The Stacks

Seconds

by James Hornby

Father Perdix sat at a table in a small cafe in the outskirts of Leeds. A cup of coffee rested in his small, slender hands. He was clad in Victorian apparel, complete with waistcoat and cravat.

He was here for a meeting - a tiny little deal that could forward his career in the Faction in mere moments. The Faction agent looked down to his side; his shadow loomed across the floor next to his chair, juggling with a pair of knives.

He looked around him; the cafe was empty. How long had he been waiting now? Would his contact even show up? He downed the entire cup of coffee in one large gulp, and cursed as the hot liquid scorched his insides. He snapped his fingers impatiently; a waitress came running to his side.

The waitress was young, with curly brown hair that was tied messily behind her head. Her pink uniform was lopsided, like she had dressed in a hurry so as not to be late for her shift. The waitress sighed loudly as she caught her breath, and pulled a notepad from her pocket.

'What can I get you,’ the waitressed asked politely, showing perfect white teeth in her wide smile.

'Latte,’ snapped the mock Victorian gentleman impatiently.

The waitress’ smile faltered. ‘Ungrateful weirdo,’ she muttered under her breath as she turned to get him his drink.

Perdix turned to get a good look at the girl as she speeded down the rows of tables, around tables and behind the counter. Perdix chuckled to himself as he watched the girl become flustered and drop the newly-made cup of coffee onto the floor. She screamed in quiet frustration. With just one word, he had changed the course of her day completely – he was pleased with that.

Perdix turned back around to see a man sat in the seat opposite him. Perdix cursed to himself as the sudden appearance of the stranger caused him to jump a little in his seat. The man seemed not to notice Perdix’s alarm and just smiled at him, warmly.

The man wore a grey trench coat, with an equally bleak grey shirt underneath which had more creases than an elephant’s back-side. He had shoulder-length brown hair that parted in the, it looked greasy and unkempt, like it hadn’t been washed in days. The man hastily tried to tidy his hair before he spoke.

'Hello, Mr Perdix,’ said the man, shuffling in his seat slightly. Perdix stared into the man’s eyes for several seconds before replying.

'I presume that it is you who contacted me for this little get-together?’ Perdix was slightly unnerved by the air of the mysterious stranger, especially the stench, but tried not to give it away.

'You presume correctly,’ replied the man. ‘My name is Revan.’ He extended his hand; Perdix looked at it for a moment and decided not to return the gesture. Revan looked insulted; he withdrew his hand and placed it gently under the table.

An awkward silence ensued.

'Did you have a nice trip; I do hope that nothing kept you?’ Perdix asked, trying breaking the tension that had quickly developed between the two men.

'Nothing too troublesome, I had a bit of trouble with an Enemy agent on Jadea in the 26th century.’

Perdix smiled in smug delight at his brief tale. ‘Ah, Jadea; I do hope that Queen Slice escaped unscathed. I suppose the darkness of the War even touches her bright little corner of the universe.’

'History is preserved,’ said the time traveller simply. It was policy among the Great Houses not to allow Faction Paradox to obtain any information about its ongoing struggle against the Enemy. He sighed and reflected for a moment on the recent memory; Perdix assumed that the mission had fatigued him somewhat. That would play well for later.

'Protecting the Spiral Politic are we? That means you must still be working for the Great Houses, then? There’s been so many of your lot dissenting recently that I rarely come across one of you still willing to fight the good fight. Not to mention all the rest of that clichéd drivel that your people are privy to.’

Perdix tensed at the thought of it all, how the Great Houses lived the way they did; locked away from the troubles of the universe, surely it must get dreadfully tedious. Perdix himself preferred a life of danger, a life of doing whatever you wanted and leaving the consequences for the Spiral Politic to sort out for itself. That was the reason why he joined the Faction in the first place, that fateful day when they had found him in the slums of this very city, so pathetic, so broken.

'I may not agree with the way my people do things, but this is a war that needs fighting, for the greater good of the universe.’ He seemed set in his beliefs, yet another thought which depressed Perdix.

'Your people really don’t understand what this war represents,’ Perdix retorted. Revan sat back to take the lecture, pleased to have hit a nerve. ‘There will be no room for the good when this war has finished. No matter which side wins, the cost to this universe will be devastating.’

Revan didn’t take his words kindly and slammed his hands on the table in an attempt to exert some control over the conversation.

'Temper temper, bookkeeper,’ taunted the Faction agent. Revan saw what Perdix was trying to do almost immediately, and took a moment to compose himself before talking further.

'So what little games have you been playing recently?’ Revan asked politely, though he cared little for the answer.

'Games? Why my dear friend, my machinations are a very serious matter. Why, just last week I acquired a new means of imprisoning our enemies in exchange for my client to have...’ He chose his next words carefully, so as not to give the game away, ‘....let’s just say, a few years trimmed off the clock.’

'You erased him from history, didn’t you?’

Perdix smiled and nodded. ‘Took out the grandmother, yes.’

Despite his thoughts on the subject, Revan laughed, his creased facial features revealing a jagged scar just below his left eye.

'So, how goes the War?’ Perdix asked, pointing to the scar. Revan stroked the scar tenderly, an instinct as he remembered how he had received that injury.

'It was one of your buddies who did this,’ said Revan, a little disgruntled to be talking about his scar.

'Oh really, who might that be?’ Perdix smiled. It was rare that he heard the tales of his fellow Faction members. He was always away on a deal somewhere; he barely had time to travel back to the Eleven Day Empire. And when he did, it was rarely for a social call.

'Durova, I think they called him. Cousin Durova. He thought it would be a good idea to lock me away somewhere and torture me for information.’ Revan chuckled to himself. ‘Bad idea on his part,’ he added.

Fuck. Did he know what he was planning? Perdix thought. No, after all, he couldn’t get out of this cafe alive if he tried. Perdix decided to not waste any more time, and got straight to business.

'So, you called me here. What do you want from me?’

Revan meshed his hands together to form an arch, and cleared his throat. ‘I need the Faction to keep clear for a start. We’re going to take out a major Enemy stronghold in the Merrapine Scar, and we can’t allow any of your people to get in our way.’

'Is that all, bookkeeper? Having me come all this way to give us a heads-up is a waste of both our time.’

Revan coughed once more and placed the palms of his hands on the table in front of him, leaning forward to look Perdix closely in the eyes. Perdix saw so much in the soldier’s eyes, the ages gone by, and the battles he had fought - such a shame that all that would soon end.

'I need the gauntlet of Tsan-tse.’

Perdix burst out laughing. Revan, not the slightest bit amused, sat back in his chair and waited for Perdix to calm himself down.

'Oh my, you’re serious!’

'I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t,’ said Revan, now far more serious than the man who had entered the cafe minutes before.

'So what do you have to offer me, pray?’

Revan sat up straight before making his offer. ‘Will a bottle be enough?’

Perdix sighed and swept his hands across the table. ‘There’s so many of those bottles about these days that the universe has turned into an enormous student house.’

'So witty,’ Revan mocked, showing signs of irritation. ‘So what would you want for it?’

'What else do you have to offer the Faction?’

'N-forms, sun-crushers, time-rings, timeships, an army of slaves, minions to command as you will... a pony? Take your pick, Father.’

Perdix abruptly got to his feet. ‘You bore me. I’m leaving.’ He moved out of the table and turned away.

'I can’t let you leave here.’ Revan called after him.

Perdix smiled, walked back to the table, and sat down opposite Revan. He looked the immortal in the eye.

'And I can’t let you leave here either.’

Without warning, Revan saw Perdix’s shadow move. When he turned back to look at Perdix himself, he saw that his surroundings had changed: the dull, greasy-spoon cafe had disappeared and they, and the table where they were sat, were now located in the middle of a black void. Swirls of dark green and brilliant orange flew past their heads. The wisps of colour circled the table as if they were in the middle of a cyclone, spinning forever in an endless sky. For the first time since Perdix had met him, Revan looked unnerved.

'Where are we?’

'Oh we’re still in the cafe - it’s just your perception of reality that’s changed.’

'I take it that this is your new form of imprisonment,’ Revan concluded. ‘Nifty.’

'Indeed. We are currently sat in the tiniest fraction of a millisecond. You are trapped here, stapled to this miniscule portion of the Spiral Politic, unable to escape.’

'That’s an impressive feat of temporal manipulation - melding my biodata to a single point in time. So why put me here?’

'You’re here because I want information,’ said Perdix simply.

'But we were having such a lovely chat before, why change the scenery?’ Revan asked, deliberately trying to test Perdix’s patience.

'Because before you wouldn’t have given me the strategic positioning of the House Military throughout the Spiral Politic.’

Revan laughed. ‘And what makes you think I’ll give it to you now?’

'Because all I have to do is wait - as this second loops around and around, time and time again. You will eventually snap, and when you do, all of your secrets will be mine.’ Perdix stared at Revan intently. Perhaps he would be smart and give-in now, it would save him alot of discomfort in the future.

'Your coffee, sir.’

Perdix ignored the waitress stood next to him. The waitress didn’t falter and continued waved the cup and saucer that she was holding around in front of his face.

'Not now!’ he shouted, focusing his gaze into Revan’s eyes. Revan broke his eye contact with Perdix and looked to the waitress, giving her a warm, loving smile.

Perdix looked at the waitress and found that he was back in the cafe; the midday sun gleamed through the windows and blinded him for a second. He screamed in his anger. 'How did we escape the prison?’

Revan chuckled, ‘for a member of Faction Paradox you were incredibly easy to find.’

'What do you mean “easy to find”? How did you do this?’ He looked around once more at the cafe, the smell of cheap bacon making him wretch. ‘I had your biodata stapled to that second perfectly!’ Perdix was becoming increasingly paranoid; his shadow showed it the most, pacing up and down next to the table.

'Perhaps you could staple a mere human to a certain second in time, but not one of us. You seem to completely miss the point that we exist in four dimensions. We’re simply just too damn messy to be pinned down in one place for too long.’

The waitress spoke next, more confidently than she had earlier; almost a completely different person – the perfect actress. ‘That’s why he was slightly late you see – he had to get me this job.’

'But your biodata, how did you remove it from the second? Even for a member of the Great Houses, that’s impossible!’

'I’m a lot more than just a member of the Great Houses.’ The triumphant time-traveller laughed as an old memory sprung into the forefront of his mind, ‘I had a friend, a mentor really, who said something similar once – fantastic bloke. He met a rather sticky end on Dronid at the start of the War... such a great loss.’

'Spare me your pathetic rambling, what do you want from me?’

'Oh forgive me,’ said Revan, smiling at his victim;

'About that trade...’

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