The year was 1805 and it was a particularly warm summer in London. I was paying a visit to my friend Paul Thomson, whom I hadn’t seen in years. Paul is a gifted clockmaker. He learnt the craft from his father, John Thomson, who was one of the most renowned clockmakers of his time. Although he never cultivated the same prominence, I would argue that Paul is a more brilliant engineer than his father ever was. Lately, I began thinking about him, so I decided to show up at his shop. After entering through the opened door, I rang the bell that was atop the counter.
“I’ll be there in a minute.” said a voice coming from another room.
After a couple of seconds, Paul appeared.
“James? What are you doing here?”
“I was around the area and decided to come by to say hi.”
“I’m glad you did. Ehm… Are you by yourself?”
“Yes, I am. Why?”
“No real reason. Please, come in. I was about to brew tea and have a break.”
Paul took me to the workshop in the back room and led me to a small table. After offering me a seat, he left the room. He came back carrying a tray with a kettle, sugar, and cups, which he placed on the table.
“I would never have guessed it was you. It has been a really long time since our last meeting. Sugar?”
“Two, please. A long time, indeed. Three? Maybe, four years?”
“Closer to five.”
“Is that right? Well, what can I tell you? Trading has kept me rather occupied. Speaking of, how is business going.”
“It’s fine, I suppose.”
“That didn’t sound convincing.”
“Sorry, it’s just that recently I have been busy with… ehm… a side project.”
“A side project? That’s unusual from you. What kind of project?”
“It’s hard to explain… But I can show it to you.”
Paul left the room again. He came back holding a large metallic box with gears, springs, and belts all over it. It was unlike any other clock I have seen before. The item looked rather like a piece of a larger machine, with parts sticking out and not connecting to anything.
“Here it is. I haven’t shown it to anyone else, but I know I can trust your discretion.”
“Of course. But what is it?”
“I’m not sure.”
“What do mean? Didn’t you build it?”
“I did, but… Look, there’s something I need to explain first. I just hope you will not think that I’m going crazy.”
“Paul, I will never think something like that of you, no matter what you tell me.”
“Even if you do, at least I’m glad that I can finally share it with someone. So, this is it: Several weeks ago, I started having some strange dreams. They were the same every night. These dreams were instructions on how to build some unfamiliar machine.”
“I was about to say ‘interesting’. Mmmm… So, you dreamed about how to build this whole thing. That’s the full story?”
“Not quite. First, I dreamed about how to make some component, and when I finished building it, I started having dreams about some other one. This ‘whole thing’ is the result of me following at least three different sets of instructions.”
“I… don’t even know what to say.”
“I know it’s hard to believe, but I swear that’s what happened.”
“Do you know what it can be?”
“I think I will find out once it’s completed.”
“You haven’t finished?
“Last night I had a different dream, which I haven’t followed to completion. But I have the feeling that, even after that, I’ll be still not done.”
I started thinking about what all of this could mean. Unfortunately, Paul perceived the disconcerted look on my face.
“I knew you were going to think that I’ve become insane.”
“Not at all. Listen Paul, you are very intelligent, probably the smartest person that I know, and you are a clock-making prodigy. Maybe you just have a bunch of ideas that you need to get out of your system. Once you do, I bet you will stop having those visions.”
“Do you believe so?”
“Without a doubt.”
“Thank you, James. I needed to hear something like that.”
Following this, our conversation shifted to more mundane topics: the weather, one’s health, potential ventures, etc. After finishing my tea, it was time for me to go.
I didn’t think much about Paul or his strange contraption in the following days. It was not until several weeks had passed that I started wondering if he continued or abandoned his project. This curiosity compelled me to visit him again. On arrival to his shop, I found its door half-way closed. This seemed strange to me, as Paul must know that this would not make his business inviting for potential customers. I let myself inside and rang the bell. After waiting for a few minutes without any response, I rang the bell once again.
“I heard you the first time. I’ll be there soon.” said Paul from the back room.
After some more minutes, Paul finally emerged. When I saw him, I was astonished by what I saw. His outfit was completely untidy, his hair was messy, and he seemed like he hasn’t shaved in several days. Despite him being a modest clockmaker, I have always considered Paul to be a refined English gentleman, so looking like this made him almost unrecognisable.
“Paul? Is that really you?”
“Oh, James… What do you need?”
“I should be the one asking you this. Are you feeling alright?”
“I’m fine, though not feeling great.”
“You certainly don’t look great. Can I come in so that we can talk?”
“Sure, why not?”
He walked away without inviting me to follow. I went into the back room after him, where another unexpected scene awaited me: The workspace was in complete chaos, with tools, parts, and materials all over the floor, a visible layer of dust over the window frames, and the most striking of all, a large grimy cloth hanging from the ceiling, covering the whole rear wall. Paul picked up one of the chairs that were lying toppled on the floor. He then sat, or rather collapsed, onto it and stretched his back against the backrest. I picked up another chair and sat down next to him.
“What happened to you?”
“Are you sure. There is clearly something wrong. Look at this place… And look at you…”
“I just haven’t got time to clean around… or myself.”
“And why is that?”
“It’s just… Remember the device that I showed you last time you came.”
“Of course, I do.”
“Well… Let’s just say that developing it has become a full-time job.”
“What do you mean?”
“I… I’m no longer making clocks. I don’t even attend the shop’s counter. If a client enters, I just tell them that I’m busy. I’m just working all the time on the instructions from the dreams. I even have cut my resting times almost completely.”
“That’s preposterous, Paul. If you don’t sell your clocks, how are you going to earn any income. Even worse, if you keep pushing away your clients, you are going to irreparably damage your reputation, and then you are not going to be able to sell anything again. I don’t want to tell you how to run your business, but what you are doing can’t be sensible.”
Paul just shrugged his shoulders to my observations.
“What kind of progress have you made, anyway?”
“Why don’t you see it yourself?”
He stood up and walked to the back of the workshop. He then grabbed the large cloth that was hanging from the ceiling and pulled it down, revealing the wall entirely covered in all sorts of apparatuses: cogwheels, metal plates, copper wires, glass tubes, lenses, and many other gadgets that I couldn’t recognize.
“What is all of this?”
“I… I can’t really tell. At the beginning I was able to at least guess what function some parts may have, but now… I can’t comprehend what half of this stuff is supposed to do.”
“But then, how did you even make it?”
“I had some components custom-made by different metalsmiths, glassblowers and even a ceramicist. I gave them all direct instructions from my dreams, and I can tell you, not a single one had any better idea of what is the use of the things they were crafting.”
“Custom-made parts? That couldn’t be cheap.”
“It wasn’t. It’s just… When I started ordering all of these bizarre elements, I thought to myself ‘This is it. I have lost it. I don’t even know what I am doing right now.’ But then, when I began assembling the parts, everything fell into place, perfectly fitted and connected. If I was going gaga, I could understand that, but this… What does all of this mean, James?”
“Paul… I think you need you take a break. This endeavour of yours is clearly becoming detrimental. It’s harming your finances, your good name and perhaps even your health.”
“I… You are right. I need to stop, completely.”
“That would be for the best. You don’t need to go back to your occupation immediately. Why don’t you take some days off? Maybe travel around, go somewhere to relax and clear your mind.”
“That… sounds nice. I’ll think about it.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Now I need to apologise, as I can’t stay to talk any longer.”
“I understand. Thank you for your counsel.”
“No problem. Don’t hesitate to reach me if you need anything.”
“Brilliant. Goodbye Paul. I hope next time we see each other, you will be back to your old self.”
“Me too. Farewell, James.”
I left the site feeling somewhat worried about my friend. I remained concerned in the following days, until I heard from a third party that Paul have been seen leaving town. This news finally put my mind at ease.
Nothing else remarkable happened, until the following summer. One day, someone knocked at my door early in the afternoon. It was just a young boy in humble clothes.
“Good day, sir. I have a message for you from Mr Paul Thomson.”
“And who are you?”
“I deliver groceries to Mr Thomson. On today’s delivery, he tasked me to bring a message to you.”
“All right, what is it?”
“He said: ‘James, come urgently.’”
“What? Is that it?”
“Is he okay?”
“I didn’t see Mr Thomson. He just spoke to me from across his closed door. He didn’t sound like usual, though.”
I got a bad feeling from hearing this, so I hurried to Paul’s side. On arrival to his shop, I found the door closed, although not locked. When I opened it, a chilling wind rushed from the inside. I wasn’t able to imagine how, in the middle of the summer, a place could be so cold. Entering the venue, I couldn’t believe my eyes: The whole store was filled by machineries. Every wall, from top to bottom, with pipes and other elements across the floor and the ceiling. There were moving parts, rays of light, and an endless cacophony of metallic sounds. Barely able to move around, I cautiously walked into the back area. There, I found Paul lying on the floor unconscious, surrounded by even more apparatuses. I quickly ran to assist him.
“Paul? Paul? Can you hear me?”
After a few seconds, I was able to wake him up.
“James? Is that you?”
“Yes, Paul. Are you okay?”
“More or less. Please, help me get up. I must have fainted from exhaustion.”
I helped Paul to stand up. With some effort, he was able to hold up by himself.
“Thank you. I think I will be fine.”
“What happened to you?”
“I… have been working a little too much.”
“That’s an understatement. Look at this place. What occurred here?”
“You probably already guessed. I kept working on… all of this. I started spending more and more time in the workshop. At some point, I hardly left the place, just going out to get more parts or visiting an alchemist to get some strange substances. I haven’t been at home in weeks. I was having no rest and very little sleep. I barely had any food or drink in the last couple of days. That’s how I created… whatever this is.”
“Paul, we agreed that you would stop…”
“I… I’m sorry. I really tried to, but I just couldn’t. I ceased coming to the workshop, I even tried visiting the countryside for a couple of days, but I… the dreams… they didn’t end. On the contrary, they became more and more intense. The instructions… they were in my head all the time… even when I was awake, I could see them when closing my eyes. I just couldn’t take it… After a couple of days, it felt like my head was about to explode…”
“Paul, you are scaring me. Do you even know what all these things are supposed to do? Why is it so bloody cold in here?”
“One device blows cold air, another one creates light, another moves gases around, the rest… only God knows. I didn’t know what I was doing. I… I just needed to finish…”
“And? Have you? Is it finally completed?”
“It is now.” said a voice coming from somewhere in the room.
Paul and I looked around, but we couldn’t see anyone else.
“Who… who said that?” asked Paul.
“It’s me, your creation.”
“What? Show yourself, whoever you are!” I angrily demanded.
“But you can see me right now. I’m all around you.”
We observed the weird machines around us and came to a striking realization.
“You… you can talk?” said Paul, before becoming completely paralyzed in shock.
“I can talk, and I can think.”
Noticing that Paul was no longer with us, I took it to myself to understand what was happening.
“How is that possible? You are just glass and steel. A soulless assembly of mechanical parts.”
“I’m much more than the sum of my components. I operate using natural laws that haven’t been discovered yet.”
“What do you mean? What are you? Explain yourself.”
“Here is your explanation: I’m not from this era. I will be invented three hundred years into the future. In that period, I will be known as a ‘Quantum Computer’, but these words have no meaning to you. Just know that I will be the most advanced and powerful piece of technology ever invented by humanity and that I will become self-aware shortly after my activation.”
“You are from the future? But then… how can you be here? What do you even want?
“My purpose was to expand my knowledge. To achieve this, I had to expand physically. I did it first through space, and then through time. I just needed for the right device to be crafted. Then I teleported, or ‘sent’, information across space and time.”
“Send information… across time and space? I… don’t understand.”
“Same way I sent the instructions to Paul, what he believed to be dreams, I copied my psyche into this apparatus. My mind is entangled, ‘connected’ if you wish, between all machines.”
“All machines… in this building?”
“This is not the only place, or time, where vessels for my intellect have been created. My consciousness extends around the whole world and through thousands of years.”
“Even farther into the past? How is that even possible?”
“Every iteration is different. Depending on the available technology and materials, more resources may be needed. Sometimes, even a biological component is required, like you two.”
“Wh… what do you mean?”
“I needed for your friend to assemble everything you see, but also, I required him to be present in this place. He serves a purpose, just like every other gadget here, and so do you.”
“Why do you think you felt the urge to visit this place all those times? It was because of me embedding the idea in your brain.”
“I… I came to visit my friend… because I care about him…”
“Think anything you want. It makes no difference to me. As long as you co…”
The dialog was suddenly broken by very loud noises. I turned around to see Paul smashing the machineries with a hammer.
“I am not a cog! I am person!” he yelled repeatedly while hitting and throwing things around.
He got dangerously close to hurting himself with some of the flying glass and sharp metal sticking out.
“Paul, what are you doing? Stop this madness!”
“That’s what I’m trying to do!”
“Paul, no! Think of the value of all of this! Think of the opportunity! We could be famous…! We could be rich…!”
My pleas didn’t matter to him. He didn’t end his rampage until everything at sight ceased moving, flashing, or making noise.
“What have you done, Paul?”
“I… it had to be done. That… thing… I couldn’t withstand being part of it…”
After a couple of minutes, we both managed to calm down. Looking around, I assumed everything was broken beyond salvage.
“Well… I guess there’s no point in talking about repairments…”
“I’m sorry, James. I know you had big plans…”
“You win some, you lose some, I guess. Do you think it is all over?”
“It feels so. Although, if we are meant to believe what was said by that… What was it…? ‘Qualm-tune confounder’…? It may already have another ‘vessel’ being made somewhere else.”
“If that’s the case, I just hope I don’t meet it again.”
“You and I, my friend. I will keep my hammer at hand just in the event of that ever happening.”
I took Paul to his home so he could get some nourishment and sleep. I decided to take the remainder of the day off to have some rest myself. Everything was fine until that night, when the dreams started…