The hour is late. The sign at Has Beans clearly says CLOSED, but there are lights on inside. Agent 1337, peering through the window, can see a woman behind the bar. She spots the visitor, waves, and moves to the front door to unlock it.
“You’re expected. Come on in.”
The agent nods appreciatively, and trundles up the stairs behind the counter as directed. From the back, a shout belts up the stairs: “PA! YER GUEST IS 'ERE.”
The man at the top of the stairs is named Lucius, according to 37’s mission brief. One name, just Lucius, like Beyonce. Okay then. Lucius leads the way into a tiny one-room apartment and invites his guest in with a gesture. He uses a cane, but 37 is convinced he doesn’t need it. He’s got tremendous muscle definition, even under the heavy sweater, and he walks like a soldier. Those AEGIS body-language courses are really coming in handy.
The two take a seat. The girl from downstairs brings up two cups and saucers - hot coffee, cream and sugar - and closes the door behind her. The cups aren’t your typical narrow-ass diner mugs, a prison cell for bitter black brew, but the big ceramic cups, wide rather than tall, so your first couple sips of these fancy Italian-American drinks aren’t just a mouthful of foam. 37 just prefers to drown the whole thing in French vanilla, then shotgun it and let thermodynamics work its magic in the mouth.
“You’re here late, young one,” Lucius says, by way of greeting.
“Us young ones need our sleep. How are you holding up?” 37 feels pretty patronized, but isn’t quite ready to say “old one” back to this guy.
“I am very well, thank you for asking.” The man sets aside his glasses, starts with the ritual coffee preparation. “Your superiors who arranged this meeting must think this matter urgent. How may I be of assistance?”
“Your name came up, I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, sir…” 37 is honestly a little uncertain about this conversation. I do computers, information systems, info-tech. I don’t do this mumbo-jumbo. “I’m supposed to ask you for a primer on time travel. Or prophecy, they said. They said you’d understand.”
Lucius nods. “I won’t ask why you wish to know. Did they tell you about myself, or my organization?”
37 shrugs helplessly. “You live above a coffee shop. In this town, I mean, that could be anything. Hit me.”
The older man nods. “I represent a group collectively called the Grail Knights, though we have gone by other names. We wield an old power, which we understand and experience as fragments of Excalibur - the true sword. We are charged with upholding a very particular balance. You could call us knights of justice, but that is an incomplete definition.”
The agent is honestly a little adrift. A polite nod, a sarcastic comeback to put an end to this obvious bullshit, or wary silence? A polite nod it is.
Lucius pulls a toothpick off of his coffee saucer, then places it delicately on the surface of the coffee itself. There’s a brief ripple, and the man waits for it to stabilize.
“Allow yourself to imagine time, the progression of past and future, as an ant, crossing this toothpick, from here to here.” His finger stabs down, indicating each end of the toothpick in turn. “You see yourself walking a linear path. At some points in your life, you’re over here, and then later over there. But you can’t turn around, not without help.”
Next, the old man produces a sugar cube. “The objective of our hypothetical ant. In our analogy, an event of great significance, a mythical goal, a grand dream. Camelot.” He drops it into the coffee. The ripples spread outward, causing the toothpick to bobble wildly. “Now. Where, in time, did you experience the actual reality of the sugar?”
37 stares. “So….” No other words come. I don’t get it. Just shut up and hope he explains this clearly, instead of more of this Zen master nonsense. Wait - no. The ripples capture the eye. “All of them. I get it. You’re saying that there’s things that are… Uh, that are, hm, parallel to time. Outside of time. Right?”
Lucius beams. “Yes. That is exactly right. Now, at this moment --” His finger indicates the earlier part of the toothpick “-- the event hasn’t happened yet, if you consider our ripples closest to the toothpick to be when the thing happens. It’s still to come. But the reality of it is irrepressible. It bursts through the ordinary, the everyday, and makes itself seen to the wise. The skill to recognize and interpret these signs is what we call prophecy. And at the other side of the event, on the far side of the toothpick, the event’s manifestation is that of myth or legend, story and fable.”
This is all strangely cogent. This automatically puts Agent 1337 on edge.
Lucius goes on. “Some events have such power that they can shift the toothpick. Alter its course. In our analogy, change time itself. Rewrite the past, present, or future. Ultimately, the larger cosmic universe is balanced, orderly, harmonious. But on the toothpick…” He laughs, roughly. “Well, that can be a bumpy ride, especially when you’re close to the action on events of significance. And staying close is the Grail Knights’ business.”
37 actually feels smart again, the way a bright student might. This might all be crap, but at least it’s interesting-sounding crap. I can actually ask questions. “Okay. So what’s time travel?”
“Time travel is moving to an earlier point on the toothpick. You can’t walk backwards, but you can dive into the coffee and swim for it. Doing so makes its own tiny ripples, of course, and may disrupt your plans. You’ve got to climb your way back on as well, which might prove difficult. Mystics from olden times found another option. Another toothpick, one oriented in a different direction. Another realm, or dimension, if you will. Fairy rings in England. Science could create such a thing, perhaps. Einstein’s relativity has twisted or bent space. Find a toothpick parallel to yours, cross onto it, then cross again when you’ve reached your destination.”
Agent 1337 has learned a lot from Ted Waters. The old guy’s clearly ready to be consigned to a museum, but as a mentor, he’s actually not bad. I sometimes wonder… Was it a mistake to have the same guy helping Link, and having me spy on Link? Aren’t they worried I’m going to be emotionally compromised?
Oh fuck. I’m seriously considering questions like this. That’s why they make me do this. They’re turning me into a god damn Fed!
One thing Ted Waters taught was to simplify. Cut through the nonsense to get to the heart of the matter. During interviews, debriefs, whatever-they’re-called-these-days, like that done to Alycia Chin, the interviewer is expected to ask a lot of questions, wear down the subject, repeat to expose lies. None of that is meant to get information, only to batter down the resistance to the only two questions that ever matter to the Fed: “are we safe?” and “are you gonna play ball?”. Lucius is playing ball just fine. That leaves the only other question.
“How do we protect ourselves against time travel?” the agent asks.
“The objective of the ant is to stay on the toothpick. Anything else is chaos.” Lucius gestures up the length of the toothpick. “You have an asymmetric warfare situation. There are two sides in your conflict, of unequal position, but perhaps equivalent potentialities. You see, if your enemy is in the future, they have a record of everything you’re known to have done. A group like AEGIS, capable of keeping secrets and leaking lies, can control what is perceived. And while a time traveler can strike from surprise, at any time, you have days or months or years to prepare for your own attack.”
From out of nowhere, the man has produced a heavy sword. 1337’s eyes bug out. Where the fuck did that come from? “To defend yourself against time travel, make a prophecy about what is to come. Use discernment to understand it. And be ready, at every moment. We Grail Knights are that readiness. We are the echo of the King in the mountain. And our weapons are the echo of Excalibur. Ripples across time, made manifest in knight after knight… Time is ultimately on your side. Preparation is your strength. Sometimes, doing nothing at the moment is best. May I offer an illustration?”
“Uh, sure.” The sword still has the agent’s attention, but Lucius doesn’t feel like an immediate threat. I mean, he’s dangerous, but not a danger to me…
“Some time past, the Menagerie sent two of its members to me.” 37 somehow feels like Lucius knows that this is relevant, but doesn’t press. The man continues. “They asked me for help with a certain matter, and about a certain party who was remanded to your custody. Ghostheart, yes? Now, the matter they brought to my attention could have been taken up by my organization. It is in, as they say, our wheelhouse. I chose not to. As a result, one of their members, Ghost Girl, was compelled to take matters into her own hands. As a result, she has shown significant growth, a very promising maturation toward her own potential for power. When she truly needs my assistance, she will return, and I will help her at that time. Until then, I must be patient.”
The sword disappears as suddenly as it appeared. “And so must you.”
Agent 1337 looks down at the remaining coffee cup, the one without a toothpick, shrugs, and streams it all in a single heroic swallow. “Listen, uh, Mr. Lucius, you’ve been helpful. My bosses probably won’t think so, but I’ll take that up with uh, the appropriate parties. And this is good coffee too, thanks. So, yeah, thanks for your time.”
“It was my pleasure.” Lucius rises to provide an escort out of the building.
Behind 37, the lights on the ground floor flicker out. The upstairs stays lit for awhile. Looks like I gave them something to think about too. Good.
It’s only afterward that 37 stops and thinks. If he didn’t know what I was there for, and thus couldn’t prepare for that interview, why did he have that toothpick?
This piece is intended to present a possible idiom for understanding for time travel, one that will keep both me and our science-driven hero Leo from catching fire when Doyce inevitably drops comic-book time travel tropes on us.
This is the first of three pieces, this one being about Lucius. Jaycee and Armiger are up next.
author: Bill G.