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Gary Cahill and the Curse of the Eternal Flashback

Chelsea lost 3-0 at Arsenal, and this is not a match report

Arsenal v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Chelsea got hammered by Arsenal today, going down 3-0 at the Emirates thanks to goals from Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil. Pretty much everyone involved on our side should feel ashamed of themselves.

If you think this post is going to be a match report, you don’t know me very well. Instead, let’s travel to the year 2214 and see what’s become of one of our good friends.

A haggard-looking man staggers into a well-furnished office, slumping against the jamb of the door to steady himself. His skin is lined and grey, his once-blue clothes faded, his hair a tangled mass of despair. He is two hundred and twenty-nine years old.

Another man, seated, looks up at the first. His initial assumption is that the apparition is some strange prank of Projection, and it’s several seconds before he realises that the wild-eyed creature invading his workspace unannounced is actually real. He frowns, doing his mediocre best to radiate contempt, the fingers of his right hand rattling viciously off his walnut desk.

“Do you have an appointment, Mr. ... ?”

“I d-d-do. Cahill.”

The fingers stop bouncing. A search is invoked, a face found, probed, dissected, aged. A match.

Gary Cahill?”

Gary Cahill doesn’t smile. He is too tired to smile. “Yes.”

Adam Lee does not have a visit from Gary Cahill on his calendar — such a visit would have necessitated at least redecoration, if not an entirely new space. He resolves to make the most of the situation, however. Humanity’s greatest hero has not been seen in public for a generation.

“I’m honoured to meet you, Mr. Cahill. To what do I owe the pleasure? Please, sit.”

Cahill takes the proffered chair, sliding limply down into the padded seat.

“Some water?”

“Thank you, that w-would be ... kind.”

Water is procured, the glass pleasingly hefty in Lee’s grip. But Cahill’s right hand, he notices, trembles as he reaches for it. No surprise, he thinks. He is a very tired man by now. Perhaps that explains the odd, stuttering, semi-repeated speech.

What would his wife say? His children? Lee’s office was unrecorded. But there must have been a record of his arrival, even if he came via private loop. Surveillance could not have missed him.

But it had. There are no alerts clanging their way through the Projected World, no tickling sensation in the back of his skull that to indicate that the collected minds of humanity were focused on him and his guest.

If anyone else was aware Gary Cahill is here, Lee thinks, they’d be kicking up a storm. This man gave us immortality and handed us the stars. Nobody in history would ever or could ever make as big a contribution to mankind.

The living legend coughs gently, jolting Lee from his reverie.

“Sorry. What was that again?”

“I said that I needed someone to talk to.” Lee blinks. “You’re s-s-s-surprised, I see. Odd, I was given to understand I I I was expected. You kn-know, no doubt, of the events of 2016?”

The Blessed Year is the fundamental fact of history. 2016 under the old calendar, 0 in the new, the year everything changed for good. Everyone knew the events of 2016, as Cahill was eccentrically calling it.

“Yes. Of course. First Contact, the Warning, the allied collaboration to first neutralise and then harness the incursion. All down to you.”

“You don’t know all of it, though. Only I do. But I’ll tell I’ll tell you. Perhaps it will help.”

Lee shrugs, unsure why he’s the one on the spot. Five trillion souls smeared out across seven solar systems to choose from; Cahill picks him, for no apparent reason. Perhaps he likes his music? Stranger things have happened.

“There was also the Curse.”

Human memory is perfect in the digital age. Nobody had forgotten anything of note in more than a century. When the files related to the Incursion were declassified, the public drank them down. The essential facts were well known, and they are as follows.

On September 11th, Year 0, a football game was played between London’s Chelsea FC, now based in New London, Mars, and Swansea City FC, which no longer exists. Late in that match, an event so implausible happened to Gary Cahill that he immediately recognised something was dreadfully wrong.

Adam Lee had seen the clip dozens of times on screens and many more in Projection. He saw everything without needing to think. One kick, two kick, the Fer character stealing away, the flash of recognition and rage in Cahill’s eyes as he struggles to regain his footing.

Cahill, though furious, saw what nobody else did: match referee Andre Marriner had been possessed. A lesser, though still visionary, man might have gone public immediately. Cahill had the foresight to stay quiet, alerting friends in the government of his suspicions.

They were soon confirmed. A combined operation by the United Nations found a mechanism by which the invaders could be detected. Within hours that technique extended to expulsion, within days entrapment and torture. Communication channels were opened to plumb for knowledge; knowledge was duly provided.

Aging and disease were the earliest victims of Cahill’s discovery, but mankind, spurred on by these new revelations, were soon able to take advantage of the other secrets. In the year 17 post-contact, Proxima Centauri was reached. By 50, humanity was smearing itself unchecked across the Orion Spur.

And now Gary Cahill, laboured and stuttering, told him of the price.

“I was the first to talk to Marriner, or whatever was in his head. The Incursion task force thought that since I was the one who recognised what was happening, I might have some special affinity with it. They were right, but I wish they hadn’t asked me.

“It was September 19th when I was called in. The thing — it’s strange that we don’t have a real name for them, isn’t it? — had been flushed out of poor Marriner’s brain by then.

“I was invited into a lab, completely sterile. Security was tight. You’ve probably seen the schematics of the place. Blast doors everywhere, bombs rigged to bring down the structure in case of emergency, the field generator itself. But what happened in the deep room never got out.

“The scientists had figured out how to get it to inhabit this tube full of something like grey sand. They knew it was in there, because they could hurt it by running electricity through the whole set-up and decode the patterns it made when it screamed. There was a loudspeaker hooked up and we could all hear it. It wasn’t very nice.

“But it wouldn’t talk, which is why they got me in. We tried with a group first, but got nothing. It was sulking, we thought. Then I offered to go in there alone. I wish I hadn’t.

“The sand was shifting around in patterns I hadn’t seen before, changing colour and pulsing as I watched. Then the translation kicked in and this ridiculous robot child-voice said, ‘I know you. You are Cahill.’

“I was feeling quite smug at this point. Everyone had been telling me I was a hero, how important this discovery was, how I might have ushered in a new and amazing age. All of that. And I could be especially smug with that thing contained in the tube, unable to hurt anyone else again. So I thought, at least.

“Anyway, I said some things I shouldn’t have. I riled it up. When it started taunting me in return, I went even further. One of the things the scientists found out later — you’ll know about this, of course — is that there are certain series of visual inputs that can fundamentally rewire the networking on the human brain. They’re called dancing basilisks, in honour of an old story, and they’re why ultra-high definition screens, virtual or not are banned everywhere.

“I can see by the look on your face that you have an inkling as to what happened now. The sand shifted, complexity upon complexity. I can’t describe how it looked. We don’t have the words for that sort of movement, and even if we did I wouldn’t want to. But I couldn’t tear myself away. I felt odd, like the patterning was embedding itself in my soul.

“Then it stopped, and the stupid voice came back. It said ‘Gary Cahill, I condemn you to live in your moment of triumph for the rest of time.’

“Frankly I didn’t think much of it right then. Nobody knew about basilisk encoding at the time, for one, and for two it was a pretty weird threat to make. I was feeling great about myself, and if there was a moment I wanted to live in, it was that. I hear security tightened up after two people were killed in an escape attempt a few days later.

“By then I’d already experienced the Curse for the first time. Do you watch football? All right, then. You know that centre halves have to pass back to their goalkeepers without giving away possession. It happens all the time, and it’s very easy. But suddenly I couldn’t do it.

“I was playing alongside David Luiz, an exceedingly strange person, the first time the Curse hit me. I wanted to give the ball back to Thibaut, and then I black out and the next thing I know I’m chasing after Musa and David’s calling me an idiot. At halftime the manager congratulated me on scoring a goal and then said he’d be dropping me as soon at he had the chance because I couldn’t stop making errors. I watched a replay after the match (we won, by the way). Hand on heart, I’d have dropped myself too.

“The captain, John Terry, was supposed to be fit for our next match. I knew I’d be on the bench, and was looking forward to the break. I know footballers aren’t supposed to say that, but my head wasn’t feeling in the right place. I chalked it up to the excitement over the Incursion.

“Then things got weirder. John was recovering from an ankle injury, but during Friday’s training session, we’re both going for a loose ball, and then I get another one of those blackouts. Next thing I know and he’s limping off, unable to put weight on his ankle and blaming me for stepping on it.

“He couldn’t play against Arsenal, so I had to. Again, one of those blackouts. This time I snapped back in time to chase the ball over the line after Sanchez scored. Thibaut and Antonio had some unpleasant things to say to me after that, but I knew it wasn’t really my fault. The whole team played like s---, after all.

“But it kept getting stranger. Kurt Zouma was set to start in my place next game, but he came down with food poisoning in mysterious circumstances and I had to play again. And the blackout happened again.

“Antonio and my teammates were all going berserk at me but with our injuries nothing could keep me out of the lineup. Whenever my place was at risk, someone got hurt, and eventually all we could do was try to avoid passing to me. It didn’t always work, though. By the end of November the Curse had us in 10th. I was seriously worried.

“I don’t expect you to care about a two-hundred-year-old football season. But it goes beyond that. With news of the Incursion about to go public, I decided that the only choice was to retire from football. Anything less would have been letting down the teammates and fans. I had to quit.

“I thought that would solve the problem. And I suppose it did for my team. But it didn’t for me. Every weekend I’d have flashbacks. They were totally real and vivid, but seemed to last for hours. One kick, another, a white shirt flashing past, that spark of daemonic intent in Andre Marriner’s eyes. That moment felt like hours. I finally understood.

“I hoped that over the years these episodes would get further and further spaced out. I thought that maybe we’d have the technology to purge it. But neither is true. I’ve met with the best neuroscientists, and they have nothing. I could have a brain tumour or infected implants and they’d have been able to help me. They couldn’t find anything wrong.

“And they started happening more and more often. By my 140th birthday I was having them once a day rather than once a week, and they felt like they were taking longer as well, like I was spending more time living inside that moment in Swansea than the real world. I tried booze. I tried harder stuff. Didn’t make a difference. The Curse had me. Did you know I can’t even die? I’ve tried.

“Only a few people know about it, and they’ve done their best to help me. But it’s still getting worse. Here, look. This is how I live now.”

Cahill jerkily fishes a photo from a tattered trouser pocket. It’s the inside of a home. On every surface an image, seemingly frozen from video, was projected. An infinity of Cahills, in blue, sprawl on the ground, an infinity of Leroy Fers are locked in the act of sauntering past, an infinity of Andre Marriners are betrayed by a stare.

“This is horrible.” Lee speaks for the first time in twenty minutes, moved by the living legend’s plight.

“You have not the slightest understanding.” Cahill’s face twitches into a sad little smile. A bead of sweat trickles down his wan brow. “I know you don’t. How long have we been talking?”

“Half an hour?”

“During our conversation, I have spent sixty years living in Swansea. Time moves differently inside my head, flashback sits in snarling flashback. Talking to you has been the effort of decades.”

A pit forms in Lee’s bowels. Horror had been mounting as he listened to the old man — old? Humans don’t age these days! — talk, and now it crested. He feels like throwing up, suppresses the urge.

“But why did you come to see me?”

“Dr. Jankowski, I was told that you’d pioneered new techniques in —”

“I’m sorry. I’m not Dr. Jankowski. His office is two doors down, on your right.”

Lee expects that to draw a response. It does not. Humanity’s saviour, his hope shocked, sits, staring vacantly, locked into eFernity.

Swansea City v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

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