The Long Road Home - Part 3
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As I open the door of the car, the city howls of its cold, wet misery.
The rain is heavy, the clouds low and dark. Stepping out of the taxi into the downpour, my trunk automatically tucks inside the folds of my coat, and my ears fold forward to keep the water out. I turn to pay the driver, who eyes me fearfully. I mumble an apology for the bodies in the back seat and tip him a twenty. He drives away without comment, pleased to be gone.
I rarely visit Central, and I’ve brought bad weather with me. This draws a wry smile from me, or as close to one as I come without bourbon. Most days, this is a sunlit, teeming, cheery metropolis; in fact, this entire Reality is. The privileged folk who live here know no better, and rarely experience worse.
But not today. Today, the shining city at the hub of existence nods its head as an agent passes through its streets.
My name is Elliot Nesh. I work for The Agency. The Unity Agency.
Flipping the collar of the trenchcoat up, I turn my gaze skyward, my back to the rain. My destination is a looming art deco tower of some thirty storeys. A single light burns in its windows today, high up in the topmost floor; even the gods need light to read. The building broods darkly under sullen clouds, and offers no explanation.
I square the trilby on my broad head and cross the street to the lobby of the tower, seeking answers.
The skinny young clerk on the main desk lifts the phone and quietly says a few words to someone as I approach him. Replacing the receiver, he gives me a nervous smile. I enjoy his discomfort; they won’t get many biped elephants in here. Sometimes discomfort is all I have to work with, and even the short days can be long and hard. I hold his eye and idly flick the raindrops from my ears onto the desk. He doesn’t look down.
I raise an eyebrow, inviting him to get a move on. The spell broken, he jerks back into life and, producing a key, he steps away to the side of the desk, and hastily fumbles open the black baroque doors of what looks like an executive elevator.
Removing my hat, I manoeuvre under the doorframe of the elevator and turn to face the lobby. The interior is burnished gold rococo panelling. I really don’t like confined spaces, but I offer no sign of it as I replace my trilby and stand impassively. The clerk reaches inside to jab the button for the penthouse, and then retreats, slamming shut the doors of this wrought iron coffin.
As the tiny box lurches into upward life, I sigh and gather my thoughts, closing my eyes to blot out the claustrophobia as best I can. Okay, back to basics. Why am I here?
I’m here representing the Unity Agency.
Back in the day, The Agency was called the Department of Dimensions, but the science has moved on. Now each separate bundle of four dimensions – the three spatial ones and time – is called a Reality. Universes? The Multiverse? Old hat. We now understand that there are eleven dimensions, a mathematically elegant container for the numerous Realities that we now refer to as The Unity.
The Unity is run from Central. Though The Board Of Directors would say that it was overseen or moderated or something similarly bland and corporate. And probably under advisement.
And it is them that I’m here to see; The Board. Or rather, they’ve summoned me. I’m not accountable to them directly, but somewhere up the slippery pole they pull the strings.
This elevator must be unsettling me; I rarely mix my metaphors like that, even in a voiceover.
With an juddering clank, the elevator stops. By contrast, the outer doors swing open soundlessly.
I step from the elevator into a dimly lit boardroom. An oval table, and sixteen faces. All male, all well groomed, all with the hawkish look of men with Money. The Board promotes itself as benefactors, as a non-profit governing body. But as an outsider, I know you don’t get onto it by being talented or qualified.
Ah, Mr. Nesh. We’ve been expecting you.
The voice is steady, stern, authoritarian. It’s recognisably voice Number 7, The Headmaster. I can see his half-moon spectacles before I even focus on the speaker, and know instinctively that it will be the Chairman, Cecil Rhodes Armitage. Is he testing the water with me? He’s wasting his time if he is; agents don’t ruffle, and have little truck with authority. No, it’s more likely for the benefit of his colleagues, a show of strength.
He’ll probably try Number 5 next; The Public Servant.
Good morning, Gentlemen, I slowly scan across the gathered men; most meet my gaze with a mixture of mistrust and curiosity. I seem to have brought bad weather with me.
I stand, my hands thrust deep into my pockets, dripping on the immaculate carpet. They pretend not to notice and I don’t pretend to care. The Chairman smiles.
And we thank you for coming on such a dreadful day, Mr. Nesh, says the Chairman, switching to Public Servant. We were expecting two of our colleagues to be with you, he says, his delivery speckled with faux concern. I hope they didn’t get lost on the way here? He chuckles, but nobody joins him; this is not humour.
I offer my own smile, just as false. The two heavies who woke me up at Roth’s place were hired help, the usual combination of over-developed necks and shiny ID badges. I accompanied them on the jump to Central to save me the five-dimensional calculation while half asleep, but I went solo soon after; their IDs were the toughest thing about them.
Not at all. We parted company in the taxi. I shrug and offer an affable, I explained to them that I knew the way to the Boardroom. I’ve met with so many of your predecessors, after all. I let this thought settle on their shoulders. A few of them shift uncomfortably and exchange glances.
I love the smell of fear in the morning.
The chairman frowns subtly and decides to move the conversation along; I’m gently denting his authority. He shift to voice Number 2, Efficient Executive. I suspect it’s as close to his real persona as he gets without baring his teeth. Or selling his grandmother.
Mr. Nesh, I’ll come to the point. We Audit a great number of Realities here at Central. Heh. Audit. I grin lopsidedly. And it’s one of our many tasks to Rationalise them when we can.
Rationalise, Mr. Chairman? I know exactly what he means, but I have no patience for corporate double-talk, especially when it hides destructive behaviour. These are the kinds of men who put military advisors into Vietnam. I wonder idly how he’ll respond.
Yes, Mr. Nesh, he says coldly and clearly. Rationalise. We combine Realities when we can. He rises unexpectedly from his chair and leans toward me, hands on the table. Or just plain get rid of them if they are no longer needed.
The plain speech of a sociopath in authority. I give the man some respect.
And I suddenly realise why I’m here. Why they need me.
Mr. Nesh, we believe that the Reality spawned by an individual called... he consults his notes unnecessarily, Indigo Roth can be removed. He almost spits the name. Clearly he doesn’t approve of the antics of Roth and his friends. He probably has something against badgers.
You want to kill off Roth’s Reality? I pause and shrug, the very picture of bemusement. But why? It's unusual for someone to create a Reality through words, true enough, but his writing is harmless enough. Some funny stories, some colourful characters. Lions and Badgers and Bears, Oh My! I raise my heavy eyebrows in Garland-esque surprise, and enjoy watching the assembled execs shake their heads in worried dismay.
The wing-man to the Chairman’s right stands angrily. I recognise him as the third-in-command, a nasty weasel-of-a-man called Joshua Cane. Now see here, Mr. Nesh, he blusters, The Board considers that kind of comment to be unprofessional. Your levity in this matter is most unwelcome!
I scratch my trunk and flick my ears to hide a laugh. I’ve never seen The Board so skittish before. The Chairman gestures Cane back to his seat.
Realities are a precious resource, Mr. Nesh. They are supposed to important. Roth's is not. He waves a hand, We intend to remove it, and we shall.
What about the people that live in this reality?
Well, they weren't there before Roth somehow split his Reality off, and they won't be there after. It's Armitage's number two, a well-groomed young fella called Sebastian Drake. He licks his lizard lips and smiles. It's what we call a zero-sum deal.
I want to punch him. But no. Not here, not now.
Which leaves the sixty-four-thousand dollar question.
So why am I here, Gentlemen? How may The Agency assist you? More shuffling and mumbling results in the ranks from that. I’m not just some rogue bull elephant with big ears and a drink problem. I’m an Ambassador with a capital ‘A’.
Because we are told by our... advisors, the Chairman smiles ruefully – he almost said spies, I’m sure – that you have an ongoing case that is blocking our closure of Mr. Roth’s Reality.
And there it is. Their problem.
Oh, you mean the investigation of Roth’s friend iDifficult as a Potential Criminal! I wait for their response, but none is forthcoming. We’re straying into uncomfortable territory - Temporal Causality and Consequence. I wonder how long I can keep them there. Yes, that’s true. While we’re investigating Mr. Difficult, it’s not possible to kill off the Reality he inhabits.
What? Wait a minute, dammit! blurts a fella to the left of the group. Young, stocky, bad teeth. Ah yes. Jeffrey Pinkerton-Smythe; never the sharpest tool. Did you say Potential criminal? Dammit man, what the devil does that mean?
Some of The Board lean in, keen to hear my exposition, and relieved that they have a scapegoat to hang their ignorance on. I clear my throat.
Well, Mr. Difficult is a renowned inventor, quite brilliant in fact. He's well ahead of the curve in his Reality with regards to trans-dimensional travel. The Chairman sips at a glass of water while his colleagues stare blankly at me. I cut them some slack. Mr. Difficult invented a time machine. They seem to relax, apparently understanding that much. The schmucks.
The Agency became aware that, using this time machine, Mr. Difficult will at some point visit an off-limit event. I pause for effect, and lightning flashes past the window, perfectly timed. I give the next sentence some timbre. A hugely important event in human history!
Well, what event? And why don’t you just go there and stop him?! demands Pinkerton-Smythe. I chuckle.
Because. It’s. Off. Limits.
This patronage does not sit well with the young man, who rises from his chair in anger. He turns to the Chairman, incredulous. Cecil, surely we don’t need to listen to the fairytales of this fella?! He stabs a finger at me repeatedly, searching for an expression. He’s just a bloody elephant!
Armitage ignores him, and there’s much sucking of teeth from the rest of The Board; they know this is bad form. The Chairman casts me a genuinely apologetic glance. I nod without a word; I appreciate good manners, even in bad guys. Perhaps you might tell us what this event is, Mr. Nesh, he says quietly.
So I tell them.
Afterwards, they sit quietly for some time, worried and somewhat stunned. Even Pinkerton-Smythe falls silent. I fill in the rest of the tale while I have their attention.
We were unsure of the reason for Mr. Difficult’s visit to this event, but were obviously concerned. Potentially he intends to commit a crime, but we couldn’t be sure. I think ahead, discarding unnecessary parts of the tale that might raise awkward questions. And while we knew the destination of his time trip, we were in the dark about its starting point. So, I was assigned to be with Mr. Difficult for all journeys through time. Indefinitely, until he makes that one trip.
And how will that help? says a random guy on the left of the table, keen to add some value to these proceedings.
If I accompany him, I can watch the events unfold and discern his intentions. I put it in terms they'll grasp. You might consider me a Pre-Offence Parole Officer.
It's time for some sleight of hand. While they're thinking.
Until this matter is resolved, I've attached myself to him with this.
Removing my hand from my pocket, I reveal a length of string, tied around my chunky wrist. I carefully leave the other end inside my pocket; I tied it in the taxi, but they don’t know that.
A length of string? says a chap on the right-hand side of the table. I don’t recognise him; he must be new.
Yes, string. But the string is a metaphor. A five dimensional metaphor. He stares blankly at me. Moving between four-dimensional Realities that share a common starting point - what old-timers still call Parallel Dimensions - requires fifth dimensional travel.
I give him my best Joe Friday.
And that’s what I do for a living. That’s what The Agency does.
Ah, I see, says the man. I don’t need my lie-detector spectacles to realise that this rube has no clue what I’m talking about. Yes, five dimensions. A metaphor. Quite. He looks distant for a moment, trying to think of another question that does not sound foolish. And is this string tied to Mr. Difficult right now?
This raises a snort or two. Which is a shame, as it’s actually a very good question.
Yes, metaphorically speaking, I lie.
I wish it was tied to 'Difficult; I’d be with the pair of them. Damn Roth and his plate of buns! I should have been with them!
Must be a damned long piece of string!
You begin to see the problem.
Pinkerton-Smythe giggles to himself, then offers up sarcastically, But just how long is a piece of string, Mr. Nesh?
I eye him coldly, and speak automatically.
Twice the distance from its midpoint to either of its ends. His grin fades and vanishes as he considers that. It’s a meaningless expression of algebra, but it’s correct. I pick up pace.
And this metaphor is at the heart of your problem, Gentlemen. I’m lying past my tusks, of course, relying on their fear and ignorance. I’m not from Roth’s Reality, so this string - this metaphor - forges a link between two Realities. Until we get to the bottom of Mr. Difficult’s actions, the string must remain tied, and the Realities linked.
The Chairman, silent for some time, absorbing and assessing, finally speaks.
Well, we have the authority to cut the string and close Roth’s reality, of course, he muses, but then says with more teeth, This is Central after all.
My reply is flat; I have no time for this kind of elitism. There is nothing unique or original about this Reality, Mr. Chairman. It’s only Central because you say it is. Like all smart leaders, Armitage recognises the truth when he hears it, but is under no obligation to assimilate it into his belief system. He frowns, perhaps wondering if he’s lost this battle. Still, he’s creative.
But what would happen if we cut the string, Mr. Nesh? He’s accidentally slipped into voice Number 8, Curious Layman.
I was hoping this one wouldn’t come up, and have to lie again. I'm not giving up on this assignment easily. I hate the idea of letting these Suits pull the plug on something they don't understand. Besides, I want to know what 'Difficult is up to. Call it professional curiosity.
Well, the mathematics is complex and unpredictable... I seem to reflect, sounding as honest as I can, but in layman’s terms? Bad. Things.
Outside, thunder rumbles and clouds roil.
Inside, fifteen men hang on the next words of their leader.
He seems to reach a decision.
Well then, Mr. Nesh, he says, returning to Number 2 voice, it seems we have nothing more to discuss. For now. We regard each other levelly. The Board wishes you a speedy conclusion to this matter. You will, of course, keep us appraised of your progress?
I shan’t forget.
The Chairman laughs, and I don’t care for it.
Mr. Nesh, given your species, have you ever forgotten anything?
No, I lie.
It’s a myth, and like all good myths, it’s useful. I may need to rely on a few of them when I get back from this trip.
A trip to an off-limit event.
Without a word, I descend in the lift and head out stoically into the howling misery of the City.
Concluded in Part Four - Dreams Of Trinity
This blog entry is protected by copyright © Indigo Roth, 2011