OK. Now. A glob of pthalo blue, a tiny dab of middle red, double it with water. Perfect Prussian blue. Light strokes now, always light strokes. Just a little dash. A crescent, one fluid movement.
Again. No problem. Pthalo blue and middle red. Gentle strokes.
Think of a fish. The way it swishes from one spot to the next, swinging through the water. No hesitation, no backtracking. Just along the edge there, the reflection in one perfect blue iris.
He needs to stand out.
Just a bit less this time. Don't overload the brush, don't burden the paper. Light, light, light. Drabness follows carelessness.
He isn’t drab, he lights up the room. She looks over to him, and suddenly she sees nothing else.
Like pushing a stray hair aside, as simple as that. Barely even touch the paper.
What does she see in him? Can we see it too? Does it matter? She sees something, maybe that’s all we need to understand. Could we understand if we tried?
Less rigid now, no straight lines. All curves, because he is gentle. Maybe that’s what she sees. These other guys, they’re rough and loud. Maybe these other women like that.
Let the paper be seen, it's the light and the warmth. And he is warm.
Aaugh, no, too much.
The way the light reflects there, that's key. A hanging sliver of light against the darker blue, that's what will make her stare, make us stare. But what can she really tell by looking? Can she understand something about who he is? Can we? Should we be her, or should we only be us, looking at her? Looking at both of them?
Does anyone care?
In the last few weeks Joanne has noticed something strange about Harry. He seems distracted, or rather, preoccupied. His mind is somewhere else. In the middle of a conversation he'll often begin to stare straight through her, appearing to be thinking very hard, as if he is trying to remember a name that he know he knows, but can't quite bring forward.
Then, at other times, he'll suddenly twitch in his seat, as if he's received a shock of static electricity, and then be very still and wide-eyed for a few seconds. She finds his face frightening. He looks as if he is trying hard to keep very still, before he shakes himself out of this little paralysis and looks furtively around the room.
What she doesn't know is that his mind isn't somewhere else, but turned inwards. He is entirely preoccupied with his own memory now. Constantly fearing what he cannot remember. Wondering whether he has done all the right things, whether he can go on. Trying to pinpoint where he was one minute ago, and what has happened since then.
Every word he utters, every gesture he makes, every expression, every laugh, every breath, alters his future in ways he never knew. He has since discovered it. He has seen how “Yes” is different from “Uh-huh”, how “Over there” is different from a pointed finger, how standing is nothing at all like sitting. He has seen how the people around him react, and how those reactions set the world down a path that feels inevitable, but is somehow dependent on everything that came before it. It’s chaotic. Everything affects everything, and Harry is a part of it, acting and reacting, changing the future every minute.
How can he not look different? He will forever feel different. Never before has he felt so little control over his life, and such an urgent need to be fully aware of exactly what he is doing. If he doesn’t know what he is doing, and what he has just done, how can he know what to change?
Now he thinks in one-minute intervals. A one-minute jump backwards and a one-minute recharge on the device. His whole life, and everyone else’s, is contained within that minute.
It's a quarter to seven and still 35 degrees in the shade. I'm clipping on my helmet, putting the bike chain in my backpack, then I'll push off out of the underground car park into the sunlight. The cars are bumper-to-bumper trying to get in, everyone buying groceries on the way home from work. I'm flying past them. Now I'm squinting as I'm riding westward on James Street, the sun is still only halfway down in the sky. The road slopes downwards slightly so I don't pedal very hard, but the wind in my face is like a fan-forced oven. I can barely stand this heat. But it's only eight blocks to get home.
Now turning left onto Oaktree Road, fewer cars here but even fewer trees. No shade, all the grass is brown and prickly, patches of bare dirt everywhere, it just makes me sad to see it. Maybe sad isn't even the right word, more like desperate. Desperate for relief. Or longing, yes, longing to be in some place that doesn't fill me with dread to step outside into. Nostalgic for somewhere I've never been. Somewhere that's alive, not just scraping by.
Southwards now. The road suddenly goes from gentle decline to a vertical wall of bitumen ahead of me. About one block up is the new horizon where it levels off again. I'm standing up on the pedals now, staring down at the bitumen a metre ahead, and there's no stopping until I reach the top. If I stop, there's no way I'll get moving again, the only way forward is to maintain momentum. But then again, I don't even have to come this way. I could stay on James for another three blocks and forget this awful climb completely, but the point is that what goes up must go down. Now I'm just tipping over the edge and back onto level ground again, just as the pain of exertion in my calves is becoming too much to keep pedalling. But then again, does it only seem like another few metres would be unbearable because I know that I don't have to go any further anyway? Who knows. Who cares.
One minute, two minutes resting, standing, leaning on the handlebars and staring at my feet as the sweat drips off the end of my nose on this barren hilltop. Empty plots with nothing but thistles and long grass on the left, but I can see brown tiled roofs and the tops of clotheslines over the back fences. Low brick houses on the right, with carports and rows of lanky rose bushes that are all twig and no leaf.
Pushing off again, feeling weightless in comparison now. One block along the flat top of the hill, then a sweeping right turn onto Dayview road, and it's like a whole other country. A long downwards slope scooped out of the hillside, flanked by two rows of huge elm trees, all bright green on top and dark, almost blue underneath. Trunks as thick as cars, pushing the road's surface into rolls like it's pastry. The buildings are old, old, old. Tall stone fronts with cast-iron lattice. And somehow, somehow this street seems like it's refrigerated, the cool breeze comes out of nowhere and rolls through it. Maybe it's something about the shade and the heavy buildings, or the shape of the hill, I don't know. I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that it's in the rich neighbourhood.
Again, what comes up, goes down. Rolling down this hillside, picking up speed, flying past all the shiny shopfronts and ladies in sunglasses, it's perfection. All the sweat I've built up on the climb is like ice on my chest now, I take my hands off the bars and hold them straight out. And there's just enough time now to sit still for a few seconds before the intersection.
But what, now, slam. I'm grabbing at the handlebars as they snap to the left and my left foot connects with the spokes of the front wheel and the frame has slowed way down but I haven't. A door, a car door? The bike is behind me now, the handlebars hit my knees as its back end flips upwards, I'm just standing up in the air. How could I have been so careless. Flying forwards, the road is angled down in front of me but I'm still approaching it, rotating forwards now. Arms straight out ahead of me, feet behind me and my toes touch the ground. Smack, and I bounce.
The sun is flitting back and forth behind the canopy of leaves above me, shining in my eyes. The heat is setting in, I can feel it creeping now that I've stopped. At my left a wheel and tyre takes up a third of my vision, and to the right I can see people are moving closer now. Two ladies with hands on each other's elbows are staring at me and talking in hushed voices. A fat man in a blue striped business shirt is kneeling above me, saying, "Shit mate, you alright?" Before I can answer there are others kneeling beside me, looking me up and down with wide eyes. The group forms a semi-circle around the sun.
"Christ, I saw that, you're a bloody wreck."
"Just don't panic, don't panic, keep calm, mate! Oh god, keep calm!"
"You're going to be alright, we're here to help."
"A bloody prang that was, if I've ever seen one."
"Don't touch his head! He might have spinal injuries! Christ!"
"Well we can't just leave him here, now can we?"
I close my eyes and try to lift my arm, but it feels like it's bolted down. My shoulder hurts, my elbow hurts, everything hurts, but it'll be OK if I can lift my arm. Feeling for the opening of my pocket, my fingers are broken and twisted, I can't feel anything there but sharp, cold pain. Nobody seems to have noticed me reaching. I'm trying to lift my head to see, but a young woman puts her hands on each side of my face and says, "Don't try to move, you'll be OK." I shake my head, but she's arguing with the others now. As it gets harder and harder to keep my eyes open, and the sun is obscured by heads moving back and forth, I just know that there's not much time left.
The origins of the device itself are still as mysterious as its inner workings. The four in-house historians of the Yutani Corporation all agree that the device (or at the least, its casing) was produced in 18th century England, most likely in the fine metal-working houses of Edinborough. The baroque embellishments of all six faces, die-cast in silver with inlaid ivory as a base for the engraved text, would have been available only to the wealthy businessmen and landed gentry of the time. Unfortunately, no reliable records of ownership or production have survived from that time, the latest written record of the devices being from their anonymous donation to Oxford University in 1855.
The mechanism by which the devices operate remains an open question. The spectacular outer casings are only a decorative façade, laid upon the original devices at the behest of an unknown previous owner. Beneath the casings is a smooth surface of burnished bronze, with rounded corners and no markings whatsoever, aside from the central button. They are uniquely featureless objects, which give very little indication of when or where they were created, aside from the fact that their production would have required the use of fairly sophisticated metalworking techniques. They also present no clear means of disassembly — no screws, rivets, pins, or seals — and several attempts in the mid-20th century to cut or otherwise force open the devices were utter failures, and resulted only in the loss of four fully functional devices. In the Malmö Science Museum one can see a display of the shoes of Jens Norén — the famed Scandinavian engineer who last tried to disassemble a device — which are rainbow-stained with oil and studded with shards of glass from that unfortunate incident.
The materials from which the devices are made pose only a trifling obstacle to modern drills, saws, and lasers, but there appears to be a delicate balance that holds within the casing, so that when it is breached, the inner parts are broken and scrambled about. The casings are impervious to X-rays and other traditional imaging modalities, and high-definition gamma transmission studies still can only provide rudimentary reconstructions of the working parts.
What we do know from these past losses is the basic components of the devices: fine threads, cams, and gears of ancient copper, polished spherical pieces of magnetite, delicately blown glass tubes and miniature flasks of brine and sulfuric acid, and various other parts that are, at this point in time, still a closely held secret of the Yutani Corporation. Understanding the parts’ relationships to one another, on the other hand, is the bigger difficulty. We might imagine that the devices are like an automobile, which functions perfectly when all its parts are left in their right place, but once the seal is broken and the parts collapse into a heap, then it might take a lifetime of work to correctly deduce which combination of its components, out of all the near-infinite possibilities, will make it work again.
Some sceptics have suggested that the device’s true function is to somehow interfere with the temporal senses of the user, thereby only creating the illusion of time-travel. Although at first this seems to be a plausible, even attractive answer to the troubling implications of true time travel, it was quite elegantly and thoroughly disproven by a series of experiments performed by Tjandra et al, published in Nature in 2023. The physical and metaphysical meaning of the objects’ functioning is a subject that has already been discussed in other recent publications by the Yutani Corporation, to which you may refer as you see fit.
As a matter of course, the Corporation keeps records of all the laboratories, museums, military agencies, and private citizens who are known to be in possession of a device. In November 2019 the official count reached its most recent peak, at eleven devices scattered around the world. For many years the consensus amongst historians and scientists alike was that there were only nine devices in existence, but a chance discovery of two identical devices in an off-campus storage unit belonging to Stanford University brought a sudden revival of interest in uncovering their provenance. An administrator for the university was heard to remark, “It was the best PR we ever got for doing an inventory, I’ll say.”
In June 2022 the tally fell to ten when Dame Ania Tomarko — the reclusive art collector, critic, and heiress to a Swiss banking fortune — died at age 94, in the home of her younger brother in Nice, France. Nobody outside her small circle of close friends and family knew about her protracted illness, though some close observers may have noticed a precipitous decline in the volume of her critical output over the last three years of her life. Her well-known secrecy and distrustful nature (admirably explored in the recent biography, Ania Tomarko: A Life in Light and Shadow, by Jacob Elwood) meant that all her worldly possessions were kept under strict security in her home in the Swiss countryside (including a large stock of gold bullion), among them being the device. With her health failing, she had divided her many thousands of valuable antiques and other items into twelve numbered shipping containers, which she bequeathed in toto in her will. No mention of the device was made in the will, so we can only surmise that it was inside one of the containers, the contents of which were not officially disclosed. No mention of the device has been made by anyone known to have been an associate of Dame Tomarko. The recipients named in her will are themselves scattered around the globe, from Iceland to Australia, but the Yutani Corporation does its best to monitor them all for any signs of unexpected timespace interference.