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"Time," Erickson said loudly, as I fidgeted in my seat, "is no longer the enemy. Time does not reign over us. Soon, we will end time's tyranny."
There were nods in the auditorium, the deep, fast movements of the fanatically driven and the less intense motion of the nearly asleep. I glanced at Linda, and she rolled her eyes and moved a little in her chair--we'd been sitting for what felt like forever.
"Time doesn't matter," Erickson said. "Not when we're truly plugged in. We talk when we want, we view whatever data we need in real time. From right here." He tapped the side of his forehead, where his direct-access jack glistened under the stage lights. "We wait for nothing. And now, with the matter displacer, we will want for nothing. Everything happens in the eternal now. This is the end of time as a barrier."
Linda leaned over and murmured, "I wish someone would tell my butt about time ending. How much longer is he going to go on?"
"He'll be done in no time," I said, earning myself a sharp poke in the ribs.
Erickson finally wrapped it up, and we slipped away during the Q&A session. I put my arm around Linda as we walked, and she shot me a surprised look but didn't pull away.
"You're feeling mellow?" I asked. "Letting me indulge in PDA at work?"
She gave me an odd little grin. "Maybe it's the idea of time ending. I want to make the most of the moments we have left."
"It's just a metaphor, hon." I pulled her closer as we walked around the park-like campus of New Gestalt's corporate headquarters.
"Look at them, Tom." She pointed at some people lying on blankets in the sun, smiling and tapping their fingers or moving their legs to music only they could hear.
"What? They're tan?"
"Not that. They're so tuned in, they've tuned out of our world. Maybe time has really stopped."
"Throw some water on them and I bet it starts up again."
She sighed. "You know what I mean."
I could remember times when I'd been so deeply into the moment that time had stopped. "Is that a bad thing, though? I mean, maybe the technology part is whacked, but just being into something? Is that so wrong?"
"Depends on what you're into, I guess." She didn't seem happy, and I wasn't sure what I'd said to make her look that way.
She stopped walking and gently pulled away from me. "I have work to get back to. Time may have stopped in Erickson's department, but for me, it goes on."
"Will I see you later?"
She turned and gave me the crooked grin I loved. "Later's a word with no meaning, remember?" She pulled me back to her for a quick kiss. "Much later, actually. I have a lot to get done tonight."
As she walked away, I considered what Erickson had said. The new matter displacer did promise instant satisfaction--for those who could afford it. Forget mailing, just put your item in the special cargo hold, hit a switch, and easy as pie it was somewhere else. Not a copy of the thing, but the real thing, molecules jumbled and made insubstantial and then reformed, just like in the comics or old science fiction shows. They'd perfected the home model and were working on a portable version now.
I eyed a woman sitting on a bench. She had a direct plug-in near her ear, and she'd embellished it with a flower tattoo with the jack as the center. It looked cool and current and very hip.
I'd heard those jacks hurt like hell while the skin was healing around them. Not something I wanted, but probably something I'd eventually have to get to keep up with my colleagues. Time waits for no man, and neither does New Gestalt.
The woman saw me watching her and gave me a pretty smile. Probably thought I was interested in her. A few months ago, I would have been. Linda had changed all that. Well, not just Linda--it had helped that I'd finally let go of the anger I felt at Patty for up and leaving me nine months ago when I'd been a content husband.
We'd had eight years of wedded...non-bliss. I could remember the time easily. In other ways, the years had flown by, and our marriage had died before I'd even had time to get bored.
Patty had been beyond bored when she packed up and skedaddled. I still saw her every now and then. In the supermarket, usually. She never smiled at me, just moved on quickly like I might turn stalker on her ass.
I wanted her to see me with Linda. Linda was way prettier than Patty. And younger. It would drive her nuts. Not that I cared what Patty thought.
Okay, I wished I didn't care. Eight years. Eight damn years thrown away as if they never existed. I realized I was clenching my fists and tried to relax.
Time heals all wounds, they say. I hoped to hell "they" were right.
I heard the clomp-clomp of heavy hipster boots, turned, and saw Erickson. "Hey, Lex."
"Hey. I saw you come in late for my lecture today."
"Time got away from me."
He didn't even crack a smile.
"Tough crowd." I turned down the hall toward the cafeteria. "What's up?"
"I want you to look at some specs for me." He handed me a databoard. "What do you think of these tolerances?"
"I'm hardly an engineer."
"You're closer than I am." He nodded at several good-looking women who walked past; they shot him very warm smiles back.
I studied the performance tests. "This isn't very impressive."
"Shit. That's what I thought." He sighed overly loud and long. "Those are the test runs for the personal matter displacer."
Ah. The small, fit-in-your-car version. It was too heavy to actually carry. I studied it again. "No way I'd trust anything I liked to this thing."
"Damn." He waved at someone across the room, his plastered-on smile telling me he had a stake in the device's success.
"You have a lot invested in this or something?"
I handed him the board back. "And you're asking me to look at this why?"
"'Cause you're honest."
Hell of a reputation to have. Got me into so much trouble. I was always being invited to serve on interview panels, evaluation boards, peer reviews. On the other hand, it did let me ask blunt questions like the one I asked now: "You really believe all that 'time is over' crap you were spouting?"
Erickson shot me a hard look. "Time is on the ledge, man. And we're backing it up inch by inch. Pretty soon, it'll be pushed right off, and we'll be living in the eternal now."
"We're too linear to live in the eternal anything. Time marches on. And so do we. If nothing else, Circadian rhythms dictate that."
"Rhythms imply cycles. Think of the Ouroboros. The serpent eating its tail and ending up at the beginning. Think seasons progressing. Circles imply constancy."
I smiled. "They also indicate age. Cut a tree down and see its age tracked out in growth rings. Linear and circular all at once."
Erickson laughed. "That's a good one. I'll have to think up a counter. No one's ever argued successfully against my circle theorem."
"Yeah, go you." He patted me on the shoulder in a really annoying way. "I've got to run."
"I thought that all time was now."
"Not quite yet. And I'm running late." He moved off casually, though. As if the last thing he wanted to look was late--or uncool.
I watched him go, then got into line, intent on filling my lunch hour with junk food and artificial everything.
"Pop over to L.A. for me?" My boss was smiling in a way that meant I'd really be pulling his ass out of the fire if I hopped to.
I held my hand out for whatever it was he wanted me to deliver. "Better be good, Mark."
Laughing in what sounded like immense relief, he said, "It is."
I studied the gaily wrapped package. "This is so not business, is it?"
"Look, I'd take it myself, but I have a meeting I can't miss. Just make sure it gets to Evelyn."
I rolled my eyes but got up. "They better not audit my tube usage."
"I'll say you were there for a meet-and-greet. Now get out of here before my wife's birthday is over."
His wife lived in a different time zone and apparently liked it that way. Maybe prolonged absence would have saved my marriage?
I headed out for the tube station. There was a Tai Chi class on the far lawn, my co-workers getting in touch with their inner zen or whatever. I studied their motions, then their expressions. Some looked like they were concentrating on where to bend, but others looked...transported. As if they truly had transcended time.
And with no direct-access jack in site.
I passed a line of people waiting at the public transport site. Schedules lined the wall of the enclosure, and I heard a woman say, "We'll never make it. This damn bus is never on time."
I kept walking to the private entrance of the tube station. The guard at the door eyed me suspiciously, even though he'd seen me ride the damn thing a million times. I swiped my transport card for access, and the barred gate split open and let me in.
Soft music played as I walked to the escalator and rode it down into the bowels of the earth. The walls were painted a soothing blend of blues that bled from palest sky to indigo and back again as I walked. The air was fresh and kept at the perfect temperature. My location was discreetly painted at set intervals: Washington: Reston Station.
"Sir?" The attendant--totally unnecessary to the real operations, but there to add a spot of luxury in his doorman-like hat and uniform--smiled at me.
"L.A. Melrose station."
"Very good, sir." He waited for a tube car to zip into view, stood back a bit as the door opened and said, "Mind the gap," as I stepped into it.
Mind the gap. Such a beautiful sentiment. The tube cars had started in England. Building on the success of the Chunnel, they'd built another tunnel that connected London and Amsterdam. But this one had been completely automated, with strings of tube cars like a little roller coaster only with none of the thrills. Just forward momentum. And speed. Outlandish, stop-for-nothing speed.
Travel time had been cut. Cut so deep it bled. Erickson would no doubt love that idea.
Now, decades later, there were tube stations connecting the major cities, and more coming on line all the time. First, it was just for the rich. Then corporations like New Gestalt had decided saving time was worth the extra money. Of course, some of the companies had grown rich off the tubes. Switching technology had become a boom investment, as had biotech devices that enabled humans to comfortably adapt to the ever increasing speed of travel.
I strapped on my oxygen mask, felt the bubble of the collision bag press against me.
"Good trip, sir," the attendant said as the door closed.
The first cars had accelerated so fast, people had gotten whiplash. They started slower now, working their inexorable way to speeds that if the damn thing crashed, no way I'd be anything but toast.
But time was gained. Or at least not lost. The trip to L.A. was long by tube standards but even so, I made it in plenty of time to dash to the New Gestalt branch office and drop off Evelyn's gift.
She looked up as I walked in. "He did not send you in his place."
"'Fraid so." I handed her the package.
"Are you part of the deal?" She was already ripping open the present, didn't seem to really care about my answer.
Which was no, of course. Although she was really hot, and I envied Mark just a little every time I saw her.
She smiled as she peered into the plain brown box that had been inside the pretty paper. Then she started to laugh. "Tell him I expect him here in no time." Her phone rang and she looked at the caller ID. "I'll tell him myself. As usual, he has impeccable timing." Waving to me, she picked up the phone and in a really sexy voice said, "I love it. You'll love it, too, if you ever get your sorry ass out here."
I left before I heard way too much about my boss's sex life.
"Sir?" The Melrose assistant looked like the Reston guy's twin.
I felt a moment of rebellion. Screw going back to work. "Vegas."
I'd barely buckled in and I was there. I stepped out into the heat, the world-famous lights not as impressive in the afternoon as they would be later, when it was dark. The hotels were grander than I remembered, and I wandered into the nearest one.
The first thing that hit me was the air conditioning. I felt cool air billowing around me, as if promising an eternal respite from the blazing sun outside. Then I took in the noise--the harsh clang of bells and shrill peep of whistles from the slots. Little old ladies sat, stools perched evenly between two machines, coin buckets held by their vein-ridden legs. They pulled first one, then the other of the slot machine arms, faces as stolid as the most seasoned hitman, as they systematically fed their life's savings to the one-armed bandit.
My heart leaped into my throat. That damned voice.
That lovely voice.
I turned. Patty stood in front of me, coin bucket in hand. She seemed nervous, and it pissed me off that even a chance meeting made her look at me as if a restraining order was her idea of a dream gift.
I'd never done anything to her. Except want her. Till death us do part--what the hell had happened to the concept of forever?
Or does eight years qualify as eternity now?
"Hi." My voice was way too low. Harsh and old, and I wasn't really either.
"Hi." She gave me a look I couldn't read and just stood there, not saying anything more.
And then I realized that she hadn't had to stop to say hello. She could have dodged around any of the rows of slots and video blackjack and poker, and I'd have never known she was here. She'd seen me. She'd wanted to stop.
My heart started beating double time.
Which was so stupid. Wanting to stop and say hello did not translate into wanting me back. Time might heal all wounds, but it in no way made the heart of Patty grow fonder.
Then she smiled. And it was her old smile. Warm and fresh and the one I'd wanted to wake up to for the rest of my life.
What had I been saying about time?
"I can't believe you're here," she said. "How long has it been?"
"A while," I said, even though I knew down to the day how long it had been. But somehow I didn't want to give her that.
"A long while." Her voice was breathy. The way it used to be when she called me on the phone and told me to get home quick.
She leaned in, and I smelled her perfume. A new one, not the one I used to love. And she murmured, "I've missed you," and I realized she was going to kiss me.
And just then someone dropped what sounded like an entire mint's worth of coins. Quarters rushed over and under, and there was finally a reaction from the grandma contingent as a collective wail of dismay rose.
And I imagined a similar sound going up if Linda could see me right now. I could imagine it because I felt it deep inside my stomach. A vast, uneasy feeling of disappointment that I was the way I was.
Or was I?
"What time is it?" I asked my soon-to-be-ex-wife. There was no way she could answer it for real. Time really had died inside the casino--no clocks allowed, no indication of how much time had been spent putting coins into waiting mouths or pushing chips onto the felt tabletops.
Patty smiled. A smile that a few months ago--maybe even a few weeks ago--I would have dropped everything for. Everything and everyone. "Time to reevaluate some of our decisions?"
"I don't think so."
She looked shocked.
I smiled, as gently as I could, but still probably not in a very nice way. "I'm with someone."
"Good for you." And she sounded finally like the woman who'd ripped my heart out. The harpy who'd accepted my love and then shit all over it. It had taken her no time to show her true face.
I imagined it would have taken her barely longer if I'd fallen for whatever she was up to. I didn't really want to know what game she was playing. She'd dumped me. Let me stay dumped.
I turned and walked away. And for the first time in months, I didn't care how she was looking at me. Or even if she was.
I climbed out of the tube car and smiled at the attendant. Same guy, still looking fresh and clean. The guard glared at me the same way, but I saw him glare at someone else who passed me in the entrance, so maybe it was humanity he was pissed at and not me.
Maybe life didn't revolve around me, after all? I sort of liked that idea.
I passed my boss on the way back to the office. He was loaded down with a big bouquet of stinky pink-and-white lilies, but he was headed for his car, not for the tube station. "Mark?"
He stopped. "Hey, Tom. I owe you, buddy."
"Aren't you going to L.A.?"
He gave me a funny look. "If I was, would I have had you deliver Ev's present?" He started to pull a flower from the bunch. "For Linda."
"That's okay." Linda deserved way better than second-hand flowers. She probably deserved better than a second-hand man, but I wasn't about to tell her that. Not after my moment of triumph in the casino.
"She doesn't like flowers?"
"No. She does. Doesn't Ev?" I gave him what I hoped wasn't too sad a smile. "Time has a way of slipping away from you, Mark. If you're not careful, you'll run out of it."
He glanced at his watch. "Shit, you're right. I've got to get going." And he hurried off to his car and was gone.
I glanced over to the building Linda worked in. The light in her lab was still on, so I found my car and drove to a florist that I'd never used to order flowers for Patty.
"You still open?" I asked the young woman at the counter.
"Love doesn't have a closing time. Neither does guilt. Which emotion is driving your purchase tonight?"
I laughed. "A lot of the first. A little of the second."
"Didn't realize what I had."
The woman cocked her head, seemed to be studying me. "Does she know that?"
"I'm not sure."
She seemed to accept that. "I suggest red roses. There's a reason they're a classic."
"One dozen?" she asked as she walked over to the case of roses.
I did some quick addition. "Seventeen."
"An interesting choice."
"It's the sum of the first four prime numbers."
"How truly romantic." She rolled her eyes.
"She'll think so." And Patty wouldn't know a prime number from a prime rib. And that was a good thing. This was for Linda, not for Patty.
This should never have been about Patty, but I was afraid it might have started out that way.
I had my photo files open and was looking through my trip to Utah. A place I'd gone fly fishing with Dad.
Time truly had ended that week. No schedule. We'd gotten up when we felt like it, went to bed when we were tired. We ate off schedule, didn't shower if we didn't feel like it. I'd even forgotten to floss.
There were moments in time that were indeed out of time. Moments that your mind froze and remembered so vividly it felt as if you were back there just by remembering.
I could still hear the swish of the water over rocks, the soft zing of the line going past me as I cast. The sound of my father's breathing. The caws of crows and the total absence of all things manmade. I could smell the evergreens, the sweet coolness of the river. Could feel the warmth of the sun beating down on me, the coolness of the river even through the rubber hip waders.
I remembered asking my dad how he'd stayed married so long to my mother. My dad had answered, "Stamina."
Stamina: endurance over time.
The door opened; Linda walked in. She let out a deep breath as she closed the door, and I realized that for her, this place was a sanctuary. Our home was a sanctuary.
She really was so much smarter than I.
"Hiya," I said softly.
She walked over, put her arms around me and leaned in, kissing my cheek. "What are you looking at?"
"Moments in time."
"Always time with you." Then she let me go and walked into our bedroom. I heard her stop, then she turned.
I knew I had a shit-eating grin on my face.
"Well, you should get some reward for bending the rules on PDA."
She smiled, but it was a sort of sad smile. "I never had a rule about PDA, Tom. You just never wanted to do it before today."
I felt my smile die. Was that true? Had she known all this time that I wasn't really here the way I should have been?
I got up, hugged her from behind the way she'd done to me and kissed her cheek.
"There are seventeen of them," she said. "That means something, doesn't it?"
"Maybe just that they were having a buy one, get nearly half of another one free." I nuzzled her neck.
"I doubt it." She turned and studied me. "I was afraid we were out of time."
So she had known. Damn.
"We're not. I love you, Linda."
Her face lit up, and I realized I'd never said that to her. Then she glanced at the roses and smiled mischievously. "The first four primes?"
"Got it in one."
"Well, you always call me a math geek. Even if I am a physicist." Her smile faded slowly, replaced by the thoughtful look that had first drawn me to her. "I was thinking about Erickson's lecture. I think he's wrong about us vanquishing time."
She took my hand, held it over her heart. "Our hearts are always keeping time. No matter how jacked in we are, that isn't going to change."
She was right, and her words were beautiful--almost as beautiful as she was--and I had a sudden urge to go somewhere with her where time wouldn't matter. "Do you like to fly fish?"
"Uh, no." She laughed softly, drawing me onto the bed, where shortly time would cease to exist while we rode the pleasure train. "But I'll sit and read while you do it."
Sounded like a great idea to me.