An essay by Barnetby Richards, as provided by Paul Williams
Illustration by Justine McGreevy
The author recognises that a scientific journal is not the place to mention personal information, but is grateful for the editor’s indulgence, and trusts that the reader will understand the significance.
14 April 2020 was the day that I saw the world drown and the day when I was reunited with my son.
We met outside the only surviving cinema in New York. Nineteen screens reduced to six in less than a decade. Five of the films being shown could be hired from the DVD shop over the road for a fraction of the price. The sixth, which everyone was queuing for, was officially labelled Time Recorder 512. The nickname on the streets and on the blog-sites was Deluge.
None of the previous 511 Time Recorders, not even the first, had generated such publicity. It was a return to the days of big, eagerly anticipated Hollywood blockbusters, with the difference being that this popularity was dictated solely by the prospective audience rather than a corporation’s marketing budget. Even so, I would not normally have bothered watching, but Aidan expressed an interest and my presence in the American States gave us an opportunity to meet. The cinema is still recommended as a sensible place for a first date when you don’t yet know how to talk to your new prospective partner. I took Aidan’s mother to one, shortly after she responded to my repeated requests for more contact. Aidan and I had lots to talk about but neither of us really wanted to confront the past.
I recognised him from his internet photo. He stood outside a poster that showed one of the original Time Recorders, or rods of Baghdad, as they were then called. My colleague, John Chrisholm, had cashed in on the rods with a documentary that charted their history, or the parts of it that we knew about. There was thirty minutes before the movie began so I talked through the highlights of the documentary, not yet available in the American States due to a delayed copyright deal, with Aidan. It was easier than talking about the divorce, the women, and the decade of no contact. A decade in which I had tried to forget his existence, believing that it was the only option.
I explained that the rods of Baghdad were first sighted over that historic city during the war in the early years of this century. We do not know how long this airborne life form had existed, beyond the perception of humanity, until advanced infrared cameras began scanning the skies above Iraq. They detected several of these minute organisms, noting them for the attention of cryptozoologists, whilst concentrating on the search for human enemies and weapons.
Initially it was thought that the rods were insects, to join the sixteen thousand other new species reported each year. In depth examination revealed that this was not the case, as they do not have any recognisable insectoid features. They are sentient creatures, functioning as organic cameras, created by nature or a deity depending on your particular sensitivity. They capture images within their bodies, storing them on a gelatine-like belt that seems to serve no other purpose. It is possible to retrieve the images by dousing the time recorder in a chemical concoction that destroys the host but allows the film to first be converted so it can be shown to people. I had to explain the concept of traditional film photography to Aidan and was pleased that he showed a genuine interest in science.
The vast majority of films produced from the time recorders are both boring and mundane. Events are not recorded continually but follow what appears to be a random pattern. A scene in an Edwardian garden is succeeded by one in a New York burger joint a century later. Some say that there is a connection, that intelligence directs the rods to record specific moments. Unless you are a social or fashion historian, it is difficult to see this.
The incidents captured may once have meant something to the individuals concerned, but in the scheme of human history are insignificant. Nevertheless they have proved surprisingly popular as competition to the myriad scripted dramas churned out by television companies.
It was a cinema chain that first began showing the films from the time recorders. Having lost exclusivity to pirates and DVD merchants, cinema bosses were keen to explore new sources of revenue. The public responded, in large numbers, to the showing of films from the time recorders. Films without scripts or plots. A series of short episodes, unlinked and unabridged.
This unpredictability drew huge crowds to the screen, although few of the films stayed on display for more than a month. Television channels responded by setting time aside to show a time recorders memories. They did not have the copyright to legally repeat anything shown in the cinema, so instead detected their own time recorders, from a variety of locations, and featured them in live broadcasts. At first, advertisers were not keen to support this because they had no control over the content of the programme. If your product is aimed at children, you cannot be associated with a programme that might show images of people having sex. If you sell sugar, you don’t want to be sponsoring a show that shows Africans being shipped in chains to die on the sugar plantations. Aidan found both of these references offensive, or said he did. I apologised and afterwards publicly offered my support to those parents who were taking legal action against the one company unwise enough to use sexual images of children in a marketing campaign. It seemed weird talking to my fourteen year-old son about such topics. I had to keep reminding myself that he was now above the accepted age of consent in Britain and in some of the American States, including the one where he now lived.
Another problem for the advertisers was trying to guess the demographics of the audience. Curiosity, the main motivation for the viewers, is not stereotyped by age or social status. Nor could their reaction to images of death, often graphically depicted, be predicted. However there were, and are, enough bland products out there to generate income for the channels. Translating devices and tourist attractions do particularly well, as do schools and other educational establishments.
A host of internet sites sprang up to comment on the rods, allowing people to speculate on where and when the images came from. Cinemas and television companies did eventually decide to put in subtitles, a major feat considering that some of the languages had not been spoken for centuries. The subtitles eliminated the popular adolescent game of guessing what was happening in the scenes.
Before Time Recorder 512, the earliest recorded scene was thought to be 212BC, giving at least one of the time recorders a life span roughly equivalent to that of the Common Era. The scene which changed that impression was first shown in cinemas on 2 April 2020, just avoiding a day on which it would almost certainly have been dismissed as a hoax. It is the final scene of Time Recorder 512.
The New York cinema, like all others, had declared that no late entrants would be admitted and, so I was told by the obliging robot at the entrance, had increased their usual prices. The advance booking had cost fifty dollars each, although I paid for Aidan, plus a three percent booking fee.
We packed into the auditorium to watch an hour and ten minutes containing six meaningless scenes. Although I knew that they were all from my town of residence, Brighton, England, this familiarity was not enough to alleviate my boredom. In whispers I pointed out landmarks to Aidan. The pier, before it burnt down, was the scene of a Victorian carnival. The pavilion building was home to an aristocrat’s wedding. Bland annoying characters who spoke in strange dialects and seemed less real with the imposition of subtitles across the bottom of the screen. Yet I saw the fascination in the eyes of the audience. For the most part, these were people who had not been taught real history. They had not lived through major conflict and did not dwell in communities with their elders. For them, history was a series of movies about the American States winning all wars without assistance and handsome Vikings drinking incongruous beer from incongruous tankards prior to fighting deformed dragons and deflowering incongruously beautiful women.
Then the farewell wave of an elderly woman with ailing teeth to a steam-train leaving Hove station cut seamlessly to a very different image. A land underwater. It was not the usual type of flood which has become commonplace in Western Europe and elsewhere during the last ten years. No, it was a deluge on a scale unknown in modern history, surpassing the Balkan floods of 2009 and the Queensland tragedies of 2011. The top of the water was perilously close to the position of the time recorder. In all the other footage seen from the time recorders, their height does not vary. Human editors have zoomed in and amplified sound to enhance our understanding of the images. They did not need to do this with the scene in question because of the closeness. The sounds and pictures are exactly as the time recorder saw it.
Actually there was only one sound. The angry roaring of the waves, as they ascended to levels higher than tower blocks, obliterated all other noise. The topmost balconies were occasionally visible below the waterline. Imagine what the people in those high apartments must have thought as they saw the waves rising. Neighbours below had time to climb or run. Above, it was a case of hope alone.
Despite their pre-knowledge of the content, some members of the audience were screaming and I heard one woman make a vomiting sound. I did not find the pictures unduly disturbing, but I have seen many human bodies. Too many. Murder rates quadrupled between 2015 and 2019 with funding for forensic investigators being cut in the same period. Britain had, still has, an overdraft bigger than its GDP to repay.
In the American States, my profession is still treated with respect, especially now that fewer people watch the television programmes that make it appear entertaining and simple. I could not have afforded to attend the conference without sponsorship from the States. That was explained to Aidan later that evening, when we walked from the cinema and across the noisy city towards his apartment. He was not convinced.
“You’re on a great salary,” he pointed out. “You could get a plane anytime.”
I explained that airfares were incredibly expensive, due to taxes, unless booked six months or more in advance. I never had the luxury of forward planning because a case could land on my desk at any time. The dead didn’t wait for holidays. Every second of delay in investigating the scene could make it harder to catch, and execute, the killer responsible. “I never took holidays when I was with your mother,” I protested. Not real ones. Apart from the honeymoon we had only been away together for the odd weekend. Venice, before the bombing. Rome, Warsaw, Copenhagen, and York, twice, where my passion for mediaeval history could be indulged alongside her interest in old-fashioned shopping.
“Not even with the girls you were seeing?” he asked.
I answered honestly in the negative. I tried to tell him about the long hours, which have since increased, and the general desire to relax with a drink and celebrate successes. The combination of alcohol and tiredness invariably produced liaisons between the affected parties. Most go undetected. Mine, thanks to the tenacity of my then wife, were uncovered a few days before our sixth wedding anniversary.
My only regret about ending the relationship was Aidan. She–I cannot bring myself to say the name that once provided my sole motivation in life–wanted to return home immediately. My work could not fit around a child and, without it, I could not support that child.
Those were the facts presented as we meandered along. They must have made an impact because we stopped, at Aidan’s instigation, and purchased a burger for him with extra-large fries and blackcurrant coke. It brought extra time to discuss the normal facets of his life that I had no involvement in. Education, friends, internet browsing. Family activities, but I was not part of his family anymore. Nobody had replaced me. Aidan lived alone with his mother.
I took him to the door of the apartment but never went in.
Two weeks later, when I next found time to access my personal email account, I found a message from Aidan, which contained a link that the computer deemed free from viruses. Clicking on it, I was watching the deluge scene again. Aidan said he hadn’t been able to get it out of his mind.
On the second viewing, I began to understand why people found it so disturbing. At first glance, it is a normal ocean on a summer day. Then you start to see things floating on the waves or, to be more precise, bits of things sinking as the onrushing water conquers all. The wing of a plane wrenched from its owner, soggy cardboard that once formed a box, and long-dead animals, including some that would normally be at home in the sea.
Whole household appliances, such as cookers, refrigerators, and washing machines disappear first. Lighter items such as tables, chairs, and cupboards float for longer. Some people are clinging to the tables and chairs, desperately trying to keep above water. You can see from the blueness of their faces that it is a pointless endeavour. Hundreds, thousands of their compatriots are below them. Lost forever.
The time recorder seems to focus on the face of one man for an inordinately long period, but this is actually just forty-five seconds. I have replayed those forty-five seconds several times, convinced that his dying mouth is trying to form words before a wave separates him from the chair and both are gone. The chair is mediaeval in type. In my indulgent youth I wanted to collect mediaeval furniture, but the divorce and subsequent move to smaller accommodations curtailed that desire.
This chair had the hallmarks of a later replica. Most interestingly, it had indentations made on the back with a modern knife. By freezing and enlarging the image I was able to make out the last three of four letters–I, A, and R–and guess the first.
Greater experts than I who have analysed the footage from this time recorder are unable to match it to any flood in known human history. Nonetheless, all of them dismiss the LIAR carving as being a coincidence, like the famous face on Mars. I have never accepted coincidences.
The generally accepted theory is that the flood seen in Time Recorder 512 occurred long before the modern period. This rewrote history by postulating that an advanced civilisation, with many of the things that we take for granted, roamed the Earth before we did.
People looked back to stories in the Bible and other religious texts from around the world, which told of an epic global deluge. Christianity, widely tipped for extinction by 2030 in the West, has enjoyed a renaissance. The age-old debate between religion and science has been rekindled. Two bishops have even stated that we now have evidence of God punishing people for their sins and linking it to moral decline. They also point out that excavations near Baghdad in 2015 uncovered what may be the Garden of Eden. Talk that the site is cursed has no scientific basis. As for Eden they ask if it is really a coincidence that the rods were found over Baghdad? I suspect that the discovery would have been made over London if that city had been occupied. Now that the increasingly advanced cameras are actively looking for rods they have been captured on, or above, every continent except Australia.
Environmentalists see the deluge as evidence of the need to change our ways and avoid a similar catastrophe. Some bemoan the deaths of the time recorders, referring to them as martyrs. Science, as in the case of the time recorders themselves, has not made an official comment. How can they do so, in the absence of any concrete facts other than the pictures of the flood alongside other historical events?
Whilst it is possible to believe that people before us might have manufactured similar furniture, flown in aeroplanes, and lived in tower blocks, I could not accept that they would write in the same language. My professional training kicked in to analyse not the dead but those who would die in the future.
I read more about the rods and the mystery of the deluge footage, spurred on Aidan’s enthusiasm. Daily he was emailing me with the results of his own research and we compared notes. He seemed to be subscribing to the theory that this last scene had been staged and added to Time Recorder 512 as a publicity stunt. I saw merit in the argument but no evidence to support it. Any director of such a work would step forward to claim credit. Aidan argued that the equipment and the words on the chair were subtle messages. He even started looking for filmmakers whose name contained the letters I, A, and R consecutively.
Then Aidan told his mother and she too watched the film, one of the last people to do so. Even the Burmese, a nation usually barred from watching films that originated in the West, had been allowed to view it. She left a message on my voicemail. I debated not ringing her back before deciding that I wanted to keep Aidan in my life, albeit with the geographical divide. I was also confident that I could not be held responsible, even under laws in the American States, for any psychological damage caused by the film. Aidan’s research was almost certainly affecting his homework, if not his class work.
“It’s that dead man,” she said crisply. “The one it focuses on for so long.”
“I can’t stop Aidan accessing the internet. Nor can you.”
“Look at him more closely,” she said. “And check the furniture storage.”
Then she terminated the call. It took me a few minutes to remember that she had placed some furniture in storage for Aidan, in case he ever returned to Europe. I had to email her for the access code then, armed with this, I took a tram down to the storage depot. The mode of transport made me reflect on the cycle of history. Trams ran for the Edwardians, were dismantled fifty years later, and rebuilt in 2012. Now there is talk of them being removed again as nobody can profit, despite most vehicles being standing room only. Perhaps that is the difficulty. The man selling tickets cannot push his way through like the drowning man cannot push his way out of danger.
At the storage depot, in a field of containers, lay many objects that brought back memories of married life. I walked around them aimlessly, not knowing what I was supposed to be looking for, until my eyes alighted on an incongruous mediaeval chair. There was a note tied to it, attached with a ribbon. It said “To Joe with love on our sixth wedding anniversary.” I immediately identified it as a replica–though she would not have known the difference–and pulled it down to look at the back. The word LIAR had been carved with a knife. I imagined her hacking away, perhaps with a screaming child in the background, before breaking down and running away from the adulterer who had betrayed her.
Four years have passed since that discovery which, for me, rewrote history once again. Either the time recorders can move backwards and forwards in time or they are able to manufacture events. It is even plausible that they deliberately created a provocative film for amusement. After all, humans are destroying their kind. The survivors may be floating through the sky, laughing at our stupidity or even plotting a way in which they could cause the deluge. I still believe the man in the scene was trying to say something and, perhaps, it was intended for me. As a precaution, I have subscribed to one of the many save the rods campaigns.
I have not discussed my feelings with Aidan because the more I look at the man clinging to the chair in the deluge scene, the more I am convinced that he is my son. The eyes are the same as they are now and, in build and appearance, he resembles me at the age of seventeen or eighteen.
Recently, at the age of eighteen, Aidan sent me an email announcing that he is coming to the University of London to study the rods. His preliminary research was considered good enough to earn a scholarship. He wants to stay with me and to collect his furniture.
Except there will be one item missing. I returned to the storage depot, paid the early collection fee, and removed the chair with the intention of throwing it in the sea. However, I was persuaded by the editor to preserve it for scientific analysis and intend to comment on the results of that examination when they become available.
Barnetby Richards is Professor of Forensic Pathology at London Hospital. He was born in Dallas and educated at the New York State University. His television series, CSI Reality, ran for two series and was shortlisted for Best Science Program. He is the author of two acclaimed textbooks and is frequently called upon as an expert witness in legal cases.
Paul Williams is a writer best known for his study of the wolf in England, Howls of Imagination, published by Heart of Albion in 2007. He also wrote The Mystery Animals of Great Britain: Gloucestershire and Worcestershire and has contributed articles to magazines such as BBC History and Ripperologist. 44 of his short stories have been published, including the following contributions to anthologies, “To Kill a Nandi Bear” in Doctor Who Short Trips Past Tense, and “Song Ji and the Wolf” in The Blackness Within.
Justine McGreevy is a slowly recovering perfectionist, writer, and artist. She creates realities to make our own seem slightly less terrifying. Her work can be viewed at http://www.behance.net/Fickle_Muse and you can follow her on Twitter @Fickle_Muse.