Authors: John C. Wright
I woke up when my gun jumped into my hand. It was an Unlimited Class Paradox Proctor Special, and it was better than any alarm, better than any guard dog.
I relaxed my eyelids open just a crack. It was dark. My balcony windows were fully polarized, so the glow from the golden towers outside showed only as faint, ghostly streaks reaching from pale mist below to black sky above.
The door, the creator, and the dreambox all showed like blocky shadows in the gloom. I couldn't see more. This was one of the rooms in a lower tower, a pretty shabby affair, not far above the mist, and the tower light from outside would have been dim even if the windows had been dialed to transparent.
There. A silhouette against the glass. It was tall, with some sort of wide headgear, perhaps with a plume above.
I raised my arm very slowly, careful not to rustle the sheets.
I said, in the Control language, “Lights!”
The lights came on.
He didn't look surprised. That is a bad sign.
The joker himself was dressed like a French Musketeer from Cardinal Richelieu's time, complete with ruffles, lace, tall boots, swordbelt, and pig-sticker. There was something about him that made me think he was real, not repro. Maybe it was the battered, used look of his hilt and scabbard; maybe it was the battered, used look of his face. Maybe it was the smell. Usually you can tell preindustrial from postindustrial types in one whiff.
One anachronism was the skullplug clinging like an insect to the base of his neck. And that was wrong, all wrong, if this guy was a party-killer. There are some strange types wandering like ghosts in the Towers, from every spot of history that ever was, and a lot that never were, drifting from party to party if they still got luster, or just drifting, if they don't. Some of the strangest are the party-killers, those who do murder just to see who is going to be resurrected by the next day, and who is forgotten.
But this guy was all wrong for that. Real party-killers never used brainjacks to record their sensations. For them, death had to be live, or else it was nothing.
Second, this guy didn't look nervous or scared. He had the not-surprised look of a bad actor going through a flat rehearsal.
Third, he recognized my piece. And not many people have seen the three-dimensional cross-section of an Unlimited Special. What I had in my hand wasn't the whole weapon array, arsenal, detection and tracking gear, etc. That would fill up a room, or even a warehouse. No, all I had in hand was the aiming-guide, the firing mechanisms, and the shielding unit which protected me from backscatter.
Still. Not many people know what it's like to look into the business end of an Unlimited Special. Not many at all.
“You're a Time Warden,” I said.
“Very good, Mr. Frontino,” he said. His voice was blurry and harsh, as if he were not used to using the vocal cords he was using now. “That is the quickest you've ever come to the correct conclusion–this time around.”
“And you're going to pretend I don't remember the other versions, because of–why?”
He spread his hands awkwardly, a gesture like a puppet with a clumsy puppeteer would make. “That should be obvious, Mr. Frontino.”
“My other versions are being killed. And I suppose that if I pulled this trigger, your alternates won't remember this version we're in now either, eh?”
“Unless they were monitoring, no. They say the only way to kill a Time Warden, a careful one who looks into his past and future, is to wait for him to kill himself. But you flatliners don't have that privilege, do you?” He smiled, sort of a sickly impersonation of good humor.
“Yeah. But we don't have to sneak around, so afraid of paradoxes that we can't even show our own faces in our own city that we allegedly rule. And we don't have groups of phonies and crazies out and about pretending that they're us when they're not.”
I reached up with my other hand and made an adjustment. Dots from aiming lasers appeared on his groin and chest and the wrist of his right hand, which was a little too near the hilt of his sword for my taste.
(Think it's funny, a guy like me, armed as I was, afraid of his old-fashioned weapon, eh? People who think swords are quaint, not dangerous, never saw one used by a pro who knows his business. And the business is death by laceration, evisceration, impalement. No, swords are not quaint at all.)
I said: “There's one on the spot between your eyes, too. You can't see it.”
“I'll take your word for it, Mr. Frontino.”
I eyed him carefully up and down, looking for blurs or distortions which might indicate a timeshift. Nothing. Maybe he was actually all the way here, in this timespace, flying blind. But why? Most Time Wardens kept a version or two of themselves posted a minute or so in the future to give themselves plenty of warning for any surprises coming. Not him though. Why? Didn't make sense.
He was still waiting for my next line. He didn't just sit there and tell me what I was about to say, like most Time Wardens I'd met. Maybe he was less rude than most, or maybe he was just waiting for me to say something to let him know he was in the right version. Or, most likely, maybe he wasn't a Time Warden at all.
Whatever. “Spill it. Whatever you're here to say. Say it. Then get out.”
“I'm here to hire you to solve a murder, Mr. Frontino.”
“And you're pretending to be a Time Warden? Walk back into the past and look for yourself.”
“It hasn't happened yet.” Again, the crooked smile.
“Cute. And are you going to stop it if I solve it?”
“Not me. Not that I foresee.” Again, the smile.
“Solve a crime and let it happen anyway, is that the plan? Sorry. Not interested. I'm retired. 'Bye.”
“Retired? But aren't you the only Private Investigator in Metachronopolis? You've even got a fedora and a trenchcoat!”
“Everyone dressed like that when I'm from. And I'm retired as far as Time Wardens are concerned. Time Warden wants to solve a crime? Look it up in history book. Step into the past or future when its already been solved. What do you need mere mortals for? Manpower? Double yourself up a hundred times.”
“There are limits to our powers. Grim limits. Though, sometimes, where exactly those boundaries lie are… misty.”
He seemed to think that was funny. Before things got too humorous, I decided to cut things short. I opened the firing aperture with a twist of the wrist to maximum cone-of-blast and let him see me set the timer. The timer started beeping a countdown.
“I don't take cases from Time Wardens, see? All you guys are the same. The murderer turns out to be yourself, or you when you were younger. Or me. Or an alternate version of me, or you who turns out to be your own father fighting yourself for no reason except that is the way it was when the whole thing started. And there's no beginning and no reason for any of it. Oh, brother, you Time Wardens make me sick.”
He drew himself up, all smiles gone now, all pretense at seeming human gone, too. My guess was it was not even his real body that he was wearing, just the corpse of some poor sap he murdered in order to have his personality jacked into the guy's brain. Perfect disguise. No fingerprints, no retina prints, no nothing. Just another flatliner dead for the convenience of the Time Wardens.
“Why did you retire from our service, Mr. Frontino?”
“Let's just say I was sick of cleaning up after all the messes you guys leave across all your pasts and futures. You'd think when you were done, you'd at least have the common decency to put everything back the way you found it.”
“Everything? Absolutely everything?” His eyes were glittering now. “Be careful what you say, Mr. Frontino. Ideas have consequences.”
The timer on my gun was entering its final cycle, chiming like a little tiny bit of Doomsday. “My friend here says you have about fifty seconds to leave. You have just enough time to try to scare me into taking the case by saying someone is knocking off these so-called 'other versions' of mine to stop me from taking it.”
“No need for me to say it, Mr. Frontino. You're performing admirably.”
“Forty seconds… Unless you want to admit you're not a Time Warden after all and tell me what this is really all about.”
“No, Mr. Frontino. You will be convinced I am a Time Warden. And, before I forget to mention, you yourself will be the murder victim. I trust your interest in the case has increased? And should you still doubt my bona fides, here. I will leave a card.”
And then he was gone. Something glittered in midair where he had been standing, the size of a playing card made of crystal, and fell with a chime of noise to my floor.
Stories about Metachronopolis, the shining city outside of time, have many beginnings, they say. And I say that all come to the same miserable end. If you ask me. If there is anyone out there left to ask me.
Let's start with the ending. I want you to imagine tumbling end over end in a featureless gray mist, no gravity, no nothing, watching in horror as your fingers dissolve.
You don't remember what this means or how you got here, of course, unless you've got special memory like mine. Hardened memory. A memory that remembers things that didn't happen, not in your timeline, anyway.
If you've got hardened memory, like mine, you can torment yourself to ease the boredom while you get erased, by going back over and over the stupid things you'd done, telling yourself that if you had the chance, just one more chance, you'd do it all differently next time around.
And if you're not too bright, it won't even occur to you that that's exactly the kind of thinking that got you into this mess in the first place.
(Except which place is the first place, anyway?)
I regretted the words the moment I said them. But there are some things, once said, you can't take back.
I was opening my mouth to begin to apologize when she slapped my face. She leaned into the blow and gave me a good wallop, for a girl. Then she stood a moment, watching me with those beautiful hazel-gray eyes of hers. Beneath half-closed lids, her eyes were like sparks of luminous fire. She stood, lips pouted, one eyebrow arched, coldly studying the effect on me.
I raised my hand to rub my aching jaw. Maybe I didn't look sorry enough, or maybe I looked too sorry. Never can tell with women.
She turned on her heels and swayed over to the door. She gave me one last burning look over her shoulder.
“Babydoll, come back,” I said. "I can make it right between us. Like none of that stuff ever happened. Like none of it ever had to happen…”
Maybe it sounded like I was whining, or maybe it sounded like I wasn't whining hard enough. Whatever, it was the wrong thing to say.
Disdain curled her perfect red lips. “You're a smart boy, Jake,” she said, her voice husky and low and dripping with carefully chosen notes of contempt. “Smart enough to weasel out of some things. But not smart enough to know you can't weasel out of everything. Actions have consequences. Like this one. Watch me. Goodbye.”
She swirled out the door, graceful as a lynx, and slammed it shut so sharply that the glass rattled. I saw her slim silhouette against the glass for a moment, and heard the bright clatter of her heels against the floorboards receding down the hallway toward the elevators.
Then she was gone.
There wasn't any real government in this city, except for the hidden Time Wardens. But some of the important statesmen, Jefferson and Machiavelli and Caesar and a few guys like that, had thrown together a militia. Sometimes the militia circulated papers on unsavory characters, from petty thieves and party-crashers to the odd rapist or kidnapper who managed to get his hands on one of the famous women from history, Helen of Troy, or Cleopatra, that some of the Time Wardens kept around in their harems.
And then there was me. Why hadn't the Time Wardens shut me down long ago? No one knows why they do anything.
I pulled on my trousers and tucked in the tails of the shirt I hadn't bothered to take off when I sacked out on the couch. I whistled a command code toward the wardrobe and serving-beams draped my trenchcoat around my shoulders. Not that I expected to be cold in my own apartment; the fabric is woven with defensive webbing and detection-reaction cells. It's my own shabby version of a knight's shining armor.
Then the wardrobe slapped my hat onto my head. It must have thought that if I needed my coat, I needed my hat, right? Like I said, this was a low-tower apartment, and the circuits here were kind of dim.
I walked over slowly to where the Time Warden had been standing. Something was shining on the floor.
The card lay between my feet, glittering like a lake of deep ice. Distant shapes, like drowned buildings seen at the bottom of a clear lake, hovered in the cloudy reflection. I reached down…
Perhaps I wasn't thinking. Perhaps it was what flatliners call a coincidence. Only I don't believe in coincidences. I know there are Time Wardens.
I had actually bent over and was reaching my hand down toward the damn thing when my smartgun emitted its shrieking chronodistortion alarm. It jumped out of its holster and into my hand. The grip tingled where the energy field had to grab my fingers and fold them around the stock.
By then it was too late. My eyes had focused on the image floating deep below the mirrored surface of the card. This one was attention-activated.
Whenever a human brain pays attention to any event, the possible timelines radiating from that point multiply, since that observation affects the human's actions. There are circuits that can detect these multiplications, though I'd never heard of one being focused through a destiny card.
You look. You're trapped. Very neat, very tidy.
It was a picture of a wide, high place surrounded by pillars. Of course I recognized it. The Pyrtaneum of the Time Wardens. And then I was there.
“Welcome to the crime scene, Mr. Frontino.”
Second beginning. This one brighter than the others:
I recall my first view of the city.
I thought it was a job interview. I had no other work, no future, and the best woman I had ever laid eyes on walked out on me the night before. I wasn't in a great mood, but, at that point, I was willing to listen to anything.
“Time travelers?” I said, trying to look chipper. I was trying to think of a polite way to say goodbye and get lost.
He didn't look crazy. (The real crazies never do). Mr. Iapetus was a foreign-looking fellow in a long red coat of a fabric I didn't recognize. He had dark, magnetic eyes, high cheekbones, and wore a narrow goatee.
His office was appointed with severe and restrained elegance. To one side, a row of dark bookshelves loomed; in the center was a wide mahogany desk, polished surface gleaming; to the other side, heavy drapes blocked a hidden length of window. I did not think it odd at the time to see bright sunlight shining from the carpet at the lower hem of the window drapes. But it had been raining outside when I entered the lobby just behind me.
Mr. Iapetus was standing by the window. He took up a fold of drapes in his hand. “I believe in what you might call the shock therapy method of indoctrination. It helps make the tedious period of disbelief more brief.”
A wide yank of his arm threw the drapes aside. A spill of blinding sunlight washed around me.
Blinking, I saw I was high up, overlooking a shining city. I had been on the ground floor when I came in. Now, I was miles up in the air. And glory was underfoot.
“Behold Metachronopolis, the city beyond the reach of time!”
Towers made of gleaming gold, taller than tall mountains, rose in streamlined ramparts all around me, like swords held up in high salute. Far underfoot, in the canyons and gulfs between the towers, cloudbanks drifted, stained cerise and gold from the light shed by the towers.
Great bridges, elfin-graceful, arched across the miles from balcony to balcony of the gleaming structures, with giant statues placed at even intervals, sentry-like, along their tremendous length. The balconies were thickly grown with hedges and arbors, and the bridges were like parklands suspended in the air, with figures dimly glimpsed strolling among the greenery. Or flying.
I thought they were seagulls at first. They rose from the clouds below. Bright figures rose and soared past the window, comet-swift, and I saw that they were manlike beings, robed in cloaks of light which fanned out like angel wings to either side of them. Up along the wind they fled, swifter than rising sparks, handsome men, and women with faces like young girls, heads thrown back and eyes alit with pleasure. They were dressed in the costumes of all ages.
Among the flock were monsters and animal-headed people, like the gods of ancient Egypt, jackal-headed or hawk-headed, like satyrs and chimera.
The air was alive with fliers, darting from window to window, or from minaret to minaret, balcony to balcony, bridge to rooftop garden.
And, dimly through the glass, I heard the air was filled with music.
Iapetus' voice rang with pride: "Many histories have many strange beginnings, but time travel is inevitable in every time line, and, from time travelers, Time Wardens grow, and all come here, their mighty monuments and towers to build. Yes! Metachronopolis has many beginnings, but all timelines lead to her!”
I was impressed by the sights. "When do I get my chance to sign up?" I said softly.
Iapetus opened the window. I smelled the scent of wind-blown petals on the far gardens, and heard the flourish of trumpets, and the tolling of deep bells. "In a sense," he said, "You already have. Examine your memory.”
He took a gun out of his pocket and shot me in the leg. I fell screaming, blood pumping through the fingers I clenched onto my shattered knee…
And then he hadn't. Never had. No gun, no wound.
The shocking memory of having been shot, horribly wounded, was already beginning to fade, like a bad dream.
But I didn't let it fade. For one thing, it was impossible for me to have two separate and distinct, mutually contradictory memories of the same event.
For another, I wanted to remember the look on Iapetus' face as he shot. Just for a second, as he raised the strange pistol, he wore a look so inhuman and expressionless, that I would have called it cruel, if he hadn't seemed so cavalier and nonchalant…
“Deja Vu is a milder form of the same phenomenon,” he continued in the same bored, dry tone. “Some people have a naturally hardened memory. Our training can increase the talent. A talent utterly useless except when there is a Time Warden nearby, manipulating the chronocosm. Then it is precious. Useful to us. Our instruments show you have a strong natural hardness of memory; a stubborn streak. Being able to remember alternate versions after a change does not make you a Time Warden, of course. But, still, it's better than being a flatliner. We call it pawn memory. I trust you see the humor? Pawns cannot leave their own files, their own timelines, so to speak, unless a major piece is near. And, yes, some pawns reach the final row.”
I was not sure I liked the idea of being anyone's pawn. But then I wondered what this final row might look like.
So of course I recognized the place. Highest tower in the city, biggest, brightest. A vast floor of shining black marble, inset with panels of mirrored destiny crystal, stretched across acres toward wide balconies, which looked down upon the titanic gold towers far below. The place looked like it was open to the air on every side, but between the tall pillars there must have been panes of invisible glass or some sort of force field to maintain the pressure at this altitude. The sky above was so dark blue it was almost black.
I think I saw the curve of the horizon.
Standing near one of the thrones that formed a semicircle embracing the floor, was D'Artagnan. Standing near me was a cataphract in power armor, circa A.D. 4400, the era of the Machine Wars. The cataphract had his faceplate up, and I could see the cold, no-nonsense look in his eye. His armor was throbbing on stand-by; I could hear the idling hum of the disrupter grids and the clicking of the launch-pack warm-up check from here.
There was a whine from his elbow servo-motors when he folded his arms, putting his fingers near the control points on his chestplate.
I was fast with my smartgun. I didn't think I was that fast. I put it back in the holster, slowly, like a nice little boy who didn't want to get flattened.
At his nod, an aiming monocle clicked out of its slot on his helmet visor and fell over his eye. Little red dots danced up and down upon my chest, just to let me know he was thinking of me.
I turned to D'Artagnan. “Cute trick with the destiny card,” I said.
“You didn't want to be here. Well, now you are.”
“What's the big idea with the tin can here?” I said, hooking a thumb at the cataphract.
“That should be obvious, Mr. Frontino. We want you to solve a murder, not to prevent it. Even highly trained paradox proctors get uncertain about their oaths if ever they look into the circumstances of their own future deaths. They always wonder, can't the universe stand just one more small strain? Surely one more tiny fold in the fabric of time won't unravel the whole web? And what does it matter to me anyway, if the chronocosm dies, so long as I myself survive?”
He chuckled, then added: “If that's what loyal knot-cutters think, well, what are we to expect from one who is retired? Especially since he did not ask our permission to retire, did he?”
I turned away. I wasn't sure what I would say, so all I did say was: “And where's the body?”
“I have composed a null-time vacuole to bracket the event,” he said, drawing a mirrored destiny card from his doublet. “You may examine it at your leisure.”
First clue: why was D'Artagnan bothering to say so much here? Time Wardens are only talkative in virgin time. When they've been through the same scene a dozen times or so, they usually get right to the point. He had been acting the same way last night, when he interrupted my beauty sleep. Was there such a thing as a Time Warden who didn't like to time travel?
Clue two: why me? Why these high-pressure tactics to herd me into this thing? They had other paradox-killers. Plenty. One of them was looming behind me right now, dressed in his happy mechanical-man suit.
D'Artagnan slid the destiny card into the crystal material of the nearest throne arm. The throne itself was made of a block of the same "substance" as the card: an area of frozen time-energy. (I've always wondered why they make their chairs that way. I guess nothing else is good enough for a Time Warden to warm his butt on. On the other hand, no one could monkey around with any of these throne's histories, not made of what they were, or go back and have had built bombs or bugging cells inside them or other nasty gimmicks.)
And the strip of the floor leading from the throne to where I was standing was also made of the same substance. I imagined the new scene too clearly to deny it. And I was there.
I imagined a single, still moment of time.
Everything was "lit" by the weird non-glow of null-time. Any object grew bluer and dimmer the longer you stared at it. I was used to the effect; I kept my gaze swinging back and forth as I stepped into the scene, always moving. D'Artagnan and the cataphract stepped in behind me, the motorized legs on the power-armor humming with understated strength.
There were only two figures frozen in the moment of the murder scene. One was motionless on a throne, armored in ice and cloaked in mist; his face, a mirror. The other was a tall guy, not so good-looking, trenchcoat scarlet with motionless flame, stylish fedora suspended in mid-air to one side of his head. He was in the middle of getting shot, impaled on an energy-blast.
Yours truly. Of course. And to think that one of my goals in life had been to leave a good looking corpse.
I looked at the blast first.
It originated off to the left. Near one of the pillars, about shoulder-high, a small puff of mist was frozen. Trailing out from it, motionless, like a worm made of flame, was a line of Cherenkov radiation, and knots and streamers of cloud where the atmosphere couldn't get out of the way fast enough to avoid being vaporized. Little glowing balls like St. Elmo's fire dotted the fiery discharge-stream, where ionized oxygen molecules were being turned into ozone. An even brighter crooked line paralleling the discharge-path indicated where atoms had been split by the force of the passing bullet.
At the other end of the discharge-stream was me, also ending. I looked at myself hanging in mid-air, caught in mid-explosion and mid-death. My smartgun was leaping like a salmon trying, too late, to get into my fingers. It hung, frozen, a few inches above my out-flung hand. Not smart enough this time, it seemed.
I (the me version of me, that is) stepped through clouds of blood and flying steam to get a closer look at me (the becoming-a-corpse version of me). The exit wound was enormous, as if half my chest and all of my left arm had been drawn in hazy red chalk-smudges by an Impressionist artist.
The smell was terrible. I know the textbooks say you're not supposed to be able to smell anything in null-time. But, I figure, if my eye can move through a cloud of frozen photons and pick up an image, then my nose can move through a nimbus of blood-cloud and sniff roasted flesh.
There was no visible entry wound. Of course. The bullet must have been ultra-microscopic, perhaps only a few molecules wide, in order to be small enough to slip through my smartgun's watchdog web. And it must have been traveling fast enough, a hefty percentage of the speed of light, to be quick enough to get me before my smartgun could react.
And the bullet was programmed, somehow, to drop velocity and transfer its kinetic energy to my body in a broad, slow shockwave as it struck.
Somehow? A time-retardation wave could do it. The relative velocity would change once it left the field. Just another application of the same technology which made my smartgun.
Heck. I could have this done this myself, with a smartgun just like the one I had. I already thought of two different ways to reproduce this effect just with the programs I presently had loaded.
I straightened up and backed away, brushing anachronistic drops of blood off my coat.
After I was done looking at the figure on the throne, I turned and addressed D'Artagnan. “I need to take a reading of the time depth and energy signature of the discharge wave with the sensors in my smartgun. I'm going to draw it nice and slow, so your steel gorilla knows I'm on the level here. That all right with you?”
D'Artagnan spread his hands. “That's fine.”
For the first time, I noticed a slight blur of mist around his fingers as he made the gesture.
He had time-doubled. It looked like a Recursive Alternate Information shift, but I wasn't sure. There was an alternate line out there somewhere where he had done something else with his hand. Maybe he had touched a control or given a hand signal to the cataphract. Or, if it was actually a Recursive Anachronism shift, he might have handed something forward or backward to himself.
Or he might not have done anything at all. With a Parallel Displacement shift, a Time Warden, standing a few seconds away, pacing us, could have handed him something.
I drew my smartgun slowly.
And I was thinking: Why not?
Why the hell not? Hitler's mother-to-be, Klara, age sixteen, looked up at me with eyes as wide and trusting and innocent and hurt as any you'd ever dream of seeing. She hadn't done anything wrong. Maybe she would have said something, but the slug had torn out her throat. She got blood all over my pants and shoes when she fell toward me. It had smelled then much the way it smelled now.
Stalin's mother, Ketevan Geladze, on the other hand, was already pregnant, a pretty blond with a cheerful smile and coke-bottle-bottom-thick eyeglasses, when the Time Wardens decided to abort her future. They had me shoot her in the stomach twice more after she fell, burnt and screaming, just to make sure her helpless baby would be dead.
Why not? They can all make it undone again. Or so they told me.
And then one Time Warden or another took a dislike to the atomic wars of the 2020's. Einstein was a little boy playing with mud-pies in a backyard garden when my misplaced scattershot tore off his arms and legs and left him blind, bleeding, and screaming in pain until I could reprogram and fire a particle beam to put him out of his misery.
When I asked to be allowed to go back and do that assassination again, maybe cleaner, the Time Warden's representative told me that chronoportation should not be used for frivolous reasons. He sternly warned me that paradox weakened the fabric of timespace.
I won't even tell you who I had to kill to let a curious Time Warden explore the alternate line where Christianity never rose to dominance in Europe. At least that one was done with a clean shot to the head.
If I could set out to kill pregnant women and innocent girls and little boys and the nicest guy I'd ever met, why not set out to kill me?
I looked around to see who I had been (was going to be) talking to, when I was (would be) shot.
Only one of the thrones was occupied. There he was in all his regalia. A Time Warden. His armor was made, not of metal, but of destiny crystal, gleaming like ice. From his shoulders depended a cloak of mist, created from a single thread vibrating backward and forward across several seconds. The cloak of distorted time fell from his shoulders in streamers of vapor, dripped across and down the chair arms where he sat, and hovered in curls around his ankles.
I could not see his face. His crown was projecting a forcefield like a mirrored helmet to protect his head from the radiation of the murderous discharge in front of him.
Clue three: why did the Time Warden's armor have time to react to the assassin's bolt when the victim's smartgun did not? Coincidence? But I didn't believe in coincidences. What people call coincidences are sloppy, makeshift arrangements by the Time Wardens to put frayed or broken timelines back on track.
And I sure as hell didn't believe in Time Wardens any more.
Iapetus leaned past me and opened the window. He paused a moment, allowing me to savor the smell of the high gardens, the deep chime of distant bells, to hear the calls and cries of delight from the winged fliers.
He spoke: “There need be no further interview nor testing. Any Time Warden dissatisfied with your future performance would have already retroactively informed me. The choice is now yours.”
He straightened his back and looked at me. “The rewards of loyal service to the Time Wardens are many…”
This time around, I didn't say anything to her. I bit back the angry confession which sprang to my lips. There are some things which, once said, can never be taken back.
Instead, I put my hands on her shoulders, and drew her closer. “Babydoll, there's no other woman. There is no one else…” I lied smoothly.
This time, my past didn't catch up with me. I could always outrun it, always stay one jump ahead of the game. I smothered the pang of guilt I felt at the thought as I lowered my head to kiss her.
“…including material rewards, without limit…”
While I was waiting for the croupier, and the manager, and the manager's assistant, to collect my winnings into a large suitcase, I stepped into a telephone booth, with a copy of tomorrow's stock market under my arm, to make a call to my broker.
I yawned while the phone rang. It all seemed so tedious, so safe. Maybe this time around I would walk into the ambush the thugs hired by the manager were planning.
“…as well as the knowledge that you are doing good and useful work to preserve both past historic treasures and the integrity of the timespace continuum…”
The Roman legionary stood there, shaking and sweating, eyes rolling wildly, unable to move, locked in the grip of my paralysis ray. I would have preferred to shoot him, of course, but orders were not to chance future archeologists puzzling over slugs found in one of Caesar's troopers. I could tell the Roman wanted to scream when I pulled his short sword from its scabbard, put the point under the belt of his armor, and pushed.
He fell down the steps of the Library at Alexandria, and I kicked the torch he'd been holding down after him, safely away from the precious scrolls and papyrus.
There was blood splashed all over my coat and trousers.
I was doing good work. Important work. Why did it make me feel sick to my stomach?
A whole squad of legionaries led by a centurion trotted around the corner at a quickstep, shields and pilum in hand. They let out a roar when they saw their dead comrade, and shouted vows of vengeance to their gods. Then they lowered spears, formed ranks, and charged the stairs.
I laughed. Did they expect me to wait around for their vengeance? For the consequences of my actions to catch up with me? They would never catch up.
A twist on the barrel of my smartgun opened the paralysis induction beam to wide-fan. The soldiers fell, and then they waited, helplessly, for me to slaughter them. I tried not to look them in the eyes as I moved from one to the next with their comrade's gladius in my hand.
“…and, since the Time Wardens are all-powerful, no one can oppose them or stop them. They have no enemies…”
When I woke up, I found myself slumped in a heavy, high-backed chair of dark red leather, placed at the end of a long conference table of black walnut. Nine hooded figures sat around the length of the table.
Light came from two high candelabrums, burning real candles and dripping messy wax onto the table surface. The room around me was dim; I had the impression we were in a library. There were no windows, no clocks, nothing like a calendar anywhere in sight. I could hear no noise from outside. It may have been day or night, of any season, of any year.
The robes, likewise, could have been from practically any date or era. They all wore gloves; I saw no rings or jewelry.
“Do not be alarmed,” came a polite tenor from my left. “I know you do not recall this, but you volunteered to have a small part of your recent memory blotted out. It was a condition our anonymity required to make this conversation possible. You wanted to speak with us.”
“And who are you supposed to be?” I asked, straightening up, my fingers pressed against my throbbing temples. “And why the hell did I—you claim—want to speak to you so badly?”
The hooded figure at the other end of the table leaned forward slightly. He had a rumbling, bass voice. “We are the enemies of the Time Wardens, Mr. Frontino…”
I drew my smartgun slowly, so as not to startle D'Artagnan or Ugly Boy in the fancy steel suit. Idiots. They might have stood a chance if Ugly Boy had had enough sense to keep his faceplate down. As it was, I gyro-focused an aiming laser to keep a dot right between his eyes where he couldn't see it, while taking a reading on the energy discharge which killed (was going to kill) me (future-me). I didn't have to actually point the gun barrel at Ugly Boy to shoot him; my gun was pretty damn smart.
The formation readings did not surprise me. The energy signature was exactly the same as that generated by the gun held in my hand. It was not the same make or model, it was the exact same gun.
Of course. Obviously. I was going to shoot myself.
Means I could see. What about opportunity?
The time-depth reading on the spot of mist from which the murder-discharge radiated did surprise me. It was a matter of a few seconds, plus or minus. Something was going to make me shoot me in a moment or so from now.
That left only motive. And I couldn't imagine any motive, at first.
But then I thought: Why not? Why the hell not?
I swung my barrel to cover D'Artagnan.
“OK, fancy boy,” I snapped. “Charade's over. Do I need to shoot you to make the real Time Warden show up?”
“You think I am not a Time Warden?”
I shook my head. I could have explained that I hadn't seen him chronoshift but once, and that, since he wasn't wearing a Time Warden's mist cloak, such shifts would have been obvious. A Time Warden who did not have other selves as bodyguards? Who lived through all his time lines in blind, first-time, unedited scenes? A Time Warden who didn't time travel? But all I said was: “You talk too much to be a Time Warden.”
“You may as well put your gun away, Mr. Frontino, or I will have my…” he nodded toward the cataphract and his sentence choked to a halt. He saw the aiming dot punctuating Ugly Boy's face.
“I don't know if you can see my settings from there,” I said.
He nodded carefully. “Your deadman switch is on.”
“And the change-in-energy detector. Any weapons go off near me, and my Unlimited friend here goes off and keeps going off long after I'm dead. Well? Well? I want some answers!”
The cataphract's launch-harness unfolded from his back like the legs of a preying mantis opening. Tubes longer than bazookas pointed at me. He raised his hand toward me. With sharp metallic clashes of noise, barrels came out of the weapon housings of his gauntleted forearms. I was standing close enough that I could hear the throbbing hum of his power-core cycling up to full-battle mode. The mouths of his weapons were so close to my face that I could smell ozone and hot metal.
My nape hairs and armpits prickled. I could feel my heartbeat pulsing in my temples; my face felt hot. Standing at ground zero, at the point-blank firing focus of a mobile Heavy Assault Battery, really doesn't do a man's nerves much good.
“Well?” I said, not taking my eyes from D'Artagnan. “Things are going to start getting sloppy!”
Even D'Artagnan looked surprised when the frozen image of the Time Warden on the throne stood up and raised his hand. Of course the time-stop had meant nothing to him. He had merely been sitting still, faking it.
“Enough!” His voice rang with multiple echoes, as if a crowd of people were speaking in not-quite-perfect unison. “You have passed our test, Frontino. You were brought here to assume the rights, powers and perquisites of a Time Warden. You may assume your rightful place at my side. There is no need for a coronation ceremony. Here I give the reality of power.”
With a casual flick of his wrist, he tossed a packet of destiny cards at my feet. The pack fell open as it struck the marble floor. Shining mirrored cards fell open, glittering.
These were the real things. The glassy depths held images from history, ages past and future, eras unguessed. There were castles, landscapes, battlefields, towers, all the cities and kingdoms of the world.
The final row lay before me. All I had to do was stoop over and pick them up. If I just bent a little, it could all be mine. Me, pulling the strings for once. Me, the puppet-master, not the puppet. No longer a pawn.
I stood at the window, watching the golden city of glory with eyes of awe. I asked Iapetus. “I still have some questions. May I ask?”
“Certainly, Mr. Frontino.”
“How can it be possible? Time travel, I mean? What happens to cause-and-effect?”
Iapetus' smile was sinister and cold. “Cause-and-effect is a delusion of little minds. A cultural prejudice. The ancient wisdom of the prescientific ages recognized that the workings of the universe were held in the hands of unguessable powers. They called them gods instead of Time Wardens. But it is all one.”
I asked: “So what happens if you kill your grandfather?”
“Nothing truly exists,” explained Iapetus impatiently. “Except as a range of uncertain probabilities. Normally this uncertainty is confined to the sub-atomic level, creating the illusions of solid matter, life, and causality.