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The building was old, with peeling brown paint and patches of corrugated iron hammered over the missing mortar and window panes. The door lintel sagged, looking far from inviting, but above it, the letters on a cheerily-painted sign were new—a splash of blue and gold vibrance completely out of place with the rest of the rotting district. The Church of the Found.
Erwin hadn’t meant to come here. After he’d stood up from his computer and wandered into the street, his feet had piloted his body without his intervention. They’d had to. His mind was still too consumed by those three words, burning through his computer monitor and into his soul. But now he was here.
He stepped under the flickering fluorescent light and into the church’s makeshift foyer. Although the unmistakable sound of multiple muffled conversations filled the space, the entry room was empty save for a heavily pregnant woman standing behind a plastic trestle table. On top of the table, a sign-in sheet lay next to a scattering of pamphlets and sacred paraphernalia; crucifixes, Stars of David, little fat statuettes—something for everyone.
The woman smiled at Erwin and held out a pen, gesturing toward the sheet.
‘Hey there. I’m Marie. Everyone’s gone in but don’t worry, we can sneak you in the back. It’s always a while before they get going, anyway.’
Erwin stepped forward, hesitantly taking the pen. He scanned the list of names on the sheet but didn’t recognise anyone he knew.
‘Why do I need to—what do you need my phone number for?’ he asked, trying and failing to keep the rising dread out of his voice.
‘Oh, first time here?’ Marie asked, still smiling. ‘You don’t have to register if you don’t want to. It’s just so we can reach out if we need to shift venues again, or in case the service times change.’ She leaned forward conspiratorily. ‘It’s nothing sinister.’
‘Does that happen often?’ Erwin asked, twirling the pen in his fingers as he looked at the sheet. ‘Having to change places, I mean.’
‘A little. People don’t always leave here in… the best frame of mind. They need to focus their fear on something that—well, you know how it is. Believe me, this isn’t our first place.’ She sighed, cradling her belly. ‘And it probably won’t be our last.’
Erwin chewed his lip. He put the pen back on the table, leaving the paper unsigned. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be here. I didn’t mean to come, I’ll let you—’
‘Hey, it’s okay,’ Marie reached over the table and squeezed his arm. ‘None of us should be here. Come inside, you don’t have to be alone.’
He let her guide him around the table, though he couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes.
‘How long have you known?’ she asked him as they approached a set of doors which must once have been glass, but now had plywood bolted across the metal frames. The muffled drone of a large crowd came from beyond.
In his peripheral vision, Erwin saw her nod in understanding. ‘It took me a while before I looked it up, too. I didn’t really want to know.’ Her hand drifted back to her bump. ‘But then this little critter started kicking, and I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had to see.’
Erwin shuffled his feet as she reached for the door. The sound of the room exploded into the foyer.
‘What are you having?’ he asked, looking up as she waited for him to step into the service. Her lower lip quivered for a moment, cracking her reassuring smile. She swallowed, and the smile returned, though not as bright now that Erwin knew what it covered.
‘Does it matter?’ she asked. She waved him through the door and let it fall shut behind him.
The Church of the Found had set up its latest chapter in an old sports centre, Erwin realised as he joined the milling crowd on the scuffed-wax floor. The painted court lines were barely visible, but the walls were covered in stadium seating and fading banners, scoreboards, basketball hoops and various nets strung up to be out of the way. The entire room thrummed with noise as the members of the Church talked between themselves, trading stories of what they’d been doing since they last met, who wasn’t coming this week thanks to suicide or the riots, and even—amazingly—the occasional peal of laughter as someone told a joke.
‘’Scuse me,’ a middle-aged woman said as she pushed by Erwin, towing a small child in hand. He stepped back to let her continue towards a small knot of similarly-aged parents and their kids. Before long, as he continued to step around churchgoers bustling towards their friends and family members, he found himself lost in the middle of the mob, too far from the door to make an easy exit. Somewhere above, one of the PA speakers crackled to life.
‘Hello, and welcome to The Church of the Found. The service will begin in five minutes. You are important; please make yourself comfortable.’
Erwin weighed whether he should sit down or take his opportunity to escape, but the stampeding churchgoers ended up making the decision for him. Pushed by the swell, he was practically carried to the far side of the court as people filled the seats and then began sitting on the ground, facing towards a small dais that was being set up in the centre. He squirmed, boxed in by the crowd and pressed against the cold brick wall.
‘Hey. You’re not supposed to be smoking in here,’ an angry voice rumbled from Erwin’s left. He looked over to see a short, wiry man scowling at him from behind overgrown eyebrows and an unruly beard.
‘I’m not—’ Erwin began before he saw the man’s eyes flick towards him in response and realised they’d been addressing someone behind him all along.
‘Shut up, kid. Hey, you,’ the man reached in front of Erwin to tug at the sleeve of the person on their right. ‘Put that out, dickhead.’
The smoker, who looked about Erwin’s age with a fleuro green undercut, heavy lipstick and indeterminate gender, rolled their eyes at the man and blew a stream of smoke in the opposite direction, which happened to be the corner.
‘What are you afraid of, lung cancer?’ they said, taking another drag. ‘I’m not making you stand here. If you don’t like it, piss off somewhere else.’
Erwin tried to step backwards, out of the middle of the confrontation, but there was nowhere to go. Thankfully, the bearded man just shook his head and pushed his way back through the crowd muttering angrily.
‘Some people, eh?’ the smoker said, shoulder bumping Erwin and nodding to the man’s retreating back. ‘No respect for others.’
Erwin gave them a small smile by way of reply and returned his attention to the front. He could feel the smoker’s gaze burning into the side of their face, as though they were pressing the glowing end of the cigarette right there.
‘Haven’t seen you here before,’ they said.
Erwin shrugged. ‘Is that a surprise? There’s lots of people.’
‘No there isn’t,’ the smoker disagreed, waving their cigarette at the crowd. ‘There’s a ton of bodies here, sure, but there’s only two people. The person who buys into the bullshit that they matter, and the person who’s just here ‘cause they’re with someone who does.’ The smoker took a long pull of their cigarette again and blew the smoke into Erwin’s view. ‘But you don’t look like either of those.’
‘I guess not,’ Erwin said.
‘So what’re you doing here?’
‘I don’t really know.’
At the front, an older woman peeled away from the crowd and stepped up to the microphone. She certainly didn’t look like a priest or a nun as far as Erwin could see—in her knit sweater and reading glasses she looked more like someone’s nanna than anything else. The only difference was the smile. Like the woman that had greeted him at the door, she had a wide, too-happy grin that seemed only a half-step removed from manic.
‘Hello, my friends. I’m so happy to see you all here today. You are important, each and every one of you, and you are not alone. My name is Elena, and I exist.’
At this, the crowd erupted into applause and cheers. Elena stood there, smiling beatifically around the room until the noise died down.
‘Here we go,’ the smoker whispered to Erwin, their breath unexpectedly warm in his ear. ‘Fucking Elena. Buckle in for the most aggressively banal story you’ve ever heard.’
Although she couldn’t possibly have heard the comment, Elena spent the next twenty-eight minutes as though she was determined to prove it correct. Who knew one woman could cultivate so many different kinds of begonias? And somehow, although from the way she spoke about them you’d think the old lady had the greatest garden in the world, the whole point of the story was that she came sixth—sixth!—in some flower show, over a decade ago.
By the time she surrendered the microphone to the next speaker, Erwin felt as though his brain was about to slip out of his ear and make a break for the door.
‘Quick, before Jungho gets up there,’ the smoker hissed at him. He startled out of his defensive half-doze.
‘Move it, sideburns, let’s get outta here while we’ve got the chance.’
Erwin turned to the door, and saw several other people sidling out while the speakers changed. The new speaker—Jungho, he assumed—got to the mike and repeated the same opening phrase Elena had used, to the same thunderous applause.
‘C’mon,’ the smoker said, then sighed and pressed past him. ‘If you want to stay, fine, but at least move over.’
Erwin watched as the smoker’s green hair bobbed under his nose, smelling of cigarettes and styling product. He looked to the dais, then across the crowd as the green-haired stranger strode uncaringly in front of everyone and loudly shouldered their way through the plywood doors, pulling another smoke from their shirt pocket as they went.
A few minutes and a lot of elbows later, he met them in the foyer.
‘Thank fuck,’ the smoker said, lighting up, apparently oblivious to the pregnant woman’s scowl. ‘I was worried you were just another of those knob-headed zombies.’ They waved their hand in the direction of the stadium, then moved to tuck the lighter back into their jeans. Halfway through the motion they changed their mind and reached for their shirt pocket instead, fishing another loose cigarette which they offered to Erwin. He shook his head.
‘Sorry, I don’t… I mean, I’ve never—’
‘Jesus, mate,’ the smoker said, returning her items to her pockets. ‘This isn’t a peer pressure commercial, s’fine if you don’t want one.’ They looked at him with their head askew. ‘You alright? You don’t seem like you’re all here.’
‘I’m fine, I just…’ he stopped and took a deep breath. ‘I only found out today.’
The smoker’s face crumpled into sympathetic pain. ‘And this was the first place you came, huh?’
‘I didn’t really mean to.’
‘I did when I found out. Had to drag my partner along with me. ‘Course, they were on the list.’ The green-haired stranger sighed, twin jets of cigarette smoke coursing from their nostrils. They held out their hand. ‘Alex.’
‘Erwin,’ he said, shaking it.
‘Well, Erwin, why don’t we go spend the rest of our lives somewhere more interesting?’
* * *
‘We found out on day one, you know?’ Alex said, flicking their cigarette butt into the river below. It spun dizzyingly for what seemed like a minute before it hit the water.
Alex had walked Erwin to the bridge along what used to be the highway, back when people were still travelling into the city to work. Now only the occasional truck convoy rumbled past, kicking up dust into the back of their hair as the truck’s armoured escorts eyed them warily. To Erwin’s nervous distress, Alex insisted on flipping them off every time.
‘I had this sort of, I dunno. Fatalistic optimism?’ they continued. ‘Like, I knew I wasn’t going to be on there, so I didn’t think it’d mean much to check.’ They shrugged and swung their feet above the abyss. ‘But it hit me like a taco shit. Record not found. Christ, it’s not even a death sentence, it’s—well, you know.’ The silence between them stretched out into eternity.
‘Don’t stop there,’ Erwin chuckled nervously. ‘What happened next? C’mon, this is already a hundred times more interesting than Elena’s damn begonia story.’
‘I mean, that’s kind of the point though, isn’t it?’ Alex said. ‘You wouldn’t put a Nobel laureate in front of those mooks to remind them how shitty and small their lives were. You put Elena fucking boringpants up there, or Beryl from the PTA talking about the time she got her no-name school to set up an art show for her no-name kids.’ They reached into their pocket for another cigarette and swore when they came up empty.
‘Anyway, you sit there hearing stories like that and you start thinking, yeah, maybe my life did matter! I did more than these losers, anyway. It was all worth something. I was worth something. That can’t just go away.’
They drew their arm back and tossed their lighter into the river. It tumbled end over end as it arced towards the water. ‘Fucking idiots.’
Erwin winced when the lighter splashed down. Alex grinned at him. ‘What? Like it matters? It’s time travel, man, once they start changing things a thousand years ago you think the same series of events is going to play out that led to that lighter even existing? Even if it did, we know we’re never going to come up here to chuck it—Record not found, remember? We’re not part of their perfect, corrected reality.’
‘I guess I’m still getting used to the idea that we’re just going to… disappear. And there’s nothing we can do about it.’
‘You want my advice? My real advice, no brave face bullshit?’ Alex asked, looking back down at the river. ‘Don’t. Don’t get used to it. Don’t even think about it. Truth is, we were all gonna die one day anyway. There’s never been a God, there’s never been an afterlife—all we’ve ever had to look forward to was nothing. At least this way, the planet gets a better shot. The people who get to be born instead of us’ll have something to look forward to. They’ll never even know how bad they could’ve had it.’
‘That’s just it, though. It’s not the same as dying.’ Erwin said. ‘If they just killed us, we’d still have been a part of the world, you know? We’d have been here, left a legacy. There’d have been some… some point to it all.’
Alex scoffed. ‘Mate, you think so? You weren’t gonna live anything more than a small life of quiet desperation, entirely forgotten by the time your great-grandkids came around. Fucking Ozymandias is just a stone foot in the sand—be honest, you really think out of all the billions of people in the world, the Shakespeare or the Plato of our generation was going to be you?’
Erwin leaned back. The bridge’s metal support felt warm on his back, heated by the sun’s setting light. ‘If we’re getting honest, I have to admit I’m not entirely convinced this whole thing isn’t bullshit. I mean, the archive website popping up so soon after the QE model went viral? Way too fast to have been a coincidence. And predicting who still gets born after a thousand years of new history? I don’t care how good your supercomputers are, you can’t possibly account for that scale of change.’ He picked at a chunk of asphalt that was cracking away from the side of the road and sent it tumbling off the edge of the bridge. ‘Someone’s out there, having a laugh while we tear everything apart. I mean, time travel, for fuck’s sake.’
Alex shrugged. ‘Yeah, but it’s not really time travel, is it? It’s just entangling a handful of quarks, you don’t even go anywhere. People have been making up time travel bullshit for like a hundred years, and it’s never been as dull as this. It’s all Terminators and Tardises and steampunk, you know? If you were trying to hoax people, you’d come up with something most of ‘em could understand.’
‘Maybe. Or maybe if you want everyone to believe your bullshit, you make it the scientific equivalent of Elena’s begonias.’
‘If you say so. But think of all those scientists who straight-up necked themselves after the model started going around. They knew. You know too, deep down. Or you wouldn’t have gone running to the church the moment you found out.’
They watched the sunset in silence. It was a beautiful sight—they always were, these days. It was incredible what some choking air pollution could do. Somewhere in the distance, another bomb went off, sending a dark plume of smoke up to join the vibrant clouds.
‘Why were you there today?’ Erwin asked as they watched the smoke snaking upwards.
‘You said the two types of people at the Church of the Found are the ones who think they matter and the ones who get dragged along. It didn’t look like you were with anyone, and you clearly don’t buy into it, so…?’
Alex shrugged. ‘Habit, I guess. As I said, I used to go with someone back in the day. But you’re not the only one who figured out the archive has to be bullshit. Something thrown together to make people feel like they’ve got any sort of chance at all.’ Alex kicked their shoes off, sending them spinning down to the water below. ‘Stepped right off when they realised. Thought I wasn’t looking. They’re probably still down there somewhere.’
It took a moment for Erwin to register what Alex was saying. He scrambled backward from the edge of the bridge. ‘Fuck! And you brought me here?’
‘Calm down, I didn’t push them or anything. It’s not like I brought you to my favourite murder spot.’
‘It’s still fucking weird.’
Alex barked a short laugh. ‘Why? In a couple of days, or weeks, or months—someone’s eventually going to take that model and try it. Shit, it’s probably not even the first time it’s happened. All those people, so happy the archive spat out a predictive model that includes them? Even if it was true, they’re just as erased when someone in the new reality figures out the science and decides things could be a little bit better again. Or the next time, or the time after that.’ They turned where they sat, looking back at Erwin, who was now gripping the nearest support beam with whitening knuckles. ‘It doesn’t matter. Here, somewhere else—we stopped existing the minute that model hit the internet. There’s nothing we, or the riots, or the countries lining their scientists up against the wall can do to stop it. You know that, right?’
Erwin breathed heavily as Alex perfectly laid out the truth he’d been trying to avoid, dragging it out into the light where he couldn’t ignore it. Finally, he swallowed his rising heart and nodded.
‘C’mon, then,’ Alex said, leaping to their feet and bouncing precariously on the edge between safety and death. ‘Let’s go feel alive while we still can.’
* * *
‘Do you want me to… I dunno, make breakfast or something?’ Erwin asked the next morning as he was pulling on his shoes.
Alex looked up from scrolling through their phone. They hadn’t moved from the bed while Erwin dressed, half-swallowed by pillows and still wrapped in the tangled sheets. They arched an eyebrow at his suggestion. ‘You’re kidding, right?’
‘Right, right,’ he nodded, looking at the floor. ‘Well, I guess I’ll see you?’
Alex shrugged, their focus back on their phone. They didn’t look up again as Erwin let himself out of the apartment.
The empty stairwell echoed as his feet tapped downwards. He knew better than to try the elevator—after months of brownouts, a suspended metal coffin was the last place he wanted to be.
He kicked at the debris on the street as he wandered aimlessly. He should probably have been headed for home, but who knew what the state of it would be by now. He hadn’t even shut the door behind him. What would the first looter think when they stumbled across his laptop, still open on the Archive of the Future website, and those three simple words after his name: Record not Found.
Erwin stepped around a burned-out car, trying not to breathe through his nose. It hadn’t been unoccupied. It was strange what humans would do when you told them that at any moment, some scientist on the other side of the world might decide to test the theory that would wipe them all from existence.
After a while, he found himself at one of the inner-city piers, reaching out into the wide city bay. He walked to its end, the salt-stained wood feeling soft under his feet, and leaned against the empty bollards there. The early morning sun reflected off the rippling water, and he had to squint to watch the boats sailing in the middle distance. There was an elegance to the way they cut through the waves, unable to control how the ocean moved but capable, through technology, to alter the path they took across it.
Nobody knew who’d authored the time-travelling quantum entanglement model. By the time it’d gone viral, pretty much everything had been stripped from the metadata and whoever leaked it hadn’t been stupid enough to keep their own or their colleagues’ names on it. But everybody knew it had only been a few years since the Swedes proved how you could entangle clusters of subatomic particles at any distance so long as you could predict their relative positions.
Whoever it was that realised you could apply this to the known position of a particle when it had been 760 million light-years away, using supercomputers to model some ridiculously complex—but apparently sound—mathematical backtracking of the Earth’s passage through the solar system and the solar system’s passage through the galaxy, was a genius. Even if the model only proved the particles would annihilate each other, it was still a mathematical proof that showed you could use the weirdly intertwined concept of spacetime to physically influence matter in the past.
Whoever then thought of applying the idea to prions in Ghengis Khan’s brain, adding historical and archaeological data to the modelling to predict where in spacetime the would-be conqueror had been during his first documented military victory, was a lunatic.
No Mongol Empire. None of the seventeen million people on the planet today who could trace their genetic legacy back to the Khan. Nothing that any of the people in between had built or mined. None of the art they’d created or the neighbours they’d killed. A thousand years of history wiped clean with—literally—a single stroke.
Even now, someone could be booting up a quantum entanglement device, feeding the numbers into their computer and rolling the dice on whether an altered history would really turn out better. He wondered if he’d feel it when it happened, or if he’d simply blink out of existence as the new reality immediately sprung up around him. Trying to visualise the whole thing in action made it seem even more ludicrous, but… well, the maths were there.
Perhaps the error bars in the model were simply too great, and even the world’s fastest computers would have to crunch the numbers for a million years before finding a permutation that worked. Perhaps the whole thing had just been an elaborate hoax after all, and after a few more months of killing anyone smart enough to try, the world would slowly start going back to normal.
He doubted it. Alex had been right—there was a terrifying banality to the situation, to be wiped from existence for no better reason than being on the wrong side of a mathematical formula. There was nothing sexy about it. It had no pizazz. It was simply true. As dispassionate and uniquely cruel as an asteroid, or the sun suddenly going supernova. As boring as an old lady pruning back her begonias.
There was so much he still wa
Thanks for reading! If you want even more short fiction—while it lasts—you can find it in the 2019 Terry Talks Fiction anthology, Tales of Sorcery and Silicone, available on Amazon or to read free through Kindle Unlimited.