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Time After Time

by P. C. Keeler

A man in one of those hideously ugly ‘retro’ shiny jumpsuit outfits was ahead of me in line. “There’s just no more time,” he said, as though the clerk at the desk was going to magically be able to produce an extra century from his back pocket.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to purchase the rights from the current owner,” the bored functionary repeated. “Minimum chronological gap of fifty years is required on all parcels to install an Extemp unit. That parcel is time-exempted as of 2350, so you can’t keep a lock on it past 2300.”

“I’ve been living there for thirty years!” the guy in front of me said, as though that mattered. “Make the other guy move.”

The clerk shook his head and steepled his hands. “Your personal chronology is not at issue here, sir,” he explained in a not-quite monotone. “The latter claim was established prior to yours within the timeframe of the Property Registration Office.”

The man punched down at the top of the table. “Now you listen here! It’s my house, and I’m going to keep it time-locked! I’m not getting up in six months and then learning that suddenly the building was replaced by a mall two decades ago!”

I could sympathize with the guy, but really, he had to have known he was going to be running into this. If you want to isolate a house from the timestream so that all the shifting around doesn’t wipe it out, you’ve got to deal with the fact that someone else wants to isolate their house from the timestream a few decades later on the same ground you used. And you have to leave time in between for the timestream to move, or else you get a breakdown, and both houses never get built in the first place or something. And meanwhile, the natives just keep living blissfully through the whole region without ever noticing that they’ve got holes in time all around them.

“You can file an appeal with form 437-Beta or request an adjustment from the holder of the prior claim, sir,” the clerk said, handing over a piece of pre-printed bureaucratic fodder. “Next!”

The shiny-suited guy must not have taken it well, because he hadn’t even stood up when a couple of muscles-on-muscles types temported in next to him and escorted him briskly away. I’ll say this for a time-travelling society: you never get anything resembling a civil disturbance.

“What can I do for you, sir?” the clerk asked me.

“Filing form Zeta-9,” I said, nice and clearly, holding out my piece of paper. Everything stopped. Not in the ‘stasis’ way where the air literally stops moving while a timeframe is under investigation. Socially stopped. The conversations in line behind me dropped off, and people at the other desks looked over at me.

“Are you... certain?” the clerk said, leaning back and swallowing.

“I’m afraid so,” I said, and nodded for emphasis. “The Resource Utilization Department has determined that critical formative errors exist.”

The clerk reached up and rather shakily took the form from me. “You’re sure it can’t be... resolved? Less... drastically?”

I shook my head sympathetically. “Sorry, son. You’ve used up all the time you’ve got. Zeta-9. You have one subjective year to arrange for your grand finale, and then it’s time for a reset.”

This job requires some unique skills. A good bedside manner. A level of detachment. In my case, a fantastic poker face. If I’d broken out laughing, I probably would’ve started a riot in there, time cops or none. It just never gets old. A society invents time travel and the Extemp process to let them colonize their own history. Ten thousand subjective years later and the idiots always always always have screwed it up, and there’s no way to fix it. And I show up and hand over form Zeta-9: Pending Revocation of Extra-Temporal Society.

One subjective year after that’s handed over, and all the Extemps shut off at once, all up and down the timestream. And that whole culture of time travel just stops having ever been, anywhere. We give ’em a year to wrap things up. Some people argue it’s cruel to let them know at all, but I just love seeing the expression on their faces when they find out they’ve been judged as unfit to have ever existed. And who knows? Maybe all the Never-Weres do go to some kind of afterlife and they’re just that little bit more satisfied to have had some experiences nobody else will ever know about.

My society is the next step up from theirs. That’s why we get to make that call. We’re outside of outside of time. We can see their whole civilization start to finish across their whole subjective span the same way they watch time-bound civilizations rise and fall across objective time. We’ve got high standards. If they’re not on track to use the timeline responsibly, we’ll replace them with another culture and see how the new guys do.

Then I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned. This guy in a plain white suit handed me a piece of paper. “Filing form Zeta-10,” he said.

I looked at the header. Pending Revocation of Supra-Temporal Society.

That asshole clerk looked smug.

Copyright © 2018 by P. C. Keeler

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