Stories

The Third Timekeeper – Theresa Smith

Embedded in the middle of the road, so wide as to be impassable, is an immense crystal, almost perfectly transparent. It breaks the air into smooth planes. It heaves itself up from the earth like a beaten ship, sharp prow thrusting skyward in an act of mute keening.

The rider clutches his helmet tightly to his chest in a rigor of apprehension as he steps closer to the thing that breaks from the hard soil like a drop of sweat from a jagged pore.

It occurs to him that he is the first witness to an incident that will surely merit its own page in the hide-bound eschatology of Earth, harvested piecemeal from the blackened buds and ends of many-vined history where insignificant events flare into muck-piercing wails of universal terror and innocent agents commit unknowing sins against the perpetuity of life.

In a few days, he imagines, this silent encounter will be the province of a hastily-assembled team consisting of a few drowsy and sleep-creased geologists, wary firemen and pale and wispy-haired academics zippered up against the crisp morning, with devices for yanking and hammering and gouging and striating and analyzing this insular artifact from another world, an ordinary citizen of a reality wholly unlike his. A cogent cog in a deep-fathomed and immense machine that was and is and shall still be, even when his world winks out of existence like the black, beady eye of a small aquatic animal, flooded with the stiff milklike effluvium of disease.

The immense crystal seems to possess, from the unblemished center of its body outward to the microvibrations or tracks of awakened purpose along its chipped vertices in the cool pre-dawn air, a strange pathology. A supernatural pathology. The phrase haunted him; it contained a menacing contradiction. Not just a trick of language – a clever juxtaposition of terms – but an actual ontological paradox, stemming from certain absolute and horrific qualities of the many-hatched beast that rears up before him, silent and nervous as the sun begins to soften its edges with a tincture of slow mercury. A cold heaviness sinks through his body and rises again, feathering the great hall of his bowels with dread.

He is certain that the crystal has a taciturn name for him, too, like the one that burns in his throat, suspended in lymphatic sourness behind his tongue – a silent swear, a swear unlike any other. It watches him in his loneliness just as he perceives its astonishing hermetic strangeness, its wrongness, sees the fatal mistake it made in escaping its system and flopping awkwardly into his, an ungainly remainder of timeless stochastic processes unfathomable to the human mind, heaving noiselessly in the cold morning air.

What really bothers Dave, however, is a resemblance to a certain figure of mythology.

He instinctively reaches behind his ear and probes for the switch of his CogAtt. Pressing it, he dials the entry for Tertianism with a trembling hand. A clipped synthetic voice begins to recite.

“Although derided as ancient superstition, crude imitative magic descended from pre-linguistic ritual, the impressive mythos of Tertianism pervades our modern age, as it has every era following its banishment. The majority of humans living on Earth now believe in a neatly coordinated binary metaphysics wherein two balanced systems move in scalar synchronization with one another, neither wanting nor requiring a mysterious third force to explain the mechanics of their engagement, which is apparent to anyone with undamaged spacetime faculties. It was, in fact, so readily apparent that the few schizophrenics, deficients and public lunatics who professed to believe in the existence of the Third Timekeeper were openly persecuted as instigators and obscurantists by an increasingly vehement majority. It was generally thought that denying the sacrosanct transparency of the system was an unpardonable, perhaps the only unpardonable, sin.”

The only unpardonable sin. Perhaps.

“From the beginning – that is, from one of many beginnings – all life has been governed by two entities: the God of Long Hours and the God of Small Hours. The elongated, loping rhythms that characterize sleep, wakefulness, and all organic and inorganic derangements endemic to these processes, are overseen by the God of Long Hours.”

“The split-second processes that define reaction times and allow the human agent to analyze phenomena possessing variations on the scale of milliseconds are ruled over by the God of Small Hours. These gods are conceptualized, and often represented, as organs residing within either the individual or collective human corpus, in a position of influence and fitted with all the necessary devices to perpetuate their patterns throughout the fine tapestry of human action and reaction strapped across the twin brute engines of stochastic operation and causal correlation which keep improbable time in a rhythm of immense complexity – with, of course, the occasional mistake. It was from this realm of error that the Third Timekeeper emerged, and over which he came, in time, to reign.”

What unwholesome seismic event had resulted in the pain-racked miscarriage of this shivering monolith? Or what accident of celestial mechanics had hurtled it through the atmosphere and plunged it deep into the Utah soil, where its edges rattle nervously at the prospect of discovery? Did it pine for the rarefied air of an ancient orbit, or yearn for the charcoal womb of earth’s crust?

“The Third Timekeeper is portrayed as a refugee from the rational dimensions, in flight from the oppressive regimes of long and short history. It constitutes a third wheel across which the band of time runs, throwing off the rhythm of the long and short wheels.The duration of this dysregulation is generally short, and the compromised process either self-terminates or returns to periodicity after a short interval. From these periods of dysregulation, two sovereign mysteries have arisen. The first is the wherefore of the termination of a compromised process, one in which long clock and short clock are no longer operating in sync with one another. The second is the wherefore of correction, in which long clock and short clock spontaneously reconcile after a period of desynchronization.”

“Tertianists believe that the Third Timekeeper regulates the termination and correction of these processes. The Tertian Schism of 522 BC saw the Third Timekeeper displaced by the Doctrine of Irregularity, which states that self-termination takes place when an inconsistency cannot be resolved, and self-correction when it can. This explanation is perfunctory and by some accounts contradictory, as it views inconsistency as both product and process, simultaneously static and dynamic. Hermann Trost  has pointed out that the Doctrine actually has a self-contradictory nature, expressible by the equivalent proposition that self-correction is the termination of an inconsistency, and self-termination is the correction of an inconsistency. However, he claims that this weakness arguably reinforces the Doctrine instead of dooming it to an ignominious fringe existence. ‘The Doctrine’, he  writes, ‘stands as an explanation which exemplifies itself in providing an account of paradoxical systems, being therefore self-justifying as well as self-contradictory’. Still others have countered that the Doctrine is in fact invalidated but not dismissed by its self-contradictory properties; its inconsistency simply necessitates the introduction of a still larger system capacious enough to contain both the true statement and its also-true inverse. “Transcendence” is the Tertian word for this so-called system-jumping. System-jumping or expansion is an ongoing process, perpetuated by the occasional jammings of the mechanisms by which the clocks of long hours and small hours engage each other.”

“The remaining question is this: by what awareness or mechanism does a compromised process disperse itself into the orderly warp and weft of the universe on the erratic tendrils of chaos? By what intelligence, what fine ecology, does the deranged routine marshal its irregularities back into the lockstep of scalar synchronicity? And the upshot of both these questions taken together: What, exactly, determines which processes self-terminate and which processes self-correct?”

The crystal seems to possess just that sort of blind and monadic, dispersed but nonetheless fine-fingered intelligence. The explanation which explains itself. Dave observes the singular twitching of its points and edges and duly imagines it capable of probing and perhaps even comprehending the captive language of silence; the intricate network of pauses, falterings and ellipses harbored within the spoken word. He fumbles through his CogAtt. The earpiece crackles to life with the bucolic vowels of a synthesized Andy Rooney.

“Time was, folks’d just open up their mouths and the words would come right out…”

Dave frowns and snaps the dial to the right, searching for the appropriate set of emotional algorithms for this momentous occasion. A smooth, fluid English voice picks up the entry.

“The addressee, most often a willing conversational partner, would respond as he saw fit, taking into account the tone, timing, timbre, pitch variation, breathing patterns, and a host of other auditory information in considering his response.”

Dave relaxes. This reading is optically synthesized from the voice of Sir Laurence Olivier.

“He also laid store by the visual information available to him: facial expressions, body positioning, gestures, involuntary movements, and the like. Face-to-face, unmediated communication was the standard for two million years, and innovations came exceedingly slowly. Modern humans have only a slightly better grasp of the subtleties of aspect known by such names as microexpressions, microtones and microgestures than their marrow-crunching forebears. This pathetic state of affairs was improved somewhat by the advent of written language, which corrected the–”

He froze. The crystal had emitted a thin, metallic yawn.

The sound: a razor-thin wire endlessly unspooling, glass rubbing against the back teeth, a million tiny engines toiling in a cup of earth, the alkaline taste of silica, the jaws of a synapse held open, the babble of a needle-tongued insect.

He scrabbles at the selection wheel, seeking anything to drown out the sound, still orbiting.

“…certain markings on Sumerian clay tablets, once regarded as incidental, constitute part of an elaborate system of contextual cues including a sophisticated form of wit which may be an early instance of verbal irony.”

 

Shit.

“In 1951, a series of small trefoil-shaped marks on a tablet fragment believed to have been written around 2400 BC (marked for identification as 854.5.[1]a of the Ashken cache), caught the attention–”

The crystal lurches noisily to the left.

“–of Boris Shutov, a graduate student studying the texts of ancient Sumer under Adam Buchholz at Heidelberg University. Buchholz, studying the markings, declared them to be a device–”

Squats bleakly on its haunches.

“–by which the original scribe had in effect worked his own signature into the letter. Dissatisfied with this theory, Shutov analyzed the passages where the markings occurred and realized, to his astonishment–”

Trembles.

“–that the affected passages could be read in such a way that they expressed a non-literal contradiction. Line 8c[XI-XII]–”

Rattles.

“–states that “[Beshnet’s] wife is a prize, having thighs the size of a horse’s belly.” The same marks appear elsewhere in the document, surrounding the sentence fragment “[…]Ud-sahara will be thrice disposed to trade your shepherd’s glass pipe for his largest ox” and marking off–”

A single crack splinters across its surface.

“–the latter portion of “I have been taking drink with Apillaša, the Sage of the Assembly“. Analysis of similar documents suggests this technique emerged in the First Dynasty–”

Gray fog begins to collect in its depths.

“–of Lagash and disappeared soon after. Was there an incident–”

A black knot settles at its nexus.

“–that led, directly or indirectly, to its death?”

The crystal erupts into a deep, throbbing moan.

He lost it then, finger still flattening his upper lip, the flesh of his fist concealing a sour ruminative frown which pulled his face into a pensive rictus. There it remained, a mask of measured analysis that gave the lie to his fraying mind. His heart thrummed and swam like a half-formed galaxy between his thighs. A colorless fog wrapped his senses; he no longer saw or heard or felt what was happening. A blackness traveled from the back of his skull to the shades of his eyelids, collapsing them, and he saw through closed eyes the ground rushing to meet him.

The sound: hundreds of smooth black obelisks whipping past the open window of a train, the fathomless state of quantum superposition, the silence of Megiddo, the brain exposed, the rippling of a solar flare, the menu of dread to be found in deep space, the measured trickle of massive history through the delicately-furnished now and unsteadily onward towards a darkening future.