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Time and Again
Michael Steckel

Lance wasn't sure what, but he knew something had happened to him. Perhaps his eyelids were stuck closed. But that wouldn't explain why he couldn't feel his body, not one part of it. Nor would it explain the terrifying, deafening silence that stopped up his ears like some liquid void, seeping into his being, penetrating to his very soul. He could hear not a sound, not his voice, not his heartbeat, not the roar of ordinary air pressure, not anything. He had tried speaking, and screaming, when he'd first awakened to this towering blackness. He'd been answered only with silence.

As a child, Lance had always thought his father had secretly wanted him to grow up to be a professional football player. Not that Lance was ever big or strong or fast; it was just that his given name, Lance Jefferson Haynes, seemed a better match for a wide receiver with the Atlanta Falcons than for a thin, bookish librarian with wire-rimmed glasses. But that fatherly fantasy, if it ever existed, had ended early when Lance broke his kneecap and his leg in three places during a grade school football game.
So, Lance found diversion in areas other than sports; most notably, he found books. He read anything that he could get his hands on: magazines, novels, newspapers, flyers, bumper stickers, phone books, anything. But what he cherished most were the stories of fantasy. Lance was a dreamer. For hours at a time he let himself go, to slay dragons and rescue princesses, to fly to the moon and fight off alien aggressors, to cast subtle, arcane spells, and to discover slim golden weapons with terrible powers. He had a special devotion to the Knights of the Round Table; he let those Arthurian legends soak into his essence like water into parched earth. There were many days and nights when he envisioned himself a knight of renown. He fought Morgan Le Fay in the service of Merlin. He battled monsters with Sir Gawain at his side. He single-handedly defeated Sir Garlon, the invisible knight, in a tournament melee. He even fancied himself as a lover of Guenevere; after all, Lancelot was his namesake. He read, and he wished, and he dreamed.

Wait a minute, thought Lance. I can see! Oh, everything was still black all right, but a different kind of black, more amiable and less dark. He thought he could glimpse something to each side just out of the corners of his eyes. He tried turning his head to the left and right, but since he couldn't feel his head, or his neck, or any other part of his body, he couldn't tell if his efforts were having any effect. The thought that he may have been paralyzed, or something worse, caused the cold hand of fear to grip his heart once again. Oh, why hadn't he just fled the library, like all the rest of the staff?

Of course, leaving wasn't a choice.  Not for Lance.  The library was part of him, his pride and joy.  He'd been working after closing, setting the misplaced books back onto the shelves, cleaning up, reorganizing. This was Lance's time, when the doors were closed to the public and he could freely wander the aisles of his literary Eden, breathing in the soft odor of aging paper.
Lance stopped off at the main desk to talk to Evelyn, the head librarian. She was a sweet lady, in her late fifties with beautiful silver hair. Her face was finely made, with strong high cheekbones, an aquiline nose, and full lips; it was easy to see she had been lovely when she was younger. Lance thought her nothing short of wonderful, and he put up with her mothering nature with good humor. "Be a dear, Lance," she said, "And put away the returns, could you? These late notices are going to take me all night as it is."
"My pleasure, Evelyn," Lance replied. He gave her his winningest smile and took the cart full of books towards the back.
Humming softly to himself, Lance quickly became absorbed in his work. He'd long since learned the knack of working on autopilot, freeing his mind to wander in the fertile fields of his imagination. About half way through the rack, though, it occurred to him that he could detect the acrid stench of smoke in the air. No odor could be less welcome in the confines of a world made of paper and ink.
He'd reprimanded the janitorial staff once before about smoking cigarettes in the back with the doors left open, so he headed in that direction first. But a scream from the vicinity of the main desk sent him flying to the front, and he sped even faster when the fire alarm sounded before he was halfway there.
The scene as he rounded the last corner nearly stopped his heart. Angry yellow flames had already engulfed all of non-fiction and were hungrily licking at the romance novels. Janie, another after-hours assistant, was in one of the aisles bravely attempting to put out the fire with a small fire extinguisher.
"JANIE!" Evelyn shouted, standing near the aisle entrance. "Get out of there! You can't do any good, love!"  As if to prove Evelyn right, a burst of sparks landed in Janie's hair, and she dropped the extinguisher and screamed.
Lance sprinted down between the blazing shelves, wrapped an arm around Janie's waist and dragged her clear. He shoved her towards Peter, who had just breathlessly arrived from upstairs. "Get her outside. Where's Simone?"
"I saw her heading out the side entrance already."
"Ok, let's get out of here."
Just as the little group exited the front doors of the library, Evelyn stopped dead in her tracks, a stricken look on her face. "I forgot Cora!"
"Cora? She had the night off," replied Peter.
"No, I had her come in to sort through that new delivery of microfiche. She was upstairs."
"I'll get her," volunteered Lance, and he darted back into the building before any of the others could protest. He headed up the wide spiralling stairs to the second floor, and turned left toward the fiche storage room.
Lance couldn't find Cora in either the reading area or the room where the microfiche was kept, so he started searching the remainder of the top floor. He began what the library staff called "The Sweep", a pattern through the aisles they used to check for anyone hiding in the corners after closing.
The smoke was really beginning to thicken now, and Lance tried to breathe through the collar of his shirt to stop from choking. His eyes were tearing so much from the stinging ash in the air that he could hardly see.
He completed the sweep with still no sign of Cora. He bounded back downstairs, and stopped at the last step. The first floor was a complete inferno. Every shelf was aflame, and he would be hard pressed to find a way through the maelstrom. He was contemplating continuing to look for the missing Cora when a massive snapping sound, louder than the incessant alarm bells, drew his eyes to the engulfed ceiling. Even had the sight of the falling roof beam not frozen him in place, it struck him much too quickly for him to avoid. As he lost consciousness, he realized that the fire sprinklers, the ones that the fire department had made them install last year at an exorbitant cost, had never even activated.

The sudden awareness of sound instantly brought Lance to attention. Not the sounds of his own heartbeat or breathing, but of soft footsteps approaching, and a curious tapping. Then, into his field of vision came the figure of an elderly man carrying a walking stick. The man was stoop-shouldered, slightly pot-bellied, but not fat, with tousled, graying hair encircling a shiny bald spot. He wore a rumpled, poorly cut dark suit, the kind the absent-minded professor would wear, or perhaps an elderly accountant or maybe even a librarian as they always seemed to be portrayed on television. He had thick reading glasses perched on his wrinkled nose, and a large silver ring on a chain at his breast.
From the viewing angle, Lance deduced where he was: laying flat on his back. The man was coming directly toward him.  "Hey there!" Lance called out, astonishing himself with the sound and volume of his re-found voice. Reassured that he was recovering from whatever had ailed him, he added, "Can you help me up?" The oldster seemed not to hear at all. His eyes were unfocused, mind and thoughts turned inward, as he drew near. He shuffle-tapped closer, one step away, then raised his leg for the next stride and planted his foot squarely on Lance's chest. Lance felt not a thing.
Incensed that someone would callously walk on him without so much as a by-your-leave, Lance channeled every ounce of grit he had into one heroic effort, and he sat up. He opened his mouth to begin a tirade about politeness to others, but the words died on his lips as he saw the tableau laid out before him.
The floor, if it could be called that, was a perfectly flat expanse of transparent amber. Stretching out in all directions Lance could see figures--some obviously human, others just as obviously not--encased in the floor. Flies trapped in an amber landscape. There were no stars or lights in the sky, just that endless sea of black from horizon to horizon. The light, for there was light coming from somewhere, was diffuse and wan, and seemed to spring from everywhere at once.
Looking down at himself, he saw that he was sitting in a hollow filled with what looked like orange marmalade. As he crawled out of the depression and stood up, he thought, Strange, I’m not wet.
Remembering the retreating figure, he called out, “Excuse me!" This time the man heard. He wheeled so quickly he almost lost his balance and fell. Seeing Lance, the man's eyes went wide. He started to shake like a leaf, and his mouth opened and closed as if he were a fish out of water. Then he shook himself, and blinked twice.
"Impossible," he spouted in a raspy tenor.  "Enormously improbable, highly irregular.  JUST...NOT...POSSIBLE." He accented each word with a jab of his cane in Lance's direction. Reaching inside his vest, the man retrieved a small leather-bound book. He opened it, and, after furious page-flipping, pointed victoriously to an entry. "See? See?  You shouldn’t have emerged for another 8.3 billion years! Oh, this is dreadful, horrible, unheard of. Why do these things always happen to me?"
The man fluttered, swayed, sagged, and finally collapsed onto a stool, his head cradled in his hands. He began to sob and commiserate with himself. Now, where did that stool come from?
Bewildered, Lance approached and ventured, "Uh, hello. Can you tell me where I am? What is this place?" No reaction. Lance boldly reached out and tapped the man's shoulder. "Where are we?" he insisted.
"Wha-?” the old man started. “Oh. Oh, yes, yes, here you are, all confused, and I do suppose I'll have to do something with you." He narrowed his eyes to slits. "Humph.  And what am I supposed to do with you?" He looked at Lance as if he expected an answer.
"What are you asking me for?" Lance said. "I don't even know what's going on here."
"Hmm, well you've hit the truth there. Wasn't expecting an answer, though. Rhetorical question and such." He settled himself in his chair, put his chin on his fist, and, from the expression on his face, began to intensely contemplate the situation.
Lance waited patiently for a few minutes, then impatiently for a few more. Finally the old man stirred.  "Reinsertion. That's what it will have to be." He sighed heavily and stood. "Come along. We'll just get you packed off, and then I'll be able to go back to my work. Appearing like that. Hmpf. I didn’t take this job to deal with all these intrusions." He shuffled off, leaving Lance standing mystified.
After 50 feet or so the man stopped and looked back. Lance hadn't moved; he was still trying to decide just what in the world was going on. "Well, come on! I haven't got eternity to spend on you, you know."
Lance started himself in motion. "But, where are we going? What is this place? Who are you? What are these creatures doing in the floor? What-"
"So many questions," the old man cut in. "Walk with me, and maybe I'll answer a few of them for you."
They walked for a little bit in silence while the man stroked his chin in thoughtful preparation. "This place, what you see around you, is call the timebed, and I am the Timekeeper. All sentient beings come here,” he tapped the amber floor, ”To be enmeshed in the bed when they cease to be timeridden. That's what you see around you."
"What is 'timeridden'?"
"Hmmm. Well, timeridden means to be active in the timestream. I believe you call it 'life'. The creatures here below your feet are in the state that is opposite of life."<br>
"Death? You mean they're all dead?" Lance glanced at the figures under his feet.<br>
"Yes, quite right. They have ceased to be active in the timestream, and thus they have come here." He waved his arm around expansively.
Lance thought for a moment. "Wasn't I just in the timebed?"
"Of course you were."
"Then...then I was...then I am..." Lance trailed off for fear of continuing.
"Yes, you are dead. We are outside the timestream here." The Timekeeper seemed quite nonchalant about the whole idea. Lance, on the other hand, was understandably shaken.
"How come I'm not still stuck in the floor then, like them?" asked Lance. "Why did I come out of it?"
"Oh, most beings emerge from the bed at one point or another. Some emerge rather quickly, some take considerably longer. Some have never come out, and never will. But all that have arisen have done so exactly on schedule. Until now. You have done something quite extraordinary." He gifted Lance first with a smile, then immediately followed it with a scowl.
"Do you know why?"
"I have no idea. Perhaps there was more about you than your life indicated." He clapped Lance on the shoulder. “But no matter, we’ll soon have you taken care of.”
They walked in silence for a time, Lance trying to digest what he'd been told. "What happens when someone emerges?"
"He--or she or it, if you like--is reborn in the timestream at a future place to take another turn at life."
"So that's what you meant when you said I would be reinserted?"
"Oh no, no, not at all. There are no open places in the timestream now. No, you will have to go back into the stream in the past."<br>
Lance looked sideways at the other man. “You can travel back in time?”
The Timekeeper laughed. “Timebed, remember? We can walk up or downstream here to see any part of it. In fact, we’re here.”
“We’re where?”
“Here.” He tapped a depression in the floor, similar to the one Lance had crawled out of just moments earlier. I could swear that wasn’t there a second ago, Lance thought.
“Stand here.” He guided Lance to the center of the hollow. “This is the when that you are going back to.” The old man patted Lance’s cheek. “Have fun,” he said, and turned away.
“Wait,” Lance exclaimed. He tried to step after the retreating fellow, but his feet wouldn’t budge. Looking down, Lance saw with horror that his feet and legs were dissolving into amber, filling the hole with his liquid self. “What’s happening to me?” he cried.
The old man turned back. “Don’t worry, you’re going back to merge with another’s life, to live again and share their body. You won’t notice the sharing, or remember me, but it’s the right thing for you. Goodbye, Lance.” He smiled then, and looked perhaps a bit sad. “Maybe we’ll see each other again some time in the future. Or the past.”
Lance’s eyes sank below the level of the amber. Briefly, he could see the Timekeeper watching him, before darkness descended.
It was then that Lance became aware of the presence of another, the other who he would merge with. In the blinding instant before Lance’s own personality melted away, he felt a sudden upwelling of love and gratitude for the old man. For the being he was merging with, the one who he would share a life with, was none other than Lancelot du Lac, Knight of the Round Table. Lance hoped the Timekeeper knew what a gift he had given.