Apart from the universe, yet within, surrounded by it, a dark and faceted chamber disgorges the crystals of time. Small enough to hide in the shadow of a neutrino, vast as the voids between galaxies, the chamber folds upon itself like a many-dimensioned origami. Corridors pierce the chamber. Corridors that feed time to the universe and resonate with deep, hollow echoes along their infinite distance.
Within the chamber, an eternal movement, a mechanism of grand design, a dance of gears and pendulums that intertwine and turn, illuminated by djinns of light that refract in subspace as they rise and fall. And at the very center, circled by an orrery of eclipsing planets, an eternal thing—the Timesmith.
Forged of plasma and god-spunk, birthed before time, the Timesmith’s grey hide sweats an oil that massages and soothes the moving parts. Its Shiva arms reach along channels and inside conduits, winding and cranking in an endless rhythm. The Timesmith watches with its single dreaming eye—a pulsar, dense as a hole in space. Its strobing beacon ticking, moving, synchronizing. Nothing is done in the chamber that isn’t driven by the perfect clockwork of the eye.
The Timesmith swings its escapement-shaped hammer. Each blow, a fraction of time. The anvil rings and a shower of silver antiquarks explodes at every strike. And on the anvil, behold! A newly forged crystal of time—brilliant yellow, faceted, hot.
Before it can sublimate, proton-eyed minions grasp it with tongs and hold it high. Their voices hiss like escaping steam. “It is perfect, without flaw!” They bathe and cool the crystal in a serene pool of lithium condensate. They polish it with fine grains of carbon-60. They set and grout it in spiral patterns in the beautiful mosaic of space, which cries like a trillion newborn suns as it streams through the distant corridors.
* * *
From a forgotten age, a man enters the chamber. His worn clothes, too large and loose for his frame, hang over the wheels of his chair. With no one to push him, he shuffles his bare feet and inches forward. He inhales through a discolored cannula. His gaunt shoulders can no longer bear the weight of his head, pale and hairless.
“More time—I ask more time.” His hoarse whisper vanishes in the ticking din of oscillating escapements. He pauses to curse inaudibly, begging his wandering mind to focus.
“My daughters, the galaxies.” Young stars spiral and swirl in his pupils as he remembers, drawing circles in their silver-blue hair. How elegant they were! Unblemished, spinning in space, dancing with one another, full of hydrogen and youth. But they yellowed, faded. He remembers each one dying—dark, distant, cold, leaving him empty and alone.
“It can’t be the end,” he says, remembering his words. “There’s so much more to see, to be. Give me more crystals. Make me young.”
He slumps in his chair, which rolls back and stops. It seems a simple request to him, to transcend death, be young again, hot as plasma, full of stars. Why does the Timesmith not answer? With each short breath he worries he’s not made himself clear.
Among the swaying pendulums, an hourglass moves into view as if driven by some grand complication. Forged from clear silicate, grains of quartz flow in a radiant river from the upper lobe, nearly empty, to fill the lower.
This is the Timesmith’s answer. Your time is small.
The man knows this. He already saw the grand orrery, its planets almost aligned. Still, he must try.
He opens his mouth, but not to speak. He reaches into it with bony fingers, deeper, swallowing his arm to the elbow. From the bottom of his throat, he extracts a dark orb. He hangs it in the air before his eyes and spins it with his fingers. It accretes a whirling torus of dust as it precesses on its axis.
“Let me trade! A black hole for time.” Certainly the Timesmith will want the orb! It’s equator bulges with all of space and every crystal the Timesmith made. Maybe the Timesmith can somehow recycle the spent time, reuse it, make it new again.
The Timesmith ignores the barter. Its eye strobes, conducting a ballet of gears and movements, hands and dials. It strikes the hammer—a shower of antiquarks, another fraction of time, another crystal taken by the minions.
The man beats the worn arms of his wheelchair with his fists. He remembers when he was young and strong, when he needed nothing and asked no one for help. Now, weak and dependent, he asks for only one thing. But the Timesmith is insensitive to his needs. The Timesmith will not bargain.
He snatches the spinning black hole. To hell with the Timesmith. The man will steal the time he needs.
As the hourglass spills its last grains of bright quartz, as the universe approaches its final moment, the old man, trembling with desperation, reaches to seize a newly forged crystal.
The minions shriek, a whistling gale. Their black proton-eyes widen in horror. Frantic, they dart across the mosaic of space, holding the delicate crystal out of his reach.
As one struggles to breathe in the thin air of a mountain peak, he struggles to seize the crystal in the rarefied time. His fingers brush its smooth surface, but in a waltz of springs and complications, a pendulum knocks him into the great clockwork. His legs vanish in the machinery, then his body. One pale hand reaches out, still grasping the black hole, then disappears in the turning gears.
The minions return to their work.
The pulsar’s beacon sweeps across the movements.
The final bright quartz drains from the empty hourglass.
But the man is not gone. He’s pulled by cogs deep in the movements. He turns on a dial etched with dates. He falls from a swinging pendulum. His body arcs over a slowly turning gear. And the machine deposits him, lifeless, on the anvil.
His folded arms rest upon his ribs. His dark, closed eyelids sink into the orbits of his skull. His jaw hangs loose and open. And the black hole, which has swallowed all space and time, waits within his mouth.
The Timesmith swings his hammer. The stars and sparks shower away. The hammer rises. And all that is left of the old man is a crystal of time, hot and yellow on the anvil.
The minions grab him with tongs and hold him high. They hiss, “He is perfect, without flaw!” They bathe and polish him, then they grout him in the only remaining void in the beautiful mosaic of space. He fits perfectly and cries like a trillion newborn suns as he streams through the distant corridors.
As his cry fades, the strobing pulsar beacon illuminates the chamber. The minions stop their work to behold the grand orrery, every planet in perfect alignment. The hourglass turns and begins to pour a new brilliant river of quartz. The minions shriek and whistle—a universe reborn! And the Timesmith swings his hammer.