The Time Agent
I wrote this short story as an experiment in writing in six dimensions. Hope you enjoy it!
The Time Agent
There are rules about writing things down about the Time Agency.
But at this point, I think I am done with rules.
As best I can, here are my memories.
Imagine a world in which time, like space, had three dimensions?
Don’t. I live there.
Now, they told us in class that you should show, not tell. But most of the stuff I want to show you won’t make sense unless I tell you how all of this works.
So I’m going to show you Professor Konst-438 telling me.
A lecture room - all fancy, old oak. And about enough room to seat ten thousand people in steeply-raked rows. There’s a door on each row. It’s like a football stadium.
I’m about halfway up and halfway along a row, spacewise. It’s my first day of training. I could go back there for a refresher, but I haven’t the time.
So, short version: Konst-438 was mutilated and now does the Introduction to Time for all of us recruits. All at once. They’ve got a rasping voice. They’ll die soon.
They explain that space has height, width, and length - vertical, horizontal, and sagittal. Forward-backward, to normal people. Time has ticktock, timewide, and timehigh - progressional, multiversal, and durational.
Ticktock: normal time. Past goes to future. Or future to past.
Timewide: complex time, stepping between multiverses where things gradually become more and more strange. Infinite multiverses left and right, up to infinity (though round about the millions physics gets squiffy). And infinite multiverses between - you might want to step a kiloverse, or explore the fractally different nanoverse steps. How wide’s a ‘verse? About the length of the first timewide step - the difference between a world where that cloud is here, not there.
Confused? Don’t worry, I’ll explain it all later. Konst-438 isn’t a great explainer, and this lecture wasn’t a great idea.
Timehigh: how long a second lasts. Like height is (kinda) ‘how far away are you from the planet’s gravitational pull?’, timehigh is ‘how far away are you from the planet’s gravitational distortion of time?’ In the heart of a blackhole - very timeslow - a second’s duration might take the same amount standard time as a million years on earth - 0 timedistortion.
Now, this lecture hall’s also very timeslow. And very timewide. And it’s got a big volume in ticktock time, so it exists simultaneously across millennia and multiverses. Which means that (and Konst-438 lowers their voice for this one) Konst-438 has been giving this one lecture for thousands of years. People in the front row gasp. We don’t. By the time we were recruited, Konst-438’s legendary lecture was… well, legendary. But it saved a lot of money for the Agency.
It’s a shame it’s so awful.
When we left by our door, it went out into our universe, in our time. Only three of us had passed the assessment. Our minds filled with three-dimensional time, we wandered to our barracks.
If everything’s subjective, what’s real?
This is a book about me, because I’m writing it. So it’s going to be told from my point of view. The order I do things. At times, that means it’s going to be weird, for reasons that will become apparent. But I can’t think of myself in normal ticktock time, because that means I died before I was born, and things get squiggly. Leave that for the inquiry.
I was recruited for the Time Agency when I moved about three ‘verses coldward. It had been raining, and I wanted there to be sun, and I moved into a patch of sun I could… I could imagine, in the way that I can imagine this table in front of me. It’s real, but also in my head.
I moved through the other ‘verses, and Cellen-3 was there to catch me and take me to the Agency. They asked if I knew what I’d done, and how dangerous it was. They asked what my original ‘verse was, and I said I didn’t know. They asked how old I was, and I said I was 19.
They were happy. They’d got me at the right point.
For reference, I’m from ‘verse 815. It’s a bit of a dump.
They told me that anyone who could move through ‘verses had to be an Agent, or arrested. I chose being recruited. They then told me that I had to pass their test first. Some physical, some exams, a lot of racing through ‘verses.
Some people didn’t pass. They were taken away.
I passed, from early 21st century.
Vardin+815 passed - early medieval.
Segn+815 passed - post-Crisis.
We had a lot in common. A Viking, a malnourished anarchist geographer, and me.
We were from the same ‘verse, after all.
Conversations from ‘verse 815
We talk in English, because Vardin+815’s good at languages, being a trader, and Segn+815 has a universal translator.
Vardin+815 knows middle English. They are taken to a barrack room and come back having learnt my English, and about five years older.
“What’s that?” (Vardin+815)
“It’s a universal translator.” (Segn+815)
“Why didn’t you just give me one?” (Vardin+815)
“They’re very expensive.” (Segn+815)
This was the most interesting conversation we had. We couldn’t discuss
- The weather
- Anything involving any degree of common cultural understanding
Vardin+815 ended up being moved to the merchant arm of the Agency. Segn+815 got our research and development section. I got enforcement.
I didn’t miss them.
What am I doing now?
My first mission. I got paired with Tur+21. They were good - probably about to be moved to the timehigh units, that wait for millennia to catch folk, without feeling a second of it.
We were getting a trader. They’d moved some late-modern tech into a silo and tried to sell it after World War Two.
Their silo was ridiculously time-long. Started with the early modern, ended with the Crisis. And filled with stolen goods.
We walked in via the stone age, and caught the idiot red-handed.
End of story. I’m tired now.
Haven’t slept for a thousand years.
I will love you forever
That used to be a joke between us. We’d laugh, thinking it meant “I will love you in the time it takes to step into a timeslow room and step out.”
“I will always love you.” That was another joke. As if in every multiverse I’d love you.
“When I see you, my heart stops.” The other joke. As if they were supermassive and made time slow.
But I will always love you forever. You make my heart stop. And you’re not reading this.
You’re somewhere after ‘verse 315.
I’m sorry, my love.
Not my only love. Millions of us love each other. Thousands love you across time. Hundreds of my hearts stop on seeing you.
But only I will always love you.
Even if you aren’t here.
Death in six dimensions is sometimes… messy. Which is probably why normally we only deal with murderers who murder in five or more. Leave straight-time murderers to the police in their own ‘verse.
Tur+21 and I got put on a straightforward five dimensional murder. Someone had built a house half out of straight time material, and half out of timeslow material. Their victim - somewhere on ‘verse-111 - stepped into the living room…
And watched their foot freeze just before their head plunged into the empty space. Without circulation from half the body, the other half withered away and died.
Impressive. Purely as a matter of engineering. Utterly horrible to watch. Which, of course, we did by stepping into local HQ and gathering the evidence before catching the murderer.
There are ‘verses out there - I visit them eventually - where 5D and 6D architecture is used to create marvels of engineering. But at this point, the start of my career, it’s mainly used for petty crime and violence.
One day, I get to ‘verse-8,331 and its timefree towers, different sections spinning in and out of time. Or the -680s, where your windows slide across ‘verses. And the original and best-
I’m getting ahead of myself. Petty crime in five and six dimensions is what we do. We arrest the perpetrator, remove the contraband, and file a report.
That, on repeat, is my life for the next few years (subjective).
I love you.
I don’t know who you are yet, but I love you.
I can feel you in the holes in my life, the eddies of the ship ahead of you, and I love you.
I walk under oak trees and my mouth makes the words “I love you” and I don’t know who it’s talking to.
You’ll be there soon enough, my love.
You… you’re the one who kills me.
And I love you.
It would be nice to go back
I could. I could break every rule, go futureward to make myself look younger, slip into our apartment when we danced to this song. Where we swung around the room in each other’s arms.
Or I could close my eyes and listen.
You’re there. You and I, dancing, you trained, my feet stomping on the floor with the enthusiasm of a Russian peasant.
You laughed. I laughed. We were having fun. We were happy.
But I can’t ask you if you were happy. I didn’t then, and I won’t now. I believed you were happy. You looked happy. That’s that.
There are other worlds, of course, where you and I are together, or never met, or never die. There are other worlds where they name stars after us, and others where our names are spat onto nightmarish fairy tales about the Enemy.
But in our world. In our time. Our love was a little and quiet thing. And we had this song.
Which is finishing now. I could go back and listen to it again. Fall into your arms again. But it’s time to wake up. I love you. But I have to wake up now.
I’ll listen to it soon, I promise.
You’ll come back.
Whether in this song, or in the wind.
I hear echoes in time
“I love you.”
“Don’t, my love.”
“I will kill you, if I have to. I won’t want to, but I will.”
I don’t know when they mean anything.
I’m afraid that I will.
A Most Delicious Paradox
It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book. They were artful about it, pulled off a real classic.
First, in a market in post-crisis ‘verse+5,434, I get given a bowl of… meat soup. Meat is a luxury, and a sign of respect, so I eat it. I do not ask what kind of meat, as this is considered pretentious.
Second, on a contraband raid on a timeslow warehouse across ‘verses-425 to -624, a stray shot of mine hits a meatshield hostage. Some traffickers think we can’t fire at the meatshields to avoid changing time - but official policy is it’s already happened, so we can’t stop it.
There are advantages to having your complaints department at the end of the universe.
Weirdly, the traffickers run off with the body. They sometimes do that when the body’s got some modifications or gene splicing to play with.
Third, as part of a deep-cover mission I work in a medieval butcher’s. Someone brings me meat. I chop it up for them, then take ‘em out for paying me with early modern currency.
Fourth, their buddies show up, and I get dragged into a timeslow warehouse across ‘verses-425 to -624. I see myself in the back row of a raid, ready to fire at me.
I shout our safeword.
I stop firing.
Paradox caused. A few new fractal multiverses burst into existence. But I live in most of them.
The Agency cracks down hard on the gang. Nobody likes messing with paradoxes, especially ones where you eat yourself.
The Agency cracks down hard on me. Nobody likes paperwork, especially ones where the idiot eats themself.
So I got put inside for a day.
Not too much.
Not unless it’s in a timeslow cell.
Then you can watch the end of the universe.
I’m sorry, my love.
The restaurant at the end of the universe
As aforementioned, at the end of everything, you will find the Agency’s complaints department.
Entropy collapses even the multiverse, so the multiverse is barely fifty ‘verses timewide, and mass has decayed everything, so everything’s pretty timehigh - seconds fly by.
And, as Adams predicted, there is a restaurant.
Well, a cafe.
There’s a robot and it gives you fluids and food.
There is no panoramic view over the end of the universe. There is not much to see except darkness.
There is a strict rule at the end of the universe:
The human mind does not deal well with nothing.
Only the really bad prisoners have to see nothing.
I get to jump in the Tipler cylinder and go home.
Only infinitely older, and two days aged.
You Used To Be Mine
There is a trick.
1. Have a computer in one room going forwards in time.
2. Have its output in another room, going backwards in time.
3. Put a problem into the computer, continually getting a step closer to the answer.
4. Broadcast the current output into the computer.
By making an infinite number of paradoxes, you get the answer in a second.
However, you also damage reality by going back and forth.
It isn’t a trick, but if you go forwards in time and then come back, some things are damaged too.
You used to be mine.
All I Am Is Yours
The Time Agency dictates my position in spacetime. The Time Agency takes years from me, and gives them to me, and leaves them as mine while stealing them from another me. And although I love you, I cannot stop them.
“I am yours,” I whisper forever in that long-looped moment.
I lie a million times a day in that moment.
I am not yours. I am a pawn in the hands of the Time Agency, who I do not understand or recognise. I do not know what goals they have, what year they call home, or even when to find them. I receive my orders, and I go.
All I am is theirs.
I wish I could find my handler. I wish I could find their handler, and their handler, and so on, climbing the ladder to the head of the Agency so I could tell them to set me free.
But then I would be illegally walking through time, and the Time Agency would come for me once again.
All These Worlds Are Yours, Yorick
It’s a common joke in the Time Agency. There’s a guy, you see, and he’s messing about with this skull he found in the field, doing the Yorick thing, and then he realises that it is, in fact, his own skull with a bullet hole through it. As he steps hotward - back towards the beginning of the universe - someone shoots him, so his corpse moves backwards, bullet hole still forming, and he dies, only to rot and be picked up by his foolish now-future self.
The reason we all know it is because it’s in one of our orientation lectures - the ones where everyone who’s ever been a part of the Agency sits in, and the lecturer only ever gives it once. The lesson is something to do with not causing paradoxes, the Yorick joke causing a weird loop of ‘must have died for there to be a skull, but only died because of the skull’ paradox.
The actual lesson is ‘Shakespeare may seem universal, but there’s a time and a place.’
However, in just about every ‘verse, there’s a taboo about skulls. Specifically, a taboo about picking them up and talking to them, except in places where that’s a normal way of speaking to the dead/ancestors/the voices in your head.
There are quite a lot of the last one. Places where the ‘verse has ended tend to have a lot of people who have decided that reality just isn’t worth the effort.
I’ve been in ‘verses as they end. You move out of them pretty feckin’ fast, if you can. At that point, there’s nothing else you can do.
The memory of your kiss…
We kissed before we were in love, of course.
I told you that I loved you, and you laughed - of course. You went hotward, back towards the chaotic heat of the early universe. As galaxies exploded into being around us, you kissed me.
In thousands of other worlds, you laughed and walked away.
In thousands of others, you killed me there and then.
In thousands of others, you… you kissed me where we stood.
I can barely remember which one was mine. My mind slips between dimensions, and I go slowly mad.
This is the end of the world as we know it
Welcome to ‘verse 315. The place where the criminals come for the end of the universe.
Not a prison ‘verse like the one I went to. There’s no facilities here.
Just a bubble. A bubble of time. One where they hope they’ll be able to ride out the cataclysm and see what comes after the end of the universe.
The Time Agency often tries to infiltrate the bubble. So far, it has not yet succeeded.
There is a Tipler cylinder next to the bubble. Agents whose cover has been blown are thrown into it, and fall out at the other end onto a small pile of corpses.
Small, considering that it has been growing for millennia, and then vomited into the universe. In fact, it is the centre of a planet with a thriving ecosystem, strange fungi sprawling over the bodies of species from infinite universes.
Sometimes someone suggests that we bury the bodies.
We always refuse. Our last class in training is going to look at them - all of us at once, as ever - and being reminded that if we screw up, that’s what happens to us.
I once went onto that world to look for a body. I didn’t find one.
And Life Eternal Upon Them
Members of the Time Agency very rarely have relationships outside the Agency.
Once, Tardrek-425 did. It was amusing to watch how they dropped back to their homeverse, carefully calculating the time intervals so their lover did not notice anything wrong with the mysterious ‘trader’ who dropped by and made them swoon, only for the Agency to find out, quarantine the lover, and wipe their memory and purge their system for any time-sensitive pathogens.
Tardrek-425 was distraught. They tried to get out of the Agency, and were dragged back in chains.
They tried to leave again, and were trapped in a timeslow prison.
They got out, and tried to quit the Agency. This time, they killed a bunch of Agents by bombing one of our lecture theatres, sending shreds of Time Agents timewide, timehigh, timeslow, and across the theatre. Unsurprisingly, everyone remembers that class - though some say it was on temporal politics, others on the mechanics of a universal field translator, and so on - the details don’t matter.
Tardrek-425 fled. To the best of my knowledge, they were the only member of the Time Agency to get into the ‘verse 315 criminal bubble - they were never formally fired from the Agency; their guilt far too obvious.
But I was a friend of Tardrek-425. They sat near me at that lecture. So I remember seeing their face as they turned around - a rare enough experience in our lectures - and saw the bomber, carefully avoiding killing their future self, dooming them to this fate.
At that point, Tardrek-425 knew what would become of them. The entire Agency knew. But we could do nothing to stop it.
I wish I’d asked Tardrek-425 how that made them feel. Knowing that every agent they met, every recruit, knew what they would/had done. Some of them knew that Tardrek would kill them.
Because Tardrek-425 never seemed to mind, just as long as they could go back to ‘verse-425. It was only when that was taken away that they broke.
Don’t Ever Ask Me To Mourn For You
We know better than most that everything dies.
We mostly know where to find our own graves. Some of us accidentally find out how we die.
Once I asked you if, when I died, you’d be there to mourn for me.
You asked me to never ask again.
To never consider the possibility that you might outlive me. It upset you.
I wonder if you remembered. I wonder if you remembered before you ended my life.
I wonder if you mourned.
Some ‘verse, some time, some space, the Agency decided to steal some tech. I think it went into the Tipler cylinder. Or the wrist teleports.
The Agency being what it is, might have also just been they needed new light fittings.
I was assigned to take a wooden crate from a two-planet system. Went into a timefast bubble a ‘verse across, then jumped in at the right moment, took the crate, and emerged out the other side - this time in the middle of a pitched battle around the main site.
Sometimes the information they give us is wrong.
Their weapons couldn’t hurt me under my shield. I stepped into my timefast bubble and delivered the cargo.
I wondered why they were fighting; whether they’d been given information about what was in the crate.
I never was. All I know is that it was heavy.
This Takes Forever
I sit here.
Duration passes, not time.
I read my notes. I don’t want to.
They are boring.
I have read them a thousand times over.
If I wasn’t here, I’d go mad. Or not. It’s hard to tell.
I want to know what happens.
I want to know what happened.
I want to know-
I want to know if I can make it stop.
I want to know if I can stop it without dying.
But until then, I am bored.
Sitting in eternity takes forever.
Time… to die
When it rains, step timewide to avoid the drops.
When it floods, step timefast to get through it sooner.
When you die, you die.
There is a rumour. That somewhere in the Agency is a book. And in that book is written the time and place of every Agent’s death.
I want to know when ours are. Are they together, in the same time and place?
Did you know? Did you know before I died?
Did you read the book before you killed me?
If I had the time…
If I had the time again… would I change anything?
Maybe. Maybe not. There are ‘verses, of course, where I did have the time again, and changed nothing, and others where I had the time again, and changed the fate of star-spanning empires. But I’m in this one, and I didn’t. Didn’t have the time again, and didn’t change anything.
It was nice while it lasted.
Like an oak tree. Like emerging from the cylinder under an oak tree and meeting…
And meeting someone who, a nanoverse across, would have just been emerging from the timeslow prison; who would have met me doing the same; would have loved me. And I would see them and know that this was someone I loved; I would recognise your voice from the ripples and echoes in time.
But a nanoverse across, the me was simply a timeagent on patrol, like in my ‘verse, you were on patrol, and readied your weapon, and I said…
I said… words. They don’t matter.
You laughed, and tumbled hotwards into the creation of a universe, pulling me with you. You… I did not notice galaxies forming around us.
And I still wonder whether I would have been happier with the you a nanoverse across; whether one of the changes my timeslow prison made was changing my history forever. I don’t think so. I still recognised your voice; I still knew what you were.
And I still remember your warning - your reminder that you were simply doing your job. That I would never be more important than the Agency.
Or maybe not. Maybe I was more important, by the end. Maybe you were just being kind. Or worse, maybe you were being honest. Maybe you were doing your duty. Maybe- maybe I… I…
Maybe I could be remembered for something else, or by someone else.
But I’m not.
Love Is Timefast
Some people say time flies when you’re in love. Time flies when you’re in an especially-constructed mode of transport. Love does not change it.
Love changes it. Time travel changes it. Actions change it.
There were centuries apart, multiverses between us, most of the time. And I never knew where to find you until we found each other. Never managed to get your files out of the Agency. But we still saw each other, every now and again.
But I remember…
I remember things that haven’t happened to me yet; that have happened to you.
I remember when I heard a rumour that you’d been sent to infiltrate ‘verse 315, where criminals watch the end of the universe.
I sorted through the bodies of every agent sent there; spent millennia picking apart decaying faces to try and find yours. But it wasn’t there.
I followed the rumour. I infiltrated that bubble of time. And in time, my body was hurled into that Tipler cylinder for corpses, because you worried that I’d blow your cover-
No. Another universe, echoing at me.
We did not have that. Or we had that, but before. Or after. I was timefast. You were timeslow.
And we kissed.
A Moment Lasts Forever
For me… scattered memories, all compressed into a moment - a moment where time moved so fast that a lifetime could happen; all the memories of our love in a second. I skipped and sprinted through our time together, moment to moment.
For you… merely a moment. A moment of normal time. Oak trees, apartments, the birth of galaxies, all yet to come.
For me… an item I had once stolen for the Agency, clamped on my wrist, dragging me back to this moment after…
You killed me, my love. Always, at the end of an infinite second, you killed me. In that second, I had lived a lifetime, and was ready to go.
But I wasn’t ready. Throughout that life there had been whispers. Echoes.
Meeting you as you passed slowly forward through time. You started to love me too. All that life that we shared - you shared it, in time. You passed through at your normal pace, eventually sharing the moments I’d already had.
You used to be mine. I used to be yours; a wonderful mutual possession.
But when my infinite second ended, you were not any more, and you killed me.
I do not think you mourned. You had no reason to. And all those moments we shared, you hadn’t shared yet. But you always knew. Every smile; every touch; every whisper. You knew how it started. You knew how it would end.
You always lied.
If I could slip back in time to our dancing days…
But I cannot.
If I had seen you at the end of the Tipler cylinder, hiding your own body from me so I never found your book; the book that said you killed me.
You knew your entry in the book. You knew how and where you would die. And you went anyway. I do not understand why.
You served the Agency - its smuggling, dealing, manipulating. And died for whatever it was they’re for. And killed, for whatever it was they kill for.
And always knew.
Time… pauses. I die, and watch seconds fracture into milliseconds, nanoseconds…
And fall away.
Into echoes across my past.
One timeslow moment to write everything down.
And time… stops.
Time stops for us all.