20 December 2011

Dyschronismus Carol

It's time for the now-traditional web release of the story I sent out last year in my Christmas cards. 2010's offering was a science-fiction reworking of a traditional Christmas story.

by Philip Purser-Hallard

     Marley was dead, to begin with. Luckily we could fix that.

     Protean Pete visited him on his deathbed – 24/12/1836, seven years pastward of our scheduled intercession – and made him the offer. We’d take a working CC of his mind at point of death (generations before the process was perfected, so Marley was a winner there) and timecap him back with us to our own century, once we’d wrapped up business in his.

     The boss could find him work – probably market-trend analysis, given his talents. He’d fit right in with the other post-mortal employees in TC:Corp’s central storage coil.

     Immortality came with a condition, natch. Marley had to use his intimate knowledge of our subject to give him a specially tailored spookshow.

     Jacob Marley hadn’t been a ruthlessly successful player in the C19 money-markets without knowing a sweet deal when he saw one. Even before Pete gave him our reasons, helping haunt his best friend didn’t give Jacob a moment’s qualm. Once he was convinced Pete himself wasn’t a delirium phantom, we had him on-team.

     Turned out he was quite the creative collaborator, too. His custom facetop burrowed right into our subject’s psyche and cracked it open along the faultlines.

     Jacob’s overlay of local fiscal imagery over Judaeo-Christian folk-eschatology would have scared the living oxytocin out of any Victorian capitalist. As Marley’s ghastly holophantasm groaned and wailed and ghouled it up in his chains of ledger-books and cash-boxes, our timecap’s psychometers all told us we were getting through to Ebenezer Scrooge.

* * *

     Big Ish, Protean Pete and me are the frequent flyers on TC:Corp’s emergency intercession squad. We spend so much time in the past we joke about settling down there. I’m certain Ish has a second wife in Medici Florence.

     Pete’s a premature post-mortal, a carbon-copy still active long after his original started renting six-by-two cellar-space. During fieldwork he resides in the timecap’s minicoil – luckily there’s enough storage for Marley to join him without getting too cosy.

     Ish is our musclebrain – not the insult it sounds. Germ-work and soma-drugs have boosted Ish’s brain and his muscles, till he can think as speedily and nimbly as he can... well, throw a small horse. He’s eight feet tall, built like a structural pillar which happens also to be a chess grandmaster.

     Then there’s me. I deal with the crude mechanics of intercession – where to point the timecap, which bits to push when, and the effect that has on the whole assemblage. Time itself is a mechanism, and some of us were just made to tinker.

     They call me the Mechanic, obviously. We intercessors pride ourselves on technical skill, not imagination.

     The Responsive Intercession Department’s been part of TC’s corporate responsibility wing since the boss introduced the Model A Time Capsules – back in ’47, our time. The engineers build in multiplural redundancies and safeties, natch, so users won’t impinge on the history they visit... but there’s always someone determined to crush the butterflies.

     Some of them have agendas. However well-intentioned, they’re liable to crumple history into a scrunched-up moebius strip of causality. Our single least popular assignment’s the Hitler bodyguard unit.

     This impingement seemed targeted, and at the origins of TC:Corp itself, no less. Stopping the inventors of time-travel using their own product? You’re looking at a major dyschronismus – a grandfather paradox of the kill-the-ancestors variety.

     Those never end well. Some of them never end at all.

     The boss (and I mean the boss, Mr TC:Corp himself) dispatched us as soon as the alarms started pulsing. He knew he had a limited window open before causality started caving in on top of him.

     If our intercession here in 1843 didn’t come out right, chances were we no longer had a future to call our own.

     It seemed the miserable hermit existence our subject was leading wasn’t what history demanded of Ebenezer Scrooge. Never one of the C19’s big noises, he was still part of the soundscape – a background hum which had suddenly changed its pitch.

     Whatever it was our rogue timecappers had altered (and there were plenty of possibilities in Ebenezer’s new biog, from his ma’s early death to the awkward breakup with his one-time best girl) it had changed him from a legendary philanthropist, his name a byword for generosity and bonhomie, into a crabby, embittered old man.

     Unless we could reboot his outlook on the world, Scrooge would die without giving away an ounce of love or money to another person ever again. And the consequences of that could – would – be catastrophic.

     A miserly, misanthropic Scrooge was a danger to history. Our job was to enrich his soul, awaken his long-suppressed childlike wonder, and generally act as agents of redemption in his withered, dried-up gourd of a heart.

     Well, it was more life-affirming than most jobs. It certainly beat working the Hitler detail.

* * *

     Stakes aside, it was a standard intercession. Jacob’s phantasmodrama was the warm-up, what we call in intercessor jargon stave 1. Pete took stave 2, the life-flashes-before-your-eyes session. Ish was on stave 3, AKA it’s-a-wonderful-life-and-you’re-not-living-it, and I was stave 4, the near-death-experience. As usual.

     Staves 2-4 use the timecap’s look-don’t-touch settings to let the subject walk around his own past and future, helping the process along with airborne psychoactives to unlock subconscious imagery. From Scrooge’s POV, stave 2 showed him characters from storybooks wandering round his childhood memories.

     Where most PM-CCs use some idealised version of their old body for their holographic interface, Protean Pete flickers between forms like reflections in a boating-lake. For stave 2, he uses this wrinkled-child facetop which, I tell you frankly, creeps me out. Fact is, I can’t remember what Pete looked like when he was alive, and my memory’s better than most.

     Big Ish gave stave 3 his full holly-green-giant act, a pagan god of edible dead things. He’d calibrated the timecap to show Scrooge what the rest of Victorian society – and especially his employees and family – were doing on Christmas Day 1843. His ho-ho-ho, sit-on-my-knee-old-man routine was meant to point the subject towards his own inner Santa.

     Then it was my turn. I’m no actor, but for an NDE you don’t need to be – a black cloak and an ominous silence pretty much cover it. Most people find the way I move disquieting, too, and that helps – though what really scares the oxies out of most subjects is being shown the circumstances of their own deaths.

     In the timeframe we’d gotten locked into, Scrooge died alone, unhappy and unmourned, his minimalist funeral attended only by his scant relatives and hangers-on hoping for a free meal. His gravestone was just about the bleakest thing I’d ever seen.

     By the time I left him, he was begging to be allowed to change the future.

* * *

     Of course it was never really about Scrooge. I tried to tell Marley that while we waited for the boss to see us.

     Stave 5 – dipping into the subject’s future life, checking its new course – had been textbook. We found Scrooge making his money ethically (which alone would have marked him out from his fellow Victorian financiers) then distributing it among... oh, you know. Dogs’ homes, starving families, orphans in dire need of outings to the seaside. That style of thing.

     Then it was back home to ’57, and routine decontamination in the Responsive Intercession Dept at TC:Corp central. The usual diagnostic ticklist of random historical events checked out against the secure records held in the timecap’s coil – dyschronismus averted.

     Then they told us the boss had asked to see all four of us.

     I don’t know what those rogue timecappers had against the boss, but we all understood that in sabotaging Scrooge’s biog, they’d been targeting him. Now he was safe, so were TC:Corp, and us, and history.

     The boss isn’t your usual post-mortal. He’s one of the earliest, for starters – 40 years dead, following an 80-year mortal span. He’s not one to haunt the coils, staring through a facetop at the outside world. He’s had a dedicated microcoil implanted in a mechanical frame – quite like mine, in the same way a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud’s ‘quite like’ a Morris Minor.

     The boss is also the richest man in the world, natch.

     ‘I’m pleased to meet you, Mr Marley,’ he said as we entered his office, Pete and Marley projecting from a portacoil on Ish’s wrist. ‘My friends were always speaking of you during my childhood. I was born after you died, of course – although I suppose I must now say that you apparently died.’

     ‘You have me at a disadvantage, sir.’ Jacob’s holophantasm – appearing now as a handsome young Regency beau – bowed. ‘Doubly so, as I must thank you most humbly for your employees’ goodness in saving my life. Pray tell me, how should I address you, and who were our mutual friends to whom you allude?’

     The boss smiled. That expensive face of his can do that.

     ‘You knew my father,’ he said. ‘He was the clerk at Scrooge and Marley’s. I’m Timothy Cratchit, Bob Cratchit’s youngest son.’

* * *

     Cratchit Senior was the clerk we’d focussed on during the intercession, staves 3 and 4 particularly. Our subject took a special interest in his family, and ‘Tiny Tim’ in particular, which had continued well into stave 5.

     That, too, was history the way it should have been. As a kid, the boss was Ebenezer Scrooge’s protégé. He suffered from one of those stereotypically grim Victorian wasting diseases, and without our subject’s influence (and especially his affluence), he’d have died in childhood.

     Scrooge’s own nephew predeceased him, and it was Timothy Cratchit – already a financial genius at 16, thanks to the old man’s tutelage – who inherited his monetary empire, and put it towards alleviating those diseases of poverty which he and so many others had suffered.

     Now what was once Scrooge and Marley’s is TC:Corp – and the boss had to explain quite firmly to Jacob that no, having willed it away on his deathbed, he wasn’t entitled to a slice of the pie.

     The research Timothy Cratchit funds has led to cures and therapies, drugs and prosthetics: more recently, to biological technologies including germ-work and soma-drugs, and cybernetics like the mind-machine interface and the coils. Without the boss, mechanical men like me couldn’t exist. Nor could custom-builds like Ish, or PM-CCs like Pete and Marley.

     The timecaps were a tangential by-product, beginning in the study of human time-perception. It would be tempting to guess that it was Scrooge’s tales of seeing past and future that prompted Cratchit to pursue that like of research. But that would be the other kind of grandfather paradox, the become-your-ancestor type, and those can be just as chronoclysmic. So let’s hope that that isn’t how it happened.

     In any case, TC:Corp marketed its first Time Capsules in 1947. Ten years ago, our time.

     Without Cratchit – without Scrooge – who knows how long it would have taken the human race to get so advanced? It could have been another century or more before we had this kind of technology.

* * *

     So there we were – Big Ish, Protean Pete and me – politely trying not to look too bored while Cratchit and Marley caught up on old times, remembering life in C19 London and their joint best friend, Ebenezer Scrooge. It wasn’t long, though, before the boss was off on his favourite topic – himself, and his life’s work.

     ‘I might well have died, Mr Marley, as a child,’ he said. ‘Had it not been for dear Mr Scrooge – well, I dare not speculate. In any case, it is my firm conviction that God has spared me for this work.’

     This kind of talk makes us uncomfortable, natch, but C19 Christianity was Jacob’s native culture.

     ‘Should I understand, Mr Cratchit,’ he asked, ‘that you see yourself as a collaborator with the Almighty? One whom He has tasked with the perfection of His creation?’

     ‘Precisely, sir,’ Cratchit said sententiously. ‘With His help, I believe that I am to deliver all of humankind from the scourge of death.’

     Thing is, he may be right. Thanks to Scrooge – thanks, ultimately, to us three frequent fliers and Marley – ‘Tiny Tim’ did NOT die. Ever.

     And thanks to him... well, it’s just possible that no-one else will have to either.

     ‘God has already blessed you and me, Mr Marley, but we must not be the last. It is my dearest wish to ensure that God blesses everyone.’

     He’s always saying that.

© 2010 Philip Purser-Hallard
Past years' stories can be found here:
  • Sol Invictus (2006): A troubled couple experience some midwinter reality slippage.
  • Polarity (2007): Have you ever wondered who lives at the South Pole?
  • Blitzenkrieg (2008): An arms manufacturer develops a seasonal delivery system.
  • Stella Maris (2009): Three wise women attend an inauspicious birth.
They seem to be getting longer, slightly worryingly. You'll have to wait until next year for 2011's, which features a character from The Vampire Curse.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

07 December 2011

Tales of the City

The "side-project" I've occasionally mentioned here as running alongside my current attempts to write a novel, do a paid job, look after a two-year-old and find the time to eat and sleep occasionally, has now been announced.

We present Tales of the City, the first short-story anthology dedicated to my creation, the galaxy-sized secular afterlife known as the City of the Saved, as seen in The Book of the War, Of the City of the Saved... and A Romance in Twelve Parts[*].

Tales of the City will be volume 2 in next year's Obverse Quarterly, a periodical fiction miscellany from the same publishers as A Romance in Twelve Parts. It's my first editing assignment, and I'm hoping it will be a bit of a contrast with the previous City stories, with their CLASHING CIVILISATIONS AND EXPLODING GODS, and concentrate on the smaller-scale stories of some of the Citizens themselves.

Although I'll be providing some fictional linking material, Tales mostly consists of six stories by other authors, all set in the City. I'm very pleased with the lineup I've arranged -- I was lucky to be able to commission six splendid story pitches from six excellent authors which show every sign of blossoming into six brilliant pieces of City-based fiction.

(In fact, I was even luckier than that: the pitches I had to reject were also of an excellent standard -- these six are just the ones I think will fit together into the anthology with the most satisfying shape.)

I'll be posting more information here as it's announced: although I've been referring to this as a side-project (and I'm still pushing ahead with the novel as best I can), I really am very excited at how this is taking shape.
[*] Also, if you're counting, the Preview to Of the City of the Saved..., Lance Parkin's Preview to Warlords of Utopia (printed in Of the City of the Saved...) and my online short story "Unification Theory".
* * *

I've now had the five-CD audiobook of Peculiar Lives through the post, and listened to the first 45 minutes or so.

I never wrote the story to be read aloud: it's a literary pastiche. Nevertheless, I'm incredibly impressed by the deftness with which John Leeson tackles the difficult language, and the conviction he brings the sometimes creepy character of my narrator, Erik Clevedon. Even if you're already sickeningly familiar with Peculiar Lives (which, let's face it, I am), it's well worth hearing. It's a fantastic performance, and he keeps surprising me. It's available here, among other places.

* * *

On a more mundane note, you may be vaguely interested to know I've done a major structural revamp on my website. The content (and indeed the increasingly old-school look) are virtually unchanged, but there are now separate indexing pages for, for instance, my Christmas stories, or the individual themes and series of my microfiction. Presumably Tales of the City is going to need its own page pretty soon, but I'll hold off on that one for the moment.

03 December 2011

Desultory update

I've spent most of today writing this year's Christmas card story (see here for past examples -- I'll be posting last year's closer to Christmas itself). I keep ending up writing these at the last minute, which is annoying -- I keep noticing all the stuff that's wrong with them when I go back to look at them later.

Anyway, this one is the longest of these stories I've written to date, at a little over 2,000 words. It features a character from The Vampire Curse, and unless you're on my Christmas card list you won't get to see it till next year. Sorry about that.

In other news... I'm told that the audiobook version of my novella Peculiar Lives, read by John Leeson, is finally now available from Fantom Films. Various unforeseen delays have made it a long wait, but I'm very much looking forward to seeing what the voice of K-9 makes of the voice of Erik Clevedon.

And if you're not following @trapphic on Twitter, you may want to peruse the fresh microfiction I've uploaded to my website, along with that drabble from the other day. I think the latest one is actually my favourite:
A year in Faerie lasts a century on Earth – or in a hollowed asteroid in sublight flight. Fairy rings are cheaper than cryogenic suspension.