The Dust Settles

We are but dust in history, sounded in Telemachus' mind. He was young when he first heard that, back when he studied under Scholarch Zenobia. He lived with the other students in the village of Highpass, where the famed sage Zenobia lived. She brought her students out to the Valley of Ruins to meditate upon it. In his puerile youth, the significance was lost on him. He narrowly avoided falling asleep, only by writing messages in the sand to nearby students. It was only later he was properly terrified.

Carved into the walls were the signs of countless civilizations and ages, some predating history. Telemachus saw the crude scrawling and pictographs in the hilltop caves, made when the first humans had yet to master fire. He saw the cuneiform wedges of the first cities and downs beneath that, old tallies made by herdsmen in the elder years. He saw the eldritch runes beneath that, eroded wards from the first discoverers of magic. He saw the threadbare scripts of the first great empire, the rude forebears of a recognizable alphabet. Only at the bottom of the valley, he saw recognizable writings amidst the shrines beside the stream. Those were carved mere human lifetimes ago, but many times his total tenure alive.

Zenobia seemed to know when it hit him. He stared across the cliffs with a slack jawed stare, like his classmates already had. By this point, he was well advanced into his other studies, and many of his former peers already moved on. The familiar faces he started with had either left or completed, and been replaced with fresh faces a generation after his own. They talked of things, and events, he had only heard of, rather than lived. Maturity came later, but it came nonetheless.

Telemachus' reflections on time grew into a scholarly interest, and then obsession. He spent more of his time teaching the Scholarch's new students, hearing of the most recent arcane discoveries and philosophical theories. It was among these that he found the idea for what became his obsession: the Mote. Based upon the writings of a brilliant, but insane, mathematician, it was postulated that objects traveling at different speeds would experience time at different rates. As such, he began to design all manner of devices by which he might experience this firsthand.

Telemachus jokingly suggested naming the first one the Mote to Zenobia. As all were dust in history, would such a device not be a single mote? Zenobia was unamused, and she instead urged him to proceed with great caution. Time, and history, were rivers more powerful than the piddling stream in the Valley of Ruins, she argued, but even a stream could carve a valley. Nevertheless, he tested a small version, a metal sphere which was left to rotate for months. Eggs placed within it hatched fresh seasons after being laid. A young rabbit placed in the device for six months did not age, while its siblings did. Such work had potential to preserve crops or even books and information, but Telemachus wanted a final test.

Telemachus built a human-sized version of the Mote. His plan was to test it on himself, to see if one could truly travel forwards in time. His plan was to travel forward a month, to settle a wager with his friend Delios regarding the size of the village's harvest. Zenobia was even cautiously supportive, although warned him to take his time. Telemachus tried to make his calculations as precise as possible. The price of miscalculation was quite steep, but he did not know the margin of error.

Telemachus left himself a small window in the device, so that he might signal for help if the device malfunctioned. He amply provisioned himself with tools, food, and supplies inside the metal sphere, such that even in the event of a mishap, he'd be well equipped to supply himself. He left behind detailed notes, so that others might understand his experiment. To the cheering of his friends and family, he activated the device.

Telemachus realized his error only after a few subjective minutes elapsed. He not only saw the fields harvested in autumn, but he saw the snowfalls of winter. He saw the following spring, and the summer once more. He knocked on his glass window, his eyes opened wide. He saw some stare at him, but they were gone following the next turn of the craft. To those outside, he realized, he would appear suspended in time, if they could even see him.

Telemachus blinked, and he realized he was spinning even faster. The fields became fallow. Highpass was deserted and overgrown. Another village was built on top of Highpass' ruins. Unfamiliar architecture arose like alien weeds. The horizon itself seemed to change, as forest became farmland, desert, and overgrown. New waves of unfamiliar flora crossed the landscape, a virtual continent's worth of growth, but he only saw the barest bits of it. He tried transcribing what he saw in an attempt to distract himself, all to avoid thinking of the implications of his miscalculation.

Telemachus broke down twice, regaining control for a brief modicum of sanity. After the second time, he began to feel hungry, so he indulged himself in some of his provisions to sate his hunger and thirst. He realized that if no one was able, or perhaps even willing, to reach him, then he might eventually succumb to hunger and dehydration within his machine. If that was to be his fate, he would at least leave records of what occurred. He would at least be a proper sage, and document the unfortunate series of events.

What started as a laboratory journal ended up as an autobiography and macabre philosophical treatise. Telemachus mused on all he once knew, every action he could recall, or how those undoubtedly long-dead souls would judge him. From his point of view, they were as dust before history. He wondered if it might be similar from the outside, where he would appear as some surreal curiosity to all beholding his machine and the passenger seemingly frozen within.

Telemachus expected a long, lingering end of dehydration, days drawn out over eons. That did not happen as he thought it would. Instead, the mote violently jerked to the side, as though struck with tremendous force. The device immediately began to slow, and he held on for dear life. Having originally resigned himself to an agonized end, he now clutched tightly. The device rolled along the ground for a moment, and then, it stopped.

With great care and caution, Telemachus stuck his head out into the air. He looked out from the wrecked device to see the Valley of Ruins had become a vast canyon in the interim, its depths descending long below where he last recalled them. The small stream at the bottom was now a raging river. There was no trace of Highpass or its successor settlements, save a few patterns of rectangular foundations in the nearby stone. He saw he was not alone, however.

Telemachus gathered what supplies he could from the Mote. Its delicate controlling mechanisms had been damaged in the crash, reducing it to an ad hoc shelter at best. He suspected, however, that the turn of events was not accidental. Tracing the route the craft had taken along the broken ground, he found a recent campsite. There were slightly older campsites, positioned at various intervals around where the craft spent its eons-long voyage.

That he would be an object of study, or of mythology, was an idea that Telemachus immediately found intriguing. Perhaps someone had built upon his work, and finally solved his mistake. Perhaps his work was forgotten or lost, and someone had to independently rediscover them. Perhaps his seemingly unchanging nature had inspired myths. Nevertheless, he had a clear path before him.

Telemachus followed the trail from the most recent of campsites. He knew not what empires reigned. He knew not what gods or ideas held sway in the minds of them. He knew not what foods or customs they had, nor what advances may have been made or lost. He knew not what diseases he might be exposed to, nor expose others to. As he stepped down that trail beside the canyon, he knew those were the answers he'd have to find. Even after eons, his Mote of dust had finally settled.