The Man Who Runs Time
Indigo night enveloped. Wrapping Underground in blue shadow. Inno’s curled himself in white blankets glowing in artificial darkness. Light shining on him through the blue silcryst window. Painting the white room with a deep cyan umbra.
He didn’t want to get up today. He never wanted to get up on this day.
The faint tick of the watch lying on the white stand beside the bed picked at him. He tossed the blankets off his lightly clothed body. Light white fabric sticking to his chest and stomach in the humid underground air.
Inno stretched. The clock projecting crimson on his ceiling flashed 5:00. He rose. Ran a hand through light hair. Blinked sleep from his light eyes. Today was the day. The anniversary. He debated rolling over and going back to sleep.
But he had a job to do.
No sky shone stars. No moon rose. It was darkness underground without the artificial dawn. All light emitted from a network of tubes running the lengths in the high white polystone ceilings within the catacombs of Underground.
He grabbed his watch off the white cube nightstand. A piece of jewelry passed from his father and his grandmother. A round bit to pin to his chest and time the light. He flipped it open. 5:01:38. He watched the seconds. Tick. Tick. Tick. 5:03:04.
The change would come soon. Breaking from indigo to orange, the lights mimicked the dawn on the surface.
5:04:12. It was late. Six seconds. He shook his watch at his ear. Or his watch was slowing. He would check the timing calibrations when he went to work.
The light outside the window warmed. Streaming green tones through the blue silcryst.
Inno wished the windows were clear so that he could see the pure gold of the counterfeit morning while sitting in his underclothes. But the blue was a chemical reaction in the making of the nearly unbreakable material that couldn’t be adjusted. A blue that shone throughout Solipsis. White buildings stretching to the sky flexed with the constant motion of the city planet’s breezes and ground movements. Buildings he had never seen except in on a holo screen projection.
Feet on the cold floor, he motioned the closet door open and retrieved a hanging tunic and pants. Blue. He wouldn’t need a jumpsuit today. He wasn’t on the roster to go into the tunnels for maintenance today. He was only scheduled to go to the console room. Run the docketed checks. He would run the extra calibration. Dawn starting six seconds late was unacceptable.
Inno straightened his tunic sleeve. Smoothed the front of the blue rayclo. The light tinted his white hand green. He combed his short light hair. Flat. Polished. He pinned the watch to the front of his tunic, on his chest. Above the thumping rhythm. Echoing the tick. Tick. Tick.
Breaking fast needed to be thirty seconds quicker today. He skipped warming the ungul. It wasn’t unpalatable, but tasted like oxide dust. Metallic. Dirty. The melofruit was too sweet. Made his teeth hurt. His tongue curl. The only pleasant part of breaking fast was the refreshing cup of clear water. His faucet no longer spouted red rust tainted sludge. The Underground maintenance workers finally came and cleared the blocked pipe so he received his water properly. Though somewhere down the line, someone else was likely now getting brown water. These pipes never were completely cleared or repaired.
Inno checked the watch at his chest—5:20:00. Dishes set in the sink, he walked out of the door into the false day.
The white light had fully risen while he prepared. He stood in his doorway. Looking at the gray street stacked with empty grav boxes. Waste bins. The once-white polystone walls of his home dripped rust. Grayed by grime. Age. Neglect. A crack running down the face at the corner of his home. A stanchion for the city above. If the air wasn’t so rank with trash for the cyclers and the press of humans shoved into a tight dirty space, he might have breathed in deeply.
He glanced down to the end of his alley where street sleepers stacked their lean-tos. Maybe they had the right idea. Building something of their own. His home could be taken from him at any moment. The moment he was determined not to be a valuable asset to the Government’s society. They would move someone else into his position, his home.
It could all collapse around him.
He turned to the main avenue. Joining the press of people walking in yellows and ochres and blues and reds to different jobs. Mechanics. Engineers. Star ship crew. People that didn’t belong on the white surface. Except for moments of service. Unless there was need.
Inno was never needed on the surface. His job was always down in the bowels of Underground. Running the lights of day.
Inno smiled. Ran his finger along the watch at his chest. Walking down the broad white-lit corridor. People setting up small gambling tables. Little trading stations. With emptied grav boxes and upturned waste barrels. The Military hadn’t done a sweep for a while. These illegal stalls would eventually be cleared out. The people running them laughed with each other. Edges in their voices. Like they knew the inevitable would come. Some were street sleepers, trading for food beyond what the Government parsed out. Some were people like him, who had been deemed unnecessary but still had yet to have their homes taken by the Government.
But now, something was different. With the stars and the sun covered on the surface, the Government and the Military had other obligations than to run people out of their homes and limit their trade down in Underground. There was some kind of blockade obstructing the stars, the moon, the sun on the surface. Something had come to threaten the Government. For now they didn’t care about the people in Underground.
Inno turned to the gray door on his right. It looked like every other sliding door on the avenue. No markings. Nothing to tell the world that this was his place. He set his hand on the palm pad. The door opened with a slow swish.
The room was empty except for a single desk. Heavy, unmovable polystone inlaid with a small black screen.
Inno walked to it and sat.
The desk was worn. Blackened edges where polystone met hands over years. Grayed and chipped. This was his father’s desk, his grandmother’s desk, his great grandmother’s desk, his great-great grandfather’s desk and farther. His family had occupied this space for centuries. Running the lights of the catacombs.
A holo picture of a light haired woman with a little girl flitted on the desk. They waved on a loop. The little girl smiled so wide it could crack stone. The woman kneeled next to her, arm around the little girl, head tilted, wide eyes sparkling.
It was all he could do to keep the holo going every day. He swallowed the lump in his throat. It was all he had of them.
A small screen inset in the center of the desk illuminated.
Inno pressed the screen. Logged in. 5:24:54. Early.
A projection rose in the middle of the room.
He smoothed his tunic over his stomach and walked to the projection. A mass of numbers. The light outputs, comparative data, a servicing schedule for the light tubes.
Most days he could deal with the quiet.
Today was not a day that quiet sat well with him.
“Run calibration on dawn time.” He fidgeted with the watch at his breast. Smoothing it down.
Running his hands down his tunic.
Calibration complete. No anomalies found. The mechanical voice. Androgynous. Pitched flat.
“Run calibration on dawn system.”
He waited. Hands to his side. Some days this took seconds. Some days it took minutes.
Calibration complete. No anomalies found.
The calibration ran too long for no anomalies to be found.
“Run calibration on dawn start up.”
Inno waited again. Watching the comparative light data as the ruddy glow on the surface intensified on the screen while the sun rose. Seeping out of the cracks of the black barricade.
Calibration complete. No anomalies found.
Something was taking bandwidth away from his terminal. The Government must be reallocating computing power from the light stations. It happened occasionally. It happened more often lately.
“Repeat calibration.” He tapped on the watch pinned to his chest. Tick. Tick. Ticking.
Calibration complete. No anomalies found.
So it was his watch. He touched it. Six seconds.
If he had been there six seconds early, he would be with them.
“Check Sector Forty-two.” He shouldn’t be checking on a sector that wasn’t his. His chest skipped a beat. He could be sanctioned.
“Sundown.” It was the anniversary. Of that day. The day his world cracked.
Sundown is scheduled for 7:56:16.
The comm beeped. A grim dark-haired figure popped up on the screen. “Sector Forty-six. This is Sector Forty-two. Is there a problem?” The figure blinked.
Inno ran a hand through his tidy hair. Scattering it across his head. “No. No. Just making sure I’m synching up.” Almost caught.
“Sector Forty-six. Careful. You’re going to make us look bad.” The grim figure blinked. Smiled slow.
“Sorry.” Inno looked at his feet as the screen went blank. “Screen. Project surface.”
The Government had light sensors installed in the sector on the surface. Everything was now automated. Underground light adjusting to the surface. Daylight was supposed to match the topside, but the last few weeks, the light on the surface had been dimming. The Government decided that daylight cycle normally in Underground, and shouldn’t mimic the dimming of the surface. They wanted the populace to go about their normal lives, and part of that was to have normal light. Now, it was brighter underground than it was on the surface now. It was never brighter down here.
Still, Inno liked to compare the current, blockaded light quality of the surface to the Government ordered artificial daylight in Underground.
“The sun is the brightest, most beautiful thing you’ll ever see,” his father used to say. “It warms the skin and sparkles the world around you.”
Inno’s father went to the surface to do light measurements by hand. An excuse. “The old ways are the right ways.”
Inno would have seen the sun, the surface. Not on the holo screen. In person. One day. Of course, he may eventually have to service the light sensors. He would crawl out of the indigo shadows of the catacombs and into the white sun of the surface.
The holo projection resolved on a picture of a market square. A fountain in the middle of a vast expanse of white stone. Surrounded by monolithic white buildings with sparkling blue windows. The light dimmed, a filtered ruddy glow. Not night, not day. The red light of an eclipse.
There was more movement in the square than normal. Tiny people running. Inno couldn’t see to where. He adjusted the holo feed. Zooming. The people carried bags, dragged crying children, sprinted with full hands. Something was happening on the surface that hadn’t yet reached Underground.
In the distance on the holo projection, a sphere of orange and yellow and white leapt. Burning the horizon.
The scurrying people in the holo illuminated. Running. Ducking. Falling.
A shallow whomp. The walls rattled.
Inno looked around him.
Then back at the screen.
Inno couldn’t take his eyes off the screen.
The people on the surface opened their mouths as if they were screaming. But the sensors didn’t feed back sound, just refraction rates. So he saw people rendered in light spectrum. People running from something he didn’t see on his holo. He could only see a light void. Little shadows flitting across. Black spots. Flat, teardrops flashing through the sky. Flying without wings. Zipping. Another orange and yellow and white explosion beneath the speeding bugs lit the screen in the middle of the room.
A whomp and the sound of the rock tearing. The walls shuddered.
The holo lit white. Comparative data rocketed up then down. The holo died.
The room shook.
Inno grabbed for balance.
A thunder crack. The sound of tumbling stone.
The grumbling of stone grew.
Everything creaked and growled. Shuddered.
Shivered to a stop.
His blood frozen, Inno rushed to the door. Peeked out of his office.
The column that shored the wall of his home six blocks down crumbled half way into the main avenue. Taking the ceiling with it.
People were covered in dust. Milling around in silence.
Inno stood in the doorway to his office and stared at his house.
Six seconds. He would have been with them if he had just been there six seconds earlier.
A whomp whomp whomp above him.
A roar. The corridor convulsed.
A piece of the ceiling crashed into the middle of the thoroughfare.
A crack widened above him.
He looked at his watch. 6:34:39
The rest of the ceiling crumbled by his house. The crack widening. Rumbling. The structure crumbled its way towards him. Collapsing with the press of an invisible hand from the surface.
He probably had six seconds to get the holo. It was all he had of them.
He ran inside, through the projected screen in the middle of the room. Snatched the laughing woman and child off of his desk. The rumble became a roar. He ran to the door. It slid open. Didn’t spare a look down the disintegrating corridor and ran.
The dazed people scrambled. Screamed. Above, booms, quakes resounded. Red thunder. A woman in a yellow jumpsuit faltered next to him. Her dark hair spilling from the tight roll at the back of her head.
He grabbed her elbow. Wrenched her up. Dragged her, still running. The corridor behind them melting into a pile of white stone, twisted metal, people.
Inno’s chest burned. The woman’s arm slipped from his hand. He had no idea where she went. She may have fallen behind. She may have sprinted ahead. He only saw the pinhole tunnel in front of him. Heard only the rush of his chest beat.
He couldn’t run forever.
His legs seared. Stumbled.
Inno’s momentum threw him forward. Feet tangled. He put his hands out, but couldn’t brace himself. He wouldn’t let go of the holo. He wouldn’t let go of them. Sliding. Skidding to a stop. Face scraping the stone-scattered floor. Head smashing.
Whomp, whomp, whomp.
The thoroughfare behind him exploded in a confetti of polystone. Firing metal and stone projectiles at the fleeing people.
Inno rolled over. A woman in yellow lay next to him, blood pooling on her back. He put his hand to his head. His face was scraped and the bump bled.
He stared at the ceiling willing it to fall. He couldn’t run anymore.
The rending above quieted. Slowed.
The ceiling shimmied but didn’t shatter.
The waterfall of polystone turned to a shower of dust. Small stones clattering down a debris field obscured by a white cloud of stone particles. Choking. Blanketing.
Inno knelt as the crowd in front of him gathered. Staring. At the buried Sector Forty-six.
Several people rushed forward. Started moving stones. Inno stood. There would be few survivors in the debris. He knew from experience. From the Sector Forty-two collapse.
He held up the holo, still playing the images of his mate. His child. They had been happy. If he had been home six seconds earlier. He would have been in the collapse. With them. Now all he had was the holo sitting on his desk at his job in Sector Forty-Six, where his family had worked for many years before him.
The people dug frantically.
The day they finally dug his wife and child out, they had been dead for a week. Asphyxiated.
Inno felt a lump in his chest. Harden. Rise.
They threw aside stones. If they weren’t careful, the debris field would collapse further. Bury more people.
He stepped back. Looked at the people next to him. Sobbing. Holding each other. Bright white skin now matched with white dust covered clothes. Dark-haired, light-haired all now one homogeneous colored mob of wailing white.
He looked at his watch. On his chest. Ticking. Ticking.
His fingers itched.
The knot in his throat threatened to burst.
The far sounds of explosions echoed through the corridor. Dust showered.
He coughed. Ran his hand through his dust covered hair.
There were still lights to run. With all the rattling from the surface, this sector was bound to need help.
He turned. Leaving the sound of stones being heaved aside. People wailing. Behind him.
Watch cold between his fingers. He still needed to get the thing calibrated.