The Lender of Time

A story by Salman Rushdie

When the humanoid alien Bruno-Brunella adventurously and curiously set off to see the universe and, after other experiences, came to spend some time on Earth, it was immediately necessary for him to earn a living. She found that he had few skills for which human people would be willing to pay a living wage. Her great talents – whistling, for example, or kindness – which had been so deeply appreciated on his home world, and had made her wealthy enough to afford this type of intergalactic adventure - had no commercial application in his new situation. However, she retained the gift of immortality, and therefore he was immeasurably rich in a resource for which, among human beings, there was an almost infinite demand: that is to say, life itself. She was also able, if he so chose, to transfer days, weeks, months or even years to human men or women, without noticeably diminishing her own supply. Brunella-Bruno was pleased to discover that this power could become the basis of a successful professional life, and he went into the business of offering extensions of time to human beings, for a fee. The service could not be performed gratis. She was not a charity, after all. He needed to pay for rent, clothing and food. Time is money, she told herself, and decided to put that time-honored belief into practice.

In the beginning he had to overcome the natural skepticism of the human race when it was offered so incredible a possibility as the lending and borrowing of time. Bruno-Brunella proposed two different types of time loan: first, a straightforward increase in life expectancy, and second, the perhaps even more remarkable offer of a relative increase in time, thanks to which borrowers could accelerate through time and therefore seem to have – would in fact have – more time to act than the people around them, and would therefore be able to win a foot race even if they lacked athletic skill, or dodge a bullet like a comic-book superhero by leaning back out of its way. To prove the efficacy of her gift Brunella-Bruno stood in Washington Square Park holding a glass of water, and called out the arresting words, “Extra time for sale!”

The square was full of students as usual, and it was these young people - who, being young, needed the time least -  who were most tempted to put Brunella-Bruno’s offer to the test. A young woman stepped forward. Bruno-Brunella briefly put his hand on her head, handed her the glass of water, and then stepped back.

“Drop the glass,” Brunella-Bruno said.

When the glass was dropped, there were gasps and cries from the small group of onlookers, because the young woman appeared to move at an impossible speed to catch it before it hit the ground. She herself shook her head in disbelief. “It’s like everything was in slow motion,” she said. “I had so much time it was crazy.”

“Examinations are coming up,” said Bruno-Brunella, on a sudden inspiration. “Who wants extra time?” At once he was surrounded by students crying, “Me! I do! Me!”

Brunella-Bruno had special, low-priced introductory offers for these students, and found many takers. On the same afternoon, she was approached by several older citizens who said, “We don’t need to do things more quickly. We just need more time to watch our grandchildren grow up – do you have that kind of extra time? Some way of adding years to our lives?”

“Certainly,” said Bruno-Brunella. “But that can’t be a simple outright sale. I can lend you time on a monthly or annual basis, but you have to sign up to make annual or monthly payments.”

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That was how it began. Word spread rapidly, and pretty soon Brunella-Bruno was set up with an office in the Empire State Building, a suite with a brass plaque by the front door that read, in a strong Art Deco font, BBCo – LENDERS OF TIME, and below that, in smaller italics, “Call us Bébé.”

“Bébé” called himself a “time-lender” to disguise the less attractive aspect of her operation, which was that of course it was impossible for “time-borrowers” to repay their debt, and consequently they would be obliged to pay interest on their loan until they ran out of funds, at which point Bébé would reclaim the time he had donated, very often with fatal results for the borrowers. Her old talent for kindness had no value on this planet, he reasoned, but ruthlessness took people a long way. So she became, one could say, the first-ever loan shark of time.   

His offer of extra relative time proved immensely and enduringly popular among the young, who found many uses for it. There were the examinations, yes. But there were sporting applications too.  Baseball players, previously mediocre, were transformed into stars because, like all great players, they suddenly seemed to have more time to pick and play their shots. On the basketball court Michael Jordan’s legendary hang time became available to anyone willing to pay the price. Couples on dates could make long, leisurely love and never arouse their parents’ suspicions by getting home too late. The extra time was undetectable by any earthly technology, so examinees, athletes and promiscuous teens eagerly acquired their unfair advantages and exploited them to the full.

Meanwhile, Bébé’s other product – the offer of a longer life – unsurprisingly found many takers among the elderly, the sick, the hospitalized, and the dying. Many clients, calling, texting, emailing, or showing up in person to inquire about the service, used the phrase “we’re living on borrowed time” to describe their plight; to which Bruno-Brunella would invariably reply, “Darlings, you’ve been borrowing it from the wrong people.”  

She had the same conversation with all his clients. “How does it work?” they asked. “It’s simple,” she replied. “I lend you some of my time, and depending how much you borrow, your time won’t run out. The sand will stop flowing through the hourglass.” Their eyes widened at this thought. “That’s wonderful,” they said, “so we could even live forever?”  He smiled. “If you can afford it, yes. Forever.”

At this point the clients would usually frown. “As you are lending time, not donating it, how do you expect to be repaid?’

“Oh,” she says, “I thought I’d made that clear. In cash.’”

“And the loan will last…?”

“Until the time you’ve borrowed runs out, or until your money does, and you can’t repay the capital cost, or keep up the interest payments. But until that day, the time I loan you is one hundred per cent guaranteed.”

At this point most clients acquiesced. “Agreed. The only remaining question is, how much does time cost?”

And his answer is, “A lot. Because it’s precious, time.”

And it was true: those who signed up for her service continued to live. If they had been diagnosed with fatal cancers, those carcinomas were frozen in time, unable to do their worst. Congenital heart conditions did not result in failures of the heart. Motor neurone disease was stopped in its tracks, kidneys stopped failing, livers no longer deteriorated. Age lost its power over life. How happy they were, the borrowers! How highly they praised dear Brunella-Bruno, how passionately they recommended her to friends! “He’s a miracle,” they said, and “She’s the real deal,” and, “He has the magic touch.”

All was well. Bruno-Brunella rented a spacious apartment in Chelsea with a view of the Hudson River, and she seemed to have made quite a niche for himself on this planet, so far away from her home in the galaxy our astronomers knew as UK-x22, six trillion times thirty-two billion light years from earth, which worked out at approximately one hundred and ninety-two billion trillion miles. UK-x22 was dimly visible to our most powerful telescopes. It was positioned within the constellation called the Plough, Great Bear or Big Dipper, but was much further away. If Brunella-Bruno had family, friends or lovers waiting for him there, she didn’t seem overly concerned.

Everything was going swimmingly. Bruno-Brunella had plenty of time to observe the human race, which was the real reason for his journey. She studied the contradictory nature of our species with some care, noting the unending quarrel between egotistical competitiveness and generous selflessness, between blinkered stupidity and open-eyed curiosity. The unusual and unscientific idea of “race” intrigued him, and the accompanying notion that members of one “race” were superior to another was bewilderingly unclear. Some things were familiar from the behavior of intelligent species elsewhere in the universe. The dispute between the liberties claimed by the autonomous individual self and the constraints required by the groups to which they belonged – here known as families, communities, nations, faiths – appeared to be something very like a universal characteristic of life. “Ethics,” however, were unique to this planet, as far as Brunella-Bruno could tell. Most of the universe was amoral, uninterested in the idea of “goodness,” and preoccupied, instead, by a desire for peace, and the frustration of that desire by violence. That pattern existed here as well, but was overlaid with notions of “right” and “wrong,” “justice” and “injustice,” which didn’t trouble intelligences elsewhere. Bruno-Brunella was fascinated by the idea of morality. This discovery alone made his long journey feel worthwhile. There was also “love,” but that felt trivial by comparison. And of course she spent much of her time profiting from another human characteristic which he, as an immortal, found utterly alien: that is, the fear of death.    

As Brunella-Bruno’s client base expanded and her standard of living began to rise – and as he acquired a taste for certain Earth entertainments, such as meals in high-end restaurants, the best seats at the opera, designer clothing, and contemporary art - she began raising his rates. She informed existing clients who wished to acquire further loans of time-blocks that the cost of such borrowings had doubled. Interest rates on existing loans were also hiked very substantially. New time-borrowers were faced with higher entry costs. “If I don’t value my time highly,” Bruno-Brunella said, “nobody else will think it’s valuable either. This is not popcorn I’m offering here. It’s a premium product. If people want it, they will pay the market rate. That’s only fair.”

Many of his clients made rebellious noises about the increased costs. One in particular, a British aristocrat living across Fifth Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum in an apartment so full of antiquities that it looked like a wing of the great repository of art it looked down upon, asked for a personal meeting to discuss the terms. When Brunella-Bruno arrived, she found his client the British milady among the Greek statuary, resembling nothing so much as a battleship wearing brocade, and flanked by two adult sons, who told the lender of time that, in their view, he was a fraud, a mountebank, a con artist, who had persuaded their mother that she could magically extend her life. “The fact that she’s in excellent health,” they said, “is a tribute to the strength of her constitution, and, in our opinion, has nothing whatsoever to do with you. She’s an innocent woman, and you’ve already fleeced her for enough. You’ll get no more out of us.”

Bruno-Brunella did not argue, but bowed formally, turned, and literally ran out of that apartment, down many flights of stairs, and into a yellow cab. The Englishwoman died within the hour. Her sons called Brunella-Bruno and abused him, accusing him of having somehow engineered their mother’s death, and threatening to involve the police.

Bruno-Brunella answered straightforwardly. “There was nothing improper about your mother’s death. You saw what happened,” she said without emotion. “Her time ran out.”

When the news got around, it had a powerful effect on the clients of BBCo’s “Bébé.” There were very few further complaints. People found the money that was demanded, and paid up. The few who were unable to do so arrived rapidly at the end of their allotted days.

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A government official in a fine dark blue silk suit came to call on Brunella-Bruno. “Your activities have not passed unnoticed,” this gentleman informed him. “There were questions of the legality of your operation into which we – I - needed to look. Also, because you are undoubtedly not an American, questions of your status within our borders. However, I – we – do not represent the police force or the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. You need not worry on those scores. I am – we are – involved in what one might describe as a kind of official philanthropy. This is what I say to myself in the privacy of my thoughts – what we all say to all our various selves: If we – I - knew how your system worked, if I – we - could acquire its secret ingredient, just think how many people we – I - could help, how many lives would be lengthened, enriched, improved. I have many interior conversations of this type with myself – we all have them - and they fill me – us - with a form of – so to speak - altruistic yearning. If you were to join forces with us – with me, your operation could be scaled up to the national level, and there would be no limit to the good we could do. Let me add, also, that while my – our - motives are pure, we – I - understand the relationship between action and reward. I – we – would place a high value on your co-operation. A high monetary value on our putative relationship, which might be called fiduciary, because based on mutual trust. We – I – would make sure your compensation reflected that valuation.”

It was unclear whether he was speaking in a personal capacity or on behalf of a greater power, a plurality. It was unclear if he himself knew which it was, if he possessed agency or was no more than a messenger, or even less than that:

A message.

Bruno-Brunella was truthful, she belonged to a truthful species, but now he felt an unaccustomed emotion, fear, fear of telling the truth. Nevertheless, she told it.

“The secret ingredient is me,” Brunella-Bruno said. “I’m the one with time to spare.”

“I – we – need to clarify that assertion,” the visitor says. “For in itself, qua assertion, one might say, it is no more than a figure of speech. We – I – need to understand the science.”

Bruno-Brunella had done his reading. She knew how this encounter with power was supposed to go; that he could easily end up in an operating theater while ignorant tech people tried to locate the secret hidden somewhere in her body, in his blood, in her genetic codes. So, yes, fear, that was an appropriate thing to be feeling, but when he looked into the eyes of her visitor, she felt a second emotion muddying the first.

The second emotion was desire.

The official in the fine dark blue silk suit possessed a firm, strong jawline and a pair of piercing blue eyes. His voice was attractive and his courtesy was attractive also. On an impulse Brunella-Bruno made the first move.

“As I’m not from here,” he said, “I’m not sure how you people go about these things. However, if I may put it this way, I don’t have time to waste. I like you. Do you like me? And if so, how about it?”

The official’s strong jawline actually trembled. “Let me – let us - be clear,” he said, with a new note of uncertainty in his voice. “Although we – I – have not made it explicit, I – we – believe you to be a visitor from another planet. And you are suggesting that we – that I – agree to take part in what would undeniably be the first act of physical congress between a human being and an alien?”

“Congress?” asked Bruno-Brunella.

“Intimate relations,” said the official with the piercing blue eyes.

“Is that the same as fucking?” Brunella-Bruno needed to know. “Because if so, yes, that’s what I am suggesting.”

“Is it even possible?” the official wondered in his attractive voice.

“Oh, yes,” Bruno-Brunella reassured him. “I am able to present myself with a full set of genital organs of either sex, as well as several variations that are unknown on Earth.”

The official’s courtesy seemed to be on the verge of breaking down. “What are you, then?” he asked. “A woman or a man or some other impossible thing?”

“Yes,” said Brunella-Bruno. “I’m all of those. Simply state your preference.”

“But that’s,” said the official in the fine dark blue silk suit.

“What?” Brunella-Bruno encouraged him.

“That’s,” repeated the official with the strong jawline.

“Yes?” Bruno-Brunella coaxed him.

“Absolutely,” said the official with the piercing blue eyes.

“Tell me,” Brunella-Bruno urged him.

“Disgusting,” said the official in his attractive voice.

Which was, to be frank, discourteous; and unleashed in Bruno-Brunella a very rare emotion: anger.

“You’re right. I was wrong to think of it. Your short lifespan is disgusting to me also. You and your kind. It would be like fucking a mayfly. A pantry pest. A pygmy gobi fish. A Luna moth. Your whole life would come and go and I wouldn’t even have begun to be properly aroused. Please go.”

“I – we will talk more,” he said. “Nothing has been resolved today.”

“It would be,” Brunella-Bruno said with great emphasis, “like fucking a gastrotrich.”

The Furthest Galaxy Known To Man, or FGKTM, is known to astronomers as the Fucking Tom, even though the letters aren’t in exactly the right order. That’s where Bruno-Brunella was from, as we briefly mentioned earlier. Fucking Tom: the UK-x22 galaxy. This is how far away it was, expressed in ordinary numbers:

192,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles.

After her encounter with the official gentleman, Brunella-Bruno became homesick. He knew she was no longer safe on Earth, and the planet’s people, once so interesting to him, had lost their appeal. But home was far away.

The area of the deep sky in which Fucking Tom was located was known to the Chinese as  the Purple Forbidden Enclosure. The Chinese looked at that area and told themselves enjoyable stories about it. At the heart of the Purple Forbidden Enclosure the Chinese saw a formation of stars they named the Great Emperor of Heaven. The emperor sat under an umbrella of stars, which was held up by poles of stars in straight lines, and around him was his glorious court – starry constellations of ministers, government departments, eunuchs, concubines, wives, and the Princess of Heaven herself, attended by her twinkling Maids-in-Waiting. One of the concubines had a Son. There was a starry guest house, and a starry kitchen, and eight kinds of starry crops. There was a prison for aristocrats who behaved badly, and there were judges to judge them. There was a secret place called Hidden Virtue where the Emperor’s secrets were kept. And there were two mighty weapons, from which all power flowed – the two great constellations, one known as the Celestial Spear, and the other, its sidekick, the Somber Lance. The Emperor of Heaven kept those two close at hand.

Above the court were the gods of the ancient legends, the Celestial Great One, and the First and Second Great Ones. And there was the Celestial Pillar that anchored the Earth. Other peoples believed that there were pillars on the earth that held up the sky, but the Chinese were wiser. They knew it was the sky that was holding the Earth down, preventing it from floating off into nowhere, through all the light years, and being lost.

“I should have gone to China,” thought Bruno-Brunella. “People there clearly have richer imaginations than they do here.” But it was too late to go to China now. It was time to leave before the attractive gentleman’s colleagues came to seize her and treat him like a laboratory specimen. She was not a specimen, and had no intention of becoming one. He was a master, or at least a possessor, of Time.

Her own people inhabited a planet near the heart of the Fucking Tom Galaxy. At the very edge of the universe, they had become greedy to know about the gigantic expanding space at whose rim they were obliged to live, to study and absorb its infinite encyclopaedia of stories, and this had driven their remarkable technological advances. Long ago they had created for themselves what might be called an intergalactic public transportation service, a network of space taxis freely available to the entire population to go wheresoever they pleased and satisfy their insatiable curiosity. A space bus – these were whirling vehicles resembling shallow bowls, or perhaps they might be better described as saucers – had delivered Brunella-Bruno to the Earth, and now he took out her hailing device and summoned the nearest saucer to carry him away.  The device informed her that a vehicle would be with him very shortly, in only ten thousand Earth years, and Bruno-Brunella, using the same skill which had enabled the student in Washington Square Park to accelerate through time and catch the water glass before it hit the ground, accelerated herself very rapidly through the centuries to catch his cab. When she arrived at the pickup point, just ten thousand years later than the point of departure, he found herself standing in a barren landscape, a desert, almost, and understood that the world he had visited was a place without a future. This saddened her, but also allowed him to leave without too many regrets. The vehicle arrived, and then Brunella-Bruno was gone from our world, and so, inevitably, from our story.

Before she left, however, he had sent a group email to all of her clients, all those to whom he had lent the precious commodity of time. “Good news / bad news,” it read. “The good news is that you no longer need to pay me any further installments of loan interest. The bad news is that I’m sorry to say your time – the time you have been borrowing – will very soon be up.” There was nothing more to be said. She had done everything he could, but in the end this had been a world populated by mayflies, by mosquitoes, by butterflies, by moths, by pygmy gobi fish and gastrotriches. It was a world not of interminable epics like her own, but of short stories, and short stories, even when artificially prolonged by a helpful alien, ought not to last too long, and should quietly, inexorably, and without too much fuss, arrive at their end.