The devices changed everything, allowing disasters to be frozen in progress, resulting in countless saved lives. It takes dedicated people to work as rescue miners, tunneling into the paused time to extract the petrified people. A bomb has gone off, and there might be something strange going on deep inside the solidified smoke and flame…
(reading time: 54 minutes)
My pager went off. Both our faces forgot what emotions they were supposed to express and sunk. Our perfect moment shattered by that obnoxious beeping. Why did it have to be now? Why did whatever maniac blowing up whichever politician pick now? It’s as if our moment was his countdown. Drop to one knee… 3. Open the blue velvet box with the paused water ring that cost me four months’ pay… 2. Ask her ‘will you marry me?’… 1. Boom. Pause.
50 hours until crystallization
The Hadrian Hotel had been temporarily requisitioned for me and the rest of the crew. Every time I woke up on those nice silk sheets I expected to find a chocolate on my pillow. Everything else was subpar though. We were on a federal meal plan, which meant all the bread was more air pocket than bread, and our serving of protein was either beans or mechanically separated chicken pulp pressed into tiny molds, kind of like me and the guys pressed into that hotel.
“Hurry up Barley, ship’s launching in thirty seconds with or without you,” Hilcox said as he jogged past my room’s open door.
“I was in the middle of proposing!” I yelled back. I don’t think the words caught up with him. Even though that was only the second time I’d be using the equipment, I had managed to misplace some of it. Standard issue backpack, check. Rubber-handled pickaxe, check. Rubber gloves, check. Fire resistant jacket… ziiiiiip, check. Where the hell was my countdown watch?
I threw the glorious silk sheets into the air and saw the watch fall out of them before they landed on an overturned chair. Crusts of cornbread sat on grimy plates. There was a meteor-like grease smear on the full length mirror in the bathroom. We’re breaking the mold, I thought. I clipped the watch to my wrist and rushed out of the room to catch up with Hilcox. I was the last one to pile into the transport before it launched off the ground like a frog over an air vent.
As the craft climbed I looked out the open sides and tried to spot the window to my room, where I’d left Marcy. Left her there with an engagement ring before even hearing her answer. She understood though. Duty called. My contract called. She would wait, finger hovering in and out of the ring in limbo… She would hold on to the moment until I got back.
49 hours and forty minutes until crystallization
The transport flew over our target: the Hadrian multi-sport stadium. A scrolling info sheet in the transport told me its capacity was thirty thousand. We hadn’t been called in to see a half-time show though. The stadium was booked for a political rally that day. Edmond R. Pike was talking about his senate campaign. If I remembered correctly, the senate on that planet was a big deal. There were only ten slots and bushels of executive power in each one. No wonder the guy was targeted.
The stadium stuck out of the city surrounding it like a giant bronze dish. Thousands of electric signs on its exterior twinkled like gems set into its rim. The bowl appeared to be filled with a huge black truffle which mostly obscured the green of the field’s artificial grass.
“Woah, that doesn’t look right,” Muller yelled over the wind as we began to descend. He scratched his short blond hair.
“They’re not all going to look like the diagrams in the book dumbass,” Hilcox responded.
“It’s supposed to be orange though. We didn’t see any that were black,” Muller shot back, trying to sound smarter than he was. It didn’t help that the wind from the open doors pulled a rope of drool out of his mouth and dragged it across his cheek. He wiped it away with an arm that was, embarrassingly, more muscular than mine. I’d been mining for six year, but not even pitting your ax against diamonds would give you muscles like Muller’s. You had to be from good Goldrian stock to be built like that.
“That just means there’s a lot of smoke,” I said. He did have a point though; it shouldn’t have been completely black.
We set down inside the police perimeter. Black uniforms were still ushering confused spectators out and setting up yellow plastic barriers. Plenty of the witnesses turned around the moment the police let go of them and leaned over the new barriers. They checked to see if what they saw actually happened.
Muller’s boots hit the pavement with a smack. He carried three sets of gear between his shoulders and a first aid kit the size of a treasure chest in his arms. I hated the sight of that kit. It reminded me how, after millions of people like me died in coal mines and silver mines and uranium mines, they just had to go and invent a new kind of mine even more dangerous than the rest. It was so damn dangerous we could empty kits that big and then still have to use them as coffins.
The police ushered us in through the stadium’s archway. We skipped the ticket booths. Hilcox took Muller and ten other guys to the left. They would start on the left side of it while my unit took it on from the back. Quid, the sculpting surgeon, jogged up next to me.
“You ever seen this much smoke on one before?” he asked.
“No, but this is only my second excavation. Watch out.” Quid and I broke apart as a robotic stretcher escorted by two paramedics rushed between us. On it a woman in a torn skirt furiously rubbed her leg. I turned my head to watch and saw her smack the limb with her purse. Its metal clasp clanked against her skin as the leg refused to move.
“She’ll have to lose that leg,” Quid said morosely. He pressed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and ignored the bit of sweat fog that had already built on the lenses.
“What? Why?” I asked in horror. “Can’t they just unpause it?”
“No. It only works on trapped people,” Quid gestured toward the black mass taking up much of the stadium, “because they’re entirely paused. That poor woman caught the edge of it. So live flowing blood will collide with the paused stuff in her veins. It’ll pool in the wrong places and stop circulating. It might even start pouring through her skin right above the paused point. We can’t undo that kind of damage.”
“Let’s go,” I said. Quid dropped his head, knowing he said the wrong thing. I didn’t want to hear stuff like that. I was just there to break up mankind’s newest favorite rock. My boots crunched on the fake grass and I stared at the looming foaming wall of black and gray before me. I tried to tune in to the people trapped inside. Tried to see their outlines through the block of frozen time.
45 hours and sixteen minutes until crystallization
My ax struck the black rock before me and broke off a huge chunk with a shower of sparks and bolts of static. I kicked it aside so someone could cart it away. Being on point meant I was the one blazing the trail. Every strike made the tunnel into the dark mass a little longer. So far we’d tunneled fifteen feet into the smokestone. I had almost no daylight at that point and relied on the illumination from the flashlight on my helmet and the sparks from each strike.
On my first excavation there was almost no smoke. Our first tunnel was all transparent oranges and yellows. It was beautiful, like burrowing into the sun. Better yet, the paused fire’s transparency let us see the people we were supposed to be rescuing like bugs trapped in amber.
Since my team came at the explosion from the back we were closest to the stage. Our orders were to make a beeline past anyone trapped that we could see and go straight for the senator. He was in that mess somewhere, in all likelihood dead. The closer you are to the blast center, well… the stopwatches stop what they can.
Craaack! A ray of yellowish light struck my eyes. I’d hit fire.
I’d only actually seen a stopwatch once, when they installed one in my hometown’s city hall six years prior to Hadria. My home world Aphos was one of the last planets to get them, mostly because it was a poor backwater rock. Both continental governments had a fund nicknamed ‘piggybank’ that they dumped our tax dollars into until we could afford a decent number of the things, enough to blanket all our capitals.
I was eighteen and angry, which took the form of protest signs I shoved in the faces of every elected official unimportant enough to not have a bodyguard. The union was the first place where I got respect, the one place where the grease on my elbows was a mark of honor. So every weekend we stuck our heads out of our gopher holes and marched down to city hall to wave our signs and sing obscene songs about the mayor’s mother getting in bed with the fattest corporate cats Aphos had to offer.
Our signs were the closest things to art we ever made. I’d put six hours into mine and spent a half day’s pay on holographic ink so that when I turned the sign it would switch to a different picture. Pointed left it showed Momma Mayor walking with a cane. Pointed Right it switched to a guy in a suit holding her cane horizontally and watching her limbo under it. How low can you go?
Some of the guys liked to rock cars and hovercraft when they entered the parking lot but I stayed out of it. Nobody dared touch the craft that came in with the stopwatch. It floated by me with a calm hum and I looked up at the machine; it was suspended by a cable from a small crane on the craft’s back. It was sort of cube-shaped, with an emerald-colored watch face design on each surface. More emerald bands of metal formed a casing around it. My grandmother used to have shiny bits like it hanging from the dining room chandelier.
The rowdy bunch of miners I called my family were quieter than I’d ever heard them as it floated by. Even such hard-living, hard-working guys who could grow beards, appetites, and toenails faster than anybody else seemed stalled at the sight of it.
Some workers detached it and took it inside. Our heads leaned so we could follow it… and just like that my head hit Marcy standing next to me. I hadn’t heard her approach. She was just there, like a bit of sun glare.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” She said.
“Yeah,” I muttered. “Do you think we’ll ever have to use it?”
“Hmm…” She coiled her blonde hair around a finger. She was dressed in what I thought was her Sunday best, but it turned out to be her casual Friday. “No.”
“Why are you so sure?”
“Nobody cares enough about Aphos to try and blow any of us up.”
“I wonder what your dad would say if he heard you say that. He’s been mining here for ten years. Says it’s the cleanest dirt he’s ever had the pleasure of breathing in.”
“How do you know who my dad is?”
“I work with him. You’ve got his cheeks.”
“And I’m guessing he taught you how to make signs,” she said, glancing at the bloomers on the limboing old bag. I coughed and turned it to the tamer picture. The fake cough turned into a real one. I never got what Marcy’s dad was talking about; the dust seemed pretty bad to me. It ate up my grandfather’s insides. Then when grandma had him cremated I couldn’t stop thinking how he would’ve hated becoming dust. We should’ve mixed him with cement and cast a statue.
“I still don’t get how they work,” I said. I of course knew, it was all anybody had been talking about for weeks, but I just had to hear her explain it to me. She leaned her head even more to see through the open doors to where they were setting it up. She touched my shoulder for balance. Only later did I realize that it felt like getting hit with that first ray of light after breaking through the smoke.
“Well it turns out all those time travel stories weren’t worth the headaches people got trying to figure them out. Paradoxes just can’t happen. So traveling back and telling yourself not to eat that rotten sandwich or jumping forward to see what color your great grandkid’s eyes are isn’t a choice… but time manipulation… that we can do.
So if you think someone’s in danger of getting killed you set up a stopwatch and give it a trigger. If you’re afraid of an avalanche, make it the pressure of tons of snow that’ll set it off. If you’re afraid of bombs, give it a smoke detector.” She made her hand into a fist, funneled her lips, and made the sound of an explosion. Her fingers uncurled and spread apart. She stopped her hand in mid-air. “When it goes off, everything thicker than the air in its range gets paused. Time stops. So if it’s a bomb the smoke stops spreading and the fire stops burning. It gives us time to gather our heads.”
“We should just freeze most people until we figure out how to live forever,” I said. “I don’t mind waiting a couple hundred years if it means I can stop worrying.”
“You really don’t know anything do you?” Everyone clapped around us. Apparently they were done installing it. The watch, glistening green, hung over the main podium like a guardian angel. “It’s not perfect,” she said through the dying applause. Everyone started picking up their signs again and marching around the building. They needed the best sign up and waving, so I picked it up and rejoined the line. Marcy paid no attention to the big, sweating, polyester-covered bodies around her and kept talking. She was two steps ahead of me and walking backward so we were face to face.
“See you have to reverse the stopwatch before fifty-one hours is up. If you don’t the frozen time it… it kind of crystallizes you know? Gets stuck in its ways worse than old Goldrian ladies. If the people aren’t pulled out before that they just become statues, forever!”
“And that’s why they hire miners to dig them out of all that paused stuff right?” I asked. She smiled; I could tell she was onto me.
“Yep. All this paused stuff has energy trapped in it too, so you need people to do the work. If robots or machines do it they short out.” She grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the line. The line took no notice. The marchers morphed to fill in my hole and kept going.
“Are you thinking of being one of those guys? A time miner?” When my mom asked questions like that she looked worried, but not Marcy. Marcy smiled like a drunk wing walker.
“Maybe. Think it’s better than this nice union gig I’ve got now?” We both looked back at the protest. The soles of their shoes thudded on the concrete in rhythm.
“The best time miners get juicy contracts. They travel to exotic worlds… they save people.”
“Well I don’t know,” I said with a grin. “Really shouldn’t waste all this sign-making talent.”
40 hours until crystallization
A pungent mix of smells burst from the wrap as I took my first bite. Damn government issue lunches. They came in little gray boxes so you couldn’t see the contents. When you open it up it’s juice in a box, smashed fruit in a tube, sponge cake in a wrapper, and some kind of protein perfectly concealed in a tortilla with its edges tucked in tighter than a kid on Christmas eve. I held my nose when chewing the first bite. They only giving me twenty minutes for lunch, so at least my suffering could only last that long. A drop of brown mush fell from the wrap and landed on my pants. Beans maybe. Could be that potato stuff they flavor with pork broth.
The explosion stood before me, its black shell now torn away in three places. Trucks came in and out, beeping and honking at each other, so they could haul the paused stuff away. My unit was sitting up in the stadium’s bleachers for lunch. One guy said he was going to walk up to the sky-boxes and eat in style but when I turned around I noticed he’d stopped halfway there. He was just a black dot in a sea of empty blue seats, eating something no stadium vendor would ever sell. Guess the journey to greatness is just too damn long, I thought.
The other teams were still hard at work tunneling deep inside. Like ants they marched in and out of their holes, occasionally pulling out a person encased in frozen fire. The victims were dragged over to the side and dumped in a pile, where Quid and the other sculptor surgeons went at them. They would do their best to chisel as much of the fire away as they could without accidentally taking chunks of frozen flesh with it. The more they could get, the less likely it was that the victim would suffer further burns when they were unpaused.
From that distance all those golden rocks with human centers looked like a pile of candies. My stomach grumbled. I was practically pouring the government lunch down my throat but that wasn’t fooling it. Halfway through the partially frozen fruit mush I spotted something that made me choke on a little chunk of mango.
There was someone on the explosion. He had climbed up near the top of it and was going at it with a pickax. The guy wore a miner’s uniform but he clearly wasn’t with us. It was protocol to always go at these things from the sides in case of loops. I turned to my teammate Andon, who was feasting on a chocolate bar he’d obviously picked up from one of the stadium’s vending machines.
“Andon, what’s that punk doing?
“Where?” he asked through a mouthful.
“Up on the cloud.” I pointed, he squinted. “No over there. Right there. On that ridge with the three bumps. See the sparks? He’s going at it.”
“No way. I think I know what he’s doing, come on. We might get a reward for this.” Andon rolled up his chocolate and pocketed it before descending the bleachers several rows at a time. “Come on,” he called back, waving me down.
Not like I’m missing anything here, I thought as I stared at the gray cardboard box in front of me. I tossed it aside and hopped down to catch up. By the time I was on the grass Andon was feeling the smoky curves of the cloud, looking for a way up.
“Aha!” he said, his hand sinking into a divot. “The guy hammered out some steps.” Andon started to climb; once he was about eight feet off the ground I ascended behind him. The hand holds were a little too small for me, giving me a clue to the mystery miner’s size. There was no way they’d ever hire a guy that tiny.
Andon disappeared over a swell of smoke and I struggled to catch up. Black dust from our team’s efforts blew over my face and stuck to the back of my sweaty hands. As I rose the sounds of trucks faded away and were replaced by the steady bell toll of a lone pickax. It sounded weak and fast… but experienced. No sliding sound of metal on stone.
“I got you, you little thief!” Andon growled. I climbed even faster, fingers slipping here and there. It occurred to me that I had no idea how high the cloud was. Sounds of a struggle cascaded down. Chunks of frozen smoke were tossed over the edge.
“Let me go!” a nasal voice cried. ‘I didn’t do nothing!”
“The hell you didn’t,” Andon said. Someone threw a punch. There was a flat hollow sound of fist on chest and breath hissing out.
I was just about to cross the topmost swell when a head peaked over the edge. Hair obscured the eyes and blood dripped off the tip of the nose and into my eyes. I swore and wiped it away with a sleeve. I pushed the head back over the edge and pulled myself up simultaneously, trying to make sure we were both safe on the smoke ridge.
Jagged crystals poked me in the back as I lay flat on the ridge the mystery miner had carved out. My head shot up so I could survey the bloodshed. The intruder had a nosebleed. Andon pulled the small thin man up by the shoulders. Blood dribbled down the outdated mining uniform. We hadn’t worn shirts with buttons up the middle for two months now. He looked younger than either of us and his frazzled bowl cut was streaked black with both dye and smoke residue.
“Bastard took a swing at me with his ax,” Andon accused, gripping the man’s arms tightly.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him.
“None of your business,” he sputtered back through the blood.
“I’ll tell you what he’s doing,” Andon barked. “He’s a gem hunter. Guy was trying to steal some of the paused stuff and sell it so his black market buddies could make all kinds of ridiculously expensive rings and things for bimbos and gold diggers to wear on the red carpet.”
“You guys don’t need all of it,” the thief said. “A guy’s got to eat.”
“Oh you eat this stuff?” I said, rage welling up inside me. I pulled myself up and grabbed some smoke pebbles from the ridge.
“Hey man what are you do-” the thief started to say before I shoved the pebbles in his open mouth. He spit them back out, now coated in a film of blood and saliva. I wondered for a moment if it tasted like a cigarette before the guilt got to me. It was hard not to fly off the handle sometimes. I worked hard to afford that paused water ring. I did it right. The government claimed anything created by stopwatches so that it could use the proceeds from the gemstone market to fund the miners. Every rock that guy took was another piece of imitation beef jerky I had to eat instead of a real cut of meat. Every paused fire necklace he sold was another week I had to wait for new boots to replace the ones with the shredded soles.
I took a deep breath and turned away from the thief. From the top of the cloud I could see the concentric blue rows of seats, like calming ripples. It was a good thing Marcy didn’t see me shoving rocks in a guy’s face.
“Screw you,” the thief snarled. “If I could’ve found a guy,” he spat blood, “and chipped the frozen ink out of the pen in his pocket… I could’ve paid my rent for two years.”
“Oh really?” I said, anger surging again. Andon picked the guy up off his feet and leaned back, presenting him as a target to me. I stomped over and put my face inches from his. The expression in his eyes changed from disrespect to fear, pupils shrinking into glassy specks of darkness.
“So how much would you get for the tears you chiseled out of their eyes? How about the beads of frozen sweat the fire pulled out of their skin before it engulfed them? What are those worth? Would you take the blood from their veins? You could be a rich man if only you broke a chunk of fear-induced piss off of one of their thighs!”
I reared back to punch. The guy squeezed his eyes shut. Another lovely paused moment. So much momentum… so much force behind my hand. So much potential energy in the thief’s pained expression when I hadn’t even hit him yet. Being around all that stopped time… it gave me a sense of things. I sensed… in that frozen moment, in that painting of time, that I didn’t want to hit the guy. So I dropped my fist and let him keep anticipating it.
“You don’t want to tune him up a little?” Andon asked, disappointed.
“No. Let’s just turn him in.” I descended first, then the thief, and then Andon. When I grabbed the guy’s shoulders I noticed his eyes were still scrunched shut. He was still in that moment. He was feeling the pain he knew he deserved.
We marched him to the front gate where we had some of the police on crowd control arrest him and lead him away. Andon patted me on the back and headed back to work. It took me a moment to realize my lunch break was probably long over. Work would have to wait though, since someone very important was coming toward me, wearing a dark green suit that probably cost more than everything I owned, transplantable organs included.
39 hours and twenty-six minutes until crystallization
“Greco Barley?” the man asked, looking back and forth between my face and the screen on his phone.
“Yes sir.” The guy unleashed a big camera-loving plastic grin all over me. It didn’t look right, especially because I could see police barriers and ambulances moving around behind him. He tossed me the phone and I barely caught it. There was a picture of my miner’s ID on the screen.
“That’s a pretty lousy picture of you,” he said with a chuckle, reaching his hand out to take the phone back. “Do you know who I am?”
“Yes sir. You’re on the dedication page of the time miner’s manual.” I stuck my hands up to frame an invisible quote. “Roma Trist: Interplanetary Financial Officer for Stopwatch Services”. My arms dropped. “What are you looking up my picture for?”
“Well I just wanted to commend you,” he said, sounding affronted. “I can’t tell you how much these thieves take from us every year. Since I’m the bean counter for every government involved, I’m the one who has to explain the little holes in the bottom of the bag that beans have been dribbling out of. It’s nice having dedicated guys like you sewing them up for me.” He slapped me on the arm sportingly.
“What are you doing here anyway?” I asked. “You can’t be at every pausing.”
“Maybe I can,” he said and bugged his eyes out. “Who knows what special treats the R&D guys have given out.” He laughed at his own joke and only stopped when a siren distracted him. “Anyway, I was actually here listening to the speech. Part of his campaign was increased stopwatch presence so I thought it best that I be here to represent that. Luckily I was way in the back, so the blast didn’t even come close. The shock wave though…” he shook his head, “passed through me like cheap coffee.” There was that smile again. It probably tarnished the silver spoon in seconds.
“Is that all?” I asked, eager to get back to my tunnel. Trist dropped the grin.
“No. I want you to go around and tell your buddies we’ve got a specialist coming in.”
“Ehh…” Trist scowled, “some of the other higher-ups were here too and they’re concerned about the smokestone. I told them they were wasting resources but they didn’t care.”
“There is a lot more smoke than normal.”
“Yeah well every minute we spend worrying about smoke is another person who dies trapped in the fire because you couldn’t reach them before crystallization.”
“So who’s this expert?” I asked, trying to hide my annoyance. In one sentence he had shifted the blame from his colleagues to me.
“Some chronogeologist… Her name’s Druda Poi. They want her to look at the site: check for paused radiation, map the loops, other junk like that. So go tell your guys.”
“I’ll make it my top prio-” I choked on the sarcasm as a banshee wail swept across the stadium entrance. Screams followed it. It can’t be. It’s too soon. Before I could finish the thought I was back through the gate and examining the explosion. The front was intact, the left side was fine, and the back was…
A long trail of blackened and melted turf marked the entrance to my team’s tunnel as if a jet engine had come barreling through. There were bodies scattered here and there, most of them wriggling.
“Medics!” I shouted. “Medics!” I leaned down to examine a blackened face. “Andon get up! Andon!” No use. If I had tried to open the flakes of charcoal that were his eyelids they would’ve broken off in my hand.
24 hours until crystallization
My first ‘catnap’ shift passed with no sleep. It wasn’t because I was stuck in an onsite tent and had forgotten my earplugs. It wasn’t because Roma was a smug wad of money with legs. It wasn’t even because Andon was dead. I’m a callous bastard, I thought. After a full digging shift, a lunch of efficiently packed sludge, and a citizen’s arrest, an accident just seemed like the natural progression. Andon told the best jokes. Hilcox had nothing on him.
The accident was the real reason I couldn’t sleep. Stopwatches weren’t perfect… there were always anomalies to deal with in the pausing, like finding a bubble in glass or an aquifer under your feet. We had weeks of safety training all about the loops. They are irregularities in the pausing process. Andon called them ‘instant replays’ whenever he was making another fantastic joke about how our job was like going to the movies.
What killed him was a sealed time repetition in the body of the paused explosion. In bubbles like that, instead of stopping, time replays a few seconds from the last moments before the pause. A wave of fire flies out again, and again, and again, and nothing will ever stop it… unless some unlucky lump like Andon breaks the seal. Then the internal pressure changes and all that fire comes pouring out through the hole. What’s left is an empty chamber at the end of the tunnel and a few corpses pushed out of the tunnel by the blast, dead as can be. Like some kind of undead being birthed from the mouth of hell.
We needed that specialist to get there. Her transport wasn’t due for a few hours yet and I hated the idea of going back to work without her examining that screwed up fireball first. Loops were supposed to be infrequent. They were supposed to be about the size of a basketball. That thing was riddled with them.
I saw guys walk by the tent entrance decked out in their full fire gear: padded gray suits with orange stripes. Face masks that look like fireplace grills. We worked slower than the Interplanet Mail Carriers in those things.
Sleeping was made even less likely as I heard the howl of escaped fire every three minutes. The loops were huge too. We found bodies in a lot of them. Several guys got down on their knees and prayed right there that those people were dead before the loop started. If they weren’t… then they had been dying over and over again since the pause. They burned. They left. They came back. They burned. They left… so on and so on until we punctured the loop. I kept thinking about the other people who were bound to be agonizing in perpetuity right then, while I struggled to sleep. They’d started the big sleep a thousand times and I couldn’t even get a regular one going. Where was that damn expert?
20 hours and ten minutes until crystallization
The tunnel was originally supposed to be a straight shot to the VIPs on stage and in the front rows, but the loops trashed that plan. We had to burrow our way around them like worms avoiding rotten parts of an apple. To my left and right I could see waves of fire looping over and over through the transparent firestone. The thin carpet of the stage beneath my feet, I hacked away at the fires in front of me. Sparks flew as licks of heat broke away and smashed on the floor.
A chunk containing a suspended microphone came loose. The would-be-senator was bound to be close. I imagined that the microphone had been one of those ancient corded ones and I might be able to tug on it until we found the base fixed in the paused politician’s hand. Doubted he would’ve let it go for much of anything.
The rhythm took over. Crack. Fizzle. Crack. Fizzle. Crack. Fizzle. The sounds did wonders for a man trying to shroud thoughts of guilt. Sparks obscured Andon’s face like a fourth of July show over a war torn country. The only thing that could’ve stopped me was… two fingers tapped me on the shoulder.
I turned around, almost hitting the figure with my ax. It jumped back and squawked like a duck thrown into a boiling soup pot. The fire dust in my eyes and the shifting light from the loops made it difficult to discern detail, plus the sounds of other guys carting away my rubble echoed mightily in the tight space. I gestured for the figure to go outside and followed it, handing my ax off to the next guy in line.
The light of our second day at work hit my face as I exited the furnace of a tunnel. Someone threw me a wet towel and I pulled it down my face, dragging streaks of red and gray dirt. The towel was one of those new kinds with the little blue square in the corner; it flashed and all the dirt and grime fell off it in a murky trickle. For a moment I was actually disappointed… It took a lot of hard work to build all that up. I tossed the clean towel back and turned to face the distraction that had pulled me out like a corkscrew.
She was one of the more hideous things I’d seen in my life. The woman was short, plump, and hanging onto the last dark hairs of end-stage middle-age. Her eyes were wrinkly but dignified while her ears propped up her dome-like bun of hair. She was clearly of Joldish descent, which no doubt traced back to Rouba, then Fray-zan, and way back to her Chinese ancestors on Earth.
Her ridiculous yellow robe was decorated with layers of shiny golden silk. Every one of her fingers held ornate rings with different frozen stones in them, half of which I couldn’t identify. The only normal thing about her was her nametag: Dr. Druda Poi.
“Ma’am,” I said, blowing a hair out of my face. Without the hot throbbing glow of firestone in my eyes I was seeing Andon again. “You just wandered into a tunnel full of loops that have already killed six guys today.” Her pleased expression did not change.
“I am aware,” she said. “I was told you were digging around them now.” Her voice was like lemon syrup, high-pitched and sour.
“Yes ma’am,” I said, frustration draining out of my voice. She ticked something off on a paper pad. She looked like she could afford a gilded data sheet, so I couldn’t imagine why she’d stick with a big pad of wood pulp like that. “What can I do for you?”
“You are Greco Barley, yes? You’ve been making most of the progress in this tunnel here?
“Yes.” There was a moment of silence where she stared at me expectantly.
“Uh… well what?”
“Well tell me about the tunnel! How tough are the rocks? What’s the spark output like? How radiant is the firestone?
“Radiant? Are you trying to help us or are you picking out something for a toe ring?”
“Both,” she said without missing a beat. “Walk with me.” She turned and headed off toward the part of the field where the sculptor surgeons were hard at work. The more delicate notes of chisels replaced the phoenix-peck sound of ax swings. We weaved our way through several upright victims of the blast, standing like Medusa’s prized garden of trespassers. The surgeons bent themselves into awkward positions to chip away at what frozen fire remained on them.
“Firestone has even more qualities to consider than most gems because of its unusual birth. A greasy texture can indicate energy leakage. A delicate curve in the dendrites of the flame can suggest the use of an accelerant. Its shine can tell me what proportion of background radiation and time-related particles escaped the pause. So its aesthetic is a matter of fact that can help me save lives.” She stopped next to one of the victims, an elderly man with weights of smoke still around his legs. “My rings are an index of samples for comparison as well as accents to my beauty.”
“I’m… I’m sorry,” I stammered.
“I knew you two would hit it off!” Quid said, emerging from behind the old man. “So when’s the wedding?” His joke reminded me of Marcy. It must’ve shown on my face because his smile faded. He turned back to the old man and stuck a curved metal rod down his open mouth. It went sickeningly far down.
“What are you doing to him?” I asked with a grimace. Quid didn’t look away from his work.
“He must have been pushed back by the shock wave before being engulfed in smoke. The motion made him vomit. I’ve got to chisel it out of his throat or he could choke to death when we unfreeze him.”
“How do you get it out of him?” I asked morbidly.
“We’ll have to suspend him upside down and just let the pieces fall out.”
“Boys, enough of this gruesome talk,” Druda pleaded with her hands in the air. “Greco dear, come help me pick some things out.”
“I should be getting back to work Ma-”
“Nonsense!” She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me toward a folding table under a tent with several paused materials spread out across it. She busied herself, picking up the smaller pieces and examining them with an unusual gilded hand lens that had a lizard motif and a small clock tick-tocking away in its mouth. “Wonderful specimens,” she bubbled. “Paused sports drink.” She pointed to a milky jade-colored stone. “The electrolytes give it that smooth texture.”
She picked up one after the other, seeming to enjoy the gems created from the stadium’s snack bar fare most of all: paused perfume, paused chocolate-coffee-vanilla swirl ice cream, paused nacho cheese, paused beer, paused sunblock, paused dust bunnies, etc…
She picked up a thimble-sized piece of paused cleaning solution that was probably used to wipe down the microphone before the speech. Her bird-like fingers reached out and pulled a pocket on my pants open so her other hand could drop the solution stone inside.
“Hey, what are you doing?” I asked frantically as I tried to dig it back out. “We’ll get arrested if we take anything paused.” She slapped my hands away and giggled.
“I’m allowed to take whatever I want and give it to whoever I want,” she said. “They wouldn’t dare risk losing my expertise over a few baubles. That stone is for you. It’s payment for being my little birdie.” Her huge sleeves flapped by my face as she turned back to the table. I could see her full set of peg-like teeth in the reflection of a huge chunk of firestone on the table’s corner.
“What do you mean?” I asked, still not sure how legal that was. The tiny stone felt like a dumbbell in my pocket. A rock like that could buy someone a decent lunch every day from here to retirement. Druda picked up a flat cross-section of firestone with surprising strength and held it between us. Her face looked orange and warped in places through the slab.
“As they suspected, something’s not as it should be.”
“The smoke and the loops? Are they connected?”
“Not just those things.” She traced a red line in the slab with her eyes. “This fire was pushed outward. There were at least two blasts and they happened almost simultaneously.” She looked at me like she expected me to put it together. A little tired of her trying to lead me around like a Pomeranian choking on its leash, I stuck my hand on top of the slab and pushed down so it was no longer between us.
“Look… why are you telling me this?”
“I have a feeling.”
“Yeah I’ve heard you old Joldish people always get feelings when it’s about to storm,” I scoffed.
“Shush. This feeling tells me someone designed this unusual explosion.”
“What?” I couldn’t believe it. My brain started acting like an alarmist news channel, flashing headlines with lots of exclamation points and talking about evil mastermind terrorists. “What do you mean designed?”
“The explosion came in two quick stages and the smoke contains debris not from this field. So the first blast contained a dust-like material chosen so it would obscure this entire event in smoke. Someone didn’t want us seeing the firestone.”
“But they had to know we’d get to it eventually.” I shook my head. “I don’t see how hiding what’s paused could do anything.”
“Yes that is still a mystery,” she conceded. “That’s why I need you. You seem like such a nice young man and I heard you caught that thief. You will keep your eye out and tell me about anything else you notice, no matter how small it seems. Okay?”
“Well alright. Shouldn’t you be giving this info to the police though?” We both heard shouting from a nearby tent and turned. The thief I caught was being led out of it and away. He writhed and shrieked hysterically.
“It’s not true! I didn’t do nothing! I was just taking some rocks! I wouldn’t kill anybody! How the hell would I know how to build a bomb! Stop! Hey, stop!”
“It seems they’ve already made up their minds,” Druda said. “I don’t know about you but that little skink doesn’t seem smart enough to blueprint a cloud like this. And there are much easier ways to get your hands on paused material than blowing up a senator.”
“This isn’t right,” I said, more to myself than to her. Roma Trist came out of the police tent and followed behind the officers. His face was glued to his phone. “I’ll be right back.”
“Take your time,” Druda shouted after me as I jogged over to Trist. I tapped him on the shoulder and he quickly sheathed his phone inside his jacket.
“Trist… What’s he yelling about?” I pointed to the thief who was kicking at the air like he was pedaling a bike. Trist gave an exaggerated shrug.
“We think he’s the bomber. Guy was caught stealing rocks, he’s got a couple arrests for assault… you know how it goes.” He smiled and patted me on the back in a way that would’ve stung if not for my blast-resistant uniform. “You’re a hero for catching this guy. I’ll call the papers in a bit so they can come down and interview you. Might want to get that stuff out of your teeth though.”
In the second I took to slide a fingernail between my front teeth, Trist walked away. I swore under my breath and caught up with him without failing to notice his walking speed had picked up considerably.
“Wait. There’s no way that loser did this.” Trist stopped and snapped toward me. I could hear his phone beeping rhythmically from inside his jacket.
“And why not?”
“Well the expert you guys brought in says the whole explosion was designed. Why would a gem thief do that?” Roma’s phone beeped again… every four seconds it seemed like…
“What does it matter? The expert’s full of shit. Nobody designs explosions. I told them not to bring that crazy old bat in. She’s always going on about the ‘sublime crossroads of space and time’ or some shit like that. There’s always a grand paintbrush hanging over the whole thing with her.”
“Everyone else seems to take her seriously,” I said, feeling a little crestfallen.
“And that’s why I’m in charge. If it was people like you the whole universe would’ve been accidentally frozen by now.” Before I could respond Trist jumped into another line of attack. “Why do you care about this thief anyway? Guilty conscience? Feel bad about all the times you’ve swallowed some fire pebbles in the middle of a job and then hovered over the toilet later waiting for your stolen fortune to come flying out like spicy food?”
Seventeen hours and thirty-nine minutes until crystallization
Several of the sculpting surgeons had taken my place at the end of the tunnel. They were busy trying to extricate the senator from his temporary tomb. The guy’s face didn’t even have time to change; he was still in the middle of a syllable from his speech. Instead of thinking about the stones around me like I should have been I was trying to identify the word the senator was mouthing. Could’ve been freedom, but it looked a little angrier than that.
Since there were loops on both sides of us I had to wait for them to finish and haul him out of there before I could continue. The light from repeating waves of fire washed over me like the tide. My hand rested on the lump in my pocket. Well I am getting paid… I thought. It couldn’t hurt to dig around a little and maybe earn some of that solution stone. The delicate chisel sounds helped me descend into my own brain, where I poured over the mystery novels I used to read as a kid.
What does the detective do at this point? There’s a crime scene. There’s a victim. Somebody hates the victim, so they figure out why.
It struck me that there were technically dozens of victims in the blast, with most of the front seats being filled by important people. Every victim was the potential trigger.
“Quid, do we have a victim list?” I asked. He looked up from the chunk of fire he was chiseling off the candidate’s neck. His eyes were watery and small, like an overworked welder’s.
“Uhm yeah… there’s a big data screen in the surgeon’s tent with names. Light blue tent.”
“Alright thanks,” I said as I rose to my feet. I couldn’t dig while the surgeons were in my tunnel anyway, so I left my ax behind.
The cool and calm interior of the surgeon’s tent was a nice change of pace. Every tool set out was clean and glistening in contrast to the barrels of rusty and grime-covered axes and shovels standing around near the tunnel entrances. A robot that looked like a cross between a faucet and a torso was busy washing several long chisels in the sink that protruded from its waist. It paid me no attention as I approached the screen in the back. The surgeons wouldn’t have appreciated it if I put my smoke-blackened hands all over their screen, so I tried a few voice commands.
“List of victims… List of identified victims… list of missing…”
The names that scrolled by were a little overwhelming. There had to be a way to narrow it down. All the factors of the case… Did I really just call this a case? I thought. After a quick check to make sure a deerstalker hat and a pipe hadn’t appeared on my head, I went back to puzzling it out. What elements did I have that I knew were unusual? Excess smoke ‘hiding’ the rest of the explosion. Huge loops concentrated near the stage. A common thief being arrested as a terrorist.
“Seating chart,” I whispered to the screen. It pulled up a diagram. “First two rows.” Fourteen names. The way I saw it, there was no way someone would design the explosions to get at somebody in the middle or back of the crowd. There were just too many variables to assume that the person they wanted to get caught in a loop would.
That was the theory I was going off of. The killer’s goal was to trap someone in a loop so they could suffer and die over and over again. They wanted to cage someone in the closest thing to hell the universe would allow. What they might’ve done to warrant such heinous revenge… not a clue.
“People rescued from the first two rows.” The screen pulled up six names. One of the other teams from the sides had effectively extracted part of the second row. There was a word next to those names: thawed. That was surgeon jargon for unpaused.
The peace of the tent was destroyed by my awkward rush to get out of it. I slipped, hit a table, and sent a row of shining chisels into the air. The robot managed to catch two in its hands and one in its sink. “Uh, sorry,” I yelled back at it as I closed the tent flap, unsure whether the machine was smart enough to accept the apology.
Anyone who was unpaused would be immediately loaded into an ambulance and sent to a hospital for testing, so I ran back to the entrance, scanning any stretchers for conscious beings. If my witnesses were shipped off I wouldn’t have any excuse to follow them. It would just look like I was playing hooky.
The crowd dammed by the police barriers had only grown since the last time I was out there. Everyone was probably hoping to catch an errant pebble of something and buy all their friends a few rounds of drinks. The only holes in the barriers were occupied by rows of ambulances and dump trucks taking their turns to pick up victims and paused materials.
Several stretchers were waiting for their turn to unload. One man stood out as uniquely coherent among the group; he was sitting upright and dangling his legs off the side. His sagging face and sour expression, coupled with his expensive but ill-fitting suit, made him look like a dried fruit slipping out of its supermarket packaging.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said. Some of the other victims moaned behind him, keeping the attention of the two medics.
“Yes?” he said, friendlier than I expected.
“Uhm… Could I get your name please?”
“It’s Jack Kipps. Who are you?”
“Oh I’m just one of the miners.” Jack Kipps was one of the names from the first two rows. Before I could thank my luck, he had grabbed my hand and started patting the top of it.
“You young men saved my life. Thank you.” Kipps noticed he had dirtied his hand by touching mine, so he smeared it across the white cloth of the stretcher. “What can I do for you?”
“Well I was hoping you could tell me if anyone in your row or the row in front of you was acting weird before the blast.” The old man squinted.
“Did anyone seem afraid? Fidgety? Worried or angry?”
“Let me think now…” Kipps stroked one of his cheeks, leaving a black tally of smoke dust behind. “Mrs. Rareteen was clutching her purse pretty tightly but I think it was because she had that little dog of hers in there. One time the little guy yelped when she was on live TV! Heheheh.” Kipps coughed and wiped at his lips, turning them black. If this kept up he might look like a lump of coal before they carted him away.
“Eh… Donald Forung was a little antsy but… Oh that’s right… Cecil Noone was definitely worried about something.”
“What?” I asked excitedly while memorizing the name. Cecil Noone, Cecil Noone, Cecil Noone…
“I don’t know, but he didn’t put that phone of his away the entire time. He had it out during the speech. In fact… that’s the last thing I remember. I was thinking, ‘Who in their right mind sends an E-mail in the middle of someone’s speech.’ It’s just plain rude. That man is-”
“A spaceline owner?” I asked. Kipps nodded. There was no need to memorize a name I already knew. “Cecil Noone owns Yonder-Eon spacelines, doesn’t he?”
“Yes he does. Never lets anyone hear the end of it either. Man’s got more money than hell’s tollbooth and the best thing he can think to do is brag about it.”
“Thank you so much Mr. Kipps. I’ve got to go.” I took off again, this time for the tunnel of the team that saved my witness. I was probably moving across that field faster than any of the athletes who played there ever had.
Yonder-Eon was the spaceline that we always used between planets, in that system anyway. The complimentary meals were lousy, but they made up for it in entertainment. Live shows all the time on little stages every few rows or so. Not two weeks prior Marcy and I were holding hands and watching a guy juggle toy-sized robotic acrobats. The little figures would spin in the air and hang onto his fingers, pretending that their little electric lives would end if they fell. Marcy had laughed. One of the little bots cannonballed into her plastic cup of ginger ale, the splashes on her shirt just making her laugh louder.
How she would laugh when I told her how I figured it out. ‘No way you did that,’ she would say in disbelief. I had it though. The key was the E-mail. The E-mail that was still being sent. That would earn me the stone in my pocket.
I flung myself into the tunnel Kipps had been pulled from, dodging the sparks from everyone’s axes as I weaved my way through their work. Every time I saw a loop playing out behind a thin wall of fire I stopped to time it. Three seconds. No. Half a second. No. eleven seconds. No.
I caught up to the end of the tunnel, where two lead diggers hacked away. It was Hilcox and Muller. Hilcox was fast, but his strikes looked like weak flicks on a dying lighter compared to Muller’s. The massive Goldrian man grunted every time he raised his ax and brought it down like an asteroid impact. A flash from one of his strikes blinded me for a moment.
“Guys!” I called out. “Stop a second, I mean stop for four seconds. Just stop!” They lowered their axes, making room for me to press my hands against the wall next to them without worrying about Hilcox taking my head off with his backswing.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Hilcox asked.
“Shhhh!” I stared into a loop. It took a moment to notice the jump: the exact instance where the fire stopped flowing and reverted back to the beginning of the loop. It was like spotting a sneaky edit in an old movie. 1… 2… 3… 4… perfect. I counted again just to be sure. 1… 2… 3… 4… still perfect.
“Muller, I need you to come with me. I might need some muscle.” I started to exit the tunnel, but he wasn’t following. “Muller come on! Trust me.”
“Alright,” the big lug moaned and followed.
“Whatever this is I’m not missing it,” Hilcox said. He tapped two other miners and told them to take over before following us out.
Seventeen hours and six minutes until crystallization
It could’ve taken me half an hour to find Druda. There were black and orange boulders, tents, trucks, miners, surgeons, overseers, trash, and torn up patches of fake grass everywhere. Even something as colorful as her could easily blend into the chaos.
It could have taken half an hour… but an affronted wail led us straight to her. While we traced the sound to a clean-looking tent, Hilcox compared the cry to that of a stork with a French horn caught in its throat.
“Yeah that’s her,” I said with a smile and pulled open a ten flap.
“Greco! Good boy!” Druda honked at me. “You’re here just in time. Take that away from him.” I looked over and saw Roma Trist on the other side of the tent. He was bent over trying to pull a heavy metal device off the ground. It had three joined cylinders, each with a little clock face.
“You’re fired if you touch this!” Trist shouted. Druda had already gotten him red in the face. “It’s government property that she was trying to steal!”
“I would never!” Druda shouted back and lapsed into her native tongue. Whatever she was saying, it sounded like something that might get bleeped out on television. “That’s the stopwatch!” she yelled with a forceful return to English. “They just pulled it out and he tried to take it away. It’s been altered. There are three small ones instead of one regular one! They went off at the same time and created all those extra loops! I was right. Someone built that cloud of death out there.”
“Yeah and I know who,” I said. Everyone looked at me. Another moment where time seemed to stop. “You did it Trist.” His face swelled into a new shade of red.
“How dare you accuse me! I was just trying to return this stopwatch to headquarters. We always do that with stopwatches.”
“Grab him Muller.” The Goldrian hunched over and came into the tent where his presence silenced everyone. He wasn’t violent by nature but he knew to trust me over some corporate type threatening to fire anyone that looked at him funny. The man’s huge hands clasped down on Trist’s shoulders. He dropped the stopwatch and fumed silently. I reached into his jacket and pulled out his phone. It beeped.
“Just a ruse to steal from me eh?” Trist said.
“I could say the same to you,” I retorted. “This whole mess was just a ruse to steal from Cecil Noone.”
“The guy from those flight magazines?” Muller asked.
“Yeah. I’ll prove it. Noone is trapped in the loop you guys were working near. He was seen sending an E-mail the moment before the explosion. Now come with me. Keep him quiet Muller.”
The five of us exited the tent and returned to the tunnel. Muller kept one hand over Trist’s mouth and leaned forward the whole time, using his bulk to obscure our prisoner’s shape. I led them back to the loop and stood in front of it, letting the light from the repeating fires outline me. Everyone stared expectantly. I held up Trist’s phone. It beeped and a little green alert light flashed. We waited four seconds. It beeped again. We waited. It beeped. I wasn’t sure how many times it would take for them to get it. Druda realized first and her face lit up almost as brightly as the flames.
“You did it boy! I knew I could count on you. You just looked like such a smartypants to me!”
“Wait, what’s happening?” Hilcox asked.
“They’ve gone insane that’s all,” Trist growled before Muller put his hand back over his mouth.
“They sync up,” I told them. It took Hilcox another minute but I could see realization dawning. “Trist here gets an E-mail every four seconds. This loop is exactly four seconds long.” I could see Trist’s eyebrows rise. He squirmed in Muller’s arms like something with lots of legs under the heat of a magnifying glass.
“It got into my head when I first met him but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. It was just so weird to get messages with such a pattern. That beat stuck with me all day though. Four seconds… beep. Four seconds… beep. When I found out who was trapped in this four second loop and what he was doing, everything clicked.”
I activated the phone’s screen and pulled up a hologram of the incoming messages for everyone to see.
Payment made to Personal account courtesy of Yonder-Eon Spacelines.
Payment made to Personal account courtesy of Yonder-Eon Spacelines.
Payment made to Personal account courtesy of Yonder-Eon Spacelines.
“If I admit that you’re smarter than me will you explain this better?” Hilcox asked sarcastically.
“Trist planned all this to make money off of one of the few guys richer than him,” I said. “He had someone build the bombs to trap his victim in fire and smoke. Then he paid someone to build a special stopwatch that would create much larger loops. The bigger the loops, the higher the chance he would catch Cecil Noone in one.”
“I knew I picked the best one” Druda said. She waddled over to me, pulled open a pocket, and poured paused jewels into it. “Don’t worry, there’s plenty for you two as well,” she told Muller and Hilcox.
“Ahem,” I coughed. Druda dropped back.
“I’m sorry dear, continue.”
“Roma here was blackmailing Cecil Noone, or scammed him, or something that got him to pay at least once. He showed up at this event, sat in the back, and sent Noone a message ordering him to send a payment at a precise moment in the middle of the speech. When he saw the payment hit the phone, he triggered the bombs and the stopwatches. Doing it here ensured everyone would think it was some terrorist.” I took a moment to breathe. For a second I was afraid I had forgotten something small, that an overlooked detail destroyed my elaborate theory. Then I saw the defeat and anger in Trist’s eyes: two raw emotions twisting around each other like parasitic vines pointlessly stealing each other’s life force.
“His plan worked. Cecil got caught in a loop. He made the payment, got engulfed in flame, and then repeated the process. Even though it was the same payment every time, every signal was new. So that one payment, repeated every four seconds, was steadily siphoning off all the wealth from his spaceline company and dropping it in Trist’s pocket. That’s why he added the smoke. The longer it took us to find him or break the loop, the more payments he would receive. He’s nothing but a pickpocket. A pickpocket in a nice suit.”
“Woah,” Hilcox and Muller said together.
“Well let’s go turn him in,” the smaller one chimed.
“You guys can do it.” I tossed the phone to Druda. “I’m tired… and I’ve been pausing something I shouldn’t have.”
“I’ll take care of the official things,” Druda said and gave me a bow. I returned it and wished them luck before running to the tunnel’s entrance.
As I exited the furnace and hit the sun for the last particular time on that particular field on that particular planet, I realized my moment with Marcy should have been nothing more than a moment. I had to go back and fix that. The other guys could finish up there without me: save Cecil and the others, blow the lid off the already-blown bomb, and dance under a rain of paused and polished butter, bug wings, and spearmint gum from Druda’s hands.
When I saw her, we felt that moment and its passing. She’d do anything to get me out of a line full of faceless people, and I’d do anything to keep her off the kind of food I’d been stuck with. She made bad decisions and I followed through on them. I acted hastily and she helped me see the light. I was loaded down with stones to replace the tiny paused droplet I’d put on her ring, like a man ready to march into a lake and end is own life.
Something solidified between us as we waved goodbye to that scene in time.