“There’s a problem with the New Year,” Penny McAlister told the new director. “Apparently it’s on hold.”
Bill Temple had spent the entire night on the phone to the Minister’s office, working his way through a thirty year old bottle of GlenClaymore, negotiating with a series of junior ministerial staffers for a moment of the Minister’s time so that Bill could beg for another appointment.
With dawn came clarity; no reprieve would come. He was assigned to the least desirable position in the entire Australian Public Service: Director of the Ashburnham Office of the Department of Abnormal Affairs. With no choice but to put on a clean suit and a brave face, he strode into his office to find his assistant waiting for him with a glass of water, two ibuprofen tablets and a summary of the evening’s weird events.
“Thank you, Ms McAlister.” He gulped the pills, thinking longingly of the last few fingers of whisky left at the bottom of his bottle. When he felt more composed, he said, “Local celebrations fall outside our jurisdiction. Surely this is a matter for the town council?”
Penny, who was barely visible having pulled down the blackout curtains in the office and come to work dressed in what appeared to be an entirely black tuxedo with a dark leather hooded cape, replied, “You misunderstand, sir. I’m not talking about the new year’s party at the showgrounds. I mean that the concept of 2019 has failed to emerge.”
“The concept of-?”
“2019, sir. It’s not coming. We’ve got clairvoyant forecasts, dream analyses and pretemporal scans coming in from our Third Eyes allies around the globe. Nobody can see past midnight tomorrow.” She handed him a folder. “It’s all in the report.”
Bill squinted at the summary page on top, wondering how she would react to him asking to turn a light on. “We’re in a small country town in the middle of nowhere. Why is this our problem?”
“Because whatever is blocking the new year from arriving, it’s happening right here in Ashburnham, sir. We’ve got independent assurance on the geomantic positioning, and quantum triangulation esimates from Ottawa, Tokyo and Vegas. 98 percent confidence.” Penny showed her teeth in a not-quite-smile. “I’m afraid it’s very much our problem, sir.”
Bill cursed. Five of his predecessors in this job had disappeared without trace under mysterious circumstances. Ashburnham chewed DAA Directors up and spat them out, possibly literally.
“Well, if tomorrow’s the end of the world, you’d better call me Bill. Any chance of a-?”
“Ten strong black coffees coming up, Bill,” said Penny, switching on the light on her way out.
Mickey Blundell was a senior technical officer who looked like he’d just come in from mowing grassy verges along the highway. “G’day, Bill,” he said as he spilled maps and glassy rocks across the meeting room table. “I’m the geomancer. I’ll take you through what we’ve got so far, eh?”
What they had were exasperatingly vague indicators and speculative hypotheses tumbling in from around the world. Mickey drew lines and curves on the map, making edits whever Penny delivered another prognosticatory report. Every so often he would scatter a handful of colourful stones on a map and mutter something about “meridial cessation” or “utter oblivion” or just “damn it”.
The pressure on Bill climbed during the day, with the Minister’s office in Canberra demanding hourly situation updates while pointedly ignoring Bill’s increasingly blatant hints that they should send an expert to take charge.
By the end of the afternoon, Bill was a wreck from caffeine jitters and stress. “My career is over,” he moaned.
“Never mind,” Penny consoled him, “it’s only for another seven hours. Besides, you said this job was a death sentence for your ambitions before anyone knew about the termination of linear time.”
He raised a twitching eyebrow. “I didn’t say that!”
Penny shrugged. “I’m good at reading body language.”
At nine pm, as Bill tucked into a final dinner of takeaway sandwiches, Mickey entered waving a street directory wildly inscribed with a red whiteboard marker. “We’ve calculated the address, right here in town! The Chief’s checking it out now.” Seeing Bill’s shaking fingers and pallid expression, he added, “I’ll drive, eh?”
At ten, the Samoan office security chief Kylie Tamatoa called from the target site to give the all-clear. “The place is quiet as a cemetery,” she reported.
Penny was waiting for them in the car park. She handed Bill water, painkillers and a sealed envelope. “Open it after you get there.” She didn’t let him leave until he swallowed the pills and drained his glass. “Good luck, sir.”
At eleven, Kylie rapped the passenger window, snapping Bill out of his exhausted daze. Opening his eyes, he recognised the car park.
“This is the source of the interference? The Split Palms Motor Inn?”
Mickey waved a sheaf of calculations. “Room Eight.”
Kylie said, “The night manager’s on my rugby team. I’ll get the keys.”
“Don’t bother,” said Bill, waving a plastic card. “This is my room.”
The room inside was almost how he’d left it. Tidy. Bed made. Suitcase packed, ready for transfer to the Director’s residence.
“That’s new.” Arranged in front of the easy chair and side table where he’d spent the night negotiating his position was a mirror. Bill stood behind the chair to stare at the reflection.
An indistinct shape slumped in the mirror’s chair. It frantically thumbed a phone with one hand; the other held a sloshing tumbler. On the reflected table sat a near-full Scotch bottle.
“Who’s that?” asked Kylie.
“That’s the interference,” said Mickey, looking from the mirror to Bill. “A temporal null-state. Time can’t progress until it resolves.”
Bill remembered Penny’s envelope. A handwritten note in her precise script was attached to the front.
Dear Director Temple, I recognised the address. I’ve prepared a requisition authorisation to book Room 8 at the Split Palms Motor Inn for a period of not less than 365 days, and a personal leave request for the same period. I’ve marked where you’d need to sign, if that’s what you decide. Good luck, sir. Happy new year.
Bill scribbled his signature and put the papers in Mickey’s hands. “Ask Penny to file these, okay?”
He sat in the chair. The bottle by his hand was now as full as its mirror counterpart. Small consolation, but acceptable. He poured a shot and raised it as his phone chirped midnight and 2019 settled over him.
“Here’s to moving forward,” he said. “I’ll see you when this year is done.”
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Happy 2019, I guess? I hope you’re embracing the inevitability of change and unenviable choices as much as necessary (and preferably no more).
This week’s story is something of a sequel to Business as Usual, inasmuch as the Ashburnham office of the Department of Abnormal Affairs and executive-assistant-in-perpetuity Penny McAlister have appeared before.
I’m still on the road this week, so unfortunately at the moment I can’t do anything about the intermittent issue where the image doesn’t appear. Possibly I won’t be able to do anything about it when I get home either, but let’s remain optimistic about the future, shall we?