by Chris Young
It's so far in the future that all the good stories have already been told many times over
| “Another sherry?”
Barns glanced up from the piece of paper in his hands and smiled wearily at his host. “I’d love one. If it’s no trouble.”
The man standing at the drinks cabinet turned with a nod and began to pour two more drinks. A moment later he joined Barns near the fire, laying down a glass at his elbow, and took a sip from his own as he sank into the chair.
Barns grunted at something he read, then laughed out loud, then with a sigh seemed to give up and dropped the papers into the fire, where they caught immediately.
“Ashcroft? Why do I do this to myself?” Barns asked.
Watching a leaf of burning paper drift up the chimney and out of sight, the other man didn’t reply.
After a second, he said, “Because you have faith.”
Barns snorted. “You over-estimate me my friend. But thank you anyway.” He lifted his glass and after a brief salut in Ashcroft’s direction, took a sip. “Perhaps I just have no other choice but to continue.”
“Perhaps,” nodded Ashcroft. “But I think one day it will happen. Until then you merely have to keep searching. Unless ... ”
Barns glanced at the older man. “No,” he said. “Publishing Copyright B material? I refuse to stoop to such levels. And I’m not going Broadband, either. Doing Copyright C is bad enough. My God, Ash, it’s not right.” Barns gestured towards the remains of the papers he had cast into the fireplace. “That one was C bordering on B. Practically the same plot outline and emotional strings; only the setting, characterization, and time were different.”
Ashcroft stuck out his lower lip. “What was it a rehash of?”
“Wuthering Heights. Except set in California in 3110. I’ve read better ‘hashes of Heights, like the one by H. S. Johnson, set in underground lunar caverns in 2913, and I’m not even a Bronte fan. Admittedly he’d made both leading characters female, which had boosted sales no doubt quite considerably.”
Nodding slowly, Ashcroft examined the tips of his fingers.
Barns continued. “I tell you, it’s not natural. Regurgitating already published material, it’s like mental inbreeding.”
“But the people have to have something to read,” said Ashcroft gently. “Or watch. Or listen to. Yes, rehashes aren’t perfect, far from it, but they beat reading the originals again, and again, and again.”
Barns brooded silently.
“Why not go Broadband?” Ashcroft ventured at last. “Genial Publishing have switched over to that recently, as you yourself know, and they’re giving a very fair deal; both to the public and the author-to-be’s ancestors.”
Barns looked shocked. “What? Steal a story from someone who isn’t yet born? I couldn’t think of a crueller fate waiting for a writer than to write one’s masterpiece only to realize that it had been published five centuries before, and the royalties already shared out and spent between your long-dead relatives. All this due to the joys - oh the joys! - of time travel!”
Ashcroft sighed. “It’s a cruel world, indeed, but one has to do what one can.”
“The world has lost many a promising author by going Broadband. It’s well known that it’s impossible for a writer to continue with any more books after such a jolt to the system as that. Take Barbara Arnolds, author of “The Granite Earth.”
Ashcroft sipped his whiskey and laid it down, nodding. “I know. She killed herself.”
“The book had taken her four years to write, Ashcroft. Four years! She didn’t kill herself, we killed her. Us. The world. We were greedy and took from her that which she was not ready to give, three hundred and fifty years before she was born.”
“Then authors should be kept in the dark all their lives then, and not just up to the point they finish their novels. That way they could continue to write unaware that they were already successful. You and I both know, my friend, how success itself can also ruin a good author. Spoil him.”
Barns seemed to turn this over in his mind for a while, and then grunted. “ ‘As many stories as there are blades of grass in the world.’ Who said that?” He shook his head forlornly and looked down at his lap. “And now, here, in 4308, how many stories do we have? How many blades of grass? Not enough.”
“There are grass-growing projects on one of the moons of Jupiter,” Ashcroft ventured. “I forget which one, but it’s authentic.”
“That’s wonderful,” Barns said quietly.
Ashcroft drained the remains of his whiskey and rose to his feet, collecting Barns’ empty glass as he did so.
“One original story,” Barns murmured. “That’s all I ask. I’m sick of these rehash jobs, and I refuse to ruin the life of an author from another time, another civilization. We need something now - from our own people, to our own people.” Barns banged his fist against his knee. “Just one original story, and I would be rich. Better than rich - overjoyed.”
Hearing a noise, he looked up to see Ashcroft bent over the drinks cabinet attempting to stifle a coughing fit. Leaping from his chair, he said, “My God, man, are you all right?”
“Yes, yes, fine,” Ashcroft managed through his coughs. “Just a little chest infection.”
Barns helped him back to his chair and waited for the attack to ease off.
“Are you sure?”
Ashcroft finally caught his breath, and after one last cough into his handkerchief, gave a long sigh of relief.
“Yes, of course,” he smiled. “I’m all right. I’ve got my pills.”
“Well for God’s sake man, where are they?”
“In the kitchen. Would you be so good as to get them for me, perhaps I’m a little overdue.”
“Of course, Ash. Of course.” And with a last look at Ashcroft’s reassuring smile, Barns disappeared.
As did Ascroft’s smile, when he looked down and found red spots in his handkerchief.
* * *
It was just after ten in the morning when Barns received a special delivery package at his office on the 114th floor of the Lincoln building downtown.
“Thank you, Marie,” he smiled as his secretary left the office. He put down the manuscript he’d been reading fresh back from the proofers, and turned his attention to the yellow packet. The handwriting he recognized as Ashcroft’s, and he recalled the conversation he’d had with his old friend a month or so before.
Frowning, he peeled open the packet and found within what looked like a manuscript and a letter. The manuscript, entitled “The African Creed”, he briefly ran his eyes over and then laid to one side. The letter was short.
It pains me to write this letter, because it means only one thing. I am dead. Perhaps by now you have heard of my passing on, or perhaps not, but I instructed my maid to have this delivered as soon as my time came, so as to not let the enclosed piece of writing fall into hands other than yours. Alas, a mere chest infection it was not, but something much more hazardous I picked up during my time with a certain witch doctor in Dark Africa. You remember my recent trip there? Well, all things did not go exactly as planned, as you will soon see when you read the manuscript. It is a story, in which I am the protagonist, and yet it is true, and you and I both know the old adage. It is a story for you alone. Herewith I give it to you, hoping with all my heart that I, hardly an accomplished writer, have created that which you have so often dreamed for. Perhaps I would have given it to you sooner, but I had to be sure that I was not going to be one of those doomed ‘future writers’ you so often fought to protect, at least in our discussions. I had to be certain you would never sell out. Our last discussion convinced me you would not. Forgive me for ever doubting you. Because it was for you I went to Dark Africa, in search not for some world truth or self-fulfilment, but for one last tale, for my old friend. Please publish it for me, for my people, for my time, and for you.
Take good care, John.
Barns held his head in his shaking hands.
For what felt like hours he sat like that, the letter hanging from his fingers. Good God, he kept thinking. Could this be true?
At last he laid the letter to the side and picked up “The African Creed.” Scanning the first few lines his mind began to race over all the stories, novels and screenplays set in Dark Africa and comparing them to this. Had it been published before? Had he sold his friend out? Had someone else snatched a copy of this story and sold it to Broadband Pre Time Publishing for pre-issue? He wasn’t sure yet.
He read on, faster, his eyes jetting across the page, his hands beginning to sweat.
Some parts seemed familiar, but others did not. And Ashcroft, despite his self-derision, knew how to use a pen. It was good. Damn good. But had it been pre-published? Still too early to tell.
Barns read on, perched on the edge of his chair, his hands shaking.
Suddenly the intercom buzzed and he jumped.
He pressed the call button. “Yes?”
“Mr Barns? Some men are here to see you.” She sounded harassed. “They say it’s urgent. (aside) Excuse me, gentlemen. You can’t go in there -”
The sound of loud but controlled voices were coming in from the corridor. Barns rose shakily to his feet.
The door crashed open and three men in black suits charged in. “Mr Barns?”
“Yes, that’s right. Who are you?”
“Who we are doesn’t concern you, Mr Barns,” said the first who’d come through the door, “and you could make things much easier for yourself if you complied with our requests.”
To Marie, who had followed them in, Barns said, “Call the police.”
“You don’t want to do that, Mr Barns,” said the man, as one of his cohorts grabbed Marie, pulling her, with a short scream, into the office and slamming the door.
The man pulled something from his pocket and pointed it at Barns. “Do you know what this is, Mr Barns?”
Barns shook his head. He still held the manuscript in his hands.
“It’s a heart attack pistol. A very simple device. Fires a beam of high intensity magnetic waves at your heart, causing an acute attack of arrhythmia, shortly followed by death.”
“You’re some of those Pre Time thugs,” spat Barns. “I’ve heard stories about you.”
“Who we are doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we believe you have something that belongs to us.”
Barns snarled, “It doesn’t belong to you.”
“Any original literature belongs to the people of the present, the future, and especially the culture-starved citizens of the past. It’s your duty to hand it over.”
Barns shook his head slowly. “No way. This is Copyright A material. Do you hear me? Copyright A! It’s not going anywhere. You’ll have to kill me, do you understand me, you goddamn philistines? You’ll have to kill me!”
Holding the manuscript in his left hand, he lunged forwards, snatched a lead paperweight from his desk and made to hurl it.
A single beep emitted from the pistol the man was aiming at Barns, and with it, an uneasy sensation in Barns’ chest. Followed by stabbing fire entering his heart and rushing down his left arm.
Barns fell across his desk, spilling everything onto the floor, twisted round. With a violent spasm, and confused, he flung the paperweight in the opposite direction, smashing one window.
One of the men laughed.
The man with the pistol didn’t. His face dawning with realization, he barked, “Get the manuscript.”
The third man ran forward but Barns, one arm clutching at his chest and labouring heart within, fell forwards with a gasp against the broken window and thrust the manuscript through the jagged hole into air.
The man in black grasped Barns’ arm and yanked it back into the office, spraying blood.
It held no manuscript.
The man with the pistol cursed. “Go down and get it,” he barked to the other two. “And get the chopper.” They bolted out the office.
He advanced on Barns, who lay shivering on the carpet, blood dripping from the arm clutched across his chest. With a growl he aimed at Barns’ heart. But someone had thrown themselves over him. It was Barns’ secretary.
“Get out the way, or I’ll finish you too.”
She screamed, “Leave him alone! For the love of God, he doesn’t have it now, leave him alone!”
The man hesitated.
“Leave him alone!” she cried, covering Barns’ chest.
With another curse, the man turned on his heel and strode out the office.
“John,” she whispered, “My God, are you all right?”
He gasped. His face was contorted with pain. “Call Macclesfield. He’s on the door. Tell him - what happened.”
* * *
“I see it,” Macclesfield said, one hand to the receiver in his ear, his eyes following the fluttering white form as it fell through the sky to the north of the Lincoln building. “It’s heading for the freeway.” He threw the Desperado novel into the back of his BMW, climbed in, slammed the door, and took off at high speed towards the freeway.
Engine screaming, Macclesfield roared between the traffic and up the ramp to the next level, all the time keeping his eye on the manuscript. His gloved hands gripped the wheel firmly as he spun it either way from lane to lane, causing more books to fall from the passenger seat onto the floor.
There it was, coming down straight ahead in the centre of the freeway, and beyond it, a strike chopper.
One hand spinning the wheel, Macclesfield aimed for the manuscript and gave the handbrake a sharp tug at the last second, turning the car into a diagonal skid against the central barrier. Horns blared and car tyres screamed behind him as high speed vehicles tried to avoid his BMW. Something smashed into the back, giving him a sharp snap to the neck, and then another, and another. And then he saw a car shoot over the top of his own, spin in the air and land upside down on the freeway ahead of him, barely missing the landing chopper.
Forcing his door open with his shoulder, Macclesfield climbed out. The chopper had landed, and two men were climbing down from it. Where was the manuscript? Then he saw it - there, beneath the barrier almost at his off side wheel. Cars were still screaming to a halt behind him as he stooped to pick it up. On it he saw what had to be drops of Barns’ blood.
Jesus, he thought, and he slowly turned to face the two men.
They stopped a few paces from him.
“That belongs to us,” the tall one called above the sound of the chopper blades.
Macclesfield frowned. “That so?” He looked down at the cover of the manuscript. “I have reason to believe this belongs to Mr Barns.”
“Not anymore,” replied the man. He took out what looked to be a small pistol and aimed it at Macclesfield. “Do you know what this is?” The man asked.
Macclesfield’s hand became a blur as the manuscript floated to the ground and in its place appeared a revolver. He pulled the trigger. With a loud crack the man went flying backwards, throwing the pistol into the air and himself skidding along the tarmac towards the chopper.
Macklesfield grabbed up the manuscript and advanced on the second man, aiming the gun at his head.
“Do you want some of this?” he asked the man. “Then get out of here. No, not into the chopper. Go that way.”
Macclesfield climbed into the helicopter and shouted directions to the pilot, who took off back towards the Lincoln building.