The Speed of Time
by Jay Lake
“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 water wheel, 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.