This year the Jane Austen festival is a lot more…modern. Can a love story prevail even under the threat of a potential robot invasion?
Love and Robots
“Those Brits are like totally weird,” a voice announced in an American accent.
With an annoyed sigh, I pushed past the tourists. It was my own fault I chose to work in a café in the centre of Bath’s inner city. One would think I had gotten used to the crowds of tourists by now.
The Americans stopped right in front of me, so I almost ran into them. I side-stepped them by walking on the road rather than the pavement they were blocking.
Now my eyes fell on what had caught their attention. It was a group of three women and a man dressed in Regency period clothing. One might have thought they had wandered straight out of a time machine, had it not been for their smartphones and the coffees-to-go in their hands.
The Americans discussed what this could possibly mean and why no one else thought it strange.
Apparently, someone had neglected to read up on the Jane Austen festival and its costume promenade, in their tourist guide. Someone would take pity on their confused expressions and explain to them soon enough. I had better hurry on, lest they choose to cross-examine me about our strange backwards culture.
“Hi, Tess,” my colleague greeted me. “Want to play a game?”
“Sure,” I agreed against my better judgement.
Dan always had the best ideas for games, of which I could never decide whether they were boarding on genius or madness. Either way, they passed the time and our boss was his grandmother, who would have forgiven her favourite grandson everything, as long as he didn’t steal the pies again.
“What are we playing?”
“The time travel bonus round of Confuse the Tourist.”
He stepped from behind the counter to reveal he wore a Regency riding habit and had, for the first time since I had known him, bothered to comb his unruly brown hair.
“I’m not sure I like where this is going,” I said, and, sure enough, he produced a Regency gown and a bonnet from behind the counter.
“Come on,” he said, giving me his best puppy-dog eyes. “I’m sure, you’ll look stunning in them.”
“Oh well,” I said and went to the loo to change into the dress.
The gown, although wide, was not as uncomfortable as I had feared. The bonnet though, was too much. It would be hard enough to manoeuvre my way around the café in this frilly monstrosity, without having my sight impaired by the edges of a bonnet.
“Brilliant,” Dan exclaimed as I re-emerged. “You look perfectly…Austen-esque.”
“Don’t tell me I have to pretend to be one of her characters,” I replied, smoothing my hands over the many skirts. “Because if I had to choose, you know it’s going to be Emma and it would be terribly unfortunate if I had to accidentally spill milk on someone, even if they claim to be the greatest Jane Austen fans after having seen the Pride and Prejudice film, although they never bothered to read that book, let alone find out she wrote any other books.”
“Calm your nerves, Miss Tessa,” Dan said dramatically. “If you were to swoon, seeing as I am a gentleman, I would have to catch you. However, that would wrinkle my beautiful breeches, and where would that leave us? They make my derriere look ever so handsome, do they not?”
“Shut up,” I chuckled and hit him with a tea towel. “Rather than holding yet another speech about how handsome you are, tell me how this game works.”
“Do you see those tourists over there?” he pointed at one of the tables in front of the café.
“Americans,” I explained. “I met them on my way here.”
“Considering their expressions, I expect they have no idea what is going on?”
I shook my head.
“Perfect,” Dan said and shoved a notepad and fountain pen into my hands. “When they ask you, which they will do without a doubt, we shall pretend we don’t know why they’re confused by our clothes. We’ll let them believe they are the ones in the wrong time.”
“Doesn’t this game fall under your grandmother’s strict rule about not being rude to the customers?”
“Pish-posh,” Dan said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
He linked his arm with mine and we strolled outside to greet our guests.
“Good morning, good Sir, Madam, Miss,” Dan said, bowing to each of them.
He pulled on my hand harshly and I finally understood he meant for me to curtsey. The things I did for this man. I forced a smile and curtseyed.
“Good morning, young man,” the woman greeted with an amused smile. “Do you think it'd be possible to take a picture with you?”
“I beg your pardon, madam, for I do not know what you speak of,” Dan said, raising an eyebrow in confusion.
“A picture,” her husband repeated, sounding less amused and waved his camera around. “Using this helpful little machine.”
He took a picture of us to demonstrate its function.
“Good heavens,” Dan exclaimed and with a melodramatic lunge only he could manage, he jumped in front of me as if to shield me from the flash. Then he put his hands on his hips and sternly said, “I do not know what strange contraception you use in the Colonies but if you point this devilish machinery again at Miss Tessa, I’m afraid I shall have to duel you.”
I nudged Dan to let him know he was overplaying it a little.
“Miss Tessa will take your orders now,” he said and pushed me toward the table. “I know it is a terrible crime to leave one’s unmarried sister un-chaperoned – oh wait, here comes the solution to our little problem.”
Dan crossed the street with no regards for the cars – this was a dangerous habit, rather than an effort to stay in character – and approached George Knight, who happened to be strolling down the street in breeches, boots and a handsome waistcoat as if he did so every Saturday morning.
How embarrassing. As soon as Dan returned, someone would get strangled with the tea towel.
Dan talked to George for a moment, before walking over to us. The Americans, including the bored husband, watched this little improvised play with rapt attention.
“May I introduce his lordship, Lord George Knight of…Primrose Hill?”
George gave a graceful bow. “A pleasure to meet you. And you, too, of course, Miss Tessa.”
He held out one gloved hand. I thought he meant to shake mine but instead he bowed and kissed it.
This little charade was reaching ridiculous proportions before Dan had even explained all the game’s rules. However, my annoyance with my best friend instantly dispersed when I remembered George’s lips against my skin.
“This is where, alas, I will have to leave you,” Dan heaved a dramatic sigh. “I can trust you to be the chaperone of my dearest sister, as an old friend of the family, can I not?”
Without waiting for George’s response, he bowed once more to the tourists and kissed the woman’s hand, before storming off around the corner. I took the Americans’ order and returned inside. George accompanied me and, ever the gentleman, held open the door for me.
“You don’t have to do this,” I said, embarrassed Dan had put me in this situation. “I’m sure a busy London lawyer like you has better things to do than play silly tricks on tourists.”
“I’ve worked in London for about ten years. I think I deserve a day off. Besides, who would prefer working to being home in Bath, taking part in Dan’s and your shenanigans, pretending to be a Regency gentleman? Though, I have to admit the role of the chaperone makes me feel a bit old and on the shelf.”
“Don’t be silly,” I told him as I prepared the tea. “You may be a couple of years older than me but you’re hardly old, especially not by Regency standards. You are just a few years older than Darcy.”
“It’s a little more than a few years.”
“Don’t play the rich misunderstood heir again,” I teased. “The more you do it, the more you look like a character out of a Jane Austen novel.”
“That is the purpose of this masquerade, is it not?” he said, waving at his attire.
“I suppose so,” I admitted. “God knows what Dan’s exact plan is, let alone where he ran off to now. Can you open the door for me?”
“Certainly, my lady,” George said and obliged my request.
I served the tourists their drinks and they asked again for a picture.
I looked around. Dan was nowhere in sight, George however was. He stood close at my side, taking the role as chaperone extremely serious.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” he asked, putting on a serious face. “I would not wish to endanger a young lady who is under my protection.”
“Yes,” the man, who seemed unsure of whether we were taking the mickey or being serious, said slowly. “It’s safe.”
“Well, then,” I said.
George linked his arm with mine, pulling me closer until I was pressed against his side. I tripped over my long skirts and instinctively steadied myself by putting my hands against his chest. At precisely this moment the flash went off.
The woman looked at the picture. “How adorable. Look at it.”
“Absolutely lovely,” George agreed, handing the camera to me.
I was plastered over George’s chest as if we were a couple. Other than the embarrassing posture, I supposed, it was quite a nice picture, like the cover of a cheesy historical novel. The picture did not hold my attention for long though. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dan returning. He seemed to be talking to another tourist.
George muttered something about the American woman sending him the picture, before noticing Dan as well.
“It seems he’s found another victim to play a trick on,” he whispered.
“No,” I said, observing my best friend’s body language more closely. “He likes him. But for once in his life, he’s too shy.”
“You are not suggesting –”
“But George –,” I interrupted, knowing he would try to protest. “Someone has to help him along.”
“Are you positive you want to meddle, especially after what happened when you tried to set up Harriet with Elton because you thought they were too shy?”
“Pish-posh,” I said, taking advantage of Dan’s favourite phrase.
The grandmother of the man in question chose this moment to enter her establishment.
“Is it promenade day today?” she said, looking at George’s clothes and mine. “I had no idea you wanted to go. Why didn’t you tell me? Shoo, I shall take care of the customers myself. But don’t forget to tell everyone that the best tea and biscuits are had to be here.”
“Are you sure you can handle it alone? Dan ran off –”
“Doesn’t he always? Go,” she repeated. “Join the promenade, before you are left behind on your own, to stand around like two absurdly dressed eccentrics.”
“Come,” George said gently and held out his arm for me to take. “You know her Grace’s word is law.”
“And the law is your expertise of course,” I smiled as I accepted his hand.
We left the shop and walked toward Victoria Park, around whose top curled the Royal Crescent, which was where the parade traditionally started. On our way there we spotted Dan and the mysterious tourist.
“How about we come up with a scheme of our own?” I launched another try.
“What scheme?” George asked warily. “Remember your scheme to help Frank?”
“Quickly,” I insisted, hastening my pace. “They’ve almost reached the Royal Crescent.”
Although, it was common knowledge that this was the starting point of the parade, today there was no one else, no one in costume, not even curious tourists. Dan seemed just as confused. He approached two ladies in Regency dress, who entered the street and conversed with them.
For a moment they gave him reserved glares, then their arms shot out and they grabbed the tourist. Dan escaped by utilizing the instincts of a waiter working with an elderly woman who tended to drop expensive porcelain.
He jumped backwards. I could not see the expression on his face but chuckled at the idea of him playing startled again by the idea of taking a picture.
The two women each held on to one arm of Mysterious Tourist’s arms. They said something to Dan and marched their captive off. Dan looked after them until he broke from his stupor and stomped back down the hill, where George and I stood beneath the trees.
“I am sorry, Dan,” I said.
He jumped upon hearing my voice. With wide eyes, he whirled around and grabbed me by the shoulders.
I patted his arm. “I’m sorry he wasn’t interested –”
“Nick,” Dan exclaimed, shaking me. “Nick promised me a date for tomorrow night and got kidnapped.”
“I don’t know what’s going on.” Dan’s voice dropped to a whisper. “But there is something peculiar afoot. Those two women were not quite…human.”
“That’s a rather insulting thing to say.”
“This isn’t one of my tricks,” he insisted. “I don’t know what’s going on. All I know is I’m going to save Nick…But where to start? They said something about a bridge…”
Dan released me and hurried back toward the city centre.
“How on earth could you have acted so fast?” George asked, once Dan was out of earshot. “And here you deny having a scheme, when you probably set up the meeting with Nick in the first place.”
“Listen to me, George,” I said, taking him by the front of his waistcoat. “I had nothing to do with this but I suggest we meddle now. Dan was right. Something very strange is going on here.”
George looked unconvinced.
“Go about your business then. I know you don’t believe me. I’m going to go save Dan and…erm…Nick, I believe was his name.”
Not waiting for a reaction, I spun around and rushed into the direction Dan had gone. The more I thought about his strange behaviour, the more worried I became. There were footsteps behind me and I was glad to see George had decided to tag along after all.
“Alright,” he said. “I give up. What’s the plan? Now don’t look at me as if you are going to tear off my head. I’m not accusing you of being behind this scheme. I meant what’s your plan to save Dan?”
“Oh. Right, a plan…”
I looked around for inspiration. A lady and a gentleman in Regency dress were approaching us.
“Act historical,” I whispered to George and linked my arm with his.
He hadn’t understood what I had said but had the presence of mind to follow my lead. We nodded at the couple politely.
Well, this was our chance to find out more. Better take it.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said.
The couple stopped in their tracks. Then their heads turned.
Only their heads.
What a particular sight.
“My husband and I were looking for…the Assembly Rooms. Do you happen to know where they are?”
The gentleman turned his head and I thought I heard the sound of a machine moving. The man cocked his head.
“Assembly Rooms, Bath, England, United Kingdom, Europe, Planet Earth. Calculations commencing…” There was a rattling sound. “Calculations completed. Chosen destination is Latitude: N 51° 23' 11.5666", Longitude: W 2° 21' 46.5465".”
“Thank you,” I said slowly, “for this…um incredibly helpful information.”
The man’s and woman’s heads turned back around and they moved away.
“I had no idea there was such a huge science fiction community amongst Jane Austen fans.”
“What?” I asked, still staring after the couple.
“Didn’t you notice?” George raised his arm to point at the woman. I pulled it down again. He looked at me in confusion but continued, “There were cables poking from underneath her bonnet. Plus, the way they behaved was very…robot-ish.”
“Maybe that’s what Dan meant with ‘They aren’t human’,” I mused. “The question is why did they kidnap the mysterious Nick?”
“Maybe Mysterious Nick is part of their sci-fi club and Dan simply misunderstood the situation,” George, ever the voice of reason, suggested. “You know how overdramatic he sometimes gets.”
“That would be the most logical explanation,” I conceded. “But just because it’s logical doesn’t mean it’s the truth.”
“Are you suggesting they are real robots?” George teased. “In this case, by all means, let’s wait for a madman in a blue box to appear.”
“How can you prove someone is human?” I asked as we continued down the street toward the Assembly Rooms.
We had no technical or medical equipment and what did it mean to be human anyway?
All we could do was…have more conversations.
A single lady in a pretty green gown and bonnet came our way.
“Excuse me, Miss…” I walked across the street and pulled George with me, since our arms were still linked. “This may sound like a silly question but where are you from?”
“Pitlochry, Perthshire,” she replied with a heavy Scottish accent.
“Damn,” I muttered and the woman’s eyes widened.
“You came a long way for the Jane Austen festival, then,” George jumped in to cover my social blunder. “Are you enjoying it?”
“Aye,” the woman said and looked like she was about to launch into a long speech. “I –”
“Lovely,” George said. “Do you know if there are any science fiction events? Or maybe the society for robot building is in attendance?”
“Have you ever read a Jane Austen novel?” The woman hiked up her skirts and walked off, muttering under her breath, “Bloody English.”
“She seemed human enough,” George remarked.
“That still doesn’t mean I’m convinced of your theory. Look over there. There’s another one. Let’s go ask her.”
George sighed but let me pull him with me.
The young woman wore a white dress, which looked suspiciously like a wedding dress because it had a veil, covering her face.
“Leave the talking to me this time,” George whispered to me, before saying in a normal volume. “Good day, Miss. What a lovely gown. You look like you are about to get married.”
There was no response.
“Have you always lived in Bath?” George bravely ploughed on through the awkward silence. “It’s just…I noticed, there are no family members or friends around, so I was wondering where you’re from?”
Smooth, I had to admit.
“I was built on Space Settlement 24XY7B,” the woman replied in a flat, cutting tone.
“Lovely,” George said.
The woman staggered backwards. Heavy shivers wrecked her body. She tumbled and fell backwards.
“Can I help –”
“Stop,” I yelled and held George back by clinging to his arm with all my weight. “It might be dangerous.”
It wouldn’t do for a lady to let her gentleman get mauled by…well, whatever this creature was.
“Revealing classified information,” the woman’s monotonous voice stated, “is punishable by extermination. Starting self-destruction process in 3…2…”
One last shudder shook the woman’s body, before it slumped lifeless.
Slowly, George and I approached her. In my mind I envisioned her jumping up and yelling, “Ha ha. Fooled ya” any moment now but deep down I knew the body before us had seized to be possessed by any consciousness.
“Ma’am?” George asked.
Since he didn’t wear huge skirts like me, he knelt next to the woman’s body and carefully pulled away the veil.
“Is that…?” I stammered, shocked by what had been unveiled.
“A robot head?” George supplied helpfully. “Then the answer is yes.”
Gingerly, he rapped his fingers against the skull. It sounded like someone rapping against metal.
During all of this, the woman hadn’t moved.
“Sorry, ma’am,” George said, before rolling her unto her belly. Her head and body were connected by a thick cord of cables running along the back of her neck, all of which had burn through.
“I never thought I’d say this,” George rose to his feet. “But I think you were right with your robot invasion theory.”
“If it helps,” I said. “I never thought I’d reply: I told you it was the robots.”
“But why would robots want to invade Bath?” George asked in disbelieve. “Bath? If this happened in London, okay. But Bath?”
“I’m more confused about why they feel the need to do it in period clothing.”
“As riveting as all of these questions are, I think we should make finding Dan and rescuing Nick our priorities. Who knows what else these creatures are capable of?”
“I completely agree.”
I shot one last look at the woman lying on the ground. Then I took George’s arm. It was comforting to be so close to him, not that I would ever admit it.
“Let’s get back to the tea house,” I suggested.
George had no better suggestion, so this was where we went. On our way we encountered a group of girls in Regency dress. George and I tried our best to act as if we were robots. It probably made us look like we were horribly failing at the robot dance style.
At least it was what one of the women said and caused them to giggle.
So they were human, then.
Fortunately, Dan was at the teahouse when we arrived. He stood next to Grandma Harper, arguing with her.
“Honestly, Dan,” she said, sounding miffed. “I have no time for your antics. If you aren’t enjoying your free day, you are welcome to go back to work. We’ve got a lot of customers if you haven’t noticed.”
“And none of them drink the tea they’ve ordered,” Dan retorted. “Doesn’t it strike you as odd?”
My hold on George’s arm tightened when I turned around. There were indeed customers at all tables. All of them were in Regency dress and had full tea cups in front of them.
“So robots don’t like tea,” I said in a barely audible voice. “I guess, we should have seen that coming.”
“Hush,” Dan hissed and slapped his hand across his grandma’s mouth.
The old woman looked outraged but Dan’s attention was on me. “You noticed it, too?”
“It’s not like it’s too hard to overlook, especially since we came across a…corpse, which definitely was one of the mechanical Janeites.”
“I knew I wasn’t going mad,” Dan whispered, sounding quite mad nevertheless. “But it still doesn’t explain what they’ve done with Nick.”
“To answer this question I suggest we follow them,” George covertly pointed at a group of customers who rose with mechanic movements and started for the door.
“I don’t see any better plan,” Dan agreed.
“Who knows?” I shrugged. “Maybe they’ll lead us back to the mother ship.”
“That is actually what I was hoping for,” George admitted.
We all adopted blank looks and followed the group. They walked up-hill, entering Gay Street, on which the Jane Austen Centre was located.
I sincerely hoped we weren’t stalking a science fiction club of Jane Austen fans. That would have been awkward and pointless.
After having passed the Jane Austen Centre, we took another few turns; most of which were illogical to anyone who knew the town, and eventually arrived at the Circus.
No, not that kind of Circus; I meant the famous Circus, as in the circular street, which consisted of ridiculously expensive Palladian buildings and a miniscule park in the middle.
The group headed straight for this green area in the middle of the Circus. Once they had stepped onto the grass, they vanished from sight.
George, Dan and I shared a short look, before walking through the invisible wall as well. It felt like walking through a curtained archway and being hit by the soft fabric.
Much more interesting though, was the spaceship, which was revealed by the Magic Curtain of Invisibility.
How did I know it was a spaceship? Well, it looked a lot like a plane, designed for a futuristic art competition but the basics, like wings and engines were still there.
Also, we just had discovered robots and an invisible magic wall; the only reasonable explanation seemed to be this was the spaceship in which they had come.
We followed the group of robots up the jet way. Before we set foot into the spaceship itself, George leaned close to me and whispered, “Geronimo.”
I fought to retain my blank look. Really, I wanted to laugh at George’s remark and to relieve the tension. Not to mention I longed to crane my neck and examine every nook and cranny of this fascinating aircraft.
After all, how often did you find yourself on an alien spaceship?
Never, apparently, for it was a human man, in a uniform, which consisted of a red t-shirt, black leggings and surprisingly a black skirt, who walked past us.
“Right,” he said, consulting his clipboard. “You are the ones in for inspection.”
He looked straight at me.
My mouth opened but no word came out. I was rendered, probably for the first time in my life, literally speechless.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked and moved to poke me with his pen but George was quicker.
“Hey,” he exclaimed and pushed away the man’s hand.
“By gravity, you’re human life forms,” the man said, half-terrified, half-amazed.
“Run,” Dan screamed.
All three of us lunged for the door. The man reacted as swiftly. “Intruders! Seal all exists! Catch them!”
Before one of us reached the door, a red light went on above it, proclaiming in blinking letters, “ALARM.”
The message was enhanced by its acoustic equivalent: blaring sirens.
A hand touched me on my arm, then another one on the other. I was lifted off my feet by two Janeits, stopping my escape.
From the corner of my eye, I saw George and Dan had suffered the same fate.
“Off to the bridge with them,” the human ordered.
Thus, they dragged us off to the bridge. The robotic Janeits, with their vice grips on our arms, dragged us, so the tips of our toes merely graced the floor.
We passed flights of stairs and eventually, after passing through many corridors which looked like film sets from my favourite sci-fi series, we reached the bridge.
The person sitting, in what I guessed was the Captain’s seat, was a black woman with her jet-black hair pulled back in a tight bun.
Upon seeing her, the man paled to a sickly white. He cleared his throat, which caused him to cough.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he apologized, when she spun around in her chair and gave him a stern look. “Let me start by saying it wasn’t my fault,” he said, twisting his hands nervously, “I don’t know where they came from. They were just suddenly…there.”
At this point he shot us a reproachful glare. “But I did catch them and bring them to justice. That ought to count for something.”
The woman rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Idiots. All of them. No wonder this mission was bound to fail, with all these morons on board, on top of giving me discarded robot minions. This is the last time I applied for a mission with unclear project.”
“Hey, I tried to work it out but you wouldn’t let me.”
Dan’s gasp drew our attention to the person who had spoken the last sentence and was shackled to one of the seats.
“Nick,” Dan exclaimed, excitedly. “We came to save you.”
“And what a good job you’ve been doing,” the Captain drawled and added a sarcastic slow clap.
“Our darling Nick however,” she said with an unsettling smile, “should learn to keep his mouth shut before I declare him a danger to the expedition, which entitles me to torture him as much as I please. Now, McKenzie, eliminate these prisoners and get back to robot counting. You have to finish, before the next batch comes in. Bloody organization still doesn’t believe understaffing is a problem. Bloody idiots.”
“Eliminate them, ma’am?” McKenzie stuttered.
“Yes,” the Captain replied absentmindedly as she pushed buttons and pulled levers on the gigantic dashboard in front of her. “Emergency regulation 24601. I leave the method to you, as long as you ensure that all evidence is disposed of according to emergency guidelines. Now, off you go. Chop, chop.”
“Very well, ma’am,” McKenzie said.
He trembled as he walked from the Bridge. I tried to make eye contact with my friends as we were dragged after him by the Janeites. Dan and George were as stunned into silence as I was.
The automatic doors closed behind us. McKenzie suddenly stopped and whipped around. “Robots, release these prisoners and return to Dispatch Unit, before deleting this information from your hard drives.”
The robots did as they were bid and I was dropped to the ground. Dan and George each grabbed one of my arms and pulled me to my feet, while I detangled my legs from the skirts.
“Let’s overpower him and run for it,” George suggested in a whisper.
“There’s no need for that,” McKenzie sent a nervous glance at the doors. “Yet.”
“You are going to help us?” I asked hopefully.
“I don’t agree with the Captain’s treatment of my brother…Nick, who for some strange reason seems to know you. She never liked him and now she just blames him for everything that goes wrong, even though it’s not his fault…Well, I suppose he might be responsible for some of the accusations. Perhaps a bit more than some.” He sighed. “He’s in serious trouble, even if he made it back alive. I’ll let you go free if you promise to take him with you.”
“Gladly,” Dan piped up.
Clearly, his cheery nature had been restored by the positive turn of events.
“I hate to leave him behind so far away from home but it’s the safest place for him to be, at least in comparison to the alternatives…”
“Don’t worry,” Dan chirped. “I’m going to take very good care of him.”
“If I have your word.” McKenzie nodded solemnly. “I’m going to the opposite end of the ship and call for the Captain. Once she’s left, you go in to rescue Nick. He’ll know the way out.”
“But he’s still shackled to the seat,” I pointed out.
“That’s what it looks like,” McKenzie said with a wry smile. “But my little brother has always been a good actor and a suspiciously good pickpocket. Trust me. Now, you in the waistcoat, hit me in the face.”
“Pardon?” George replied startled.
“It will have to look convincing.”
“Very well,” George said, pulled back his arm and punched McKenzie so hard in the face his nose started bleeding. Ever the gentleman, he helped McKenzie up and apologized repeatedly, without ever complaining about his reddened knuckles, which must have hurt as well.
“Go ‘ide,” he said, sounding as if his nose was broken and pointed at an alcove in one of the hallways leading from the Bridge. Then he ran off with his sleeve pressed against his nose to keep the blood from leaving traces on the ground.
Meanwhile, Dan, George and I squeezed into the alcove, which harboured a fire extinguisher. This was no easy task, considering my dress felt as if it had the circumference of a circus tent. Obviously, the alcove wasn’t built to hide three adults. I ended up pressed against George’s front with his hands on my waist – not that I minded – while I gathered the flowing fabric of the dress against my chest, almost suffocating Dan in the process.
We waited for some painfully long minutes. Then the automatic doors opened and the Captain emerged, muttering under breath about the incompetence of her crew.
The moment the sound of her footfalls had faded entirely, we dashed for the doors, only to crash onto Nick who came running from the Bridge.
He skidded on the ground but Dan grabbed him around the waist and pulled him against his chest to steady him. Another reason for this action may have been the quick kiss Dan sneaked on the lips of a very stunned Nick.
“Hello again,” Dan said to a grinning Nick.
“Save the flirting for later,” I whispered. “Run.”
Fortunately, they followed my orders and broke out into a run. George went first, together with Nick who led the way, checking whether the coast was clear. Dan and I brought up the rear, since it took his help to carry my skirts so I could run fast enough.
“Worst costume ever,” I panted.
“Duly noted,” he replied between deep breaths. “Next time I’ll get you breeches, too.”
Thanks to the lucky stars and probably since the Captain complained the vessel was understaffed, we ran into no one on our way out.
We left the spaceship, ran down the jet way and broke through the invisible magic circle. Although we were back in the Circus, we didn’t stop running. We ran and ran until we had arrived at Dan’s grandma’s teahouse.
We stormed in through the back entrance and fell to the floor in the pantry. Dan drew the bolt shut, so we were locked in. It was terribly crowded. I almost sat in George’s lap, not that I had something to complain about this particular detail.
“What in the world just happened?” I reached for the tin of biscuits and passed them around. “Because to me it looked like we’ve just been aboard a spaceship.”
“About that…” Nick clutched his wrist. The modern watch he wore beeped obnoxiously, before it’s red light died and the screen turned black. “It seems, the spaceship you mentioned just left. It’s the only way my crew communication device would self-destruct.”
Dan put an arm around his shoulder. “Don’t worry. You’ve still got us. I would never abandon you.”
“I hate to be tactless,” I continued. “But why was the spaceship there in the first place?”
“It was a mission, a ridiculously badly financed mission to travel back into the past to research what planet Earth looked like. I was supposed to be Captain but there is a policy against having the Captain’s family members as crew, so I stepped down. The new Captain held it against me that she only got the job because I passed up the chance. Well…” Nick ruffled a hand through his hair. “All of that might have gotten a bit on my nerves, which might have led to me, as leading historian of the project, to give her…alternative reports. In other words, I gave her Pride and Prejudice. She never questioned it, when I told her it was my former professor’s doctor thesis about the Bennets, a family living in the 21st century. Before I knew what was happening, she had programmed the robots this way, so yeah. Here we are, in the pantry of a teahouse from the 21st century. Boy, my little prank really got out of hand.”
“I’m sorry you got left behind,” I said. “Is there no way for you to return?”
Nick shook his head. “That’s not such a bad thing, though. It was my love for the past which made me study it. Earth history, especially. How many people can say they are actually living their childhood dream.”
There was a loud knock on the pantry door.
“I guess there’s no more reason to hide,” Dan said and unbolted the door.
He opened the door, only to be faced with one angry grandma. “What on Earth is going on with you today, boy?”
“Oh you know,” he chuckled. “Love and robots. By the way, this is my boyfriend, Nick, who is going to move in with me. Let’s all have tea, so we can get to know each other.”
Before she could protest, he led her back to the shop, his hand still around Nick’s shoulder. What would I give to have the courage to be so open about feelings for the man I had fallen in love with?
It had taken Dan robots to get over his initial shyness. Why shouldn’t the same apply to me?
“I have to admit,” George said as he clasped my hand in his, “in this case I’m glad you decided to meddle, just like Emma.”
“And I’m glad to hear you say so.” I cupped his cheek and added with a nervous smile, before pressing my lips against his, “my Mr Knightley.”
Read about what inspired this story: http://kittyinthestars.tumblr.com/post/90762124407/writing-love-and-robots
Download this story as epub, mobi or pdf: http://www.juliafellner.com/index,191.html
Want to read more? There are more short stories coming up, meanwhile check out my new novel TO BE A HERO: http://www.juliafellner.com/index,171.html?PHPSESSID=54b59820695e2b1ddfd2a8f504826fd3