They had time enough for anything. Then they had no time at all.
|"The profit at each iteration may be small," Montesquieu Belfort was explaining, "but the number of iterations is so high—"|
"That you make it up in volume," Howard Smith finished for him.
Belfort—an accounts vice-president at Off-Time Manufacturing Supply, Inc.—beamed.
"You have it exactly," he told the production manager of Agon Electronics. "A penny here, a penny there. But it adds up fast!"
But his assistant seemed dissatisfied. "Surely," said Fordham James, "the cost of maintaining that number of time portals—"
"Each installation pays for the sub-portal it contains," Belfort said. "It's factored into the cost."
James opened his mouth to argue, but Smith waved him quiet.
It really wasn't hard when you thought about it, and Smith (though he didn't like to flaunt it) had studied advanced physics at university before switching to business. He still remembered the metaphors his professors had used.
Einstein had shown that time was a dimension. Then Chakrabarti had shown that time existed in a second dimension as well, giving it depth as well as extension, and Guilford had shown how, with sufficient quantities of power, one could open a pocket of time into that depth. You could pry open and insert a moment between moments, of whatever duration you had the energy to maintain. A man who entered such a pocket of time, between one second and the next, could experience an extra hour, an extra day, a year, a lifetime ... then return to the very second he had left.
Like a mouse crawling into a jacket pocket, and then crawling out.
Smith was meeting with Belfort to discuss opening a new factory in one of Off-Time's temporal pockets. Time, after all, was money, and one of Agon's microcircuits could take weeks to manufacture and perfect. But by building their factory inside a time pocket, the materials could be shipped in on a conveyor belt at one moment, and the finished circuit picked up off an exiting belt a fraction of a microsecond later.
Belfort invited his guests to step onto a motorized pedestrian walkway that carried them through a portal whose entrance was cloaked by an opaque, gauzy mist. It crackled as they passed through. On the other side they found themselves in a noisy factory.
"This is the first level!" Belfort shouted at the others. "United Motors!"
"And you have a power plant inside here?" James shouted back. "To power the—!"
They slid through another portal. The automobile plant vanished, replaced by a row of worktables where a dozen men were quietly piecing together handmade pocket watches.
"—next portal?" James concluded. He jumped and blushed as his shout boomed in the sudden silence.
"Yes. As I was saying, the revenues we collect for maintaining a time pocket are used to cover the costs associated with keeping that pocket open. And the cost of keeping a pocket open is calculated to include the cost of opening a further pocket within it."
"Like a skyscraper," Smith told James. "The bottom floors support the top floors. In this case, each pocket supports another pocket that it contains. And so on up the chain."
Something about the analogy bothered James, but he couldn't put his finger on it.
So instead he occupied himself by studying each factory they passed through as the walkway carried them through a succession of portals. After the watch-making facility there was a candy-maker, a bottler of carbonated drinks, a steel mill, another auto plant, a silk manufacturer ...
Hours passed. Or seemed to. It was hard to tell when one kept falling into another piece of time carved out of the previous piece of time, which itself had been carved out of— James made himself dizzy as he tried to visualize pockets inside of pockets inside of pockets. But he was not so distracted that he failed to notice that whenever they passed a window, he always saw the same tree right outside. He asked Belfort about it.
"Yes, we've been meaning to cut that down," Belfort replied. "It is disorienting, isn't it? A reminder that we're moving in time, but never in space."
After a very long time (which when they got back out would prove to have been no time at all), Belfort ushered them off the pedestrian belt.
"Last stop," he said, gesturing at a bare factory floor. The same tree stood outside the same window. "Will this be enough space for your operation?"
"We can expand if it isn't, can't we?" Smith replied.
"You've got the whole planet," Belfort said with a smile. "You've got the whole universe. All of creation, as it exists within this duration of—"
A shiver ran through the place, and there was a dull but ringing thud, as of iron doors slamming shut. All three men looked around, startled.
It was James who noticed that the walkway had stopped moving, and that the gauzy aperture through which they had come had vanished. When he pointed this out to Belfort, the man turned very pale, and snatched a telephone receiver off the wall. He visibly swallowed as he pressed a series of buttons without result.
"Is something wrong?" Smith asked. He sounded like he was trying to be politely unworried.
"Well, yes," Belfort panted. He dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. "The fact is, er— It looks like there's been a power failure at source. The, er, portals have closed all the way up the line."
Smith and James exchanged a look. "How long until they get them opened again?"
Belfort looked like he was going to throw up. "It's not that easy," he moaned. "Remember how you compared our nested time pockets to a skyscraper? Well, imagine if an earthquake destroyed the first floor."
Smith stared at him. "Why then, all the floors above would—"
The sky outside the window turned very black, as the moment of time they were standing in slammed shut on them.
Winner of "The Writer's Cramp" for 3-14-21
Prompt: Title-Lost Time