e-mail: jv.choong [ at ] gmail dot com
A/N: Takes place in the same universe as this story.
Seleucid Year 92929, Rollback 0
The Horologist god has no planet to call his own, but takes care of The Grand Clock in the Vaticanny Place's grounds. Since he built it, he is in charge of the general care and upkeep of the clock, but also maintains the flow of time within the Vaticanny Place. While The God rules over The Vaticanny Place and its gods (and thus over the entire universe), the Horologist god rules over the universe's time; which is the more powerful god is therefore a favorite subject of debate among the Vaticanny's philosophers, one which every true philosopher god must wrestle with at least once in order to be recognized as such.
Today was a bit different.
The God had called the Horologist god for a spot of afternoon tea to take in the lovely spring scenery. Flowers blooming on hedges and trees, petals fluttering to the ground giving the janitors extra work, cool breezes instead of sharp winter chills so gods could dramatically throw off their winter coats and frolic in the explosion of colours associated with the season, often causing very messy accidents... nothing like the Vaticanny's pleasant spring scenery for quiet chats, you see.
"Keeper," The God brought his cup to his lips, "I'm growing old."
Keeper the Horologist god slowly uncurled his finger from his teacup and stared at The God. After a long pause searching for the right words he replied, "It happens."
"Well, do something about it. You built The Grand Clock, didn't you?"
"Doesn't mean I want to tinker with it." Keeper took a sip of his tea, thoughtfully. "Name an heir already if you're tired, that's what children are for, aren't they?"
"Just because I've got children doesn't mean they're any good."
"Allegra's got potential."
"I don't – look, you're beating around the bush. Why not try turning back that clock? Just try, that's all I'm asking," The God reasoned.
"I've had golden cogwheels, a cyborg hunchback, and a kaleidoscope light show installed in The Grand Clock at your request. Forgive me if I don't find this request particularly sound."
The Horologist continued drinking tea and munching on tea-cookies while The God stirred his tea, watching the petal caught inside swirl around. Suddenly, The God's eyes lit up and he leaned forward.
"What sort of time god are you if you can't bend the universe's time to your will?"
Keeper stopped, and narrowed his eyes at The God.
The Horologist god sat cross-legged at the door to The Grand Clock's mechanism, hands steepled in front of him, and very, very, cross at himself. The God had goaded him before without it leading to an alteration of the rules of space and time; but The God was good at pushing his buttons and getting him to say, "We'll see who has the last laugh," sealing the deal.
Now he had to find a way to turn The God younger, and it was his own fault.
Keeper sat in front of The Grand Clock for a day, face buried in his hands. By afternoon he shot up, grabbed a screwdriver, and threw open the door. The Grand Clock's hands steadily moved backwards, one round, two rounds...and stopped.
Keeper looked the same as when he stepped in, but now there was a very big satisfied smile on his face that screamed 'Oh yeah that's for saying I couldn't do it that'll show him'.
The Horologist god thus invented the Rollback, and all was good.
"What's wrong, Smiley?"
Smiley leaned closer to the petunias, the petals almost touching his nose. "It's smaller." He waved Allegra closer.
"Smaller? What, the plant? It looks the same."
"No, it's not. Look at the petals," Smiley pointed. Perhaps it was from being the Time Pocket god, but his ability to sense minute change was extremely high; useful if a girl backcombed her hair and asked if you noticed anything different, but annoying if you were walking and got distracted because you swore a row of petunias had regressed instead of flourishing.
"Do you like it?" Smiley and Allegra turned to see Keeper regarding them with a very bemused look.
Smiley sighed. "Out with it, Keeper. Don't leave us hanging in suspense."
"I turned back time," Keeper said, his smile widening at each word.
Allegra hesitated and had a few false starts but eventually blurted, "What does it achieve?"
"With any luck we'll all stop aging, and we can be gods forever."
Smiley cut in, "That sucks. How can I be the Horologist god if my teacher never retires?"
"You'll think of a way, you always do," Keeper waved carelessly.
As the day progressed, Keeper went from ecstatic to pleasantly pleased to wondering whether he could turn the clock farther back. Just a year or two, tops. Wouldn't want people blinking out of existence because he rolled too far back. It would be nice to roll back to the year of praline trees, he mused.
The Horologist god skipped back to The Grand Clock and did just that.
"What's wrong, Smiley?"
Smiley leaned closer into Allegra's face until the tips of their noses almost touched.
"The corners of your eyes seem smoother," he said.
"What? They looked the same this morning." Allegra wondered whether to be flattered or offended by Smiley's observation.
Smiley rubbed his chin and continued squinting, "No, I'm serious. I think you may have gotten younger."
"Do you like it?" Smiley and Allegra turned to Keeper. "Rolled back to two years ago. I don't think Lady Allegra's wrinkles were completely wiped out, but-"
Smiley's hands immediately swept around his face, searching for changes.
"I didn't notice anything different about you this morning," Allegra comforted.
"Young people don't age as much, Smiley. Your regression was probably minimal," Keeper added.
"As it should be, thank you very much," Smiley muttered as he stomped past Keeper to the main building.
After Smiley was out of earshot, Allegra turned to Keeper. "I think you should continue," she whispered.
"Thank you, Lady Allegra. Your father thinks the same," Keeper whispered back.
Smiley the Time Pocket god sat cross-legged on the floor of his laboratory, hands steepled in front of his face, and very, very annoyed at the Horologist god. The first time had been interesting, but Keeper had let his curiosity get the better of him and rolled back time farther. By Smiley's calculations he should be thirty-one and Allegra around fifty-three, but if Keeper continued he would be in diapers tomorrow if not outright disappear.
Smiley spent the day in thought, alternately staring into space and waving his arms about, testing hypotheses in his head. His stomach grumbled once around teatime, but hunger could wait. Shortly after, Smiley realised that he was the Time Pocket god – if he could put objects and worlds into individual pockets of time, removing them from the general timeflow of the rest of the universe, surely there was nothing to prevent him from placing himself in just one of those pockets.
Smiley pulled out the full-length mirror he kept folded between a cabinet and the far wall of his office, wiped off some of the dust with his shirt, then propped it up and inched backwards until he saw his whole body in the mirror. Framing the mirror with his hands, he cast his spell and prayed it would work.
"Your hair looks lovely today," Smiley said.
Allegra beamed. "Thank you! Tried a new shampoo yesterday, makes the hair lighter." She flipped her chestnut-brown hair over her shoulder, shaking off loose petals. "You haven't changed one bit, Smiley."
Smiley returned her smile. "That's good to know."
Smiley wanted to say that Allegra's face was positively radiant – perhaps it was the rollbacks, but Allegra did not look a day over thirty-eight. Her recovered youth had encouraged Allegra to be bolder with her cosmetic choices, and Smiley was continually impressed by her fashion sense. Five rollbacks ago was a new lipstick shade, yesterday had been the first time he saw her with mascara, and today she had the audacity to wear a large floral-print maxi dress to work, never mind that she was no god and worked in the hospital! Imagine the scandals that would be going around!
His relationship with Allegra had been familial at best – Allegra had attended to Smiley after a time pocket experiment gone wrong, and after discovering a common love of conversation and temporal-based experiments the Vaticanny Place had described their friendship as 'the most dangerous marriage of medicine and science since Keeper and Smiley'. Smiley found it easy to be comfortable around Allegra since the large age gap between them helped Smiley regard Allegra as the fun-loving adventurous aunt he'd never had.
Now was a different kettle of fish.
Firstly, Smiley's time pocket had left his aging process completely independent from Keeper's experiments, which left him free to control time as he wished. While he'd toyed with the idea of turning ten years older just to mess with the Horologist god's head, he'd dropped the idea after hearing about a god who'd been found in her flat reduced to an infant, attempting to rule over her planet with gurgles and gestures in the absence of refined motor and language skills.
(When The Vaticanny Place learned that rollbacks had no effect on mental age, opinion polls changed from around 60 to over 99.9 per cent in favour of them. Nobody was surprised.)
Secondly, Smiley found himself physically attracted to Allegra.
Never mind that she was The God's only daughter and god (pun unintended) help Smiley should he think of doing anything funny with her, but her youth was rapidly closing their age gap. The image change was one thing, but walking next to her gave Smiley ideas of reaching out, tucking her hair behind her ear, lightly tracing his finger along her jaw line to her chin, then tilting her to his face and-
"Smiley, are you coming?" Allegra shouted, ten meters ahead.
He shook his head, then jogged to catch up.
Keeper and The God sat under the shade of the largest praline tree in The God's garden. A branch above them rustled from the soft spring breeze, and the scent of pralines mingled with their tea, producing a sweet earthy aroma. With neither one talking, the atmosphere more than made up for the silence.
"Keeper," The God brought his cup to his lips, "I have cancer."
Keeper stopped tracing his teacup's rim, eyes wide as saucers.
"Did- I mean have you had- I don't- How?" Keeper stammered.
The God fixed his eyes on his cup. "I don't understand it either. I've never had cancer in my life. Why would I get it now? It's almost like-"
A sudden thought occurred to both of them.
The God's voice was unsure, trembling. "Do you think the rollbacks caused it?"
Keeper did not look at The God. "Maybe."
Both men fiddled with the table settings. Keeper's fingertip rested on the cookie jar, but he resisted the urge to empty it.
Finally, Keeper broke the silence. "Let me roll back to before the cancer. If rolling back changed the future, maybe..." Keeper's voiced trailed off. He noticed The God's tired expression – the drooping eyes, the small bite of his lower lip – the face of a person who damn well knew he'd brought his condition upon himself the day he'd made his request.
Keeper took a deep breath. "Just...let me try."
The praline leaves rustled.
Smiley flipped his cell phone open, saw 'No New Messages' smack dab in the middle of the screen and snapped the cover shut for the fifteenth time.
Smiley was officially sick of spring, with no one to tell.
When he'd last spoken to Allegra, she'd said she had to attend to her father, apologized profusely and then promised she would call him soon, before jogging down the corridor in high heels. That was 130 rollbacks ago. How long ago was that in normal time? A month? A year? Two years? Smiley had no idea; preventing a train from derailing was easier than keeping track of universal changes to the rules of space and time.
The rollbacks had become as often as thrice a week. Lunchtime was about hearing some god complain their progress kept getting delayed due to rollbacks, or another god panicking they were de-aging too fast. Smiley had started eating lunch in his laboratory, leaving only for toilet breaks. A 'Not in, come back later' sign hung permanently on his door as he'd grown sick of turning down random gods' requests for a time pocket. Smiley had learnt that none of them cared that creating and controlling time pockets drained him, and if he died of fatigue the pockets would dissolve and then they'd all be screwed.
Smiley turned to the sole window in his laboratory. The Grand Clock towered above the Vaticanny Place's buildings, the clock directly facing him. Having a good view of The Grand Clock was useful for his experiments, particularly if he wanted to monitor the time pockets he cast. Now The Grand Clock just reminded him of how his teacher took a good thing too far and it all went spectacularly wrong.
The long hand of The Grand Clock ticked backwards slowly notch by notch, then accelerated until the shorter hand followed it backwards, sweeping past the clock's numbers. His eyes widened when he realised it was no hallucination: He was in the middle of a rollback.
Smiley sprang to his feet and sprinted to The Grand Clock.
The door slammed against the wall so hard a nearby window shuddered from the impact.
Smiley entered The Grand Clock's tower; catching his breath, he stormed to the figure kneeling in front, and grabbed its shoulder, and twisted it to face him.
Smiley found Keeper staring back – but not the Keeper he knew: This Keeper seemed thinner, his clothes hanging like a sack on him, his hair browner and reaching past his shoulders. This Keeper had had his wrinkles ironed away, a more defined jaw line and brighter blue eyes haunted by a horror Smiley could not put his finger on.
This Keeper made Smiley do a double take upon first sight.
The Horologist god's voice was barely audible, words choked out of him.
"I didn't do it."
"Then who?!" Smiley demanded.
"I was sitting here, thinking what to do...and then it rolled back." Keeper's eyes turned to the entrance to the mechanism. His voice grew frantic. "It clicked, and then the arms just moved back and it kept going and going and going and I didn't touch anything, I swear I didn't, Smiley, I-"
Smiley pushed Keeper aside, grunting in frustration. He framed The Grand Clock's mechanism door with his hands, but the Horologist god's next words immediately stopped him from continuing:
"How do you put a time pocket around the universe?"
Smiley's arms dropped to his side and he looked helplessly at The Grand Clock as it ticked on.
Smiley had forgotten that when it rains in spring, it rains hard.
He felt a little bad wringing his coat and making a puddle on the cathedral floor but he was sure others had done the same; if galactic marble couldn't take a little bit of water on the floor, it would have collapsed ages ago.
A young female voice asked, "Why didn't you bring an umbrella?"
"Lent it to Esterhazy," Smiley replied. "Seems everyone insists on parading the coffin through the main grounds in the rain; he said if he's going to have to walk with the body he's not going to get soaked doing it."
"Why didn't you follow him?" She asked.
Smiley slicked his wet hair back before smiling softly at the girl in front of him, "I think you need the company more than your father."
In his absence Allegra had regressed further – she was a head or two shorter than Smiley, her mourning dress tailored to fit her tiny frame, with hair tied into a bun with bangs an inch above her large brown eyes. During the wake and funeral lots of gods said she looked like a doll, but since she now had the body of a fifteen year-old, comments like those were inevitable.
Allegra sat at a bench and looked at the ceiling. "Father named me heir, so the Senate says my coronation will be around next week."
"So I've heard." Smiley bowed lightly. "Congratulations, you'll be a great God."
"It's going to be hard, leaving the hospital and being full-time sovereign."
"I'm sure you'll get used to it. Gods are a lot like patients: give us enough medicine and we'll leave you well alone."
Their laughter was brief, followed by silence. Allegra fiddled with her thumbs.
Smiley cleared his throat. "Keeper's been watching The Grand Clock. It seems to be behaving, but there's no telling when the next rollback will be and how far it will go. I mean, well, summer finally seems to be coming on, so we might just finish the year this time. Everyone hopes so at least, because otherwise it's possible there won't be a Vaticanny Place tomorrow. No one knows, really, but the clock might have self-preservation tendencies so we all hope it won't go that far. I say 'hope', but it means, "We're praying really hard" until we come up with a solution. Allegra, we-no, I promise I'll stop the rollbacks before the universe is never created. I don't know how long it'll take, but-"
"Fifteen is a good age," Allegra mused.
Smiley paused. "I beg your pardon?"
Allegra straightened her back and spoke in the most formal tone she could muster. "Syr Smiley the Time Pocket god, I'd like to be fifteen for a while, if you don't mind?"
It took Smiley a few minutes, a dozen blinks, a moment of deep thought, and looking at Allegra's gentle smile to understand her request.
He smiled back and bowed respectfully, then made an L-shaped frame with his fingers and put it as close as possible to his eye.
"I'll need you to stand, Your Excellency."