Short Fiction

Borrowed Time by Rob O’Keefe

“16 years? Seriously, 16 years? You’re killing me!”

Why do they always yell? I didn’t know this guy, but I knew his story. He was in over his head. That’s how it was with most clockers. Give ‘em a second, they’ll take a year, right? Okay, I know that’s not original, but it’s still true.

“Not yet,” I countered. “Unless you keep borrowing more than you can pay back. And it’s 16 years and 47 days, plus a few hours. How do you want to do this?”

The clocker looked around, his eyes darting frantically. He was looking for a way out, but there wasn’t one. The algorithms the company used had pegged him as done. That’s why I was there.

“Fine, fine. Apply it to my house,” he said, resignation hanging over every word.

I looked at the house. It was a modest split-level ranch. Not a castle, but it was in good shape. “You sure?”

“What choice do I have?”

None really, I thought as I punched the numbers into my Temporal Isolation Mobile Extractor, which created a ridiculous acronym: TIMEX. Someone thought they were being funny, I guess. We called them eggbeaters. It wasn’t the most elegant nickname, but it was accurate. In an instant, the house began to degrade, aging 16 years, 47 days, and 3 hours in the space of a few seconds. It wasn’t pretty.

As I left, I could hear windows shattering and doors snapping, immediately followed by the roof collapsing. Compressed time recapture did that to a structure. Didn’t do much for the owner, either.

It didn’t bother me though. I’m a minute man, also known as a time-out cop, chrono-bobby, when-wolf, and a few other choice names I won’t repeat. Officially, we’re called reclaimers, a nice neutral name for a very unpleasant business.

And business was booming. Once we learned how to harness time, it didn’t take long before someone figured out how to exploit it. Money, gold, land – those all had little value these days. Time was the new currency.

Most people have no idea how we learned to manipulate time. All they know is once we did, we screwed it up just like everything else that was supposed to change the world.

I’m sorry.

What we now know is there’s a finite amount of time in the universe, which is contrary to what the vast majority of physicists used to think. One physicist, derided by most of his colleagues, not only proposed that time was finite, but came up with a theory that would allow the bundling of time into discreet transferable packages. It should have changed everything. But in the end, it didn’t change anything.

That physicist ended up being right. Well, mostly right. Because time is finite, the manipulation of time can’t result in a deficit of any note. If it does, then things start to go sideways.

Once we learned how to package time, the big money arrived like locusts in a wheat field, giving rise to the time banks. Same principle as a regular bank – just substitute time for money. Most people bank some of their personal time with the hope of getting a little more back. Those looking for more time than they have can take out a loan, and most of those pay it back without any problems.

You know what they do with their time, don’t you? There’s a range, a wide range. From simple things like making a vacation last longer to less savory applications. Technology and science may evolve, but when it comes to our vices, we tend to stick with the tried and true. The ones on that end of the spectrum tend to wind up as addicts.

Those are the clockers. The ones the company usually sends me after. But every now and then, I get sent to collect from someone who just had a run of bad luck and fell behind. Regular people like you, your parents, your neighbors.

I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?

Those are the jobs I hate.

The next two collections I had that day were both clockers. Different people, different places, but the same circumstances. But the last one? It was the kind that make me question if I should have ever taken this job.

“I was wondering when you would show up,” she said quietly. “I don’t know how it got so out of hand.”

I’m not proud of what I do, but It’s something that’s necessary. For now.

“I went back to the bank, and they extended the loan,” she went on, as if by explaining the problem, it would go away. “The loan officer even added to it.”

“But I needed more.” Not a plea. Just a statement of fact.

I knew what happened next. “You went to the street lenders?” There’s a black market for everything. Time was no different.

She nodded. “I wasn’t ready to let him go.” And then the tears started flowing.

What am I supposed to say to that?

The banks won’t loan to anyone who’s dying. There’s no guarantee of payback. So, the only thing family members can do is take on a loan themselves to extend their time together.

She didn’t own anything. The only way for her to repay was to give up some of her time. These were the worst retrievals of all.

It’s one thing to see a house crumble, a car fall apart, or household possessions tarnish and turn to dust. But to see someone age?

I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?

There’s nothing to forgive.

I couldn’t do it.

“Listen, I’ve got some hours stashed away. I’ll pay off the time sharks and give you enough for a couple of bank payments. But you have to let him go.”

“You’d do that?”

Yeah, I would.

I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?

There’s nothing to forgive.

I just wanted to be happy. That’s not wrong, is it?

No. No, of course not. But I’m going to save you.

I’ve been skimming off the top. Been doing it for a while. Seconds, minutes, but never hours. That would get noticed too easily. I have my reasons. It’s why I took this job in the first place.

We met at a conference. I was the guest speaker, the main attraction. She was there as a plus-one to keep her friend company. She had no real interest in my presentation.

“So, you’re a tick-tock doc?” laughing as she said it.

I laughed with her. I like that she didn’t take what I did seriously. “Yes, I’m a physicist. A time theorist.”

For the next two months, I put my work aside. We spent every moment together. Two amazing, glorious months. It was so cruel.

“I should have told you when we first met.”

We were at the hospital. She had a seizure.

“I’m glad you didn’t. It would have changed everything.”

“What do you mean? You don’t think ‘Hi, I have an inoperable brain tumor’ is a good icebreaker?”

“You’re going to beat this.”

“No. I’m not. I want to, more than anything. I really do. Not just for me, but for us. It’s –”

“We’re going to beat this.” I insisted.

And then I told her about my work. She knew something about it, but not the details. Not the ‘it will change everything’ part. I explained how I was close, very close to a breakthrough.

“We’ll be together forever,” I said.

“Is that a proposal?” she asked, teasing.

We got married the next day. In the hospital. She had tubes running from her arms to a dozen machines. Her head was wrapped in bandages. She made me go to the gift shop to buy flowers. She stuck them in the bandages. It looked ridiculous. And beautiful.

During the day, she continued her treatments, and I worked in my lab. As I got closer, I worked even longer. When it all came together, when I broke through the last barrier, it didn’t matter. I was too late.

She was gone.

I just wanted to be happy. That’s not wrong, is it?

No. No, of course not. But I’m going to save you.

I don’t need you to be a hero. I just want you to be here, with me. For however long that lasts.

I had achieved one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in history and I didn’t care.

I had discovered how to make time malleable, to borrow it from here and move it to there. It wasn’t time travel. There was no going back or jumping ahead. Only extending the present. People could have more time together. Like I should have had with her.

I just didn’t get it done while she was still alive.

We’ll be together forever.

I disappeared for a while. Well, for more than a while. It was when the world took my discovery and turned it into another product to sell. I wanted no part of that world.

For the next few years, I waffled between bitter resentment for how my work was exploited and inconsolable loss for … well, you know. At some point in my misery, I came up with a way to deal with both.

My idea required access to packages of time. Large packages. I knew I couldn’t achieve what I wanted by going back to my old life, so I invented a new one. I applied for a job as a reclaimer with one of the larger time banks. I changed my appearance a bit, but it probably wasn’t necessary. No one would expect the world’s leading time theorist to be parading around as a low-level collections worker.

I got the job and immediately started skimming. But it was taking too long. One reason was that I was being careful. The other reason was that I kept helping people like the woman I told you about earlier. I knew what people like her were going through and I couldn’t stand by and watch.

I’m going to save you.

Even at this pace, eventually the bank auditors would catch up with me. And then my chance would be over. I decided to be more aggressive. It would be risky, but I didn’t care anymore.

The thing about companies is that they like process. Especially banks. And time banks even more so. I figured even with aggressive skimming, it would take a week or two for the auditors to discover what I was doing. But even then, they’d have no idea what I was planning.

The first thing I did was sign up to collect from the most highly leveraged clockers – the desperate ones that most reclaimers wanted nothing to do with. This time I didn’t skim. I hoarded. I accumulated every year I could, every second I could. Then I went back to some of the people I helped. Most of them had been able to reestablish their credit thanks to my assistance, and because of that they had a good amount of time at their disposal. I explained to them as best I could what I was going to do. I kept it in simple terms. I asked the ones that were onboard to transfer what they had to my private account. I was surprised how many did.

By the end of the week, I had centuries at my disposal. And I was going to use it to make things go sideways, by extending, collapsing, and detonating time. Yeah, I was building a time bomb, a ludicrous name for a desperate act.

My plan was to loop three eggbeaters together. The first one would extract all of the time from my considerably large account. The second one would be reprogrammed to simultaneously inflate every moment. An extracted second would last a day. A day, a century. My theory was that it would create such an extreme time imbalance that the fabric of the universe would twist itself in knots to make up the deficit.

This is when the third eggbeater would come into play. My equations predicted that in order to offset the imbalance I would be creating, reality would start to bend, and bend hard. At that moment, if you could even call it that, all of time would be in play. The last eggbeater would compress it, every moment that ever was and ever would be. All of it. The entire sequence would happen in an instant.

It didn’t matter where I was when I triggered the event. Physical space was irrelevant. I decided to go back to the site of the conference where we first met. That’s as poetic as I could manage. If I was right about what would happen, we’d be together. If I was wrong, I’d never know it. I found a secluded bench in a nearby park, fed the pigeons, cried for a while, and then, with little ceremony, set off my device.

I just wanted to be happy. That’s not wrong, is it?

I opened my eyes, disoriented. I must have been unconscious. I was in a hospital room. I was old. Really old. And dying. I closed my eyes and let out my last breath.

And then, I opened my eyes again. I was in my lab. No, wait, this wasn’t my lab. It was the one I worked in right after I received my doctorate. The room started spinning and I passed out.

When I regained consciousness, I was a kid this time. Out in the backyard with my parents. My father was showing me how to grill hamburgers. My first batch went up in flames. So did my second. We ended up eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I was happy.

My brain couldn’t process what was happening. I was confused, baffled. I was experiencing my entire life in random moments. How?

I blacked out and woke up a few more times, a dozen times, hundreds of times? I don’t know, but I remembered something important. I remembered what I did.

That’s when I realized I wasn’t experiencing my life randomly, I was living it all at once – every moment from being born to dying and all that was in-between. Including our time together, our fleeting, breathtaking time together. But now it no longer had to be brief. It could last for as long as I wanted, for as long as we wanted.

We were no longer bound by time’s passage. Now, we were bound together.

This wasn’t just happening to me. It was happening to everyone. That’s why I’m sharing this story, so you understand what it means to live like this, without the old limits. It takes some getting used to, but I know how to navigate it now. I’ll help you.

I just want you to be here, with me. For however long that lasts.

I’ll help all of you.

Rob O’Keefe

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10 thoughts on “Borrowed Time by Rob O’Keefe”

    1. Steven –
      Usually it’s my grasp of reality that’s tenuous, so if it’s only the physics, I’ll take that as improvement.


    1. Paul –
      I don’t mind at all. If we’re talking cinematic analogies, I was thinking Double Indemnity meets Blade Runner, but with a much cheaper cast.


  1. Hi Rob,
    I normally get a bit lost with all this time thinking and it hurts my head.
    But I did follow some of this and what I didn’t didn’t really matter, which in a way, was well done.
    Overall it is a nice sentiment, him wanting to expand minutes for the good of everyone finding their happiest moments and living them for ever.
    This is one of those weird coincidences – One of the books I wrote (I think my sixth failure!!!) was about a cat who took items to a lady to show them the folks stories. It was all in preparation of her accepting her own item which would then allow her to die and constantly live her happiest day.
    Fuck me – I must have been on drugs!
    Hope you have more for us soon Rob!!


    1. Hugh –
      I normally don’t write stories that require some semblance of scientific reasoning (however flimsy), so it was a challenge for me as well.
      Thanks for reading.


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