DOWNLOAD: Magnum Opus, Ch1: Calcinatio
There was a queue in Heaven. This might or might not be the Heaven you imagine, or are hoping for. It is merely a Heaven. I suppose it partly depends on your views on queueing. The queue was not a physical queue, and would not have been even if Heaven had allowed such things. It was more of a backlog. Many individuals are just happy, nay relieved, to find themselves somewhere that doesn’t appear to consist of sulphurous fires and imps with pitchforks. But then, at some point, they find out that this part of Heaven is just for dealing with arrivals. No decisions have been made, but it’s not Purgatory, because Purgatory does not exist. It is, to be certain, too late for the prayers of the living to come to your aid now. You rely on the unedited account of your life. Your actions, your attitudes. In truth, everyone here was unable to fully grasp the situation, the new context they found themselves in. They brought baggage from their lives with them, and found it difficult to leave said baggage behind. And that’s how the problems started. Witness an unfortunate family, who had met their fate on the way to the baptism of their second child. Due to the circumstances, the second child was absent from the queue, and this was immediately noticed. The litigious pater familias had wasted no time before starting legal proceedings against the Almighty, whom he assumed was the relevant CEO of this establishment This sent ripples through the milling crowd. The man’s pleas were so well presented that many others, fearing an unwfavourable conclusion to their own upcoming trial, took the opportunity to act in their own defence, legally speaking. All this in the presence of the unfortunate entity charged with assessing the arrivals. Blame was liberally scattered amongst the absent living, and the present dead. There were accusations and pile-ons. Spirits were cancelled and friendships quashed. Afterlives were entirely altered on the basis of a misplaced word or poorly worded phrase. Appeals to obscure rules changes and warranted exceptions were aired. The whole process looked set to collapse, so that no awaiting spirit might pass through the gates beyond. But such an outcome had been foretold. No accident was this. And it gradually dawned on all present that this was the Hell they thought they’d escaped.
As a journailst, I’m constantly on the look-out for inspiration. I cut my teeth on a local tabloid that required hardly more than a village incident to fill all its pages. Like that time a car screamed to a halt outside the pub, the woman driving it stalking into the establishment only to come out ten seconds later, dragging her husband by his hair, so drunk she could bundle him easily into the boot of the car before speeding away, the sounds of collective laughter ringing in her ears. But as I went further up the career ladder I had to find more serious faire. I needed more death, or tears, or big money. I have to admit to egging along such events in the cause of a better story… OK, maybe not the death. But the post-mortem tears, certainly. And then they invented click-bait and my career was set for a while. But then something happened – to me. Something I can’t explain. Something that, if I let myself consider the ‘facts’, I know how journalist-me would react if I were the one listening. It’s got something to do with a carved stone head I found in my back garden. I know it’s something to do with that because it… it… the thing that came later… looks like the head. When I first found it it looked a bit like those two on the old courthouse in the village. Except those ones are not so weathered. They have sharp features, mean faces to be sure. The one I dug up in the garden had a busted eye socket, a scratch down one cheek. It looked sad, not angry. I felt sorry for it. And then, one night, I stepped out onto the lawn for some fresh air. It was a hot summer night and I couldn’t sleep. There was no wind, only the sound of the distant motorway. Then even that noise vanished. Something, a bird or mouse, twitched in the bushes, and when the quiet returned it was even quieter. And then they appeared, the three of them. Two stern looking gents in what Id’ call civil war era clothing, flouncy, lace-trimm. They were with a third figure, shorter, hunched over, in rags. His face… I’ll never forget it. It was like the stone head from my garden. No, it was the one from the garden, scars and wall. And the two men: the two heads from the courthouse. They looked at me, the two men grimacing, and advanced.
I had to get in touch with one of my exes. Any ex would do, really, though I’d decided it would have to be a more recent one. He’d be able to tell me if I’d ever sleep-walked when we were together. Perhaps I needed to get in touch with quite a few people I’d shared a bed with, to get a bit of time depth. See if I could pinpoint when the odd activity began. The first time I knew anything about my sleepwalking was when I got a new WalkBandTM. The irony, you might be thinking, is that I only bought it because I was on a health binge after the last break-up. I was going to look amazing, lose weight, take my mind off my personal situation. I was going to sleep better, by tracking my nighttime hours. I was basically going to be fabulously attractive to potential mates! The WalkBandTM has a GPS chip in it to measure my running and walking, count my steps and all that. Tells me when I hit my daily targets. It also tells me when to go to bed, and when to wake up. It tells me when I should get out for a stretch and some fresh air, and for how long. It’s basically my mum. It took me a little while to hit my stride, but before long I was pretty pleased, if a little surprised, to find I was hitting my step goals day after day. I usually managed a good walk each day, but looking back over my history I’d topped 20,000 steps every day for a month! The GPS track itself shocked me most: I’d been going out at night, just enough to top up my step count and reach those targets. That explained why the less effort I put in of a day, the more knackered I felt the next. Other people with the same gadget got the same results. And that last ex of mine confirmed – I’d never once sleep-walked before we broke up.
The most far-reaching side-effect of the planet Nibiru’s colonisation was the discovery of the Nimrod crystals. These crystals had many industrial uses, like cutting edges and drill bits and catalysing agents in the manufacture of non-biological washing up liquid, but they could also be used to construct batteries which were charged by the energy of peoples’ minds. Nimrod batteries did little with the traditional kinetic energy of the treadmill user, but added the knowledge worker – the clerk, the academic – to the list of things that could power factories and machinery. Soon enough, intellectual effort, whether low brow or high brow, was being put into use in making industrialists even richer. The thin end of the wedge for a given individual was a corporate offer of paying for their time in the charging machine. This always seemed fair enough. The most forward-thinking companies of the various Silicon Clusters on Earth tried boosting their own employees pay packets to be able to use their intellectual efforts during work time and sell the energy back to the grid, but this process proved detrimental to primary workloads. Still, a pricing model emerged by which customers could part-pay for products or services using their brains, relinquishing a little of their spare time in the charging machine. Half a decade went by, in which time individuals had mastered the art of making money on the side by donating as much of their spare intellectual reserves as they could to specialist energy-harvesting companies. Only the most desperate tended to do this over the long term, however, as the toll on the human body of extended time in the machine was akin to an established opioid addiction. And then the second largest Nimrod vendor, Maxwell Industries, brought to market a device which solved the issues with time spent in the charger. These famous ‘Glasses’ were unobtrusive, and extended exposure had no detrimental effect on the subject. All you had to do was surrender your entire consciousness to Maxwell for the time you wore their famous ‘Glasses’ contraption, which could be every non-working, waking hour. The enslavement of humanity’s free time was complete.
The flies! the bloody flies! As soon as we get a bit of warmth, a bit of sun, you have to keep all the windows and doors closed unless you want a massive black buzzing blob to-ing and fro-ing across your field of vision while you’re trying to work. Or one gently landing on you a thousand times a minute when you need to concentrate. There always seems to be one circulating in the centre of the room, silently drawing out a pentacle under the living room light. Why are there so many of them? What are they for? A friend of mine thinks he knows. He pointed out the ones that circle more lazily and ever more slowly, like they’re running out of batteries. That got him thinking. As did a cold snap which took meteorologists by surprise. And the flies too, it seems, because there was no let up in their peregrinations. Didn’t they normally disappear when autumn came? A practical man, my friend. Never let a mystery go unexamined. Fly on the wall, he thought. Who’d not give something to be a fly on the wall? That’s what they say. What if? he said. What if that explains the buzzing? What if the seasonality’s just a cover? That cold snap caught Them unawares. They never had time to recall them. Fly drones. Watching us. Little cameras, too fast to intercept. Too fast for us normal folk, at least. I thought he was jumping to conclusions, making fly-like leaps. And then he managed to catch one. A fly that had been in his house for too long, seemingly surviving without food. He took it into his shed, and pulled apart its glistening parts, its buzzing components. Did he find what he was looking for? I’ll ask him if I bump into him, but I’ve not seen him for weeks.
Anthony could not picture the future beyond the end of Autumn. This was unusual, because he was as able to imagine the far future as anyone else. Better, perhaps. In his mind’s eye, the months and years had always laid spread out as an abstract footpath, as yet unpaved and untrodden. He sometimes wondered whether other people saw it the same way he did, or whether his was a unique visualisation. Anthony often wondered about things like that: whether his inner vision used the same metaphors as everyone else. Sometimes he worried about it; most of the time he gave it no thought. But as this year wored on, somehow nothing – not even empty calendar dates – appended itself to his internal schedule. He worried he was becoming depressed. He’d read that an inability to project oneself into the future was a common symptom. He consulted a doctor, but was summarily brushed off with a barely disguised distain. But in truth he didn’t even feel sad, let alone depressed. But his work life was the best it had yet been – he was so ensconced in current issues and making excellent progress he’d made at work that, for the first time in his life, he was content with the present, excited for the immediate week ahead. He then surmised that, rather than being depressed, it was the opposite: he was living in the moment, for the moment. His primary project, the one he’d worked on for his whole time as the company, was coming to fruition. As the deadline approached it took up the whole of his waking consciousness. He was in too deep to spare any mind to what would come after. He He contented himself with thoughts that he had achieved a separation from the painful striving of his youth. He had arrived. On the Monday of the project’s final week, he arrived at work to be greeted by his team leader, and a room full of his colleagues. There was a celebratory feel in the air, and it made Anthony feel good. He shook hands with his colleagues, a mixture of emotions pervading the room, and took his seat for the presentation: “Artificial Intelligence Unit 48: re-assignment of bodies”. The following Friday, meeting the deadline, the project, and Anthony with it, came to an end.
I knew the individual calling themselves Daniel had cast a spell on me. It was the kind of thing that people like him do. It was characteristic of the man (I assume he’s a man, going by his name, although of course he cloaks himself in layers of obfuscation and his/her/their name may be one of those). Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of thing that you can ‘see a man about’. No one knows how to believe you. You have to take care of these things yourself. Fortunately, my own magical abilities allowed me to feel the targeting of the spell long before any actual ill effects were noticed on my part. My magical prowess was, and is, if I may be so bold, of a level to forewarn me of such acts. I cannot describe the feeling to non-magical persons; you’ll need to take my word for it. But it is akin to the knowledge that you are being watched. It is a heaviness on the shoulders, say. However, unlike that more prosaic feeling, you can’t simply turn around to dispel it. If you were to, magically speaking, look over your shoulder you would likely not see your oppressor. Like Daniel, they would be shrouded in hexes and incantations; you would not be allowed to see, yet you’d know they were there. For similar reasons, you cannot tell someone else of your burden. It is yours alone. And so, in the case of the attack from Daniel, I set up a counter-spell. For three nights, in private, I worked the summonings and cast the magical objects before me in the prescribed manner. I could feel within myself the building energies, like a thunderhead, as the working was made. Again, any non-magical person would see nothing out of the ordinary: some props, perhaps; an impression of intent. Finally, I unleashed the magic towards Daniel, wherever he was. The nature of magic is such that I needn’t know exactly where he is.The magic finds its own ways in these circumstances. I was soon rewarded with an easing of the effects of his own attack. And then that was that. Not even my closest acquaintances knew what had gone one between me and Daniel. I like to keep my powers hidden, for fear of unwanted attention, or society’s scorn. Therefore the battle remains invisible. Now I must turn my attention elsewhere, for there is no use awaiting further confirmation of success. Such luxury is not afforded the likes of us, this secret and rarified group of people. We mages do not even communicate directly, yet our actions are known mutually. No, I must simply accept the evidence of my own feelings, that my spell was effective against the maleficence of my enemy. I will never see ’Daniel’, nor meet any of the other mages in the flesh. Perhaps I will pass close to one in the street, and yet if either of us senses the other, we will never let on. So if it pleases you, this is the limit of knowledge that I can impart to you, the uninitiated reader. The unspoken bond of the mages means I can never more fully describe our actions, nor the secret battles that take place each day. Even if I were to try, my words would seem as madness in a world not tuned to the Powers. And so all evidence of magic and its practitioners remain hearsay, rumour and conjecture, and only these brief words of mine can be its testament.
I was, in some sense, fooled by the Mystery Citizen. He was just doing his job, and I don’t blame him for that. He was doing it all too well, in fact! That was my downfall; that is why I’m here in this cell, along with another chap who failed just like I did. All of us in this wing failed a Mystery Citizen test of one form or another. I basically lost my temper with a man I should have had more patience with – the MC, as it turns out. There are other people in here with more complex crimes – things that would not be easy to outlaw without the Mystery Citizen test. One, a few doors down from me, was a neighbour from hell – neighbour to the MC; another refused to sort her recycling properly, and argued with a ‘friendly neighbour’ who tried to nudge her in the right direction. You guessed it, the neighbour was an MC. Another neglected to social distance during one of the outbreaks, and would you know who they got too close too? They prove, at least to me, the great effectiveness of the MC test. I sit here and absorb the lesson, and will not need its teaching next time.
When an archaeological team discovered the Palace of Crustaceans there was great celebration back on Earth. The city which was being excavated had been discovered many decades ago, and if it generated excitement now, it was only because it promised to be much larger than the other cities discovered around this planet and on countless other worlds. Each city was a monument, a ruinous memorial to a long-dead civilisation. Hope resurfaced each time that perhaps this one would teach us more about what had led to the disappearance of the creatures which had created and inhabited it. An unspoken addendum to this wish was for a demonstration of how unlike our civilisation was with theirs – how slim the changes were of us meeting a similar fate. And yet each time hopes faded. No extraterrestrial civilisation seemed to have left anything – no clues to a history. That is, until the bas-reliefs in the Palace of Crustceans were excavated. A huge wall of the complex was covered in intricate, if stylised depictions of a battle. The two sides were mismatched, one consisting on tiny, barely depicted figures in great numbers. Towering above their charotic hordes were monstrous ranks of cyclopean might. Each giant looked for all the world like a bipedal crab, or insect. Were these friezes recounting the legends of the inhabitants? And which side were the artists? A simple reading saw these carvings as a depiction of the civilisation’s conquering its enemies, but dissenting voices said something else. Were these the last days of the artists’ own downfall? Was the Palace of Crustaceans a record of great battles won, or a warning from the little people, from history? A keep-away danger sign, of the perils to be encountered in this sector of space?
Need we try again to investigate how everyone found out about the End? It was complicated enough for the people to adjust without the extra baggage of working out how they found out. There were interesting, diverting discussions about when it was known suddenly that the world would end in three and a bit years. But no one remembers how they were told. They remember remembering it, as if they’d all been told years before, but had only just now recalled the facts to mind. People chatting in the streets suddenly stopped, their minds yanked into a new realisation, to the ‘memory’. When they tried to resume, something in the others’ eyes demonstrated that the knowledge lay behind those too. These days that moment is hardly spoken of, nor that sickening feeling in the stomach, a gut punch. Like some horrible obligation that you’d put to the back of your mind. People are too busy as well, reassessing their lives. Preparing somehow, making sure lists are ticked, scores settled, axes ground or buried. There are a vocal few who try to convince the world that it can’t possibly be true. Because it can’t, can it? Almost every scientist who has tried to find clues has come up wanting. There are papers debating whether something can be true just because we all know it. And this isn’t mere belief, faith – this is knowledge. No one knows how the End will occur; they simply know it will come, and when it will come. But two scientists know the truth. They know why everyone knows. It was their experiment. Will be their experiment. Their experiment which inserts something into the timeline. Even they don’t how it started, or will start; where, when or how their machine created a loop. The loop ends time only to restart it four years earlier. The fact is everyone remembers it, the moment itself, even if they don’t realise. And that is why they are sure. They have seen it happen, and it will happen again, and it may happen forever.