Today, a time-out from writing The Project. I will probably take tomorrow off entirely – I’ve earned it this week!
Chuck Wendig’s latest Flash Fiction challenge is here. Took a day or so to marinate on the idea, then just let this flow.
Originally I meant to take a sci-fi action angle, but instead I ended up with this sort of cynical, sort of sad moment. I beat the clock on this challenge, coming in at 945 words. Haven’t edited it too much because it kind of shook me up. Maybe I will tinker with it later.
At any rate, I hope you enjoy it – and as usual, I welcome any and all feedback if you’re out there reading it.
Andres was laid comfortably on his back, the lush chair feeling like a cloud bank buoying him up toward the soft fluorescent light. The sting of the needle in his arm barely even registered. It was replaced immediately by a dull, heavy feeling that crept across his body; first the fingers of his left hand went numb, then his shoulder, then his neck, and then he simply felt strangely dense and weightless all over. The chair sunk away, the drones and beeps of the machines faded into nothingness, the outline of the lamp blurred slightly.
In a few minutes, his mind would empty of all thought, and a few minutes beyond that, he would feel no more. The fear no longer held any power over him, he was merely curious.
The crowd gathered behind the one-way glass looked on in equal parts satisfaction, shock, and disbelief. Just days ago, the Collective had all but announced that they had given up hope of ever locating Andres and the rest of the Timekeepers, but now they held him on their table, surrendered of his own free will, about to make his Donation to the powers he had fought against.
A surgical mask floated into his view, a lifetime of experience gazing at him through impossibly young eyes. Dimly he was aware of questions being asked. He blinked once for yes, twice for no at her directions. Do what you will. He let his eyes flutter shut, felt the fluorescent light glowing through his eyelids.
In moments, the chamber would seal around him, a steel and glass oubliette, and a mist of not-quite-gas would pour in: a horde of tiny nanobots which would permeate his skin, activate the growth enzymes in his cells, and then siphon off all the energy and divided cells, leaving him aged by the space of a lifetime in just a few short minutes. The energy and the cells would be processed and purified through a bizarre alchemy and used to Reinvigorate a member of the society that Andres would never know.
The Borrowed Time Initiative was ostensibly one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of all time. In virtually no time at all it had gone from a fluke discovery into rapid, frenzied medical testing; within the course of just two years, there were BTI facilities in every major metropolis around the world. The hook was simple. Give a little time to make a better time.
At first, the initiative was fueled only by the elderly and the infirm, but the Collective quickly began putting convicts into the stainless steel chambers, and from there, it was only a few short months before the Donation program was opened, and that was when Andres had started to fight.
The Donation program was innocent enough at first. Give a year of your life and receive a year’s wages for your family. The number of donators in the first month flooding the BTI facilities had been so overwhelming that the Collective immediately deregulated the system and allowed each center to set its own rates. In the suburbs, a year would still get you about six months’ pay. In the cities, Donators were lucky to get two weeks.
But where did the time go? The BTI claimed that the stolen time (as it was colloquially known) was rationed out to those who needed it most, with extensively detailed logbooks showing where this inventor or that teacher or some other great leader had been Reinvigorated. Sick children, cured by an infusion of Borrowed Time, were pasted on the sides of buildings and TV ads everywhere. But the executives of the BTI stopped having their photographs taken, presumably because they were growing younger and younger, and then the stories began to break: Borrowed Time was being bought and sold like stock options, to the highest bidder. Great stockpiles of it were found in palatial mansions, dingy apartments, buried in backyards. There was some outcry, but the overwhelming part was that people kept lining up at BTI centers to make their Donations. It’s hard to get really upset when you can feed your family just by going into the chamber for a few minutes. Sure, you die a little sooner, but what’s a few years of not wearing diapers and not forgetting your own name?
Andres was one of the first to join up when the symbol of the Timekeepers started appearing in alleyways and overpasses. He fought the good fight, made a name for himself. Then he came home one day to find a picture of his ex-mother-in-law tacked to his door. Old, harsh, her face lined and sunken and her hair faded. Dead. What psychopath would send him a picture like this, he barely had time to wonder — until he saw the gold locket that he’d given his wife for their tenth anniversary around her neck. She had been thirty-eight, and her corpse looked ninety. Next to that picture was a picture of his daughter.
The next day, he’d given his thumbprint and his blood sample at the BTI center in Washington. And from there, it was a short walk through hallways painted with clouds to the chair.
The steel-and-glass doors closed over his face, inches from his skin. He could no longer feel it, but he thought of the picture in his pocket. Not the photograph he’d found tacked to his door, but one his ex-wife had taken on his daughter’s fifth birthday. In it, she smiled, her mouth a checkerboard of missing teeth, Andres’s face buried in her tangled hair. A wet droplet rolled down his cheek as the hissing filled his ears.