“You’re not going to understand this for a while but I need to tell you this,” the older man with his arm over the younger man’s shoulders said, “Time isn’t what you think it is. There’s no neat folding of time. It bunches and gathers around the machine.”
“What machine?” the young man asked.
“The machine we built. Will build? Are building? It’s all happening at once but you’re going to have to live through the bulk of it. Come on I’ll show you to where you’ll be working.” The old man began walking with the young man.
“This is research station Gamma, isn’t it? I was supposed to be working here alone.” The young man had been greeted by the older man when he exited the shuttle. As they walked through the station he noticed a few other men walking around. Most were walking away from them but he got a glimpse of a familiar face. A cousin or brother he never had. The old man had surprised him when the shuttle airlock opened. For a second, he had it was his father.
“Yeah yeah. Gamma Station. There’s been a slight change of plans. You’ll still be working alone for most of the year before we bring you into the collective.”
“What is the collective?”
“We’re kind of a think tank for extra-temporal problems.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’ll figure it out.” The older man opened a door to an empty lab. “Well, here we are. This your lab for the next year. No one will bother you but if you need any materials you can request them through the computer.”
“Ok. Hey, what’s your name?”
“Names aren’t that useful around here. You can call me Thirty-four.” He tapped a patch on his shoulder that displayed the same number. Thirty-four closed the door before he could respond and walked away. Another man, a few years older than the young man, a five on his shoulder, stood nearby in a doorway. He joined Thirty-four walking.
“Got the newcomer all settled in?” Five asked.
“You remember how it was,” Thirty-four said.
“Probably better than you do,” he paused to study the older man’s face, “How much longer do you have here?”
“It’s my last year. What about you?” the older man asked.
“I’m five years in,” Five said tapping his shoulder, “Should be?”
“There’s only ever been thirty-four of me. When the machine explodes and the rest of you reset, I won’t be here anymore. We think that means I’ll be out of the time folds. Or I’ll be dead.” Five was silent. “This is when you walk off in thought.” Five glanced at the older man and turned down a hallway.
Thirty-four continued down the hallway to a door flanked by two men. One with a nine on his shoulder and one with a ten on his shoulder.
“How’s our guy doing?” he asked
“A little banged up but alive,” Nine said.
“He’s a little agitated,” Ten said. He frowned and looked down.
Thirty-four motioned to Ten and walked a few feet away. “We have free will.”
“I know. It’s just I said the same thing Ten said when I was Nine and–”
Thirty-four interrupted, “And when you are Thirty-four you will say what I’m saying now of your own free will.” Ten nodded, his brow still knotted. “When we’re done here you can take the rest of the day off.”
They walked back to Nine and Thirty-four opened the door. Inside a young man sat on a bed. His hair was longer and he sported a beard but he was the same young man Thirty-four had just talked to.
“Hi, how are you doing?”
The young man stood up and approached thirty-four. “Why can’t I leave?” he demanded.
“There are things you need to understand before I can let you loose on the station. What is the last thing you remember before waking up here?”
“I was running a test of the machine. The power started to spike and … that’s it.”
“The machine suffered a catastrophic overload. It exploded. Did you recognize the men keeping you in this room?”
“They look like … Are they clones or synths?”
“They are you. I’m you. We are all one person caught in the folds of bunched up space-time. Do you understand now?”
“No, that’s not possible. Time doesn’t work that way.”
“Do you remember what I told you when you arrived?”
“No. Something about time folding?”
“Time isn’t what you think it is. There’s no neat folding of time. It bunches and gathers around the machine. I just told you this a few minutes ago.”
“You told me that when I arrived a year ago.”
Thirty-four moved to the intercom on the wall. He typed in a passcode and room number. The speaker crackled and a familiar voice came out of it. The young man’s voice.
“Hello, is someone there?”
“Yes, this is Thirty-four. I forgot to mention you can use the intercom to contact me. Just press function nine two zero and I’ll get on the line.”
“Ok … Thank you.” The intercom went silent.
“I remember that. I remember you left me alone and then the intercom started beeping. And … Was that a recording?”
“No. It was live. I could call him back if you want.”
“I’ve been here for a year.”
“The machine did something we don’t really have the words to describe to time. Some thirty odd years are bunched up in this station all happening concurrently. The only way out it to live through it. We call each other by the number of years we’ve been here. You’ll be Two.”
The young man sat down heavily on the bed. “I did this.”
Thirty-four sat beside him and put an arm around his shoulder. “We all did this but we’re going to get out of it together.”