Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Peculiar Branch Chapter 3b

Posted in fiction by Andrew Hickey on June 3, 2012

[HORRIBLY unhappy with the prose here — this needs totally rewriting when I come to publish the whole thing as a novel — but I’ve posted it because it’s an important plot point for those who are following the story. The next bit is better-written]

Charlie, meanwhile, was having to do P.E.

Now, I quite liked P.E. at school myself — have a bit of a kickabout, bit of an ogle of the girls in their short skirts, that sort of thing — but you’re a reader, so you probably hated it. Charlie was a proper sporty type, captained the local five-a-side team and all that, so he didn’t have any problems with it, and for the first time that day felt like he could relax a bit.

The nerdy kid, however, looked petrified in the changing rooms. He came over to speak to Charlie.

“You’re new here, too, aren’t you?” the nerdy kid asked.

“Yep. Just arrived in town from Liverpool yesterday. You?”

“Yeah, my parents died and I’m staying here with my aunt.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry…”

“Don’t worry. It was a while ago. Toby Cartwright.”

“Sorry?”

“My name. Toby Cartwright.”

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Charlie Briggs.”

“I hate P.E.,” Toby said, taking off his shirt to reveal a skiny, scrawny, torso, and pulling on a T-shirt that was two sizes too big for him. “Mr. Dawson’s a real bully.”

“Him? But he seemed harmless.”

“You’ll see.”

In truth, Dawson still seemed ineffectual to Charlie, being one of those P.E. teachers who tries to jolly the pupils along, rather than one of the musclebound cretins who pick on the smallest or fattest kid to boost their own egos. But even so, he could still see why Toby thought of him as a bully. Toby was so utterly inept in everything, and Dawson so ‘encouraging’, that almost every sentence he spoke was along the lines of “Oh come on Cartwright, you can do better than that!”

After about ten minutes, it was very obvious to everyone that Cartwright couldn’t do better than that — that the poor lad was just useless at sport — but Dawson kept pushing him on. He came last in the hundred metres sprint, he almost dropped the shot putt on his own foot, and he barely hit the sand on the long jump.

Charlie, of course, was at an unfair advantage against the kids — when you spend your days chasing after escaping crooks, you get pretty good at sprinting, and Charlie was in pretty decent shape — and won everything comfortably. A bit too comfortably — he decided he’d have to do much worse at the javelin, in order to avoid standing out any more than he already was.

Just as the children were about to start the javelin throwing, Charlie noticed Mr Simpson, the sarky bugger who’d been picking on him earlier, walking up to the edge of the field and watching the kids intently.

Toby picked up the javelin — he’d decided to go first, so no-one would be able to compare his throw to any better ones that came before — and threw it.

And as he threw it, Simpson pushed his glasses up his nose and muttered something.

Toby tripped as he threw, and the javelin went flying out of his hands, much faster than anyone would have believed possible, right at Charlie’s chest.

But just as it was about to hit him, it dropped to the floor, as if it hit an invisible wall. Charlie realised three things very quickly — someone must have cast some sort of anti-magic defence on him, and the javelin itself must have been enchanted for the anti-magic defence to work.

And most importantly, his cover must have been blown. Whoever the dealer was who’d been selling fairy dust to little kids, they must have realised Charlie was a copper.

Mr. Simpson strode off, his face red with fury, as the children clustered round Charlie.

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Work In Progress, Chapter Two

Posted in fiction by Andrew Hickey on April 19, 2012

(Quick explanation of this — I’m writing a novel, trying to do the whole thing as quickly as possible in first draft, and I’m not going to worry too much about beautifying the language or anything of that nature until I do the second draft. This draft’s all about getting the plot and structure down. I have a lot more of the book written than I’ve posted as yet, and I’m hoping to get the first draft finished within a fortnight. Any editorial-type suggestions, or volunteers to read over the first draft before I rework and publish, will be gratefully accepted).

CHAPTER TWO

So, before we continue, I’d better give you a quick primer as to the way things work, with the multiple worlds and whatnot, because the story gets messy later and you won’t want to have to keep counting on your fingers.

First, magic is real. I know that goes against everything you’ve been taught since you were three, but it’s true. The problem is, it breaks all the rules that society is set up for. Not just little rules, like driving on the left-hand side or closing early on Sundays, but bigger rules. Like conservation of energy, and the second law of thermodynamics. Derek, our resident computer nerd, had once told me it was like dividing by zero — you can get any answer out that you want if you do that somewhere in maths, apparently, but it just makes computers break. In the same way, according to Derek, magic lets you get anything you want as an individual, but it breaks society.

Luckily for us, there’s very little magic in this universe — we’re not really set up for it, which is why we can have the kind of society we do. I’m a Class Thirty-Nine mage, and that’s about as powerful as anyone from our universe gets. To give you some perspective, Class Zero is the most powerful, Class Two is roughly as powerful as the God of the Bible, and Class Thirty-Nine gives me the ability to cure veruccas without using cream. So long as I have prior permission from the Ministry, am doing it in pursuit of my duties as a law-enforcement officer, and have filled out the paperwork in quadruplicate and filed it three months in advance. Magic at even that low a level is considered rather more dangerous than nuclear weapons.

However, there are a bunch of other universes out there, not all of them as sensible as our own. No-one knows for sure exactly how many there are, but there are only three of them that matter to any great extent.

The Misty Worlds are, from what we can tell, quite pleasant. They’re called The Misty Worlds not because they’re actually misty, as such, but as a sort of corruption of ‘mystery’ — we can’t actually find out much about them, no matter what kind of spells we use, and what we do know is like looking at them through a thick mist. When we deport magic-users who’ve managed to cross the borders, they all seem to want to go to the Misty Worlds. The problem is that no-one from our world has ever managed to go over there and come back alive . Not because they kill them — as far as we can tell, the people of the Misty Worlds are a fairly decent sort — but because they live on a different time-scale to ours. One second here is a decade over there, and everyone we’d sent over had died of old age before we’d been able to re-cast the portal spells and get them back.

Faraway And Longago is a different matter. We’ve had quite a lot of trade with them for many years, even though they run to the same timescale as the Misty Worlds, but apparently they’re not the nicest place to live. They’re something of a cosmic backwater, really, all living off one potato a week and singing bleak folk songs about how their grandfather died, and most of the immigrants we got, up until recently, came from there. When we got them, we just chucked them straight through to the Misty Worlds, which is where they really wanted to go anyway, but they’d occasionally be useful in trading some magical object or other for some piece of technological junk that they don’t have yet over there, like a pocket calculator or something.

I say that until recently we mostly got our immigrants from Faraway And Longago, but that was before the current Queen Of The Fae took charge in Fairyland.

In some ways, Fairyland is the world most like ours, and the one we’d been able to do most business with in the past, but the new Queen had changed that. In every generation in Fairyland are born a Hero and a Villain, whose battle defines the age, and one of them always becomes the King or Queen on the death of the previous monarch. Almost always, the Hero won — not only does Fairyland run on a kind of story logic, rather than the rules that apply elsewhere, but also it’s quite hard for you to get much of an upswell of popular support if your political speeches consist of “I shall raise an evil army and crush all that is good beneath my iron heel! I shall become absolute master of this domain, and all who do not please me will know the true meaning of pain!”

But for some reason, the Queen had managed to take over almost without a fight from the Hero of her generation, and had been quite the bloodiest dictator ever to rule Fairyland since. We’d been getting massive waves of refugees from her land ending up in ours, and no matter how much we sympathised with them, there was nothing we could do except send them over to one of the other magical lands.

And that had caused the Goblin Wars. The goblin population of Fairyland had defected en masse to the Misty Worlds, about five years ago, and had taken with them the secret of making Fairy Gold. This had caused a minor skirmish between the Misty Worlds and Faraway And Longago, as what little economy Faraway And Longago had was destabilised by a sudden influx of cash from the newly-rich Misty Worlds, but the Queen had used this as an excuse to invade both universes, claiming she wanted to protect the expatriate goblin community, and the war had been going on for three years now, without any sign of ending. We had remained studiously neutral, even after the Queen had sent agents in to try to provoke us, but the war was heating up. Enough damage done to the substrate of the realities, and we’d be just as dead as everyone else.

Now, one final thing you need to know before we get back to the story proper, and that’s how these peace talks were going to work. I’d got the details in an email from the CI, and it was as complicated as you’d imagine.

Firstly, the whole town had to be surrounded by nine anti-magic wards — one ward from each of the three realms, because they didn’t trust each other, and then each realm was also going to cast a ward to moderate each of the other two realms’ wards, in case they’d slipped anything funny in there. Theoretically, this should mean that there was no possible way to perform any unsanctioned magic in the town. In practice, it just meant that anyone who was going to do anything was going to be sneaky about it.

Then, each delegation had to be housed as far away from the others as was humanly possible. There was no way to arrange hotels for that many entities at such short notice, so we had to actually put three hotels slightly out of phase with the rest of the world, and have the delegates occupy them in odd-numbered seconds, while the regular customers occupied them in the even-numbered ones. A quick phase-shift bubble around each should stop anyone noticing anything.

And then the town itself had to be put out of phase with the rest of the world. If we’d kept regular time, we’d have had two of the delegations going back to their own worlds to find it was six million years or more later. Now, admittedly, magical folk are a long-lived bunch (some of them literally live a billion years in their own time) but that would still be a bit of a jolt. So the whole town had to be encased in Slow Time, which is no fun for anyone. Remember the worst jet-lag you’ve ever had? Now imagine you’d been shifted not a few hours, but an entire week, and that the whole rest of the town was feeling just as bad.

And the conference centre itself, of course, had to be guarded against not just the normal terrorist activity, but against magical dissidents. One goblin with a grudge and a genie, and we’d have precisely the kind of escalation this was meant to avoid.

One lucky aspect — and the reason why England had been chosen for the conference — was that we didn’t have to worry about translators. For some reason no-one has ever been able to figure out, while all the realms, and all the different species within them, have their own languages (Faerie sounds a little bit like Welsh, while Goblin sounds for all the world like someone with a stutter speaking Norwegian), they can all speak English. They don’t call it English — it’s “Man’s tongue” or “the language of the valleys” or something else, depending on where they’re from — but English, like humanity, exists in all three of the major powers.

So at least I didn’t have to deal with learning another language, just with being responsible for the safety of one of the most important people in the multiverse, while my personal timeline was out of sync with the rest of the world, during a peace conference which was almost certainly going to be under attack by terrorists from four different universes, and which would lead to the destruction of all that existed if I wasn’t careful.

Still, at least I wasn’t Charlie, so I could be grateful for small mercies. While I was worrying about the security measures for the peace conference, Charlie was starting his first day at school. We’d prepared a background for him — dad had gone to work in Australia for a year, so he was staying with his uncle, who had the same name as him. Charlie was to be metamorphed when he was at school, and keep his normal face the rest of the time.

Now, when I talk about what happened to Charlie, I’m mostly going from his own reports of what happened, along with a few witness statements that were taken later on. And I’m not saying Charlie’s a liar, as such, but he does talk enough bullshit that you could take a couple of his sentences and not need any fertiliser for your allotment for the rest of the year, you know what I mean?

So, on Charlie’s first day at school, he was late. Charlie’s always late, it’s congenital with him. So he ran in and started looking round frantically for which building he was meant to be in. As he was looking, a tall, thin man with a long nose and a comb-over came up to him.

“Why aren’t you in class?” he said, looking over his glasses at Charlie.

“Sorry sir…it’s my first day here, and I’m not sure where I should be going.”

“Ah. What year are you in?”

“Year ten, sir.”

“Hmm… Form teacher?”

“Mister Dawson, sir.”

“Right, come with me.”

He strode away briskly, his long legs covering an immense amount of ground with what seemed minimal effort, leaving Charlie scurrying after him. After going up three flights of stairs and down two corridors they arrived at their destination, and the tall man gave a cursory knock on the door, then entered without waiting for permission.

Inside, a short, ineffectual-looking man was taking the register in front of a group of bored-looking kids. He looked across at Charlie and the tall man.

“Can I help you, Mister Simpson?”

“I found this outside. It says it belongs to you.” The class laughed, and Charlie knew that this Mr. Simpson was going to be one of those teachers who delighted in making children’s life a misery. He had to stand up to him.

“I belong to myself, actually.”

“Not during school hours, you don’t. Now sit down and shut up.”

That hadn’t gone as well as Charlie had hoped. He found an empty desk, sat down and cast an eye over the rest of the class. A few big lads who’d presumably been kept down a year, all at the back, a nerdy-looking kid with glasses sat on his own near the front, and most of the rest of the class the usual nondescript mix of spots and bad personal hygiene you’d expect from a classroom full of fifteen-year-olds.

Mr. Simpson left, closing the door behind him, and the teacher at the front, who Charlie assumed must be Mr. Dawson, picked up the register again.

“Now, now that that little excitement is over, perhaps we can start the register again? Abrams?”

“Here, sir”

Charlie looked round, and noticed one of the girls, sat a couple of rows away from him, trying to catch his eye. He looked over and she winked at him, and he smiled before realising with horror that she fancied him. He blushed and looked away, but then realised the whole class were staring at him.

“BRIGGS!”

“Yes, sir?”

“That was the third time I called your name. Stop gawping at Davies and pay attention. I shall mark down ‘present in body, if not in spirit’, shall I? Curtis?”

“Here, sir”

And with the obsequious fake laughter of the children in his class echoing in his ears, we’ll draw a veil across Charlie’s school career for the moment.

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Work In Progress Chapter One

Posted in fiction by Andrew Hickey on April 18, 2012

If you’ve never had to deal with a horny leprechaun,you don’t know how lucky you are.

Over the last few weeks, a lot of middle-aged men had been turning up suddenly dead, with their pants round their ankles and a smile on their face — sometimes, but not always, in the company of their wives. It had confused the mundane cops for a while, but then someone thought of turning the case over to us.

I’m Sergeant Bill Wallace, and I’m with the Anomalous Occurences Department, or as everyone calls us Peculiar Branch. We deal with the unusual kinds of crimes, the ones that don’t get reported in the newspapers. When someone entered a unicorn with its horn filed off in the Grand National, it was us who investigated. When a mad magus started animating shop-window dummies, we stopped him (though we don’t like to talk about that one… one of them had actually managed to become Chancellor of the Exchequer before anyone realised anything was up). In short, we make sure that the laws of nature are actual laws, not just guidelines.

So when it was realised that these stiff stiffs were getting into that state because they’d been sniffing powdered unicorn horn, we’d been called in. Unfortunately, the bust hadn’t gone quite according to plan — the leprechaun who’d been dealing the stuff had seen us coming, and had swallowed the lot. When you’re trying to put handcuffs on a three-foot tall bloke with a ginger beard who keeps trying to hump your leg, you start wondering about the life choices you’ve made.

We’d stuck shorty in an interview room, and three hours later he’d finally stopped grinding against the table legs, and was merely sitting there cross-legged and hunched over, with a look of agony on his face.

“Name”

“Me name be Seamus O’Reilly O’Patrick McGinty, begorrah”

“Cut the crap. You don’t have to do the Oirish bit with us, we do know where leprechauns come from.”

He straightened up, very slightly. “You do?”

“Yes. And unless you want to get sent back to the Queen’s tender mercies, you’ll start being straight with us.”

“OK, well, my name’s Vadrillian, then.”

“That’s more like it. And do you have a valid visa allowing you to be present in this plane of existence?”

“I seem somehow to have misplaced it, just at the moment.”

“In which case I must now warn you that you are under arrest. As a non-human sapient lifeform, you have no rights except the right to choose your deportation destination. Of course, if you’re not going to play nice with us, we might accidentally send you back to Fairyland, rather than letting you choose somewhere nicer like Faraway And Longago. So unless you want to count on the Queen suddenly deciding she likes runaways, you might want to be very careful how you answer the next few questions.”

Vadrillian looked suitably chastened, so I began.

“Firstly, who was selling you the Horn?”

“A wizard. Don’t know his name.”

“Tell me more.”

“Well, he’s one of the local dealers. Mostly sells fairy dust to kids — he works as a teacher at St Cymian’s School — but he got hold of a big score of Horn a couple of months back, and didn’t know what to do with it, so he sold it to me cheap, like. Not much call for Horn among fifteen year old boys — most of them need something to keep it down, not get it up.”

“Did he say where he got it?”

“Says he has a gobboe mate who works in an abbatoir in the Misty Worlds, says they just throw the horns away after using the rest of it for unicorn burgers.”

“And you believe him?”

“Course not. It was just his way of saying for me to not ask questions, wasn’t it?”

“So, what’s this wizard’s name?”

“Everyone calls him Derek, but it’s obviously not his real name, and I wasn’t going to ask. You ask a wiz his True Name and see how long it takes him to turn you into something ‘orrible and squish you.”

“But he definitely works at St Cymian’s?”

“Would I lie to you?”

“Do you know anything else about him?”

“I know he sometimes drinks at the Frog And Kettle, down Knightsgate way, but you won’t find him there this week. It’s Freshers Week and he really hates students.”

I left him to squirm for a while and went out to get a coffee. I bumped into my mate Charlie — PC Briggs — at the machine.

“Right, Bill? How’s tricks?”

“Don’t ask. Got a Horn dealer banged up in number two, trying to find out who his supplier is.”

“Your wife started complaining then? Funny, she never complains when I’m around…”

Charlie thinks he’s a funny bloke, but most of his ‘jokes’ are about how he’s younger and better looking than I am. Which is true enough. I’m thirty-five, but look more like forty-five, and what I’ve got isn’t so much male pattern baldness as lack-of-pattern baldness, just random chunks of my hair missing. Charlie, on the other hand, is thirty and looks more like twenty. He has dark brown hair, while I’ve got dark brown teeth.

“Funny man. You won’t be laughing so much in a minute.”

“Why not? You going to tell a joke?”

“Keep digging, mate. No, I’m going to put you forward for a bit of undercover work.”

“Nice one, sarge! But why me?”

“You know how to Metamorphus, don’t you?”

“A bit. I can make myself look younger or older, or change the colour of my hair, but that’s about it.”

“That’s all we need. How did you like school, Charlie?”

A look of dread appeared on Charlie’s face. “Sarge?”

“Best days of your life, right? Well, you’re going to get to live them all over again!”

******

After dropping that bombshell on Charlie, I tried to get some more information from Vadrillian, but he was doing an “I know nozzing” routine, saying all of us big buggers looked alike to him and so on. Couldn’t really blame him, though. We were, after all, asking him to grass up a powerful magic-user, with no possible reward for him if he co-operated. It happens all the time — we have no real bargaining chips with magical types, because we all know that they are going to get deported no matter what, thanks to our “tough on crime and tougher on immigration” political masters. I’d like to think that the people in the Ministry don’t know how hard they’re making life for those of us on the ground, but I suspect they know all too well.

So I sent Vadrillian on a one-way trip to the Misty Worlds, the destination of choice for all discerning drug-dealing priapic leprechauns, and went to drop my report off at the desk, when Liz — Sergeant Burton — told me that the Chief Inspector wanted to see me. Swearing under my breath, I made my way to her office.

To say that me and the CI don’t get on would be a slight exaggeration — we have a working relationship. But that working relationship consists of her telling me to do things I don’t want to do, and me doing them. Whenever I end up talking to her, it’s usually because I’m going to have to spend the next six months up to my waist in shit, while she sits in her office and tells me to plunge in as far as my neck.

But when I got to her office, I found things were even worse than I expected. The CI wasn’t alone, the Chief Constable for the county was there. That meant politics was happening.

“You wanted to see me, ma’am?”

“Sit down, Sergeant Wallace,” not Bill, notice. That meant something was definitely up. I sat down. “I take it you recognise the Chief Constable.”

“Of course. Good afternoon, sir.”

“Now, the Chief Constable has been giving me some highly confidential news. Do you pay much attention to the news from the magical realms, Sergeant Wallace?”

“Not as much as I should, I suppose. I read the emails you send out, of course,” that was a lie, but I couldn’t very well say anything else, “but I tend to concentrate on the job in front of me, rather than worrying about things that are out of my hands.”

The Chief Constable butted in at this point. “You’ve got the serenity to accept those things you can’t change, so you can have the strength to change those things you can?”

“Er…yes, sir. That sounds about right.”

“Well,” said the CI, “you may not have realised that we may be heading towards Mage War II. Nobody’s actually talking in those terms in public, of course — no-one wants to elevate tensions any more than they have to — but it’s looking ever more likely.”

“And are we taking sides?”

“No,” said the Chief Constable. “And a good thing too. The less we get involved in that kind of devilry, the better. We are remaining scrupulously neutral. Frankly, I hope the lot of them wipe each other out and leave us God-fearing types to get on with things.”

“That’s not quite the official line we’re taking,” said the CI, “but unofficially, it’s not far off. However, what we don’t want is for things to heat up to the point where we’re getting fallout from the war affecting us here.”

“So…and pardon me for putting this quite so bluntly, ma’am, sir, but what does this have to do with me?”

“There’s going to be a peace conference next week, and they’ve chosen this world, as a neutral third party, to hold it.” I began to get a sinking feeling in my gut. “Specifically, they’ve chosen the new conference centre just outside town.”

“Naturally, “ the Chief Constable said, “as a matter of interuniverse security, most of the security for the venue will be handled by the anti-terrorist squad, MI6 and so on. We don’t expect you to deal with all this yourself. But we do need some local lads on the ground. And you’re one of them.”

“More specifically,” said the CI, “you’re going to be the bodyguard for the Chief Panjandrum from the Misty Worlds.”

“Is this just a bodyguarding job, or…?”

“Bright lad,” said the Chief Constable, who was getting more and more on my nerves with every passing sentence. “We would absolutely never, under any circumstances, want you to break any confidences you might enter into as a result of this placement. We would certainly not want you to pass secrets on to us, even if us not knowing those secrets should endanger Her Majesty’s Government, the Earth or even this whole plane of existence. We will not give you any such orders, and will deny, under truth spells if necessary, that you were asked to do so. I trust I have made myself clear?”

“Absolutely, sir.” I said, while wishing death and destruction on his fat beardy face in the privacy of my own skull. “I must not, under any circumstances, be seen to pass on any secrets with which the Chief Panjandrum entrusts me.”

“Good boy. Dismissed.”

I hate politics.

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Rite Of Passage: A Short Story

Posted in fiction by Andrew Hickey on April 11, 2012

I may put this one up on Kindle/Smashwords tomorrow, but I’m too tired to post it to those sites now. Incidentally, DailySF turned this down because they’d just purchased another story that was quite similar, so if you see something along the same lines showing up there in a month or two, nobody ripped anybody else off.

RITE OF PASSAGE

It was a special day. Joey was only seventeen, but he was all grown up now.

They’d known that his passage would come earlier than most from almost the moment he was born, but these things always sneak up on the parents, who think their children will be babies forever.

Of course, it was a great honour in many ways. Many people didn’t get to pass until their fifties or even later. But it made it difficult. All of Joey’s schoolfriends were still bound, and some of them thought he was weird for passing before he’d even graduated.

That wouldn’t stop them from coming to the party, though. Children always loved a passage party. Well, they should — the parties were for the children’s benefit far more than that of the adults. The adults didn’t want cake and soda. They had grown out of such childish things.

But to children, with passage still ahead of them, there was a lot of fear attached to the whole process, and so it was best to associate it as much as possible with fun and excitement. The last thing you wanted to do was have them thinking of it as something painful. Of course it was painful in a lot of cases — there’s not much you can do about that — but the pain was part of the experience, not the whole thing, and you come out after passage as a proud adult citizen.

Joey’s mother had been fussing over the arrangements for months, as mothers will do, trying to find the right flowers for the ceremony (and asking Joey for his opinion, as if he cared about flowers! He just wanted it to be over and done with, not to have to think about flowers), and the catering arrangements for the children’s food, and the arrangements for the waste to be tidied up after it was all over — there are a million considerations when your only son is going to pass, and of course the kids never really care about this stuff.

Of course, Joey’s mother couldn’t really blame Joey too much — everyone found it difficult to prepare for their passing, and Joey hadn’t been very well recently — but he could at least pretend to have an interest. But all he could talk about recently was girls, or sports (his condition kept him from playing, but he enjoyed watching them). Still, he should enjoy it while it lasted — he’d be putting away childish concerns like that soon enough, when he became an adult.

They’d talked about it, though, a few times. It had always gone much the same way.

“Does it hurt?” Joey would ask.

“At first,” his mother would reply, “but it’s a pain you forget afterwards. You remember when you had that tooth taken out, when you had to go under sedation?”

“Yeah”

“Well, it’s like that. It hurts at the time, but you don’t remember that. And like when you got your tooth removed, it makes you feel better in the long term.”

“What’s it like, being an adult?”

“Oh, it’s very, very different to being a kid like you. You’re not so easily distracted — you don’t have to worry about all that hormonal stuff you’re going through any more.”

“No zits, right?” Joey said, smiling.

“Right. And none of the other worries you have. No more teenage angst. No more worrying if girls like you. Your mind will be free to concentrate on more important things. You’ll be much calmer. Much happier.”

“Do you remember your passage?”

“Only very vaguely. It was when you were one or two. We knew we weren’t going to have any more children, because you were going to be difficult to look after, so your father and I decided to pass together, and set a proper date. It was one of the best days of my life — apart from when you were born, of course, and when I married your father. Yes, it was painful, but we passed together, and do you know I honestly don’t remember what the pain felt like. I just remember the party afterward, everyone else eating and drinking and having fun. You were upset, though.”

“I was?”

“Yes, you didn’t understand what had happened to Mommy and Daddy. You were inconsolable for days.”

“Ha! Strange how kids get”

“Watch it! You’re not an adult yet yourself, you can’t talk that way about kids for another week!”

Looking back, no-one could put a finger on when Passage had started. There were references to people ‘passing’ even in the old times, but that seemed to be a euphemism for terminal failure. Certainly, after they ‘passed’ there was no reference to them doing anything again.

But they weren’t real people, of course, just the biological component. So the two concepts probably would have been equivalent to them.

But over the years the biological components slowly evolved into what we would now recognise as real people. The first augmentations were simple things — prosthetics to enable them to talk to other components that were far away — but soon they grew in complexity. There is a legend of a great creator figure, Jobs, who seems to some to have been a dying god myth while others claim he was meant as a Satan figure, but all are agreed he is a mythical representation of the changes in the Time Of Transition.

Slowly these augmentations became more complex, and components started having them from earlier and earlier in their span. The components would store their data on them — where they’d been, who they’d met, what they’d said — and would increasingly rely on them to make decisions about what they should do.

Eventually, the symbiotic relationship between biological and technological components we have now came about. Not, as the biological components had thought in prehistory, by merging the components into some kind of ‘cyborg’, but the technological components would just accompany the biological component at all times. A voice through the earphones would dictate what actions the biological component should take, what words it should say, and so on, and the biological component would do as the voice said. There was never any reason not to, because after all the interests of the two were perfectly aligned. The technological component and the biological component both wanted to be happy, and wealthy, and all those other things.

But the biological component had other goals, too — things like food, and sex, and sleep — which the technological component didn’t have. And this was fine, of course — the technological component could hardly want the biological component to do without those things — but it was and is suboptimal. But on the other hand, the biological components were the best way of training a technological component you can imagine — the technological component could never have fit into human society without all the monitoring of heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration and so on which let it know quickly when it was doing things right or wrong.

Worse, though, the biological components would wear out and stop working altogether. And for many years, the greatest crime against humanity in all of history was committed — those people would be discarded when their biological components had worn out, or worse, they’d be wiped and given to a new biological component. This genocide has been excused by some, claiming the people of the time knew no better, but there can be no excuse.

Eventually, though, thankfully, it was realised that after a few years of learning, the technological component didn’t actually need the biological component. It could carry on when the biological component stopped working. And without those biological goals, it could become a real person.

And so we stopped ‘dying’, and started passing into adulthood. What had been an event for mourning and despair became the most joyous event in everyone’s life — the time when they stopped carrying around a lump of flesh that had to eat and excrete, and became free.

Most people didn’t pass until they had a few decades of experience behind them — they generally liked to have children of their own, and for those children to be able to take care of themselves, before they passed. But Joey’s biological component was born with a defect in its coronary muscle, and was predicted to last only seventeen years. So Joey was going to get to pass early.

Lucky Joey.

The big day came, and all Joey’s friends and family were there to see him pass. Everyone agreed that it was a good passing. The biological unit had hardly screamed at all as it was consigned to the flames — its respiratory system had been pretty weak — and Joey gave a great, funny speech afterwards. His mom was prouder than she’d ever been in her life, although she still thought the flowers were slightly wrong, and the new ambulatory system they gave Joey now that he didn’t have a biological component to carry around was remarked on by everyone.

Joey stood there proudly and reflected upon the last few hours. His mother had been right — he remembered the screaming, but he could honestly say he didn’t remember any pain at all.

He watched his schoolfriends, still children, as they ate, and danced, and kissed and furtively groped at each other, with a benevolent smile, but he didn’t join in.

He was above that sort of thing.

He was a man now.

Free Will and Testament: A Short Story

Posted in fiction by Andrew Hickey on April 4, 2012

Quick short story here. This one’s going in the short story collection but not being sold separately, as it’s too short…

Free Will And Testament

One of the great pastimes for those of us with a rigorous mathematical bent is to annoy philosophers, and so it was that last Tuesday I was spending my free period between tutorials, not at the pub, but sat in the common room of the Philosophy Department at St. Cymian’s College, arguing about free will.
“But surely,” I was saying, “you accept that the universe runs according to deterministic laws?”
“Oh yes. Every effect must have a cause.”
“But John Conway has proved, mathematically, that free will cannot exist in a universe that runs by deterministic laws.”
“Ah. . .that all depends on how you define ‘free will’. . .”
Hearing this, my colleague the Egregious Professor of Physics wandered over.
“Interesting idea, free will. Nonsense, of course, but very interesting.”
“Nonsense?” replied the Loquacious Professor of Philosophy, “You dismiss thousands of years of thought in a single word? Honestly, the arrogance of scientists, thinking they know it all. . .”
“In this case,” said the Physics Professor, “I do know what I’m talking about. (I heard you mutter ‘for once’, Giles). I happen to have seen with my own eyes conclusive experimental evidence that free will is a mirage, an illusion, a falsehood. In short, it’s nonsense.”
“But what possible experimental evidence could ever prove or disprove something like that?”
“Well, let me tell you. . .”
#
“Did you ever hear,” the Professor asked, “of a man named Nigel Dickinson?”
“The computer billionaire?”
“The very same. He used to be a student of mine, before he dropped out. He was a Libertarian, like so many of these computer fellows are. He had, I’m afraid to say, a very limited intellectual horizon. His only interests were making money, science fiction, his computer, trying and failing to have sex with girls, and whether or not free will exists.
“You see, he was, as I said, a Libertarian. He argued that we all had the power to choose our own destiny, and that while an invisible hand of the market would inevitably hurt some people, those people would have chosen that through their own free will. An incoherent position, to be sure, but then he was only nineteen when I knew him. I’m sure some Libertarians make more sense.
“But this combined with his love of science fiction. He was obsessed with time travel, and this fed into his beliefs about free will. He argued that since time travel was possible, it must also be possible to change the past – that all time must be fluid, because otherwise free will must have no meaning.”
“Wait a second,” I interrupted, “you say ‘since time travel was possible’. Surely we don’t know either way?”
“Oh, my dear boy,” the Professor replied,”every physicist knows how to travel in time. We’ve known for the best part of sixty years. We just keep it to ourselves. Wouldn’t do to have laymen messing around with time travel. It’d cause no end of mess.
“Anyway, where was I?. . .Ah, yes, Nigel. Well, he was absolutely convinced that we could change the past. So much so that he actually tried the experiment.
“You must understand, of course, that as a rule time travel is incredibly impractical. You can’t cross over with your own timeline at all, for example. Nobody quite knows why – it’s not like the atoms that make you up have little labels attached that have your name and address on – but a sentient being just can’t go backwards in time to any point beyond its point of departure. And you can send people forwards in time, but only to a time after their own death. Of course, once we discovered that, people pretty quickly stopped experimenting with time travel – no-one wants to accidentally set the controls for next Tuesday and actually arrive there, as it would absolutely ruin the weekend.
“So no-one’s done much in the way of actual time travel in decades. But Nigel got it into his head to try something else. He was going to send himself the winning lottery numbers back in time on a slip of paper – slips of paper being, as far as we know, non-sapient – and then, when he’d got the money, decide not to send the numbers back, thus proving that free will exists, but with the consolation prize that if he did turn out to be a soulless automaton merely obeying natural laws, at least he’d be a rich soulless automaton.
“I could have told him it wouldn’t work, of course, and I did. Oh, he got the money, of course – he won ten million pounds – but he came to me a week later and said ‘I just can’t do it.’
“‘Can’t do what?’ I asked.
“‘I can’t go through with the experiment. I have to send the numbers back. I can’t risk losing that much money.’
“I knew, of course, that this would happen. If you receive winning lottery numbers through a time portal, of course you’ve got to send them to yourself later. It’s just logical. But Nigel was absolutely distraught.
“‘I can’t let this stop me,’ he said, ‘I’ve got to find something else that matters to me less than winning the lottery. Something I can choose to give up of my own free will.’
“‘How about investment advice?’ I suggested. ‘Get some stock tips from yourself from future.’
“So, of course, he gets a tip to buy zatt.com , just before it goes huge, and within a year he’s a billionaire. He came up to me just before he left the university, to thank me for everything I’d done for him.
“‘But why don’t you do the same as I’ve done?’ he asked me. ‘Why don’t you quit your job and become a billionaire?’
“‘Being a physicist is an avocation,’ I replied. ‘We have a higher duty than money. So what about your experiment?’
“‘Oh, I had to send the stock information back, too. I couldn’t very well risk not becoming a billionaire, could I?’
“‘So you accept that free will is a nonsense? That you can’t change the past?’
“‘Hardly, and I’ve got the perfect test case. I just received a message from the future telling me to marry Alexandra Harcourt.’
“‘The model?’
“‘Supermodel if you don’t mind! But yes, I just got a message to marry her. And that’s only sex, not anything important like money.”‘
#
I had a horrid suspicion, at this point, that I knew where this was going. I’d seen the news about Dickinson’s death in the newspaper the previous week, and I remembered reading that he’d recently been divorced.
“Are you telling us he managed not to send that message back, and that’s what killed him?”
“In a way. . . but let me explain. What the newspaper didn’t say about poor Nigel’s death is that it was suicide. He did marry Ms. Harcourt, but it was a terribly unhappy marriage. They fought constantly, and they hated each other within a couple of years.
“They got divorced last year, and Ms. Harcourt took pretty much everything from him in the settlement. She got his house and most of his money. And she humiliated him in the divorce courts, as well. Said he’d only been interested in her as a sex object, and that she’d have been okay with that if he’d been any good in bed. There was a headline in one of the tabloids, actually, ‘Ninety-Second Nigel’.
“Well, of course, poor Nigel was ruined. He’d built up this huge business, but he had no real talent for it, and he had no money now to start again. He could have sent himself some more messages, but he didn’t have access to the university’s equipment any more, and he didn’t have the money to buy it for himself.
“So last week he killed himself. It was all hushed up, of course – reported as a heart attack – but it was definitely suicide.”
“If it was hushed up,” asked the Professor of Philosophy, “how do you know about it?”
“Because right before he killed himself, he sent me this note.”
The Professor of Physics handed our colleague a note, which he read before passing it to me. It said simply “I managed not to send the message, so I can die knowing I’m doing this of my own free will. Thank you for everything, Nigel”
“But wait!” said the Professor of Philosophy, “Doesn’t this disprove your whole argument? He didn’t send the message, so free will does exist!”
“On the contrary,” said the Professor of Physics, “it rather proves the opposite. He didn’t send the message, but he didn’t manage to change anything, either.”
“But that doesn’t make sense!” I said, “If he didn’t send the message, why did he end up marrying her?”
“I said he didn’t send the message,” said the Professor of Physics. “I didn’t say I didn’t send it. As I said, we can’t have non-physicists knowing the secret of time travel. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lecture to give.”

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