Art by Raheel Shakeel.
From the author: I brought the beer the night we watched Jesus die.
I brought the beer the night we watched Jesus die.
Every meeting is potluck, but beer duty rotates, and that was my night. I wish I could say that I went all out and got some artisanal craft beer—it’s not every night we get to see the Son of God expire—but how was I to know? Deke—it was Deke’s demo night—promised a good show but didn’t share details. He’s done that before, hyped his demo but showed nothing but fizzle. So, I bought Miller Lite. No one complained. It’s not like we’re connoisseurs. We don’t come for the beer, anyway. We’re time-travelers.
It took Deke an hour to set up while Eddie went over club business. Eddie likes that admin stuff—treasury report, membership report, upkeep on the club temporal resonance chamber—but the rest of us glaze over. He droned on while we watched Deke, who was hooking up his array to the temp-res chamber about the time Eddie asked if anyone had items for the newsletter. No one answered because we were all keeping a close eye on Deke, who’s not the most conscientious guy, and one wrong connection to the chamber can release a tremendous amount of smoke, like the time Ahmad rolled phases and fried the tachyon emitter. We had to air out the place for days. That was last year and we can still smell the ozone.
There’s not a lot of room in the club house, and the chamber takes up a lot of it. We were all squeezed into the one corner that was left after Deke mapped out the space he needed for his array. It was a crazy tangle of resonators, at least twenty, which meant that Deke took an awful long time verifying their positions with the club laser ranger. That ranger is top-of-the-line, and the club dropped a bundle on it. Gee, we had to—if you’re off by a millimeter you’ll miss your target by days—weeks, if you’re really sloppy.
Which is why we were all curious about what Deke had planned, because he never takes this much time for a setup. He’ll usually slap something together and if he can get within a year he’s happy. Not that night. He checked and rechecked every coordinate against the configuration on his console. When he downloaded the data from the laser ranger and the console went green, he flashed a thumbs-up and even Eddie stopped talking and he and Deke checked out the config.
“What’s on the program?” Eddie asked, but Deke just smiled tight-lipped and bounced his eyebrows up and down like he was eyeballing a stripper.
“Fellas, tonight we’re going to solve a mystery that’s confounded mankind for millennia,” Deke said, like he was making a speech. Olga winced when Deke said “fellas” and “mankind.” She’s the only girl in the club and she’s sensitive about that kind of thing. We watch what we say, generally, but Deke slips up when he's excited. “I’ve been working on this matrix for weeks. If my calculations are correct…”
“Whoa, wait,” Lionel interrupted. Lionel’s probably the sharpest relativistic theorist in the club, but he’s also the mouthiest, which is why not everyone pays attention when he talks, because he’s so annoying. “Are you saying you haven’t run this matrix before?”
“I simulated it,” Deke answered, real sarcastic.
“Not the same,” Lionel went on. “Eddie, don’t we have a policy on first runs with the club temp-res?”
“Lionel, do we have to do this every time?” Eddie complained. “No, there’s no policy like that. Crap, none of us have their own chamber. We all do our first runs in the club.”
“I’ve got a chamber.”
Eddie rolled his eyes like he always does when Lionel brings up the fact that he’s the only member with his own temp-res, and a clean, commercial model, not a hand-built kluge like the club’s.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, Lionel, we know all about your $200,000 Mitsubishi Chrono. Thanks for bringing it up again.”
“I’m just saying, if there’s a mistake…”
“I checked the hookup myself. The wires are right. Do you want to check it?”
A lot of smirking went on, because Eddie is the most anally meticulous guy we’ve ever known and if he says the wires are right, they’re right, and besides, if the resonators are misplaced, like I said, you’ll just end up in the wrong time. A little unsettling, maybe, but no permanent damage.
Lionel pressed his lips together like he wanted to say more but his mouth thought better of it. Olga snickered.
“Can we get on with this?” Deke protested.
Eddie held out his hands like he was ushering Deke onto a stage. “Right, right, you were saying, mystery of the millennia…”
“Exactly!” Deke pressed a button on his console. The lights dimmed as the chamber powered on, giving off a low-frequency hum which vibrated the floor. The resonators snapped on with a little shudder, then stabilized as the field strength built up, indicated by the tensometer on the chamber, and the resonators glowing purple, then pink, then pink-white, and then white-white.
“Feels like a strong one,” Olga said like she knew what was coming, her medium-length brown hair rising until it stood straight out like a wispy afro. The rest of us felt it, too—hair standing up on our heads, necks and arms; even my eyebrows felt prickly. Deke was going old for sure—ancient, even.
“What’s the most consequential event in history?” Deke shouted over the rising whine from the chamber, trying to sound dramatic. “What one day changed the future of the world and the lives of billions?”
We had no idea, of course. We’d been playing around with time travel for years, so we knew that even little, tiny things that no one would think twice about when they happened could have huge impact. A couple years ago Olga traced the Hindenburg crash back to a luggage porter in Frankfurt closing the door to an unoccupied bathroom. That was a good piece of detective work on Olga’s part, and it really made a name for the club. All the members donated to buy her lunch in appreciation, though Lionel stayed away like he does most times he’s not the center of attention.
Deke looked at our blank faces, then dropped his jaw and made jazz hands. “Seriously? Not even a guess?” But nobody guessed, because we’d almost certainly get it wrong, and none of us likes to look stupid.
“Then I’ll just have to spring it on you.”
He punched another button. The chamber hummed louder and higher; the resonators glowed brighter, and the temporal matrix formed up and materialized the target.
The scene went dark, so dark we couldn’t see until our eyes adjusted. The ceiling morphed into greenish-black clouds boiling like a vat of tar. The whine from the chamber got drowned out by wind howling over moans and screams and crying, making for a scary scene, but what it was we couldn’t figure out until lightning flashed with a vicious crack and lit up the landscape: a hill, topped by three humongous crosses.
“No way,” Eddie blurted.
The rest of us watched slack-faced, unable to get a word out. Deke jumped up and down pumping his fists, shouting “Nailed it, nailed it, nailed it!”
“Fake!” Lionel shouted over the storm. “It’s a spoof. No one hits a two-thousand-year target that close. This crappy temp-res can’t even handle that long a thread.”
“It’s not crappy,” Eddie protested, “and I’m reading the coordinates right off the panel: 32 C.E., ancient Judea.” He grabbed the thermal scanner to check the temperature of the cable locks.
“How hot?” Olga asked.
“Hot,” Eddie answered. “Deke, can’t keep this up for long. Better get to the main event.”
“How did he even know the date?” Lionel kept on. “There’re no exact records. It’s all fake!”
Deke came at Lionel flapping his arms like a goose chasing a toddler, eyes narrow and lips stretched in a crazy grin. Lionel stepped back as Derek got within a foot of him, arms still flapping. “We researched it, asshole. We did our homework. Me and Olga.”
Olga smiled wide with the tip of her tongue between her teeth. “Lotta hours hanging out in dusty old first-century Roman archives waiting for some schlub to pull the right scroll. Pure luck, really, but it helps if you can read Latin!”
That shut up Lionel. Ever since the Hindenburg, nobody questions Olga’s chops.
“Deke!” Eddie shouted, holding up the thermal scanner, “we’re redlining!”
“Oh, okay, sure,” Deke responded. He twisted a dial on the console. The view in the matrix zoomed in on the cross in the middle, like a telephoto lens, straight to the poor S.O.G.’s face, a giant head hanging down and to the side, filling the array from floor to ceiling. I grimaced, and I’ll bet everyone else did, too, but I can’t swear to it because I couldn’t look away, much as I wanted to.
No painting, no movie, no crucifix I ever saw prepped me for that sight: he looked like he’d done a face-plant in a roll of razor wire, then gone fifteen rounds with Ali in his prime. The thorns, they were nasty—inch-long spikes from some mutant middle-east murder tree, pounded into his skull up to the hilt. The Prince of Peace was beat up.
He was still alive, heaving with every breath, a good twenty seconds apart, like each one took it all out of him and he had to work up the strength to take another. But for all that, I couldn’t say from the look on him that he was in pain, or even uncomfortable. He looked like he was asleep, all tuckered out. It was the damndest thing.
Then he stopped—breathing, that is. He went past twenty seconds, then thirty, then a minute. His head twitched like he hiccuped and that was it. The biggest lightning bolt yet ripped across the sky, lighting up the scene like a strobe with a crack that hurt our ears. The wind whipped up harder than ever, and the lamentations went into overdrive. I took a long pull on my beer.
“Is that it, Deke?” Eddie shouted, pointing the thermal scanner at the B-phase cable lock.
“No! Not yet!” Deke answered. He went to the resonator at the corner of the array and gave it a tweak. The scene skewed and ran like a DVR in super-fast-forward, the storm noise playing at a high pitch, like screeching monkeys, until it went quiet and the matrix went dark. Deke stared at the console. “Olga?” he said, pointing.
Olga got her face right up to the console. She pulled out her pocket calculator and tapped a few keys, then showed it to Deke. “Do it,” he said.
She went to the corner resonator and gave it the lightest tap. The matrix flashed like a TV coming on, then resolved to a scene of another hillside, and what looked like a cave, the entrance blocked by a massive stone, barely visible in dim twilight just before dawn.
“Are you freaking kidding me?” Eddie whispered.
Deke was grinning like a hyena. He twisted the dial, enlarging the cave entrance until it filled the matrix. Sunlight struck the crest of the hill, then moved slowly downward. Every eye scrutinized the stone for any sign of movement. A pebble dislodged from the hillside, rolling down the side of the stone where it butted up against the cave, hitting the ground with a clunk.
The room was dead quiet. We all leaned in, holding our breath.
That’s when we smelled the ozone.
Things unraveled pretty quick from that point on. The scene broke up into splotches as the cable locks gave way and the cables snaked crazily spewing sparks like a firehose. Eddie sprinted for the emergency power off and smacked it with his fist. The matrix collapsed with a sizzle and the backup lights kicked in.
The bulkhead of the temp-res chamber was a scorched, smoking mess. We didn’t know it at the time, but during repairs we found the overload took out not only the tachyon emitter, but seven of eight coherer cavities and cracked two insulators on the main bus.
“Fuck,” Eddie muttered.
We all knew what it meant: at least a month of repairs and the entire treasury. That’s not what we were thinking at the time, of course. What we were thinking was, What’d happened next?
We all looked at Lionel, the smug bastard.
“I guess y’all need a temp-res chamber, one that won’t smoke itself to death holding up a two-thousand-year thread. Like, say, a Mitsubishi Chrono?”
Lionel was right where he wanted to be—the man in charge. Eventually, he agreed to let Deke and Olga use his Chrono to find out if that stone rolled aside, or if Jesus Christ was dead for good. But he didn’t make it easy on them. They had to dicker.
Lionel’s an atheist, after all.
This story originally appeared in Rumble Fish Quarterly, February 2019.