The city no longer knows day and night. Blue light burns coldly through windowpanes, bleeding out of screens which never go dark, people are tapping away at keyboards and taking calls without rest and projects are debated and created and completed by the minute. The flow of traffic is constant, a plateau, regardless of the time on the clock, like a faceless production line. Off the costs and in the industrial areas, machinery operates non-stop, land and watercraft skip past, manned from control centres where the shifts are twenty-four hours long and the lights never go out. The oil fields and nuclear power stations and the wind and solar farms struggle desperately to build capacity and make efficiencies to meet the demand for energy which has almost doubled, as if it is a giant, bottomless sinkhole they are trying to fill. And when any person begins to recognise that silent heaviness coming over them every sixteen hours, they drop a pastille into a glass of water and drink it.
It started in the skyscrapers in Hong Kong and Singapore and New York and London, where busy people with their endless thirst for accumulation and progress decided to reclaim the dead hours that they were forced to spend away from their computers, prone, with their eyes closed. When they looked on that time, they saw in it money and prestige to be either claimed or wasted. The working day soon stretched into the evening and the night and eventually all the way around the clock and the day became round like a boulder rolling down a hill, and the people chasing it were helpless to their own momentum. They were sharks, who must keep swimming or die.
At first, the ordinary people would take the pastille as a way to win back the precious after-work hours to spend with their families or at their leisure. They treated it as a gift. But the weight and the pace of the boulder soon caught up with them, too. The farmer who realised she could yield twice the harvest if she continued sowing and weeding and reaping into the night stopped coming home when the sun went down. The athlete whose peers began training longer and longer was forced to extend his own schedule by five hours, then six, to stay competitive. The schools realised they could accelerate their students by years if they timetabled classes into the night, with teachers who could earn twice their wage if they remained at work around the clock – and what was there to go home to, anyway, with children still at school and partners still at work, in this new age of productivity? The temporal plane became a space to be exploited, and soon if you didn’t use every minute of the day’s twenty-four hours, you risked falling behind.
My parents were among the very few folk who held onto traditional values and continued to commit a couple of hours of the day to rest. By that time, this was the difficult option: they were seen by their community as backwards, resistant to progress, stubborn and lazy. They were each dismissed from jobs, to be replaced by peers who would not rest, and alienated from friends who could not relate to their principles and were irritated by their attitude. But the time that I spent free to amuse myself as a child created a habit that stuck. When I entered university at the age of thirteen, other students would bring changes of clothes and days worth of food with them to the libraries, where they would sit endlessly under fluorescent lights to read towering stacks of books and produce tome-long essays which the tutors would, in turn, spend tens of hours per submission reading and marking. When I stood up resolutely from my table once a day to leave the building, the response from my peers ranged from unease to derision. Excepting those that conceded to take an occasional lap of the corridor if they felt they were in imminent danger of developing some kind of thrombosis, the rest of them existed in a perpetual stand-off in which to abandon their post was a sin of mortal proportions. Apart from me.
I began to take long walks, lasting a couple of hours, around campus. It grew wilder towards the east, where there was a wide lake and, beyond, a band of sparse woodland. Even there, the cycle of day and night had been violated by the new routine we imposed. Foxes, no longer able to creep into the city and declare themselves its kings at night, slunk around, unsettled and rangy, unsure when to hunt and when to rest. The birds sung at random, since the city’s blazing streetlights and tower block windows obscured the regular pattern of the going down and coming up of the sun. Small things scuttled at ankle-level, confused, at odds with their centuries-old instincts, and there was a sense of profound agitation beneath the trees.
In the middle of my final year, I began to venture further and further into the woods, infused by their unease. My pace quickened incrementally as things around me continued to twitch and scuttle.
Once, I circled far around the lake, taking an unfamiliar route back in the general direction of the central campus and the library. The surface of the water was smooth and untroubled, unconcerned by the passing or non-passing of time or the distinction of day from night. Its ripples and agitation were constant, perennial, one melting into another so that there was no hope of counting them. A college building came into sight, one that I had never seen before. We were still far from the library and the common rooms here, and it stood on its own. I stopped still for a moment, affronted. It took me a while to realise exactly what looked so alien about it. The lights were out. I hadn’t seen a building look like that more than a couple of times in my life: as if its eyes were shut, as if it were settled on its foundations. I realised that, around me, the small twitchy things were quiet. A bird was crooning. It was dusk, and here you could tell.
The building must be empty. Maybe an old, unused faculty building or else a new development, awaiting assignment as a library or canteen or one of the vast common rooms in which our lockers, our only individual space, were lined up, a hundred to a row. I approached the entrance.. Perhaps it was the gathering darkness, which was allowed to pool here as it was nowhere else I knew, or perhaps the watchful calmness of the lake behind, but I felt as if I were no longer on campus. The morbid, contagious energy of the library seemed very distant. There was a panelled sign by the door, of the type intended to describe the function of each room, bearing only one line of text: Dr Dorta Sommay. I had heard of Dr Sommay, of course. She was infamous at the university: brilliant in her professional field but personally abnormal. The other university scholars invariably spoke of her with one of either reverence or exasperation. She rarely responded to requests to collaborate, hardly answered the phone and conceded to teach only a handful of elite postgraduate tutorial groups, but her academic output was formidable. Her publications were often cited in papers that I read and wrote on and were frequently celebrated even in popular media. This must be a old office of hers, all the way out here, dark and abandoned.
As the academic year wore on, my colleagues produced exponentially longer essays. Unable to work more hours than they were already, they could only increase in fervour. In the library, eyes streamed from lack of blinking, spines calcified in strange tortured shapes and occasionally someone collapsed, having not taken a full breath for forty-eight hours. Once, the person next to me actually toppled sideways off their chair and started contorting on the floor. An ambulance was called. She would probably be quickly returned to full health – the sciences in general and medicine in particular are enjoying an era of unprecedented progress. The same day, I received a call around noon from my mother, to tell me that my grandfather had passed away at the age of fifty-eight. There were few diseases or disasters left that they couldn’t cure, but there was still nothing to be done when a person was simply worn out.
I suspect it was grief or shock that drew me back out past the lake for a second time. I was worrying about my own body, which sometimes felt jittery or tremulous for no apparent reason. Even as I continued to swallow my pastille once every sixteen hours, I was uncomfortably aware of the palpitations I sometimes felt, the fits of anxiety or rage, the long spells of melancholy so dense it felt physical. My eyesight was beginning to decay, too, though that was nothing unusual. Most of my peers began wearing glasses from the age of nine or ten, graduating through more and more advanced prescriptions as if they were badges of attainment. It was nothing to worry about. Diagnostic technology and laser eye surgery, cheap materials and highly trained doctors meant that your vision could usually be artificially sustained for as long as your body held out. Today would be the first time that my grandfathers eyes had closed and remained closed since his birth.
A lizard sunbathed on a rock. I became aware that the day had mellowed into a warm, golden evening. The lizard’s chest rose and fell minutely, lazily. Unlike his fellows, who I had watched darting across the forest floor, he seemed to be aware that there was no hurry, that he had nothing but time. He lay spread-eagled, basking by the lake. When I leaned closer, I saw that his eyes were closed. He felt my shadow pass across his back, flinched, and disappeared.
The low sun’s rays reflected obliquely off the surface of the water and I allowed shapes around me to blur and dance into one another. Perhaps I needed a new prescription. When the office building emerged out of the mirage, I was unsurprised by it. A wave of boldness drove me to the door and lifted my fist to knock. There was no response. I almost turned away, back towards campus, but the sudden prospect of my library seat and the empty chair beside it and the glassy, dilute eyes of my peers was so repulsive that I pushed on the door of the building like a person seeking refuge.
The door sung open. Apparently whoever had abandoned the building had not expected anyone to venture far enough out here for it to be worth securing. I stepped into a brown-carpeted hallway with a single door on either side. Only one of them bore the familiar university plaque. Dr Sommay’s old office.
Now I was curious. I opened the office door and stepped in. It was dim in there; folds of heavy fabric were drawn against the windows. Out of habit, I felt for a light switch on the wall and flicked it. The shock of brightness was like a physical blow. I hadn’t expected it to be working.
The office was a comfortable combined living-working space, similar to those of the university’s other prestigious scholars, with dark wood bookshelves and low leather settees. My eyes travelled across familiar things that I noticed but could not understand. There was a mug posed on a side table beside an overturned book, open at the first third. Mail lay on the desk, having been opened and somewhat arranged. Shoes by the door, a note pinned to the wall, one drawered not quite pushed closed. Everything in here spoke incongruously of movement, not of abandonment.
I pressed in further, to where an archway sectioned off a corner of the space. The light didn’t quite reach around here and it took a moment for my eyes to begin to sketch shapes from the contours of the grey dimness. I made out a picture frame on the wall, a chest of drawers, a couch. My hand flew to my mouth to choke a gasp. A body. Prone on the couch. I cast around desperately. What if I was found here, at the limit of the campus, with a body? There would be no way to prove my innocence. It was suspicious enough that I was even out here.
My hand fumbled to the wall and felt out a second light switch. I paused, feeling sick. Who knew how long the body had lain here, undiscovered? Then again, perhaps it wasn’t a body at all. All I could really make out was a shape on the couch. Perhaps it was just a pile of clothes or junk. Perhaps I had panicked. I pressed the switch.
The corner sprung into stinging brightness and the body sat straight up, its hand to its chest. I let out an involuntary yell and recoiled into the room. A woman blinked against the brightness, one hand gripping the side of the couch she had been lying on.
“What are you doing?” She demanded harshly. I was so stunned I couldn’t speak. She made me out beyond the archway. “Who are you?” She snapped, clambering stiffly off the couch, keeping her back to it, defensive. I could see she was afraid.
“I …” I was incoherent, unable to articulate words. My eyes were on the couch. One of its cushions was pulled up to act as a pillow. I could still see , as if in snapshot, the shape of her lying there, completely still, like the lizard. My helplessness seemed to calm her. She narrowed her eyes and stepped towards me.
“How did you get in?” She demanded.
“I thought it as empty.” I blurted. “It wasn’t locked.” What had she been doing on the couch? It was so unnatural it made me vaguely queasy.
She snapped her lips and shook her head furiously.
“Students.” She huffed. “Are you from the university?”
I nodded. Only then did I take her in properly. She was very old, older than my grandfather had been, and familiar. Her picture was sometimes printed in black and white next to her name: Dr Sommay.
“How old are you?”
For the first time, she seemed to notice my consternation, my eyes going from her face to the couch, my hands trembling. I was wondering if I should have run away, alerted the university, called the police by now.
“Ah.” She said. “You’re confused by what you saw.”
“What were you doing?” I asked. Dr Sommay cocked her head, as if testing me.
My heart felt hot and bright. Confusion fought strange, frightening certainty. As far as I had known, it wasn’t possible anymore. They put something in the pastilles. I had tried it once or twice, as a child. I had lain on my back, the way I had seen in some storybooks and pictures and closed my eyes. But I couldn’t work out what came next. There was no muscle for it, no button. I tried holding my breath, pressing my eyes more firmly shut with my hands. I studied the pictures again, tried to arrange my limbs and facial features properly. It had never worked. Once, my mother had caught me trying and scolded me.
“Don’t do that.” She had said sharply. “You look dead.”
I had learned that it was wrong and bad, in the fundamental way that children learn those things. Although my parents were traditional, they weren’t subversive.
“They put something in the pastilles to stop you.” I said dumbly. Dr Sommay replaced the cushion in its usual position on the couch and pulled down the sleeves of her jumper.
“No they don’t.” She said frankly. “It’s an instinct. It can be relearned.” I stared. What she was saying had implications that went beyond this room, all the way out to the top of the skyscrapers in Hong Kong and all the way deep inside my chest. The question that came to me surprised me.
“Why?” The old woman didn’t reply, but I thought I knew. “To live longer? To have more time?”
She snorted disapprovingly.
“More time?” She repeated with derision and amusement. “You couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t count my hours that way. I don’t count my hours at all. When I close my eyes, time doesn’t pass like that.”
I as silent. My life was governed by the sixteen-hour intervals between pastilles. I knew exactly how long a minute felt, an hour, twenty-four. I thought of the surface of the lake, uncountable, intemporal. The lizard lying spread-eagled. Questions chased their tails around my mind, evading capture. I wasn’t sure which one would come out of my mouth until it did.
“How do you do it?”