What could happen in a second?
The question entered Bix’s head as the Circle stared at the Maut Collider. It was malfunctioning again. Something in the program wasn’t running properly, most likely. It only takes a second for something to give.
Bix came from quite a large and well-stocked family of idiots, although all the members of the Circle possessed anything but the normal degree of intelligence, making him almost one of the bunch.
“This thing proves it,” Chief Wizard Grim said, his hazel squint becoming more intense. “This proves the existence of a Static Universe.”
“No it does not,” Dirk the Hop countered from his box in the corner of the research facility. “What it proves is, wizards are dunderheads.”
For someone who was approximately six inches high and a rabbit, Dirk the Hop had a lot of opinions.
“You’re a rabbit. Shut up.”
“I am not a rabbit.”
“Whatever it was you started out as–”
“I was the apprentice lab assistant. Remember?”
“No,” Bix said thoughtfully.
The Circle looked at him.
“No?” Grim said.
“No, this doesn’t prove anything. It shows the machine’s faulty.”
“Told you.” Dirk showed his teeth.
“Shut up.” Grim rolled up his voluminous sleeves and tapped a curly shoe. Most wizards wore shoes which turned up at the toes for ornamentation, but sadly Bix knew better. He’d seen parts of the Chief Wizard’s body he never wanted to see again, on a Circle “team building exercise” at Sarass Beach. The trauma still wouldn’t fade.
“I’ll fix it,” Bix said. “The manual’s round here somewhere. You all go and grab some lunch.”
The rest of the Circle shuffled, hopped, leaped, and in some cases walked out of the Grand Research Tower room, except one. It was Tidd, scratching his ear canal with an old quill pen and inspecting the dislodged debris.
“Tidd?” Bix said. “You. Go.”
Tidd blinked. Being the spawn of a rockgoblin and the short-sighted young daughter of King Herd, Tidd was born with a tenuous assortment of English and rockgob, but not a full grasp of either language. Instead, he spoke in Mazed English.
The little boy with the concrete skin didn’t move.
“I help.” His voice was a dry husk.
“No, no. I can manage, Tidd.” Bix wanted to change the Collider’s internal matrix to make it knock seconds together, or seconds and mauts together, instead of just mauts, but he couldn’t do that safely unless he was alone, and certainly not with the King’s grandson watching.
“I help,” the rock-boy said firmly.
However, if the King found out the charge he’d entrusted to the Wizard’s Circle was not being included in the proceedings…
“Oh, all right. Find the spanners for me, would you?”
Tidd yanked his tank top up to expose a small utility belt bristling with tools, even a mautogorgic drill, and grinned gravestone teeth.
“Right. Let’s get started then.”
The Maut Collider squatted, a fat, overfed beast, in the darkest corner of the tower room. The room was circular, and didn’t have corners, but as soon as the Maut Collider had been built, anywhere it was put became a shadowy corner. That was the problem when you were dealing with mautological energy particles. They were too negatively-charged.
Bix strode to the machine as if he was unafraid, armed himself with the largest spanner from Tidd’s grey waist and prised off the lid.
The Collider consisted of a long tube made of reinforced sky-metal. It looked short because its entire length, or most of it anyway, overlapped many dimensions. Obtaining the necessary planning permission for it had been a nightmare, including talks with the Foreign Secretary of Hell and the Prime Minister of the funny place with the melting clocks. As the son of Lady Farraigh, Bix had been the one elected to do the talking, under the false impression he’d inherited her unconscious penchant for diplomacy.
Everything inside the tube was fine. No leaks. Which meant there was something wrong with the programming.
He would need to pay a visit to Endron Fronnorf. And if he did that, he could ask him for advice.
The sign on the door read, “Dr. N. Fron., Systems Specialist.” Bix opened it and was faced with a fireplace. Magenta flames, this time.
“You’ve changed the layout again?” He peered through the flames into the long, low room. Dr. Fronnorf had his back to Bix, muttering and staring out of the window. Or perhaps he was staring at the window. Last time, the window had been a caged budgie.
“Five, seven, eleven…” The doctor paced towards the fireplace in a distracted fashion and doused the flames with a jug of water. Bix tried not to stare at the wrong parts of the doctor’s body as he did this. Endron had been to University with Bix and even then, he never deigned to wear clothes. Some people never change. Some people never need to.
“Still trying to work out one times one?” Bix climbed out from the damp logs and followed after his old friend. He’d managed to find something engrossing for Tidd to do before leaving the Tower.
“Yes,” Endron sighed. His skin gleamed white with no spots or moles on it at all. Bix envied him for it. Riddled with acne since he was fourteen, he’d lost track of the amount of times Endron told him the main reason for his problem was caused by clothes, specifically wool, and laundry detergents. However, unlike Endron these days, he actually remembered to go out in public, and didn’t fancy being arrested for following such sage advice.
“I have questions,” Bix said.
“Doesn’t everybody? There you are, you see, I just had one.”
In the background the window squawked to itself. Endron ignored it.
“What’s the trouble?”
“It’s about seconds. I need to know how I can find one.”
“No, one particular one.”
Endron nodded. “I know what you mean. For example, how can one multiplied by itself be one, as well as one squared being one and not a prime number? The mathemage’s must have made a mistake of differentiation. Perhaps the one that one times one is, is different to one squared, which then must be a different one one. You know?”
“I see,” Bix said, who didn’t. This was an old conundrum of Fronnorf’s.
“Which one second is it?”
Bix hesitated. Should he use the second it took for a cat to blink? Or the second used for keeping the minutes, which was a very important one? Or the one where light made up its mind to enter a room? “Can you keep a secret?”
“It’s the second containing the Big Bonk.”
Endron’s jaw lost itself on the way back up to his top teeth. “The creation of the Universe?”
“What do you want it for?”
“I want to split it.”
Endron’s lower jaw trekked further south, replacing his hairless chin. “Why? How?”
“The second’s been the smallest time unit for aeons. I want to know what its components are, and nobody’s tried to split it with success, but I was thinking…using the Collider…”
“Colliding Mauts with the Big Bonk second? I didn’t help you build the Collider for that. Surely you would want to conduct such an experiment in a more…contained environment?”
Bix reached over to the desk and idly fiddled with a compass, dropping it when it bit him. Evidently the compass had once been Ekter, Endron’s faerie dog. He couldn’t understand why Endron had to keep altering his surroundings using mautological energy. His meter readings must have been touching the bottom of the Scrotum constellation by now.
“I just need technical advice. I mean, the Collider’s malfunctioning again, and I have to get it fixed for tomorrow so the Circle can present its findings to the King. You can help me with my own little venture overnight. We could put everything back to normal by morning.”
“Have you any idea what it is you’re asking me to do?”
“The King isn’t funding the Circle to do this kind of Creation-research. This Collider is meant to investigate the nature of magic only, and to find out if the Universe is really expanding. If he finds out — and he will — you’ve been using it to collide matter with time, with me aiding and abetting you, we shall both be strung by the neck until dead.”
“I understand that, but–”
“You don’t. The King will find out. Everyone will find out, because inside the Big Bonk second is the Big Bonk. Can’t you use a less harmful second? Three, nine, seventeen…”
Bix had made up his mind. If the great wizard Caractacus could discover so much about space-time, why couldn’t he? The wizard had been his great-great-great-uncle on his mother’s side. That was the leverage his parents used to get him into the King’s Circle when he graduated. He couldn’t use magic, not having the correct channels in his fingertips to conduct mauts, but he could, and would be, a genius. That’s what they said. Since he learned to walk he was clumsy and erratic, a sure sign of potentially great intelligence. He wanted to prove himself equal to the wizards, even equal to Grim. All it would take was a second.
Endron shrugged. He strode to the far end of the library-cum-lab and pulled a couple of volumes down from a shelf.
“These will help you find some answers. In order to find the right second, I would consult with the theomages in the Temple.”
When Bix climbed the quartz steps into the Temple in the middle of the City, Tidd was there.
He cursed quietly. “Hello, Tidd.”
“I say greeting to you, skin-man.”
“How was the filing?”
“I had done it, five minutes. No big.”
Oh, well. Tidd had as much of a right to lunchtime prayer as anybody. As long as he stayed in the main hall, he shouldn’t overhear.
Bix found the red door marked “vacant” — all the others were engaged — and walked in. The theomage on duty was Mother Vanah, a friend of his father’s.
“Oh, Forty. How are you?”
“Fine, thanks. I–”
“Your parents, how are they?”
“Still together, I’m afraid.”
She suppressed a downcast expression. “Have you come here for confession?”
“When was the last time you confessed?”
“I confess I neither know nor care, Mother Vanah. I need to know how to find a second.”
“The second. The one with the Big Bonk in it.”
Mother Vanah did not blink. “The Big Bonk does not exist. The gods made the Universe, not an explosion.”
“Technically, it wasn’t an explosion. Caractacus said–”
“That it was the sound of two particles hitting each other. Yes. Here in the Temple, we practice religion, not science.”
Bix sighed. “Fine. I’m looking for the second containing Zu.”
“Zu the Most High.”
Mother Vanah tied her red cloth around her naked scalp a little tighter. The sisters of the Temple shaved the hair from their heads, and a few had a hole trepanned into their skulls to let the voices of the gods enter them. Vanah’s skull-hole was a glimpse of the darkness in the white of her skin, and Bix looked away.
Mother Vanah did not appear to notice his discomfort. She unfolded the tarot codex and consulted the lines on his face. She placed his hands on an ink-pad, made him blot them on a handkerchief and studied his fingerprints. Her eyes rolled into her head, and she slumped, motionless.
Bix waited, trying to conceal his embarrassment, which was silly as there was no one there to see it. Vanah had vacated her body to converse with the gods. He would be lucky to get a response by teatime.
A cough erupted from Vanah’s throat, and she snapped back into the Normal Realm.
“Sorry. Tickle in my tonsils.”
“Well!” Her shoulders rose and dropped. “Zu says to expect him this evening.”
“What? That’s it?”
“What do you mean, ‘it’? He obviously thinks the matter is important enough to talk to you himself, rather than channel through me. Are you sure your mother is still..?”
“Yes, she’s still living in the same house as us,” Bix said wearily. “Neither her, nor my father, notice each other.”
“They had a fight?”
“No. They’ve always been like that. To be honest, I can’t imagine how I was conceived.”
Bix ran home through the rain of the Old Town. The City had grown up around the Old Town in the last hundred years after the discovery of the maut by Caractacus. Some of the earliest magical experiments were held — and went wrong — in that historic quarter. Hence the permanent rain. It wasn’t ordinary rain. The experiment it came from, according to the tabloids, involved a disconsolate squid, the resulting precipitation was purple, and the resulting generations were often stained and grumpy.
Bix’s house was a small, narrow affair sheltered between two taller buildings and the Old Town library opposite, which leaned far too much for its own edification. This, and the fact he kept his windows shut, made sure Bix was more or less a normal colour.
His father answered the door in a loincloth and monogrammed slippers, face half-shaven.
“Mum in?” Bix checked.
“No, she’s still in her rooms at the Court.” In marrying Lady Farraigh, his father Bertle had become Lord Farraigh, but it didn’t stop him from lying in until mid-afternoon and lolling about in his underwear.
“I’m expecting a visitor this evening, so if you could…erm…”
“Charmed. Who is it, one of the Whore’s Guild again?”
“It’s a business meeting.”
“I could do a buffet. Well, not so much the canopies and the horse-duvets, but I can do, er, nuts…”
“Just go out somewhere. Please.”
Bix climbed the staircase, which was far too wide for the house, crossed the rickety landing and folded himself neatly on his bed. He’d changed it that morning, sheets stained lilac from being hung out to “dry” on the line, and he felt his eyes drooping shut. It wasn’t evening yet. The sun was still over the horizon.
He opened his eyes and Zu the Most High was standing in the room.
The god’s hair was lightning, and his eyes were thunder. He was fully eight feet high, without the aid of orthotic insoles. His chest, arms, legs, and eye sockets were tattooed with circular patterns in blue woad, unless he’d walked all the way from the heavens in the rain. His whiplash tail coiled on the floor by his ankles.
A pair of sunglasses were perched on the top of his head. He wore voluminous polka-dot drawers.
“You are dreaming,” Zu said. “In case you might not have noticed.”
Bix glanced to the window. The sun was below the horizon.
“I said for you to expect Me,” Zu said. “You have done well.”
Bix was not sure if the god of gods was being sarcastic. Were gods capable of sarcasm? For a monkey-god who learned to stand upright and gave humans the gift of fire in the myths, Zu’s face wasn’t very readable.
“Um. Thank you?”
“You require the beginning-time. The gods require another beginning. You will do this thing for us.”
“Split the Bonk.”
“What…why…why do you need another beginning? You don’t mean you’re going to destroy the world?”
Zu did not answer the question. “Be in the pointy building in the topmost part, next to the tube of many dimensions at dawn, and I shall come to you as The Second.”
“But — but — why are you wearing spotty pants?”
“This is not my doing. They are products of your subconscious. Get them off.”
Then his father was hammering on the door and Zu was gone.
“Fortunius? I just got back and there’s a little rockgoblin child waiting at the front door. Says he wants to talk to you about work?”
“Great,” Bix breathed. “Tidd.”
Tidd was attempting to grow a lichen moustache. It didn’t suit him.
“What do you want?” Bix said. It was six o’clock as the bat flew, and he hadn’t eaten breakfast yet.
“I came for work-walk.”
“You don’t normally walk to work with me. This is going out of your way, too.”
A sudden paranoia flitted through his mind. Tidd was in the Temple. He could have pressed his ear to Mother Vanah’s door, if he was that type of person, and heard just enough to discover his plan…the plan he really wasn’t sure he wanted to carry out now.
The rockgob child hooked a gritty arm through his.
“We much discuss.”
Tidd led Bix through the winding streets and the ink-rain of the Old Town into the City, to the Circle Tower. It was too early for many people to be out, let alone awake. There was only the street-vendors setting up their stalls and carts in readiness for the punters, and the post-clerk going from door to door with the morning newsprints. They were too far away to help him.
What did he want to say, anyway? “Help me, I’m being kidnapped to work by a semi-eloquent goblin”? “The King’s fourteen-year-old grandson is bullying me”?
At the door to the Tower’s main lobby, Tidd stopped and coughed up a rusty key.
“Bless you,” Bix started to say. “Oh. I didn’t know Grim trusted you with a door key.”
The rockgoblin unlocked the Tower and pulled him into the reception area. Tidd swallowed the key with a hollow, grinding noise and smiled. It was an uncanny grin.
“The King entrusted me with a spare key,” Tidd spoke in a different voice. It was clearer and more fluid. “I’m going to drop the pretence now.”
Bix floundered. “You…you speak..?”
“Yes, I speak perfectly good King’s English and always have done.”
Realisation slammed into him like a royal steam-train. “The King had you working here to spy for him.”
“Obviously. The King needs to have eyes in all places.”
“My grandfather is delightfully paranoid. According to the theomages, one of the wizards will conjure a Great Doom, thereby killing us all.”
“It was a prophecy given to him by the theomages.” Tidd rolled his eyes, dropping gravel on the carpet. “This is why I had to keep my grandfather informed, and why he’s here now. Go on then. Up the stairs, tickety-tot.”
Bix did not savour being spoken to in such a way by a precocious boy made out of rock, and an ugly one at that. “We’ll take the lift.”
“The mautological bills are too high again, so the lift’s out.”
“For Zu’s sake…”
One long, spiralling ascent of five hundred and forty-one steps later, they emerged into the Research room. There squatted the Collider like a giant, abandoned spider calculating its revenge on humanity.
There stood Grim, Dirk the Hop sitting on his shoulder, other members of the Circle waiting in various poses of boredom. Two of them were playing Ludo.
There stood King Herd.
“Fortunius, at last!” Grim said, his relief palpable. “What great discovery have you got to show us? Tidd said you’d found something. His Majesty paid us a visit to see what this is all about.”
“Why did you grass on me?” Bix hissed.
Tidd shrugged. Out loud, he said, “When ready, you show. I not think it work.” He scurried to stand next to his grandfather.
Fortunius Bix seethed. That little, cracked, no-good —
Something crept into his hand, beetle-like. He glanced down. Zu the Most High, scaled down to less than an inch high, was nestled in his palm.
Whenever you are ready, he seemed to be saying.
Bix looked at the assembled, expectant faces.
He could split the second of the Big Bonk. He could please the gods and give them the fresh start they were searching for, leaving this universe either dead and dust or totally bereft of religion. They might make him a god. All it would take was a second.
He could ask for anything in return. A better house. A higher position in the Circle — no, he could be the King. He could fashion himself a set of parents who actually spoke to one another.
Fortunius Bix did come from a large and well-stocked family of idiots. Discreetly, he closed his fingers over Zu and tried not to wince at the infinitesimal splat.