Chapter 1, from ‘The Light Station’ (a novel)

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ONE: An Uninvited Guest

 

The pavement was greasy beneath Caesar’s feet as he made his way across town. As soon as the first raindrop had touched his nose, he had known it would be better to avoid the Underground – its rickety, old tunnels would already be full to bursting, and the subsequent delays from all those extra passengers were more than he could bear. Instead, he had turned up his collar, deciding to take a shortcut through the backstreets. Raindrops hit the hot slab of concrete beneath him, fizzing like fried egg. He knew he needed to get out of the rain, and fast –by cutting through the exterior courtyard of In Vino Veritas (an exclusive winery in London’s lower East side) he saved himself ten minutes, and made it to his destination at a little before nine.          

Charlie’s was a bare brick and boards sort of bar; a rarity these days, and one of the few places Caesar really felt at peace. There were no stools, only a colourful collection of pleather armchairs which had been reclaimed, lovingly patched up and generously stuffed by the owner. Strangers shared tables and found friends. Each of the locals had their own pitcher with their name on it (which was the same size regardless of whether they drank real spirits, synthetics or safeale). Best of all, there was no projector, only an archaic 3Di model TV with half of the pixels burnt out and a voice activation system which would only register Charlie’s voice if he emphasised each syllable at great volume and in sarcastic detail.          

Caesar and Charlie’s friendship had been cemented by a love of old things, though Charlie frequently swore he’d replace the old TV with a state-of-the-art projector with built-in ATS (Advertising Targeting Software). It was an empty threat, Caesar knew. Charlie hated those pesky little hologram ads almost as much as he did.          

The old man’s face split into a grin at the sight of him. “Caesar, m’boy! Good to see you! Sit down, sit down, and get that coat off too, you’re drenched. What, did you swim here?” he boomed in a voice as coarse as his beard. Charlie was a giant, grizzly thing but he laughed often and loudly, so much sometimes that he shook the tables. “Now, what can I get my favourite customer?”          

“I was just after a couple of bottles of something special, to take away, you know.”          

Charlie did his best to look hurt. He loved this game, and was good at it, too. “You’re not staying? Oh, Caesar, you wound me. Here I was thinking that you’d come all this way to see me…”          

“Yes, yes, and now you know I only want you for the contents of your top shelf,” Caesar chuckled amiably. “Alright, old man, you’ve twisted my arm – I’ll have a quick drink and then I’m out of here.”          

Charlie beamed. “Good to hear! It would be rude to refuse a drink from an old friend. After all, it’s got your name on it.” His favourite joke, told every visit without fail. Caesar loved him for that. “Now, what can I get you?”          

“Surprise me.”          

“Ah, yes. Charlie knows best.” He rubbed his hands together, like a man preparing for hard graft. “Let me see what I can do.”          

Charlie began removing bottles from his collection with ceremonious flair, wiping the dust from their labels, giving each one a long, intense stare.          

The Great Inquisitor at work.          

Every so often, he would unscrew the cap of one and inhale deeply, swilling the contents around to release the aroma. No two bottles were the same, in size, age, colour or content. Charlie often boasted that his stock was completely unique and came from all corners of the world. More likely it had come from the black market. It didn’t really matter to Caesar either way, so long as it was available for purchase.          

When he returned to Caesar’s table, Charlie had decided upon a portly red wine, deeply spiced and warm to the tongue. It was delicious. When Charlie offered him another, he did not feel inclined to refuse. Soon came the third pitcher, the fourth, then the fifth, all of them with his name on it. Before Caesar knew it, it was closing time and he was agreeing to a lock-in with a few of Charlie’s most devout locals (his firm ‘favourites’). There was Macmillan, the philosophical banker (who insisted that drinking his money away only served to prove his dedication to the capitalist ideal), Katya (an old widow who never seemed to leave), and Pond (a deadbeat crook with a stub of a nose and eyes that lingered for too long). He knew what Charlie saw in the first two – Kat’s legs opened for him at a word, and the banker had bottomless pockets – but had never understood why he kept Pond so close. He appeared as good a lapdog as any; small, slow and grateful for any attention. Still, there was something unsettling about the way he watched the old man.          

Charlie chose a table for the five of them closest to the window and opened it a fraction. Autumnal huffs and puffs teased patterns into contraband smoke as they talked and drank the night away.          

“Where better to be?” cried Macmillan in the hazes of alcoholic camaraderie, when the subject of the passing hours arose, “and who better to pass the time with than Charlie? To Charlie!!”          

“To Charlie!” they agreed in unison.          

“But in all seriousness, though –”          

Everything Macmillan said was ‘in all seriousness’. Caesar wondered if he started all his jokes like that. In all seriousness, Doctor, I think I’m a banana, when should I split? Why did the chicken, in all seriousness, cross the road? And did you hear the one about the Englishman, the Arabian and the Chinaman who walked (in all seriousness) into a bar?           

“– Tonight is truly a beautiful thing. You know why? Because it can never happen again. I mean, sure, we could have another lock-in on another night, but it could never be tonight’s lock-in, now could it? No. Tonight is a one-time deal. That’s the beauty of reality. We’re all just so fucking linear, you know?” Macmillan stood and raised his pitcher, swaying enough to spill a little of its contents down the rather fetching waistcoat he was wearing. “Take this drink, for example – and may I say what a fine drink it is, too –”          

That earned another chorus of “To Charlie!”          

“This drink can only be enjoyed once, then it will be gone forever and all that will remain of it is my memory of its sweetness.”          

“Too true,” crooned the widow. She had clearly drank far too much, and Macmillan’s words had made her uncharacteristically solemn. She gazed into the murky depths of her pitcher as if mourning its passing.             

“And your point is…?”          

Caesar didn’t really care to hear the answer, but old Katya actually looked as if she might cry, and whatever bullshit Macmillan came out with had to be better than enduring that.          

“Only this, my brother: that mortality defines us, and is responsible for the fleeting nature of our entire world.”          

What a prick. But Caesar could only sigh, smile and smoke his cigarette. They were both guests under Charlie’s roof, after all.

“An’ what’s that got t’ do with anythin’?” Pond scowled, looking confused. “We were talkin’ ‘bout wine. Wine’s not alive.”          

“On that, I beg to differ,” interjected Charlie, winking and tapping the tip of a nose already rosy from consumption.          

“Still…” Pond’s pockmarked little potato-face screwed itself up in concentration. “We were jus’ sayin’ how nice it is t’ be having a drink tonight wit’ ol’ Charlie here, and now you’ve gone an’ ruined it, talkin’ ‘bout the whole world dyin’. ‘Ere, you’ve even gone an’ upset poor Katya.”          

The widow assented to that with a loud, undignified sniff.          

Macmillan looked around, appealing to the others. “Doesn’t the wine taste all the sweeter because of the very fact that it does not last? We are all born and we will all die. There is no eternity for us. That truth can sometimes be painful, I grant you, but is unavoidable nonetheless. What matters is what we do with ourselves in between. We are all given the opportunity to make our mark upon this world: to build, to consume, to make children, make memories… and history too, if we are brave enough for it.”                

They sat quietly then, each lost in contemplation. Caesar thought of his historical namesakes and wondered if they had known they would be remembered even now. He avoided thinking about whether anyone would remember him.          

“Why can’t the ones we love live forever?”          

The voice that broke the silence was queer and thin, and it took a moment for everyone to realise that it was Katya who had spoken. She was a Romani gypsy by birthright and her voice usually sounded deep and throaty, lusty even, just like she was. Though they were not really close, Caesar had heard her carrying on with her barmates on countless occasions. She was always jovial, quick-witted and generous with both her banter and her company. Whenever she laughed, she reared her head back like a horse, shaking her spidery mane of black and white and grey. The woman sat beside them now had the same ornate jewels crammed onto her fingers, wore the same charms and woven-wool dress as the fiery little widow, and yet seemed like a stranger by comparison. She looked shrunken, frail and desperate.          

Hollow, Caesar thought, she looks hollow.          

Charlie knelt at her feet, enclosing both her hands in his with undisguised affection. Bent in half, he was still bigger than she was.               

“Forever would be a curse, sweet one,” he told her gently. “A good man earns the right to his rest, you know that. He is at peace now. So should you be. He would not want you to cry.”          

She nodded, her eyes still brimming with sadness. Soon after, she excused herself from the party. She did not bother to don her coat or shoes. Caesar could only assume she had retreated upstairs to warm old Charlie’s bed for him. And who can blame her? It’s a bad night to be sleeping alone. What is it they used to say? If you can’t be with the one you love…          

“I’m sorry, Charlie,” said Macmillan in hushed tones to the hulk of a man sitting beside him, “I did not mean to upset the lady.”          

“She’s no lady, lad… and she’ll be alright by morning, you’ll see.” Charlie patted his shoulder wearily and shuffled off to find a fresh bottle for them.                 

“Although,” Macmillan added once Charlie was down in the cellar, “women are far too emotional when it comes to death, don’t you think?”          

“Women are too emotional when it comes t’ everythin’,” Pond agreed with a cackle.          

Caesar was surprised – Pond’s concern for Katya seemed to have evaporated once Charlie was out of earshot. Fickle bastard. “She only got upset because she was remembering her husband. That’s understandable, isn’t it? Maybe she misses him.”          

Macmillan smiled. “Did you know her old man well, my brother?”          

Caesar shook his head. He didn’t know the man’s name, truth be told, never mind his character. “Why, did you?”          

“I had that pleasure, yes. His family fell on tough times a while back and I made sure he got approval for a loan he needed. I just pulled a few strings, nothing major, but he never forgot. He always had time for me after that. Used to get me a drink in whenever our paths crossed. He was a man of the old ways: well-liked, hardworking, charming in a gruff sort of way, you know the type. He knew how to scratch your back if you’d scratch his, if you get my meaning.”          

“He sounds like a good man,” said Caesar, thinking of Charlie.          

“Yes, a lot of people thought so. He believed a woman’s place was to obey, though… and, well, you’ve heard Katya when she gets going.” Macmillan sighed. “It was hardly a fairytale marriage. He used to beat her every time she overstepped the mark. It didn’t matter where they were or who was there. I even heard it told that he punched her in the face at his sister’s wedding.”          

Caesar didn’t know what to say. “Th-that’s… awful.”          

“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” Macmillan chuckled, “Katya gave as good as she got. She’d call him every name under the sun and didn’t care who heard her.”          

Pond chimed in. “They wer’ always at it. She wa’nt afraid t’ get physical, neither. Why, I remember seein’ ‘er and ‘er fella goin’ at it in this very bar, now that you mention it. Goin’ back a fair few years, mind.”          

“Too true. He had a rather distinctive scar on his cheek, and if I recall correctly, it was a gift from his darling wife.”          

Caesar was bewildered. “But then, why – ?”          

“– Didn’t she leave? A fair question. Why does any woman stay?”          

A series of images flashed unbidden through Caesar’s mind. His mother, frail and shivering on her deathbed, smiling to the end; the telephone ringing, and the subsequent tears that she would try her best to hide; his father returning home covered in the stink of alien perfume, dribbling gold and apologies with the ease of a man who knows he will always be forgiven; the uneaten dinners; the non-wrapped, hastily bought presents. Years and years of feeble excuses. A modest funeral.          

“I mean, why does she still cry for him, after all this time? Why isn’t she relieved it’s over? And why did Charlie call him a good man?”          

“Ah,” Macmillan smiled, “now we’re getting to the crux of it. It’s what I was saying earlier. Time is a funny thing, my brother, and so is nostalgia.” He walked around the table slowly, deliberately, and helped himself to one of Caesar’s cigarettes. “Have you ever noticed how the beauty of an object can increase solely because of your distance from it? Well, of course you have,” he snorted as he struck a match, “Charlie happened to mention that you share his fondness for old things.”          

Caesar gave him what he hoped was an intimidating look. He wasn’t exactly happy about this act of overfamiliarity, but knew as well as Macmillan that he was helpless to do anything about it. “History’s one thing. Distance is something else entirely.”          

“Oh, is it now? Are you certain of that?”          

Caesar hesitated for a moment.          

“Exactly. Think of it this way – if we were to step outside now and start walking, the land behind us would get further and further away. After a while, it would be but a speck on our horizon. Only then could we look over our shoulders and sigh ‘ah! London! How beautiful you were!’ and forget about all the disappointments we left behind.”          

Pond nodded eagerly, like a child being told a bedtime story. With Charlie gone, he had latched onto Macmillan with the ease of a leech locating a new source of blood.          

“It is the same, in a way, with the record of history, is it not?” Macmillan gave them both a crooked smile, taking measured puffs on his cigarette. Caesar noticed that he wasn’t inhaling – it was all just for effect. “For what is history, if not a recording of the thoughts and deeds of old, dead men? We look upon them in the same way we would view that faraway city – from a distance, with all their foulness forgotten. That’s all time is, my brother. It’s just another place to stand and enjoy the view. It can’t heal all wounds, but it can put a bit of space between you and the smell.”          

Caesar wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he lit a cigarette for himself and turned his chair towards the window, smoking and waiting in silence. When Charlie finally returned from the cellar he had whiskey (“An excellent vintage,” he assured them) and the topic changed. The hours soon began to blur. Caesar’s head was spinning when he finally left the bar and when he checked his watch, he groaned. It was already five-thirty. He was due at work in two hours.          

All the coffee in the world can’t help me now.             

True to his word, Charlie had slipped him a package on his way out the door, the contents giving their usual promising clink as they changed hands. Caesar kept the bundle close to his chest, hands sweating and slipping on the cheap plastic wrapping.          

The streets were an ugly thing at this time of morning. Dense, rotting cubes of condensed garbage lined the pavement, awaiting the first morning refuse collection. Half the stacks had already been split apart and ransacked by urban foxes and tomcats, and now starved gangs of near-skeletal pigeons were rooting hopefully for anything edible that remained. The stink was palpable, despite persistent rain. Caesar kept his head down and did his best not to stand in puddles.          

By the time he finally reached his apartment building, he was shivering despite the heat, and the outside pockets of his parka were fat with rainwater. It took him another ten minutes to get inside his abode as his sneezes kept interrupting the retinal scan. Caesar cursed it aloud, inadvertently activating the voice recognition override he had forgotten about, and fell inside in a heap as the door supporting his weight suddenly gave way.          

Hey, honey, I’m home.          

Caesar eyed the empty apartment from his new position on the floor. Upside-down Putin sneered back at him contemptuously, but Caesar didn’t mind – he was glad to see him. He kicked off his shoes and his wet jeans, then stretched his limbs out across the hardwood, grateful for such a smooth solid surface to lay his head upon. His package sat forgotten on the floor beside him. Outside, the sun had begun extending tentative fingers upward, outward, feeling out a safe path through the jagged edges of the city skyline. Caesar could feel its progress as the warmth spread across his face. He didn’t think he had ever been so comfortable. When his home holophone suddenly began bleeping, he didn’t want to move.           Unfortunately, his presence was registered by internal sensors and after a short delay the call connected automatically.      

 “Hello? M–Mr Minnox, are you there? Hello?” An unidentified voice addressed the unoccupied lounge, formal but anxious.          

Caesar bolted upright and staggered in the direction of the sound. He was unaware of how shrunken and awkward he looked, dishevelled and bare-legged, still in his raincoat.          

“Who’s there?” He rounded the corner and found out for himself. “Oh, it’s you. I thought I told you not to call me.”          

In the centre of the room stood the head and torso of a plump, balding hologram. It was intensely lifelike, right down to the crumbs on the tie and wayward nasal hairs: clearly a real-time datafeed. This sort of communication had become commonplace now. The twenty-third century equivalent to having a gossip over the garden gate, Caesar thought. Not that people can afford gardens anymore.          

“I’m sorry to contact you at home, Mr Minnox, but I have important news regarding your father’s estate. Can I transmit the file?”          

Caesar sighed. “If you must.”          

A pop-up holoscreen sprung up in response, inches from his nose. He sighed and raised his extended thumb towards it. After a second or so of scanning, his personal details began to rattle across the screen in an endless blur of text. He had been Recognised.                  

The screen went blank for a moment. Then he saw the words he had been dreading.          

“Henceforth reads the last will and testament of Minas Theodore Minnox,” Caesar read aloud. “I leave the sum of all my worldly possessions and tangible assets to my biological son, Caesar Minnox” – of course, there’s no one left but me now… who else was he going to leave it to? – “to be paid to him in monetary form upon completion of the sale of my estate. The sum is approximately… holy shit!”          

He had known that his father was rich, but he had never suspected that he was that rich. He didn’t know whether to feel angry or pleased; robbed or victorious.          

He let her rot in that goddamned house…          

“Mr Minnox?”          

Caesar realised that the head and torso of the solicitor hovering a few feet from him was now surveying him with some concern, and felt a sudden desire to laugh. He was drunk, half-naked, and had just inherited more money than he could ever hope to have earned in a lifetime. Which, Caesar mused, makes it really hard to give a shit about the opinions of a man wearing half of his breakfast as an accessory.            

Instead of laughing, he asked the obvious question. “So, when are you planning on handing over this obscene amount of money?”          

“Well, that was why I’m calling – to let you know that it’s been credited to your account. I processed it myself this morning. I just wanted to let you know that I was closing the file. You won’t be hearing from me anymore.”          

The man hesitated for a moment, perhaps hoping Caesar would say something. When he didn’t, he looked disappointed. “Right. OK then. I will leave you to your day. You’re clearly very… busy.”          

His face soured; an expression Caesar couldn’t help but mirror. “Clearly. How very astute of you. Can’t be standing around chatting about nothing. Goodbye, Mr Solicitor.”          

“My name is –“          

Too late.          

Caesar karate-chopped the air between them, severing the datafeed connection, and the solicitor vanished before he could finish his sentence.          

Silence fell. Caesar stood alone, his back to the warmth of the window, trying to decide what to do next. First, he took care of the obvious. Two minutes of investigation confirmed what the solicitor had said. Seeing that amount of zeroes in his credit allowance made his head spin, and he had to stagger off and mix himself a drink before he felt steady again (Gin, with a fresh slice of cucumber and a splash of tonic – just what he needed). Good old Charlie, he thought, shuffling back towards his tattered, misshapen sofa, ice clinking in the tumbler he was nursing on every left step. Maybe I’ll finally settle my tab with the old man. That’ll make his fucking day – I must owe him a fortune by now.          

He swapped his coat for a fleeced dressing gown and slippers, and proceeded to make himself comfortable. After a moment’s thought, he went back to the kitchen and returned with the bottle of gin. He set his home communications status to ‘DND’. The next few hours passed in a comfortable haze: Caesar drank and smoked cigarettes, tapping ash into a giant ornamental seashell near his feet. He listened as the city geared up for a new day. Honking horns and guttural engines took their place in the Great London City Orchestra alongside the nasal whines of distant motorbikes, the hammering of workmens’ drills, the boisterous hollering of exiting schoolchildren and the barks of their lonely dogs and mothers (both insisting that they return home to them, safe and soon). He could hear streets full of people chattering, and knew without looking down that almost none of them would be talking to each other – instead, each would have a top-of-the-range device pressed to their ear as if their life depended on it, talking to someone who was somewhere else entirely.          

He thought about calling work; about storming into the office, late and unapologetic for once in his life. He imagined saying the words “I quit”, playing the scene over and over in his head. Each new glassful spawned a fresh version, in which he became wittier, stronger and increasingly attractive to the opposite sex (in one case, sweeping Ms Oswald – who, despite her height and huskiness of voice, Caesar had always found quite alluring – into the sort of kiss that only existed in those archaic, dusty Technicolor motion pictures that his mother had been so fond of). However, none of these visions inspired him to move, or reconnect his holophone and make the call. In his state of blissful drunkenness, he decided instead to log onto the Web – something he normally avoided (unless, of course, he had money to spend).          

“Welcome back, Caesar,” sighed the operator, in her usual state of ecstasy. “It’s been too long. We’ve missed you. Are you ready to connect?”          

Caesar nodded his head a fraction, but it was enough. In the blink of an eye, a 32-screen live action hologram built itself around him like a cage, woven from tiny fibres of blue-green light. Each individual square contained a different datafeed which vied for his attention.          

It took him 172 seconds to spend his first million. He was led through a digital bazaar where he wanted everything he saw. ATS meant that capitalism now operated mostly on an unconscious level, and so consumers no longer sought out products in the old way – there was no need for that. Anything you could possibly imagine and more was available for purchase, and you didn’t have to go looking for it – it found you. It was already waiting for you. It knew that you wanted it before you did.           Caesar bought rare printed first editions of Dietovsky, Marlowe, Heidegger and Kant; bootlegged mp3s from last century’s Russian garage/punk revival, thought to have been lost forever to the subsequent Government Suppression Initiative; memorabilia from the British Space Exploration Mission to Mars in 2114; an all-white baby Grand piano; a set of ornate bone-china teacups. He found a man who claimed to possess an original Van Gogh and Banksy’s Telephone Box and said he would be willing to part with them if the price was right. Another claimed that for just a few billion credits (a bargain, really) he could put individuals in direct communication with the one true God (although he explicitly avoided stating which of the many Gods on offer he meant). Safe to say, there were no money-back guarantees. Cynicism helped him steer his focus away from those two windows.          

He found manufacturers of hand-stitched clothes and a conversion device that would let him watch old films, playing formats long since out of use – digital video discs and magnetic tapes and even the old reels of film they used to use in the cinema houses, before they went out of fashion. He stumbled across bookstore after bookstore after bookstore, and bought more volumes than he possibly had space for. When he spotted a little paper notepad, bound in laser cut purple suede and complete with a matching click-top pen, he snapped that up too. He couldn’t recall a time that he had ever written on a piece of paper using ink. The closest he had ever come were novelty, digitised versions – a digital stylus made to look like a scroll, a peacock-feather quill disguising a digital pen, that sort of thing. This was real paper, and it came with real ink. The thought of owning it made him feel warm inside.

Ha! Like a true capitalist. Macmillan would be proud.

And yet, as he thought that, he knew that what he was looking for could not be found within the electronic matrix of the Web; that id party-house – he was looking in all the wrong places. It was just that he didn’t know where else to look.

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3 thoughts on “Chapter 1, from ‘The Light Station’ (a novel)

  1. Ha, no, that’s not bad – and yes, Caesar is very self-despairing at the beginning of the novel, and quite judgmental of others, but all of that will start to change once he makes the decision to leave the future colony and go outside. Hopefully, readers will really like him by the end.

    Liked by 1 person

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