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Fiction

Time Shards

It had all gone very well, Brooks told himself. Very well indeed. He hurried along the side corridor, his black dress shoes clicking hollowly on the old tiles. This was one of the oldest and most rundown of the Smithsonian’s buildings; too bad they didn’t have the money to knock it down. Funding. Everything was a matter of funding.

He pushed open the door of the barnlike workroom and called out, “John? How did you like the ceremony?”

John Hart appeared from behind a vast rack that was filled with fluted pottery. His thin face was twisted in a scowl and he was puffing on a cigarette. “Didn’t go.”

“John! That’s not permitted.” Brooks waved at the cigarette. “You of all people should be careful about contamination of—”

“Hell with it.” He took a final puff, belched blue, and ground out the cigarette on the floor.

“You really should’ve watched the dedication of the Vault, you know,” Brooks began, adopting a bantering tone. You had to keep a light touch with these research types. “The President was there—she made a very nice speech—”

“I was busy.”

“Oh?” Something in Hart’s tone put Brooks off his conversational stride. “Well. You’ll be glad to hear that I had a little conference with the Board, just before the dedication. They’ve agreed to continue supporting your work here.”

“Um.”

“You must admit, they’re being very fair.” As he talked Brooks threaded amid the rows of pottery, each in a plastic sleeve. This room always made him nervous. There was priceless Chinese porcelain here, Assyrian stoneware, buff-blue Roman glazes, Egyptian earthenware—and Brooks lived in mortal fear that he would trip, fall, and smash some piece of history into shards. “After all, you did miss your deadline. You got nothing out of all this” —a sweep of the hand, narrowly missing a green Persian tankard— “for the Vault.”

Hart, who was studying a small brownish water jug, looked up abruptly. “What about the wheel recording?”

“Well, there was that, but—”

“The best in the world, dammit!”

“They heard it some time ago. They were very interested.”

“You told them what they were hearing?” Hart asked intensely.

“Of course, I—”

“You could hear the hoofbeats of cattle, clear as day.”

“They heard. Several commented on it.”

“Good.” Hart seemed satisfied, but still strangely depressed.

“But you must admit, that isn’t what you promised.”

Hart said sourly, “Research can’t be done to a schedule.”

Brooks had been pacing up and down the lanes of pottery. He stopped suddenly, pivoted on one foot, and pointed a finger at Hart. “You said you’d have a voice. That was the promise. Back in ’98 you said you would have something for the BiMillennium celebration, and—”

“Okay, okay.” Hart waved away the other man’s words.

“Look—” Brooks strode to a window and jerked up the blinds. From this high up in the Arts and Industries Building the BiMillennial Vault was a flat concrete slab sunk in the Washington mud; it had rained the day before. Now bulldozers scraped piles of gravel and mud into the hole, packing it in before the final encasing shield was to be laid. The Vault itself was already sheathed in sleeves of concrete, shock-resistant and immune to decay. The radio beacons inside were now set. Their radioactive power supply would automatically stir to life exactly a thousand years from now. Periodic bursts of radio waves would announce to the world of the TriMillennium that a message from the distant past awaited whoever dug down to find it. Inside the Vault were artifacts, recordings, everything the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian thought important about their age. The coup of the entire Vault was to have been a message from the First Millennium, the year 1000 A.D. Hart had promised them something far better than a mere written document from that time. He had said he could capture a living voice.

“See that?” Brooks said with sudden energy. “That Vault will outlast everything we know—all those best-selling novels and funny plays and amazing scientific discoveries. They’ll all be dust, when the Vault’s opened.”

“Yeah,” Hart said.

“Yeah? That’s all you can say?”

“Well, sure, I—”

“The Vault was important. And I was stupid enough” —he rounded on Hart abruptly, anger flashing across his face— “to chew up some of the only money we had for the Vault to support you.”

Hart took an involuntary step backward. “You knew it was a gamble.”

“I knew.” Brooks nodded ruefully. “And we waited, and waited—”

“Well, your waiting is over,” Hart said, something hardening in him.

“What?”

“I’ve got it. A voice.”

“You have?” In the stunned silence that followed Hart bent over casually and picked up a dun-colored water jug from the racks. An elaborate, impossibly large-winged orange bird was painted on its side. Hart turned the jug in his hands, hefting its weight.

“Why . . . it’s too late for the Vault, of course, but still . . .” Brooks shuffled his feet. “I’m glad the idea paid off. That’s great.”

“Yeah. Great.” Hart smiled sourly. “And you know what it’s worth? Just about this much—”

He took the jug in one hand and threw it. It struck the far wall with a splintering crash. Shards flew like a covey of frightened birds that scattered through the long ranks of pottery. Each landed with a ceramic tinkling.

“What are you doing—” Brooks began, dropping to his knees without thinking to retrieve a fragment of the jug. “That jug was worth—”

“Nothing,” Hart said. “It was a fake. Almost everything the Egyptians sent was bogus.”

“But why are you . . . you said you succeeded . . .” Brooks was shaken out of his normal role of Undersecretary to the Smithsonian.

“I did. For what it’s worth.”

“Well . . . show me.”

Hart shrugged and beckoned Brooks to follow him. He threaded his way through the inventory of glazed pottery, ignoring the extravagant polished shapes that flared and twisted in elaborate, artful designs, the fruit of millennia of artisans. Glazes of feldspath, lead, tin, ruby salt. Jasperware, soft-paste porcelain, albarelloa festooned with ivy and laurel, flaring lips and serene curved handles. A galaxy of the work of the First Millennium and after, assembled for Hart’s search.

“It’s on the wheel,” Hart said, gesturing.

Brooks walked around the spindle fixed at the center of a horizontal disk. Hart called it a potter’s wheel but it was a turntable, really, firmly buffered against the slightest tremor from external sources. A carefully arranged family of absorbers isolated the table from everything but the variable motor seated beneath it. On the turntable was an earthenware pot. It looked unremarkable to Brooks—just a dark red oxidized finish, a thick lip, and a rather crude handle, obviously molded on by a lesser artisan.

“What’s its origin?” Brooks said, mostly to break the silence that lay between them.

“Southern England.” Hart was logging instructions into the computer terminal nearby. Lights rippled on the staging board.

“How close to the First Mil?”

“Around 1280 A.D., apparently.”

“Not really close, then. But interesting.”

“Yeah.”

Brooks stooped forward. When he peered closer he could see the smooth finish was an illusion. A thin thread ran around the pot, so fine the eye could scarcely make it out. The lines wound in a tight helix. In the center of each delicate line was a fine hint of blue. The jug had been incised with a precise point. Good; that was exactly what Hart had said he sought. It was an ancient, common mode of decoration—incise a seemingly infinite series of rings, as the pot turned beneath the cutting tool. The cutting tip revealed a differently colored dye underneath, a technique called sgraffito, the scratched.

It could never have occurred to the Islamic potters who invented sgraffito that they were, in fact, devising the first phonograph records.

Hart pressed a switch and the turntable began to spin. He watched it for a moment, squinting with concentration. Then he reached down to the side of the turntable housing and swung up the stylus manifold. It came up smoothly and Hart locked it in just above the spinning red surface of the pot.

“Not a particularly striking item, is it?” Brooks said conversationally.

“No.”

“Who made it?”

“Near as I can determine, somebody in a co-operative of villages, barely Christian. Still used lots of pagan decorations. Got them scrambled up with the cross motif a lot.”

“You’ve gotten . . . words?”

“Oh, sure. In early English, even.”

“I’m surprised crude craftsmen could do such delicate work.”

“Luck, some of it. They probably used a pointed wire, a new technique that’d been imported around that time from Saxony.”

The computer board hooted a readiness call. Hart walked over to it, thumbed in instructions, and turned to watch the stylus whir in a millimeter closer to the spinning jug. “Damn,” Hart said, glancing at the board. “Correlator’s giving hash again.”

Hart stopped the stylus and worked at the board. Brooks turned nervously and paced, unsure of what his attitude should be toward Hart. Apparently the man had discovered something, but did that excuse his surliness? Brooks glanced out the window, where the last crowds were drifting away from the Vault dedication and strolling down the Mall. There was a reception for the Board of Regents in Georgetown in an hour. Brooks would have to be there early, to see that matters were in order—

“If you’d given me enough money, I could’ve had a Hewlett-Packard. Wouldn’t have to fool with this piece of . . .” Hart’s voice trailed off.

Brooks had to keep reminding himself that this foul-tempered, scrawny man was reputed to be a genius. If Hart had not come with the highest of recommendations, Brooks would never have risked valuable Vault funding. Apparently Hart’s new method for finding correlations in a noisy signal was a genuine achievement.

The basic idea was quite old, of course. In the 1960s a scientist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York had applied a stylus to a rotating urn and played the signal through an audio pickup. Out came the wreeee sound of the original potter’s wheel where the urn was made. It had been a Roman urn, made in the era when hand-turned wheels were the best available. The Natural History “recording” was crude, but even that long ago they could pick out a moment when the potter’s hand slipped and the rhythm of the wreeee faltered.

Hart had read about that urn and seen the possibilities. He developed his new multiple-correlation analysis—a feat of programming, if nothing else—and began searching for pottery that might have acoustic detail in its surface. The sgraffito technique was the natural choice. Potters sometimes used fine wires to incise their wares. Conceivably, anything that moved the incising wire—passing footfalls, even the tiny acoustic push of sound waves—could leave its trace on the surface of the finished pot. Buried among imperfections and noise, eroded by the random bruises of history . . .

“Got it,” Hart said, fatigue creeping into his voice.

“Good. Good.”

“Yeah. Listen.”

The stylus whirred forward. It gently nudged into the jug, near the lip. Hart flipped a switch and studied the rippling, dancing yellow lines on the board oscilloscope. Electronic archaeology. “There.”

A high-pitched whining came from the speaker, punctuated by hollow, deep bass thumps.

“Hear that? He’s using a foot pump.”

“A kick wheel?”

“Right.”

“I thought they came later.”

“No, the Arabs had them.”

There came a clop clop clop, getting louder. It sounded oddly disembodied in the silence of the long room.

“What . . . ?”

“Horse. I detected this two weeks ago. Checked it with the equestrian people. They say the horse is unshod, assuming we’re listening to it walk on dirt. Farm animal, probably. Plow puller.”

“Ah.”

The hoofbeats faded. The whine of the kick wheel sang on. “Here it comes,” Hart whispered.

Brooks shuffled slightly. The ranks upon ranks of ancient pottery behind him made him nervous, as though a vast unmoving audience were in the room with them.

Thin, distant: “Alf?”

“Aye.” A gruff reply.

“It slumps, sure.”

“I be oct, man.” A rasping, impatient voice.

“T’art—”

“Busy—mark?”

“Ah ha’ wearied o’ their laws,” the thin voice persisted.

“Aye—so all. What mark it?” Restrained impatience.

“Their Christ. He werkes vengement an the alt spirits.”

“Hie yer tongue.”

“They’ll ne hear.”

“Wi’ ’er Christ ’er’re everywhere.”

A pause. Then faintly, as though a whisper: “We ha’ lodged th’ alt spirits.”

“Ah? You? Th’ rash gazer?”

“I spy stormwrack. A hue an’ grie rises by this somer se’sun.”

“Fer we?”

“Aye, unless we spake th’ Ave maris stella ’a theirs.”

“Elat. Lat fer that. Hie, I’ll do it. Me knees still buckle whon they must.”

“I kenned that. So shall I.”

“Aye. So shall we all. But wh’ of the spirits?”

“They suffer pangs, dark werkes. They are lodged.”

“Ah. Where?”

“S’tart.”

“‘Ere? In me clay?”

“In yer vessels.”

“Nay!”

“I chanted ’em in ’fore sunbreak.”

“Nay! I fain wad ye not.”

whir whir whir

The kick wheel thumps came rhythmically.

“They sigh’d thruu in-t’wixt yer clay. ’S done.”

“Fer what?”

“These pots—they bear a fineness, aye?”

“Aye.”

A rumbling, “—will hie home ’er. Live in yer pots.”

“An?”

“Whon time werkes a’thwart ’e Christers, yon spirits of leaf an’ bough will, I say, hie an’ grie to yer sons, man. To yer sons sons, man.”

“Me pots? Carry our kenne?”

“Aye. I investe’ thy clay wi’ ern’st spirit, so when’s ye causes it ta dance, our law say . . .”

whir

A hollow rattle.

“Even this ’ere, as I spin it?”

“Aye. Th’ spirits innit. Speak as ye form. The dance, t’will carry yer schop word t’ yer sons, yer sons sons sons.”

“While it’s spinnin’?”

Brooks felt his pulse thumping in his throat.

“Aye.”

“Than’t—”

“Speak inta it. To yer sons.”

“Ah . . .” Suddenly the voice came louder. “Aye, aye! There! If ye hear me, sons! I be from yer past! The ancient dayes!”

“Tell them wha’ ye must.”

“Aye. Sons! Blood a’ mine! Mark ye! Hie not ta strags in th’ house of Lutes. They carry the red pox! An’ . . . an’, beware th’ Kinseps—they bugger all they rule! An’, whilst pot-charrin’, mix th’ fair smelt wi’ greeno erst, ’ere ye’ll flux it fair speedy. Ne’er leave sheep near a lean-house, ne, ’ey’ll snuck down ’an it—”

whir whir thump whir

“What—what happened?” Brooks gasped.

“He must have brushed the incising wire a bit. The cut continues, but the fine touch was lost. Vibrations as subtle as a voice couldn’t register.”

Brooks looked around, dazed, for a place to sit. “In . . . incredible.”

“I suppose.”

Hart seemed haggard, worn.

“They were about to convert to Christianity, weren’t they?”

Hart nodded.

“They thought they could seal up the—what? wood spirits?—they worshiped. Pack them away by blessing the clay or something like that. And that the clay would carry a message—to the future!”

“So it did.”

“To their sons sons sons . . .” Brooks paused. “Why are you so depressed, Hart? This is a great success.”

Abruptly Hart laughed. “I’m not, really. Just, well, manic, I guess. We’re so funny. So absurd. Think about it, Brooks. All that hooey the potter shouted into his damned pot. What did you make of it?”

“Well . . . gossip, mostly. I can’t get over what a long shot this is—that we’d get to hear it.”

“Maybe it was a common belief back then. Maybe many tried it—and maybe now I’ll find more pots, with just ordinary conversation on them. Who knows?” He laughed again, a slow warm chuckle. “We’re all so absurd. Maybe Henry Ford was right—history is bunk.”

“I don’t see why you’re carrying on this way, Hart. Granted, the message was . . . obscure. That unintelligible information about making pottery, and—”

“Tips on keeping sheep.”

“Yes, and—”

“Useless, right?”

“Well, probably. To us, anyway. The conversation before that was much more interesting.”

“Uh huh. Here’s a man who is talking to the ages. Sending what he thinks is most important. And he prattles out a lot of garbage.”

“Well, true . . .”

“And it was important—to him.”

“Yes.”

Hart walked stiffly to the window. Earthmovers crawled like eyeless insects beneath the wan yellow lamps. Dusk had fallen. Their great awkward scoops pushed mounds of mud into the square hole where the Vault rested.

“Look at that.” Hart gestured. “The Vault. Our own monument to our age. Passing on the legacy. You, me, the others—we’ve spent years on it. Years, and a fortune.” He chuckled dryly. “What makes you think we’ve done any better?”

Gregory Benford

Gregory BenfordGregory Benford is a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, Phi Beta Kappa, was a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University, and in 1995 received the Lord Prize for contributions to science. A fellow of the American Physical Society, his fiction has won many awards, including the Nebula Award for his novel Timescape. In 2007 he was awarded the Asimov Memorial Award for Popularizing Science.