There is, of course, a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
The sparrow in question fell four hundred feet out of a clear blue Swiss sky into the air intake of the primary ventilation array of Number Six Reactor at the Even Larger Hadron Collider installation at Dornberg.
It’d be stretching the truth to imply that the Dornberg people had foreseen just such an occurrence; they were good, but not that good. What they’d done, in respect of generic avian interference, was stretch good quality wire netting over the intake to stop any feathered intruders from getting wedged in the pipe, blocking the airflow and causing overheating which could potentially lead to all the maps of north-western Europe being suddenly, catastrophically out of date. Sensible, effective precaution. Should have worked. A sparrow dying in mid-air and falling on the intake pipe should have bounced like an acrobat on a trampoline and been no bother to anyone.
In 1,855,067 out of 1,855,068 known divergences from the generally accepted version, the wire held and the bird bounced.
In his pocket, the small square box felt like a gun, or Raskolnikov’s axe. It was an object he was carrying with him in order to carry out a momentous act, possibly a disastrous one. He was conscious of it all the way from the college gates to the top of Broad Street, where his attention was briefly distracted by a display of Lizard-Headed Women T-shirts in the gift shop window. Once he’d fought off the temptation and continued on his way, the box reminded him of its presence by digging into his thigh. Remember me, it seemed to be saying; I’m still here.
Maybe it was because the box contained a ring. Not the sort that makes you invisible. Rather the opposite. If what he’d heard was true, at the moment when you took the ring out of the box and performed the associated ritual, you tended to feel like you were the most conspicuous person on the planet. Carrying the wretched thing in his pocket round the corner into Cornmarket Street, though, he understood why a ring had been such a suitable prop for the Greatest Story Ever Filmed. It had a knack of just sitting there in his pocket and preying on his mind that no other object, except just possibly a murder weapon, could possibly hope to achieve.
But there’s no fiery mountain at the corner of Broad Street and Cornmarket Street in which you can throw uppity jewellery, so he carried on past Burger King and W.H. Smith and tried not to think about why the ring was so insufferably significant. He failed.
She was, of course, perfect, or near enough as makes no odds. Stunningly beautiful, bewilderingly intelligent, loving, wise, funny, brave and a whole check-list of other prime qualities; practically the only thing he could fault her on was her taste in men, namely him. Apart from that (and the age difference, of course) she was so perfect it made his head spin. When he’d found out that Jenny’s father owned a brewery, he hadn’t been in the least surprised. It was sort of inevitable.
It was a bit odd, he thought as he paused to gawp at a pair of hiking boots in the camping shop window, that here he was, on his way, with the ring in his pocket, and all he could do was try to think of things that were wrong with her. Hardly the actions of a man about to undertake the happiest transaction of his life.
(She had brown hair, and on balance he possibly preferred blondes. She wore glasses. Dear God, he thought, is that the best you can come up with?)
It’s the age thing, he thought. I’m nine years older than she is. That’s a lot. It won’t be quite such a lot in ten years’ time, maybe, but right now, thirty and twenty-one, that’s a hell of a gap. On the other hand, she doesn’t give a damn; and she’s a very mature twenty-one, and according to my mother I’m thirty going on twelve. Not a valid objection. Or is it? Or isn’t it?
If rings could snigger, it’d have done so. He dug out his handkerchief and stuffed it down on top of the box, but it didn’t seem to help.
It’s got to be the age thing, he thought, as he forced himself to pass the games shop window without looking. Not her, maybe; me, definitely. Here’s me, thirty years old, postgraduate student and assistant lecturer in early Byzantine ceramics; thirty and haven’t even left school yet. You’re as old as you feel, they say, and just for once they’re right. I feel like I’m—
He paused, blocking the games shop doorway. How old, exactly? Some days (when laundry had to be done, or washing dishes couldn’t be postponed any longer), a youngish twelve. Other days, when his students asked him out for a drink, pushing forty-eight. Add them together and divide by two; an average age of thirty, which coincided with what it said on his birth certificate, but happened to be the one age he didn’t feel at all. That, of course, is the flaw in the linear-time hypothesis, which sounds good and works well on paper, but bears no relation whatsoever to actual human experience. Still, what could you expect from a theory concocted by scientists?
He felt a pang of guilt there. Jenny was, of course, a scientist. A particularly brilliant one, apparently, a real wiz at particle physics, whatever the hell that was. The physics of little bits of stuff, presumably. Clearly, nothing important.
Something rammed his solar plexus, emptying him of breath. For a moment, the world was huge, quiet and empty; then, as his lungs and brain got going again, he was aware of a high, angry voice somewhere in his vicinity. It was, apparently, talking to him.
“...Bloody well look where you’re going,” it said.
“Sorry,” he replied immediately, like a remorseful Pavlov’s dog; and then thought, Hang on, I was the one standing still. He turned his head, ready to argue the issue, and an entire lifetime’s hoarded vocabulary evaporated like spit on a hob. He opened his mouth, stared, and closed it again.
“Would you mind,” she was saying, “getting your foot off my scarf? Thank you so much.”
Foot. Scarf. Oh, right. He took a step back; she stooped, graceful as a salmon leaping a waterfall, and retrieved it. She was, beyond doubt, the most entrancingly beautiful—
“You,” she said.
She was gazing at him. Well, there was a coincidence, because he was gazing at her too. But not in exactly the same way. Whereas he was drinking the sight of her, drowning in it, burning like a moth in a candle-flame in the searing beauty of her eyes, she was staring at him as though he was something she’d found crawling in her salad. “You,” she repeated.
And a blonde. He’d always preferred blondes.
“Excuse me?” he said.
She gazed at him a bit more, and he couldn’t help thinking there was something very familiar about her. But if they’d met before, he’d have remembered, no shadow of a doubt about it. You couldn’t forget someone like—
“Arsehole,” she said.
He frowned. Things, he felt, could be going slightly better. “Um,” he said. “Quite conceivably true, according to some people. But since we’ve never met, how could you possibly know—?”
She laughed. It would have been a beautiful laugh if it hadn’t been so sharp, and directed straight at him. “Oh come on,” she said, and then frowned. “It’s true, isn’t it? You’ve forgotten who I am.”
He wanted to protest, but that would’ve taken words, and he couldn’t think of any. He made a sort of grunty-whimpery noise instead.
“Well,” she was saying, “I suppose it’s been nine years, and—” She frowned. “You haven’t changed a bit,” she went on. “Either you’ve got a really ugly picture of yourself in the attic somewhere, or there’s no justice. So,” she went on, and he could practically feel the strain in her voice as she stoically, deliberately didn’t yell at him. “revisiting the scene of the crime, are you?”
“Excuse me,” he heard himself say, “but are you saying we know each other?”
She gave him a look you could have stored mammoths in. “You could say that, yes.”
“Practically to the day.” She narrowed her eyes, which only served to sharpen the beam. “That was the last time I saw you, about a hundred yards down the street from here. Remember?”
“You stood me up,” she said. “December the fifth, nine years ago, a day that will live in infamy. You were supposed to meet me outside the Post Office. Instead, I saw you—”
He raised a hand in feeble protest. “Just a moment,” he said. “December fifth, nine years ago.”
“Can’t have been me, then.”
“Yes it damn well—”
“I was in Boston.”
A little old lady passed between them, leading a shopping-basket-on-wheels. She couldn’t possibly have had any idea what she’d just walked through. “You what?”
“Boston. Massachusetts. America. That’s where I was. I was giving a paper to a seminar on Slavonic influences on medieval Byzantine pottery. Honest.”
The first slight hint of doubt flickered across her face. “No you weren’t.”
“Yes I was.” He felt a surge of panic, and added, “If you want, I can prove it. Really.”
“You were in Boston, nine years ago?”
“Yes. I remember it clearly. I had to give this speech, and I’d spilt beer on my notes the night before, and the pages all stuck together, and I tried to pull them apart and they tore, in front of two hundred and seven distinguished scholars from four continents. I just stood there like a prune with my mouth open. I wouldn’t forget something like that.”
She was examining him, as though he’d come free with something she’d bought, and in the brief lull that followed, he had just enough time to think; she does look incredibly familiar, almost like Jenny (he remembered her with a sudden, rapier-like thrust of guilt, which came and went away again in a fraction of a second), or how Jenny would look if she was my age. But Jenny hasn’t got an older sister—
Then she thought of something; he could tell by the way her jaw tightened. Of course, she was thinking, how dumb can you get?
“Your name,” she said, “is Martin Beech.”
She’d have had roughly the same effect if she’d hit him over the head with a brick.
“Yes,” he confessed, just as if Jessica Fletcher had confronted him with the damning evidence. “Yes, that’s me. How did you—?”
“And you were here nine years ago, and you did stand me up, and you didutterly screw up my entire life.” If anything, she seemed happy about it; the sort of happiness you’d expect from a lion that’s just brought down an antelope after a long, hard chase. “How dare you pretend like that? You had me thinking I’d gone crazy or something.”
“I was in Boston,” said a voice that must have been his, though he didn’t seem to have any control over it. “At a seminar. And my notes all got stuck together, and—”
“Bullshit. For crying out loud, Martin, just pull yourself together and admit it, won’t you?”
“I was in Boston.” He hadn’t intended to shout. People were staring. “Look, I can prove it to you. And I’ve never ever seen you before in my entire life, which is a great pity, because under other circumstances—” Luckily, his drivel control subroutines cut in at that point and shut him up. She gave him a scowl that would’ve stripped paint, and he said, “I can prove it. Really.”
“Martin, you’re being pathetic. If you insist on pretending you don’t know me, that’s just fine. Just shows what a lucky escape I had.” She wrapped her scarf round her throat and gave him another dose of the killer stare. “So long, Martin. Hope that nasty rash has cleared up at last.”
Another blow from another brick. Bigger, of course, and wrapped in lead foil.
“I said goodbye. For ever. And thanks for all the fish.”
“How do you know,” he said, slowly and carefully, “about my rash?”
She laughed. “Oh for pity’s sake,” she said. “You used to have such a thing about it. And you sulked for a week that time when I said, if we joined all the dots together, it’d look like a map of France. Actually, when I think about you, it’s the thing I principally remember. Gone now, has it? I do hope so. It was like snuggling up close to an armadillo.”
He reached out to grab her arm and stopped himself just in time. “How thehell,” he said, “do you know about that?”
She looked at him. It was a different look. “Martin?”
“You can’t know,” he said. “And I was in Boston. It snowed. I caught a cold that lasted all winter.”
There followed the longest three seconds of his life. In those three seconds, you could’ve staged the World Stalactite Growing Championships and have had time for a rematch. “Of course I know about your revolting rash, Martin,” she said quietly. “I saw it often enough. It started about here, and then there was a sort of swirly bit, like the Milky Way seen from Andromeda, and it sort of petered out around your navel. You always said it was the cold weather, but you know perfectly well it was brought on by eating chocolate.”
Another three seconds; ample time for the glacier races and the tectonic shift sprint runoffs. Then she said, “You can prove you were in Boston?”
He thought for a moment. He pictured his desk, the second drawer down on the left, the folder two up from the bottom. They were real, he was sure of it. “I’ve got the seminar program,” he said. “And the write-up I did for the college newsletter. With a photo of me on stage.”
“Where,” she said, with bone-aching patience, “have you got all these documents?”
“Back in my office,” he said. “Just round the—”
“I remember your office,” she said, in a rather brittle little voice. “You had a Lizard-Headed Women poster on the far wall.”
A third brick; one brick too many. “That does it,” he said. “You’re coming with me.”
She hesitated. “All right,” she said. “But if you can’t prove beyond reasonable doubt that you were in Boston nine years ago today, I promise you, there won’t be enough left of you to bury.”
He turned without looking at her and started to walk back towards Broad Street. A moment later she was next to him, hurrying to keep up. They walked in deadly silence almost as far as the art and poster shop, and he tried very hard not to turn his head and sneak a look. But he couldn’t. She reminded him so much of—
“Who are you?” he said.
“Your name,” he snapped. “What’s your name?”
Once, many years ago, he’d seen a girl walk straight through a plate-glass door. She hadn’t known it was there until it was all over, and he could distinctly remember the stunned, what-just-happened look on her face as the shards of broken glass tinkled to the ground all around her. To his eternal shame, he’d laughed like a drain. Payback time.
“Jenny Musgrove. What’s the matter? Are you feeling all right?”
No. “You can’t be,” he said.
“Tough,” she said, “because I am. And I’ve got passports and driving licenses and—”
“But I was on my way to—” He stopped dead, so abruptly that a small Japanese man had to pull off the most amazing standing swerve to avoid a tooth-rattling collision. “Where were you last night?”
“Me? Evesham. Why?”
“Jennifer Alice Musgrove?”
“Nobody calls me Jennifer twice and lives, but yes.”
One thing, one true thing, floated to the top of his mind. He anchored his entire being to it, and put it into words. “I need a drink,” he said. “Come on.”
As he opened his office door, the Lizard-Headed Women seemed to grin at him from the opposite wall. You lot come down first thing tomorrow, he promised himself. He lunged for the whisky bottle, swallowed two mouthfuls, and felt a very tiny bit better.
“Desk drawer,” he said. “Left-hand side, second drawer down. You’re looking for a faded blue folder.”
The poster, he remembered, was relatively recent; three months, possibly four. Come to that, the band had only been in existence for two years.
“Got it,” she said, and there was a short, agonising pause while she opened the folder and stuck her nose in it. Then she put it down on the desk and looked at him.
“You were in Boston,” she said.
“But you can’t have been.”
“Yes, but you can’t be Jenny Musgrove.”
She hesitated, then pulled the bottle out of his hand, wiped the neck on her sleeve, and gulped once. Then she pulled a face.
“You don’t like whisky,” he said.
“Yes,” he said, “but I know it too.”
“I used to hate it,” she said quietly, “when I knew you. Now I just don’t like it very much.”
He felt as though his mind was a pocket with a hole in it, and reality was a handful of small change. “Jenny?” he said.
“But it can’t be you.” He felt he had to say it, because he owed a duty to the truth; and it was so frustrating, because the universe wouldn’t listen. “I was supposed to be meeting you.”
He’d never been one of the great comedians, the gods of stand-up, who can set a room roaring with a line, a gesture, a slight tremolo of the eyebrows. But, just for once, he appeared to have said something funny.
He waited for her to get her breath back. “What’s the joke?” he asked.
“Martin.” She looked straight at him, the way a truck looks at a jackrabbit sitting in the middle of the road. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
He sucked in a deep breath. “Yes, actually. What the hell is going on?”
“You were supposed to be meeting me.”
“Yes. But not you. I was supposed to be meeting Jenny Musgrove. Brown hair. Glasses. All right, she looks a lot like you, but she’s younger. Twenty-one.”
This time, it appeared that he was the one with his hand on the brick. Her eyes grew very wide, and she said, “I’m thirty.”
“Exactly. So you can’t be her.”
“Nine years ago,” she said, “I was twenty-one. Count on your fingers if you can’t do it in your head. Nine years ago, Martin, for crying out loud.”
December the fifth. He opened his mouth, then closed it slowly.
He looked at the whisky bottle, to his great surprise decided against it. “Why don’t you tell me,” he said, “what happened to you nine years ago?”
She thought for a moment; then she seemed to slump, as though she’d been switched off at the mains. “Why not?” she said. “All right.” She looked round for something to sit on, chose the corner of the desk and perched, one foot off the floor. “Ready? Fine. Nine years ago—”
Nine years ago, Jenny Musgrove was waiting for the man of her dreams outside the Post Office in Cornmarket Street. He was late, but that was just Martin. She leaned against a lamp-post and speculated about the exact form of words he’d use to pop the inevitable question.
I won’t giggle, she swore to herself. No matter how silly he sounds, I absolutely will not giggle.
Time passed. It was relative time. The time you spend waiting in the street for your loved one is significantly longer than general standard-issue time, under any circumstances, and she tried not to notice as the big hand on the clock above the jewellery store opposite gradually inched its way round the dial. Five minutes late. Seven.
Come on, Martin, she muttered under her breath, not for the first time.
He would be coming, she reasoned, from college, from the Broad Street end. If she looked, of course, he wouldn’t appear, in accordance with the inviolable rules of the watched pot principle. But if she just happened to turn her head in that direction for a fraction of a second, and maybe caught a fleeting glimpse of him at the edge of her field of vision—
Which she did.
Martin was never hard to spot. Six feet four and skinny, like an ash tree in winter, or a lamp-post with arms and legs; add the inevitable college scarf knotted round his neck, and he stood out in a crowd like a soup-stain on a tablecloth. There he was, no more than sixty yards away, and she raised her arm to wave. Then she froze.
She’d assumed it was her imagination, but hadn’t he been—well, odd, lately? A little dimming of the flame, a slight waning of the jumping-up-puppy-dog ardour she’d come to expect. Almost as though there was something getting in the way. Something, or someone. But she was imagining it, she told herself, over and over again. Martin wouldn’t do something like that.
Only, there he was doing it, just outside the computer game shop. She could see him quite distinctly (as distinctly as her glasses prescription would allow), deep in conversation with a woman, an elegant woman with long blonde hair—
Which was, she told herself, no big deal. Maybe the blonde was asking directions, or an old friend of his mother’s. Just because he’s talking to a woman doesn’t mean to say he’s up to no good. Half the human race is, after all, female.
And then, as she watched, Martin and the blonde (the elegant, glamorously-dressed blonde) turned and started to walk away, together, back up the road and out of sight round the corner.
“That was it, as far as I was concerned,” she said. “I hung around there outside the stupid Post Office for three quarters of an hour, just in case you decided to come back and explain it all away. But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I just knew.” She stopped, looked down at her feet, then back up again. “That was the day you destroyed my life,” she said. “You were supposed to be asking me to marry you, and instead I watched you walk away with some blonde who obviously meant more to you than I ever would.” She paused, then added, “This is where you’re supposed to apologise.”
He looked at her. “I would,” he said, “if I’d done it. But I didn’t. I was in—”
“Boston, yes.” She had the newsletter open in front of her, with the photo of Martin giving his speech to the Byzantine pottery seminar. It was quite a good photo; they’d caught his good side, and the podium blocked the camera’s view of his hands frantically shredding the beer-gummed notes. “Screw you, Martin, I saw you. With that—”
“No offence,” he said quietly, “but your eyesight—”
“I wore glasses,” she said. “They worked. They did the job. I saw you.”
He nodded. “If you were in front of the Post Office and I was outside the games shop, then yes, you wouldn’t have mistaken someone else for me. It’s, what, fifty yards?”
“Something like that. I haven’t actually measured it with a bloody great big tape.” She stopped, and frowned. “Martin?”
“Outside the games shop.”
“Where I was today,” he said. “When I bumped into you.”
She shrugged. “Small world?”
But he swung his head up like a searchlight and stared at her. “Outside thegames shop,” he said, in a low, slightly frantic voice. “On December fifth. I’m on my way to meet Jenny Musgrove, and I stop to talk to an elegant, glamorously-dressed blonde.”
“That’s what I just said.”
“No, listen.” His mind was racing ahead, with his voice puffing along behind it, desperately trying to look up the right words in the phrase-book. “That’s what I just did. On my way to meet twenty-one-year-old Jenny Musgrove, I meet an elegant blonde and walk away with her down Broad Street. The elegant blonde. You.”
This time, at least, they’d walked through the plate glass window together.
“What happened with the glasses, anyway?” he asked.
“I switched to contacts,” she said. “About the same time I peroxided my hair,” she added thoughtfully. “Just before I dropped out of university, ran away to London and started my own business.” She paused, then added, “Elegant?”
“Decidedly so. Glamorous, even.”
“I discovered I liked clothes.”
“You used to buy all your stuff in camping shops.”
She winced, like someone had just sandpapered her eyeball. “Not any more.”
“Also the make-up, and the nail varnish, and—” He stopped dead, and peered at her as though through a grubby window. “It’s you,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
Admirable in her self-restraint, she managed not to hit him on the head with the whisky bottle. “Me,” she said. “Jenny Musgrove. Like I’ve always been.”
“But you don’t look the same.”
“No.” She frowned. “You do.”
“I didn’t recognise you.”
“I sure as hell recognised you.” Her mouth opened and her eyes widened; and then she said; “Are you seriously asking me to believe that the evil blonde bimbo bitch who stole you from me nine years ago and trashed my self-esteem and fucked up my entire life was me?”
At that precise moment, there was a blinding flash of light and a deafening boom.
They both sat perfectly still for about a dozen seconds, until nothing else had happened. Then Jenny said, “What the hell was that?”
“Sounded like a bomb.”
“How the hell would you know?”
“So what did you ask for, then?”
“Come on.” She jumped up and shot through the door. Martin’s inner voice was advising him that if stuff was going flash-boom out there, then in here might be a better place to be. But if she was hell-bent on going to investigate, he was damned if he was going to let her out of his sight; for a number of reasons, of which burning curiosity was only one. “Hang on,” he shouted, and followed.
Outside in the quad, there was a striking absence of collapsed buildings, shattered masonry, writhing casualties and corpses. Nor was there a mushroom cloud hovering overhead. So that was all right. On the other hand, there were a lot of people running about in all directions, and even more standing in doorways peering out with I-just-had-my-brain-removed looks on their faces. He listened for distant sirens, but there weren’t any.
Jenny fell into the latter category. “Do you think we imagined it?”
“If we did, so did they.”
“Well,” she said, trying to be brisk but not quite making it, “it can’t have been that bad, because there aren’t any of those silhouettes burnt into the walls. Not here, anyhow.”
Jenny, he remembered, had always had a knack for saying the wrong thing at truly momentous moments. “There was a bright light,” he said.
“Yes. And a very loud noise.”
Understatements, he thought; like describing the First World War as a difference of opinion. “Someone’s got to know what’s going on,” he said firmly.
“Because—here, George!” He’d caught sight of a friend of his; and the strange thing was, this friend was running like a hare across the grass in the middle of the quad, and he knew for a fact that George hadn’t run a step since the Reagan era. “What the hell—?”
George stopped and stared at him, and his eyes were wide as fried eggs. “The ELHC’s just blown up,” he said. “Sorry, I’ve got to go.”
And off he went, short, tubby legs pumping like pistons. George, he remembered, was a high-powered physicist.
“Shit,” Jenny was muttering. “That’s—”
Footnotes; he desperately needed footnotes. “What’s the ELHD?”
“C,” she corrected him. “The Even Larger Hadron Collider. You know, the world’s biggest scientific experiment, in Switzerland.”
“According to your friend, yes.”
She knew about this stuff, he remembered. “Is that bad?”
You know it’s serious when they don’t reply. “It’s bad,” he said.
“Yes, Or it could be. The fact we saw the flash and heard the bang—”
“Not good.” She frowned. “On the other hand,” she said, “we would appear to be still here. That’s a good sign.”
“Is it? I mean—”
She nodded. “In the worst case scenario, if the ELHC blows up, that’d be it. The end. So long and thanks for all the fish.” She hesitated, as though reluctant to read too much into the limited data available to her. “But that doesn’t seem to have happened.”
“But we heard a bang.”
“And saw a bright light.”
“That’s odd.” Her frown deepened, wrinkling her nose in a manner that briefly took his mind off the fate of the planet. “You see, there’s basically only two scenarios, if something goes wrong. One, the world blows up. Well, the universe, actually.”
“Gosh,” he said, before he could stop himself. “All right. And the other?”
She shrugged. “A few scorch marks round the edge of a fuse-box and six months patiently testing circuits before they can get it running again. All or nothing, basically. But not a bang you can hear on the other side of Europe and no apparent physical damage.”
Someone Martin didn’t know tried to get past him, misjudged the gap and crashed into him, treading on his foot and knocking him off balance before darting away, leaving a mumbled apology behind him like a vapour trail. Martin wobbled, lost his balance, and nudged against Jenny’s shoulder.
“Still asleep,” the doctor said, taking his glasses off his nose and polishing them on his sleeve. “Out like a light. Probably a good thing.”
Martin glared at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The doctor shrugged. “Well, I can’t find anything the matter with her,” he replied. “Very slight bruising to the left shoulder where she hit the deck, but that’s nothing, trivial.” He replaced his glasses and said, “Just tell me one more time. You collided with her, and she fainted.”
“Weird,” the doctor said. “She’s a perfectly healthy young woman, not undernourished or anorexic or anything like that. Brain activity’s normal, heartbeat and respiration just fine.” He shrugged. “Don’t know what to say, really. If you want to hang around, I’ll get someone to tell you when she wakes up.”
Martin went back to his seat and sat still and quiet for a very long time. Once or twice he took out the little square box, though he didn’t open it. He googled the news on his phone, but they were keeping it tight; there had been an incident at the ELHC, no deaths, no injuries, no reports of damage, nothing to see here, folks. Meanwhile, Jenny slept and Martin thought and time slipped away, second by slow-motion second.
Something was prodding his shoulder. He opened his eyes, which had somehow become closed, and saw two men standing over him. They were tall and broad and wore dark blue suits which he suspected they hadn’t chosen for themselves, and one of them said, “Martin Beech?”
He couldn’t remember having told anybody at the hospital his name. “Yes?”
One of the men opened his palm to reveal a badge, in a little plastic holder. It could have been a bus pass or a Blockbuster card; he didn’t have a chance to examine it in detail, because the hand closed around it immediately. “Come with us,” the man said. “Nice and quiet, we don’t want a fuss.”
He looked at them. They made the Mount Rushmore statues look like Jim Carrey. “Not likely,” he said.
“Come with us,” the man said, “or we’ll arrest you.”
“Blowing up the Even Larger Hadron Collider. Well?”
“Fine,” Martin said, and stood up, only to find that pins and needles had set in all the way up his left leg to the thigh. “Actually, no,” he said, sitting down again. “Cramp,” he went on. “Been sitting here for hours. Look, can we possibly do without the melodrama? What do you want?”
The men looked at each other, then glanced quickly, efficiently round the waiting room. “What the hell,” the other one said, and both of them sat down, one on either side of him, precisely simultaneously. The timing was so perfect it was unnerving.
“What do you know about the ELHC?” said one of them.
Martin thought. “It’s larger than the LHC?”
“Apart from that.”
Not the answer they’d been expecting. “You called the ambulance when Ms Musgrove passed out?”
“Any idea why she did that?”
“No. I told the doctor, it was crazy. One moment she was standing there, the next she just fell over. Real Victorian novel stuff.”
No reaction from the two men, into whom information just seemed to drain away, like water into sand. “You know her well?”
“I—” He hesitated. “I thought I did.”
“You know what she’s been working on?”
He frowned. Jenny Musgrove, twenty-one, third-year undergraduate. “She told me she had an essay due in on Thursday—”
Something nudged his elbow. The other man was thrusting a small flat screen at him; bigger than a calculator, smaller than the smallest laptop. He glanced at it; a jumble of numbers and strange symbols, which could have been Elvish or Klingon for all he knew. “What?”
“Musgrove’s Equation,” the man said, taking the screen away and vanishing it into an inside pocket.
“It’s the base functions algorithm for the ELHC,” the other one said. “It’s what makes the whole thing possible.” He jerked his head towards the door the doctor had just gone through. “She wrote it. Your friend in there.”
You’d think you’d get used to it after a bit. You don’t. “What? But she’s just a student.”
“The thing is—” The man looked at his partner, who frowned, then dipped his shoulders very slightly. “The thing is… It’s an equation, right? You know what an equation is.”
“A very difficult sort of maths thing?”
“Musgrove’s Equation won her the Nobel Prize,” the second man said. “A panel of fifty of the world’s leading mathematicians spent three months going over it before they gave the go-ahead on the ELHC. They reckoned it checked out. I think we can assume they knew what they were talking about. But when the Collider blew up, the Dornberg boys ran it again.”
“It didn’t work. It doesn’t balance. x no longer equals y. What’s more, it never could have worked, not in a million years. Fundamentally flawed. It’s garbage.”
“But I thought you just said—”
“Yes,” said the man.
“Hence our interest,” said the other man.
Martin breathed in slowly and breathed out again, choking slightly. “So they ran it again,” the first man was saying. “And again, and again. They hauled twelve other Nobel laureates out of their beds on three continents and made them check it. It doesn’t work.”
“But it did.”
“And now it doesn’t.”
He looked at them; and behind the professional inch-thick blank stares he fancied he caught sight of something familiar; a reflection, perhaps, or just two people just as confused and bewildered as himself. “That’s screwy,” he said.
“Talking of screwy,” Martin said, “let me tell you about my day.”
“But that’s impossible,” said the second man.
“You were in Boston,” said the second man.
“We know you were,” said the first man. “We ran your file. We can irrefutably prove that nine years ago today, you were in Boston.”
“Yes,” Martin said, slightly startled. “You can?”
“Oh yes. Also,” the second man went on, “we have CCTV footage that shows you were at the corner of Broad Street and Cornmarket at exactly the time you say you were there.”
“Yes. Good,” Martin added. “Actually, I’m incredibly relieved to hear you say that.”
“Of course you are,” the first man said. “And the footage clearly shows you colliding with Ms. Musgrove and treading on her scarf.”
“Well, there you are, then.”
“It also shows Ms. Musgrove waiting outside the Post Office.”
Pause. No more than four seconds, during which certain species of fish evolved legs and took their first tentative steps up the uninhabited beaches of the planet. “Does it?” Martin said.
“Oh yes. She’s wearing glasses and her hair’s a different colour, but it’s her all right.”
“And fifteen minutes later,” the first man said, “the Even Larger Hadron Collider exploded.”
“Fifteen minutes and seventeen seconds. Which,” the first man continued, “is how long it’d take for the coolant system to blow if the vent intake got blocked by, for example, a sparrow falling into it from a great height.”
Oink, Martin thought. “A what?”
“Sparrow,” replied the second man. “Stupid little brown bird. They fished what was left of one out of an air intake. That’s what caused the blow-up.”
The world was out of focus. It swirled and wobbled. Two faces floated out of the mess. He turned to one of them and said, “A bird flew into an air intake.”
“Fine. So obviously, I didn’t have anything to do with it. Or Jenny, come to that.”
But the second man shook his head. “We must warn you that anything you say may be taken down and used in evidence. We believe you did it.”
“With a special providence,” said the first man.
The second man smiled. “You’re nicked,” he said.
He’d never been in a cell before. He’d known people who had, and when he’d asked them to describe what it was like, they’d all said, “Boring.” They’d been right.
The first couple of hours had been pretty bad. He’d paced up and down, counted the bricks in the wall, paced some more, sat on the bed, sat on the floor, sat on the bed, sat on the floor, paced; finally, worn out by so much exercise, he’d flopped on the bed and wandered off into a shallow trance, the transcendental state between sleep and waking that you can only achieve when you’ve gone through boredom and out the other side.
His mind wandered, unfettered by a body that wasn’t so much relaxed as unable to summon up the energy and enthusiasm to be tense. It drifted over his past life, clicking its tongue in disapproval; it frowned at the untidy heap of missed opportunities, trailed its fingertip in the dust on wasted and neglected talents; when it reached the moment when he’d paused outside the Broad Street gift shop to look at the Lizard-Headed Women T-shirts, it roosted like an urban pigeon and set about making him feel as miserable as possible.
When they’d processed him at the desk, they’d confiscated the little square box with the ring in it. He’d felt a pang as he handed it over. My own stupid fault, he thought. If I’d walked a little faster, not stopping to look in shop windows, not dawdling because of infirmity of purpose, I’d have arrived at the square meter of pavement outside the games shop—what, forty-five seconds, a minute—earlier than I did, and I wouldn’t have barged into Old Jenny. Instead, I’d have been through and gone before she got there, I’d never have crashed into her like that, I’d have carried on until I reached the Post Office, and once there I’d have asked Young Jenny to marry me.
Or would I?
One thing about being locked up in a very small, dull room; it’s quite hard to lie convincingly to yourself. No, I wouldn’t have. I’d have lost my nerve at the last minute. And the upshot of that would have been—
In the grip of a really classic boredom high—accountants experience this all the time—the mind can do wonderful things. It can move at will in all directions and dimensions; it’s a chessboard queen and a knight, both at the same time. If he’d been in any other frame of mind, as soon as the pieces, the delicate gossamer threads of the possible explanation began to twinkle and glisten in the faint light of understanding, he’d have been carried away by impatience and enthusiasm, and all the subtle little hints would’ve been scattered and trampled underfoot. But floating on wings of tedium, becalmed and aimless as a speck of dust on a still day, his mind wafted through possibilities, idly noting possible connections, lazily exploring hypotheses, until suddenly—
He sat up. His head was splitting, but he barely noticed it. He jumped to his feet and banged on the door with both fists.
Eventually a face appeared in the small square window. “What?”
“I demand to speak to a leading quantum physicist,” Martin said. “Now.”
The face moved away. Too much to hope for. Bubbling with anger and frustration, he punched the wall. Ouch, he thought.
The door opened. In came a policeman, followed by a tall, thin man in a sweatshirt and pyjama bottoms. The policeman withdrew and the door closed.
“Well?” said the thin man.
Martin stared at him. “You’re a—?”
“Weatherby Professor of particle physics,” the thin man said. “The quantum bloke couldn’t make it. Sorry, you’ll have to make do with me.” He sat down, unwrapped a boiled sweet and popped it in his mouth. “So?” he said.
Martin slid down the wall and sat on the floor. “I’ve been thinking,” he said.
“I do that,” the thin man said. “A lot. And much good it’s done me.”
“About the collider thing.”
“And what’s been happening to me. Did they—?”
The thin man nodded. “They told me all about it,” he said. “I was in bed. These two goons came and hammered on my door.” He crunched the sweet, making a noise like a steamroller on gravel. “Weird as three ferrets in a blender, is my considered opinion. Which isn’t to say it’s not possible. Loads of weird things are possible, actually. Trust me on this, I’m a scientist.”
Martin looked at him, and decided the best thing would be to pretend he wasn’t there and address his remarks to the opposite wall. The thin man didn’t seem to mind.
“All right,” he said. “First, there was the Large Hadron Collider, right?”
“What? Oh, yes. Right.”
“But it wasn’t big enough, so they built a bigger one.”
“I was on that job,” the thin man said. “Miserable place, Dornberg. Have you any idea how much you pay for a beer over there?”
“And presumably,” Martin went on, “I’m guessing here, but I don’t actually know. Presumably, it’s got a pretty impressive computer built in to it, to direct operations and correlate the data and so on. Yes?”
“Fine.” He paused. He wasn’t quite sure about the next bit. “Now, supposing the accident today wasn’t an accident.”
The man yawned. “If you’re going to start talking about terrorist attacks, I think I’ll go home. Not that I’ve got a good word to say for Al-Qaeda, but my impression is, their weapon of choice isn’t usually a small bird.”
“Supposing,” Martin said, “the machine did it to itself. On purpose.”
The thin man looked at him. “Blew its brains out with a sparrow, you mean?”
“Not so much a sparrow,” Martin said carefully, “as a special providence. I’m guessing the sparrow just happened to be the first thing handy.” He propped himself up a little straighter against the wall and went on; “These machines. They work by bashing things into other things and seeing what happens, right?”
“Something of an oversimplification, but yes.”
“Suppose the machine realised it couldn’t answer the problem it was designed to solve just by colliding sub-atomic particles. Suppose it figured out that in order to get the answer, it needed to use something bigger. Something a bit more complex.”
“People,” Martin said. “Human beings. Independently acting, self-determining, bloody-minded and frequently extremely stupid. Maybe that’s the key, now I come to think of it. Maybe the one crucial ingredient it couldn’t synthesize mathematically was stupidity, and maybe that’s the one thing—unique to organic life—that it needed to make the equations balance.”
The thin man frowned. “If you wouldn’t mind rewinding a little,” he said. “I was more or less following you till we got on to the stupidity thing.”
Martin shrugged. “It was just a thought,” he said. “It’d explain why it decided to pick on me. But anyway. Suppose that the machine did an experiment of its own, using Jenny and me.”
“All right,” the thin man said. “Why you?”
Martin nodded eagerly. “Because when I stood Jenny up—”
“No,” Martin admitted, “I didn’t. The machine stopped me. But if it hadn’t, I’d either have stood her up or broken it off; either way, she’d have quit being a scientist and gone off to London to be a rich, bitter entrepreneur.”
“Which she did,” the thin man pointed out.
Martin massaged either side of his nose with thumb and forefinger. “The CCTV,” he said. “It proves that both of them were there at the same time. So, at the precise same moment I bumped into thirty-year-old Jenny, twenty-one-year-old Jenny was waiting for me outside the Post Office. Now, you’re a physicist—”
“Yes,” the thin man said. “Got a certificate and everything.”
“What,” Martin said, “could possibly make something like that happen?”
The thin man thought for a moment. “Off the top of my head,” he said, “the ELHC exploding. That’s about it, really.”
“Blowing a hole in the fabric of the space/time continuum—”
“We don’t call it that any more,” the thin man said smugly. “These days—”
“And merging,” Martin continued grimly, “two, or quite possibly three divergent timelines into one. Well? Is it possible?”
“Grey area,” the thin man said. “But hell, why not? Actually, most things are possible, if you ignore the impossible bits in the way.”
“The Collider,” Martin said, “collides things. It collided Jenny and me. And at that exact moment, it collided a sparrow with its own air intake.”
There was a long pause, during which the thin man stuck his index finger in his ear, reamed it around a bit, and examined the result. “What you’re suggesting,” he said, stifling a yawn, “is that the machine, having calculated that the only person who would have been capable of designing the modifications necessary to enable the machine to execute its program, had she not chucked in science for commerce as a result of a broken heart, was Jenny Musgrove. So it grabbed a sparrow out of the sky—”
“A special providence.”
“That’s a quotation, isn’t it? It shoved this sparrow up its own intake to blow itself up so it could rip open the TimSpacFlux—” he paused, and smiled “—that’s what we call it now. Rip it open,” he went on, “and rearrange the past so Jenny Musgrove doesn’t abandon science but instead goes on to write the crucial equation.” He rubbed his chin with his fingers. “Yes,” he said. “Works for me. A bit on the crazy side, of course, but so what, they laughed at Heisenberg when he was first starting out.”
The thin man shrugged. “In which case,” he said, “all we’ve got to do is—”
“Three,” crackled the voice in his ear. “Two. One. Zero. We’re switching the machine on now.”
Martin took a deep breath and a step forward. As he passed the newsagent, he glanced at the dates on the newspapers, just to make sure. He had no idea what sort of pressure the authorities had had to bring to bear on the publishers to make them print the papers with yesterday’s date, but they’d managed it. 5th December.
He passed the gift shop and didn’t look at the T-shirts in the window. He passed Burger King, W.H. Smith and the camping shop. Diving forward like an athlete stretching for the tape, he passed the games shop, and nobody bumped into him or even came close.
She was there, outside the Post Office. She turned and smiled at him as he approached.
“You’re early,” she said.
“In a sense,” he replied. “Here.” He stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out the box. “Marry me. Please?”
She looked at him, then at the box on his outstretched palm, then back at his face. “No,” she said.
“No,” she repeated. “Look, Martin, I do like you, an awful lot, but I’ve been thinking, and really-”
“It’s the age thing, isn’t it?”
She nodded. “I can’t help thinking,” she said, “you’re just too young for me. I mean, look at you. Thirty years old and you still can’t iron a shirt properly.”
He was looking her in the eye, but in his ear a voice was saying, “There’s a speck on the radar screen, it’s a sparrow, confirmed, we have a sparrow.”
“Oh,” he said.
“Sorry,” she went on. “But you see, there’s all this stuff I really want to do with my life. Like, they’re going to build a bigger version of the LHC, and Sasha—Professor Lachuk—he thinks I could be on the team.”
“Target has passed the intake valve. We repeat, the sparrow has passed the intake valve. Closing down to emergency condition aquamarine—”
“Fine,” Martin said, in a strangely faint voice. “I understand.”
“Absolutely. You’ve got your work. I’d only be in your way, holding you back.”
“Oh.” She did look rather disappointed. She looked cute when she was disappointed. But.
“So really,” he said, closing his fist round the box and stuffing it back in his pocket, “really, it’s all for the best. Well, I’d best be getting along, things to do.”
(“The target is now outside radar detection range. The sparrow has not, repeat, not landed. Dornberg out.”)
He turned on his heel and walked away, and it felt like he’d carelessly neglected to take his insides with him. He was just a coat and a pair of trousers with some flesh and bones inside them, walking past a hairdressers, a pizza place, a games shop—
He collided with something. “Ouch,” said a voice.
“...Bloody well look where you’re—oh, hello.”
He opened his eyes and looked, and there she was. “Hello,” he said.
He nodded. “Hi there,” he said. “Fancy bumping into you here after all this time.”
“You know,” he said, “you don’t look a day older than when I saw you last.”
He smiled. “Little white lie,” he said, and in his pocket, his hand closed around the small box. “Come and have a coffee, and we can talk about what you’ve been up to. Started your own company, someone was telling me. Doing really well.”
Martin Beech did not, after all, marry Jenny Musgrove, though they remain good friends. Professor Jenny Lachuk and her husband wrote the equation that made the Really Zonking Great Big Hadron Collider possible. Time goes on. No sparrows were harmed in the making of this story.