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EP293: A Small Matter, Really

By Monte Cook
Read by: Mur Lafferty
An Escape Pod original!
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All stories by Monte Cook
All stories read by Mur Lafferty
Rated PG for violence

A Small Matter, Really
By Monte Cook

Only the Catholic Church of Osirus would have enough money to afford not one, but two black holes. Standing within the majestic narthex, Maria McNaki imagined the vibration of complex machinery under her feet, despite the fact that the nanosensors laced into her flesh revealed nothing other than the passing of the people in the crowd and the chanting coming from deeper within the cathedral.

The stone walls of the chamber slowly flowed with a liquid relief of gothic circuitry and religious hieroglyphic animations. The glyph depicting Setan as he tore the crucified Osirus-Christ into tiny fragments malfunctioned and remained static. Just as well. The petitioners around her made carefully devout hand signs over their hearts as they faced the ankh crucifix over the door into the sanctuary.

Religion was back in fashion this season.

Three identical priests stood next to the holy water fonts, welcoming the incoming congregation. Their white collars and black robes stood starched-still. Geneticists form-shaped all Catholic-Osirus priests into the gentle, fatherly form selected by church PR, but these three were special. The bright eyes and the shining hair indicated Aesthicel, the most expensive genengineering firm in the Earth system. This parish liked to spend money.

Perfect. That most likely meant that they were interested in obtaining more.

Terrence told her that the facility lay underneath the cathedral. Maria made her way past the incoming worshipers as quickly and politely as she could.

Stout-of-Heart mewled behind her, trying to keep up. The alien’s appearance disturbed a few in the crowd, and Maria realized that bringing him might not have been the best idea after all. The four-foot, shaggy bramagian bore the minder headband that marked him as a trained urban bodyguard, but his claws and tusks still instilled fear in many humans. The headband also allowed the creature to access a private data field that existed only between the two of them. Through it, Maria could communicate with him. Nevertheless, she preferred it much better when Piotr had tended to the bramagian.

“Lord, what is this place?” Stout-of-Heart asked her. She hated being called Lord, but the bramagians were so fiercely misogynistic that it was best if they thought of all humans as male. Maria had no idea how to explain the church to Stout-of-Heart. Bramagians taken by humans from their homeworld already believed that they were in Heaven, walking among the gods. If she told him that the gods also worshipped gods, it might be too much for him. Among the bramagians, madness was a fate worse than death.

“Never mind, Stout-of-Heart,” she uploaded into their link. “It’s too difficult to explain.” Her assurances would only work for so long. Although the aliens were happy to be warriors in Heaven, they were intensely curious about everything they encountered there.

Elevator doors stood closed to the right of the sanctuary entrance. More boy than man, a guard stood in front of them, arms folded as if he could possibly appear menacing. He wore black robes but no priestly collar and his temple sported a removable receiver implant. Maria knew better than to be deceived by looks. Muscle-augmentation, hidden disrupters or even nanite drones could all be concealed. Instead, she produced her most powerful weapon as she approached the slight guard–a cashstick keyed to more than this man made in a month.

He stepped aside with a smile, and the lift doors opened. Maria entered the elevator and whispered “all the way down,” to the man with a smile of her own and a nod. Stout-of-Heart followed her in, and the doors closed. She smoothed her dark blue suit, and ran her hands over her graying black hair. The advantages of wealth allowed her to look however she pleased, but she found little point in appearing to be anything other than what she was–a healthy, fifty-three year old natborn woman.

Moments later, the doors slid open. An unadorned corridor led into a small chamber with a bank of screens and holo projectors. Meters of metal and stone shielded this area from the music in the church above.

Two natborns sat immersed in the data before them, facing the door. Each bore the same temple-implant as the guard. Maria took it to be an access into a locked data field that probably permeated the whole church.

Faces familiar from briefing injections given by Terrence indicated that the techs were Varz and Jagger. Since the information was injected to Maria, however, Jagger had covered himself in glowing, photophore tattoos. Varz now appeared to be female.

Varz’s long, black hair was pulled back behind her head. Weary, brown eyes registered Maria and her bodyguard and she stood when she saw them. Genetic tailoring had not disguised the haggard, red-eyed appearance of an adrenaline-junkie. Jagger’s rumpled clothing suggested he had not left his chair for perhaps a full day. The challenge of maintaining the entire process pushed these two to their very limits–that much was obvious.

“Yes?” Varz folded her arms in front of her. She wore an out-of-date, translucent holo-shift, which seemed inappropriate in the laboratory. She bore none of the typical tech totems.

“I’m here to speak to you about your project,” Maria took as formal a tone as she could muster.

Jagger removed the temple-implant, leaving a small hole in the side of his head. He rubbed his eyes as he asked “Who are you?”

“How did you get down here?” Varz demanded before she could answer the first question. The tech’s nails bit into the skin of her own arms and her teeth were clenched.

Change tactics. Maria tried a smile to soothe her. “This is purely an unofficial, friendly visit. My name is Maria McNaki, and I’m an associate of Terrence and Unger Reynolds. I believe you know them. They helped you build the containment units for the black holes–that is to say, the singularities.”

“Nope. Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Varz tightened further.

Jagger waved a non-committal hand. “Maybe if you told us why you’re here, Ms. McNaki?”

“I want to hire you.”

They both exchanged a short glance. Maria’s smile became genuine.

“For what?” Jagger asked.

“We’re not for sale.” Varz stated. Jagger waved her quiet. Her years of diplomatic experience in the Transamerican Ambassador’s office suggested that these two were nothing but science-minded amateurs. Children. If Jagger had kept his implant in, the two of them could exchange data in the ambient field without her knowledge.

“Lord?” Maria received from her guard. He was clearly picking up on Varz’s hostility.

“Hush, Stout-of-Heart. We’re safe here.”

“What is it that you’re looking for?” Jagger asked.

“I want you to alter the past for me.”

Varz’s eyes lit with fire and she stepped forward to speak. Jagger intercepted her move and asked very quietly, “Why would you ask such a preposterous thing of us?”

Varz picked up Jagger’s implant from where he had set it on the console and tried to slip it into his hand unseen.

Pathetic.

“This is a cashstick keyed for 10 million.” She held it for both of them to see. The sight of it brought silence. Beads of sweat formed on Jagger’s brow. Varz pulled out her own implant. Maria knew that its removal would cut them off from the data field’s monitoring systems, a sign that even the more temperamental of the two was now interested. The three could now talk in private. “Terrence Reynolds told me about your operation. I know that you can undo what has come before. I don’t know what the Church is having you do with this technology, and frankly, I don’t care. But I have something that I want you to do for me. It’s a very small matter, really.”

“I see.” Jagger wiped his had across his forehead. The fact that their secret was out clearly made them anxious.

“I don’t know if you really do understand,” Varz stated. “We’re altering the space-time arena on the quantum level using transactional quantum physics.”

Maria said nothing.

Jagger raised a reassuring hand. “Ms. McNaki, our operation here is quite complex. We’re on the cutting edge of at least three different fields–power generation, standing wave manipulation and quantum juncture analysis. I don’t know what the Reynolds’ told you.

Maria continued to feign interest. She didn’t need to know the “how.” She only needed them to agree to do what she wanted.

“You see, what we do here is generate two singularities and then force them to collide within a chamber of folded-space. This creates an output of energy so great that we still don’t know exactly how to measure it. The burst of energy is powerful enough to create… well, think of it as a bit of slack in the line of time.”

“Slack?”

“Yes, like slack in a rope. A flick of the timeline and the slack whips backward like a wave–a timewave as we like to call it. With a jerk of the ‘rope,’ we alter the past path of quantum possibilities–some juncture in our timeline. We make it so that at some point in the past, history takes a slightly different course. ”

“What you describe sounds rather crude. I need specific results.”

“But it’s not. With a complex set of four-dimensional computers, we’re able to predict the exact path of what’s called a quantum wave function. This is essentially a wave of probability extending forward and backward in time. All we’re doing is spiking the amplitude of that wave, and thus creating a desired effect in the past, called an artificial causality.”

Maria mused over the possibilities. These people were–what was the word–hackers. Time hackers. Artificial causality indeed.

“Our change,” he continued, “then affects the future as a ripple back forward in time. Ultimately, we can’t travel in time, but we can change it.”

These children could rewrite the past and shape the present just as decisions made in the present alter the future. A little frightening, but this exchange was exactly what she hoped for. Better, even. “I need you to be able to alter the past so that the present changes to precisely what I need. I don’t care what it is that you change, or how you do it, I just care about the result.”

“What is it that you’re looking for Ms. McNaki?”

“Four years ago, my husband Piotr left Earth to travel to Mars for a conference in New Vancouver. He was to be gone only three weeks. The drive on the skiff malfunctioned and all four people aboard were killed.” Maria’s eyes and voice did not waver.

“I want my husband back,” she stated. “I want him alive.”

Maria allowed Varz and Jagger an exchanged look, the length of which she found most satisfying. Stout-of-Heart, meanwhile, crouched in a position that humans usually took to be relaxation. A bramagian could leap ten feet from that position and rip out an opponent’s throat in less time that it took to describe.

“It’s possible,” Jagger finally stated.

“We’d need the money up front.” Varz was still hostile.

“And all the details you can give us regarding the ship. The more accurate the temporal information the better–exactly where it was when.”

Maria pulled a tiny metallic vial from her suit pocket. “I assumed as much. It’s all here.” Inside the vial was an information-virus that they could inject that would add all the knowledge they needed directly into their brains. She stepped forward and handed both vial and cashstick to Varz. She wanted to show Varz that her attitude did not affect her in the slightest.

Varz looked at the money and failed to suppress a grin. “You should know, the singularity collision creates a standing quantum wave around our lab, here. Despite the fact that we’ll have altered time so that you never had to come here, we’ll still have the cash. Nothing here changes.”

Maria nodded. The quantum physics of the whole thing was beyond her, but she understood the implication.

Jagger clapped his hands in obviously forced congeniality. “Fine then. I don’t think we’ll need anything else from you. It’ll take us a while to plot this out, and determine exactly how to go about it. To be honest, however, compared to the larger project we’ve got going here, this is nothing. We’ll have it done by morning. You’ll have your husband back by dinner tomorrow.”

Maria’s widening eyes betrayed her. Dinner tomorrow. “What will it be like?” She tried to keep her voice level. “What will I remember?”

“Everything,” Varz said. “That is to say, because you’re a part of the artificial causality, you’ll remember both states of space-time. Both pasts–the one in which your husband died and the one in which he returned from his trip and has been with you all the time since then. Consciousness appears to exist independent of changes in space-time, despite what we theorized before we began the process.”

Maria needed to leave before her emotions began to show. Before they revealed more of herself than she ever let slip through, at least to strangers. This was a lot to take in. A lot to control, even for her. It was one thing to ask, but quite another to receive.

“Thank you. I appreciate your discretion in this.”

“That works both ways, Ms. McNaki. We’ll keep your visit here a secret, but we’ll need you to do the same.” Yellowish-green light flickered around his flesh. The glowing tattoos on his body were made of the same type of biological matter that fireflies and certain deep-sea fish used to glow.

“Very well.” With a quick, business-agreement smile, she turned and walked toward the elevator, summoning Stout-of-Heart to follow behind. He did so eagerly.

Back on the main level, the service was in progress within the sanctuary. She could hear one of the priests speak. Maria stopped and peered in. Not a believer herself, she had never even seen a religious ceremony.

“Take of His body and His blood,” the priest said, holding forth a shining silver platter of bread and a goblet of wine. “Ingest Him, make Him a part of you. Hold Him in your heart, forever, for when Mother of Heaven gathers together the flesh of Osirus-Christ, we shall be made one as He is made whole. Through this apotheosis, Isis unites us all, and with Osirus, ushers in the New Age of Horus, their child.”

On her way home, Maria’s eyes fell upon all the interesting, wondrous sights of the city, but she saw none of them. Dinner tomorrow with Piotr.

#

Stout-of-Heart kept a vigil as he always did, sleeping only in frequent naps measured in just minutes. This, Maria knew, he did for his own sake, not hers. The house was a fortress. She only really needed a bodyguard when she left its confines. The bramagian needed to feel useful all the time, however, so she did not interfere.

Maria issued a nanite sweep of the house when she arrived, but realized that cleaning was foolish. Piotr was not returning from some long trip. When Varz and Jagger completed their task, it would be as if he had always been here. They really would get all the time lost back. Her mind would swell with four years of new memories–memories of time with him at her side where there had only been emptiness before.

She wished that the process worked differently. Once he returned, she didn’t want the memories of the years when he was gone. Having side-by-side, contradictory memories scared her. How would she cope? She would never be able to remember what truly happened–in fact, truth was a word that no longer would hold meaning.

Stout-of-Heart wandered into the kitchen where her reverie overcame her as she stared at a cold plate of yesterday’s yakitori.

“Greetings, my lord,” he communicated.

“Hello, Stout-of-Heart.” She forced a smile.

“Is everything all right?”

She nodded. “Piotr is coming back.”

A pause. The alien cocked his head and closed his eyes. “I thought you said that he was never coming back.”

Why did she tell him? He wouldn’t remember the change. Or would he? He was present–part of the altering process. Yet he wasn’t aware. Most likely he would be oblivious. Stout-of-Heart couldn’t be expected to understand such things.

I actually envy him, she thought.

“I was mistaken. He’s coming back tomorrow. Are you excited?”

“Yes, Lord.”

If Stout-of-Heart was unaware of the timeline change, Maria wondered at the families and friends of the other three killed in the accident. And what about Piotr’s sisters? They also, she reasoned, would never know that anything had ever gone wrong, and that Piotr had been anywhere but here the last four years.

Truth be told, she mused, there was nothing from the last four years that she desired to keep. If only someone could tear memories away like dead leaves on a plant. She would grow stronger if they were pruned. Besides, she would not need them–other memories would be there to take their place. Good memories. Time well spent, not time wasted wandering the rooms of this house alone like a bit of trash tossed about in the wind. Perhaps some neural chemist could get rid of the unwanted memories for her, although explaining it all might be tricky.

Maria had been honest when she told Varz and Jagger that she had no interest in what they were doing for the Church. All she wanted was Piotr back. But Piotr would want to know. His quest for knowledge was only superseded by his social consciousness. He would demand an investigation of the Catholic Church of Osirus, worried at what they might do with such technology if left unchecked.

Would she tell him? How do you tell a living man that he had been dead for four years? It felt like a bad idea, but how could she not? It seemed unthinkable to keep secrets of him. If the last four years taught her anything, it was just how much he had meant to her. When she got him back, she wanted to start anew. Perhaps she needed those dark memories of life without him to keep reminded that she should not take him for granted, and should not allow their relationship to become anything other than the wonderful, loving partnership that she had missed all this time.

The New Age of Horus, she thought.

It bothered Maria a little that there was nothing to do in order to prepare. Everything would change, and she had no control over exactly how. She would have rather been able to control the exact alteration of time, so that each detail in the new present would be as she desired. But Terrence had told her before she ever went to the Cathedral that while they probably did possess that level of control, they would not have been willing to go to all that trouble and work for her. Not even for double what she paid, and, as it was, she had drained away half her net worth.

There was nothing to do but wait. Maria busied herself throughout the sleepless night looking through old images stored within the data field. She accessed their whole life together and fast-forwarded through almost thirty years of memories. So much happy time spent just the two of them–they had never even applied for a child-bearing license.

By mid-morning, she milled about her own home as though it were a foreign place. At noon she checked on Stout-of-Heart. He was oblivious to what transpired, but he seemed aware of her agitation and anxiousness. She reassured him and stroked his furry head affectionately.

Finally, she just sat in the living room that she had reprogrammed a year ago in stark white. No doubt this would be the longest day of her life.

At 7:53 and 23 seconds everything in her life changed.

Maria sat upon their long, white couch, waiting in silence.

Maria and Piotr sat at the dining table, the remains of a wonderful shellfish dinner splayed about them on plates in half-full wine glasses. A holo-field around them made it appear as though the table was on a patio overlooking a beach. The waves crashed rhythmically, and gulls called in the distance, carefully orchestrated for just the right level of ambient noise.

Piotr!

Maria stood, a little unsteady from the wine. Tears welled in her eyes vacant of the sight of him. They had brought Piotr back to her. She felt faint.

Piotr looked up at her with surprise. “Is something wrong, Mar?” He must have deactivated the holo-environment via the house’s data field, for the sea melted away, and they sat within their own dining room. Piotr pushed his chair away from the table with his broad hands, and met her liquid gaze with his own, gray-flecked eyes. She had thought about those eyes for four years, never forgetting a single fleck.

“Piotr,” she managed through her tightening throat. She threw herself into his arms, curling into his broad chest.

Maria sat upon their long, white couch, waiting in silence.

Her body shuddered. She exclaimed something unintelligible. What happened?

She looked about her. “Piotr?” Her clothes were different than what she had been wearing at the table. She ran into the dining room, through the hall with the film-photos of the trips that they had taken together. She kept each one running, cycling eternally through its scene of mountain climbing in the Rockies or Piotr bartering with a merchant on Io. She ran past them, but each step moved through an eternity.

The dining room was empty.

“Piotr?”

She fell from his embrace onto the floor next to the dining room table. Plates clattered and a wineglass toppled.

“Mar, what’s wrong?”

“Piotr, where did you go? What happened?”

His brow furrowed. “What?”

Maria looked around. All had returned to just as it had been a moment ago.

But then she was standing in the hall, looking into the dining room again. It was empty. No plates, no spilled wine. No Piotr.

She screamed. She screamed and screamed.

Maria was back on the floor, Piotr looking down at her, his eyes full of helpless concern. Maria still screamed.

She stood at the entrance to the empty room. Maria still screamed.

She lay on the floor.

She stood in the hall.

On the floor.

In the hall.

Piotr.

No Piotr.

Stout-of-Heart raced into the room. Maria still screamed.

He looked around, his toothy maw filled with snarls. She ignored him and his pleas for explanation. Wide, alien eyes gazed into hers and saw something that made the bramagian recoil.

Madness was a fate worse than death.

“Forgive me Lord.”

Stout-of-Heart tore her throat out in one, clean slice of his claw. Maria fell to the ground in mid-wail, her terror and loss silenced.

The bramagian began his own tortured howl. He had failed the gods, and, lest he be punished with madness himself, went to his chamber, took his mono-blade from its carefully placed spot, and took his own life.

Among those bramagians taken away from their homeworld by humans, one question is frequently asked than never gets a satisfactory answer: What afterlife awaits a god or his servant? Where does one go when one dies in heaven?

#

Varz let the ambient data field wash over her, accepting input from nine different sources at once. Good thing the adrenaline boost was kicking in, or she could never cope. Cell 32-A reported a strange fluctuation.

“Jagger, we might have a problem.”

He turned to her, his eyes asking for more information.

“There’s some sort of resonating instability in the return wave after we changed the quantum state.”

“Varz, that could be really serious. A resonating change could tear apart space-time. I’ve got to–”

“Relax, it’s not that major. It’s localized. A single point in the continuum. No big deal. Nothing that will affect the space-time arena. Very localized. A small thing.” He shrugged. “A very small matter, really.”

Jagger eased back in the chair. “Oh, well, that’s probably all right.”

Varz nodded, and deactivated cell 32-A. “Yeah, you’re right. Even with all we’ve got here, we can’t maintain every quantum wave exactly.”

“Right. We’re not gods,” Jagger said with a shrug.

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