weekly irregular dose of fabulous1 fiction
Week #30 - Tom Steeds
Sunday, 17 Aug 2008 21:15
This one was written, start to finish, today. I came up with the idea earlier in the week, mind you. It's just been pretty busy.
I think I have odd stories out of my system, for a little while maybe. The next couple of stories should have less weirdness in them. Or at least should be more plausible :P
I was sitting in a food court eating my lunch when I bumped into Tom Steeds for the first time since the last of finals in our last day of university. The food court was in the underground concourse that connected three office towers. My office was in the northwest tower, on the twenty-second floor.
I didn't recognize Tom Steeds at first; I glanced up from my fast food Thai curry and saw an old man heading towards me. He supported himself with a cane and shuffled along, bending his knees just the slightest bit, as though the joints had fused in his old age. I looked back down to the pieces of vegetables I was trying to manoeuvre to my mouth with a pair of chopsticks.
"You don't acknowledge old friends?"
I looked back up, and the old timer loomed over me.
"You've got me mistaken with someone else, I think."
"Nonsense. We were in school together. Tom Steeds."
Tom was in computer science with me. We had a bunch of classes together and in our last year, we were partners for the final project in our operating systems class. I didn't actually like Steeds very much. I mean, he was a nice guy more or less. But arrogant. Okay, not arrogant but he was one of those guys who was better than everyone else. Perfect four GPA, never seemed stressed, never seemed to study that hard. He was that guy in class who would correct the mistakes our professors made.
Doing a project with him made me tear my hair out. Our final assignment was to build a small operating system, to try out different process scheduling algorithms. Your computer acts as though it's running many programs at the same time, but it's really switching between them sequentially, quick enough (unless you've used all your memory) that you don't even notice it's really only running one at a time.
The work for the project should have been divided in two, but Tom basically did it all. I didn't slack, not at all. But every morning when I'd see Tom at school, I'd say something like, "I started the memory allocator last night."
"Oh, I wrote that already."
"I thought we'd decided I'd do it?"
"Yeah, but I finished my stuff early last night and thought of a neat way to approach the problem."
Inevitably, his was better than mine and bug free, too.
You can see how you'd get to hate a guy like that. Because of the perfect mark we got on the project, I ended up with an A+ in the course.
But the old man standing in front of me wasn't Tom Steeds. Tom was around my age and I'd only graduated six years ago.
"Do you mind if I sit down?"
"I guess not," I answered.
I watched him ease himself into the chair across from me. It was a slow process and he grimaced as he forced his knees to bend. I expected to hear sounds of dry wood snapping. After he was seated, he leaned his cane against the table.
One thing he did have in common with the Tom Steeds I knew was how scrawny he was. Tom was a beanpole and this guy was probably even skinnier.
"We did an operating systems project together."
"Tom Steeds is barely thirty years old."
"I am thirty-two years old. Legally speaking, at any rate."
He coughed and took several deep breaths before answering me.
"I sent you an email a while back."
I'd received an email from Tom Steeds, almost a year before. It was just one asking how I was doing, what was new, that sort of thing. I'd meant to respond but had never got around to it and eventually forget completely.
"So, what, you started hanging around food courts hoping to bump into me?"
He made a snorting laugh and said, "Hardly. I was seeing my lawyer today and came down here for coffee and saw you."
"How can you possibly be Tom Steeds?"
"You can guess by looking at me that I won't be around much longer. I think I'll tell you a secret. You ever wonder how I made the Dean's Honour Roll every semester, maintained a perfect GPA?"
"I remember you doing pretty well in school." I still didn't believe he was Tom Steeds, but didn't want to argue the point before he finished his story. I figured then that he was a lonely oldster who wanted some company.
"Can you buy me a coffee? It'd be faster if you go and grab it than if I do."
When I returned with a styrofoam cup of coffee, he added a creamer and a packet of sugar, and stirred, all with trembling hands. He took a sip and closed his eyes for several seconds before opening them and continuing his story.
"I wasn't any smarter than you back then. I really wasn't. I feel like a bit of an asshole looking back. Everyone else in our classes had to slave away those long hours to get all their work done."
"And you weren't putting in the time?"
"I was putting in the time, make no mistake. It just wasn't my time."
"What are you talking about?"
I was beginning to regret indulging the guy. My lunch was getting cold.
"You bought a house yet?"
"A condo," I answered, "I've been there two years."
"Time is the same thing as money. You can borrow it if you want, but they charge you interest, same as a mortgage. For every hour you studied in university, I took four or five. My weekends lasted for days and days. They come to collect eventually, as you can see."
"So is there pitch coming where you need me to lend you some money?"
He reached around, leaned forward, and wrestled a thin leather wallet from the back pocket of his jeans. He slid it across to my side of the table and said, "Take a look."
I unfolded it and spread it open.
"Check out my drivers license."
Inside the main pocket was some cash and a few cards, so it didn't take me long to find it. I took it out of the wallet and saw the name — Tom Steeds — and the picture, which was indeed of the fellow I knew in university. I looked at the man sitting across from me, then lifted the license up so I could see them both at the same time.
Maybe they could have been the same guy; I could see a definite resemblance. It was in the eyes and cheekbones.
"So where does one go to borrow time?"
"The Horological Section of the Department of Vital Statistics. It's not well advertised."
"Vital Statistics? Where you get your birth certificate issued from?"
"Amongst other things."
"So the provincial government loans out time to people?"
"You'd rather the private sector do it? They'd give everybody a credit card. Everyone would be charging time every time they were running a few minutes late. It'd be chaos. The Horological Section is supposed to ensure time is only lent out when the debtor really needs it and can pay back the loan. They employ a lot of actuaries, as you can imagine."
"Borrowing time for your school work counts as really needing it?"
"I had a summer job there working on their loan tracking software. They used to do all their bookkeeping by hand, but there was a big push to move towards a paperless office. I made sure to code it so that I always automatically qualified for a loan. It started off small. I just needed a few minutes here and there. An extra hour to study for an exam or track down that last bug in an assignment."
He shrugged his thin shoulders and the image that came to my mind was of a vulture crouched on the side of a road.
"I got hooked. It was so easy. Need more sleep on a Sunday morning? I'd just log onto their website and borrow another hour or two."
"You can do it online?"
"One of my projects for them."
"A few months ago, they came to collect the time I'd borrowed. It was surprisingly painless."
"So they—" I was lost for words.
"I was borrowing against time later in my life. In my case, I'd borrowed quite a bit."
"And they just let you keep borrowing?"
"It violated the rules. When they found out about my backdoor, it caused quite the scandal. The assistant deputy minister had to resign. They kept it out of the papers, of course."
"If you had access to the software, why didn't you change it so that they never collected your borrowed time."
"All that was done from a big mainframe in Ottawa. I never had access to it."
Tom and I chatted until I was late back to work after lunch, and we came to have lunch or dinner regularly. After the Horological Section had collected their due, he had to quit his job. He'd distanced himself from his family, as well. Why did he open up to me? Because we did one project together? It's easier to talk to an acquaintance than someone close to you?
A couple of months later, Tom Stead passed away. It was just me, the minister and one other guy at the funeral.
After a short reading the minister asked if either of us wanted to say anything. I couldn't think of anything; the other guy shook his head and said, "I'm here merely in an official capacity."
Right before he died Tom gave me the key to his apartment, saying I could take anything I wanted. Chuck the rest or give it to charity. It felt like grave-robbing, and I didn't go to his place to take anything. I was just curious to see his home.
I let myself in and left the door open to air the place out. It smelled musty and, well, like old people. I was a little surprised because I'd always thought that smell would have to build up over the decades. Tom Steeds had only been old for a little over a year.
He hadn't kept it terribly clean. Papers were piled everywhere, most of them were scribbled pseudo-code and software design diagrams. Sitting on his coffee table was a relatively new laptop.
I went through most of his papers, stacking them up to be recycled. By the end of it, though, I was beginning to get upset. I was expecting, I don't know, a manifesto or something. A journal entry saying, "This is why it was all worth it.", something.
What I did find, in one stack, was a letter from the Vital Statistics Department, Horological Section. It was a collections notice, informing Tom that the balance of his time, 67 years, 7 months, 13 days, 5 hours, 19 minutes, and 37 seconds (including interest) was due immediately. It let him know the borrowed time could be subtracted from his lifespan, or a proxy lifespan if he could find someone willing to donate some of their own time.
The office of the Horological Section was in the basement of the Vital Statistics building, unmarked. I'd gotten the room number from the letter sent to Tom. A bored-looking summer student popped her gum while I filled out my application for two extra days. I had a project due at work, and could sure have used the time. On the application, I stated that my job was riding on the successfully completion of the project. I hoped that would be a necessary and sufficient reason for getting a loan.
I slid the completed paperwork through the slit in the plastic window separating me from her.
"If your application is approved, you'll receive your pills in business three days."
I'd paid the extra twenty dollar fee for an expedited loan.
"Pills? I thought it would be, I don't know, magic sand or something."
"We used to give out bottles of sand, but we find pills transport better."
I didn't know why I applied for the two day loan. The project at work wasn't that critical. Maybe I still only half believed Tom Steeds' story. Maybe I could have used those two extra days as a vacation. I had a shelf full of books at home waiting to be read.
5 responses to "Week #30 - Tom Steeds "
Monday, 18 Aug 2008 01:43
wow. this was really good but i do hope you are done with the weird stories for a while. you don't want them to become your MO or anything. ;)
Erinn the Bold wrote:
Monday, 18 Aug 2008 18:20
I don't know what it is, but I really enjoy when you go weird. It seems like it's easier for you, almost. Maybe that's worse? Either way, I got a kick out of this one, but it should have been longer.
Wednesday, 20 Aug 2008 16:03
Coincidence #3 for me about time weirdness. It's settled, Dana. I's settled.
I loved this.
Thursday, 04 Sep 2008 20:07
Wow, this is captivating, Dana, a new favourite. I really love your weird stuff.
Wednesday, 27 May 2009 14:25
Hey, I like weird!