The Sun God was just above the top of the temple gate. Hoping he looked as though he was polishing up a new prayer, Ashurbanipal held his hand up to the god and measured His distance from the winged lions crowning the arch. One hand's breadth. Good. He'd got it right. Earlier it was two hands.
He got to his feet. Bowing first to the Light of the World he went to the stick. His heart raced. He was on to something. What it was he wasn't sure, but it was definitely something. The stick's shadow had moved. He had marked it with a black stone when the god was two hands over the gate. Now at one hand he marked it with white. When it touched the gate he would mark it with red, just as he had done every day that week. But the pattern was clear.
Hammurabi and Hammurashirab looked pretty worried. Ashurbanipal was either the god's chosen messenger or a Grade A heretic. In the former case, disbelief meant an afterlife of forcible sodomy. By jackals. But if they believed him, and they were wrong, this life would end with impalement. After dismemberment. Tough call.
Hammurabi was the first to speak. He was the senior, having become a priest just after Ashurbanipal himself. "Uh. . . . I'm not sure I understand that this has anything to do with the Destroyer of Night." All three prostrated themselves at the iteration of one of the Higher Names. When they rose, Hammurabi was relieved to see that Ashurbanipal was still sufficiently orthodox to hit the dirt when propriety demanded. He was also a little amused to see that Hammurashib had yet again overdone it; the kid's nose was bleeding from the impact.
"You don't?" Ashurbanipal was irritated.
"Not . . . not quite." Hammurabi knew that impalement hurt, and he didn't want to find out about the jackals.
"Well, look. The Sun God obviously makes these shadows follow him across the Vault of Heaven. Part of the way all nature worships Him." Ashurbanipal knew to put things that way, even though it made things take a lot longer to explain. He'd seen impalements too.
Hammurashib started to cry. "This. . . this is wonderful," he sobbed.
Ashurbanipal fought the urge to smack the novice. Another epiphany. He really didn't want to be around for the kid's first eclipse. "Yes," he said patiently. "It is wonderful. The Sun God's power defies belief. But here it is made manifest in a very subtle way. And even more wonderful, in a useful way."
"Useful?" Hammurabi's voice took on an edge. He was the Temple Treasurer.
"Useful," Ashurbanipal confirmed. "It looks as though there's a direct relationship between where the Sun God is in the sky and these shadows from the sticks. I don't know if the shadows will do the same things outside the temple courtyard— maybe the Sun God only does these things in His house, but I doubt it. I'll check . . ." Ashurbanipal's mind had wandered, and he drew it back to the matter at hand, "So I was thinking. Maybe we could use this so we could divide the day into parts that would be the same number of parts, of equal length, wherever you were."
"Like a water clock?" Hammurashib was a twit, but he'd been to Babylon.
"Like a water clock. Only different. And better. Water clocks are all different. This would all be the same. The circle is always the same. It can always be divided into the same parts. And the Bringer of Life always follows the same course around it."
They were so carried away that they waited for him to finish his sentence before they prostrated themselves and abraded their foreheads at the Highest Name. Even through a fresh layer of courtyard dust Hammurabi's raised eyebrows were visible. "This is wonderful. As the novice says. But how is it. . . useful?"
Ashur' smiled. "Just think about it, friend. How do you think the peasants will see us once they know that we know exactly where the Burning One will be at every moment of every day? Impressed, don't you think?"
Hammurabi smiled back. "Very impressed. I get it. I like it. Better than an eclipse."
"Not as dramatic. But more regular. It should really even out those peaks and valleys in the tribute flow."
Hammurashib looked confused. "I don't understand. How does that make it useful?"
Ashur' and Hammurabi exchanged a glance and sighed simultaneously. The kid just didn't get it. Maybe once he was castrated he'd understand.
No one had heard Zebudnezzar approach. "Ashurbanipal is overconfident," he said.
Damn, thought Ashur'. The old dungbeetle's been listening. And obviously for a while. The High Priest was a thorn in his meat. Antiquity enhanced his authority all out of proportion to his intelligence. He had probably spat out his last tooth before Ashurbanipal was born. He was fifty at least.
Zebudnezzar stopped them halfway through the obligatory prostration. "Listen to what my grandfather told me his grandfather told him." Ashurbanipal kept a straight face. Here we go. "When my grandfather's grandfather was young the Highest and Brightest kept himself from us for three days."
"Behind clouds, Master?" asked Hammurashib. Ashurbanipal ground his teeth. Of course not, you idiot. Not even the High Priest was boring enough to tell a story about a rainy spell a hundred years ago. He really had to look into who was picking acolytes these days.
"No child," said the old priest gently. "I mean He did not rise."
Hammurashib began to cry. Again. Ashur' wondered what was so bad about human sacrifice. The kid was aching for it.
Perhaps his irritation made him imprudent. "Master," he began with what he hoped was deference, "if the Lord of Light hid Himself, how did your grandfather's grandfather know it was three days? Is not three days three risings and three settings?"
Zebud' appeared unperturbed unless you knew him well. Ashurbanipal did. He suspected that the old priest was thinking about human sacrifice himself. After a long silence in which Hammurabi and Hammurashib looked anywhere but at Ashur' the old priest replied. "He moved his bowels three times. That is how he knew."
Ashurbanipal thought briefly about the likely effects of a big fig dinner or a good case of flukes, but then he thought again. "Oh. Of course. I see. Thank you, Master."
As the old priest droned on to the wide eyed novice and diplomatically awed treasurer, Ashur' found himself wondering, as he often did, why it was that the world he experienced was as regular as the High Priest's great-great-grandfather. Why miracles and monsters were always so distant in time or space that he could never see them with his own eyes, or even talk to someone who had seen them himself. He was beginning to think that these tales from travelers and old men, and maybe even priests, were no more than fantasies to satisfy the weak-minded.
These were his most private thoughts. He planned to keep them that way. Impalement looked like it hurt.
Bismarck hit the snooze bar and rolled onto his back. Seven minutes. He usually set the alarm for half an hour before he actually had to get up so he could keep punching the button. He thought the sleep he got this way was his most pleasurable, if not most restful, because he got to fall asleep four or five times just before getting up.
Not this morning. When the alarm went off the second time he noticed two things out of the ordinary. First, what was usually Imus was today mere static. The second thing was even odder. It was dark. Completely dark at seven in the morning. In March. Well, hell, he'd obviously misset the alarm the night before. Good. This meant another couple of hours of sleep. Uninterrupted. Maybe some REM time.
Careful to keep the comforter between himself and the cold bedroom he scrunched towards the night table like a two hundred pound inchworm. It was hard to see the glowing digital numbers with his glasses off.
What the fuck? Seven-oh-nine.
He'd been married long enough to know who to blame. "Goddammit. Goddammit, Carol, what did you do to the clock?"
She replied from somewhere under a foot of down. "Nothing. And goddammit yourself, what time is it?"
"Well how the hell should I know?"
"Well by looking at the clock two inches from your face, Einstein."
"Well it won't do any good because someone's been screwing around with it. It says seven-ten."
"It can't be seven-ten. It's pitch black."
"Thank you Carl Sagan. Shit. Now the goddamn dog's awake."
The dog was bouncing around as energetically as anything with a full bladder could. Bismarck knew that resistance was pointless. He put on his glasses, rolled out of bed, and pulled on some sweats. Bitching faintly under his breath he shuffled into the kitchen for the leash.
What the hell was this, a digital conspiracy? Both the coffeemaker and stove clocks said seven-twelve. But he could still see stars from the window over the sink. Maybe a power surge. But why would that make the clocks run fast?
He took the dog into the back yard. Well, regardless of the real time, the dog sure was acting like it was the end of a long night. Come to think of it his own lower quadrant was kind of full.
As the dog snuffled and squatted Bismarck studied the night sky. There it was, the new comet, right over the chimney, exactly where it had been when he'd walked the dog the night before.
That didn't seem right, somehow. Why he wasn't sure. Well, there was the same half moon, right at the horizon, exactly where it had been before bed.
Wait a second. He looked at the comet again. Exactly where it had been at midnight. And the moon. Just the same. Had he been asleep fifteen minutes? But the dog was dumping away as though he'd had a full night to digest. And dammit it felt like morning. He ran his hand across his face. It rasped . . .
He looked back at the comet. Then back to the moon. His hands began to shake.
Ashurbanipal started at his stick. There was a problem here. The Sun God had abandoned the sky to His pale spouse some time before. In other words, it was dark. And she was in one of her monthly moods. As wives will have, Ashurbanipal realized, or thought he realized, making due allowance for the surgical alterations that had fitted him for the highest orders of priesthood. So She wasn't shining either. Which meant the stick cast no shadow. Which meant that in the time-dividing business it was pretty much limited to half the day. And only sunny days. Which in Chaldea, fortunately, were plentiful.
He didn't hear Zebudnezzar come up behind him. "You didn't believe me," said the old priest.
That was usually true about just about anything, so Ashurbanipal temporized. "Of course I believed you, Master. About what?"
The old priest smiled sourly. "You come so close, Ashurbanipal. You'll go so far if you come no closer. Watch that tongue. I can have it cut out without checking with Babylon."
Ashurbanipal kept his face a smiling mask. Technically Zebud' was right. Politically he was wrong. Ashurbanipal had lots of friends in Babylon. All of whom liked to hear him talk. Which he couldn't do without a tongue.
"Master, what did you think I didn't believe?"
The old man smiled again. "Don't be coy, child. The three days' darkness."
"Ah . . . That. Well . . ."
"I didn't tell you enough. I didn't tell you why it happened."
No doubt because it didn't happen, Ashur' thought. He kept silent and tried to look reverent.
The old man, satisfied, continued. "There was a comet in the Vault of Heaven. I know our best men don't agree on what they are. They always mean disaster, though, on that all concur."
Ashur' kept his smile within. When still a very young priest he realized that every disaster that accompanied heavenly disturbance was entirely man-made, and always the result of simple panic.
Zebud' went on. "I subscribe to the Hittite belief that comets are the Highest One's concubines. When they get too close he must hide Himself in order to avoid the anger of his wife."
Ashur had heard that one too. He thought that it was scarcely surprising that the Sun God kept concubines if he and the Moon Goddess were never in the same place at the same time. Sometimes when he lay awake when the other priests snored around him he wondered in thoughts he was afraid to hear whether the sky was peopled at all, whether the gods and goddesses to whom he devoted his life and sacrificed his manhood even existed. Then he became more afraid still. Alone he thought that perhaps the Sun God was a hot stone and the Moon Goddess a cooler one, and his studies of the turning sky made him wonder whether each of its lights was a smaller, dimmer hot point fixed to some kind of celestial wheel.
But comets frightened him, because they came from nowhere and returned to nowhere without order or predictability. Then real fear gripped his bowels as he realized that his thoughts would be read to him after he died and he would suffer for each.
But as the old priest droned on, something occurred to him. He and the other priests knew the courses of the stars, each traveling different but knowable routes. Perhaps these comets were different only in that their courses were longer. Maybe if he looked at temple records he could see a pattern. Maybe talking to old people would shed some light.
He smiled at the old priest. He would ask questions. The old man would be pleased.
Bismarck could see that Carol was about ten seconds from calling 911.
"Look," he said. He sounded pretty calm in his own ears and he hoped in hers too. "I know it sounds nuts. But look at the clock. What does it say?"
She made a big production of looking. "Seven-forty-five."
"Right. And it's still dark. What does that lead you to conclude?"
She made a bigger production of thinking. "Uh. . . . Something's wrong with the clock?"
"Could be. Now look at this." He showed her his watch. "What does this say?"
"Seven forty six. Something wrong with that too."
"Right. Now give me your hand." He carefully drew it across his face. "What do you feel?"
"Right. What's on it?"
"Lots of beard?"
"Usual amount for morning."
"Exactly. Exactly." He wagged his head in satisfaction. "The usual amount for morning. Yet it's still dark. Hmm."
She was starting to look seriously scared. Either it was beginning to sink in or she was wondering whether she was going to wind up in lots of separate ziplocks in the freezer.
"When I was walking the dog," said Bismarck, "did you go back to sleep?"
"Aha." He was enjoying this. His mind was still working just fine. "What did you do?"
"I went to the bathroom."
"Well, Jesus, honey, I peed."
"Good. Very good. A lot?"
"A normal amount."
"A normal amount for what time of day?" He knew that she was beginning to understand. She normally couldn't stand it when he cross-examined at home.
"A normal amount for the morning. No this is ridiculous. Let me see if I can find something on the radio so we know what time it is for Christ's sake. And we really need to talk."
She fumbled at the side of the bed. Bismarck felt fear for the first time since he'd come back into the house. If it really was still nighttime he was in big trouble. She'd been getting more and more strident lately about too much time at the office and too much wine at dinner.
Imus was still off the air. She switched to an FM preset. NPR.
Noah Adams' voice momentarily drove the chill deeper into his gut. If he was right how could these guys be working? Then he relaxed. If Morning Edition was on it was, well, morning. It didn't occur to him just then that there was something basically wrong with his perspective if the suspension of natural law and near certain global catastrophe were cause for relief.
Noah sounded only marginally less calm than usual. He was talking to someone. Well of course, it was radio; what else would he do?
"—Ira, is it possible that this is temporary?"
Ira Flato, the science corespondent, didn't sound nearly as collected. "How the hell should I know?"
Noah was a pro, no question about it. He just rolled on. "Is it possible that this has something to do with the comet that first became visible just last week? For example, could it be exerting enough of a gravitational pull to stop the Earth?"
You could almost hear Flato roll his eyes. "Not even remotely. I mean, forget that a comet's just a big goddamn snowball without enough gravity to keep a gerbil from jumping off it. Forget that if it did have enough gravity to stop a goddamn planet tidal forces would have pulled the earth into a zillion asteroids over the course of months or years not to mention distorting the orbit of every other planet when it was still half a light year away. Just think simple physics. The Earth weighs about fourteen septillion tons. It's moving on its axis at about a thousand miles an hour. Imagining for just a second that you stopped something that big and that fast, all that kinetic energy would turn into heat. Boom. They'd see the flash in the Andromeda Galaxy twenty million years from now."
Noah was holding it together pretty well. "Uh, you mentioned the other planets. Are they still . . . behaving normally?"
Ira laughed a little. "Normally? Yeah sure I guess. I mean if you mean by 'normal' they're still obeying natural law and turning on their axes, well, yes, I'd have to say they were."
Ira kept laughing. Bismarck's stomach began to knot a little. It knotted more when the sound from the radio stopped sounding like laughter and instead began to sound like something else. Bismarck hadn't heard it very often, at least not like that; it was the kind of thing you hear at funerals of old women coming from husbands of fifty years, tough old guys who'd come of age on beaches at Iwo and Anzio and Normandy who now suddenly found themselves alone with the darkness at the center of everything. Face to face with a universe without meaning or mercy.
Maybe Noah didn't have it all that much together. He just let it happen. For a second Bismarck wondered why he didn't just cut to a pledge drive. Coffee mugs and totes for the end of the world.
Slowly Ira recovered himself in sniffles and hiccups. Noah was gentle. "What can we expect?"
"How should I know? How should anyone? You don't understand. This just can't be happening. It means that everything we thought we knew was wrong. Everything we've known for three thousand years. All wrong." He was getting close to the edge again. "Maybe if we just believe. Maybe this is the Universe testing our belief. Maybe if we believe in science really really hard this will stop."
Bismarck had been thinking. He was staring to think about what the next couple of weeks were going to be like. It still looked like midnight outside. That meant that it was noon on the other side of the world. And that it had been for quite a while. The other side of the world was going to start getting pretty hot after forty-eight hours or so of uninterrupted noon. Which meant that sooner or later he was going to start getting pretty cold. But then that hot air would start flowing around from the daylight side of the world and colliding with the frigid air over Hartford and the weather would probably start getting really weird.
But that all assumed that the world was still working the same way. Except for this one glaring exception.
Ira was right. Everything we thought we knew was wrong. Bismarck's hands resumed their tremor. What if he went out into the yard right now and saw the trees uprooting themselves and walking towards the river? What if he heard the flowers talking to one another? What if Carol walked to the kitchen on hooves and brought him coffee with talon hands?
Carol. Carol was curled into a fetal ball. "Please believe. Honey, please believe. Please. This can't happen. This is a dream. Please make it stop. We have to believe. Do like the man said. If we believe it has to stop."
Ashurbanipal looked up from his stick. The old priest was watching again. Ashur' had made him happy with his questions. He decided to continue on the same tack. "Please, Master, how did your great-great-grandfather act when the Brightest One hid himself?"
Zebud' smiled. "How would anyone? He was terrified. He thought that it was the end of everything. As one day it will be. But not then."
"But what did he do? What did his people do? Did they sacrifice?"
The old man shook his head. "No. People at the end of their lives and their children's lives and their grandchildren's can't think. They can only believe. So they huddled together and believed. And the Sun God came back."
Ashur' turned his head in time to hide the smile. What a surprise.
Sunlight was streaming through the window when Bismarck awoke. Bright and hot. Foggily he thought to call the office with a story about a flu. Or a power failure that killed the alarm clock.
The clock. It all came rushing back. Oh my God. It was over. The earth had moved. How long, he wondered, had he and Carol lain there quivering, faces buried in each other's necks, begging the world to go back to the way it was supposed to be like five year olds praying for a broken vase to unbreak, for the past to unhappen.
He looked to his left. Carol was still stuporous, her face lax and tearstained. Disentangling himself as gently as he could he moved to the radio. First rolling the volume down to the lower threshold of audibility her turned it on.
Noah again. Tired but not nearly as edgy. "Ira, just how could this virus have affected every digital clock in the world?"
Ira laughed. A real laugh, effervescent with relief. "Noah, once the hacker cops have tracked this one down computer science will take a fifty year Great Leap Forward. This makes the Michelangelo bug look like something from Radio Shack. It must have been dormant in every chip made for the past ten years at least. Self-replicating. And absolutely universal. No digital clock in the world told the right time yesterday."
Noah sounded just skeptical enough. Always a pro. "Wait a second, Ira. My wristwatch isn't digital. And it told the same time as all the digital clocks. And I felt just as hungry when I woke up as though I'd slept through eight hours."
Ira laughed again. His pleasure was radiant, like a saint's ecstasy. Bismarck imagined him crowned with a halo and levitating four feet off the studio floor in the full lotus position. "That's the real genius of this whole thing. Of course you did. The unahacker who set this up knew that the whole world runs to digital time. How many digital clocks do you have in your house? Half a dozen? Coffeepot, radio, microwave, VCR? And when you saw them all telling the same time you just imagined your analog watch was telling you the same thing. And your stomach too. Just like you ignored the fact that it was still dark and assumed your computer clocks were right."
Noah knew the script. "All right. But what about those reports from observatories that the stars weren't moving?"
"Appearing to move," Ira corrected. God he was full of piss and vinegar. "That's the scary thing. Even people who should have known— who did know— that the Earth couldn't just stop panicked and started to reconcile all the evidence the wrong way. Panic is a terrible thing." He paused. "I mean, you heard me."
"Less said the better," said Noah. "So Ira, how did the Unahacker pull this off?"
'Well, Noah, we don't know. In fact there's no evidence at all as to how he did it. But we know he had to do it, that someone had to do it. Because if it didn't happen that way then the Earth did stand still. And as I explained last night that can't happen."
Bismarck rolled onto his back. For a moment he almost laughed himself, relishing the Unahacker's brilliant conception and superhuman execution. Then he remembered Carol shuddering and sobbing. How close he had felt to madness. He hoped they caught the bastard. He hoped they didn't bother with a trial.
In a minute he would call the office. Just now he would lie there and feel the earth turn.
The temple's walls were a quarter of a mile away. Ashur' settled as comfortably as he could. He had a while to wait. He didn't mind. He would be able to hear the gongs and trumpets of midmorning prayer from where he sat. If the stick cast its shadow at the same point he'd marked on the tablet at midmorning prayer the day before, in the temple, he'd know he was right. He knew he was on to something.
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