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Authors: Charles Stross

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Palimpsest (6 page)

BOOK: Palimpsest
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REPEATEDLY KILLING THE BUDDHA
 

Graduation Ceremony

You will awaken early on that day, and you will dress in the formal parade robes of a probationary agent of the Stasis for the last time ever. You have worn these robes many times over the past twenty years, and you are no longer the frightened teenager whose hands held the knife of the aspirant and whose ears accepted their ruthless first order. Had you declined the call, were you still in the era of your birth, you would already be approaching early middle age, the great plague of senescence digging its claws deep beneath your skin; and as it is, even though the medical treatments of the Stasis have given you the appearance of a twenty-five-year-old, your eyes are windows onto the soul of an ancient.

Your mind will be honed as sharp and purposeful as a razor blade, for you will have spent six months preparing for this morning; six months of lonesome despair following Torque’s explanation of your predicament, spent in training on the roof of the world, obsessively focused on your final studies. You have completed your internship and your probationary assignments, worked alone and unsupervised in perilous times: now you will present yourself to the examiners to undergo their final and most severe examination, in hope of being accepted at last as an agent of Stasis. As a full agent, you will no longer be limited in your access to the Library: nor will your license to summon timegates be restricted. You will be a trustee, a key-holder in the jailhouse of history, able to rummage through lives on a whim, free to search for what you have lost (or have had taken from you: as yet you are unsure whether it was malice or negligence that destroyed your private life).

You will dress in a saffron robe bound with the black belt of your current rank, and place on your head the beret of an agent-aspirant. Elsewhere in the complex, a dozen other probationers are similarly preparing themselves. You will hang on your belt the dagger that you honed to lethal sharpness the night before, obsessively polishing the symbol of your calling. Before the sun reaches the day’s zenith, it will have taken a life: it is your duty to ensure that the victim dies swiftly, painlessly.

Out on the time-weathered flagstones, beneath the deep blue dome of a sky bisected by a glittering torque of orbital-momentum-transfer bodies, you will stand in a row before your teachers and tyrants. Not for the first time, you will find yourself asking if it was all worth it. They will stare down at you and your classmates, ready to pronounce judgment—ready perhaps to admit you to their number as a peer, or to anathematize and cauterize, to unmake and consign into unhistory those who are unworthy. They outnumber your fellow trainees three to one, for they take the training of new eumortals very seriously indeed. They are the eternal guardians of historicity, the arbiters of what really happened. And for no reason you can clearly comprehend, they offered you, you in particular out of a field of a billion contenders, an opportunity.

And there will be speeches. And more speeches. And then Superintendent-of-Scholars Manson will utter a sermon, along exactly the lines one would expect on such an occasion. “This momentous and solemn occasion marks the end of your formal training, but not the end of your studies and your search for excellence. You entered this academy as orphans and strangers, and you shall leave it as agents of the Stasis, sworn to serve our great cause—the total history of the human species.” He’s going to go on in like vein for nearly an hour, you realize: one homily after another, orthodox ideology personified. Theory before praxis.

“We accept you as you are, human aspirants with human weaknesses and human strengths. We are all human; that is
our
weakness and strength, for we are the agency of human destiny, charged with the holy duty of preserving our species from the triple threat of extinction, transcendental obsolescence, and a cosmos fated to unwind in darkness—notwithstanding your weaknesses, you brother Chee Yun with your obsessive exploration of the extremes of pain, you sister Gretz with your enthusiasm for the fruit of the dream poppy, you brother Pierce with your palimpsest family hobby—we understand all your little vices, and we accept you as you are, despite your weaknesses, despite knowing that only through service to the Stasis will you achieve all that you are destined for—”

You will not bridle angrily when Superintendent-of-Scholars Manson tramples on the grave of your family’s unhistory, even though the scars are still raw and weeping, because you know that this is how the ritual unfolds. You will have reviewed the recording delivered in the internal post some days before, heard the breathy rasp of your own voice wavering on the razor edge of horror as he explains the graduation ritual to you-in-the-present. Your fingers will whiten on the sweat-stained leather hilt of your dagger as you await the signal. Though outwardly you remain at peace, inside you will be in turmoil, wondering if you can go through with it. Slaying your grandfather, cutting yourself free from the fabric of history, was one thing; this is something else.

“Stasis demands eternal vigilance, brothers and sisters. It is easier to shape by destruction than to force creation on the boughs of historicity, but we must stand vigilant and ready, if necessary, to intervene even against ourselves should our hands stray from the straightest of strokes. Every time we step from a timegate, we are born anew as information entering the universe from a singularity: we must not allow our hands to be stilled by fear of personal continuity—”

You will realize then that Manson is on track, that he really
is
going to give the order your older self described with shaking voice, and you tense in readiness as you call up a channel to Control, requesting the gate through which you must graduate.

“Weakness is forgivable in one’s personal life, but not in the great work. We humans are weak, and sooner or later many of us stray, led into confusion and solipsism by our human grief and hubris. But it is our glory and our privilege that we can change
ourselves
. We do not have to accept a false version of our selves which have fallen into the errors of wrong thought or despair! Shortly you will be called on to undertake the first of your autosurveillance duties, monitoring your own future self for signs of deviation. Keep a clear head, remember your principles, and be firm in your determination to destroy your own errors: that is all it takes to serve the Stasis well. We are our own best police force, for we can keep track of our own other selves far better than any eternal invigilator.” Manson will clap his hands. And then, without further ado, he will add: “You have all been told what it is that you must do in order to graduate. Do it. Prove to me that you have what it takes to be a stalwart pillar of the Stasis. Do it
now
.”

You will draw your dagger as your phone sends out the request for a timegate two seconds back in time and a meter behind you. Control acknowledges your request, and you begin to step toward the opening hole in front of you, but as you do so you will sense wrongness, and as you draw breath you will begin to turn, raising your knife to block with a scream forming in the back of your mind:
No! Not me!
But you will be too late. The stranger with your face stepping out of the singularity behind you will tighten his grip on your shoulders, and as you twist your neck to look around, he will use your momentum to aid the edge of the knife you so keenly sharpened. It will whisper through your carotid artery and your trachea, bringing your life to a gurgling, airless fadeout.

The graduation ceremony always concludes this way, with the newly created agents slaughtering their Buddha nature on the stony road beneath the aging stars. It is a pity that you won’t be alive to see it in person; it is one of the most profoundly revealing rituals of the time travelers, cutting right to the heart of their existence. But you needn’t worry about your imminent death—the other you, born bloody from the singularity that opened behind your back, will regret it as fervently as you ever could.

The Trial

The day after he murdered himself in cold blood, agent Pierce received an urgent summons to attend a meeting in the late nineteenth century.

It was, he thought shakily, par for the course: pick an agent, any agent, as long as their home territory was within a millennium or so of the dateline. From Canada in the twenty-first to Germany in the nineteenth, what’s the difference? If you were an inspector from the umpty-millionth, it might not look like a lot, he supposed: they were all exuberant egotists, these faceless teeming ur-people who had lived and died before the technologies of total history rudely dispelled the chaos and uncertainty of the pre-Stasis world. And Pierce was a
very
junior agent. Best to see what the inspector wanted.

Kaiserine Germany was not one of Pierce’s areas of interest, so he took a subjective month to study for the meeting in advance—basic conversational German, European current events, and a sufficient grounding in late-Victorian London to support his cover as a more than usually adventuresome entrepreneur looking for new products to import—before he stepped out of a timegate in the back of a stall in a public toilet in Spittelmarkt.

Berlin before the century of bombs was no picturesque ginger-bread confection: outside the slaughterhouse miasma of the market, the suburbs were dismal narrow-fronted apartment blocks as far as the eye could see, soot-stained by a million brown-coal stoves, the principal olfactory note one of horse shit rather than gasoline fumes (although Rudolf Diesel was even now at work on his engines in a more genteel neighborhood). Pierce departed the public toilet with some alacrity—the elderly attendant seemed to take his emergence as a personal insult—and hastily hailed a cab to the designated meeting place, a hotel in Charlottenberg.

The hotel lobby was close and humid in the summer heat; bluebottles droned around the dark wooden paneling as Pierce looked around for his contact. His phone tugged at his attention as he looked at the inner courtyard, where a cluster of cast-iron chairs and circular tables hinted at the availability of waiter service. Sure enough, a familiar face nodded affably at him.

Pierce approached the table with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man approaching the gallows. “You wanted to see me,” he said. There were two goblets of something foamy and green on the table, and two chairs. “Who else?”

“The other drink’s for you. Berliner Weiss with Waldmeistersirup. You’ll like it. Guaranteed.” Kafka gestured at the empty chair. “Sit down.”

“How do you know—”
Silly question.
Pierce sat down. “You know this isn’t my time?”

“Yes.” Kafka picked up a tall, curved glass full of dark brown beer and took a mouthful. “Doesn’t matter.” He peered at Pierce. “You’re a new graduate. Damn, I don’t like this job.” He took another mouthful of beer.

“What’s happened now?” Pierce asked.

“I don’t know. That’s why I want you here.”

“Is this to do with the time someone tried to assassinate me?”

“No.” Kafka shook his head. “It’s worse, I’m afraid. One of your tutors may have gone off the reservation. Observation indicated. I’m putting you on the case. You may need—you may need to terminate this one.”

“A tutor.” Despite himself, Pierce was intrigued. Kafka, the man from Internal Affairs (but his role was unclear, for was it not the case that the Stasis police their own past and future selves?) wanted him to investigate a senior agent and tutor? Ordering him to bug his future self would be understandable, but this—

“Yes.” Kafka put his glass down with a curl of his lower lip that bespoke distaste. “We have reason to believe she may be working for the Opposition.”

“Opposition.” Pierce raised an eyebrow. “There is no opposition—”

“Come, now: don’t be naive.
Every
ideology in every recorded history has an opposition. Why should we be any different?”

“But we’re—” Pierce paused, the phrase
bigger than history
withering on the tip of his tongue. “Excuse me?”

“Work it through.” Kafka was atwitch with barely concealed impatience. “You can’t possibly
not
have thought about setting yourself up as a pervert god, can you? Everybody thinks about it, this we know; seed the universe with life, create your own Science Empires, establish a rival interstellar civilization in the deep Cryptozoic, and use it to invade or secede Earth before the Stasis notices—that sort of thing. It’s not as if
thinking about it
is a crime: the problems start when an agent far gone in solipsism starts thinking they can do it for real. Or worse, when the Opposition raise their snouts.”

“But I—” Pierce stopped, collected his thoughts, and continued. “I thought that never happened? That the self-policing thing was a, an adequate safeguard?”

“Lad.” Kafka shook his head. “You clearly mean well. And self-policing does indeed work adequately most of the time. But don’t let the security theater at your graduation deceive you: there are failure modes. We set you a large number of surveillance assignments to muddy the water—palimpsests all, of course, we overwrite them once they deliver their reports so that future-you retains no memory of them—but you can’t watch yourself all the time. And there are administrative errors. You’re not only the best monitor of your own behavior, but the best-placed individual to know how best to corrupt you. We are human and imperfect, which is why we need an external Internal Affairs department. Someone has to coordinate things, especially when the Opposition are involved.”

“The Opposition?” Pierce picked up his glass and drank deeply, studying Kafka. “Who are they?”
Who do you want me to rat out?
he wondered.
Myself?
Surely Kafka couldn’t have overlooked his history with Xiri, now buried beneath the dusty pages of a myriad of rewrites?

“You’ll know them when you meet them.” Kafka emitted a little mirthless chuckle and stood up. “Come upstairs to my office, and I’ll show you why I requested you for this assignment.”

Kafka’s office occupied the entire top floor of the building and was reached by means of a creaking mesh-fronted elevator that rose laboriously through the well of a wide staircase. It was warm, but not obnoxiously so, as Pierce followed Kafka out of the elevator cage. “The door is reactive,” Kafka warned, placing a protective hand on the knob. Hidden glands were waiting beneath a patina of simulated brass, ready to envenomate the palm of an unwary intruder. “Door: accept agent Pierce. General defenses: accept Agent Pierce with standard agent privilege set. You may follow me now.”

Kafka opened the door wide. Beyond it, ranks of angled wooden writing desks spanned the room from wall to wall. A dark-suited iteration of Kafka perched atop a high stool behind each one of them, pens moving incessantly across their ledgers. A primitive visitor (one not slain on the spot by the door handle, or the floor, or the wallpaper) might have gaped at the ever-changing handwriting and spidery diagrams that flickered on the pages, mutating from moment to moment as the history books redrew themselves, and speculated about digital paper. Pierce, no longer a primitive, felt the hair under his collar rise as he polled his phone, pulling up the number of rewrites going on in the room. “You’re really working Control hard,” he said in the direction of Kafka’s receding back.

“This is the main coordination node for prehistoric Germany.” Kafka tucked his hands behind his back as he walked, stoop-shouldered, between desks. “We’re close enough to the start of Stasis history to make meddling tricky—we have to keep track of continuity, we can’t simply edit at will.” Meddling with prehistory, before the establishment of the ubiquitous monitoring and recording technologies that ultimately fed the Library at the end of time, ought to be risk-free: if a Neolithic barbarian froze to death on a glacier, unrecorded, the implications for deep history were trivial. But the rules were fluid, and interference was risky: if a time traveler were to shoot the Kaiser, for example, or otherwise derail the ur-history line leading up to the Stasis, it could turn the entire future into a palimpsest. “The individual I am investigating is showing an unhealthy interest in the phase boundary between Stasis and prehistory.”

One of the deskbound Kafkas looked up, his eyebrows furrowing with irritation. “Could you take this somewhere else?” he asked.

“I’m sorry,” Pierce’s Kafka replied with abrupt humility. “Agent Pierce, this way.”

As Kafka led Pierce into an office furnished like an actuary’s hermitage, Pierce asked, “Aren’t you at risk of anachronism yourselves? Multitasking like that, so close to the real Kafka’s datum?”

Kafka smiled sepulchrally as he sat down behind the heavy oak desk. “I take precautions. And the fewer individuals who know what’s in those ledgers, the better.” He gestured at a small, hard seat in front of it. “Be seated, Agent Pierce. Now, in your own words. Tell me about your relationship with Agent-Scholar Yarrow.
Everything
, if you please.” He reached into his desk drawer and withdrew a smart pad. “I have a transcript of your written correspondence here. We’ll go through it line by line next …”

BOOK: Palimpsest
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