Rome, 15 September 1635
I found Johannes in the bed where I had left him, in my quarters. At least he was awake now. He must have been making these – what were they – journeys? These journeys, every day, in church, by himself. I’d never seen him quite as exhausted as this though. Perhaps his second ability required more energy from him – to see was bad enough, to show, worse. He mentioned three abilities – I wondered what the last one was, and what it would do to him to use it.
I held his hand, but we went nowhere this time, we just talked into the night.
I lay talking to this young priest, this boy-man and started to tell him everything. He reminded me of the son I’d lost, or rather the man he could have been, the man that I had seen… once… forever lost…
Can I trust you Pietro? Are you really strong enough for this? Who else is there?
When I first began to see, many years after the visit, it truly was a gift. I could use the ability to predict with accuracy, and could enrich myself and protect the ones I loved. But slowly I began to realise there were connections between the things I saw and what I changed, and understand how complex they were. I would interfere in something, and the future would be changed, sometimes with unexpected consequence. And although at times I felt powerful, it became clear that there were other agents and effects in force – it was not enough for me to do or not do something. The future was always fluid, changing because of things beyond my influence, and yet, there were some events that seemed to be constant. I could not influence these, no matter what I did.
I made some terrible mistakes, which only seemed to make things worse. When I saw what the war would bring, I tried to run, to hide my family, to avoid the horror that I saw. But each step I took just made it more inevitable, until the day came that I was no longer seeing the future, but living in the present, burying my wife, my son and my daughter. I got angry and cursed God or whoever had given me this power, this pain, this millstone around my neck. I had failed to protect my family with my power, so I decided to avenge them.
One by one I tracked them down and one by one I killed them. My success on the battlefields earned me the loyalty of many men, and we brought the flame and the noose to these heretics that had taken from me. Bílá Hora. We made them pay. Even that was not enough. Of course, I never found a peace in this, and when it came to the last village and I was holding that boy… I saw…
He would grow up, bitter and twisted like me, swearing revenge. But he was young, he would have his own family, the war would subside and eventually a lasting peace be reached between Protestant and Catholic. And his family would go on, and on. Generation after generation. Good people. Bad people. Hundreds of descendants in the end, none of whom would exist if I used the knife. So I was minded to let him live… but I kept going forward… it did not take so much from me back then. Now each journey is a little harder than the last.
I saw war once again. Bigger wars, with fire and machines. His descendants, living, dying, killing and being killed. And one man, one man, who touched the life of another and another… it was horrible. Millions. They could not breathe. Their bodies, burnt in ovens, others obliterated in the flash of hellfire rained down from the sky. War machines of such power… I did not understand what I saw. But I knew this boy’s death, this innocent boy, could prevent what I had seen. I could see the chain of connections. I had the power to break it.
I looked at him, terrified of me. This was how my son died, by the knife. I knew. I could not do it, even though by sparing him, I condemned millions. I could not.
I could not kill any more. I could not take another soul. I could not. I gave up my arms, and I longed for death, a release from my curse. But death never came, and I was too weak to bring it to myself.
Even in my sleep, I would journey. Further and further. Was God forcing me to see something? What? The futility of my existence – knowing what would happen, being powerless to stop it.
I tried again. Small things. I would make small differences to people’s lives, and for a while this would bring me some comfort, but the darkness was never far away. Still I journeyed, until I saw the end.
A thousand years from now. Something – a rock – comes from the heavens. It lands in Rome, but the impact… everyone dies. I have seen it many, many times. Always different. I have seen different religions in the Pantheon, some await their fate with calm, some even welcome it, but mostly there is pandemonium. The power of the rock rips the world apart before it hits the ground. Everyone dies. And there is nothing I can do to stop it.
Maybe Pietro can show me something I have not seen before? Maybe hope. I long gave up on God, perhaps Pietro can bring Him back. I must try. It will cost me. My body is weak. Each journey destroys it more. Showing costs much more. Pietro was the first I have shown. I do not know how many times I can do this again. If it all fails, I must save some of myself, for the last journey. How will I find them?
Johannes had spoken for hours now, and I had not interrupted while he told me of his family, his experiences and his journeys. Even though together we had seen this terrible end, and I believed everything he had shown me was real, I had trouble understanding what he was saying to me, and I had questions.
“Why here, Johannes, why Rome?”
“I do not know why, only that it happens. That Rome is where the rock lands. I don’t know why or who is responsible, I cannot find the key even though usually I can see the chain through time… perhaps it is just too far.”
“But the Pantheon? Why the Pantheon? Why did you come here?”
“It never changes – it is always here. The religions change. Sometimes it is a mosque, Pietro. Sometimes St Peters is also a mosque! Sometimes St Peters does not exist. But the Pantheon remains – as it has always – a place of worship. The oculus – is the centre of the storm. I do not know if it has significance. I feel it does. I came here for answers, Pietro. And then you came to me. Can you show me what I cannot see?”
He had sinned, of that there was no doubt. I did not know how to bring him absolution, but now he was asking me for a different kind of help than what I had offered him before. He needed to confess, but there was another mission here. Perhaps there could be a way to prevent what we had seen?
Yet the horror of it… I suppose this is when I started to doubt in God. What Johannes had shown me, what kind of God would allow it? The same God that had helped me? Yet I still felt compelled to discover, to help Johannes. Was that God compelling me? And my curiosity – yes, I wanted to see more – was that God too?
I returned to thinking about the Pantheon, the oculus, the violent destruction of the rotunda – Johannes had said a thousand years hence – so that would mean this building would be about two and a half thousand years old when the rock would come. This building was not originally a Christian church, it was built when Rome worshipped pagan gods. Yet we, the Christians, we had not changed it too much, and it was still a place of worship, and Johannes said it always would be. When the light shines through the oculus, it lifts my spirit. Perhaps they were not so misguided, before Christ came to them. After all, here in Rome, we had embraced so much of what they left, we had improved, but we maybe had also learned. Would we really have been able to spread the word of God so far if we hadn’t had this empire waiting for us? The empire was long gone, but this building, already over a thousand years old, still stood strong.
“Do you think the people who built this place once saw what you did?”
“It is possible. I do not know who gave me these abilities. There may have been others. There may be others. And after me too. It is my last ability. To decide who is next.”
Johannes needed to sleep again. I could not, my mind was alive with the possibilities. I would have to speak to Father David in the morning.
16 September 1635
“You think you can help this man? You feel that you must?” asked Father David. He stared at me with his piercing eyes. Some would mistake him as stern – an easy mistake to make, as Father David was always so precise in anything he did, one would constantly be afraid of letting him down, not meeting his high standards. But I knew him better. They were kind eyes. And I could never lie to them.
“Yes Father. I don’t know how to explain…”
“You do not need to”, he said, “and you should not. The privacy of the confession is sacred. So, you need longer to hear his confession? How much time, do you think?”
I do not yet understand the sin this man needs to confess. Maybe it is our sin. I do not know if God is speaking to me through him. Maybe I’m supposed to help him find some way to stop… How long could it take? Weeks? Months? Years even – the rest of my life?
“I honestly do not know, Father. It is more than absolution that he needs. He is looking for a way to do some good. And I think he has something which we need. If I could explain to you what he has shown me… maybe God is speaking to us through him.”
Father David sighed, and looked out at the horizon through the window of his chambers. Although I could not give him details of what Johannes had shown me, because that would break the sacrament, I hoped he knew me well enough to realise how important I believed the work to be.
“This will be difficult…”
He turned to face me.
“Pietro, I must support you in this. I believe that this is God’s work that you do. But I have to warn you, others will disagree. If you have found… a true miracle, or a saint… that you can bring out… You need to go into retreat with him, but it must be in secret. New ideas are dangerous now. Look at Galileo – look what is happening to him. And he was a friend of Barberini. I will say that you need to care for family for a while. This man Johannes, he is your uncle. They will understand, what happened to your family… and maybe this is not too much of a lie.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“You will need somewhere safe. Not here. Does it have to be here?”
“I – I don’t know. The location is important to him, I think… I think he chose the Pantheon for a reason.”
“Keep him here for a few days then. But then, you go to the south and stay with my sister. You will be safer there, away from Rome. And you’ve stayed there before. That should keep the questions at bay, for a while.”
“That sounds very good Father, thank you.”
I knew Father David’s sister very well, and the farm where she lived – it would be the perfect location for a retreat.
“You say he fought in Bohemia? For the Catholic League? I know someone who was there too, as an observer, and he has a clarity of thought… and I trust him. We have corresponded for years. Perhaps he can help too, I will think about it. For now, it is better that I know nothing more of this. Nobody should. If and when the time is right, you can tell me, so long as you do not break the sacrament.”
Finally, he turned to me as he opened his door for me to leave.
“Your faith will be tested, Pietro. Broken, even. It is the way of these things.”
Johannes and I spent three more days at the Pantheon before leaving Rome. Secluded in my quarters, with a good supply of food, Johannes took me on many journeys. I would sit in the chair by the bed, holding his hand, while Johannes lay in the bed, ready to collapse into sleep after every visit.
First, he showed me how fluid the future was. Indeed, on every visit to the Pantheon of the future, it would be different, yet meet the same end, with the rock falling from the heavens.
Sometimes we would venture outside into the piazza. The scenes there would be similar, people running, screaming, pointing, praying. And once, the place was almost empty, the buildings of Rome were broken facades, the Pantheon still standing but the portico ruined, and the people quiet, burnt, deformed, and the end for them was almost a relief. But still they prayed in the Pantheon.
“There was war here, Pietro. This is the aftermath of a terrible war, with weapons more powerful than any we have seen in our time. Death now is a blessing to these people. But the war, there are many I have seen, may not come to pass. It is only rarely that I see this. Whatever causes can set this in motion, they are not fixed, and perhaps they won’t be fixed for some time, unlike the war I caused. And maybe that is why, I feel strongly now, that the person I look for is of the future, and not of the now. They may be better placed to prevent the war. Maybe even to stop the rock.”
Another time, out of frustration, I tried to remonstrate with one of the hysterical congregation.
“Why can they not see us? Hear us?” It wasn’t because of the strange language the congregation was using that I felt we were being ignored, more that they just didn’t seem to see us, to acknowledge our presence.
“We are not really here, Pietro, this is a vision, of what will be. And we are free to move as we please.”
“Really?” I was shouting now as again the rotunda fragmented and fell around us. We were being pulled upward, through where the oculus had been. “So can we fly right up to the rock?”
Soaring through the heavens, the through the lightning and flying masonry, we approached the rock as the ruined-again Rome lay far beneath us. I do not know how high up we were, but despite the destruction around us, it was exhilarating.
I looked at the horizon. It curved. Here was visible proof that Earth was a globe, not a flat surface. And the rock! The closer we got, the more detail I could see – it was like a huge mountain, ripped from some colossal range far larger than anything in our world, and yet full of mountains of its own, peaks and valleys containing further peaks and valleys.
“How large is the rock, Johannes?”
“I do not know – how large is the Earth? The rock is big. It has so much power, see how the Earth beneath us is torn?”
The Tiber was less a river than a wound in the land, fiery, joined by many tributaries of red hell fire as the black surface of Rome and beyond fragmented just as the rotunda had. More than masonry, now great chunks of the Earth were being pulled upwards, or launching themselves – up towards the bosom of this terrible rock.
We broke our grasp and returned back to my room, Johannes fast asleep. Later, he would wake, eat, and we would be ready to venture again.
“Johannes, where did this rock come from? Could we go there, and maybe find some way of stopping it?”
“No, Pietro. We can only see the future, not the past. I do not know where or when the rock came from, but I can say that it has been flying in every time I have looked for it.”
“So, could we see where it is now?”
“Near enough. A few minutes from now.”
We were floating in the inky black heavens as the rock tore past us, silently. I looked from the direction it came – stars, what constellation was that?
“It came from there?”
“Impossible to be sure. Its path, I have observed, is curved. Maybe it has even changed direction in the past.”
I turned after the rock, to see where it was going. There was a small yellow dot in the distance.
“The Sun, Pietro. Everything else is too small to see. Let me show you more.”
Silently the small yellow dot drew closer, brighter, a fiery yellow red ball. And then, as we passed it, I saw beyond, three spheres. Johannes’s grasp seemed to twist and I could see the motion of these spheres, around the Sun, as we glided into the third, blue, green, shrouded by white clouds, we flew through these and I could see the ‘boot’ of Italy, familiar from the maps, then a city, then a building, with a perfect circular hole in its roof.
Galileo is right!
I had one more question.
“Johannes – if on your journeys, you are not really there, you can only see and hear, not touch, not communicate… how will you pass on your power?”
“I do not know. I just know that I can. Maybe, my ‘benefactor’ came to me from the past, too. I told you, it seemed like a dream. Maybe, I can reach someone, while they sleep.”
18 September 1635
“We cannot prevent it, Pietro.”
Slowly, after tens of visits, all culminating in a maelstrom of fire and rock, I was beginning to agree. Whatever had launched this rock, it was beyond the influence of the present. It would sail, silently through the heavens, for a thousand years, and then rip the world to pieces.
“Then why are you here? Again, as we can move freely in the journeys, why did you need to come here, to the Pantheon?”
Johannes sighed, as if exasperated with me, that I was somehow not grasping something very simple and clear to him.
“You accept, as I do, that the apocalypse cannot be avoided. That it will happen?”
I did not like to concede it, but Johannes was right. “Yes.”
“And you see how here, the Pantheon, the oculus is always the heart of the storm?”
“And every time we start a journey, where are we at the beginning?”
“Right where we are in the present.”
“So, knowing already that the Pantheon is where the rock hits, and knowing that the rock is unstoppable, and knowing that although I start each journey into the future in the same place as the present, I can move freely, and at colossal speed, where and when do you think I have been going for last two weeks?”
It sounded as if it should be obvious, but I could not think of a reply.
“I have been looking for clues here, in this building, in its future, near and far… I told you there may be others like me, that certainly there has been one before me… I think this building may have been built here precisely because the rock hits here, that maybe others saw what I saw, and maybe they knew more. I cannot prevent this future, but maybe I can understand why, and then that will help me choose who.”
Why had Johannes spent so much time showing me the future apocalypse then, instead of continuing his search for an answer in the Pantheon? Now we had to leave. As Father David had warned, people were beginning to get suspicious, and concerned that we had wasted our time here, I had to ask Johannes, before we left.
“When you offered me confession… my sins… it was something for me, something that I realised I needed. I didn’t come looking for it, I never saw it in my journeys, and it was like a gift… I could not refuse. To confess to you fully, I had to show you…”
“We have to leave now Johannes. We won’t be in Rome, but we can come back here in your visions… will that be enough?”
“I do not know. I did not find anything, I think, in those many journeys I made before you approached me. I don’t have an answer, I still do not know why.”
“I have a friend here, Johannes. It is to his sister’s house that we will travel. I have not told him… I have not broken the sacrament. He knows no details. But he can help, Johannes. He knows much about the history of this place…”
“Father David, you mean? Yes… I have seen him. And how he cares for you. I do not know how to tell you, Pietro. If he can help, it won’t be for much longer. He is right to send us away.”
It did not take long for us to pack for our journey. I was at Father David’s quarters, to bid him goodbye, and to warn him.
“He said something, Father, and honestly I fear what may happen if you stay here. Everything he has told me so far… is true.”
“You should stop right there – don’t break the confidence this man has placed in you. In any case, it is too late. I have been called. It will be next week.”
“I don’t think anyone suspects our story, besides which, nobody here remains who knows my village, so I think you will be safe.”
Gathering myself I remembered “Johannes – he did come here for a reason, to the Pantheon in particular. He wasn’t actually seeking absolution, but answers. Here, in the building.”
“Why was the Pantheon built here, Father? Why does it remain? You know more about its history than anyone else I know.”
“I, well – that is an interesting question. I don’t think I can answer it for you, or for Johannes. In any case, there is no more time. You have to leave now. I will write to you before my hearing. Pietro, there is one last favour I must ask of you.”
“Please take this book. It would not go well for me if they found it here.”
He handed me a heavy volume. It must have been several hundred pages. I looked at the title. Nicolai Copernici Toreinensis. De revolvtionibvs orbi um coelelftium.
“It is almost a hundred years old, Pietro, and it speaks the truth, just as Galileo speaks the truth. I do not want it to disappear. Take it to my sister.”