The Speed of Time

The Speed of Time

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“Light goes by at the speed of time,” Marlys once told me.

That was a joke, of course. Light can be slowed to a standstill in a photon trap, travel on going nowhere at all forever in the blueing distance of an event horizon, or blaze through hard vacuum as fast as information itself moves through the universe. Time is relentless, the tide which measures the perturbations of the cosmos. The 160.2 GHz hum of creation counts the measure of our lives as surely as any heartbeat.

There is no t in e=mc2.

I’d argued with her then, missing her point back when understanding her might have mattered. Now, well, nothing much at all mattered.  Time has caught up with us all.

* * *

Let me tell you a story about Sameera Glasshouse.

She’d been an ordinary woman living an ordinary life. Habitat chemistry tech, certifications from several middle-tier authorities, bouncing from contract to contract in trans-Belt space. Ten thousand women, men and inters just like her out there during the Last Boom.  We didn’t call it that then, no one knew the expansion curve the solar economy had been riding was the last of anything. The Last Boom didn’t really have a name when it was underway, except maybe to economists.

Sameera had been pair-bonded to a Jewish kid from Zion Luna, and kept the surname long after she’d dropped Roz from her life.  For one thing, “Glasshouse” scandalized her Lebanese grandmother, which was a reward in itself.

She was working a double ticket on the Enceladus Project master depot in low orbit around that particular iceball.  That meant pulling shift-on-shift week after week, but Sameera got an expanded housing allocation and a fatter pay packet for her trouble. The E.P. got to schlep one less body to push green inside their habitat scrubbers.  Everybody won.

Her spare time was spent wiring together Big Ears to listen for the chatter that flooded bandwidth all over the solar system.  Human beings are—were—noisy.  Launch control, wayfinding, birthday greetings, telemetry, banking queries, loneliness, porn.  It was all out there, multiplied and ramified beyond comprehension by the combination of lightspeed lag, language barriers and sheer, overwhelming complexity.

Some folks back then claimed there were emergent structures in the bandwidth, properties of the sum of all that chatter which could not be accounted for by analysis of the components. This sort of thinking had been going around since the dawn of information theory—call it information fantasy. The same hardwired pareidolia that made human beings see the hand of God in the empirical universe also made us hear Him in the electronic shrieking of our tribe.

Sameera never really believed any of it, but she’d heard some very weird things listening in. In space it was always midnight, and ghosts never stopped playing in the bandwidth. When she’d picked up a crying child on a leaky sideband squirt out of a nominally empty vector, she’d just kept hopping frequencies. When she’d tuned on the irregular regularity of a coded data feed that seemed to originate from deep within Saturn’s atmosphere, she’d just kept hopping frequencies.

But one day God had called Sameera by name. Her voice crackled out of the rising fountain of energy from an extragalactic gamma ray burst, whispering the three syllables over and over and over in a voice which resonated down inside the soft tissues of Sameera’s body, made her joints ache, jellied the very resolve of the soul that she had not known she possessed until that exact moment.

Sameera Glasshouse shut down her Big Ears, wiped the logic blocks, dumped the memory, then made her way down to the master depot’s tiny sacramentarium.

Most people who worked out in the Deep Dark were very mystical but not the least bit religious. The sort of spiritual uncertainty that required revelation for comfort didn’t mix well with the brain-numbing distances and profound realities of life in hard vacuum.  Nonetheless, by something between convention and force of habit, any decent sized installation found space for a sacramentarium. A few hardy missionaries worked their trades on the E.P. just like everyone else, then spent their off-shifts talking about Allah or Hubbard or Jesus or the Ninefold Path.

It was as good a way as any to pass the time.

Terrified that she’d gotten hold of some true sliver of the Divine, or worse, that the Divine had gotten hold of some true sliver of her, Sameera sought to pray in the manner of her childhood. She was pretty sure the sacramentarium had a Meccascope, to point toward the center of world and mark the times for the five daily prayers.

She ached to abase herself before the God of her childhood, safely distant, largely abstract, living mostly in books and the minds of the adults around her. A God who spoke from the radio was far too close.

Slipping through the sacramentarium’s hatch amid the storage spaces of corridor Orange-F-2, Sameera bumped into a man she’d never seen before.

He was dark skinned, in that strangely American way, and wore a long linen thawb with lacing embroidered around the neck. He also wore the small, round cap of an al-Hajji. In one hand he carried a leatherbound book—actual paper, with gilt edges, worn through long handling.

A Quran, she realized.  A real one, like her grandmother’s.

The man said something in a language she did not understand, then added, “My pardons” in the broken-toned Mandarin pidgin so commonly spoken in the Deep Dark.

“My mistake,” Sameera muttered in the same language.

“You have come to pray.  In search of God?”

“No, no.” She was moved to an uncharacteristic fit of openness.  (Her time as Mrs. Glasshouse had left her with an opaque veneer she’d not since bothered to shed.) “I’ve found God, and now I’ve come to pray.”

His expression was somewhere on the bridge between predatory and delighted.

“You don’t understand,” Sameera told him.  “She spoke to me, out of the Deep Dark.”

Another crazy, his face said, but then he hadn’t felt the buzzing in his bones.

* * *

It doesn’t matter what happened next. All that matters was that she told the imam. Revelation is like that. Put a drop of ink in a bowl of water, in a moment all the water takes on that color. The ink is gone, but the water is irreversibly changed.

That was the beginning of the end.

Or, for a little while, the end of the beginning.

Marlys found it funny, at any rate.

Another thing she used to tell me was that we are all time travelers, moving forward at a speed of one second per second. The secret to time travel was that everyone already does it. The equations balance themselves.

Time has to be more than an experiential matrix—otherwise entropy makes no sense—but there’s nothing inherently inescapable about the rate at which it passes.  If human thoughts moved with the pace of bristlecone pines, we would never have invented the waterwheel, because rivers flash like steam in that frame of reference.  Likewise if we were mayflies—flowing water would be glacial.

So much for the experiential aspect of time. As for the actual pace, well, life goes by at the speed of time.  I don’t think Marlys was looking for a way to adjust that, it was just one of those things she said, but her words have always stayed with me.

* * *

In 1988 the Soviet Union spent a considerable and extremely secret sum of money on a boson rifle. Only the Nazis rivaled the Soviets for crackpot schemes and politically-filtered science. America under the Republicans was in its way crazier, but all they truly wanted was to go back to the fifties when middle-aged white men were safely in charge.  The Soviets really did believe in the future, some friable concrete-lined version of it where the eternally-withering State continued to lead the workers toward a paradise of empty shelves and dusty bread.

Their boson rifle was pointed at the United States, of course.  Figuratively speaking. The actual device was buried in a tunnel in Siberia.  More accurately, it was a tunnel in Siberia, a very special kind of linear accelerator running through kilometer after kilometer of carefully-maintained hard vacuum hundreds of meters beneath the blighted taiga.

A casual misreading of quantum mechanics, combined with Politburo desperation for a way out of the stifling mediocrity that had overcome solid Marxist-Leninist thought, had led to it. An insane amount of rubles went down that hole, along with a large quantity of hard currency, not to mention the lives of hundreds of laborers and the careers of dozens of physicists.

In the end, they calibrated it to secretly attack the USS Fond du Lac on patrol in the Sea of Okhotsk. According to the boson rifle’s firing plan, the submarine should have roughly tripled in mass, immediately sunk with a loss of all hands, and no culpability pointing back to Moscow.

Nothing happened, of course, except a terrific hum, several dozen cases of very fast moving cancer among the scientists and technicians who were too close to the primary accelerator grids, and the plug being pulled on the universe.

Though we didn’t know that last bit for almost a hundred years.

* * *

Inventory of the sample bag recovered from the suit of the deceased taikonaut Radogast Yuang on his return from the First Kuiper Belt Expedition (1KBE). See specification sheet attached for precise measurement and analysis.

- Three (3) narrow bolts approximately seven centimeters long, with pentagonal heads, bright metallic finish, pitted surfaces

- One (1) narrow bolt approximately two centimeters long, damaged end, dull metallic finish, heavily corroded

- One (1) flexible tab approximately eleven centimeters long, plastic-like substance, pale blue under normal lighting, pitted

It is to be noted that these finds do not correspond in materials or specification to any known components of the TKS Nanjing or any of the 1KBE’s equipment and supplies. It is also to be noted that the China National Space Administration never officially acknowledged these finds.

* * *

Lies go by at the speed of time. The truth bumbles along far behind, still looking for its first cup of coffee, while the whole world hears some other story.

All revelation is a lie. It must be. The divine is an incommunicable disease, too large and splintered to fit within the confines of a primate brain. Our minds evolved to compete for fruit and pick carrion, not to comb through the parasites that drop from the clouds of God’s dreaming.

But just as an equation asymptotically approaches the solution, so revelation can asymptotically approach the truth about the underlying nature of the universe. The lie narrows to the width of the whisker of a quantum cat, while the truth, poking slowly along behind, finally merges Siamese-twinned to its precursor.

That’s what we who remain tell ourselves.  Why would I deny it?

There has been a neutron bomb of the soul, cleansing the solar system, and thus the universe, of the stain that was the human race. Some of us remain, befuddled by the curse of our survival.

No corpses surround us.  We survivors don’t swim amid the billion-body charnel house of our species. They are gone, living on only in the dying power systems and cold-stored files and empty pairs of boots which can be found on every station, the deck of every ship, in the dusty huts and moldering marble halls on Earth and Luna and Mars.

The lie that was revelation became truth, and the speed of time simply stopped for almost everyone except the few of us too soul-deaf to hear the fading rhythm of the universe. Sometimes I am thankful that Marlys could hear the music that called her up. Sometimes I curse her name for leaving me behind.

My greatest fear, the one that keeps me awake most often, is that it is we survivors who vanished. Everyone else is there, moving forward at one second per second, but only our time has stopped, an infection that will make us see a glacier as fit driver for a waterwheel, and even the dying of the sun as a flickering afternoon’s inconvenience.

I keep waiting for the stars to slow down, their light to pool listlessly before my eyes.

And you? What are you waiting for? There are answers in the Kuiper Belt debris, on the frequencies Sameera Glasshouse tapped, in the trajectory of that old Soviet weapon.

All you have to do is follow them, and find the crack in the world where everything went.  One of these days, that’s where I’ll go, too.


Copyright © 2010 by Jay Lake
Art copyright © 2010 by Stephan Martiniere

Matthew B
1. MatthewB
"There is no t in e=mc2."

Not to be too pedantic, but c = 299,792,458 meters per second, so actually there is a t in there. t = 1 second.

Other than that - nice piece.
2. sniffy
Disappointing to see so many tired, politically fashionable tropes forcefully wedged into a small story space that would have benefitted from more coherence, and less posturing:

- Arabic/Islamic ascension over America
- Chinese ascension over America (this is the only plausible one in the list)
- White/middle-class/Republican (crazier than the Nazis!) ascension over America as the cause of its decline
- human race as a "stain" on the universe
- human race responsible for death of the universe
- truth and lie as equivalent
- standard issue hand-waving about "divinity"; alternately quantified and unquantifiable as suits the paragraph

And of course the undermining of the story's scientific premise by the basic algebraic error mentioned by mrburack @1.

Mr. Lake obviously knows how to write, but in this case, it's not evident that he knew what to write.
3. antares
A raft of 'tell'; a sliver of 'show'. A lot of ribbon wound around a cheap gift of unwanted political sentiment.
Mike Conley
4. NomadUK
I do so love it when the right-wing 'bots make their appearance; they lend such a refined air to the proceedings. The feeling is the one I get when I lift a chunk of stilton that's been on the countertop too many days and find the maggots squirming underneath.
Ethan Glasser-Camp
7. glasserc
I have to say I didn't like this story much either. You can like or dislike the tropes sprinkled throughout like sesame seeds, but I just didn't feel like the story went anywhere. I agree with @2 sniffy, and I don't think it's a political act to say so.

Noneo Yourbusiness
8. Longtimefan
There is a place for everything in Science Fiction.

What may seem like over used ideas to some may be the first encounter for others.

There was a time when no one had read the Lord of the Rings trilogy because it had not been written yet.

Even though it seems everyone has read it now there are people being born all the time who have to chose when and even if to read it.

I thought this short bit had some interesting moments.

Apparently for some being well-read may lead to being ill-mannered.
Michael Burke
9. Ludon
"There is no t in e=mc2."

This statement is both false and true. As mrburack pointed out, time is a component of the constant so the statement is false. However. There is no t in "e=mc2" so the statement could be argued to be true. It's a matter of perception - how you approach the statement. I do not know if this ambiguity was Mr. Lake's intent but I did pick it up and accepted it as part of the story.

My criticism of this story is that it is too short - leaving little room for developing the characters and allowing them to claim the views expressed within the story. I think the views others have fussed over may have been more acceptable if they had been expressed within a balanced dialog.

While the story seems to be about the end of the Human Race, I feel that that end should be just the hook. This story - if fully developed - should be about the perceptions and mis-perceptions that led to that end. That bit about lies leading and the truth following behind being balanced against the view that "All revelation is a lie." was interesting but it fell short. Had this been expanded upon, Mr. Lake might been led to the view that the difference between truth and lies is perception.

The river as steam or glacier touches on what I'm talking about and I liked the ambiguity at the end of the story but I felt that there was just not enough structure to support what Mr. Lake was trying to say. I'd love to see this story expanded.
10. MayorQuimby

Where is the rest of the story?
11. frgough
Someone makes a very accurate observation on the the totally unimaginative use of political correctness smothering the story, and someone steeped in PC makes the totally predictable response of spewing out a bunch of insults and holier-than-thou vitriol. 100% predictable.
12. bookwyrm5
MayorQuimby, my question is... Where is the story?

When I started writing I did unintended pastiches of Lovecraftian gothic. Filled with adjectives used as nouns and verbs. It was horrible, however much I enjoyed writing it & listening to the cadences when I recitied the overburdened sentences. This 'story' reminds me of that phase.

Sameera has the potential to be a very interesting character. But she is dropped abruptly and not returned to. References are made to events whose significance we never learn. They are not 'fleshed out.'

I, as a writer, enjoy learning new concepts and rarely used words. He pored them on too thickly, leaving me to distance myself from the text, to lose any desire to continue.

I will admit though, pareidolia is a useful word to know. ;->
13. ThePaganApostle
I, on the other hand, enjoyed the superficial style that bookwyrm4 complains about, if not the subject matter. While not of the same literary quality, it reminds me of short imagist poems by the likes of Williams and Pound which leave the majority of the details for the reader to flesh out.

I wouldn't read a novel written in this style, but I think for a short story it's enjoyable to be allowed to think on my own as a reader.

Now if only our dear author had chosen slightly less cliché subject matter...
rob mcCathy
14. roblewmac
I liked the writing better than the plot too. Basically it's a neat description of the end of a world the reader does not care much about. I liked it better than "The presedant's brain is missing"
15. Galadare
It feels like the author is experimenting with style elements he is not used to, and I can appreciate that. However, the content felt more like "Jay Lake Up On a Soap Box" than anything else.

I agree with roblewmac about the reader not caring about the end of the world, but what really gets me is why the narrator doesn't seem to care.

On the other hand, my compliments to Stephan Martiniere. That's a nice piece of work.
rob mcCathy
16. roblewmac
I got the idea the narrator was GOD hats off for trying to cover "God Watching the end of the world as a short.
17. Tombow
The russians have pulled the plug on the universe with time going out of sync and (unfortunately) taking large pieces of the story with it. Pieces large enough to disrupt the coherence and make puzzling the whole thing together impossible. Maybe there are answers in the outer Kupier belt, but I would rather prefer the answers in the author's fantasy.
18. Ush_G23
I... liked it, though I'm a sucker for this kind of story (Humanity in space, end of the world) and as such the political elements don't really bother me. The illustration is spectacular, does anyone know if it's a once-off or part of a series? Am I correct in thinking that Sameera's surname is a reference to the (excellent) novel by Charles Stross?
19. RFmich
I dunno.. don't you think there's a hint of irony her that fundamentally this looks like a story about the "rapture"?
20. Mistress Allen
I mean it, really.
Ben HM3
21. BenHM3
The story was grand, overflowing with thoughts and things to chew on, and just the right size for a delight. (It's not a meal, friends.)

The comments are fun to read as well, both positive and less-so. I'm sorry to add my trite-and-boring note of simple gratitude for everyone's contribution, but I must say, this is why I really enjoy Tor's site.
22. Rational
Nothing to this piece but a mood...
23. nepeta
I also liked the writing better than the plot. I'm not sure it even has much of a plot...

bookwyrm5 said:
"Sameera has the potential to be a very interesting character. But she is dropped abruptly and not returned to. References are made to events whose significance we never learn."

I was really hoping to find out more about those things, and it just didn't happen. What a disappointment. I think it's rude to the readers, to get us interested, and then say, "Never mind, I don't feel like telling you the story after all."
24. BryanThomasS
Gee folks. Writers have a point of view and they can't help but write it sometimes. Bit disappointed to see the slams here. Jay's work is proven over time to be of high quality. And even if this was an off story for him, maybe you should write and sell yours before you come down so harshly.
Brady Allen
25. akabrady
@ 24 sorry i couldn't let that be the last comment. The illogic of it claws at my brain.

Do you have to be a chef to know food is spoiled?

Do you have to be a musician to know music is out of tune?

Do you have to be a published author to know a bit of writing is crap?
26. JLA123
@ 24, 'Jay's work is proven over time to be of high quality.'Does that even have anything to do with -this- story? No. If his other stories were good, that's great, but that has nothing to do with the current story that is being spoken of.
27. BrianMc
I was really surprised to get to the end and realize that was it. I enjoyed several parts of the piece, but I do think there should be some sense of beginning, middle, and end in this sort of work, and I had the feeling that the author wrote a beginning, got a little bored in the middle, and ...
28. a j ponder
It's such a delight reading this piece, I love the way the characters come through so clearly in the voice and the use of the crack in the world/universe so that even the story begins to fissure near the end - and then the final line to tie everything together - nice.
29. Sabaticus
Would the editor please tell us what this story said that they wanted us to hear.
30. Aras rish
I like your story beacause it has good mean and i can understand it.
31. Chromatic8
I liked it just fine as both content and technique. Some stories are meant to be like archaeological remnants, providing enough information to intrigue and trigger speculation but not enough to permit definitive knowledge. I like those the best since I can fill their unmapped spaces with my own ideas. I also feel some readers need to allow thoughts attributed to characters to be imperfect rather than nitpicking algebraic trivia. If all the "flaws" complained about were rectified, this would be a long, boring position paper and not an interesting piece of work, cliches and all.

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