Love and Beans in Thin Times
By William Campbell Powell
“I’m sorry, everybody, we’ve run out of time.”

Bugger. The can’t-miss Enquête Lecture and I’d missed it.

Nobody in the lecture theatre moved. I checked the clock on the wall. I was a couple of minutes late, that was all. Was it some kind of joke? I mean, two minutes in, and here was the Prof, the faculty’s tame-but-quirky old fossil from the fringes of physics, who hadn’t cracked a joke this century, deadpanning us.

Except he wasn’t.

So, this was the lecture. Too bad I couldn’t join Guin, sitting on a packed front row with the other maths brains. Instead, I sidled into an empty seat at the back, to find out what was going on.

Exams were over, and by tradition this final lecture was supposed to be a kind of whistle-stop tour of new physics —real ink-wet stuff— to amuse us before we all headed out into the big wide world. Or hunkered down into a life of dusty academia.

And there wasn’t supposed to be too much maths, either. But Prof Arkady started clicking through slides, and my maths reached the it-all-looks-plausible-but-I-don’t-really-get-it stage by the end of slide 3.

It was about space/time, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s stayed in touch with what physics is doing. But there are some axioms that nobody’s touched since the Big E in 1915. Guin and the other maths brains in the front row twigged it first —there was a kind of buzz that went round them— and my poor, ordinary back-row brain got a glimpse of what was up.

How can I put it? Space and time are intertwined, but finite. The more space —and the universe has a knack of expanding— the less time. Time gets as thin as you like, up to a certain point...

“...and in a kinder universe, dear students, I would have presented this at a grand physics conference. But, as I’ve just proved, there isn’t time. Still, I thought I should at least tell someone. Thank you.”

All the time in the world. May I take a moment of your time? Do you have the time?

We don’t use those phrases anymore. Or at least, we don’t use them the same way. Right now, Guin, the love of my life does not have the time. I learned Russian when I was younger, and it has the trick of omitting the present tense of the verb ‘to be’. So, I would say она _ там (ona _ tam): literally ‘she _ there’. So it is with Guin— she _ there. Having Dropped Out, she does not need any verb at the moment. A verb implies continuity, or it implies change, and neither is appropriate for my Guin. She _ in the bedroom.

Almost everything _ in fact. Little waves of time flutter around, and things come back. People come back. I’m hoping Guin comes back. She has before. So have I.

Guin is my opposite in so many ways— muscled where I am fleshy, angular where I am curved, fair where I am dark, close-cropped where I am cornrowed. And of course, Guin is maths brained and gets to sit in the front row by right. Me, I need pictures. But we click on every level. Oh yes, we click. We are, as physicists say, entangled.

We’d started the evening with a walk under the open sky. The odd thing about time disappearing from the universe is that it doesn’t affect the night sky. Photons from far stars don’t have anything to do with time— it doesn’t pass for them at the best of times. So, looking at the night sky we could pretty much pretend everything was normal, and not be nerdy enough to worry that planets come and go.

Back home, Guin had picked up her guitar and started strumming —we’d met through the campus folk club— and I’d hummed along softly, until I’d come up with a bawdy, slightly preposterous lyric about the queen of faerie and a servant girl. But Guin is a professional, and nothing I invented ever put her off playing.

It ended in the bedroom with her. Skin to skin, slightly sweaty. Entangled. Did I say we click?

Yes, so we were somewhat interleaved, in the trough between one crest and the next, enjoying the utter stillness when most of civilization _ somewhere else. I traced slow lines down her body. Sometimes she slaps my hand away. This day, not.

And then there was movement in the apartment above, and we both looked at each other, in panic, because for the last six weeks or so our neighbors _ upstairs.

Don’t get me wrong —they were lovely lads — a couple— who’d shyly knocked on our door a few weeks after the Dropouts started, bottles in hand and wondering in a coy fin-d’univers sort of way whether we would like to party.

Sweet. And as physicists we couldn’t deny the fin-d’univers thing. But we explained about entanglement, as physicists should, to avoid any misunderstandings. And so, as f-d’u parties go, the evening was a success. But my point was that while Arkady’s equations were great at predicting the big picture, they weren’t refined enough to predict that time was particularly unstable around large gatherings of humans, which empirically was bad news for a foursome. While the neighbors _ away, it had been definitely safer for us. Now they were back in time; wild Chronos was rolling the dice…

“Keeya,” she began, and then there was a space next to me but no time. I couldn’t look. Literally. She _ gone from my perception. Shit. And me horny as hell and ready for a second round. She _ fine. Or at least I hope she will be. And that someday soon she’ll be back to finish what we started.

I retreated to the sofa and sat a while, and thought carnal thoughts and I
noticed that it was noon. And the leaves were back on the trees. There was a note from Guin on the table.

‘my darling Keeya. I can’t wait forever. Six months was hell, knowing you _ there. Not able to see you, touch you, love you. You’ll always _ special. Love, Guin.’

So that was that. She’d returned while I _. I guess she’d hung around while autumn turned to winter, then spring. Maybe several times, while I just _ here, carnal interrupted.

The cupboards were empty. Damn you, Guin. Couldn’t you be arsed to get some provisions in?

With luck, the supermarket would have some provisions. I put on a tee, so I didn’t burn and so the backpack wouldn’t chafe.
Outside, it was night, and it was fucking freezing. Rime without reason. I turned back, to get a warm coat. But the apartment building _ gone. No more noisy neighbors. I looked past where the building _ to the horizon, and up. No stars.

How long had passed? Stupid question. Who knew what the universe was up to when it had stepped out of the room?
Well, bully for you, Sun. You came back. Did you miss me? I didn’t miss you. I _ here while you were doing whatever you were doing. Fuck, but I’m hungry.
“Keeya? Is that you?”

Guin. I ran to her and hugged her. And she kissed me right back. Tongues. And never mind the hunger.

“Hold me tight,” I begged her. It might only have been a day I’d been parted from her. But in another sense, it was surely a couple of squillion years.

“I didn’t get far,” she admitted. She held up her backpack. It clunked. “I found the supermarket. We get cold baked beans. For the time we have left.”

“Why us?” I asked. “Why do we get to spend even these moments together? When everybody else _.”

For Guin is the one with the maths brain, and I need pictures.

“Chance,” she answered. “We’re the freaks at the end of the bell curve. The sands stopped flowing differently for everyone. Most people died when they couldn’t get to food. Or when the earth froze, or all the other shit that happened while we _.”

She shrugged.

“Let’s have some beans,” she said. “I don’t have a fire, I’m sorry. And then we have some unfinished business.”

“You don’t seem worried,” I replied.

“No,” she said, and ring-pulled the beans open. “Here. You must be starving.”
The apartment building came back after that. But not the neighbors. Or, I didn’t go looking for them. I was, as they say, full of beans, and Guin had missed me even more —duration-wise— than I had missed her. So, we caught up.

She had a pile of notes on the kitchen table, covered with squiggles. We scampered straight past.

As we lay in each other’s arms, entangled, slightly sweaty, I asked her, “Why aren’t you worried?”

“Bounce-back,” Guin replied. “Prof Arkady’s equations contained the possibility that once time spread thin enough, it would exert a negative pressure on space and haul it back again.”

“Wouldn’t that take a lot of time?” I began, and then laughed. “All the time in the universe.”

Guin laughed too. “Yes. It balances perfectly, and then it all comes back together again. Quite quickly, as it happens. There’s a sort-of hysteresis to the process. And inhomogeneity. Time remains clumped. There are gaps. In the clumps, as I say, there’s a scrunch coming. In the gaps? I don’t know. The equations don’t solve.”

I thought of those piles of squiggles on the kitchen table. Guin seemed remarkably calm. But to me it looked like the wrong sort of calm. And her laugh was the wrong sort of laugh.

“What am I missing?” I asked, and then it came to me.

“Bodies,” I realized. “There aren’t any bodies. Buildings come back. Beans come back. But not people. Except us.”

“So where...” Guin began— but I was ahead of her.

“You were right about the bell curve. But it’s not what you thought. The universe is dying. It can’t save itself. But it’s trying hard to save what matters. Life. Us. And we’re the end of the bell curve that’s clinging on. Two lonely women—”

“I’m not lonely,” she interrupted. “I’ve got you.”

“But when I _ you pull me back. And vice versa. We have to let go. The universe will catch us.”

“You don’t know that. Why do you think the universe gives a shit about Guin and Keeya?”

I laughed.

“Because it’s too tidy. It should be earthquakes and wormholes and a hundred below zero. But it’s not. There’s a supermarket in walking distance that never runs out of beans. When you _ it’s all of you, not just your head, and it’s the same when you come back. It’s too far beyond the end of the bell curve.”
I ran out of words, and Guin sat up, her expression running from hope to fear and back again.

“What do we do, then?” she asked. “What if the universe has given up on us, it being too busy trying to make it the right kind of bounce-back?”

“Together. We let go together. And we call out as we let go.”

She nodded, reached over and traced gentle strokes over my body.

“We should have time...” she whispered. “Before it gets too singular. Let’s join the others.”


Oh. Oh. Oh.

Together we _
DreamForge Anvil © 2023 DreamForge Press
Love and Beans in Thin Times © 2023 William Campbell Powell