The explosions have stopped, and in their absence a raw quiet unfolds. The bunker feels empty and cold, as if the people it harbours are already dead and have been for some time. Outside, what looks like snow is falling. It is not snow. Figures lurch past the cameras, sudden ghosts, there then gone. Inga breathes out. Breathes mist. In the confinement of the underground space, she listens to her thoughts detonating one by one.
This is the calm before the storm.
This time—this storm—will be the end.
There is a chance to fix this, but it means breaking everything they believe in. All that they’ve worked and sacrificed to preserve.
“The heating’s gone.”
That’s Toshi, the eldest of them.
Inga looks about the bunker, observing her depleted crew. Only a handful of history’s incumbents remain. Some have died during their travels through time, or have taken their own lives. Most have been buried never knowing the truth about their nature—perhaps they are the lucky ones. Others are yet to be born. Might never be born, now. Those too, she envies. What is left of the House of Janus is a world-weary collective, traumatised by experience and the implausibility of what has happened to them.
They are addicts, although they had no choice about that. Over the years they have suffered relapses. Most returned to Janus, acknowledging the importance of their mission. Because they are survivors. But what they have survived will be meaningless if this is the end of humanity. She shivers, hugging herself inside her coat. The war feels as though it has always been here, yet compared to most wars it has been short. A matter of weeks. Wars are rarely about what their perpetrators profess them to be about; Inga has seen enough conflict to know that. This one has seen entire continents reduced to nuclear wastelands. The fact is, it no longer matters how the war started, unless they stop it.
She turns to her analysts. “What do you have?”
Efe clears her throat. She sounds nervous.
“We’ve worked back from the Marceau address and identified two turning points which should cause minimum disruption to the timeline. The building of the Parisian basilica Sacré-Coeur, and a twentieth century woman called Rachel Clouatre.”
The analyst waves her hands and a scroll of mathematical code gleams into being: banners dictating action and reaction, probability and consequence. The randomness of the universe reduced to a set of equations. Looking at those digits gives Inga a strange feeling; at once childish and omnipotent. Like a field biologist who may observe but never intervene, she has dedicated most of her life to preserving history. Now she is preparing to do what she swore she would never do.
“This Rachel… she’s an ancestor of our man?”
“She starts the Marceau bloodline.”
“And the Sacré-Coeur—”
“Was where the April address was made. The catalyst.”
“You’re certain about this?”
“We’ve scanned every source.”
It is an unavoidable fact that by addressing the Marceau bloodline at its root, they will be condemning several generations before their instigator is born. Inga supposes that’s the penalty of acting for the greater good. She glances around. The others nod their agreement.
“How do we get there?”
“We’ve identified an incumbent who was a near miss. She passed very close to the dormant anomaly in the north of Paris, but never discovered it.”
One of the lucky ones, thinks Inga. A map of the French capital unfolds, and the four people present in the room form a circumference around it. Efe moves a finger through the projection, pointing to a site on the right bank of the river Seine.
“Do you have a lock?”
“Twentieth, twenty-first century—I’m trying to narrow it further—”
“Don’t try. Do.”
The analyst sits back, defeated.
“Early twenty-first century. Somewhere between the year fifteen and twenty-five. That’s the best I’ve got.”
Inga folds her arms, psyching herself up to face the person she needs. Of course it would be Léon, she thinks. Léon, who is closest to the brink, who of all of them has the fewest travels left before the anomaly claims him for good. She hears him exhale.
When she looks up, his gaze is locked upon the map. “Léon, we need you.”
“I can’t.” He speaks softly.
“If there was anyone else… you’re the only one with a European anomaly.”
“I can’t... go back there.”
Efe focuses intently upon her projections. Toshi moves aside, giving Inga and Léon the illusion of privacy.
“I know.” She steels herself. She knows what it means to return to something you had overcome; that you thought you had escaped. “And I know the danger. I know this could be your last travel. It could even be the tipping point, there’s no point pretending otherwise. But we can’t trust the chronometrist to do this alone. Even if we could trust her, she hasn’t got the range. We need someone on the ground to identify the incumbent and steer her to the anomaly. We have to oversee the mission.”
His gaze drops away. They all agreed on the course of action, but that was before they knew what it would entail.
“How will you get me into Paris?” he says at last.
“We’ll take the hopper.”
“You might not get out again.”
There is no denying this. The European mainland is gone. Paris is ripe with radiation.
“Then you’d better make sure you succeed.” She raises her voice, bringing the others back into the conversation. “Time to get the chronometrist in here, before everyone outside is a goner.”
* * *
They watch on the cameras as the chronometrist selects her body. Through the white flakes Inga catches glimpses of Prague, a once beautiful city reduced to skeletal buildings and the burned out carcasses of vehicles and people. Civilians lie at odd angles in the street, slowly being covered in ash. Inga doesn’t know who bombed Prague. In some ways she’d rather not. She’s fifty-six, older out of time, thought she’d seen everything there was to see. She was wrong.
As they watch, one of the wounded raises himself from the ground and gets awkwardly to his feet. He begins to shuffle towards the bunker. As he draws closer, Inga can see that half of his face is missing, the white of calcium exposed.
“For fuck’s sake,” says Toshi. “That one’s practically dead.”
“Her idea of a joke, no doubt.”
As far as they know, the chronometrist was the first incumbent. When the anomalies began to appear, sometime around the twelfth century, she was a young woman growing up in the Southern Song dynasty in China. Like all of them, she discovered her anomaly by accident. She liked what she found, and the power it bestowed upon her. The chronometrist travelled without restraint, further and further away from her home time, and as she reached a tipping point the anomaly began to hollow her out, like a cockroach wasp taking over its host. She faded, and faded. She exists now only as a consciousness, one whose sanity is dubious at best. Tied to the timestream, she can travel through and pass between any anomaly in the world, but can communicate only by using a body within a few hundred metres of an anomaly. If she remembers her name, she has never revealed it.
The chronometrist’s host enters the tunnel to the underground bunker. Previous members of the House of Janus constructed the bolthole centuries ago. It is the site of an anomaly whose incumbent was killed in the Battle of Vítkov Hill. Out of time. Inga supposes technically there is no difference, but it seems worse, to die out of time, when in a sense you are not really living at all. Occasionally she has the impression of ghosts surrounding her, traces of the doomed incumbent coming and going. They all feel it.
A knock on the metal door. Inga feels the atmosphere in the bunker shift. No one likes dealing with the chronometrist, even under normal circumstances.
“Let her in.”
As he staggers inside, the dying man’s injuries make themselves known. It is impossible to ignore the smell of rotting meat. The man stands, clad in makeshift combat gear, swaying from foot to foot. He is a patchwork of blood, grime, ash and gangrene. Multiple gunshot entries mark his jacket.
His lips move; the chronometrist’s voice comes out in a parched croak.
“Oh—my dear Janusians—how delightful—to see you.”
Toshi fetches a glass of water, but the chronometrist ignores it. Inga pushes a chair towards the man.
“Could you not have let this one die in peace?”
“I’m doing—him—a favour—don’t you think? Taking his mind— away—”
“All right, all right. You know why you’re here.” The injured man giggles.
“Stop the war, stop the war, stop—the—war…”
“Exactly. Or we’re all dead.”
“Don’t know—if I can die.”
“You’ll find out soon enough, if you don’t help us.” Inga’s words float back to her. This is what it has come to: they must put their trust in the psychopath. She pushes the thought aside. “It’s all up to you and Léon now. We’ve found an incumbent.”
“A new one?” The man’s voice squeaks with the chronometrist’s excitement.
“You will have to engage her. Influence her. But she mustn’t know what’s she’s doing. It’s best she thinks it’s an accident, at least until the mission is completed. We don’t want her getting any ideas. Once it’s done, Léon will induct her into the code of practice. Do you understand?”
The man’s eyes slip away. His fingers poke at one of the entry wounds. Fresh blood begins to ooze through the synthetic material of his jacket. Toshi’s frown deepens.
Inga speaks sharply.
“Then listen carefully. This is what we’re going to do.”
* * *
Léon says nothing as he straps himself into the co-pilot’s seat, and Inga does not attempt to instigate conversation. The landscape says it all for them. As they rise into the ash and then break above its veil, the blitzed city reverts into a maze of tessellating shapes until it blurs again, a blackened smear on a blacker land. Léon watches in silence as the earth falls away and she points the aircraft west.
It takes them two hours to reach northern France. Everything below is the same: grey rivers, grey country. Some cities appear almost untouched, but stand still and silent, monumental sculptures carved upon the land. Paris will not be like that. Paris was decimated. She was one of the first cities to fall. On the approach, Inga begins a slow descent. This whole region was underwater once. Perhaps it will be again, with the seas rising. Perhaps that would be better. She wonders what is going through Léon’s head, seeing the ruination of the city. It’s not where he grew up, but the anomalies make themselves the centre of your heart. Once you have answered that call, everything that came before is meaningless.
Inga dreams about Mexico City every night. “I’ll need your help to navigate,” she says. “South of the river.”
He directs her. Inga spirals in slow circles and touches down in what must once have been a wide boulevard, busy with department stores and brasseries. Léon’s anomaly is located deep inside the catacombs beneath the city. She lets the hopper’s engine wind down. Léon unstraps and stares out of the windshield.
“That’s the last of our fuel,” he says. “Yes.”
He doesn’t elaborate, and neither does she. It is what it is.
They step outside. The silence strikes her. No living thing stirs here, no birds or insects, or even the slow creep of plants. A breeze moves black dust about their feet.
Léon leads her through what is left of the streets. There are bodies, inside cars or lying in the road, all covered in that fine black dust. It gets into her nose, her mouth. Her throat thickens. She can’t swallow. She is reminded of Pompeii, the way the lava made sarcophagi for its victims as it cooled.
She had assumed they would have to blast their way into the tunnels, but luck favours them. The glass dome that housed the entrance to the catacombs has collapsed, but when they clear aside the debris they find the stairway down to the tunnels is intact. A mouth in the earth, as if it has been waiting for them, the way the anomalies wait for their incumbents. She hands Léon a torch and follows him below. There are six million dead buried down here, stacked in immaculate constructions of tibia, fibula and skulls. And now another three million above, preserved in dust.
“How far in do we go?” she asks. “All the way.”
The skulls observe their passage, the grinning masks alive in a way the dead above are not. They have been walking for twenty minutes when Léon stops. Inga sees the problem at once. Part of the tunnel has caved in. She glances overhead. Impossible to tell how stable the ceilings are.
They work together to clear the piles of rocks and dirt. Léon’s movements are precise, methodical. He shows no sign of anxiety or fear, though he must feel both. She sits back on her heels for a moment, watching him.
“How old were you, when you found your anomaly?”
“No child should have to deal with that.”
“I don’t know. Perhaps it’s easier that way. To accept. Your views aren’t so rigid.”
But the damage is worse, she thinks, in the long term.
“You know, when you go through it will feel like none of this could possibly happen.”
“You’ll be centuries away. It would be very easy to immerse yourself in a new life. To forget about us. About the future. I know there will be side effects, but—”
“I won’t forget.”
“We’re counting on you, Léon.” He looks up, just once.
There is nothing more she can say. They have almost cleared enough space. She helps Léon enlarge the gap until his shoulders can fit inside. He pushes through without hesitation. On the other side, he stops.
“The roof is unstable. There’s no point us both going on.”
“What will you do?”
“I’ll wait. In the hopper. If it works—I don’t know. I suppose all this will vanish.”
“I suppose so.”
They stand for a moment.
“You never know,” she says. “The twenty-first century might suit you. In a quaint kind of way.”
He grins reluctantly. She has a glimpse of the person he could have been, should have been, if it were not for the anomaly.
“It’ll be something,” he says.
“Good luck, Léon.”
He makes his way down the tunnel. Inga follows his progress, trying to imagine how it must feel, this return. What it would belike if it were her anomaly, back in Mexico City, back in—no. Don’t think about it. But she does. It rushes up. The exhilaration and the terror. The desperate urgency to meet the flare, the feeling that this and only this can make you whole. She has tried not to indulge those memories; the grief is too much. At times it is almost unbearable. A terrible jealousy overcomes her at the sight of Léon’s receding figure. She can feel it gripping her, thinks perhaps she should follow him, as though by being close when he travels, she might recapture some of that lost joy—
A rumbling overhead causes her to look up in alarm. Trickles of dust are beginning to skitter down the walls and over the bones.
She backs up, turns, runs; stooped, with her arms cradling her head. She hears the rush as the crawlspace they cleared caves in again. When she looks back, she sees plumes of dust. Then rubble.
The way is blocked.
“Did he make it through?”
From the interior of the hopper, she watches the bunker on her transmitter screen.
“Looks like it. His anomaly lit up like a star.”
“And the chronometrist?”
“She’s all set.”
The wounded man is lying on the floor. His eyes open, staring up at the ceiling. Inga leans closer to the screen, knowing the chronometrist can see her too.
“You know what you have to do and you know the stakes. For all our sakes, behave yourself. No detours. Remember the code of practice.”
The man’s lips tremble.
“As if—I would do anything else, my dear Inga…”
He draws in a single rasping breath. Then the air sighs out of his lungs, his head lolls to one side and he goes still.
They wait nervously.
“Okay, Prague’s lighting up. She’s in. And there goes north Paris. She’s crossed.”
How strange, she thinks. Somewhere, not far from here if you measure in distance, the chronometrist’s spirit is floating. If you can call it a spirit. Inga isn’t sure what she would call the chronometrist.
“She’s left us a corpse,” says Efe.
“She always was a generous sort.”
“Inga, how can we trust her?”
“We can’t. But it’s not as if we have another option.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Are you all right there?”
“I’m all right. It’s quiet. It’s… peaceful, I suppose.” It’s the end of the world.
She sags back in her seat. When she returned to the aircraft, she attempted to wipe the black dust from the windshield, but already new drifts are piling up, slowly obscuring her view of the silent city. Soon she will not be able to see out at all. A fit of coughing takes her. She tries not to think about the radiation levels, or getting sick, or how long it takes to die alone of radiation poisoning.
If history changes, will all this be redacted? Or will it be something only they have lived through, trapped forever in their memories? Will they even be born?
“South America’s gone,” says Toshi over the comm. “Just like that,” she murmurs.
“Just like that.”
I shouldn’t be surprised, she thinks. In all the centuries she visited, she never failed to be amazed by humanity’s capacity for destruction. One crazy person with their finger on the red button. That’s all it takes. She wants to ask Toshi about Mexico, but doesn’t dare, and surely she would know, would feel the death of her anomaly like the loss of a lung.
Their hopes now rest with the twenty-first century incumbent. Inga wonders who she is and how she will respond to the events to come. It will be wondrous at first, and Léon’s job is to contain it at that, ensure she completes the mission and then get her the hell out of Paris. But if it continues, travelling will become impossible to resist. Incumbents who swore on their lives to adhere to the code of practice have gone to terrible lengths to return to their anomalies. They have escaped incarceration, deportation and exile. They have lost themselves in time. Eventually, the incumbent becomes like the chronometrist, a thing of air but no mass, disembodied, perhaps immortal, without sensory experience or ties to the physical world. It was the fear of that fate that led the first incumbents to form the code of practice. That led them to where they are now.
“Good luck,” she whispers. “Whoever you are, good luck.”
Extract from Paris Adrift, out this week from Solaris - follow along with #ParisAdrift. Snaffle your copy at Amazon, Amazon.co.uk, or your local bookshop of choice. Our review of Paris Adrift can be found here (spoilers: loved it), and our interview with E.J. Swift and artist Joey Hi-Fi will appear on Thursday, as if by magic, on this very website.