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‘Now they’re the crazy ones.’
‘Are they?’ she said mildly. ‘But there’s a rock in my digital watch; its vibrations keep the time. And they vibrate rocks to send laser beams, all the way to the Moon. We live in a strange world. Come on. We’d better go down before it’s too dark. Although you’ll like the Northern Lights displays we’ve been getting since Venus …’
He unfolded his legs and stood.
She led him down a different track, a path that would lead through a glacial cwm and then to a ruined chapel.
‘So,’ he said. ‘What about dinner?’
She frowned, but she didn’t immediately say no. ‘We just ate dinner.’
‘Hell, you know what I mean. What about the weekend? I – woah.’ He stopped in his tracks.
She slowed beside him. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘What is that?’ He pointed ahead.
It was a patch, on the exposed shoulder of the summit agglomerate, roughly circular. It had been hidden from where they had sat. It was, Henry estimated, two yards across. Its surface was metallic silver, flat as steel. At first it looked like some liquid – there was even a fuzzy reflection of the Moon – but he could see it was too sluggish, even for the scummiest pond.
He approached its edge.
It was a pool of some kind of fine silvery dust, or maybe rock flour. He crouched down to see. The contact with the surrounding basalt was quite clean. The rock flour seemed to be stirring slightly, almost bubbling, sluggish currents moving through its substance.
He found a loose pebble. He dropped it into the edge of the puddle. It vanished without so much as a splash.
Jane was standing over him, leaning with her hands propped on her thighs. ‘What do you think it is?’
He scratched his head. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. Maybe it’s liquefaction. It could be some kind of magmatic event.’
‘Magmatic?’ She straightened up. ‘Come on. Arthur’s Seat has been dormant for three hundred million years.’
‘It’s probably some kind of toxic waste,’ she said.
He got up and walked off around the rim of the puddle, counting his footsteps.
Jane called, ‘What are you doing?’
‘It’s an annoying thing geologists do. Can you smell anything?’
‘Apart from bullshit, you mean.’
‘Work with me here.’
She took a deep breath. ‘Nothing but the grass and the haars.’
‘Nor can I.’
‘Is that good?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Is it bad?’
‘When was the last time you were up here?’
She shrugged. ‘A couple of weeks.’
‘And it wasn’t here then?’
He returned to her. ‘Listen, do you have a bottle? Maybe make-up. Perfume or somesuch.’
‘I don’t wear perfume.’
As it happened, she did have something. It was a sample of an aromatherapy oil she’d been given by a salesman at the shop. She’d tucked it in a pocket and forgotten about it.
He took the bottle, unstoppered it, and tipped out the oil.
‘I’ll pay you.’
He shook the bottle dry, and then, carefully, he scraped the bottle along the top of the rock flour puddle.
When he was done, he stoppered the bottle and tucked it in a pocket of his jeans.
‘What is that stuff?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Maybe I’ll be able to find out.’
She looked around. ‘It really is getting dark now.’
But he hesitated.
He walked to an outcrop of basalt near the pool, picked up a loose lump of rock, and hit the outcrop. He frowned at the result.
She said, ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Did you hear that?’
‘One rock hitting another? Flintstone chic –’
‘The pitch was low. Basement rock will ring with a high pitch. This boulder is loose.’ So something is breaking up the basement here.
Not good, he thought. Not good at all.
He walked carefully around the puddle. ‘I wouldn’t tread in that thing if I were you.’
‘You were saying about dinner …’
‘No. You were saying about dinner.’
They worked their way down the hill, arguing. Henry stumbled occasionally in the deepening dark; each time he patted his jeans pocket to make sure his sample was safe.
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