Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Girl Who Lost Time

by TN Dockrey


I.

A squint in the sunlight revealed a puff of smoke. A train was coming from the Nurnberg direction. A few snitched coins jingled in my pocket. The sun was hot on the back of my neck, the April rains had finally ceased long enough for the lane to dry, and I was on my way to town. I smiled. It was spring of 1922, and I was eighteen.

The train stopped at the opposite platform. I rocked on my heels, unladylike, impatient. Today I was eighteen. Today my life began. I was going to Nurnberg and I was never coming back.

The train had deposited a passenger, a massive man in a brown overcoat much too heavy for the weather, with a yellow beard and spectacles that glinted in the sun. I looked at him with detached interest. Interest because strangers rarely came to this no-name dorf. Detached because it was no longer my concern.

He waved at me. I nodded coolly. Then he called across the tracks:

"I'm looking for Dr. Adler. Perhaps you could help me?"

My train came with a whistle, a flurry of ash and smoke. The doors opened.

I didn't get on.

The train left.

The stranger was still there.

"That's my father," I yelled back.

####

My older brother Jan was weeding in front garden. He squinted at the stranger but didn't ask questions. A man of few words, my brother. Few words, few ambitions, and few brains, in my opinion. Dinner wasn't due yet, so he probably hadn't even noticed that I'd been gone.

I led the stranger down to the basement and banged on the door. No answer, as usual. When Mother had been alive he had come out occasionally. Now he only came out when he was hungry enough to remember to take a meal. I took him meals at first, afraid that he would faint from hunger, but he left crumbs and bones scattered so that it attracted rats. So I stopped.

At this point, I did not care if he did faint, and was eaten by rats himself.

I banged on the door again, and shouted, "Father, there's an important guest!"

"Allow me," said the stranger. I stepped aside and he pounded the door with a power that made it rattle on its hinges. "Thomas, you left the bunsen burner on again!"

The door opened. Father, his face a nightmare of stubble and oily hair, shouted, "Hans!" and embraced the stranger.

I went upstairs and left them to it.

####

Jan was waiting for me in the kitchen. I looked at the clock then started stoking the stove for dinner. My life, apparently, was not going to start today.

"Why were you at the station today?" asked Jan.

I looked at him in surprise.

"You were running away?"

I look away. "I'm not a child. There's nothing holding me here."

"You're going to leave me with that lunatic?"

"You could leave too. He's a grown man."

"He'd starve."

"So what?" I went over to the table, gripped the chair. "What's he ever done for us? Besides running up debt?"

Jan sighed, reached out and took my hand. I flinched -- not afraid, just taken aback at the affectionate gesture.

"What would you have done in Nurnberg?"

"Gotten a job. Worked. Lived."

"Do you know what the economy is like right now? Do you know what kind of work you would have ended up doing? How much money do you have right now?"

His voice was not challenging, but gentle. Maybe that was why I answered honestly.

He shook his head. "That won't do, Cheska. Wait awhile. I'll try to put some money aside for you. Enough for a room, at least."

"You're...going to help me?"

"We're family. I remember that, at least. I know there's nothing for you here, no one your age to marry."

"Thank you, Jan." There was nothing else I could say. I felt too surprised, to find an enemy suddenly turning ally.

He smiled briefly, awkwardly. Sensing his embarrassment, I went to put the potatoes on to boil.

####

I broke out the bottle of schnapps and sat down next to Hans. He had only been with us for two days, but already I felt I knew him better than I knew my own father. He was friendly, sitting at the table long after meals were over to chat with me as I cleaned up.

Tonight we had been discussing physics -- namely, the atom, and how it composed everything we saw, from motes of dust to Human beings to the stars.

"You are very intelligent, Franzeska. Where did you learn about atoms? Surely not in school?"

"Call me Cheska. And no -- I haven't been to school in years. Father takes subscriptions to science periodicals. I read them before sending them downstairs."

"And you understand them, obviously. Impressive, especially for someone who has had so little access to education. You have your father's mind."

I smiled, pleased, not by the reference to Father -- who I thought was more lunatic than genius -- but because he had not said ‘impressive for a woman.'

"I have some physics treatises with me. If you wouldn't mind, I would ask you to read them and tell me what ideas they give you."

"Really?"

"Really. I am working on a theory -- just a theory, no math yet. And I would like a fresh mind to help me -- a fresh view, to broaden my perspective."

"I'm not sure whether I'm qualified -- "

"Nonsense. Intelligence does not come from qualifications. You, my dear, were born with it."

####

"I don't understand," I said.

"Well, they are advanced -- "

"No, I don't understand why you had me read this." I pushed the offending treatise towards him.

"Ah. Mach and Ostwald. I see your problem."

"Why did you give me this one? Einstein disproved their theory. Atoms exist."

"Just because a theory is disproved in one way doesn't mean it has lost significance. Keep looking. Stretch your mind."

I looked, I stretched. I didn't see it. I felt disappointed in myself, and aggravated for feeling disappointed.

Hans looked disappointed as well.

I went to bed in a foul mood, and my dreams were strange. I dreamt the silverlode moon loomed in my vision, too near, as if it were about to rip from the sky, dripping mercurial fire, burning with ice...

I woke, cold, and went to the window, shivering. The moon was there, gibbous and silvery-white. But it was firmly fixed in place and did not look like it was going to give into the inexorable pull of gravity any time soon. I soothed myself with images of the moon's spin and rotation, with equations that attested to the perfect balance between force and mass and distance, and magic numbers that unlocked equations and treasure troves of questions and answers. The gravitational constant, the joule...

I dove at the treatise of Mach and Ostwald and brought it to the window, trying to read it by the light of the moon. The thought fluttering in my mind was so tenuous that I feared the mundane act of lighting a candle would scare it away. There was something important in Mach and Ostwald and it had to do with the joule.

In physics it was less the result than the method. Father had told me that once, long ago, in one of his rare moments of humanity. He'd said the results are all around us, for us to see. We know when we drop an apple from a tree that it will fall -- the trick is using the math to describe why.

But, he had gone on to add, the really interesting stuff dealt with what you could not see -- when you did the math without knowing what the result would be, or if the result you reached was really the true reality. From that point on, my dear, he'd chuckled, we're all just feeling around in the dark. That was why we had 'theories'. Like atoms, like space and time, like energy -- how did one really know that our theories were true?

The treatise slipped from the windowsill, onto the floor. The grandfather clock downstairs chimed two. And just like that my world began to come apart at the seams.

Joules measure heat which measure energy and the real thing that Mach and Ostwald was saying was that space and time were nothing but different ways of seeing the same entity. The continuum.

The joule measures heat, which is a byproduct of the expenditure of energy and energy is used for motion, which is the concept of moving through space...

...and time.

Time.

What was time? It was just another unit in physics, measured by seconds. It was a way to measure the day -- or measured by the day. We divided the time -- oh, and there I used the word to define the word. We divided the day arbitrarily into twenty-four hours and then the hour arbitrarily into sixty minutes, and the minute into seconds...

And no one ever questioned it. Was the second a magic number, like the gravitational constant or the joule?

Or was it an arbitrary invention of man?

From this point on, we were all just feeling around in the dark.

####

"Cheska," Jan's voice came up the stairs. He opened the door with its customary creak, but I barely heard. I registered his look of shock, but did not care. A day ago I would have been shocked to see me this way too.

"What are you doing?" He stepped and paper crackled underfoot. There was paper everywhere. I had used up every piece of paper I owned, and the scraps littered the floor, but somewhere around dawn I had run out and began to use the walls instead.

He grabbed my arms but I was so close to seeing something -- so close to getting this equation that I fought him off.

"You've gone mad!" he said. I didn't look to see him leave, did not take my face from the wall even when I heard Hans' voice.

"This is your fault," Jan shouted at Hans. "You've turned her into a madwoman!"

I ignored their argument. Hans came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder.

"Franzeska, what are you doing?" he asked in a gentle voice.

"I'm trying to find the number," I replied. I shrugged off his hand. "Leave me be."

####

Time seemed to stretch and condense strangely. Before I realized it, it was deep in the night, and Father was in my room. I felt like I hadn't seen him in days. His face was thick with stubble -- not the well-groomed beard of Hans' -- but a dirty stubble, with a wild-man's unkempt hair, and a wild-man's too-wide eyes.

"Cheska," he said, "What are you doing? What have you found?"

His voice was not gentle like Hans' and not concerned like Jan's. There was a tone in it, like a rat scrabbling for crumbs. Selfish. He had always been selfish -- I had learned it from him. That was why, a lifetime ago, I stood on the sunny platform, waiting for the train to Nurnberg, prepared to abandon the only family I had in the world.

"Nothing," I answered bitterly. "I cannot find the number. I cannot find the true value of time."

He bustled past me to look at my writings on the wall.

"No, no, no," he said, his spectacles glinting in the moonlight. The lenses were smudged. "This is all wrong."

"What do you know?" I snapped. "You were kicked out of University. What have you found, stuck in your basement?"

He sniffed. "I know you can't find it by studying the works of others. No one has found it. It is hidden in the gaps between this theory and that. Even the so-called geniuses cannot find it."

"Including you."

"I am much closer than you, girl."

I looked at him suspiciously, then it became clear.

"Get out," I said.

"What?"

"Get out!" I began to gather up my papers, frantically. "Get out!"

"I am your father -- "

"You're nobody! You're trying to steal my numbers. Your own mind has burnt out so you're trying to steal my work! Get out!"

I was screeching. Jan and Hans ran in. Jan put his arms around me while Hans tried to usher father out.

"You'll never find it!" Father yelled as Hans pushed him into the hall. "It's mine. I realized its existence first. They ridiculed me for it, but I'll find it! I'll prove it!"

His voice faded, as he reached the basement, presumably.

"Cheska, what's going on?" asked Jan.

"I'm looking for the pure value of time."

"What?"

I shook him off angrily but he was bigger than me, strong from working the fields. He held my shoulders.

"Breathe, Cheska. Sit down. Tell me about it. Maybe it will help you figure it out, if you put it in words."

I eyed him suspiciously.

"Explain it simply," he said. "I'm just a farmer, remember? This obsession with numbers -- I didn't inherit it, remember? Explain it so I can understand."

I relaxed. It was only Jan, who had barely passed his classes, who had left school at thirteen to work the fields when Father came back from Zurich in disgrace, and squandered all our money on laboratory equipment, and mother grew ill with despair.

Jan would not desire to steal my work, even if he understood it. I could trust Jan.

"Well, you know that there is space, and there is time."

"Everyone knows that."

"And you know that when you drop an apple it will fall to the ground -- the victim of a certain force."

"Gravity, yes."

"Well, what makes time different?"

"What do you mean?"

"The force! There is a force to time -- something that draws us inexplicably, irresistibly forward."

"I don't understand."

"Just as if we jump, we are drawn towards the core of the earth, in time, we are drawn to some point we cannot see -- we all move forward, and measure our movement with seconds and minutes and hours. We are accelerating towards the future."

"I see..."

"But we can calculate gravity, based on the mass of the earth and its spin. We know that earth's gravitational force is, approximately, nine-point-eight meters per second squared. Do you see the significance of knowing that number, Jan?"

"Um...you tell me."

"It means we can overcome it! We have but to build a rocket powerful enough, and, at a certain point, the rocket will attain enough force and enough distance to break beyond the earth's gravitational bonds, and be free in space."

He nodded, but he didn't see it -- didn't see my connection.

"Jan, if we know the value of time -- the exact force that the future exerts upon us, then we can figure out a way to break it. Then we won't be slaves of time. We would be able to move within it as we pleased."

"Like travel back in time?"

"Yes!"

He blew out a long breath, looked down, and then stared into my eyes.

"Cheska," he said firmly, "why?"

I was taken aback. "What do you mean?"

"Why? Why would you want to do that? Even if you could find this number, even if you could find a way to travel in time, why would you? To what ends would you use it?"

"Why...?" I hadn't thought of that. "There would be a million reasons. We could right past wrongs. You're always complaining about the economy -- Germany didn't have to lose the war -- "

"Somebody had to lose, Cheska. If not Germany then who? If we change one thing, who knows what the consequences will be -- "

"We could save mother. If we had brought her to a doctor in Nurnberg sooner, before she got so ill -- "

"Cheska! Enough. Forget this -- "

"I can't -- "

"You must! This...obsession...has already driven Father insane. It has broken our family apart. I will not let it claim you too. Instead of obsessing with time and how to change what is -- why not try changing what will be? I will save up the money to get you a good place in the city. You can have a good life, marry a good man -- "

"Jan I don't want that kind of life -- "

"No? Then why were you at the train station that day? Isn't that what you had planned to do? Why change? Why this obsession? Fight the madness, Cheska. It is in our blood, but you can fight it, as I have -- "

Suspicion sparked again. "You fought it?"

"Every day. Sometimes I catch myself calculating the number of cabbage that will grow in my field, by the area, by the percentage of moisture, the number of rainy days as opposed to sunny days. But I make myself stop. I will know when I harvest, how many cabbage I will have."

"So," I laughed, bitterly. "Even you are a threat."

"Cheska -- "

"It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you know. Because I will find it first."

####

But how to find it? It occurred to me I did not know the source of the force. With gravity it was obvious. Any great mass -- a planet or a star, exerted gravity on the other objects in its vicinity. But from whence did this force of time come? Where was the wellspring? What was the wellspring?

I thought of the story The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Obviously, there were serious logical flaws in the story-scientist's methodology. Time is the fourth dimension, so he created a device that would move freely in that dimension. There was no mention of the force of time, of the narrowness of our definition of time, the deficiency in our understanding of it. He treated time and its dimension as a physical thing, like space...

But was that not what I was doing as well? Comparing the force of time to the force of gravity, and attempting to find a physical source for the force applied upon us...

Does it even exist? Does time even exist? Or is it only our perception of it?

The thought jarred me. It felt...improper. My mind wanted to reject it. Time not exist? Of course it existed. People aged, the world aged. Stars flared into being and died out...

I was not a religious person, but my mother had been, and I still remember the sacrilegious horror and shame I felt, one day, when I knocked over the candle sticks at communion. It had been improper. This thought, that time did not exist, felt exactly like that moment.

And because it was improper, because my mind fought to reject it, I pursued it.

People age and die...but in the Bible they aged less. How long did Noah's ancestors live? Eight-hundred years? Why? What about Angels? What about the stars? What made a star live longer than a Human being?

It was day. I went outside, to the middle of a field, and lied down despite the mud. I stared up at the sun through my fingers and thought, What makes you so special? Why should you live so much longer?

The sun, perhaps, was our enemy -- was the source of our concept of time. After all, we measured years and days from the sun's rotation, and all of our other units stemmed from them.

"Did Noah have a watch?" I wondered. "Did his ancestors count the days? Or did they simply live, and damn the time, and time passed them by, and before you know it, eight-hundred years or more have passed and Methuselah is still alive..." Perhaps, if time were forgotten, the human body really could go on for a thousand years, until normal wear and tear broke it down, or until the Flood.

And just like that, the earth beneath me slipped slightly off its axis.

It's us. We're the source. We're the creators and the dupes of a mass illusion.

"I disbelieve you," I whispered. Then, louder, then I screamed, "You do not exist, time! I disbelieve you!"

II.

I was floating in some unobservable space, and it seems like my surroundings rushed by me at great speed, for it was impossible to focus on any one thing. There were sounds, and flashes, and images, but I could not catch any of it. My mind seemed to fall apart, then come back together as soon as I consciously reached for the pieces.

Earth was gone. There was blackness all around. I gasped for air that didn't exist and then I fell back into the stream.

####

And suddenly, I was there. In a room, with strange metal walls that curved. In the center was a sofa, and a girl my age, dressed gaudily in pink, and an elderly man with whiskers and spectacles.

They were having tea.

But right now they were staring at me as if I were the strange one.

"Well," said the old man. "Where did you come from, my dear?"

He was speaking English. I understood English, but I could not answer -- not because I didn't have the words, but because my tongue wouldn't move. I feared I had forgotten how to speak. But the old man simply, kindly, handed me a cup of tea. I made an effort of will, and, miracle of miracles, my hand moved to take it. I put it to my lips, drank. It was warm, not as hot as I liked, and tasted of milk and cinnamon.

The girl in pink sniffed, tossed her blond curls prettily.

"The tone of this ship is going down if she's a passenger."

Normally, girls like that would anger me. But my attention was caught by her words.

"Ship?" I asked, and this time my tongue moved. "Are we at sea?" I have never seen the sea.

The girl looked annoyed so I directed my questions at the old man.

"What sea are we on?" I asked.

"Well," he chuckled. "That's a very poetic way of saying it. You could say we're on the Ganymede Sea."

"Surely not," said the girl. "We've already jumped."

I had never heard of the Ganymede Sea, but the name felt very familiar. It niggled at the back of my mind.

"And..." This was the vital question. "What year is it?"

"Well by the Jovian Calendar it is 576 P.F."

"Jovian?"

"Well, where are you from, my dear?"

"Germany."

They looked at each other. "That sounds familiar," said the old man.

"It's one of the old nations from Earth."

"Interesting. I didn't know the natives still referred to regions by country name. A tradition, perhaps?"

I cleared my throat, and he remembered me.

"Ah, yes -- well, by the Terran Calendar, it would be 1872 P.D."

So I did go back in time. But...

"Wait -- what is P.D.?"

"Post Diaspora."

"What does that mean?"

"It signals the date the first colony was established on Mars."

It was starting to click into place -- Mars, Jovian...Jupiter.

"What year is it...on the Christian calendar?"

"Oh my." He looked to the girl, who seemed to add it up in her head quickly.

"4490 A.D." She said, sounding bored.

Impossible.

My mind reeled with disbelief and, as it had before, the disbelief tipped me off the back of time and I fell back into the stream.

####

I opened my eyes. They were staring at me again -- the old man and the girl. But it was a different room, and her dress was blue now so, I assumed, a different day.

"There you are again!" said the old man. "We searched the ship for you, but the Captain said you were not a passenger."

"How long?"

"Two weeks, almost. Tell me, my dear -- are you a phantom?"

"A phantom?"

"It's a theory of mine -- since you keep popping in and out. Are you a phantom of jump-space?"

"I don't know -- tell me what a phantom is first and then I'll answer. And tell me what jump-space is."

"Jump-space -- the higher dimension. You could say it's the fifth, perhaps, in which time and space both are circumvented."

"So they discovered it, then?" I asked eagerly. "A way to break the bonds of time?"

"Circumvent it...more like. Anyway, there are many recorded accounts of phantoms -- like the ghosts of time old -- who appear on ships during jump-space. Some theorists claim they are echoes of ships that traversed the way before. Or maybe even they appear when two ships pass through each other -- no one quite knows how matter works in this dimension."

"I might be," I said, quite taken with the image. So I was right. Time was not absolute. There were ways to circumvent it, as the old man said.

"Well this is wonderful!" he said. "I'd never hoped to meet a phantom in the flesh...so to speak."

He held out his hand and I shook it.

"She's pretty solid for a ghost," remarked the girl.

"I'm a time-traveler," I said.

The girl scoffed, but the old man leaned forward eagerly, spectacles glinting.

"So, you're from the future?"

"No...from the past."

"The past...but there was no time travel technology. Even now, our scientists think it is impossible...in the traditional sense."

"No technology. I just fell out of time."

"Fell? How?"

It was on the tip of my tongue, to tell my theory. But then I stopped.

"It's better if you didn't know." If he knew, he might fall as well.

"What are you names?" I asked, on impulse, as I suddenly felt very alone.

"My name is Charles Wellington."

I looked at the blond girl, imploringly.

She sighed. "Flora McVeil."

"I'm Franzeska," I said. The floating weakness, the inability to feel my limbs, was creeping quickly upon me again. "Franzeska Adler!"

As if saying my name would prove that I exist.

####

I stood alone upon a plain. There were no trees or grass, but the ground was covered with shrubs the color of rust and dirt. But the dirt was blue.

It was night, the sky was black, but there was a diffuse, silvery light coming from somewhere. I turned my gaze upwards and gasped.

And the cold hit me like a knife in the chest, and my lungs realized the thinness of the air and screamed, silently.

And tears came to my eyes, for I was gazing upon Heaven.

There was the cosmos, a scattering of diamond stars larger and brighter than I had ever seen. There was a planet, close by, the size of a marble and the color of blue steel, mottled with rust.

And there, before me, so low and ripe that it seemed about to drop, was a silverlode moon. There were the craters, the valleys of shadow and light, that I had only seen and imagined from a great distance of my own small moon.

I reached out an eager hand...

Too far. The world spun and I dropped, dimly aware that I was lying on my back, that I had fainted from the lack of air.

And that I was about to die.

I don't care. Let this starlit vista be my final berth. What is Heaven, that I should fear? I am already here.

####

I woke, and the air was warm. Yellow light hit my eyelids and, the moment before I opened them, I was afraid.

It had all been a dream. Every bit of it had been a dream.

I opened my eyes to a mundane scene I knew at once. It was a classroom, and I was standing before my peers.

I stood, confused, because I had graduated already. So why would I wake in class? Had I imagined it all? Graduating, the boring summer, even Hans?

And then I noticed the anatomy model in the back. My school had not had one. And then I noticed the desks were not wood, and there was no one I knew, though they all seemed my age. They were all staring at me as if I were a ghost.

And then I saw the transparent display of words and pictures hovering in midair, on the desk before the teacher.

I winked out of existence.

####

I knew this place. It was a tavern. I went up to the bar and planted myself on a vacant stool.

"Do you have vodka?" I asked, in English then, when the barkeep didn't seem to understand, in German.

He didn't answer, but he did slam down a glass of pale blue liquid.

Not vodka, but it smelled like it to the tenth power. I looked over to the person on my left, who looked like the giant insect from Kafka's nightmare.

"Brost!" I said to it, and raised my glass.

III.

I cannot take anything with me, but the clothes on my back. Though I can change clothes, when I have the time. And I can eat, when I have the time.

Time. There I go again. But it helps to count the seconds. When I do it seems like I am able to stay in one place longer.

I am counting the words as I write. I cannot bring this account with me -- any moment now I fear I will fall once more out of the stream. I have traveled far -- farther than my wildest imagination had ever led me. I have visited alien worlds, seen wonders and technologies and vistas that make my heart fill to bursting. It's rare now, that I find a time/place where I understand the language, but I've gotten better at communicating my wants through mime.

I don't understand. I don't understand why I move in space as well as time. Often I end up on starships, in that fifth dimension that Mr. Wellington told me about, and I wonder if that has something to do with it. But I do not have enough information, and the language barrier makes asking difficult --

But there I am again, explaining my theories. That is not why I wrote this.

I wrote this because...rarely have I been able to have a conversation since Mr. Wellington and Flora. The places I end up grow more and more alien -- the people themselves sometimes not even Human. And though I've learned to lengthen my stay through concentration, I have no control over where I go, and I have never been in one place/time long enough to learn its language.

I never sleep. I never seem to need to. But sometimes when I am slipping in the stream I imagine my brother Jan, and his kind, concerned face. I imagine Hans, with his bear-like body and beard. I imagine Mr. Wellington and Flora, who showed me kindness. I even think of Father, sometimes. At one point, I thought that if I concentrated on their faces hard enough, the stream would lead me back to them.

I regret. Despite all the wonders I have seen, there is one thing I regret.

And that is that I will never make that deep connection with another Human being. I will never truly love.

Sometimes, I wonder, if I had made a connection -- a true connection of the heart and soul -- with someone, whether that person could have been an anchor. Maybe it would have given me the strength needed to find my way home.

But I was young and foolish, in the spring of 1922. I could only think of myself, and regarded the people around me as burdens. Now that I am alone, with no hope of ever not being alone, I regret my foolishness.

And it will be a long life, to spend alone. For it has been I know not how long, but when I look into the mirror I never seem to change.

Time has disregarded me, the way I disregarded Time.

Please don't disregard me. If you read this, and understand this, think of me. Know that I exist. My name is Franzeska Adler and this is my

THE END


© 2010 TN Dockrey

Bio: TN studies law, language, history, and contemplates the strange relationship between the ways Human societies define the world and the actual state of the world, the power of belief, and whether peanut butter exists in Heaven (surely it would be incomplete without it, even if ghosts do not need to eat). T. N.'s story The Last Wonder in the World appeared in the December 2009 edition of Aphelion. For more information, visit: Stories of Dust and Moonlight.

E-mail: TN Dockrey

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