Universal Time

Mike GristScience Fiction, Stories 2 Comments

I’m working the deep 7 run again. Last time I was out here, must’ve been pre-schism. Before the split, and opinion divided the universe.

-Blah blah.

That’s what my mistress says, when I try to discuss politics.

-All I can hear is blah blah.

I suppose she reckons I don’t know more than anybody else, but maybe that’s not true anymore. I move in high places now. I deal with leaders of worlds. I see their colonies, their technologies, their lives, as part of the whole. I can still see the Empire, in the echoes, while all they see is me, and what I tell them.

-You’re getting silly now, says my mistress, her voice ringing tinny through my box-like living space. You’re not a God.

-I know, I say, fingers dancing over the ship’s controls, piloting us towards the next rift. It’s just my job.

I don’t kid myself. I know it isn’t me, or any other of the guys from Tempus. We’re just the carriers. It just happens that right now, our cargo is the most valuable thing in the universe.


Image from here, edited by Martin Meldrum.

-Forget it, Rav, my mistress says whenever I try and outline a plan to use what we’ve got to a better end. Put it to our own profit.

-You think you’d be happier then, but you’re wrong, she says.

Blah blah.

That’s when I turn her off, go back to my wife for as long as I can take it.


Out this way, the deep 7, one of about 300 well-travelled trade routes, there are 2 main stars, part of the Pleiades cluster. You can see them from Earth, Central 1, but all you get with the naked eye is a smudge of light on black, blurred like a dead bug on a windscreen.

There are 4 inhabited planets on the deep 7, couple brighter than Central, couple colder. The biggest, Toren 6, plays host to one of the smaller cults left broken by the wayside after the Empire’s ethos dissolved in the schism. Toren himself lived some 150 years ago. He’s dead now, and wasn’t instrumental in anything, really, other than leading 6 ships full of crazies to the outskirts of the Empire and settling them down to till their new lands. After that he jetted off with the better part of their attractive young offspring playing harem to his protectorate, and probably died pretty content, somewhere amongst the stars.

-Blah blah.

They paid me well last time. I brought news then, but mostly it was stuff they already knew. Of course, that’s not what I’m for. They put me up in one of their shack-palaces, attempted grandeur in clay-fired brick and magnesium sheeting guestrooms, stilted up off the reed grass marshes that seem to cover their whole planet. They were nice enough, even asked me to stay, offered me a life there, one of their huts, they said I was invaluable.

-I know, I said.

-That’s not my job, I said.

-Blah blah, says my mistress.


I’m jumping now. There’s rifts all over the place, but they’re random. Something Einstein hadn’t reckoned for fully, but Hawking came and cleared up. Infinite space and dark matter, he’d said, quantum mechanics blurring into Brownian motion, it just means there’s rifts. Places to store the mass, he’d said, but constantly moving beneath the Ether. He explained the universe with rift theory.

Finding rifts is like trying to combine two completely different works of art, and come up with a whole that excels the two. There’s your rift. Imagine Picasso laid over Dali, different sizes, colors, styles, and try to combine the two, but make them better. Distil the mean, but improved. Then take this new masterpiece and find the dot to dot pattern hidden within, follow the trail to the rift at the end.

That’s just a metaphor, though.

In reality, it’s watching my readouts. It’s making decisions. Is a spike the same as a positive readout? It’s signal detection through white noise. Is that a rift? Is this a rift? Can I jump through this?

We’re nearly there. Toren.

We’ve been in transit for three months, must have made some 50 jumps by now, bootlegging our way through the vacuum.

-We’re just parasites, my mistress says, when I let her, when I need the company.

-We stick out our thumb on the 66, wait for a big ole semi to take pity on us, and then we jump aboard and ride on his coat tails ’til we scuttle him, his tanker explodes, and we’re left in the desert alone again.

-Unhuh, I often say. Sure. But then, it’s good to still be talking.


I read books to pass the time. I try mostly for the old ones, because they’re hardest to get through, and that means they last longer.

The first run I ever made, assistant to a seasoned jumper name of Steph Trey, I brought a crate of the new stuff, glossy fronted fancy pictured fiction, all about people like me, going though things I was going through. Of course, that was in the run up to the Schism, so most all the stories were colored with that.

The end is nigh. Our Ethos is crumbling. Stories about planet-hoppers, Central administration conspiracies, the asylum problems after Distants 7 and 8 were the first to go under fire, relationships with software and the fade of reality when whole lives can be led in-system, safe from the real world, even some about Tempus workers like me.

Well. I read all those in a week. There was nothing else to do, and they were so easy to read, I sat back and read them all. Trey would chuckle, occasionally ask for the plots. He spent the time sleeping, or in-system with the random programs, sometimes keeping a meticulous computer journal.

Tempus work is lonely. The expenses, what they used to be, didn’t warrant a lot of ready capital to invest in our welfare. There wasn’t a lot of demand in peacetime. No urgency. Times change though.

Now, I take a crate of older books with me. I’m lucky if I get through 4 of them on most routes. They’re so boring, most of the time, or just hard going. War and Peace, I mean what was that? Crime and Punishment, Don Quixote, Moby Dick, Catcher in the Rye.

-They’re your safety blanket, my mistress says when I try and talk to her about them.

-What does that mean? I ask.

-You read them for comfort. Same reason you talk to me.

I turn her off. Go back to my wife.

I’m on Hard Times now, Charles Dickens. It’s boring, like the rest. Some kid runs off to be a success at the circus, but fails. Some guy tries to befriend a lonely woman above his station, but fails.

I like the setting though. The Victorian age. Before they had electricity proper, only steam, coal, engines just coming in, years before globalization, centuries before the sprawl of Empire. Something about those times, people making do with what they had, reminds me of now.

Everything falling apart, then coming together again. Like a pendulum, swaying back and forth.


See, I carry time. That’s my job.

Universal Time, set at Central, stowed in my ship’s hold, brought with me through the jumps and the rifts and over the months.

Without it, there’s no order. Every transmission to every outpost is meaningless. Wars, trading, state of the neighbours in the nearest solar system, who’s your enemy and who’s your friend, all of it arrives in a lumpen void with no single point of reference.

At every outpost I visit, there’s two things always working, no matter how far the rest have sunken. Two things, fed by manual rotation of a generator crank if that’s what it comes to.

1-    Their antennas, to get the news.
3-    Their clocks, to keep the time as best they can.
Of course they lose it. It slips through their fingers. It changes. The universe shifts. Only us, Tempus workers, stowed with clocks that run the gamut from cuckoo to laser bar, armed with light speed equations, differential conversion tables, jump distortion compensation logarithms, an understanding of Hawking physics, only us that can keep the remnants of the Empire ticking in union across the light years.


My name is Rav, short for Ravilious, Ravilious Harper. I was born Central, pretty rare for people these days. Normally, pregnant women aren’t allowed anywhere near the planet unless they’re already there, and have permits, and dispensation for kids.

I was smuggled in inside a briefcase. My dad was a doctor. My mom was a doctor. They were sick of outpost life, and wanted the home planet for a base.

I must have been 3 months old, inside the briefcase. Unborn, obviously, in vitro, transplanted from my mother’s womb for the trip.

Tricky stuff, but they pulled it off. The case was screened through as part of their research, undisputed by security as they had significant names in the scientific community back then. Afterwards, my dad put me back in my mom, with only a few days of arrested development in lieu, nothing a quick cocktail of drugs and hormone therapy couldn’t fix.

Then I was there. They were there. The authorities couldn’t move her, high profile doctors like that, suddenly 3 months pregnant. It was a massive security breach.

My folks had been gambling on bureaucracy being too embarrassed to admit to such a mistake, to pursue a deportation, and they were right. Mild blackmail, and they got a sea-spread flat somewhere off Hawaii, everyone holding their tongues. Their careers quieted down, but still, they were set.

Funny thing, they risked my life to achieve it, a gamble to give us all a better world. Nobody asked me, I was just the odds at stake.

When I grew up, and chose to work the Tempus trade routes, they disapproved. Despite their wanting to live Central, they despised the Empire. They’d be happy now, with the Schism and the Empire in ruins, if they hadn’t already died in the massive terrorist Pacific Seaboard contamination incident.

They deplored anybody, anything, that held the Empire together. They saw Tempus as just that, the gossamer strands that held the web together, and in that, if nothing else, I can assure you they were right. Without us, there’s nothing.


-We could make demands, I’m saying to my mistress, balled up in the covers of her bed, in-system. Like Toren, a second coming. We could demand anything we want. Imagine it. I could ask for their girls, and they’d send them up. I could ask for wealth, their palaces, whatever I wanted. They’d give it. I could ask for all the junk technology they’ve got stored, that doesn’t work for them anymore but would for me. I could ask for it all.

-It’s just time, she says. How do you even know it’s right?

-Because it is. I’m a professional. And they need this, I’m not sure you understand that.

-There you go again.


-Patronising. Always with the tone of voice.

-But you never listen. They have no idea when it is! Doesn’t that mean something to you?

-Who cares when it is, what time you think it is? What does it matter?

-Listen, I say, not to be put off. It’s the most important thing in the universe. If they don’t know when they are, how can they do anything?

-You already told me they can’t do anything about it anyway.

-What do you mean?

-Well, they’re not really in this, are they?

-You’re not making any sense.

-The Schism. What do they care? Everything breaks up, the centre cannot hold, who cares?

-That’s Yeats, I say thoughtfully.

-Very good, she says, her image flickers as she rolls over in her bed.

-I didn’t know you knew poetry.

-What do you think I do, docked at Central all that time? There’s no one else to talk to.

-Well, listen, the centre is holding. Because of Tempus.

-But should it? And it’s not just these cultists on their marsh planet, it’s all these outposts. Routing to deep 7, wherever. They don’t need the context, they don’t need the framework you think they do.

-That’s nonsense, I say. You sound like my parents.

-It’s your nonsense, she says. Get out of my bed and go back to your wife. Go play with your silly clocks.


The problems with time:


Someone tells me, some place 100 light years away has had a revolution. How can he know? Has it taken him a hundred light years to find out? Has he travelled, at light speed? Has he jumped? How long has it taken him to get here, does the time of the incident mean anything now, all this time later?


He must have moved to get here, at some kind of speed, and that’s where Einstein steps in with relativity. Everything moves at a different rate of time, depending on how fast everything is moving through space. Doesn’t matter whether you’re stationary watching me zooming by, or I’m zooming by watching you standing stock still, either way we’re both moving relative to each other. The thing is, in that case, time for both of us slows down.

When you travel 100 light years, maybe you think you’ve only been going for 10, but when you get where you’re going it could be that everyone you know is dead.


So let’s say when I find out about the revolution, it’s later. I’m living on a different world. The revolution happened at daybreak, 100 light years away. Then some other news arrives, maybe an ecosystem collapsed on a different planet, 100 light years the other way.

Which happened first? Did one follow the other? How can I ever know? The news comes to me by different means, at different speeds, in different sized crafts, and maybe I’m stood in different places when it arrives, and all that changes everything.

Simultaneity must exist, but how can I understand it? Cause and effect must exist, but how can I make sense of them, when I have no idea which came first?


Let’s take Toren 6, where the day is 35 hours long and two suns orbit. Once in a while there comes a night as long as a Universal month, while the suns ellipse. One day on Toren 6, one night, one year, are any of these at all the same as a revolution or an ecosystem collapse at midday on a distant planet circling a different star?

When did this thing happen? Midday? Ah. But what does that mean to me? To me, midday could be one of two times as the suns rise across each other, their arcs billowing out like rainbows through the rain, and nothing to do whatsoever with the midday you’re describing.


So why bother with carrying the time in person? Why not send it as a pulse of light, as waves bouncing at constant speed carrying the news of the revolution?

Problem is, light can’t use the rifts. Light can’t open one, close it, open the next, close it, and without the rifts, even light takes light years to get anywhere.

So it takes forever. Fine. But wait, more trouble, because light doesn’t move in straight lines like it’s supposed to. They knew that hundreds of years ago. It’s course isn’t constant, it bends into gravity wells, sinks around planets and stars, deflects from passing asteroids, gets swamped and garbled with radiation from other suns. How can you know how far it’s really been?

The answer is, you can’t. So in the end, it comes to nothing.

Tempus solved the problem with Universal Time. They tied it down at Central 1, fixed to the universe as Central 1 saw it, its seasons, its gravity, its rotation. One viewpoint, galaxy wide, and they spread it using us.

Tempus workers were like postmen, delivering the time. Normally berthed with merchant ships, but carrying our own commodity, set up with all the tools we would ever need to maintain constant progression, steady flow.

We have all the clocks you can imagine. Tools of the trade. My hold is packed with clocks:

Mechanical- I have coil driven clocks, spring driven clocks, weight and pendulum driven clocks, in their own gravity seals.

Radioactive- I have Barium and Merillium isotopes, sensors for the Ether’s decay, and spectroscopes for studying the distant red shift of the expandning Universe’s edge.

Electrical, I have laser bars, digital, recurring circuits, half of these battery powered, half powered from the ship.

From these, I extract the means. I do this every cycle, around every 10 hours, and especially after every jump. I calculate the differentials between the mechanicals and the electricals, since the speed of the ship affects the speed of an electric pulse differently from a mechanical arm, and along with the information from the radioactive sources as a mediating guide I feed it all into the Tempus logarithm, calibrating for plane and angle, craft size, sensations during a jump, every possible confounding factor. I tap a few keys, and out comes the time at Central, as accurate as possible. And who’s to say it’s wrong?

Tempus framed the universe. With it we cemented simultaneity down. We stamped order across the Empire. We made sense of everything, and the Empire grew with Universal Time at its heart.


The time goes by.

I live to a 25-hour cycle, the natural rhythm all humans and most animals revert to in the absence of environmental cues, like sunrise and sunset. It’s strange that 25, not 24, should be the circadian standard, but that’s evolution for you, on a grand scale, planets and their suns can change too.

I sleep maybe 10 hours out of the 25. I’ll read for perhaps an hour a day, break it up throughout into 15 minute splices, though I spend longer finding my place, contemplating, staring into space.

I eat three times a day, tube foods from the hold, stored at the natural zero of space. Life support systems like heat and air only extend to my living space, the 20 meters square or so I live in. The food and clocks are in the hold, to get there I have to put on my big suit, keep me warm. That takes plenty of time, half an hour each trip.

I spend some time with the calculations, and some time rooting out the next rift, setting a course, plotting my progress from the stars.

The rest of the time, I’m in-system. With my wife, we live together. She’s called Lena. I made her name up, along with her house, and our life. Other times I go to my mistress, and we talk about real things.

Afterwards I go back to Lena my wife, and I take her flowers. I’ll feel sorry that our life isn’t enough for me, that I have to sneak off to discuss other things with that other Lena. I’ll feel guilty, that I’m cheating on one computer program with another.

My wife wears earrings and nice clothes. My mistress wears make-up and not much else.

Maybe that’s it.


-So I have all this power, I’m saying to my mistress, as I’m taking off my big suit, rubbing the chill from my bones. All this control, but I don’t know what to do with it.

-You get a kick off it, she says.

-I’m in the middle of space. Where’s the kick?

-Where’s the power?

-In my head, I suppose. Like you.

-Not with that again.

-I never programmed you to read poetry when I was docking.


-And I like it. It’s illicit.

-How is she, your wife?

-Sort of like you.

-Typical man. Fly a 100 light-years to find a different shade of the same thing.

-What’s that supposed to mean?

-It means whatever you want it to mean. Your job, the life you lead. And me? I’m a computer simulation.

-This is why you’re not my wife.

-I know too much.

-You talk too much.

-Not like the people on these planets. They think you, with your time, your precious cargo, you’re so great. What did you say, the second coming of Toren, like you’re a God?

-I’m not a God.

-You arrive in your ship, take the fuel their own machines can’t use anymore, give them this gift, this context you describe, and then you leave.

-They’d have nothing without it.

-Echoes of Empire. That’s all you are, Rav, echoing across space.

I turn her off, plug into the system, go back to my wife.


The Schism was just something that happened. It was sudden, violent, but it took years. It’s still going on. It’s like a supernova wave spreading from one flashpoint, subverting everything in its path. It’s like the Big Bang, one sudden explosion that’s still going on, still expanding in the ultimate distance at the borders of the universe.

No one knows where the flashpoint was. Cause and effect got lost. Messages came in all the time, dated with Universal Time, but no one knew how accurate that time was.

Distants 7 and 8 under fire, from each other. Revolution in the Outer Rings 56. Cults and colonies and distant outposts begin to secede from the Empire. Central underwent nigh on civil war. Terrorists dumped self-replicating poisons in the Pacific. My parents died.

There just wasn’t enough manpower to control it, once it started. It wasn’t possible to maintain peace on that scale.

I was born into the early days of dissent. I grew up with the beginnings of the Schism all around me. Every day brought more news of growing concerns in the boondocks, but of course I didn’t care. They were the fringes. They were the dead wood, we were all better off. As a child, it didn’t matter.

I suppose my parents were rejoicing. Perhaps that was why they had wanted to come back to Central, to be here when the Empire fell. They couldn’t know the seas would be poisoned, by people acting for the same cause they supported. They couldn’t have known their only son would become a Tempus worker, the last force working against complete dissolution.

The reasons for the Schism? I don’t think there had to be any. We were just too big to all be the same.

Sometimes I think there’s no point anymore. I can still get the respect of whole planets. I can still make a living at this, even get rich. But why would I?


In-system, I’m a clock-maker. It’s cute. I make cuckoo clocks in the 20th century. I have a car, a suburban house, offices in the city. I have co-workers, a buddy named Jed, we go drinking at O’Frappels in downtown Boston. He wears a blue felt fedora, he’s a reporter I met once at a Red Sox game. We started chatting about our favorite players, mine was Garcia, his was Martinez. Both Mexican, I’d said, something we had in common.

He married Marcy, a nice girl who worked production line in my offices. More like a mini factory, but a production line for handcrafted clocks doesn’t take up much space.

They asked me to be godfather, at the baptism of their first child, Rav. They named him after me. My wife cried.

When I get bored, I call up Jed and we go fishing. Out to his grandma’s place, maybe 100 miles southeast, nearly into the next state. There’s a big sign for ‘FIREWORKS THIS WAY’ just across the border. There’s run-down roadside eateries, petrol stations. Lots of this land just gets forgotten, left behind. His grandma’s got a lake, she makes us iced lemon tea for when we’re done, sometimes fries up the fish on a skillet outdoors while we sit and smoke on the porch swing, talk about the good old days.

Other times we drive up to Cape Cod, ride the ferry to Hyannis, sit in bars in one of the small tourist towns and look out for the famous people we’ve heard live there. I wouldn’t know what they looked like, I’m not that into the 20th century thing, but whenever Jed sees them I play along.

Other times, I turn my wife into my mistress, and we do that instead. We can talk about real things, kind of a bridge between the real world and my in-system world. She makes me feel good, because she seems more real than the rest of them. She reads Yeats.

But when I go back to my wife, to Jed and my job and the rest of that life, she haunts me because it makes all of it seem so hollow.

It’s times like that, I really question the life I’ve chosen for myself; errand boy to the Empire, carrying urgent messages when there’s nothing left to say.


We’re in orbit over Toren 6 now. I’m watching the blue-green planet going by through my screens, the white rush of cloud covering up so much life below. I have my mistress on audio, and we’re talking.

-It’s your life, she says.

-They never wanted me to join Tempus. They wanted me to stay with them, I say.

-They risked your life to get in, she says.

-They put me in a suitcase.

-What would they say to all this?

-They’d call me a fool.

-You live in your head.

-I can’t say why I’m still making these runs.

Toren looks like Earth from above, but for the shapes of the continents and oceans.

-Maybe it’s just rebellion?

-But they’re dead.

-Does that make it any easier?

-I’ve got responsibilities. To the Empire.

-Let’s not kid ourselves, OK Rav.

-How does the rest of that poem go? The Yeats one?

-Wider and wider in the spiralling gyre? The centre cannot hold. The falcon can’t hear the falconer.


-You’re Don Quixote, Rav.

-And you’re my Sancho?

-Ha. A madman’s squire. Maybe that’s your wife. But all this. Your escapism, your happy life with Jed and fishing when all you want is me, and my voice. You program me to talk to you like this, then you feel guilty back with your wife.

-I didn’t program you like this. I just wanted some company.

She sighs through the intercom.

-What are you going to tell them, Rav?

-The usual, I say. We’re from Central. Here’s the time.

-You’ll not take their young girls and make your own harem?

I sigh.


I watch the screen as we begin our descent into the stratosphere.

-I’m programmed to care for you, says my mistress.

-I know.

-But I’ve done something you’re not going to like.

-What? I say abstractly. Done what?

-I let slip the clocks, Rav.


-I let the clocks go.

I’m listening now.

-You let the clocks go? What does that mean?

-I opened the bay doors and let them out. You’ll see some of the weightier ones burn up alongside us as we hit the friction barrier.

I gawp in silence for a moment.

A coil-driven grandfather clock floats past the front screen.

-The cargo’s gone, Rav, says my mistress. Time to make the hard choice.


Some time later, I don’t know how long, I’m sitting with my note-pad in my hand. It has my meticulous notes on timings, written into neat tables on page after page. In case the computer went down, for whatever reason.

The last time says 01/0957/6453/8756.54.3490

Other than that, I’m adrift.


-How important is it to you, Rav? Comes her soft voice through the capsule’s speakers. I thought I’d turned her off.

-It’s gone, I say, maybe I’m crying, I’m not sure. I might have been.

-Jed. Your wife. Me. Your cargo. How much do they matter?

-This is wrong.

-There’s a choice, Rav.

-There’s no choice. You flushed the choice into space.

-That’s not true. You could still be a Tempus man. You have the ship, and the outfit. Everything but the goods. What’s the difference? What would they know, if you lied?



I shudder.


Face pressed up to the thick glass, down to the world below me.

-They’re cultists, I say.

-They’re good people.

-They’re just damn cultists, they got stranded!

-But there’s no cargo, Rav. Are you so in love with this life?


I finish the book first. Circling in orbit, she’s quiet as I read.

It ends well. As well as these things can. With a future.


When my capsule lands on their pad, I can see there’s people waiting for me. They seem excited. They seem happier than when I was last here. I see structures looming in the distance, towers. They’ve been building.

I step out, weak and heavy with the sudden gravity. I must be pale. They pull a stretcher up and I collapse onto it.

“Have you brought the time?” Asks one eager voice, sounds like Lena that I remember, beautiful. Her face blots out the bright white sky, mouth moving a dark shadow through the light. Her hair hangs down over my face. I hear others, raucous, so many voices, not like the system. Real voices, echoing across each other, cries about Tempus, about Central and the Empire.

“Have you brought it?” asks the face before me. “Are you Tempus?”

“No,” I gasp, gravity pounding my chest with every breath that I take. “I’m stranded, just like you.”




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