Time stood still for Ellen and the young man, and cupped its hands around them, protecting them, but only for a moment.
They slept and woke in each other’s arms. They took frequent walks through the valley of the Refuge and even into the forest above the cliff, but not very far for fear of getting lost. Their days were as large as the uninhabitable blue and green world moving slowly across the sky from the western mountain range to the distant eastern hills.
One morning Ellen suggested they go for a picnic in a clearing near the edge of the forest. Yani offered to make sandwiches for them. When their back-packs were filled with sandwiches, fruit, bread, water, and a blanket to sit or lay on, the couple thanked Yani and left the cave, turning up the path to the cliff and on to the forest clearing.
When they entered the clearing, the young man could see the vague outlines of the cliffs through the sparse growth of trees. He gently removed Ellen’s back-pack from her shoulders and then his own, laying them on the grass at their feet. He pulled out the blanket and spread it over the grass. Ellen laid out the sacks of food and water. They ate without speaking, listening to the sounds of the forest, the breeze in the treetops, the insects’ incessant tzick-tzicking, and the animal hoots.
After they finished eating, Ellen reached into her back-pack and pulled out her notepad and pencil. “I never got to interview you,” she said with a wry smile.
“You’ll spoil our picnic,” the young man said.
“No I won’t,” she countered. “I promise.”
“Yes, you will,” he said good-naturedly. “But ask your questions anyway.”
“Do you promise to answer them truthfully and completely to the best of your ability?” she asked.
“Yes, I will,” he promised, “but I may need to hold you in my arms from time to time.”
“Fair enough,” she smiled, pausing before her first question.
Ellen pulled the photocopy of the news clipping from her notepad and showed it to him.
“This is you, isn’t it?” she asked him.
He looked at it, turning it over in his hands trying to make sense of the picture and the cuneiform on it. “Yes, I suppose it is,” he answered.
“And your name is Phillip Appleby, isn’t it?” she asked him.
“Do I really need a name?” he asked. “After all, it is my story, isn’t it? Everyone else needs a name but me.”
“No, it’s not your story,” she said. “We decided that the other evening in the valley by the creek.”
“Good parry, my dear, but I don’t know,” he answered. “Maybe. I guess it may be, if you think it is. My memory isn’t what it will be.”
She looked at him strangely as though he’d said something out of the ordinary.
“When I attended your lectures in introductory journalism, you were much older. This photocopy is an old picture of you, yet you look younger now than in the photocopy,” she said slowly. “What’s going on here?”
“Lem told you that I’m going backwards in time,” he answered.
“I know he said that,” Ellen said, “but I don’t understand how that can be. Please make me understand that.”
“What do you want to know?” he asked her.
“Well, for starters, do you mean we all are going backward in time?” Ellen asked him. She had a ready answer for that. “If you think …”
“Do you have memories of the past and anticipations of the future?” he asked her.
“Why … yes, sure,” she said unsure where this might go. Ellen had stopped writing his answers in her notepad.
“So do I,” he said, “but my past is your future and my future is your past.”
“What about everybody else around us?” she asked.
“I guess they are all going in the same direction in time as you,” he said.
“What’s it like for you?” she asked.
“Well, it’s not like walking backwards in a vidcom with special effects applied. I walk forwards in space, just like you and everybody else. It’s just that I go backwards in time.”
“What do you mean by that?” she asked a second time.
“You know that age-old philosophical debate about determinism versus free will?” he asked her. He didn’t wait for an answer. “The universe is deterministic. If you have a rational mind, you must conclude that the universe is economical. It doesn’t have a single resource to waste. The universe doesn’t have time to decide “what will I do now?” every moment of every day and night of its existence. So it is more economical for it to be deterministic. Freedom can’t be planned in advance.”
“What’s that have to do with time going backward?” she asked, to tell the truth, losing her patience a little.
“Everything, actually,” he said matter-of-factly. “The only way one could go backwards in time is if the universe is deterministic.”
“What does that mean to you?” Ellen asked him.
“Effect precedes cause,” he said simply, “or I suppose you could say that the effect pulls its cause into existence. It’s the opposite of entropy. For you things tend to fall apart over time. For me, they tend to come together.”
“I’m sorry,” Ellen said, “but this all sounds too philosophical, too sophist for my tastes. It doesn’t relate to any reality that I know of.”
He reached over and held her in his arms for a long time. Ellen could feel him trembling against her skin. She didn’t know what to say or think.
“Your cells split apart and become new cells, which split apart, growing and dying,” he said to her. “My cells fuse together, decreasing in number and …”
“Dying?” Ellen asked, not wanting to hear his answer.
“No,” he answered, “but just as bad for me …”
“What could be just as bad as dying?” Ellen looked into his eyes.
“Birth,” he said.
Ellen lowered her eyes.
“When I first saw you in my class and fell in love for you, I was seventy years old. You were twenty years old, if I remember correctly. When you came to my cabin on Mount Delfinore, I was forty and you were thirty-five. Now you are thirty-six and I am twenty.”
She said nothing.
“I’ve probably got twenty years or so left,” he continued. The air was beginning to cool and the light wane. “It might be possible to prolong my life another nine months, in utero or in a petri dish, but then I will cease to exist.”