Wednesday, 3 April 2019

P Squared, chapter 6

(This is the central, single most important chapter of the novel, and also where it starts arguably getting really horrific. You have been warned.)

The courtyard beneath the main office window is a thoroughfare for students entering Campus. Quality has given P a sniper rifle and sets them to work, picking off latecomers. “It’s important for the student experience,” he says. “Keeps scores up, too. Good for the league tables. As long as you don’t shoot the internationals, OK? Check the student tags before you pull the trigger.”


“No internationals. OK,” says P, who cocks the gun and kneels by the window.

Quality cocks his head to one side, as if pretending to look around her. “Not asking why?”

P doesn’t turn around. “No. Sorry, did you want me to?”

Publications sticks their tongue in their cheek. “You’re disappointing him. He was wanting to go on his rant about international recruitment and how it’s not ethical and we’re taking all their money.”

“Mm-hmm.” P isn’t really listening. The clock ticks over and the first latecomer, by about thirty seconds, sprints across the yard. P’s first bullet gets in the back, punctures his lungs; as he falls to his knees, they finish him with a side-headshot.

Pubs sips their tea.

The office is peaceful. For a while, only the sounds of tapping keyboards, silenced bullets and the cocking of a rifle can be heard in the office.

“Hey, Assistant,” says Pubs, looking up from their monitor. “How old are you?”

“That’s a pretty direct question,” says P, not taking their eye off the scope.

“Yes, it is, isn’t it?”

P goes back to shooting. They target a young woman, red-haired, in heels, steady in the crosshairs. Checking the student’s tag and confirming she’s not an international, P takes her down, one perfect headshot, angled so that not one single drop of blood stains the courtyard stonework. A fresher; she never had a clue.

“Well played, that colleague,” says Quality.

“You didn’t answer,” says Pubs.

“No,” says P, “I didn’t.”

“So?”

“Technical or strictly chronological?”

“I don’t understand.”

P ducks down as a student in a flak vest — probably from Engineering — lays down covering fire for his mates and hits the window ledge. P pops over the parapet, takes one shot, brings the boy down with a bullet through the eye. “I didn’t get the others,” they say.

“We’re not aiming for a perfect score,” says Quality.

Pubs persists. “What’s the difference?”

P scans the crosshairs across an empty courtyard. “If you want to be chronological about it, I’ve been alive forty-six years.”

“You don’t look it,” says Pubs.

“Had a lot of work done.”

“No kidding.” Quality laughs, and then realises no one else is amused. He shuts up.
Pubs has stopped even pretending to work. They swivel the chair around, legs apart, hands between their knees, gripping the front edge of their seat. “So what’s the other one?”

“The date, compared to my date of birth.”

“And how old are you if you count it like that?”

“Twenty-four. Same age as you.”

Pubs sits back, drops their hands to their sides. “How do you know how old I am?” they say.

P motions towards Pubs’s lanyard, turns back to the courtyard, downs a short, fat young woman in a fleece who brandishes a pistol without getting a shot off. “Barcodes,” P says, simply.

“Leave them to it, will you?” says Quality.

“Hang on,” says Pubs, “That doesn’t make sense.”

“Nah, it makes perfect sense,” says Quality. “You just haven’t seen any temps. You haven’t been around long enough.”

“So you keep reminding me.”

“You’re new. It’s all new.”

“Sod off.”

A dozen or more bullets hammer into the side of the ancient building, not near enough the window to make P flinch. P peels off three shots in quick succession; three more bodies — two boys in rugby team sweaters and a girl with dyed blonde hair — litter the courtyard.

Quality calls across the room: “If it starts looking like Normandy out there, you can alert CleanUp. They come in about two minutes. It’s especially useful if they were armed. Anyone could pick up the debris and start shooting back. They use the bodies for cover, sometimes, too.”

“Got you.” P sends an e-mail; shortly, three masked Cleaning Drones in grey uniforms arrive with a trolley and start loading bodies. When P brings down another student at their feet, two of them bend over and pick him up. They they’re gone.

“Thing is,” says Quality, looking over his desk monitor at Pubs, “The Assistant here is a Quantum Delivery.”

“And?”

“Well, OK, it’s genius. It’s like, it’s not just that they come in the mail packed in a matchbox, although that’s pretty clever. It’s when they come from, too.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“You know how the laws of physics aren’t really laws at all, right?”

“No, but go on.”

“Well, the Agency office hasn’t been built yet. It’s like, going to be there in maybe five years’ time?”

Pubs looks a bit blank.

“And they can use the Quantum Delivery thing, right, to send temps backwards and forwards, couple weeks, a few years, whatever.”

“Is that even possible?”

“No. But it will be. Especially when the bloke who invented it comes back and tells himself how he did it. And gets him to set up a temp office in the assurance that at some time in the future the tech will be there. Sends some temps to staff it. Takes orders. They’ll sit in the files for like five, ten, twenty years. And then when they know how to do it, they do, send them right back, all roboted up and packed in neat little boxes.”

“That’s insane. Isn’t the universe supposed to like explode if something like that happens?”

“You’ve been watching too much telly. No, it doesn’t do anything. It just happens. Will happen. Might already have happened.”

“And someone invented time travel and used it to set up a temp agency?”

“God, yes. This is where it’s genius, right. So you send a temp in a matchbox to an office that’s five years ago or in like ten minutes, and she does her two-week stint and arrives back in the office a few minutes before you sent her the first time. So for a few minutes you have two temps in your office.” Quality gestures towards the door, as if someone’s just about to come in. “But the first one’s back already, right? And if she’s back the second time, that means she was already there, because she couldn’t be here standing in front of you.” He talks with his hands.

“But she has to go, because — no, sorry. But you can’t do that.” Pubs’ eyebrows knit.

“But here’s the thing: you can. You just created a parallel timeline version of your temp. Because she was there, she doesn’t have to be there. Because she was.” Quality warms to his subject. He puts his feet up on his desk, hands behind his head. “Next thing you know, you’re standing in a hall with maybe two hundred copies, and they’re all versions of the same temp. And the best part is that you, the Agency director, have just become a billionaire, in like seconds.”

P shoots a rocket launcher out of a student’s hands. It blows up in his face, leaving a smoking pile of debris in the middle of the courtyard, and bits of student scattered across a twenty-metre radius.

Quality calls across, “You’d better call CleanUp for that one.”

“K.” The courtyard goes quiet. The smell of barbecue wafts across the window, briefly, and then is gone.

“I’d go mental if that happened to me,” says Pubs.

“Look at them,” says Quality, waving a hand in P’s direction. “Do you think all that kit in their head is there for fun?”

“No.”

“And that’s what the thing with the names is about,” says Quality, without irony. “You can’t guarantee that any given temp won’t be in three places at the same time, working for three different people. Maybe even —“Another shot rings out from P’s rifle. “Maybe shooting at each other.”

He finishes his tea. “It’s genius. Best part is, you can sell them on to businesses who want to keep them. It doesn’t matter if they die on assignment, because they keep coming back. You only actually need about a dozen enhanced temps to replace the whole HR contract industry, now, yesterday and tomorrow.”

“There’s like three Agencies, though.”

“That’s because at least one of the competitors sent a Quantum Delivery back to himself warning himself what was going to happen and encouraging him to poach the technology before the other Agency set up.”

“Where’d you get all this stuff?”

“Duh. Wikipedia.”

Pubs flicks a rubber band at Quality.

The courtyard clock strikes the half hour. P lifts the rifle, ejects the last shell and unloads in one motion. They are staring at the Publications Officer now, wondering what the sniper rifle’s shells would do to them at this range.

“What?” says Pubs.

“Nothing,” says P.

“Late Window’s up,” says Quality, as if it’s necessary. “Got a record of kills? Gotta take a log.”

“Sure. Mailing them over now.” P phases out while they compose the list in their head, pulling data from the smoothly flowing list in front of their eyes, plucking records out, compiling a list to one side. They pack it up, sends. Quality returns to his desk, opens the mail and starts logging the kills.

They paid their fees; it’s only fair.



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