Time Out

by Jamie Mason

08:14:26

Time is the elephant in the room. A presence so massive as to go unnoticed, Time is the most powerful force in the universe. Even the blast of a supernova can be deflected (or channeled, by some civilizations, to produce sonic energy). But Time is implacable – soft as a feather, fiercer than a thermonuclear detonation, impervious to interference or redirection – it simply is and can never be annulled.

The human preoccupation with Time is evident in the many sayings about it. Time flies, Time will tell, Time heals all wounds. Time waits for no man. Time is the mercy of eternity. Time out of mind, Time’s a-wasting, Time is money. All nonsense. I know because I am not human.

My race dwells in Time, inhabiting its architecture, prowling its very interstices, navigating its currents as easily as a dolphin swims the ocean. And I tell you that none of the foregoing expressions capture the essence of Time, nor convey its central truth. Which is. That Time is a four-letter word.

Time is a thief.

Time kills.

08:17:04

The starship hangs dead in space; hallways tilting like a fun-house floor, pools of spilled coolant sloshing, light reflecting from shadowed crevices in a distorted gleam. Miraculously, the air circulation system – still functional in the wake of an ion harpoon – chuffs to life and, with a bronchial wheeze, sets microscopic debris to fluttering about the ruined bulkheads. Somewhere in the dark tangle of wreckage a red light flashes on and off, on and off, on and off …

“Pirates?” Kyla’s voice is husky with in-held dust and fear, melodious but rough-edged. At fifteen, she is more tomboy than girl.

“Doubtful.” I suck in my gut to edge past a sharp steel twist where a girder has corkscrewed from its mooring. “More likely they were here and the Time Storm carried us into the final salvos of the engagement …”

O Fortuna, velut luna!”

I adopt a pedagogic tone – a seventeen year-old professor lecturing a class of one. “Assuming physical form – existing both in space and Time -” my wrist brushes a tangle of sizzling wires and I jerk it from the burn “- Well, it’s … hazardous for we Chronox.”

Hazardous? Our luck’s been horrendous …”

“No.”

“Jolly abysmal, I’d say!”

A star-map frozen in place on a plasma wall-screen is illuminated in a hail of sparks from a short-circuiting panel. Where are we? I pick my way toward the display cautiously, squinting at the familiar galaxies identified in alien script. In this When, humans do not possess star-drive technology so for this trip we have hitched a ride on a freighter under Xi registration.

“It’s hidden there somewhere, in amongst all those stars?” Kyla’s tone is guarded.

“Yes.”

“Logical, I warrant. All that stolen time would require a massive hiding place …”

“Not necessarily. Depending on the mode of compression, it could be stashed in any number of containers. Remember. ‘It is not -’”

“‘It is not the scale of Time but rather its perceived importance that determines its true weight.’ The first edict of Chronometric Gravitation. Which is relevant to us why?”

“Dunya’s Lost Millennium was hidden inside a thimble.”

“Ingenious! By the same ne’er-do-wells we seek?”

“Hard to say.” I shrug. “The greatest criminals are those whose identities remain a mystery.”

08:22:00

The sword, a silver blur in the outstretched arm of a Sylbjian mercenary, nicks my jacket before reversing along the same trajectory. The mercenary growls through his tusks as I back away along this narrow spine of rock onto which the Time Storm has cast us.

“Kyle!” Kyla’s voice is shallow noise, its depth snatched away by a gust of wind. The jeweled box slips from her hand to bounce on loose rock. The Sylbjian snaps his eyes to her as she grabs for it. With a ponderous shifting of hip and shoulders he lumbers to snatch her elbow as neatly as a policeman making an arrest. His expression meanwhile is blank, disinterested. It says female, human which translates roughly – in human terms – as female, poultry. The Sylbjian might just as likely snap Kyla’s neck and eat her for dinner. For in this period of Earth’s pre-history the Sylbjian battle two other alien races for control of the mineral-rich Urals. Humans present a minor but persistent nuisance in this effort.

The box skids to a stop in a fold of rock partway down the incline. Kyla struggles and the Sylbjian twists her arm until a crack splits the air. Kyla’s eyes flare on a howling shriek. I am torn. The girl or the box? Damaged limb flailing at her side, Kyla pulls free and staggers a short distance off and the Sylbjian looks from me to the jeweled container and back to Kyla again.

And I do the unthinkable – I rush him, shoulder-ramming his oak-solid trunk. The creature utters a muffled grunt. Grown in the laboratories of a draconian technocracy, the Sylbjian is not built to sustain injury but I think I may have winded him. He twists, sword-point dipping. And I grip a muscled forearm but might as well try grasping a tree-limb. Kyla’s sobbing moves off downhill. The Sylbjian breaks my grip, snorts and slams me chest to chest. My heels tangle and I crash-land belly-first facing down the incline. Scrambling to crab-walk sideways, palms slipping in loose shale, I hear the flat crunch of stone behind me as the Sylbjian approaches. I push my chest from the ground and try again. Slip. And my hand brushes the jeweled box.

The treasure.

I grasp the lid as the Sylbjian’s shadow falls across me. I roll right, wincing as the shaft of the merc’s blade crashes down hard enough to splinter rocks. The Sylbjian emits a kind of snuffling grunt and lifts his weapon for a second try as I sprawl on my back, helpless, watching the blade rise. As it reaches the top of its arc, the creature stiffens. A spurt of gore fountains from his forehead, plashing me in blue ichor. He crumples.

Kyla stands over the Sylbjian’s corpse wielding some sort of laser pistol.

“Found it on a corpse,” she mumbles before collapsing unconscious.

08:28:16

The curtains isolating Kyla’s hospital bed are turquoise. Every now and then they part to admit the nurse, an amoeba-shaped creature called a Lymyrian the size of a Saint Bernard that skates in and out of the trauma tent on a grav sled. Kyla’s face is chalky against the bright aquamarine of her pillow slip. A series of therapeutic beta tones plays softly on a nearby speaker and the small jeweled box sits on the night-stand, glimmering in the glow of a shaded lamp.

“Kyla?”

She shudders. “Ky -?” Kyla licks her lips where the sedatives have parched them. “Where ..?”

“Shh … A hospital on Zaros.” I clasp her forearm. “Time Storm pushed us into one of the major shipping lanes and smugglers picked up our life-pod.”

“The box!” Kyla’s eyes widen and she stirs as though to sit up but settles for flicking her gaze right and left. “Where -?”

“It’s right over there, see? It’s fine.” I gaze at the faint bruising around her elbow. “The ultrasonic bone graft went well. But you’ll be down for another day or two …”

Another glance at the box. A troubled look creases her face. “All that time, pilfered …”

“No point in crying over spilled milliseconds.”

“Trying to impress me with your resilience?”

“No.”

“Playing the poltroon suits you. Haven’t seen you this lively in ages. Since my nineteenth birthday party, in fact.”

“As I recall, that evening was -” A sudden chill floods my guts and I freeze. “Stop kidding around.”

“No games please, Kyle.” A look of drugged confusion crosses her face. “My memory is fogged enough. Don’t cast doubt on the few I’m sure of …”

“Kyla. That’s the drugs talking. You’re fifteen.”

“Nonsense! Look. I’m positively desiccated. Fetch me a cup of water, won’t you?”

I still my trembling long enough to slip out and key the request into the nurse’s comm-pad. When I return Kyla is gone, along with the box.

08:36:33

All my life I have struggled with abandonment.

We are each plagued by our own personal demons. Mine is that hollow sensation of being left behind, of remaining a child while everyone else grows up. It haunts me like the memory of autumn afternoons spent alone. The more I allow it to bother me the worse it grows. So I have learned to stoically accept its presence with the patience of a cripple enduring his handicap. But some moments are more difficult to bear than others.

I step across the narrow obsidian strip enclosing the vast ring of sand beneath the scorched cobalt sky, torment storming inside me. At the far end of the arena looms a high black throne. Such furniture, intended to mimic the childhood experience of being called to account before father’s vast chair, is common in the rooms where human justice is dispensed. This place too is a kind of court. The Void Tribunal – the arena where our kind seek recompense – rests in the null space between Whens.

I cross the sand-floored arena leaving a trail of footprints that are immediately erased by the winds of Time. The Winds, like the arena, the Tribunal itself, the land stretching limitless on either side toward mountains whose peaks claw infinity, are a construct. Everything is symbolic. The Archons of the Tribunal traffic heavily in perception and so are fond of symbolism. Impermanence, the Wind reminds us. All things are impermanent.

Except for my feelings of abandonment. I approach the black throne.

“My time has been stolen.” I pause, unsure of the protocol, the etiquette for addressing those charged with guarding eternity. “This is a great loss for me.”

Where there had been vast absence now radiates a presence from the chair – the ghostly imminence of the Archon. The voice that answers me is clanging, metallic – the ringing of words on an iron forge:

There is no loss for Time is eternal, indestructible

“But my experience of it is not. The first law of Chronometric Gravitation!” Frustration boils within me. “I have been deprived!”

And what, child, would you have done with your Time? The metallic voice softens. Like Youth, Time is wasted on the young. You’d have squandered it away on trifles.

“But -” (I resent the softness, the plodding reasonableness of these words) “- it was mine to waste!”

Nonsense. Time belongs to no one.

“That does not justify the theft!”

To steal from those who possess in abundance is not theft but justice.

Tears crush the backs of my eyes. Again that sense of abandonment, the haunting of a thousand lost afternoons …

“Would you leave me with nothing?”

Nonsense. You’re jolly well off!

08:26:53

I push aside the turquoise curtain. The rumpled aquamarine of the hospital bed’s sheets is streaked with crimson. The monitors stand silent. I know she has been moved. Backtracking along the silent hallways, I locate the hyperbaric nurses’ enclosure. Through the swirl of grey cryogenic gas a Lymyrian approaches – a different one from before. I gesture for it to move closer and key my question into the keypad attached to its fleshy membrane: WHERE’S KYLA? The answer scrolls back across the window in glowing red:

MOVED TO THE POST-PARTUM WARD

And before I can even ask:

A BABY BOY – 8 LBS & HEALTHY

08:21:13

“Kyle!”

I jerk away from the sword-point reversing course along its trajectory to nick my jacket and am forced back along the sharp spine of rock onto which the Time Storm has cast us. There is: wind, the glare of unpolluted sunlight, the peaks of the Urals marching to infinity all around. And Kyla’s scream, brutally unnerving. For instead of coming in the reedy tone of an adolescent tomboy, it is – for all its breathiness and plosive terror – deeper, more confident; the battle-cry of an adult woman.

She is a blur driving past me and I am spun sideways to land face-down in fractured stone. I push my chest up, palms slipping in loose shale as I twist to see her shoulder-slam the olive-skinned Sylbjian. The genetically-engineered mercenary turns away, hunching his back against the flurry of blows she rains down with closed fists.

“Get – ugh! – away! From him! You – ungh! – BASTARD!” Each syllable is punctuated by a blow that connects solidly against the mercenary’s hide with a bright snap! Impelled by the fierce wind-milling of her arms, Kyla’s hair – now longer – becomes an auburn cloud tinged with gray. A shudder passes through me as the instinctive vocalization building in my stomach rises to burst past my tongue in a panicked rasp:

“Mmmm – mm …”

“Kyle! Run!”

The Sylbjian recovers and slashes at Kyla with his sword. Although now close to forty, she is sinewy, agile. And obviously schooled in some form of martial art for she sidesteps the blade’s trajectory with ease before gliding back in to deliver an open-handed blow to the side of the mercenary’s skull that staggers him. I am terrified, impressed at her skill, eager to help but unable to move. Unable to speak, even. Only capable of producing the muffled buzz:

“Mmmm – muh. Muh!”

“Kyle! Run!”

Thrashing upright, I lurch down the rocky slope toward the valley below …

08:17:02

Somewhere in the darkness of the ruined starship a red light flashes on and off, on and off. I pick my way through wreckage-clotted hallways and find a window. Outside, a nearby star emanates a bright field of stagnant light. Stars, like planets, ordinarily rotate but this one does not. Neither does it glimmer, dim in eclipse nor fling errant sun spots. It merely hangs, frozen in Time, in the same null quantum field that holds this fractured Xi vessel together after its savaging by an ion harpoon. Despite the hull’s thousand punctures, no oxygen leaks out. The vessel hangs in stasis, held motionless in the exact second following the explosion.

Time: a thief.

The red flashing beam breaks across the right angle of a lintel and jamb. I clamber over hillocks of downed ceiling panels and feel my way along the wall to the door. The red flash of light casts a corona into the interior of the room. In its glow, a figure sits hunched at a table, her head in her arms.

“Kyla?”

She stirs, raises her head. I see wrinkled skin, grey hair flame to red in the flashing light. Her eyes are watery, dim with age.

“Don’t call me that.” The voice is soft. “You shouldn’t call me by my first name. It’s not proper.”

“You …” My voice stumbles on a note of uncertainty. “You stole. My time.” Then: “You stole my time!”

“Nonsense. Time belongs to no one.”

“The Archon said the same thing!”

“We are all Archons, Kyle, all of us parents.” Her smile is faint. Smug. “Gods in the little universe we create, empowered to safeguard or squander our children’s time as we see fit.”

My head swims with dizziness. “I – had friends … once. Glenda. Stephen …”

“And little Twyla. Let’s not forget her!” The smile becomes wistful. “All grown up now and gone.”

“Why did you keep me frozen at age seventeen?”

“To protect you. Kyle, I made you! Gave birth to you from my own body. It was my right to do with you whatever I pleased and I chose this – this.” She waves a hand around the interior of the ruined cabin. “When I heard the star had gone into stasis, I had us assume human form, booked us passage aboard this Xi freighter. Arranged the ion harpoon. Brought us into the gravitational field of the collapsing star and -”

“The Time Storm?”

“Imaginary.” She flaps a hand. “Another manufactured adventure for you to experience …”

“But I never experienced life! I could have grown up! Had a family of my own!”

“You had the Time. Kyle, what difference does it make? You just never grew old, never -”

“You used me!”

“I saved you the trouble.” A smirk. “Besides, you’d have just squandered it. Seventeen was the age at which I found you most enjoyable. Oh, the talks we had! Your mind was just opening up … It was amaz -”

08:14:26

Time is a four-letter word.

I tell you that Time is the most powerful force in the universe. Implacable, impervious to interference or redirection – it simply is and can never be annulled. My race dwells in Time, inhabiting its architecture, navigating its currents as easily as a dolphin swims the ocean. Our lives are contoured to its shape. Learning to successfully negotiate its curves is our greatest understanding. Theft of this knowledge, the greatest loss our kind can endure.

They say some races can channel the blast of a supernova to create sonic energy. Some in our race can halt time, steal it from their own children, keep them young forever. Those who yearn for eternal youth do not recognize that it is not a blessing but rather a curse to be endured.

I prowl the ruined hallways of the freighter, searching for a way out. Somewhere there is a portal, a fracture, an opening in the quantum stasis that holds us immobile. I will find it even if it is the last thing I do. For beyond it lies the remainder of my life – the one that has been stolen from me. I am eager to resume the flow of Time even as it hurtles me toward my inevitable end. For life is not meant to be lived forever. What gives it meaning is the fact that it ends.

Time is a thief. Time kills. And for this I am eternally grateful.

The End