I should not have done it.
I have a manuscript due on the editor’s desk in January. I took a week off to write a short story set in my background of Metachronopolis, the golden city beyond the end of time. My previous two Metachronopolis stories, CHOOSERS OF THE SLAIN and MURDER IN METACHRONOPOLIS both appeared in Mike Allen’s CLOCKWORK PHOENIX anthology. The last time I wrote him, he said he would look at another Metachronopolis story, and I was so eager to continue the tradition, that I sent him story written just for him for CLOCKWORK PHOENIX 4.
Why am I telling you this? Because I would like all of you who are superstitious to cross your fingers, and all who believe in divine intervention to cross yourselves for me, and if you are an atheist, you are useless to me, because I would really like to sell this story, and it will take some sort of miracle.
It is one of the few tales I wrote with a specific editor in mind (well, the book I wrote for John W Campbell Jr, THE CONCUBINE VECTOR does not really count) and I am as shy as a girl at a Sadie Hawkins dance asking a guy out. (And if you are too young to catch the reference, you should talk to your parents more often. Or their parents.)
For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Mike Allen set out to collect stories (if I may quote his guidelines) “that sidestep expectations in beautiful and unsettling ways, that surprise with their settings and startle with the ways they cross genre boundaries, that aren’t afraid to experiment with storytelling techniques.”
If you are keeping track, MURDER IN METACHRONOPOLIS appeared in CLOCKWORK PHOENIX 3 which you can purchase at
“Allen’s third volume of extraordinary short stories reaches new heights of rarity and wonder … Without a wrong note, all the stories in this anthology admirably fulfill Allen’s promise of ‘beauty and strangeness.’”
— Publishers Weekly, starred review
Critically-acclaimed and award-nominated stories by Marie Brennan, Tori Truslow, Georgina Bruce, Michael M. Jones, Gemma Files, C.S.E. Cooney, Cat Rambo, Gregory Frost, Shweta Narayan, S.J. Hirons, John Grant, Kenneth Schneyer, John C. Wright, Nicole Kornher-Stace and Tanith Lee.
and CHOOSERS OF THE SLAIN appeared in CLOCKWORK PHOENIX.
Which you can purchase at
“Lush descriptions and exotic imagery startle, engross, chill and electrify the reader, and all 19 stories have a strong and delicious taste of weird.”
— Publishers Weekly
Selected for the Locus Magazine 2008 Recommended Reading List
Includes critically-acclaimed and award-nominated stories by Catherynne M. Valente, David Sandner, John Grant, Cat Rambo, Leah Bobet, Michael J. DeLuca, Laird Barron, Ekaterina Sedia, Cat Sparks, Tanith Lee, Marie Brennan, Jennifer Crow, Vandana Singh, John C. Wright, C.S. MacCath, Joanna Galbraith, Deborah Biancotti and Erin Hoffman.
What is his latest anthology? Here is an image:
What is the story? Well, let me print the opening, which, since this is a time travel tale, starts at the end. If you want to read the rest, Mike Allen has to buy the story.
So I am telling you the end before you hear the beginning or the middle, right? Don’t fret. You want to find out what happens, how it turns out? That is all you damn ghosts ever want to know: What will happen, not what should happen.
That part is up to you.
It was my three thousand and twenty ninth day of personal continuity, and it felt as cold as the midnight train out of Santa’s Jolly Workshop in the Northerly parts of Arctic. In the refrigerator car.
It was it never supposed to get this cold in Metachronopolis, the City Beyond Time, not even at night, because we have no seasons here, no years. No death, either. But I could see frost on the shining mirror-bright gold of the towers, icicles on the metal of the balcony rails and the high bridges that hang over misty nothing, and my breath was as pale as the smoke from the cigarette I craved so badly.
I promised myself I would take the one and only last cigarette from my last pack of Old Golds I keep scotch-taped to the bottom of the wastepaper basket back in the office. If I lived through the night.
It was dark. The light is supposed to shine from every surface of the Towers of Time, gold and lovely as the sun. But the surfaces even here were cracked, and long swathes were dim, and maybe the historical periods to which they were tuned were less likely, less real, than they should have been. And this is one of the better spots in the city.
The balcony circling the tower at this level was wider than one of those new, two-lane interstate freeways from back from my day, and the corner where I stood was dark. In fact, the nearer two sides of this eight-sided tower for about a half a mile up were dark, but the upper expanses above that were twice as bright. And there were heights beyond those heights, straight up and shiny as a sword blade. The upper penthouses and museums and memorials where no human being ever goes and no door ever opens were so bright and so distant they could have been stars or moons.
From my dark corner, then, about twenty feet above me and about as far as the pitcher’s mound is from home plate was a man-high, or, rather, dame-high square panel where the tower wall had been turned semi-transparent and sound-permeable.
A beautiful girl, no, the beautiful girl, the most beautiful girl in history, was outlined in silhouette against the panel for a moment, as she stepped from the shower toward the bed.
When she lifted her arms above her head to wind a towel around her hair, the perfection of her figure was cast against the panel, and burned into my retinas and memory by some extra dose of masculine eyeball juice. Sure, I should have blinked or looked away, but I was not watching her to watch her, if you know what I mean. This was business.
If I had been high class, I would have said Is this the face that launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Illium? But I ain’t classy, and I wasn’t exactly looking at her face.
So I let out a wolf whistle.
Don’t worry. I had a polarized soundlessness field around me ten feet in each direction, one of my gizmos from my old job the quartermaster never collected back like he was supposed to. He never collected it back because I stole it. From the Twenty-Fifth Century, a period when the Han Chinese, the People of the Heavenly River, were ruling the Northern Hemisphere, and whatever of the Southern was not covered in glaciers. Don’t even think to ask me how it worked. I am still a bit unclear on how jet planes fly without a prop. All I knew was it glowed if you put your thumb in the right spot, and sound could come in but not go out. I also knew it made me lazy, since I was out of the habit as being quiet as a Cigar Store Indian when I was on a job.
Queequeg did not have a silence gizmo, and was not out of the habit. He was at the far corner of the balcony, about as far from me as first base from home plate. He was standing as silent as an angel in a graveyard, dark in his seaman’s coat and silky black top hat, spine as straight and tall as his harpoon. He did not have to wipe bootblack on his face like I did, and his face tattoos broke up his outline as nicely as camouflage paint. His harpoon was sharp enough: he shaved in the morning with the thing.
But, like me, he was mesmerized by the girl.
You’d think he only like girls like they fashion them back in Rokovoko in the Cannibal Islands, lip plugs and grass skirts or whatever. But this one, there was something about her that was more than just fashion. Something that made a man just want to help her, protect her, devote their lives to her. That same something made other men want to take her, use her, abuse her.
And in this damned city, where there was no one in really charge, no governor, no police, not for people the Wardens forgot, the strong men just did what they wanted. And the weak just suffered. You’d be surprised how many periods of history were all run the same way, until you are living rubbing elbows with them.
She stood, lightly on her feet, for a moment in front of that clear panel, and pointed the toes of her back leg as if she were reaching for something, and maybe she arched her back a little too much. Even from this far away, I heard her giggle.
“Don’t overdo it, doll,” I muttered. “Don’t want him to die of heart failure. Just get him to show.”
I had told her the keep the window tuned open. I had been afraid, cold night like this, she would want to keep warm, and forget.
It is supposed not to get cold. The Time Wardens, the Lords of Eternity, the Chronocrats, the guys who can play cardtricks with eons, centuries, histories and fates and human lives like stage magicians, whatever you want to call them, they are supposed to take care of all that.
Beneath the towers was a cloudscape of mists and fogs, a side effect of all the parachronic and anachronic energies the Time Wardens and their hidden machines emit. Too many changes to too many versions of the past had altered the location of land and sea, and photons wandering through overlapping fields of Schrodinger’s blur make solid objects look like phantoms, and phantoms look like mistclouds. Maybe the towers rested on bedrock deep enough that no change of world history, no matter how far back, could change it; maybe the Wardens merely ordered gravity to stand still and nail the baseless towers in place. (Couldn’t they? Gravity was, after all, just a side-effect or cross-section of time continuity. Or, at least, that was what I had been told.)
At the moment, the mists below the towers were agitated, and smoky arms of cloud-scape were climbing upward toward the black sky, an in them you could see out-of-focused images of mountains and islands and volcanoes, flickering and shifting. That meant the Continuum Winds were blowing. The disturbances could have been caused by a careless Time Warden meddling with his own past, or some sort of disagreement, or duel, or war between them.
Of course, they don’t have wars—how could they?—since each knows how everything turns out. Or so I had been told, back when I worked for those bastards.
Whatever. But the mist was rising, sending smoky fingers reaching like greedy orphans toward the bright jewels of the upper floors. And the temperature was dropping, because heat getting randomized like photons losing their way is another side effect of paradox poisoning the continuum.
The rising mist did not improve my mood. You can only hem the garment so many times before it falls to pieces. But you knew that.
And people don’t die here. The Wardens take care of everything. I’d been told that, too.
Don’t believe everything you’re told. (Don’t even believe me when I tell you that, okay?)
Besides, I next remembered I had no cigarettes left. Some prophet from downstream had filched that last one from me, the bum. So it was back to finding some bumming a smoke from Queequeg’s tomahawk, or putting the touch on Sir Walter Scott from two levels down. But I don’t like pipes or cigars as much. Doesn’t suit me.
On the other hand, next time I had a working destiny crystal, I could step backward through the calendar, or just reach my hand across last week and snatch it from my ghostward version. I did not remember minding, not clearly, so younger-me would not mind, or probably would not.
Jack had been posted in front of the other entrance to this suite, the one Queequeg was not watching. He kept walking back toward me, pretending he needed to hear the plan again, but really just for a chance to jaw.
He was fit, and looked young for his age, which I pegged somewhere between forty-five and fifty. Jack was dark-haired, slightly squint-eyed, with a serious and strong-jawed face. He had a black eye, but said he did not remember how he got it.
It was a big mistake to bring the client out on a job, but this time, I did not see what choice I had.
“That’s her. What do you think? Just as pretty in real life, eh?” he said as he entered the silence field. (I gave him points for remembering not to talk outside the field.) His was a broad-voweled Boston accent, high class. His breath was a cloud of cold steam too.
“So that is Helen of Troy, eh?” I said. “She does not look Greek.”
“No. She is just one of them. One of the Helens of Troy. Helen of Troys? What is the Plural of Helen of Troy?”
“Hellene,” I said.
“Anyway, she is mine. She is an actress. She can fool him. That is good, isn’t it?”
Nervous chatter. I wondered if he would shut up if I said nothing.
Nope. He kept talking. “What are our chances, Mr Frontino?”
He was dressed normally. I mean, what looked normal to me: shoes, coat, tie, trenchcoat. (You’d be surprised at how rare shoes are in history. Boots and sandals for horsemen and higher classes was the norm for most centuries, and everyone else goes barefoot.)
No hat, though. If the men of my near future decide to stop wearing the fedora, they are crazy. It is not like they do not have hot sun and cold wind in the near future, not to mention bald spots.
And what would you tip to a lady if a lady strolled by? And what could you use to casually cover your gun-hand if a cop strolled by?
Maybe there are no ladies in the future; but I don’t tell me there are no cops. Even after all history is over and done with and the Time Travelers all retire to their golden city, there are still cops. I know. I used to be one.
Jack was from the same timestream as me, same country, even the same century. By Metachronopolis standards, that made us practically Siamese Twins. He was from twenty years prophetic to me (or I was twenty years ghost to him, same difference), but I could say things like, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more,” without either of us needing to have the artificial part of our memory blur in timeshift to insert a retroactive recollection of having had learned a language, or a lingo, we didn’t the moment before remember having learned. Yup, the Wardens can do things like that to their servants and serfs and slaves and the people they keep as pets.
This tower was designated ‘Special Prestige’ which meant it had a double helping of golden light shining from it by day, more ambrosia in the air by night, more soaring music pouring from upper windows at odd hours, and gaiety, and laughter. It also meant if a slob with no prestige like me had tried to step onto the high arching bridges from the balcony of another tower, I would have found myself slipping through the diamond surface of the walkway and back five seconds to the moment before I stepped. Unless Jack, or someone else the Time Wardens took a fancy to, walked me in.
“Our chances are good, aren’t they, Mr Frontino? You’ve done this before. You come highly recommended. Lucky Luciano said—” Then he realized his voice was creeping note by note into a higher pitch, and he clenched his teeth, hugging himself for warmth.
This Tower was Greco-Roman at this altitude, and higher up was European Ascendancy, Industrial Revolution, and rumors said there was chamber dedicated to a Moonshot somewhere way high up, in the Twentieth Century level. At the moment were low down, near the boundary where history turns into myth, but the tower was still plenty bright. Just not on this side.
Behind me was the gently arching un-railed bridge leading across the nothingness to the shining tower of Babylon, where the folk and museum pieces from the time stream where the Greeks didn’t win the pennant at Thermopylae, and the Persians were the ones who settled the Mediterranean to the British Isles, discovered the jib sail, the printing press, gunpowder, and the New World. And, no, I don’t recognize any of the names from after Cyrus, Xerxes or Darius.
But there is very little traffic between Babylonian and European Towers. There were no gardens nor cottages on this vast bridge as there were on so many others, and most of the golden deck plates of solidified time energy were dark. There were even some gaps in the understructure, gaping where plates were missing.
Why were there no rails on the bridge? But why should there be? A Warden who reads in his future diary that he is due to fall off a bridge that day instead just stays in bed. No no one important cares if one of us mere pawns falls off. The next time a Warden wants our services, he can make it so we now have not had died and never did, as easy as ringing for Jeeves the butler.
“Mr. K, no such thing as chance in this town,” I said in answer to him. My voice was a little rawer than it should have been. Blame the hooch. I could not get good whiskey here, and I sure as hell did not go out on nights like this, jobs like this, without one shot to warm me up, and another to steady my nerve. “There is only three ways this comes out. Either the guy is running blind and is already dead, too dead to go back warn himself; or nothing is going to happen because he looked ahead, saw the outcome, and decided not to show.”
Jack had been some sort of big deal back home. Well connected to the Old Money, and even better connected to the Mob, and with an ace career in politics. The most powerful man in the world in his day. But his day was just one more card in the deck of the Wardens. Here, he was a nobody.
“Call me Jack.” He might have been trembling just from the cold. After all, the guy had been in the service. He had seen combat. You can tell. The look in the eye, the set of the shoulders.
“I appreciate the gesture, sir. I do.” I said patiently. “But you are a client of mine, and if the Wardens get wind of this, if there is any investigation, I never knew you. Man’s got to watch his own back. I do what I am hired to.”
“I understand that. But if you are not on a first name basis with a man who is pulling a — is doing a — I mean, doing a job for you —?” But shooting a man in the enemy’s uniform in a hot war when he is shooting at you; that is not the same as gunning down a guy in cold blood who dresses like you.
“It won’t be homicide,” I said.
“Whatever you want to call it,” he said. “Just so it gets done.”
His voice had been charming, smooth, rich-toned. Now it was colder than the mists closing in. It was the voice of a judge pronouncing a death sentence, or a commander in chief ordering brave young men to the deaths.
“No, sir,” I said. “I mean it really will not be homicide. I am going to wait until she’s in danger. Slaying a man in self defense or defense of others is justified. Killing him in revenge is not.”
“Not even revenge for rape? Not even for that?”
Now his voice was even colder than that of a Judge passing sentence. He sounded like death itself. He did not need to mention that there was no justice in this town. The City Beyond Time was also Beyond the Law.
Maybe just the cold was given him the shakes. Maybe he was scared. But I think he was shaking in rage.
I shrugged. Don’t get me wrong. I felt for the guy. I would have done the same thing in his shoes. Heck, I once killed a man for beating a girl. (I would have just broke a finger or two if he had not pulled a knife. I took it from his hand and left it in his eye.) Girls are special. You are supposed to take care of them. I get it. I understand.
But I got my principles. They aren’t the best principles in the world. In fact, they are pretty shabby. Someday I should take them out of hock, polish them up. But they are what I got. They are all I got.
Killing a rapist in cold blood, no. I won’t do it. Killing a rapist in a girl’s bedroom in cold blood, you bet. Glad to.
Because if you rescue Helen of Troy, you are a hero, and old Homer will sing a song about you. He lives directly below me off the waste chute in the hall, and sometimes I bring him doughnuts if I can steal them from the Great War commissary, which is two floors up. He sang a mighty song for Little John when John saved Helen from Paris of Troy by cracking the kid’s spine with a quarterstaff. Through the guts, I should mention. And Homer sang a mighty song for William “Big Bill” Dwyer when Bill saved another version of Helen from a parallel world where she was married to Theseus of Athens from being carried off by Menelaus of Sparta. The Spartan king ended up with a longshoreman’s hook through his soft parts. Little John was one of Robin Hood’s gang and a cutpurse, and Big Bill had been a stevedore before he turned to rum running and hockey.
I didn’t want to be a hero. Dangerous work. Lousy pay. But it is better than being a murderer, and I wanted that song. It is something Homer does.
“I can rescue her,” I said. “And kill him gladly in the act. I cannot execute him.”
Jack was silent a moment, looking down. He was looking at the baseball bat I had tucked under my elbow. My other weapon, my Special, was holstered under my armpit. I also had a switchblade in my pocket, making it three weapons.
“That’s only two,” said Jack.
“Two what?” I said, surprised. For a moment I was wondering if he knew I was counting up the number of guys who killed people for Helen. Or counting my weapons.
“Outcomes. Three outcomes.” He said. “But you only mentioned two. What is the third?”
“The third is that he saw what is going to happen and likes the outcome. That means he brings the Tin Woodman.”
“A mechanical man. Like Elektro from the New York World’s Fair. A robot. It can timeshift a second or two, and always be where it needs to be before you can. Bullets and rays and stuff bounce off its armor, unless you hit it in a joint, because the armor is solid time-stuff like the tower walls. The one weakness it has, is that whatever is not listed as a weapon in its orders, it ignores. Some of them are more sophisticated than others.”
“Others? Is there more than one?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Does there have to be? It might be the same one from different moments in time. And it doesn’t have to shoot back: it carries an ax. The Tin Man can step back or forward through a five minute range, until it finds the one split second you are off-balance or not looking. It can take all the time in the world and try again as often as it likes. It chops heads, stores them inside it’s skull which is hollow and made of glass, like a fishbowl, so that you and everyone can see who it killed last.”
“Grisly. Sounds like something from your Man’s island.”
“He’s not my Man.”
“Quickwig.” (Not his name, but close as us guys from the Bronx can say it.) “He’s doing me a favor out of the benevolence of his big heart. It’s not like I got anything to swap him for. Besides, he is a prince. Back in his day.”
Jack nodded. He knew the feeling.
“So Quickwig outranks me,” I said.
“He does not seem like the type who does your kind of work.”
“The first time I met Quickwig, we were rooming together, and had to share a bed, because of the crowding. He came at me with his harpoon, and my pistol did not leap into my hand. So I had to wrestle him. He broke my neck and the Time Wardens brought me back to life, so I decided we had to be friends. I replayed the scene and gave him the bed this time, and bowed politely to his little fetisch named Yojo, and once Yojo said I was jake, everything was copasetic.”
“Sounds like a good man to have in your corner.”
“He eats people.”
Jack shivered again. “You come from my Century, so you know modern life has a price. Not just pollution and poverty. The noble savage is closer to unspoiled Eden than we are.”
“Don’t be a jerk, sir, if you don’t mind my saying so. Every sorry last one of us is just as far from Eden as everyone else. If you treat people like a sack of lunchmeat, like my friend does, and not like a human being, what are you?”
“A client of yours. If your man-eating friend is so bad, why bring him in to my business?”
“I take people as I find them. For this business, we may need a man-eater. And who says I am any better than him? You know my reputation.”
“He treats us like cattle to be slaughtered, and you treat us as cows to be milked. Whatever the market will bear, eh? A killer for hire? An anything for hire?”
“I was referring to the kind of things I did for the Wardens. Back when I was a killer for hire.”
“So what does a retired killer for hire do?”
“I think about what makes good men go bad.” I said. The words were bitter in my mouth. I turned my head and spit on the deck.
“I didn’t realized I had hired such a philosopher,” he said. His charming smile was back. “Long stakeouts give you too much time to think, eh?”
“Too much time to think, too little time to drink.” I said, and he gave me a polite chuckle, even thought it was pretty sad joke. If it was a joke.
I waved may hand as if the digression were cigarette smoke I could fan aside. “Any case, back to what I was saying: the beheading thing allows the Tin Man to make kill-identification easier back at the station. And if there is a Warden at the station, sometimes he might backdate the Tin Man, so it when you sudden find it standing next to you with an ax, you can see your own bloody head with a surprised but stupid look of shock staring out from inside the hollow glass helmet of the machine. At least, I think they are machines.”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“Quickwig says they are hobgoblins called Talamaur. Sucks life from the dying. Eats the hearts of healthy men when they sleep. Who can say his guess is not closer to the horseshoe stake of truth than mine.”
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.” Said Jack sourly. “So what happens if he has a Tin Man with him?”
“Then the third outcome is also a sure thing.”
“If he shows up with a Tin Woodman, I am already dead.”
At that moment, a beautiful, soft lilting song, half-breathless, half-panting or purring, came from the window. She was singing. It sounded so much like a love song, a song of erotic passion, that I did not actually catch the words.
When I did, I laughed. She really was pulling out all the stops, wasn’t she?
Happy birthday to you,
happy birthday to you-uu
And then the girl let out a scream like the shriek of a bird of prey, quivering up to hysteria. She had the trained voice of a singer and an actress who could hit the high note loud enough to hear in the cheap seats, and she certainly was built like she had excess lung capacity, if you know what I mean.
There were shadows in the semitransparent window. For a moment, I thought it was two figures, the girl and her rapist, come back for seconds. I laughed with the feeling only cops who work for Time Wardens know, a feeling of relief because you remember just seeing the date on the headstone of the guy who just drew a knife and is coming for you.
It is like wearing the armor of the inevitable. It is like getting a big wet sloppy kiss from Lady Fate. Because you know he is the dead man.
For a moment. A bulky figure in a trenchcoat and a wide-brimmed slouch hat stepped out of the shower stall of all places, and even with the window half-dim, I could see the bathroom lights shining between the upturned collar and the downturned hatbrim, right through the glass of his empty head. So I knew I was the dead man.
My head was not propped inside the machine-man’s glass skull, which meant I would die by something that destroyed the whole body, and which left no corpse. You know what that means in this city.
I looked down at my gun, which was now in my hand. It was a Police Special. What I held in my fist was actually just the aiming unit, the emission aperture and the firing controls. The real weapon was the size of a warehouse sitting in a null-time vacuole in the fourth-and-a-half dimension halfway past next Tuesday or beyond second star to the right, with atomic piles and dynamos and batteries of big guns and futuristic zap-rays and a whole arsenal of various brands of death and maiming and unhappiness. It could blow a hole in the Moon or pick the left wing off a housefly landing on the Washington Monument if you were standing on the Empire State Building, and never mind the curve of the Earth or the prevailing winds. It was that good.
Now, it was that useless. Tin Woodman was programmed to know it was a weapon. No matter what I did, it would be counteracted before I fired.
There were tremors of cold shivering through my fingers, and I saw little blurry patches of mist clinging to my fingers. A time paradox. A decision point.
This was a moment where I either turned and ran, like Oedipus trying to run away from his cursed life, or I could go in and die like a Kamikaze pilot from Japan, convinced everything was fate and free will meant nothing.
I ran up the nearer ramp toward the girl, and sprinted toward my death.
Mine had been a good life, I guess. I had no complaints.
Strike that. My life stank like an incontinent skunk pie sandwich with no mustard if one of the slices was the heel of crust no one likes to eat, and I had loads of complaints.