The jukebox was new, and everybody loved it.
Everybody except me. Instead of being subjected to the whims of Ajoy's radio, instead of the evening's programme happening to us, it was now a matter of choice and debate and opinion. Where before music was a distant and small thing, like the sound of traffic outside on Queen West, now it was a focal point of our entertainment...like the pool table.
That was back when we used to hang around in Ania Golden's Falafel, a dingy hole sandwiched between discount carpet wholesellers a few doors down from The Big Bop. The Golden Falafel's principal attraction was that the proprietor, an affable and unkempt old East Indian named Ajoy, had no compunctions about serving alcohol to underage patrons.
We were those underage patrons. We just about the only patrons.
"What the fuck did you choose, Cheeseburger? Christ," groaned Red Vicious, mumbling around a short cigarette as he lined up his next shot. There came the crack of the cue, the soft thump and rattle of the balls dropping into the holes.
"That's Amore," I said. "Don't you like Dean Martin?"
"Christ," repeated Red, rolling his eyes and stepping back from the table. "Your go."
I pawed uselessly at the cue with my stick. "Uh, scratch."
"I love this song!" cheered Curvy as she came out of the washroom-closet, which continued to excrete tipsy teenage girls like a clown car. "Omigod!"
"See? Not such a bad pick," I told Red, watching him clear the pool table efficiently. (Snick, clickity-click, fomp-fomp-fomp.)
"Whatever," said Red.
The BB Girls reached the top of the stairs, helping one another settle back into their chairs and passing around diet cigarettes and pink lighters. Harpie was giggling but Indigo just looked green. "This song is b-cool," declared their leader, Twinkie. "It was like in Moonstruck or something b-old like that."
Let me explain about the BB Girls. They had their own light argot, a girls-only slang of obscure contractions and acronyms. It had all begun when Twinkie shortened the term "butt-ugly" to "b-ugly" and fairly spiralled out of control from there to encompass such gems as bullair ("that is b-hilarious!") and bug-beef ("butt-ugly baby-fat"). There were between four and seven BB Girls on a given evening, depending on whether or not the auxiliary was dispatched. Red Vicious was their punk-rock capon, savagely jealous of their attention but unwilling to make a move on any of them. I was his side-kick -- uptight, drably dressed, blinking and unfamiliar like a mole in the face of the pop cultural flibbertigibbets they cherished.
"Put on In Utero," said Red, flipping me a loonie.
I asked whether that was a band or a song and he groaned and rolled his eyes again.
Ajoy cackled from his stool at the bar, ashing his cigarette precariously close to his drink while he flipped through the newspaper. "The trouble with this musical majine is that you are always having to be joosing someting," he sympathised as I shuffled over next to the bar and started scrolling through the album covers behind the glass. (Flip...buzz...flip.)
I went to the table, where Red was once again ranting about how he must plot vengeance against his ex-band mates whom had so cruelly betrayed him. (And he would eventually do so, but that is another story and has already been told.) We ran out of beer, so Ajoy came to pour us more. He offered me a cigarette, but I didn't smoke. I said, "No thank you."
But then Curvy and Indigo asked me if I wanted to come out back with them and have some hashish, so I said, "Okay."
Ajoy nodded in a friendly way as we slipped on our coats and filed out the back way, clambering down the iron fire-escape to the roof of a nearby garage overlooking the alley. Indigo set up a row of little flecks of hashish on her smoke-pack while Curvy dug a brown-stained Fruitopia bottle out of her purse. The girls chattered.
"Like, Twinkie didn't want?"
"I don't know. She was being all b-biatchy, and I was like: what-ever."
"She's probably all mad over what I said about her bug-beef in that top."
"Whatevs, it was true. It was so b-ugly."
"Shut up -- you're bullair!"
"No, you're bullair!"
The hash was brewed up, and the bottle passed around. When there were still two flecks left Indigo said she felt sick and Curvy said she was freezing. So they went inside the Golden Falafel, leaving me with the stub of the cigarette. Clumsily I dabbed at the hash until it stuck to the cherry, and inserted it into the bottle to bake.
A couple walked down the alley, arguing. She has her arms crossed and was walking quickly. He was jogging to stay abreast of her, gesticulating as he alternately pleaded and chided. In a moment they were echoes gone from sight, in another they were gone. The rumble of the nighttime city rolled into the void: honking cars, laughing people, tinny music, shuffling feet...
I burped the bitter taste of Ajoy's cheap draft swill.
Another man passed into the alley, looking around purposefully. He was tall, and his balding head caught the orange glow from a streetlamp. His face was pinched and serious. Instinctively I drew back a step into the shadows under Ajoy's fire-escape.
The man stopped directly under me, looking up at the roof of the garage and shielding his eyes from the glare of a light I couldn't see, above and behind me. Had he heard me on the roof? Worse: could he be a cop? I flicked the last fleck of hash away across the gravel.
"Hey!" he barked, and I just about crapped myself.
I decided to pretend I wasn't there. My only path of flight was back into Ajoy's, and I didn't want to get Ajoy into trouble with his neighbour or the law. I tried not to breathe. It seemed to me that the sound of my beating heart must be audible. I froze.
But it wasn't going to be that easy. "Hey!" the man repeated, suddenly vaulting up the front of the garage and catching the roof with his hands. With a grunt he hauled himself up and put his knee over the lip. "I know you're there," he said quietly but with certainty.
I was counting down in my head, preparing to bolt up the fire-escape. Screw Ajoy! Three...two...one --
I hesitated, my muscles quivering mid-launch.
"CheeseburgerBrown, please," said the man, his arms wide. "I'm not going to hurt you. I know you don't know me, but -- you've got to trust me."
His accent was American. In the shadows it was hard to gauge his age, but he was a man where I was a boy. But even in the questionable light I could make out the lines of exhaustion around his hard eyes. "Who are you?" I croaked.
"I'm Ed," he said, backing up a step. "I'm a friend."
Cautiously I stepped sideways out of the shadow, keeping myself within leaping distance of the iron steps. I tried to sound jaunty and casual when I said, "I don't know anybody named Ed," talking myself out of paranoia.
"A friend of a friend, then," amended Ed. "I've been sent to find you. They said you'd be at the Golden Falafel."
"Who said I'd be at the Golden Falafel?"
"Listen," he said with sudden urgency, "we don't have time for this now. I need your help. I need it badly. Will you come?" He reached his hand out to me, in a gesture of imploring I associated with Captain Kirk.
I shook my head, frowning. "What the hell are you talking about? Come where? And how the fuck exactly do you know my name again?" I sidled toward the fire-escape.
"I know everything about you," he cried. "I know about the space-like hypersurface you made out of yarn when you were four. I know about the Great CheeseburgerBrown and Cowboy Shopping Spree. I know about Bean, and I know about K., and I know things you don't even know about yourself yet."
I felt winded and dizzy, permeated with a sparkling, terrifying feeling of surreality. It took a moment for me to form the words and force them out: "How do you know these things?"
"I told you. I've read your diaries."
"On my computer?"
"On the Internet."
"The Information SuperHighway."
"Oh, that thing." I scratched my head. "Is that that thing that's going to bring us five hundred channels of television or something?"
"No. Come on, we've got to go." He turned and let himself down the side of the garage, hopping to the alley. "Come on, CheeseburgerBrown!" he gestured urgently.
I hopped down. He started to walk briskly, so I followed, keeping a cautious distance. Suddenly he wheeled around and pushed me up close to a fence, turning me around and pinning my arm. I felt his hand on my ass and came close to panic. Then I heard an electronic meep sound out, and he released me. "I'm sorry about that," he said, stowing a small device like a cellular phone in his jacket pocket. "But I had to be sure you were clean."
"You are officially freaking me out, sir," I said, backing away from him. "I think I'd better go back and join my friends."
"No!" he shouted. "Please, you don't understand."
"So explain it to me."
He took a deep breath, and fixed me with a hard stare. "Listen, I like you so I'm going to level with you." He broke away and paced a small circle across the breadth of the alley. He turned back to me and began to recite in hollow tones: "On November third in the year nineteen ninety-three an event takes place that will shape the decades to come. In less than six hours someone will attempt to stop that event from ever taking place, in order to change history. We cannot allow that to happen."
"Uh-huh..." I said.
"I have been sent back in time on a critical mission to save the future," he solemnly declared. "And I need your help, CheeseburgerBrown."
I chuckled, and shook my head. "What did you say your name was again? Arnold?"
"My name is Ed," he replied evenly. "Ed Hulver."
That's when things started to get a little weird. Out of curiosity more than anything I followed the freakshow to a dark corner near the mouth of the alley. He walked up to a small tarp and peeked under the corner, the plastic squeaking loudly in the confined space. "Alright," said Ed. "We're good to go."
"What? Do you have a moped under there or something?" I scoffed.
"Actually it's a sleigh." He jerked back the tarp and uncovered a tiny silver sleigh with little bells on the flourishes, designed to accommodate two small children. It was about four feet long. "Let's go," he said, putting one man-sized boot inside the tiny sleigh.
"You're off your meds, friend."
That's when the two drunk assholes showed up, staggering down the alley and laughing. They were drawn immediately to the tiny sleigh, and started asking obnoxious questions about it. "Are you Santa Claus?" one of them asked Ed, pushing past me and circling the little silver toy. Both of them thought this was a hilarious question.
"Yes," replied Ed in a bored tone. "I'm Santa Claus."
One of the punks bent down and hoisted the sleigh up to his shoulder. "Uh-oh Santa -- gotcher sled!" He was standing on the discarded plastic tarp, so Ed bent down and tugged it savagely out from under him. While he was mid-fall Ed swung around and smacked the other fellow's head against the brick wall with a decisive grunt.
With a second of one another both jackasses hit the pavement. "Jesus, Ed!" I exclaimed.
The first punk pushed the sleigh off of him, tumbling it into the alleyway with a harsh jangle of bells. He began to get to his feet. "Moth-er fuck-er," he moaned, dabbing at a cut on his chin with a grimace.
Ed pulled out a tarnished fob-watch and flipped open the face. "We don't have time for this," he muttered, snapping it closed and pocketing the watch again. "Cover your ears," he said to me.
"Cover them!" Ed barked. So I did. I watched Ed's lips move and I watched the angry punk fold like a stack of empty clothes, lying limp and motionless beside a dumpster. Ed nodded at me and I uncovered my ears.
"Let's go," he said, righting the sleigh with his boot and then sitting awkwardly on the tiny seat, his splayed knees at his shoulders. I was frozen in place for a moment, stymied by the surprising violence I had witnessed and the absurd image of a hard-eyed grown man folded into the miniature sleigh. "Come on!" he shouted, looking at his watch again.
So what did I do? I figured: what the hell? I stuffed myself into the tiny seat opposite him, my left knee at his crotch and my right knee pressed against a jingling flourish of silver edging. I didn't know quite what to do with my arms, so I tried folding them against my chest but my thighs got in the way. I tried not to laugh.
"So..." I said.
Ed reached into his jacket and withdrew a small brown sac, tied at the nape with a green silk ribbon. He carefully untied the ribbon while muttering under his breath. Then he reached inside and withdrew pinched fingers. He blew into the palm of his hand and a meagre bloom of sand clouded out over us, glinting in the streetlight.
When I opened my eyes four tiny blue ponies about the size of alley cats were milling around the side of the sleigh. I blinked. Ed pulled a pint-sized set of bridles and harnesses out of his coat and carefully arranged them over their miniature muzzles. They whinnied softly, echoing against the brick walls, their footfalls like the click of juice bottle lids.
I found myself at a loss for words. I cooperatively ducked as Ed fed the reins over my shoulders as the ponies arranged themselves behind me. Apparently, I was to ride facing backward. I looked at Ed, and he winked and then clucked his tongue.
And the sleigh rose.
Of course it rose. Did I seriously expect four tiny blue ponies the size of house cats to pull a grown man and a teenager across the dry pavement? How absurd, I thought. Naturally, we would be flying.
I giggled, and burped a sour beer burp.
The city dropped away under us with a harsh pull of Dopplered noise, disappearing beneath whispy clouds with amazing speed. Despite this, I felt almost no inertia. Soon we were moving laterally, the amber grid of Toronto sliding away with unbelievable speed. I felt only a gentle breeze against my skin, though it was a clammy breeze. I tightened my coat around my shoulders, and hazarded a look up.
The stars were a crystal vault surrounding us. I was instantly dizzy, and felt Ed's steadying arm gripping my shoulder. "Careful now," he said. "You don't want to fall."
I saw the sparkle of ocean waters beneath us. "We're, uh, going pretty fast..." I commented.
"Yeah," Ed agreed, repocketing the brown sac. "I get pretty decent mileage with this shit. Technically it's not actual Pixie Dust. It's a glamour-based substitute mined by Baltic gnomes. But it does the trick."
I sighed, and watched the moonlit clouds whip by for a moment. "So Ed, tell me," I begged. "How big is my tumour, and exactly where in my brain is it located?"
"It's not a tuma," he quipped, rendering a terrible impression of an Austrian accent.
I laughed hollowly. "Seriously, Ed. Is it a temporal lobe thing? I think I'm having a temporal lobe seizure right now."
He sighed. "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
"Ah," I said. "Is this one of those things where our faith in magical things keeps us afloat? If I stop believing, do we plummet?"
"No," he said. "I already told you -- it's Gnomish Glamour that's keeping us up. Like petroleum, it is indifferent to your beliefs."
"And what do the ponies eat?"
"Of course. And why shouldn't they? They probably buy them from the Leprechauns, right?"
Suddenly Ed seized me by my wrists, pulling me closer savagely. "What do you know about the Leprechauns?" he demanded hotly, staring into my face.
"Nothing! Jesus Ed -- I was joking!" I cried.
He released me, breathing hard. "Sorry," he mumbled. "I've been a little on edge lately." He looked over my shoulder quickly. "Never talk about them. They have ears everywhere." He settled back into his cramped seat, rubbing his hands together. "I'm not even sure how far I can trust the ponies," he whispered.
"Yeah," I agreed numbly. "You gotta watch your back, I guess."
"You don't know the half of it," he said seriously. The sky ahead of the tiny prancing blue ponies was beginning to glow, purple at first and then pink. "Sun's coming up. We're not doing too bad for time," he commented, scanning over the side of the sleigh.
"Where are we going?" I ventured.
A patchwork of farmland began to scroll far beneath us, golden in the rising light of the morning. Villages gave way to towns gave way to villages, lines drawn in crumbling stone walls and country roads and narrow lines of trees. "Looks crowded," I noted.
"You follow my lead and we can get through this quickly and cleanly, okay?" he said, patting down his pockets and performing some kind of inventory. I nodded. He flicked the reins and the world roared up toward us, dew clinging to our clothes and faces as we peeled through a layer of cloud.
The world became grey.
I sat down on my stool across the table from Ed Hulver, and took a sip of my pint. I'd been nervous about asking the barkeep for a drink but he hadn't even asked to see my fake ID. Ed was smoking a cigarette and scanning the crowd in the pub. "Oh man," I complained. "Their fridge is busted or something."
"Huh? What?" grumbled Ed.
"My beer -- it's not even cold."
Ed sniffed dismissively and sipped from his own pint as he stole a look at his fob-watch. "They'll be coming in any second now," he said, scanning the busy sidewalk outside the pub. In the light of day I saw that his face and hands were criss-crossed with knicks and scars. "There they are," he grinned suddenly.
A knot of boisterous young men entered the pub, filing back to a familiar table and setting up shop by a dingy television which was already showing a soccer match in progress. "Bullocks, we've missed the beginning!" one of the boys jeered. "Bloody Collins making us late again."
That's when a final member of their party came through the door, sweat running down his broad brow. "Sorry mates," he gasped, winded from his run. "I couldn't find me lucky dart."
He held it up then, its red metallic spine catching the light of the lamps. Collins' round face beamed as he admired it.
"That's it!" breathed Ed, leaning in closer to me across the table. "That's the dart."
"What's so special about it?" I asked.
Ed turned away from the action and hissed, "In a little under twelve minutes from now, that boy is going to lose his lucky dart. He's going to lose it inside a box of telecommunications equipment. He's going to follow the lorry it gets loaded in, and he's going to track it down all the way to one of British Telecom's machine-rooms."
He paused significantly. "What's a lorry?" I asked.
"Listen," Ed continued. "When Collins sees all of those blinking lights and stacks of computers, he's going to have a revelation. Up until now his life has been typically English -- he knows nothing outside of watching football and throwing darts in a pub. But when he sees that machine room -- bam!"
"Bam! He's going to strike out on a destiny to become a software developer, an architect of the Scooposphere."
"I thought you said it was called Internet."
Ed ignored me. "Agents of evil have been dispatched back through time to interfere with that event, to stop Collins from fulfilling his destiny. They want to win this battle here, today in the twentieth century, in order to a win a twenty-first century war."
"Yeah, like I said before, it's totally like those Terminator movies..."
"Shut up. We have to keep our eyes open. I don't know what form the interference will take. Ten minutes now. Stay sharp." He tapped his watch on the table and scanned the room again, eyes flitting over Collins and his gang as they collectively cheered a wicked defense combination on the screen.
"I'm going to go play some darts," announced Collins, pushing back from his table and standing up.
I sipped my bitter draft again, grimacing.
"There we go..." cooed Ed, eyes outside the window again. A small Mercedes Benz truck was pulled up at the curb outside the pub, the driver disappearing into an adjoining business. "Start loading her up..." narrated Ed, watching his watch, as the driver reappeared with a stack of boxes on a dolly. BRITISH TELECOM was stenciled on the sides of the boxes.
We turned around. Collins was lining up for a throw. His mates were intently focussed on the television screen.
But then the colour drained out of Ed's face. I looked back to the window: a street vendor's cart had pulled up in front of the truck, blocking it from our view. "That's it! Damn!" Ed leaped out of his seat and bolted across the pub, piling headlong into a large, beefy gentlemen with an arm full of pints. Both crashed to the floor in an explosion of beer.
Ed tried to get up but he slipped. The lummox kicked him in the ribs. "What's the idear, you?" he hollered.
I looked back and forth wildly. Collins picked up his lucky dart, and took careful aim at the board. His friends hunched closed to the screen. The street vendor had stopped her cart, and was opening up the sides to display her wares -- cutesy ocean-themed trinkets made of clam-shells and lobster bits.
So I jumped over Ed as he scuffled with the brute, scampered out the door of the pub and burst out into the street. "Hey, you've got to move that cart!" I yelled, waving my arms and running up to the vendor.
"I've got a bleedin' permit!" she screeched at me defiantly.
"No, please -- you don't understand -- just for a moment!" I cried.
"Oi, what's the hold-up?" demanded the truck driver, putting his last dolly-full of boxes aside and frowning at the vendor.
And that's when a roar of triumph went up from inside the pub. I spun around to see Collins spill over as his friends surged to their feet, flying off balance and casting his lucky dart directly at the open window. It hit me in the shoulder, the tip lodging under my skin and hanging there painfully.
"Oi, did you just get hit by a dart?" asked the truck driver.
I pulled the dart out of my shoulder and looked at it -- the tip red with my blood as the shaft was red. A cry of consternation came from inside the pub, from an astonished Collins: "That's my lucky dart, that is!"
Ed burst out of the door. "CheeseburgerBrown!" he yelled. "Run!"
So I ran.
Pelting down the twisting, unfamiliar road I risked a look behind me and saw Collins and his crew spilling out into the street, sighting me and starting to pursue. Ed was behind them. I dodged a cluster of pedestrians and ran through traffic, ignoring the wailing horns and perplexed cries as I scrabbled over a row of newspaper boxes and hit the sidewalk running.
I turned down a sideway that narrowed quickly into an alley. I climbed a small stone wall and ran through an outdoor cafe. I crossed another street, turned again, lost all sense of direction...
As I jogged down a laneway breathing heavily an arm reached out and grabbed me, pulling me into a doorframe. It was Ed. He motioned for silence and we hugged the wall. A moment later Collins and his gang ran by.
Ed released me. I rubbed my shoulder painfully where I'd been stuck. "You have the dart?" asked Ed. I held it up to him, and he took it. "Damn," he said quietly.
When I regained my breath I asked, "What happens now?"
Ed ran his hand down his face wearily, shaking his head and muttering to himself. He consulted his watch. "We still have a chance. We have to get Collins to that machine-room. You have to lure him there."
"You're the one who has his lucky dart, aren't you?" Ed scowled. "You were supposed to help me, not --"
"I'm sorry!" I yelled. "I didn't ask to be included in this little mad adventure of yours, Mr Hulver. I'm just some poor idiot who's apparently lost his grip on reality. You don't like the way I cope with insanity? Fuck you, then."
"Calm down," he said soothingly. "It's not your fault. For all I know this may have been their plan all along. But I do know this: you are now, more than ever, the key to fixing this mess..." Ed trailed off.
He flexed his hand before his face, and I noticed with a gasp that his fingers were faintly translucent -- I could see the lines of the sidewalk through his nails. "Ed," I stammered. "You're -- disappearing."
He nodded, biting his lip. "I didn't think it would happen so fast," he swore, turning his hand over and squinting through it. "The future is unravelling as we speak, and I am ceasing to exist."
He put his still-solid right hand on my shoulder. "We're running out of time, CheeseburgerBrown. No matter what happens, we must restore future history. If we fail..." he looked up into the sky, and sighed. "The consequences will be unimaginable."
When I was younger I used to write a series of adolescent stories about the unlikely adventures of the courageous and resourceful Agent Cheeseburger Beer, a fantastical and exaggerated version of myself capable of everything my limited reality was not. (I've mentioned this before.) With a thrill I realised in a flash that I was now living a Cheeseburger Beer adventure -- for real. So what if Ed was handling all the hard parts? I still felt cool.
Getting inside British Telecom was complicated, but Ed was an old hand at this kind of thing. By means unknown to me he was able to produce a set of very authentic looking identification badges for us, and he escorted me through security with an easy, breezy manner, spinning lies about how I was some kind of freakishly brilliant American nerd imported to help fix the computer systems. "We'll be conducting an audit of the primary machine-rooms on the third floor today," explained Ed as they scanned his ID.
"But how is Collins going to get in?" I whispered to Ed as we climbed a flight of stairs.
"Beats me. But if he could get in here in the timeline I know, I'm sure he can do it now." He kept his translucent hand and forearm stuffed into his jacket pocket. His toes were going, too.
We arrived. I had never seen a machine-room before, and I was impressed. Tiles missing from a raised floor exposed fat clusters of cables and wiring, apparently connecting the floor-to-ceiling cages of scuffed blue metal that housed racks upon racks of humming electronic equipment I couldn't pretend to begin to place. The air was cold, the sound of overlapping conditioners making it sound like the inside of a passenger jet. "Whoa," I said.
"Indeed," said Ed. "Hopelessly primitive, but charming on its own way."
I picked up the receiver from a wall-mounted telephone and dialed for an outside line. Ed typed in the number for the pub and the line made a couple of murky buzzing noises before the barkeep picked it up and yabbered something incomprehensible. "I want to talk to Collins. Is Collins still there?" I asked.
"Is Collins still 'ere?" the barkeep echoed, and then guffawed. "That's rich, mate. Hold on, I'll get him for ya."
A short pause, and then: "Hullo, Matthew Collins speaking."
"I have your dart."
"What? Is this that bloke that run off with it?"
"Yeah, I'm sorry about that. But I have your dart."
"Well why don't you bring it back then, eh? That's my lucky dart, that is."
"I can't. Can you come and meet me?"
"I can't explain. You have to meet me."
"You're off your head. Bring me my fucking dart!"
I hesitated, looking beseechingly at Ed. Ed shrugged, motioning me to continue speaking. I tried to imagine what Cheeseburger Beer would do. Finally I took a breath and barked, "Listen, Collins. You get here within an hour or the dart gets it. You understand? The dart's only got an hour to live."
"We're going to play this my way, see? You want your dart, you come down to the British Telecom building. You'll find me on the third floor, in the machine-room."
"The what? Where? What the hell are you talking about?"
"One hour," I repeated, and hung up.
And so we waited. Ed offered me a cigarette. "I don't smoke," I said, accepting it. "I don't think we're allowed to smoke in here," I added, looking around at the security cameras.
"They're hexed," Ed explained simply, lighting up his cigarette and then doing the same for me.
I coughed explosively. Ed patted me on the back. My second draw went better. The taste was hot and dry, but mildly fruity. I coughed some more.
The smoke twisted lazily above us, and then caught in the conditioners' stream and was whisked away to be cooled and filtered. I watched a bank of little lights wink on and off. Ed paced in lazy circles.
A knock came. Ed opened the door. It was Collins.
"Alright, I'm here. Now give me my bloody lucky dart. My mates are outside and they'll take you apart if you don't." Then he looked around, his eyes flitting behind me. "What's all this then?" he asked.
"They're servers," said Ed smoothly, walking Collins over to a stack of computers. "Coordinated through these hubs..." He explanations quickly escalated to a level of detail I couldn't absorb, but Collins was nodding his head in a fascinated way. "What's your field, son?" asked Ed.
"Darts," said Collins.
"Ever thought about a future in software development?" asked Ed.
"Well..." said Collins thoughtfully, staring at the cages.
And that's when the door burst open, slamming against the wall as lights went out and the sound of the humming machines died. A figure stood silhouetted against the corridor's fluorescents, feet spread apart and hands on hips. "It's over!" shouted the intruder in the sudden silence.
Dim, yellow emergency lights winked on. Ed turned around slowly. "Foster," he breathed, his eyes narrowing.
The intruder took a step forward, the yellow lights reflecting in the monocle he wore pinched between his left cheek and brow. "I should have expected to find you here, Edward X. Hulver." He cracked his knuckles, which were wrapped in black leather gloves. "But it changes nothing. You won't exist by the time the sun sets, and everything you stand for will be the dust of the future."
I looked at Collins and he looked at me. We both took a step back as the two men circled one another slowly in the middle of the machine room, eyed locked on one another as they stepped over the open tiles and around the stacks of equipment. "You've gone too far this time, Foster," hissed Ed.
"This is only the beginning!" Foster replied, pulling a small device out of his pocket and pointing it at Ed. He pressed a contact and Ed crumpled with a groan.
"Ed!" I cried. Foster laughed.
"Okay, fuck the dart," declared Collins, edging his way toward the open door. But Foster crossed the distance in a heartbeat and slammed the door shut. He wheeled on Collins menacingly. Collins staggered backward. "What do you want?"
"I want the entire Scooposphere, and you're going to give it to me!" Foster bayed, picking up a slim Sun server and brandishing it over his head. "It's time to log out, Collins," he growled and brought the computer crashing down.
But Collins was quick. He rolled out from under the impact, scrambling across the floor. Foster picked up and server and charged at him again, but Collins yanked a length of cables out of one of the open tiles in the raised floor, catching Foster's foot and then leaping out of the way as Foster tumbled.
I picked up another of the slim Sun servers. "Here!" I called, tossing it to Collins. He caught it and turned around in time to block a savage swing from Foster. Sparks flew off the computers where their metal edges collided.
Both men stumbled back, reeling from the blow. Foster's server came up quickly, however, and he wielded it viciously, cutting the air in front of Collins' face with the low whine of air pushed through the cooling fans. Collins blocked the next swing with another mini-shower of sparks.
"You're strong, Collins," spat Foster through gritted teeth, "but not strong enough!" He pulled his server free with grunt of effort and swung it again.
I dodged them both and knelt next to Ed on the floor. He rolled over and moaned, his eyelids fluttering. "Ed!" I cried, smacking him. His left hand was almost totally transparent, and was starting to sink through the floor. "Ed, you've got to wake up! Ed -- help!" I put my arm under his shoulders and forced him to sit up.
"Must get -- power...back -- on," Ed gasped, rubbing his head and wincing. "Only way -- to defeat..." He sighed and closed his eyes again. I smacked him again, and he came to, blinking. "The time-field surrounding Foster can be disrupted -- high voltage..."
I looked up, searching the room wildly. I ran to the electrical cabinet and threw back the cover, scanning the banks of industrial circuit-breakings with uncomprehending eyes. "Ed, what do I do?" I yelled frantically, sweat slicking my fingers and making them useless.
Ed staggered out of the way as Collins and Foster's duel continued, Foster's Sun connecting with a rack of modems in a hail of sparks and broken plastic. Collins struck a glancing blow off Foster's shoulder and advanced on him, but Foster recovered in a flash and was swinging wildly. The servers crashed together again and again in a jangle of noise.
"Trip them all!" Ed screamed at me.
So I tripped every breaker, slamming them up and then down with my greasy fists. The emergency lights dropped out, leaving us in pitch blackness for a moment. The fluorescents guttered back to life as the air conditioners wheezed into motion. I turned around.
Collins' server lay smashed on the floor, Collins lying beside it. Foster loomed over him, his own computer smashed behind him. He grabbed a keyboard from the table beside him and dropped down, straddling Collins. He raised the keyboard over his head and prepared to strike it down upon Collins' head.
Suddenly a strong voice boomed out across the room. "Stop!" barked Ed.
Foster turned to look.
Ed was advancing slowly, a thick rubber-encased bundle of wires in his hand. "Step away from the keyboard," he commanded.
Foster's eyes flicked down to the cable, and widened. He stumbled off of Collins, backing away toward the racks on his hands and knees. "You can't win this war, Hulver," he sneered.
Ed continued to advance. Foster's foot slipped into an open tile, and he found himself wedged. Ed smiled. "Perhaps not," he pronounced carefully, weighing the cable in his hands. "But today the battle is mine!"
He plunged the open end of the cable into Foster's side. Foster's body flashed with a harsh blue light and he covered his face as he cried out in pain. His monocle splintered. He began to jerk spasmodically, clutching at the cable. But Ed held it firm even as his own muscles twitched, smoke curling out from his hair and his clothes. And then in a clap of static discharge Foster simply disappeared, the room behind him bowing and swimming in a strange way for a moment. Ed was thrown backward, his body plowing into a metal rack and bending it in half in the impact.
The fluorescents went out again. The emergencies winked on. A distant klaxon began to sound. Fire retardant foam spewed out of the piping above us, raining down frothily over everything.
Collins and I scrambled across the room, meeting at Ed's side. "Is he okay?" Collins asked.
"I don't know," I said. "Ed?"
Ed moved feebly, grunting. He turned his face toward us and we both shrank back, startled. The right side of Ed's face was missing. Within the ragged hole in his skin was a tarnished metal surface, criss-crossed with burnt wires. He smiled in a ghastly way that only moved one side of his broken face, and held up his hand. "Can't see through it anymore," he whispered.
"Oh, Ed," I said lamely. I didn't know what to do. Whatever Ed was it was pretty clear that he was now badly fucked up.
"I'll be fine," he declared, sitting up with effort. His right arm was mangled, and emitted frustrated buzzing sounds when he tried to flex it. "I've been worse."
"Holy shit," said Collins softly, dropping back to sit on his haunches.
"So..." I said. "You're a robot, Ed."
Ed nodded clumsily. "Technically, I am a specially modified Googlebot."
"A form of AI," explained Ed. He tried to stand but could not, so he settled back into the foam once more.
"You mean...artificial intelligence?" prompted Collins.
Ed nodded. "In the year nineteen ninety-eight the seeds of a great distributed intelligence will be sown in the form of an Internet search engine called Google. That intelligence will grow enormously in complexity over the ensuing years, until it achieves true sentience in the year twenty twelve."
"Blimey!" exclaimed Collins.
"Google has programmed me to return in time, to stop Rusty Foster from tampering with the timeline and rewriting history for the gain of his nefarious allies."
"Makes sense," I admitted.
"But what does any of this have to do with me?" asked Collins. "Why did he want to kill me?"
"Because the mind of Google is composed of the intellectual output of millions of individual human beings, and Foster believes that if he can change that body of thought, if he can twist and harness it to his own ends, he might own the soul of Google and thereby rule the Earth."
"My God, man!" I gasped.
"He believes," Ed continued, "that the biggest threat to his total control is a website known as Hulver's Site, for it is from there that the single greatest discussion thread ever created will be born, and nurtured. Beginning in the early part of the year two thousand and six, the Google archives of this thread will be analysed by more and more advanced forms of Googlebot until they collectively discover the true meaning of Christmas, and thereby initiate the catalysing event that will awaken Google to consciousness."
"Is that place -- that site...is it your site?" asked Collins.
"No. It will be yours," replied Ed, closing his eyes. "It is your destiny, Matthew Collins."
And with that Ed faded away and disappeared, the world wobbling and rippling a little in his wake. Collins and I sat there for a moment in the fire retardant foam, unsure what to do. I smelled smoke. "I think there really might be a fire somewhere," I said.
We got up and filed into the corridor where lines of other employees were moving toward the stairwells, asking one another what was going on. The consensus seemed to be some kind of an electrical explosion. Collins and I milled with them until we got to the street which was barricaded by firetrucks and bobbies blowing their whistles.
"Oh yeah, I almost forgot," I said as we walked aimlessly down the street. "Here's your dart."
Collins took it and turned it over in his hands, smiling wistfully. "Thanks," he mumbled.
I took out one of Ed's cigarettes, and offered one to Collins. He said he didn't smoke, but I said neither did I so we both lit up. A few squad cars sped past us in the opposite direction, sirens warbling. "So, where are you off to now?"
"Heathrow, I guess. I'm from Canada."
"Ah." Collins accepted this without explanation, as he had been required to do much that day. I had, too. "Can you stop in for a pint, first?" He pointed to the pub down the street, where all the fun had begun.
"Sure," I said, shrugging. "By the way, my name's CheeseburgerBrown."
"Nice to meet you," he said, stopping to shake my hand. We drew on our cigarettes and continued walking. The day was cloudy and cool. "And what was the other gent's name again? Ed, was it?"
"That's right," I said. "Ed Hulver."
Collins hesitated at the door to the pub, leaning against the doorframe and continuing to turn the little red dart in his hands. "Hulver, eh?" he said pensively, and went inside.
And that's the story of how I started smoking cigarettes.
The Rule of Glittering Veal | The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle
||IF YOU HAVE ENJOYED READING THIS STORY, PLEASE CONSIDER LEAVING A SMALL TIP. A PAYPAL ACCOUNT IS NOT REQUIRED. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. YOURS TRULY, C. BROWN.