I've played all kinds of competitive games at bars. There are the old standards of pool or darts, two things I stink at. There are trivia games, which I usually excel at unless I'm playing against, say, hyper-intelligent robots from the future. There are even oddball sports like bocce ball, which I seem to have a knack for crushing despite having no idea what I'm doing.

My favorite bar, _The_Stopped_Clock_, has a different competitive game: bragging. Specifically, this game involves telling everybody about your past exploits roaming the time-stream, and attempting to one-up the competition with tales of your awesome ability to bust heads / make trouble / be awesome throughout the course of human history. This is, I am fairly sure, an unusual competition in most bars, unless they serve a clientele composed of the clinically insane. At _The_Stopped_Clock_, on the other hand, this activity makes perfect sense, because everybody in that establishment is some form of time traveler. No, really.

One night last week there was this new guy in the bar who had thrown down the gauntlet, bragging-wise. This effectively put him on offense, with the other regulars playing defense by trying to tear down his achievements. As I was just there to drink beer, I played the role of spectator, watching this Timmers guy try to hold his own.

Timmers was, as far as I could tell, a native of the present-day, or the immediate vicinity. He wore a white lab coat, had thinning hair and dorky coke-bottle glasses, and either 1) had severe Asperger's Syndrome or 2) was a dick. He was plainly some kind of mad scientist, and wanted everybody to know what a genius he was.

"I invented science," Timmers told us all bluntly. He was sitting in a stool with his back to the bar; Edgar polished glassware behind him, while Retro Retro and the other bar regulars clustered at a respectful distance around Timmers and heckled.

"Oh, come now," said Sir Attaccus disdainfully. "Science wasn't invented; it was developed."

"Or possibly discovered," added Retro Retro.

"I think science was actually contracted," said Bobby Saturday. "Like a disease."

"No, I invented it," said Timmers. "Every bit of it. My idea."

"Really," said Retro Retro skeptically. "Better tell us how that went, then."

"It was easy," said Timmers. "I visited every great scientist who ever lived, and explained all their great ideas to them, weeks before they came up with them on their own."

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I freely admit that there are days when I need a drink. I suppose this is indicative of a problem with alcohol. I take some comfort in knowing that those days are rare, so I am at the very least a high-functional drunk.

So on a Sunday when I absolutely could not start the lawn mower, mere hours after my water heater mysteriously stopped working, and I felt the need to drink beer in the company of friends, or at least other sympathetic high-functional drunks, I didn't resist. I hopped in the car and drove over to _The_Stopped_Clock_, my favorite bar. It's a quirky little place that serves as a haven for any number of strange characters, most of whom happen to be time travelers.

_The_Stopped_Clock_ is strange in that it's not always in its usual location. There have been plenty of times when I have driven by and looked for that familiar burnt-out neon sign, the 'O's shaped like clock faces, and I can't find it. I look between the hardware store and the warehouse for its nondescript screen front door but it's simply not there. Interestingly, it's always there when I want a drink, something that Edgar has never been able to adequately explain to me.

Edgar is _The_Stopped_Clock_'s omnipresent bartender. He never seems to get a day off and nobody ever works his shifts. When I ask him about his hours, Edgar frowns and points to the sign over the bar that reads 'HOUR' IS A FOUR LETTER WORD. Units of time are verboten in _The_Stopped_Clock_, one of the few rules that is strictly enforced. For the most part, in that curious bar, anything else goes.

Edgar nodded as I pushed open the door and began pulling me a beer off the tap. A bunch of regulars were there – no surprise, not even on a Sunday afternoon; I could swear some people live in the place. Retro Retro's eyes lit up as I approached his table.

"Andy!" he exclaimed happily. "You're just in time!"

"Oh, no," I said. "Not another bowling competition?"

"No, no, no," said the scruffy veteran time traveler hastily. "Nothing like that. We're having a party, and we need to pick up the cake. Tell me," said Retro Retro, gripping my upper arm firmly and steering me away from the table, "tell me: as a native of this time period, are you in possession of an apparatus known colloquially as a 'car'?"

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I had one of those days at work where nothing seems to go right. At five o'clock sharp I was out the office door, gesticulating back at my place of business with both middle fingers extended. On such days there is really only one thing to do, and that is to go to your friendly neighborhood bar and have several drinks, where 'several' attempts to walk the tightrope between 'insufficient' and 'slow your roll'. My feet found the all-too-familiar path back to The Stopped Clock, a dive bar that happens to provide custom to a clientele largely composed of time travelers. I wasn't a time traveler, but I had it on good authority that I would be one someday. Yeah, I found it confusing too, but the drinks were cheap.

When I pushed my way through the cheap screen door, I saw that most of the regulars were in attendance. My grizzled old friend Retro Retro had abandoned his usual post on a barstool and was poring over some papers. Sir Attaccus and Bobby Saturday were among the crowd peering over his shoulders. Sir Attaccus was fidgeting as usual, constantly nervously adjusting his bowler with the crook of his umbrella, and even the ultra-cool Bobby Saturday wore a worried expression. Retro Retro did a double-take as I walked in and broke into a broad grin.

"Andy!" he exclaimed warmly. "So good to see you, buddy!"

I considered a rapid retrograde maneuver. Retro Retro is usually after your money, your beer or something else that's yours on a good day. If Retro Retro was that happy to see me, I knew I was in serious trouble. But over at the bar, I saw that Edgar was working a shaker and was pouring something dark into a martini glass. He made a thumb-and-forefinger pistol at me and winked. I can't resist a Manhattan, especially after a crappy day.

I collected my drink at the bar. The regulars were instantly all over me. Retro Retro put a comradely arm around my shoulder. I quickly felt for my wallet. To my surprise it was still there.

"Andy," purred Retro Retro. "My very good friend. What do you know about a game called… bowling?"

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The whole summer had been a scorcher, even by local standards, and a guy can get powerfully thirsty just driving around and running errands. It was therefore perfectly understandable that I found myself in my favorite time-travelling dive The Stopped Clock on a Friday, in the portion of the afternoon that we shall charitably call 'evening', drinking large amounts of Hordo on tap.

Hordo is not what I would call a good beer, precisely, but it is plentiful and cheap. I understand it was named after comet Hordo 18546 which was apparently going to hit Mongolia in the year 3661. The comet, as it happened, had picked up just enough interstellar bugs for fermentation to act upon its organic components, so the entire thing was basically a big beersicle. Time travelers opted to divert the comet by tapping it from the inside and routing the beer to certain watering holes, where if it were to be drunk in sufficient quantity, humanity in my far future could be saved. It's rare when you have an opportunity to drink beer and save the world at the same time, and when such a situation arises I believe one has a duty to seize the day.

I was playing a drinking game with Retro Retro, which apparently involved him drinking my beer and me paying him for the privilege, when I happened to look down the bar at TIME-ASSAYER-3400. He was slumped over a gin and tonic, sitting all by himself, the communication screen that served as his face angled to look into his drink.

I pointed. "Does he ever drink that thing?" I asked.

Retro gave me a look he usually reserved for idiots and cheapskates. "Of course not," he said. "He's an android."

"Then why does he have a drink in the first place?" I pressed.

"Because he's depressed," said Retro Retro. "Shit, boy; you really don't understand this bar business, do you?"

"All right," I said. "I'm dying to know. Why's he depressed?"

"He's always depressed," said Bobby Saturday, sliding into the stool on the other side of Retro Retro. "Hey, want to play three-handed?"

Retro Retro's eyes narrowed. "Okay," he said, "but we should trade stools."

"Deal," said Bobby Saturday, and they swapped seats. I didn't know why they'd done it, but they looked very satisfied.

"What," I asked doggedly, "makes an android chronically depressed?"

"Did he say 'chronologically depressed?'" whispered Bobby Saturday.

"No, and you owe me your beer," Retro Retro whispered back. He turned to me with Bobby's drink in his hand.

"That's a very sad story," he said, foam covering his upper lip. "It has to do with the downfall of an entire culture – a group of people who were thriving and industrious right up until the dawn of time travel. And then, by a series of tragedies outside their control, they perished."

"Wow," I said. "What are we talking about? One of the great civilizations of history? Or maybe an entire race lost to our knowledge?"

"Something even bigger than that," said Retro Retro solemnly. "I'm talking about the insurance industry."

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I had gotten an article published in the paper, and I was celebrating in The Stopped Clock. Any celebration in that excellent bar frequented by time travelers typically consisted of me buying rounds of drinks. It seemed like any time I came into the place, actually, the regulars found some excuse for me to buy them rounds - this old tradition; that unintentional faux pas, and so on. I figured I was getting wise to their tricks, but wasn't yet wise enough to actually stop buying them beers. Sometimes buying a round for the entire bar was an expensive proposition, but the price for drinks fluctuated according to some time-conversion fiscal index. Edgar had a laminated copy of it behind the bar and had to refer to it while ringing up tabs. On this particular day some sort of financial anomaly in the time-stream required Edgar to pay me for buying drinks, so the booze was flowing freely.

The man in grey walked in and the normally boisterous bar fell quiet. It was like a gunslinger walking into a saloon and the piano player stops playing. Even Retro Retro, who often fights out of his weight class, drinks out of his liver class, and generally says shit that probably shouldn't be uttered, became absorbed in a minute inspection of the little paper umbrella on his pina colada. I leaned over to Sir Attaccus.

"What the hell," I whispered out of the corner of my mouth, "is going on?"

"That's the Conservator," hissed Attaccus. "Mind your P's and Q's, my boy." He held the grip of his umbrella over his lips and watched the newcomer. The Conservator was wearing a grey jumpsuit, heavy black boots, and carried an aluminum-clad clipboard. He scanned the bar impassively, noticed an empty stool next to Bobby Saturday, and strolled in leisurely fashion around the bar towards that spot. Bobby Saturday, normally cool as a cucumber, suddenly discovered a need to urinate and fled his seat, giving the Conservator his pick of chairs.

I wasn't getting any more information out of Sir Attaccus, who was quite literally quaking in his bowler. Everybody else in the bar was cowed too. What the hell, I said to myself. Sometimes you have to seize the bull by the horns, especially if you're curious about why horns are dangerous. I got up, grabbed my beer in one hand and my shot in the other, and went to sit next to the Conservator.
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I tried to explain Holocaust Deniers to my daughter last week and failed.
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I was in The Stopped Clock for Trivia Night. That’s always a humiliating experience, since the cross-section of history I’ve encountered is a very small slice of the sheer volume of history out there. I counted nine questions concerning obscure matters of the Dark Ages and none of the modern era, which I think is unfair but what the hell. I did have some good beers I’ve never tried, including a microbrew that Edgar swears will one day be copied by the Trappists.

There were a couple of guys in the corner having a conversation, and because I was sitting near them, I couldn’t help but hear what they were talking about. Or at least that’s the excuse everybody in The Stopped Clock has taught me to use; if that bar were a nation, eavesdropping would be its national sport. Actually, now that I think about it, The Stopped Clock probably meets most of the qualifications for sovereign nationhood, although its chief means of defense is not being there when you want to invade it, which is kind of cheating.

So I was completely accidentally overhearing what these two guys were saying, and that was this:

“We have so much in common,” hissed the one with the curly black hair and the neat mustache. “Hatred of tyranny. A desire to serve our people.” He leaned forward dramatically. “The courage to do what must needs be done.”

“You know nothing about me,” the older guy with the toga and the Justin Bieber hair countered. “All you think you know about me comes from a play written more than sixteen centuries after I died. You’re comparing yourself with a fictional character, Booth.”

The younger man straightened his stage military uniform. “I know enough about your real life, Brutus. I know, for instance, that we both must commit a murder. I say: let’s trade murders. Criss Cross!”

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I dropped in to The Stopped Clock to have a beer and catch up on the latest gossip. You never know who will drop into that place, or whether you last saw them before or after the current visit, so most conversational gambits are tentative things in that peculiar bar. Besides, I like to play the game next to the counter. Faded lettering on the top says only AUTOPONG, and it's not really a pinball machine or a video game. I have no idea what its vintage is, and if Edgar says he's not telling. It doesn't take conventional coinage, but I've learned to stick two quarters together with a bit of tape before dropping them into the slot, and then the lights come on and strange things happen. I don’t so much play the game as observe it.

I had gotten to level 5, or perhaps had lost, and I was only half listening to the conversation at the bar. Retro Retro had gotten indignant and had risen to his feet.

"I know it's impossible! That's not what I asked!" he half-whined, his voice not quite slurring but definitely a little mushy around the edges. "I'm not asking you posers a question in temporal mechanics! This is a....a philosophical discussion."

"All right, calm down," growled Edgar quietly, pointing to the sign over the bar that read TAKE IT OUTSIDE AND ELSEWHEN. It hung, slightly lopsided, next to the other sign that read ALL COMPLAINTS WILL BE DEALT WITH TOMORROW. Nobody was ever quite sure whether to take that last one as a joke or as a threat.

"I'm not making fun of you, I simply don't understand the question!" complained Sir Attaccus, sweating under his bowler hat. "I comprehend that you ask whether there is one time in history that you could go back to, and dwell in forever. But are you enquiring whether you should be frozen in that moment, or living that moment actively for eternity?"

"That's an empty distinction," muttered Bobby Saturday, five empty beer bottles in front of him.

"I assure you it is not!" retorted Sir Attaccus hotly. "One is an infinitesimal point and the other more of a spliced segment! The distinction is indistinct only to the undistinguishing!"

"Big talk for a character whose time machine has a pennyfarthing wheel built into it," smirked Bobby. Edgar was forced to further suppress the clamor. Time machine design is a serious business for those who use them instead of relying on the door of the bar; more than one fight has started out in the parking lot.

Retro Retro pressed on his temples. "That's....argh." He tried again.

"Let's say you can choose which way you want to answer," said Retro Retro. "Frozen moment or bubble in time, any size, any volume – pick a moment in time. I'm not interested in the parametrics, I just want to know what you'd choose and how." The bar fell silent.

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September 2012

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