Time flies. Time lost. Where does the time go?
All these are phrases the humans throw around half-heartedly. But the last one, the question, actually has an answer.
I stand on the edge of the party with my handheld at the ready, poised but unopened. My stance is taut, tense. I’m ready to capture this moment, to pull the energy of it into my handheld so that it flows like water to the place humans wonder about, once five, ten years have passed.
The little girl is six today. She wears a cone-shaped hat and has chocolate frosting smeared on her face. Surrounding her are a collection of adoring fans: her parents, her grandparents, and the three pint-sized friends she was allowed to invite. They all gather around, celebrating her special day. Ten years from now, when the girl is learning to drive, her mother will ask that question. Where does the time go? Thirty years from now, when the girl is grown and a mother herself, she’ll look at her own child, and the same question will repeat itself.
I’ll tell you where time goes. But not yet. Now it’s my time. This is the last moment I need to capture before I’m officially certified.
I flip open my handheld. To a human, an outsider, it would look like an ordinary compact mirror or a pocket watch. Only a fellow collector like me would look into the hazy cut of glass and know the truth. No reflection or set of hands lurks there—only millennia, centuries, years, minutes, seconds. They swirl in reds, pinks, violets, navies—colours bright and beautiful to human eyes, but vicious to ours. They swallow memories, devour moments. They’re painful colours, because of what they represent.
Still, that doesn’t stop me from participating. Don’t look at me like I’m a monster—I have to do it. Every collector does. It’s the reason for our existence. Without us to collect and store time, there’s no telling what would happen to all of it.
Keeping my eyes on the birthday party before me, I steady my hand and aim my handheld just as the little girl is blowing out the candles on her cake. The golden lights wink out, and smoke tendrils blow toward me, riding on autumn-scented winds. The smoke isn’t regular smoke. It pulses with the moment, throbs with the memory of the six candles this little girl blew out when she was surrounded with her family and friends, with smiles and laughter. I catch the smoke in my handheld and seal the time within.
Then I snap it shut, sigh with relief, and drop my hand toward my pocket. I mean to slip the device into my pocket, to keep it safe. It’s imperative that nothing happens to the handheld between now and the time it takes for me to reach the Order’s headquarters. Once there, I’ll have to show the High Collector the reel within the handheld, all the time I’ve captured since I was first inducted as collector at age eleven. He’ll see that I’ve successfully collected 1000 hours of time, the minimum required to be certified.
I sigh. I’m so close to abandoning the junior league and joining my parents and older brother on official, important missions. I’m so close to leaving behind birthday parties and petty memories of meals eaten and photographs taken on summer days. I’m so close I can almost taste it.
My hand pulls aside the flap on my pocket. I almost drop the handheld safely inside.
But just before I do, a hand shoots toward me, out of nowhere, and snatches the handheld straight out of my grip. There is only a smell of rosemary wafting on the air before me, then footsteps blazing away, pounding on the street behind me. Before I’m even totally aware of what just happened, I take off running, following the thief.
The thief is a girl. That much is obvious from her flag of golden hair flapping in the wind behind her. She’s strangely dressed, in metallic and chrome-colored clothes not typical of this time period. I’ve never seen her before in my life, but she must be a collector. Otherwise, she would’ve never been able to see me. She would’ve considered my handheld significant, not something to be stolen.
Who is she? I’m curious, but I don’t really care. All that matters is getting my handheld back. There’s no way I’m letting my only ticket to certification get away that easily.
I chase her, yelling out, “Thief! Stop!” and a bunch of other heated comments she ignores.
Ugh. This is so annoying. Why is she such a fast runner? Why does she want my handheld anyway?
If anyone should want to steal my handheld, it would be Timaeus, a collector in my class. Like me, he’s sixteen, but he’s only secured 900 hours of time. It’ll be a while before he’s able to get certified. All he would need to do is swipe my handheld long enough for the High Collector to check it, declare him certified, and erase all his overachiever anxieties.
But it’s obvious that girl running away with my career in her hand is not Timaeus.
Her flying steps take us past the many-windowed storefronts of the town square, through the bustling suburbs, and finally to the rural outskirts of this small city. I grit my teeth and run faster, zooming past the green valleys that border the highway we’re flying on.
What is wrong with this girl? What’s her agenda? And where the heck is she taking us?
I’m annoyed, so I decide to do something I usually never let myself do. Why? Well, it just feels wrong. I don’t like manipulating fellow collectors. But she’s a criminal, so she doesn’t count.
With that deciding thought, I fling my hand out, thrusting my palm toward her as I sprint. Concentrating hard, I reach inside myself for the power residing in my veins, pulsing alongside the lifeblood of Father Chronos, who first created us as his time servants eons ago. The power is a draining one—it slows me down even as I hope it’ll slow her. But I fling it out, let the energy sweep out from my body and surround her.
Instantly, her speed decreases. She’s like a car braking before a looming stop sign. As she slows, I close the remaining distance between us, breathing heavily from the power fading out of me. The mild discomfort is an easy price to pay for this success. For the moment, time is stopped for her alone. Know where the humans get the phrase “Time stood still”? Yep. That comes from us.
Time stands still for thief-girl.
Not forever, though. I wish. But hopefully, it’ll buy me just enough time to reach her and snatch my handheld back.
My feet drag from using the time-magic, but I make it before she has time to unfreeze. The girl stands perfectly still, a statue in the middle of the ghost-empty highway. I walk around the girl and face her directly.
She’s not a girl. She’s a woman. In her early-forties probably. Now that we’re eye to eye, I can see the maze of wrinkles in her pale skin, the silver strands cropping up in her blond hair. The fact that she’s old makes this whole thing even stranger. For a split-second, I find myself wasting precious time, staring at her and wondering.
Then I snap out of it. I grab the handheld out of her hand and slip it into my back pocket.
The energy holding her in place melts. She unfreezes, stirs back into motion. Her eyes blink at me; they release a stream of tears that course down her aging cheeks. Why the heck is she crying? Why would a forty year old want a sixteen-year-old’s handheld? She’s probably collected hundreds of thousands more hours than I have. It doesn’t make any sense.
In a moment of fear, I catch her movement as she lunges suddenly, tossing her arm out to reach behind me for my pocket. But I push my hands out to shove her away, leaping sideways at the same time. My eyes are wide with panic and rage and something else. For some strange reason, she doesn’t look like a regular middle-aged lady. Something is familiar about her.
But I don’t care enough to ask.
“What the heck are you doing?” I demand. “Don’t you have any idea how important this is? I’m a collector—I need my handheld!”
The woman shakes her head, a violent whipping motion that makes the strands of her hair quiver. More tears leak from her eyes. My throat tightens up, and I want to look away from this awkward situation. But if I take my eyes off her, she might try something again.
“Look,” I say with a sigh, “if you have a problem, why don’t you go talk to the High Collector about it? He should be able to help you—”
“I’m not a blasted collector!” she shrieks. “I’m a woman, a human! You horrible creatures are the reason I’m in this state!”
My brows dip into a frown. “You’re…human? But then how can you see me? How do you know about collectors? How do you know about my handheld? And why are you trying to steal it?”
She exhales a shaky breath. Biting her lip, she fixes her steely eyes on the path ahead of us. “Follow me. It’ll make sense when you see the ship.”
The woman veers left and stalks off through the knee-high grass. I don’t know why I follow her. After all, I’ve got my handheld back, and the sooner I get to the Order headquarters, the better.
But something inside me urges me forward. Something keeps me from turning away and heading back toward town. I step into the meadow after her, then trail in her wake as she stalks up a grassy hill. It’s a steep incline, one that would set a human breathless, but has no effect on me. I run up the hill like it’s a flat line, and when we come out on the other side, I see what she meant by ship.
It’s an actual ship. A big hunk of metal sitting in the middle of the valley down below, humming softly as if in idle. It gleams with the same metallic sheen that’s on the woman’s clothes. She pauses in front of it, and swivels around to face me.
Her tears have dried, but I can still see the streaky outlines of them on her cheeks.
She says, “I’m from the future. Almost forty years into the future actually. Technology has advanced quite a bit. We have ships like these, and we can travel through time.”
“What?! Humans become time travelers?” It’s so shocking it almost seems sacrilegious.
With a shrug and a nod, she says, “Yep. Where I’m from, you guys aren’t the only ones in charge of time.”
I swallow. “Wow. So…what, are collectors’ handhelds, like, precious commodities in your time or what?”
She shakes her head, but doesn’t elaborate, so I ask another question.
“What are you doing here? What made you travel so far back?”
“I’m here on a mission,” she says, “to save my time from being lost.”
I frown. “Huh?”
“Don’t you recognize me?” A bitter, mirthless smile twists the corner of her mouth. “I’m that little girl you were stealing time from. The one at the birthday party? That’s me, thirty-eight years ago.”
The breath rushes out of me. That revelation is even more bewildering than the presence of a time traveling ship in the middle of the grass field.
“I knew you looked familiar,” I whisper.
She nods and shifts her eyes back to the ship. I can’t tell if she’s admiring the metal handiwork, or if she’s seeing something else entirely. In a quiet voice, she explains, “In the future, time travel isn’t the only advanced technology. There’s also a process known as memory-freezing. It allows people to capture time-chunks of their life and freeze them so they never die or get lost.”
“Like…an eternal time bank?” I ask.
“Yes. It’s mixed with virtual reality technology, so that one can actually access their past realities and memories and relive them. In my time, I’m suffering from memory loss. I’m doing this to ensure that I can always remember my childhood, so that I can always access my memories. So that my time is not forever lost.”
She swallows, hard, and the tears come back. This time I look away. I fix my eyes on the ship, and on the sprawling emerald fields beyond it.
“Why don’t you just use time travel for that?”
“It doesn’t work the same. Time travel only takes the user back in time at the age they are now. They can visit their past, but they can’t actually become their past selves. That part of time is still lost. Even if they can see a moment from their childhood again, they can only vaguely remember what it was like. That time is out of their hands, it belongs to collectors now. And that’s what I’m trying to keep from happening. That’s why I’ve been stealing handhelds.”
She draws in a deep, shuddering breath and reaches out, grasping me by the shoulders. Her eyes lock onto mine, refusing to release their hold on me. “Please, young man,” she implores. “Please let me have your handheld. I need it, I need to have my sixth birthday party. I can’t let that time go.”
A million emotions sweep through me. I pull out my handheld and stare down at it, seeing only a smooth golden surface on which my thoughts are reflected. I don’t know what to do. There’s no way to extract individual time-slots from the handheld, so in order for to have her sixth birthday party memory, she’d need to take my entire handheld. Which means…one thousand hours and five years gone.
I wouldn’t be able to get certified.
I’d have to start over from scratch, go back to level one like all the just-starting eleven year old collectors.
My time would be lost in order to restore hers.
What am I gonna do?
“Please,” she begs again, and I find the answer in her eyes, which are already glazing over as her ailment creeps up on her like a monster stalking in the shadows.
I may lose my time, but I can always get it back. It’ll be a waste of the next five years of my life, after I was so close, but I can start over and, eventually, get to where I need to be. I am, after all, a collector. I’m timeless. I have Chronos power flowing through my veins. This will only be a blip on my immortal lifetime of service.
She’s human. Not just human, but a sick human. Her only wish? To preserve her memories. To keep her childhood. To hold onto her time and never let it flit away from her.
It’ll hurt me to give up all my hard work. But it’ll hurt even more if I don’t.
Once I make my decision, I stick with it. I pass her the handheld, press it into her hand, and turn away as she stares at me with silent gratitude.
“Thank you,” she sighs.
“No problem. Now hurry up and get out of here so you can catch your next memory.”
She doesn’t say anything, but I hear her running footsteps, retreating. I feel so empty, so naked, without my handheld. But at the thought of this crying woman smiling again, preserving her lost time, I feel fuller than I ever have in my life.
Once I hear the rumble of the time machine, I raise my head. I watch as the machine lifts into the air, slowly, hovering aboveground for a few minutes before rising high into the skies.
Just before the machine winks out of the atmosphere, out of this time period and into another, a woman appears in one of the oval-shaped windows on the side of the ship. For once, she’s smiling instead of crying.
She waves at me and I wave back.
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