A Sense of Time, by Pete Rawlik

Sense of Time Rawlik WATERMARK 72dpi

Art by Nick Gucker – http://www.nickthehat.com – click to enlarge

“The problem with you humans was that you had no tind’losi. Even now, here, billions of years after your species went extinct, you still don’t understand your place in things, past, present or future.”

The thing that had asked Major Pandora Peaslee to call it Mister Ys was speaking in the past tense. Why was it speaking in the past tense?  At least she thought it was speaking, she wasn’t looking at her captor. Looking at Mister Ys made her eyes go blurry and her head hurt. He wasn’t human, he wasn’t even a mammal. He was an insect, a coleopteran, a beetle, or something similar. That was something to be thankful for. He was at least bilaterally symmetrical, made of normal matter, and therefore bound by understandable laws of physics. Despite this Pandora still couldn’t look at the thing, it didn’t have lips, or a tongue, or any kind of facial musculature. When it spoke – Was it even speaking English? – there was nothing, no body language or facial expressions, for her subconscious to interpret. Certainly there were nonverbal cues being generated, but they were totally inhuman, her mind had no basis for interpretation. It was better to look out the window than to watch Mister Ys speak.

Mister Ys sighed in a very human way. “The concept is so alien to your mentality that I am not even sure I can explain it to you.”

I didn’t ask you to, said a little voice inside Pandora’s head commented. It was screaming at her, and she was doing everything in her power not to follow its suggestion: Get out. Get out. Get out. Getout. Getoutgetoutgetout!

She had to get out. The dead were all around her, shambling through the streets. They had overrun the city, devoured the inhabitants, spread their infection. She was trapped in the Tillinghast Tower, fighting her way to the rooftop. There was a helicopter there, she knew how to fly. She only had six more floors, twelve flights of stairs until she could get out. As long as the army didn’t blow her out of the sky. Her heart was pounding, her breath was ragged, her legs felt like lead. Her arm stung, why did it sting?  There was blood on her sleeve. She had been cut, scratched, bitten. When had she been bitten?  It must have been hours ago. Hours ago. The wound had already turned septic. It had been hours since she had eaten. She was hungry. She had to eat. So hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry.

“You craved space, hungered for it. Space is something you understood. Your eyes, your ears, they all helped you with space, helped as you moved through it, but your tind’losi, your sense of time was very poorly developed. You knew time existed, and that you were moving through it at a given rate, but you had little sense of your past and even less of your future. Your sense of time was almost entirely subconscious. This is why your species had difficulty planning for the future. Your ability to contemplate things months, years, decades, centuries or millennia in the future was extremely limited.”

Her options had been limited. She remembered that. She had taken the job in Antarctica, Outpost 31, babysitting a team of scientists drilling in the ice. Easy really, mostly kept them from going outside without the right gear, and making sure no one went stir crazy or snow blind. When they found the city, the one that went down in to the ice she took point. It was an alien metropolis composed of tiers and gently sloping ramps and weird pentagonal doors. The place was a tomb, something about it made Pandora think of death, there was a stale stink, and the air was weirdly moist. She was woefully under equipped, they didn’t have much in the way of firearms, in some ways guns were a liability in a facility that locked men in with each other for six straight months. She had her Glock, and the thermal ice corer which would bore through six feet of glacier in thirty-seconds. When the barrell-shaped things came crawling up out of the darkness, their tentacles waving in the air, their five eyes burning in the darkness, she didn’t have thirty-seconds. She emptied the clip into one of them, but they dragged her down. The last thing she heard was a horrible keening sound that burst her eardrums and made her eyes bleed. It wasn’t until they took her head off that she finally understood what was happening.

“Some humans understood this, and were able to shuffle free of their bonds. Your feeling of déjà vu was an example of your conscious minds accessing your unconscious sense of time, but most of you tended to just ignore those rare occurrences. Those of your species who were able to do this on a regular basis, who tapped into their sense of time, well you called them mad, and locked them away. You never realized that those madmen were essential to understanding the very nature of the universe you lived in.”

Why is it still talking?  SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!

She hadn’t been in Antarctica, she had been on a ship in the South Pacific. A storm blew them off course. There was an island, and on the island something else, something plastic that seethed with hate and devoured men’s souls leaving nothing but shriveled sacks of skin and bone. It moved through walls and bulkheads, seeping through the spaces in between matter itself. She had locked herself in the engine room, as if that would have helped. When it finally came for her, rising up through the deck like some kind of phantom, the inevitability of her death washed over her. She was calm, serene even. She died quietly, in spite of the horror, comfortable in that last final truth.  

“Your physicists and fantasists hit on the truth, well part of it. They theorized the Butterfly Effect and the Jonbar Hinge, and how points of divergence might lead to parallel time lines. They were fascinated by the concepts of paratime. They imagined that divergence was easy, that the simple act of a butterfly flapping its wings, or not, was sufficient to cause a divergence, and therefore the creation of an entirely new universe, a new paratime, nearly identical to the original but with slight differences. This was a very anthropocentric concept, so very arrogant of your species. Your researchers never considered objectivity, or even the energy constraints that such a system might entail. Your species never considered that there might be a limit to divergence, a limit to the energy needed to create and sustain paratimes. They never considered that points of divergence might also have an opposite, that there might be points of convergence, of collapse.”

The mine was collapsing. She was in a desert in Nevada, not far from the testing grounds. Some of the mine workers had gone missing, including Pandora Peaslee’s cousin. Great pits had opened up in the waste piles, and smaller ones within the mines themselves. Pandora had gone down to investigate. At least that is how she remembered it. She had been properly armed this time, the Glock and an Uzi. She had needed them to fight off the horde of subhuman things that had climbed up out of the earth. They had been men once, but that had been long ago. Now they lived in the ground, burrowing with clawed hands and searching for food with huge yellow eyes. They only came up to the surface when they were hungry for prey, or when they were being preyed on themselves. The Uzi had been useful against the ghouls, but not the things that chased them up. Vast cthonic masses of flesh had boiled up, like entrails through the slit in a deer’s gut. They swallowed her up, embraced her, crushed her within their filth.

Pandora Peaslee fell to her knees and put her hands on her head. She had all these memories, things that didn’t make sense. Why couldn’t she remember clearly?  Why did she remember so much?

“Paratime lines aren’t stable. The differences in history are subjective, totally based on the point of view of an observer. If they don’t result in significant and drastic differences, the divergent lines reconverge. It’s simple really. Say you give a primate three blocks of different shapes to fit into their appropriate receptacles. In one universe she follows a particular order: square, circle, then triangle. In another universe she places them in a different order, and in yet another universe she does it a third way. These particular results create paratimes, driven mostly by the perceptions of those who viewed the actual events. But as time passes, the importance of the difference decreases, and is instead replaced, overwhelmed by the fact that the result is the same, and the differences between the two universes are relatively small. Eventually the differences that were sufficient to create a point of divergence aren’t enough to sustain the two paratimes, and they collapse into each other. The differences between the paratimes is remembered only by individuals that were directly affected by the initial divergence. Their memories become fuzzy and confused. Individuals recall things differently. It’s not that one is right, it’s that they remember different paratimes.”

Major Pandora Peaslee felt her stomach turn. She was panting, and sweating profusely. She was sick, something had been done to her. This thing, Mister Ys had done something to her. It was still talking. She could barely hear it.

“Only some paratimes are stable, in general the structure of a local cluster is limited to a dozen or so primary branches, with several hundred minor branches weaving in and out. On occasion a small branch from one of the primaries will diverge so greatly from its mother that it will weave itself into another. We call these bridges, for they link two very different paratimes, and the things they transplant are called Rogues.”

Her head was pounding, it felt like a knife was being shoved into her left eye, but she managed to open her mouth without throwing up. ‘What have you done to me?”

“I have been telling you, or at least trying to.”  The creature knelt before her. It couldn’t bend because it was an invertebrate encased in an exoskeleton, so it knelt. “This paratime you are currently in, you don’t belong here. The whole human race doesn’t exist in this line, never did. Here, a species of coleopterans became the dominant life form. They achieved sentience millions of years earlier than humans, and have remained so millions of years after humans went extinct. They’ve attained a level of science and technology humans could only dream of. You aren’t supposed to be here, you’re a rogue. Your paratime bridge collapsed into this one millions of years ago during a period when the coleopterans, the Kub’sek, had abandoned the Earth. It was nothing more than a wasteland, the exact same condition you humans left your world in after you went extinct, or were destroyed. That similarity was enough to crash the two paratimes together and build a rogue bridge between the two branches.”

Pandora turned her face so she wouldn’t have to look at the thing that was crouching over her. “You said humans were extinct, how is it I’m still alive?”

“A fascinating question, one that I’m surprised you even thought of, let alone had the nerve to ask.”  She could hear the clacking sound of the mouth pieces rubbing against each other, and smell the breath of the thing as it exhaled. “You were dead. How doesn’t matter, oh I know you think it does but trust me, it doesn’t. You died, probably in many different ways, paratime collapsing in on you. Somebody, in at least one of your existences cremated you, reduced you to ashes, your essential saltes, put you in a ceramic container and shot you into a long parabolic orbit around the sun. You were one of about a hundred.”  This seemed to create a sense of pleasure in Mister Ys. “The Kub’sek found you and the others, and were fascinated by your very existence. They, like you, don’t have a well-developed tind’losi, this may be a terran thing, something deficient in your local star or the original proto-matter. Anyway they reconstituted you.”  Pandora looked at Mister Ys with confusion. “They invoked Yog-Sothoth and turned back time, put you back together. Then they put you in a zoo.”

The smell of the thing up close made Pandora gag and she had to swallow some vomit that left her throat burning with acid. “You keep saying the Kub’sek, but you are one of them aren’t you?”

The giant beetle head turned in a puzzled animal way. “Physically I suppose, yes this is the body of a Kub’sek, they are remarkably similar to the species that supplanted your own as masters of the Earth, but mentally I am something entirely else. I’m part of a species that exists only as pure psyche, one with a highly developed tind’losi. Like yourselves we don’t belong in this paratime, we come from the same branch as you, but from an entirely different epoch, one very far in your past. We have an affinity with humans, they are such easy targets to supplant. We, well I, knew one of your ancestors, many of your ancestors actually. There is something about certain genetics, your genetics, that make you attractive to us. When you were resurrected, a signal was sent out, and when I saw you were so far from your home line, I took the opportunity to use you as a conduit to explore. This paratime is simply fascinating. It is also free of anything that could threaten us. We have enemies at home Major Peaslee, but they don’t exist here.”

Pandora looked down at her hand. It felt cold and week. It had turned gray. The skin was flaking off.

“I was only in you briefly, just long enough to jump to the body of your attendant here and route him backwards to our own branch. Unfortunately, given your condition and the amount of energy expended to accomplish the exchange, the process is, in a sense, fatal. You are going to decay Major Peaslee. Over the next minute or so you will desiccate and fall into ash. You will return back to your essential saltes.” A tear escaped one of her eyes. “Don’t cry,” Mister Ys reached out with one of his black insectile claws and lifted her head, “I know the process to resurrect you, I promise I shall bring you back.”

A smile, a small one crossed her face. “You promise?”

“Of course. I shall bring you back, and the other humans as well. I shall gather up all the containers of essential saltes and reconstitute all one hundred of the rogue humans. And through them I shall bring forth billions of my people to this place and we shall finally be free of our ancient enemies. We shall go here, where they cannot follow.”

“But you said the process was fatal, there are so few of us, how can you bring that many over?”  Even as she finished her question she knew the answer and began sobbing. Her hand turned to ash and her arm collapsed beneath her. She was on the floor decaying into dust.

“I can resurrect you, again and again, and each time I will bring over another of my brethren. It will be slow at first, but once we have all the funerary urns the process should run relatively smoothly.”  Mister Ys stood up and looked out the window at the landscape below. “I promise you, after that you and your friends will be free.”

“That will take forever,” whispered Pandora.

“Not at all, factoring in some time for a paltry resistance from the Kub’sek, and a recycling period for each human of an hour or so, the entire invasion shouldn’t take more than seven to eight thousand years. Hardly ‘forever’.”  He looked down at the pile of ash that had once been human. “Really Major Peaslee, you have no sense of time whatsoever.”

Pete Rawlik

Pete Rawlik has been collecting Lovecraftian fiction for forty years.  In 2011 he decided to take his hobby of writing more seriously.  He has since published more than twenty-five Lovecraftian stories and the novel Reanimators, a labor of love about life, death and the undead in Arkham, and its sequel The Weird Company. His short story Revenge of the Reanimator was nominated for a Best Short Story New Pulp Award.  He lives in Royal Palm Beach, Florida, with his wife and three children. He is absolutely not a living brain in a jar. Yet.

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Story illustration by Nick Gucker.

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