It's Not What You Think It Is
(A Meditation on Time)

by Brian Biswas

"It's not what you think it is," Chancy said as he tossed a red india-rubber ball into the air. I admired the gentle arc the ball made as it slowly rose and then fell back into his hirsute hand. He repeated the maneuver.

Before I could tell him what I thought it might be, he continued, "It's not a rubber ball, you know, it's a spaceship and it's on it's way to Neptune." And with a wail like a banshee (a cry such as I'd never heard and hope never to hear again) he hurled the ball into a cloudless sky.

And I saw that it really was a spaceship. I admired the yellow flame of the rocket's engine, the white exhaust plume that trailed across the sky's deep-blue dome.

"When will it reach that dark forbidden planet?" I asked. "And what will it do when it gets there?"

"A journey to Neptune takes about a dozen years," he replied, "at the speed at which the rocket is traveling. Unfortunately, that particular ship will never make it. My toss was off. Jupiter's gravity will alter the rocket's trajectory and fling it out of the solar system, into the vast beyond." He sighed. "Let's try another." He pulled a second ball from his pocket and with a marking pen wrote today's date in bold black letters across the surface of the ball. Then he hurled it into the sky. "Much better," he said as it slowly disappeared from view.

Chancy looked at me and smiled. "But bother all that — would you like to go?" He turned to one side and I was surprised to see a rocket ship, perhaps fifteen meters tall, its surface sleek and shiny. The main tank was painted purple, red, and gold, and the oval capsule gleamed in pretty shades of violet. How could I not have noticed it before?

#

"You never answered my second question," I said to Chancy as we moved past the orbit of Uranus, the sideways planet. "What are we to do on Neptune?"

"Neptune has no solid surface, as I'm sure you know," my friend replied. "It's nothing but a vast blue ocean. At least that's what astronomers have always believed. But this is not my first mission to the planet. My five previous ships have detected islands in the ocean. Most quickly come and go, Neptune's turbulent tides overwhelming them, but there is one island, which I have dubbed Ajax, which is much larger than the others and has remained since it was first detected two years ago."

I felt the thrill of adventure swell within me. "How glorious!" I cried.

"And that's not all. There's an entity on the island. A being of some sort. We have corresponded for several months. His name is Erasmus and his title is Ruler of the Oceans of Neptune. He is eager to meet us."

I didn't know what I expected to encounter — I hoped it would be something sublime — but when we landed three days later, I was surprised to discover that Erasmus was not an exotic alien, nor an almighty god, nor a sage wizard, but an ordinary man. A very old man. A very old man with majestic silver-and-gold wings that glistened in the pale light of day. (They were needed, I surmised, to fly from one island to the next.)

"We made it," Chancy said, triumphantly, as Erasmus bowed before us in greeting.

The old man was holding a silver trident in his left hand. His gray beard was well-groomed. He had large light-green eyes. Sad eyes. Eyes that seemed to reflect from within the very depths of the ocean over which he ruled. He looked familiar, though I did not see how this could be. Something about the shape of his face, the prognathous jaw, the sloping forehead, the sunken cheeks, or was it those eyes that were so full of meaning?

Ah — but it was what I saw in his right hand that amazed — no, frightened — me: one of Chancy's red balls. Pitted in spots — no doubt from the voyage — but undoubtedly his. The large black numerals, indicating the launch date, were clearly visible.

"I believe this is yours," Erasmus said, in perfect English, as he held out the ball to my friend. "It arrived only yesterday. Your calculations were most exact. I congratulate you."

"Yes," Chancy said as he took the proffered object. He checked the date and harrumphed. "The ball I sent your way the day before we left."

"How can that possibly be?" I asked, incredulously. "You said it would be a journey of a dozen years. Ours took only a week and yet the ball arrived before us."

Chancy let loose a boisterous laugh and his blue eyes twinkled. He looked over at Erasmus, who seemed lost in thought. "That's because you think of time in a literal sense," Chancy said. "Whereas it is really elastic. It can stretch or contract and be none the wiser."

Erasmus laid down his trident and opened his arms as if in explication. "In a very real sense, there's no such thing as Time. You know this intuitively — the days pass fast or slow — though intellectually it is a concept few can grasp. We seem ruled by Time, though we are not."

Chancy picked up the thread. "The ball is the key, as you surmised. And though it arrived before our ship, it traveled through a different dimensional space to do so, one in which the distance from A to B is one-twelfth the distance of the space through which we passed. There was no contradiction."

"Quite so," Erasmus interjected. "And when Chancy asked you what the ball was he wasn't being rhetorical. It was both a ball and a ship. And a trillion other things."

I wasn't quite sure what he was getting at, but Chancy seemed to understand, for he nodded. The bond of complicity between them was all too apparent.

At that moment there was a loud noise, like a clap of thunder only more intense than any thunderclap I'd heard on Earth. I nearly jumped out of my skin.

"Don't be alarmed," Erasmus said. "It merely heralds the arrival of what must be."

As if on cue, the azure skies opened and I beheld a sight such as no human has ever witnessed: from out of the firmament was flung a shotgun of light, a vast Neptunian rainbow, stretching from east to west, and astride the beam I saw — or thought I saw — a rocket ship much like the ship that brought us here. It was much larger, of course, perhaps one million meters in length, and it gleamed a brilliant silver in the soft light of the beam.

And as I watched, in complete fascination, I saw that the ship was moving slowly across the sky, only it was not the ship that was moving, it was the beam of light carrying the ship in its wake.

Several minutes passed and then the beam began to fade, slowly dissipating into a great shimmering mist of color and light.

And through it all, Chancy and Erasmus gazed absentmindedly at the great blue-gray ocean of Neptune, oblivious, apparently, to the spectacle unfolding above me. And though they were themselves separated by a vast gulf of time, they seemed somehow entangled by time, like cosmic particles that are simultaneously here and there — now and then — and thus everywhere and always. And it was then, I think, that I began to appreciate what they had been telling me. It was only for a moment — a tantalizing insight, quickly forgotten — and I was once again conscious of the ocean's waves, and I found myself alone on the shore of an island in the great Neptunian Ocean.

Yes, both of my hosts had vanished! One would have expected me to be terrified — thirty AU's from Earth with no hope of returning — but it really wasn't that way. There was something peaceful about this gaseous giant, and its never-ending ocean, and, after a period of sober reflection had passed, I lay down on the sand and spent time simply gazing on the water's great expanse.

It was sometime later when I saw them — Chancy and Erasmus — about one hundred meters away, loping towards me along the shore. They were deep in conversation — both were gesticulating animatedly — perhaps a dialogue on the nature of time. And suddenly it struck me. I realized why Erasmus had looked familiar: he was but an image of my friend a hundred years hence. Whether he truly existed or not was anyone's guess. The implications were troubling, though, and I forced them from my mind.

It might have been because of the soothing Neptunian ocean waves, or the long day I'd been through, or both, but at that moment my eyelids grew heavy and soon I was fast asleep, dreaming of the fiery stars and the endless universe.

When I opened my eyes, I found myself back on Earth in one of the many wheat fields that rimmed our town. I was surprised — and delighted — at my good fortune. I saw no sign of Chancy (Erasmus, I knew, would never leave his home), but I did see something else. Before me, nestled amongst the swaying grasses, I spied a wooden trident and a red rubber ball. And I knew at once what I was to do. I picked up the trident and broke it in two. Then I cast the rubber ball into a silvery sky. That was several years ago and I am still awaiting its return.


Brian Biswas lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his wife and two children. His work has recently appeared Perihelion and Aoife's Kiss. His short story, "A Betrayal," was published in Issue #11 of The Cafe Irreal; "The Room at the End of the World" appeared in Issue #14; "The Bridge" appeared in Issue #18; "In the Garden" in Issue #33; and "The Last Photon" in Issue #37.