I’ve just started following the Daily Post and read this week’s challenge to write a short story about a dystopia http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/writing-challenge-dystopia/. Just as I finish I noticed that the deadline was Friday … aaghh .. just missed it. Anyway here is the story:
Maybe this is a dystopian view of the future, maybe a utopian one. I don’t know; you decide.
Plenty has been written about the life of Edwin Janus Talbot, analyses, homilies, diatribes; all trying to decide if he was a saviour or a judas, remaking the world in his own image or betraying us to alien intervention. What all can decide on is that he was an astronaut, out there he made contact with Something, and what he brought back changed us all. His motivations for doing so, however, have been subject to intense scrutiny.
The death of his wife and son, only months before his spaceflight in 2015, were obviously a huge influence. While driving along a highway they were sideswiped by a truck, driven by a drunk driver, with previous convictions. Edwin survived. His family didn’t. The driver was found guilty but was given only a suspended sentence and had his license revoked for a year. That may have been a bigger motivator for his later decisions. Some said his flight should have been scrubbed, but he passed all of his pysch evaluations, and the comet fly-by could not be delayed. So up he went.
Accounts vary of what happened during the flight. It is a matter of record that for five minutes during his extra-vehicular activity all ground crews lost his signal. No voice, no EEG readings, no ECG readings. Not even static. During that time it was believed that perhaps some comet debris had struck him or his craft, or the solar activity noted at the time had damaged on-board systems. Then, miraculously, he reappeared.
Dazed, confused, unable to properly communicate until days after his return, speculation about what had happened during those five minutes was rife. When he was finally able to communicate coherently it did nothing to reduce the speculation. He reported that glowing forms had emerged from the chunk of ice, surrounded him, spoke to him. They wanted to know what he was, where he came from. For weeks of his subjective time they interrogated him until finally they set him back. And asked him one gift they could bestow upon Talbot’s planet. His answer was immediate. “No more murder.” Murder was an unknown concept to these beings. He had to explain it was the deliberate taking of life. And then each one of those terms also needed explaining. “Life.” “Deliberate.” Around Edwin Janus Talbot’s clarity of definitions of those two words our whole world now gravitates.
On hearing of his accounts of First Contact, Talbot was returned to quarantine. He was subjected to a series of tests, and these found, replicating away in his blood stream, small nanotechnological mites that had not shown up in their previous analyses. They appeared to have no effect on him, until they ran an MRI scan of his brain. There, in the part of the cortex that interpreted his vision, they found a lump, formed from a collection of these mites. And it was growing.
Talbot never again left quarantine, but by then it was too late. In the days he had spent in contact with the investigators, they had become infected. And their families had become infected. And so on.
Each new revelation caused a new wave of panic amongst the populace. Astronaut disappears then reappears. Astronaut reveals First Contact. Astronaut infected by alien nanites. This last, that this infection was in the wild produced the greatest. But after weeks and months of speculation, and there being no evident effects of this infection, the hysteria died down. People went back to their regular lives. Thousands, had tests, the nanites were found in their bloodstream, the lump was found in their visual cortex, but they did nothing just sat there. People adapted.
Then, in 2017, the grandparent of one of the first people to come into contact with Talbot died. As a close member of his family she’d long been known to have suffered tertiary infection, but this had long been dismissed as a cause of illness. A stroke had killed her, and she had lain in her bedroom for several days. When she was found her body was in an advanced stage of metamorphosis. Again the quarantine, again the constant surveillance. The public’s horror grew as information about the change the body was undergoing was leaked to them. Then, after weeks, the full horror was reported. A grainy black and white video, copied from security tapes without permission and leaked through social media showed the body suddenly fragmenting into dozens of small insect-like creatures. They scurried over walls trying to find an exit, scratching their way through the plastic containment walls, then disappearing through the underground facility.
Again speculation was rife. The answer of where they came from was presumed to be the nanites. After the death of the host, the nanites had formed into these synthetic creatures. Their purpose was unknown though. Then someone thought to exhume the bodies of other family members who had died during the previous two years. All were gone. All graves showed evidence of having been chewed away from the inside.
That was when we as a planet, first knew the fear of the Harvesters. Although the first Harvest had not then happened, there was still the anxiety about what these things were, what they were planning. Then Bradley Inglenook killed his girlfriend.
Bradley lived near the base on which Talbot and his interrogators lived and worked, but was, as far as anyone knew, had no direct contact with anyone who worked there. One night, after too many drugs and too much drink, in an argument with his partner he picked up a bat and beat her to death. He had a history of domestic abuse, and when the police officers arrived at the apartment they had a good idea that finally, awfully, he had taken this abuse too far. The concerned neighbours that had called for them watched as the police officers broke down the door, and fully expected to see Bradley hauled away in handcuffs. What they actually saw were the police officers backing away, and a man running between them, pursued by a wave of what looked like small spiders. As he fell, he screamed, and the creatures passed over him in a wave. As they watched, horrified, the things dismantled him, then disappeared into the night.
It was the first Harvest witnessed. Little by little, as more occurred, more of the process was pieced together. The lump in the visual cortex received and transmitted visual information, to where it was not properly known for a while. Everything someone saw, if they were infected, was perceived and analysed, but as far as could be determined, with only one purpose; to detect murder. If a murder was committed, the perpetrator was identified, and the Harvesters were summoned.
If you were identified as a perpetrator there was no appeal, and no escape. Bradley’s death was only the first. It was as if the metamorphosed bodies of the infected that had died had suddenly reached critical mass. Within weeks another death, this time a child killed by a woman and her partner. Both had beaten the child, but only the one responsible for the final blow was sought out by the organic machines. The mother watched and screamed as her partner was slowly devoured by them, then watched as they disappeared.
Neither was there any escape. A drunk driver ploughed into a parked car on the highway only a little distance from where Talbot’s family had died. Fully realising what he had done, and what the punishment would be, the driver fled back to his car and sped back to his home. Locking all the doors, sealing the windows, shoring up every conceivable entrance to the house he waited. Neighbours reported hearing the ominous susurration of the Harvesters as they gathered around the building, swarming over the windows, clustering by doorways. The driver, still worse for drink phoned the police, begging for help, the 911 call reported on every news channel heard him saying he would do anything, but just to keep the damn things away. TV cameras arrived as the Harvesters found a gap under one of the doors, and flooded into the hallway where he stood broadcasting his screams over the phone as they showed images of the exterior.
In his quarantine on the base, it was reported that Edwin Janus Talbot watched the live news feed with a slight smile on his face. Then closed his eyes and did not open them again.
The small town in Florida where the infection had started was merely the first place on Earth to achieve this critical mass of Harvesters. The infection had already spread to be almost totally worldwide. In Chicago a parent watched horrified as their teenage son, who unbeknown to anyone, was in a street gang was consumed by Harvesters. It was presumed he’d been responsible for a shooting earlier in the day. In London, three people beat someone to death in a street fight, and even before they left the scene, were Harvested, all caught on CCTV, and broadcast around the world. In Israel a soldier that had shot and killed a stone-throwing teenager was consumed by the small alien devices. Distance was no defence. He and several comrades had fired, only one shot had hit. The Observer in his head and the other soldiers had relayed the information to whatever processing system made the judgment and the execution was automatically carried out.
Eventually the final link in the chain was discovered. Deep underground beneath a subway system in Delhi a large mass of neural networks was discovered, comprised of the connected bodies of billions and billions of nanites. The need for a large critical mass was evident, until enough of the infected had died, and their bodies transmuted, then there was not enough mass to create one of these alien brains. Without them, the sentences could not be carried out. That brain was destroyed, and funeral practices everywhere required cremation rather than burying to be carried out, but it was too late to stop. Enough Harvesters, and enough Judges, existed for the genie to be entirely out of the bottle.
Needless to say, murder rates fell drastically once people realised that there would be no escape from Retribution as the act of disassembly by the Harvesters came to be called, and that the Judges made no allowances for context, or provocation, or political motivation. Indeed, the Judges’ interpretation of deliberate was open to interpretation. A crime of passion committed in the heat of the moment still met with Retribution. An accident may or may not meet with the sound of hundreds of crawling insects. An act of incompetence by a doctor led on a number of occasions to a hospital ward being flooded with screams of the medic being torn apart soon after their patient died, and for a while this resulted in a widespread moratorium on operations. As the Judges became (it was presumed) larger, and more sophisticated, the consistency and nuances of Judgments improved, and these days it is rare for accidental death in surgery to lead to Retribution.
And as the alien lifeforms defined and redefined deliberate, so too did they redefine “life”. To the disappointment of many, it was not considered murder to kill many animals. Swatting a fly did not lead to death, neither, surprisingly for many did fishing. Again people cursed Talbot for the subjectiveness of his definitions. Until people noticed that loggers in Papua New Guinea had almost entirely vanished. It appeared that the Judges considered all primates as “Life” and so with each orang-utan that died in a deliberate fire, at least one logger that started the fire would be Harvested. It appeared that they had based their understanding of life on the template of Edwin Janus Talbot, and stage by stage, as the Judges understood sapience better, more animals appeared to be taboo. Japanese whalers would return home, to be met by a wave of Harvesters that would consume them, leaving their catches unclaimed in the docks. The last few, on learning of the fate of the others, chose to always live at sea, never stepping on dry land, along with a small community of those who have murdered. It was found that the only protection against that wave of death-like insects was water, and some, though not many, choose that as a way to protect themselves against Retribution. For more, suicide is the only sure way to ensure a painless death.
And that is the reality we all live with now. Most of us feel liberated. No longer needing to fear the ultimate violence from other people. Occasionally an aggrieved lover, or a frustrated parent, or a political extremist may still kill, in the heat of the moment, or with their belief in a calling to kill. A psychopath may still shoot an innocent bystander, or a street fight go too far and result in death. And for some it is the most extreme statement of suicide they can imagine. And then the reports will be of another Harvest, and we will all become very conscious of the recording and transmitting device in our heads, and that alien neural net, hidden away beneath our feet somewhere, ready to Judge us. But genocide no longer happens, once the first blow falls from a machete, there is never a second, wars cannot take place, when superiority of firepower, or distance from target, or perceived notions of right and wrong, cannot defend against that wave of death crawling towards the killer, ready to dismantle him or her.
So is this dystopia, or utopia? Are we living in Talbot’s nightmare, or his dream? By now, when we have lived with this for so long, it’s all we know. And so it’s neither. It’s just the way things are.