A Matter of Time

by D. B. Flynn

Craig was getting away with murder. All he had to do was cross the street. He spread his fingers and looked at the stopwatch. The countdown had started the second he walked out the back door of Forgiveness, Inc. He’d sold everything he owned to buy thirty minutes and a one way Transfer.

The illegal sale of time ‘outside designated therapeutic purposes’ carried a ten year sentence. Transference Without Right, what people like Craig called jacking a body, was an automatic Life sentence. Craig didn’t care. He already had one of those. If he got caught.

Craig watched the second hand sweep around the dial. Below the clock face, a digital readout said 17:30. If he was still in his body when it read 00:00, he’d be sentenced to Life, a desert world that made Hell look like a cool, shady back yard. He had less than twenty minutes. He had to find a body to hijack.

Craig stiffened when he saw the red uniform of the Patrol walking slowly on the other side of the street. Their scanners looked like tiny electric spiders, spinning on their shoulders, sniffing for Craig’s genetic signature.

He walked as slowly as he could, looking in the shop windows, trying to ease the tension out of his body. If the scanners picked up his scent, the metal spiders would zoom across the street, and shoot him with enough sedative to drop a raging elephant. He’d wake up on Life, probably with blisters on his skin from the three suns.

“Know what time it is?” a voice behind Craig said.

“No idea,” Craig said, not turning around. “Lost my time.” Craig bit his tongue. He’d meant to say he lost his watch.

“My little girl’s time was all up when she met you,” the voice said, sounding closer.

From the corner of his eye, Craig saw the Patrol easing by on the other side of the street. He couldn’t do anything that would make them look his way. He gripped the stopwatch so hard, he could feel the tiny metal ridges pressing into his sweaty palm. It had to be down to what? Sixteen minutes?

“What do you want?” Craig said.

He looked at the man’s reflection in the store window. Taller than Craig, and built like a string bean trying to get fat. A dark shadow crept along his sunken cheeks. His bloodshot eyes squinted against the sunlight.

“Two things” the man said.

To Craig, his voice sounded relentlessly slow. “What’s that?” he said.

Now that he looked, he could see Mandie’s face in the full lips, the high cheek bones. His ‘little girl’ had been twenty four years old, and she could wrap her long legs around a man in ways Craig didn’t even know about before he met her.

“I want you to know my name and I want my face to be the last thing you see,” the man said. “Name’s Hank. And I’m gonna kill you.”

In the hot sunshine, cold sweat popped out on the back of Craig’s neck. He didn’t need this. Seconds flew by like silent bullets. He narrowed his steel blue eyes. They were the kind of eyes that made it so that even when a girl said no, she meant yes.

“Call the Patrol over,” Craig said, knowing the man wouldn’t do it. His kind never did. “Tell them you found me.”

In the shop window, Craig saw Hank shake his head slowly back and forth. “This is personal,” he said. “Between you and me.”

Gripping the stopwatch tighter, Craig said, “Come on. You wanna do it, let’s go.”

Craig knew the man’s grief and rage would make him ignore the Patrol, and follow him. Right now, it was like the logic circuit in his brain had shorted out. Calling the Patrols and seeing Craig dragged away wasn’t what Hank wanted. He wanted to rip out Craig’s throat.

Craig walked past the store to a narrow alley full of overflowing garbage cans, hidden in the shadows of two tall buildings. Before they were even halfway down the alley, Craig dropped the stopwatch into his pocket, freeing up both hands.

He whipped around, shoved Hank hard into the filthy brick wall, wrapped his fingers around his throat, and squeezed. Hank never had a chance. Before he could make a sound louder than a squeaking rat, he was sliding down the wall.

Craig pulled the watch from his pocket. Eleven minutes. He’d be long gone by the time Hank woke up.

He looked toward the head of the alley, and saw the Patrol walking by. Their sniffers were picking up something, or they’d be gone. He pressed against the wall, hiding in the shadows. They passed by, not looking down the dark alley.

Craig eased out of the shady darkness, smoothing back his thick black hair. He saw more than a few women look at the way his white t shirt clung to his hard, sculpted body.

He walked down the street slowly, feeling the weight of the watch in his hand. He looked down at the face. Nine minutes. After that, he’d be stuck in his body and the Patrols would hunt him down like hound dogs on the trail of a wounded fox.

As he got closer to the traffic light at the corner, Craig remembered the geek’s instructions. He had to do it in the middle of the street. Couldn’t be on a sidewalk or near the curb. The closer to the yellow line in the middle of the street, the better. All he had to do was brush up against a body, and make sure the watch touched them too.

Alright, he told himself. You can do this. Keep your cool and you’re home free.

He saw a little girl with her mom. The mother was a looker. High heels, tight t shirt and every curve in just the right place. He didn’t want to be a woman, and he couldn’t stand the thought of being of a little girl. Too helpless.

He glanced at the watch. Seven minutes. He had to get moving. He was about to move on to another corner, when he saw exactly what he was looking for.

A man was standing on the other side of the street, looking at the woman with the little girl. His cool eyes were all over the woman in high heels. To Craig, the thoughts of what he’d do to her when she was tied down, naked and helpless, were written clear as day in the way he licked his lips, the way his dark blue eyes filled with need. His body was smooth and lean. He was bald. Oh well. Craig could learn to live with a shaved head.

You’ll be a passenger, the geek had told Craig. They’ll know you’re there, but they can’t tell anyone, can they? Two minds, one body. You’re caught, they’re caught. You both end up doing Life.

The man was perfect. Craig stole one more glance at his watch. Four minutes. He timed it so that he stepped down from the sidewalk at almost the same time as the other man. In front of Craig, an old man with a cane tripped and almost fell. A couple of people stopped to help him. The delay cost precious minutes.

The stopwatch vibrated against the palm of Craig’s hand. Two minute warning. He had to do it now.

He walked toward the middle of the street, timing every step, watching the man, trying not to catch his eye. Nothing could go wrong. He had to get it exactly right. They were almost to the middle of the street, when Craig changed course the tiniest bit, feeling the second vibration against his palm. One minute.

He pressed through the crowd and brushed up against the man, opening his fingers, pressing the metal watch between his palm and the back of the man’s hand.

Suddenly Craig was walking the other way. The air felt cool against his shaved head. He turned and looked at the crowd gathering around his body. Somebody was saying how he looked too young to have a heart attack. Someone else said it was the heat.

Welcome aboard Craig, a voice said.

You know me? Craig had meant to talk out loud. He’d forgotten for a second that he didn’t have a body anymore.

Case number 223-CV-J-590-LIFE, the other voice said. Stand by for Transfer.

When Craig woke up, his skin wasn’t blistered from the heat. Metal didn’t blister.

“What the hell?” he said. This time he heard his own voice, but it was tinny, canny somehow, like he was talking through a bad long distance connection.

“Not Hell,” another tinny voice said. “Life.”

Craig saw a metal man sitting next to him, all scratched and dull looking. His round head had two glowing red spots. Where his mouth should have been, dull yellow lights blinked. Craig wondered if his own metal head looked like a traffic light that wasn’t finished.

Beyond the metal man, steam rose slowly from the sand. Three suns blazed in the sky. Metal men were walking through the sand, picking up red rocks.

“I can’t be here,” Craig said. “I escaped.”

“Must be one of those ghost Patrols got you,” the other metal man said. “Same thing happened to me. Forgiveness, Inc., right?”

“Ghost?” Craig said.

“Decoy,” the metal man said.

“The guy I jumped into. He was Patrol?”

“Yeah. They set you up. Did a profile. Knew what kind you’d go for. Soon as you jumped to a ghost, they sent you here.”

Craig looked down at his own body. “They put me inside a metal man?” he said. “Sounds like easy time. Guards can’t beat me up. Won’t get tired.” This was sweet. Maybe Life wouldn’t be so bad.

A low creaking sound made Craig look up as the other metal man turned to face him. “Your brain didn’t weigh you down getting here, did it?”

Even in the shade of the small cave they were sitting in, Craig felt the heat pressing against him, like he was inside a pot hanging over a well stoked fire. The sight of three suns blazing down on all that sand made Craig thirsty. He thought of a cool drink of water. Cold terror twisted through his gut.

“How come I’m thirsty? I’m just a machine now, right?”

A low mechanical sound like a rusty laugh came from the other metal man. “Think that’s bad? Wait ’til you start thinking about a woman.”

A loud buzzer sounded. Craig stood up and got in line, just like all the other metal men. “I don’t get it,” he said.

“They send us here to pay for what we did. The sun’s gonna burn, you’re gonna get thirsty. You’re gonna want all the things people want, but you got no body. I been wanting a drink of something cold for five years.”

Craig said the only two words he could shape in his terrified mind. “How long?”

The metal man in front of him turned his head all the way around. “These bodies last about a hundred years. Make them mad, and they’ll Transfer you to a brand new one.”

Craig shuffled out of the shade, following the other metal men out into the blistering heat. Every step was like walking on red hot coals. The scorching sand burned his metal skin with a vengeance.

The blasting heat made him want to plunge naked into a cool river. He wanted a pitcher of cold beer. He’d sell his soul for a glass of ice water. He imagined the clink of ice, could almost feel cold water flowing across his parched tongue.

Craig’s metal skin burned and itched under the searing suns. He saw himself trudging through the sand, decade after decade, haunted by raging thirst and hunger, filled with needs he couldn’t ever satisfy.

Now that he had all the time in the world, Craig wondered how long it would take before he started screaming.

3 Responses to “A Matter of Time”

  1. Candace McClellan says:

    Loved it, D.B. Flynn. Loved it. Well written, the way that you’ve brought your reader into the story in the middle of already occuring action. And your M.C. stayed in a crucible until the bitter, satisfying end. Brings to mind an adult version of “A Wrinkle in Time”. Thank you for the story.

  2. Angela Hamilton says:

    This story put me in mind of an Stephen Speilberg story. This story was well thought out and written. With each passage I became more and more engrossed with the story. But as always, every good thing must come to an end.

    Thank you for sharing this masterpiece with me, and I look forward to reading other short stories written by D.B. Flynn.

  3. This story kept me going with each tidbit of information provided. Just enough to read the next paragraph, until the end.

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