Here’s the short story I wrote as part of the Nibfest writing competition I mentioned last week. The opening line they gave was ‘It was a bright day in May, and the clocks were striking twelve’. I had to reinterpret some words in order to get the idea for the story.
I’m not that happy with how it’s turned out, and it doesn’t offer enough for me to spend any more time developing it, so I’m releasing it into the wild as an example of why I need to outline my stories beforehand.
It was a bright day in May, and the clocks were striking Twelve. Thirteen did his best to avoid their attention. He knew little of Twelve’s true identity, and vice versa, so he should be safe for a while. At the least they’d keep Twelve in a timeless stasis field until the Church hierarchy decided what questions he should be asked. That could take a few days.
Thirteen joined the flow of arrivals, just another vacationer determined to enjoy his bright day and not get involved in whatever unpleasantness was occurring. The clocks didn’t generally police the city of May itself, limiting themselves to checking visitors at the gates.
While the city permitted most things without censure, science was not among them. The clocks’ primary role was to keep time safe from science, and they did so with vehemence.
Having Twelve carry technology through security had always been a risk, but their job would be harder without it. Harder still on his own. Thirteen didn’t delude himself that leaving as easily was much of a possibility. The job he’d come to do was what he should concentrate on.
While his instinct was to not show any hint of relief on clearing the checkpoint uncontested, that could draw suspicion. He forced himself to match the inane grins of his fellow bright dayers.
The Church allowed workers one day out of every forty to themselves. While these bright days could be spent as they wished, many things they might wish to do weren’t permitted in society. They had to come to special cities where sin could be exercised as repayment for their services to the Church. Not that it was presented as such. Their services to the Almighty – through his representatives in the form of the Church – were expected, and bright days were his largesse to the faithful.
Many saved up their bright days so they could travel to the larger and more equipped bright day cities, of which May was the largest and most indulgent.
Every sin was encouraged here. Patisseries and brothels stood side by side, near more disreputable places that didn’t advertise their services.
Nearly all debaucheries and perversions were catered to somewhere in the city, yet the pursuit of knowledge was punished by the puritans. Questioning was the greatest sin.
Even the most intoxicated of revelers had – to Thirteen’s eyes – an edge of desperation to their enjoyment. As though they were determined to eke the as much enjoyment as they could from their limited bright days. As the Church intended. If they’d really wanted it to be someplace people could relax, they wouldn’t have built it here.
Another city had previously stood where May did now, its name long since banned. It’d been the site for man’s first – and, so the Church threatened, last – experiment with controlling time. It’d destroyed the city, and facilitated the Church’s rise to power. They made sure to remind even the revelers of what had happened here.
Large monitors were set up every so often along the busy, elegantly paved street leading away from the checkpoint – prime real estate for catching the new arrivals first. The screens displayed advertisements of the diversions on offer which were acceptable for broadcast. The more risqué ones were advertised more discreetly, their surreptitiousness part of their allure. Yet even those displayed here in the street were beyond what you’d experience in standard broadcasts outside.
The advertisements were interrupted every so often with subtle – for the Church – reminders that they protected the world from the dangers of unchecked science. They didn’t refer directly to the one that occurred where May now stood. They didn’t need to.
The sect which had become the dominant church, and dominant political entity, had been the loudest declaimer when scientists announced the discovery of a way to control the flow of time within a limited area. A public experiment had been announced to show how safe the technology was – which, to be fair, was probably asking for trouble.
The panic when it went wrong and destroyed the city was seized on by the fanatics, who also seized much of the associated technology. It still wasn’t clear who developed the weaponised chronal technology their enforcers – the clocks – were suddenly armed with, but it appeared their own people were considered trustworthy enough to handle such diabolical devices. Or willing to sacrifice their souls for the good of the many.
Effortlessly ascending to power, they instituted laws limiting which sciences could be practiced by whom, among other draconian laws necessary for the good of society. It’d happened so quickly that they’d become dominant before anyone had a chance to think.
They offered security and peace, blanketing the concerned populace in a hazy ignorance to convince them all was for the best. But at least they made sure the streets were clean, even here, and there were plenty of smiling faces – if people knew what was good for them.
The smiles on the staff were more forced, as though desperate to convince visitors they were having fun simply by being here. Thirteen matched the false smiles as he passed by with the confident stride of someone who knew what he wanted and was determined to enjoy as much of it as he could fit into his time. He wouldn’t stop for hawkers looking to target undecided vacationers.
Having gone over the instructions a few times, he found his target after getting lost only twice. It was situated in a less travelled area, where more specialised recreations were indulged.
It was simply identified as The Dungeon. It wasn’t non-descript, since that would stand out, but little about the front gave a hint as to what occurred inside. That’d make it easier for the proprietor to gauge a visitor’s interest, and tailor the claim of what went on there to discourage casual guests.
Thirteen stood a short way up the street from the building, staring at the door.
Once he approached, he’d be committed. There’d be no turning back. Was there now? Twelve had sacrificed himself for this. And while the other eleven, also probably in clock hands, hadn’t yet led the enforcers to his door, there was always the possibility that something in their contact had left a trail. No precautions were foolproof. He’d be a fool to think they were.
This was what he’d been working towards for so long. He couldn’t face living any longer in the world as it was. The hesitation was simply his nerves getting the better of him.
Caging the butterflies in his stomach, Thirteen advanced and pressed the bell by the door – an oddity where most doors were open and inviting of browsers.
It took a minute, and another ring, before the call was answered.
The door opened, and an elderly woman glanced at him over thick-rimmed glasses, a polite smile sitting at ease below them. ‘I’m sorry dear, I think you’re at the wrong place.’
‘I want to offer a prayer for inspiration,’ said Thirteen.
Her smile remained, but the eyes grew sharper and harder. ‘There’s a church a couple of streets over.’
‘Not the denomination I prefer,’ Thirteen completed the code.
She was reluctant to admit him, but after glancing along the street she relented. Possibly to avoid a scene, and not without a faint scowl.
She moved aside enough to let him slip into the corridor. Closing the door behind him, she turned with a frown. ‘I’d heard there was trouble.’
‘Twelve was seized on the way in.’
The frown deepened, her concern understandable.
‘He didn’t know the location,’ said Thirteen. ‘We felt it was worth the risk to carry some specialised equipment in rather than build it from scratch, so we came separately.’
While the frown eased, she obviously wasn’t convinced. Or any more willing to invite him further in.
‘That would make you the last of the Thirteen Immorals still at large,’ she said.
Any renown their group had achieved was thus far limited to a small community of malcontents and intellectuals.
‘Why should I risk my freedom on the hope you’ll be any less foolhardy than your associates?’ she said.
‘Why do you do any of this?’ said Thirteen.
‘To keep certain secrets safe from the Church. Secrets worth more than your curiosity.’
‘If we could’ve done this without coming here, without risking the watch the Church undoubtedly places on visitors, we would have. But we were hoping you have what we need. With it we may finally be able to fight the Church.’
She snorted lightly at that, but reluctantly led him further in. Gone was the vague stoop of age she’d adopted for answering the door. She now assumed a more severe posture.
‘Your Sixth visited a year ago. Given his caution, and the fact he was taken before you, I’ll allow you the benefit of the doubt.’
The room into which she led him was light and airy. A pair of large tables occupied the majority of the floor space, covered by tidily arranged paraphernalia, and surrounded by shelves filled with various liquids and substances. Those unsafe for consumption sat within locked cabinets.
While all sciences were heavily monitored, some were more dangerous than others. Chemistry wasn’t considered as sacrilegious as physics, provided it was practised with a limited array of substances.
A majority of those coming to practice it here would be more interested in the popular pastime of inventing new beverages. The substances available would be monitored, and all rules would be strictly adhered to. Sufficient to convince the clocks this was an upstanding establishment that merely catered to those who wanted the thrill of experimentation without risking punishment.
It was a lie, of course. Or at least a facade. A cover for the place’s true purpose.
His host, the Archivist, didn’t slow or show him around the workshop. She led him through to the curtained corridor on the far side of the room. Half way along the corridor a flight of stairs led down.
Their descent ended at a solid-looking door. Inserting a key in the lock, the Archivist turned it, then turned it again. A doorway he hadn’t noticed opened by his side, revealing a more severe workshop. Its table was empty, any equipment probably behind the door at the far end.
This was the Dungeon’s true purpose, and Thirteen couldn’t help the thrill at actually being here. This was the last place scientists could come to do proper science. Only in a limited fashion, admittedly, but it was better than he could hope to find outside.
He could probably assemble the necessary equipment elsewhere, if he acted slowly, over years. The main draw of the place was the Archivists’ true treasure: the notes of previous experiments, and earlier scientific knowledge otherwise only held by the Church.
Six had brought back some of the facts which had led to their current avenue of interest. It’d been disseminated covertly, as Six had remained in self-imposed quarantine until certain he’d evaded attention. He hadn’t, and had disappeared shortly thereafter.
‘This is the workroom,’ said the Archivist. ‘There’s a room upstairs where you can sleep. Knowing your kind, I doubt it’ll see much use. What type of experiment were you hoping to conduct?’
‘Chronal,’ said Thirteen.
While hardly over-animate before, the Archivist’s stillness became more pronounced. It almost had an exclamation point to it. ‘That would be precarious.’
‘Your group’s previous activities with which I’m familiar have been directed against the Church.’ The Archivist picked her words with precision. ‘I hope desperation isn’t leading you to use such technology against theirs. I doubt that would end well.’
‘I have no intention of confronting them in any such manner. My specialisation is communication technology. I work for the broadcasting ministry. I believe I’ve come up with a way to use limited chronal manipulation to create a two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional aperture, which should be more stable and avoid problems encountered in earlier experiments. The correct camera set-up could also deal with the haziness which occurs on reversing time.’
The Archivist’s stare remained unflappable, but she was considering it. ‘You believe you can see into the past?’
‘To begin with. Maybe even the future, if we’re lucky. Think of the advantage it would give us over the Church.’
Admittedly, looking into the future was dubious.
The initial breakthrough in the science had come with controlling the flow of time within a limited area, speeding it up or slowing it down. Further advancements had let them actually reverse time so as to see the past. It had limitations: it was even more energy intensive than the massive amounts required for regular time manipulation; attempts to enter the field while viewing the past caused it to collapse; and the further back one tried to go, the hazier the image became.
Many doubted seeing into the future would be possible. Advancing one area faster in time than its surroundings aged it, but didn’t make it the future. They only made it older.
But the study had only been in its infancy. And the possibility should entice the Archivist.
‘Is it technology or knowledge you seek?’ she said.
‘A little of both. Six told us you had details of some initial experiments. We were hoping there was something in there regarding the…’ he hesitated. Many found even discussing the accident unpalatable, and he didn’t want to cause offence.
‘Event,’ said the Archivist. Her face was slightly stiff, but determined to be clinical. ‘I have some earlier notes, of limited scope. Little survived of later research. It was propriety knowledge, and back then commercial realities necessitated secrecy.’
‘Yes, but their competitors must’ve tried duplicating their achievements, even based on the limited work generally available. We hoped some may have made it into your care. A long shot, I know, but anything you have may be useful.’
She pursed her lips, regarding him judgmentally. She took a few moments to reach a decision. ‘I have notes on such experiments. Not here. They’re secure elsewhere. It may take a day to retrieve them.’
Thirteen nodded, displaying his enthusiasm. ‘It’ll take time to replace what Twelve carried. If you have the appropriate spare parts. I have the expertise to build it. That’s why it was Twelve carrying it.’
‘I should have something you can use,’ she said with a strained smile.
Thirteen remained perfectly still, the device he’d been working on laid gently on the worktable. If he could risk moving he might’ve found a dark corner to hide in, for all the use that’d do.
The voice upstairs sounded official. There was no back way out if they came down here.
He forced himself to calm down, knowing it was unlikely unless he’d seriously misjudged the situation. What he’d seen so far said he hadn’t. He should still have a short while longer in which to act.
There was no point getting uptight anyway. He’d accepted he wouldn’t get out of this. But accepting it intellectually and in his gut were two different things.
The voice died away, and he was sure he heard the door. Footsteps didn’t carry that well through the solid floor, so he jumped slightly as the hidden door opened.
The Archivist entered, fully composed. ‘Just a random check of stock on display. They only do a full inspection once a year, and the last was a month ago. We’re safe to continue.’
Thirteen nodded. His work was nearly done, but his time was running short. It was the morning of his last bright day. While monitoring people’s activities here may be lax, the clocks paid close attention to how long an individual was allowed to stay. If he hadn’t registered as leaving May when his time was up, a manhunt would be instituted.
They’d be used to the occasional person enjoying themselves so much they lost track of time, so may not be too intrusive at first. They wouldn’t be as lenient once they apprehended their prey, and it wasn’t uncommon for individuals to lose bright day privileges for a few years.
Thirteen was confident that wouldn’t be a problem. He was certain by now he wouldn’t escape them. He’d almost made peace with that.
His attention returned to the worktable as the Archivist joined him. She’d been helpful, and skilled enough at engineering that she was able to work on some of what they’d needed. Not the recording equipment, since that was his specialty. Despite her understandable apprehension at tampering with certain technologies, she did her part.
The limited array of spare parts available to them didn’t help. The table was covered in an sprawl of disassembled devices cannibalised for components. Some she’d had to acquire from elsewhere, and he’d carefully avoided asking where.
While they should be able to assemble what they needed to prove the theory, it wouldn’t create anything viable for proper use. Eventually, if the theory proved workable, he’d have the spatial aperture focused in the lens. Ideally it’d be a portable camera, albeit bulky.
For now, the camera was separate from the time distortion field mechanism. The latter had taken most of their time and spare parts. They’d probably taken longer than necessary, out of concern for the danger. It’d also allowed him the time necessary to set the camera up correctly, and he’d now installed the final part, waiting until the Archivist was absent to do so.
The camera was set up. It stood on the far end of the table, facing them with its vacant gaze. He found himself staring into it, lost in thought. Now wasn’t the time for thought.
The Archivist was focussed on assembling a solid frame for the time distortion device. Not that they were yet sure the thing would work.
He’d have liked to have seen it working, for the sheer spectacle and wonder. There was so little of that in the modern world. The Church viewed such things not directly attributable to the Almighty as suspect, to be eradicated from society before influencing the susceptible minds of the sheep they had lined up to be fleeced of their freedom.
She glanced up from her work to meet his puzzled gaze. ‘Is there a problem?’
He focussed on her, taking a moment to respond.
‘Where did you acquire the notes on the time distortion experiments?’ he said.
The Archivist raised an eyebrow. ‘A safe place.’
‘Not just now,’ said Thirteen. ‘I meant its provenance. Who originally wrote these. Was it a competitor?’
‘I presume so,’ said the Archivist. ‘It was donated by a guest. I don’t ask questions, so I can’t divulge anything if discovered. Therefore I can’t offer much more than that.’
‘Makes sense. And you presumably record things electronically, since this was obviously recently printed.’
She regarded him with an even stare.
‘And you don’t answer questions like that for similar reasons,’ said Thirteen, grinning apologetically. ‘I suppose there’s always the danger of a spy coming here.’
‘I make every effort to avoid such,’ said the Archivist. Contacting her had been difficult. Even with Six having done so before, the contact protocols shifted to ensure it remained secure. ‘Does the provenance matter?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘What is it about the notes that concerns you?’
‘It’s just occurred to me that some of the implications of where they’d reached could easily have led to the point of the experiment that led to all this.’
‘Hardly surprising that a competitor was so close behind,’ said the Archivist.
‘But it’s far closer than I’d expect for the tidiness of the notes.’
‘Possibly the work was organised by the one who provided them.’ She paused, as though a thought had occurred. ‘You don’t believe he could have been a member of the research team not present at the time of the experiment, do you?’
‘No,’ said Thirteen. ‘While the work’s similar, and could have led to the same place, the main path seems to he headed in a different direction. In fact it seems more likely to lead to something explosive than what was tried.’
‘Which is speculative,’ said the Archivist. ‘With that research lost to us, we’re only guessing what they tried.’
‘We have years of guessing by many to understand what went wrong.’
‘Years of guessing by disparate minds, unable to confer. You’re hardly offering anything scientific.’
Thirteen shrugged, gathering his thoughts on how to approach his point. ‘But you see how this research could lead to something dangerous?’
The Archivist pursed her lips, staring at him. ‘Anything can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Science can always be weaponised.’
‘Often, yes,’ said Thirteen. ‘The Church has done so with some of this technology for their weapons. You could even say they’ve weaponised communications technology for propaganda purposes.’
‘Hardly a weapon.’
‘I work with it. It may not be as structurally destructive, but it can be far more invasive in the war they’re waging on mankind.’
She raised an eyebrow, but gave little other response to his rant. Not that he’d expect one.
‘Anyway,’ said Thirteen. ‘My point…’
‘You have one then?’
‘My point is that if someone else was this close, and had an idea that appears as though it could be weaponised, how do we know it wasn’t?’
There was no raised eyebrow this time. The Archivists’ face froze.
She licked her lips as she considered her response. ‘You’re suggesting industrial espionage? It seems to have gone a bit wrong if so.’
‘Possibly,’ said Thirteen. ‘But that doesn’t seem likely. If they were simply sabotaging it, a simple explosion could have been more controllable. It wouldn’t have given the radiation signature, but it wouldn’t need to. Accidents in the machinery could’ve caused damage more easily than a new technology being so precisely calculated before use. To have used a bomb made of this technology, probably knowing the effect it would produce, implies a desire to discredit the technology as too volatile.’
‘You’re talking about the Church?’
‘It crossed my mind.’
‘Yet they abhor the technology,’ said the Archivist.
‘Which they’ve since had developed into weapons,’ said Thirteen. ‘And it was the incident that allowed them to quickly seize control. So quickly one might almost think it was planned in advance.’
The Archivist started to say something, but hesitated a moment. ‘Are you serious?’
‘I think I am. What happened here wasn’t an accident of science. It was the conscious act of fanatics.’
‘How then did these notes come to me, if developed by fanatics? I check those I allow in here, as much as I’m able. I’m confident he wasn’t one of them.’
Thirteen hesitated, appearing thoughtful as he steeled himself for what came next. ‘That is a problem. I’d imagine if the Church had an inkling of any scientific inquiry occurring outside their supervision they’d come down hard on it. So how would someone within the Church learn of it. No one aware of it would be likely to entrust the knowledge to someone they knew had a connection to the Church.’
‘Exactly,’ said the Archivist. ‘While I agree your thought raises questions deserving of consideration, your conclusion doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.’
‘Assuming the Church doesn’t know about this place.’ Thirteen ran his fingers through his hair, staring into the distance as though thinking things through. ‘It was soon after Six visited that he was taken. We were always careful about not being detected. Do you have many return visitors?’
‘Most of those I’ve housed have been here multiple times.’
‘How many of those with science the Church might consider dangerous?’
‘The Church considers all science dangerous, but I take your meaning. I haven’t noted any fall off among those inquisitive in particularly ill-regarded areas. There are enough among those I’d consider high-value targets who haven’t disappeared that I consider the proposition unlikely.’
Thirteen frowned. ‘I doubt they’d be particularly subtle about such things. But it makes so much sense that they’d try to keep an eye on illicit science. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d set up something like this as a means to…’ He trailed off, staring at his host.
The Archivist raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
Thirteen glanced at the recent notes they’d used, then back to the Archivist.
Disbelief slid away to leave her face stony. She regarded him with a hard gaze. ‘I do wish you’d kept your epiphany to yourself. At least until you were out of my house. You may as well come down.’
Heavy boots clomped down the stairs.
‘I was right, wasn’t I?’ said Thirteen. He had to get the truth out of her before they dragged him away. ‘You people created the bomb?’
Three clocks emerged through the still-open door, fanning out but holding position.
‘A necessary lesson for the world,’ said the Archivist. Her tone was now cold. She had no further interest in him, but probably got so little chance to gloat over her prey that he might be able to keep her talking. ‘The ultimate result of tampering with things one shouldn’t is destruction.’
‘But it wasn’t. It was the result of you wanting everyone to do as you say.’
There was no hint of heat in her gaze. She wouldn’t anger easily. ‘We simply wish everyone to serve the Almighty. As they should. Had your kind taken heed of our warnings, such loss of life would have been unnecessary.’
She’d happily admit the truth, content he’d never pass it on to another living soul. He needed to play for a little more time. Get her to say something else to show them for the madmen they were.
‘How far would you have let it go?’ Thirteen gestured at their work.
‘I’d already ensured the device wouldn’t open an aperture. We simply needed you to finish your work in case it offered anything of interest. I doubt it, but as I said, I prefer not to have people seized on the premises. I do have a cover to maintain. The experiment wouldn’t have worked, and the time would have come for you to leave. I’d promise to dismantle your device and store the schematics safely. Which I shall. But we couldn’t risk one of your kind playing with such forces.’
‘But the idea was too attractive,’ said Thirteen. ‘A device to let you look into peoples’ pasts, to see what sins they’ve committed. Attractive enough to make you offer up this information that the Church developed, even with the danger of me working out what it implied.’
‘A marginal danger, given you had little chance of escape. For a marginal gain, given what you’ve achieved. I see little here that could work.’
‘But you risked it. Because as dangerous as you consider time, you also can’t resist using it for your own ends.’
‘Dangerous?’ said the Archivist. ‘Time is a gift from the Almighty. Without time there would be no continuity, no awareness. How then would we begin to comprehend the Almighty’s work? But he gave it to us to experience in a certain way. What your kind would do to it could warp and mutilate our perception of his work.’
Thirteen had no interest in theological debate. Reasoned argument seldom made headway in such discussions. And things should have happened by now.
‘It was never likely to be achievable anyway,’ said Thirteen. The panic slid from his face. He still felt an undeniable concern over what’d happen to him, but that was now beyond his control. He saw no need to continue the pretence. ‘But we knew the idea’d be too enticing for you to resist.’
That caused a chink in the Archivist’s impassive mask. The sliver of doubt on her face said she was wondering whether he was trying something, but couldn’t see what. There was little he could realistically do to get out of this. Nothing the Immorals had been able to come up with anyway.
‘Did you really think we wouldn’t suspect you after Six went missing?’ he said.
She sat back, regarding him with a steely gaze as she tried to see the play. The clocks remained at attention, eyes fixed on him in case of threatening moves, but otherwise awaiting the Archivist’s command.
‘So all this was to confirm I am of the Church?’ she said, an unfamiliar uncertainty to her tone. ‘Or to confirm we were responsible for the event. Neither of which would do you any good without a means of escape.’
‘Not necessarily,’ said Thirteen. ‘It’s only the information I need to get out.’
‘How exactly do you intend to achieve that?’
‘I believe I told you my specialty was communications technology.’
Her gaze shot to the camera that silently regarded proceedings.
‘Your confession will be broadcasting on the official channel,’ said Thirteen.
The Archivist signalled, and one of the clocks rushed to the camera and smashed it. Too late of course, the signal having been sent to a number of locations – tested from just down the street a month ago. Even if they somehow managed to stop all of the signal being broadcast, the others would ensure it was circulated. The world would know the truth.
Eventually they’d catch another of them and realise the Thirteen Immorals was just a name, not a headcount.
For now, let them think him the last of them. That this threat was dealt with, despite the revelations. He’d endure whatever punishments they inflicted.
All three clocks trained their guns on him as the Archivist rose and moved towards the entrance.
‘Deal with it,’ she said, and turned to stalk up the stairs.
Thirteen’s thoughts grew heavy as the clocks fired. His perception of time slowed relative to them as they approached. His sluggish mind prepared him for what was to come, reminding him what he’d achieved as the blows rained down.
It was the last bright day in May, and the clocks were striking Thirteen.