It didn’t start that way. For most of his life, Sancho experienced time just like everyone else. When he was arrested and the police were beating him, time passed slowly. And when they stopped, it seemed like no time before they would start again. When at last he reached the courtroom, Sancho was heartily sick of the normal passage of time.
In the courtroom the verdict was guilty. The sentence, for the minor crime to which they had made him confess, was death. Execution was at three the following day. But Sancho hardly felt the loss of friends, family, life itself. With death comes relief from time, and Sancho was ready for that relief.
Two guards Miguel and Juan led Sancho out of the courtroom. As they locked up the silent prisoner, Miguel remarked that he was taking it well.
“Just you wait,” said Juan. “Tomorrow he’ll be crying like a baby.”
By chance, this scene was observed by a member of an advanced alien race. Or rather it was not chance, for this race was so very advanced that Observer (let us call him) was simultaneously watching just about all of humankind. Yet Sancho’s plight struck a chord. Observer drew it to the attention of a colleague who was then passing through that portion of space-time.
“Charming!” was this colleague’s response, roughly translated.
And he added, “Let’s zap them!”
This was of course a joke, for the galactic code expressly forbade zapping in any shape or form. And even if it hadn’t, this race was far too civilized to do anything of the sort.
Observer laughed. “Tell you what,” he said, “we’ll give him more time.”
“You can’t change anything,” Joker warned. (The galactic code also forbade that.)
“A dilation job,” Joker mused. “Well, let’s do it.”
To Juan’s disappointment, Sancho slept soundly in his cell that night.
“What did I tell you?” Miguel said triumphantly when he came in the following morning. “This one wouldsleep through his own execution!”
Juan ruefully stumped out.
Sancho then did wake. For a moment he could not think where he was. Then he saw the toilet pan, the iron grill–and remembered. The clock already showed nine. He had just six hours to live.
What was six hours?
It seemed, nothing; it seemed that he was already being marched to the final courtyard. Well, no matter.
Then Sancho thought again. Six minutes had seemed long when they were beating him. Six hours could be much longer.
Miguel brought breakfast. He gave Sancho a smile.
Sancho ate slowly. He helped Miguel pack up the breakfast things. He relieved himself in the toilet pan. Yet all this left the clock only at nine-fifteen. The time seemed to stretch and stretch. (Already, alien forces were at work.) What was he going to do?
He had heard of meditation. Focus on something. Yes, the toilet pan. He concentrated onthe dented shininess of the rim, the ill-fitting lid that let the smell of his own excrement out into the cell. He shut his eyes.
Sancho opened his eyes. The toilet pan, the cell, sprang into relief. The clock? The minute hand had barely moved.
Had it stopped? Sancho called Miguel. The guard seemed to take an age to answer. But eventually he shook his head and lumbered back to his seat. The clock read nine-sixteen.
Sancho stood facing the clock as long as he could bear. In all this time, which seemed to him another age, the minute hand did not move. Was he to be denied relief? In despair, Sancho stepped back. But it was like wading through treacle. Confused and troubled, he fell back on his bed and shut his eyes.
It seemed to Sancho that he slept. Yet his dream was vivid, more real than waking life. In his dream, there were two beings in his cell, human yet not human, looking at him with an understanding that touched his heart.
“Hi,” Observer said. “How much time have you got?”
“Over five hours,” Sancho replied.
“That’s not much,” Joker said sympathetically.
“But it is!” Sancho burst out. “Time doesn’t pass at all.”
“Tsk, tsk,” said Joker.
There was a pause.
“Are you angels?” Sancho asked.
“Ha!” said Joker–who was in truth rather nicer than an angel would be. “What are you going to do with all your time?”
Sancho shook his head.
Joker pointed at the toilet pan. The pan became radiant, as if lit from within; the radiance brightened and the grill and the grimy cell walls faded away.
Sancho found himself with the two beings in a garden, the bushes soft, yet each leaf standing out with clear-cut brilliance, and there were voices from the house, familiar voices. It seemed that opening before him was a world of unending delight.
In a rush, desire, yearning came back to Sancho. “Let me stay here,” he whispered.
Joker nodded. “Just say when you’re done.”
As Sancho walked towards the house–and real time dilated further, opening almost endless opportunity to explore this world–Joker gave him the thumbs-up.
“There you are,” said Miguel. “The guy had his breakfast and went to sleep again.” He pointed through the grill at the sleeping figure of Sancho. “I said he’d miss his own execution!”
Juan looked, and spat.
“Time’s up,” said Miguel. And he opened the door.
To the guards’ surprise, they found Sancho standing there, wide-awake. In alarm they reached for their guns, but Sancho held up his hand. “I am ready.”
And he was. The time was right.
For a long time afterwards, the two guards would tell anyone who would listen about the prisoner who went cheerfully to his own execution, having slept through the day.