Thursday, 21 April 2011

Entertainment time again.


One of my jobs is freelance microbiologist/rogue scientist and the other, the one that was a hobby until someone took me seriously, is as a writer of fiction.
Writers make up stories. It's what we do. We are not journalists, we do not chase tales of fact, we typically get drunk and wait for the weird dreams. Sure, we research things - the times and dates in historical settings have to be a close match to the story, for example. You cannot have a revolver in a 15th-century sea battle. There was no way of recording a TV programme at home in 1970. Dishwashers and mobile phones were undreamed of in those days too. Tell me of an 1800's infection treated with a mouldy bread poultice and I'll read on. Tell me it was treated with penicillin and your book goes on the fire. Even though they were very likely the same thing.
I once watched an interview with a writer of Westerns who had received angry letters from fans. One of his characters had a pistol with cartridge bullets, not powder and ball, and those weren't invented until two years after the date of the story. Readers check the fine details too, so authors really need to get them right.
Clint Eastwood's Navy Colt should have been loaded with powder, ball and caps, one cylinder at a time. I have a (non-firing) replica here. Oh, and nobody filled all six cylinders because the thing had a habit of firing as you pulled it from your belt. Leaving the pin on an empty cylinder meant you'd be able to walk faster than others and you'd still be in with a chance of fatherhood.
Still, fictional stories must be made-up and while unlikely, must be at least plausible. They do not have to be based in reality, they can be based far in the future or even in another dimension, but there must be enough underlying logic to make them credible.
No fiction writer with a sane brain cell remaining in his head would have made up a story about passive-smoking fish (thanks to anonymous and to and Angry Ranting Man for the links). Nobody but the extraordinarily simple-minded would give such a tale a second glance. Looking at the comments those tales attract it seems the extraordinarily simple-minded are numerous indeed.
So now it's time to play with the sushi eaters and the prawn salad munchers. Okay. Next time I meet one I'll pass on the references that prove their healthy diet is laced with nicotine, since that is what they want. I'll explain that they can expect to feel a tightening in their chest and a cold sweat across their temples, that they might experience a little breathlessness at times and an ache in their joints, just a dull ache at first but building slowly into pins and needles when they move. That they might notice they are blinking a little faster than usual, a sure sign of imminent heart failure, and that they should attempt to make it as far as the nearest doctor's surgery as quickly as possible.
Oh, and best warn them that many doctors are in the pay of Big Tobacco and will therefore pretend there's nothing wrong with them to keep the numbers of nicotine deaths down. Hey, I don't make the rules. I just play the game. I don't even enjoy it.
Well... maybe just a little bit.
All this is making it difficult for those of us who make up stories (and admit to it). These days, Kafka would have real trouble persuading anyone that his work should be considered 'absurdist' because by modern standards, he's mainstream. He'd be turned down by most national newspapers for being too logical.
So let's see if I can push the envelope far enough to stay in the obviously-fiction range. I haven't put up a new short story in a long time and I'm fairly sure this one hasn't appeared here before. It's all new, not a prior publication, and it must surely be right out in the realms of impossibility.
At least , I hope so. It's early draft so not, as yet, perfect. Here goes...
The sins of past lives.
If Jeremiah Blackthorn had never found proof of the afterlife, he would be a free man and the world would be a safer place for everyone.
Today, as every day, Jerry stared at the stone walls of his cell. There were no tears. Those had dried long ago, and he had none left to cry. The scars on his fists told of his first weeks here, when he had pounded the walls until his knuckles bled. Now he sat and stared. When it was time to eat, he ate. When it was time for exercise, he stood in his isolated section of the yard and stared at the outside wall. Over and over, the same images played in his head, It was futile to dwell on the past, but he had nothing better to do. The past was painful. The future was worse.
Jerry closed his eyes and let those times come back to him. The euphoria, the medium who had helped, the accolades and the pursed lips of sceptics who could find no flaw in his results. Nobody could deny the image of Tobias Blackthorn, Jerry’s grandfather, on the photographs. When old Toby showed up in person beside Jerry on national TV, that was that. Proof. Final and absolute.
It should have set the world free. It should have given everyone hope. It should have swelled the congregations of churches all over the world. Yet no church could compete with such proof, and so religion faded. When nobody really dies, nobody needs salvation.
Nobody really dies.
Jerry snorted. The guard who accompanied him looked up from the novel in his hands.
“You okay, Jerry?”
“Okay?” Jerry balled his fists, then let them relax. “Not really.”
“Want to talk about it?” The guard placed a slip of paper into his book and closed it.
“Not really.” Jerry stared at his shoes. Every time he was assigned a new guard, they wanted to hear his story. They knew it, the whole world knew it, but everyone wanted to hear it from him. Jerry sighed. “But I might as well.”
The guard checked his watch. “Got ten more minutes before I have to put you back. Long enough?”
“Plenty.” Jerry stretched his arms. Without facing the guard, he started talking.
“I set out to show the world Paradise, but instead I showed it Hell. Fourteen years ago, I was imprisoned for a crime I knew nothing about. A crime that happened before I was born. Six years before that, I proved that we don’t die when we die. I proved the existence of ghosts.”
“I remember that.” The guard slid his book into his pocket. “I was just a kid, but that ghost on the TV was amazing.”
“I had help. A medium, a great one, who helped my grandfather materialise in that studio. His name was Adam. Adam Crowe, and I wish to God I’d never heard that name.” Jerry paused to calm his breathing. “What happened next, well, you know most of it. The death penalty came back into use all over the world. Governments reasoned that since nobody actually dies, the penalty was only a removal of physical existence. The same held for wars. They could kill civilians in what they like to call ‘collateral damage’ without a qualm. Those people live on, so bigger, deadlier bombs are now used on any target anywhere.”
In the silence of Jerry’s pause, the guard’s teeth rubbed together. Jerry smiled a tight smile at the man’s impatience before continuing.
“Science had largely ignored all paranormal study. Hocus-pocus, superstition, the sort of thing that can kill a scientific career in an instant. All that changed overnight. Oh, science took a hold of this new world and wrung it by the throat. Reincarnation was a proven and documented fact within two years. From there, it was a matter of months before they started tracking people’s previous incarnations. I was one of the first. They did mine for free.” Jerry’s voice choked off. He swallowed a few times and cleared his throat.
“Mine was free, because I was famous. Rich, too. You don’t have to guess what they found.”
The guard’s feet shuffled. “You were Tom Barratt, the Subway Slasher.”
“So they say. I can’t recall any of it. Nobody remembers previous lives. The thing was, Tom Barratt was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. Consecutive. What idiot thought up that rule?”
“Nobody really expected…” The guard sniffed.
“No, but here it is.” Jerry nodded at the fence separating him from the other inmates. “Look at them. There are at least fifty in that crowd who have done nothing wrong, nothing but get themselves reborn. Consecutive life sentences. If you took that fence away, they’d tear me apart.” Jerry pursed his lips. “Many times I’ve hoped they would.”
“It’s my job to see nothing like that happens to you.”
“Yes it is.” Jerry turned his gaze back to the wall. “I’m on 24-hour suicide watch, too. Suicide is still illegal. It makes no sense at all.”
“Oh, it does. They explained all that to us in training. You could go out and kill a lot of people, get sentenced to life imprisonment and then kill yourself and get reborn as someone else. It’s cheating the law.”
“You believe that?” Jerry faced the guard and was, for a moment, taken aback by his youth. He must be straight out of guard school, or whatever it’s called. “So what if a convicted criminal kills himself? If he effectively opts for the death penalty himself? Wouldn’t it save the taxpayers a lot of money?”
The guard shook his head. “It’s cheating. Life imprisonment is a harsher sentence than the death penalty. We can’t have people taking the easy way out.”
Jerry’s shoulders shook. A forgotten feeling took hold of him and he laughed, loud and long. The death penalty was now the easy way out. Jerry laughed until his sides hurt. Teary-eyed, he looked into the blue sky.
“Dear God, what have I done?”
The guard checked his watch. “Only a couple of minutes left. We’d best head towards the door. They don’t like it if you’re late.”
Jerry lowered his head and followed the guard. “You know, you’ll come and go, you’ll retire one day and live somewhere quiet and restful. You’ll tend flowers in your garden and take your dog for walks.”
“I hope so. It’s something to look forward to.”
“You know what I’m looking forward to?” Jerry spat the words. “One day I’ll die. Then I’ll be reborn. They’ll test me when I’m four years old. They test everyone now. On my fourth birthday I’ll be back in here.” Jerry stepped from the warmth of the yard into the cold granite corridor. “Four years old. I won’t remember this life, or the one before. I’ll have no idea what’s going on. Imagine that.”
The guard closed and locked the door. His back was turned to his prisoner, something guard school must surely have told him was wrong. All the same, he took his time turning around. When he did, his face had lost most of its youth.
Jerry shrugged and led the way back to his cell. Guards didn’t last long in here, but the wall he stared at was permanent.

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