Ruins – this word brought to Beta and Bit’s minds castles, palaces or even manor houses and churches visited during school trips. Another close association was boredom. The ruins they knew best was a castle in Kazimierz Dolny. They used to go there with their dad two or three times a year. A must of each such trip was climbing the ruins of the castle located at the top of the hill. For Bit and Beta it was just few battered walls with window openings. Bricks or stones, even if they were very old and historic, were definitely not their cup of tea.
Yet what they could see in front of themselves had nothing to do with a school trip. First they smelled dust and smoke mixed with the smell of crushed bricks. The air was so heavy that their eyes started to water. Beta sneezed. Only then they realized they were standing among ruins. In the sea of ruins. The weather was very nice and the dust was clearly visible in the rays of the sun. All around them they could see stumps of houses instead of old tenements. Their naked entrails revealed fragments of individual flats. The surface of the street was covered with rubble as well. Yet the people seemed not to notice that. There were new paths marked out in these strange mountains. In some places grass already started to grow. A boy wearing rags was carrying a bucket full of water. His feet were used to the broken bricks covering the ground –his steps were sure as if he was walking a straight path instead of the rubble.
- This time we’ll not talk to anyone –Beta quickly warned her brother. Bit just nodded his head. – We must find out where we are – she continued – and first of all –what years is it?
- Let’s get out of this mess. Maybe things will get clearer if we move from here –Bit said. Sure, but which direction should they choose? Beta and Bit had absolutely no idea. They saw a young woman going along a path covered with rubble next to them. She was carrying a little baby wrapped in a dirty blanket. She wasn’t walking, she was stomping slowly, as if she was deep in her thoughts. She was lulling her baby all the time and apparently that helped – the baby wasn’t crying.
- Let’s go after her – Beta proposed. – If she has such a small baby, she must live in a proper house, not in these ruins.
They went after the woman along the rubble. They didn’t follow her too closely because they didn’t want to scare her. As they were walking they were trying to find some familiar sign or detail which would allow them to guess where they were. They went past a group of playing girls. Their play was strange –it involved no action, just words.
- Good morning.
- Good morning.
- Is your house still standing?
- It does, but it’s burnt down. And yours?
- Mine has collapsed. I’m looking for a new flat.
What must’ve happened here – Beta wondered – that these little girls transferred that miserable reality into their games?
They reached a square. That is, it might’ve been a square in the past. Now there was only more space in here than in the surrounding area. A small group of people was looking intently at something laying on the ground. Beta and Bit came closer not losing sight of their guide at the same time. They saw a fallen statue of a king with missing hands. The people were looking into the cold eyes of the statue in silence. The brother and sister went after the women lulling the baby again. There was a little less rubble on the ground. The buildings looked more and more like original buildings and not a pile of collapsed bricks. They were burnt, black from smoke, the panes of their windows were broken, but their destroyed facades told of their former grandeur.
They passed by a destroyed palace with a colonnade. A teenage girl was selling bread spread on a low stool next to the broken columns. As she had no customers, she was sitting on the ground and reading a book. There was some park next to the square. A young boy was looking after a goat grazing on the grass. They saw another palace oriented perpendicularly to the palace with the colonnade. It was also huge, several tens of meters long and completely burnt down.
Beta was lost. Bit too. They were looking at a dead city. However, the most depressing sight were not the destroyed buildings, their empty windows or lifeless faces of the passers-by. It were the crosses which they could see particularly everywhere; crosses made of whatever was at hand: sticks, planks. Sometimes the graves were marked only by simple sticks inserted in the soil with a paper saying who had been buried in them. That city was a double cemetery –its citizens, as well as its architecture, were dead.
They walked for another several hundred meters.
- I’m not sure whether it was a good idea to follow that woman – Bit said. – She seems to be going nowhere, as if she had no place to go to, no home. Maybe she just wanted to lull the baby to sleep?
They went into another street with high four - or five - storeyed tenement houses, burnt just like others. In many cases they were completely empty inside, without walls or ceilings. The only remaining elements were the decorated facades. In some places, especially in narrower streets, the piles of rubble reached the first floor. One high building towered over the whole area. It was very narrow and rectangular in shape; in many places its regular skeleton was clearly visible making the building resemble modern blocks of flats. Now they knew where they were. It was Warsaw, for sure. That high building still stands at Świętokrzyska Street. Grandpa called it Prudential, just like his mother did, but father called it Hotel Warszawa. But neither Beta nor Bit remembered if the building ever housed anything of consequence. For them it had always been empty, closed and dilapidating.
-Let’s leave that woman and go there – Beta pointed the way ahead. – We’ll get to Marszałkowska Street.
They set off again in a quicker pace to get closer to their guide who was still lulling the baby. As Beta was going past her she looked back to see the child. To her surprise she saw a baby doll wrapped in a blanket. The woman was lulling a doll all the time. Beta was dumbfounded. After a moment her horror changed into sadness, then anger and finally into a strong wish to escape from that wounded world. The girl started to run through the rubble in the direction of Marszakowska, as she though. She stumbled several times and finally she fell down. Bit run after her and helped her to get up.
- Easy – he tried to speak calmly and slowly. They sat still waiting for Beta to regain her tranquility. Bit looked into a nearby street. He saw several boys playing at war, pretending to shoot at each other from guns made of sticks. –Let’s go. At Marszałkowska Street we’ll think what to do next –Bit decided finally.
Despite the ruins they got to Marszałkowska Street quite fast. Once again they were surprised not to find there the inseparable symbol of Warsaw, the Palace of Culture. They saw another high building on their right. They recognized it although a significant part of it was destroyed. They used to go there with their grandpa. Grandpa called it PASTa. Beta and Bit didn’t remember what that acronym stood for exactly. They only knew that the building housed a telephone exchange before the war.
The brother and sister eventually decided to turn left in the direction of Jerozolimskie Avenue. There were more people. Some woman was hanging laundry on a string running across an open storey in one of the destroyed tenements. Streets were occupied by carts and two-wheeled handcarts with people’s belongings, or, more specifically, with what was left of them. There was also a funeral procession attended by several mourners following the cart with a coffin. They heard a distinct sound of the clatter of horses’ hoofs. A woman was sitting on the pavement with her back against the wall of one of the tenements. She was holding in her arms a sleeping little girl, her daughter. Next to them numerous sellers were plying their trade. An older woman was selling flowers, some other person –bread. There were new signboards above the ground-floor apartments of the destroyed tenement houses: chemist’s, hairdresser. Two ten-year-old boys were walking before Beta and Bit. One of them was walking on crutches –he had lost his right leg. In his free hand he was holding a ...
Suddenly the whole world started to tremble. Its edges became blurred; everything became strangely faded. No, it wasn’t the world; it was just what they were seeing. The sound of the street died away. Instead Beta and Bit started to hear a sound resembling a wailing wind. It seemed to be coming from some chimney. At first it was quiet but its volume rose with every second until it changed into...
- I’ll try to get them back– Mr. Pietraszko, MSc was standing next to the console with a determination visible on his face. When he’d returned to his study with professor Błaszczyk the teenagers were nowhere to be found. Pietraszko didn’t care at all. On the contrary, he was happy that these annoying kids got out of his face. His companion wasn’t preoccupied either.
- They came up with something again and went somewhere. Well, I’ll have to eat my dinner alone after all- he said. – Or maybe you would like to come with me? – he asked unexpectedly.
But Mr. Pietraszko didn’t hear that question. He noticed that the trapdoor in the floor under the window had been lifted. He went mad. So many years of work, sacrifices and scorn of his colleagues. So much effort to keep the work of his life secret. And it’s all for nothing because of these two meddling kids. He jumped to the trapdoor completely ignoring his guest. He run down to the very bottom of the stairs. Then he rushed to the screens in order to try to read something from the displayed data. Then he jumped to the console placed at the other end of the room and he started to search...
- It’s gone –Pietraszko said and his anger started to give way to terror. - My remote is gone.
- What’s this? What’s that place? - professor Błaszczyk asked amazed. He followed his colleague down the stairs. Pietraszko turned back. He looked possessed. His face twisted in anger was only partially covered with his long hair.
- I’ve been working on this for many years – Mr. Pietraszko muttered through clenched teeth. – Against the opinion of the scientific community, even against the common sense. And I succeeded.
- Excuse me? – professor didn’t know what Pietraszko was talking about.
- And these stupid kids destroyed everything! – he shouted.
- What? Where is Beata and Artur? – asked professor Błaszczyk with raising alarm. He felt responsible for them no less than their parents did.
- Who knows? – Pietraszko said maliciously. – Their curiosity became their undoing.
- What are you talking about? Do something! - professor was speaking with an increasingly raised voice.
- It’s not that simple. The machine is not working properly yet. There are errors– Pietraszko drew in his horns. He didn’t like when people shouted at him. He felt uneasy.
- What’s going on here? Kindly explain it to me! –professor Błaszczyk cried.
- Later –Pietraszko said quickly. –I’ll first try to trace them and bring them back.
The roar of sirens was piercing their heads. A long loud shrilling and high sound, then a short and low sound. And then again: long high shrilling sound and a short respite. And again: long... At the same time they could hear powerful rumbles which made their ears ache. The ground was trembling. Yes, this time for sure it was the earth. Fire, smoke, smell of burning. The world was becoming less and less blurred. The tower of the Royal Castle was on fire.
- What’ve you switched? – Beta shouted through the roar of falling bombs.
- Nothing, this time it wasn’t ...
Bit didn’t finish. The world faded again and the sounds became more and more distant.
- It didn’t work – Pietraszko was strongly focused. – I’ll try again. There is some error – he started to explain and then he stopped. He stared at the data from the screens again.- If I fail again they’ll have to calculate the way home by themselves. It’s actually good they like science; it may be their only hope for returning home. – Mr. Pietraszko could not hold back his malice.
This time there was no roar, no noise, no blurred world. Beta and Bit suddenly found themselves in a line. People were standing one after another; it was very hot. Somebody pushed some heavy object into Bit’s hands. A brick! The boy couldn’t believe that.
- Pass it! – his neighbor shouted. It was the same man who gave him the brick.
Bit passed the brick to Beta and at the same moment he had to turn back to receive another one. It was heavy and it scratched his hands. Next bricks had even sharper edges. Bit was confused. He hadn’t pressed, hadn’t switched anything on that weird watch. Why were they transported again? Why were they thrown into different years like that? He wished he could talk to Beta but the man next to him passed to him yet another brick. Bit didn’t take it. The world became blurred again.
- It’s not going to work– Mr. Pietraszko stated categorically. – We can’t do anything from here. These kids took the main control element. They have to find the way back by themselves wherever they are and whatever past sucked them in. I can’t help them.
Professor Błaszczyk didn’t quite understand what his colleague was talking about. He only guessed from the expression on Pietraszko’s face that the situation was very serious.
High buildings loomed up in front of them. They could see them more and more clearly. They were destroyed and burnt tenement houses, black from smoke and without windows. Beta and Bit were back on Jerozolimske Avenue.
- I haven’t switched anything –Bit started to explain immediately.
- I think something is wrong. It’s getting dangerous. It’s going to throw us in the middle of some war again and we may be less lucky than we were a moment ago– Beta was really scared. – We must find a way to get back to our times.
Bit hadn’t got the slightest idea how to do that. – I switched the machine to 2015 and we got God knows where. I’ve got no idea why. And in addition the machine transported us twice of its own accord. We succeeded only the first time.
Beta mused for a moment. – Not necessarily – she said. – When we were first looking at the machine in Pietraszko’s study it was switched to 1876 but, as far as I remember, the newspaper that you took from that boy, Bolek, was from 1885.
- The machine makes mistakes –Bit concluded.
- If these differences are random, the possible variants are innumerable and we stand virtually no chances of getting home – Beta observed.
- So let’s assume that the shifts are not random and that there is some relationship between them. It’s not very realistic but we’ve got nothing to lose.
It was hard not to agree with him.
- All right. Let’s treat this like a mathematical puzzle. – Beta loved to solve such problems. – We need to gather all the dates: the dates from the watch and the years we got into.
Beta’s confidence rocketed. She was in her element.
- It shouldn’t be difficult, there were only four dates –Bit remarked with a smirk. – The first pair is 1876 and 1885. The second pair is 2015 and the year we’re in currently. We only don’t know what year it is now.
- Let’s think... - Beta hid her face in her hands to concentrate better. – It must be after war, after the II World War. I can see no German soldiers or hear any bombs or shots.
- But the war must’ve ended not that long ago either –Bit joined her. – There is too much rubble, too many ruins and street graves. Nobody is reconstructing the buildings.
- These carts with bundles... I think that the people are just returning to their houses after the war. Let’s assume that it’s 1945, a year after the end of the II World War. – Beta was very pleased with herself. – I wouldn’t take into account these two places we were transported into by the machine itself. We didn’t set the machine then.
- Even if you’re right about the year we still have got a problem – Bit seemed determined to spoil his sister’s pleasure. – Two points are not enough to detect any relationship. Whether you want it or not, we need to jump in time once again.
- Are you mad? Haven’t you seen what’s happened? - Beta was unsettled again. – How can you know where we’d be transported?
- Two points aren’t enough –Bit repeated. – We simply have to risk. The higher number I set, the later year we get into. I’ll just write a much higher number this time –the teenager pressed four numbers on Pietraszko’s gadget without further ado: 2098.
- Bit! No... – Beta’s cry stopped.