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In The Beginning Was The Misprint
“One mistake,” Theo said sadly, “one silly little mistake, and now look at me.”
The Human Resources manager stared at him with fascination. “Not that little,” she said breathlessly. “You blew up—”
“A mountain, yes.” He shrugged. “And the Very Very Large Hadron Collider, and very nearly Switzerland. Like I said, one mistake. I moved the decimal point one place left instead of one place right. Could’ve happened to anyone.”
The Human Resources manager wasn’t so sure about that, but she didn’t want to spoil the flow. She brushed the hair out of her eyes and smiled encouragingly. “Go on,” she said.
“Well,” Theo replied, leaning back a little in his chair, “that was just the beginning. After that, things really started to get ugly.”
“First,” Theo said, “my wife left me. You can’t blame her, of course. People nudging each other and looking at her wherever she went, there goes the woman whose husband blew up the VVLHC, that sort of thing—”
“Excuse me,” the Human Resources manager interrupted. “This would be your third wife?”
“Fourth. Oh, sorry, forgot. Pauline dumped me for her personal fitness trainer while I was still at CalTech. It was Amanda who left me after the explosion.”
“Ah, right. Go on.”
“Anyway,” Theo said, “there I was, alone, no job, no chance of anyone ever wanting to hire me ever again, but at least I still had the twenty million dollars my father left me. I mean, money isn’t everything—”
“But at least I knew I wasn’t going to starve, not so long as I had Dad’s money. And it was invested really safely.”
“In Schliemann Brothers,” Theo said mournfully, “the world’s biggest private equity fund. No way it could ever go bust, they said.” He smiled. “Ah well.”
“The lot, yes. Of course, the blow was cushioned slightly by the fact that Amanda would’ve had most of it, when the divorce went through. But instead, all she got was the house, the ranch, the ski resort and the Caribbean island. She was mad as hell about that,” Theo added with a faint grin, “but what can you do?”
The Human Resources manager was twisting a strand of her hair round her finger. “And?”
“Anyhow,” Theo went on, “it’s been pretty much downhill all the way since then. After I lost the house, I stayed with friends for a while, only it turned out they weren’t friends after all, not after all the money had gone. Actually, to be fair, it wasn’t just that, it was the blowing-up-the-VVLHC thing. You see, most of my friends were physicists working on the project, so they were all suddenly out of work too, and they tried not to blame me, but it’s quite hard not blaming someone when it actually is their fault.” He grinned sadly, then shrugged. “So I moved into this sort of hostel place, where they’re supposed to help you get back on your feet.”
The pressure of the coiled hair around her finger was stopping her blood from flowing. She let go. “Yes? And?”
“I got asked to leave,” Theo said sadly. “Apparently, technically I counted as an arsonist, and the rules said no arsonists, because of the insurance. They told me, if I’d killed a bunch of people in the explosion it’d have been OK, because their project mission statement specifically includes murderers. But, since nobody got hurt in the blast, I had to go. So I’ve been sort of camping out in the subway, places like that. Which is why,” he added, sitting up straight and looking her in the eye, “I really need this job. I mean, it’ll help me put my life back together, get me on my feet again. Well? How about it?”
The Human Resources manager looked away. “If it was up to me—”
“Oh, come on.” Theo gave her his best dying spaniel look. “You can’t say I haven’t got qualifications. Two doctorates in quantum physics—”
“Not relevant qualifications,” the Human Resources manager said. “Not relevant to the field of flipping burgers. I’m sorry.” She did look genuinely sad, he had to give her that. “You’re overqualified. With a résumé like that, you’re bound to get a better offer almost immediately, so where’s the point in us hiring you?”
“Oh, come on,” Theo said again. “After what I’ve done? Nobody’s going to want me. I’m unemployable.”
“Yes.” She smiled sympathetically. “You are. Also, you’re a bit old—”
“Most of our entry-level staff are considerably younger than that,” she said. “I’m not sure we could find a uniform to fit you.” He could see she was struggling with something, and it wasn’t his inside-leg measurement. He betted he could guess what it would be. “And there’s the hand.”
Won his bet. He gave her a cold stare. “You do know it’s against the law to discriminate on grounds of physical disability.”
“Yes, but—” She gave him a helpless look. “Frankly, I think the company would be prepared to take a stand on this one. We’ve got our customers to think about, and—”
He nodded slowly. He could see her point. Last thing you want when you’re buying your burger, fries and shake is to see them floating towards you through the air. It was an attitude he’d learned to live with, ever since the accident had left his right arm invisible up to the elbow. He wished now he’d lied about it, but the man at the outreach centre had told him to be absolutely honest. “Fine,” he said. “Well, thanks for listening, anyhow.”
“I really am sorry.”
“Of course you are.”
“And anyway,” she added brightly, “a guy like you, with all those degrees and doctorates. You wouldn’t be happy flipping burgers in a fast-food joint.”
“Wouldn’t I?” He gave her a gentle smile. “It’d have been nice to find out. Goodbye.”
Outside, the sun was shining; a trifle brighter than it would otherwise have done, thanks to him, but he preferred not to dwell on that. He had enough guilt to lug around without contemplating the effect his mishap had had on the ozone layer. Cheer up, he ordered himself; one more interview to go to, and who knows? This time –
“Worked in a slaughterhouse before, have you?” the man asked.
“Doesn’t matter. What you got to do is,” he said, pointing down the dark corridor, “wheel that trolley full of guts from that hatch there to that skip there, empty the guts into the skip, go back, fill another trolley, wheel it to the skip, empty it, go back and fill it again. And so on. Reckon you can do that?”
“I think so.”
The man nodded. “Most of ’em stick it out three weeks,” he said. “You, I’m guessing, maybe two. Still, if you want the job—”
“Oh yes,” Theo said. “Please.”
The man shrugged. “Suit yourself. Couldn’t do it myself, and I’ve been in the slaughtering forty years, but—” He paused and frowned. “What’s the matter with your arm?”
Theo sensed that the man probably didn’t need to hear about the quantum slipstream effect of the implosion of the VVLHC. “Lost it. Bitten off by a shark.”
“Too bad. Won’t that make it awkward, loading the guts?”
“Oh, I’ll have a stab at it, see how I get on.”
“That’s the spirit,” the man said absently. “OK, you start tomorrow.”
In the beginning was the Word.
Not, perhaps, the most auspicious start for a cosmos; because once you have a Word, sooner or later you find you’ve also got an annoying Paperclip, and little wriggly red lines like tapeworms under all the proper nouns, and then everything freezes solid and dies. This last stage is known to geologists as the Ice Age, and one can’t help thinking that it could’ve been avoided if only the multiverse had been thoroughly debugged before it was released.
But things change; that’s how it works. You can see Time as a coral reef of seconds and minutes, growing into a chalk island sitting on top of an infinite coal seam studded with diamonds the size of oil tankers; and each second is a cell dividing, two, three or a million roads-not-travelled-by every time your heart beats and the silicone pulses; and every division is a new start, the beginning of another version of the story – versions in which the Red Sea didn’t part or Lee Harvey Oswald missed or Hamlet stayed in Wittenberg and got a job.
So; in the beginning was the Word, but ten nanoseconds later there was a twelve-volume dictionary, and ten nanoseconds after that a Library of Congress, with 90 per cent of the books in foreign languages. It’s probably not possible after such a lapse of time to find out what the original Word was. Given the consequences, however, it could well have been oops.
The first week wasn’t so bad. Well, it was; but at least he found the work so shatteringly exhausting that all he could do at the end of his shift was stagger home, stuff a pie or a sandwich in his face (for some reason, since he’d been working at the slaughterhouse he seemed to have lost his appetite), roll into bed and sleep like a corpse until it was time to get up and go to work. This suited him fine.
By the second week, however, he found he was coping with the exertion of gut-hauling rather better, which meant that he had enough stamina to allow him to sit staring aimlessly at the walls of his room for an hour before falling asleep. By the end of the fourth week, he could manage three hours of aimless staring with no bother at all. This wasn’t good. Staring at the walls proved to be a primitive form of meditation, in the course of which he analysed his life so far, and ended up reaching the conclusion that it hadn’t been going so well lately. Alone, all the money gone, living in a ghastly little shoebox and spending all day loading still-warm intestines into a galvanised box on wheels; it wasn’t, he couldn’t help thinking, the sort of life he’d quite reasonably anticipated five years before, when he was appointed as the youngest ever Kawaguchiya Integrated Circuits professor of multiphasic quantum dynamics at the University of Leiden.
Still, he told himself, it could be worse; at least he had a job, and somewhere to live.
The week after that, he was consoling himself that at least he had a job; furthermore, he had kind, understanding employers who didn’t mind him turning up to work looking like he’d slept in a cardboard box in the supermarket car park. This was just as well, since the landlord of the horrible little room had thrown him out for smelling overpoweringly of entrails. The cardboard box had been a lucky find. It was big. If he curled up in it like a hibernating dormouse, he could close the flaps and imagine they were the roof of a tiny, tiny little house. Generally speaking it was peaceful in the car park after 2 a.m., when the last of the local kids had gone home. Count your blessings, he told himself, it could be worse.
But then it rained, reducing his beautiful cosy box to brown porridge, and Theo started to feel despondent. His boss, a man with a heart of gold and absolutely no sense of smell, took pity on him and let him sleep beside the guts skip, but only short-term, until he could get himself fixed up with a proper home. He couldn’t, he pointed out as kindly as he could, have employees sleeping rough on the premises indefinitely. It lowered the tone.
Still, Theo told himself, as he wandered the streets one night, waiting for it to be time to go to sleep, think of all the money I’m saving not paying rent. He sat down in a shop doorway and fished out the crumpled brown envelope in which he kept his money. He counted it. Not quite enough for the man he’d once been to buy half a pair of his customary brand of socks, but, to someone lulled to sleep each night by the placid drip-drip-drip of stale blood from the hole in the guts skip floor, a tidy sum. You could buy all manner of things with that much money. Some of them in bottles.
There was a late-night off-licence just down the road. He stood up, folded the notes round his right hand and stuffed it in his overall pocket. Booze had never been one of his problems; but, given his present circumstances, he could see no reason why he shouldn’t go for the complete set. In the distance, the liquor-store window glowed a sort of golden amber, like a lighthouse guiding him home.
Inside the store it was bright and warm. A tired-looking woman stared at him, and her expression changed just a little bit. Just a little bit can mean so much – the length of a nose, the gap between lower lip and chin. Scientific studies of the human face have established that the difference between heart-stopping loveliness and look-the-other-way ugly can sometimes be as little as a quarter of an inch. On this occasion, just a little bit was plenty.
“Small bottle of lemonade, please,” Theo said. “The cheapest you’ve got.”
Later, with his back snuggled against the sharp edge of the skip and his invisible hand loosely holding a half-empty bottle of something that tasted like neat citric acid but wasn’t, he reflected on rope theory. It was a hypothesis of his own: a bit like string theory, except that it was more robust and slightly less prone to tangling itself into knots. In particular, he contemplated the notion that reality is made up of an infinite number of universes, all occupying the same place and time. In which case, somewhere nearby (so close he ought to be able to reach out and touch it) was a universe in which he’d moved that pesky decimal point right instead of left. In that universe, where would he be, right now? Switzerland, probably; in his palatial, air-freshened, carpeted office, working hard on Phase 9 before going home to his comfortable house and his loving wife. He lifted the bottle and stared through it; first through the glass, then through the clear liquid that wasn’t neat acid. The distorting effect of the bottle and the opacity of its contents blurred his focus just nicely. He tapped the bottle with the fingernails of his visible left hand, and admired the gentle, clipped ting. It looked nice and snug inside there, he decided, probably a great place to live, almost certainly better than where he was living now. He could climb inside, pull the cork in after himself, and be peaceful for a while. He’d like that. Then, maybe, after he’d been – what did wine do? – maturing in the bottle for a thousand years or so, perhaps he’d mutate or evolve into something rather better; a genie, obviously, a powerful, magical entity trapped in a bottle but capable of being released, to do good deeds and grant wishes. Maybe. Or maybe he could turn into a message, bobbing through an endless sea, bearing an awful warning.
He glanced at the label, which told him nothing he could understand.
Drowning your sorrows won’t help, said a voice in his head. It sounded a bit like his mother, a woman who’d lied to him about the existence of Santa Claus and was therefore not to be trusted on matters of any importance. Rope theory. End-of-rope theory. At the very end of your rope, you can either hang on or let go, but in most cases it makes very little difference in the long run. Besides, he wasn’t drowning his sorrows, he was dissolving them in acid. There’s a difference.
Here endeth the lesson. He drank a bit more, altering the optical qualities of the bottle, whose value as an instrument of scientific observation he was beginning to question. People reckoned the world looked better seen through the bottom of a bottle, but it didn’t. Just a bit rounder, and sort of an orange colour.
If only the heartburn wasn’t fuzzing his powers of concentration, maybe he could combine string theory and rope theory to make macramé theory; whereby it should be possible to take all those flailing strings and weave them into what you wanted them to be – a lifeline, perhaps, that’d be nice, or a halter, or a noose. Or even – how about this for a really neat idea – one of those South American rope bridges that sway alarmingly above a mind-numbing abyss, seconds before some clown with a machete cuts through the rope, as always happens in the movies, and the whole lot goes twisting and crashing back down into the –
Um. Not the sort of image you want in your mind when you’ve just drunk two-thirds of a bottle of saturated solution of saccharine on top of an end-of-date meat pie. He sat up, which made the world stop swirling. Excellent. Cause for a celebration. He celebrated with three gulping mouthfuls, dropped the bottle, closed his eyes and flopped against the side of the skip.
The bottle didn’t break when it hit the ground. Instead, it rolled a little way, bumped against the toe of Theo’s boot, and stopped. Theo was well away by then, asleep and dreaming the one where he was being chased by giant cucumbers across the shuttle bay of the Enterprise. Accordingly, he wasn’t watching the bottle as the last inch or so of acid drained out of it, revealing a small object.
To identify the object he’d have had to lean forwards and peer closely through the glass. This would’ve had a bad effect, probably culminating in the return of the meat pie, so it’s just as well he didn’t. But if he had, he’d have seen inside the bottle a tiny model of a ship, barely an inch long but perfect in every detail, right down to its gossamer rigging. The ship floated on the outgoing tide until its draught was too great for the meniscus to support it; then it flopped sideways, touched the glass wall and vanished as though it had never been.
The guts next morning were mostly sheep: grey, tubular and pungent. He tried not to look at them, with the result that he missed the trolley with a heaped armful and dumped them on his feet instead. Stooping to pick them up was no fun whatsoever. Something broke loose inside his stomach as he bent over, and he could feel his intestines being eaten from the inside out. A year ago, he told himself, just over a year ago, I was running the simulations for the quantum phase feedback inversion trials. Maybe at some point I swallowed the reactor pile, and I’m only just starting to feel the effects.
One year; how time flies. How would it be, he thought, as he slopped the last few yards of sheep gut into the skip, if I took this remarkably fine trolley and pushed it down this well-tiled corridor as fast as it can go; really fast, until it’s travelling at the speed of light? Then all I’d have to do is jump in, and – no, no point. I’d go forward in time, not back, and forward in time would probably find me still here, and that’d be too depressing for words. Oh well.
Eleven trolley-loads later, he looked up and saw his boss waddling towards him down the corridor, his nose buried in the filthiest handkerchief he’d ever seen in his life. The smell, presumably. Odd. Theo hadn’t noticed the smell for weeks.
“Got something for you,” his boss said.
His boss nodded. “Came in this morning’s post, addressed to you.”
What? A refrigerator? A camel? “A letter?”
The boss nodded. “Here.” He took an envelope from his pocket. It was white, apart from a big brown thumbprint. “Who’s writing to you, then?”
The address was printed, not handwritten. “No idea. Thanks,” he added.
“You going to open it, then?”
Theo nodded. “Later,” he said. “In my own time.”
His boss shrugged and walked away. Theo waited till he was gone, then looked down at the letter. He didn’t get mail any more. For one thing, who knew where to reach him? The writer of this letter, obviously. He frowned at it, then stuffed it into his overall pocket. The only place the letter could possibly have come from was the past, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to have anything to do with all that, thanks all the same. The past had been nice to him for thirty-odd years, but they hadn’t parted on the best of terms. If the letter was from his wife’s lawyers, he wasn’t in the mood.
His iron resolution lasted three minutes. Then he perched on the edge of the guts trolley, wiped his hands on his overalls and carefully prised back the flap of the letter, like an engineer defusing his thousandth unexploded bomb.
Dear Mr Bernstein
He glanced up at the letterhead and saw a bunch of names, huddled together like penned-up cattle. Lawyers. But not the bunch of timber wolves retained by his ex-wife. He frowned.
Dear Mr Bernstein
This firm acts for the executors of the late Professor Pieter van Goyen. In his will, Professor van Goyen –
Time inverted, distance collapsed, and just for a moment he was a brilliant, arrogant, twenty-three-year-old research fellow (the youngest ever in the university’s history) unpacking his books in his new rooms in Leiden. A faint knock at the door; vexed at the interruption, he calls out, “Come in, it’s open”; suddenly there’s a man standing in the doorway.
A tiny man; four feet ten, if that, and almost perfectly circular; two perfect circles, head and body, with no perceptible neck, no hair, and huge, perfectly round spectacles that made his face look like a Venn diagram. An immaculate dark blue suit, with the trousers turned up almost to the knee, tiny fingers poking out of the turned-up cuffs like little pink worms. Carpet slippers. “Hello,” said a soft, impossibly deep voice, “you must be Theo Bernstein.” Not a request for information, not even a statement; more like an order, to be obeyed without question. Pieter van Goyen.
Professor Pieter van Goyen, the greatest physicist of his age, triple Nobel laureate, the man whose drive and vision transformed the Very Large Hadron Collider into the Very Very Large Hadron Collider; the man whose life work he’d blown up. On the day Theo left Leiden, at 5 a.m., disguised as a nun to avoid the photographers, Pieter had been there to see him off, a magisterial Michelin man in a bespoke camel coat whose unadjusted hems pooled around his feet, silk pyjamas and flip-flops.
“I’m sorry”, Theo had mumbled.
A slight shrug. “Stuff happens. What’ll you do now?”
Theo couldn’t stop his face cracking into a jagged grin. “That,” he’d said, “is a very good question.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll fix everything.” And, for a fraction of a second, he’d believed it. Except nobody could fix it for the man who’d just turned an entire Alp into a cloud of fine dust, currently grounding all air traffic from Istanbul to Reykjavik. “It may take a little time, but I’ll see to it, don’t you worry.”
Then the taxi had taken him away, and now Pieter was dead. The world’s shortest giant was gone for ever, and that – well, the things that had happened to Theo Bernstein since he left Leiden had been annoying, verging on tiresome, but Pieter’s death was bad.
He looked down at the letter;
– left you the sum of five thousand US dollars and the contents of his safe deposit box.
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