by Michael F. Flynn
Consider the man who is brained by a hammer while on his way to lunch.
Everything about his perambulation is caused. He walks that route because his favorite café is two blocks in that direction. He sets forth at the time he does because it is his lunchtime. He arrives at the dread time and place because of the pace at which he walks. There are reasons for everything that happens.
Likewise, the hammer that slides off the roof of the building half a block along. It strikes with the fatal energy because of its mass and velocity. It achieves its terminal velocity because of the acceleration of gravity. It slides off because of the angle of the roof and the coefficient of friction of the tiles, because it was nudged by the toe of the workman, because the workman too rose to take his lunch, and because he had laid his hammer where he had. There are reasons for everything that happens.
Not much of it is predictable, but causation is not the same as predictability.
It would never occur to you—at least we hope it would never occur to you—to search out “the reason” why at the very moment you walked past that building, some roofer in Irkutsk dropped his tool. Why should the concatenation become more meaningful if the roofer is closer by? Spatial proximity does not add meaning to temporal coincidence. Chance is not a cause, no matter how nearby she lurks.
So the hammer has a reason for being there, and the diner has a reason for being there; but for the unhappy congruence of hammer and diner, there is no reason. It is simply the crossing of two causal threads in the worldline.
“Ah, what ill luck,” say the street sweepers as they cleanse the blood and brains from the concrete. We marvel because our superstitions demand significance. The man was brained by a hammer, for crying out loud! It must mean something. And so poor Fate is made the scapegoat. Having gotten all tangled up in the threads, we incline to blame the Weaver.
* * *
Orphans of Time
I. Siddhar Nagkmur
Consider now the man getting drunk in a dingy after-hours bar in an unhappy corner of Chicago. He too is unhappy, which makes for a good fit. His name is Siddhar Nagkmur, and he has the morose visage of a sheepdog who has failed his flock. It shows in his face, which is long and narrow and creased with lines at the eyes and lips; and it shows in his drink, which is both potent and frequently replenished. He sways a bit on the bar stool, ever on, yet never quite passing, the point of toppling over. The lives of billions layer on his face and pool in his eyes.
The neighborhood is one of warehouses, wholesalers, terminals, and similar establishments, and the bar’s clientele the usual gallimaufry of pickers, packers, and teamsters, among whom Nagkmur’s coveralls blend well. Outside, the night lies empty, save for the men at the loading docks who are prepping the morning deliveries, and the drifting strangers who habitually rove empty nights at three in the morning.
From time to time, Nagkmur glances at the flickering television and mutters something about “phantoms,” but neither the bartender nor the other patrons ask him what he means. One is half afraid of what he might say. Each patron dwells introspectively on his own tidy failures until Nagkmur’s empty highball glass strikes the countertop and startles them into the moment.
The bartender does not ask if he thinks he’s had enough, because if he’d thought that, he would not have banged the countertop quite so eloquently. The bartender pours the bar Scotch, and waters it more than his wont—a blow struck for both sobriety and the bottom line.
“Shy Hero in Manhattan!” the television announces as the hour cycles around to a fresh story in the news-blender. The shout-out tugs momentarily at everyone’s attention, and on the screen, a stolid woman half-turns from the camera, anxious to conclude the inescapable interview. A fire. A baby. A dash through the flames. A rescue! Brief platitudes.
“Stupid,” says the bartender, not grasping the nature of heroism. “She coulda been killed.”
Nagkmur continues to scowl at the screen after the woman’s face has been replaced by commercials promising revivified male performance. “I see this woman before,” he mutters, in accents that proclaim English an acquired tongue.
“Yeah? Where’d ya see her?” the bartender asks, not because he is interested but just to break the silence.
But his effort is a match struck on a gusty night. Nagkmur says, “Glass water” and from his inside jacket pocket he plucks a flat tin containing lozenges, one of which he swallows and chases with the water. The bartender pretends not to notice. He has seen innumerable pharmaceuticals consumed in his establishment and regards everyone as entitled to blaze his own trail to hell, so long as he pays his tab along the way.
Speaking of which, the bartender mentions the cost of the water and whiskey and Nagkmur selects it from a pouch he wears at his waist, scrutinizing each bill as if unfamiliar with its value. He takes a deep, shuddering breath. Then, with the air of one spared the headsman’s axe to keep an urgent appointment on the gallows, he slides from his stool and walks toward the door. He walks without a stagger, too; and the bartender suddenly wishes he knew what had been in that lozenge.
Outside, in the lonely world of the small hours, Nagkmur finds three young men trying to jack his time machine.
* * *
They are engrossed in the task. The vehicle is too tasty to pass up. Larger than a minivan, not so large as a panel truck, it is clearly high end. The opaque windows prevent casing the interior, but it just got to hold valuable shit!
However, it presents certain difficulties in task execution. The blocky design is unfamiliar. There is no evident hood. How do you hot-wire a thing like that? The door—there is only the one—does not yield to their coaxing. Where is the damned handle? So they shake the vehicle like a man jiggling a doorknob, in the belief that one more jiggle will happily discover it to have been unlocked after all. One of them has crouched to study the wheels. There is something odd about them, but he cannot say what.
They are levitation disks, not wheels—just as the “windows” are external sensor panels—but Nagkmur does not share this intelligence. Nor does he fear the young men will make off with his transporter. Nothing known to this nexus is capable of unsealing it once it has turtled. So he stands quietly by and waits.
Eventually, the thieves twig to his presence, which startles them considerably. Most owners would have announced themselves with some useless bluster, like What do you think you’re doing? (Stupid. What did it look like they were doing?) But this skeletal figure simply watches in silence, and that puts the three a little off their game. There is something in his eyes, a certain quietus to his expression. Two of the three take involuntary steps back, but their leader thrusts his chin out. “Watcha lookin at, fool? This your car?”
Nagkmur says, “No,” but he means that it is not a car, not that it isn’t his.
“Then get your ass in gear and fart on outta here.” The other two think this the height of wit, or perhaps of poetry. Nagkmur is reminded of the old adage that “sin makes you stupid.” Criminal masterminds are genuinely rare upon the Earth, and among their ranks these three are not to be numbered.
Nagkmur searches his newly impressed language and finds the warning he wants. “Please, to back away from transporter.” He adds a second command in pudding-wa and his vehicle hears and activates certain defenses.
The sudden hum alarms the youths, driving them together. “What’d you do, chink?” demands the leader.
“You are advised not to touch the transporter.”
“Yeah?” the leader mocks. “And what happens if I do?” And he stretches out an insolent fingertip to do just that.
The answer to his question is “electrocution.” His entire body stiffens, his eyes bulge, and his sneer pulls back into a rictus. A moment later, he drops insensate to the cobblestones.
It is a momentary distraction, and in that moment, Nagkmur flicks his baton to half-extension and, whirling, breaks the wrist of the second thief, who is belatedly clawing a pistol from his waistband. Completing his spin, Nagkmur pivots into the Flying Mule and catches the third tough with a shod foot to the side of the head. The boot is steel-toed, so this young man joins his leader on the pavement.
The second one has had enough, and, abandoning his companions to the Fates, he runs into the night, clutching his wrist to him.
Nagkmur knows an unseemly glow of satisfaction. He has never heard of the five stages of grief, but he is—by damn!—in number two. Ever since his discovery that the world had been wiped out, anger has been building up as in a capacitor, and it feels good to discharge the load, even on a trio of phantoms.
But there is no time for his bottled grief to pour forth. A distant siren heralds the approach of the local authorities. Someone on the graveyard shift has possessed sufficient civic virtue to summon the police—perhaps the man on the loading dock at the warehouse across the truck apron, ready to scribble the license plate number when Nagkmur’s vehicle pulls out of the shadows.
Of course, time machines do not “pull out” in any manner normally understood, nor do they bear license plates; but one admires the fellow’s staunch rectitude.
Nagkmur sighs. So much for passing unnoticed.
He kicks the dropped gun to a place where it will be found. The local police might learn something useful from its study, and as a fellow lawman he will make this one gesture in their aid.
That he intends to wipe all of them—police and thugs, bartenders, drunks, and warehousemen—from the very face of the Earth is no reason to neglect courtesy.
* * *
His vehicle senses his shield number, and the door permeates to allow him entry. He seals up and activates the external screens and audio pickups. The transporter’s hull clarifies, providing him with an ecumenical view of his surroundings. He drops into his seat, takes a deep breath and, wasting no time in light of the approaching sirens, brings up a map of the phantom world that he had earlier gleaned from a radio-accessible juku. He identifies “Manhattan” and enters its coordinates into the transporter. Then he kicks in the temporal precessor and the ætherial gyroscopes spin up.
That is when the hammer hits.
* * *
Something blacker than the night emerges from the shadowy interior of the electronics warehouse. It is a great ebon sphere peppered with lights like a thousand eyes, as if a portion of the starry sky has come to ground. The warehouseman flees without getting its number, and the apparition sprints toward the transporter in a complex, five-legged gait that defies description. Terror chokes Nagkmur’s throat.
Then he pops the clutch and detaches from the space-time manifold. His transporter coasts backward and spinward along the worldline, and he removes trembling hands from the control yoke.
What was that? he wonders. Has it anything to do with the catastrophe that has marooned him here? Perhaps he should have confronted it, interrogated it. But deep within, down where the shaking has its roots, he is quite as happy he had not.
* * *
He reaches lower Manhattan earlier that same evening and coasts out of phase until he locates the nexus of the apartment house fire. Then he finds a nearby abandoned building where he can conceal his transporter and backs up a few hours to give himself time for his preparations.
External sensors show no signs of life beyond the usual small and scuttling things common to derelict buildings, so he reattaches to the manifold. Papers, dirt, and other detritus swirl about in the air displaced by his point-expansion, and his transporter settles into the moment.
He sits for a while in his saddle, arms dangling at his sides, breathing slowly and calmly and calling upon his balance. In fear and trembling, the Superior Man sets his life in order and examines himself. His son, his father, his brothers and colleagues . . . they had never been. Or “will not have been,” however this new language expresses such thoughts. Their resurrection is now up to him. To escape difficulties, the Superior Man falls back upon his inner worth. Resolutely, he stuffs the terrifying apparition into another corner of his mind for later consideration. It had likely been no more than the drunken binge extracting one last punishment for his sin.
Upon first apprehending the calamity, Nagkmur had fled into the distant past, lest he be extinguished when his colleagues restored the worldline. But where the massive buildings of Deep Time HQ had once stood, the broad interglacial steppes had swept unvexed to the horizon. He knew then beyond all hope of doubt that the Shyan Baw had never been, and of his entire department he alone survived. It would be up to him to restore the true history.
But to rectify the worldline, he must identify the nexus at which time had gone awry. And to do that, he must research the phantom history and compare it to the true history. And to do that, he needs an epoch far enough forward to have radio-accessible juku, but not so far forward that time would have abraded the crucial details into smooth and shiny fables.
He has already spent time in Chicago learning the geography and impressing the dominant language on his neural pathways so that he can read and even habitually think in it. Now he must begin his search in earnest. Somewhen within this unknown history, written in this half-grasped tongue, nestles that singular incident that has derailed the proper course of time.
And that was why the Shy Hero in Manhattan—who would be saving a phantom baby later this very night—was so important. For why should he recognize anyone in this Fate-condemned world unless she too were a traveler orphaned by time?
* * *
II. Stacey Papandreou
Consider now the woman fleeing a burning apartment building on the edge of the West Village in Manhattan. Fire holds a special horror for her so she cannot say even afterward why she turned aside to grab the crying baby from the first-floor apartment. She has learned not to care overmuch about the shadows among whom she lives, but the infant’s cries touch something primal within her, and she hardly knows what she is doing when she snatches it from Moloch’s jaws.
Then she is outside on Gansevoort St. with no recollection of the in-between, sucking in great gulps of air, the baby clutched against her breast still wailing. Around her are spinning lights atop fire engines, police cars, ambulances; firemen laying hoses, incomprehensible squawks over walkie-talkies; streams of water pouring into the now-crackling inferno. She stares at the apartment building, amazed that she has come through it, astonished that she had paused even for a moment.
Maryam brt’ Yarosh has employed different names in different milieus but in this time and place, she is Stacey Papandreou. In a town of such eclectic habitants as New York City, even the most outré can swim in anonymity, though it is best not to press the matter too far. This milieu is more tolerant than most, but tolerance too often depends upon what is at stake.
The mother shrieks up the sidewalk, the milk she had ducked out to buy a splash of white on the paving behind her. She blubbers gratitude and smothers babe and rescuer alike with kisses. Stacey does not know her name, but she smiles and says it is nothing. The infant stares alternately at mother and neighbor, as if suddenly realizing that something has happened. Its eyes are a deep brown and seem far too large for its head.
Then the baby is taken up by professionals with oxygen masks and other accouterments of care. Stacey too is given aid. Smoke inhalation, burns, who knows what injuries she may have sustained? The oxygen is cool and pure and she sucks it in gratefully.
Around the firemen and EMTs and flashing lights and garbled voices, circle the vultures, aching to fill the 24/7 news-void, thrusting microphones in her face like . . . No wonder they are called news organs! They bark unanswerable questions. Why’d ya do it? She cannot enlighten them. How’dya not get burned? Just lucky, I guess. How’s it feel to save a life? A century from now no one will know this baby ever lived, let alone that it lived a little longer.
But no, we don’t say such things. It is too startling and interrupts the smooth glide of thought as it skips from cliché to cliché like a stone across a pond. Experience has taught her that it is better to pass unnoticed, and naked truth is the pornography of discourse. It always draws more attention than the decently costumed kind. So she pronounces the expected platitudes instead and nestles invisibly within the journalistic paradigm. Almost, the story can write itself.
She turns half-away from the cameras, enough to shadow her features but not so much as to excite curiosity. She has spent many years learning the arts of obscurity, and care has become a second nature. Come across as mysterious or evasive and the organs would push in deeper. But present oneself too openly and some geezer might recognize her on the tube from some older milieu.
Further down the street, within the fire line, a dark woman with cropped, platinum-white hair and wearing an ID on a chain around her neck scans the crowd. There is a fire marshal by her side, and Stacey guesses that someone suspecting arson has brought in a profiler to spot the firebug among the gawping onlookers.
Though if anyone had set the fire, Stacey thinks, it would have been the owner. The building hangs like an albatross around his neck. Gentrification is creeping up the West Village on little cat feet, and the site is worth more sold to developers than rented to residents.
The platinum-haired woman locks gazes with her for a moment, and Stacey recalls that some people set fires in order to play the hero. She wonders if she is being profiled.
If so, she must not have fit, because the woman turns aside, and both she and the marshal move on to another part of the crowd.
The news organs will vie for some fresh angle on the story. Seeking a human-interest hook, someone will thrust into the Heroine’s past and discover that she has none. It is time to move on. She has already lost her possessions in the fire; discarding the rest of “Stacey Papandreou” wants little more.
She can get clothing at a nearby discount shop, perhaps on charity, and rinse the soot from her face in their washroom. She has jewels cached in various places. Making herself presentable, she can convert the cache to cash, and sink back into the anonymous masses.
But as she turns away, an iron hand seizes her wrist, and she gasps and looks up into the intense, troubled face of a Chinaman. She draws a breath to shout for help, but the man says, “I know you,” as if making an accusation.
And Stacey forebears to shout, for shouting would attract attention, would draw eyes toward her at just that moment when she would fade quietly away.
* * *
The bubble of fame expands slowly, obeying an inverse square law. Out toward the edge of the crowd, newcomers crowd up behind those who have arrived earlier, leaping a-toe, craning necks, hoping to catch a glimpse of tragedy. No one recognizes her as “the Heroine” or even knows as yet that there has been one. But, barefooted and nightgowned, Stacey is clearly a Victim, and people tug at her sleeves and ask her what has happened, appealing to the special gnosis with which Victims are endowed.
The man pushes through them, saying, “She must be attended.” He has a long coat slung over his arm with a pair of sandals tucked into its pockets. Once they reach the other side of the street, he pauses while she puts them on. He says something to her in what she takes to be Chinese, though he does not sound much like Mr. Lu at the takeout. She has a hazy recollection that she had seen him, a long time ago: His face flashes through her mind, quaffing wine across a rude wooden table. There is more, but the memory is a dry, brittle leaf in an autumn forest.
He guides her uptown rather than down, and that is all the same to Stacey. There is no particular place she needs to go to just yet, so one direction pleases as well as another. He strides with determination, now and then snapping something to her in Chinese. When Stacey fails to answer, the grim set of his mouth deepens.
They duck around the corner to Little West Twelfth, and then under the High Line to a block where enough meat-packers hang on to justify the neighborhood’s name. One of the buildings is abandoned, and he urges her toward it through a gap in the chain link fence that halfheartedly encloses it.
Stacey grows hesitant. Among the reasons a man might have for leading a woman into an abandoned building, few inspire great confidence. Granted, he has rescued her from the curious crowds, but Stacey begins to wonder how he had known to bring a coat and sandals.
Her knives have been left behind in the burning apartment, but she knows various forms of unarmed combat, and most common objects can be used as weapons by the keenly imaginative. A woman alone must learn such things. But Stacey also knows the limitations of such methods for one with a woman’s frame. A woman may equal a man in combat only so long as she remains beyond arm’s reach. One time, when she had worked as a spy in . . .
It comes upon her in a flash, as if the wind has scoured the dead clouds from an overcast sky. . . . In Constantinople. She had met this man in the City by the Golden Horn. She had been using the name “Macedonia” then and had been a dancer for the Blues. But covertly, she had also worked for the emperor’s nephew, who had been magister militum. She had passed along treasonous pillow-talk and brought persons of interest—especially foreigners—to the magistrate’s attention.
Yes! She had met this man in the kapeleîon of Nicholas of Urfa, near the palace district. He had been staying in the pandocheia that Nicholas kept for foreigners, and he had entered the tavern with the actress Theodora on his arm and a plate of meat for Nicholas to cook. “Macedonia” had been entertaining a Syrian merchant she suspected of harboring Persian sympathies, and Theodora had brought this stranger to join them.
She had known Theodora professionally and had been casting about for a way to recruit her into the magistrate’s service. This kinézo afforded a perfect pretext, since the kyrie was eager to establish silk culture in the Empire.
That had been fifteen hundred years ago—and yet that selfsame man stands now grim-faced beside her.
Realization is sunlight in her mind. Tears start down her cheeks. For a long time she has believed herself condemned to live alone in a world of shadows. But now she knows there is at least one other immortal on the planet.
* * *
There is a wild fig tree at Echo Caves, near Ohrigstad in the eastern Transvaal, whose taproot in its insatiable thirst drives four hundred feet down into the sunbaked soil. Stacey Papandreou, by whatever name she has called herself over the centuries, has driven habits of thought so deeply into her psyche that she is unaware of them. A terrifying amount of her life is lived by habit.
In all those years the lives of others have drifted by her like smoke. She has bedded husbands, she has borne children, whose very names now she no longer recalls. No one else is quite real to her.
Now, when she most yearns to open the gates of her heart to someone she believes is, like her, actually alive, she finds the hinges are rusted shut. She has been too careful for too long. Only with effort can she squeak them open.
Which, as it turns out, is a good thing.
* * *
Stacey thinks Nagkmur’s time machine is an old supervisor’s office left over from when the plant was operational. Beside it lies a pair of down sleeping bags, a Coleman stove, curule folding chairs and other camping accouterments, and a portable table, and she supposes Nagkmur has been squatting in the ruins. The table holds a computer of unfamiliar style whose keys and toggles bear strange symbols. They are not Chinese. Stacey tries to peek inside the shed, but none of the equipment is recognizable.
Nagkmur shoos her away and sits her by the table, where he questions her closely. When he gets no joy using Chinese, he switches to a stilted and formal English, but even so his questions make no more sense. He agrees that they met in Constantinople, but they have difficulty fixing the year. He claims it was in the Year of the World 3220, but that was long before Constantinople was even built!
As for Stacey, a few dates are seared into her memory, and she has only to subtract nine from one of those to secure the answer: The Year of the World 5604. At the time, the Empire was shifting from using the Diocletian Era to using the Age of the World, but Stacey does not recall offhand how either epoch converts to the Years of the Lord.
“Impossible,” says Nagkmur. “Year of World 5604 many centuries hence. We meet many centuries past. My mission to collect data on backwater nexus for Grand Analects.”
Backwater nexus? Although not native to the City, Stacey takes offense in her name. Plenty had happened there. Art, literature, science, and philosophy had flourished, although she granted that none of it had affected China, and the bulk had been lost in the Great Sack.
After considerable debate and access to the Internet, they decide that they had met in AD 522 by the common measure.
“Whatever change world,” the man says, “happen after then but before now.”
Stacey agrees that the world has indeed changed since the sixth century. Sages from Heraclitus onward have declared change the one constant in the world. It does not occur to her that Nagkmur means something different.
“When you leave City,” he demands, “where you go?”
“Venice,” she says, which she does remember. The city in the lagoon was relatively new at the time, crammed with refugees from the Lombards, redolent with the smells of shabby huts, fresh-cut lumber, dank marshland. But the exarchate of which it was part was still a solid outpost of romanitas and travel there was still safe.
“No,” the patrolman snaps. “What year you go?”
But she does not remember the year. She does not even remember the exarch’s name.
Nagkmur grows agitated. “When you see world is different?” His voice grows shrill.
But the world is always different. The Capernaum of her childhood, Alexandria, the City, Venice, Noyes, London, all the innumerable times and places where she has lived, each milieu had differed in countless ways. She tries to explain this to Nagkmur, who of all men should need no explanation, but he only grows more irritable and accuses her of evasion.
He wags a finger at her. “I think you change history. Not survivor; instigator. You bear responsibility for billions not be.” There is something in him of an unspeakable sorrow. His anger is edged with tears.
But Stacey does not see how she could have changed anything. She has lived quietly whenever she could, and the great events of the world have generally passed beyond her ken. In only a handful of epochs has she even known anyone important.
Though Constantinople in the early 5600s had been one of them.
* * *
Stacey wonders if the long centuries have driven Nagkmur mad. She had herself nearly foundered in those shallows when, in the desolation that Syria Palæstina had become, too many identities in too many years had jostled in her mind. She had lost cohesion, lost continuity. There had been times when she had not even known who she was. A holy woman, Mary of Egypt, had helped her cast out those demons and gradually she had learned to shelve her memories, place them in jars, in time to let them go. Perhaps Nagkmur had never mastered that skill and, like other sorts of hoarders, had smothered under his jackstrawed recollections.
An eternal life shared with another grows less attractive if the other is off his nut. She tells him she needs more presentable clothing than a robe and sandals. He scowls and bids her wait while he fetches something. She plans to run for it once he has gone.
But he steps into his cubicle and there is a blink and a rush of air and he steps out almost immediately, with clothes draped over his arm. She had once owned slacks and blouse exactly like those he hands her, though she had thought them lost by the dry cleaner a year ago. She wonders if this mad immortal has been stalking her, learning her tastes, her sizes. She recoils from the thought. She has spent lifetimes avoiding notice.
Yet, she must not be too hasty. Perhaps she can help him as Mary had once helped her.
* * *
Nagkmur finds a chronology on the Internet and searches out a year halfway between the present and their encounter in sixth century Constantinople. The quickest way to identify when things went awry, he tells her, is to work by halves. If AD 1300 is undisturbed, the change came later; otherwise, earlier.
At first, Nagkmur is encouraged. “Middle Kingdom apparently unperturbed,” he mutters. But as he continues reading, he grows upset. “Yet Occident much different. Too much technology. Too soon. Where Paris Caliph?”
Where indeed? Apparently, this means that “divergence” had already happened, so Nagkmur halves again and dips into the tenth century where he is astonished to discover that the Roman Empire, beleaguered but unbroken, has not fallen either to the Arab conquest or to the earlier Avar sack.
“Unbelievable!” He turns to her in bewilderment. “How this change anything? Nothing important happen in Occident.”
None of this makes sense to Stacey. She had lived through it, but it was all a jumble in her memory pile. It was hard to remember what happened in which century; but she was damned sure the Avars never sacked the City. There had been a bad time once when the nomads ran the Slavs into Hellas—Greece was never quite the same country afterward—but the Avars had squatted helplessly before the Land Walls while the Fleet held off the Arab ships with Greek Fire.
Stacey is a native of the Syrian provinces, but she had lived in the City for a very long time and feels a certain pride. “The City never fell,” she told the patrolman. “Not until the Franks came.” But she had been in Paris by then, another city that became great in its time. Technically, she had been a Frank herself.
Nagkmur spins about in his chair and cries, “You! You are saboteur! What you do? Why?”
The anger in his visage is alloyed with grief beyond measure, and Stacey very nearly reaches out to comfort him. “No,” she tells him. “I only lived my life, tried to survive, tried to escape notice.”
“City in chaos after . . .” He checks his own database. “. . . after emperor flee. Riots in street. ‘Nika! Nika! Nika!’ No one ever repair. Later, faction opens gates to revenge on other faction.”
“No.” Stacey shakes her head in bewilderment. “The emperor quashed the factions. General Belisarius slaughtered them in the Hippodrome.” A horrid, frightening time that had been, and “Macedonia” knew only what rumors had drifted with the smoke and fleeing men.
Nagkmur’s eyes widened. “He not flee? Emperor not flee City?”
Stacey shook her head. “He started to. But the story was that his empress talked him out of it. ‘Purple makes a splendid shroud,’ she said.”
“What empress? This . . .” Another check. “. . . Yáshì dingní not marry. Wait! Old emperor’s nephew. I meet him!”
“You mean Justinian. Yes, I sent you to him. He was Justin’s Master of Soldiers and ran the spy service. He succeeded his uncle a few years after you left.” Stacey thinks about that a bit, then remembers. “That’s right . . . He married Theodora the actress.”
“Actress? Emperor marry prostitute?”
“Strange as it seems, it was true love. You must remember Theodora. You patronized her while you stayed in the City.”
“That woman?” He said this as if surprised to discover that she had a name. “But prince wants only to enter her jade gates!”
“Maybe at first—and she had some damn fine gates—but they fell in love after.”
“But I bring her with me when meet this Justinian. I introduce them. If this woman give Justinian courage, then it was I who . . .” He chokes and cannot finish the sentence. “Billions,” he whispers. “It was I?” He looks up and into Stacey’s face.
“Whoever think woman have such effect?”
Stacey cannot help but laugh in the face of his overwhelming grief.
* * *
Orphans of Space
III. Lt. Col. Bruno Zendahl, USAF
There is a reception held annually at the Apkallu League near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia at which the “Scions of Apkal” drink toasts to a home they have never known. Never forget is the league’s motto, and a common valediction among its membership, but operationally, in the face of the ordinary burdens of daily life, it is little more than a formality. It is more important not to forget the groceries you were to pick up on the way home.
The league is a handsome building, done up in the manner of the late nineteenth century, with Egyptian columns and a grand staircase on its façade. The brass medallions adorning its doors feature on the left an aquiline profile, said to represent the Apkallu Indians, and on the right door a fish, said to represent wisdom. The interior is decked with rich draperies and padded furniture. It is a very Philadelphia kind of building: snug and comfortable in a way that Boston and New York never quite manage. Engravings on the walls portray the usual Philadelphian themes of independence, fox hunting, and cricket. Club room conversations center on the exigencies of work, the dismal prospects of the Eagles, and the intransigence of the younger generation. Fraternal organizations having long-since evolved into philanthropic ones, the league also sponsors medical research into birth defects at Einstein Medical Center.
Only on Landing Day do the Scions bring out certain accouterments otherwise kept in a storeroom in the subbasement, hang decorations that might strike nonmembers as a bit outré, and recite formulas in a language little-heard in the America of the third millennium. But that is only once a year to celebrate their ancestors’ arrival in the New World, and what club does not have its quaint rituals?
There is a reason for everything, and Lt. Col. Bruno Zendahl’s reason for stopping over at the league is that he is travelling from Cheyenne Mountain to the Pentagon, and it is customary for Scions of Apkallu to touch base at a lodge on such trips. He has called from the airport to confirm reservations for dinner and a room for the night. The restaurant is open to such of the public as can afford private dining in Rittenhouse clubs; but the rooms are members-only. He hands his travel bag, headgear, and overcoat to Robert, the concierge, and is striding with great anticipation toward the dining room, when Juliet Endicott, the lodge-keeper intercepts him in the Grand Hallway and hits him with a hammer.
Metaphorically speaking. “They’re waiting for you down below,” she whispers and waves him toward the private elevator in the rear of the building.
The implied summons startles the colonel. “My dinner . . . ?” he suggests.
“I’ll have Guiscard send something. Anything in particular?”
In other words, immediately. He sighs. “I was looking forward to his Pork Chop Elena.”
Endicott uses her elevator passkey to activate access to the lower levels and makes sure he knows the way to the council room. She gives him a brass key of the old style and assures him that his dinner will be delivered. Then the doors enclose him.
Zendahl brushes the sleeves on his uniform jacket. He can think of nothing in the public news, nor even in the private news of which he is cognizant, that might merit a summons. Maybe they only want him to plan the annual banquet, but he does not think so.
He exits the elevator onto a dimly lit, never-completed subway platform for the Southwest Spur. This was intended to link Thirtieth Street Station to the Broad Street line at Lombard-South, shaking hands along the way with the terminus for the old Locust Street subway. (There was once to have been a Loop, like Chicago’s, but only Locust Street and Ridge Avenue were ever built.) He faces what would have been the northbound track, where a faded sign reading Rittenhouse dangles from overhead beams. The southbound platform was never built, so only barren stone looms in the shadows on the farther side. The tunnel dips into darkness at both ends of the station and somewhere in the black depths water plunks into a pool. Everything smells dank and sounds hollow.
Zendahl follows the platform to a door labeled “Authorized Personnel Only” and uses the brass key to enter. Inside, a young woman sits behind a desk reading a magazine. She looks up and nods to him. “Colonel Zendahl? May I see your identification?”
The skin on her face and arms is covered with fine iridescent scales and her head reminds one irresistibly of hawks, as if she had been pressed like putty into a mold for raptors. Her eyes seem too large for her head. Zendahl smiles politely when they touch hands in the exchange of ID cards. Her scales are dry and smooth. Most Apkallu are indistinguishable in appearance from the aborigines, but even after ten thousand years of genetic engineering, the co-opted genes sometimes revert and hint at the ancestral body-plan.
Zendahl knows he should feel pity for the Reverts, condemned as they are by a roll of the genetic dice to a life shut away from public view; but he finds them discomfiting parodies of the human form, and he knows they dislike being pitied. A drawback to fitting in is that after a thousand generations it is easy to forget what his ancestors had once had been. In a hyphenated world, Zendahl and the receptionist are alien-Americans. Like everyone else in America, their ancestors had come from somewhere far away; only in their case from a little bit farther.
“Ever have trouble with urban explorers finding their way into the tunnel?” He asks not from any particular curiosity, but to show he is not prejudiced against Reverts.
The door warden makes an entry in her computer. “Once or twice,” she answers absently. “Usually from the Locust Street tunnel. We handle it.”
He does not ask her how they handle it. She touches something under her desk, and there is a click in the inner door. He pulls it open and strides down a long hall at the end of which is situated the council room. There, he finds five Apkallu waiting around the high table and two others, fully human in appearance, at a second table set up with computers.
Two of the five Apkallu at the council table are Reverts, and another, the president, is a Purebred. None of his ancestors had ever been genetically altered and, like anything pure, his kind have become progressively more rare. Paradoxically, Zendahl finds Purebreds less distasteful than Reverts. They seem less chimerical, less a botched human form. There are Purebreds portrayed on Egyptian tomb paintings and spoken of in Sumerian legends. The president’s head looks like nothing familiar, though forced to choose, Zendahl would have said “dog-like.” His scales sparkle in the room’s sun-spectrum lighting. He gestures. “Please join us, Boranu Wanaducka.”
Zendahl seldom uses his Apkallu name outside formal lodge meetings, so he loses a moment in responding. “Thank you, Opagku,” he says, employing the president’s formal title. He has never taken lodge entirely seriously. The Landing was too long ago. Even the Algonquians had called the Apkallu “the grandfather people.”
A Revert with a hawk-like head says without preamble, “We have an oddity reported from our lodge in Chicago. A tabloid report of a monster.” Zendahl raises a skeptical eyebrow and says, “Was one of . . . us spotted?” He had almost said “one of you.” Genetically modified Apkallu like himself would not excite the term “monsters.” Save for the occasional puzzling autopsy, they live unremarked among the aborigines.
The council president waves a hand at the computer screen, where the front page of Tru Facts presents a grainy image of a giant black spider. Photoshopped faces in the lower right scream in terror. The headline proclaims Demon From Hell?
Zendahl thinks the question mark is a nice touch of journalistic skepticism.
“The layout is a bit crude,” he comments, but he does not suppose the council wants his opinion on photocomposition. Absent-mindedly, he brushes the two occupation badges pinned above his ribbons—cyberspace and space operations.
“It’s a headwalker,” the Opagku says in apkallin.
Zendahl has no patience with ritual language and answers in English. “The bogeymen from the stories we learned in Apkallu School? Those are allegories.”
The Opagku snorts, and the bony structure of his face is such that the sound is more like a honk. The other humanoforms glance at Zendahl but say nothing. Purebreds spend their time contemplating and commenting on the ancient records. “Our ancestors,” the Opagku states, “thought those stories worth passing down. There must have been a core of truth to them. The headwalkers drove our people off the home world, and the Six Ships and One sought refuge here on New Apkal, where we have lived in comfortable obscurity. Now our ancient enemy has followed us to our haven.” The president places both his talon-like hands on the council table and leans forward, his scaly skin iridescent in the sunlamps. “Earth,” he declares, “is being invaded by aliens from outer space.”
* * *
Colonel Zendahl must report at the Pentagon on Monday morning, and so (as the council points out) there is not a moment to lose. Then they leave him and the other two cybertechs to their devices and depart. It does not occur to the council that they might decline the assignment.
The cybertechs are named Jessica and Louis, and like Zendahl, they have been co-opted by the council for the weekend. Both are local. Neither is a Wanaducka, their ancestors having disembarked, legend says, from different ships. They agree, not without a certain aspect of relief, that the colonel should take charge.
The first task is to make certain that the photograph is genuine. If the answer is no, the evening will be a short one. But in case it is yes, Zendahl assigns Louis to research the ancient headwalkers in the league databases. Since the picture allegedly comes from a warehouse surveillance camera, Zendahl uses his official muscle to secure a copy from the Chicago police.
The police, as a few phone calls establish, have been investigating a break-in and theft at the warehouse. They like the man who had fled the loading dock for this and believe he released a weather balloon as a distraction. (“Like them airbags they got in cars. Inflates in an instant.”) How the man obtained the balloon and where it has gone to is not their immediate concern. Zendahl plays the game and confides that NASA scientists at Goddard are trying to recover a stolen aerostat used in climate monitoring. But that is not for public disclosure. Jessica and Louis marvel at the facility with which he fabricates the story, but it is not as if he has had no practice in disinformation.
Within the hour, the video downloads to his Air Force account, and he and Jessica set about studying the images. They carefully assess the metadata and soon determine that, whether of headwalker or weather balloon, the image itself is the true quill. A flurry of “snow” fuzzes the scene, the headwalker appears in one of the loading bays, and sprints off stage-left across the truck apron, at which point the entire image is lost to interference.
They watch the sequence multiple times, scrub and enhance the images. Zendahl sheds his coat and loosens his tie. It will be a long night after all. He decides he will lean on the league to supply him with private transportation to DC late Sunday. An hour later, the lodgekeeper arrives with a plate of Pork Chop Elena for him and similar meals for his two companions. They take a working break.
“Definitely a headwalker,” Louis allows. “But not the same kind that drove our ancestors from Old Apkal.”
“And you know this, how?” Zendahl asks.
“Different anatomy. The legs are longer and thinner and they grow from the bottom of the headball. Our forbearers depicted the Ancient Enemy with thick legs attached to a muscle mass with the headball dangling below.”
“No one’s ever seen a headwalker,” Jessica comments. “So how does anyone know what it looks like?”
Louis shrugs. “There are images in the Archives from back in the day. The documents have been migrated from older media, and the traceability pans out. Our ancestors went to a lot of effort to preserve this information when so much else was lost. The good news is the Ancient Enemy didn’t follow us here.”
Zendahl looks at him. “What’s the bad news?”
Another shrug. “It’s still a headwalker.”
“Weird coincidence,” says Jessica. “One kind drives us off the home-world; then a second kind, from somewhere else, shows up here.”
“Not too weird.” Louis taps a file open on his screen. “The ancient scholar Sunillilam proved topologically that there could be no more than seven basic body plans for intelligent beings.”
“I never heard that,” says Zendahl.
“It’s not exactly priority knowledge. Until now. So if an alien shows up here at all, there’s one chance in seven it’ll be a headwalker.”
Zendahl doesn’t correct Louis’ arithmetic. “Only seven.”
“Well, there’s lots of variation within each basic type. Humans and Apkallu are both vertical four-limbed bilaterians—which is why the genetic engineering worked—and this critter and the Ancient Enemy are both . . .”
“. . . headwalkers. Okay.”
“Why haven’t the Chi-Po noticed this?” asks Jessica.
Zendahl looks at her. “Shy-po?”
“Chicago police. Why do they insist it’s a weather balloon?”
“We got better photoanalysis equipment?” Louis says.
The colonel shakes his head. “Not that much better. Silk purse and sow’s ears. You can only squeeze so much info from low-res security cameras. But the mind is a wonderful thing. We see what we’re mentally prepared to see. That’s why eyewitness accounts and satellite photo interpretations are so tricky.” He ponders the matter some and decides that someone—the “Chi-Po,” the FBI—will eventually take a closer look. “It’s harder to change a mind than to form it in the first place. New data gets filtered through that first impression, just like through a consensus scientific theory. Ninety percent of the time, that keeps you from going off the deep end. The rest of the time, it keeps you from seeing the bleeding obvious. Next question: What’s a headwalker doing on Earth?”
“Exploring?” suggests Jessica.
“Scouting for an invasion fleet?” Louis proposes. “Don’t headwalkers in general send out colony pods now and then? Geez, I haven’t thought about those old stories since I was a kid. I always thought they were folk tales.”
“There’s only one of them.”
“We’ve only seen one of them.”
Zendahl studies the video again while he finishes his chop. Guiscard is a superb chef, and the chop deserves more attention than he can give it. He promises himself a more leisurely meal on his return trip. Pointing to a corner of the screen, he tells Jessica, “Focus in on that. I want to see what the headwalker broke cover to chase.” He clears the plates and places them to the side of the table. Ancient enemy or not, the creature’s presence on Earth is troubling, and he wonders how he can bring it to the attention of Space Command without destroying his own credibility. Spring an alien invasion on NORAD without proper groundwork, and they’ll decide it’s a hoax and Zendahl is either a hoaxer or a fool, neither of which would do his career much good, even if he were proven right in the end. Especially if he were proven right in the end.
Jessica zooms and cleans the image, heightens the contrast. “It’s an arm,” she decides, drawing Zendahl back to the screen. “There appears to be a body lying on the paving stones.”
“Not moving. And, Bruno? It was there before the headwalker showed itself.”
“I been wondering why the alien popped up like that,” Louis says. “You’d think it’d want to keep things on the D/L.”
“I don’t know,” says Jessica. “The headwalkers in the old stories weren’t famous for being shrinking violets.”
“Check for other surveillance in the area,” Zendahl said. “Try the other warehouses. If there was a drunk, there’s probably a bar, too.”
“I thought of a reason it broke cover,” says Louis. “It was hungry.” Zendahl and Jessica look at him and he shrugs. “It’s a reason.”
They watch the video to its end, when the image begins to break up. When it settles down once more, the alien is gone, but the arm still lies there.
“Well,” says Louis with a certain amount of cheer, “that’s a relief.”
* * *
It takes a few hours to identify nearby establishments and requisition copies of their surveillance videos. The Chicago police have been doing the same thing, trying to pin down their fleeing suspect, and Zendahl senses a growing curiosity on their part regarding the apparent interest of the Air Force in a petty burglary. He sticks to the story about a missing NASA aerostat but drops a hint that it might be a secret military operation and questions would be unwelcome.
“A deception within a deception,” says Louis. “I’m impressed.”
“Just hope I don’t trip over the tangle.” He calls Annie Troy at the Pentagon. She’s a civilian contractor in cybercom and can set up a spoof in case anyone tries to check with Goddard. Everyone is home for the weekend, but he leaves a message on her phone. He also asks her to check for any unusual activity in orbit over the past several days.
“Headwalker had to come from somewhere,” he tells the others after he closes the call.
Copyright © 2017. Nexus by Michael F. Flynn