- George’s Box
Marius was sitting in the comfy chair in the front office, reading a book, the cat in his lap. He half jumped when the door opened, and the cat had to jump down and then claim his chair for herself.
“Productive trip? Or should I ask? Lilah, should I absent myself for the duration? It occurs to me you may prefer to have the place to yourself. Yourselves.”
Lilah gave Marius a look that might have been exasperation. Annelise went through to use the bathroom; Rob plopped down on the ottoman, which was still there. Lilah said, “I don’t know. I don’t know if it was productive. You turn over a card and it’s not the one you’re looking for: was that productive? You don’t have to look there again and you know the card is out there somewhere.”
“Except that maybe it isn’t, in this case,” said Rob.
“And as for you absenting yourself or whatever: I mean, I get it, but all you have to do is not push us one way or another, it’s still useful to have you around.”
“Ah,” laughed Marius, “for instance, I could resist worrying out loud about your detective habits such as investigating the luggage of someone who’s disappeared.”
“Oh, you should worry, that’s fine,” said Lilah. “That’s about legal stuff. Or ethical or something. But, yeah. We still want you around. Right, champ?”
“Yeah, uh, yes,” said Rob.
Annelise came back in, wiping her hands on her pants. “Hey, Mr. Marius,” she said.
“Okay,” said Lilah, sitting in one of the wooden chairs. “So here’s the deal. We found Lucy’s trace, she went to the Institute, the one in the capital city, way back before she was born, maybe a hundred years before. Annelise here borrowed some stuff from the Institute, where, by the way, no one seemed to know anything about time travel. We did find the guy who’d been to Llanduvar with Lucy, he was not especially helpful. His name was Salagon, and he claimed to be all concerned about time paradoxes, like someone was going to bust him for telling us who won the Olvar World Cup.”
“He actually thought it would be a problem talking to you?” asked Marius.
“Yeah. That’s what he said. So Annelise puts together this thing with a crystal and some wires and stuff, and that works pretty well, right, Annelise? Except it broke when we got here.”
“The crystal broke in three pieces,” said Annelise.
“I’m hardly surprised. The city is a bit unusual in its—well, I can’t really describe it.”
“No, I know what you mean,” said Lilah. “It’s got a feel to it, this little universe. I’m not surprised it breaks stuff. So what we need is a better way to find Lucy traces, because we are fresh out, we followed her here and we have no idea where she went from here. So Annelise.”
“Yes?” Annelise replied.
“Can you make another one, and will it work for what we need?”
“I can make another one, if Mr. Marius can get me a decent crystal.”
“Of course,” said Marius, “of course, things like that are easy.”
“But I’m not sure if it’ll be much better than what we had,” said Annelise, “and you’ll notice that wasn’t really that practical even when we were following a trace we knew was there. I mean, what do we want now? Find another Lucy? Follow Lucy from here? Well, if it’s find another one, we need something I don’t know how to make, so we could find traces in nearby histories and so on. If it’s follow from when she left here, well, that may be a problem, because the last one broke when it was mapping a crossing that ended in this universe, I wouldn’t expect the next one to do much different when it’s mapping a crossing that starts in this universe. Would you?”
“You’re the expert,” said Lilah.
“Lilah. I’m theory of time mechanics technical. I’m not wiring up a new invention technical.”
Lilah gave her another second or two of the blank look. “So how are we going to find Miss Lucy?” she asked. “What’s the solution to this conundrum?”
“Do we need to hire a technician?” asked Marius. “Because, as Ms. Bay knows, Mr. Marius is always eager to hire another member of the team.”
Lilah gave him the look, then turned it back on Annelise after a glance at Rob just to make sure he didn’t feel left out. “Do we?” she asked.
Annelise half frowned. “Sure,” she said. “Yes. That would be great.” She frowned, then smiled at Marius. “I guess there’s a process?”
“There is,” said Marius. He pulled a handful of glass cubes out of his pocket. He took a look at them, then spread them out on the breakfast table, along with five more he fished out. “Will any of these do?”
Annelise warmed to the task. It took her ten minutes to pick out the obvious and only candidate, and in an hour, they met their candidate. This time Marius actually went and got him.
He was fairly tall, with skin even darker than Lilah’s. He dressed as a well-off sea captain; he looked about 35. He took off his hat, shook hands with Lilah and said, in the wizards’ common tongue, “I’m George Gervais. Nice to meet you. Are you the time tech?”
“No, no,” said Lilah. “I’m the boss lady.” She smiled at Marius, then turned to Annelise. “This is Annelise Azaine, she’s our expert on time mechanics, but she doesn’t feel up to the kind of tinkering we might need. This over here is Rob Ashtree, he’s just a time detective, aren’t you, champ?”
“Pretty much,” said Rob, shaking George’s hand.
They sat down: George and Lilah in wooden chairs, Annelise and Rob on the ottoman and Marius in the comfy chair, which he shared with the cat.
“And this is Theodora,” said Marius.
“Nice to meet you, Theodora,” said George. “She your familiar?”
“More or less,” said Marius.
“So, Mr. Gervais. I can call you George?” Lilah asked.
“Yes, of course,” said George.
“So, where are you from and what have you been up to? And all that.”
“And all that,” repeated George. “I’m from Visgor, you know Visgor?”
“Is it, um, tertiary?”
“No, it must be quaternary though. You’re from Padva, right? Lilah Bay?”
“Do not tell me you know all about me.”
“I don’t. I don’t, but you were chasing bad people across histories before that was even a thing. You’re sort of known among technician types. You know, can you have a history that contains a contradiction? If you take out a time traveler in a given history, are they doomed in all histories or can they still have indefinite life? Can you cut across histories? It’s interesting to know.”
“And somehow my name comes up? All right, George, me is not what I want to ask about. This interview is about you. What have you been up to?”
“Sorry, sorry. I was a mariner on Visgor, but apparently I was good at magic, because before I knew it I had all these spells down. And because I pretty near grew up on a wooden ship, I got to tinkering with stuff and from wind crystals to pipes that don’t run out, it wasn’t very far to making gadgets that let you time travel. Or see where you’re time traveling to. You all know about stuff like that. But yeah. Eventually I went to the Institute.”
“Yeah,” said Annelise. “The one on Groria.”
“It was open to mariners,” said George.
“It was open,” said Lilah, “to people who were especially good at time mechanics. You call yourself a time technician? What’s that mean?”
“Mostly,” said George, “people call on me to fix up items, you know, portals and port-keys and the odd jump engine or time booth. Portals can be pretty bad, they can create all kinds of problems, you can move someone’s portal into a volcano, you can redirect people to another portal, all sorts of things, and they break in the most interesting ways too.”
“Who do you work for?” asked Lilah.
“Councils I trust, people I trust, I can pick and choose.”
“Elves. Amazons of the star lanes, not so much the ones who ride horses in the hills, they don’t time travel. Who else? Eamond of Loring is a big hero of mine. Gahan of Efling, he had a lot of trouble with the mechanical stuff. Jump engines. They break too, and that can leave you literally nowhere.”
“Not a lot of people can afford them,” said Marius.
“They take some special stuff, and it tends to be fragile. I don’t believe in them myself.”
“So,” said Lilah, “suppose you wanted to find someone and their time trace came out of a universe no one could find anymore.”
“What? Wait, is this something that happened? Okay. I’d have to build a trace scanner, it wouldn’t be perfect but it’d find you something. You’re looking for someone? You know a scan like that might just as easily find you that person in a history that was totally unrelated to what you wanted. Bob Number 3 might have murdered some guy and Bob Number 5 is the one who shows up on the scan.”
“We’d take Bob Number 5 right now, just so we could ask him some questions,” said Lilah. “You can do this?”
“I’m not going to promise anything,” said George. “But I bet I could make something happen. This is looking for a missing person?”
“More a missing universe,” said Rob. “But there’s a person involved, yes.”
Lilah looked at Marius. “Did you, you know, check his references or anything?”
“Oh, the Elves swear by him,” said Marius. “Just as they swore Rob was on the up and up.”
“Well, would you like a job?” Lilah asked George. “We’re detectives. We’re supposed to be solving crimes and bringing people to justice.”
“Out of a space like this? Sure. I’ll sign on. Is there pay?”
“Expenses,” said Marius. “And equipment, all you’ll ever need.”
“I like equipment,” said George, smiling with all his teeth. He ran his hand over his short stubbly black hair, then put his captain’s hat back on. “And who am I working for? Lilah Bay, but—?”
“The Violet Council,” said Lilah. “You’re going to be our Chief Technical Officer. And you get to start right after breakfast. I imagine you drink coffee.”
“Well, I have to go get my stuff,” said George. “And I’m gonna need a couple of rooms.”
“A couple of rooms?” asked Rob.
“Sure, pal,” said George. “I gotta sleep in one, and the other is for my stuff.”
“We have plenty of space, George,” said Marius. “If you find you need more than we have in this, ah, complex, you can expand into another apartment on the floor. One is told that there are plenty of places.”
George grinned. “The city,” he said. “Always wanted a reason to move here. My other place is a boat. Okay, let’s have a look.”
Marius and George went back into the living quarters. Rob said to Annelise, “He must have a lot of stuff. I only need the one room.”
“You’re not a time tech,” said Lilah. “You’re a wizard on the run. And you have that place in the Blue City of Delevara. That’s where all your stuff is, right?”
“Piles of it,” said Rob. “I used to be quite the collector of crap. Okay, you’re right, boss lady, I got everything I need right here in the city of city.”
“What about you, Annelise? All your stuff here?”
“All my stuff,” said Annelise, “is in two bags. And the two bags are in my room. Mr. Marius helped me magic them here the night you hired me.”
“Were you between jobs?” asked Rob.
“Between jobs. I guess.” She looked at Lilah. “You?”
“Me?” said Lilah. “I didn’t own anything. Didn’t I tell you how he hired me? It’s quite the story. I’ll tell you all about it when I remember any of the stuff that happened right before he hired me. I’m kind of a clean slate.”
“So you don’t have a place to go on your days off.”
“What days off? Why would I want a day off?”
“And Rob? How much of your time do you expect to spend in your little house in the Blue City of Delevara?”
“Oh, uh,” said Rob. After a moment, he said, “None.”
“None?” Lilah repeated.
“None. If I go back there I would stand a high probability of becoming dead.”
“Fact?” asked Annelise.
“Fact,” said Rob. “Someone tried to kill me last time I slept there. They were watching the hold place where my stuff is stored.”
“You have enemies,” said Lilah.
“You do too,” Annelise pointed out. Her blue eyes held Lilah’s. “You just don’t know who they are because you’ve forgotten them.”
Lilah was thinking of Elio, and then for a moment she glimpsed the dark woman in the hooded robe, and the faint glow in front of her. “Yeah,” said Lilah. “Thanks for pointing that out.”
“Then speaking for myself,” Annelise went on, “isn’t it interesting that none of us has anywhere else to go, anything else to do but solve the next case, anywhere else to live but back in that little warren of flats back there, we don’t get paid because no one needs more money than we already have, but we’re all looking over our shoulders because someone did something really bad to us and it didn’t kill us and they might want to finish the job, and, um, here we are trying to solve a case?”
“It’s weird,” said Lilah. “Moving right along, if we need more room, or if you’d like to get another employee in here, I think we can make that happen. Either of you need another room or two? We got ‘em.”
“Sure,” said Rob.
“We need a library too,” said Annelise. “So, one for Rob, one for me, one for you obviously, and one for a library: that makes four rooms we’re requisitioning, and not big ones.” She looked around. “So whoever the spooks are who enforce the rules in this place, you know, whoever passes out the keys to the offices, that doesn’t seem like to much to ask.” She looked at Lilah. “Lilah,” she said, “where do the rooms come from? Who does run this city thing?”
“Not,” said Lilah, “a, clue.”
“Lilah,” said Annelise in a low voice, “do we need to know who the Violet Council is?”
“I don’t know who the Violet Council is,” said Lilah, in her best sotto voce.
“Should we ask,” said Rob, “what you think about Marius?”
“You have to trust someone,” said Lilah. “And that’s a problem. All the people I trusted were horribly killed. Every single one.” She looked off into space. They thought she was going to cry. “I never had that many friends, fortunately.” She looked Rob in the eye. “I trust you as much as I trust anyone. That’s not saying much, is it?”
“No, it’s not,” said Rob.
“I encourage you to adopt the same attitude,” said Lilah. “I’ll look into the room thing. Let’s go see how George is doing, and maybe I can drag Marius away for some office allocation talk.”
“So it’s pretty primitive,” said George Gervais of Visgor. They were standing around in the room that was slated to be George’s work room, which was about five meters square with no windows and three doors. Several crates stood together like beleaguered allies in the middle of the room; right beside the door that went out into the hall, a curtained booth had been put up, seemingly out of random brooms and mops; and along the far wall, the one without any doors in it, a sort of cabinet had a sort of workbench on top of it. One of its cabinet doors was open, and a set of four or five crystals glowed dimly inside, connected by gleaming strands of glass thread.
George pulled a board the size of his forearm out of a drawer in the cabinet. It was connected to the crystals by a triple strand of glass thread. It had dozens of buttons and dials on it. He set some of the dials, then flicked some switches, and then he pressed two buttons, a white one and a green one. The crystals glowed a little more, the glass thread pulsed a little.
He was looking up in the air in front of them. He twiddled a dial, then another.
Strands began to come into focus. In the air in front of them, colored curves glowed in three dimensions plus, somehow, one or more additional ones.
“Time traces,” said George, adjusting. For just a moment the background focused: a sea of trillions of strands of existence, stretched along their natural grain. Then he focused again, and the background disappeared and there were dozens of bright, fragile curves across space and time.
“Nice, George,” said Annelise.
“Each of these is someone time traveling,” said Lilah. “How does your machine even do that?”
“It ain’t easy,” said George. “You have to be able to see someone’s entire life as a 4D object in time space, right? Then a time travel looks like someone sliced your life straight across at one time, and put the future half at some other time. It sounds kind of gory, but that’s basically what you do, and it actually works. Because you can actually see the translation zone, the kind of reflection or refraction between the 3D face where you left on your time journey and the 3D face where you arrived. Time travelers leave these curves where that slice translates across time space. See?”
“Well, I get it,” said Annelise.
“So, um,” said Lilah, “what are we looking at exactly?”
He dialed a little, and the view perceptibly shifted and rotated. They could see certain points that were knots of connecting curves. “This,” said George, indicating a knot in the slowly shifting fabric of the bright pathways. “That’s us. Right here. There’s a lot of stuff going in and out, and you know, I can pick out where most of you guys came from. But it doesn’t find everything, and some things are just plain hidden from setups like mine.”
“Like, is that my trace?” asked Lilah. “Why am I pink?”
“Annelise here is green and Rob is blue. It’s sort of random.”
“Which one is Lucy?” asked Lilah.
“I don’t know. Couple of ways to find out. Easiest would be if any of you guys could imprint a mental image of your, um, Lucy.”
“Have Rob do it,” said Annelise. “No, seriously.”
“Sure,” said Rob. “Lay it on me.”
George fumbled around in one of his tool bags, and found a rectangular clear crystal. He tossed it to Rob. Annelise got out her wand and grinned at Rob. “I got this,” she said.
“What do I do?”
“Put the crystal to your forehead,” said Annelise. “Think about Lucy. Think of her saying something.” She moved her wand forward till its tip was a centimeter from the crystal Rob held. “Ar yg dro shin,” she said.
“Did it go?” asked Rob, looking at the crystal.
“Gimme,” said George. Rob tossed it to him and he connected it with two bendable tubes to a tank-like apparatus that somehow connected to the crystals in the cabinet.
A faint purple curve was suddenly highlighted. George adjusted a dial and it turned bright red. “That’s her,” he said. “That’s your Lucy.” They all went and had a good look at that scarlet strand.
“This must be Llanduvar, then,” said Rob. “But where was she before Llanduvar?”
Indeed, the only thing that color of red in the entire weird display was that one strand. She never left the city nexus, where they were all now gathered looking at her strand, and she never arrived at Llanduvar.
“Well,” said Lilah, “it would’ve been too simple if we could just follow her trace.”
“Let me work on this,” said George. “Maybe I can shift some numbers around and get a better picture.”
“Sure,” said Lilah, wondering why her pink pathway seemed to go back only as far as her jump with Marius into the city: it was as if that moment was the beginning of her career. It would, she thought, have been too simple if she could just follow her trace back to wherever she’d been, and whoever had nearly killed her and blown out her memory. But she really, really had a few things to say to that person.
“So,” said Marius as he took Lilah and her colleagues back to the front office, “do you want to talk about your fact-finding mission, or would you rather not? It’s fine either way.”
“Okay,” said Lilah, “just so you know I’m not conceding my right to remain silent. Short story: we didn’t find her. The guy from the past who she met at Llanduvar, he turned out to be a professor at Olvar’s version of the Institute, alchemy professor. Salagon. He remembered her but he claimed he couldn’t say anything for fear of time paradoxes.”
“And you believed him as such?”
“Not even a little,” said Lilah, “but I can’t figure out how he could be covering anything up, because I thought he was kind of an idiot.” She looked at Rob and Annelise.
“Or he was just being conservative,” said Rob. “Like, holding out for the Old Ways and all that.”
“So in all this, no Lucy?” asked Marius.
“None,” said Lilah. “She left Salagon’s room at the institute, or near there, and she went to look for the old place, and she couldn’t find it, so she stumbled into that weird city place where you got me from, and then here for her interview with us. Dead end.”
“Until George produces his next amazing feat,” said Annelise.
“Are you happy with your situation, Lilah?” asked Marius.
“I think so,” she replied. “I just hope this George thing is okay.”
“I’m sure the George thing will be okay,” said Marius. “I think I’ll be off for a while. Don’t do anything outrageous. And if you need more resources, just pick up the phone.”
“Wait. You’re going somewhere?”
“Yes, Lilah. I have work to do other places. I will be back soon, probably a few days from now.”
“What do you mean by that? A few days? Just curious.”
“Just what I said. I would guess, two to six days. Till then,” and he stepped out the door. Lilah stepped into the hall after him, and he was just vanishing, smile and all.
Several hours later, the three detectives were playing cards when George came out of his room to borrow Annelise. An hour later, they came out with a single product: a black metal box, about five by three by two centimeters.
“Here you go,” said George. “My pride and joy. Can’t wait to see if it works.”
“What’s it do?” asked Lilah.
“Somebody with knowledge of Lucy has to charge the box with her image. You can do that, right?”
“Oh yeah,” said Annelise. “Rob crushed that.”
“Okay,” said George, “so once it’s charged, all you have to do is hold your rings to the box and it should catapult you to a version of her, if there is one out there.”
“And if there isn’t?” asked Rob.
“You shouldn’t go anywhere. Note I said should, shouldn’t. We can’t really test something like this. Unless you want to run a test right now.”
“I can’t think how we’d do that,” said Lilah, “without getting ourselves in as much trouble as if we just used the dang thing to find Lucy.”
“Okay,” said George. “I’ll buy that. I mean, you have to know that this is a really unreliable thing to do. I don’t think there’s any way you’ll be sucked into a black hole, but this could easily go wrong. You don’t want to lose your ring because something went wrong with the box.” He handed it to Rob. “So,” he said, looking back at Lilah, “are you interested in using this thing?”
“I dunno,” said Lilah. “How likely is it to blow up?”
“It’s not going to blow up,” said George. “But if you don’t get the energy contribution up high enough before it crests, you’ll crash and you’ll have to wait six to eight hours to recharge before you can have another go.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means get it right the first time, if you don’t mind my advising you. Hey, if it doesn’t work, you get some sleep and start fresh.”
“Sounds legit to me,” said Lilah to Annelise.
“I guess Rob’s okay with it,” said Annelise, watching Rob release a memory of Lucy into the box. “Shall we?”