The first time it happens, she has maybe five seconds' warning. It is a Friday night in the middle of the capital city and she is at a restaurant with her husband when the world fills up with more light than the human eye can process. She cries out and reaches blindly across the table for her husband's arm to try to protect him. He is screaming back at her but she can't know that. All she can do is hang on to his hand with both of hers until the shockwave hits them and everything around her bursts into flames and disintegrates.
It's a full minute before she can see again. By that time she is eighteen kilometres outside of the city, rolling at eighty kph down a molten tarmac expressway crowded with shattered, upended, burning tin vehicles. The fireball is still growing overhead. Clutched in one of her fists is a puddle of gold.
"Go to the site of any major city and start digging. Anywhere in the world. You find layers and layers and layers of residue from earlier civilisations. You go to, I don't know, the jungle, Malaysia or South America, and you find they're crammed, absolutely stuffed to the gills, with temples and shrines and towers and homes of a dozen different styles. On every continent, you find this old, deep technology. Like solar power - we extrapolated solar power technology from stuff we discovered as archaeology. And telegraphy is the same. Underneath Russia and Europe there are these gigantic networks of high-tech underground train tracks, which work by magnets, which we'll clear out and rebuild and reactivate sooner or later. And the ocean is full of plastic waste from earlier generations, which gets harvested and converted into fuel. You go to the Arctic and you find nothing but crashed aeroplanes and airships. Like litter. There are books and carvings and pictures and stories and runes, information in a million languages, almost none of which are translatable. It's like... basically, the world is built on the wreckage of older worlds."
"Bear with me."
"You've had a month," shouts the angry commandant at his scientific subordinates. "You've had all the money in the world. All the tools and equipment you could ask for. You were asked to do one thing for your nation."
The scientists raise protest. They raise diagrams and figures demonstrating the inconceivable pressures and stresses to which they have subjected their prisoner. "She's an impossibility!"
"You were given one job. Either kill her, or duplicate the effect. But you've failed. Very well, then. Bury her. Somewhere totally inaccessible. Make it so she'll never be found. We can't hang her, we can't shoot her, still, we'll make an example of her anyway. Film the sentencing. No problem can't be solved. Nobody stands against us."
The last thing she says before they fill the mine with cement is that she'll outlive them all and that she'll outlive everything they ever thought of, worked for, fought for or swore loyalty to. She says if the nation's still there when she comes back then she'll tear it down single-handedly and you can write that one down for future reference.
A hundred and ten years later, after everybody has forgotten, she comes back and does exactly this.
"So, first we thought that there was just some single isolated cataclysm, the Crash. Then we found that there had actually been a second Crash before that, so we called that Crash Two, which set a bad precedent, because then we found Crash Three. And then we found that there had been eight distinct Crashes, and then, just in the last few years, as archaeological science got better, we found that all of the Crashes had happened at roughly the same time. Technologically, I mean.
"So civilisation rises from barbarism. From huts to bricks to alchemy to technology to the age of information. And then it plateaus. Technology can only go so far. It stays there. And some factor, some unknown element, builds up and up and up while the world stays otherwise still, and then everything overbalances and suddenly it's the Stone Age. Again. And there is no record of what causes this. Anywhere. At all. There is no electronic data. Every magnetic tape or disc is blank or full of static. Even the best-preserved ones from the most recent generation. The Information Age becomes an informational black spot. Nothing not stored concretely in the form of patterns of ink survives the cataclysm. And there is never any useful information in the ink. It's all irrelevant. There's nothing.
"And so nobody remembers. Nobody remembers what caused the Crash and nobody knows how to prepare for it. So it happens again. And again. And... Right now we are just beginning to experiment with mechanical computational equipment. I'd say that within fifty years we will have reverse-engineered enough archaeotechnology that we'll be at that final point, the Information Age. We will still be alive. We may live to see, and die in, Crash Zero."
"Quond. Are you busy? It's about Aoni Kulla."
Quond swears, but keeps writing on the blackboard. "What has she done now? She's retired. I celebrated. No political power. I thought it was finally over and we were going to be able to get some funding back."
"I know. Quond, she's here. In person. She wants to speak to you."
Quond stares at his assistant for a long and angry moment. In one movement, he grabs the duster and scrubs off everything he wrote in the last five minutes. It was all wrong anyway. "Fine."
Quond straightens his coat and hair before heading down to the main entrance. How big is the Electromagnetic Project? Much smaller than it used to be. Aoni Kulla, backed by a squadron of like-minded or, more likely, sycophantic political supporters, has systematically blocked his research in every way imaginable for decades. She has been continuing a tradition set out by the previous Golden Advisor, to be sure, who was equally opposed to researching the base structure of matter, but there was more than just tradition in Kulla's attacks. There was venom. Money was taken almost directly out of his own pocket. Scheduled cash injections inexplicably blocked. His subordinates work for pittances. The Big Ring has been half-complete for longer than he can remember. Thirty people work here, once three hundred. They'd be done by now, Quond swears. Physics as the world knows it would be over and dusted without this... coward.
The lobby is huge, airy and white - built back when they could afford it. Kulla is standing in the middle, admiring the dated and repulsive sculpture in the middle of it, which is made out of matte grey pipes arranged to form something resembling an internal organ. Quond strides over to her, hands in his pockets. He doesn't shake her hand. Kulla seems unperturbed by this.
"What do you want?" asks Quond. "Are you now going to stand inside our machinery and physically obstruct our work, all else having failed?"
"I want you to read this," says Kulla, holding up two sheets of lined paper, clipped together. They have Kulla's own handwriting on the front and back. The title is "Theory of Atomic Structure".
Quond stands in front of her and reads the paper. It takes about ten minutes altogether. A few times he stops reading and blinks for a long time, thinking. When he finishes and looks up, Kulla is still standing right in front of him, watching him, having never moved.
"Where did you get this?"
"It's copied out from memory," says Kulla.
"You did this yourself?"
"Not myself. But I had sources as Advisor, and, as I have said, nothing remains to be discovered, only rediscovered."
"So who, then? When? Do you have more results like this? Is this everything?"
"This is the entire particulate structure of the universe. Protons, neutrons and electrons. This is everything you're likely to discover in the next ten years. To put it another way, it's where you should be by now without my interference. It's yours. You can continue your theoretical work and build upon this to find the rest. Your work here is over. All you have to do is dismantle the machine."
"Advisor-- I mean, Kulla--"
"Aoni is acceptable."
"Kulla, do you know anything about science? About what it means to be a scientist? I can't just take these equations on faith, no matter how well they coincide with our predictions. You're telling us we're right. But we need numbers. We need to repeat these observations. Maybe there is more; we have to find out for ourselves. That is how science works. You are not the second-in-command of my country anymore. I understand your reservations about the connection between our work and the Crash but surely this information disproves that connection by its very existence. Somebody performed these experiments successfully. And lived to pass on the results. And no Crash befell them. So, what, then?"
"Are you acquainted with the legend of the cursed city of Ytreko of China?"
Quond rolls his eyes at this apparent derail. "I'm acquainted with both the legend and the city. The city is a plague zone or something of that ilk; anybody who approaches too closely becomes ill and soon dies. I am told there is evidence that the size of the dangerous zone is diminishing, but it is supposed to be a difficult city to access, since the bridges into that particular mountain pass were all destroyed. The legend is that some ancient god cursed it. What is your point?"
"The legend isn't true but, as you conceded, the facts are. Many thousands of years ago, Ytreko was the political capital of the Chinese Empire of its time, the seat of the most powerful superpower on Earth. One of Ytreko's enemies struck it with a weapon, the 'curse', and its effects, though diminishing with time, lingered. The weapon was a direct product of research into the atomic structure of matter."
"An atomic weapon."
"Yes. Within ten years you will be able to devise the basic principles upon which the weapon operated. Within another ten, if you have the motivation, you will be able to build and detonate one of your own. You will be able to curse your very own city. Within another ten, if you have the motivation, your masters - not me, not you, your masters, for good or bad - will be able to build enough to strike and curse all the land on Earth. Do you understand what I am saying?"
"So you are scared," says Quond. "Scared that we will be unable to control this... genie... once we have released it."
"Yes," says Kulla.
"You fear that, as a result of our work here, the world will be extinguished."
"No," says Aoni Kulla. "Humanity always survives the Crash. Nuclear war is something else. The Crash is a self-defence mechanism. It prevents humanity from destroying itself. It prevents technology from advancing too far. It pulls us back when we get too close, do you see? When we learn enough to destroy ourselves, it takes that knowledge away from us."
"What? How? Are you speaking from some kind of authority, Kulla, or are you, as you appear to be, casting wild speculation? Where is the evidence of this? Show me where it's written."
"It isn't written anywhere. That's the clue! That's what the Crash is!"
Quond finally realises that he is in the presence of a deluded crackpot. He pushes the papers back at her and pushes her towards the door. "Get out of here."
"Quond, I am begging you. Stop the Electromagnetic Project immediately. I took a risk by revealing this to you. I thought you might be open to new ideas. To reason. Humanity is totally unique in the universe," says Kulla. "You can't be allowed to destroy yourselves."
"Well, we survived this long," says Quond.
There isn't any on-site security. They can't afford it. The best Quond can do is lead her by the arm, out of the front door and into the landscaped green grounds of the Project.
"No force in the universe can stop a scientist from learning," he tells her.
Kulla just shakes her head as he goes back inside and locks the door.
"How can civilisation just end and leave no trace of what ended it? How can we just go back to the Stone Age again and again and again? How can we forget so much all at once?"
"You're sounding a lot like one gigantic nutso conspiracy theorist," opines Illu, as they turn into High Yorick Street.
"I don't know," says Aks. "I don't know. But then I see this woman, right? Her face is all over history. And she gives me this book. It's from the day of the last Crash. I mean the day. Our year negative one-eighty. By their calendar it was the twenty-eighth of M'e, 0699. This magazine is cover-dated the twenty-ninth, which means it was almost certainly printed in the closing hours of the twenty-eighth. No historical document anywhere in the world has a date later than the twenty-eighth printed or written on it. This thing is priceless. And she, a professional seller of historical documents, practically gives it to me."
Illu parks the auto opposite Bookwreck.
"She wants me to figure it out," says Aks.
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