“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
~ Parkinson's Law
I hate dystopian stories. And yes, I've read them. All of them. Why not? I have the time.
God, I can't even remember when all of this started. But I remember where I was: work. It was just another average day at the average department of Average Incorporated. Sometime after lunch, Darren -- god rest his soul -- Darren came into my cubicle, with the look of a nervous squirrel on his face, and told me:
"Jenny, you have to see this."
Our entire department was crowded around the TV in the lunch room. Hey, whatever's a good excuse to take a break from work, right? There was a live press conference featuring Professor Harrington, a chubby, bearded scientist who kinda looked like Santa Claus -- and boy, did he ever have the gift for us.
"Professor Harrington," a reporter asked, "could you explain how you did this?"
"How I invented the pill that will change humanity forever?"
"Sure. The TimeXpander Pill, name's a work in progress, gives a person 8 extra hours a day. Note: you only have to take this pill once, and the effect is permanent. Now, the way it accomplishes this is quite simple. To explain, thi--"
Wait. I turned to Darren. Did he just say it gives you 8 extra hours a day? Darren whispered a shut up jenny.
"--once proved that time is relative. To clarify, he was describing physics, but it describes neuropsychology, too. We don't have to experience one second per second. Our perception of time is dependent on neuron metabolism, synaptic firing rates, relative concentrations of GABA and PEA... to make a long PhD short, TimeXpander speeds your brain up by 33%, letting you experience days that are 33% longer: eight extra hours."
The room went silent for a while.
"...Professor Harrington," the same reporter finally spoke, "could you explain... why you did this?"
"You kept complaining."
"You people kept saying, oh i'd love to learn the piano but i don't have the time, or oh i wanna go on more dates but my schedule's too packed", or blah blah blah i want to better myself as a person in some way, but woe is me, there just aren't enough hours in the day!"
Ohhhh_kay_, goodbye professional scientist voice.
"You know, hunter-gatherers only worked 3 hours a day? You know, John Maynard Keynes once predicted we'd be working 15-hour weeks by now? And yet, humanity decided, hey let's all go get on this treadmill and run forever faster and faster while going absolutely nowhere. So, you know what? Screw it. Here's 8 extra hours. Use it to learn how to paint. To read a good book. To smooch some cuties. To write short stories on your blog. To get in touch with nature, or God, or yourself, or whatever.
Eight extra hours a day, every day. Do whatever you want."
I looked at Darren. Darren looked at me.
Eight extra hours, I thought. Whatever you want...
The boss shut the TV off. "Okay folks, that's quite enough." He clapped his hands. "Now let's go optimize some spreadsheets!"
I made a TO DO list:
And finally, with the Take Your Time pill (they found a better name), I'll finally get to do all of these! 33% more time. Eight whole new hours, every day, for all the things I've wanted to do in life. Best of all, no side effects! Okay, the side effects of TYT are that I'd have to eat 4 meals a day and sleep 11 hours a night, but that sounds like a win-win to me. Jenny, girl, you've been wasting your life all your life but finally, finally, you'll live up to who you were meant to be!
God, I was so excited.
God, I was so stupid.
It started with that fucking brown-noser, Steve from Marketing. Fucking Steve managed to buy a TYT before any of us. Fucking Asshole Steve didn't use the 8 extra hours a day to sharpen his mind, or deepen his soul, or contribute to the betterment of humanity, no. Fucking Asshole Piece-of-Dog-Shit Steve used the 8 extra hours a day to work overtime.
Which meant he was relatively more valuable to the company.
Which meant the rest of us were relatively less valuable to the company.
Which meant Nikki started worrying about being let go. Which meant that when Nikki got her TYT, she started working 8 hours overtime. Which meant Mike started working 8 hours overtime. Which meant Jin started working 8 hours overtime. Which mean, soon, everyone was working 8 hours overtime.
Except for me, and Darren.
Before we swallowed our TYTs together, we made a promise. That we wouldn't give in. That we wouldn't waste our extra 8 hours. That we wouldn't give Who Gives A Fuck Incorporated any more time of our one and only precious lives.
They fired us both at the end of the workday, at 13pm.
"Jenny? Pumpkin Spice Latte for Jenny?"
This was about one week into unemployment. Or: 7x(24+8) = 224 hours into unemployment. Leisure time is a lot less fun when it's involuntarily forced on you. Still, I tried to make the best of it. By hanging out at Starbucks and hitting on the barista, Sam.
"That's my drink! But, ooh, Sam sweetie..." I loosened my coat. "...could you add a bit more cream for me?"
One creaming later, I took my pumpkin spice back to my table, where Darren was waiting. "You know, that kid's almost young enough to be your--" I whispered a shut up darren.
God, Darren took the unemployment pretty hard. At least my TO DO list mostly consisted of stuff you could do for free, but all the things Darren's longed to do his whole life -- skydiving, seeing Paris, miniature horse racing -- those cost, you know, money. Which is a lot harder to come by when you're the recently-unemployed breadloser of your family.
And, fuuuuuck, his family. His marriage was not going well. It was shaky before, but it's been so much worse since he took the TYT. His wife couldn't understand him when he spoke 33% faster. His daughter no longer wanted to play games with him since he can move and think 33% faster. All that could be fixed if his family also took the TYT -- but after watching a news segment about some college kid overdosing on TYT, who suffered 100 years of pain in 5 minutes before dying -- they're sure as hell not going near the stuff.
So, Darren was at Starbucks. Hanging out with me.
"Jenny, this isn't right."
"Look, Darren, I know Sam's young, but he's not that y--"
"No, damn it Jenny, I mean all this." He pointed outside the window. A stressed-out businessman was running past a crowd of pigeons at 133% speed. Or, from our perspective: a normal-speed businessman was running past a crowd of pigeons, that were flying away at 75% speed.
"People were given the literal time of their lives, and they're all wasting it on doing the things they hate. Jenny, this is wrong. We need to stop this."
I almost snorted my cream. "Ha! And what are our unemployed asses going to do about it?"
"I don't know! Something! Anything!"
"Oh I know, let's kill Professor Harrington. This is Hollywood logic, right? We kill a single guy and suddenly the whole system's fixed? Or maybe this is Indie Film logic. Let's create a touching viral video that'll show the whole wide world the value of taking time to smell the sweet roses!"
"Jenny, I'm serious."
"Well so am I, Darren!" My spit flew out at 75% speed, from our perspective. "There's nothing we can do about this. If nobody else will use TYT the way it was meant to, at least we should. And that means forgetting about everyone else, and just taking time to enjoy our lives. Screw 'em! Screw 'em all!"
"...you're angry because you secretly agree with me."
"Oh FUCK you."
"Yeah, you are! I know you hate that our whole world's on a treadmill that just keeps getting faster and faster. And I know you hate that, if anyone tries to slow down, they get thrown off the treadmill. Like me. Like you."
"Na na na not liiiiiiistening~" I diverted my eyes to check out Sam's sweet ass. Damn it. If I'd known what Darren was going to do... if I'd known that was going to be the last time I talked to Darren... I don't know. I don't know what I would have done.
"Jenny, I can't do this alone. I need you to help me unplug the treadmill."
"Heh. What, is SAVE THE WORLD on your to-do list, now?"
Darren gave me a defeated smile. He picked up his bag full of job applications, and walked towards the exit.
"Why not, Jenny? We have all the time in the world."
They made a 16 hour pill.
Not Professor Harrington -- he's since gone on retirement, nobody knows where. Rumor has it he's running a tantric sex club somewhere in Nepal. No, instead of Professor Harrington, it was Slimy Snakes In Suits Incorporated who created the 16 hour pill. The CEO was giving an interview on the news:
"Yes, we created a breakthrough improvement to "Harrington's" "original" formula. You may notice I'm using air quotes, because it turned out "his" formula used a part of a patent we acquired 10 years ago. Our excellent legal team handled it, and the formula is now rightfully ours."
We made pharmaceuticals at my old company? I didn't know that. Wait, what did we do at my old company?
"Our enhanced 16 hour TYT pill is the result of weeks of hard work. This may be hard to understand, but you see, 8 plus 8 equals 16, so if you--"
I missed Darren. I had already gone through my entire to-do list (except for Sam), and this was when I was still only on the 8-hour pill. I tried contacting Darren, but he never replied to my texts. I checked his Twitbook Plus feed, no update. I even went to the extreme, and tried visiting his house, but his wife just yelled at me, at 75% speed.
"Are you going to make a 24-hour pill?" a reporter asked.
"We already have an experimental line of 24-hour pills, and we're currently using them internally to improve the productivity of our top scientists, who are working on a 32-hour pill. That project should be complete around..." The CEO checked his phone. "...now."
Darren, where were you? You were my friend.
"Oh, also Harrington forgot to mention this, but these pills don't shorten your lifespan. Your body and mind speed up in relative time, but you still live the same amount of absolute time. Harrington invented a solution to... I mean, we invented a--"
You were my only friend.
I swear, I tried not to give in. I really did.
I tried making new friends at meetups, but they were all on 48-hour TYT pills, and I was still only on 8. So that's... let me do the math... (24+48)/(24+8) = 2.25 = 225% faster than me. Everyone talked so fast, they sounded like chipmunks. And to them, I must have sounded like Fat Albert.
But it was getting back home from those meetups that was hell. They don't let us 8-pillers drive anymore, because we drive too slow, relative to others. And biking would be way too dangerous for me, what with all the 48-pill drivers out there. So I tried walking. But I had to run across the crosswalks if I wanted to make it in time.
I can't even watch Netflix anymore since 16-pill's the slowest they stream it at these days.
I gave in.
One click. That's all it took. Amazon said my new line of experimental 72-pills would arrive within two business relative-days. For me, it arrived in one hour.
This morning -- so, what, two relative-decades ago? -- I found out Darren was dead.
He was living with a small isolated community in the far-off lands of Canada, founded by, guess who, Professor Harrington. They're a group of artists, citizens, and scientists... and they're doing everything they can. They're engineering a benign virus to infect people and deliver an antidote for the pills. They're creating stunning works of art to force people to stop and appreciate the beauty of the universe. And they're building a rich, deep community to support and foster this way of life.
No tantric sex club, though.
I'll admit, it was near-impossible finding them; they made sure of that. But nothing's impossible when you have enough time. And I definitely had enough of that.
Here's what my schedule looked like this morning, in absolute-time:
0600: wake up
0700: learn programming
0800: hack into my old workplace's servers & get Cliché Dystopia Corporation Incorporated's secret formula for their experimental 2,400-pill
0900: learn biochemistry & neuropsychology
1100: improve the formula, manufacture a 1,000,000-pill, and take it.
1101: here goes nothing.
1101: learn quantum physics
1110: solve a few unsolved problems in quantum physics
1122: build a quantum computer
1126: use it to break the encryption on all internet communication
1128: use it to break the encryption on all satellite communication
1132: hijack a few private image-capturing satellites
1140: learn computational neuroscience
1145: create an AI to scan yottabytes of internet traffic & trillions of millimeter-resolution satellite images, to find Darren.
1148: no photos of Darren found, but internet metadata showed Darren was in direct contact with Professor Harrington(!!!)
1149: told AI to search for satellite images of Professor Harrington
1151: Professor Harrington found in Canada!
1152: hijack a weather drone to make a sky-written message to Professor Harrington, identifying myself as a friend of Darren's, and giving him my phone number.
1153: Professor Harrington writes a message on a piece of cardboard explaining that he doesn't have a phone, and shows it to my drone. fuck's sake. we have a cardboard-drone conversation instead.
That's when I learnt that Darren had volunteered to be the first human trial for their pill antidote. It worked, but had severe side effects. Darren died.
But he did not die in vain. The autopsy let them pinpoint exactly the flaws in their antidote, they iterated on it, and their 2nd and 3rd human trials were a success. In the next few months (absolute-months, sadly), they'll be working on a way to deliver this antidote through a benign virus, in order to give it to everyone. In order to let humanity really take its time back.
To unplug the treadmill.
Professor Harrington invited me to come to Darren's funeral. I said yes.
. . .
. . .
. . .
My tears were floating around me, falling at 0.002% speed.
You know what, I needed a break. A sabbatical, if you will. So, I decided to learn every language. Invented a couple of my own while I was at it. Took up rice-grain sculpture for a couple relative-months. Watched every film. Played every videogame. Read every book.
And you know what? Of all the books I read, I hated the dystopian novels the most. Coz here's the two biggest bullshit things about 'em:
One -- in most dystopia stories, some horrible thing is forced upon the public. Big Brother or bumblepuppies or whatever. Bullshit. When the thing that will destroy humanity comes, it will be made with the best intentions, and we'll all buy into it willingly. Nobody forced us on this treadmill. It's just us.
But, two -- in dystopia stories, the protagonist usually caves in. Guy says 2+2=5 or hangs himself in a tower, spoiler alert. And yeah sure, I'm not naive, good people lose all the time, but if you're writing a dystopian story to help us avoid that future, why depress your audience, killing their motivation to actually do something about it? Coz, yeah, 1984 was so fucking influential, it stopped governments and corporations from spying on people, ever. Uh huh.
But I'm not going to cave in. All those relative-decades ago, I made a promise. I promised my friend, my only friend:
I wouldn't give in.
Should probably tie up some loose plot threads here. Harrington gave me the instructions for traveling to his community, plus the formula for the antidote. I manufactured the antidote, and brought myself down to a 1000-pill level. I still needed to be fast enough to make my way through traffic and get to the airport.
But first, I stopped by Darren's former house. His poor family. They've refused to take the TYT pill all this time, and now they're moving at 2% the speed of everyone else. I saw Darren's wife bending over -- in slow motion -- to pick up a bag of groceries her neighbors left her, since she can't possibly go to the grocery store herself. While she was busy blinking, I put a note in her bag explaining Darren's heroic sacrifice. She deserved to know.
Afterwards, I stopped by my old workplace and flipped them the bird. Two birds, in fact. Then, I went to Starbucks, and told Sam he's a good kid, but as much as I appreciate the flirtatious attention he's been giving an old woman like me, he should be dating other girls and/or boys his age, and I wished him well in life, and that I'll have a tall green tea latte.
Hm. My flight to Canada doesn't leave for another couple relative-hours. I still have time to kill.
No, not kill.
Time to live.
That's when I saw it: a monarch butterfly. It seemed to be moving so, so slowly: 2% of its normal speed, to be exact. I always thought butterfly wings simply flapped up and down. But in super slow-motion, I could see that their wings actually twist and turn, in a kind of "figure 8" motion. An infinity sign, in every flap.
It was delicately hovering over a flower bed outside the Starbucks, trying to find the perfect flower to feast upon. And I whispered: Take your time, little buddy.
Take your time.
this story was originally posted on r/WritingPrompts