This text, written by Albert Aribaud <firstname.lastname@example.org> was published in 1996 in issue 11 of the French fanzine Dragon et Microchips by l’Oeil du Sphinx and is reproduced here by kind permission from Philippe Marlin, of l’OdS, as (slightly) edited on June 15, 2020 following thoughtful remarks from Laird Bob Fumble, whom you can follow on Twitter, and whose blogs can be read at le Syndrome Quickson (both FR). Thanks to him again! This text is licensed under Creative Commons by-nc-nd, (attribution, no commercial use, no modifications) ; for any usage not compatible with this license, please contact the author. The attribution constraint implies keeping this paragraph either just before or just after the text title. The text can be published in any file format which does not include digital rights management.
Along the street, looters were emptying windows from stores which exhaled smoke and flames. Riemann crossed the street, paying them as little attention as to the trucks which stopped, their sirens blasting, their beacons turning his shadow into a colorful jig on decrepit walls.
From the trucks poured out men with helmets and boots, dressed in thick uniforms; holding their guns at hip level, they started firing without warning at the looters. A dozen of these fell instantly; others were deeply injured when the television sets’ cathodic tubes imploded, spraying them with flying debris. A few seconds later, Molotov cocktails started raining down on the armed forces.
This, however, Riemann did not see. He had entered one of the buildings which lacked shops, and were therefore neglected by looters and police alike.
A magnetic card was required in order to access the building’s entrance hall, a code was needed to open the elevator, and only a specific key allowed selecting the top story. Riemann had them all; but in a way, he could just as well have done without.
The elevator opened directly into the large, single room which made up the building’s last floor. It was an unbelievable mess: shelves upon shelves of books slotted without order or method; tables supporting piles of incomprehensible blueprints; strange machines, the utility of which could not be ascertained.
There was also a camp bed, on which laid a jumble of sheets and covers, and a desk lit by an architect lamp. At the desk, his back turned to the elevator door, was a man.
Riemann coughed. The man jumped and turned suddenly; then, recognizing Riemann, sighed with relief.
“Oh… Morning, mister Riemann. You scared me. I hadn’t heard the elevator come up.”
“You’re lucky, mister Simmons,” said Riemann. “I could have been one of these thugs who roam the streets down there.”
Simmons ran a tired hand through his unruly hair. He appeared to have spent the night up, as his white coat, his shirt and, yes, even his corduroy trousers were crumpled.
“No, not a chance. The card, the code, the key… No one can get in here.”
“A reasonable hypothesis…” Riemann commented. “… but just because it is reasonable doesn’t warrant that it be true.”
He took off his winter coat and his scarf, then hesitated, looking for a place to put them: there was no coat-hanger, and all chairs were stacked with books and endless listings.
“Oh… Er, put that here,” said Simmons, feverishly freeing up a chair which was about to break under the strain of innumerable Association for Computer Machinery volumes.
Riemann obliged, then turned to Simmons.
“So, my dear… Where are you with your, what was it already? Ah, yes, your psychic syntonizer. Are you nearing your goal?”
Upon which Simmons preened.
“It works, mister Riemann. You haven’t spent all that money for nothing. It works.”
“My last problem,” Simmons went on, “was automatic syntonizing. Settings are different for everybody, and quite difficult to establish manually. And we could not see the logic which might govern automatic settings. So I — »
“Wait,” Riemann interrupted, “you systematically forget that you might be talking to a philistine, unable to grasp your words in the slightest. Which, incidentally, seems to be a trait common to all inventors, at least all the ones whom I fund.”
Simmons remained silent for a few seconds, then spoke again.
“I’ll try and make myself clearer – well, for instance, you’re trying to understand me. So I turn my thought into words, you listen to these words, and you turn them back into thoughts. But you don’t understand all words.”
“Possibly”, Riemann smiled.
“So the right thing to do is to transmit the thoughts as directly as possible by… tuning minds with one another. Without going through words. No risk of any misunderstandings any more. No more erroneous translation problems.”
“And that’s what your syntonizer does.”
“Yes! Well, until recently, setting it to obtain correct transmissions would take a hell of a time. But today, we made it! It works! At least I’m certain it does: I let it tune on me – I know the optimal settings for my own mind — and in less than ten minutes, it had reached them!”
Riemann was looking through the window at the fires down in the streets. This time it was not just skirmishes. There was about a thousand people and about as many policemen, national guards, and even soldiers. Weapons flared here and there, yet no sound reached up to the laboratory. He turned to Simmons.
“But you have not attempted any communication with these automatic settings.” “No, that was unneeded.” Simmons waved his hand as if to chase away an annoying fly. “That part was working already even before you started funding me. Your money’s deed is automatic tuning. Thanks to you, people will understand one another way more easily. You are a benefactor, mister Riemann.”
Riemann smiled maliciously.
“Let’s not exaggerate. You have a large part of responsibility in the formidable impact which your invention will have.”
Simmons preened yet more.
“We’re going to use it!”
Riemann gave a wary look at the massive device which sat on a poorly lit platform along with two grubby folding stools, and which Simmons called the psychic syntonizer.
“Is it absolutely harmless?”
An enthusiastic Simmons let Riemann sit on one of the stools beside the syntonizer and started fitting his sponsor’s head with a helmet from which numerous brightly colored wires ran and burrowed deep inside the machine.
“No risk at all. Don’t move… We had tested the communication part with Nichols; you’re funding his temporal slider.” Simmons adjusted his own helmet. “There, it’s in automatic mode. Just a few minutes, and it’ll have tuned, and our minds will be able to communicate directly through the syntonizer. He owes me a Champagne Magnum bottle.”
“Nichols. We had a bet, and the first one to finish his project would get a Magnum”, Simmons explained while sitting on his stool, facing Riemann. “I finished yesterday — no, I tell a lie, that was this night at one in the morning. So I won.”
“Simmons, I’m afraid you’ll have to forgo that Magnum. I saw Nichols this morning.”
“He’s finished before me?”
“He has finished, but not before you. Also, he is dead.”
On the syntonizer’s dials, needles swung frantically, yet the device went on clicking, undisturbed. Simmons felt his throat tighten.
“How did it happen?”
“You probably know what his problem was: his slider was able to bring its operator into the past, but Nichols was bent on breaking through the barrier of the future, and this was why I funded him. He said there was no theoretical impossibility — although I leave to him the responsibility of this statement.”
“In any case, this morning,” Riemann went on, “Nichols welcomed me with considerable thrill, quite out of his usual character, and his collaborators were similarly agitated. He insisted on demonstrating his success by sliding one week into the future then back, and providing me a detailed account, with the proviso that I should make no use of the information he would entrust me with.
“So Nichols sat inside the half-eggshell-shaped cabin of his slider; he turned on the mechanism; and he vanished. After a few seconds, he was back. Dirty. His clothes torn. Bloodied. His eyes bulging. He turned to me and let out a blood-curling shriek. His collaborators ran to him, but the scream was the last thing he did before dropping dead.”
The syntonizer was clicking less and less; it was nearing the optimal settings. Simmons stammered, shaking:
“Did the… sliding turn wrong?”
“The sliding was quite perfected, at least toward the past, and Nichols has no doubts as to translating into the future. He did arrive one week from now. Misfortune had it, though, that he arrived at the wrong time.” Riemann looked idly at the window. A dull rumble seemed to respond to his words. The soldiers had turned to heavy weapons. “He met with something dreadful.”
With an eerie half-smile, Riemann stared at Simmons. The syntonizer went silent; the computations were complete and the settings were done. Some relay switched automatically and established the direct connection between Simmons and Riemann.
Then Simmons knew. And his heart froze.
Simmons stood up in panic, forgetting that he was still wearing the helmet and ripping the wires from the syntonizer in a spray of sparks.
“It’s impossible… You can’t be…” Simmons couldn’t even utter a complete sentence. One word he could not pronounce.
“Yes, my friend”, said, softly, the one who called himself Riemann. “I am. Your syntonizer is remarkable.”
Unable to turn his gaze away, Simmons stepped backward, hitting tables, knocking over chairs and shelves. Outside, a rumble rose, closer and sharper. His voice strained, Simmons uttered:
“You killed Nichols ! You rigged his slider! You sent him to his death!”
“Not in the least. I am unfortunately unable to predict the future, and I knew not what he would find. I must however admit that upon his return, I had the pleasure to recognize the… shall we say, trade marks of my servants. Which means – if Nichols was right – that before seven days, I will have deployed my troops onto whatever will be left of this world to make it my kingdom.”
“What do you intend to do with the syntonizer? I won’t let you — »
“You think I intend to use your machine?”, Riemann asked, smiling. “But I have no need of it. Why, in this moment, you are trying to remember whether I ever had you sign a pact or any sort of contract. If it’s any solace to you, you never signed anything ; I helped you pro bono — although not exactly publico — and so did I help the others, and made sure that you all could pursue your dreams; I really was your benefactor.”
“But why did you help us?”
Through the window, the facade of the next building flared up; the blast made the laboratory’s floor tremble.
“Because, my friend, if three years ago, for lack of funding, you had contented yourself with using your syntonizer as it was then, if you had not been blinded by the desire to perfect your project, maybe you would have fostered some cooperation, created friendships, or at least mutual understandings, where today there are only wars.” Riemann looked through the window at the blazing building and the burning human bodies which were falling from it. “You and the others could have avoided this.”
Simmons fought the paralyzing terror to stutter, pointing at the building: “Y… You mean we could have prevented you from doing that?”
Riemann locked his gaze on Simmons.
“Me? I have done nothing yet.” He showed the window, the burning building, the ash-darken sky. “This… is not my Work. This is the Work of Man.”
In this exact instant, the shell hit the outside wall and, in a scarlet flash, obliterated the laboratory, the syntonizer, and Simmons.
The smoke didn’t bother him. He walked among the looter gangs and the military troops with equal indifference ; and those who came across this weird character, black clad and quiet amidst the madness, had apparently better things to do than inquire about him.
He stopped and turned to watch the building collapse like a sand castle. Then he moved on wordlessly. He had many places to go, people to meet and things to see within his kingdom.
Or rather, for the sake of exactitude… Kingdom come.