The World SF Blog

Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Tuesday Fiction: “Borrowed Time” by Stephen Kotowych

I’m pleased to present today Canadian writer Stephen Kotowych‘s short story, “Borrowed Time”. Stephen is a winner of the Writers of the Future Grand Prize, and has been a finalist for Canada’s Prix Aurora Award.

BORROWED TIME

By Stephen Kotowych

The look on Vincent’s face confirmed for Kayla that she was the last person he expected to see when he answered the door.  She pushed past him into the apartment.

“Hey!” Vincent said sharply.

The apartment was much the way she remembered it: looking (and smelling) of bachelor.  In the half-light through the closed drapes–the ones she had made him the year before–she saw magazines and newspapers scattered on the couch, a pizza box under the coffee table, and dirty plates full of desiccated pizza crusts, and worse, sitting on top.  She was sure the kitchen sink would be full of unwashed dishes.

“Still don’t clean?” she said, stepping over a fallen     t-shirt.  Reaching into her shoulder bag, Kayla pulled out a gold pocket watch, and popped open the cover.  She studied the four small dials of its chronograph face by the dim light.  Each of the tiny hands turned at a different speed, some forward and some back.

Vincent gave a frustrated sigh.  “I haven’t spent a lot of time here lately.”

“So I hear.”

Vincent straightened.  “What does that mean?”

Kayla’s brow furrowed.  The readings from the chronograph dials synched with the time reading from the large hands.  She held the watch out for Vincent to see.  “There’s no variation from baseline here.”

“Why would there be?  I’m hardly having a good time.”  Almost at once Vincent’s eyebrows arched.  “Oh, that’s what this is about.  You’re checking up on me.  You just can’t get over–”

“What the hell is the matter with you?” she interrupted.  “I thought you were going to stop stealing time.”

“You wanted me to stop.  There’s a difference.”

“Because I knew you’d get caught!”

“No, Kay, you were worried you’d get caught.  That’s different, too.”

“So who is she?” Kayla demanded, crossing her arms. “Another new recruit?”

“I’m through dating younger women,” Vincent said, wandering into the kitchen.

Kayla’s eyes narrowed.  Though he’d meant to hurt her, she was angry with herself for taking the bait.  The Chronographer’s Guild had recruited her right after grad school and assigned Vincent–only four years older–to train her.  He’d hardly robbed the cradle.  Besides, she’d been just as interested in him and had sent all the right signals.  She’d been surprised it took him so long to clue in.

Light spilled into the dim apartment from the refrigerator. Pop-snap. Vincent stood in the open door of the fridge, bathed in light, drinking a soda.  His wasting energy still bothered her.

“Did I ever get my key back from you?” he asked casually, in between gulps.

Kayla gave no answer.

“Kay?” he said.  “Where’s my key?”

She made no motion, no response.

Vincent’s eyes went wide.  “Oh God,” he said.  “You turned me in.”  He tossed the empty can to the counter.  Stepping past her, he turned the deadbolt and slid the door chain across.

“I didn’t turn you in,” she said, defensive.  “They came to me.  You stopped meeting your quota, and then you stopped checking in altogether.  They notice that kind of thing.  They want me to bring you in.”

“You?  Why you?”

Kayla hesitated.  “Because of our…history.”

Vincent scoffed.  “Is that what they told you?  Doesn’t matter.  I don’t work for them anymore.”  He looked out the door’s peephole.

“They don’t see it that way.”  Kayla didn’t believe him, either.  Vincent still wore the bracelet that, along with the chronograph, was the mark of their secret profession.  A braid of rope in gold–a reminder of their first lesson, to think of time as a piece of rope, and of each moment a fiber twisting together to make up the whole.  The bracelet was a constant reminder to all chronographers of their mission and oath to gather lost time, moments people skipped over, which would otherwise slip away into nothingness.

Kayla, like most chronographers, came up with her own simile for time after considering the lesson of the rope.  She preferred to think of time like oil; as non-renewable a resource, and just as slippery to deal with.

“Things are so black and white for you, Kay.  I wish it were that simple.”

“You steal lost time and use it for yourself.  Seems black and white to me.  Chronographers are supposed to collect lost time and use it for the future!  Without the Guild and the chronographers, who knows how much time we’d have left?”

He laughed.  “Still such idealism?  I always loved that about you.  But it drove me crazy, too.”

“I am idealistic,” Kayla said.  “And I’m not ashamed.  The work we do,” she caught herself, “the work I do is important, noble.”

“Noble?  You’re the one who’s stealing time, not me–you and the other chronographers.”

“That’s ridiculous.  What we do, we do for the good of everyone, the whole human race.  You know our days are numbered if we do nothing about it.”

“How many tomorrows do we have, hmm?”  He crossed the apartment.  “Have we ever been able to tell how much time remains unused, in reserve?  The Guild would have you believe that all we have left is what the chronographers have saved and put back into use.  What’s that make our lead-time?  A year?  A bit more?  Are we that close to oblivion?”

Vincent pulled one edge of the drapes back a bit, letting in a sliver of the day, and looked out across the skyscraper skyline.  “All those people out there using up time, skipping over baseline like rocks over a pond, unaware of the moments they have.  Humanity entered the twentieth century with one billion people; it exited with more than six.  That number will only rise.  There aren’t enough of us,” he waved his hand back and forth between them, “to keep up the quantities of time people are using.  There never could be.  It’s diminishing returns.  We’re fighting a war of attrition, one that entropy is destined to win.”

“We delay the end of time as long as we can.  That’s all the Guild could ever do,” Kayla said.

He rounded on her.  “What if the Guild is wrong?  We could have a hundred years left, or a thousand, or maybe aeons more.  Then what would that make the chronographers, if not thieves?”  He crossed back to the door and looked out the peephole again.  “It’s one thing to lose time, and another to have it taken from you.  How many hours have you stolen, Kay?  How many days or years of someone’s life have you taken?”

Kayla’s mouth worked, but no words came out.  She’d never heard anyone speak about the Guild or the chronographers that way.  She was not like Vincent!  She gathered time the way all good chronographers did–when it wouldn’t be missed.  And she returned it to the Guild, for the benefit of all to use, not for herself.

She would gather moments from the sleeping, from the excited, from the distracted.  So someone would wake up feeling like they’d only just closed their eyes, or someone would see that time flies when you’re having fun.  Their sacrifice meant those moments would be recycled, available for someone else to use, cheating entropy of its victory for another few seconds.  Vincent made it sound like she killed people.

“We all steal time,” Vincent said.  “I just use it differently than you.”

He pulled a jacket and small duffle bag from the hall closet.  He’d been preparing for an escape.  He slammed the closet door.

“Where are you going?”  Kayla asked.  She turned as if to block his way as he headed for the window.  Vincent bumped her out of his way with a shoulder.

“Vincent, where are you going?”

He pulled the drapes open, violently, ripping one from the curtain rod.  It peeled away like a skin, and fading daylight streamed in.  Vincent pushed the window open and threw one leg out onto the fire escape.

The sound of the bullet entering the pistol’s chamber stopped him.  He stood frozen for a moment, straddling the window frame, before Kayla finally spoke.

“You can’t leave, Vincent.  Unless it’s with me, and back to the Council.”

Vincent looked at her, studied the automatic she pointed at him, and turned back to the window.  “If you want to stop me you’ll have to fire…and shoot me in the back.”

“They’re in the alley, waiting for you!”

Vincent hesitated.  “Nice try.  But I always knew when you were lying.  The Guild knows as much about bringing in a fugitive as a bunch of librarians.  Don’t take this the wrong way, hon, but if you’re who they sent after me I don’t think they bothered putting anyone in the alley.”

He waited for a moment before pulling his other leg through the window.  There was the sound of footfalls on the fire escape, and he was gone.

Kayla rushed to the window and leaned out.  She could hear him getting farther away, rattling down the escape toward the ground, but couldn’t catch sight of him.

Dammit!

Strangway, the Guild agent who had assigned Kayla this task, had given her the gun but she’d never intended to use it.  The threat would be enough.  But no, not for Vincent.  Idiot.

There was a knock at the door.  Kayla checked her watch.  Twenty minutes and they’d follow her up, they said.  Right on time.

Muffled voices outside the door, and then the key she had given them turned in the lock.  The door opened as far as the chain would allow.  A body slammed against the door.  The chain held, but Kayla knew it wouldn’t for much longer.

What would they do, she wondered, when they found out Vincent escaped?  It would be the end of her career, at best.  They might let her stay on as one of the rank-and-file, patrolling every day, gathering stray bits of time day after day for years, until retirement.  She didn’t relish the idea of such mediocrity.

“Stop!  Freeze!” she yelled.  That sounded like the right kind of thing.  The crashing at the door stopped momentarily.  She scrambled on to the fire escape and held the gun high above her head, pressing a finger in one ear and the other ear into her arm.  “Freeze!” she yelled once more for good measure, and squeezed the trigger.

She jumped at the sound but the kick was what really surprised her.  There wasn’t normally any call for a chronographer to use a firearm.

There were shouts in the hall, and as Kayla flew down the first set of metal stairs she heard the splintering wood of the doorframe giving way.

When her feet finally hit the ground, she ran hard down the alley.  Would they know that she’d hesitated, or that Vincent had a three- or four-minute head start?

As she cleared the alley, which opened on to a busy city street, Kayla looked to the darkening sky.  She couldn’t take the chance that he was right about how much time was left.  She had to find him.  Otherwise, her charade wouldn’t make much difference–she’d be finished in the Guild, and time itself would be in danger.

* * *

Though she had her chronograph out, Kayla relied more on feel to guide her through the city streets, in what she hoped was Vincent’s direction.  She found the usual fluctuations from baseline, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Sitting on a park bench, Kayla clicked shut her chronograph.  She needed to gather her thoughts, focus her attention.  She drew deep, slow breaths, emptying her awareness, focusing on becoming a vessel for time to pass into.  Kayla waited for…something, some clue to where Vincent might have fled.

The glow from a hundred office towers, each a shimmering finger of glass, steel, and light, illuminated the downtown core.  People in suits emptied from them, filling the streets to teeming.  Each of them rushed somewhere, distracted, minds racing ahead of them.  The city intruded on her awareness.

She’d never considered how many moments she could gather from these rat-race types.  There was no need to check the chronograph for confirmation.  She could tell there was time here, ripe for the taking; she could see it in their eyes, feel it in her bones.  It would be hard to find Vincent through such a jumble.

Learning the true nature of time–that it was a real and tangible thing, as elemental as fire, as invisible as the wind–was one thing.  Look at how time ravaged and wrinkled the faces of the elderly, or how the monuments man built wore and decayed as the ages passed, and it made sense.  Learning the ebb and flow of moments people use but don’t observe, how to take those seconds or minutes without being noticed, was something else entirely.

She had skill for it, more than some Guild recruits, and she found her own instinct often as good as data gleaned from a chronograph.  So she closed her eyes, and imagined herself reaching out to them, scooping up their unwanted time like sand on a beach.  Instants, seconds, moments slipped through, each one distinct to her, like sand against her skin.  She could not save them all.  Entropy would have its due.  But she could save some.

Something indistinct pulled at her, there, over her right shoulder.  Her attention shifted.  There was a definite pressure, familiar…

Vincent!

Into the park she ran, deep into its darkness, with no thought of what might lurk there.  He was close, she was sure, and that was what mattered.

She slowed her pace as the pressure built, like pinpricks all over her skin, like the tingle of a sleeping limb.  It was right in front of her, and it was…nothing.  Kayla paced near a stand of trees, feeling the pressure stronger here, weaker there, the boundaries of a bubble.

Kayla knew something of such spaces from her time with Vincent.  She closed her eyes, preparing.  She moved through the barrier.  How seductive it was.  How easy it would be to give in as she had so many times, unaware, with Vincent.

Opening her eyes, she saw the world overlaid upon itself.  Night and day flexed and jostled, each trying to impose itself over the other.

Kayla was still within the same stand of trees, but there were children suddenly, half a dozen, all nine or ten years old, playing in the dying sunlight of a late August day.

Each part of Kayla’s awareness fought for dominance, just as the flickering night and day did.  Two moments: one theirs, one hers.  Their moment was an echo for her, she realized, a flash into how they were experiencing time.  Children wove around her, running after one another.  Did they see her?  Was she really there?

Kayla’s brow tightened.  Guild agents used time differently from others, were more “in-moment”, in Guild parlance.  They observed baseline more closely, used time at a fairly constant rate regardless of circumstances.  But even they sped through moments sometimes.  Everyone, even chronographers, lost stray seconds without noticing, like losing eyelashes, or shedding skin cells.

Those children, though, did not.  They had every second at their disposal.  There was no room for Kayla to reach in and take moments.  She could feel them using and attending to every moment individually, perfectly, like no one she’d ever encountered…  But how?  They couldn’t all be so naturally in-moment.

Until she had appeared at his door that afternoon, Kayla hadn’t seen Vincent in almost a year; he’d made no effort to contact her.  But now he wanted her to find him.  It was the only thing that made sense.

Vincent had somehow given these children time.  He knew that she would recognize the strange sensation and track it.  The children were a marker, part of a trail.  Vincent led her to them, and was leading her to himself.  But why?

Time began to move faster around her.  Kayla turned to see the sun falling behind the skyline, felt coolness against her skin as buildings’ long shadows raced over her, filling the park.  In the same moment, she saw the moon, the starless urban sky, the glistening office towers.

The flickering between moments intensified as they moved to merge at baseline.  It was her presence, she realized, her observation of this strange sliptime, that was bringing things back into synch so rapidly.

And it was night again suddenly, Kayla’s moment.  The children called goodbye to one another, promised to play again the next day, as they scattered in all directions.

A young boy collided with Kayla.  Perhaps he hadn’t seen her, she thought, for there was surprise on his face at running into a strange woman who, for him, had not been there a moment earlier.  He ran off without an apology.

Kayla began running, too, in the other direction.  Vincent was close now, she was sure.  And he wanted to be found.

* * *

She rounded a corner.  Another something was nearby.  Time rushed away from her like water through a burst dam, pulling her along in its current.  He was here, on one of the restaurant patios that lined the sidewalk.

Kayla felt an unmistakable tingle and turned.  Instead of Vincent, she stood in front of another trail marker: a blissful young couple. They were having coffee and dessert, holding hands, lost in each other’s gaze.

“I’ve spent my whole life in this city,” said Vincent, suddenly beside Kayla.  “Maybe people are different somewhere else, I don’t know.  But here, watching people always in a hurry, always thinking about what’s next, I realized that we need to do more than just make sure there’s a tomorrow.  We need to make sure that, once they have them, people use their todays.  Or what point is there in keeping the wheel turning?”

“How are you doing this?” Kayla asked, awed.  “What are you doing?”

“You’re seeing what I do with the time I take. I’ve applied the same principles I used when we–when I–took time for us.”

“You steal time for them?” she asked, confused.  “Do they pay you for it?”

“They don’t pay me.”  His voice had an edge at the accusation.  “They don’t even know what I’ve given them.  You know they rarely see us.”

Moving in moments where others were not meant rarely being seen by those people, like the children in the park, or the couple at the restaurant.  Even standing so close you could reach out and touch…  It was one aspect of the job Kayla knew she’d never get used to.

“I borrow time for them, Kay.  The Guild will take other moments from them, I just borrow against that.  I took a cue from something you said when we, well…”

A lot had been said the night she walked out, a great deal of it hurtful, and designed to be.  She didn’t look at him.

“You said I was selfish,” Vincent continued.  “In fact, you said stealing time, even to spend whole, perfect days with you, was the most selfish thing you’d ever heard of, as I recall your exact words.

“You know,” he said in hushed tones, “some women would find that terribly romantic.”

She could tell without looking that he was smiling.  She smiled, too.

“That really stuck with me,” he said.  “It hurt.  Mostly, I guess, because it was true.  I was selfish.  And one day it occurred to me:  What if I gave time back?  We know what happens when we take time, but what happens if we give time back to people?  If we let them use the seconds or minutes we would otherwise snatch up and store away, what then?”

“You can do that?”  Kayla asked.

“I have been, for months now.  The results, Kay!  This is what life was meant to be like!  This is how it was in the beginning, how all our hominid ancestors experienced existence before we became self-aware.  A perfect now.  We lead such short, fragile lives…”

Was that a tear Kayla saw in his eye?

“Don’t we deserve a chance to slow things down, to expand our finite lives sometimes?  And when they have those moments people just let time wash over them, know how to handle it, the same way newborns will hold their breath under water–instinctive!”

“You knew I’d find you.  You left a trail.  Why?”

“Because I wanted you to see this.  You are the only one who could find me.  You don’t really think they sent you after me because we used to date, do you?”

A denial died in Kayla’s mouth.

Vincent shook his head.  “Oh, Kay.  So naive.  They sent you because you were there when I started stealing time.  You know it’s possible.  You know what it feels like, how to sense it.  The Council knows I can borrow time, but could any of them track it like you could?

“It’s a test of allegiance,” Vincent said, turning to face her.  “The Council wants to know whose side you’re on.  They’re wondering will you turn me in, or are we in league?”

Kayla considered the idea.  Did the Council question her loyalty?  Perhaps they were right to.  Turning Vincent in had been clear-cut when she thought he was robbing time for his own use, but now she wasn’t sure.  What would they do to him if she handed him over?  What would they do to her if she did not?

“How are you doing this, Vince?”

“I’ll tell you, but there’s something I need to show you.  Then see if you still want to bring me in.”

He took her hand and they ran into the night.  And as they ran, he explained.

* * *

The last time Kayla had been in a hospital was also at Vincent’s side, during her training.

A tour of the coma patients was a required part of training.  Whole days, months, even years could be taken from them.  There were chronographers who specialized in coma patients, slipping unseen into the rooms of patients over and over…  It was an easy way to make quota, but it struck Kayla as ghoulish, like preying on the helpless.

The cold and the antiseptic smell brought it back to her as she and Vincent again walked hospital halls.

Vincent found the room he wanted and they stood in the doorway, watching.  An old man lay in bed connected to a web of wires, tubes, monitors, and machines.  Racking coughs shook his withered frame; his voice was thin and raspy.  A middle-aged man sat at his side, holding his hand.  They talked in hushed tones, and sometimes the old man would smile meekly, or weep gently.

“James is dying,” Vincent said quietly.  “He won’t last the night, the doctor says.  That’s his son, Derrick.  He’s come to say goodbye.”

Kayla said nothing.  She could feel the tingle of moments all around her, like an itch she wanted to scratch.  She wouldn’t let herself.

“The world won’t let children stay children for long these days,” Vincent said.  “The kids in the park deserve one golden summer to always remember, so I’ve been giving them time for weeks now.

“That couple on the patio?  Today was the day they fell in love.  And, well, you know how relationships go.”

Only hours ago, Kayla realized, she would have taken that as a veiled accusation.  Now, she nodded her head and understood.

No matter what happened later in their relationship, the couple would always have that magical, intensely lived day they fell in love.  That’s what Vincent had given them.  Just as, Kayla realized, he had tried to give her.

She didn’t want him stealing time for her, but had she misjudged him?  She considered him for a long moment, seeing perhaps for the first time what she loved in him.

“And them?” Kayla asked, turning her attention back to the old man and his son.  “This is an awful time to be in-moment.”

“But it’s not, Kay!  That’s what you made me realize.  With us, I tried to prolong all the happiness, all the easy moments. I didn’t want the difficult ones.  No one does.”

He became very still.  “My father died last year.”

“Vincent…”  Kayla took his hand.  Vincent’s father had been ill for several years, the whole time Kayla and Vincent were together.  Vincent hadn’t wanted them to meet until he recovered, saying his father didn’t want people seeing him as an invalid.  Now it was too late.

“It was a lot like this,” he said, looking over the hospital room.  “I sat with him, held his hand.  We were close, I thought.  We talked a few times a week; I’d go visit him.  But then he was gone, and I realized there was so much unsaid.  I could have taken time, spent weeks and weeks with him in-moment…but I didn’t.  It was too hard, too scary.  And now…Now it’s too late.”  He wiped away tears.

Kayla’s throat burned.  She squeezed his hand, and felt him squeeze back.

“That’s when everything you’d said about my selfishness made sense.  Even if we don’t want those moments, even if they scare us, we need them.  They make us see what we don’t like about ourselves; they shake us up and change us.

“Look at this man, dying in his bed, and tell me that he hasn’t been robbed of his most precious possession–time.  For him it’s lung cancer, but it could as easily have been some Guild agent who took just enough moments…  I can’t make him say the words, but I can give him time, and give him the chance.  Time to say all the things he never said.  Time to bring some peace to his life, and his son’s, before the end.”  He turned to look at her.  “If you want to put me away for that, well, you’re welcome to it.”

Kayla leaned up and kissed him, standing on tiptoes as she’d always had to.  As their lips met she felt her resistance melt away, and she gave in.  Every second–every one!–washed over her like a warm rain.  She was there with Vincent, and with the old man and his son, in the moment, fully living each instant.  It was all she remembered it being, and more.  This was how life should be lived!

She broke the kiss when she realized the hushed conversation by the bedside had stopped.  Kayla could feel eyes on her.  The old man could see her, was looking at her!  She was so used to not being seen she could find no words to answer the questioning look on the old man’s face.

“Sorry,” said Vincent.  “We must have the wrong room.”  He took Kayla by the elbow.  They stepped into the hall and back into baseline time.

Waiting there for them by the nurse’s desk was Strangway, the tall, grandfatherly Guild agent who’d set Kayla after Vincent.

“Don’t move,” Strangway said.  Men appeared at Strangway’s side, and others blocked possible avenues of escape.  They were the kind of men librarians wouldn’t know to hire.

Cold slipped down Kayla’s spine as Strangway settled his gaze on her.  He knew, didn’t he?  He knew that she had let Vincent escape his apartment, that she now did not intend to turn him over to the Guild.  They’d just been using time–had he been able to sense it?  Is that what drew him here?

A pair of the men with Strangway moved to either side of Vincent, each roughly taking an arm.

“Hey!  Easy!” Vincent said.

The gun.  It was still in her bag, Kayla realized.  Could she get it before they stopped her?  She slumped her shoulder, trying to slide the strap down her arm.

“You’re a little late to the arrest,” Vincent said, as the men pushed him toward Strangway.  “Kayla was about to bring me in.  She’s convinced me to turn myself over.”

Kayla wanted to scream that was a lie, but his look as she caught Vincent’s eyes held her back.  I know what I’m doing, they said.  Don’t stop me.

“Well done, Kayla,” Strangway said.  “I knew I was right about you.”

Kayla didn’t like the implication.

“You know,” Strangway said, stepping to within inches of Vincent, “what we do is like building a bridge of stone.  All of humanity walks as one across the endless span of this bridge, except for us.  We walk a few steps ahead on the leading edge, laying down the next course of brick, the next row of stones, so everyone else will find safe footing for their next step.  What you do, though, is monstrous–stealing bricks from under the very feet of your fellow man!”

He nodded his head and the men ushered Vincent down the hall, through a set of swinging doors, and out of sight.

As she motioned to follow, Kayla felt an arm slip around her shoulder.  She fought the urge to shrug it away.

“It’s gratifying to know that you are on our side, Kayla,” Strangway said.  “This wasn’t easy for you, I’m sure.  You realize by now that this wasn’t a simple assignment from the Guild.”

Kayla considered the slipperiness of his statement, the layers of meaning: a veiled reminder of his secret knowledge of her crime; a kind of congratulations on passing the test and expiating her sin.  It was how Vincent would have picked apart the statement, she realized.  He was right–she had been naive.

Not any more.

“I think any lingering doubts have been put to rest,” he said, slowly guiding her down the hallway.  “You made the right choice in the end, and that’s what counts.  There’s no need to discuss your, hmm–youthful indiscretion?–ever again, as far as I’m concerned.”

Kayla mumbled false words of thanks and forced her attention to stay in the moment.  Trauma was one instance where it was easy to skim the seconds, awareness shutting down as you went into shock.  She was determined to have every instant of the pain, to feel it all, remember it.  Like Vincent said, the hard moments helped you change…

“It’s clear you’re a person of special talents,” Strangway continued, “one who won’t be content in the trenches, gathering time forever, yes?  I have something of an eye for talent, and you have greatness in store for you, I’m sure of it.  I don’t doubt eventually you’ll be sitting on the Council with me.  It might do you good to have a friend in high places as you make your way.”

She allowed herself a moment of dark pride at the confirmation.  Pieces had fallen into place after Vincent said her mission was a test.  Of course Strangway was on the Guild Council: who else would be trusted with the knowledge that you could turn time to your own purpose?

Something about keeping enemies closer crossed Kayla’s mind as she forced the effusive thanks for Strangway’s patronage that he would expect.

He smiled softly and disappeared through the swinging doors at the end of the hall.

Kayla headed for the elevator, tears in her eyes at last.

* * *

Strangway wasn’t the last person Kayla expected to see when she peered through the peephole, but she thought he would wait longer before coming to see his new protégé.  It had been less than a week.

He knocked again.

She watched him, strange and distorted through the peephole, grow increasingly impatient with waiting.  He checked his watch–not his chronograph, Kayla noted; that was a good sign–knocked once more, then turned and walked down the hall.

Kayla waited, ear pressed to the door, until she heard the elevator open and close again.  She exhaled a deep and ragged breath.  Had she been holding it the whole time?  She slid the door chain across and decided to have more deadbolts installed; she’d seen how little help chains could be.

She closed the blinds on her living room windows–the ones she’d made herself when she made Vincent’s–and returned to work on her chronograph.

Did Strangway suspect?  Had he taken apart Vincent’s chronograph, seen how its gears and counterweights, its crystals and wires had been modified?

Vincent had explained the basics of his borrowed time during their hurried trip to the hospital.  The chronograph was the key.  Simple modifications turned it from a meter for time into a conduit to dispense it.

How many others, in the long history of the Guild, had happened upon this secret?  How many of those had the Council also “disappeared”?

She’d heard the rumors, of course, the urban legends chronographer trainees told each other.  Cross the Guild, they said, and you’ll end up in the coma wards, your body kept alive as Guild agents steal away every moment of the rest of your life… She’d never had reason to believe that, until now.

Was that where she’d find Vincent–a John Doe in some faraway coma ward?  And would she find other chronographers who’d made the same modifications Vincent had?  Did they share his vision?  As she soldered wires and reweighted the mechanisms in her chronograph, Kayla vowed to find out.

THE END

Borrowed Time (c) 2007 Stephen Kotowych. First published in the anthology Under Cover of Darkness, edited by Julie E. Czerneda & Jana Paniccia.

 

February 15, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: