Time Considered as a Series of Thermite Burns in No Particular Order
My time machine was disguised as a Baronne Henriette de Snoy rosebush in full bloom. I left it in the Royal Botanic Gardens, next to a thicket of imported English foliage. We could have appeared near the library building itself, but I wanted to get the lay of the land and insinuate myself. Besides, seeing time machines pop out of the air can make people nervous. Moira remained inside, shielded, and said through my inload, “Good luck, Bobby. Try not to get arrested again.”
“Should be back in a couple of hours, max,” I murmured. The internet and global communications systems had been dismantled six decades earlier, after the tsunami of leaked classified documents. “I’ll keep the images rolling, but let’s nix the chitchat. Oh, and if I do get arrested, maybe you should come and get me.”
My wife sighed. “Just don’t get all tangled up, I hate time loops.”
There were still trams running along St. Kilda Road, so I waited at the nearest stop and took one up Swanston Street to the State Library.
In this year the trams floated atop some kind of monorail set flush into the road, probably a magnetic levitation effect. Luckily, as the garbled pre-catastrophe records suggested, public transport was free in 2073 Melbourne, so I had no hassles with out-of-date coins or lack of swipe cards or injected RFID chips, all that nonsense that’s tripped me up before and always ruins a nice outing. Especially if it ends with incarceration in the local lockup.
On the tram, I had a different kind of hassle, the usual sort. Other passengers stared at me with surprise, disdain or derision. You couldn’t blame them. For obvious reasons, we’d found no reliable records in 2099 or later of the fashions in 2073. I was clad in the nearest thing to a neutral garment Moira and I have ever come up with: an inconspicuous grey track suit, no hoodie, sports shoes (you never know when you’re going to have to run like hell, and anyway they’re comfortable unless you find yourself up to your ankles or knees in an urban Greenhouse swamp), backpack.
A broad-shouldered youth with acne was nudging his bald oafish associates and rolling his eyes in my direction. I moved further down the tram and tried to merge with the crowd. Most of the men, except a few elderly, sported shaved heads decorated with glowing shapes that moved around like fish in a bowl. The women wore their hair like Veronica Lake in those old 1940s black-and-white movies.
We crossed Collins Street, which didn’t look all that different from 1982 or 2002—it’s startling how persistent the general look of a city can be, even in periods of architectural enthusiasm and mad-dog greedy developers. The thug followed me toward the back, smirking. He grabbed my track suit pants from behind and tried to give me a wedgie. My pack got in his way. I had a neuronic whip in my pocket, an Iranian special I’d picked up at a flea market in 2034, and I wrapped my hand around it, but didn’t want to use it and cause a ruction.
“You’re a bloody weird, dinger,” the thug informed me. “Watcha, going to a fancy dress party with yer downpoot mates?” He jolted me with a knee to my thigh, and I oofed.
“Don’t hurt him, Bobby,” Moira hissed in my inload. “My dog, what the hell are these morons wearing?”
A seated middle-aged fellow was jostled and got to his feet.
“See here, enough of this lollygagging foof! Leave the poor fellow alone, it’s obvious he’s a braindrain.” He took my arm, and stepped past me. “Here, son, have my seat. I’m getting out at Lonsdale anyway.” He trod heavily on the thug’s foot as he passed, confident in his shiny top hat. Probably didn’t hurt much, they wore something like soft woolen gloves on their feet, each toe separately snug, and I hoped water repellent. Maybe the Greenhouse effect wasn’t quite critical yet, but Melbourne is famous for its abrupt downpours.
“Lonsdale, yeah, me, too,” I said, for Moira’s benefit, and followed him closely, to the jeers of the style-conscious oafs. My thigh hurt, but I had to force myself not to smile. Obviously this was one of those tiresome years when almost everyone bowed to the dictates of fashion. I stepped down from the tram onto the traffic island, surveyed the citizens wandering along the street, young and old and in between, and despite myself burst out laughing anyway. It was like some kind of cosplay epidemic had overtaken downtown, maybe the whole continent. For a moment the attire had baffled me. It was baggy in the wrong places and tight everywhere else. Looked horribly uncomfortable, but that seems to be the rule with fashion in a lot of decades.
“Bobby, this is crazy!” Moira was laughing in my inner ear. “They’re all wearing their pants over their heads!”
It wasn’t just those on the tram. Most of the men in 2073 Melbourne central district, I realized with another snort of amusement, were wearing business suit trousers or blue jeans on top, arms through the rolled-up legs, sparkly shaven heads shoved through the open flies. A few women with their hair up in luxurious folds wore the same, although many preferred skirts, hanging down over their arms like something a nun would have worn back when I was a kid, in the days before nuns dressed like social workers.
“And check out the leggings,” I muttered under my breath.
Everyone had their legs through the knitted arms of merrily patterned sweaters, cinched at the waist by the inverted trouser belts. Something modestly blocked the neck holes. I saw after a moment that baseball caps were sewn into the necks, brims forward for the men, up or down depending on age, and backward for women, like tails. I could tell by the sniggers and glances that passers-by all despised my own absurd and out-of-date garb.
“Wow, fashion statement,” Moira said.
“You think this is silly, check your wiki for eighteenth-century toffs. Those stupid wigs. Those silk stockings. Gak.” A woman gave me a sharp glance. Man in ridiculous clothes talking to himself in broad daylight, cellphones a thing of the past. “Hey, I’d better shut up and get it done.”
I crossed to the library at Little Lonsdale Street, settling my pack more comfortably. It was heavy on my shoulders. Item by item, we’ve worked out the optimal contents for the pack: obvious things, like food for several days, a sealed course of Cipro plus a box of heavy-duty paracetamol, two rolls of toilet paper (you’d be amazed and depressed how often that turns out to be a life saver), a code-locked wallet of cards and coins from several eras, although hardly ever the ones you need right now, but still), a googlefone that doesn’t work beyond 2019 because they keep “upgrading” the “service” and then it stops, a Swiss Army knife of course, a set of lockpicks, a comb, a false beard, and a cut-throat razor (useful for shaving and cutting throats, if it ever comes to that), and a holographic wiki I picked up in 2099 containing yottabytes of data on everything anyone will ever have learned about anything but with an index I still haven’t mastered. One of these days. And that wiki might not even exist if I botched this job.
I paused on the library steps, under the bold banners proudly announcing next week’s unprecedented exhibition of the original Second Mars Expedition logs. No need to look again at a map of the floor plans, we’d got all those from water-stained future records and I’d memorized everything that seemed relevant. I rummaged, found my bottle of aluminum thermite powder and an old ceramic cigarette lighter, put them carefully in separate pockets. The Optix woven into my hair was recording everything in its field of view, date-stamped for later archiving. If I got out of this alive and in one piece. At least Moira would have it backed up.
I left the backpack at the counter, where it was stored for me in a locked cabinet, but nobody patted me down to find the pocketed neuronic whip and my other handy tools, or insisted that I pass through a scanner. That had been several decades earlier, when people were more angstish about everything. Still, I was sweating slightly. They’d removed most of the paper books from the library, except for displays of volumes set up as objets d’art, and the great circular reading room with its groaning wheeled chairs and hooded green lamps was full of chatter. People leaned across long tables toward each other, disputing like students in a yeshiva, displays flickering with information and gossip. Immersive learning, they’d called it back here in the 2070s—not a bad way of finding your way around the dataverse, and a damned sight more sensible than the droning memorization I’d had to put up with as a kid.
I found a librarian eventually and asked to speak to the Director of Collections. She looked at me with extreme distrust but put a call through, and finally sent me across to an audience with Dr. Paulo Vermeer, who regarded me with similar sentiment. I tried not to stare at the Bessel function graphs dancing on his naked skull.
“Doctor, thank you for seeing me. I’m hoping that I might have the privilege of viewing the Second Mars Expedition logs in the vaults here, before they go on public display next week.”
“And you are?”
“Professor Albert M. Chop,” I told him, “Areologist,” and presented a very sincere Fijian passport card with my holographic likeness rising from its embossed surface, a University of the South Pacific faculty ID, and a driver’s license dated 2068. He gave them a perfunctory glance.
“You’re young for such a post.”
“It’s a new discipline, of course.” I wanted to tell him that I was older than he, just the lucky beneficiary of longevity plasmids from the end of the century. Instead, I watched as he regarded me with bland mockery.
“Whatever is that costume, Mr. Chop, and why are you wearing it in these hallowed halls?”
“It’s my habit,” I said, and tried to look humble but scholarly. Moira was sniggering again in my ear; I tried to ignore her and keep a straight face.
“My religious garb, sir. Those of my faith, of a suitably elevated rank, are enjoined by the sacred—”
“What faith is that?” Perhaps it occurred to him that I might be affronted at an implied slur on my beliefs, and could bring him and the library up on charges. “Naturally we honor all forms of worship, but I have to admit that until now—”
“I am a Chronosophist,” I said, and reached into my pocket. “Here, I have a fascinating display unit that will bring you enlightenment, Dr. Vermeer. Why, if you will set aside just one hour of your time—“
He gave a civilized, barely visible shudder. “No need for that, my good fellow. Very well, come along with me. But don’t think—” he sent me an arch look –“you can make a habit of it.” I raised one eyebrow, something I’d trained myself to do as a kid when I was a big fan of Commander Spock. That was before real starflight, of course. As Vermeer slid out from behind his desk on a prosthesis, I saw that he’d lost both his legs, presumably in the Venezuelan conflict. Nothing I could do about that, alas. But I had larger fish to fry than a simple limited if brutal armed drone conflict. I followed him to a lift and we rose one floor. He let me into a humidity-controlled sealed room, and directed a functionary to open a vault. The Mars documents remained inside their triple-layer packaging. Even so, the Director drew on a pair of long transparent gloves, fitting them snugly under the turn-ups of his trousers, and wrapped his nose and eyes in a white surgical mask. He handed me a medical kit. “Put these on. We can’t risk damaging precious heirlooms with our breath and bodily aerosols.”
I was already fitted out with antiviral plugs deep inside my nostrils, but I put on mask and gloves and watched in terror as he slid open the containers and placed them carefully on the table. I reached cautiously for the documents, and the Director blocked my hand.
“Strictly hands-off, Professor! Look but do not touch.”
The functionary, a bored fellow some inches shorter and stouter than I, waited with his eyes out of focus, probably watching some Flix drivel. I took the neuronic whip out of my pocket and buzzed the Director to sleep. His head fell forward and hit the table. The functionary gave his boss an astonished look, but by that time I was beside him and cold-cocked him with the whip’s butt. I kicked out of my KT-26 joggers, dragged off his clothes, struggled into them over my own, got my feet stuck in the arms of his numbered Demons football team sweater-trousers. I shoved, had them in place, tugged the shoes back on—I needed something sturdier than a pair of foot mittens. I heaved both men well clear, piled up a stoichiometric mixture of powdered iron oxide and aluminum, and set fire to it with the propane lighter. It went up with an explosive huff, and the hot blue blaze evaporated the death-laden logs and started to melt the top of the steel table.
The Director was stirring. I ran to the door, flung it wide. “Fire, fire!” I screamed, and ran to the elevator. “Quick, the treasures!” The polished cedar doors of the old lift creaked open. It was empty. Offices were opening, faces gaping. I flung myself in, hit the ground floor button, breathed deeply as the elevator descended, stepped forth slowly in a dignified manner and retrieved my backpack before the shouts and bells broke out in earnest behind me.
As I skipped light-heartedly down the gray steps and onto the grass, something fast and heavy slammed into my upper back, flung me forward on my face. I rolled, twisted, came up in a crouch, but the Director’s prosthetic had pulled away out of reach. His face was livid with fury. I grabbed at my bruised neck. The rolls of toilet paper had saved me from having my spine ruptured, but I still felt as if I’d been kicked by a horse. Three fat guards tore down the steps, batons raised. I could have killed the lot of them, but my job here was to keep a low profile (ha!) and save lives. A lot of lives. Millions of lives. Mission accomplished.
I sighed and held my hands away from my body. It’s a shame you can’t loop back into your own immediate history or I’d have seen a dozen later versions of me popping up from the gathering crowd, coming to my rescue. Nope, it just didn’t work that way. Maybe Moira—
Through gritted teeth, she was saying in my inload, “Damn it, Bobby, are you all right? Your vitals look okay. Hang on, I’ll be with you in a—”
They hauled me inside again and this time the lift took us down into the basement.
“On my way,” Moira told me. Then, in a softer tone, she said, “Bobby, honey, you done good. Real good. Nine million lives spared. Oh man. When I spring you, we are going to have a party, baby.”
“You are the worst kind of terrorist,” Director Vermeer told me in a chill, shaking voice. “In a matter of seconds you destroyed not lives but the very meaning of lives, the certified historical foundation that—”
“So the Martian logs are entirely destroyed?” I tried to rise; two overweight but chunky-muscled guards held me down. At least the functionary I’d stripped of his outer garments wasn’t in the room, although his pilfered clothing had been taken away and I suppose returned to him, or maybe held for some kind of forensic examination. I’d expected the place to be swarming with firefighters, ladders, gushing hoses, media cameras. No such thing. Evidently the vault room’s internal fire protection systems had done the job, but not in time.
“Entirely incinerated, you barbarian.”
“Thank dog for that!”
“And blasphemous mockery on top of this devastation, ‘Professor’ Chop.” I could hear the inverted commas. “Oh yes, I wasted no time checking your absurd alibi. The University in Suva has no record of you, no faith exists called Chronosophy, nor is there any Albert M.—”
I chopped him off. “True. I had to deceive you to gain access to those festering Martian plague vectors. You have no idea how lucky you are, Director. How lucky the entire world is.”
“What fresh nonsense is this?”
“In two days’ time you’d have—” There was a knock at the door of the curator’s office, a long narrow room decorated with holograms of flaring galaxies, rotating, peeling, multiplying nucleic acids, two lions mating rather terrifyingly again and again in a loop, and other detritus of Installations and Exhibitions past. A woman with a floral skirt down to her wrists said apologetically, “Pardon me, Director, but there’s a police Inspector here to speak to the, the prisoner.”
My heart sank. I looked up gloomily, and Moira, in full police uniform worn upside down, but with a peaked cap covering her short red hair, said, “Good afternoon, Director. With your permission, I’d like to speak to this man in private for a moment. Then we’ll be taking him across to Police Headquarters where he will be charged with this heinous offense.” She was carrying my backpack.
“Very well, Inspector. I hope to hear a full accounting in due course. This arson is the most egregious—”
My wife shepherded him to the door, and shooed out the guards with him. “Please take a seat, Mr. ...What should I call you?” she said for the sake of the library staff milling on the other side of the closing door. It clicked shut.
“I think you could call me ‘Bobby,’ honey. Delighted to see you, but how do we proceed from here? We can’t just stroll out and take a tram to the Botanic Gardens.”
“The machine’s out the back. No sense mucking around.”
“Who did you clobber, by the way?”
“Some poor cow downstairs. Had to drag her into the loo to get her uniform off her. She’s trussed up in one of their quaint cubicles. Someone’s bound to find her, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
Moira was hyper, on the verge of babbling; she always gets that way when she’s pulled off some amazing exploit.
“Okay, sweetie.” I stood up, groaning, and she marched me toward the door in a stern and professional gait. “Lay on, MacDuff.”
The lift took us back to the ground floor, where the director hovered, literally. “We have transport waiting at the back entrance,” Moira told him. “Let’s keep this as low profile as possible, no sense getting people hysterical. The braindrain is under sedation, he’ll give me no trouble.”
We made our way briskly through confusing corridors to the back, me giving a glazed fish eye to anyone we passed. There was no vehicle, of course, but the drab graveled back space was relieved by a handsome rosebush in a large wooden pot. Nobody was watching us. It’s amazing what an air of authority and slight menace can do. We entered the disguised time machine and Moira, in the pilot’s seat, took us forward a year. It was three in the morning when we emerged, so the place was deserted. But the city lights were bright in the crisp air, and from somewhere to the northeast we heard music and laughter. No plague. No epidemic of murderous nanomites from Mars. Another horrible future with its teeth pulled, made safe for humankind. Hooray, hooray.
“What’s up, sweetie? Let’s go back to 2099 and put our feet up.” She started to snigger. “My dog, Bobby, you were a class act with your legs jammed into a sweater and your boof head sticking out of some guy’s fly. Come on, what’s up?”
“Candidly,” I told her, feeling dreary, “I’m feeling dreary. How stale, flat and unprofitable are the uses of this world.”
“Come on, buddy.” My wife jabbed me in the ribs. She’s just a little thing, but her elbow is sharp, even through a stolen blue police skirt. “Remember our motto, and be proud.”
“A stitch in time,” I said without much enthusiasm. It’s the nature of our trade. You can change your future but not your own past. So you’re obliged to go further and further into the day after the day after, and track down tomorrow’s atrocities that can be reversed earlier in unborn histories you’ve never lived through, have no real stake in. Guardians of time, that’s us. We can go home, sure, as far as our first time trip, but no further back than that. No way we can repairs the horrors of our own past, the local history that made us: assassinations of the great and good, genocides, terrorist attacks, our own insignificant but painful goofs. It’s like something from a Greek tragedy or myth, seems to me sometimes. Doomed to fix everyone else’s atrocities and never get any thanks, and no chance to remedy our own mistakes.
But Moira was hugging me, and the sky was clear and filled with faint stars, through the light-spattered towers of Melbourne in 2073, which is more than could be said for some other epochs. So I hugged my wife back, and found myself grinning down at her. “Yeah. Okay. A stitch in time—”
“Saves nine,” she said. “Nine million lives, this time. Maybe our own grand-grandkids, if we decide to. So hey, let’s feel good about that, eh?”
“You bet.” I said. I did feel better, a bit. “Party time it is, honey.”
And we fell away into the future, again.
Copyright © 2011 Damien Broderick