The artist yelled in exhilaration, spinning the wheel from side to side as the silver convertible obeyed ruefully, like a melancholy horse. They were going so fast the road must have thought the car was trying to beat the falling stars of the dusk to the old inventor’s house. Sitting upright with his hands clenched to the white suede handle, Sal tried to pray but only puked.
‘Mind you don’t mess up the paint,’ Beacan said.
‘You’re lucky I didn’t mess up the windscreen,’ retorted Sal, who had had the good grace to lean over the side.
‘I’m lucky?’ said Beacan. ‘Luck should be grateful I was born. Oh, before I forget…’ The artist rummaged in the pocket of his corduroy coat and took out a silver spoon. ‘This is for you. It’s quite worthless.’
Sal took it. ‘Right,’ he said.
‘You should get out more, Sal, get some oxygen. It’s the one drug our bodies always crave, but we hardly ever fix. What d’you think those mountains were put there for? Pretty pictures? Nah: exercise and fresh air. All you need. In century 22 we don’t even drive, you know.’
The back of Sal’s neck prickled: the lunatic was on the grass. But this lunatic had the steering wheel, a fact which had he had known Wushu, would have been an excellent defence for a fatal strike in a court of law.
Faintly, he said, ‘Is everyone so old fashioned in the future?’
‘I wouldn’t put it that way,’ said Beacan. ‘We have found a balance between our natures and our ideals. That is precisely why it’s so boring. This century is much more interesting. Especially the early part. On the one hand it is the most technologically advanced culture in history. Yet it spends the majority of its time second guessing that power. I’m here doing research for my dissertation as it is on that topic; it’s called the dichotomy of hubris and self-loathing in the greatest discoveries of century 21.’
‘Good luck with that,’ Sal said, ears ringing. ‘Hubris is underrated these days.’
He was completely sceptical, obviously, but the self-evident risk of pissing off a time traveller terrified him. Unsure if he wanted to know, Sal asked, ‘If you’re from the future, how will I die?’
Lighting up yet another of innumerable cigarettes, the artist sighed. ‘I’d be breaking the law if I answered that. Self-fulfilling prophesy is a dangerous thing.’
‘But I could tell you a story about a louse called Sol,’ the artist continued. ‘As a special concession. Right?’ Beacan glanced in the mirror as if checking for helicopters. Apparently satisfied, he lowered his hand and delicately twisted the dial of the Blaupunkt radio to zero.
So. There was once a colony of woodlice who lived in the tomb of a wealthy landlord. Imagine the crypts you always see in old graveyards, with a flat capstone, and the engravings worn away by the rain. One day a young louse called Sol found a small crack near the ceiling. He had been wandering on his own around the periphery of Food Mountain. “Food Mountain” was what the colony called the dead man, for louses cannot comprehend creatures more intelligent than themselves. Being naturally curious and foolhardy, Sol ventured out onto the capstone into the blinding light.
All around the tomb was a broad tract of bare, inhospitable land, but in the distance, Sol was beckoned by a range of fair purple hills. Excited, he scuttled back inside and told the whole colony. “Friends, we must leave before Food Mountain runs out, or the weeds trap us in!”
Now the chief, who was a clever orator, replied, “If Food Mountain did not run out yesterday, it will not run out today!” And the colony clicked in agreement and mocked the poor louse.
However, every active agent has its adherents. Soon he attracted a small group of like-minded louses, and together they planned a voyage to the purple hills. They would gather a stock of morsels for the journey, and when they reached their destination, they would build a new colony and a new life feeding from the heath.
Beacan fell silent. His features were veiled.
‘So what happened?’ Sal prompted after a while. ‘Did the louses escape?’
‘Alas, no,’ he said. ‘They weren’t quick enough. Food Mountain ran out, and by this time the weeds had crept into the cracks. The whole colony died, encased in the tomb with the bones of the dead man.’
‘That won’t be me,’ said Sal bitterly.
‘I agree,’ the artist murmured. ‘You are much bigger, for a start. There is a moral, however. In this particular outcome, the colony died because they lacked the unity of purpose they needed to save themselves from certain death. But there are millions of tombs on Earth; infinite possibilities. Nothing is written till it’s written. So it’s up to you.’
Mountains passed in silence. If they had gone westward, they would have seen the Twelve Bens, a range of quartzite peaks rising over Connemara. But Silverlining was further north, well past the length of Lough Corrib, where the roads were thin and the land was blasted like a sea-green desert; full of ponies and old walls. The huge sunset beyond the horizon cast a pleasant ruddy glow across the Fenian landscape, washing away the murk. When finally the gravel of Silverlining crunched under the tyres, the mackerel clouds were a dusky silver, and the chemical tang of pending rain was in the air.
After such an ordeal, Sal was glad he had made it here alive.
‘May you have my luck,’ said the artist. ‘I’ll be painting the show when you’re done.’
Beacan was like a puzzle that you had no choice but to work out for your own sanity. Sal was determined not to believe such nonsense.
‘Thanks for the lift,’ he said.
There were other cars in the driveway too. Professional media types: moderately fast and expensive. The back of the tall gothic house of Silverlining loomed ahead through the dark. Walking up the flagged path flanked with glowing lanterns and buddleia bushes, Sal jumped badly when a crow leapt off a wire nearby. All those notes he had spent so long memorising about Guido Polo were flooding back to him.
It was no accident that he was hiding here in Ireland, away from the world. Tonight would be the exhibition of his latest invention, an astrobule as he called it, which would change astronomy, and indeed science itself forever. With such a weight of expectation, it was no wonder he was such a recluse.
A drop of rain fell on his head, unheard over the sound of a loud stream running through the orchard nearby. Soon it became a steady drizzle, then a heavy torrent, pelting off the roof and gushing into the drains.
A voice sounded nearby. ‘In here!’
A side door in the house was open, and against the light was the slender silhouette of a woman. He stepped into the tiny corridor, muttering his thanks; immediately and painfully conscious of her beauty. Her eyes were light and vivid, and her sun-kissed skin was framed with perfect curtains of dark-blonde hair. He felt shabby and under-dressed beside her. It could have been the effect of that internal, wiry vigour that seemed to hit like a fist.
‘I’m Sal Kennedy,’ he said. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
‘I know who you are,’ the girl replied rudely. ‘I’m a new intern at the paper. The editor said you couldn’t make it so he sent me instead.’
‘Fair enough,’ said Sal. ‘But you know, usually when someone tells you their name, it’s polite to tell them yours.’
For a moment she looked startled. ‘Alana Jasmine,’ she said. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
‘All mine,’ he replied, grinning. ‘What is this place, some kind of haunted mansion?’
Alana Jasmine laughed. ‘Probably. Since I’ve been here things have been a bit strange. Dr Polo is gone. He left this morning, and took the astrobule with him. The other journalists are furious. They’re all in the conference room waiting for news of his whereabouts. I’ll take you up there if you want.’
Alana Jasmine led him into a bright central atrium, full of art deco furniture and strange, cubed statues. She spoke about herself for a while, of the ordeal of examinations, of the merits of buses versus trains and why she hated Italian cuisine. As he listened, he was strongly reminded of a girl he had gone out with one Summer in Oregon. There in the middle of nowhere, there had been little else to do other than talk and fool around for weeks on end. He still remembered how intensely he had loved her; before the sky had fallen. How with love’s broken rubble, he had built a wall so high never to be torn down by any woman.
The conference room was packed. The two of them crammed into the back in a scrum of journalists. All were staring rapt at the streamed image of a tanned old man with large glasses and a scrubby beard projected onto a silver screen.
‘Again, my sincere apologies that I cannot be here,’ said the old man, Guido Polo. ‘For security reasons, I have concealed both the location of the machine, and myself. Tonight, I will describe it as simply as I can. The astrobule is like a telescope, except that in practice a telescope may only look into the past, due to the limited speed of light. With an astrobule, we can see the Universe as it right now, in the present tense.
‘By establishing a network of infinitesimal wormholes from star to star, it connects them into a web which can be mapped. But more importantly, the astrobule opens up the possibility that one day, we may be able to see the future also. It proves a point I have often maintained, that the most profound questions in astronomy have never been a matter of space, but of time.’
Amid the eager scratching of biros, Sal was struck by a sudden déjà-vu: he had been here before. Somehow, impossibly, it was true. And he knew exactly what to do. Telling Alana Jasmine to wait for him, he left the room and ran down the stairs, through the atrium, and into the garden, where the rain still poured and thoughts of her still lingered.
Then it stopped raining. Wait: that wasn’t supposed to happen. It was all wrong. Something had changed. Bewildered, Sal walked through the garden, slower now, away from the house and through the orchard, across a bridge over the stream, to the foot of a dripping grove of joshua trees.
A noise sounded in the dark: an electric moan. It came from the direction of a well built of stone near the edge of the grove, where the house of Silverlining could just be seen through a crook in the trees. On the fourth floor, a balcony window glowed. A curtain ruffled.
There was only one way of finding out. He lifted off the tarpaulin, and stared into the murk of the well, a big-eyed Narcissus. Suddenly he remembered: the silver spoon. It was still in his pocket, worthless. He flung it into the shadows. Seconds later a loud clang reported no water present. Then came the ominous drone of a broken astrobule whirring into life. His blood ran cold. What had he done?
He saw a large corn field down a hill beyond the grove. A path was trampled into the very centre, like Van Gogh’s last painting before he died. The lonely figure of Beacan waited there with an easel, staring upward. Looking up too, he saw the clouds were parting away from the broad sky. One by one, like the flashes of distant paparazzi, the stars were going out.