Note: Please use the hashtag #ea0112 when discussing this piece on Twitter. For Facebook discussion, check out and follow the Centre for Science Fiction & Fantasy page.
Florian woke up a year older, his screenplay still unwritten. For a while, he lay in bed, confused, assuming he must be mistaken. There was word in his head, which he must have dreamt; ‘vixerunt’. He had no idea what it might mean.
He slid from under the duvet and walked slowly to the bathroom, inspecting his face in the mirror. He saw no obvious difference but still knew it. He hadn’t realised that people were always aware of their age at some unconscious level, however much they tried to deny it, and they always knew when it had changed.
Something had gone wrong at Vivent. An equipment malfunction, or perhaps an administrative error. Whichever it was, it would take time to fix, and he didn’t have time. It was so hard to accomplish anything creative when there were mundane tasks to be done. He washed carelessly, cleaned his teeth, and made himself some toast when he noticed he’d run out of cereal. He wondered how he could prove his loss of a year if Vivent didn’t believe it, and wondered again if he might just be wrong. Finally, he picked up the phone.
Although he worked for Vivent, his position was minor enough that he’d been obliged to apply through the same channels as the public. The automated service was notoriously difficult at the best of times, and he had to be off in 10 minutes anyway.
He wrote the word ‘vixerunt’ on a post-it note and stuck it to his desk. Then he checked the news, went down to the car and set off.
When he arrived, he didn’t head to his own desk in the accounts department. Instead, he went through to the research building. He needed to collect a temporary security pass, but he was already an employee and it wasn’t out of bounds. He took the lift to the fifth floor, then made his way through the corridors until he found Peter’s rooms. He knocked and opened the door without waiting for a reply. Inside, a young woman with tied-back brown hair sat at a desk, staring at a laptop, not acknowledging his presence.
‘Morning, Beth,’ he said. ‘Is he in?’
‘I’m not his secretary.’
Still not looking at him, she jabbed at the keyboard, stood up, and walked through to one of the inner rooms, closing the door behind her. She came out again after a minute. ‘He says he’s only too delighted at the distraction.’
‘Thank you,’ he said, and walked through.
Dr Peter Reynolds was having a fast career, but from his appearance, he still seemed to consider himself a student. He wore his hair long and uncombed; split ends were visible if you looked carefully enough. His face always seemed to be the same amount of unshaven, and no matter how smart his clothes, he managed to wear them scruffily. Florian thought this was a deliberate affectation, an attempt to fit in with those he clearly thought of as intellectually inferior—such as Florian. It was only by chance that they had met at university in the first place, and he was always surprised that Peter had kept him on as a friend. As far as he could tell, Peter had initially hoped that Florian might make a success of his writing ambitions.
‘For real? Some of us have proper jobs,’ he said, paying no more attention than his assistant. ‘The meter’s running.’
‘I need some advice.’
‘Then call the helpline.’
‘I need to talk to you about the Vivent process.’
‘My advice is to have nothing to do with it.’
Peter’s office overlooked the hastily-built laboratory where the machine was housed. Florian had seen it once, shortly after he had started work on the campus. It was alien, unfathomable—a metallic egg shape that seemed completely smooth, with no obvious sensors, sockets, nor way of connecting to the outside world. It was surrounded by human technology, devices that picked up the bizarre energies from within and transmitted them out to the campus’s storage units and on to the headsets that allowed their clients to borrow from it. He looked at it now, at the wire gate that surrounded it and the security officers who guarded it, and shuddered. ‘I’ve already used it. I borrowed a year.’
‘Then I’m sorry you didn’t take my advice.’
‘My. Where does the time go?’
Florian tried to control his breathing. ‘Don’t make fun of me. I was using the time to write a screenplay.’
‘Everyone’s writing a screenplay.’
‘I got a grant.’
‘Everyone gets grants.’
He tried to keep his temper. ‘You’ve no idea what it’s like. You’ve got your brilliant career to give you a sense of purpose. I’ve got this. This is how I justify my life. If I don’t make a success of it, I’ll feel as if I haven’t lived.’
‘Maybe you haven’t.’
Peter looked up sharply.
‘There,’ said Florian. ‘You gave yourself away.’
‘Where did you hear that word?’
‘It was in my head this morning. When I discovered that the year had gone.’
Peter studied him, as if trying to guess his real age. ‘Beth,’ he called. She appeared at the door, looking ready to forcibly escort Florian from the premises. ‘Go and get some more capacitance readings.’
‘I got them first thing, as usual.’
‘Get some more. And shut the door on the way out.’ He waited until he heard the door slam with unnecessary force, then sat back in his chair, making Florian feel as if he were some kind of subordinate, here to pay for a transgression.
‘You borrowed a year.’
‘Yes, two days ago.’
‘They took it back.’
Peter shrugged. ‘Whoever you took it from. The future generations. The Vivent machines allow us to borrow life from our descendants. You can understand that they might not be as happy as we are.’
‘But it doesn’t work that way. I’ve seen the equations. They have their own descendants. We borrow life from them, but they can borrow it from their own futures…and more. As long as the population grows, the amount of life that can be borrowed increases exponentially.’
‘As long as. Why would the population grow?’
‘Why would it not? It always has done.’ Florian realised he was sweating. This was supposed to be an administrative error. He expected to get his year back; Peter’s manner suggested otherwise.
‘Forever? Ad infinitum? Before too long, we’ll have to colonise other worlds. That requires a quantum leap in technology. Our descendants need a lot of ingenuity, a lot of work, and a lot of time. Which we’re taking away from them. It could be our constant life-borrowing which stops the population expanding, and collapses the system.’
‘But the Vivent machines only work forwards. It’s impossible to borrow from the past.’
‘How the hell do you know what they can and can’t do? It’s my job to work it out, and I don’t bloody know. These machines were placed on this planet by agents unknown. 1,024, scattered over the globe, apparently at random. It took us years to work out what we could use them for. At some point in the future, we’ll know more, and we’ll start to take back what was stolen.’
He believes this, thought Florian. Despite working for Vivent, he actually believes that the system is wrong and the future will want some kind of revenge. But it doesn’t work like that. Everything had been worked out logically before the first borrowings were made (or at least, the first public ones). Those in the future who found that part of their lives had been borrowed could always borrow considerably more in turn. Nobody lost.
‘What does Vixerunt mean?’ he asked.
Peter shook his head. ‘It might be the name of an organisation. It might be a battle cry. Vivent means, they shall live.’
‘I know that.’
‘Vixerunt is the same word in the perfect tense.’
‘A particular usage of the perfect tense in Latin is to express something that not only happened but has finished happening. When Cicero announced the fate of the Catiline conspirators, he said, vixerunt. Meaning, they have lived. Meaning, and we stopped that for them.’
‘You think our descendants are trying to kill us?’
‘Maybe. Or maybe just put us in our place. Which is history. Florian, my advice is the same. Keep away from Vivent. You’re back where you started. Make do with that. Something is going very wrong, and you’re trying to stand underneath it.’ The door flew open, and Beth slammed a printout down onto the desk before stomping back to her laptop. ‘You should take that as your cue to leave.’
‘I need that year,’ said Florian.
‘If you aren’t out of this office in twenty seconds, I shall tell Beth you called her grumpy.’
Florian concentrated on little of his work that day, channelling his creativity towards finding ways of getting other people to do it. Instead he thought of how he had been cheated. Peter was right, in a way; he was back where he had started, having lost nothing. But he was becoming only too aware of how his life was passing by with nothing to show for it. He had only gotten this job through Peter’s intervention; otherwise, success had eluded him. With the Vivent process so close to hand, he’d thought he’d finally found the ideal way to tilt the odds in his favour—turning back the clock while he waited for the inspiration.
Back at home, he opened a blank document on his laptop, ready to start yet another draft. He noticed the post-it note on which he had written the word: Vixerunt. He typed it at the top of the screen in capital letters. He liked it. He liked the shapes of letters and the sound it made, full of good solid consonants. The ‘V’ seemed to symbolise life, reaching out to the sky in joy, the ‘X’ its end, a note of finality near the beginning of the word.
His screenplay was to be about an alien invasion. He suspected Peter was right; he’d obtained the grant through a government scheme whose main purpose seemed to be to use up their budget, rather than to support the arts. He’d given no indication of why his script would be any different from any other, let alone any evidence that he might actually complete it. But he’d been awarded the grant, and the grant had been the key to getting the extra year to write it in.
Perhaps he should try something else. His first thought was a straightforward dramatisation of what had been happening to him—a present-day person who finds his life being reclaimed by the future, having to battle to gain back control of the Vivent machines. But Peter had given him another idea. He had shown sympathy to the people of future, so why shouldn’t his script? He would skip 50 years ahead to the birth of a boy who found his life constantly stolen as he tried to live it. His lifetime would be compressed into a matter of days as he struggled to prevent the people of the present from appropriating his entire life. In this future, the Vivent machines had simply stopped working; it would no longer be possible for him to make the time back by borrowing it from his future. He was at war with the past—with Florian’s present. With Florian.
He found his fingers speeding over the keyboard as he made notes on the character. He imagined the world of the future, the character’s situation and family. He sketched out the structure of the story, came up with different scenarios for its resolution. As he typed, he felt the buzz that he only ever got from creative activity, a kind of high that he never felt under any other circumstances. He felt alive.
The next day, it became clear that he wasn’t going to get onto the Vivent campus. There was a police cordon outside the main gates, with an ambulance visible inside. An armed officer walked towards him, and he stopped the car.
‘There’s no access,’ said the officer, no affect in his tone, like he was nothing more than a uniform.
‘What’s going on?’
‘There’s been an incident. There’s no access.’ He stood and watched as Florian reversed, then drove away from the campus.
Only a couple of streets away, he spotted Peter, walking away with his head down. He wound the window down and called out. Peter looked up sharply, then walked over to the car, opening the passenger door and sitting inside. ‘Are you feeling alright?’ Florian asked.
‘I think the wrong person just said that.’ Peter was more unshaven than usual, more dishevelled. There were lines in his face that Florian didn’t recognise, and his clothes were crumpled. It no longer seemed to be an act. Peter was now genuinely scruffy.
‘You’ve not had any more lost years? Nothing borrowed or stolen?’ Peter was inspecting his face, as if looking for new wrinkles.
‘No. Not since we last spoke. Um….does this mean…that you…’
Peter shook his head. ‘No. I’m just working too hard. Can we get a coffee?’
Florian found a car park near the town centre, annoyed at having to drive in unfamiliar territory, as well as having to pay for the space. When he found a suitable café, he discovered that he had to pay for the coffees as well, while Peter sat at a table in the corner, his face unreadable.
He accepted the mug from Florian. ‘If this is decaf, our friendship is over.’
‘It’s not a secret anymore. The first children are losing their years.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Children, Florian, children! Their childhoods are being stolen, literally.’
‘By the future?’
‘By us. Have you not had the news on? It shouldn’t have mattered. We’ve borrowed their time for our own benefit, but they should have just been able to use the Vivent machines themselves to get it back again. But the future won’t let them. I was escorted from the campus for my own safety. There’s a riot going on there. I was attacked by a mother with a child…must have been four or five. His first word was vixerunt.’
Florian finally sat down opposite. He was trying to reorder his mind. Yesterday, he had felt like a victim, a unique one.
He had been deprived of something that was his by right. Now it seemed that nothing had happened to him; as Peter had said, he hadn’t made any net loss. He wondered which part of his childhood he would have been willing to give up. ‘Even if they’re against Vivent, you’d think they’d spare the children.’
‘They didn’t attack the children. We did.’
‘But—’ He tried to think. ‘How far in the future is this happening? Are these children still around?’
‘Probably. They blame us for it. This is probably their revenge on us.’
‘But the Vivent equations work. The system works. Everybody wins…provided everybody plays fair. Why are future generations turning their backs on it?’
‘We’re at war,’ said Peter, talking more to himself than to Florian; his mind seemed elsewhere. ‘A war between the present and the future. Constantly stealing from each other—snatching, snatching back, revenge attacks, punishments. Wasting our time on each other. Depleting the population, shrinking our resources. Until the system implodes altogether, and there’s nothing left.’
Florian tried to engage with him to bring his attention back to the room. ‘Not necessarily. This is a glitch. Once we find out how the machines work, we’ll be able to override what they’re doing.’
‘This is an invasion. A quiet invasion.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Peter finally looked up, tried to focus on him. ‘We don’t know who gave us the Vivent machines, and we’ve never cared why. But think about it. Why go to the trouble of actually fighting anyone, expending weapons and possibly incurring fatalities? All you have to do is leave the Vivent machines on the planet and find something else to do for a couple of centuries. When you come back, we’ve done the job for you. The planet’s yours.’
‘Right. This is just speculation.’ Florian looked again at his friend, determined to find some course of action. Peter had always looked older than his years, and Florian realised that he must never have used Vivent’s services himself, even though, as a middle-level researcher, he was a priority applicant. ‘First of all, you need some rest. You can’t see anything clearly in this state. Then you need to stop making things up, and just look at the situation. You need to find some way of stopping the machines from being used in reverse. In the short term, you may have to stop the Vivent process altogether—just temporarily, until you find a way of fixing it.’ He was aware that he probably wasn’t saying anything Peter hadn’t already considered, but he hoped that, by sounding decisive and analytical, he could bring him back to reality.
‘The war mustn’t happen,’ said Peter slowly. ‘Whatever else happens, the war mustn’t. Everybody loses.’
Florian watched as he stood up, leaving his empty mug on the table, and walked towards the door. ‘Are you off, then?’ he asked, but Peter made no reply as he left the café.
‘Look after yourself,’ called Florian. He drained his own mug and left a tip, then went outside, wondering if he should try to find Peter and give him a lift home. But there was no sign of him.
In the next few days, things seemed to settle down. Vivent reported a temporary shutdown on all its activities, although social media was full of rumours that they continued to operate in secrecy—the rich and powerful wouldn’t relinquish such a valuable resource simply because of the havoc it wreaked on others. Florian found that his work in the accounts department didn’t diminish but found no evidence that the rumours were true. And as things didn’t become noticeably worse, Florian assumed that Peter’s fears were unfounded. There was a glitch, and sooner or later it would be fixed.
In the meantime, he would have to use his own years to produce his screenplay, and he was astonished to discover that he was actually doing so. At the back of his mind, he had always considered himself a fraud. He had always wanted to be a screenwriter—needed it—but, although he had started more scripts than he could count, he had never completed any of them. This one was different. He took his time, planning the scenes out rather than just diving in, but he knew that this wasn’t procrastination or self-delusion; he was genuinely plotting out a project that he knew he was going to finish. Whether he could sell it was another question, but he had broken through a definite barrier.
And then he discovered he was 40.
The change happened at work. He was processing a few invoices, a task that he was sure could be done by computer, when his mind went temporarily blank. When he came to his senses, something had changed on his internal clock. He knew he was older. He looked around; he shared the office with two other people, but neither had looked up from their work or noticed anything.
He ran to the toilets and looked at himself in the mirror. Not 40, perhaps; but late 30s. He had aged to an extent that should not have happened for another 10 years. This time, the mirror showed the evidence—two vertical lines standing up on either side of his top lip, and a brow that was more furrowed, and wouldn’t clear no matter how far he tried to relax his face. He checked his phone, scanning his newsfeed, but there was no mention of another attack from the future, merely the announcement of a celebrity wedding. No talk of it on social media, either.
He knew he had to talk to Peter again. He raced downstairs and outside, heading for the research block. Just as he reached the main door, he was startled to see it fly open. Beth burst through, took him in, grabbed him by his shirt and pulled him away.
‘This way,’ she shouted. ‘He’s already doing it.’
She was far stronger than he was, and he had no choice but to go with her. She pulled him towards the main compound, the courtyard where the machine was housed. She held a pass against the gate, and it swung open. She pulled him through before it could close again.
Immediately, a security guard pushed him forcefully back against the fence. ‘We need to stop him,’ called Beth, but she did not venture any further within.
At the far end, near the laboratory with the machine, Peter was in a stand-off with two security guards. Florian’s heart lurched as he saw that they were both armed, pointing pistols at his friend. Peter moved from side to side, as if he thought he could get past them.
‘What’s he wearing?’ said Florian quietly.
‘An explosive belt,’ said Beth.
More security guards ran in from the opposite end. Peter saw that he was outnumbered and seemed to make a decision.
‘Vixerunt!’ he shouted, then ran directly at the guards.
Florian knew he had been shot before he heard the sound of the pistol. Peter merely seemed to trip and fell flat on his face in front of the doorway. There was more shouting as the guards retreated, all trying to keep as much distance as possible in the confined area.
Then the explosives detonated.
At least his screenplay had a hero now—a present-day hero at any rate, a historical figure to his characters. Looking back at Peter’s death would give his hero the chance he needed to figure out what was going on, to appreciate Peter’s reasons for wanting to prevent the war, and realise that his own quest to destroy the Vivent machines had a historical parallel. He knew that he might have to change Peter’s name.
He also knew that Vivent would never allow any such film to be made. His intention was just to dramatise a war of past against future, not to imply that the war was actually happening or that Vivent was the conduit. But that was an issue for the second draft. Once his story was told, he could substitute some new threat, a new method of communicating through the decades that could lead to a deadly conflict. But for this first draft, he had to tell the truth as closely as he could. He was surprised to think of Peter’s imaginings as truth, but this was the figurative truth of the story, whatever sense it made in the outside world.
And so he began his work that same evening and was astonished when he didn’t stop. He wondered if his physical ageing had brought a mental maturity with it. He felt completely focussed on his work and was a third of the way through before he finally went to bed that evening. He knew that much of what he was writing wasn’t good enough, but it was a first draft, and he had confidence now in his ability to go back and rewrite it. For now, all that mattered was that the story was told.
The next day he finished it in a flurry of activity so intense that he forgot to eat. It was late, he was tired and starving, and he made the mistake of fixing himself a sandwich so large he was nearly sick, but the work was done. It was even the right length. He found himself pacing the room, running the dialogue through in his head, amazed at his own achievement. He hadn’t been lying to himself after all.
He didn’t go to Peter’s funeral. It was only for family and close friends, and a tentative enquiry made it clear that the first group didn’t consider him to be in the second. But there was a memorial service at Vivent itself. It was brief and non-religious; they tried to talk up Peter’s previous contributions while only alluding obliquely to his ‘problems’ at the end. There was a funereal atmosphere across the whole campus, given that the process was still inoperative. He found that he didn’t believe this after all, but the organisation seemed determined to give the impression.
He was standing alone, thinking, when Beth sought him out. ‘I didn’t expect to see you here,’ she said.
‘I’m not sure I’m allowed.’
‘If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have made it.’ There was an uncomfortable silence. ‘They’ve offered me his job. I don’t think I’m going to take it.’
‘Really? Why not?’
She looked away. ‘He wasn’t a great advert for it. I saw the strain he was under. Did you see him properly at the end?
He looked old, really old. It’s a miracle he achieved anything.’
He felt awkward, but he didn’t want the conversation to end, as if Peter would only truly die when they stopped talking about him. ‘He said he hadn’t.’
She smiled slightly. ‘Don’t you believe it. Can you keep a secret?’ Before he could consider the answer, she carried on without pause. ‘We’re starting up again next week. Thanks to Peter. He didn’t find out how to reverse the effect, but he found out how to double it.’
‘Double it? But why….?’
‘Whatever they take from us, we can take more from them.’
Florian’s first thought was of himself. He could take his years back. Take more. He hadn’t needed an extra year to write his screenplay after all, but it could take a long time to get the film made. Time that he didn’t have.
But his second thought was of the war. ‘When did he discover this?’
‘Just a few weeks ago. Before….well, before the strain got to him.’
Florian nodded. The equations still work, he thought.
‘I shouldn’t have said any of this. They’re not due to announce it until tomorrow. I should go.’ She put her hand out, and he didn’t immediately realise that she meant for him to shake it. He put out his own hand and held hers.
His skin was rougher than it should be. There was a brown mole on the back of his hand. He excused himself and left.
He felt a bit stiffer as he walked to the car. He knew what must be happening, but the clock in his head hadn’t updated itself yet. He didn’t feel as if years had been suddenly addedto him. He broke into a run but didn’t feel fit. By the time he reached the car, he was walking again.
He was being aged at a faster rate. How many years were passing in an hour, in a minute? He looked around. Again, it seemed to be just him. He was being targeted, his life stolen from him while he was still trying to use him. Why? Why him? All he had done was write a screenplay.
He started the car, drove off the campus, and then accelerated as fast as he dared.
The screenplay told of the war. It told of its reasons, of its consequences, and of why it must not happen. And it told of how to stop it—by destroying Vivent.
His fingers were stiff when he arrived at his flat. He left the car outside, not bothering to park it. He saw his face in the mirror, with crevices and a small mound of flesh hanging from his jaw. He hoped he could still get up the stairs.
His screenplay showed how to prevent the war, not how to win it. Why did future generations not want the war to be prevented? He pulled himself up, clutching the banister, stopping for breath. A young couple passed him on the way down, not even looking at him.
They didn’t want the war prevented because they thought they were winning it.
The film would never be made; he knew that now. But it didn’t have to be. All that was needed was for his screenplay to be made public. For it to be read and understood.
It seemed like an age before he made it to his flat. He fumbled with his key; his hands weren’t very good now. Skin hung limply from them, and he could feel his bones. He staggered to the chair before his laptop, holding onto furniture for support. He could not believe that his fingers had ever been useful. He could not believe that they had typed the words in front of him. Or that they had ever caressed another’s flesh.
‘You made a mistake,’ he said out loud, although his voice was a croak. Though it was painful to type, he was able to bring his blog on screen. ‘They wouldn’t have cared. But when they find me like this, they’ll know it was important. Everyone will read it.’
It was the start of the resistance, the resistance to the war. People would read the truth about Vivent, and they would know there was only one way out. The war would be stopped.
He had pasted the text in, was about to post it, when he felt it. It was a draining away. He felt no pain, because that went first. He didn’t feel his head collide with the keyboard. He may have broken his wrist as he fell on it, but he would never use it again. He could no longer see, but he was aware of the text on the screen, taunting him in his dying seconds. He knew he had failed.
He could still feel through his fingertips. He could feel the keys beneath it. He could feel the key beneath the little finger of his right hand. It was large. He couldn’t feel an edge to it. It was the enter key.
He did not have the strength to press it.
Air filled his lungs. He realised this was a reflex, not an consciously willed action, and that he had lived.
The two police officers looked apologetic. Beth smiled politely at them.
‘We’re sorry to be disturbing your work,’ said the man. He had shown her his badge, but she had ignored the name. ‘We just need to fill in a gap in your statement. You were the first to discover his body.’
She nodded, still sad at the memory. ‘That’s right. I saw what was happening to him, so I found his address in Peter’s papers, and went to see how he was. As you know, I was too late.’
Both officers nodded sympathetically. She wished they would leave and let her get back to work. ‘You found him by his laptop. Could you tell us what he was working on?’
She sighed. ‘I’m sorry. I should have mentioned this. It was his screenplay. Peter had told me about it—he’d been working on it for years. It meant the world to him. He obviously wanted to post it online before he died, but he just didn’t manage it.’
‘And did you interfere with anything? You told us you didn’t.’
She looked at the floor, wondering how dangerous the truth would be. She looked up again. ‘I didn’t want to take his achievement away from him. It was all he’d ever wanted to do. I didn’t bother to read it, no idea what it was about, but I felt so sorry for him. His finger was on the enter key, but he just hadn’t pressed it.’ She decided to tell the truth; the future wouldn’t blame her for it. ‘I pressed his finger down.’
‘Ah! So he was already dead before the screenplay was published.’
‘I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you. I know I should have.’
‘This is very important. We need to know the time of death.’
It won’t do you any good, she thought, but she kept it to herself, and carried on playing the contrite, naive fool who had just done something silly out of sentimentality. The police kept her for 10 minutes more before departing, feeling as if they had achieved something, and she went back to the laptop.
Florian’s screenplay was still on the screen. She had backed it up onto every device she had, and stored it in the cloud as well. She wasn’t alone; there had been over 100,000 downloads so far, and the number was increasing. The summary of Peter’s work; the handbook of the new revolution.
She looked out of the window, to the building where Peter had died, housing its hideous machine.
‘Vixerunt,’ she said to it, out loud but softly.
Then she went back to her planning.