THE MOUSE RAN DOWN
Adrian Tchaikovsky is a British fantasy author with eight novels out currently in his Shadows of the Apt series from Tor UK, and about a dozen short stories in various anthologies. “The Mouse Ran Down” was first published in Carnage: After the End 2 in 2012.
Will Kempe was just starting his comic turn when Ellie pushed her way through the crowd to prod me in the shoulder.
“It’s time,” she hissed. “We’ve got to go.”
I missed Kempe’s standard opener, the joke about lawyers, and the whooping roar of the groundlings around us obliterated Ellie’s next words.
“Give me five minutes, come on,” I slipped into the next lull. “I never get to hear this. I’m all packed.”
Ellie prodded me again. “Move, John.” She was got up as an apprentice, a young lad with the first growth of moustache feathering his lip and out on the prowl in his master’s cast-off doublet. A man’s clothes made it easier to move about London in the Year of Our Lord 1598. Small wonder Shakespeare had cross-dressing on the brain.
“They’ve got the Complete Works back at Permian One.” Ellie’s finger jabbed even harder. “Besides, you could have gone to see it yesterday.”
“It’s Will Kempe. He does a different skit each night. No-one wrote it down.” But I was letting myself be dragged off, as Ellie drove a path through the crowd, leading with her elbows.
I never did get to hear that routine of Kempe’s. You could keep the rest of the play, the stuff Shakespeare wrote, but Kempe was a comedian’s comedian, and I was always having to move just as he got into his flow, hearing the joke but never the punchline.
But we were running out of time, approaching the jagged end of history. Ellie was right: we had to get out.
There was a warehouse near the river that was the subject of a furious inheritance lawsuit. It was piled high with crates and boxes, imperishable goods brought in from the Indies and tied up in the courts until one of seven warring brothers would finally prevail over the others in around 1603. That was our home, for the nine months of the years 1597-8 that history had snapped off and preserved. We always arrived in the bitter cold of December, laden with our meagre possessions, hurrying through the snow-scattered streets to our makeshift saunctuary. We left in a September that was just being leached of the heat of summer, just as Will Kempe was making them laugh at the Curtain.
Four times. I had crept into this London four times with Ellie and Marcus, with a handful of families at our heels, living in the untenanted spaces of history by borrowing and theft and subterfuge, and then moving on.
We got back to the warehouse double time, by all the secret ways of that close-pressed, cluttered London, roofs and alleyways and connecting cellars. We were dressed as locals, but we were not supposed to be there, surplus to temporal requirements. It was best to avoid being noticed.
And there were always the hunters. We’d lost four fragments in the past year – my personal year, that was cut loose from all calendars – and nobody knew where would be next. We refugees were running short of safe havens. We were always on the move. It was no life, not for me, and certainly not for the children, the infirm. So few of us had made it out from the fall of history. We did our best to look after everyone.
Marcus had a look like sour milk when we turned up. “Do you know how late you are?”
“Plenty of time,” I told him, but it wasn’t true. Everything around us was starting to look grainy, shot through with streaks and fuzzy spots: noise in the signal, signs that a fragment was coming to its end. Out there, Old London Town was unravelling, breaking apart against the rocks of end time. Nobody would notice except us. The inhabitants, Will Kempe, all the theatregoers, they would disintegrate into nothing and never know it. If we didn’t get out we’d join them, only we’d not be made anew when the fragment began its nine month round again. We’d just be gone.
Patrick Scarrow and his family were ready to move, and Beth Nguyen and her kids, and the Wietzels, and the Morrow girls. We had twenty-one souls in our care, eternal refugees from when they’d destroyed the Now. The kids were complaining, mostly in whispers. It didn’t matter how many times, the life was still too disjointed to be good for them. Worse than just having to move school every year or so: each time they packed their bags they might be headed for the halls of Prester John or Dark Age Siberia or some time before mammals had even evolved.
Speaking of which. “Where’re we headed? You’ve taken a reading?”
Marcus gave me another look. “Just as well someone did. One month of Babylon. We’re overlapping with another troupe but it’s the only safe shard I could plot to. After that it’s a year in the Palaeolothic.”
“Make the most of Babylon then,” Ellie said dryly.
I passed amongst the others, making sure all the kids were keeping close to their folks, and that everyone had shouldered their backs and bags. Everyone had dressed for the occasion: robes and skirts, bare chests for the men, jewellery for the women. Babylon was a soft touch, but if there were other refugees already eking out a living there, we’d be in each others’ way and on each others’ toes every day. A populated fragment has its advantages – plenty of food to steal, plenty of comforts and conveniences if you’re sly about how you take advantage of them. Living space is tough to find, though – there just aren’t many places in any city of any time that will stay overlooked for the duration. The invisible spaces of Babylon in 1700BC would already be staked out and claimed by whoever was taking refuge there.
That this sort of doubling up was becoming more common as fragments were lost to us must have been in all our minds, but nobody said it. Nobody wanted to admit we were losing.
Not even losing the war. A war suggests we could fight back. We had been on the run since the end of time, desperately trying to put back the clock, and our enemies had hunted us through the eras and the ages, taking away our hiding places one by one. One day they would find this old London we were abandoning, and then Will Kempe would be no more, and his humorous monologue would be forever lost to human recollection.
“All right, let’s move!” Marcus called, opening the doors from one ruined dog-end of time to the next, keeping us one step ahead of the enemy. Everyone began to file through, and I cast a backwards glance at the warehouse even as the sight was riven with cracks and discoloured stains. I would be back, I hoped: back for another of 1597’s endless supply of Decembers, and many more after that.
* * *
There had indeed been a war. Did we win? The question has no meaning. It was a cold war. Nobody was actually fighting, because that would have been boorish and uneconomic. Instead, competing commercial and ideological interests – one of them ours – were spinning the wheels frantically behind the scenes to find a way to beat the others without ever having to fight.
You heard about all sorts, from those who remembered those lost, last years. There were gene bombs and attack memes. There were viral ideas gone feral, adverse mental programming on a vast scale. You didn’t know what to believe, they said, and even when you did, you didn’t trust your own faith because someone might have slipped it into your drink. It was a strange war. It killed ideas but left people standing. Every day our society was written and rewritten.
Small wonder that they had started looking at taking the war into time. Surely the ultimate piece of passive aggression was to pre-empt the bad guys before they even knew what they were going to do.
It didn’t work out.
* * *
We hit the cooling night of Babylon after the rains had come and gone, creeping out from the cracks of the world into the shadows of the temples. The air was still, scented with fragrant smoke, with distant decay. Around us the darkened city was quiet, but there would surely be locals abroad who would not want to see this ragged band of refugees struggling through their streets. Getting to the safe house would be risky. If we had arrived at the beginning of the fragment, when everything had reset to its earliest surviving moment, then we could know exactly where all the inhabitants would be, and follow a pre-determined path that would get us under cover, unseen, before dawn. This fragment was months into its cycle, though, and the mere presence of other refugees would have exercised a cumulative effect on the routines of the city, despite their best efforts to stay below the radar. We would have to rely on stealth and misdirection.
Marcus and Ellie and I would take turns to lead away anyone who looked like they would take issue with a group of foreigners skulking through their streets, and still we expected to be seen by a fair assortment of beggars, prostitutes and drunken artisans. We could only hope we wouldn’t cause any problems for the incumbents. We would be waiting just a month before we skipped off for the Eocene, whilst they were fixing to stay here for the duration and would have to ride out any ripples that we had made.
We made it in the end, just as dawn was clawing at the eastern sky. There were almost no locals about that night, and those we saw were only glimpsed distantly and were as keen to avoid us as we were to dodge them. At the time I thought that we’d been lucky.
The safe house here was a tomb, or at least a tomb in waiting. The intended resident would be alive and well throughout the fragment’s term, still clinging grimly to life when time called a fractured halt to this slice of Babylon. In the meantime his forward planning and the vanity of his wanting a grand monument to his posterity gave us a roof over our heads.
“Who’s here, anyway?” I asked Marcus as we hurried and skulked in turn through the moon-shrouded streets.
“Maria, Leon, Sun, maybe another thirty all told,” he told me. “Going to be real crowded. We won’t be making any friends. Everyone on their best behaviour.”
“It’s not like it’s our fault—” I objected, but he cut me off.
“Doesn’t matter. Going to be standing room only for a month, and that’s not their fault, either. If Comoy could only step up the work—”
It was my turn to butt in. “Doctor Comoy is doing all he can to fix this.”
We were practically in sight of the tomb and Marcus gave out a long sigh, and only through that did he show just how tired he was. “John, it’s been almost forty years we’ve lived like this. I was a kid, when it all went to crap. You weren’t born. Comoy’s had all the time in the world to put the fucking egg back together again.”
“He’s not given up hope.”
“That’s what he says. Come on.”
Marcus and I had our charges, Scarrow and Nguyen and the rest, and we got them huddled down in a small street within sight of the tomb, while Ellie went to make contact with the incumbents. By that time everyone was exhausted, the children dead on their feet, backs bowed under their loaded lives, all they had of where we’d all come from, mementos of a past and future that no longer existed.
“We can’t keep doing this,” Marcus said. I made an urgent expression towards the others, who were all within earshot, but he shrugged. “I don’t care,” he went on. “It’s too hard. We can’t just keep running.”
“We can if we want to live.” The old party line. “It won’t be forever.”
His laughter was forced out of him like bile from a wound. “Forever? The end of time won’t be forever? Oh, you fucking naïf.”
Then Ellie was on her way back – too soon and too fast. Marcus and I exchanged glances. We were already on our feet by the time she reached us.
“They’re gone,” she told us.
“Is this the right fragment—?” I started and:
“The locals—?” from Marcus, but she was shaking her head to both of us.
“They were here. They’re gone. Not the locals.”
“No,” I heard myself say, but Ellie was already continuing.
“There are burn-marks all over, spent shell casings. Someone put up a fight. This fragment is compromised.”
“No,” I said again, and I was aware of a gathering murmur of despair and fear from everyone around us, but Marcus hissed for quiet.
Somewhere across the city the enemy was abroad. Small wonder we’d seen so few locals. There would be a genocide underway even as we crouched there. This small, jagged fragment of space and time was being cleansed and sterilized. We had lost Babylon. One more piece of history was no longer safe for human habitation.
“We need to move,” Ellie said.
“We need somewhere to move to,” Marcus pointed out sourly.
“Give me a chance. There must be somewhere we can reach from here. John, you too. I’ll take upstream, you take down.”
We did the math, over an hour, calculating our way out of fallen Babylon. At any moment the enemy could have found us, and we would all have died. I had glimpsed the enemy once before, during an escape that was far too tight and diminished the surviving population of human history by another twenty souls. They were sufficiently advanced that there was no resisting them. Hiding was all we had.
They were things left over from the war that had stopped the wheels of history, ended the world and robbed us not only of all we had but of all that was to come. The only thing we knew was that they were hunting us down, we refugees from the war, one rough-edged piece of time after another. Vermin. That’s what we were to them: vermin to be exterminated.
I searched and searched. I found a dozen mapped fragments within reach, not one of them to anywhere with dry land, and some without even a breathable atmosphere. So much of our own past is denied to us, a planet hostile to the meek who would one day inherit it.
“One,” I said at last. Marcus checked my results: the middle of a Carboniferous ice age, a frozen forest where a spark would set off a firestorm.
“No,” he said, and Ellie chimed, “I’ve found another.” She was always faster than me.
“Then why didn’t you—?”
“I was hoping you’d do better,” she said sadly. “We can get to Warsaw.”
“No,” I breathed, aware of all the eyes on us: the desperate, the lost, the eternally displaced. “There must be something else.”
I was seriously going to argue for the ice, for the giant bugs, for the dizzying high oxygen atmosphere of the Carboniferous. He was right, though. The difference between that time – near inimitable to human life – and the Warsaw ghetto was slight, but we might have a chance. There would be a way out, if only we could find it.
* * *
They broke time, in that war. Because we can never go back there, we’ll never know who was responsible: whether it was everyone incrementally twisting at the fabric of time, or whether the continuum just fractured the moment the first time engine went online. Or perhaps, as Marcus says, it was just the concept of mutually-assured destruction taken to its logically illogical extreme. A pre-emptive strike against time itself to stop it falling into the hands of the enemy. Perhaps they meant to do it.
The cracks coursed through history like a mouse running down a clock. Some small number of us – and by ‘us’ I mean the seven billion human beings who were alive to see those final days of sanity – were snatched out of time before it broke, preserved by brilliant men like Doctor Comoy. We are, theoretically, the lucky ones. At least we still exist.
Doc Comoy and his team are still mapping the expanding debris cloud that is time itself. When we find a fragment we can reach, we catalogue it, plot it, inventory it. The science is not academic. We are looking for sanctuary, temporary shelters from the storm. For the first few decades it was us against the end of the world, blazing our trails through the monsters of prehistory and the depredations of our own ancestors to find places that would be safe to hide in, even for a little while. Then we discovered that one other thing had survived the annihilation: the enemy, whoever and whatever they were. As we scurried from fragment to fragment, eking out our miserable existence in the spaces between, they were hunting us. Even this tenuous life was more than they were prepared to allow us.
* * *
Warsaw 1943, and it is an insult to that city’s name that only this shard of it remains: its darkest hour, the last three months of the ghetto. Jewish and Polish resistance fighters, desperate and poorly armed, clashing with Nazi troops and collaborator police; a thousand plans of getting out, so few of which came to anything; an implacable enemy; the doom of utter annihilation hanging in the air. The only advantage to that terrible place was that we fit right in. No point in trying to hide, because every hidden part of that city was already crammed with the fearful.
“We can’t stay here long.” We’d got everyone into a shelter, the cellar of a collapsed house. There were a dozen families already there, pushed together, on top of one another. Starved, dirty faces stared at us, seeing our bizarre clothes, our mix of ethnicities, the fact that we were all far too well fed. They would all be dead, I knew. They were already dead. The Nazis would storm the ghetto as this fragment of time began to fail. Every one of these people had been preserved by that malevolent cripple, history, solely to suffer, to hope and fear, dread and die, over and over again.
“We need a proper sanctuary,” Ellie said. “There’s nothing I can see where we’d be safe hiding up. Someone has to make it to Comoy and get him to find us somewhere. We don’t have enough data here.”
“Can we even get someone to Comoy?” Marcus asked her.
“I have a path,” she confirmed. It was nineteen fragments long, skipping from time-piece to time-piece, in and out of history like a rat in the skirting, scant minutes to cross between the shards. We could never have got the children through it, probably not most of the adults. But then staying in Warsaw for any length of time was no better.
Time would be of the essence.
“I’ll do it.” And it was my creeping shame that courage did not motivate me. I could not face the end in Warsaw another time. I had seen it too often. The broken fragments of history have sharp edges.
Marcus nodded bluntly, and I looked over Ellie’s obstacle course. It was mostly out of recorded time, a worm-trail through monster-haunted spaces that man had no place travelling in.
My finger tracked to a projected five late Devonian minutes and I raised my eyebrow.
“Hold your breath,” said Ellie, and kissed me lightly on the cheek.
* * *
I walked the tops of glaciers when they ruled the world, huddling and hurrying in my too-thin clothes. I lurched from them into a desert that spanned the horizons, that could have been anywhere, save that in this time it was near everywhere. The sun tried to kill me; elsewhere it was pelycosaurs at my heels with their razor teeth. For one minute I walked the streets of Pompeii where the ash had yet to fall. The eruption would never come to this fragment, and yet its work had already been done. The locals were gone, removed entirely, not a living thing remaining. The enemy had been there. We had lost another crumb of our past.
I held my breath and ran through the uncertain Devonian, crushing liverworts beneath my feet, a pelting figure from a lost future dashing through the ferns and towering hands of fungus.
Ellie had plotted my escape well. She always did have the best head for it. Me? The only things I was really good at were running and hiding.
* * *
We had retained a lot of the Permian, snapped-off pieces of it scattered like stones across the broken substrate of time. Some of those fragments were years long, even centuries. They were harsh, dry times, the age before the dinosaurs, populated by starving monsters; each shard a memento of a time when all life on earth was sliding inexorably towards an extinction that would claim very nearly everything that lived. The world would know only one greater disaster, and that was ours. It was fitting that Doctor Comoy had made his home there, cycling between a dozen bestial, inhospitable fragments and taking his laboratory with him. Nobody else was permitted to set up in residence along the course of his peregrinations in case they got in his way. He was not a man fond of company, or of the human race much. He was its only hope, though, so it had no choice but to be fond of him.
Permian One was his migratory home, where he and his staff and guards were trying to start the clocks again. It was the hope of every lost, scattered, desperate soul who crept in and out of the fragments and scurried from era to era. Doc Comoy will fix it.
I believed. I thought I believed. I had lived all my life to that mantra. We will remake the world again, glue the fragments back into a whole. Somehow the misanthropic genius would save us all, give the universe CPR, turn back time.
I hadn’t been to Permian One in six years of personal time. My faith had sat at the back of my mind, comforting in its presence, never needing to be unsheathed. When I had talked with Marcus, the doubter, I had taken Comoy’s side, always. Of course he would succeed in fixing it all. What other alternative was there, that was worth the consideration?
I found his prefab compound exactly as before, that set of metal boxes that they took down and put up each time he moved his base to another piece of doomed Permian time. I went in, seeing the faces I remembered, his subordinate scientists, his guards, all their grim and drawn expressions, harried and weary just like before. Just like before, all of it. I think that was when it broke. My faith had sat back there for so long it had corroded into nothing, and when I tried to test it, it just broke.
Doctor Comoy himself was in his high chair, a cherry-picker affair that lifted him up and down the bank of screens that displayed the secrets of the universe, or at least those few pieces of it that we could still access. He was an old man now, older than last time, skin like sun-cracked leather, liver-spotted, pouchy about the eyes, sunken in about his cheeks. Old, he looked old but, other than that, I might as well have just left a moment before. Here was the saviour of the human race, the engineer of time.
I had the utter conviction, then, that nothing was being done, no progress was being made. Doc Comoy, after jury-rigging together the calculations that allowed the dozens of refugee bands to limp from timepiece to timepiece, had achieved nothing. In all of my life he had just been marking time.
I did not voice it. I could not have brought forward the maths to prove it. I could not shake the belief, though. I had a new faith, and it was pure nihilism.
I got out the problem, my band stranded in Warsaw’s darkness. I needed an exit, and I needed it yesterday. We had to get them out.
This small service he could provide, this prolonging of the end. His great computers and his greater mind gave me the path they must follow, and my own to get back to them. Even as I looked at the sequences, though, I was doubting them. Was this why even our precarious hold on time was breaking down? Was this why the enemy was winning?
Was Doctor Comoy fallible in everything? Were we just now seeing the inevitable disintegration of a system that he had not thought through?
I left Permian One. I had two hundred and fifty million years to cover and no time at all to do it in. I wove my way in and out of history, dodging cavemen and dinosaurs, revolutionaries and the Golden Horde. In my mind was the distant candle flame that was Warsaw, so soon to be snuffed out. I was always a runner, and I ran. Nobody could have made better use of time than I. I did not stop for man or beast or cataclysm.
And I was late. I was too late. Was I slow or were the calculations wrong? Perhaps it never had been possible, just as the long-term survival of all that we knew was only a dream. I arrived in Warsaw, but it was a different Warsaw. The fragment had ended and begun again, all the pieces, Jews and Poles and Nazis, reset on the board. And no Ellie, no Marcus, no Scarrows or Nguyen or the rest of them. I was too late.
They might have got out. Knowing the end was coming – of the ghetto and of time, one and then the other in a great wave of pain and fear and utter oblivion – perhaps they calculated an exit. Ellie was always good at the figures, after all. There were fragments they could have made – or Doc Comoy’s calculations said there were. Unless it was a lie.
Or perhaps the enemy had come and wiped them away, shot them and removed them from the ruptured track of history. Or the Nazis had stormed the ghetto as they always did, and Ellie and the others had been just more corpses amongst so many, so very many.
Or the end had come, the real end, where time’s frayed edge caught up with them, and when the fragment began again they were gone, erased from time and space, made as if they never were.
In the ghetto, I knelt down and wept, screamed out my frustrations to the sky and shrugged off the attempts of those doomed and desperate people to comfort me.
I was alone, and Doc Comoy’s escape route was consigned to history. I sat there in the ruins and the ashes, amongst that other fugitive people, and did my own maths – not elegant Ellie maths, but my hamfisted imitation. I had to get out.
Even with nothing to get out for, a part of me wanted to live. Life has its own momentum. Ask the people in the Warsaw ghetto: no matter how bad it is, everyone wants to live.
It took me two years of my life, and I walked from one end of time to the other, but I made it back to Permian One. I hid in the Rome of the Medicis and cowered back from the wise, cold eyes of Neanderthals. I did what I did best: I ran, from the Mughals and the Zulus and the Iceni and Tyrannosaurus rex.
When at last I found the jump into the Permian fragment that the doctor was using, I saw it was true. Nothing had changed at all. He was older – they were all older, the clocks of their bodies marching on in ignorance of what had happened to wider time – but that was all. Oh, they were all busy, and there was the great impression of things being done, but I knew I was right. It was all a show, even if Doctor Comoy himself believed in it.
“They’re gone,” I told him, and from his expression he either did not know who I meant, or did not care.
That was when the enemy arrived.
I had never seen them properly before. I did not do so then, quite. They were humanoid, armoured, but what they were armoured in was proof against mere light as well as more violent measures. They shifted and warped and flickered and yet, at the same time, they were the most definite, concrete things in that complex. They were death, after all. There’s nothing more real than death.
Like death, they were patient hunters. They had been stalking me for a long time, following me from fragment to fragment, effortless in their transitions, whilst I scratched and strained at the mathematics. They had tried to hide from me, but I was too much of an experienced fugitive. I had known they were there.
I led them to Permian One. I led them to Doctor Comoy. It wasn’t as if I was doing anything else with my time. None of us were. That was the problem.
I had not known whether they were people at all, before that. They were the enemy, from before time broke, but I had thought they were no more than machines following the last orders of history. Until one spoke, I chose to believe that they were simple annihilators, the things that come at the end of the day, to close the shutters and put out the sun.
“Doctor Robert Comoy,” one of them said – impossible to tell which one, but it was a woman’s human voice, strong and stern. “You and your accomplices will be taken into custody for trial and disposal. Any attempt at escape will be met with force.”
The old man on his ridiculous high chair goggled down at them. “What are you doing?” his frail voice demanded. “Can’t you see I’m trying to put the world back together?”
“We are already restoring time,” the woman returned flatly. “The only thing standing between us and a unified timestream is the interference caused by the presence of you and your people. We cannot repair time with your vermin running riot amongst the pieces. You will either come with us and be rehabilitated, or you will be removed.”
Removed. She said it as though it had a capital letter: excised from time. Even then I could not have said whether it was true. Were they able to put the egg back together again? Were we the problem, rather than the solution?
Perhaps there was no solution.
Doctor Comoy was spitting, trying to force out words that were too big for the gape of his mouth, but then someone started shooting. Someone always starts shooting. Give a man a gun and he will want to use it. Perhaps that mentality is what caused this mess in the first place.
The enemy opened fire in return, beams of energy scorching and scouring whatever they touched. I wanted no part of it. Ellie and Marcus and the rest were gone, and I was on nobody’s side but my own.
I had my calculations already made. While they were fighting, while the enemy were triumphing over Doc Comoy and his wretched little Permian dream, I fled.
It had taken me long hours of patient calculation, but once I knew the enemy were content to follow me, I realized that I had time, for the first time in a long time, to get it right. There was a fragment of the Eocene, that dawn age after the extinction of all the old dinosaurs, that was three years long, and I stepped from the burning confusion of Comoy’s compound into a bright new day.
The enemy would hunt me. If what they said was true then I would gum up their works just by daring to exist. The Eocene was a big place, though, and running and hiding are what I’m good at, after all. As long as the enemy leave me fragments, I will find a hole to shelter in. I’ve the whole of my life ahead of me.
And when I’m old, when I’ve seen it all, that pitiful miscellany that is all that is left, perhaps I’ll go back to that cluttered London, if the enemy have left it. I’ll stand amongst the groundlings at the Curtain and listen to Will Kempe’s final routine, his farewell speech to all of creation. I’ll laugh out the end of the fragment into painless extinction, and let them save the universe.
But not yet. Not when I’m still using it. I’ve got a long way left to run.