Authors: John C. Wright
History hath triumphed over time, which besides it nothing but eternity hath triumphed over.
—Sir Walter Raleigh
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.