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The Man Who Dissected Time

Another off-the-cuff idea for something that could go further… or not.

 

I’m a lanky, bristle-haired daeman from New Africa, and I made a career of dissecting time. It started, as did many things of this nature, with drugs.

In the early days of the Second Enlightenment (the world had perilously skimmed a Second Dark Age, like a nosediving plane pulling up from the sea at the last second, its wings dripping with dumbfuckery), as the leading powers shifted gradually into technocracies (New Africa among them), the political ballast of drug repression thinned, and science began to take as much of as an interest in psychedelic brain expanders as they had in the hippie culture of the 1960s, and then doubly and triply so.

Scientists took inspiration from the hallucinogenic and dissassociative drugs of old, and went into overdrive creating new, synthetic ones. After 83,721 (at least, those were the ones listed publicly) synthetic creations of mind-altering substances, they finally reached a zenith. It was called LDX43iv, although was quickly referred to by all and sundry as ‘Slug’. The adopted name was an in-joke; far from making one’s mind slow, it rocketed it up to unprecedented speeds. To be ‘slugged out’ might hold some truth physically, but it meant the exact opposite mentally. Creative and extremely left-field and out-of-box thinking was enhanced beyond what were initially perceived to be rational levels, at the expense of more straightforward tasks like figuring out how to eat.

I remember the first time I tried Slug. The new textures, new colours, new wavelengths. The giraffes made from felt, in the shape of that old-fashioned written style of the number four. The terrible genius of it all. My mind had raced so goddamn fast I thought I was going to be sick from the sheer mental strain. It was like drinking too much, lolling back in the chair and feeling that void pulling you down, willing you to unconsciousness; but you resist, because it’s scary, and because you know, you just know, that you’ll start vomiting uncontrollably.

It was like that, but with the mind.

The great thing about Slug – once you’d locked it down, and adapted to its speed – was how much your mind opened. For the first time I – and countless others – had viewed their own mind, that is, understood it on a quasi-physical level, an actual perceived dimension. Three dimensions, to be exact. Your thoughts existed not in 2D but across a space stretched without horizon in three absolute directions. The Z axis in particular boggled the inexperienced mind by allowing you, with eyes closed, to go backwards through your own head. The mind-expanse existed where my head was, but without barriers; you simply kept on going, as though your inner eye was also legs and you could walk it or fly it at undefinable speeds.

An increasing number of scientists involved in this field began to take Slug, at first using it to inform their own work, and better understand their experiments on others, but eventually because, for the inquiring mind, there was no way back. Slug opened up scientific possibilities previously thought only theoretical, and delivered new theoretical ideas where previously nothing existed, bar perhaps mad ravings. Scientists also took Slug to understand other scientists whose otherwise unintelligible, yet ground-breaking work had been scribbled whilst on Slug.

As the field continued to expand its sphere of influence, scientists took more and more Slug, for wilder and wilder results. It was still by-and-large in-house at this stage, not technically available to the public (although it was starting to make a dent in the black market). Health consultants were brought in by concerned overseers, and they determined – shocked by the state of some of the scientists, who had been living on high doses of Slug non-stop for months and appeared to be in advanced stages of delirium – that regular ‘complete breaks’ from the drug were now mandatory.

This did not go well. At first, in a case of classic incompetence of bureaucracy, the first scientists were forced to quit cold-turkey. When the last vestiges of the drug wore off, they slipped quietly into something resembling, though not actually, comas.

After that, the weaning-off approach was tried, steadily lowering the dosage until it was negligible. This worked better, although that wasn’t saying much. At best, the scientists became profoundly bored, listless and depressed, showing no motivation or interest towards anything, especially anything based in mundane reality. Their minds, though operating at the same speed as pre-Slug, now felt to them interminably slow and dull beyond belief.

At worst, the scientists lost so much motivation and spark that they had to be cared for 24/7. They had to be helped to eat, bathe, go to the toilet, and so forth. They displayed zero energy or affection for anything around them, existing in a total stupor. They could not even summon the mental will to kill themselves, as was briefly a concern. It wasn’t anything physical, you understand, rather it was a sort of extreme psychological deprivation. The awesome majesty of the universe they had come to understand, and the near-divine sensation of their own minds working, creating, inventing, sorting, imagining at a pace once unimaginable – I’m talking at least several fantastic ideas a second, every second – was now robbed from them, leaving them with a comparable wasteland of sensation in return.

At some point, some of the scientists got together and wrote to be reinstated with the drug permanently, and the new ruling to be stricken. The mental effort to create this petition-of-sorts must have been immense for them, and no doubt they had help from concerned colleagues who either never touched the stuff or only took it sparingly, so as to stay ‘in the loop’ with the cutting edges of scientific theory.

Thankfully, it worked, and the mandatory breaks were removed, it being finally accepted by medical professionals that being off the drugs was more harmful than being on them. If not actually physically harmful, the drug’s absence nonetheless made complete wastes of space of great thinkers. Whether they were on or off the drug, they were no longer fit for regular human society, so society might as well at least let them trip, was the general consensus (although probably not phrased as such).

There was a new ruling, or should I say guideline, that from now on no more academics were to take significant quantities of Slug, for fear of its pressing psychological demands. However, nobody ever bothered to define ‘significant quantities’ (one wonders if those drafting this ruling were partaking in Slug themselves), and so the ruling was at first lax, and then essentially forgotten.

After all, by this point it was hopeless to restrict access to the drug; Slug had now blossomed out of the black market and made its way into the wider public sphere, where it caused as much joy and innovation as it did chaos. Thankfully, the consistently high price of the drug stopped too much regular-use apart from by the rich (who were layabouts anyway and hardly necessary to the common production required to turn society’s gears), and after a troubling splurge, where there were many heavy-handed but ultimately meaningless talks about ‘what to do’, things settled down, and while it remained the psychedelic drug of choice, it dipped far below worldly levels of alcohol and caffeine consumption among the working class.

It also helped that a lot of people just simply couldn’t take it. Or didn’t want to. It boosted the imagination, you see, boosted it beyond the recognisable. Those with little to no imagination saw little interest in the drug; it merely confused the shit out of them. They were much happier with a beer.

Where am I going with this? you ask. How does Slug apply to me? Well, eventually, thanks to many months-long explorations of the deepest mindscape, and new spatial conceptions of reality, we finally unlocked the secrets of the fourth dimension: time. Those taking the highest doses began to break its esoteric workings apart; they passed the secrets to progressively lower-dosed levels of others, until it could go no further without sinking into total non-comprehension. Even now, so many years after those initial manic discoveries (which first took root in New Africa, I’m proud to say), few people in this world understand the mechanics. Even I, whose very job it is to dissect time, barely understands it, and I can hardly be expected to explain it to a thoroughly sober individual like yourself.

So, yes. The discoveries became actionable, and the brightest – and most fucked up – minds of our generation learnt (through concepts once laughably insane, and then theoretical bizzaros, and then veritable eurekas) how to literally make time, how to divide it, how to mathematically add and subtract it, shorten it or lengthen it, alter its intrinsic properties, shape it, cast it in a bubble, grind it into pieces and feed it to things.

Naturally time became a commodity, in the very real sense. You could buy and sell it. And people did, in droves. And it wasn’t cheap.

For single-use it usually comes in capsules; some you press a button to activate, some you break in the middle like glowsticks, some you just throw at something. A bubble forms – a bubble of time. Things can slow down or speed up within this bubble.

It was an oddity at first, something exciting and silly and novel. Little things, at first. Slow down the rate at which your pizza cools (at the expense of it taking longer to reach your mouth), or get more sleep (it was arguable if you actually were getting more, of it was just psychological), or play a trick on someone: a popular, cheap and harmless early one was to cast it on a flicked-on kettle, so the old adage of a watched pot never boils became true.

Then there was “speeding up” ordinary tasks (i.e. making them take less time), like vacuuming the house, although then again we already had robots for that kind of thing and it wasn’t worth the price to attach a time-tube to free labour.

Of course, small bubbles soon weren’t enough. I blame business folk for that. The bubbles became bigger (speed limits had to be redefined after people started attaching time-tubes to their car so they could beat – or outright ignore – the traffic), they took on different shapes, you could have them run only on one or two axis, you could make time go sideways (don’t ask), you could change clocks with them (everybody’s time-tubed and synchronised up to the national Timegrid, except for when it was hacked, which caused a full day of problems), you could manipulate the production of goods, shorten essential tasks, you could use them on robots, on people. . .

It was when people started straying perilously close to paradoxes (such as Amazon, eager for best-delivery-service-in-the-world-status, began delivering parcels before they had technically been ordered), that governments were forced to take some control. This is why the international governmental watchdog and action force TimeGuard exist. To stop people doing dumb shit just because they can.

They could have tried to stamp out Time Co. entirely, but the operative word there is tried, for they’d have failed pretty spectacularly if they had. Time made up more of our respective economies now than it ever had before it had been bottled up and merchandised. Just about every powerful hand was greased by Time Co. and its bought-out partner Slug4U, and the benefits from both of these things were just too great, both in personal fortunes and the general advancement of humanity (working class excepted, naturally).

Time Co. recently bought out TimeGuard, anyway, so that’s that.

Some of the world’s lesser powers and single-states I think were doing okay without it, or with minimal use; they’d observed its effects on us first, and so had strapped in a bunch of new, hard-and-fast laws ready to receive it. The big guns, however, especially New Africa, were in too deep to pull out.

I don’t want them to rub that shit out, anyway. Not yet, at least. Not before all is broken and irreparable. My job depends on it. I’m rare, like a precious bird the world can’t do without. I’m the one who cuts the lines of time. I’m the product man. But I’m more than that, I’m more than just a glorified dealer. I take advantage of the opportunities presented to me. I cut them open and I take my peek.

I might not know exactly how time works, but I know more about what’s inside it every day. In a way, I’m a scientist myself.

 

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Jonathan Dark

Just wrote this off the cuff. Similarities with Constantine, I guess. Although in truth it just came from my dislike of magic (and general high-fantasy) in most books, and my attempt to reclaim it. Actually to begin with it just came from a desire to write about weird and crazy monsters.

It’s set in the same world as my story The School of Necromancy. Could become something more! Who knows…

 

JONATHAN DARK

 

My name is Jonathan Dark. Johnny, if you wish to be casual, which you should never be. I hate John.

People will tell you I do magic. I hate that term. Magic goes hand in hand with robes and pointy hats, and then it’s only a small step to elves and gnomes and football on broomsticks. Elves don’t exist. Gnomes do, but they’re black little creeps and I can’t stand them. Not because they’re black, but because they’re unreasonably small. Call me a racist or a speciesist if you like, I don’t care. Why would anyone care about gnomes?

No, I’m not a magician and I don’t do magic. I’m not a wizard, or a conjurer of cheap tricks, I’m not a warlock or a male witch, or a sorcerer or a mystic, I’m not an illusionist or an enchanter and I have never owned a wand, nor will I, useless things that they are.

I’m a shadowmancer and I do shadowmancy. Go on, smirk. Call me pretentious, say I made it up. I did it as a masters at the School, I’ll have you know, before it was stricken from the curriculum for being too avant-garde, too unscientific. Too dangerous. These days, they deny the discipline even exists, say it’s all nonsense, that there is no Shadow-World. They wanted to take my masters off me ex post facto, but I wouldn’t give it up. I’d received high marks, and I never would for anything again.

All this artsy waving hands in the air, showing off, I won’t hold for it. I don’t know, maybe it holds card in exuberant America, but not in Britain, not in my York. You shouldn’t draw attention to yourself, or if you are, at least have the decency and respect for your environment to have a grounded sense of style. This isn’t the Middle Ages, for god’s sake. Keep it low-key, keep it smart and cool, scratch it out in the air by your pockets where it’s unobtrusive and easy to miss, carve the air quick and technical into thin, jagged lines of the relevant colours or just paint it black, then flick it out like a cigarette. It’s an intricate hand sign, not a side show. At most it should look like you’re writing on air, or playing with an invisible deck; best of all just twitching your fingers thoughtfully to yourself, some strange tick, maybe just mad enough to be ignored by strangers, but not mad enough to cause a scene. Only those with Twilight Sight see the colours, see the design temporarily etched into thin air. But then they already have enough to worry about.

Like me, you should learn to draw all your mances with a single hand; that way the other is free to hold a gun.

You wonder what I can do with my mances. I can create things, and I can change things. Why am I not rich? you ask. Can I not just create money out of thin air?

I can do just that, but it’s not that easy. Money is one of those things that, even in real-terms, disappears as quickly as it arrives. It’s easily lost, easily squandered, easily forgotten or transmogrified into something completely different. That’s real money, in all its elusiveness. Now, make that shadow-money, a transient material at the best of times, and your problems are only compounded. The more you make the harder it is to hold onto. I’d say I can make about minimum wage. After that, it slips through my fingers – literally as well as metaphorically. Although I usually only need the money to continue existing up until the point I’ve left the shop.

And yet sometimes you desire more than theft-by-mance of penny-sweets and top-shelf magazines, you want something a little more permanent and sizeable, something that’ll last.

That’s when I have to earn my keep.

I’m not a particularly good man, and I’m okay with that, because I stop much worse things. I’m the one who fights the monster under your bed, and the thing in your cupboard, the creature at your window, the thin, silent figure in the corner. Be glad you don’t see them, but don’t mistake not seeing for assuming they are not there. They are most definitely there. They exist in an adjoining dimension, the Twilight, the Shadow-World, which overlaps ours, lying on top of it like a murky filter.

Come far enough in studying shadowmancy (not that anyone’s teaching it anymore) and you will see them. Close to people, sometimes only millimetres apart, watching them, sniffing them, licking the air. Most are mostly harmless. Some are not. It’s those that are not where I come in.

It’s those that are not which make up all those unexplained cases that baffle the constabulary and the public at large. Indeed, many of the explained cases are in fact mistaken, and should have been attributed to more, dare I voice it, supernatural means. No, no, the word sticks in my throat. More monstrous means, I will say in its stead. More Twilight means.

Racks, dragores, slip-men, lupo-vamps, rag zombi, corpus mortem, fleshers, skin ghouls, dogspawn, red babies, straggle lamps, cocoon beards, phallocs, heavers, cracklers, howlers, ectofucks and wet dennises (don’t ask) – these Twilighters are some of the ones to watch. And, sometimes, they get a lot bigger.

 

*

 

I wish I could explain shadowmancy to you in scientific terms. But I can’t. I mean, I could explain around it, explain some of the mechanisms in place, and so forth, but I suppose I can’t be bothered. It’s so far different from what you know, and even from what they teach in the School, that we have simply no ground on which to lay our common foundations. It’s just. . . well, it’s just fucking magic, okay? I’ll allow it this time, much as I already feel like I need to be painting stars on a hat and babbling ‘abracadabra’. Look, you either accept what it is or you don’t, I don’t care.

Actually no, sorry, I’m not giving you the choice. You accept what it is, end of. It’s shadowmancy and it exists, and my entire life is its living proof.

 

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