Time crystal

The chief entered the room to a familiarly grim sight — there, lying in the centre of the floor, was a body, dead as a doornail.

“Geez,” said the chief. “He could have been any one of us.”

“You really think?” Jack, their top junior detective for 20 years, was already on the scene, expecting the chief’s arrival.

The chief took a long look at the sprawled-out stiff, and glanced down at himself. Similar height, weight — even their trenchcoats were of the same cut and hue. Yeah, he thought gravely, I really think. Still, he had a job to do. “What do we got?”

“Suicide, from where I’m standin’,” said Jack. “Look at this place. Clearly his lab or somethin’. I’m thinkin’ the stress finally got to the egghead, and he cracked.”

The chief’s attention shifted from body to room. It was windowless and featureless, save for a few half-open filing cabinets, a dense array of uniquely formatted wall clocks, and the floor-to-ceiling supercomputers whirring along the back. “No doors in or out, save the one I just walked through,” summarized the chief. “And, unlike the last death that took place here, no witnesses of someone leaving. It’s a classic locked-room mystery.”

“Last death?” asked Jack.

“Another poor fella was killed here last week. Some of the tenants saw someone run outta here — with a body. Still working on that one.”

“You sure this is a homicide? Thought you said it was one of those locked-room whoozitwhutsits.”

“A locked-room mystery is just a murder too clever for its own good.” The chief paused. “Two in one week. Somebody wants something in here bad.” He strode towards the body. “Where’s the CSI?”

“Taking their sweet time as usual. Feels like forever.”

“Let’s just start then.” The chief donned a pair of latex gloves. “Now, who are you …” he asked the corpse, rolling it onto its back.

He winced.

No face. The head was there, sure, but where there should have been eyes, a nose, a mouth? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. The chief shifted focus to the victim’s hands, but they were covered in burns. Still, he came upon his first lead, a small notepad in the victim’s left hand.

The chief pried the booklet from the victim’s death grip and paged through it. “Well, well, well, what secrets does your chicken-scratch script hide?” Drawings, schematics, equations. Research notes? He’d seen this before. “Jack, you ever heard of a time crystal?”

“Ain’t that the movie with the puppets? The kids love that one.”

“Wrong crystal, Jack. Well … you know how a regular crystal works. A single molecular pattern repeats itself indefinitely in space. Now, imagine that, but for time. An event, typically not more than a few millimetres in scale, repeats itself, right down to the atom, rhythmically, temporally.” The chief absent-mindedly tapped his hand on the wood flooring as he mouthed the sounds. Bu-dum. Bu-dum. “Metronomic, like a perfect heartbeat.”

“Huh.” Jack stared emptily, appearing to process but also seemingly not. “And that’s what this smart alec had written? How do you know so much, anyhow?”

“It came up in last week’s murder, too. I did my homework. You should try it sometime, get past junior detective.”

“You seem to know everything, chief. You ever worry you know too much?”

“I’m a detective, Jack. Is that possible?”

“Oh chief,” Jack chortled. “It’s always possible to know too much.”

But the chief had already moved on. “There was a struggle,” he said, pointing to small red stains on the corner of the notebook.

“Blood don’t mean struggle, chief. If it’s a murder, then course there’s blood.”

From the lining of his trenchcoat the chief furnished what resembled a small, ancient pager, which sopped up the red markings. After a long, silent minute, the device coughed up the blood’s secrets, printing line after line of detailed demographic information on its tiny display. Blood type O. Male. Czech. Genetic markers associated with: high intellect, athleticism, sociopathy. Night owl. Ectrodactyly. It continued to rattle. “Definitely a struggle,” confirmed the chief. “This blood belongs to the perp. The pad probably does too.”

“Or the vic! How do you know that’s from some John?”

“DNA tells you all sorts of things. Like that someone here had some form of ectrodactyly, which the victim doesn’t have.”

“Electro-pterodactyl?” Jack tried to repeat, incredulously.

“Ectrodactyly. Some of the killer’s digits are malformed.”

“And with the bad handwriting — you think the pad was pried from the killer? Notes of what he was looking for.”


“Well that tracks — the bad handwriting, I mean. He was smart, right? Psh. Doctors, y’know.”

The chief paused and looked at Jack. “Now, how do you know about that?”

“C’mon, docs havin’ bad handwriting is a well-known stereotype, chief.”

“No, that he was smart.”

“Well, from the blood analysis, of course!” Jack exclaimed. “From yer thingamajig!”

“But I didn’t say that.” The chief stared daggers into Jack who waved and pointed at the analyser. “And you can’t read that from there, Jack.”

“Well, if honesty is what you want …” Jack, who had been sweating bullets, caught his composure and smiled. “It’s not Jack; it never was,” he said, with sudden precise articulation. “It’s Djack. OK, I know that sounds the same when I say it out loud, but it starts with a D. Short for Djakovich. Family name.” He paused a beat. “It’s Czech.”

The chief continued to stare, quietly.

“Give me some credit,” said Djack. “It’s not easy putting one over on smart guys like you.”

The chief reached for his holster but was outdrawn — Djack’s barrel was already trained at the chief’s head. “Ah-ah-ah, refrain please,” scolded Djack.

The chief stopped mid-motion and raised his palms squared. “What are you gonna do, Djack? Shoot me and throw my body into the river?” The chief stepped slowly to his left as Djack countered in time, dancing to the chief’s right; their circular waltz headlined a slow standoff.

“No, I don’t repeat mistakes. See, I found the time crystal, chief. I killed that man last week, too. But it’s hard to smuggle a dead guy in a dense city. It drew your attention. So that crystal? I have to protect it now. People get too smart.”

Djack could barely finish the last sound of his sentence as the chief’s drawn right palm snapped down impatiently across his mouth, knocking him off balance. “Does that smart?” the chief yelled. But by the time the chief had wound up to clock him a second time, Djack had recovered. He shot the chief’s hand in reprisal.

The chief screamed and clutched his right wrist as his hand burst into flames. “What the blazes?!!”

Djack wiped the blood from his lips and smiled. “Vaporizer. Leaves no trace. That was just a glancing blow. Imagine what a direct hit can do.” The chief made a desperate play for the weapon, thrusting for Djack’s firing hand; but Djack, expecting the riposte, fired another scalding shot at the chief’s south paw. “Between you and me, I let you have that first one.”

The chief panted in stifled agony. “But, why?” he sputtered. “Our countries are allies.”

“It’s just spy stuff, chief. You wouldn’t understand. Sorry, it wasn’t supposed to get, hah, well, out of hand like this,” he punned accidentally. “It’s nothing personal, merely … unprofessional.”

The chief’s only hope now was escape. With a lunging leap, he catapulted himself over the dead body. Djack, as if not expecting the bound, shot low and missed, zapping the dead victim again instead, atomizing him completely. The chief had the momentary reprieve he needed. All he had to do was reach the landing …

But the chief’s luck was no match for his destiny, and with lightning-fast reflexes, Djack fired a second shot directly at the airborne chief’s face.

The chief collapsed on the floor, belly flopping unceremoniously, face first, with a thud.

Djack sighed. But there was no time to rest. Footsteps were sounding in the vestibule. Djack resheathed his weapon and stood back at attention.

The chief entered the room to a familiarly grim sight — there, lying in the centre of the floor, was a body, dead as a doornail.

“Geez,” said the chief. “He could have been any one of us.”

The story behind the story

Andrew Spielberg reveals the inspiration behind Time crystal.

There are points in your life when time feels like a loop; for many of us, such was the COVID-19 lockdown. The only perceptible difference between my days was the intensity of my cabin fever, and the particular episode of Radiolab or Law & Order on the docket for a given day’s workout. This piece is probably the cursed conflux of lockdown and those media, a noir scientific mystery couched in an endless riddle.

I have always liked puzzles, and so reconciling a short story with no beginning or end with a coherent narrative was a fun challenge. It needed to be a story with no true beginning, no true end, but a clear solution and no inconsistencies. Still, it needed to create a nagging doubt. Nature is full of instances of phenomena settling from transience into steady-state equilibria, but when such an equilibrium comprises human life and continual death, the implications become far more unsettling.

In a closed system, the passage of time is measurable only by an observation of a change in state, an evolution of the system. I no longer attend the gym, listen to Radiolab, or watch Law & Order from the elliptical with the same frequency I once did. In the exothermic release from lockdown, a demon not unlike Maxwell’s seems to have converted that energy into information, crystallized in a story. It is nice to feel oneself growing yet again. Then again, from a different frame of reference, I have lost my superpower to time travel back 24 hours, once per day.

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