“My patience is almost spent.”
“I apologise, Mr Dickens. The situation is complicated.”
“I have been hearing that for two weeks now! And have been given nothing! No answers! I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what has happened to me. Everyone talks strange and treats me like some kind of alien or freak show. And where are my fucking family!”
For a second the Doctor looked horrified. Then he quickly composed himself.
“Again I can only apologise. But I will explain now. When I do you will understand our … reticence.”
“About time,” muttered Henry.
The Doctor gave him a look of pity.
Henry suddenly felt cold. The Doctor went on.
“Our records show that you were in a cycling accident.”
He pronounced cycling as if he didn’t know what the word meant.
“You suffered severe brain injuries. You were put into a coma to try and protect your higher brain functions. When the swelling had subsided the medical team tried to revive you. They failed. You remained in a coma.”
Henry shifted in his chair. His voice was broken as he spoke.
“I have been out for ten years?”
“It’s more complicated. While you were under the world around you changed. It got worse, a lot worse. Your wife… well it seems she was a sharp woman. She saw things clearer than most. For one thing, she left us plenty of notes. That’s why we know so much.”
Henry felt a growing sense of dread. But he kept silent.
“Because she saw things clearly she prepared, took action. What I am going to tell you will be hard for you to hear. But bear in mind that with the benefit of hindsight we can see that what she did was for her family. For your children. She took steps to protect them.”
“Protect them?” His heart was racing. “Protect them from what?”
“There was a fucking war?”
The Doctor flinched again, but he went on.
“Yes. It was a dark time.”
“World War Three?”
“Not quite. I mean that’s what people expected. What your wife thought was coming. But it was not an all-encompassing war like that. No one side against the other. No. What transpired was a series of many, many small wars between countries.”
He shuddered and continued.
“You might think that would have been better than a world war, but it was not. It was far worse. With just about every country in the world caught up in their own conflicts, there was nobody to coordinate any kind of peace deal. No one to talk to anyway if there had been. So the wars dragged on, for years, decades.”
“Decades? I thought you said…”
The Doctor stilled him with a look.
“Your wife saw the dark times coming. She took steps to protect her family. The first of which was she remarried.”
“She what? She…”
“She married into immense wealth. And she used the money to protect her children and you. We know she did this well as we know they survived the dark times.”
“They are alive! I can see them!”
“No. You cannot. They are…let me finish.”
A lump of dread was threatening to strangle him.
“She also tried to protect you. With all the resources of her great wealth, she threw everything they had at the time towards reviving you. Nothing worked. Finally, when it looked darkest and there was no guarantee that anyone would survive she threw you one final desperate lifeline. An experimental treatment.”
The Doctor paused, looked him deep in the eye.
“She put you into suspended animation.”
Henry felt chilled to the bone.
“So no, you cannot see your wife and children. They have been dead for over two hundred years. We have only just been able to awaken you.”
“No. No, this can’t be. It’s some sort of sick joke isn’t it? There’s cameras in here aren’t there? Well, it’s not funny! I want to see my family!”
“Please Mr Dickens, please calm down. I know this is a lot to take in and I am sorry. But there is more. There is something else you need to know.”
“Calm down? Calm the fuck down? I want my family in this room! Here and now! Don’t give me any more bullshit.”
The doctor nodded very slightly, subtly, but Henry noticed.
It was too late; hands he didn’t see took a firm hold of his arms. Held him steadfastly. He felt a cold disc of metal against the skin of his neck, there was a hiss, then he fell swirling into darkness.
“You want me to what!?”
Henry looked at the panel before him, twelve men and women, with utter disbelief.
“Mr Dickens. We understand that you have a lot to take in over the last few weeks.”
“A lot!” Henry stared. How could they possibly understand? He had lost everything. His family, his love, his world. He had seen very little of this world but he had seen enough to know that it was not his. He was an alien here.
And now this.
“We understand that you have lost a lot. You have to understand that the world has lost a lot too.”
“I have heard all about your wars. Lots of people died. Yes.”
“They were not our wars,” said the chairman of the panel, his voice calm and cold. “And I don’t think you have an appreciation of just how many people died, or what that meant.”
Henry didn’t see what any of it had to do with him. The chairman continued anyway.
“The population of the earth was cut by 75%. You have no idea what that did to us. There were very few people left to run things. Very few who knew how to keep things running. Power stations failed. Oil wells stopped pumping. Machines broke down. Nobody knew how to rule, how to respond to the disasters. All that had been wiped away in war after war.
“The times after the wars were darker than the actual wars. The world came close to slipping into barbarism. In many places it did.”
“And you came along and saved it,” said Henry sourly.
“We survived. We were not involved—because we were overlooked. We had no wealth, no strategic value. Largely we were forgotten up in the mountains. We don’t really know what triggered many of the wars, people say it was largely financial—but those are theories, based on times gone by. What we do know is that as things got more and more desperate the terms of the conflicts changed. They became more ideological. In many cases, fiercely religious.”
He paused, letting Henry take in his words. Henry said nothing so he continued.
“This was why many of them could not be stopped; there came a point where reason stopped being any part of the fighting. It was another reason we were not drawn into it. As Buddhists, we eschewed all the arguments for fighting. But we were also no threat to anyone. Those that were bent on converting the world, well—most had forgotten us, or were just leaving us to last. So in the end, we survived by being the last ones standing. We were the only thing left close to being a coherent nation. And we were used to living frugally. We were in a unique position to fill the niche so to speak. So people flocked to us. They saw our way of life working. Saw it as a light in the dark, a hope.”
“And you made them all convert!” Henry spat.
“Not at first,” replied the chairman. “That was not our way, never had been. But it was a disaster. Trying to accommodate everyone’s views, conflicting ways of doing things. Trying to keep on top of all the old tensions, historical hatreds and prejudices. Well, it almost tore us apart. And we were so fragile then, we still are.”
The chairman leaned forward.
“You have to understand something. The earth is damaged. It’s worn out and depleted. It will never recover, not in the ways we would want it to. The comforts and luxuries of generations past have gone. If we are to survive we must change our ways. And some of those ways might seem extreme to you. They are—but so is our situation.”
“So I have to convert to Buddhism! No choice!”
“That is correct. And it has to be genuine. You must live by our ways.”
“What do you do, check up on me? Monitor me? Give me exams every month or something.”
“We do not need to. The way our society is structured, if you do not follow our ways, it would be obvious. If your thoughts do not flow with those around you—it will be grossly evident to all around you.”
“So I am not even allowed to think outside of your precious bloody ways.”
“As I said, the ways are extreme, and your manner does not fit—at the moment.”
Henry snorted in derision. Did they really think he was going to take this?
“And if I refuse?”
“We cannot allow the possibility of disruption to the balance. You will be executed.”
Henry stared open mouthed.
“You are kidding! That doesn’t sound like the Buddhism that was around in my time.”
“Maybe not—we have had to make our sacrifices too. But we are humane.”
“How can killing someone be humane?”
“You would die happy and fulfilled. We have our ways.”
“Are you sure that you do not want to change your mind?” said the monk. Henry assumed it was a monk. He looked like the Buddhist monks from his own era but he just didn’t know anymore.
He wasn’t sure he cared either.
“Why would I do that?”
“So you can live,” said the monk with surprise.
“Would it be living? My heart empty and craving for a family that is gone? They had lives and deaths I will never even know about. They are lost in that black hole of history you are so horrified by and nothing will bring them back. And everything else is alien to me; I have no frame of reference. No place. I can’t live like that.”
“You haven’t given it a chance. You have no idea the peace and joy of our lives. You are judging us by your primitive standards. You…”
“Enough!” a voice of authority barked from a hidden source.
The monk looked guilty as he continued preparing the elaborate machine Henry was embedded into.
Joy indeed! Henry snorted to himself. Get on with it, he thought.
The monk appeared to comply. He stepped back, nodded at the back wall and left.
The machine hummed and enclosed further around Henry like some futuristic iron maiden. A needle swung into his vision, poised at his neck and then stopped.
The voice spoke again.
“It saddens us to do this friend. But our society, mankind, must survive.”
“Yes, yes. I can imagine the tears you are shedding.”
“You will not change your mind?”
“You will not let me live among you without converting?” Henry countered.
“Not even for a limited time—say a month, to see if you can change my mind?” The sarcasm in his voice told them all he did not expect any reasonable answer to that.
“Then get on with it!”
“Very well. Judge! Carry out the execution.”
Henry didn’t even take a breath. He’d had enough, reached his limit. He wanted it ended.
Nothing happened. He looked up, the needle stayed poised, he could almost see the poison dripping from it.
“Judge! What is happening? Carry out the execution.”
“No.” The new voice was quietly defiant.
“What? Judge carry out your task, execute him.”
“No!” What Henry presumed was the Judge’s voice was louder and firmer this time. “I will not. He is right. We should give him time amongst us.”
“This is not acceptable, Judge, do your job!”
“What does it say about our society if we do not trust it to be good enough to sway him? If we are scared that it is so weak that a single man can topple it? We need to start our own healing, and it should start with him. We will give him his time. One month. If he is still not convinced, I will carry out the sentence.”
“This is not acceptable, Judge!”
Something stirred in Henry. Suddenly, out of nowhere he wanted what the Judge was offering him. A chance. A chance to live.
“You will accept it. I am the only one in this world who can carry out this sentence and I will not.”
“Will not be able to carry it out. I have already locked him out of all the processes. Only I can release the locks. He will have his time.”
“Next up, we are talking to the sensation of the age. The man who was frozen in time and has awoken to join us in the future. The man who escaped death twice and who is shaking the world. The man the leaders fear, the man who asks questions. Well today, we hope, he will be answering some of our questions.”
The interviewer turned to Henry while the applause of the audience died down. Henry squirmed uncomfortably. Of all the damn things to survive into this century it had to be talk shows! And he was the fucking subject.
He had to remember not to swear too. He had learnt it was considered far more offensive in these times than his own.
“Mr Dickens, thank you for joining us, let us begin with the biggest question.”
“OK,” said Henry.
“We have all heard your remarkable story, it has tugged at all our hearts, we all grieve for your losses. The question we have is, why did you refuse conversion when offered at first? Why, as it appears did you choose death?”
Henry was suddenly overwhelmed with emotions that he struggled to keep under wraps. Grieve for his losses? What could they possibly understand about his losses! The very stupidity of the question betrayed how little they could understand.
How could he answer that?
The audience did not let him. A voice shouted out.
“Why didn’t you just convert!? What’s wrong with our way of life?”
Henry couldn’t see the source of the voice. He sounded like a fanatic, a tone not uncommon in this new world he had discovered.
“I knew nothing about it. You expect me to just convert, without questioning what I was getting into?”
“What’s to question? This way of life has saved us, saved humanity.”
People clapped and cheered the questioner.
“Has it? Or has it turned you all into cattle? Sheep that blindly follow ‘the way’.”
The audience booed and jeered at him, he was a little surprised. His opinions were not exactly secret; they had been broadcast around the world for the two weeks since his stay of execution.
He was the biggest news story of the time.
Hardly surprising as very little else seemed to be happening in the world.
They had peace OK. And it was boring.
“Let him speak!” another voice rang out above the protests.
The audience quietened down, shocked that someone, one of their own appeared to be supporting him.
“Let us hear what he has to say. If our society is so perfect then what possible threat could he be?”
Henry was surprised himself to hear a small ripple of applause supporting this new stance.
“Sure, you have peace. Your society is a model of sustainability and balance. I admire it in many ways. But it is frozen. You are so scared to upset the balance you allow no change. You have stopped growing. You might survive for now, but when change comes—when it is thrust upon you, you won’t know how to deal with it, how to adapt. You are like a rose, frozen in liquid nitrogen. Beautiful, preserved for all time, but dead. And easily shattered with a single blow.”
“Why didn’t you just pretend? Just convert and be quiet?” said the original voice.
Henry stood angrily now.
“I spent the whole of my old life dreaming of being someone. Of making my mark on the world. Leaving behind a legacy beyond just my genes. But I didn’t, I was nothing. I worked, I existed, I supported my family, I loved. But nothing more than what every other person was doing around me. I always dreamed one day, one day—but that day was never to be. And now—you expect me to just shut up and become just another cog in the machine again. With even less freedom and liberty than before? Well, fuck you all if that’s what you think.”
“Savage!” a woman screamed.
“No! He is right! Why can’t we question things? Why can’t we change things?”
“Do you want war to return? Do you want our blood?”
“We can question without conflict!”
Suddenly the audience erupted. Everyone was on their feet, trying to shout down each other. Henry thought it looked evenly split but it looked messy.
The aggression was rising.
The flabbergasted host turned to his assistants.
“Get him out of here!”
Hands grabbed in and he was whisked away.
Two days later he was back in the machine. He was not afraid or angry anymore. He just felt resigned.
He couldn’t resist a dig, though.
“What happened to one month?”
“The situation has become critical,” said the hidden voice. “As feared your presence amongst us has caused much disruption.”
So he had heard. It seemed the feeling of that show audience reflected that of society at large. It has sparked great debate. Even some protests he had been told.
Well, maybe that was something.
“So Judge?” Henry asked wryly. “Changed your tune too?”
“The Judge is not present,” said the original voice. “His apprentice will carry out the execution.”
“Oh? Worked out a way past the safeguards and locks then?”
“Unfortunately no. We have been forced to take more drastic measures. This injection is more direct, more painful I am sorry to say.”
“What happened to your humanity then?” Henry smiled. He felt slightly manic now; he could almost laugh at his own imminent death.
There was a sudden bang, and he thought he could hear shouts in the distance. He looked up, surprised.
“Please continue,” said the voice. It sounded hurried, unsure.
The machine hummed into life, the needle bore down on him.
Well, this was it, he had tried, in this his second life, to make a difference. It was a shame he would never know if it had worked.
There was a louder bang and suddenly glass broke. Henry turned his head to see the room being broken into. People were storming the place.
He seemed to suddenly see very clearly what was happening. They were trying to save him, but they were doing more than that.
They were leading a revolution.
Maybe they would bring conflict back to their society, maybe they would tear it down, but he was sure they would build something better.
As the crowd tried to surge past the security trying in vain to hold them back the needle pierced his skin.
They were too late. Even as they broke through he felt the darkness descending.
But he was happy and fulfilled.
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© 2014 Scott Bailey
Scott Bailey is a freelance writer, author, and blogger. His works include the dystopian novel Mankind Limited and A Spring of Dreams.