The subtle art of Stealing Time

by Mileva Anastasiadou

 I cannot believe how long it took me to realize Alex doesn’t exist. If I wasn’t that far away from earth, if I had not been obliged to perform my research in complete secrecy, I would have realized it sooner -I guess –  yet living in a giant starship, hundreds of light years from the place I have been taught to call home, made the procedure harder and certainly time consuming.


Do you realize the reason you are here, Mr. Smith?”


I have not heard my name for such a long time that I have almost forgotten it. During working hours, they usually call us by our serial number. Personal relationships are not encouraged here, except for reproduction reasons, yet through impersonal and anonymous encounters. Secondly, I don’t really understand the question. Is he referring to the spacecraft? I have spent my whole life in this starship. I was born here and I will die here as well, if things go as planned, yet I have been made to believe that earth is my home. I belong to a different tribe than the one that inhabits Mother Earth. We are the “dream chasers” or so they have named us.


Could you please tell us what you know about Alex?”


I feel truly puzzled now. I think he is deliberately trying to confuse me. How can he ask me about a person that I now know that he doesn’t exist? My memories of Alex have not vanished, despite the knowledge of his non-existence. He was on the other side. He belonged to the “silence breakers”, a tribe living away from civilization, in forests and caves on our planet of origin, refusing to accept and conform to human reality. At the moment, I am not even certain that this tribe exists. It must have existed in the past, supposedly fighting for a better world, but it seems to have vanished nowadays, as I cannot trace it any more, whichever method I use. Alex was not born into the tribe. He chose to join them, despite all danger. I don’t think anybody else would dare join them. He was born an earthling, a natural inhabitant of the earth, but at some point, he decided he did not want to conform to human laws.

We used to write to each other when we were kids. Back then, we were forced to participate in an experiment, which encouraged communication between people living on earth and the starship inhabitants. The project was supposed to inspire hope to those of us that lived far away, to give us a sense of purpose. Come to think of it, even the name that’s used to describe my tribe serves the same purpose: to instill hope in the hearts of the desperate. Our ancestors chose to board this ship, but we, their offspring, did not have the choice. Our ancestors had made the choice for us. Little by little, more and more members of our tribe committed suicide, feeling trapped in the starship, far away from earth, knowing that they would neither have the chance to live a normal life, nor would they live long enough to reach the destination. The paradise we are looking for, the promised land my tribe is destined to explore, is still far away. Our mission is only to reproduce and educate the next generation. To create a new crew that one day will take our place and drive the spacecraft to the new world.


You must remember the experiment, don’t you, Mr. Smith?”


How could I forget? The project ended soon. All files of communication were deleted. Unfortunately, it did not go as planned. Coming into contact with other people who happen to have an option that we don’t, only enraged the spacecraft population even further. All communication stopped, yet we were still given the privilege of accessing all libraries and data on earth, a privilege denied as unnecessary to most natural inhabitants of the planet. That’s how I searched for Alex. I could not even find his birth certificate though. It seems as if he has never been born.

We were almost twelve years old, when we began writing letters to each other. I only knew how things worked on the planet from impersonal essays I had studied for school. Thankfully, our tribe is excluded from the laws about payments and taxes, mainly because they cannot apply in outer space. Our organs are more useful in our own bodies than anywhere else. This is actually the reason our ancestors chose to board, instead of continuing to live in the old world, as earth is now called: to have their expenses covered for life, in exchange for volunteering for a trip to the unknown. Although there were some adventurers among them, most of them were so poor, that they had no other option. If they wanted to prolong their survival, they had to become “dream chasers”.


You do understand, I hope, that although access to those communication files has been denied to the population, we still have kept records. There is truly no point in lying to us. What was your reaction to what he wrote to you?”


I am not sure what he expects of me. Is he implying that I encouraged him? I might have been sympathetic and understanding, but I swear I did my best to protect Alex. A year after our first letter, he lost his father. I still remember him describing the event. It should have been expected. But Alex was still surprised, even infuriated by the loss. In my opinion, his father had lived long enough, considering his bad luck. Selling a kidney was considered a safe investment, one of the commonest early choices, as humans can easily survive on one of them for long. Alex’s father was unlucky enough to experience renal failure, with all the accompanying consequences. The rest of his organs lost most of their value, and medical bills, water and oxygen bills could not be afforded for long. His death was inevitable when he had to sell a part of his brain, in order to ensure he did not leave any debts to his children.

“This is not fair,” Alex wrote to me. He was still young and able-bodied. He had his whole life ahead of him. “This can’t be happening,” he wrote. People are supposed to use this expression for the most unexpected and unpredictable events, yet they seem to say it for the most common incidents like death. After all, death is people’s common fate and we all know it. However,  whenever it actually happens, we act as if nobody expected it. Death belongs to that category of subjects, including also accidents, loss, betrayal, about which we have all heard stories, yet we are caught by surprise when they happen to hit us, as if those terrible things could only happen to other people, preferably living in another universe, very distant from our own safe little world. Alex was used to living among mutilated people, yet he was not yet accustomed to the sight of death. I think that’s when the first doubts invaded his brain.


What do you think of the laws that apply to the earth inhabitants, Mr. Smith? Would you consider them unfair, as you friend did?”


In history books, I have read of a time, when there were slaves. Believe it or not, there was a season in human history when people could be bought and sold. It did not last long. Humanity evolved into freedom and democracy. In the past, there was also an era when humans had to sell their labor to survive. Unbelievable as well, yet progress at the same time. Life was tiring back then. People had to work eight hours each day or maybe more to ensure the necessary for their survival. Fortunately, automation took over and gave an end to the greedy “time thieves” who stole other people’s sweat for profit. Nowadays, people on earth are lucky enough to spend their lives the way they please.

Some of them at least. Life always comes with a price. Nothing is for free. People do not have to work, but they still have to pay the bills. As I hear, life gets more and more expensive.

In the past, there were some people who thought that they were entitled to anything for free. Rumors say that oxygen was free at some time in human history. Water too. In the past oxygen and water were abundant on earth. Yet now they are not. That’s why our mission started in the first place. Scientists located a planet with the ideal conditions to host life. That’s where our spacecraft is heading.

The “silence breakers” were considered radicals. A selfish tribe that did not want to conform to the laws. Ancestors of those long gone and forgotten people who thought life comes for free, thinking that shelter, food, even water and oxygen are basic human rights. They lived in secrecy, always relocating in order to avoid being found, consuming air and water, refusing to pay bills or taxes. Alex had written to me about them, about their way or organizing their daily routine, according to the needs of the team. They refused to hunt or eat animal food, collected vegetables and cooked them in turns, raised their kids in communities, took care of the sick when needed without requiring payment or favors in return. I had thought of them as weirdos, but Alex seemed to like them. I kept reminding him that they were outlaws, people with no roots or future. He did not seem to care.


Do you consider yourself smart, Mr Smith?”


I certainly do. Alex could not get over the fact that he stood silent, watching his father die. Despite my pleas to make him move on, he kept on writing about how guilty he felt. I remember that I thought he was too emotional; perhaps he’d grow to be an unstable adult. Come to think of it, I was right. I have always been smart as a kid after all, unlike Alex, who considered himself smart but facts showed otherwise.

It came natural to him to stand up to what he thought of as injustice, when faced with the opportunity. As he narrated in his long, detailed letter, he shouted at a police officer who was just doing his job, arresting a criminal.

“Stop yelling kid, you know I’m just doing my job,” the officer gently explained.

The man had to be arrested for not having paid his oxygen bill. They had been tolerant enough. They had given him time. They had even offered him a compromise in the beginning, to pay only a finger per month. He refused to settle. By the time of his arrest, the bill was so high, that he had to give away his heart to pay off his debt.

“You’ll get in trouble if you keep on behaving like this. Nothing comes for free, son, that’s how the world works,” his mother told him when he returned back home. She was right. That is truly how the world down there on earth works. You surely can live with one eye, one kidney, or later on with one hand or one leg. You have to sell them at the best possible price. You have to ensure they work at their best possible capacity. That’s what education is for. When you run out of body parts to sell, you die. You have to be smart and careful in order to live a long life. The strong survive the longest, as usual.

“I miss those old days, when selling one kidney could get you to old age. A paradise lost,” his mother whispered to herself, but the boy heard her.

I think that was the turning point in Alex’s life. He had been playing before with the idea in his mind, but that was the moment when he decided to join the “silence breakers”. Even his mother advised him to remain silent, when all he wanted was to scream, to break the silence. He did his best to explain their philosophy to me. His words seemed like an incomprehensible rant, yet I understood that those radicals were supposedly out to fight entropy. To fight injustice and greed that led humanity to distinction. They considered themselves saviors. I tried hard to convince him otherwise, telling him that things cannot work outside the civilization, which took years for humans to develop. He was determined, claiming that the line between tolerance and complicity is rather thin, and that he’d not allow himself to stand silent, watching people die in vain. He would fight the time thieves of our times, those who had stolen his father’s life and who, in time, would steal his life as well. I tried to calm him down.

“Do not jeopardize your life. You are smart enough to have the best education possible, which will definitely ensure you a long life,” I reassured him. On earth, kids went to school, as we did in the spacecraft. But the lessons taught were different and specifically tailored to meet the ends of the era. They were taught how to keep in the best possible shape, in order for their organs to have the best price in the market. They did not learn much about history, or mathematics. They were useless to the organ donor class. The elite was still taught history, mathematics, physics and all those lessons that the poor kids would never need. He refused to settle to a life of pure survival, he told me. He refused to accept what he had been taught was his fate.


So, you do understand the necessities of the laws?”


I certainly do. But I do understand Alex’s point too. What he did not seem to accept is that some people are luckier than others. It’s all about luck. Or fate, if you prefer. You don’t get to choose whether you are born or not, nor your parents. You don’t get to choose the era during which you are born, the events of your time, the natural disasters, the political landscape. Nor do you choose whether you are born rich or poor. It’s all a matter of luck. Or fate. Some people cannot live with this thought. They are unable to accept it. They are willing to fight against windmills to prove it wrong. They believe they are free. They believe they can choose their own path. That was Alex.

He promised to communicate when he would arrive at the community, somewhere at the foothills of Olympus, but I’ve never heard of him after he left, searching for them. The experiment ended before I had a chance to tell a proper goodbye.


You do realize, Mr. Smith, that all your questions about the experiment after so many years, brought you to the unfortunate position you are now.”


For a while I doubted my mental health, thinking I was crazy. How else could I explain all those vivid memories of Alex, if Alex did not exist? Further investigation proved me sane, yet the knowledge, unfortunately, came with a price. A price I am now willing to pay. I may not be the smart person I thought I was after all.


We will explain everything to you, Mr. Smith. You will die knowing the answers. Was it truly worth it? Do you really think it was wise to jeopardize your life for an uncomfortable and useless truth?”


My naive questions about the experiment led me to the spacecraft’s prison. At first, I did not know why, but it became clear with time. Interrogation after interrogation, I’ve finally come to realize that the experiment I participated in during childhood was not about bonding at all. It was not about helping us find a meaning either. It was actually a simple test. Alex was only an imaginary character they made up to test my faith. Yet that imaginary person presented the truth to me. The truth about time thieves, who are willing to steal other people’s life to elongate theirs. All in the name of the law. They stole labor in the past, they now steal organs. They pay for them, so people are not considered slaves. Yet they leave no option. You either conform or die. The time thieves of old times never disappeared, nor did slaves. Perhaps human civilization is not actually about progress. Perhaps it’s only about inventing new ways of stealing other people’s time. About developing the subtle art of stealing time. Alex told me the truth, for me not to believe in it.


It took you very long, but you finally failed the test.”


The police officer presents the verdict. Which means I’m doomed. I am no longer part of the crew. My organs are not that useful in my body any more. Perhaps, they will be used to elongate the life of somebody more optimistic than me, the life of a believer. I am officially considered a doubter now. Doubters, or aspiring doubters must be identified, for the mission to be accomplished. Only few people committed suicide back then; most of them were executed, accused of doubting. I don’t really understand why though, considering the fact that current methods of suicide do not affect organ transplantation possibilities. Once you lose faith, you easily surrender to despair. Those persons would kill themselves sooner or later after or all.

With the corner of my eye, I take a glimpse of an old show that is playing on a screen on the officer’s desk, mostly as background noise, a show my ancestors used to watch on television. These shows have always been freely available to all of us, as a memory of the old world, as a reminder of our tradition. I hear the laughter and I almost laugh myself at a joke I have not even properly heard. And then it hit me. The goal has always been to keep our spirit high. Doubters bring pessimism, instilling doubt in others. It is now crystal clear to me that they must eradicate them. Most people unconsciously conform to the team’s emotions. That’s why in the past, they had people applauding and laughing in sitcoms.

The audience in the show now applauds. I can’t help but stand up and take a bow to thank them.

Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist, living and working in Athens, Greece. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, such as the Molotov Cocktail, Foliate Oak, Maudlin house, Menacing Hedge, Midnight Circus, AntipodeanSF, Big Echo:Critical SF, Jellyfish Review and others.

Photo credit: Johnny Hughes via Flickr, All Creative Commons. Image is of a blue painted fence with the words “Your Utopia My Dystopia” graffitied in white spray paint with some tags.

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