour defences: he knew how to do that, at least. Spread out across the shore, the Nagasaki docks were magnificent: an industrial maze of cranes and dry docks, steelworks, and vast piers for the navy destroyers. Galaxies of blowtorches winked and flared, and men swarmed over one of the ships in for repair. But it was only magnificent if you’d never seen Liverpool. Kuroda had.

His least favourite person in the world pointed out that it all looked splendid. Arinori was the Minister for Education. He wore a pink carnation. That, as far as Kuroda was concerned, should have disqualified him from government. ‘I don’t know why you’re wittering on about a new fleet. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ English. Kuroda stared at him. Arinori was one of those people with absolutely no sense of irony. He wanted – and he had said so publicly, and often – to make English the national language or, failing that, to convert Japanese into Roman letters, to make it easier for children and foreigners to learn.

Kuroda still kept the article from the Japan Times in the top drawer of his desk. It has been there since eighteen seventy-one, but he was still going to make Arinori eat it one day. ‘In England,’ Kuroda said, concentrating hard on not shoving him over the side, ‘they hang people like you.’ Arinori only laughed. Kuroda went straight to the admiral’s cabin to tell him they would order forty new destroyers from Liverpool today, and bugger what the cabinet had to say about it. If he dithered any longer, the British would only sell the bloody things to the Americans, or worse, the Tsar. He and the admiral were still finishing off a bottle of wine when a lieutenant hurried in to report that there was enemy movement ahead. ‘Enemy movement?’ the admiral scoffed. ‘What d’you mean, enemy movement? We’re only twenty miles offshore.’ The lieutenant looked anxious.

‘Perhaps you’d better see, sir.’ Kuroda went with them to the bridge. The admiral leaned down to see into the long scope, and stayed bent for a long time. When he straightened up, he wasn’t smiling anymore. Kuroda looked into the eye-piece too, puzzled. Right on the horizon, about thirty miles away, there were ships. A lot of them. They weren’t passing through. They were all facing in different directions, and even as he watched, an arc of smoke shot out from the heavy guns of the largest destroyer. They were running combat drills.

‘What are we looking at, sir?’ the lieutenant whispered. ‘We are looking,’ the admiral snapped, ‘at the entire Russian Pacific fleet wanking at us off the coast of Busan.’ Kuroda sent the order to Liverpool from the Admiralty office at Nagasaki. He was just checking the wording with his secretary when another secretary, sounding worried, announced his favourite aide and general fixer-upper, Mr Tanaka. Everyone needed a Tanaka. Although the rest of the government wore smart black morning suits and those ridiculous lapel carnations, Tanaka swanked around in a bright red coat with mismatching buttons. One, which always glittered in strong light, was a miniature Fabergé egg. Kuroda had a feeling that Tanaka had decided the corridors of power needed a splash of completely tasteless colour – Tanaka often decided things – and he liked him a lot for it. ‘Tanaka,’ Kuroda said. ‘Get the scientists up to Aokigahara.

They’re on.’ Tanaka lifted his eyebrows, but he didn’t ask questions. He only bowed and vanished. Tokyo University was the best in the country. Dr Grace Carrow would have liked to think that her lecture room was full because some of the brightest students in the world wanted to know what she had to say, but she was nearly certain that it was because the rain was torrential outside, and the physics department was right above the boiler room. The novelty of a woman tutor had worn off weeks ago. The course was a ten-week general introduction to various branches of physics for second-year undergraduates, but this fortnight block covered her field: ether theory. She always looked forward to it. Even though, for a few days beforehand, she always felt uneasy. Ether theory was the only viable scientific explanation for clairvoyance; inevitably, it made her think of the one genuine clairvoyant she knew.

She didn’t know Keita Mori well, just well enough to know she didn’t ever want to see him again. He was a quiet man, but she knew what it was like to be extremely clever in a very small space. You got bored. She was just starting her lecture when a man wearing a red coat came in. The coat had mismatched buttons. One of them was a Fabergé egg. ‘Sorry, all,’ he said easily. ‘Lecture’s cancelled, order of the Home Ministry. Off you all sod.’ Grace didn’t argue.

You didn’t, with men from the Ministry. The students looked worried, but they trooped out. She waited by the blackboard, trying to scrape up enough of her abysmal Japanese to ask what was going on. Lectures were always in English, which was just as well, because she had the linguistic capability of a sea cucumber. As far as she could tell, the word for ‘husband’ and the word for ‘prisoner’ were identical. Half the faculty were still worried that she’d got Baron Matsumoto locked away in her attic. ‘It’s all right, Dr Matsumoto,’ the man said in English, looking amused. ‘You’ve not done anything wrong. My name’s Tanaka.’ That was the Japanese version of Smith.

It must have been a false name; people who were actually called Smith introduced themselves by their first names. Unease stiffened her back. One of the reasons she liked Tokyo was that, even if you were a little woman of five foot three, you were titanic in comparison to most people. Grace went walking at midnight here and never worried. She hadn’t realised before what an invisible weight it was in London, being – not afraid or even nervous – but aware all the time of people on the street. She’d nearly forgotten what it was like. ‘And mine’s Carrow,’ she said slowly. ‘I didn’t take my husband’s name. How may I help you, Mr Tanaka?’ Tanaka smiled. The jewels on his Fabergé egg button were winking bright shadows onto her lecture notes.

‘You can hear me out. The government are running a defence project and it’s about to get going. We need ether scientists. I can’t tell you the exact specifications until we get there, but you’d be perfect. It’s very new, very secret. We’d have to go right now. You can’t tell anyone where you’re going. I’ll inform the university, your husband, all that.’ ‘Well, that sounds insane,’ Grace said. Two men in smart suits had appeared by the door.

Tanaka nodded. ‘It does. But, the most insane measures are always the ones that are surrounded by silly amounts of money.’ He tipped his head. ‘You get next to no funding here. The department hired you because your husband’s rich. You don’t have a lab. You barely have an office. You should be in research, not wasting your time with a bunch of snotty undergrads. But what I’m talking about – it’s serious.

The department mentioned your name to me because they want to be shot of you, but I’ve read your work, Dr Carrow, and you are exactly who we want.’ She hesitated. He wasn’t wrong. ‘Where will it be based?’ ‘Can’t tell you til we get there.’ ‘If … look, you needn’t tell me yes or no, but I’m going to tell you what I think you’re doing. If this is military, you’re not interested in theories, and there’s only one obvious practical application of ether theory. I think you’re starting a project that will determine whether or not clairvoyance is reproducible in laboratory conditions.’ Tanaka winked. ‘As you say, I can’t tell you.’ ‘It’s impossible without a clairvoyant to test,’ she said, slowly, because that wink had made her want very much to annoy him.

‘Unless you have one handy, it will be pointless.’ ‘You’ll get whatever you need,’ he said easily. The men in dark suits were checking their pocket watches. Grace glanced at Tanaka. ‘You’re not really asking me, are you?’ she said quietly. She wondered about making a run for the window. ‘No, love,’ he said, and ushered her out.

.

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