Originally published in The Metaworker
The peace inside the giant glass bell is almost always short-lived.
Soon the translucent, riblike curves will spark with electric-blue orbs, followed by clouds of glittering cosmic dust, followed again by a wave of pin-sized fires burning up as fast as they ignite, a lightshow of tachyons, dilatons, exotic matter and phantom particles. Hell of a thing. It’ll go on fussing until a body materializes, like a fetus growing inside a crystal womb. A person will hunch where there wasn’t one before. They’ve tensed from someplace near or far, across seconds or centuries, forcing the universe to rip a hole in itself for the privilege to travel through time. Hell of a hell of a thing.
For many, watching someone tense would be a kind of gut-check oracular, a keyhole glimpse into how this—all of this, our sad, beautiful slice of space-time—teeters eternally on the edge of a great, violent mindfuck. For me, however, it’s just 11:43PM on a Tuesday. I’m sitting in my office, the utility cellar of the Anderlin Industrial Plumbing Company, sipping my iced chicory, dutifully guarding the line between universal order and complete temporal chaos. I’m the watcher at the bell. I’ve been the watcher at the bell for the past 1,157 days.
Today’s no different. Said bell has just gotten over another tantrum, hissing with Einsteinian rage. I peer from behind the dark console screen, my hand jotting notes in muscle-memory to document the figure inside. Naked but for a metallic heatsheet clinging to his torso. Dark hair gone curly from the humidity of the chamber. Confusion wrung through the face like a damp rag. A middle-aged man, probably a father.
Like every single one before, it takes him a moment to realize he’s trapped inside what’s fundamentally an eight-foot cloche. Tends to be disorienting. Must be what bugs feel when they get stuck under a cup. One arm waves away the thick, presolar smoke burning his eyes, the other reaches out to feel the warm glass of his new prison. There’s a patina of fingerprints from all who’ve come since the last cleaning. I’ve lost count how many.
When the dust clears and the wits return he ventures a look, shooting me a peering-into-the-abyss kind-of face that dithers between scowl and smirk. Not the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve had travelers scream like howler monkeys and fling their own shit at the glass, so not by a longshot. Tensing does incontrovertible things to the mind.
As usual, I stare back from the other side of the screen, eyes half-lidded. Clearing my throat makes a sound like old snakeskin scratching against dry desert mud. Over the years it’s become an art.
“Name and date of birth,” I recite.
He tries to speak but can only manage one long, wet cough.
“Name and date of birth, please.”
The traveler gets himself upright just in time to throw up. Milk like what’s inside a slug splashes against the glass.
“Where am I? This isn’t—” He can’t finish, his mouth flushed with bile.
This isn’t where I’m supposed to be, where I was supposed to go. Probably not. Few would risk the legal and existential risks of tensing just to land in Anderlin B1, with the stacks of toilet paper and tissues, the pallets of gray-brown paper towels, the mysterious drips, the scurrying mice, a woman such as myself in a nondescript jumpsuit subjecting you to callous inquiry as you sit doll-like under the confines of a hot, glass chamber. This isn’t where anyone is supposed to be.
“Name and date of birth.”
“Please.” He’s on the verge of tears. The trauma laid down by tensing is the heaviest thing he’ll ever have to bear. “Help me.”
“I am helping,” I inform him coolly through the intercom. “Name and date of birth.”
“Will you just listen?” Minnesotan accent, if I’m not mistaken. I rarely am. If your job consists mainly of hearing out pleas, you’ll get very good at picking out dialects. “I was trying to get to my son. He’s sick in the present. He needs treatment, he needs…me.” His fist taps the glass in a light plea. The bell rings in sympathy. “He needs his father.”
I’m not supposed to ask questions, get into conversations, shoot the shit, chew the fat. No bribing, no pleading, no equivocations. Name and date of birth. Hit the first button. Make sure vitals read zero. Hit the second button. Wait. Repeat. The orders are explicit, the programming thorough. It hasn’t been a problem for years. It shouldn’t be a problem now.
“Sir, with all due respect, can we cut the act?” My intercom drone is nigh-perfect, a dirge of vampiric professionalism and pure boredom. All the more easy for the fact that he can’t see my face through the tinted screen. “I’m sure you’re already aware that tensing is illegal. Even if you didn’t, ignorance of the law is no excuse.”
“This is a special circumstance. You don’t—”
“It’s illegal, pure and simple. Senate Bill 7633, the Maintaining Time-Space Integrity Act, or MATSI. Unanimous vote. Quickest passage of a global bylaw in history. All over the news. Years now.”
“I’m begging you—”
“The decree itself was tensed both backward and forward—“
“—so there are no exceptions. No one gets grandfathered in.”
“Name and date of birth.”
“Please! If I tell you, will you listen to what I’ve got to say?”
“No,” I recite impassively. “This is a sentencing procedure, not a conversation.”
“Have you read MATSI, sir?”
Blank eyes again.
“Time travel is punishable by death.”
His mouth swings open like an incredulous hinge. “You can’t.”
“I can, by the authority of over a hundred national governments, NGOs, conglomerates, corporations and institutions. There are no exceptions and no appeals. Ever.”
The traveler’s head sinks a bit as he gulps in a few choice breaths. A swindler caught in his own con or the last heave of a desperate man; from behind the console it all looks the same. Some tense knowing the consequences, hoping to skirt them. Others go tripping through without ever knowing at all. The end is the same for both.
“—it’s cancer.” He looks at me like I’m a priest on the other side of a reconciliation screen. “Spread from the left lung. Secondhand smoke.”
I don’t need to the ask who the firsthand smoker was. The lines carving his face are guilt manifested in flesh, ballooning into thick scars through the bell’s glass walls. Whatever his age is, he looks twice that.
“If I could just go back, convince younger me to quit, or, I mean, at least warn him, then…” He exhales. “You can do whatever you want to me. Just let me get the message to him, please. That’s all I’m asking.”
“There are no exceptions and no appeals,” I repeat.
“Fuck you.” His teeth glow as he bares them, flashing under the long, fluorescent bulbs that light up the supply room. One fist punches against the bell’s ribcage, then the other, right then left, again and again. No sympathetic ring this time. Just dead smacks. He’s doing what any caring father is supposed to do. “How did I even get here? This isn’t—”
“—where you’re supposed to be, I know.” The display is lost on me. Righteous anger is neither righteous nor angry when you see it for the ten-thousandth time. “That glass bell you’re standing in is called the Redirect. A trap, for all intents and purposes. Anyone who tries to tense at any point in time, either past or future, will get sucked up and plopped out right where you’re standing. There’s no escaping it. The world’s best engineers and a decade of eggheadery guarantees that. Anyone who wants to time travel, even just to dabble, ends up here in the basement before they can do any damage. It’s a safety precaution.”
The disgust on his face makes him look sunsick, a lost soul stumbling out of the Mojave, skin as cracked as the mesas, shadows dripping down as dark and sticky as tar pits coating his tired eyes. As I watch him crumple I realize that, for the first time, I pity him. A strange feeling. Perhaps a bank of empathy has been building up with each successive visitor, leading to this one man who finally stacked the load to its toppling point. It still won’t change the outcome. Nothing bends the arrow of time.
“Are you happy, doing this?” he mutters from the floor of the bell.
“It’s not about me, sir. Some things just have to get done.” I lean on the intercom. “Name and date of birth.”
“What makes someone do something like this?”
He’s not listening. My finger aches from holding the speaker button. Just answer it, already.
“Name and date of birth.”
“You don’t even know what it means, what it requires,” he challenges. “Literally a button-pusher, aren’t you? They’ve given the most important job in the world to a Philistine.”
I practically slam my fist down on the intercom. “Tensing, known in layman’s terms as time travel. Conducted via a tesseract-shaped vessel that requires at least a mile-long field and speeds hitting 1.5 speed-of-light, or 1.5c, roughly 279,423 miles per hour. The tesseract unfolds as it completes its journey, becoming a hypercube, or what they call Dali’s Cross.”
The traveler does a bit of a double-take, his eyes less guarded after the second glance. “Lines from a textbook,” he accuses.
“Memories from my brain,” I respond. “I’ve seen one up close.”
“You’re just a drone.”
Not true. The memory of it sticks to my brain like flypaper. A Nazarene of mercury glass, smoking, steaming, licked by flame. A crucible from out of time. Like staring into a scorched mirror.
My silence while thinking about it must convince him of my sincerity.
“You’ve done it before?” he asks.
“Not exactly. But I’ve seen it happen. A woman, three years ago.”
“So she was a lot like you,” I explain. “Stepped right out from the coat closet of my old studio apartment. Naked as the day she was born except for a shiny aluminum blanket.”
“A hypercube showed up in your apartment,” he scoffs.
“Oh yes. It skinned the paint right off the walls.” I lean forward, knowing he can see only my silhouette. “Can you imagine? A strange woman, dripping with placenta, staggering out of an overcooked machine just as you get home from a long day at work.”
“It’s density gel, not placenta.”
“Doesn’t matter what it was. The point is, I’ve seen it happen. And unlike you, I understand why the Redirect must exist. You see, this woman, she didn’t do what the first ones did. She didn’t go back in time to see if Jesus was really Jesus, or kill Hitler, or find the inventor of the wheel. She just wanted to do one simple thing—save her little brother. He was in mortal danger, just like you son. Hit by a box truck as he was playing in the road. She thought if she went back, just by a few moments, she could stop it. And that, my friend, is the greatest sin you can ever commit against the universe.”
“Why on earth?” he demands, slumped against the floor of the bell like damp laundry. “Of all things, why try to stop someone from saving a life? It’s cruel.”
“It’s not cruel. It’s science. The universe will tolerate you bending the rules, not breaking them. Matter cannot be created or destroyed.”
“The law of conservation of mass?”
“Glad to see you’re familiar with that, at least. But do you know what happens to the rule if you tense to a time when you already exist?”
“I don’t know.”
“Exactly. Not a question that comes up a lot. You assume most people want to go way into the future or centuries back. You think they would. But sometimes the answer to a big question isn’t a big answer. It’s a little one. That childhood sweetheart that got away, the job interview you blew. Making sure you say I love you one last time. The little ones. The little regrets. It’s like giving a kid a shiny, expensive toy wrapped up in a too-big box. What do you figure they wanna do?”
“Play with the box,” he figures.
“Exactly.” Maybe this won’t take so long after all. “Time travel is the big, expensive toy. Erasing those nagging regrets is the box. Problem is, if you’ve stepped only a few years forward or backward then there’s two of you now, isn’t there? There’s the one that already existed…”
“…and the one who’s stepped through,” he realizes.
“You’ve duplicated yourself in space-time, creating matter out of nothing. The universe doesn’t like that very much. It’ll start reacting strangely. Sprouting off alternate dimensions, changing the laws of physics, speeding up the decay of organic matter. You can imagine why we’d want to outlaw something like that, right?”
“Perhaps,” he says archly. “But what if where I was going and where I’ve ended up are one in the same? What if you’ve prevented nothing by keeping me here?”
I smile wryly. “Now you know why we like to make it quick. If the other you is out there right now, then we’ve only got a few minutes until things start to get squirrely.” I lean back into my usual slouch and take a sip of chicory. “So, now that you know—name and date of birth, please.”
“What happens to me if I tell you?” he asks, grim with expectation. His eyes are painted like a fresh dose of surrealism, hellishly white and bulging into unnatural shapes. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he’s trying to buy some time, maybe take a chance on what entropy could bring down on our heads.
“We’ve already discussed this.”
“No, I mean—how does it happen?”
Over the years I’ve managed to distill all hesitation from my voice, but I can still feel the hitch in my throat when I answer. Today’s been the worst kind of aberration. I’m again thankful that he can only see my shadow.
“The floor you’re standing on now is a conductive trapdoor. One shock from that and you’re knocked out instantly. That’s the first part. Second step is getting sucked through door into the incinerator below.”
His eyes bulge even wider.
“It’s completely painless, I assure you. The shock is 150 milliamps, enough to knock you out permanently. The worst you’ll feel is a little bit of a jolt, and then—peace.”
“And my son?”
“He’ll have his peace, too, just as time intended it.” I lift my chin. “Name and date of birth.”
“Will you tell him?”
The questions hangs there like a thick fog. This I hadn’t considered. I don’t think it’s ever been asked.
His eyes shine stubbornly, as hard and bleak as pure anthracite. “If there’s time, if I’ve come back far enough…will you warn him? Or at least warn the me from before? Smack the cigarette out of my hand?”
I stare at him.
“Promise you’ll do that, and I won’t waste any more of your time.”
“It’s a violation for me to tell you any date-related information,” I advise him.
I don’t know what possesses me to tell him. It’s so silly a notion that my brain outright refuses it, only to have it dither as the offer sits there, lingering for my consideration. I go from complete denial to full compromise in the space of several seconds. I violate the fundamental rules of my job. I tell him the year.
He sighs, a fireball of relief blazing out of him. His name follows, his date of birth. I don’t write them down. The routine comes and goes without me.
“Alright, do it,” he says, squaring his shoulders and staring straight ahead. His eyes seem to bore holes through the bell and the console screen both. “Put your universe back in its place.”
I flip the breaker. Voltage fingers up through the bell like it belongs to the hands of an irradiated grotesque. He’s already collapsed through the steam. The trapdoor opens next, dropping him into the hidden subbasement. The incinerator flares and he’s gone. In another day it’ll require cleaning. Flue gas needs to be depressurized, cinder scrubbed from the walls.
I’d be lying if I said it still wasn’t satisfying hitting that electrocution switch after all these years, and it’s not because I hate the travelers. I pity them, if anything. No, the real reason is the same for why I can never carry out the promise I’d just made to him: I can’t leave. Anderlin B1 is my prison, and this, sitting here, watching the bell, flipping the switch, is my punishment. I didn’t have the heart—really, the courage—to tell him that the woman in the aluminum blanket was me; the other-me, the future-me, the me who did everything she could to step back, to reach through time, violating what should never be violated to affect whatever sliver of difference she could to save her brother. My brother. The firsthand smoker, so to speak. It’s because of her that I’m here, every day, every night, watching the bell. It’s her I picture when I flip the switch.
I remember what she told me three years ago, before I knew who she was, before the men in suits busted in, killing her and any hope she might’ve had to do a goddamn thing about anything. The words are seared into my gray matter. Her eyes, too. Like ewers into another dimension.
“When a woman is baptized, she comes up out of the water a brand new person.”
I was never dipped into the sacramental waters, but I’ve still felt them ripple. After she was dead they took me, tried me, tortured me. Time passed strangely. Days or weeks or months later some judge or group of judges decided it was for the best that I be forced to serve the sentence that she earned.
Imagine, day in and day out, having to pay for an act you haven’t committed, and will in fact never commit. Punished for the whim of someone you might be, someday. Penance for a maybe. A punishment that consists of only this: waiting.
Waiting for my little brother to get hit by that truck, knowing as I do because of other-me that he’ll inevitably die long before he’s supposed to, that I’m powerless to lift any finger except the one that hits the buttons.
Waiting as I realize, day by day, that I’m responsible, however indirectly, for the deaths of thousands of people, either those who tense, or those who they tense for, all of it preventable.
Waiting in the cold, fusty basement of the Anderlin building, knowing the calm inside the giant glass bell is always short-lived, a pretense to another violent death.
Waiting. Waiting is my damnation. My torture.
I glare at the Redirect, its belly sparking again. Another meal soon to arrive, another sinner convinced they’re doing savior’s work. My finger hovers over the intercom like a fly trapped in a web. With a question I’ll take their confession and with a click I’ll render them unto ash. The watcher at the bell. The judge and the reckoner. I wish I could tell each of them the truth: that time is the same whether you want to skip through it or go at normal speed, backwards or forwards, past or future. It doesn’t care for you. Time is just time, and time never gives. Time can only take.
The lights glow, the fires burn, the smoke churns and clears. A shadow in the bell. The 1,157th day becomes the 1,158th.
“Name and date of birth.”