All of Time at Once

Apr 21, 2004 • 3228 words • 16 minutes
| Science fiction | Time travel | rated G

“A driver after my own heart,” I muttered to myself. I’d taken to talking to myself while driving to help keep the more drastic emotions to a minimum. I’ve been working on reducing the negative comments in favor of more positive ones — make your drivers happy drivers! — and with this utterance, I was praising a slightly battered Jeep that was driving at my usual, comfortable two miles above the speed limit: I was neither gaining on him, nor was I lagging behind, so I forgot about him and set about losing myself in the music. I have a love-hate relationship with Prokofiev.

My happy driving, however, was soon interrupted by an emergency signal from the truck in front of me. Looking to its rear window for an explanation, I was rewarded with the shadowy figure of the driver inside gesturing repeatedly for me to pull over. Fearful that the Jeep might be some sort of undercover cop, I complied quickly, and was soon stopped behind the Jeep on the soft shoulder of a fairly empty Highway 93. Admittedly creepy, but I was supposed to be kind, wasn’t I? I was supposed to help.

The guy who was in the truck clambered out slowly and walked towards my Pathfinder, his hands facing palms up at his sides in a disarming gesture.

“Hello, friend!” I heard him say as I rolled down the window. “I wasn’t as smart as I usually pretend to be, and I’m nearly out of gas. Think you could lend me some? If you follow me to the gas station, I’ll fill your tank, too.”

I blinked — there was an interesting request. I looked closely at the man, who introduced himself as Nicholas — “But you can call me Nick” — in hopes of finding something of his intentions. His honest face and, I thought, striking resemblance to me assuaged any fears, and I nodded to the request. Boulderites were supposed to be nice. Anyway, I’d just that morning put an extra can of gas in the back of my truck, promising myself never to let my tank get as low as it had the last time.

We set about getting him ready to go. Through polite chatter, I learned that he was just moving back to Boulder after a leave of absence and he learned that my name was Joseph. I mentioned earlier that people from Boulder tend to be friendly (and liberal, and new-age…), but the way Nick was opening up, he must’ve lived there quite a long time. I didn’t exactly mind, but I wasn’t quite yet on the same level as him.

By the time we finished emptying my can of gas into his dusty truck, I’d agreed to let Nick pay me for the gas and the quarter tank’s worth needed to fill my truck (mostly because I was broke), and, addicts that we both were, we agreed to stop by at a nearby coffee shop afterwards, since neither of us had anything to do afterwards.

Our discussion moved onto current events over two mochas, mine with a shot of peppermint in it (trendy, but tasty). We’d tried talking about ourselves, to be friendly, but we mostly ended up just skirting interesting details and pretending to reveal our secrets. By silent agreement, we decided that neither of us knew each other well enough to continue on such a subject, so we moved onto something more neutral.

“They say that, since he plead insanity, even though he plead guilty to rape, they’re going to charge her with prostitution.” Nick was saying. “It’s like they’re taking the ‘asking for it’ argument to a new extreme: having insane people rape you is your fault or something.”

“That’s…stupid,” I say slowly, feeling fairly stupid myself. “You’d think they’d have some common sense about these things.” My mind was moving slow, like it does when you’ve not had any sleep the night before. I wasn’t tired, I was just thinking with all the speed of a bottle of molasses. Of course, that didn’t stop my elitist emotions from riling up against the stupidity of a nation.

The conversation continued much along the same lines, through the two mochas we each had, until we decided to go our separate ways. I was thinking that I’d have to stop and give people gas more often, if it would always lead to meeting someone, when Nick called across the top of his car over at me, “See you next week?”

I agreed.

Nick and I have been meeting about once or twice a week for a solid year now. Not much has really changed. Well, sure, many things have changed — I’m a sophomore in college now, and he found a good job working at a local ISP — just that between us, not a whole lot has evolved. We’ve grown more comfortable about sharing more personal things with each other, but current events are still the number one topic at our meetings. He’s a good, consistent friend.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the slow feeling I get while around him. It’s progressed a bit, perhaps, and it feels a bit like déjà vu now. I’ve been pondering seeing someone about it, but I’m not sure whom I would see. It’s a physical feeling, but the cause, being around Nick, is so specific that it sounds psychological. Nicks says just to ignore it, and that he’s felt the same thing about others, and that things turned out fine. He then proceeded to joke that it may be love.

No, things haven’t really changed for us, but the world around us has. Our recent conversations have spanned across topics from the news ranging from the sudden resurgence of a cappella pop music among college students to recent NASA disasters, from more absurd crimes to new follies of the res publica.

One current scandal was over the growth of interest in magic. The physicists said no, the metaphysicists said maybe, and the media happily embraced it while conservative groups around the world denounced it angrily before going on to practice their own brand of mysticism.

Most notable in this movement was a group calling themselves ‘The Mentats,’ capital M on Misnomer. Seems a guy named Clarke, one of those Doctors that makes you wonder if some university really do just hand out degrees, had a good couple hundred people convinced that the type of magic he professed to be able to really ‘do’ was real, and that they too could practice it before long. He had been quietly disappeared after a while, though, and had left behind his group to do as they would.

Unfortunately for the world, the Mentats weren’t just a cult, and, however subtle, their ‘magic’ was real (real being a slippery, subjective term in itself; I just use it to mean with visible results, never mind the process). Unfortunate, as I said, because the world just wasn’t quite ready for this — the understatement of the universe — and soon the Mentats had been laughed down, beaten down, and had willingly gone down into the underground of society, spreading ties as any normal cult would.

On to the important thing, though: sushi. A once-every-few-months type of deal, Nick and I went to a nice, modern sushi restaurant. The chairs were uncomfortable, the place was noisy and poorly lit, but the sushi was excellent and, as an added bonus, there was a small, flowing stream of water running in a shallow-cut trench in the bar. No fish, though.

“So, what do you think of this whole Mentat thing?” Nick asked. He had caught me right as I had neatly fit a piece of a tempura roll in my mouth. He was an expert at that.

I finished the tasty morsel and leaned back, trying to think of a tactful reply. “I think it was poorly done. I mean, that Clarke guy had the right idea, train a few in case something got him, but distributing the documents on the internet just made the governmentals more edgy. They don’t like stuff done for free like that, they’re capitalists. Besides, it would’ve been awful if they’d decided to do the oppression thing,” ever ready to expound my opinion as truth, was I.

Nick nodded sagely, but I hazarded a random question, anyway. “Why? Are you a Mentat?”

This got a chuckle out of him, and he said before he went back to eating, “I don’t look for signs, they don’t prove anything.” Great, a non-answer.

Eating seemed like a pretty good idea, so I shrugged and left the subject alone. I’d remember to ask him later that night. In actuality, I asked him the next week, as I’d forgotten. This is what convinced me of the reality of what the Mentats were doing. Never mind what actually happened, the process isn’t what’s important, only the result, and the result was that I was convinced, for better or for worse.

This time, thins have changed. A whole lot has happened in a year. It’s now been about two since the faithful day I stopped to lend a stranger some gas, and that stranger and I have grown closer. I’ve promised myself not to say the ‘R’ word, but perhaps I must: I’m beginning to think of Nick as a romantic interest. Eugh. Romance; it makes me feel like I’m high school again, and that’s not a good feeling. That dreaded word has haunted me throughout my life. Whenever I had a ‘romantic interest’ with a girl, it never lasted more than a few months as said girl learned more about me (or I learned more about her), and whenever I had such an ‘interest’ in a boy, I ended up either having to hide it from people I knew, or he did, making things rather difficult.

I have better things to talk about than my love life, though, and I’m straying from them, so I’ll do as Nick and I do, and shift my rambles to current events. The Mentats were in the news again, this time with more surprises. There had been a minor but successful revolution wherein the Mentats, who had grown by a surprising amount had basically just come out as a church and declared themselves that legally. There had been a few short squabbles about it, but, since it became a matter of religion, it was soon left alone except for the standard name-throwing engaged in by other religious groups.

The press had taken this fairly well, and it just got an objective column on the front page, at least in the local paper. A good half of them were Mentats , anyway; they had spread further than some might like to think. Once again, the process wasn’t nearly as interesting as the results. Small, subtle acts of the Mentats' magic only made the news for the first few weeks, but after their ‘repertoire’ was shown to be rather limited, the papers stopped reporting on them. It wasn’t so much of a sensation anymore.

I, personally, didn’t care all that much. From what I’d seen, the Mentats had taken fairly understandable things and wrapped them in a mythos and collection of ceremonies to make it more palatable. It seemed cheap to me, no matter what they could do.

Perhaps part of the reason for my complacency is that, since I’ve moved in with Nick (I forgot to mention; I’m a junior now, and was getting tired of living in the student housing), the slowness and déjà vu have gotten progressively worse. Yet I still hold off on seeing anyone, lest I become the object of scrutiny; not everyone has taken to complacency like I was. I’m still doing fine with school and everything, as when I’m working, the feeling pretty much gets pushed to the back of my mind. I’m thinking it’ll go away when it’s ready.

Anyway, I was studying for midterms and Nick was lounging on the patio when our collective life was change. The knock on the door startled me from my notes, and it was with a disgruntled attitude that I answered the door to a tall man, sharply dressed, who looked like he was prematurely balding. Some sort of high level type Mentat, most likely.

“Hello,” said he. “You are Joseph Stringer.” It wasn’t a question as much as it was a statement of truth (an annoying habit of the more advanced Mentats), so he kept on talking. “Nicholas Jospeh Stroud is out on the porch. I wish to talk with you both.”

The man was frightening, so I nodded, swallowed dryly, and led him out to the porch where we took a seat next to Nick. Nick himself hardly acknowledged our presence, he just kept staring out from the porch over into the park next door. It was an eternity before anyone spoke: I was too confused to, and the Mentat was content to sit five years in that one spot if need be, and Nick was clearly reflecting on something. Nevertheless, he was the first one to break the silence, “Hello, Doctor Clarke.” I blinked and looked stolidly at the large, balding man. I had a headache. “I’ve been feeling worse. It’s about time, isn’t it?”

Then, in the most emotion I think I’ve ever seen an advanced Mentat exude, Clarke sighed. “You know what will happen. I just wished to let you know how soon, so that you may prepare yourself.” If Nick became an advance Mentat, I probably would go insane, having to live with him. “Do you mind if I leave from here.” Another statement. He left. I suppose the brevity comes with the lack of emotion.

I don’t remember much for a while after that. I think I went to lie down, because that’s what I was doing when I started remembering again. Nick crept into my darkened room quietly and sat down on the edge of the bed. Once more, there was an eternity of silence, which, once again, Nick broke.

“Do you know what is happening?”

I shook my head.

“Well, while the Mentats were finding out what they could do, one of them hypothesized time travel. They never tried it until a few days ago, when they sent a mouse back a few minutes. They’re going to send something else back soon…” he trailed off.

With my mind moving as slow as cold honey, it took me about five minutes before I figured out what Nick was talking about. When I did finally understand, I could barely speak, and the first few times I tried came out as croaks. Eventually, I eked out, “Me?”

Nick nodded, “You. Are you seeing what’s happened? They sent you back, and then you became me…”

I felt my mind clearing slightly as I had this problem to think about. I sat up in bed and eyed myself: Nick. Always a fan of science fiction, I had to ask, “But wouldn’t that be a paradox?”

“Not necessarily,” said Nick. “You’ll see it clearly when they send you back, but I’ll try to explain. Time wouldn’t let anything bad come of it; if you go back in time, it’s as I met you. You’ve changed because your time flowed forward at a different time as mine, and your experiences have changed you. That bull about the same atoms occupying the same space at the same time has the same possibility of happening as you finding the gaps between the atoms in a wall and walking right through it.”

I laughed as I pictured someone sliding back and forth along a wall to find the gaps. I lay back down and stared up at the ceiling as the laughter faded. My perception of reality was falling apart. I closed my eyes and remembered the past two years. My brain had tricked me. It had seen the truth behind Nick from the beginning, but it refused to acknowledge that such a thing was true until it was confirmed. Now that it had been confirmed, I felt like I was merging with myself — Nick — who stretched out beside me. I thought of how I felt about him/me, and blurted out that I loved him/myself, even if he/I already knew.

“I know.” He laughed, which made me blush, and continued, “It’s the ultimate in narcissism, isn’t it? When the Mentats ran through their records in search of someone to send back, they were searching for someone who was just a bit naïve and had good self-esteem. If they hadn’t done that, there would’ve been a good chance that, even though the two had met up, they might hate each others' guts.”

I nodded and gave me a hug, since it seemed like I needed it. I’m going to let me have my pen now so I can finish writing my story, as I don’t think I can keep going. I’m rather tired, even if I’m not, and I think I should let me sleep, as I have a big event ahead of me. I think I’ll have myself sleep with me tonight, though, as I need to be alone with my thoughts.

Joseph gave me his pen, turned over, and fell asleep immediately. Reading what he’d written brought back many, many memories, several of which he’d recorded. I won’t add any more, he covered enough.

I don’t think he’ll want to write any more in the morning than he did just now, so I’ll explain what will happen to him.

His slowness and déjà vu feelings will increase right up until they send him back, when he’ll feel that his head is about to explode. Then, when he’s being sent, the feelings will abruptly stop.

Beinng sent is the most relaxing thing that you could ever have happened to you after those feelings. Like Steven King’s The Jaunt, “It’s forever in there,” but the end result isn’t nearly the same (i.e: you don’t go insane, nor do you grow any older). You have an eternity to spend examining time laid out before you.

All of time at once is a beautiful thing. Words can’t describe it, because none of the five senses experience it. You can sense your own track, your own destiny through time, and everyone else’s independently. You’re spread out across all of eternity as you fall toward the infinitely small point of your destination in time.

As he takes forever to instantaneously snap back into reality, he will understand who Time is: Time is kind, but strict. Time will bend the rules to let him back in, but Time will give him the headaches. I still have mine. I suspect they will go away when Joseph does. I also suspect that Time will pretend Joseph never was, but that Time will let my memories of the past two years stay; it’s not the process that matters, so much as the result.

As for what happens to Joseph after, you already know that. Me, I think I’ll become a writer; the Mentats will take care of me for my ‘service to humanity,’ and I suspect Time will be kind enough to let me live quite a bit longer. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ll use a pseudonym, though. I’m rather fond of Nicholas.