On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The problem with time isn’t time itself; it’s the consequences.
The physics surrounding it, I mean, and the corresponding repercussions. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
What does time mean to you? To me, it’s just another consequence of physics — and I don’t claim to be an expert on that either. Time is change, and measuring it is really just measuring other things in a unified and abstract way. It’s not a force, or a dimension, or even really a property of anything; it’s just this really useful way of keeping track of the stuff that’s happening.
People say that time has passed, but what they’re really saying is that the Earth has spun a bit, and moved a bit, and so the position of the Sun relative to us has changed. It’s become afternoon, or evening, because of those things. Time hasn’t done anything at all.
Because time is optional.
For me, at least. For you, it’s as mandatory as it is for everyone else. You’re eternally trapped in the present instant, moving inexorably forward, held frozen in a cage you can’t even perceive. But I can.
I first discovered that time is optional when I was a much younger man, in circumstances somewhat more prosaic than such an event rightly deserves. Suffice it to say that I was drunk, and sitting on the edge of a pavement with my feet splayed in the gutter, shivering in the 2 AM cold because I’d misplaced my jacket, and simultaneously cursing the universe and weighing up the pros and cons of some late-night junk food. I think the lack of inhibitions just opened something up, and I really looked at the scene around me.
There was a girl in heels that were far too high, clinging to her boyfriend’s elbow for balance. There was a police motorbike cruising by. There was an old woman, improbably pulling her little shopping cart at that late hour. And there was the fattest pigeon I’d ever seen, pecking fruitlessly at an empty wrapper for a cereal bar. The weather had been rainy earlier, and everything looked either greasy or glowing depending on your mood. It was beautiful in the ugly way that cities have; more comforting than inspiring. As I looked at it, I had a flash of insight that while so much had changed and would continue to change in the future, this particular location would always be there, independent of the dressing that humans placed on top of it.
And it all stopped.
The girl, mid-teeter on the damp concrete, eyebrows only beginning to lift up in alarm at her precarious position. The police officer on the bike, checking his mirrors to keep her legs in view instead of assuring his own traffic safety. The old woman, scratching the mass of lines around her left eye with the unselfconsciousness of someone who knows they’re all but invisible. The fat pigeon, driven by either relentless optimism or just plain stupidity, seeking food where none remained. All held in place, trapped in a moment that was no longer advancing.
The strangest part at first was the sudden lack of noise, like pressing the mute button on a remote control. The sudden cut-off of all sound is like a sound itself; there’s a sort of pop of absence, and your brain protests at the unnaturalness of it. Then there’s the panicky sensation you get when your eyes are no longer tracking any movement at all, anywhere in your visual field. It’s a claustrophobic feeling, somehow, even out in the open. You make the disturbing realisation that everything we perceive is just an internally-built model in our own minds; a theatre set, hiding a much more complex underlying reality.
The real problem, though, is the inability to really move or do anything. Those consequences of physics I was talking about earlier. As it turns out, moving around with time frozen in place — say to steal from someone’s wallet, or escape from a bore at a party, or even just skip to the front of a queue — isn’t possible. It would create a huge problem when time moves forward again, because you’d have displaced a whole lot of air, and shifted heat around, and instantaneously altered the local mass of the area you’re in, and probably a million other things. Those would all have Bad Effects when everything is unpaused, and the universe’s way of dealing with that is to just not make them possible in the first place. So it’s as if I’m paused too, in a way, except that I’m fully aware. I suppose it’s more like a cosmic straightjacket.
No superhero stuff. No being in two places at once. Not even the occasional free item from the Apple Store, alas. One of the only things I’ve found it useful for is just getting some time to myself, and particularly for reading.
Oh, I can’t turn the page — or press the relevant button on an e-reader — but I can at least look at and comprehend text. So if I haven’t had much spare time that day, and I want to get some serious reading done before bed, I just stop time once I’ve opened my book. Read a page, unpause and flip to the next page, pause and read on, and so forth. I’ve got it down to about a third of a second for each unpause/flip/pause cycle at my very fastest, assuming I’m using a digital reading device that’s responsive enough. It’s tiring, though.
And it all still adds up. My best streak was reading two hundred pages in that way, after a huge coffee, and in real time it took me less than five minutes. Afterwards, I went for a nap, and I couldn’t face reading again for a few days.
It’s a mixed blessing. It’s a gift and a curse, because it feels like so much potential is wasted by the mundane laws of reality. But I suppose that’s true for you and everyone else too, albeit without being able to hold an instant in the palm of your hand.
I suppose I could spend a whole life’s worth of time pondering the deep questions of the universe. I could devote myself to philosophy, or personal reflection, or something worthwhile; a way to really use these intermittent eternities within my own mind. I probably won’t, though.
At most, I’ll maybe finally get around to blasting through all the Pratchett books, or maybe the other Dune instalments. I suppose there’s always the classics too. When you can stop time, you have a lot of options for reading material.
But how I wish I could just be online instead.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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