Time is Money
A Short Story by Lee Falk
ill. F. Fredericks [First (and only?) published in Playboy december 1975]
ill. F. Fredericks [First (and only?) published in Playboy december 1975]
IT IS UNDERSTANDABLE that Tom was desperate. Near panic. His time was running out. To be more precise, his account at the Timebank had a balance of one hour, 14 minutes and 27 seconds. 1 hr 14 min 27 sec. If he could not make a deposit within that period, his account would be closed. At that moment, he would stop breathing. He would be dead. Perhaps this requires further explanation.
In this land, which is far away from ours, in time as well as in space, there is a huge building in the center of the capital. It is the tallest and the widest building in the land. It has no windows, for no one cares to look in, and there is no one inside to look out. Inside, there are only endless wires, dials, meters, calculators, robot computers, circuits and, equally important, circuit breakers.
The endless rows and tiers, row upon row, tier upon tier, click and hum quietly. Occasionally, there is a louder click, more of a clack, as a circuit breaker closes an account. This is the Timebank.
How could Tom have gotten into such a predicament, to allow his account to get so low? Sloppy bookkeeping, he told himself angrily. Like everyone else, Tom kept a record of income and outgo, credit and debit, in his own bankbook. Once a month, a statement arrived from the Timebank, when you could (and should) balance your records against it. But he'd neglected this for a long time.
He'd always had a safe margin in his account. Not like Dick or Harry, but safe. Once, he had fallen as low as two days! (47 hr 54 min 13 sec.) That had been a three- alarm sweat session.
But he'd managed to sell a block of that oil stock to good old Dick, a big block good for over four months' credit (cred 4 mo 3 d 7 hr 12 min 19 sec). Too bad the oil stocks hadn't worked out. That's the way it goes. No risk, no gain. Ancient history. But now, 1 hr 14 min 27 sec.
How had this happened? That girl with the scarlet hair, the emerald eyes? When the founding fathers of this land, prudent merchants all, sought a motto to place on the Great Seal, on the Green Flag and upon the currency, they unanimously chose those words that best expressed their deepest philosophical and religious beliefs.
Time is money. Upon this base, they built a mighty nation. Mothers whispered it to babes at their breast. Maidens murmured it in the depths of their wedding beds. Youths bore it aloft on banners as they charged into enemy fire. Shipwrecked sailors gurgled it as they went down for the third time.
Tom dashed to Dick's office. Fortunately, it was next door. As he dashed, he tried to recall. That night with the girl with scarlet hair and emerald eyes? There had been so many drinks. What had happened? What if Dick wasn't in? Fortunately, he was.
He was seated behind his desk, going over his accounts. He was careful about that. "Dick, old friend, it's time to rally round the flag," said Tom as heartily as he could but perspiring profusely on his forehead and under his collar.
Dick looked at him questioningly. That is, he raised his eyebrows. For Dick, the hearty tone and the perspiration were clues to what was coming. "I've something special for you, extraordinary, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Tom as he rifled his briefcase, trying to decide which folder to pull out.
Dick watched him coldly. That is, he did not appear excited by the prospect. But he waited.
Tom glanced at the folder he'd pulled out. Not bad.
"A uranium mine, Pure uranium, fabulous." "You told me about that last month," said Dick.
"I did? What did you say?"
Tom continued to search.
"That's not the one I meant. This is it. A new cheap process for extracting polonium from sea water. A gold mine. Fantastic."
"I'm not interested, Tom."
"Dick, I need a sale, fast."
"That oil stock, Tom."
"I couldn't help that. I lost on that, too Dick, give me a break."
"Sorry." said Dick.
"Dick, I'm down to almost . . . nothing. Lend me a little. A week."
"A week?" He laughed in a way that said no.
"Two days. Please, Dick."
"I'm not a lender. See Harry."
"I already owe Harry."
"I'm busy Goodbye, Tom."
The founding fathers, prudent merchants all, wisely understood that the vast majority of people in this land could not be trusted to handle their affairs without making a mess of everything. And the clever minority who could handle their affairs with no mess at all were to be trusted even less.
After establishing one central bank so they could keep an eye on everyone, the prudent fathers experimented with various sorts of universal-credit gadgets--carda, plates, tags. But confusion persisted-error, loss, theft and the like. However, when the magnificent concept of the Timebank was perfected, all confusion became impossible.
Thanks to this amazing electronic breakthrough, as revolutionary as space travel, the Sacred Motto became Reality. Time is money.
With this electronic advance, there was a parallel biological development. The viruses that cause aging were isolated. An antibiotic was developed (from water, air, earth and fire). Thus, aging was slowed so that it became barely noticeable. This created other problems, chief among them the threat of overpopulation.
The prudent merchants considered the pros and cons. Increased use of goods and services. overpopulation and chaos. This problem, like so many others, was solved by the creation of the Timebank.
Tom's personal problem was becoming more pressing as the seconds ticked off. He rushed to Harry's office and was kept waiting at the reception desk for 14 price- less minutes, 14 min 8 sec.
As he sat anxiously on the hard bench, his mind raced over the possibilities. What had happened to demolish his account? Had the Timebank made a mistake? Unlikely; but on rare occasions, it was rumored that a circuit had been faulty.
Pretending to stroke his right ear, he gently and casually pressed the lobe and waited. Then the impersonal voice spoke softly through the tiny device implanted in his inner ear, so softly that only he could hear, a voice as soft as a thought. "51 minutes, 43 seconds " Ping.
The last sound was a tiny bell signaling the end of the report. Again, casually, as if brushing back the hair on his temple, he pressed the right lobe, once, twice, thrice. This was a call for a supervisor to examine the account. A special request that would cost 2 min.
He waited. Then three soft pings. The robot report. "Re account number T-798324-X7 follows 49 minutes, 39 seconds." Ping.
He twisted his hands in despair. There seemed to be no doubt about his account. His last recourse was to call the chief accountant. This would cost 10 min. Where was Harry?
He walked to the receptionist's desk for the third time. The red-haired girl looked at him with some annoyance. "Wait your turn, please. He knows you're here."
The half-dozen other men and women in the room watched him warily. They all looked unhappy. They were all there to borrow from Harry. There was a large clock on the wall. Its loud ticking was the only sound in the room. All listened nervously. Tick-tick-tick.
One man kept time, his hands moving up and down on his knees. A woman marked time with a slight up-and-down movement of her head. Another did it with a foot. All were there because they needed time. Occasionally, a hand moved casually to an ear lobe.
Then the fixed stare as the listener received his report, heard only by him. And the others in the room, pretending not to notice, noticed. Each could imagine the soft voice, the ping.
And as each borrower entered the inner office, he was watched with some hostility by the others. Would that one use the same line for sympathy, ask for more time, settle for less, spoil it for them? The red-haired receptionist reminded Tom of that night.
The girl with scarlet hair and emerald eyes. That night at the motel. She was at the bar, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. So she seemed that night. In the transparent gown. They'd had so much to drink. She had been so sweet, so alluring, so soft and smooth. What had happened that night?
The fix he was in apparently dated from that time. It was all so foggy. . hard to remember. He'd made love to her? Yes, soft and smooth. What else? "You may go in, sir."
He was so lost in reverie, she had to repeat her words. He jumped up and rushed into the inner office. Harry sat behind his desk. He did not get up as he used to when Tom visited him, when Tom was an old friend. Now Tom was a borrower. Harry was a lender.
The eyes of a lender are cold.
"I'm in trouble Harry."
Harry's eyes grew colder. He waited.
"I need help. I'm short"
"Not the first time."
"The worst time. I'm very short, Harry."
"You already owe me, Tom."
"I know, Harry. I intend to pay you back. With interest"
"As soon as I can. Double interest."
"My legal rate will be sufficient, Tom," he said, looking at the door as though the meeting were finished.
"Harry," said Tom frantically. "I'm running out of time."
This was a dreadful confession. Even the cold lender eyes seemed startled.
"Where are you?"
"Less than an hour."
Harry sighed and clasped his hands tightly together.
"How did you get into such a mess?"
"I'm not sure. It just happened. Harry, will you help me?"
Harry looked at his desk. Even lenders have memories. "I can't Tom. You already owe me. We have regulations"
"You're allowed exceptions. Harry, I'll pay you back. Double, triple "
"You are already a bad risk. You owe me four weeks. Plus interest. Four weeks. A total loss. I'll have to write you off."
"Write me of? Harry, I'll pay back every sec."
"A total loss."
Now Harry's eyes were cold again. He touched the intercom on his desk. The voice of the girl in the outer office replied. "Yes, sir?"
Harry shook his head. A tall man walked in, looking tense."Harry, please." "Goodbye, Tom."
Harry folded his arms. Tom got up and left the office. Harry's cold eyes watched him until the door was closed. Goodbye, Tom.
Tom walked blindly out of the reception room, oblivious of the red-haired girl and the worried faces of the others waiting their turn. He reached the street and leaned against the wall, his stomach churning. Harry had turned him down. Hurriedly, he pressed his right ear lobe. "39 minutes, 11 seconds." Ping.
His mind reeled. He needed a drink. There was the handy bar next door to Harry's, an elegant place. Often, in the old days, he and Harry had had a few there. A place patronized by professional types who could afford 30 min for a whiskey or 3 hr for a bottle of imported champagne to celebrate a deal. Tom sat on a stool at the bar and ordered a whiskey 30 min. He gulped it down, then ordered another. The bartender, who knew him, grinned. He gulped it down.
Dick and Harry, his two best friends, both turned him down. Two of a kind. Damn snobs with inherited wealth--Dick with over 20 year from his father; Harry with over 50 years from his grandfather, the capital behind his time-loan office. He ordered a third whiskey and gulped it. The bartender frowned. The alcohol relaxed him so he could think.
The clock above the bar. Tick- tick-tick. What now? There had to be some clue to this predicament, some hope for survival. Tick-tick-tick. Like the clock in Harry's anteroom. The red-haired girl.
The bar with bottles, laughter, the hum of voices. That brought back the memory. It came in a rush, floodgates opening. Another bar. Another redhead. Scarlet and emerald. That night in the motel. What had he given her for that night in bed? 2 hr was the usual fee for a girl, 4 hr for something special, 24 hr for someone extraordinary. She had been that. Special and extraordinary. That was it. That girl. Get out fast and find her.
He signaled the bartender for his bill. The man glanced at the tab on the bar. Three drinks, l hr 30 min, with 15 per- cent service charge and 15 percent tax. Total, almost 2 hr. Tom moved his right hand, palm down, to the charge plate sunk in the bar. When his palm was within an inch of the metal plate, he would feel the tingle of contact. Then he would say. "Debit" - "Deb" was sufficient - no matter how softly.
Somewhere among those tiers and rows in the Timebank, Tom's account meter would click, registering the charge. At the same moment, another meter would click, registering the bar's credit. The prudent merchants who ruled this land made it all that simple. Foolproof.
At first, it was necessary for two hands to make contact, buyer and seller, in the most ancient form of agreement, the handshake. Now the hands of buyer and seller need not touch. The tingly electronic contact could be made across an open space of 25 mm. More hygienic that way. Or, in an establishment such as this bar, the metal plate was the seller.
But Tom's hand did not go within the 25 mm of the metal plate. He stopped before the tingling contact was made. For he realized, Just in time, that the charge was 2 hr and he had less than 1/2 hr remaining in his account. The bartender watched curiously as Tom pulled back his hand. He had no suspicion of the truth.
Customers who came to this bar had no problems with a 2 hr bill. Tom grinned, his mind moving as fast as the meters in the Timebank. "Charge it to Harry. We have a bet," he said, managing a grin as he slid off the bar stool. The bartender nodded. He knew Tom. He knew Harry. Men like these often had their little jokes.
Tom rushed out. And even in his anxiety, he grinned at the thought of how he'd nicked old Harry for that tab. He walked quickly, then ran. Had he done it again? He had always been one for the big gesture. What had he given that girl in his drunken ardor? Had he pretended to be a man of wealth, of endless time? Without remembering, he knew now that he had done that, because he always pretended with strangers, especially with pretty females. What in the passionate moment, exchanging hot breath, those emerald eyes blazing into his, those soft legs.
What had he given her? It came back to him, verbatim, like the sound of a great gong. One month. Not one day. Not one week. One entire month of his precious hoard of time. Oh, my God, one months.
He ran faster. The motel was near. He would find her. He would get it back. Get most of it. 29 days, at the very least. Or wring that soft neck until the emerald eyes bugged out. Such was the enormity of that drunken deed, the incredible stupidity of risking his survival for the satisfaction of that pretense and lust, that he had blocked it all out. Now it was unblocked. Now it came back with all the bitterness that such a foolish act can engender. Yes, for a certainty.
That was it. He could even hear his own voice in that passion-tossed bed, as he pressed her little hand in his hot palm . . . as the tingling contact was made, as his whole body tingled with it, from head to toe. "Deb . . . one month, sweetheart. One month, angel " Deb deb deb. He stopped short, shaking with the memory. One month? That cheap, filthy bag . . . 2 hr would have been plenty.
He raced on. The motel was just around the corner. He still had time. Time! With the creation of the Timebank, the prudent merchants who ruled this land achieved their final solution to the work ethic, as well as to the credit system and the population boom. Work for time. Time is life. Life is time. The most valuable element in the universe became the sole currency of ex- change. It had always been the most valuable element in the universe; but never before had its value been so fittingly recognized, so suitably used.
The element is time. Time measured in years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds. The living time of man. Into the body of each adult at the start of the system, and thereafter into the body of each newborn infant, ingenious microdevices were implanted. These tiny mechanisms transmitted and received.The bearer was kept in constant touch with the Timebank. Every person in this land had a Time account with an individual meter.
From the moment of implantation at birth, the meter began to tick off the seconds of life. This accounting persisted without interference until the individual reached majority, at which precise moment, said individual received a year's bonus of free time. After 12 months, exactly - the Timebank was always exact to the millisecond - the individual was on his own in the battle for time.
All wages and prices were based on time units. The work week (wk wk) was 37.7 hrs--an odd amount reached by compromise and slide rule. Wages varied, depending on the nature of the job. The established monthly rent for a standard one-bedroom apartment was 48.3 hr (52 6 air with air conditioning). You might buy a small piano for three months' debit (3 mo deb) or sell it for 3 mo cred, etc.
There were millionaires who had amassed decades of time, all on deposit in the Timebank. There were a few billionaires who owned centuries of time and, by willing them to lucky heirs, created dynasties. The Timebank was not created without a struggle. But the prudent merchants who ruled this land had their way. Who could deny that time was man's most valuable and irreplaceable possession?
Tom reached the motel breathless, exhausted. What was her name? Had he ever known? But he could describe her. Not many looked like that. They would have a record, a forwarding address. Then, as he reached the glass-enclosed bar - eureka! - there she was. Scarlet and emerald. Seated on a bar stool, just as she had been when he first saw her.
She was seated with a large man. Both were laughing. "I must talk to you." Damn, what was her name? She looked at him startled. Did she recognize him?
The big man frowned. "I beg your pardon," she said.
"You remember me, Tom," he said anxiously.
"You must be mistaken," she said polited. "I don't know you."
"Don't know me? I'm Tom. I gave you a month," he shouted.
The bartender and several customers turned at that.
A month? "Really," she said, "you must be drunk. " "Go away." said the big man.
"Please. Juliet," he said, her name coming back in a miraculous flash.
"You must remember. I made a mistake. I gave you too much. I need some. Give It back. Please."
"My name is not Juliet. I never saw you before," she said, her eyes cold now.
He grasped her bare arm and held it tightly.
"Juliet, Juliet, you are my last hope. I'm running out of time. Out of time."
Everybody in the bar shuddered.
"Get this bum away from me," she shrieked.
The big man leaped from his stool and grabbed Tom by the neck, pulling him away. Tom clung to her arm. She came off the stool onto the floor, screaming. The big man and the bartender pulled Tom from the girl and threw him into the street. He staggered to his feet. The menacing figures were inside the glass door. shouting obscenities. He moved unsteadily down the street, then leaned against a lightpost.
He pressed his right ear lobe. Once, twice, three, four times. Calling the chief accountant. He had never done this before. It cost ten whole minutes, but he had to know the truth. Exactly.
He waited, longer than usual. Then a soft sound that was new - a bell tolling one, two, three times. Then a deep voice, also new. "Chief-accountant report, re account T-798324-X7 3 minutes, 15 seconds." Then the tolling of the bell, once.
Silence. 3 min ! 5 sec! He looked about wildly.
A man was coming toward him, a man with hat, topcoat and briefcase. Tom rushed to him, his hand held out like a beggar's.
"Please give me - lend me a little time 10 min. I'm running out."
A terrible phrase. The man paled, averted his eyes and walked on.
A woman wearing a fur jacket approached from the other direction. Tom ran to her, his hand held out, pleading for a tingly touch.
"Please, 10 min, I'm running out."
The woman gasped, turned and walked rapidly away.
A man roughly dressed in blue denims and working shoes crossed the street near him.
"Sir." cried Tom, rushing to him.
"I'm running out. Please lend me a little - anything."
The man scowled, muttered and started off. Tom grabbed his sleeve.
"You've got to help me. I'm running out. Can you hear me? Running out."
The lady with the fur jacket and the man with the briefcase had stopped a short distance away and were watching Tom turned to them, shouting so they could hear.
"Somebody . . . anybody . . . five minutes. four minute. . ."
A young couple approached, a girl with long blonde hair and a young man with a guitar hung over his shoulder. Tom took them in a frantic glance. He knew the type - newly arrived at their majority, rich with time.
"Please," he said, moving toward them, his hand outstretched. The girl looked alarmed.
"What is it?" said the young man.
"Time - I'm running out. Please help me," said Tom.
The couple looked at each other.
"Is he kidding?" said the man in working clothes. "Look at that silk shirt, that suit, those shoes. Worth weeks. That briefcase. If you're so broke, pawn it."
"I didn't thank of that." said Tom, staring at his expensive briefcase.
"A professional beggar," said the lady.
"Probably has a Rolls and a chauffeur around the corner," said the well-dressed man.
"I'm not a beggar. I've never begged in my life," cried Tom.
The young girl was staring at him. Her young man took her arm impatiently.
"Come on " he said.
"Wait, Lou," she said. "He needs help."
The young voice was like a beam of pure light In Tom's gathering darkness. He moved toward her, desperately turning on the charm that had wooed and won a score of such girls.
"Believe me, trust me . . . I'll pay you back double, triple. But I need it now. . now, darling . ."
The young man frowned at that and again grasped his girl's arm.
"Come on, he's a phony."
"He is, dear. Don't be taken in," said the woman with the fur.
"He's a pro," said the man in working clothes. "Look at that coat . that shirt . . those shoes "
Tom tore off his coat, then his shirt, ripping the buttons. He pulled off a shoe and, with the briefcase, tossed the bundle onto the street near the man. "Take them. Take everything. I have. for one minute . for one lousy minute," he howled.
The girl gasped, pulled away from her escort and moved toward Tom.
"I believe you, I believe your," she said, extending her hand toward him.
"I lend you . . . I give you one week," she said defiantly, with the generosity of youth to whom time is endless.
For one precious second, Tom stared at the young stranger who had appeared out of nowhere like a shining angel. One week! Time to do anything. Time to live. He reached his hand toward hers, to feel the tingle that meant salvation. But the contact was not made. The transaction was not completed.
In the Timebank, as the endless rows and tiers, row upon row, tier upon tier, clicked and hummed quietly, on a certain tier, In a certain row, there was a louder click, more of a clack. A circuit breaker closed an account. Tom's account. A tiny device, no bigger than a flyspeck, exploded in Tom's left ventricle.
He collapsed in the street and was still. The young girl screamed. The others looked at one another, then at Tom. A crowd gathered. An officer broke through and knelt by the fallen man. "Officer what is it?" asked a lady.
"Overdrawn," said the officer.
All sighed and lowered their heads. The men removed their hats.