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As Time Goes By

by Milena Benini

Rick Blaine penetrated into the cool darkness of his bar, grateful for the escape from the burning, murderous sun outside. Rick’s was practically empty this time of day, the city that sheltered it still asleep.

Rick stood in the entrance for the moment, shifting his gaze slowly from the empty tables to the deserted piano and, on the other side, the bar with its single customer. Sighing with satisfaction, Rick turned his head towards the wall and caught his own reflection in the large square mirror: the black hair, and the long, sad-eyed face. It was somewhat out of character, this self-appreciation, but he just couldn’t resist the temptation. He noticed the slight stoop in his reflection and straightened up, murmuring „Backbone.“

His eyes travelled down to his hands, long-fingered and immaculately clean, protruding from the spotlessly white sleeves of his dinner jacket. Should he be wearing a ring? He wondered for a moment, screwing his eyes up as he tried out several different rings on his right pinkie before rejecting the idea. No ring for Rick.

He took a few steps into the joint, placing people here and there in the corners. When he reached the bar, he leaned against it in a carefully calculated position and added a few more customers. Outside the window night was rapidly gaining in density, bringing with it the murmuring, sing-song noise of life pouring into the streets.

The barman appeared, and so did the piano player. Rick ordered a drink with a careless twiddle of the hand over his shoulder, wondering vaguely what his usual would taste like. It would help if he really knew what the stuff was supposed to be, but he didn’t, so he just trusted his luck, inwardly enjoying the touch of hazard. The man at the piano started a prelude: slow, nostalgic chords entwining and rolling from one tune to another like heavy waves of the sea. His drink arrived. Rick sipped from the glass as he soaked up the busy, softly humming scene around him. The liquid tasted slightly salty and refreshing. He felt it wasn’t quite right but it was too late to change it now and, anyway, it had the muddy grey colour it was supposed to have, and that was what mattered. The sounds of humanity grew stronger around Rick; the music got livelier, there was tension in the air and in the husky French accents of the women. In a few moments, Ilsa Lund would walk into Rick’s and widen her eyes in surprise.

Rick settled more comfortably against the hard wood of the bar (if only he knew what wood felt like – it was so difficult to do good work with so little information) and watched the entrance door, waiting.

Exactly seven hundred years earlier, give or take a few days, a boat had sailed from a Mediterranean port, carrying an angry, resolute man. „I’ll show them,“ he thought, „I’ll show them all! How could she stand if she was flat, they say. Rubbish! I’m not flat, and it doesn’t prevent me from standing, does it? Small minds, small, unimaginative minds! Besides, she isn’t standing anyway, more sort-of floating, and what better form is there to float then round? Tiny idiotic minds! But I’ll show them. How I’ll show them!“

Or maybe it was like this:

Exactly seven hundred years earlier, give or take a few days, a boat had sailed from a Mediterranean port, carrying a frightened, worried man. „And what if I’m wrong?“ he thought. „What if she is flat, after all? Could she be? It makes no sense to me, but then, so many things don’t, in this confused world. So many minds before me, and they didn’t see she’d have to be round. After all, she’s sort-of floating, why shouldn’t she be flat? It’s a good form to float in, flat. Maybe I’m just a stubborn imbecile, and we’ll all die one day, falling off the edge of the world, out into the cold, cold void. I wonder if we could survive that. Falling among the stars.“

Or maybe it was nothing like that at all…

Fifty-two years before that, however it went, typography was invented. It would be forgotten, too, after six hundred years of existence.

Fifty-nine years after typography was invented, a girl of twenty-two married for the second time. Her husband was king, just like the first one, who had married her in her fourteenth year. She would be forgotten much sooner than typography.

Six hundred and one year after Anne of Brittany’s second marriage, the door to Rick’s was wide open, allowing the people to go in and out. The light inside the bar rendered their rich, weird clothes and absurd hairstyles in high relief. Rick was watching the crowd with inquisitive eyes. The rich textures were nicely done, letting one almost taste the careless luxury they were supposed to imply, but something was slightly wrong. The greyness, probably. There are only so many shades of grey, and he was slowly growing tired of all of them, no matter how much he diversified. Maybe if he added just a little colour…

He tried it, tentatively, a touch of pink in a rich gown, a sparkle of emerald in a pair of eyes, a sprinkle of red in a high coiffure. But no, it didn’t work. It didn’t ring true. Kill the colour.

Maybe a small change in the lighting? He dimmed them, and was rather satisfied with the result. Half shaded, the silhouettes somehow gained fullness, volume, reality. No, reality was not the word. What he was aiming to do certainly had nothing to do with reality. But the figures were more convincing now. Of course, he realised with a satisfied smile, because this was just a sketch, the faces were all more or less alike; he hadn’t bothered to work on each of them separately, so all the men seemed like brothers and all the women like sisters. And now, in the dimmed lights, it wasn’t so obvious. That was it.

OK, keep the lights low, when all’s finished we can brighten them. He needed to believe, to feel at ease in the reality surrounding him. Low lights. It went better with the atmosphere anyway. And maybe just a touch more luminescence at the entrance, so that he could see Ilsa when she appeared. It had to be special, he had to see her from across the entire bar before he could move into slow-mo. Move that girl a little to the right, she’s blocking my view. That’s right, stay there. Light’s fine. Let’s have some music. What was that song again? Well, never mind. Just play anything, Sam, it’ll do for the moment, as long as it’s slow. Right. Ilsa, let’s go. Now.

Three thousand four hundred and fifty-eight years earlier, give or take a few days, a tall, thin-faced man raged through his majestic palace. „It has to be done!“ he shouted, riding his just indignation to the full. „And because I, son of the God, say so, it will be done! And let all who try to oppose me taste the anger of the only true god!“ Still angry, he caught a glimpse of his wife, and a smile spread over his lips.

„And what do you say, my love?“ he asked. „Do you, too, think me crazy for trying to make those idiots see reason?“

The woman smiled tenderly and caught her husband’s arm. „I think what you think, my beloved. I always will.“

Or maybe it was like this:

Three thousand four hundred and-fifty-eight years earlier, give or take a few days, a tall, thin-faced man paced worriedly through his majestic palace. „If they dare oppose me, surely the only true god will shut their foul mouths in his glorious rage,“ he murmured to himself, trying to stifle the fears welling up inside him. „But then, what if he is not the one and the only god? What if the whole pantheon of outraged divinities is waiting for the right time to pour vengeance on my poorly protected head? And, more important, what if the whole country suffers for what I’m doing? Oh God, if you would only help me, if you would only show me the way!“

Still worried, the man caught a glimpse of his wife, and a deeper sadness crept into his eyes. If she would only understand, if she would only give him her support. A smile, even an understanding glance would be enough. But no, the most beautiful woman in the world was his in body and in duty, but not in her heart. He didn’t even dare speak to her, but instead passed her with a stiff nod, which she didn’t deign to answer.

Or maybe it was nothing like that at all…

One way or another, he would be forgotten soon. His wife would still be a symbol of beauty when, one thousand and thirty-four years later, their mighty empire falls by the hands of a twenty-four-year old man who would die nine years later. Her head would be representative of perfection when, one thousand three hundred and twenty-four years after her husband’s death, another queen of the same country takes her own life with the poisonous bite of a snake, without ever revealing whether she had truly loved both men in her life, or just one of them, or neither. Her profile would still be a portrait of the ideal when, one thousand nine hundred and sixty-six years later, a third woman dies as a result of her revolutionary experiments, thirty years after her husband was killed in a freak traffic accident.

One hundred and fifty-six years after Marie Curie’s death, Ilsa Lund walked into Rick’s, accompanied by her husband. She stopped in the door, looking around her with a mild, lady-like curiosity, and Rick’s breath stopped.

She was beautiful, as beautiful as he had hoped she’d be, and more. Her hair fell over her shoulders in soft, shiny waves, the stern of her clothes revealing womanly curves below the material. Her eyes had a shiny, dazzling quality, which made Rick dim the lights some more, so that he could enjoy the tiny stars more clearly.

He moved into slow-mo almost reluctantly (maybe a still was a better solution) and started to get up. It was a bit of a strain, moving in slow motion, but the result was well worth the effort: Ilsa became aware of the movement and turned to look at him. The hair framing her face was like a halo of platinum, like the tide of the ocean, like early morning mist. The surprise that slowly came to her face made it even more beautiful than it had been before. Yes, yes, yes! Rick almost shouted out loud. That was it, that was de-fi-ni-tive-ly it: the perfection, the sublime, an almost unattainable peak of the art. Yes!

Regaining control of himself, Rick relaxed and pressed rewind. He had to do it again.

One thousand and twenty-six years earlier, give or take a few days, a decisive man in the prime of his life let out a content, fierce shout. The shore of promise was coming into view, a shore where he would finally stop being the Bastard and become the Conqueror. He could scarcely control the rush of blood through his veins. The land that was his by right would soon be under his thumb, he had no doubts about that. He was well-equipped, he had the will, the strength, and the wit to show those peasants what he could do to their stupid pride. The sound of battle already ringing in his ears, he gave orders to disembark, the hand on his sword-hilt itching to draw the weapon and use it.

Or maybe it was like this:

One thousand and twenty-six years earlier, give or take a few days, a tired man past his youth lifted his head to the shouts of land. At last the shore was coming into sight, or at least for him. He had been the Bastard long enough, and had ventured to this land more out of despair than with any firm claim. But now, with his last chance so close, he was forced to control the fear that had started creeping through the numbing tiredness. The land was his by right, or at least you could see it that way if you bent the truth a little, but now he would have to fight for it. And what the outcome of that fight would be, he had no idea. He was as well equipped as he could afford, and could only hope there would be confusion and hesitance on the other side. If there wasn’t… he didn’t even want to think about that. When the captain asked him if he should give orders to disembark, the man nodded with little enthusiasm, wondering where he had left his sword.

Or maybe it was nothing like that at all…

Thirteen years later, in the land from which the man had come, a boy would be born. Despite the reforms he would fight for, he would become a symbol of love lost and not of reformation.

One hundred and twenty years later, a king would die who would be long remembered as great warrior and, through historical misinterpretation, a paragon of a just and mild sovereign. The king would have reigned for ten years, but spend only six months of that time in his own country. In the meantime, he would wage a cruel and aggressive war elsewhere, executing civilians and using every conceivable trick to win the day. His love life would hardly ever be mentioned, though he could well have been a symbol of hardship and courage, being a homosexual when unnatural sin was the mildest word for it.

Four hundred and fifty-seven years earlier, another king was born. He was the greatest king of his time, the maker of a great empire, a Mecena of arts and sciences, and the founder of the chivalric code- in the name of which that other king would later burn cities – and also, for all practical purposes, the inventor of school. He would himself die illiterate.

One thousand three hundred and fifty years after the birth of Charlemagne, another Charles took off his virtuality helmet and lit a real cigarette.

„Finished?“ asked Christopher. Charles nodded with satisfaction.

„It’s perfect,“ he said. „Wonderful. Incredible. And considering the tiny amount of material you produced, quite miraculous. But it was worth the effort. All set for you now.“

„Great,“ said Christopher, fitting the helmet onto his slightly smaller head. „When you hear what I want to do with the soundtrack, you won’t be able to tear yourself away from it.“

„By the way,“ Charles knocked on the helmet, making Christopher remove it, „you never told me: what happened to them in the original?“

Christopher shrugged.

„I don’t know. You’ve seen everything I could find. The rest was destroyed.“

„Well, I was thinking of making them run away together, or run the joint as a couple. What do you think?“

„You should put in a sad possibility, too. You know how people love sad endings.“

„Yes, you’ve got a point there. And then it would be a pity not to use that, ‚we’ll always have Paris‘ line, and it doesn’t fit with any of the happy endings. Yes. Probably the husband will kill them. People like virtual death.“

„Well, you think of something. I just want to do the soundtrack.“

Replacing the helmet, Christopher turned a few buttons, then pushed his hands into the gloves.

One hundred and fifty years earlier, Michael Curtiz said, „Roll,“ and the music began to fill the set. The song was called, As Time Goes By.

Featuring (in order of appearance):

Humphrey Bogart ……………. Rick Blaine (1942/2092)

Christopher Columbus …………….. as himself (1492)

Anne of Brittany ………………… as herself (1499)

Dooley Wilson …………………….. Sam (1942/2092)

Amenophis IV …………………. as himself (1366 BC)

Nefretiti ……………………. as herself (1366 BC)

Alexander the Great …………… as himself (332 BC)

Cleopatra ……………………… as herself (30 AD)

Marie Curie …………………….. as herself (1936)

Ingrid Bergman ………………. Ilsa Lund (1942/2092)

William the Conqueror ……………. as himself (1066)

Abelard ………………………… as himself (1079)

Richard the Lionheart ……………. as himself (1199)

Charlemagne ……………………… as himself (742)

Michael Curtiz ………………….. as himself (1942)

Copyright © by Milena Benini

Milena Benini, one of the best-known science fiction professionals in Croatia, was born in Zagreb, where she still lives. She holds a B.Litt. from St.George University, Oxford. She is a writer and a translator, and she also dabbles in other things, such as illustration, design, and whatever else appeals to her at a given moment. Apart from this she is editor-in-chief of Croatian Weekly Economic Bulletin. In 2005 her story collection Jednorog i djevica was published.

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