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The Timekeeper

Prema Arasu

We didn’t know how deep it was or how far it went. It was wide enough for four of us to walk side by side, but we always walked in single file. The walls were earth and rock and wet to the touch. There was no way of measuring distance, so we did our best to approximate by keeping time. That was my purpose—I alone carried a timepiece, a small, self-winding instrument I kept on a synthetic cord around my neck. It would continue to power itself as long as I kept moving. Because we walked in total darkness, the time was displayed in tactile indicators, little bumps I read with my fingertips.

There were eight of us. D6-7, XN-1, TA-8, RR-2, LI-9, H-87, ZX-0. And me. The Timekeeper.

After a month, we became well-accustomed to the pitch black. We were able to identify each other’s presence by the rhythms of our breath and the fall of our footsteps. We learned how to discern our surroundings by listening to the echoes around us. The tunnel was one long passage, uniform in its dimensions, and as we walked, we learned how to discern every crevice and crack from the way our voices bounced against the walls when we spoke. We avoided speaking, for the most part. When we talked, it was no more than a few words at a time. It was always about the surface and the stories we had heard. We shared them again and again until there was nothing left to tell. There was very little else we needed to communicate, and in the hollow dark, the sound of voices was deafening.

Each of us carried a moisture extractor attached to a pack and a hand-crank torch. We only used the torches when it was time to lay out our blankets or to make repairs on our moisture extractors. Sometimes we used the torches when it was time to swap out our subdermal nutrient depositors, but the last few times, I found that my proprioception was more than enough. It was easy enough to feel around my pack for a clean scalpel blade, make a tiny incision, and slide it in. Stick on a plaster, toss the used blade somewhere on the ground, and move on. Light would only make the process more unpleasant.

Soon, I forgot what the others looked like—or rather, the visuals became irrelevant in total darkness. It felt strangely invasive—unsettling—to see their gaunt faces on the rare occasions when we did use the torches. I could tell them apart by their movements, the smell of their sweat, the low-frequency whirr of their moisture extractors. We eventually abandoned the torches altogether, more comfortable in our mutual blindness.

By the two hundredth cycle, our group of eight was down to six. D6-7, who we called Dee, had fallen severely ill. We weren’t sure what caused it, but we speculated that his body had stopped absorbing metals from his subderm. He developed early signs of hypocalcemia. Exhaustion, spasms, and cramps slowed our progress down considerably, to my frustration. His hair and nails started falling out. He had a seizure and broke his femur during the fall.

We cannibalised his supplies and his body like we were instructed to do during training. XN-1 cried. Dee used to call her Xin. She and Dee had been together, of sorts, since the early days of our walk. In the harsh light of my torch, I could see her moisture extractor absorb her tears.

She didn’t want to keep going, she said. She was going to turn back and live out the rest of her life in the compound. She couldn’t bear the thought of walking any longer.

I warned her that her sight would be permanently damaged. That her organs had atrophied and that she’d never make a full recovery with the scant resources they had back at the compound. She refused to listen to reason. She turned around to face the way we had come and left. The sound of her footsteps was soon lost in the darkness.

The subderms which sustained us had to be swapped out every hundred cycles. I could feel them under the skin of my arms and thighs. Hard, lumpy rods that would periodically deposit vitamins, proteins, everything we needed—directly into our blood. The only one that needed to be swapped more often was the calorie subderm. The walk had only been made possible by TA-8’s success in developing the NT ver. 0.17: a molecule so dense in chemical bonds and so readily absorbed into the bloodstream with minimal loss that a small biofilm-coated tube inserted under the skin yielded enough energy to last forty cycles. Each of us had started with a hundred and twenty each, no spares. It was my duty to let everyone else know when it was time to replace them. The risk of infection in removal was too high, so we left the spent ones under our skin, sliding in the new alongside the old. I had a row of twelve on the inside of my forearm, like tally marks. Soon, I’d have to start on my other arm.


Despite the subderms, the gnaw of hunger, for the first part of our walk, was unbearable. But now our digestive tracts had atrophied and could not absorb anything but water. Our tongues shriveled and our teeth crumbled, which made talking clumsy and painful. They would be able to fix all of that on the surface, TA-8—who we called Tate—insisted. Their medical technology, explained Tate, surpassed anything we could imagine. After welcoming us as heroes, they would replace our stomachs and intestines and teeth and eyes with transplants and cybernetics. They would give us back what we had sacrificed, and more.

I counted cycles like the ones we had back at the compound, where there was a periodic distribution of work and sleep. The artificial light in the compound ran on these archaic measurements of time because there was nothing else to go by. They had something to do with the rotation of natural light and darkness on the surface—I was told I would understand what this meant once we got there. Our bodies had evolved with these rhythms, and it was best to maintain them by adopting the patterns that we would one day reclaim.

Time was important. Time was what kept us human. And as Timekeeper, it was my duty to preserve our tradition of time, for it was time that would tell us how far along our journey we were. In the darkness, distance was unknown and therefore meaningless—we measured everything in time. In the tactile indicators of my timepiece. In the protrusions under my skin.


Then RR-2 balked and turned back. He no longer believed there was an end, he said, and this was the point of no return: with exactly half his subderms left, he chose the safer option.

Safer, perhaps, but shameful.

Soon after, LI-9 accused me of lying about the time and tried to kill me, so I strangled him and took the rest of his supplies. I had no concerns about my own resources running dry before we reached the surface, but there was no use leaving them there with room in my pack for spares. I swapped my moisture extractor for his as well, since mine had a small leak.


Shortly after two thousand cycles, H-87 disappeared. None of us noticed him drop off. We all knew the sound of each other’s footfalls upon the damp, cracked floor, but I could not have identified the point in time when four became three. It wasn’t until an unusually lucid moment at the beginning of the two thousand and twelfth cycle that, upon waking, I realised I heard the breaths of only two others. My immediate response was to doubt the accuracy of my own senses. I recounted several times, crawled around, reached out to touch my companions, rousing them in the process. I found my torch at the bottom of my pack and turned the crank. I knew that I would one day turn on the light to discover that I had become blind, but it hadn’t happened yet.

Where’s Seven?

Tate’s voice was barely a whisper, croaky with disuse. Her hair was short, filthy, hanging loose around her hollow face. ZX-0 looked worse. All his hair had fallen out and his toothless mouth hung open. His unfocused eyes indicated no response to the light. He made an indistinct gurgling sound.

I glanced around at our surroundings. This part of the tunnel looked the same as it always did: wide as it was tall, rough walls dripping with moisture. The occasional cracked concrete slab on the ground to remind us that someone had made this path, that it was going somewhere, that someone had paved the way for us. The disavowal of return. The promise of an end.

There was no sign of Seven. Had he decided to turn around? Had he just stopped and given up? Did he turn back while we were sleeping, or did he just stop walking at one point and let us continue without him?

Would he have enough supplies to last him the whole way back? It was possible—he was small of stature, could possibly survive on a reduced caloric intake if he sacrificed his upper limbs. I went through my pack, counting my remaining subderms. With the excess I had taken from Dee and LI-9, I had more than enough. If he wasn’t far behind, I thought, we could find his body and take his supplies. But there was no knowing how far back he was or how fast he was moving. I decided to continue on. ZX-0 refused to come with us. He refused to move—he just stood there, making those off-putting sounds like he was trying to say something. We left him behind.

By four thousand, I began to fear that Tate would disappear like Seven and occupied myself by focusing on the sounds of her footsteps and her breathing and the low whirr of her extractor. I slept nestled closely against her body, an arm curled around her emaciated waist so she couldn’t leave me.

I discarded my torch, leaving it behind somewhere on the rocky ground of the tunnel. The idea of turning it on made me feel ill. I might have been completely blind—there was no way of knowing now. I still saw things in my dreams, but they were vague, lacking color and form.


As I inserted my one hundred and nineteenth subderm, I experienced a sense of elation of which I no longer thought my body capable. We were so close. I counted my supplies obsessively, knowing I had more than enough to make the journey with the extras I had taken from the others, yet unwilling to let them go. I told Tate that we were almost there and pressed my lips to her frigid neck. She didn’t respond.

As my breathing settled, I detected movement far in the distance, down the forward path. I sat up, still gripping Tate, fingers digging into her fragile skin, listening.


We waited. They drew closer. Was it someone from the surface, here to greet us?

No, I could hear the faint whirring of a moisture extractor, an invention of our own. It was one of us.


Had he somehow run ahead of us then turned back?

The footsteps drew closer, until they were right in front of us. Their moisture extractor had an unusual rhythm. I could not identify who it belonged to.

Then there was a hoarse scream and they stumbled. I reached out, throwing myself at them, pinning them to the ground, hearing the extractor on their back scrape against the floor, gripping their face, and fisting my hands in their long mat of hair.

Who are you? I demanded. I was still able to speak, but my voice was broken, rusty. Not my voice anymore.

It’s—it’s me. Xin.



Xin took a drink from her extractor to moisten her mouth. By the sound of it, she still had her teeth, and her tongue was intact.

How did you get here? she asked.

She told us she had been walking ever since turning back, trying to keep to the same cycles of sleep and wakefulness, and only changing her subderms when she felt herself weaken. She didn’t know how long it had been but was sure she was almost at the compound, back where we started.

I let her feel my timepiece. Showed her the bumps that told me she had been walking for four thousand six hundred eighty cycles. She didn’t believe me.

But I was walking backward, to the compound.

No. You must have turned around at some point.

I never did. Even when I slept, I slept with my head pointing in the direction I was going, like we all did.

Let’s keep on. We have more than enough resources between us to make the final stretch.

I recommenced walking.

But that’s the wrong way, Tate spoke. That’s where Xin came from.

Xin is a fool. Are you coming with me?

Tate didn’t say anything. Xin set off—in the wrong direction—and when Tate started to follow, I grabbed her arm. She twisted away and screamed, and we fell. My head struck the cavern wall.

I stood then, not wanting to waste any more time. I could feel that my head was bleeding but knew it would stop soon enough. There was an adequate supply of the necessary proteins and vitamins in my blood for the process of clotting to occur.

You coming or not? I said again to Tate, and I set off without waiting for an answer.

That’s the wrong way, she repeated.

I felt the walls around me. The same, backwards and forwards, always the same. I turned around. I could hear Xin’s retreating footsteps so I turned to face the other way. I knew Tate was next to me, so I grabbed her wrist and pulled her along.

No! We need—

She broke free and ran in the opposite direction.

She and Xin would walk until they died.

I was alone, and better off for it.


I walked for many more cycles. I walked with my fingers glued to my timepiece, taking pleasure in the kinetic turn of a tactile indicator marking the passing of another cycle. I changed my subderms. Then the tunnel did something it had never done before—its dimensions grew smaller and smaller. I had to stoop to continue. Enough time passed that I had to change my subderms once more, and I knew my spine was remodeling itself. The flesh of my arms and thighs and abdomen was marred with the remnants of now-empty depositors. They would remove them for me when I got there, I told myself. They would replace the parts of me I’d discarded along the way. They would welcome me as a hero, a marvel. The first and only person to make it. They would be in awe at my persistence and repent their judgement. They would return us to the light, and no one else would ever have to do what I did.

The ever-narrowing walls of the tunnel soon forced me to crawl. I discarded my pack and bulky moisture extractor, confident that I would reach the surface soon. I sustained myself by licking the scant moisture on the walls with my atrophied semblance of a tongue as I dragged myself forward with the remnants of my fingers. The knees of my suit wore through from crawling, as did the skin. My left knee swelled with infection. Crawling was excruciating until I lost all sensation in that leg, and it became a dead weight. I entertained the fantasy of cutting it off at the hip, leaving it behind like all the other things I’d discarded in this tunnel—empty subderms, broken equipment, dead skin and hair and teeth. But it was impossible; I no longer had my scalpel blade. It had been cast aside as soon as it blunted, like everything else.

My pace slowed considerably, yet I continued on, dreaming of light that I would not be able to see. I heard the sound of someone weeping—it was coming from in front of me, but my senses were foggy from dehydration and exhaustion. I willed the pounding of my head to quiet, and remained as still as I could, but I heard nothing.

Then—some indeterminate and unknowable amount of time after—the timepiece died. The mechanism, which had been ticking against the bare skin of my chest for four thousand nine hundred twenty cycles, stopped, and for a moment it was like my heart too had stopped. It was only designed to last the length of the journey, after all. I didn’t cast it off like all the other things which had ceased to be useful to me. Not because of a lack of wanting, but because the cord had broken and been retied so many times that it was knotted too tight around my neck.

Dr. Prema Arasu (they/she) is a writer and academic at the University of Western Australia. They write about the deep sea, monsters, and mythology.

Twitter: prema_arasu

Instagram: @prema.jpg

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