Us? I scanned the room, for the first time noticing distant figures clad in uniforms identical to his on various floating platforms. The non-stop forward and backward three dimensional movie playing out on each one, if I could call it that, made them difficult to pick out unless you knew to look for ‘em.
Almost unsurprising to see what each of them held in their shiny, gloved hands. Nicer than the one I’d been given though, made out of what from a distance looked like obsidian. One of them commandeered the platform he was on, landed it before us, then greeted the professor with “As it ever was”. Travigan casually replied “As ever”, then informed the other fellow that I was the one he’d been telling him about.
He was clothed head to toe in the same manner as the professor save for a small obsidian pin on his collar. Some sort of rank, no doubt. Black hair slicked back with hair salve, features straight and angular as if carved from a block of granite. He held out his own remote, turned it over, then angled the mirror on the back to peer at me through it. “Quite advanced. Never seen a case this bad, usually He’s got ’em by now.”
The professor agreed. “An unusual case. Spent years simply mapping everything he came across in excruciating detail. I know he made it down the stairwell, but not much further. Certainly never descended through the clouds, anyway. He really jumped out at me as the ideal candidate for this attempt.” The two continued to talk about me as though I weren’t present.
“Excuse me, but what are those things?” I pointed to the transparent movie-like apparitions on the countless floating platforms. I had to repeat myself several times before they’d stop simply talking over me. “My dear boy. I assure you that you’ll be able to render the service you’ve enlisted for without ever knowing that, and that you’re much safer for it.” But I’d just about had it with obfuscation by then, and insisted upon being filled in.
To my surprise, he obliged. “For the Manifold and the reality outside of it to exist, certain things have to work the same way for everybody, everywhere. A common infrastructure, underlying machinery of the universe that’s normally invisible to us. What you’d call physical laws. The one we’re concerned with here is time.
Time is what ensures that everything doesn’t happen at once. Cause always precedes effect, the reactions on which all of the technologies known to you depend, and so on. But it doesn’t ‘just happen’ that way. That’s work, somebody needs to do it. There is after all no shortage of intelligent life throughout the universe working tirelessly to thwart the tyranny of unidirectional time.
Anybody who’s ever lost someone close to them. Who’s ever longed for a bygone era, or realized that all of the stars will one day burn out. Many of them are sufficiently motivated to try and do something about it. A former fellow of the Institute, Ronald Mallet, was among the first in your continuity. Had his own reasons for wanting to turn back the clock. They all do.
But if you make an exception for one, you have to make an exception for all. As the number trying to reverse time increases, and as the technology available to them grows ever more powerful near the end, more and more work must go into enforcing the forward movement of time. A certain something or other cobbled together from odds and ends, known to many different cultures by even more plentiful, diverse names.
You can’t simply call them what they are, can you? It would be ugly and rude. They perform an essential service after all. So, we’ve taken something from their surroundings and clothed them with it, that their insufferable nature might remain hidden. Of course, even that name chafes them. It’s something you must never say aloud or even read, lest you never stop. It’ll consume your every waking thought, like a splinter in your mind.
Don’t you feel them? They’re behind you even now, hands on your back, ensuring you go through with it all start to finish. That whatever direction you move in, it is never backwards. Not in the true sense of the word. So that once you discover what you’re moving towards, you cannot reverse course or even slow down, however desperately you might wish to.
All of this was bought on debt, you see. Light, color, sound. Existence. It cannot last forever, that initial sum will eventually be depleted, at which time the debt must be paid. They make sure that nobody tries to back out of it. That we all play the only parts we’re able to, always moving irreversibly towards the end of all ends. As per the agreement. ”
The two resumed discussing business, or what passes for it in their line of work. Try as I might I could pry nothing more from them, and was repeatedly shushed until I gave up and wandered off. Among the platforms landed on the ground floor, I found one being serviced by a pretty girl. Pretty as she could manage in that stuffy black uniform, anyway. Her hair also black, slicked back over her scalp, not one strand out of place.
“What are you up to?” She looked up from the open panel in the platform, elbow deep in its greasy cogs and pistons. “Oh, I just started today. I’m fixing the motivator, these things don’t break down often but when they do they’re a bitch to fix.” I gestured up at the other floating platforms and the oscillating animations playing out on them, asking what any of it was.
I noticed a brief flash of fear in her eyes. Even after that, she remained subtly nervous but did her best to conceal it. “Haven’t you read anything in your own offshoot? It’s everywhere.” I told her the text was always unreadable, and she seemed relieved. “Don’t fiddle with your remote. There’s a button on there that’ll unfrazzle text so you can read it. Trust me, you don’t want that.”
I asked why. It only frustrated her. “Look fella, if I knew why, I couldn’t be here talking to you about it. That’s how it spreads. I want no part of it, I’ve seen what happens.” So for a time, I left her to her work while I studied the buttons on the remote more closely. The first one I tried was mute.
Rather than silencing the distant voices of those two self-important old men or the clinking and clanging of the girl nearby digging around in the guts of the platform, it instead un-muted the ticking. Must’ve been on mute by default until then. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. A rhythm which matched exactly the movements of the flickering, monochrome spectres on every platform. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.
The girl didn’t seem to notice, still absorbed in her work. So I picked out the next button to try. Closed captioning seemed as good a guess as any. It only made transcriptions of whatever was being said aloud nearby appear in the bottom half of my vision. Finally I pressed language. Nothing seemed different, but then, there was no text in view.
I opened a book sitting on the desk next to where she was working. Same desk they all have. Aha! The text inside was now Italian. Still unreadable to me but a huge step up from the swimming, garbled mess it had been before. I pressed the language button again, and it became French. Despite the language barrier it was quite obviously just the same phrase, repeating.
Click Here for Part 5!