On the day that humanity damned itself forever, Spain's second-best pianist was unknowingly persuading Jen not to fall in love with the man sitting next to her. You'd think if people could agree on one thing, she thought, it would be Mozart. But despite the magnificence of the concert, Paul shuffled like a frightened rat, fighting sleep with every inch of his body.
If time had run as time was meant to run, this would have been the year that Jen discovered a love of Sushi and Descartes. She would have finally beaten her insomnia and worked out how to play that bastard piece of Bach. It would have been a good year.
But the explosion tore her to atoms, just as it did Paul, the Spanish Pianist, and most of the inhabitants of the provincial town in which they lived.
Under the red sun, he tries to speak, but he has no breath left. He licks his lips, but he has no spittle left. His throat burns.
His vision darkens and insect-bites ravage his skin. He does not yet long for death.
He hears the jeers of the crowd, and tries to feel nothing but love for them. He is worried that he is failing.
His heart hammers with pain. He is finding it hard to breathe. He no longer feels the roughness of the wood at his back, or the sharpness of the nails in his hands and feet.
He has not yet even begun to die.
Michal clicks and the data from the scuffed camera (Japanese-built – its engineer is drawing a wolf in black biro) is fired at Paladin's sun-bleached Californian machine room, where blank programs built by blanker technicians analyse the particular sheen of Michal's sweat, the dilation of his alcohol-sodden pupils, and belch back a semirandom string of code opening a neon-bright webpage built by a bored Australian design team (high on Cocaine sourced from a burning field) informing Michal that he has WON TWENTY POUNDS, and then metaphorically routing that money from Paladin's French bank account to Michal's British one, and more literally firing yet more information through a twisted warren of incorporeal datacentres constructed at great expense in a variety of nations, including but not limited to India, Singapore, South Africa, and Ireland.
The lager turns lukewarm in the light from the slatted window. Not yet satisfied, Michal fingers his rosary.
They took the overnight train from Minneapolis to Putrajaya, and as such were not used to the heat. The roads they walked above were jammed with traffic and sodden with rain; they tried not be overwhelmed. As one of the few old-school purists left in the twin cities, home was bad enough. Minneapolis hadn't been Bob's kind of place since the seventies, but Bob knew where to go and he knew who his friends were. Still, if his wife had called his fears paranoid before, she looked pretty worried now – he felt thin and pale in the fading light, like a lonely spark of sanity in a dense, alien sea.
As they approached the warehouse, his fears multiplied. What they were doing was legal, yes, but it had involved talking to a lot of unpleasant people. But the place was clear enough. It was by the sign of the fish that they knew it.
Bob knocked on the door, his wife scuttling behind him. It was opened by a little rodent of a man. The little man said nothing, simply raising an eyebrow.
“Ted Idaho told us about this place”, said Bob. “We're interested in your product.”
The man's face broke into a grin. “Oh thank god. Americans”, he said – his accent was East Coast – “The name's Steve – Steve Krasinski. Would you follow me?”
They were taken down a scruffy corridor flanked by oppressively tall doors. They could hear the whirr of undefined machinery; Bob was pleased that he'd never really have to find out what those noises were. They approached a tall metal gate – Steve tapped a few buttons and the gate opened before them.
The room they entered was vast – skyscraper high. The distant ceiling was almost vaulted, the resemblance to a cathedral oddly appropriate. And – floor to ceiling, packed absurdly tight and absurdly high – were the boxes. He might be here thought Bob, his heart battering like an angry bull against his ribcage. He attempted to hide his excitement.
“This is one of seven storage facilities”, said Steve. “The other six are in currently undisclosed locations. We've produced about four and a half million copies of the product so far, which should serve global demand for the next decade or so.”
“How much do they cost?” Asked Bob's wife, staring at them.
“Five hundred US dollars per box, plus an extra two hundred for delivery”. Steve had lit a cigarette; something about the light tinged the smoke with green.
Bob smiled – given the price he expected, it was as if he'd been offered a box for free. His wife was obviously thinking the same thing. “We'll take one” she said.
“You're a lucky couple”, grinned Steve, “and I'm proud as hell that our first sale is to an American. Now Ted Idaho's a great guy, and I'm sure you already know everything about what it is we're selling you, but would you mind if I ran through a couple of caveats with you?”
“Sure thing”, said Bob, staring up at the black rows.
“First. You can't break into the boxes. Don't even try. Each wall is locked to a different point in time, and there's a difference of up to five seconds between each of its molecules. Even if you cut through - which you won't be able to do - the resulting blast would flatten everything within a kilometre radius.
“Second. By being here, you understand that what you've bought is almost certainly empty. But I guess, you wouldn't be here if you wanted a full one”. He laughed – there was something indefinably grimy about that laugh, Bob thought.
“Third. Tell Everyone! We don't want this business to be a secret. We think we're doing something important here – something good – we don't the box to be a private pleasure for you. Tell your friends. Tell your family. Tell your church. This is going to be a beautiful few years for all of us and I don't want us to waste our opportunity.”
Bob knew all of this, but even if he hadn't, he wouldn't have listened. He felt too alive to worry about anything. We might own it, he thought, we might own him.
Presumably the funeral directors are making a killing, thought Michal. Another one of those unbidden ideas from the uglier parts of the grieving brain.
He swatted the idea away, too tired to feel guilty about it. It was an oppressively hot summer, and the funeral had been thick with unexpected incense. From the general numbness of his bones, he felt a right to be uncharitable
Still, this was better than the candlelit pomp of the London vigil. The English could still excel at ceremony, but sincere public emotion still seemed something of an anathema to them. In the end, the whole night had felt hollow, like tacky costume jewellery. The prime-minister's speech had been ugly and stiff, still apparently of the opinion that Jen and the others had died in some sort of terrorist attack. Well, if the government and the media were still attempting to scratch out a motive for the explosion, then so be it. Michal had joined most of the population in beginning, painfully, to see it as little more than the whim of a blank-faced universe.
His mother had been too ill to attend the London vigil, but she stood here now, stick in hand and greeting the attendees. She was pale and worn. For some reason she had brought her dog along; the elderly spaniel was almost amusingly incongruous in the churchyard. Michal supposed that no one was going to stop her.
He felt a desperate need for a drink. He did feel guilty about that.
Perhaps it was nothing but a trick of the light, but as Michal looked back to his mother, something about her pose surprised him. She had her back to the grey church, but her right hand seemed to be stretched behind her, stroking the stones of its wall. It was as if, he thought, she was trying to comfort it.
Michal tried to smile at a weeping cousin. The sun burned on.
The timeship drops back into the universe like needle onto vinyl. Below, the unlit disk of the pre-electric Earth rises to meet them. The sky is jammed with metal – this place at this time is a tourist hotzone, and ships from five dozen identifiable eras flash up on Hasker's scanners. As she blazes through the black, the sky thickens as a wilderness of steel springs into existence around them.
“Are we ready?” she asks.
“We're ready” the professor smiles. “You see it?”
How could she not? It's there – the flagship, paladin class, vaster than the human imagination can really conceive, blocking out galaxies with its marble-veined expanse. At this moment, how many millions of techs, soldiers and priests, sweat-slick with nerves, are scurrying across its decks? Hasker smiles. Trust the papacy to send a big ship to do a small ship's job. They never learned the true value of efficiency.
The flagship bears the marks of a vessel built a couple of centuries later than Hasker's ship, but the professor has been furiously insistent that he knows the beam technology of that era better than anyone born into it. And when the beam flares into existence, Hasker can feel the gap-toothed ferocity of the professor's grin without having to look at his face. He knows about this theoretically, but he's never actually seen it. And as the light fires down from the papal flagship to the Earth's surface, she has to admit that it is beautiful.
Hasker swings her ship down and around, and dives hawklike and hungry into the beam's path. Time warps and slows, light and heat glaze the Hull. With any luck, the flagship won't have registered the movement. A speck of dust in a shaft of sunlight.
The professor checks his readout. “They've found the cargo”, he says, “and they're pulling it up.”
“Are we intercepting? Have they noticed?”
“Of course we're intercepting. And if they'd noticed, do you think they'd tolerate our existence?”
Distant shadows outside the light-circle of the beam, Hasker sees the tourist ships aiming cheap cameras at the surface below.
“Two twelfths complete”, says the professor, “It's working – actually working. The cargo's moving to our box. We've hijacked the beam.”
It is Hasker's turn to smile. All of the most satisfying heists involve stealing other people's work as well as their property. She's never been so pleased with the church's investment in high-technology
And yet... there's something not quite right. Strange heat readings are starting to show up on her scanners. And it's almost imperceptible, but she could swear that the beam surrounding them is flickering.
“Five twelfths”, says the professor. “A couple more minutes and we can leave this squalid little century.”
She checks her scanner – ships seem to be blinking out of the period. That can't be right, she thinks, the tourists haven't seen anything yet. Why the hell would they be leaving? She tries to get a visual, but the space around the timeship is too flooded by the beam's light to see anything with clarity.
And at that moment, a twisted crunch is heard above them, screaming out from a broken-boned sky.
The professor swears under his breath, and looks directly at Hasker. “The beam is fading”, he says, attempting to control his panic.
And so it is – as the white light begins to vanish, the stars regain their prominence. Which is when Hasker sees – with a horrified clarity – that the tourist ships are burning.
“Get out! Get out!” Screams the professor
Hasker doesn't need the warning. There's a new force in the sky – God knows what they are, but red, needle-shaped timeships are swarming across the night, firing indiscriminately at the buzzing metal around them. Struggling to drop back out of temporal space, Hasker thrusts forwards.
A direct hit thunders across her ship; the force plunges her head into the hard metal of the console. Dazed and winded, she pulls herself up and realises that her left hand is broken. Twisting the ship around, she tries to wheel it out of the battle, just in time to see the papal flagship on fire and falling, drawn like a magnet to the planet below.
She shakes the professor and calls out to him. “Have we got it? Have we got it!”
The professor's face is bloodied. She's not sure, but Hasker thinks she can see him crying. “I don't know”, he says, “I don't know”.
As the flagship plunges burning into the Atlantic, Hasker takes one look at the storage unit behind her – a unit which might – just might – contain the most valuable cargo in human history. She wipes the blood from her forehead and swears to herself. With the push of one button, the timeship blinks out of temporal space.
“So what do we think of Michal Krasinski? You think he's suitable?”
“Oh, I liked him. A lot.”
“Really? He came across to me as kind of odd. Intense, and not in a good way.”
“It's not a customer facing role. And you can't exactly blame him – his sister died at Winchester, his mother two months later...”
“...and he gets gambling. Gets it in all sorts of ways that our best people don't. Gets how we can make it important to people, especially now.”
“Harry, his CV has gaping holes in it, we have no idea about reliability, I have no idea why he was in this room, and if you're going to start making decisions based on one wild-eyed interview...”
“But dammit, you heard what he said. This is a man who reads gambling like most people hear music. We're flooded with accountants right now, but we're predictably short of poets. The world is turning too ugly too fast for us to keep expecting people to want to dive into the muck. Krasinski thinks we can make a profit by dragging people out of that.”
“You think this man can turn our business into something like art?”
“I think he wants to help us make money. And if that's what it takes, then yes.”
Potential causes of death by crucifixion include (but are by no means limited to) the infection of wounds, consumption by predators, asphyxiation, dehydration, heart failure, arrhythmia, and pulmonary embolism. The subject of the crucifixion is naked and – by necessity – immobile – he or she must piss and shit in full public view, surrounded by the insects that feed upon his or her open wounds and bodily waste.
The professor, swathed in bandages, was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Rwandan warehouse in an unfamiliar century. Hasker was pacing back and forth. Between them stood the storage unit.
“What were they?”, asked Hasker, chewing her tobacco with violence.
“God knows” replied the professor, his voice still a croak. “Something from far beyond any era I'm familiar with. I mean, you saw the way they tore the flagship apart.”
“And what do we do with this” She gestured towards the storage unit.
Yes, it was something of a problem. The professor had estimated around a seventy percent chance that hijacking the beam had worked – that they had managed to transfer the cargo into their own timeship. But that meant there was still a solid chance that the cargo had gone down with the papal flagship, and that the unit in front of them was empty.
“There's no way of dealing with it”, said the professor. “The contents of this is storage unit is frozen in time. If the unit's opened, time will start flowing inside again, and we're fucked. History'll be changed, there's a high chance we'll end up with something worthless... it's not even a gamble.”
There was a moment of silence. Hasker spat out her tobacco. And that was when she realised.
“Gamblers. That's right”, she grinned at the professor. “Look – that cargo – if we've got it – it's not a machine, or a commodity. It's – it's an idea. And ideas can be – well – mass produced. Think what people would give for even the possibility of holding what we have here. We just need to copy the unit. Copy it on an industrial scale. Dammit, this is it. This is the best heist we've ever pulled.”
Night began to fall. The timeship would not be staying in Rwanda for long
Paladin was one of the few companies of its kind to actually increase its profits after Winchester. Its logo stills appears oddly out-of-date, and to be honest always did – bold yellow sans-serif text hovers over two black dice, each of which displays a six on its facing side. Which implies, of course, that whatever number has been rolled on the top of the dice is not a six, though this fact is rarely commented upon. Paladin made its name with software using webcam images to determine whether a central computer system“liked” the user, but this iteration of the site did not gain more than cult attention: only a dedicated following realised that the system was infinitely more subtle and arcane than the random number generator it appeared to be. In a move that no one in the market could have predicted, however, the slow but sure popularisation of the subtle and arcane seems to have saved Paladin from bankruptcy. Now, gamblers lose themselves in shifting, brightly coloured games where they play with each others money and surrender control of their own, where they will not discover the total that they have lost or won until their deathbeds, or where sequences of flashing lights force them to forget the function of money or the size of numbers. Capitalism becomes a lightshow, a narcotic, the fragile dream of a light sleeper. There is no doubt that the influence of Paladin has been enormous. It has been cited as the central force in the move towards abstract, spatial, or icon-based economics in the mid twenty-first century, although most serious commentators believe that Paladin is a symptom rather than a cause in this particular cultural shift.
Bob and his wife kneel and weep and pray before their box. These days, they do little else. Some of their friends are worried about them, but others understand: Bob knows plenty of people who have gone out and bought one. Society might be going to hell, they say, but at least we've got our box.
Bob dreams about his box most nights. Sometimes he wonders if things would be better if he bought another one.
The Red Hoods came for Carl in the dark. He was an old man now, almost blind anyway, and as he rested on his staff in the quiet of the stone chamber, he knew that he was entering his final hour.
His wolf came to him, and Carl stroked the thick fur on its neck. “So this is it then?” asked the wolf.
“So it would appear”, said Carl. “I believe I have done right with my life. I believe that the world is a better place than it would have been without me. And you have helped me. Our God could have asked for nothing more.”
“Time to stop hiding, then”, said the wolf.
“I'm afraid it is, old friend”, Carl laughed bitterly as he turned towards the last reliquary. “I'd ask you to give them hell, but I fear it would be redundant”.
The sound of marching could be heard on the stairs outside. Carl put his hand on the reliquary, and the wolf tensed its muscles.
Experiments in deep space have proven without doubt the terrifying localised damage caused by destroying temporally reinforced material. But only the most recent research suggests that this destruction is far from exclusively local. It has been suggested that many of the radiation spikes or fluctuations in space detected by our telescopes are byproducts of an as yet unidentified future disposal of temporally reinforced material. The frequency of these energy spikes is steadily increasing, and we are concerned that their unpredictability and destructive power could endanger Earth ships, or even human settlements, on the homeworld or elsewhere.
Michal woke up in a cold room. He realised that he had not turned off the light or the music before he slept. Given the boxes of old vinyl upstairs, he did not know why he always pumped in the synthetic noise, but it seemed to hover around him every morning.
Day by day, the news had become increasingly inconsistent. The first meetings with the travellers had been confirmed, and frightened journalists were struggling to know what to think about reporting stories in a world where temporal causality no longer held sway.
He could not concentrate any more – on his faith, on his loss, on his drinking. The sky seemed faded. Life was taking on the property of old photographs.
He looked at the screen which covered the wall to his left. The pale colours of the game he had designed shifted across it. He tried to remember what he had won last night. A hatstand, an old bicycle, the memories of someone else's wedding, the smell of cut grass...
The machine would not tell him what he had lost. But he was pretty sure he knew.
This was all theologically necessary. Although, if we are honest, it was also politically necessary. Either way, all of the bloodshed and the vast financial expense was, if not worthwhile, then at least unavoidable.
A final red ship drops back into the universe, joining a massed congregation of its brothers. It trails one final black box. With an unfussy grace, it pushes the box towards the crowd.
Look closely, and you can see that there are millions of them – the multitude of black, mass-produced cubes are almost invisible in the darkness of space, seen only by the absence of the stars behind them.
The needle-shaped ships prime their weapons. Soon there will be a flood of fire. The destruction will rip a hole in the universe wide enough for love and beauty and truth and every other tired cliché of human meaning to fall out.
But for now we can wait, and we can watch.
Because he is probably still in there, somewhere. In one of those cubes stands a man frozen in the act of bleeding, a point of consciousness spread across unthought centuries. And perhaps his timelocked blood is wine, and perhaps his timelocked body is bread, but for now please forego abstraction. Please think of him as a man in pain, lost in the void.
And think of a woman, too young to know who she really is, listening to a well-played piano.