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You never know what’s going to sell these days. It’s a real problem for professional timestealers like me. You can study cultural profiles, analyze market trends, hire publicity shamans—and still have a sequence on the skids. There are no guarantees and no explanations. You just cannot tell in advance whose time will prove the most valuable.

Not so in the old days. We had all those vicarious pleasures to provide, all those users hungry for new experience. Athletes had marketable time then, sky divers, mountain climbers at the summit. Ever ride a luge down a glistening tunnel of ice? That was one of my good ones back then. Ever run with the bulls at Pamplona? Or wrestle anaconda in the Amazon rain forest? Those were all big sellers in their day.

Porno was big too, an outrageous thrill with no risk of disease. I did a lot of sleazoid synching during my early apprenticeship—anything to fill my quota—and long hard work it was too, you’ve no idea. Prostitutes were an easy and obvious target, but if you knew what went on in their heads it would drive you to chastity out of sheer boredom. Supper for the children, laundry, is this guy going to have a heart attack on top of me or what? How some of them make a show of animation is beyond me. Most are not worth the computer time to steal the sequence. It takes a real fanatic for even marginal porn.

(Image by Marie Ginga via Adobe.Fierfly.com)

And to give equal time on the other side of the coin, let’s recall the old evangel sequences. Remember Charismania? Remember presiding over a rally of thousands, surrounded by a sea of hands held aloft in prayer, the spirit of glory hovering above the waters, moving in your heart, speaking with your lips—it was my first million seller, one that confirmed my reputation as a timestealer par excellence. Those were the good old days.

Now the public is satiated, and rightly so. Every human act conceivable has been recorded. Enough time has been stolen to stretch back to the Pleistocene. It is simply impossible to shock the modern sophisticated user, to bring anything novel to his vast experience. He’s already won the World Series and been elected President of the United States. He’s already been weightless in outer space and made it with Marilyn Monroe lookalikes, possibly at the same time. What can a timestealer add to that?

Concentrate on technique, I tell my best students today. Timestealing is an art, the ultimate form of entertainment. We’re intelligent professionals stealing for intelligent users, and it’s not what we reveal but what we intimate that counts. The raw human experience is only a base on which to build, the background harmonics to an experiential symphony. With good technique a timestealer can make Librarian at Rest a bestseller. What secret thoughts lay hidden behind those affable eyes? What exotic imaginations? You can explore the subconscious levels if you’re properly tuned: you’ve got to use every technological advance. I’m working now on a new generation of “superconscious” sequences. The discriminating user today…

Where was I? Did you ever see my Hero sequence? Sometimes you stumble onto a classic like that without a moment’s forethought. I was in my mobile unit that day, scanning the streets for anything unusual to make my quota, when I happened upon the burning building, a two-storey brick house with flames roaring out the front door and a smoky haze curling under the eaves. The building sucked air with an audible whoof, chugging for oxygen like an overheated wood stove. A crowd had gathered. The firemen were restraining the parents from going back inside. You could actually hear the children screaming through an upstairs window.

I activated my system and began visually scanning the bystanders. I was looking for a particular emotive base, that horrid bloodlust feeling you sometimes find in a death audience— just a crass commercial flash-in-the-pan sequence for the weeklies. I noticed a young man gazing up with rapt attention, his face stony with tension, and I thought I’d found a worthwhile target. I probed and found good emotive content. I locked in on full cerebral and began widening my filters. Horror, panic—an overwhelming signal. I fine-tuned visual to correct for slight astigmatism and maximized the olfactory smoke signal. I boosted amygdala and hippocampal levels for artistic effect and toned down verbal cognitive, which seemed to be mired in a repetitive circular routine having to do with supernatural agencies. I synched and began the bypass sequence.

I/we were there, tasting smoke like hot acid, hearing the children’s cries above the chatter of the crowd, recoiling inwardly and bouncing back to full surface awareness, bouncing back and forth like a drumbeat, like a zoom lens focusing in and out on a scene too grisly to behold. I/we could not accept the reality, the torture of innocents.

Something snapped—that’s still how I describe it to this day. A total conceptual reorganization. Out of chaos came fixed determination, out of horror a grim resolve. I/we ran into the fire, up the blackened stairs, smoke-blind and gasping, never fearing death. I/we were invincible, superhuman. I/we followed the cries, kicked open burning doors, crawled over smoking carpet. Two children under a bed and a babe unconscious in a crib. I/we gathered them like sacks of laundry, rolled them in blankets and hoisted them aloft. I/we noticed pain then, dizziness, weakness. I/we retched out smoke and bile and stumbled forward.

You’ve experienced the sequence; you know the peculiar timelessness of the hero’s escape. Even now in retrospect I wonder how I retained enough professional acumen to signal the computer for overtime. Legal eagles are quick to criticize such action, as is their right, but dedicated users understand why I went overtime on Hero. I had to get it all, statutory amendments or not. I was there the first time, I suffered the unedited version; don’t tell me my job.

The hero’s hands and feet were permanently mutilated, face disfigured, lungs seared and blackened. The children were treated in hospital for smoke inhalation and released. The parents converted to Christianity. The hero later told reporters he didn’t remember a thing about what happened. Of course not—I’d stolen the entire episode. I sent the hero a prepublication run and offered him ten percent as an out-of-court settlement for the extra time stolen. (Final editing left the sequence at seven and change, as you know.) He is a rich man today.

I am constantly asked whether I influenced the hero in some way to undertake his daring rescue, whether my synching and stealing his cerebral activity in some way manufactured the sequence, which, of course, is absurd. Timestealing is purely passive, unnoticeable and untraceable by the subject. A two-way communication has never been attempted outside the lab, and the results are not worthy of publication—glorified telephone conversations. The hero would have plunged into those flames with or without me, and he can thank his lucky stars and garters…

Where was I? All right, let’s deal with questionable ethics. First tell me who really is going to miss five minutes of mental process? People waste more than that standing at a transit stop or meditating on the toilet. Some people are so drugged they forego higher cerebral functions for most of the day. A culture with no respect for time can well afford to lose an inconsequential fraction to timestealers like me. If God had meant our thoughts and feelings to be private, he would not have allowed the monitoring technology to develop—and I’m not just trying to be funny; I’ve seen too many strange things to deny his existence outright. I’ll confess my worst and let you be the judge. Remember Virgin Bride? Now this young woman may have had some cause for complaint. Those crucial four minutes and fifty-five seconds may indeed have had a certain sentimental importance—as a male, I can only guess to what extent—but think of the vicarious gratification she provided for millions, male and female, virgin or otherwise. She has contributed to the social gestalt, she has influenced the contemporary milieu. She can always buy the sequence; I’m sure it’s gone mass-market by now. In any case…

Damn, that’s disconcerting. Where was I? Quality is the key word these days. A good quality product will never be out of style. It is nowhere chiselled in granite that the commercial market will not accept the subtleties of artistic expression. Any timestealer can master technical accuracy, and many can learn to break standard rules to good effect, but only the best students show that spark of originality, that love of theme and format necessary for a classic sequence. The rest will follow the fads and fashions of their day; they’ll supply good work to the weeklies and maybe make the charts now and again with supreme effort and a little luck. And no one will be safe from their spotlight. When royalty piques some interest they’ll descend like herd animals on kings and queens throughout the world; when a new pope is elected they’ll swarm like flies after sugar donuts. I followed the trends for most of my own career, so don’t misinterpret my criticism. I’m merely pointing out that the search for novelty has to end somewhere, sometime.

Users have stood on the Sea of Tranquility and watched the Earth hover above a craggy lunar landscape. Users have danced to tribal drums on a fire-lit African plain. Users have borrowed the brain of a subatomic physicist to ponder the first few nanoseconds of creation, when the universe itself was no bigger than a hydrogen atom. Yet even after all these years, the search for the ultimate sequence shows no evidence of slackening, the weeklies scream for more, the public swallows it up, critical, demanding, and now attention seems to have focused on the timestealers themselves. Sometimes I wish…

Where was I?


This story previously appeared in Rampike Magazine 1990.
Edited by Marie Ginga


Steve Stanton is a Canadian science-fiction novelist and former President of SF Canada. His short stories have been published in sixteen countries in a dozen languages. Find him at Steve Stanton