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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Borrowed Time
by D. J. Burnham

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The machine hummed impressively as it reached full power and a finger hovered over the release mechanism, trembling with anticipation.


'Is anyone there?'

'Yeah, me.'

'Who's Me?'

'Ernie. Who are you then?'


'Alright Vic.'

'How do, Ernie.'

'So. How did you get to be 'ere then?'

'Well, me lungs were knackered and this doctor bloke reckoned that, once I'd gone, he could take me brain out and stick it in a fish bowl... or something like that anyroad. How about you?'

'Yeah, similar mate, only it was the old ticker in my case. Too many Ruby Murrays, fish 'n' chips, fags and the like. The Doc reckoned I'd got a few more weeks, and then, wallop! Like you said, couple of days as a thinking wossname, or else oblivion. I mean. What you gonna do, eh?'



'My sentiments, exactly.'

'Oh right, yeah.'


'Bit dark in 'ere.'

'Yeah. Still. Not cold, though.'

'Nah. Not too hot neither.'

'Just right really.'

'Yeah. Just right.'

'Black as a black cat in a coal shed though, innit?'

'It is, now you come to mention it. Proper murky.'

'Murky? Can't see your hand in front of your face, mate. Err... can't seem to try it just at present. How about you?'

'How about me what?'

'Your hand! Can you see it... in front of your face, like.'

'Can't move, can I?'

'Can't move?'

'Nah, on account of being stuck in an iron lung. They must've wheeled me in 'ere while I was kipping.'

'Sorry mate, didn't realise.'

'No worries. Got used to it, really.'


'Try the bedside light, Ernie.'

'Cor, I'm glad to 'ear your voice, thought you'd gone. Tried the light earlier on.'


'Can't seem to move either. Think I might've 'ad a stroke, or some such.'

'Blimey. Looks like we're both in the same boat then.'

'Looks like it.'

'Probably why we're both in 'ere, I s'pose.'

'More like than not.'

'Nothing to be done then.'

'Seems like it.'

'He'll be along shortly.'


'The Doc.'

'Course he will.'

Want to see how we're doing, I'd imagine.'

'I should cocoa.'


'Funny old game.'

'What's that then?'


'Oh, life... yeah... funny old game alright.'

'You're born, you 'ave a quick and happy childhood, you spend years sloggin' away to earn a crust, and before you know it, yer in ya dotage and some essential organ goes on the blinking blinkity blink.'

'That's the way of it alright, Ernie.'

'Are you a religious man, Vic?'

'Well, not especially.'

'Ever read the Bible?'

'Flicked through it a coupla times. Used to be a travelling salesman, so I'd come across a Gideon's in the hotel room, once in while. I 'ad a quick gander, if there was nothing on the telly. You?'

' 'ad a go, but... dull as the old proverbial dishwater. Couldn't get into it, meself.'



'You said "Proverbs".'

'Nah, it was "Proverbial" mate.'

'Oh, right. So it never floated yer boat then?

'Which boat's that?'

'Same boat as what we're both in, I reckon, haha.'

'Haha, yeah, I reckon you're about right there, Vic.'

'Should we 'ave a bit of a shout, do you think?'

'What good would that do?'

'Well, we might get one of them young nurses come bustlin' in, that'd cheer us up a bit.'

'True, but we ought to wait for the Doc, really.'

'Yeah, s'pose you're right... best wait for the Doc.'


'What day is it?'

'Oi! I was trying to get some sleep.'

'I felt lonely.'

'I... oh, um, yeah, sorry. What did you say?'

'I was wondering what day it was.'

'I think it was Friday yesterday, or earlier on, anyway. That's what day it was before I woke up in 'ere.'

'So it could be Saturday then?'

'It could be, or it could be Friday afternoon, or even Sunday.'

'Do you think the Doc works weekends?'

'If he doesn't himself, then someone will. Stands to reason.'

'I've only ever been seen by him, though.'

'Me too, now you come to mention it.'

'I expect he'll be along at some point.'

'No doubt.'

'Perhaps we should try shouting after all?'

'We've been through all that. If they need to see us, they'll come and see us. They're busy people you know.'

'Ah, yeah, that's true. Busy people. You'd think they'd 'ave left us with one of them little button thingies. Push it for attention, like,'

'What good would that do? You can't push anything and I can't move!'

'Fair point... sure you don't fancy a little shout?'

'To be honest, even if I did, and I don't, then I'm not sure that I could.'

'You couldn't?'

'I can't feel my mouth or lips moving, or even my breathing, come to that. It takes a bit of oomph, does a good shout. I'm oomphless at the minute.'

'Ah. Me too.'

'So, no shouting then.'

'Looks that way.'

'Probably for the best.'

'Let's wait and see what he says.'


'The Doc.'

'Good idea.'

'See what cards are on the table, sorta thing.'

'This brain in a fishbowl malarkey.'

'I wonder what he meant, exactly?'

'Did he go into any detail with you?'

'Not really.'

'Nah, he was pretty vague with me an' all.'

'Maybe it's all a bit complicated.'

'It'll be that alright!'

'Perhaps he's gone to think it over with his colleagues. Second opinion, and all that.'

'Third, fourth and fifth, I shouldn't wonder.'

'He could be some time yet, then.'

'Bound to be.'

'He'll turn up though.'

'You can be sure if that.'

'He's probably writing a paper on us.'

'Do you think so?'

'Yeah. We're probably gonna be world famous, in medical circles, you and me. Ernie and Victor, they'll say, pioneers amongst patients, they were.'

'Famous eh?'

'Almost certainly.'

'Makes it all worthwhile, in a way.'

'Well, all this, you know, waiting about and stuff. In the dark. Just each other for company. Gotta mean something, eh?'

'If nothing else, we'll 'ave made a major contribution to medical science.'

'For the benefit of others.'

'That's the spirit.'

'Yeah, good on ya, mate.'

'And you, Vic.'



'Cor blimey, you put the fear of God into me, old son. I thought it was him!'


'The Doc.'

'I thought I 'eard something.'

'Don't be daft, it's as silent as the grave in 'ere.'

'Don't say that.'


'Don't talk about the grave. It scares me.'

'Just a turn of phrase, mate.'

'Even so.'

'Alright, alright, I'm sorry. Okay?'

'Yeah, alright. Just feeling a bit touchy, like. Seems to 'ave been ages.'

'Do you feel hungry?'

'No. Why, do you?'

'Nah. Wish I did in a way. It'd give me something to think about.'

'Yeah, know what you mean.'

'What would you 'ave though Ernie?'

'How do you mean?'

'If you were hungry. What would be the one thing that would really do it for you?'

'Curry, mate. A nice chicken tandoori with all the trimmings, washed down with several pints of lager. What about you?'

'Gotta be a Sunday roast. Nice bit of crackling, butter melted over me peas, plenty of gravy, roast spuds, big old fatty slab of pork, maybe some cauliflower and carrots, bit of 'orse radish. Cor, that'd make the old North and South water, that would. If I could feel my mouth, that is.'

'Yeah, but lovely image mate... lovely.'

'Maybe we could get 'em to bring something in for us, when they turn up.'

'Not good for us though, is it?'

'Is it gonna make all that much difference at this stage?'

'S'pose not really. Might be best not to rock the boat though.'

'The same boat we're both in, you mean?'

'Haha, yeah, that's the one.'

'Maybe we could smell it, at least.'

'Yeah, that'd be nice.'

'What do you reckon it smells like outside today?'

'The usual, I'd 'ave thought.'

'The usual?'

'Disinfectant, antiseptic wipes... you know, hospital smells. Maybe the occasional waft of perfume from one of those young nurses, or a visitor. I like that.'

'No, no, I mean outside. Way out... in the countryside, maybe.'

'Fruity, I should imagine. Cow pats and muck spreading.'

'Oh, very funny. It's autumn, isn't it?'

'Er, yeah, I guess it must be. I've been in 'ere a while now, but that'd be about right.'

'Ah, autumn. The smell of bonfires as the gardens get tidied up, soft musty dampness of leaves on the ground, the last few flowers giving it their all in the early evening. A crispness in the air, as winter approaches.'

'You're quite the poet, aren't you Vic?'

'Haha, just a little daydream, Ern. Just a little flight of fancy.


'You still there Vic?'

'Yeah, still 'ere.'

'Wonder when he'll turn up?'

'The Doc?'

'Yeah, Been a long time now. Seems like ages. Hope everything's alright.'

'How do you mean?'

'Well, these plans, this scheme of his. Don't mean to be funny, but we're not gonna last forever, are we?'

'Now who's being morbid?'

'Nah, not that exactly, more... umm...'

'More what, then?'

'Well, I don't know. Don't want to miss the boat, do we?'

'What? That same boat, do you mean?'

'Haha, nice one Vic. Yeah, that same boat. Do you think we'll meet up when we're... whatever. When the Doc's got our brains sloshing around.'

'Dunno. Depends.'

'On what?'

'On who goes first.'

'Oh great!'

'No really, if you think about it.'

'Thinking about it is all I can do.'

'Yeah, but what's the likelihood that we'll both go at the same time, or day, or week, or month? Eh?'

'No idea.'

'Exactly, and nor 'ave they, I shouldn't think.'


'Well, if I'm gonna be a brain floating around in a fishbowl and you're still alive, then we won't meet up. How would we talk to each other anyway, even if we were both just down to our brains. Even if we were bobbing about right next to each other?'

'That's a bit beyond me, mate. All a bit philosophical, kind of thing.'

'Yeah, well I guess he knows what he's doing.'

'The Doc?'

'Who else?'

'Yeah. He'll be along in a while.'

'Yeah, he'll turn up soon enough.'


'Still no sign then?'

'Not yet. Maybe you were right.'

'How do you mean?'

'Perhaps he doesn't work weekends.'

'Perhaps not.'

'Is it still the weekend?'

'Hard to tell. It's always night in 'ere.'

'Not even a digital clock display.'

'You'd 'ave thought they could run to that.'

'You would really. Just a little LCD job.'

'It'd give us a drop of light. Something to focus on, like.'

'Maybe they can't?'


'I dunno. Maybe it's part of the process. Maybe we've got to be in total darkness, or else the operation, or whatever you wanna call it, wouldn't work. Maybe it's just against the rules.'


'Ah well, such is life.'



'Yes Vic.'

'I just wanted to say...'

'Go on.'

'...I just wanted to say, that I've really enjoyed your company.'

'Well that's very kind of you, Vic. Likewise, I must say.'

'I think we're what could be considered as good friends, after this time together.'

'Definitely mates Vic, definitely. I'm glad to 'ave made yer acquaintance.'

'Shame we can't go down the pub, really.'


'I'd like to buy you a pint.'

'Likewise, mate.'

'Spend an evening chatting like we 'ave been, but watching the regulars come and go.'

'Yeah, Make it a regular thing if you like. Every second Tuesday, sorta caper.'

'Why not.'

'Yeah, why not.'

'I'd really like to shake you by the hand.'

'Me too.'

'Give you a hug and a slap on the back.'

'Steady on!'

'Bit too continental, eh?'

'Haha, maybe, maybe not.'

'I feel happy now.'

'Me too.'

'What shall we do now, do you think?'

'Wait for the Doc, I guess.'

'Yeah, nothing else to do. I reckon you must know me pretty well, old friend.'

'Well enough. And you must know me too.'

'Can't be much of our lives we haven't discussed.'

'Covered the vast majority, I reckon.'

'That we can still remember, that is.'

'Photo's would've helped.'

'They would at that.'

'Do you feel tired at all?'

'No. Do you?'

'Not at all. Funny really, seems like we've been awake for days. All those memories, all that ground we've covered together.'

'Should be ready for forty winks at least.'

'At least.'

'Wonder if it's day or night?'

'It's all the same to me.'

'And me. There was a time when my body would know the difference, all by itself.'

'Not now though.'

'No. Not now.'


'What was that Ernie?'

'I've no idea Vic.'

'Did you see anything?'

'Not as such. Did you?'


'Did you feel it then?'

'Not in so many words, no.'

'Nor did I.'

'There was something though, wasn't there?'

'There was.'

'Could it be him?'

'The Doc, you mean?'

'Yeah, the Doc. Maybe he's come at last. Maybe we're both blind, for some reason?'

'And numb, and deaf to anything except us talking to each other.'


'Something's working though or else we wouldn't have noticed that... thing... occurrence.'

'You're right.'

'I'm not so sure that I still want to go through with this fishbowl lark, Vic.'


'Well, present company accepted, I'm not too keen on my current state and it can't get any better with this cutting edge experiment... or can it?'

'We don't want to burn our boats at this stage though, do we?'

'Haha, that same old boat that we're both in, you mean?'

'Haha, that's the one.'

'Did you feel that?'

'And that!'

'More and more.'

'Like... movement without moving.'

'Sound without sound.'

'Flashes and sparks without light.'

'Metallic tastes without flavour.'

'Do you think it's him -'

Dr. Pozzy had spent ten years exploring his interest in telepathy. What had started out as innocent curiosity had rapidly grown into an obsession; such was his preoccupation with the subject, that it had almost cost him his marriage and many of his professional colleagues had become concerned for his sanity. Despite this, he remained convinced that telepathy was worthy of genuine scientific investigation.

He had come to realise that thought processes were more than simple electrochemical interactions, that unique energy signatures were attributable to each thought and that they, in turn, were associated with the generation of outward electronic impulses, given form by the magnetic field encompassing the individual. Research literature was full of examples and it was the phenomenon of global telepathy that he had recently been concentrating on. He had read of hundreds of cases of people - usually related through birth or marriage, or a close friendship - where an apparently telepathic event had occurred at a time of tragedy, or great emotion. The transfer of thoughts or feelings was usually immediate, as was evidenced by the huge number of people interviewed. The receiving subject would often feel compelled to pick up the telephone and converse with a friend, or loved one. The usually unwitting sender would be surprised and the call would be met with a reaction such as, 'I was just thinking about you.' More oft than not, the two involved would be considerable distances apart, sometimes on opposite sides of the world. In such cases the thought impulse had enormous distances to travel, and yet it appeared to do so instantly. This meant that the 'thought impulse/energy signature' must be travelling at the speed of light, and must, therefore, obey certain laws of particle physics. He had conjectured that the impulse was transmitted through, by, or on the magnetic field which surrounds the Earth, and this had led him to embark on a series of experiments.

He predicted that at the moment of death, and therefore a potential instance of extreme emotion, that the last thoughts of the deceased would exist in their own right; albeit for a fraction of a second. He had developed a theoretical technique which he hoped would enable him to capture and hold such a thought impulse, by suspending it in time.

One of the few people to take him seriously was an old acquaintance called Professor Humberton. The Professor had an extraordinary understanding of the laws of Quantum mechanics and had conjectured that they could exploit the theoretical wave-particle duality properties of thought impulses. Their working hypothesis had resulted in the construction of a new piece of medical equipment, a Terminal Signature Retrieval Unit, which they christened the "Thought Catcher".

Dr. Pozzy's faithful old spaniel had fallen ill and had to be put down. With the vet's permission they had assembled their equipment and hooked up the dying animal to an electroencephalograph, in order to monitor brain activity. At the point that brain function appeared to terminate, they captured the last impulse. The next step was to travel to the nearby synchrocyclotron, transporting the suspended impulse within the Thought Catcher, hoping that the battery pack would power it long enough for them to reach the particle accelerator and release it.

Dr. Pozzy had managed to secure an open arrangement with the scientists overseeing the newly upgraded Bevatron at the Meridian Quantum Research Laboratory. If they were about to run an experiment at the time of a call from him, then they would delay for a maximum of one hour. They had arrived with twenty minutes to spare and set up the Thought Catcher, such that it could release the thought impulse at the exact same time that the Meridian team conducted their own experiment; effectively getting a free piggy-back ride. It was over in seconds, and the subatomic scintillation plates at the points of entry and exit showed no discernible change in the pattern signature of the thought wave (when superimposed on the pattern of a previous control experiment). He hadn't known what to expect, although he had thought that there might be some subtle change in the final signature, as the particle acceleration would theoretically slow down time from the impulse's perspective. It seemed as if they had captured little more than a snapshot, but it was only the first attempt.

Dr. Pozzy had been on a recruitment drive for a human subject and had concentrated his efforts on the terminal wards of the hospital in which he worked. Despite a certain amount of skepticism and concerns about ethical issues, he had been successful in attaining the permission of a handful of patients. He had been vague about the precise nature of the research, but had likened the impulse to a cross between a mayfly and a short-lived goldfish. He wasn't sure if the patients understood what he meant, but they had given their consent.

The call came in at 5am and he rushed through the wards with the equipment. The subject was a middle aged man who had been dying from heart disease and the output from the monitoring equipment strongly suggested that he was about to expire. Together with his colleague they captured what they thought to be the last impulse. Minutes afterwards his pager went off. There was another potential subject! They raced down the corridor and into another isolated room where another man was slipping away. Things were complicated by the iron lung in which he rested, but they managed to slide the Thought Catcher past it and into position around his cranium. Timing the process with the EEG output they successfully obtained another terminal impulse. Following a quick call to the Meridain team leader they raced off, through the Blackwall tunnel, to the Bevatron.

The next experiment wasn't due to take place until lunchtime, but fortunately it was agreed that the Thought Catcher could be plugged into the laboratory's power grid, and they spent the time checking and rechecking the release mechanism and the scintillation plates.

Dr. Pozzy gazed at the plates in amazement, surrounded by the entire research group; who had abandoned their own analyses when they'd heard about his results. The entry and exit plates showed considerable alteration in both of the impulse signatures, but there was more to it than that alone. Superimposed on each one were characteristics of the other! This meant that they had partially combined during their passage around the particle accelerator, and even more extraordinary, it appeared as if they had actually interacted. The results were far more complex than could have been achieved by basic sub-atomic rearrangement, it was as if - could it be? Was it really possible that the last thoughts of the two men had actually communicated?

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