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Rewritten

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When I failed my field exam the second time, I decided to give in and visit Weird Paul.

Every university department has a Weird Paul (or Paula), whether it's a grad student serving ten years to life, or a faculty member who's been tucked away in some obscure corner for decades. The Weird Pauls of academia have somehow fallen off the conventional path, yet possess experience and arcane knowledge valuable to those of us still on the road to advancement. Or those of us hoping to get on that road.

I gently tapped on his office door, wincing at the sign which read, “How May I Pity You Today?”

“Enter and lament,” intoned a voice from within.

Yeah. We don't call him Weird Paul for nothing. I took a deep breath and pushed the door open. “I need some help.”

“Let me guess. The field exam is kicking your ass? That's common enough: most students can handle the written part of quals, but the field exam's a killer. Literally. Close the door, Mike, and have a seat. Who are you trying to assassinate?”

“Hitler,” I said.

“Aren't you all,” he replied. “I meant: who are you supposed to be killing now, to get rid of Hitler?”

“Adolphe Sax.” I wished, for the hundredth time, that I'd been assigned to someone else. History is nonlinear and Adjusters sometimes have to make hard choices, killing a handful to spare millions, but seriously? The worst thing Sax had ever done was come up with the saxophone. Maybe I was failing because I didn't really want him dead.

“Oh, that one,” said Weird Paul.

“What do you mean, 'Oh, that one'? Has someone else tried to bump him off?”

“You tell me,” he said, bringing up a file on his computer. “Adolphe Sax. Invented the saxophone at the age of twenty-nine. Nearly died from drinking tainted wine when he was twenty-three. Struck in the head by a falling brick at nineteen. Contracted measles and was in a coma for nine days when he was eleven. Fell off a cliff when he was nine. At six, he drank boric acid by mistake; at two, he fell out of a second-story window and fractured his skull. How many of those attempts were yours?”

“The brick and the wine. Surely you don't think I tried to push a toddler out a window!”

“Someone did,” he said, looking me expectantly. Paul never out-and-out tells you when you're being stupid, or even what you're being stupid about; he just stares at you and waits.

And then it hit me. “This is a test. A qualifying exam. Is Adolphe Sax even real?”

“Are saxophones real?”

“Well, yes, but… well, I think so, but...”

And that's the problem with specializing in Adjustment. Once you truly understand that history can be altered, you never stop wondering what's real and what's been edited to meet someone's expectations. In the history I knew, Adolphe Sax was a blameless individual who'd developed a variety of musical instruments, but the history of two months ago might have had him down as a bricklayer. Or a world-disrupting sociopath. Or no one at all.

I voiced the question I try to avoid even thinking, the one that haunts me in the middle of the night. “How do I know what's real?”

“You work it out by looking at what's not… original.”

“But no one's taught us how to do that! There aren't even any articles about it!” I protested.

“And that would be because…?”

“It can't be done?” I guessed.

Paul rolled his eyes. “Name the categories of storyteller.”

Baby stuff. I must have really said something dumb, if he was making me regurgitate material every freshman knows. I said, “Storytelling talents vary in nature and degree. At the bottom of the ladder are Fibbers, people whose inventions are relatively concrete and amateurish. Everyone lies, but a storyteller can convince most people that his lies are truth. The next rung up is occupied by Professional Fibbers, such as con artists, pundits, and politicians, whose lies tend to be more involved and convincing. Above that are Creators, storytellers who invent worlds and characters so vivid that others wish or believe they're real. There are many different grades of creator, according to how solid their illusory worlds are and how long they persist.”

“And Adjusters?”

I sighed. “At minimum, Adjusters must possess the lowest degree of Professional Fibber skill, for their own personal safety while on assignment. Using time travel and statistical projections, they alter the course of history, sometimes through assassination. Or not, in the case of Adolphe Sax.”

“And in the days before time travel?”

“Nothing ever changed, I guess. People sat around listening to saxophones.” An odd thought occurred to me. “Wait—you don't actually believe in Weavers, do you?”

He shrugged.

Weavers are mythical, nothing more than a bedtime story Nana used to tell me. They're supposed to be the ultimate storytellers, able to rearrange the threads of history without using time travel. Imagine being able to change the outcome of World War II without ever leaving your couch.

But what if they weren't a myth? I'd asked Paul how I could know what was real, and he'd led me the long way around to an answer of sorts. “Some stories say there are two types of Weavers—Sifters and Menders,” I said tentatively.

“And?”

“Menders can actually change reality but Sifters... Sifters can read historical accounts and know what's true and what isn't. Someone who could do that would be a natural for… projections,” I said, looking at Weird Paul and actually seeing him for the first time. His specialty was projections, a subject most Adjusters find nightmarish. I'd survived the introductory course in Projection Analysis required for all Adjustment students, but had spent the whole semester feeling I was pushing the symbols around without really understanding anything.

“I believe you'll find that all Weavers have some degree of Sifting ability, but some are unable to Mend,” he said, as if we weren't talking about something completely crazy. Then again, who was I to decide what crazy was? I'd spent the last month trying to kill the guy who invented the saxophone. "Getting back to the question, why don't we teach students how to tell what is and isn't real?”

“Because you can't,” I said, despairing. “It can't be taught.”

“But it can be cultivated. Think back,” Paul said. “Was there anything unusual about your assassination attempts?”

“Abject failure,” I said. “Is that unusual?” He frowned at me, so I closed my eyes, trying to remember all the details of my field exams. “No… except… it didn't smell right.”

“In what way?”

“Every time I was near Sax… every time I got close enough to see him… I could smell cinnamon,” I admitted. “Like someone was baking. But what does it mean?”

“All Weavers have a tell-tale signature—a smell, a sound, a sensation—that can be used to identify their work. It's not something they do voluntarily, which makes it a useful clue from time to time. In this case, it means that Sax's timeline has been sealed, making it impossible for a student to actually kill him, which is why he's a great target for testing would-be Adjusters.”

“You did this? You set it up?”

"Of course not,” he said, grinning. “I couldn't change so much as the color of the shirt I wore yesterday, but I've gotta admit I get a kick out of watching students believe we can get rid of Hitler by offing the guy who invented the saxophone.”

Which meant he must be a Sifter, or I was crazy, or maybe both. Either way, I was doomed to flunk again.

"How was his timeline sealed? And why?  Because of the saxophone?" I asked, hoping I could somehow undo it or work around it.

He smiled at me cryptically. "Not the saxophone. Sax also worked on putting valves into bugles."

"Bugles?!"

"Armies used to use them for signaling. I'll show you the calculations if you pass your quals."

“So what am I supposed to do? What's the point of this test? To see whether I'm desperate enough to throw a toddler out of a window? To watch me fail? They'll kick me out if I can't do this.”

“There's a way to pass this test,” Paul said, “and you already have the ability.”

I tried to dig a more detailed response out of him, but he just smiled and refused to answer.

 

I spent the next week scrabbling for a solution. By the morning of my third and final attempt at passing the field exam, I was pretty sure I had one. This time, instead of targeting Adolphe Sax, I was following his father as a young man. As I'd expected, every time I drew near Charles Joseph Sax, I caught a faint aroma of cinnamon. I spent the day shadowing him all over the city, and verified that I only smelled cinnamon when he was near, no matter where we were. By sunset, I was as ready as I'd ever be. I pressed the rendezvous transmitter and crossed my fingers.

The Examination Committee was waiting for me in the Transfer Room: Dr. Reese, the self-appointed gatekeeper of who was and wasn't worthy of Adjuster status, Dr. Papadopoulous, who seemed too nice to have ever been a time-travelling assassin, and Dr. Hill, our frail-looking department chair.

“Well?” said Dr. Reese. Clearly, he was gleefully anticipating another report of failure.

“I did it!” I exclaimed joyfully. “No more Bertrand De Pres.”

“Who?” said Dr. Papadopoulus. “You were supposed to eliminate Adolphe Sax.”

“No,” I said. “I had Bertrand De Pres. Ancestor of a young woman who spurned Hitler's advances in Vienna in 1912.” I used every ounce of my might to project the belief that I'd been sent to assassinate Bertrand de Pres, who'd died in a street accident I wasn't responsible for. At minimum, adjusters must possess the lowest degree of Professional Fibber skill, I thought with satisfaction. I'd failed at killing Sax, but I was a first-rate liar. Hopefully, I was better at it than the Examination Committee. If not, I was toast.

There was a brief hesitation, then Reese and Papadopoulous nodded in agreement. Only Dr. Hill looked skeptical, but she said, “Congratulations, Mr. Tuttle. You've done well.”

Reese and Papadopoulous left the room after congratulating me, but Hill stayed behind. She stared at the Transport tech until he shuffled off awkwardly, leaving us alone. “The others don't know, and there's no need to inform them,” she told me quietly.

“They don't know?”

“That you've deceived them. Although they don't know it, I always select an Examination Committee that's not too… challenging.”

“And if I'd failed again?” I asked.

“All three of you would have left this room believing you'd passed the examination. Only I would have known the difference. You'll continue with your training as an Adjuster, of course. You'll find that making alterations the mundane way is far less damaging to one's health. Dr. Kettridge and I will be your advisors and see that you receive special tutoring to fully develop your potential.”

Dr. Kettridge was Weird Paul. “Then I…” I began, but closed my mouth before I could make a fool of myself.

“Might take my place in ten years' time,” she finished. “My health is not what it once was. Again, congratulations.” She shook my hand, and departed.

I lifted my right hand to my nose, and could detect, just barely, the odor of cinnamon.