Monday, 29 May 2017

The Immortal Kings

Immortality is a concept much covered in science fiction, and it's a subject that has fascinated me for some time. It's therefore surprising that it took me this long to write a story on the subject.

Published on the Palace of Amino website this month, the story,  titled 'The Immortal Kings', spans the many thousands of years following the launch of Earth's first generation star-ship. Told from the point of view of one of the ship's few immortal crew members, we feel what it's like to live such a long life as numerous mortal human generations live and die, and civilisations on Earth and it's new colonies develop, and even end.

The story begins with a statement that illustrates one of the downsides of immortality:
I find it hard to remember the first century of my life. The memories of those times seem mostly vague and disconnected, and devoid of order. But I was someone of some importance, I believe.
It seems that memories of early life, especially before the treatment, are not retained, at least not in a coherent manner. They seem to be fleeting and disconnected, and devoid of specifics. Perhaps this is a welcome side effect. Once a person becomes biologically immortal their outlook on life will change. Memories of mortality and of the mortal relatives and friends they are to outlive may well be painful and best forgotten. This is certainly the case for the immortals in my story:
We were to forget our ties with Earth and focus solely on our mission of colonisation which, by its very nature, was always going to become an almost forgotten expedition as far as our home world was concerned. The vast distance and time-frame would ensure that those on Earth would eventually have no link to us, and vice-versa. Having a group of Immortals on board with clear records of their family, friends and experiences on Earth to remind them of what they had lost would risk emotional conflict and even deadly confrontations as the decades and centuries passed. It was better that memories and emotional ties faded with time and vanished never to be rediscovered.
The Immortal telling the story is particularly interested in his faded memories of the British Monarchy, and the current king, King William VII:
I do have two clear memories from that time. The first is my attendance at the coronation of His Majesty King William VII, the last British monarch to be crowned. I remember the pride I felt that day as I watched the crown lowered onto the head of the young king, although I’m not exactly sure why I was proud. I have fleeting recollections of talking with the prince, and of his residences which I seemed to have known well, so perhaps I was proud because of some deep involvement with him or his family, or with the coronation proceedings.
His interest in the king, and his frustration of not being able to remember his relationship ship to him, seems to intensify as the centuries roll by.

Of all the benefits of immortality, the main one is, of course, time. Most of the immortals in the story certainly make use of that time by immersing themselves in their studies, and it seems that, following some tragic deaths, the immortality treatment requires such mental stimulation to maintain psychological well-being:
By the fifth century of our voyage the number of Immortals had reduced by half, which had been unexpected. Most of the ones that died had done so because of unforeseen side-effects of the Treatment, and due to suicide following descents into madness and misery.  Extreme longevity was not for the mentally weak or unstable. The enhancements delivered by the Treatment did not extend to the mind, it seemed. 
The Immortals that fared the best were those that devoted most of their time to intellectual and scientific pursuits. All of those involved in the vast literature and art archives, physical and digital, seemed highly content with their roles, as did those responsible for music and imagery. I was thoroughly absorbed in my astronomical studies. Those that focused on the social and engineering aspects of our ship seemed to suffer the most.
There is more anguish for the immortals as they learn of the breakdown of civilisation in the Solar-System. The abuse of immortality treatment on Earth by those in power seems to be the reason behind it:
Direct communication with Earth had always been rare, and by the start of the sixth century of our voyage we were receiving and transmitting messages no more than once per decade. It was towards the end of that century, and after almost thirteen light-years of travel, that we received what was to be our final official communication from Earth. Wars on our home world and its larger colonies throughout the Solar-System, about which we had received only brief reports over the previous century, had grown in ferocity and the end of civilisation appeared inevitable. Too many had undergone the Treatment, and too many of them had been unsuitable. There was insanity at the very heights of power.
And the immortal receives a personal message, one that proves his importance to the king:
Within that communication was a private message for me. It was from King William. His reign of six-hundred and ninety-eight years was at an end. Britain had been destroyed, as had its territories on the Moon, Mars and Callisto. There was no kingdom left.  From a safe location away from the Earth he had watched the destruction of thousands of years of human achievement. He had despaired as vicious engineered diseases spread across nations and continents and as blinding fires consumed millions of his people and billions of others around the world and beyond.

He would head in our direction, he said. He and his staff would die as supplies dwindled, but his ship should one day arrive at the star system for which we were bound. He asked that I look out for it and take care of the artifacts of British history within it; artifacts that he had chosen himself from his homes in London, Windsor and at Elysium Mons. I must indeed have been an important acquaintance of the King to receive such a personal message, but even then I could not recall quite why
Over many centuries, as the first human colony around another star flourishes into a civilisation all of its own, the immortal makes regular observations of Earth and its system, desperate to find evidence that some humans had survived the apocalyptic events that had swept across the Solar-System. But nothing is heard:
Every few years I turned my instruments towards Earth and the Solar-System. I found it impossible to accept that there was no one left there. There must have been survivors who could re-establish some form of civilisation. But more than a thousand years had passed since war consumed our home system. If there had been survivors on Earth the devastation of the eco-system would have kept population levels to a minimum for centuries and prevented anything but basic survival tasks from being carried out. Reluctantly I had to agree with the other Immortals that the best that could probably be hoped for by now would be a medieval-level society, and that it would be another thousand years at least before a detectable technological civilisation developed. 
But still I watched and listened. And still I hoped.
The immortal's incredible patience and persistence is finally rewarded:
I detected a faint intermittent signal a century later.
The signal was so weak that it was almost impossible to glean any information from it, but it was a signal, all the same. At the very least it seemed that someone on Earth had built a radio transmitter, one of reasonable power, and directed a signal into space.  And they had directed it in our direction. 
I presented my findings to the other four Immortals and then to scientists at our colony. Within days dozens of radio telescopes across the system were directed towards Earth. The signal was amplified and cleaned.  It contained a voice that spoke a distorted and heavily accented version of English. The repeating message was simple...
That message is profound, both on a personal level for the immortal, and on its far-reaching effect on the future of humanity. To find out what the message is, and how it shapes the lives of billions, please read 'The Immortal Kings' now.

To read more about generation star-ships read this article, titled 'Immortal Travellers'.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Vigilante Justice in London

Can vigilantism ever be justified? Perhaps it can in a lawless, corrupt or anarchic state where the 'authorities' cannot be relied upon. But in a civilised first-world nation such action is unlikely to be of much help. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Fiction generally glamourises vigilantes, showing that taking the law in one's own hands is the most immediate and satisfying way to punish those that have committed the most heinous crimes. The most famous fictional vigilante is probably Batman. But his methods are far from subtle, and he leaves an incredible amount of destruction in his wake. A better idea may be to entice miscreants to meet their justice in a surreptitious manner, making them walk willingly into an irresistible trap. This would avoid involving innocent bystanders, and also the attentions of law enforcement agencies.

In my short story 'The House on Park Street' a man does just that, quietly and efficiently dispatching violent thugs in Mayfair, London. Read it in its entirety below:

They watched him as he left the Jeroboams wine shop and headed up the street, his tweed clothing almost monochrome under the pale street lighting.  He walked swiftly, swinging a heavy-looking dark fabric bag. 
 “That’s really expensive drink he’s got.”
Ant nodded, and then looked at Kev.  “Let’s get him.”
They followed the man, matching his foot steps, as he turned left on to Grosvenor Street.  It had started to rain.  With his head down the man picked up his pace considerably, quickly reaching Grosvenor Square and cutting across it.  Ant and Kev struggled to keep up.  The man passed by the American Embassy.  With the rain now heavy the man turned right into Park Street.  It was quiet, and very late. 
Kev was breathing hard.  He caressed the blade in his pocket.  “I’m sick of this walking.  Let’s do it now.” 
“Yeah.” Ant said. 
The man had stepped up to a door and was standing under the shelter of its white-columned porch.  He put down his bag and fumbled though the inside of his jacket.  Kev took his blade out of his pocket but kept it down at his side.  Ant followed suit.  As they were about to step up to the man he turned and grinned. 
Ant and Kev stopped, startled. 
“Awfully bad luck, what?” the man said with joviality.  “The one time one forgets one’s umbrella it absolutely pours!”  He looked them up and down. 
“Happened to you chaps as well, I see.  At least you have hoods!”  He pulled something out of his pocket and held it up.  It glinted in the light of the nearby street lamp.  “Ah ha!”  He turned towards the door and unlocked it. 
Kev nudged Ant and frowned.  Ant took a step forward, and then stopped.  
The man had turned and was grinning at them again.  He picked up his bag and gave it a quick shake.  The chink of glass bottles was heard.  “I say, would you chaps like to join me?” 
Ant and Kev looked at each other, and then back at the man. 
The man continued.  “I was planning on getting rather merry on my own tonight, or ‘on my tod’ as they’d say in Bethnal Green.  Being on one’s ‘tod’ can be frightfully dull, though.”  He opened the door, flooding the porch with warm light.  “It would give you two a chance to dry off.  You’re both positively drenched!”  He beckoned.  “Come on in.  It would be awfully decent of you if you did, and such jolly fun.” 
Ant stepped forwards. 
Kev grabbed his shoulder and whispered.  “Do him, now!” 
Ant shook his head.  “Inside.  Look at his pad, man.  Jackpot!” 
Kev looked through the doorway and then nodded.  They both followed the man through the doorway.  Inside, the hallway was lit with soft ambient lighting, and furnished with dark wooden side tables and upholstered chairs. The carpeting was deep blue, and soft. 
The man took off his wet jacket and headed past the staircase on the right towards the back of the house.  “Follow me!”  He said, throwing his jacket onto the banister.  “Oh, and be so kind as to close the front door.” 
Kev grunted and slammed the door shut.  There was a whirring noise, and then a click.  He frowned at Ant. 
The man appeared at a door way.  “Don’t mind that sound, security and all that.  Can’t be too careful these days, what!”  He waved.  “This way.” 
Ant and Kev walked to the back of the house and into an expansive kitchen. 
The man was at the back, already unpacking his bag of beverages.  When he finished he held up the largest bottle, dark green with a deep red and gold label. He grinned.   “Krug Vintage Brut!  A fine one to start us off, don’t you think?” 
Ant and Kev looked briefly at each other and then nodded.  They gripped onto their blades, still held close by their sides. 
“Excellent.”  The man said, opening a cabinet door.  He pulled out three tall champagne flutes and placed them on the dark marble worktop, and then he started twisting the bottle’s cork.  He turned and nodded towards the centre of the kitchen.  “You’d better stand there.  This could splash.”  He laughed.  “Not that you could get much wetter after that downpour!” 
Ant frowned but then decided to play along.  He nodded at Kev.  They stepped to the left. 
The bottle popped open and a gush of champagne fizzed out.  The man chuckled.  “Such fun!  Dreadful waste, though.”  He poured a glass and took a sip.  He swallowed, letting out a sign of satisfaction, and then reached into his right trouser pocket.  He pulled out what looked like a small mobile phone.  “There’s a large round button on this which I must press now.  Hope you don’t mind.” 
Ant and Kev frowned.  They watched as the man made an exaggerated motion with his thumb and pushed the button.  With a muffled clunk the floor fell away. 
They dropped. 
Ant gasped and instinctively reached out, managing to grab the edge of the hatch that had opened up beneath him.  He heard a scream from below, a fading yell of desperate profanity, and then a distant thud.  Breathing hard he looked down, but could see nothing but darkness.  He felt a tap on his right hand and looked up. 
The man was crouching next to him, almost silhouetted against the bright halogen lights on the ceiling beyond.  He was still holding his glass of champagne.   “Well done.”  His voice was deeper now, less refined.  “You’re the first one to manage this.” 
Ant felt sick.  He was sweating.  His heart raced.  “Pull me up, man!” 
The man shook his head. 
“We weren’t gonna do nothin’!” 
“You were planning to rob me, and quite probably kill me.  And I have no doubt that you’ve succeeded in doing that to many others.” 
Ant felt his fingers slipping.  “Come on, man!” 
The man ignored him and stood up.  He was still holding the device he had used earlier to open the hatch.  He pushed another control and held it to his ear.  “… Yeah, there’s another.  He’s hanging on to the edge...  I know.  He’ll be on the way in a moment.”  He put the device back in his trouser pocket and looked down at Ant. 
Ant was shaking, his eyes wide.  “Please!” 
The man took a sip from his glass.  “You take from society, but offer nothing but pain and misery in return.”  He seemed to focus for a moment on the bubbles in his drink, and then looked back down.  “You contribute nothing of value.”  He stepped forwards.  “You are worthless.  Pointless.” 
Ant’s grip was failing.  “Help me!” 
The man brought his right foot forwards and nudged Ant’s fingers. 
Ant fell.  He gasped and watched in terror as the light above receded, and then an incredible force hit.  An unusual pain, deep and widespread, consumed him, and the iron tang of blood filled his mouth.  
He tried to breath, but nothing happened.  
He gazed, weak, faint, at the square of light far above.  The man was peering down.  After a moment he moved away, and the square of light began to narrow.  
Ant tried to yell, but nothing happened. 
The light narrowed to a sliver, and then vanished. 
In the darkness, something tugged at his arm…