Somewhere in Central Manila, for Under a Minute on Christmas Eve


    When inside a time dilation box, one has time to think. Or at least one can do as much thinking as possible while surrounded by, more often than not, busy construction equipment. From inside, the rest of the world virtually ceases to move. Inside, people like Greg fix gigantic potholes until he can say that all is well, sorry for the brief inconvenience, have a pleasant day in Central Manila.

    Every month, there are, on average, six boxes on the streets of CM. Most of them contain automs doing routine maintenance. Assess the magnetics here, restore the repellants there. About four times a year, due to some major accident (or the rare terrorist attack), there is a box with a living, breathing, food-consuming person inside. Who usually has integrated engineering training. Who hates getting up on Mondays. Who generally hates working in boxes. Like Greg.


    Last March, it was some reckless trillionnaire’s son on a vintage air hovercraft, which accelerated uncontrollably until it crashed, leaving a crater in the superconducting concrete. Greg had to supervise automs inside a box for eight hours—40 seconds in normal time—before that street became fully hoverable again. This time, it was—surprise, surprise—another mall Santa Claus who didn’t check if all his autom reindeers were perfectly synchronized. Hoof entanglement led to a spectacular sleigh crash. A Merry Christmas, indeed.

    As soon as the crash site was clear, Greg went to work. Aboard Ministry of Public Works Service Flyer CM-200, he went through the motions. First, project the holo-signs: “DETOUR”; “PLEASE BEAR WITH US FOR APPROXIMATELY 50 SECONDS WHILE WE ADDRESS THIS UNFORTUNATE TURN OF EVENTS.” Next, deploy the anti-tachyon field projectors. Make sure to encompass the entire affected area. When all the projectors are floating in their proper places, start core module descent while starting the dilation box formation countdown. If all goes well, the transparent anti-tachyon field will be humming before the core module even hits the street.

    All went well. Greg took a moment before he started to twist circles and swipe up switches. Save for the wrecker carrying the remains of Santa’s inferno in the distance, two delivery trucks about a kilometer away, and a messenger drone off to probably break a young man’s heart on Christmas Eve, the street Greg was on was rather empty. (There were probably surveillance bats, but if he could detect them, they weren’t functioning properly). It made sense; a third of CM’s population was vacationing off-planet, another third on-planet, and the last third staying at home to listen to Dearest Leader’s Christmas message.

    Suddenly, Greg remembered that he had a solo organic chicken bucket feast scheduled to arrive on his doorstep in 20 minutes, normal time. Musings on the emptiness of existence being amplified in a space where time flows faster than virtually anywhere else on Earth had to wait.

    Double-tapping a succession of check boxes, Greg certified that the pothole filler was the right mix. Someone had to held liable if the mix wasn’t right. He dreaded what usually follows—the sheer boredom of closely monitoring the automs to make sure they didn’t screw up. But as soon as he commanded the filler automs to follow their programming, he noticed her, jogging across the street, six lanes away.

    He wore his zoom lenses to have a better look at her. She was, of course, from his perspective, almost completely still. She was nevertheless obviously jogging, probably trying to shave off a few kilos before having a solo organic chicken bucket feast later that night. She had on a tank top, cycling shorts, rubber shoes, and all the fitness wearables on the market. Her eyes were closed—probably in the process of blinking. A bead of sweat was about to trickle down her left cheek from beside the corner of her eye. She was, thought Greg, rather pretty.

    Maybe, he thought, when he’s off-duty—in about two minutes, normal time—he could catch up with her. Maybe she’d talk to him. Maybe he could arrange for them to literally run into each other. Maybe, while jogging next to each other, they could talk about how much older he feels than everyone his age, even if he’s only temporally cut off from everyone a few hours at a time. Maybe she would listen.

    Ah, who am I kidding, thought Greg after a quick quality check on the fillers’ work before deploying the pavers.

    The only people with whom he had a reasonable chance of connecting with were his co-workers. Everyone else thinks people in their line of work talk faster (or weirder) than most people. Two of his fellow box people were in an exclusive relationship, while the other four were in a rotational one. Ardi, who had been working in boxes decades before the others, mostly kept to himself.

    There was that one time, after he got drunk during the Ministry of Public Works’ bicentennial party, when Ardi felt it was absolutely necessary to tell Greg: “Greg-I-know-we-know-what-the-afterlife’s-like; we-become-stuck-in-a-particular-point-in-spacetime; everything-moves-away; but-you’re-left-where-you-die!”

    “You’re a funny guy!” a near-intoxicated Greg half-shouted in reply.

    As the tester automs started streaming their analyses, Greg decided to admire the jogger for a few more minutes.

    From inside the box, he saw that she had moved forward a bit, and the bead of sweat he saw earlier was already halfway down her cheek. He could see her eyes now; of course, she was wearing SenseLenses® (“Way’s all clear with SenseLenses®!”). They were light green; they complemented her cyan hair.

    At that point in box time, Greg, at last, noticed him.

    He was standing behind a power pylon, about 14 meters behind the jogger. He was clad in black. He had zoom lenses on. He was aiming a gun.

    A jilted lover, maybe? A stalker? A state enforcer? Whoever he was, he was smiling; he had a clear shot at the jogger—his gun’s targeting laser was pointed at the back of her head—and he was taking it.

    Greg felt helpless. By the time he shuts off the field, the gunman would have pulled the trigger; the photon bullet would have gone through the jogger in nanoseconds. He could shut down the field, then shout as loud as he could—or honk his flyer’s horn—perhaps, distracting the gunman until Greg could sic his automs at him. But that could also force the gunman to shoot quicker.

    Maybe my emergency contact could help, thought Greg. Since he didn’t think he would be doing more than a routine post-crash patch-up, he hadn’t bothered to check who was on-call in his box’s counterpart dilation chamber at the ministry, so he felt very disappointed when he found out that that person was Ardi.

    “Hi Ardi. How’s your Christmas Eve so far?”


    “Listen, I have a situation here.” Greg described the scene as best he could without sounding like he was a little smitten, or like he wanted to interfere with what was possibly a state-sanctioned killing. When he capped off his little narrative with “Any advice?” the gunman had already started squeezing his gun’s trigger.

    “Give-me-a-minute-Greg.” Ardi lowered his chamber’s anti-tachyon pulse rate a bit, making time flow there a bit slower than in Greg’s box.

    “Greg, listen to me very carefully.” Greg was all ears. It was hard not to be; Ardi sounded like a deep-voiced nature documentary narrator, only a little jittery. “There is absolutely nothing you can do.”

    Greg expected that answer. Ardi was known to make sense sometimes. After a deep sigh, Greg was ready to say thanks to his emergency contact, curse him, and hang up. Then he was ready to watch the pretty jogger for as long as she lived, which for him was the next 24 minutes, and for her, the next two seconds. But Ardi wasn’t done talking.

    “Did I ever tell you about the time I was in a dilation chamber for 15 days?”

    “Fifteen days? What are you talking about, Ardi? Nobody’s been in a box that long.”

    “Oh, of course you don’t know. That was the 20th test on the sixth prototype, I think. All still under wraps. Anyway, I think that’s the record. You know why?”

    “No, Ardi, I don’t. Tell me when your story becomes useful to me.”

    “Oh, it probably isn’t. Or maybe it is. Anyway, I actually had sufficient provisions to keep me alive in the chamber for about 30 days. They had to let me out by Day 15 because—oh, I’m so sure!—they saw—they felt—that I was changing. Nothing atypical was happening to my body, but my mind—for the first time, I felt that my mind could stay where it was forever, outside of time, even after my body had died.”

    Greg just about had it. “Goodbye, Ardi.”

    “Wait!” Ardi overrode all of Greg’s controls using his emergency contact privileges. “I haven’t finished my story, Greg!”

    Stuck between watching a photon bullet ever so slowly pierce through the jogger’s skull and listening to a madman, Greg believed that he must have done something in the last few days to greatly offend the Lord Who Appointed Dearest Leader, such that he had no choice but to endure one (or both) of the two tortures. That, or kill himself.

    “Where was I? Oh, right. I wasn’t sure all the doctrine about the transmigration of souls was true. All I knew was that if I wanted to, I could stay at one moment in spacetime where I would know eternity. I thought that if I made a few adjustments to the controls, I could make everything outside the chamber come to a complete stop. I could stay in my body in that moment, until my body had to go. Then, I would know immortality.”

    Ardi had Greg’s full attention, but hardly due to the former’s spiritual awakening rubbing off on the latter.
    “Were you able to make the adjustments you wanted?”

    “No. My monitor cut me off from the controls when she figured out what I was doing. As soon as I was back in normal time, I told them everything I knew. You know what they thought? They told me I had neurological damage due to excessive exposure to anti-tachyons. They had me on all sorts of anti-psychotics before they decided that I was fit to work, and only as a damned automaton supervisor. No offense.”

    “None taken. Listen, Ardi, I think you’ve made your point. I should let what’s about to happen happen. She’ll probably enter a realm of timeless existence anyway, right?”

    “Yes. That probably was my point. I think. Right. Anyway, Greg, do you have any other concerns? I’d like to return to my chicken dinner. I have to take my medication.”

    “I’m all set, Ardi. You can give me back the controls now.”

    The two bade each other farewell. By the time Greg had the controls back, the photon bullet was a few
    centimeters away from the jogger’s head.

    Immediately, Greg overrode the anti-tachyon pulse limiter. For him, the flow of time outside started to become even slower, until, from his perspective, everything outside the box came to a complete stop. By then, the photon bullet was so close to the jogger’s scalp that it had scorched a bit of her dyed hair.

    Greg then guided the pavers toward the limiter; with a few well-placed shots from the paving beams, he destroyed it.

    As Greg expected, in an instant, he was now beyond Ardi’s control. Or anyone else’s, in both normal and box time.

    He took out some soda crackers he had in his shirt pocket. He ate them slowly while looking at the completely frozen jogger, imagining himself offering her a piece. She’d refuse politely, of course, but he’d muster up the courage to ask for her national ID number. She’d hesitate, but sensing that he’s a decent guy—and in accordance with the Universal Information Disclosure Act—she’d give it to him. Then they would start talking over the national messaging service during socialization hours—even during work time, when they were feeling a bit brazen.

    Exhausted, he then slept. The automs were in power-saving mode when he woke up, meaning that he was asleep for over 24 hours in normal box time.

    He then took out the first of his emergency meals. He imagined he was on his second physical date with the jogger, who, he was sure, liked rehydrated pseudo-pork stew topped with chili pepper powder. (Didn’t all fitness buffs like that?) Having had his fill, he slept again. When he woke up, the automs’ batteries were completely discharged. He did neglect to charge them properly before he flew off that night. All those nights ago.

    He finished the remaining emergency meals. When he was down to his last two boxes of chicken adobo with rice variant BBM-99, he finally saw that the jogger’s thumb was hitting the shuffle tab on her ring player. What music was she into, he thought. Jazz-Rock Fusion? New Grunge? Drug War Marches? The Revitalized National Anthem on loop?

    Even if she was into hard-core Synthetic Nazi-Pop, they would probably still get along. After all, cyan was his profiler-certified favorite color. Green was his second favorite.

    He imagined proposing to her while they were riding the Lunar Eye. She’d say yes after exactly one heartbeat. Dearest Leader would be at their wedding. He’d be so pleased. He’d probably make that joke he always makes about kings and prima nocta. Everybody would laugh, even Greg’s dissident cousin who was kindly given a furlough to attend the wedding.

    He’d probably be promoted after that, Greg thought. He’d want to be; he can’t be a box man forever. He’d rather die than become like Ardi. Maybe they’ll make him a district supervisor. After all, counting both normal and box time, he would have been in service for about a decade by then. About time he became a fat-cat bureaucrat.

    While watching Dearest Leader giving his Christmas message, they’d look back on that Christmas all those years ago when they first met, before their hair started to gray. Of course, she’d still dye her hair cyan, and maybe he’d dye his hair black, given that he has to meet with executives half his age from other countries regularly.

    Would they have kids? Maybe, if the state says they’re fit for it. She obviously is. He’ll have to cut down on emergency meals—really bad for potency, his co-workers keep saying.

    The thought of food made his stomach rumble. He didn’t remember the last time he ate. He felt an urge to move his hands toward his chest—he realized he was having terrible heartburn. He looked at his fingernails. They looked like they hadn’t been cut for two weeks; he smelled like he hadn’t taken a bath in four.
    Dream-time’s over, thought Greg.

    He knew that, unlike a dilation chamber connected to a fusion plant, a mobile box like he was in was bound to lose power. Specifically, the anti-tachyon pulse emitter would cease emitting, causing the box to dissipate. Greg would then find himself integrated back into normal spacetime. The jogger would be dead that very instant. The gunman would walk away, mission accomplished. Greg and Ardi would probably share the same psychiatrist, solidifying their emerging lifelong bond.

    Greg would have none of that. He didn’t know if he was going to be immortal if he killed himself before the pulse emitter died. He was pretty sure of four things.

    First, in theory, an anti-tachyon can knock a photon bullet off course. Second, if he could make the anti-tachyons surrounding him fly off, one of the faster-than-light particles would almost certainly hit the photon bullet before it penetrates the jogger’s skull. Third, he can make the anti-tachyons fly off by blowing up everything inside the box.

    Fourth, blowing up everything inside the box will certainly kill him. His training—as well as the climax of the year’s highest grossing action film, Impossible Fighter 6—convinced him of the scientific soundness of these motions.

    Maybe it was the anti-tachyons, or the molds growing on the emergency meal he didn’t refresh, but ate anyway. Whatever it was, Greg truly wanted to save the jogger, no matter what it took.

    A few crossed wires here and there, some extracted batteries strategically placed, a heater rigged to overheat—in however long it took, he was set.

    “BOOM!” went the heater.

    Greg’s body was annihilated in half a second. But afterward, he felt like nothing happened. He felt. Whatever he was, he was exactly when and where Ardi believed he would be—at that moment in spacetime when he died.

    He was able to move about in that moment freely. He was alone, at least in that temporal-physical space. But he knew, instinctively, that being beyond time, he had access to the vastness of infinity. He had full freedom; when and where he was, there were no more boxes.

    For a while, however, he very much liked staying exactly in the moment he was occupying.

    After Greg’s transition, after his body disintegrated, after the photon bullet was knocked off, seconds before the gunman took aim again, the jogger looked at the wrecked construction equipment. She knew that people were
    sometimes inside boxes. The look on her face was one of surprise giving way to genuine concern.

    When he first saw her after he became so much more than Greg, disgruntled Ministry of Public Works employee, he believed that he could stare at her face, with those eyes searching for contact, for all eternity. He couldn’t hold her—whatever he was, he didn’t have skin, let alone hands—but he could peer through her lenses. Through her dark brown eyes. Into the trapped being within, waiting for her liberation.

    For a length of time knowable only to man transformed, Greg stayed in that space, before he finally succumbed to infinity’s summons.


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