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The old man sat, cross-legged, in the Cave. His gray, wrinkled eyelids were shut over his glassy eyes, hiding them from view. A long gray beard stretched from his chin. He wore a smock that was so old it was as gray as he was. He was waiting for the child.
He did not have to wait long. A young girl’s head peered in, soft brown hair falling in ringlets around her head. She seemed amazed by the sight of the Cave; the shimmering walls, multi-hued and entrancing. She didn’t notice the gray little man until she peered down to see if the floor shimmered too. It did, but the old man was there too, and she immediately realized which was more important.
She walked to sit by him, her shoes squeaking on the glassy surface of the Cave floor. When she was firmly seated at his side, she tapped him lightly on the shoulder to alert him to her presence. He didn’t look at her, but a wrinkled smile crept across his features.
“Hello,” she said, her clear voice ringing with the acoustics of the Cave. The old man finally opened his eyes and looked at her. She realized, with not a little amazement, that his eyes were every bit as multi-hued as the Cave, perhaps even more so. They shimmered like glass, and she had the urge to reach out and touch one, to see if it really was glass, but she stayed her hand.
“Hello,” the old man said. His voice was not paper thin as she would have imagined. It was deep and ancient, and she knew that it had been in the world much, much longer than she, or anyone she knew. “I know why you’re here,” the old man continued.
“You do?” The girl said, somewhat relieved. If the old man knew the nature of her visit, how could he refuse? “So you’ll come with me?”
The old man’s smile vanished. “I didn’t say that,” he admonished, eyelids closing over his beautiful eyes. The girl bit her full lower lip, trying to think of what to say. The old man peered at her remorseful face and the tiniest smile made an appearance. “If it helps, I can explain things to you. You can go back and tell them to your superiors afterward.”
The little girl nodded gratefully. He certainly was a very nice old man, and it couldn’t hurt to stay and listen to his stories. She wriggled on her backside and looked up expectantly, as she always did when her grandfather told her a story. This old man was not terribly different than her grandfather, after all.
“I think I should start by introducing myself. I am Father Time.” The little girl’s green eyes widened in shock. She desperately wanted to interrupt the old man with some information of her own, but she kept silent. Grandpa always hated it when she interrupted his stories, and this old man would likely react in the same way.
“I am Father Time,” the old man repeated, “and this is the Cave of Time.” He waved his wrinkled hand about him, indicating the shining walls. This time the little girl could not hold back her reaction.
“Oh!” She said, and immediately clapped her hands over her mouth as though she could somehow contain the sound. The old man didn’t seem to mind though; he smiled in fact, and, shyly, the little girl pulled back her hands.
“The Cave of Time is unique amongst the Universe,” the old man continued. “It is the only place in our Universe where time can be fully explored, in the past and the future. All you have to do is concentrate on what you want to see and you will see it. Try.” The little girl grinned.
“I want to see when I was a baby!” She crowed, and scrunched her face up in determination. After a few seconds of seemingly intense concentration, a shining silver bubble began to grow on one of the Cave walls. It grew bigger and bigger until it was the size of the girl’s head; then it detached itself from the wall and floated gently towards her. She yelped in delight as it stopped in front of her head and an image came to life inside. A red-faced baby, wrapped in blankets, was screaming its head off. “That was me?” The little girl asked. She reached out to touch the shimmering image and it burst into a thousand fragments of light before dissipating.
She was put out, but only for a moment. Then her excitement returned, and she said, “I wanna see… when I’m thirty!” This was the oldest age she could think of. A bubble was starting to form on the Cave wall, but the old man waved his hand at it and it burst. “Why’d you do that?” The little girl asked, pouting.
The old man smiled gently. “The future is a secret,” he said. “Only I can know about it. It wouldn’t be good if anyone else were allowed to see.”
The little girl grudgingly accepted this. “Can you make the bubbles too?” She asked, and he nodded his wrinkled head. He didn’t even have to close his eyes; it seemed as though the thought simply entered his head and suddenly a huge multitude of the bubbles burst from the walls and surrounded him, each with another different image. The little girl could see graceful animals with long limbs and different colors eating the leaves of trees, and spacecraft flying, and a teenage girl chatting on her cell phone in just a few bubbles. “How’d you do that?” She asked. “I wanna do that too!”
The old man laughed and shook his head. “No,” he said, “Only I can, because I have been here for a very long time.” He closed his eyes and every bubble burst.
“How long?” The little girl asked. The old man closed his eyes and looked almost sad.
“From the dawn of Time itself, child,” he whispered. “Or, in your terms, forever.” There was a pause, and then the old man spoke again. “Tell me why you are here, little one,” he said, although he already knew the answer. She fidgeted under his calm gaze. It didn’t seem right to tell him anymore, but it was her job.
“The I.S.E.K.U wants you to move,” she mumbled.
“The I.S.E.K.U?” The old man asked, though he knew very well what the acronym stood for.
“The Intergalactic Society for the Expansion of the Known Universe,” the little girl explained. “They want this Cave.”
“Whatever for?” The old man prompted.
“They have the rest of the Universe,” she explained quickly. “This is the last planet they don’t own yet. They’re asking you to move into one of the apartment buildings they’re going to set up here.” She looked up at him with shining eyes. “But I think that’s a bad idea!” She exclaimed. “I don’t think they should make you leave. And they shouldn’t destroy the Cave!”
The old man seemed to be thinking. He finally looked down at her. “Why did they send you here?” He asked quietly.
“Oh, I dunno,” she said. “They said some stuff about you responding better to a child than a grown-up, and something else about me being… expendable… I don’t know what that means, but I think it’s good! Is it?” Her little face was full of hope.
He smiled and patted her head. “I don’t know,” he lied. “I’m sure it is.” He suddenly turned from her, looking farther into the Cave. His multi-hued eyes flashed with anger. “The cowards sent a child…” he said to himself, sad and angry.
“Are you alright, Mr. Time?” The little girl tugged on the sleeve of his dirty smock. He smiled and laughed gently.
“Yes,” he said. “And I’ve come up with an answer.”
“You’ll come with me!” The girl cried, delighted. He shook his head and his eyes were full of darkness.
“I can’t, I’m afraid,” he admitted. “I will not leave my Cave.”
“But you don’t understand!” The little girl said, horrified. “They’ll just destroy the Cave with you in it if you don’t go back with me! Oh, please, please come back! Otherwise you’ll die!”
The old man looked down at his wrinkled hands. “I understand what will happen to me,” he said. “Go back to your superiors, little one. Tell them my answer: I will not move, but they can demolish my beloved Cave if they wish.” The little girl didn’t understand half the words in that sentence, but the meaning was clear.
“You’re going to let them kill you? But what about Time? Will Time die?”
“No,” the old man said. “Enough time has leeched from me that it will continue on without my presence.” He gave a slight half-smile. “I am not needed anymore, child.”
“Oh-oh!” She cried, and lunged for him, squeezing him tightly around the middle. He realized that she was crying, which was no surprise. He’d already seen this whole conversation before, after all. Very gently he stroked her thin back as she sobbed.
Eventually her teas dissipated, and she looked up at him with her green eyes enormous. “You’re very brave, Mr. Time,” she said. “When I grow up I wanna be just like you.” He smiled in recognition if the ultimate compliment from a child.
“Go now, little one. They’re waiting for you.”
She got up, walked towards the passage that would lead her from the Cave and out into the bright light of the last free planet in the known universe. Then she turned around, hair whirling, and ran to him, giving him one last tight squeeze. She turned and ran, her feet squeaking against the beautiful floor. And then she was gone, just as the old man had seen.
He sighed, leaned back and closed his eyes. The silence of the Cave was beautiful. He peered out from under his eyelids to get one last look at his Cave. The walls were, at that precise moment, a deep shade of purple. He loved purple; beautiful color. His hands were pressed up against the cool Cave floor. Everything was perfect.
And then, in the distance, he heard the sound of drills.