The donkey had been more than unusually stubborn today. Perhaps ‘stubborn’ was the wrong descriptor, because in general she couldn’t be said to have an overly mule-headed temperament; much less so than most of her kind, at any rate. It would be more accurate to say that she had been showing signs of a heightened reluctance. The signals had been subtle at first – stopping to drink at every public fountain, starting conversations with other donkeys she normally wouldn’t give the time of day. Then they had become less well concealed.
At the town market, after a bracing round of the ‘how-about-if-I-pay-you this-much‘ game, the Hermit-Archivist had turned to where he thought she was standing, only to find that she was conspicuous in her absence. Unlike other men of his supposed age, he rarely forgot where he’d parked his donkey, so he knew right away that this had the distinctive texture of a deliberate disappearance. It had taken a good hour to find her again, and when he had, he noticed – not without some amusement – she was pretending to examine some newly arrived silks at a stall down a side-alley. And when – after finally coaxing her back to pick up his groceries – she started in with a bout of not-so-involuntary involuntary flatulence, the Hermit-Archivist felt it might be time to give her a stern word:
“Listen, I don’t know what’s wrong with you today, but I have some important matters to attend to. I can’t walk the whole way back to the hermitage pinching my nose to keep noxious gasses out; for one thing, it’s not a very dignified look for a man of my stature.”
The donkey gave him a look that said she felt sorry to have disappointed him, and his heart softened a little. He spoke to her again, but in a tone less stern:
“Is it because you know that there’ll be women and children waiting for us outside when we get back? I do understand how annoying it is when the mothers place their offspring on your back, but it has to be done, it’s part of our cover in this time period. You used to enjoy it, remember? You said it was ‘quaint’. If you recall, I wanted to build this gateway in a forest, and not so close to the town, as was your preference. If we’d done what I suggested, we’d hardly have had to receive any visitors at all, and I could have had the appearance of a forest hermit. I would have worn rags and rustic holy icons, it would have been wonderful.“
The donkey made a noise that indicated both mournful agreement, and weary resignation to the indignities that were soon to be visited on her. They moved, without further impediment from gaseous anomalies, in a homeward direction.
As they pulled up outside the hermitage, they were greeted – as the donkey had known they would be – by a group of woman, accompanied by a few small children. The Hermit-Archivist began the ritual distribution of alms to the waiting women, as was the custom for hermits in this time. Normally, he would have taken great care over this activity – dispensing sage words while stroking his beard devoutly – but today he hurried it along as quickly as could; ostensibly because the donkey made a noise that indicated she had been hit on the head with a child’s wooden spoon. After thanking two of his visitors for the oranges they had brought for him, he looked around for his assistant. It had always bothered him that he had an assistant, as it didn’t seem very hermit-like. But this had been another concession to the donkey’s vision of how things should be done. He’d given in to her ideas, because they had been friends for a very long time, and he was quite fond of her as a result. His gaze found the assistant standing on the landing just above them.
“Gregory,” the Hermit-Archivist called up to the creature that had the appearance of a boy, “could you take the donkey out back to the stable? She’s had a stressful morning. Perhaps you could give her some tea once she’s settled?”
“No problem your hermitish-ness, I’ll get right on it.” With a boyish enthusiasm – one just a little anachronistic for the period – Gregory rushed down the the steps to begin the task of taking the donkey for her afternoon nap. On his way past he whispered: “the door is still blinking H-A, maybe you should see to that?”
“Of course, Gregory, I always intended to deal with it today,” the Hermit-Archivist replied curtly.
On walking through the entrance way, though, the Hermit-Archivist reflected that he had only half intended to deal with the blinking door today. Of course, it had been what he’d meant when he’d told the donkey that he had important matters to attend to (but only because she knew about it, and it would help convince her to stop hiding in market-stalls and farting), but he’d hoped he might get side tracked by a nice sandwich before he could get to it. If he was really lucky, the sandwich distraction would also involve an oversized mug of ale. But, alas, he’d been putting it off for weeks, and the time had come to take matters in hand. Well, it had been weeks on this side of that door, on the other side time had no meaning at all; not that he had ever been able to discern, at least. Or, if it had ‘meaning’, it was the meaning of all time happening at once. Indeed, the fact of the ‘all-at-once-temporality’ that lurked behind that door had confounded many of Pantheon Corporation’s finest theoretical accountants – sending the best of them uncontrollably drooling into forced retirement. For this reason, he had long felt that even the most gifted accountants should steer clear of dalliances with temporal mechanics.
On finally reaching the kitchen, the Hermit-Archivist gingerly approached the door that led to the larder. He paused there, took a series of deep breaths to calm himself, and then briskly opened the door to walk through. The whole action – breaths and brisk walking – was reminiscent of the way someone might indulge in an ‘unseasonal-swim’, secure in the knowledge that the water is going to be really cold. Which is to say, they embark on the endeavour with measured alacrity.
When he found himself on the other side of the larder door, he was exactly where he expected to end up: the larder. Shelves of preserves, raw ingredients, dried goods, baked goods, and sundry condiments. He looked wistfully at a row of small barrels that were labeled ‘Procrastination-Ale’, and reflected how unfair it seemed that those barrels happened to be right next to a large, freshly baked loaf of pumpkin bread. The sense of injustice deepened as a heady mixture of rosemary, sage and basil combined in his nostrils with the heavier scents of malted grains and freshly harvested tomatoes. “Perhaps just one sandwich,” he thought, “with just a half-mug of Ale?” No, he really did have to deal with the blinking, he’d put it off long enough.
His resolve to address the blink situation had been strengthened somewhat by the fact that the larder was experiencing what could only be described as a ‘strobe-effect’. The whole room was alternately lit by an on-again-off-again bluish-white light, and this was emanating from the edges of the object that had been the real cause of the Hermit-Archivist’s reluctance to enter the room. The light was flashing – with the rhythm of a pulsar – from the wall at the larder’s far end. More specifically, it was radiating from the cracks between the frame and body of a large, rough-hewn oak door. If it weren’t for the obviously bad lighting effect projecting from its frame, the door would have seemed fairly unremarkable. Perhaps, as it was supposed to appear to the casual observer, a door to a wine cellar. And although it was a door to a sort of cellar, it held nothing quite so pedestrian as alcoholic beverages. The Hermit-Archivist strode over to it, produced a heavy bronze key from the folds of his robe, unlocked the door, opened it, and stepped through with a sharp resolve.
Again, he found himself where he expected he would, although there was not a single comestible in sight. Instead, he was in a long, sterile concrete tunnel, illuminated with the harshest possible fluorescent lighting. “Ah,” he said, ” the ‘vestibule’.” He followed its length until he reached a spiral staircase at the end, then peered over the edge of the first banister to see if he could locate which ‘level’ was responsible for the offending blink. Lesser men would have soiled themselves with vertigo if they’d had to do this; the stairs seemed to disappear into a chasm so deep it could have been bottomless. Naturally, the Hermit-Archivist knew that it was bottomless, so he’d never had to worry about his bowels being loosened at inopportune moments. Also, he wasn’t most men; technically speaking, he wasn’t really a man at all. He located the correct level, and began his descent.
To pass the time until he reached his destination, the Hermit-Archivist thought about the history of the cavernous space he was occupying. He knew the story well, he hadn’t always been the Hermit-Archivist, after all; once he had been the Arch-Architect, at least for the time it had taken him to design and construct this place. Once, he recalled, it had been known as ‘runes’-end‘, and then a little later ‘the vault of scrolls‘. The latter name had been one of his personal favorites – there was something alluringly macabre about it that spoke to a long vanished old-world charm. The current name had to be the one he liked the least: the contract room. “That’s what you get though,” he said to the wall-less expanse beyond, “when some bright spark lets a corporation run everything: really crappy names.”
Yes, Pantheon Corporation, a collection of hierarchically organized deities that ran the universe to which his beautiful creation was, at present, connected. They had given the place that name – probably because they really thought that all the corporation’s contracts were stored here. Which was true up to a point, and it suited him to let them believe that, just as it suited him to let them believe he was their ‘head of contracts’… for now.
He stepped off the stairs onto a gantry, walked across it to the adjoining mezzanine, then located and opened an ornate luminescing cabinet. From its bottom drawer he pulled a thick, flashing manilla folder. It was an employment contract folder, he noted. He grinned a little as he read the employee’s name emblazoned, in purple ink, on its cover: JUSTIN TEMPO: DEITY TENTH-CLASS, SOL SYSTEM, MILKYWAY DIVISION. “Oh good,” he said to the folder, “I had wondered when you were going to light up. I better give Shemanamarms from Divinity Resources a call.”
She of Many Names and Multiple Arms – whom most just called Ms. Shemanamarms – came into the Hermit-Archivist’s office in manner that could be described as apprehensive. Not a description to be relayed via her face, you understand – because she was seriously frightening – but behind her back, in a soundproofed stationery cupboard. The Hermit-Archivist couldn’t help an inward chuckle at her poorly disguised attempts not to look out the view from his office windows: a superbly framed vista of the ‘contract room’s’ yawning expanse. He did feel a little guilty, because he knew she hated it down here; most did, and those that didn’t, often had to ‘retire’ forcefully. It always suprised him that she would venture down here when he called, because as far as she knew she was his corporate superior.
“What seems to be the problem Hermit-Archivist? You said something about an employment contract, is that right?”
“Yes, that’s correct Shemanamarms – it’s the one on the desk in front of you; the one that is emitting that soft glow, accompanied by a hum in the key of G.”
Ms. Shemarnamarms examined the folder he had indicated. “Is it supposed to do that?”
“On special occasions, yes.”
“Is this a special occasion?”
“I think the hum, which now seems to be harmonizing at the diminished fifth, believes it is.”
“Look, I’m very busy,” Ms. Shemanamarms, said cooly, her aspect growing dark as a murder of crows, “if this is normal, I fail to see why you’ve called me down here.”
The Hermit-Archivist pushed his hand together in a steeple, and stared back at her coldly. There was something very unnerving, so she thought, about his eyes. She could have sworn on her own name that – just for a moment – he didn’t seem to have any. “It’s not normal then?” She asked, feeling strangely chastised.
They sat in a syrupy-thick silence for three beats, and then the Hermit-Archivist asked: “Tell me, what do you know about one Justin Tempo?”
“Justin Tempo, deity tenth-class; that’s his employment contract harmonizing with itself there.”
“Why would I know anything about a low level employee?”
“You didn’t, perhaps… suspend him at reduced salary?”
“Oh, him, ” Ms. Shemanamarms looked relieved, someone so obviously pathetic couldn’t possibly be as much of a problem as the Hermit-Archivist imagined, even with his penetrating non-eyes he clearly hadn’t understood how minor the employee in question was. “Well, we had to suspend him, his cubicle was responsible for some serious copyright infringement issues, his paperwork was always below par, and there’s the whole vandalism of corporation property through random acts of enfacement. He’s lucky we didn’t just fire him.”
“I think it more likely that you’re lucky you didn’t fire him,” the Hermit-Archivist commented, matter of factly.
Ms. Shemanamarms bristled at this; her skin turning a delightfully violent shade of blue. “Just who do you think you are talking to? I am She of Many Names and Multiple Arms, I have destroyed countless worlds on mere whimsy, crushing them all in my cleavage. If I want to–“
“Yes, I did read the reports about your… what did they call it? Oh yes, ‘breast destruction’. I have to say, I was a little shocked, you were such a delightful child. But that is not what I meant. I meant more that, if you had fired him, things would be much worse than they already are.”
“Worse?” Ms. Shemanamarms had calmed down just enough to sound suspicious.
“Naturally. You see, when you suspended Mr. Tempo, you brought whole dormant clauses in the contract into effect. It’s complicated, but the contract is now running a set of paragraphs and sub-sections that are slowly eroding the boundaries between universes. What once was separate, is now becoming joined. Creatures from one universe are freely crossing into another. This is very bad.”
“Creatures like ancient aliens?” suggested Ms. Shemanamarms, hoping that it was like that, so she could pass it on to legal to help with the copyright issue.
“I think you’ll find that started before you suspended Mr. Tempo. Anyway, ancient aliens are make-believe in all known universes.”
“Even so, I fail to see what the problem is. Being deities, we travel between universes all the time; hasn’t seemed to be much of a problem before.”
“Quite, but that’s because, and you won’t remember this, there was a very large-scale divine conflict. The mortality rate was horrendous, and after it ended there was a shortage in divinities to go around. As a result, we had to do a bit of outsourcing to other universes to fill the vacancies until the various gods and goddesses could repopulate. Rules – the ones about travel between universes – were suspended, but only for the deity-class. It was only supposed to be temporary as I recall, but the ‘powers that be’ don’t seem to have gotten around to revoking that particular emergency measure.”
“I thought we were the powers that be?”
“Well, naturally, you would think that. But that’s a little off topic. The suspension complication, as I think it is appropriate to call it, was triggered because your treatment of him activated a hidden code.”
“Can I have a look at this code?”
“Yes, if you like.”
Ms. Shemanamarms began reaching for the folder with the contract in it, but was stopped in mid reach when the Hermit-Archivist said:
“But not by physically looking at it in the contract itself.”
“Why ever not?”
“As you well know, Shemanamarms, only the sitting ‘head of contracts’ is allowed to actually look at them. To let others do so would only cascade more dangerous complications, and I think we have enough already. Here, let me write it out for you.”
The Hermit-Archivist quickly scribbled out four symbols on some scrap paper and passed them over to Ms. Shemanamarms:
Ms. Shemanamarms looked at the symbols, and then looked back at the Hermit-Archivist to see if he might not be pulling one of her many arms. His look said that he was not.
“I have no idea what this means,” she huffed, “and why is there an eight in it?”
“It is a rather archaic code,” conceded the Hermit-Archivist, “but that’s not an eight, it’s an infinity symbol. I’m a bit rusty, but in rough translation, it says: commence countdown to infinity’s end.”
“What?” Ms. Shemanamarms scoffed, “the end of the universe?”
“Universes,” corrected the Hermit-Archivist.
She of Many Names and Multiple Arms blanched a sickly pale blue as she realized the ‘head of contracts’ was not joking. “Is there anything that we can do?”
“There is, as it turns out. The contract outlines exact protocols to avert such a disaster.”
“What does it say?”
“I regret that I am unable to tell you, as that would cause further complications. What I can say, is that Justin Tempo is central to the outcome.”
“Ah. Should we fetch him back then, or perhaps he should be executed?”
“As I said, I am not permitted to say. But you should what you think is best.”
“I think It’s best to have him executed. …Did you hear that?”
“It sounded like fern leaves rustling. Are you sure you didn’t hear that?”
“Quite sure. Perhaps you should go and deal with the issue at hand? I don’t mean to sound Like I’m giving orders, but it does seem very pressing.”
“No, you’re right, I should give Staff-Liquidation a call. Thanks you Hermit-Archivist, I’ll see myself out.”
As Ms Shemanamarms left, the Hermit-Archivist followed her out the door, on the pretense of being polite, despite her objections. He had of course heard the sound she had referred to, and where it had come from he found a solitary fern frond, still phase-shifting slightly. He smiled at it. It occurred to him that this contract was going very well indeed – everything according to how it had been written down. In fact, he felt that it couldn’t have gone any better if he’d written the contract himself. Of course, he had written it. But then, he wrote all the contracts.