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Tim, Destroyer of Worlds
A novella from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4|5|6|7
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Tim, Destroyer of Worlds,  a novellette by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 2

You probably don't know a lot about [REDACTED], so let me walk you through a typical day.

I'll leave it to the hardworking men, women and machines of Naval Intelligence to strike out anything too sensitive. I can't be expected to keep track at this point. I mean, is talking about [REDACTED] okay? I have no idea. It seems harmless enough to me, so I'm just going to include it.

After all, at least a vague understanding of [REDACTED] is kind of pivotal to the whole story, in a way.

Before things went badly I lived in a contractor hostel two pods past the west prairie. It was practically right on the equator, within walking distance of the World Train. Even for me.

Due to a policy called Professional-Social Shearing (always known as "piss" in the trenches) Titan was arranged so that you never lived near anybody you worked with. This was so that non-establishment associations would show up more clearly against the grain, like a smudge through iron filings: any contacts outside of routine required at the minimum an unusual effort of travel, an easy flag to see flapping.

Thus, my immediate neighbour in the hostel was a platoon of ex-military private paratroopers. Apparently paratrooper morale suffers if they're broken down into units smaller than platoons, so the system treats them as essentially a single individual with regard to security shear lines.

The net result of this was that I didn't need an alarm clock.

I was always on the third shift, which meant waking up at around quarter past twenty-four when many of my neighbours would be stumbling home after a second shift spent at the canteen. I never needed an alarm clock because somebody in the next cabin -- above, beside or below me -- was bound to come home at just the right time to loudly vomit or screw.

The walls in the contractor hostels were not thick.

More often than not I fell asleep watching The Revengineers on my palmtop reader. Entertainment media was tightly filtered on Titan but I brought along my personal collection of The Revengineers broadcast seasons six through fourteen inclusive, including the coveted alternative ending to season seven's famous finale cliffhanger. I always had to mind that my reader didn't touch the metalibrary though, or the censor daemon would've gotten in and eaten everything.

(Hardly anybody on Titan ever even watched The Revengineers, which is yet another thing that made the place feel so alien. I mean, can you imagine? It was like living in an alternative history.)

So, as I was saying, on a given morning I probably started the day by peeling my face off my palmtop reader and brushing the crumbs off my front. There were a lot of crumbs. My mother used to send me care packages of snacks that I stashed in a hollow corner between the head of my bed and where the wall flares out to form the closet. The paratroopers didn't know about this nook because their cabins didn't have them -- it was only in mine to permit the passthrough of a pipe that gurgled after a toilet was flushed.

(My cabin was five percent smaller than anyone else's, but I didn't care because otherwise they'd steal my candy.)

To the left of me someone would barf, to the right two someones would hump. My shelf jiggled in time. I'd attend to myself at my little two-piece toilet, trying not to look in the mirror except to comb and braid my hair. Most people on Titan had short and bristly hairstyles if they had hair at all, but my parents are pretty hardcore Oprans and they'd go mental if I ever cut mine.

(I know, I know -- I'm twenty-six years old, over a lighthour from home, and I'm still worried about my parents giving me grief. It's pathetic.)

I always kept my head down when I left my cabin because the later the others were coming home the drunker they were, which usually meant they were more likely to slow me down by wanting to josh around or something. Those guys were always fooling. "Yo ho, Fatbags -- off to sweat up some chubby fox's dough holes?"

"No, no," I'd say, blushing. "I'm just going on duty."

Drunk paratroopers like to hang off of one another. They like to touch, drooping and swaying from each other's shoulders as they guffaw. In this way they tended to form clots that blocked corridors. "Chow's plastered, maybe she'll do you."

"No, no," I'd repeat, bowing my head with little jerking motions in my intended direction of travel. "I'm just trying to get out of here, thanks. Um, could I get by here, fellows?"

"Do you have cheese under your tits?" someone might have asked, and then they'd all howl. Or maybe, "Captain tells us the new weapon against the Jovies is actually your ass, Fatbags. Whoda thunk it?" And so on.

They were always such an enthusiastic bunch of people. So full of life.

(A lot of them are dead now.)

Anyways, so a great part of every day for me was always just walking to the train station. There were flat fields of grass between the hostels, green carpets dotted with buzzing bugs, butterflies and blossoms. It always smelled great out there, and I often had to remind myself to resist my notorious childhood urge to eat grass by the torn, dirt-clodden handful.

Swarms of birds would always be flowing around the roof in waves and rivulets, their chirps echoing off the streaky, grime-stained dome. You never knew which ones were real birds and which ones were maintenance drones. The way they flock is exactly the same.

At the station nobody looked at one another, because nobody's business was nobody's business. Sometimes somebody would cough. Titan was such a quiet place, on the whole. You could hear the train coming from a long way away.

On the train I'd pull out my reader and watch an episode of The Revengineers. It's not like there was anything else worth looking at once you were moving between domes: murky orange fog is murky orange fog.

There were people, soldier friends of mine, who thought it was a blast to go out there and play around in that soup. They'd go skiing or repelling. They'd have buggy races. They'd parasail. But I hated going out-of-domes. It was way too cold and when you came back you smelled like cow farts.

I was most comfortable at work.

There were ten of us in the Enveloping Keychain Group, and we worked in a round room with ten infographic windows around its outer edge and a spiral staircase at its core. Our room had two pillars for passthrough: one for cabling and one for vines.

My station was between Fast Annie and Quality Barbecue Sauce. When I first came to Titan I worked beside Shogo Natamo but we argued too much so the management system cued a reshuffling. I was much happier after that.

(Shogo Natamo is a dick.)

Fast Annie is very fast. She's fast about everything because she's obsessed with efficiency and afflicted by what can only be described as frenetic focus. To strangers her speech is an unintelligible flicker of syllables -- like something soft grazing a fan.

She's tall when she unfurls, her forehead high and always somewhat shiny. She keeps her hair shaved but not because she's ex-military but because she idolizes Zoran's Nicola, a swarmily faux-oil painting of whom she hung above her infographic window on Titan and just yesterday affixed to the top of the nocturnal tank here on our slow boat to Sol.

Quality Barbecue Sauce, predictably enough, is Terran. But, despite this, he's almost like a totally normal person. He gets a little pushy sometimes but he usually backs off if you're firm. He says his people were like strict strict Commercial Islamic Futurists but they converted to Non-Commercialism when they emigrated to Ares. Whatever. I have to say I'm with everybody else on this one: once a commercialist, always a commercialist.

"What kind of treats your momma sending you this time, Tim?"

I'd narrow my eyes. "Why do you ask?"

"Man, come on. Can't a body ask after his friends?"

"I got some Brown's bars, Quality."

"You should ask your momma what she paid. I bet I can find you a better deal. A deal that's solid with Allah."

"No thank you."

"Body, I have a line."

"No thank you."

"Peace."

We all listened to different music while we worked but the airwaves were shaped so there were only narrow zones of interference or crosstalk, and you only noticed them when you moved too close to the edge of your workspace. Once I got to work I just sat, myself. Fast Annie paces when she's thinking but once I'm planted I'm good.

I spent my days crafting the encryption envelopes for [REDACTED] arrays that had been pre-folded by the Mathematical Ordnance Division, making sure the nodes in the solution tree didn't ghost up any invented keys. I had clearance to run trial waveforms in the Secure Universe Shell but usually just did it in virtualization so I wouldn't have to get up to cross the room.

At the time I'm talking about we were gunning hard to finish packing the matrix for Project [REDACTED] -- which I hope I'm allowed to say. It's just a code name. If I can't even use code names this is going to get very confusing very quickly.

Even if you don't know much about active number science, you can probably appreciate that I couldn't be just making stuff up to stripe the data envelopes: each day I had a new cypher provided by the management system to serve as a seed. It might run something like this:

Contrary to popular belief, the wind through Huo Hsing never speaks of {rubies|emeralds|diamonds} for fear of making the vapours ring. Hey nonny nay!
Using poetic cyphers minimized the possibility of intelligence leaks at the personnel-machine interface, because even if a stanza got into the wrong hands it would be useless without context. I mean, you'd never know in which part or parts the message had been hidden because meaning was encoded on the psycho-semantic level. Unless you were the one it was designed for and you knew which stanzas proceeded it and which followed, how could you possibly have a clue where the true information lay?

You had to really get the whole poem.

The message was, in effect, a completely personal one. It had no value except to the mind for whom it was intended, and that mind resided at the core of the most technologically advanced weapon of mass destruction ever conceived by the human race: Project [REDACTED].

The Enveloping Keychain Group's job was to explain to the Project its mission, in a form safe to manipulate without accidentally starting to execute in real space and thus triggering a critical mathematical cascade within the bomb.

You know?

If not, it's like basically the [REDACTED] Effect except in the real world, where [REDACTED] acts like a [REDACTED] [REDACTED]. You follow me? It's all a big puzzle, and an emergent property of the process of solving it is an interference pattern in [REDACTED] propagation. High school math, right? Okay, so this cues the gel-state phase-transition of all our pre-folded [REDACTED] arrays simultaneously, setting up an unresolvable [REDACTED] local topography [REDACTED] of [REDACTED] designed to describe in real physics a choke system to temporally-restrict the [REDACTED] collapse of the probability anvil...that buys you just about Planck Time of mayhem, but that's more than enough.

It's actually kind of cool if you think about it.

Somewhere on Titan we knew there was another set of us, doing the exact same work on the exact same solution trees, for the purposes of error correction. We were each other's safety nets, our stanzas entangled on a very low level and our results tied directly to the central processors for real time cross-comparison.

(Sometimes I wondered if their version of Shogo Natamo had nasty sardine breath, too.)

On the day I'm thinking of I'd just finished a productive shift of [REDACTED]-analysis and I was looking forward to getting home to watch a few episodes The Revengineers for comfort after swinging by the mess hall. I turned to say "see ya" to Fast Annie but she was already gone. Quality was gathering his jacket and taking out his walking bell.

"You skipping off to the show?" said Quality amicably, not looking up.

"You mean The Revengineers?" I replied, furrowing my brow. "Sure, yeah. I might watch one before bed."

"No man, I mean the entertainers. The ones in orbit."

Stupidly, I glanced up at the ceiling. "Um?"

"They flew in a circus for the sailors."

"Really?"

"Would a body lie?"

"Huh. Imagine that. A circus on Titan."

"You going to go?"

"I'm not a sailor. I wouldn't be able to get a pass, and I don't have the money to pay, probably."

"I just figured with all those warriors you chum with you had to have a body who'd be doing you a solid."

I shrugged. "If I want to see a circus I can always watch The Revengineers summer special from season ten."

Quality chuckled. "Peace."

But as I entered the square outside of my favourite mess hall (the blue one in Big North) I was just like everyone else in gaping as we stared upward, our collective pace slackening: the high curve of the dome was crisscrossed by trapeze equipment, shining in the roving beams of spotlights that swept along to track the motions of tiny, spinning people dressed in sparkling skins and streamers.

"Oooh," said everybody. And then, "Aaaaah." Even the hardened, military-types made tight little smiles as they took off their hats for an unobstructed view.

The giant round public intelligence screen at the west end of the square illuminated with depthy close-ups of the flying artists, their sequined costumes winking in the lights. A leather-skinned Aresian with a thick, curl-ended mustache next filled the view as he grinned and hooted, "Ladies and gentlemen, meat and metal, let me present Sanders and Sanders Celestial Circus! We'd be pleased to be your servants of delight in circumpolar orbit! Do you have your pass yet? Come one, come all! Three performances only!"

I smiled to myself and was about to turn away to grab my grub when I was arrested in place by the next image on the screen: it was her.

She moved like some kind of a fantastical creature: a pixie or a nymph, someone who could swim through the air and make it look divine and effortless, someone made of something lighter than matter. Even in low gravity she made the other trapeze artists look like lead weights, any hint of her mass blended perfectly so inertia was indistinguishable from afterimages. She smiled when she did it, careless of apish jealousies.

Honestly, I don't really tend to go for girls like that -- I mean, impossible air fish girls or whatever. Normally I try to fall for girls who have at least as much baggage as I do, so we don't have a vice gap. You know?

But the way she moved did something biological to me.

I will always own that moment when Alaia entered my life, one hundred meters over my head, her face framed, followed and adored by the public intelligence screen. I knew what I was feeling was beyond reason right away, because I started to hate the public intelligence screen for its relationship with her. I thought about trying to covertly break it, later on.

That's how crazy I was. That's what Alaia did to me. I was planning the murder of an inanimate object for stalking her.

She was too pretty to be recorded.

(Isn't that a ridiculous thing to think?)

I blinked and looked at the ground and tried to make the feeling go away but my heart was beating really fast and my fists were clenched and sweaty. I was dizzy, and also a bit giddy. I fought the urge to burst out laughing.

I looked up again and though the presentation on screen had moved along to a pre-recorded segment of elephants I could now easily pick Alaia's distinctively fluid motions out of the twirling dots that were the real trapeze artists high above.

I knew then and there I simply had to find a way to get to that show.


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