A chronological superhero.
He has been here once before – not this exact location, but the general area – 16th century Italy, which is at this time still a motley collection of states. The sunlight, as saturated as ever with human scents, warms Font as he sits on an ornate chair opposite his host. He is too old to be doing this, Font tells himself, a rueful mantra that had, in fact, begun ten years earlier.
The man sitting opposite him smiles, with a mischief that makes Font think of himself, thirty years earlier. “Would you like some cappuccino?” he asks, innocently1.
Font twitches almost out of his chair. “Stop it, Leonardo!”
The serving boy who has been mincing nervously into the room jerks back and nearly spilled the beer. “It’s all right,” says Leonardo kindly, “just set it down here on the table.”
Font glares at him, but spares a nod for the boy, who almost flees the room.
“I take it this is not just a social call,” Leonardo says, handing Font a mug of the most unappealing beverage he has seen in his life.
Font sets it aside carefully. “Not… precisely. And yet I didn’t come on business.”
Leonardo looks at him. “You came to warn me,” he says shrewdly.
Font sighs. “I came to – well, yes, but not threaten, Leo. You need to understand how this all ends, you must know that it should end. You have something like ten years left.”
The other man sighs. Font notices suddenly that there are far more lines in his face, and that his eyes, though they haven’t lost a whit of their brilliance, are bloodshot. He’s been using himself up rather freely. Leonardo notices Font noticing, and nods. “I know, I haven’t got much time.”
They are silent for a little while, and finally Font can’t help it. “Why did you do it?” he bursts out. “And how? What did you do with – “
He stops, faintly embarrassed at the outburst, but Leonardo is smiling in reminiscence, not jest. “The why… you know the why, Font.”
Font knows. Leonardo had been one of his best, a prodigy of a boy and an expert in geochronohistory, with five publications under his belt before he’d even left the academy. And yet for all that brilliance, he was generous in nature, rather mischievous of course, perhaps slightly prone to getting carried away (historians would fervently agree with that final statement).
And then, as a first-cause detective, he’d latched onto the Renaissance project. He’d made the transition from GCH to coldjumper in a matter of weeks, and he’d shot off to investigate a period of 300 years around Italy, looking for a historical misalignment somewhere that was notching up the temporal anomalies back in the servers. He had loved it, had told Font so, with increasing wistfulness every time he was brought back to do a report. Font had chalked it up to Travel inexperience, sure that he’d get it out of his system soon, whatever it was.
Then, one night, he had simply vanished. He’d ripped out his tracking implants, his medical monitoring devices, everything. When the techies found that he’d re-engineered his implants to leave his system after thirty days, ChronIn erased him. They wiped his name off the registers, recalibrated the history room, destroyed anything he had left in their archives. Suddenly, the prodigy was ChronIn’s blackest secret.
Leonardo didn’t do it simply because he could, Font realises, but because it was a challenge and a freedom at the same time. The academic system forced students into pigeonholing themselves fairly soon, sometimes even as early as twelve, but Leonardo had stubbornly kept up a series of hobbies that ranged from horseriding to painting to innovating. Here, in Florence in the 1500s, he could do them all, damn the consequences. But the price he had to pay was chronological isolation and a complete lack of technology.
Not that this was ever an impediment to a man like –
Font nearly slaps his forehead. He’s even been calling him Leonardo in his head.
The other man is grinning at him outright. Font growls under his breath. “But what did you do with the man himself? I mean, there are some things you can’t replace, aren’t there? His birth, family…”
Leonardo actually looks surprised. “Oh good heavens, of course not. At around 1478 – that’s when I stepped in. I mean, he’d died,” he says hurriedly, and Font really does lunge forward at this.
“Died?” he roars. “What – “
“Shut up,” Leonardo hisses, pushing him back down into his chair. “There were those sodomy charges, remember, in 14762? They started a campaign to discredit him, and he couldn’t take it. I think it was assisted suicide, but…” he shrugs. “I researched it carefully, I knew that two year gap was my only chance – not to replace him, I mean, but to join him. It was the only thing – I mean, that’s what I came for. Or stayed for, anyway.” He smiles crookedly.
Font is genuinely dumbfounded. This sort of thing takes a level of ballsyness he hasn’t encountered in his career, ever. And Leonardo had been a GCH first and a coldjumper second. Font remembers the feeling he had when he’d visited the place with Lucas, the sheer breathtaking awe at the brilliance of the con.
“By the way,” Leonardo continues casually, “when that boy Lucas brought you back here – what, five years ago? – and I saw you at the Palazzo, I nearly had a heart attack. That was completely unwarranted.”
Font splutters. “Unwarr – “ Then he sees that Leonardo is making fun of him yet again. “Well yes,” he says testily, “you’d just screwed the timeline all the way to infinity, technically speaking, so we had to make sure you wouldn’t … “
His voice trails off as he replays the last few minutes of the conversation back in his head.
“It’s not as if I wouldn’t have noticed the strut additions and then corrected my own notes,” Leonardo is saying mildly. “I did do a hell of a lot of research. Besides, Lucas wasn’t all that great. What are they teaching these kids these days, anyway?”
“That’s what I said,” Font says automatically. Leonardo is watching him with wary anxiety.
“It was an omission paradox,” says Font flatly, after a long, tense moment. “You said it was suicide, and – you were plugging the hole. Weren’t you?” His heart, which has been puttering along for the past two years, squirms in his chest and he has to take a deep breath.
What Leonardo has done is to plug a leak downstream (i.e. in history), without anyone realising it, for almost fifty years.
The Chronological Institute operated on the assumption that history is continuous but not linear – meaning, that whatever happened should’ve happened, although agents and Travelers were occasionally forced to go back in time to learn something, rectify something that had been unlawfully changed (this was the whole reason for the existence of the history tracking servers), or prevent an ongoing event from getting critically out of control.
Font remembers a case, a while back, in Germany. A coldjumper had arrived in the middle of some kind of fight, and the flaming torch aimed at him had eventually consumed the workshop of a prominent goldsmith living nearby. That man had been Johannes Gutenberg, and the first letters of movable type had just perished. The unfortunate coldjumper had holed himself up in a room somewhere nearby, surviving on caffeine-rations, recreating with the aid of his historical research and hearsay in three weeks what Gutenberg had achieved in the space of three years.
The man had retired three months after that assignment was done, with a lifetime achievement award and pension running into the tens of millions.
And that wasn’t even omission – Gutenberg would have gone on to make history if it hadn’t been for that coldjumper’s bad timing and the fire that followed. But he’d made sure a few hundred years of history still functioned, and that was what ultimately mattered.
What Leonardo had done was something entirely different.
No one ever really knows history. Oh, they could make excellent guesses, but it wasn’t as if you could see every moment of it and understand why things happened the way they did. So no one would have realised that Leonardo’s predecessor actually died in history.
Leonardo has not just plugged history. He has filled in for one of the most famous men in history.
Font takes another deep breath.
Something on this order of magnitude, if brought to the attention of ChronIn, would merit several secret governmental awards and legendary status within an elite community. But Leonardo, cast out of his time, hasn’t informed anyone. Hasn’t cared to.
Of course, Leonardo himself would say that, given the chance to play his own hero, he would want for nothing else. But ChronIn has support mechanisms for those marooned in time, and Leonardo has none of those – worse, in fact.
Font tries to calm himself. His heartbeat is already regulated and the medbots inside him take care of his hormone imbalances, but he knows he’s close to panic.
“Do you want – “ he gasps. “Shall we – I can tell them, we’ll bring you back when you’re meant to die, leave a body and we’ll take you in a vehicle. Leo, we can do this, you don’t have to give everything up. Come back!” He’s almost pleading now.
“No,” says Leonardo simply. “I have everything I want.”
Font swallows and blinks.
Leonardo calmly sips his horrible drink. “I lost my way in the countryside,” he offers quietly. “When I came to, after two days of self-imposed hibernation, it was the neighboring house that had found his body. I just… knew what I had to do.”
He seems even older now. Font wants to reach across the table and hug this troublemaker.
“It’ll be over soon,” Font murmurs.
“Yes,” says Leonardo, and Font cannot tell if it is regret or relief that colours his voice.
Leonardo’s head snaps up suddenly. “Are you sure you’re meant to be here, Font?”
“Not even in the least,” says Font, leaning back in his seat.
Leonardo looks touchingly worried. “Well then, what – “
“I didn’t say it wasn’t entirely a social visit,” says Font, smiling. “I just… took some time off. And, you know, I wanted to see one of my best friends.”
Leonardo barks out a laugh, but he looks pleased. “I’m glad you came!” he says, and then a thoughtful look crosses his face. He leaps up. The mischief is back now, making him look handsomer than ever.
“Come on, don’t you want to see everything?” he says, pulling at Font’s coat when he doesn’t move. “Fonty, come on, it’s ingenious!”
“Don’t call me Fonty, for the love of god,” sighs Font, but gets up anyway.
Soon, Leonardo is dragging him through workshops and laboratories, the things he has carved and the animals he has dissected, the systems he’s built from these things. Font sees a half-made air-cooling system, plans for a sort of conveyor belt to move machinery around, a truly brilliant incubator Leonardo is thinking of donating to the hospital, for premature babies.
Font wonders how Leonardo can stand it, the absolute lack of technology, of electricity. But then he looks at him, windmilling his arms around as he explains the wooden cogs, or as he flips through his notes to point out the similarity between nature and innovation.
Font feels a sudden, fierce desire to take Leonardo back when the end is near. To bundle him up into a transport vehicle when he’s almost dead, when they can halt the slow degradation of his body in this medical backwater, then revive him and save this tremendous, beautiful mind.
His hands twitch. But Leonardo has said no. So Font stills himself and smiles at the way Leonardo pokes at his machines and cuffs some of the young boys on the head if they are too slow and generally shows off his genius.
Finally, Leonardo meanders around to the back of his biggest workshop. “Look!” he says, excitedly.
Font blinks. It’s the design he saw with Lucas, five years ago, the mechanical man, the proto-robot. It’s half-built now from scraps of metal and wood, but the torso is huge because it needs to accommodate a lever/pulley mechanism.
“I’m thinking about implementing the binary system,” Leonardo muses. “A row of switches, around which I can wind string, pieces of which can be connected to the various parts. Down will mean that the string will jerk upwards, and up means that the string is loosened.”
He looks over at Font, who looks slightly dazed, and smiles ruefully. “But I’d have to burn the whole thing, of course. I mean,” he corrects himself, “I will.”
The sun has sunk low enough in the sky to necessitate lamps by the time Font and Leonardo wander outside. Font watches as one of the lads comes to the doorway, swinging a lamp in one hand and a wooden contraption in the other. They watch as the boy extends the wooden thing to the height of the streetlamp, hooks the lamp onto a projection, and winches the thing up to the streetlamp to light it. Font looks at Leonardo. Leonardo looks almost shy. “Some of the boys are very good innovators,” he ventures, looking around at the city proudly.
“Well,” says Font after a pause (what if he knocked Leonardo out now and brought him along? Oh damn, can’t do that, he’s just about to start painting the goddamned Mona Lisa).
“Goodbye, Fonty,” says Leonardo softly. They stare at each other for two seconds in the shadow of the building Leonardo is currently haunting.
Font pulls himself together. He really is too old for this sort of thing.
“Ciao, Fonty,” says Leonardo again.
“Ciao,” says Font, “Leonardo da Vinci.”
Then he turns and walks away.
1. Cappuccino was invented in the early 1900s