Opinions and arguments buzzed around the table.

“Why are we even talking about it?” said Sid, age 18. “Let’s send someone back and change things.”

“Who put you in charge of deciding when we’re done talking?” said Sid, age 14. “It’s my life you’re screwing up if it doesn’t work, not just yours.”

“And it’s my life we’re saving,” countered Sid, age 18. “Put a sock in it!”

“Stop fighting,” whined Sid, age 12. “You’re worse than Mom and Dad.

“Oh, if you think that’s bad, just wait until they-”

Sid, age 18 was cut short by Sid, age 16 who cuffed him on the head. “Don’t spoil it for him!”

“Don’t tell me what to do, you wussy dateless nerd,” Sid, age 18 growled.

“Then don’t act like such a jackass, you drunk, doped-up jock!” countered Sid, age 16. “If that’s what I’ve got to look forward to, maybe it’s best we don’t do anything and put you out of your misery!”

In all the commotion, Sid, age 1, began bawling again. “Oh, for crap’s sake,” cried Sid, age 14. “Somebody change him!”

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“Okay, I’ll tell you. But it’s probably going to sound crazy.”

Dr. Teller smiled. “I hear things that ‘sound crazy’ for a living,” he said. “Most of the time they’re nothing of the sort; I make it a point never to judge.”

“I’m…I’m walking down a long hallway. An infinite hallway. It’s made of beautiful, cold crystal, faceted like a diamond and colored by the blue sky above. I’ve been walking for hours–days–before I notice something.”

“And what’s that?” said Dr. Teller.

“The walls are made out of little cells, smooth and transparent and unfaceted. And suspended in each one…is me.”

Scratching on the notepad. “You?”

“Not me as I am now–I recognize that even in the dream–but me as I was. This hallway has every moment of my entire life preserved like a bug in amber. As I walk I see what I wear and my age and my position all change, one crystal cell at a time. Eventually, I get to cells filled with me as I am in the dream: confused, disheveled, and in my pajamas.”

“How does that make you feel?” Dr. Teller asked.

“I’m…well, I’m terrified. What happens if I keep walking? What will I see? And does the crystal corridor have an end? The idea scares me more than a hundred psychos in the back seat of my car. It…it chills me to my core, as if the hallway has become ice. But I keep walking. I can’t stop.”

The form was colorful and animated, with a steady stream of HV ads running along the bottom. The questions flew by—her old junior college had wanted to know more, and unlike Metromart, there wasn’t a drug test. Standard stuff, really.

Until the last one, of course. “I hereby release Healing Visions LLC from any and all legal liability that may arise during the aforementioned procedure,” she read silently. “This includes physical traumas such as strokes, heart conditions, degenerative neurological conditions, and mental ones such as hallucinations, insomnia, paranoia, manic depression, suicidal tendencies, and/or depression. I, the undersigned, do recognize and accept the risks of this procedure and…”

Aria sighed. “What am I doing here?” she whispered. Her mind turned toward the ladies in the break room the other day, and how much she’d agreed with them.

They’d been watching TV and chatting when an HV commercial had come on, and immediately the gossip had started. “I heard that the can only show you a few seconds because it’ll cause a brain tumor if the go any longer. One slip up and you’ve got a fried egg up there.”

Aria had nodded silently as the one-upsmanship began. “Well, I heard that there are these guys—like slum lords or something—in Nigeria that collect money from people so they can go on ‘spirit quests’ to the local HV center,” another lady had said.

“And you know they’re whipping those people up into a frenzy over it,” Maria from jewelry had added. “On 60 Minutes the other day I saw a feature about these people in London that’d had a bad time at HV. They saw bad things, and just quit their jobs, walked away from everything and started hanging out in gangs, doing drugs and crime and suicidally dangerous stuff.”

“Who’d ever want to do that?” Aria had interjected, half-heartedly. “Who’d want to see? I’d rather be surprised.”

People called them the Smokers, and Keith had heard a variety of explanations for this.

Certainly they were no slouch when it came to ganging up on others to steal anything up to and including lunch money–quite capable of “smoking” someone in a pitched battle.

And there was no doubt that cigarettes were their stock and trade, sold or bartered to others, inhaled furtively when adults were looking and openly when they weren’t.

But the real reason–Keith suspected–could be seen when they drove up. And smelled. And heard.

The Smokers tooled around in a beat-up Detroit aircraft carrier from the 70’s, driven by the only one of them old enough for a learner’s permit; as it pulled up to the curb, it belched forth an oily and odoriferous cloud the likes of which was seldom encountered outside of wartime.

“Hey Anders!” one of them called. “Ain’t it a little late to be going to school?” Nevermind that Deerton High was in the opposite direction; the remark elicted raspy chuckles from the rattletrap’s interior.

It was hard to tell where the ruins began and ended. Along the plain, an occasional ruined structure would jut up, covered in dead ivy and undergrowth. It was as if the land was slowly starving to death, its bones exposed and held in only by a thin sheen of dead or dying greenery. Dark, low clouds cast a further pall over the descolate plain, and worked hard to sap what was left of Thomas Graham will.

Only the dusty footprints he left in his wake gave evidence of his passing, and soon the chill wind would whip up and scour even these small traces from the earth. The few stunted, bitter fuits torn from their twisted branches along the way would be regrown, or the trees themselves would succumb. Like old soldiers, and like Graham himself, they would just fade away.

He’d been able to worm through the dry ivy when the wind blew, taking refuge in the ancient buildings, whatever they were, but they had been picked clean and worn smooth by years of weathering, perhaps even looting. Smooth walls of concrete and steel gave no hint as to their function or origin, much as a man’s skeleton had little to say about his life. As he huddled in those ruins, the fingers of thirst closing ever tighter around his throat and the merciless gale howling outside, Graham would look up at the gray sky and wondered if he would find a broken tower high enough to fling himself from and end the long march. He knew not where he went, nor did he follow any signs, but Graham knew what he was searching for; even now, it lay within his grasp: a photograph, lined and worn from months in a decaying pocket. He would take out of and look at it when the urge to climb and fall returned, when it seemed that his tongue would swell up and block his throat.

There had been a few plastic bags in his pockets, intended for leftovers at the company picnic. Instead, Graham had filled them with rainwater from the misty rain that occasionally pelted the dusty plain and turned it into a quagmire. One by one, they had begun unravelling, and none had more than a few drops left. He kept them in his briefcase, which was also beginning to disintegrate, along with a few other odds and ends he had encountered, some of which he hardly even remembered picking up. A bent spoon. Half of a plastic plate, with faded butterflies on its surface. A few rounded rocks that might serve to scare off any intruders.

At least Graham had his suit coat, and a thick wool shirt. Whenever the cold breeze began to nip at his heels, it kept him warm enough to find shelter before the chill stole the life from between his lips. The islands of shelter were closer together now; though what that may have meant was lost on Graham. He was certainly nowhere near the City, and perhaps farther from his goal than he’d ever been.

At least his black dress shoes had been thoroughly broken in.

I woke up the other day, and realized that I was here. I’m a college student. Living in a dorm. Eating pizza with a vigor and frequency I would never have dreamt possible. I have a car, a tiny little thing that’s essentially a go-cart with doors.

But yesterday, I was in Mr. Fitzpatrick’s math class, sophomore year of high school. I was chauffeured around by my mother, who dropped me off at class in that huge old Crown Victoria of hers. Pizza meant either cafeteria cardboard or a treat for special occasions or unsupervised nights.

Men are supposed to wake up screaming one night in their forties, feeling the growing wrinkles on their face and crying out “I’m old!” “Where’s the time gone?” “I was twenty-five just a few months ago!” College students don’t suffer mid-life crises.

I’m not going through a mid-life crisis, unless my life is to be exceptionally short. I flipped through an old yearbook awhile ago, and found my picture. The beaming innocent staring back at me could have taken my spot in communications class without
incident. No, what’s preoccupied me recently is the way time, itself, is speeding up.

When I was nine, and the family took a summer trip to Disney World in July, I can remember ages of activity on either side of that great line through the vacation. Three months was 3% of my life back then…if I live to be a hundred, that’s three years. Each summer vignette–from wandering downtown dressed like a pirate to that bee sting at my aunt’s cabin–is a week, a month unto itself. Last year, a week was a barely perceptible blip on the radar screen. Class followed class, assignment followed assignment, and weekend followed all, as surely as ducklings totter along after their mother.

I tell people about this feeling. “Time’s speeding up!” I’ll say. “Look at how fast last year went! At this rate, tomorrow it’ll be next week, and next week it’ll be time to retire and in a month tops I’m worm food.” They laugh sometimes, a little nervously, at the sheer weirdness of what I’m saying. For most people, the process of looking back doesn’t begin until 25 or 30–everything until then is eager anticipation. I’ve got a head start because I’m addressing the problem now.

The creature was human-shaped, but unfinished. It had no face, just a featureless blank, and all the other finer details of the human form were missing. Its body was covered with elaborate raised lines that spiraled crazily over its body without rhyme or reason. It floated a few inches above the ground, in a relaxed, almost boneless, pose.

“There is no Zeitengel, and there never was,” it hissed. The words didn’t seem to issue from any particular point but were audible nonethtless. “That was only a name adopted to seed confusion and spur futile searching. The true author of his works has no name, no form, and cannot be comprehended by an ordered mind.”

“A-an ordered mind?” Susan stammered.

“The world is organized, ordered. There still exist dark places where order has never existed, and here dwell the ancient essences who embody all that order is not. To call them beings is to impose an order on that which has none, but they embody complete and utter chaos. The very structure of time and space was created to deny them access to reality, to keep them isolated in pockets of nothingness. They chafe under this, as is their nature, and desire nothing but to break free of their bonds and invade ordered space that such order might be destroyed.”

“I don’t understand,” Susan said. “And what exactly are you?”

“It matters not who or what I am. Suffice to say, I am not one of them, but merely a servant. I was placed here in the expectation that someone might come, and bidden to say what I have said. Do not think this aid; I have given myself wholly to chaos, and await only its inevitable arrival and the burning away of oppressive order. I am to spread chaos in the most efficient manner by moving you to action. Through struggle or inaction, you bring the destruction of your world order closer. Does it not fill you with a sense of importance, that one as insignificant as yourself may perform such mighty deeds?”

A gout of cold wind from the desolate plain chilled Susan to the quick. “Not really.”

“If you choose to embrace this mission–to embrace what is so regardless of your acceptance–you may become a servant like myself. By giving yourself wholly to chaos and the dark ones, you will be granted continuity rather than destruction. When the end comes, the cage of time and order about you will be stripped away, and you may take your place among the dark. Until their coming you will, like I, serve. Perhaps aiding the Anarchists in some way, perhaps as a font of wisdom like I. We are the vorhang, the blind, but we see more than all others combined. You are lucky in that you are aware of your state, and of your choices. Very few enjoy the same luxury as they wander through time. It is the closest to true freedom you can come while the oppressive order remains.”