Time

He was spinning, arms and legs flailing in slow motion as the explosion grew infinitesimally.  Stupid.  The blast was fairly well-contained, and from his bizarre relativistic vantage point he had plenty of time to study it.  At this rate, it could take weeks to fully envelop the lab…perhaps even months. Perhaps longer still. And here he was, helpless to stop it, doomed to take hours to fall to the floor, and what then?  The thought of burning to death in slow motion was hardly appealing. The thought of bleeding to death over the next few weeks even less so. Yet as the blast grew, maddeningly slow but steadily, both were likely outcomes.  There had to be something he could do. He had nearly all the time in the world.

The meteor shower wasn’t overly long, or overly large.  No particularly impressive asteroids, no exotic materials.  Everything about the shower itself was perfectly normal. But the experiment they were carrying was anything but.  The entire thing was only about two meters tall, half a meter wide, looking for all the world like little more than a giant hourglass of transparent plastic.  It was what lay within the vessel that truly made it special…what was it the doctor had called it? Something about manipulating time. Rasiel was never much for the loftier sciences.  He was more interested in the inner workings of his ship, which of course the doctor had insisted would not be affected by his experiment.  He’d neglected to mention what would happen if anything went wrong.

It had happened so fast…at first.  He’d unsealed the hatch to find an energetic anomaly forming at the center of the containment vessel.  It almost looked like the static effect of a Van de Graaff generator, but something was wrong. As the effect built, he noticed that the vessel began to implode.  Skidding to a halt, he’d barely had time to raise his hands for protection before the hourglass pulled inward. There was a bright flash, an expected boom, and then it was as if everything froze.  Or nearly froze. He’d taken about a step and a half toward the vessel before he found himself thrown backward, knocked off his feet.  Then time slowed nearly to the point of stopping, and he found himself falling about as slowly as one possibly could.

For a moment, he’d held his breath.  He had no idea what was happening, and part of him expected time to normalize at any second, flinging him into the wall of the lab with a spray of glass and searing flame to follow.  That hadn’t happened, at least not yet. He’d been given time, though he had no idea how much. He would have to make the most of it. Straining, he worked to turn his head. No use. It felt as though he were immersed in cement; upon turning his head he could tell he was moving, but only just.  Why was he still fully aware of the time dilation, though? Rasiel wasn’t particularly well-versed in relativity, but he was fairly certain that if his body was experiencing relativistic forces, his mind should as well. Why wasn’t it?

Now, far too late, he wished he’d taken the time to listen to that droning scientist.

For a moment he grew frantic.  He struggled, trying to flap his arms, kick with his legs, only to be reminded that they could barely move.  He began to panic, yet despite his anxiety he found his breathing and heartbeat remained steady. No doubt he’d be gasping for air in a few hours, and somehow he found the prospect of panic in slow motion more terrifying than anything else he’d experienced.  No.  Despite all appearances to the contrary, this was not a time to panic.  He needed to think.

He had to do something.  An explosion like this could severely damage the ship’s power systems, to say nothing of producing a temporal anomaly that could completely engulf local space.  Somehow, he needed to find a way out of this, and a way to seal whatever tear this thing had created, but how? He could barely move, and at any rate he was falling.  He was being blown back from the blast, and even if he could find a way to reverse direction he’d only be running headlong into an explosion. If he had an EVA suit that might not be such a bad idea; he could find some way to contain the blast.  But he had no way of getting a suit, especially because anything he might devise capable of freeing him would no doubt permit the blast to continue unabated.

He tried to crane his head again.  Once again, scarcely any movement; his eyes remained fixed forward.  Unable to retrain his gaze, he focused, studying what lay directly ahead as intently as possible.  Beyond the blast, which he’d already seen enough of, he could see debris, mostly bits of glass and plastic, drifting almost imperceptibly toward the far wall, where no doubt they would…

His musings ceased as, beyond the blast, several shards of glass appeared to vanish.  At first he assumed he’d merely imagined things; the fragments in question were far enough away and transparent.  He might well have been seeing things. However, moments later several more fragments appeared to simply blink out of existence.  It was as if they’d never been there. What was happening? Again, his mind spun as he considered the possibilities. Could this anomaly be lethal?  What if this thing was breaking down the very elemental bonds of matter? What if it was unraveling existence itself? He wanted desperately to scream as his mind concocted a nightmare scenario in which a freak laboratory accident resulted in the complete dissolution of space-time, matter being torn apart on a fundamental level, all of existence being reduced to its most base particles and spinning out.

No.  He couldn’t afford to panic.  There had to be some reason for this.  He knew enough physics to piece this together.  He was certain. Struggling to remain calm, he took stock of his situation.  He was falling, but very slowly. No doubt that suggested time dilation. If that was so, it meant he was caught in some manner of anomaly in which time had slowed to the infinitesimal, a finite region of…

For a moment, every thought fled his mind, save one.  A single word.

Finite.

No doubt the anomaly was not boundless; it had to stop somewhere.  The size of the anomaly before the implosion suggested something miniscule, the fact that it had imploded meant it had grown smaller still.  No doubt its area of effect was severely limited, and as he watched yet more pieces of debris vanish at the far end of the room, he finally put it together: the objects were not being annihilated, they were passing the event horizon.  As they emerged from the anomaly, time returned to normal, at which point they began moving too fast for him to see. That meant the area of effect was less than a half-meter behind him. And he was already falling backward.

So he had step one down.  He need only continue to fall, and eventually he’d fall clear of the anomaly.  But what then? Would the anomaly continue to expand, would it eventually consume the entire ship?  One problem at a time; he was falling. He needed to plan for his landing. While the debris ahead of him was clearly moving, the explosion clearly expanding, everything was still happening far too slowly to allow him to estimate speeds.  He had no real idea of when, exactly, he would fall far enough to emerge from the anomaly, only that it would eventually happen. He needed something more precise than that to work with. He needed numbers.  The glass!  That was it.  The explosion occurred at roughly the instant the anomaly had formed.  It took a few moments to work everything out, but eventually he settled on a time of roughly three hours, eighteen minutes to the event horizon.  And with no way to propel himself faster, no way to so much as twitch, he had little else to do but prepare for his emergence.

Once he emerged, he would still be flying, and no doubt the force of the blast would hurl him toward the far wall.  The anomaly had altered the flow of time, but most likely all other laws of physics remained in full effect. He might lose a little momentum, but he couldn’t count on that.  He was flying straight back, which was a good thing; he wouldn’t need to worry about accounting for rotation in midair. His right leg was bent, having been holding his weight before he was blown from his feet, while his left leg was held fairly straight.  Both arms were up; he’d raised them to shield his face from the blast, and as he fallen backwards they’d windmilled to the point where his right arm was bent across his breast while his left was held almost straight up and back.

It occurred to him at this point that never before in his life had he taken such careful notice of the positions of his extremities.

When he hit the floor behind him, no doubt he would skid backward.  That would cost time he likely wouldn’t have, so his first order of business was stopping.  His right hand would be easiest to place beneath him, so he’d put his right hand down first, followed by his left.  The proper angle would stop his sliding, likely at the expense of his palms. Skinned hands were a small price to pay for saving the ship.  

Next, he’d need to find some way to counteract the explosion and dissipate the anomaly.  How would he do that? He’d only be able to make use of whatever he could find in the lab; there wouldn’t be time to go anywhere else, get anything else.  Would that be enough? He began racking his brain, trying to remember whatever he could about what that damned scientist had said to him about the experiment.  It was all a jumble in his mind: random words and strange terms, theoretical physics he had no hope of understanding. Yet over the years he’d learned to listen in for anything too important to miss, too important to him.  And one bit had, indeed stuck out.  Now, he knew what he had to do. All that was left was to continue falling, and wait.

It was agony, the waiting.  Rasiel had experienced boredom before, yet he’d never realized just how much worse it could be when one simply cannot move.  He continued slowly falling, powerless to do anything else, unable to so much as flinch. He desperately wanted to flex his fingers.  His nose itched. But he fought to remain calm. For a time, he kept going over his plan, over and over in his head, until it occurred to him how pointless this was.  He would fall when he fell; fretting as he was would only induce panic, potentially causing him to freeze up at the critical moment. No, if he were to succeed and save his ship, he needed to remain calm.  Normally, at such times he would close his eyes, take a few deep, slow breaths. But that was impossible, of course; he hadn’t inhaled once since the accident began. His eyes, for their part, remained defiantly open, and try as he might he couldn’t so much as get his eyelids to budge.

So he thought.  He sifted through his mind, searching for something, anything, frivolous and comforting enough to occupy himself as he fell.  He went over the duty roster. He pored over supply manifests, as best as he could recall them.  He mused upon unanswered questions, tried to picture pieces of artwork he’d seen and enjoyed. When he’d done all of that, he resorted to music, playing songs on repeat in his head.  And so his mind was hard at work trying to decipher the lyrics of Louie Louie when at last he felt a sudden jolt.

It was a curious sensation, suddenly changing speed in mid-air.  It was as though he were but a leaf, caught in a sudden gust. At once he was launched toward the far wall by the force of the blast.  Luckily, he was ready. He lowered his right arm beneath him, followed by his left, palms flat as they made rough contact with the deck plating.  The deck was not solid but a waffled grate, and the metal dug deep into his palms. His hands jerked him to a stop, momentum carrying the rest of his body into an awkward, backwards somersault.  Yet he landed on his feet, palms bleeding but otherwise unharmed. At another time, he might have taken a moment to marvel at his unexpected feat of acrobatics, but now was not the time for that.

The blast was still growing.  Slowly, almost imperceptibly, but it was.  He needed to act fast, as he had no idea how long the dilation effect might continue.  Dashing off toward the doorway, he came skidding to a halt in front of a small bank of controls.  With not a moment to lose, he balled his bleeding right hand into a fist, and slammed it into a large, red button.

He found himself wholly unable to explain what had happened up to that moment, or what happened next.  No sooner had he pressed the button than the entire room seemed to freeze. For a moment, the blast appeared to stop, the entire room falling into an eerie silence.  Then, it felt as though he’d hit “rewind”. At once the entire blast appeared to happen in reverse: debris shards pulled back inward, flames died out and were smothered, and once the containment vessel had been fully reintegrated everything went back to normal.  It was as though nothing had happened in the first place.

At first, Rasiel just stood there, slack-jawed.  He was panting, his pulse pounding. He was staring, laboring to somehow process what he’d just witnessed.  When at last he managed to gather himself, he looked upward.

“Computer, time lapsed?” he asked.

INSUFFICIENT INPUT FOR QUERY, PLEASE CLARIFY

Grunting with frustration, he replied, “Computer, how much time has passed since I entered the room?”

MAIN ACCESS HATCH WAS OPENED .47 SECONDS AGO

Rasiel gaped in shock.  “What?” he demanded, incredulous.  “You mean to tell me everything that just happened took less than a second?”

AFFIRMATIVE

For a moment he just stood, panting, unable to muster a response.  Eventually, he managed the only response he could.

“Well, shit…”

END

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4 Comments

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  1. Sweet! I’ve always loved the idea of tachypsychia, although I’ve gotta admit I prefer my circumstances more mundane… 🙂 However, I do think it’s a bit of a cop-out that you don’t explain why Rasiel’s mind is seemingly unaffected by the dilation. Or am I missing some special knowledge I ought to have?

    Liked by 2 people

    • So, I’ve been thinking about this all day.

      With time perception and mental processing speeds, we often think of them as constants. They’re not, though. We are able to receive much more information than we’re able to process – something like hundreds of thousands of bits of information in, but an output of only 60 bits per second.
      But this is supposedly adaptive and easier tasks seem less taxing.
      My suggestion is – with less sensory input from the time dilation itself perhaps the processing speed would adapt?

      Here’s two articles about cognitive processing that I found interesting:

      https://www.technologyreview.com/s/415041/new-measure-of-human-brain-processing-speed/

      https://qz.com/1516804/physics-explains-why-time-passes-faster-as-you-age/

      Liked by 1 person

      • Melissa, that is deeply fascinating. It’s also gratifying to see that my work got someone thinking. I can’t imagine a greater compliment for a science fiction writer.

        As for Alice, perhaps it was a “cop out”. I didn’t explain the cognitive anomaly for a variety of reasons, mostly owing to lack of time, the fact that a protracted explanation would’ve detracted from the story, and also, frankly, because he needed to think in real time for the whole thing to work. But I also did it because I’ve found that an essential element of science fiction, especially in short stories, is mystery.

        Our universe is a strange, wondrous, crazy place. We’re always learning something new. The answers to our questions often bring forth new questions demanding answers. And what we know about the universe today may well be completely wrong tomorrow. The one constant in our universe is, and always will be mystery. Some things simply cannot be explained, and questioning the inexplicable is what drives our need to understand. If I can make just one person ask a question without a readily available answer, I feel I have succeeded.

        Liked by 2 people

      • You know, your theory does sound plausible! Another thing I was thinking of is that maybe Rasiel’s brain somehow goes into overdrive and speeds up its processes because he’s caught in the dilation. And I was wondering if that was so, would he be exhausted some time after the experience and need prolonged rest? It’s something I loved about Cúchulainn’s frenzy antics: he was deathly tired after he’d gone through his ríastrad.

        Also, the articles you linked sound very interesting, though I gotta admit, I didn’t get all they were saying… I suck at thinking sometimes. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

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