I Wish I Hadn't Turned That Damn Dial

by Samsinater

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to pause time?

Many have explored the concept: stories of vengefully teasing their high school and workplace bullies, or releasing their deepest inhibitions on an unaware public, suddenly free from enforced laws and morals. Perhaps more often, a character can move (and think) so fast that time effectively freezes around them, and they can perform heroics or villainy at their leisure, give or take.

Ironically these characters' downfall always seems to be getting caught off guard somehow when an antagonist finally gets the better of them, and while I never found that to be sensible I still found their perspectives to be more approachable: completely freezing time, if such a thing were even possible, would be a dreadfully stupid thing to try if you got it the slightest bit wrong. I can scarcely fathom the sorts of disasters that might arise from such a foolhardy endeavor.

That's why I have been working on a machine that could slow time instead.

I won't pretend it hasn't been tough: manipulating temporal flow without so much as a research grant is harsh just on the pocketbooks alone, never mind keeping my mind sharp while practicing theory. But after a certain point this stuff just comes naturally. You see past the constraints binding more traditional scholars and start to see what geniuses like Einstein and Da Vinci saw: the world beyond the world, the chaotic mess of terminals and funnels and individual fibers constructing our very existence, and which have their own mad methods, if you care to work them out.

I assume they saw these sorts of things, anyway. They were a great inspiration in my youth, and it would just be arrogant to assume I was the first to spot and make use of them.

It's of little consequence, regardless; after much blood, sweat, and manly dabbing at the eyes with a kerchief, I finally have a prototype ready. I might even dare to call it a working prototype if not for the fact that a first run aims to test exactly that.

The design had actually arisen from a bit of a joke I started with myself. All the component parts were fit snugly inside a gutted stereo box, the kind with a few knobs on the front. I only needed one knob, for the exact reason that I felt confident in starting this endeavor at all: I wanted to gently adjust the flow of time, not flick it off and on.

Naturally I would start small. First, I would set a stopwatch running and then turn the display away from myself while I counted to thirty. At thirty, I would stop and then check the stopwatch, and mark the discrepancy. My first attempt landed me squarely at 26.47 seconds. I repeated this experiment a few more times, alternating between looking at the stopwatch and not for each run, until I was confidently within a half-second range of the 30 second mark. Then the true test began: I would start the stopwatch, turn the volume dial on the stereo, and repeat.

Something I haven't touched on yet is that, obviously, there wouldn't be much good to a device that slowed all time around it. There wouldn't be any noticeable difference, even if it did work! Your perception would be slowed to the exact degree that your body is, and therefore, time would appear to pass normally to you (even if it was actually, in the grander scheme of things, slowed to a crawl). Therefore I had to ensure that, in a small field around the device, any conscious minds would be unaffected by the change, and thus be able to perceive the effects of an altered timestream.

You might think to yourself that, surely, it would make more sense to speed up ones perception of time than to slow down all time around you -- and if you had an unparalleled grasp of the human mind, then for you it very well might be. But when I looked past the veil of this world to the very fabric of reality (actually, it's only partially akin to fabric; much of it is more a gelatinous fluid) the subject that returned my gaze was time, not minds. It is only natural that it should be easier for me to build a machine that affects everything constrained by time but a mind than to build one that exclusively affects minds.

Anyway, given the frenzy of excitement I had already worked myself into just at the thought of finally engaging my first test run, it was almost a certainty that I had missed something somewhere in my designs. I am not so arrogant as to believe I can meet perfection in one attempt. Nothing was volatile enough to explode in the event of a malfunction, but my circuitry was admittedly amateur, and any error was an error to be on guard for, so I did have a fire extinguisher on standby in the event of an electrical fire.

Naturally my first spin of the dial would be short and slow: only ten degrees clockwise. My working design was meant to slow time logarithmically, every ten degrees -- no other scale is as friendly to manipulating time as logarithmic scales, I found -- so it was a fair assumption that, if nothing miraculously went wrong, at exactly ten degrees clockwise time would move at exactly one-tenth the speed.

Importantly, I'd had an engineering friend help me modify the knob slightly, so that it would produce an audible click with each degree turned. She had advised me on this as an upgrade to my original notion of simply noting every ten degrees around the knob with a bright marker, to better determine precise measurements. Plus, I would have the added bonus of visceral clicks slowing and slowing as I moved between them, a fine way to detect the slowing of time before a stopwatch need ever come into play.

All this is to say that when I started the stopwatch and turned the dial, it was easy to tell something had gone wrong.

I heard a click. Good, I thought, that's one. Only I belatedly realized the click hadn't stopped -- not until just about the time I realized that it hadn't stopped, and then it did, sluggishly. I realized my hearing, and likely all my body's senses, had been slowed compared to my thinking. Granted, perhaps I should have seen that coming; but you can hardly fault a machine for doing its job too perfectly.

My hand was still moving, I realized, still in the motion of twisting the dial. I released the grip I had been maintaining, but -- no, my hand was still tense. What was the speed of thought? How long did it take for a signal from the mind to reach the arm? Tentatively, hesitantly, my grip started to relax. I had only reached one degree, time shouldn't have been this slow. I looked at my stopwatch, which I held in my hand with the display facing me.

My eyes took much longer to move than they should. I remember learning once that you can't technically see while your eyes are moving; your brain just pretends it sees what you are going to see when they finish moving, and alters your perception of time slightly to make up the difference. Something about evolutionary hacks and not seeing the blurry vision you would have if you could still see while your eyes moved. Apparently this hack didn't work with present conditions; instead my vision just shifted... slowly. I could see the acceleration of my eyes happening in real time.

I realized, belatedly, I had forgotten to start counting, but then I hadn't made it to ten clicks yet; that was when I was supposed to start. I wondered for a moment if I shouldn't have designed this machine to work by twisting a dial, then pressing a button to slow time to the chosen degree -- but no, this was the way it had to be. You couldn't just jerk time around like that, instantly switching from 1x speed to 1/10x. Who knows what could happen as a side-effect? That was dangerous ground to tread. If you wanted predictability, reliability, it had to be gradual like this.

My eyes finally finished their journey and alighted on the stopwatch.

1 second and some change, it read. That wasn't right. Surely it had been at least thirty, or that is to say, thirty seconds of thought. It occurred to me I might need to invent a unit of measurement to describe apparent seconds to a mind in a body that had been slowed down along with time, lagging behind the brain. Still: there would certainly be a small discrepancy between when I started the stopwatch and when I started counting, purely as a matter of fact that time would pass between no clicks and ten clicks, and possibly precisely when I had started the stopwatch versus when I started turning, but... hm. I hadn't even heard a second click yet.

As if on cue, a terrible sound began droning and slowly, achingly slowly picking up in volume. To say I know how to adequately describe the disconnect between a body's senses working fine, but at a slower rate than the mind, and the mind itself -- especially as in comparison to a character whose mind and body move quite fast while time moves as normal... well, it would be an outright lie, but at the same time I suppose I am now the leading expert on it.

It wasn't like slowing down a video and hearing noises slurred in deeper pitches, to account for the period of time over which they were being produced. It was more like I was hearing the sound plainly, but instead of being stretched thin, it was... multiplied over that period of time. Whatever mental wiring led from my ears to my brain was firing, but keeping the same signal for far longer than normal. I could very precisely hear the vibrations that bounced off my eardrums and slowly intensified, still to nothing louder than a click, but to a long click. I think any sound comes to be louder and more grating the longer you hear it for.

I realized I was still looking at my stopwatch, even though my thoughts had not strictly been focusing on the information. Still not even 2 seconds yet. Something was definitely wrong.

At least I had time to work it out, I supposed. Let's see...

After doing some quick mental math, and counting approximately how long the second click lasted in seconds, compared to my best estimate of how long an average click ought to last (for starters: less than a second, and probably less than half a second; beyond that I couldn't be sure), I worked out that time had already slowed to somewhere in the ballpark of 80x slower -- or, assuming my original math wasn't total guff, perhaps 100x slower.

Something occurred to me.

I very quickly ran over what I could remember of my calculations, the formulas I had used, the final results... I recalculated some of them, did my best to remember what I wrote down and what I could imagine now, half-baked on various mental racks from a slurry of thought. My eyes felt a natural impulse to flit around while I chewed this over, but could not move fast enough to keep with the demand. My switching rapid signals, at best, probably caused my eyes to slightly twitch as I thought.

Then, terrible choice of words be damned, it clicked.

I forgot to carry a zero.

There was no other explanation. The dial was not slowing time by a factor of ten every ten degrees; no, with great apprehension I realized it was slowing by a factor of ten every degree. The second click was already through; I had to be already mentally swimming through time more than one hundred times the difference. An incredible marvel that it worked so well, but then maybe it didn't.

I hated to think that smoke was already forming somewhere in the device, and I hadn't noticed yet purely because not enough time had elapsed for the smoke to puff out.

The obvious course of action was to go back the way I came. Quelling the rising panic in my mind, I urged my hand to grip the dial again, and turn it counterclockwise. This whole time, my hand had still been slowly letting go of the dial, still slowly turning it forward in its loosing grasp with inertia, but these were commands all taken with far more leisure than on an ordinary day. I could still easily turn the dial back. I could escape this impromptu prison without spending too much time trapped in my own head.

Slowly, ever slowly, in a juggling act of maintaining sent signals to my hand and eyes for far longer than one should ever need, my eyes began the process of looking back to the dial.

They traveled so slowly that for several long seconds my eyes did not appear to be moving at all.

But eventually, they did.

Eventually, during an entirely breathless period that subtly raised alarms somewhere in my brain as it wrestled with subconsciously controlling lungs that were almost entirely unresponsive, my eyes settled on the knob, stuck at two degrees.

I could watch my hand more carefully here, to judge when to stop turning -- and, with any luck, get something to eat once time was moving along normally again. The minor hunger pangs I had been experiencing while devoted to my work were, after being stretched out this long, yet another facet of my physical-mental disconnect that was getting quite annoying.

In what I counted to be several minutes, desperately in need of a distraction from my ensuing boredom, my hand resumed its firmity about the dial. This is not to say that it began to turn the opposite direction just as fast; in fact my hand still had some momentum, and had to be eased to a stop and then back the way it came, a process that would only take longer the longer my hand continued its slowing clockwise journey.

The end of such a journey is not something I can easily pinpoint, nor do I imagine any man could with only his eyes and his wits about him. The more my hand fails to stop, the more time slows, the more time will have to pass before ten milliseconds can occur -- but knowing with confidence I was thereabouts steadied me. I had not reached a third click yet, which meant I had not reached 10^-3 times the speed of time, which meant a second for me was more than a millisecond for my body, which, ultimately, meant I need not count higher than 1000 for a full second to pass.

A hand, I was relatively certain, could move faster than it took for one second to pass; certainly a thought could travel faster, and with fine enough motor control could reverse a course of action quick as a whip.

I just had to wait.

Wait, and focus my thoughts, not once slipping on sending that frightfully important signal to my hand to simply move the other way.

My patience was rewarded in time with a third click, and to be quite frank, at first I feared that I had just slipped ever further into a hell of my own making. But my scientific mind prevailed, and I counted the seconds that I heard this awful, persisting noise for, and felt a brief impulse to smile at knowing what my eyes were not fast enough to tell me: the length of this click put it at the second degree, not the third. I was moving back. I would be free soon.

Time, in turn, began to speed up around me more and more noticeably, groggily resuming its standard pace like a lazing jogger flopping out of bed, pulling its energy together as it struggled to stand. It wasn't long before I heard the blissfully shorter first click, and was well on my way to click zero. It wouldn't be ten seconds now.

But as I came home, willing my hand to stop, in an error I do not think I could ever forgive of myself, I misjudged the speed of my thoughts once again. Damningly, for all the theoretical calculations I was able to put to paper and flesh out before me in a cute stereo casing, two physical realities had never crossed my mind. Not until far, far too late.

The first was that when I finished turning the dial back to zero, my hand was still moving.

The second was that there did not exist any internal component to keep the dial from spinning below zero.

When the blissfully short click of a dial at normal speed passed, it passed into an unspeakable thunder.

At first I wasn't sure precisely what had happened. I thought, by chance, that a storm cloud had actually materialized outside. But nothing so lucky and trivial. Instead, my device worked perfectly, in perhaps the worst way it could have.

You see, ideally, at a scale of ten per ten clicks, the slowest pace this machine could ever convince time into trotting along at would be 10^-36. Or, slightly faster than that, given that 360 degrees is equivalent to zero, and zero was already taken. But this was not an ideal scale.

This was ten times an ideal scale.

Hell, even if it had been an ideal scale, 10 to the power of... negative 35.8, approximately, was hardly better than the current reality of 10^-359.

The worst realization you can have about turning a logarithmic dial and slowing time to 10^-359 times the speed of time isn't that you will perceive more time passing in a single second than the entire universe has since its creation, 10^348 times over. Nor is it that you will spend at least a quarter of that entire time listening to the drone of a single click becoming unbearably loud over an impossibly long stretch of perspective. I would even confidently wager that it is not realizing you will be trapped in your own head, unable to blink or move any single fraction of your body any amount without a continual effort strained over that entire period, until your mind went numb and a lack of sleep caused your every mental faculty to deteriorate into mush.

No, if I had to stake my life, and indeed the very sanity of my entire mind on it, I would say the very worst realization you can have is that no matter what you do, no matter how many numbers you desperately crunch, no matter how quickly you will your body to move in any direction nor how fiercely you will your synapses to fire, the math will always tell you the same bad news:

Nothing will make that time pass quicker than to finish turning the dial all the way around.