Based on a True Story
I imagined that I could hear the gears slowly grinding in the clock on the wall, bogged down by iron oxide and dust, bringing time to an even slower crawl than usual. But the professor’s dull monotone grated on my ears even more as he drolled out what seemed like three hundred thousand more tedious equations that he expected us to memorize, but never bothered to help us understand what they really meant.
Physics 1105. Purgatory for college students.
This class shouldn’t be so lifeless. These equations have to be more than just formulae in which we plug in numbers just to get an answer to pass our final exam. They mean something. In the real, tangible world. These are the rules by which everything in the universe fits together, by which all of the pieces unite into a single whole. Like the clock on the wall, ticking away the seconds. If any one of the cogs is a different size, the hands will move at a different speed. Or perhaps the clock would not function at all, if the teeth of the cogs do not meet to turn each other.
The hands finally meet at the top of the hour, and I don’t waste any time getting out the door, out of the building, and into the fresh air. There’s a warm sun and a cool breeze, and everything is right with the world. In the core of the sun, hydrogen atoms meet at catastrophic speeds, fusing into helium and releasing energy, which then boils to the surface and is projected out into space. It takes eight minutes for this light to reach the earth, where it warms the air, causing its molecules to vibrate more rapidly, which makes it expand, resulting in a breeze.
That is what physics means. That is actually fascinating. Seeing how all of the pieces fit together like the cogs of a clock.
I’m already a few minutes late for my next class. I bring my pace to a jog and head out across the campus.
It had started as such an ordinary day in Castor 36. The colony had awakened and gone about their daily drills without incident, the laborers preparing to venture into the jungle outside to forage, the diggers preparing to go back to work reinforcing and enlarging the underground compound, and the soldiers preparing to defend the laborers from any dangers that they might face in the wild, ready to sacrifice their very lives in the name of the Queen.
The laborers were already dispersed into the jungle when the message came through the Network. A farmer to the south had witnessed an enormous shadow spreading across the land, and he was unable to discern the source.
The colony responded to the warning immediately, hastily abandoning their work and retreating to the underground bunkers. The soldiers stood outside as the children were carried in first, and the laborers rapidly gathered any provisions that were readily available to store.
The elders gathered, discussing in cursory tones what might be done if this mysterious shade turned out to be a threat. Only the surface was truly in danger, they thought. Hardly anything could ever make it into the underground facilities of the colony, except occasionally the Red Ones, their mortal enemies, and they could not possibly be behind such an enormous or elemental threat as this. The best plan was simply to move everyone underground and wait for this thing to pass.
Then another message in the Network. A soldier had spotted the source of the shadow. An enormous, oblong shape hung in the sky over the jungle, gradually creeping closer to the colony. The laborers rushed inside to protect themselves and their children, while the soldiers rallied outside, prepared to face whatever danger the mysterious thing might bring.
I didn’t pay much attention in my next class. I was still mulling over all the physics jargon that the professor had tried to force-feed my brain. I wasn’t really learning anything in the class; all of my knowledge on the subject was still coming from outside sources.
I kept thinking about clock cogs, and an article that I had read a few months ago suddenly came to my mind. It had been about a theory called time dilation, which stems from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and basically concludes that time is not a constant. Time is relative. The article stuck out to me because it had reminded me of something that I had often thought as a child.
I was always fascinated by insects. I wondered what the world looked like from their perspective, and what motivated them to choose one zigzagging path across the sidewalk over any other, or rather than walking in a straight line. Why did they even try to cross the concrete in the first place? How could they even know what was on the other side of the sidewalk, or if they wanted to go there?
I could occupy myself for hours watching a ladybug on a twig, as it crawled to the top, and then suddenly turning the twig to point the other way, and watching it immediately turn around and head the other way. I wondered if it got bored or frustrated with my game as I finally let it reach its goal and take flight from the top of the stick.
But most of all, I wondered at the speed of their perception.
No matter how fast you are, or how quickly you act, a fly almost always has time to observe your approaching hand, and react by darting away. A human doesn’t even have time to perceive their own action before the fly is well away, circling around the incandescent bulb on the ceiling.
In the case of a crawling insect, that does not have the luxury of quickly flying away, when you flick it off of the kitchen table, you hear it immediately impacting the opposite wall of the room, then falling to the floor, and getting up to continue its roving about on the floor. It has traveled what would be the equivalent of miles to us. Did it perceive this journey as being instantaneous? Did it even have time to think about the distance which it was flying through the air? Or did it perceive the duration of its journey as we would perceive an equivalent flight or fall on our own scale?
Time is relative.
The Shape slowed as it neared the colony, and then suddenly began to descend, bending and breaking the jungle canopy as it crashed inexorably down to the earth a short distance away.
And there it stayed.
It remained motionless for what seemed like ages, having sunk a little into the ground at its point of impact, with the foliage of the jungle bent and twisted around it. A few soldiers approached it to investigate, cautious and tense, until they finally found the courage to carefully feel over its surface, probing for any signs of life. It didn’t move. It didn’t breathe. It didn’t do anything.
The soldiers began to examine it more closely, but still cautiously. Its surface did not feel like any substance they had ever encountered before. It was alien. Otherworldly. It even smelled strange. And it was frighteningly resilient. They had great difficulty even cutting a fragment off of it.
They stood around inspecting the fragment for some time, wondering how such a material could even come to exist. A few claimed that they had seen dried and hardened tree sap produce a similar substance.
As they inspected the piece, the Shape suddenly stirred again, lifting itself out of the crater it had left and rising back into the air. Some of the soldiers panicked, but a few leaped into action, even daring to jump onto it, hacking and chipping away at its surface, trying to prevent it from continuing its slow advance towards the center of Castor 36.
The basic idea of time dilation is that time can be bent, warped, or stretched by gravity. High centers of gravity will stretch time, causing it to slow down relative to the time around it.
Gravity, as we understand it now, is an attractive force between bodies with mass. The larger an object’s mass, the greater its gravitational pull. A mote of dust has a gravity field, but it is negligible in every context that we have ever studied, just as its mass is negligible.
So how could this explain a difference in the perception of time based on size?
What if larger entities perceive time as being slower because their mass is bending time around them? Just like the cogs of a clock. The larger they are, the fewer revolutions they have to make in order to push time ahead of them. Time passes them by more quickly than the smaller cogs around them, spinning madly just to keep up.
Another class over. The last class of the day. I head out across the grass towards the campus parking garage.
In spite of the desperate efforts of the soldiers to stop or distract it, the Shape came crashing down onto the colony. The compound was leveled in an instant under its terrible weight and power as it sent huge bits of stone and debris flying in every direction, battering the surrounding jungle as the soldiers tried to take cover from the barrage.
The main compound of Castor 36 was left a ruin beneath the heel of this unidentifiable invader. The Shape sat in the crater it had made for a moment, then lifted off the ground and disappeared out over the jungle.
As soon as it disappeared from sight, the soldiers immediately set to work digging out the subterranean levels to save whatever might be left of their colony.
I suddenly feel that I’ve stepped in something soft, and look down to make sure that a student hadn’t happened to walk their dog in this area. Instead, I see an anthill. Or rather, what used to be an anthill, stamped by my footprint. I bend down to take a closer look at the soldiers scurrying around, seemingly panicked at the wanton destruction that I have unintentionally brought on their home. As I kneel down, my shadow crosses over their colony, and I almost think that they paused, as if waiting for further catastrophe.
I can’t help but wonder how differently they perceived an event that was so mundane to me, and how long ago it seemed to them that they saw me coming, as I sling my bag over my shoulder and walk on.
Caleb Newell is a full-time Whovian, a part-time brony and a computer science major in West Virginia. He enjoys peanut butter on his waffles and has a preference for women whose names rhyme with ‘banana a-ritz-a-bits tomb-sun’, and for swords made of diamond.
Caleb has a love for movie soundtracks, and music in general, all things Marvel (at least on film) and some things caffeinated. He’s never written a novel, unlike some folks around here. But this is only because ‘write a novel’ is right after ‘dominate the world’ on his to-do list. He has, however, had one story proudly featured by the Human Echoes Podcast. Because those dudes are awesome.