Monday, July 04, 2005

:::Story Time:::

It was a quarter to midnight when the man with the life or death look on his face came into the bar. I was the first to notice him, walking towards us with purpose in his step and a yellowed newspaper clipping in his hand.

“You’re them,” he said, his hand shaking.

Billy looked at me and rolled his eyes, but underneath that he was smiling a little.

“Are you here for the convention?” asked Joe. He was always the most polite to fans.

The man hesitated, and then surprised us by pulling a chair out from the next table over and sitting down. I wondered if he was going to be one of those really obnoxious readers that want to tell you everything they think is wrong with your books.

“No. I was looking for you five specifically,” he said, that look of weary purpose still on his face.

“Us?” I asked.

He reached out and set the old newspaper clipping on the table in front of me. I moved my beer to the side and peered at it. It was a picture of the five us, holding our pint glasses up and looking at the camera. The caption read: “The five best writers in science fiction enjoy a few beers together after a long day of panels and book signings.”

Billy reached over and pulled the newspaper clipping his way.

“Hey, this is us.” He peered at the picture, his eyes darting up towards each of us in turn then back to the clipping.

“This is us tonight.” He raised his eyebrows and passed it to Robin. She picked up her glasses and shoved them on before examining it.

“The date on this is tomorrow,” she said, “but the paper feels really old.”

I laughed.

“A newspaper clipping from the future saying we’re the five best writers in scifi? This is why I love this genre. The fans are so creative!” I said, pointing at the man. I expected him to smile, but he just looked really tense.

“Cool. So where did you get this? Did you make it?” Zoe asked, giving him one her charm-the-fanboys smiles.

The man sighed.

“There is so much that I have to tell you in such a short time. I’m not sure where to begin.”

I looked around the table. Everyone had the same hesitant, confused look that I figured I had. But before we could say anything, he doubled over, coughing heavily into a handkerchief in his hand. Billy slid a glass of water towards him.

“You all right, man?” he said once the man had stopped coughing. He nodded at Billy.

“As you can see, I have very little time – minutes in fact. But there is a story I must tell you. It is why I have come. If you will listen to my story, then I promise that I will not trouble you for long.”

“Okay,” said Joe, “but if you’ve written a story I would suggest that you try taking it to one of the writer’s workshops tomorrow.”

“It is not a story that I have written, but one that I hope one of you will write. I would try to do so myself, except, I am…not long for this world.”

Everyone looked uncomfortable. The other side of the coin about this genre is that sometimes the fans don’t know when they’re going too far. Oh well. Maybe once he told us his story idea, he would leave.

“Okay,” I said. “We’re listening.”

The man took a big breath and started talking.

“The second civil war was started as a cold war. The seeds of it went all the way back to the beginning of the new millennium. The US spent years fighting in the Middle East and central Asia, making little headway and loosing solders and credibility. At the same time, China became the new beacon of innovation. Students from other countries, fed up with being denied visas into the increasingly paranoid US, began flocking to China’s universities to study. Companies moved their facilities there and to countries like India and Ireland. Slowly, importance on the global stage shifted away from America as it had from Britain at the end of the nineteenth century.

“The changes seemed inevitable to some. History was full of examples just like it – nations that had caused their own decline by the choices they had made. To a student of the past, this type of shift in power was entirely natural.”

“There were many, however, who did not share that view–”

He broke off in another fit of coughing. When he stopped his face was ghost white.

“Maybe you should–”

He cut me off with a wave.

“There were many,” he continued, “that felt that it was almost treason to even suggest that the world’s greatest democracy was not destined to triumph over all. Were Americans not God’s chosen people? Were democracy, freedom, and the American capitalist spirit not the greatest forces to have shaped a nation on this earth? Of course – it was obvious that they were, but why then were America’s enemies gaining so much power at her expense?”

“Once they had started to think this way, the answer became obvious. If the system was perfect then it must be the people who are broken. A call to arms began to sound out on certain political forums. The message went like this: not only do we have enemies across the seas, but we have them here as well. They must not want America to prevail, otherwise why would they protest? Why would they dissent? Why would they weaken America in its time of greatest trial? These people were destroying America from within, and they had to be identified and stopped.”

“It was a viewpoint that grew quickly and quietly, spreading like a cancer. It started with the obvious. Laws were passed with patriotic rhetoric and pressure from various lobbies granting more and more power to the domestic antiterrorist intelligence branches. The so-called Patriots used these groups to develop lists of names of anyone who questioned the government’s policies. Unknown to most, these lists were compiled in a database. Corporate and government agencies were encouraged to query that database whether they were running a credit check for a loan or a background check for a government job. The Patriots felt that the less power of any sort, even economic power that the dissenters had, the better it would be for America. They hoped to eventually reduce their enemies to the same level of powerlessness as the poor that filled the countries ever-expanding prison system.”

“About this time, some memos were leaked anonymously to a reporter for the Times. They were called the Patriot Memos because they were addressed to ‘Patriot 132,’ and they both mentioned the database and discussed a plan to ‘isolate and disenfranchise the traitors hiding amongst us.’ The Times got three anonymous sources to confirm the authenticity of the memos, so they went to press with them. There was a public outcry, but the government denied everything. A senate investigative panel was formed to look into the allegations, but by the time they did, the Time’s three anonymous sources had all disappeared. The paper was forced to print a retraction of the story, and the reporter was actually prosecuted by the Justice Department.”

“Although nothing had been proven, rumors still circulated on websites and questions remained on the editorial pages of newspapers. Then, a few months later, two graduate students from MIT announced that while doing research for their joint thesis on the relationship between the rise in personal information stored by credit card companies and the growth of online identity theft, they had found the database mentioned in the Patriot Memos. They even posted information on the web about what they had found. It lasted for almost six hours before the entire MIT server system was taken offline by the FBI. They told the press that the two students in question were under investigation for a security breach into a classified government server that contained highly sensitive information about suspected terrorists. They were taken into custody, their research was confiscated, and all traces were removed from the MIT computer system before it was put back online.”

“At their trial, the prosecutor invoked a special legal privilege used by the Air Force in 1952 that allowed the government to avoid showing evidence to the court if it claimed that evidence was too sensitive even for the judge to see. In the case of the two students, as in the 1952 case, the members of the court were instructed to take the prosecutor’s word as to the exact nature of the evidence that tied the alleged computer hacker crime to the two students. They were found guilty and sent to prison.”

“By this time, people were beginning to catch on. There were a lot of people who had visited the MIT website before it was shut down, and they spread the word about what they had seen. And when those websites began to be shutdown by various law enforcement and intelligence agencies, each for a different reason, it only fueled the growing understanding that a new cold war had begun.”

The man paused in his story, overcome with another coughing fit. No one said anything. We just waited for him to continue, caught up in the story despite ourselves.

“After that things just kept escalating. The Patriots flooded television with fake news reports filmed in their own studios that were designed to cast doubt on the morality and honesty of anyone who spoke out in opposition to the US’s policies abroad or at home. Grassroots organizations were formed by Patriot loyalists to raise more money and spread their ideas of a unified America made strong again. Churches began preaching of the righteousness of those who fought to ferret out traitors, encouraging their congregations to look around and take careful note of who was there next to them and who was not. ”

“On the opposite side, people who had been listed in the government’s database banded together. Since the banks would not give them loans, they gave each other credit, trading their services and whatever goods they could make. When they were turned down for jobs, they started their own businesses, using the anonymity of the internet to avoid discrimination. They created websites, podcasts, and vidcasts to share whatever they had learned. As computer skills became essential to their survival, many of them became hackers. Computer viruses began to circulate that filled any screen connected to the net with virtual pamphlets – counterarguments to fake news reports. Slowly, they developed into exactly the type of underground organization that the Patriots had been accusing them of being for years.”

“What finally ignited the situation into a visible conflict was a daring hack by someone calling herself America’s Conscience. She broke into an intelligence computer network hidden on servers that resided on a system of satellites and downloaded a video recording of American agents torturing a Chinese businessman who had gone missing a few weeks prior. He was the lead technology developer for a company that was rumored to have made a huge stride towards wormhole technology, the ability to send matter directly from one point to another without passing through the space between. In the video, a man in a lab coat was brought into the room, and he questioned the developer calmly on several technical details. After he left, the agents accused the man of plotting to send a bomb through a wormhole straight into Washington. The developer denied it, but they tortured him until he told them what they wanted to hear.”

“When the hacker, America’s Conscience, saw the video, she sent a copy of the file to a Chinese vidcast station and another copy to the UN. In less than twenty four hours from that point, everything was turned upside down. Hardliner Patriots in Congress forced the passage of a special powers bill that gave law enforcement and intelligence units the right to arrest dissenters suspected of endangering national security and hold them indefinitely without trial, bail, or even legal counsel. Police went door to door pulling anyone on their lists out into the street and shoving them into unmarked vans.”

“At the same time, the American embassy in China was overrun by a mob of angry Chinese citizens who had seen the leaked video. The ambassador and his staff were taken hostage, while the Chinese military stood by idly watching and only occasionally asking the mob to disband.”

“By this time, a riot had broken out on a university campus in Austin, Texas where over two dozen professors had been pulled from their classrooms. A group of several thousand students surrounded the vans, blocking their escape until a squadron of remote controlled battle helicopters arrived and opened fire on them. Most of the students were slaughtered, but the survivors sent out images of the massacre onto the net along with cries for help. In response, an emergency session of the UN Security Council was called, and a decision was reached…a decision to send troops into the United States of America to restore order and prevent another human rights atrocity.”

Tears were in the man’s eyes when he stopped speaking, but they did not fall. He looked at a spot on the floor for a long time before he spoke again. It didn’t matter if it was an act, I realized, because he was living in the events that he was describing right now.

“That is my story. That is the one that you must write.”

I looked around the table. Billy took a big swig from his beer. Joe was frowning which I knew meant that he was thinking, and Robin and Zoe were giving each other some sort of look that I couldn’t interpret.

“It’s a good story,” said Robin. “You should write it.”

“I told you that I can’t.”

“Why not?” Zoe asked.

Robin leaned forward. “There something you’re not telling us, isn’t there? You left something out of the story.”

I had no clue where they had gotten that idea, but they must have been smarter than me, because the guy sighed and started talking again.

“I was the man in the lab coat, the scientist who interviewed the kidnapped Chinese businessman. For years, I had hidden away in the research lab, intentionally not paying attention to politics. I had been working on the same problem as the Chinese company, but I had made far less progress. Then a man that worked for the government came to me. He told me that a scientist had defected to the US, and they wanted me to interview him about his research. I was overcome by excitement at the possibilities of collaborating, and I agreed. He told me everything he could remember about the project. It was amazing – ten years of research in a single hour. I had no idea that he was actually a prisoner, and I swear I didn’t know what they were doing to him.”

His nose began to bleed, and he pressed the handkerchief to it.

“That’s a great story,” I said. “You’ve even picked an interesting character for yourself, but what I want to know is why you keep saying you don’t have any time left. I mean, you don’t exactly look healthy right now, so why don’t you go to a hospital or something?”

“They could not help me.”

“Why not?” asked Billy.

“You will not believe me, but I will tell you anyway. It is part of the story, after all. My sickness is an effect of traveling through a wormhole. That is how I got here. The Chinese company had solved the problem of opening up a usable wormhole between two points in space, but only for non-organic matter. Experiments using animals had all resulted in an unpredicted side effect – cancer that spread in a matter of hours throughout the entire body. You see, that last terrible day of the story was today for me. When foreign troops began to land on US soil, I was overcome first with despair and then with guilt for the part I had played in it. Finally it occurred to me that I might still be able to do something about it. I had long felt that if a wormhole through space was possible, then opening one between points in time was possible as well. I couldn’t wait, because the lab would surely be taken over by UN troops once they reached it, so I made a few changes to the apparatus and…stepped through.”

“But why here? Why were you looking for us?” asked Joe.

The man coughed again, and when he stopped, his voice had taken on a raspy quality.

“Because you can change what happens. I read your books when I was young. Actually, I’m probably reading them right now, in the house where I grew up.”

He paused to cough.

“That is why I saved this clipping. You five and other writers like you are the ones who inspired me to become a scientist. But it’s more than that. Science fiction has the power to teach us things. Inside a story you can rewrite the past and the future. And if we can learn from the mistakes of a possible future before it happens, then maybe we can avoid it all together.”

He coughed harder.


He slumped over in the chair, and dropped onto the floor. Billy was up in an instant. He kneeled down and touched the side of the man’s neck.

“His pulse is really weak.”

I ran over to the bar and told them to call an ambulance.

By the time it got there, he was gone.

After the ambulance had taken away the body, we slumped into our chairs at the table. The bartender brought us a round of beers on the house. We sipped them silently for a while, unsure of what to say. Zoe finally broke the silence.

“So how are we going to write it?”

“You mean you believed him?” I asked.

Joe looked up.

“Does it really matter?”

“Yeah,” said Billy. “Like, whether or not he was for real isn’t even the point, right? I mean, we got this possible future now, in our heads, and we should do something because…”

“Because we have a responsibility to help our world avoid the mistakes of the future,” said Robin.

“Yeah,” said Billy.

I looked at each of them. They were my friends, and I knew them well enough to read the determination written on their faces. And despite the serious events of the evening, I felt myself beginning to smile.

“Did I ever tell you guys why I really liked this genre so much?”

But before they could answer me, a voice interrupted us.

“Excuse me. I’m with newspaper here in town, and we’re doing a story on the convention. Would you mind if I took your picture?”

posted by D @ 6:50 PM |

I love stories - especially speculative fiction, and I named this blog Brief Glimpses of Somewhere Else because I think of each story as a window into another world.

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