#FridayFlash: A Common Purpose

A Common Purpose

by Tony Noland

The sun was a mottled green, bright as an apple in the center of the disk and fading to a foggy gray that filled the sky, the world and everything in it. Hector had expected everything to be utterly, completely black after turning on the timestop, but he had forgotten about the neutrinos.

In this frozen Planck-slice of a second, all the normal photons were motionless. The light of everything from the stars in the sky to the fluorescent bulbs on the ceilings was held mid-flight. He'd brought along a couple of wind-up flashlights, but they'd turned out not to be necessary. The stream of neutrinos from the sun dropped into something close to the visible spectrum, giving him more than sufficient light. He had plenty of time to think about the phenomenon as he walked from prison to prison.

At first, he tried to keep an idea of how much subjective time had passed. In this timestopped state, he never grew tired, hungry or thirsty, so the usual body clues were useless. He thought about counting his steps, but that would grow tedious. In the end, he decided to just wait until he had finished and could go back into normal time to figure it all out later. If he assumed a walking speed of three miles per hour, the distances between the prisons would let him calculate travel times. Within each prison, if he assumed three minutes to kill each inmate, he'd be able to calculate time per prison based on each one's population.

For a while, he kept track of the number of inmates at each prison he visited, but then gave it up. It didn't matter. The news people would eventually get a clear body count, if he ever really needed to know. It took so long to walk the hundreds and hundreds of miles between federal and state prisons, county lock-ups and local sheriff's holding cells that the numbers jumbled together. In the slums of the cities, he could kill the prostitutes and the drug dealers and their customers easily enough, but he didn't do much else in those neighborhoods. He disliked making subjective judgement calls on who was a criminal vs. who simply looked suspicious. Prisons were easier. Everyone in a cell was clearly guilty and was therefore a legitimate subject for culling.

Hector and the sun were the only things that moved. The sun's motion was subjective. As Hector walked from Florida to Maine, killing every criminal and prisoner he could find, the sun slid southward. As he walked across Quebec and Ontario, the sun lifted above the horizon. The sun moved fractionally, almost imperceptibly, since its subjective motion was dependent on the speed of Hector's actual motion. Three miles per hour wasn't much on this scale, but it added up.

By the time Hector had finished with Washington, Oregon and California, he was ready to take a break. His original plan had been to do all of Mexico in addition to the U.S. and Canada, but he had been working non-stop for what felt like many, many years. Even for a dedicated, tightly focused man such as he knew himself to be, he felt that he had exerted sufficient effort on behalf of the nation. He turned toward the desert and started walking.

The instant he turned off the timestop, every one of those filthy criminals would drop dead of an apparent heart attack. There would be an outcry, of course, and autopsies would show severe cellular disruption in their cardiac tissue. Investigations would look for the conspirators, the media would go crazy, and so on and so forth. It would pass. With the criminal element gone, a huge drain on the economy would vanish, society would be far better off without them and normal, decent people could get on with their lives.

Hector's sense of satisfaction grew as he walked to the termination site, which his calculations placed sixty-one miles northwest of Reno. Yes, this was a great day in the history of science, and in his own life. He was not only the cleverest physicist in history, he was also the most selflessly altruistic. Who else could have figured out how to stop time, and then put the knowledge to such good use? To such clear benefit to humanity?

Still many miles distant from the geographic locus of temporal energies that would take him back to his lab in Chicago, Hector saw movement. It had been so long since he had seen anything move that he was shocked into stillness. There was something just over the next rise in the desert scrubland. After a long time, his mind freed itself from its gridlocked state and he dropped to his hands and knees to creep forward.

Cresting the hill, he looked out over a sea of people, some standing and milling around but most sitting or lying on the ground. From just on this side of the hill, the crowd stretched to the far horizon. There must have been thousands, tens of thousands of people. They were mostly men, mostly white. Even from where he lay, he got such a sense of grim, pathetic despair from their voices, their posture and their expressions that he felt a deep chill of apprehension. He looked up at the sun, still green, still dim, still frozen in the sky. When Hector returned his gaze to the crowd, he saw the man nearest to him standing and pointing at him. Like many of the others, the man wore a tattered, white lab coat. His voice carried clearly through the foggy neutrino-light.

"Hey fellas. Here comes another poor time-stopping bastard."

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.

24 comments:

  1. This is a pretty good argument against the death penalty. I wonder if that's what you intended? :)

    I love the idea that the neutrinos get through. Brilliant.

    So have they all realized that you can't up-stop time?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, this was good. Not just read-through, dispose of, leave a comment good.
    This is ***King good. The Stephen himself would have doffed a cap at this.
    What vision and what a lovely unusual thought to have formed it from.
    Best yet.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Poor bastard! Great story this week, Tony.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I felt quite clever that I understood the science bits! Very interesting concept - and just because someone is in a cell doesn't mean they're guilty. But it was the end that was the killer, the idea that he wasn't the first to work out how to do it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Tony, I love the piece, it's so well realized and written. But I really don't get the ending. The science of the ending. Maybe I'm just dense. Cheers.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I like it best when you flick your bad-ass switch. And OMG this one is HUGE, Tony! My take on the ending is time was never frozen and has simply moved on without them. If so the body count in this story is actually zero despite what your press release would have us believe! Doesn't matter ... I dig on this tale, no matter what. Oh, that gorgeous green light.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jen: Yep, timestopping is a one-way trip. re: neutrinos... I originally had a long, technical explanation about zero-velocity Doppler shifts in massless particles, but cut it as unnecessary. There's only so much science to be crammed into science fiction. 8-)

    ibc4: Thank you, that's very good company to be placed in!

    danni: Thanks!

    Icy: Oh, he was a snotty, holier-than-thou bastard even before he invented his timestopper.

    storytreasury: The end was perfect! Hurrah! The ending is great!

    Mike Robertson: But I really don't get the ending. Rats! The ending is lousy!

    Jason: We have a winner! His little slice of time is removed from the continuum, which just... continues. Like a bacterium on a single flake of dandruff, his world split off from the body proper. Where did it go? Off with all the other little flakes that were split off by other people who had invented timestoppers in the past and in the future. They all mesh together, isolated in a dusty corner of the space-time continuum while the rest of the world goes right along. I like it best when you flick your bad-ass switch. I do what I can!

    ReplyDelete
  8. As I was reading that Hector was killing the inmates and they wouldn't drop dead until he stopped--I thought: what if in the interim they died of natural (or different unnatural) causes? Then the ending twisted and I think I got it--I mean, I understand he got stuck with all the other arrogant scientists that thought they'd figured out the universe--but I'm not sure what I got.

    Still, I raced along to read to the end, and that, my friend, is what a story is supposed to do.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Now that I'm home, I can leave a comment. I think I got the ending at the time, and your explanation mostly confirmed it.

    "Mostly men, mostly white" — in other words, people who don't have the drive to make a practical difference in the world! g/d/r

    ReplyDelete
  10. Some good style in this, in lines like, "Planck-slice of a second." That tingles with novelty.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I can imagine his disappointment! Good story!

    But I'm glad you explained the thing about the "little slice of time is removed from the continuum," at least I know I was along the right lines - I'm not very scientific really.

    Helen - helen-scribbles.com

    ReplyDelete
  12. There is criminality, there is guilt and then there is arrogance, not a crime, but a sin maybe.

    Interesting stuff

    marc nash

    ReplyDelete
  13. "Who else could have figured out how to stop time..."

    I wasn't sure I liked your main character as I read through the story, but it's when I reached here I knew it would end badly for him.

    Hubris is the main failing that the gods punish - and you delivered, Tony, in a wonderful ending. He gets to spend an eternity with his peers.

    Excellent.

    ReplyDelete
  14. pegjet: Yep - while he's in the timestop, nothing happens in the rest of the world. I'm glad the story sucked you in!

    FARfetched: Oh, the "mostly men, mostly white" thing was more of a representation of the demographics of mad scientists than any overt political statement.

    John Wiswell: Thanks, John! A Planck-slice is as small as time gets. It's derived from Planck's constant which goes into a description of the granularity of spacetime. It just doesn't get an smaller than that.

    Helen: ... and he'll have the rest of all eternity to contemplate it!

    Sulci Collective: Thanks. This is one of those times when the guys who turned on a timestop purely to investigate the phenomenon for science get the same punishment as one who used it to go on a killing spree. The crime isn't the killing - it's the stoppage of time. You just don't break the fundamental laws of the universe with impunity.

    KjM: Hubris - a perfect word for what brought him down. I'm glad you liked it!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I admit a part of my brain danced in glee when I realised what had happened to him. Perfect punishment!!

    ReplyDelete
  16. There are so many different ways tales of time travel/manipulation can go, and you chose quite an interesting approach. I enjoyed this from beginning to end. Can time really stop, or does it just stop in an isolated section of the time stream? Quite a topic. Great story, Tony!

    ReplyDelete
  17. Wow. And wow again. Lots to keep the reader interested and guessing. Great piece and very talented style

    ReplyDelete
  18. Poor bastard indeed. Tis sweet to have the engineer hoisted with his own petard... :)

    ReplyDelete
  19. Love the science stuff in this, Tony. Perfect amount perfectly blended into this almost political story. Peace...

    ReplyDelete
  20. I feel rather sorry for those poor time dust bunnies.

    You'd think that many physicists would at least be able to figure out something to do with their eternal frozen time than mull about.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I really like this one. It's got great sic-fi, moral delimas and a great pace. I was almost afraid you were going to put us readers into a time-stop and leave us forgetting that we were even reading a story. I'm glad you didn't, though. At least I don't think you did... :)

    ReplyDelete
  22. I watched Mulholland Drive at the weekend, and now this!
    When he first saw all the guys in lab coats, I thought they were going to be multiple hims, all stuck in some weird repeating time warp thing (see, not a scientist at heart am I?), but with your neat explanation I think I get it. There is a satisfying sense of justice winning over the injustice of his arrogant beliefs.
    Very good. (Will I ever understand Mulholland?)

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for leaving a comment. The staff at Landless will treat it with the same care that we would bestow on a newly hatched chick. By the way, no pressure or anything, but have you ever considered subscribing to Landless via RSS?