Hertfordshire, 1805

Reverend Henry Stewart was at his study-table, composing the sermon for that Sunday’s service. The topic was to be “On The Desirability Of An Even-Handed Disposition, After The Example Of Our Saviour.” He was reaching for a chapter of Job to supply the requisite weight

to his ruminations, when a knock came upon the door. It was his maid, who after begging his pardon for the interruption, announced that the Reverend had a visitor.

Knotting his day-robe, he went into the lobby and down to the front door. Standing there upon the step was a man he recognized, though it cost him a moment to append a name to the face. It was Francis, the manservant of his nearest neighbour. The fellow seemed quite out of breath.

“Good day to you, Francis. Won’t you come in?”

The fellow stood there, worrying his hat between his fingers, and presented the appearance of some discomfort. When he finally replied, it was all of a rush.

“Begging your pardon, Reverend, but I cannot. Mr Henley bid me fetch you to his house with all haste. He allowed as I was not to return without Your Grace.”

Rev. Stewart was taken aback by this intelligence. He knew Charles Henley to be a steady, deliberate sort, the very model of a gentleman farmer, and these exhortations appeared quite out of character.

“Come, Francis. What does all the commotion mean?”

Francis met the vicar’s gaze, and at once looked away.

“Not at liberty to say, sir.”

“Well what does Mr Henley require of me?”

“All I know is that a stranger arrived at my master’s house this morning, in the hour after sunrise. He was… strangely attired, and his speech was… well, I never heard the like. Some class of foreigner, I shouldn’t wonder. He had a wild look about the eyes, like he was more than half a madman.”

Rev. Stewart felt a little chill.

“What did he want, this stranger?”

“Couldn’t say, sir. The Master bid me let him enter, in the spirit of charity. He brought the stranger into the drawing-room, and they passed some talk together. I couldn’t guess to what was said. Then, about the stroke of nine, my Master emerged, and he had a look upon his face… well, I hope to never see it’s like again. As if he’d just been in conference with the Devil himself. He summoned me, and bid me fetch you to his house with all speed. ‘Do not stop, Francis,’ he told me, ‘no, not even to take a drink of water.’ He said he hoped Your Grace could be with him within the hour.”

Rev Stewart was somewhat disconcerted by this talk. He fetched his coat and hat, and bid his girl delay luncheon until his return. And within three minutes, he was seated in the pillion of Henley’s trap, clutching the rail, while Francis snapped the reins beside him. They flew, raising great gouts of spray, along the byway to Bridlington, as though all the powers of Hell pursued them.

As they rode, Rev Stewart looked out across the hills, upon the broad and pleasant valley that had been his home these last fifteen years. It was a sight he knew as intimately as the whorls and creases of his palm. But today there was a strange variance in the prospect. A kind of mist had obscured the horizon, and even now, as he watched, it was descending, crawling with slow deliberation over the gentle hills. It was like no mist he had ever seen before. A wall of pearly, faintly opalescent vapour, swallowing the hills and meadows that had for so long been the limits of his Universe.

As he observed the swelling void he was visited by a formless, yet all-powerful certainty: on this day God would lay a test before him. Some choice would soon be his to make, and it would be a terrible one. But one that he must not shirk, though in the very core of his being he might abhor it.

They arrived at the house of Charles Henley, and Rev. Stewart wasted no time in dismounting the trap and entering through the front door. In the lobby he found his neighbour, loitering at the door to the study. Upon seeing the visitor he exclaimed: “Henry! O, thank Heaven! I’m half out of my mind, and simply don’t know what to do.”

“Well, Charles,” said the clergyman, “your man informs me that you received a rather singular visitor this morning, and the thing has nigh on caused an uproar.”

“He said… that is to say, he spoke of… no. No. I cannot bear to repeat it. You must speak with him yourself!”

“Come come, Charles. Calm yourself. What would your domestics think, to see their Master so discomposed?” He handed his hat and cloak to Francis, who was lingering nervously behind them. “Well. You’d better let me see the fellow.”

Henley ushered the vicar into the drawing room.

There, upon the chaise-lounge, sat the strangest fellow the clergyman had ever laid eyes upon. He was rangy, long-limbed, with dark hair cut in a square, outlandish manner. His clothing was bizarre, all of one piece and made of some slick canvas-like material. On his feet were stout rubber boots. An odour hung about him, which could only be described as metallic, and somewhat burnt. The vicar was struck dumb at the sight of the visitor, and stood frozen in the doorway.

The stranger looked at him, with dark eyes that flashed. “Who are you then?”

The Reverend cleared his throat.

“I am the Reverend Stewart, pastor at St Jerome’s. Rector of the parish of Bridlington and Shroseby. Mr Henley, in whose house you sit, is of my congregation. I am bound to tell you that your arrival has caused a deal of commotion. Is there some way we can be of service to you?”

“Service?” the stranger said, making a short noise that might have been a laugh. “That’s a good one. That’s priceless, that is. ‘Service.’ I come all the way here, the distance I’ve come, and they bring me a sodding priest!”

Rev. Stewart could follow the stranger’s speech only with difficulty. His manner of speaking, low and rapid and circular, like a waltz played staccato, was quite alien to his ear. He glanced at Henley, who only stared helplessly back.

“Well…” The vicar cleared his throat again. “You present the appearance of some distress. As a man of God, I am here to offer such aid to you as I can.”

“God?” The fellow made that short sound again. “God’s got no place in this business.”

Rev. Stewart bridled somewhat at that, but elected to pursue the exchange.

“Well, perhaps you can enlighten us, poor and confused as we are? Tell us your name, your business, and from where you are come.”

The fellow gazed at him, with wild dark eyes. “My name’s not important. My business you wouldn’t begin to understand. And I come from the future.”

At first the vicar could not be certain he had heard aright. He looked at Henley, who nodded with vigour, as if to confirm that he, too, had heard the same startling claim.

“Come, sir. Surely you do not take us for such fools. You would be better served to state your case truthfully.”

The stranger turned those storm-tossed eyes on him again.

“You people need to listen. We don’t have much time. I come from the future. I’m a scientist, and I was involved in a large-scale temporal experiment, the first of its kind. We encountered… a problem. We were sabotaged, if you get that. Anti-progress fanatics, they had somebody on the inside… never mind. The two men on my team are dead. And somehow I ended up here.”

“My dear fellow! These wild fancies do not become a gentleman.”

“It’s true!” The stranger shot to his feet, startling both men. They shrank a little from those flashing eyes. “I landed here! Wherever this is! But it’s wrong! Don’t you get it? It’s wrong! And it’s gonna destroy everything!” He took a step toward them, and they quailed. “I shouldn’t be here!”

 For the first time, Rev. Stewart found himself thinking of the strange mist he had seen upon the road.

“My friend…” he stammered. “You must not speak of such things. It is madness.”

“Go to the window,” the visitor said. His voice was calmer now, but laden with the promise of dread. “Go to the window and tell me what you see.”

Troubled by a vague apprehension, and watched closely by the others, Rev. Stewart went to the drawing room window and looked out.

“Well?” the stranger said. “What d’you see?”

The valley was half-swallowed by the marching mist. That wall of nothingness had slid across the hills and woodlands, until it encroached upon Bridlington itself. No more to be seen that pleasant and familiar horizon.

“Good lord…”

“Henry?” Charles Henley’s voice was all a-tremble. “What is out there? What do you see?”

“Nothing,” the vicar replied, and his voice seemed to come from a place far distant. “I see nothing.”

But that was not precisely true.

The mist, now that he viewed it at a closer quarter, had a quality that was subtly translucent. And when one looked into it for a time, it seemed that shapes could faintly be distinguished. Forms that were unnaturally regular, tall and straight-sided, all angle and plane, like mathematic figures that loomed above the world. They were almost like structures, but in their rigid and monotonous dimensions they were not the forms of Nature. His eye was appalled by such visions, and he was seized by a terror such as he had never known.

“Reverend? Reverend! Henry!

Startled from his awful trance, the vicar turned from the window. Charles Henley was staring at him, and his narrow face was deathly pale.

“Look… look at him!”

He was pointing toward the stranger.

That fellow had slumped back upon the chaise-lounge, and appeared to have suffered a fainting fit. His face was red, and his whole form twitched and shuddered like a landed fish. His hands clutched about his throat. Rev. Stewart, heedless now, crossed the room and

seized the man by the shoulders.

“Who are you? What calamity have you brought upon us? In the name of God, speak!”

“Henry…” his neighbour groaned, from the window. But the vicar paid no heed. He had begun to think that this might be the final hour for all of them, and before he went thus unprepared before his God, he would at all costs know the reason.

The stranger’s convulsions seemed to ease a little at his touch. He clutched the vicar’s arm, and his hand was hot as fire.

“It’s me! Don’t you get it? It’s me! I don’t belong here. And now it’s all dissolving.”

“God would not permit such a thing. You must be in error.”

“You saw it, right? It’s all coming undone.”

The vicar chewed his lip.

“If this be true..”

“It is!”

“How long, then?”

“Just a matter of time.”

“Is there nothing that can be done?”

“One thing.” The stranger put his arms around the vicar’s shoulder’s, and they huddled there, in a most unseemly embrace. “Kill me. Nothing else for it. You’re going to have to kill me.”

“For God’s sake, man…”

“It might not even work. But it’s your only chance.”

There were many things Henry Stewart might have said in that moment, but he found, when visited by the recollection of the looming void, that he could not articulate them.

Faintly he heard Charles Henley’s voice: “Henry? Henry! The world is gone! God save us!”

Rev. Stewart’s face was close now, mere inches from the stranger’s.

“What is your name?” he said. “Your name, pilgrim, if men have names from whence you come.”

“Harris. My name’s Harris.”

“Harris. May God have mercy on your soul. And mine.”

So this was the choice his God was pleased to lay before him. This the dread dilemma of which he’d had premonition. Too late for Bridlington – but was there not a world beyond, that might yet be delivered to Salvation? This was the question which tormented him, as those moments dwindled to their doom.

Bridlington lost; the remainder of Creation in the balance. And he must make the choice, however in his depths he might abhor it.

His hands, acting as though guided by a Will beyond his own, had closed around Harris’s throat. Still the prayers and weeping of Charles Henley could be faintly heard. Henry Stewart was set on committing an Act which would place him forever out of sight of his God, and he could only wonder if the forfeiture of his soul would stand payment enough for the prevention of the nearing Armageddon.