Time is not linear. Time stretches and twists and curls upon itself. The trick is to catch the loop when it crosses your path.

Clara reread the passage once more, then threw the book onto the floor with the others, along with dozens of e-chip readers. None of the authors could pin down the true nature of time or even prove that it existed at all. Some even claimed the entire concept could be merely a matter of human perception.

Everything she'd read so far provided little more than fanciful thinking, mathematical theories or philosophical conjecture. Nothing appeared to have any practical purpose. The only physical experiment showing time existed beyond the human mind was the slowing of clocks when traveling at high speed — a proven phenomenon that had given rise to one very practical use: sending people into the future — one way, of course. A time capsule from the past - that's how Clara thought of herself. She had experienced the passage of five years in this small ship, much of it spent in suspended animation, but on Earth, a thousand years would have gone by since her departure. She had been sent forward in time to be a living antiquity, a person designed for scientific curiosity and historical research.

When she had volunteered at the tender age of eighteen, that had sounded like a wonderful alternative to certain obscurity. Her average looks and intelligence combined with the fact that she'd had no family or close friends had made her a perfect candidate. In fact, the woman who'd recruited her into the program was only person she really missed. Renee had trained her for the mission, endlessly patient, but relentlessly dedicated. Clara had almost come to think of the older and wiser Renee as the mother she had always wanted. Renee had drilled Clara night and day until the ship's operations were as familiar and automatic to her as breathing. It was also Renee who had filled her with dreams of a sparkling future, of wonders that might only dreamed of in their own time. That vision had sustained her. Now that she was finally to be thrust into that unknown future, Clara's stomach knotted with excitement. No matter what, she was certain to be a celebrity.

"I have located two additional references under the specified search parameters," the ship's disembodied voice announced.

"Never mind," Clara slumped back onto her cot. "Nothing in the libraries will tell me what I really want to know. What's happened while I've been gone? Has civilization progressed or regressed? Will I find an unimaginably advanced world or a return to the Dark Ages?"

"The fact that I am linked to an operating Earth-based computer would make a new Dark Age unlikely."

"Unless it's still operating on automatic," Clara said and could easily imagine such a possibility. "Well, at least I can be certain of one thing. No matter what, I won't be average. I bet my name's in all their history books. They're probably counting down the hours just like we are. The return of Clara Reese, the first time traveler to future Earth. If it is an advanced world, they'll treasure me as an historical resource. Maybe they'll give me a big parade - except by now everyone will float along in personal anti-gravity spheres and instead of giant balloons, there'll be huge animated holograms... or something." Her mind filled with fanciful images.

"And if instead you find a new Dark Age?" the computer asked.

Clara shrugged and looked around at all the high tech equipment at her disposal and smiled as she remembered discussing that possibility with her mentor. "Then I guess I'll be a god."

The computer's personality program had no response for that.

"How much time left till landing?" Clara asked.

"Four hours, two minutes, forty-three seconds, ship time."

Clara's elation was again touched with worry. "You're still linked to Earth, right?"

"Affirmative. I would notify you of any change in status."

"I just wish you could get someone to talk to me. I wish I could hear a human voice."

"My RAM is insufficient to support the automated landing link and real time communications simultaneously."

"Can't we suspend the link for a minute, so I can talk to somebody?"

"Interruption could result in loss of trajectory control. Unadvised."

Four hours, only four more hours, Clara told herself. She'd been patient for five years, so what was four more hours? At the moment it sounded like an eternity. "Give me a sleeping solution, and wake me when it's time." The dispensary unit beside her bed popped open, revealing a small sealed envelope. She set it on the bed. First she had to make preparations. She stowed the books and e-chips back in their holds. At some point, the ship would slow enough to be in freefall. Making sure her gear was in place, she strapped herself down, tore off the corner of the envelope and sucked out a sweet syrupy liquid. In moments, she forgot all about time.

#

"Landing imminent. Prepare for landing," the computer was announcing repeatedly. Clara snapped awake. She could feel the vibration of re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. In moments, all her questions would be answered and she would take her place in history among the great explorers. Everyone would want to know what life was really like in her time, information that could never be fully conveyed in books or film — assuming such records had even survived.

The linked computers were in charge now, controlling the ship's attitude and speed, bringing its nose up into an airplane configuration, lowering landing gear that had waited for this moment. Wind roared past outside and then she felt the wheels hit ground, just like landing in an old 747. They were rolling now, braking hard and she slid forward against her straps. When the ship came to a stop, the exterior hatch clanged releasing the lock mechanism

"You may now disembark," her ship computer announced.

Just like that. It sounded so easy, as if she'd taken a quick trip up the coast or stopped somewhere for lunch. But the world outside would be vastly changed. But that's what she'd wanted, hadn't she?. A new world. An escape from all she'd known before, a chance to start over. Fame and glory. It was all out there, just waiting for her. All she had to do was step out that door. Gathering her courage, she pushed open the hatch, but no welcoming voices cheered, no smiling faces greeted her. Instead, the hatch opened into a long empty tube, a boarding ramp she supposed. Empty of people but still, it was hardly something one would see on a regressed world. Encouraged, she walked its length. Her ship had simulated a gravitational field slightly less than Earth normal, enough to keep her fit, but she could feel the difference. A door at the end slicked open at her approach.

"Hello, Clara. Welcome home." The greeting came from a woman approximately her own age, dressed in clothing reminiscent of her own time. "I am pleased to see that you appear to be in good health." The young woman smiled and offered a chair. "Are you in need of food or water or personal facilities?"

"No, I'm fine. Um, who are you?"

"My name is Renee."

"A Renee recruited me, trained me. You even look a little bit like her, but she was much older."

"Yes, I know."

"So what is this, a debriefing room?"

"You could call it that. Re-entry from the past is never easy."

"You say that like I'm not the first."

"You are the first, though others followed. You may recognize their names from the Training Center: Jonathan Murphy, Ruena Dorado, Kyle Oberton, They departed and return at hundred-year intervals. Re-entry is difficult, but understanding comes."

"Understanding of what?"

"Of the nature of the universe. Of space and time and reality." Renee paused. "I'm sorry. I know I sound obscure in this now. I hope in your future nows, it will all be clear."

"My future nows?"

"All existence is built of nows, one after the other. But your mind is designed to see them one at a time in rapid succession, much like viewing a movie. Just as your eyes perceive the individual scenes as continuous motion and activity extending in a forward pattern, your brain perceives the universe as a passage of time and movement. In fact, there is no time or motion. All reality exists simultaneously."

"Why are you talking time theory? I want to know what's happened since I've been gone. I need to know what the world is like today. What new technologies have you developed? Have there been any world wars? Talk about something concrete."

"All right. Are you familiar with the Wheeler-DeWitt equation?"

"I think that's what the ship computer used to project our position in space."

"Yes, it's a mathematical formulae DeWitt and Wheeler came up with in 1967 to meld quantum mechanics with general relativity. It calculates the shape of the universe and the position of everything in it, but it only works if you eliminate time as a factor. And how can that be right when all your senses tell you time is ticking away?"

"I'm guessing you've solved the riddle."

"Time doesn't exist."

"Look, I've just spent five relative years traveling close to light speed, so I could return to the Earth a thousand years later, so don't tell me time doesn't exist." Clara felt a rising anger, certain this woman was playing with her. Then another startling thought occurred to her. "You're not trying to say it's the same year I left?"

Renee smiled. "If you choose it to be."

"What is this, a game?"

"I'm sorry. It's difficult to remember linear thinking once one has been freed of it. Would it help if I told you that I am the same Renee you remember? Merely a younger version? Do you remember, a week before launch when you were having second thoughts, how I told you that you could make a difference to the future by carrying the past into it?"

Clara scowled at the recollection. No one else could have overheard that late night conversation, when she had been close to bailing out of the whole Time-Forward Mission. The memory of that moment flashed in her mind like a scene, Renee sitting next to her, an arm draped over her shoulder like a mother comforting a fearful child.

"How could you know that?"

"Have you ever remembered an event so vividly that it's almost like experiencing it again — the same emotion, the same sensation?"

"I guess so. Sometimes a memory can seem very immediate, if you let it."

"Exactly. The memory reaches a now that continues to exist. You can go there, if you just let go."

"Okay, this is all very fascinating, but it couldn't possibly explain how someone who lived a thousand years ago and was old enough to be my mother at the time, could be sitting here with me now as young as I am."

"It can, because all our experiences exist simultaneously. They never disappear or fade. If we are open, it's possible to connect and interact. I can speak to you in this now, in the body of a young woman, long after, in linear terms, the moment of my death, with all my life's experiences available to me. I remember my birth, my death, my friendship with you in the past, in the future, every heartache, every triumph. It's all there to be relived, re-experienced and used to create new experiences in new nows, each one incorporated into the overall reality of the universe. I will have this conversation with you in this now forever, even as I experience similar ones with other Time-Forward participants."

For a moment, Clara merely stared, wondering if this could be some colossally ill-conceived joke. Surely a gang of rowdy pranksters was about to leap out laughing and claiming they'd got her good. Renee merely gazed back at her steadily, her face expressing a beatific calm.

"Does everyone here think like you?" she asked, feeling a rising fear.

"Almost. Initially, just a few were freed of linear perspective, but they taught others. Gradually, awareness spread. We free-floaters are working our way back through time, awakening others. Once one sees past the barriers, the barriers cease to exist."

Clara rose and turned away. "So how would it be for someone like me, who can only see one direction?"

"The freed know the past and the future, and cross into the life-experiences of others, while the linear move forward one frame at a time."

A new crushing realization slowly dawned on Clara. "I guess there won't be any welcoming parades then."

"One hardly needs a human time capsule when history is an open door."

"I've wasted five years of my life for nothing."

"You cannot waste something that is endless. I know that is difficult for you to comprehend in this now. And I do feel responsible for influencing you to participate in the program. That's why I am here to help you adjust."

"If you feel so guilty, why don't you just go back to that night and tell me to drop out?"

"All nows are forever fixed. You can add more nows, but you cannot eliminate those already in existence. Reality remains what it is."

"So you get to relive all your mistakes, but you can't change them. No wonder our brains were made to see in one direction. What you're talking about would drive a person mad."

Renee nodded. "Initially, there is immense frustration in viewing everything while being able to subtract nothing. But as I said, you can add. And sometimes, a little something added can make all the difference."

Clara shook her head. "But in the end, you always find yourself in the same place."

"But not with the same lack of awareness. That is the one thing that changes."

"Sounds like an endless nightmare."

"Like time and space, it's all a matter of perception." Renee looked at her for a long stretch of silence, as if assessing what should be said next. "I would caution against moving too fast. The more you are exposed to us as we step in and out of the nows, the more inclined you are to becoming unstuck yourself. Initially, it may seem as if you are simply having particularly vivid recollections. You must access your nows systematically and deliberately. If you allow your sub-conscious to take charge, you can easily become trapped in a loop, or flip from one now to the other without control. Therein lies the path to madness."

As if Renee's words triggered something within, for an instant, Clara felt strangely disconnected, as if her feet no longer fully met the floor. Clara found herself recalling that final argument with her real mother, when Clara had screamed she was never coming back. She felt the same rush of anger that had driven her into the night, determined to make her mark on the world in some spectacular way. She felt the cold wet rain, heard the car horn blare as she ran blindly. She mentally shook herself back to this small white room again with its two chairs, one for her, one for Renee.

"You became unstuck for a moment," she said. "When did you go?"

"I was remembering my mother. We argued and I ran away. I never saw her again."

Renee nodded. "That's how it begins. Our most traumatic moments call us back first. They are hard-wired into our brain by the chemical rush associated with the event. You will learn to control the impulse to relive those events and move to ones more satisfying. When you are able to create new nows, you will begin to feel true fulfillment."

"This is crazy. You sound like some religious cult," Clara said, intentionally sarcastic and bitter. "Maybe I don't want to be converted."

"There is no conversion. You will choose your own experience."

But this isn't what she had chosen at all, Clara thought. She'd run from her old life, flown light years through space to escape it. The last thing she wanted was to relive every mundane moment over and over and over. And if Renee was right, not even death would release her. No, it couldn't be possible. This wasn't the Renee she'd known.

"Why are doing this? Why are you keeping me here when the future Earth is waiting for me? I don't believe you're the same person I knew. I've had enough of this. I'm going out there, right now." Clara ran from the room. There had to be a future out there.

"No wait!" Renee yelled behind her. "Please, you're not ready."

But Clara ran on, finding another direction in the long white tubing. A door waited beyond, a door sliding open before her and she leapt through it.

#

Time is not linear. Time stretches and twists and curls upon itself. The trick is to catch the loop when it crosses your path.

Clara reread the passage once more, then threw the book onto the floor with the others, along with dozens of e-chip readers. None of the authors could pin down the true nature of time or even prove that it existed at all. Some even claimed the entire concept could be merely a matter of human perception...