Kairos - A Report on the Future of Time
a fiction by Aaron Schuster
What happens when civilization runs out of time?
After hundreds of years of triumphant progress, the civilized world stood on the brink of catastrophe. It was neither nuclear warfare nor belligerent robots nor climactic change nor a mutated virus that threatened global destruction, but something far more insidious and banal: human civilization had finally used up its time.
The prospect of a universal time shortage threw the population into disarray. At first the effects were relatively moderate: things seemed to run too quickly, then too slowly, as if the reel of the world were playing at variable speeds. Soon, however, the distortions grew more pronounced: after no longer followed before, effects preceded their causes, till the regular sequence of events was garbled almost beyond recognition. History had become an incomprehensible mishmash of unrelated occurrences.
Just when all seemed lost, Collective Time Flow (CTF) stepped in with an unheard of solution. The then small yet highly innovative company pioneered Durational Extraction™ technology, which provided civilization with a new and long-lasting time source. CTF discovered this source in the wild regions of the desert, far beyond the borders of civilization. Using a network of specially constructed transmission towers, the company began beaming raw time from the desert to its processing plants, where engineers refined it into precision clock time. This clock time was then used to fuel a new era in human advancement—the age of collective time that we know today.
With its near monopoly on the production and distribution of time—the world’s most precious natural resource—, CTF became so powerful that it now dominates the workings of the world’s governments, not to say the everyday life of its citizens.
The end of time caused a massive increase in the incidence of temporal-related mental illness, including such conditions as déjà vu, jamais vu, altered tempo, chronophrenia, reduplication, slowing down, speeding up, age disorientation, incorrect sequencing, loss of meaning of the future, anomalies in uniqueness, and delusional memory. These schizophrenic disturbances became so widespread that the World Health Organization declared a global desynchronization pandemic. Early attempts to quarantine the time deficient proved unsuccessful at halting the spread of illness. The splintering of temporal consciousness accelerated at an alarming rate, with little hope for a cure.
WHO medical archives are filled with literally hundreds of thousands of pages of similar case reports. The following is but a microscopic sample:
Sometimes when the people come at night they bite my head off, nasty folk, and then they lay down male and female heads, side by side […] What’s happened to my head? Where it was, between the shoulders, right here, has become a clock, a machine. Now I’m making time myself, a new time, how it really should be. The machine is square, black and white, and all muddled up. Thus it is, and pointing in the four directions of Heaven. The new time is made so, turning round, by the black and white machine. (ANR9-22178-08)
Yesterday, at midday, when the meal was being served, I looked at the clock. There was something odd about it, because it no longer gave me any help; it told me nothing. How would I reconcile myself to this? I felt as if I were being transported back in time, as if something that had gone before was returning, as is I were retracing some previous path. It seemed to me that when it was really half past eleven it had become 11 o’clock. But it wasn’t just that the same time had come round again, it was also a sense that it was secondhand […] In the middle of all this, something else happened. It was now no longer 11 o’clock but some long-past era. It was all so strange that I thought someone must have played a trick with time. And then the most peculiar thing of all happened—a completely new kind of time emerged. (R777-56719-00a)
Time stood still. Then it became different. Then it disappeared entirely […] Then a new time emerged. This new time was endless, more manifold than the previous one, hardly deserving the name ‘time’ as we know it. (IE7F-21111-98)
Note the recurrence of the eschatological theme, as well as the rebirth motif. Yet the hallucinatory ‘new time’ that is repeatedly announced remained but a vague notion, idiosyncratic and incommunicable. Rather than producing an original form of collective existence, the breakup of linear time only reveals the loneliness of a fractured self. This experience of alienation and temporal atrophy is also symptomatically reflected in the art and literature of that era.
During the Final Days (or ‘end of days’), significant speculative research was carried out on the link between psychopathological temporal disturbances and the physical nature of time. The most audacious of these researchers, Croatian physicist Vik Vlatko, proposed an algebraic geometric modeling of bizarre and paradoxical first-person temporal forms like ‘eternity/everlasting now,’ ‘arrested/suspended’ time, time ‘going backward,’ and ‘disordered/fragmented’ time. This work, conducted at the Higher Institute of Mathematics at the Free University of Brussels, in conjunction with the Croatian Academy of Sciences, sought to establish that the wave of mental illness had not only a neuro-psychological basis, but reflected an actual disturbance in the spacetime continuum.
Most of this research has been discontinued. It is rumored, however, that CTF maintains a secret division whose task is to investigate the link between mental and physical time realities. The location of the laboratory and the identities of the scientists involved are unknown. If this division does exist, it is most likely connected with the elite Horological Institute, the central university complex that trains CTF’s upper echelon employees and directors.
CTF: The future on time
Today the desynchronization pandemic has been largely eradicated thanks to CTF’s epochal Durational Extraction™ technology. This technology makes it possible to convert raw, non-linear time—time that has not yet been partitioned into an irreversible series of events, happenings, meetings, and occurrences—into useable clock time.
The unique source of these time reserves is the desert, which holds vast tracts of untapped durational stuff. The problem, of course, is removing it. Once scientists at CTF grasped the awesome potential of this resource, they quickly set about developing a sustainable extraction method. They finally succeeded by encoding raw desert time into a radio signal that could be beamed across long distances via a network of transmission sites. Once exported, refineries transform the unprocessed duration into the precious seconds, minutes, and hours that make civilization run.
This guaranteed quantified time is distributed by CTF to homes and offices in much the same way as gas or electricity. According to agreements negotiated with individual governments, time is made available for easy consumption at affordable rates. CTF clocks and timepieces, remotely charged by the main grid and centrally controlled by the Standard Clock, set the pace of daily life and ensure that the world’s population remains synchronized. Priority customers, like major industry and the military, are connected to secure supply units via failsafe lines; regular users receive their timeflow from local outlets. Not unpredictably, a black market has developed for ‘extra time’ beyond standardized CTF allotments; unscrupulous vendors who pool surplus hours can unload them to well heeled clients for exorbitant sums.
Though steady timeflow has ended the era of time bending mental pathology, temporary unforeseen interruptions of service or prolonged failure of payment can result in localized episodes of delusional temporality and, eventually, total insanity.
The desert Zone
The CTF transmission network is maintained in top working order by a team of trained agents. These professional operatives are tasked with ensuring the reliability of existing timeflow and prospecting for new exploitable temporal resources. They are based in outposts along the edge of the Zone, and must sometimes travel far into the open desert. The work is dangerous because of the Zone’s uncertain time patterns, and agents must be careful to avoid desynchronization. They are equipped with the latest coding devices and carry chargeable clocks that protect them against shifting timeflows.
What is the Zone? In a word, the Zone is a vast wasteland, a seemingly endless arid region dotted with small settlements and criss-crossed by makeshift roads. No census of the Zone’s population has ever been taken, but the numbers are thought to be small. Some are transient workers, others more permanent dwellers. Their ranks include an untoward mix of company agents, desert mystics, petty thieves, armed revolutionaries, repair freaks, junkies, eventologists, adventurers, housewives, fugitives, smugglers, thrill seekers, religious revivalists, entrepreneurs, antique dealers, even some normal folk. The antique dealers are an especially hardened lot: they collect artifacts from the Zone and sell them for sometimes astronomical prices. A good deal of old technology was left behind, remnants of a near past civilization, in the mass movement toward cities during the end of days. Some of the most prized items are clocks pre-dating the era of collective time, and therefore not controlled by the CTF grid; the possession of such obsolete unplugged timepieces is strictly forbidden in civilized regions.
Apart from this varied blend of travelers, dealers, believers, and operatives, the question remains as to whether there exists an indigenous people of the Zone, or further: what life forms might be able to survive at all in the chaotic temporal conditions of the deep desert (see below).
Given the harsh conditions of Zone life, with the exception of a few well-supplied outposts a low-grade state of lawlessness prevails. The psychological profile of the successful CTF career man thus includes not only a high degree of self-sufficiency and mental fortitude but also criminal propensities. Agents are often recruited on the basis of their advanced chronophysiology; a strong internal clock, or autochronometry, is a major asset for working in the Zone. Desynchronization therapy involves electrical stimulation of the pineal gland (so-called “Cartesian shock treatment”), which boosts the body’s natural time sense and can compensate for a range of deviations.
In the interests of bringing more order to the Zone, and bolstering their public image in the process, CTF has recently finished constructing the model desert community of Verdania, complete with a cinema, entertainment and shopping complexes, 18-hole golf course, art centre, schools, cafes, and sporting clubs. The community, ranging in size from 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants, lies in close proximity to a newly discovered massive raw time source. It is administered by a overseer appointed by the company’s board of directors, and marks the first time that CTF has entered into public governance. According to a unique arrangement, the company owns all land and structures in Verdania, which it rents out to ‘guests’; with the rental fee comes police, fire, emergency, and leisure services. No government taxes are paid by the townsfolk, who are granted, by international treaty, a privileged duty-free dweller status.
A small cadre of independent ecologists and radical vegetarians accuses CTF of hiding a great truth in the Zone: that its ‘time sucking’ is actually causing the desert to expand, and that desertification will soon threaten the outer suburbs of a number of major cities. This is vehemently denied by CTF and all reputable scientific sources.
Year Zero: It’s not enough to change the world, you have to change time
The revolutionary group Year Zero is the sole faction that stands opposed to CTF and its “tyranny of the clock.” The rebels operate in relative safety from the deserts lands, evading capture by forces more fearful of sudden temporal shifts than outdated bombs and pistols. The time disruptions that occur in the Zone are called in local parlance ‘kairos’. The term is discouraged by CTF’s public information committee due to its imprecision and religious connotations: despite its antiquated ring, it nevertheless remains in use. References to kairos are especially to be found among psychedelic and mystic cults, where it is also the name of a special drug. Said to be the deposit (or, more colloquially, excreta) of the largest whirling dust devils, the K-drug is a reddish powdery substance that when smoked or inhaled has powerful time expanding effects. Historical testimonies suggest that the hallucinogen long predates the existence of CTF, though this is disputed. Due to the grave threat it poses to public time-flow, K is outlawed and its trade has been almost completely eradicated in urban areas.
Year Zero’s avowed goal is to halt the expropriation of time resources from the desert, and to create a new ‘non-chronological’ time concept in accordance with its natural savage form. Recently they have escalated their subversive activities, including the abduction of CTF workers, strikes again transmission towers, and the destruction of clocks. These attacks have not yet proved a significant threat to CTF’s operations.
Despite the tendency of the sensationalist media to paint Year Zero as a unified movement, the reality is far murkier. Little is actually known about the group’s organization or lack thereof. A loose conglomeration of people with a common hatred of industrially manufactured time, their beliefs and interests are otherwise diverse and even contradictory. The violent revolutionary wing stands in the popular imagination for the whole. One of the leading celebrities associated with the movement is a hippie guru named Froust, whose rambling amateur videos, combining speculative metaphysics, anti-chronological militancy, and self-help tips, are popular throughout the desert territories.
A key part of the Zone’s mythology is that the land is inhabited by “spirits” or “ghosts.” These spirits are said to be persons, but also places and events, which have become lost in time, moving between past, present and future without respect for order or sequence or logical connection. Many fairy stories exist about these denizens of the desert, often full of metaphor and paradox. In one well-known tale, a young child is visited during the night by a memory that it had never seen before. The child asked the memory who it belonged to, but the memory couldn’t remember. Unhappy with this reply, the child grew restless, but the memory begged him not to awaken for fear of vanishing forever. So the child slept and slept and slept, till a hundred, then a thousand, then a hundred thousand years had passed. In this never-ending night of unconsciousness, the child came to dream the whole spectacle of the world, with all its colorful furniture, vivid characters, and vibrant histories. Yet, there was still no place for the amnesic memory. Hopeless and exhausted at long last, the memory fell asleep. When it woke up, it saw an old, decrepit man lying on his deathbed. The memory could detect in the eyes of this senile figure a faint reflection of the child’s wonder, but the man, passing away, gave it no sign of farewell or recognition.
This kind of narrative is typical of the creation myths disseminated in the Zone.