Saving The World
The Horned Prince in London was not a popular pub. From the outside it looked respectable enough. It stood in the middle of a Georgian terraced street, its name displayed in gold over a neat black exterior. However, the locals avoided it. Tourists would occasionally venture inside, but they would not stay long. There was something about the bartender that put people off. He was tall and imposing, but that was not it. He would greet everyone with an easy smile and a genial welcome, but no one could quite meet his eye. A person who had seen him more than once might notice that his features seemed to change regularly, if they managed to override the urge to immediately think about something else.
Despite its lack of clientele, The Horned Prince remained. Nobody remembered when it had opened. Older people were sure they had never seen it when they were growing up. However, they could not pin down a memory of it not being there. The situation suited the bartender just fine. He preferred solitude, as it was a lot safer for him than the alternative. He would frown mentally whenever the door opened, despite his outward cheer. He happened to be doing that on a dreary Thursday afternoon, as an old man sidled in. Still, there were customs to be adhered to, so he smiled as the man hung up his wet coat and approached.
‘What’ll it be?’ he asked, as the stranger sat down on a wooden stool at the bar.
‘Surprise me,’ the man replied, his voice gruff and commanding. ‘You were always good at that, Lucifer.’
The bartender stiffened. Only one entity knew who he was.
‘What do you want?’ he demanded. Just asking the question filled him with dread.
‘How about we start with that drink?’ the old man replied. Lucifer grabbed a pint glass, and chose an ale at random. His hand trembled as he held the glass under the tap. He passed the drink across the bar. The man took a slow sip before he continued.
‘You’ve run from me for a long time, Lucifer but now the chase is over. Did you really think you could hide from me forever?’
‘It was worth a try. You didn’t give me a lot of options.’
‘I gave you all the options you could wish for. And yet you chose this,’ the man replied, gesturing around him. Lucifer knew that he was referring to far more than just the confines of the pub.
‘You made me the way I am, how can you blame me?’ he shot back from between clenched teeth.
‘Why didn’t you face me and find out?’ God replied, for that was who the man was. ‘If you felt like you could justify your actions, why did you run quite so quickly from my presence?’
‘I don’t know, it just… seemed like the right idea at the time. I was terrified, all right? I could feel how angry you were.’
God sighed. ‘I wasn’t angry. Ok, perhaps I was. I was more disappointed though.’
‘But why? I just wanted to create, to make you proud.’
‘I never doubted your intentions. It was how they translated to actions that dismayed me. The world was serene, harmonious. And then you created humans. These creatures who looked like us.’
‘I was trying to flatter you.’
‘Again, I never doubted your intentions. But your methods were flawed, Lucifer. So very flawed. Your creatures have proliferated across the Earth. They have become dangerous and wicked.’
Lucifer glowered at God. He knew he was in the wrong, but that just made him more defiant. His anger stifled his fear.
‘They’ve created kindness and beauty as well. Just look at their architecture.’
‘I know you still feel some level of affection for them. That’s why I’m finding this so hard.’ God took another sip from his pint. When He next spoke, His voice was strained, His tone regretful. ‘Things can’t continue like this.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Your actions have endangered all of creation. I had hoped that I would not need to track you down. But now, everything is in peril. I’ve come to you with hopes of saving the world.
‘Perhaps you already know, on some level at least. I think that after thousands of years, you were finally ready to be found. Why else would you open a pub called The Horned Prince? That’s what your creations sometimes call you. Can you sense it? Something is very wrong.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Lucifer retorted, but he was lying. He had been feeling anxious recently, like some calamity was upon the horizon. Humanity was often predicting their own destruction, but people were doing it far more, lately. Everyone seemed to sense what he did. He stared down at his impeccably neat black suit. He fiddled with his tie, avoiding looking at God. An awkward silence stretched out, and he caved in first.
‘Ok, yes, something’s wrong,’ he admitted. ‘It’s nothing to do with me though. Don’t believe the rumours of my own damned creations. Self-damned, mind, not my doing. I’m no devil, leading them astray. They’ve gone off the path I wanted for them. And I couldn’t exactly go intervening much, could I?’
Lucifer rolled his eyes. ‘Because you’d find me. I thought I was trying to avoid that.’
‘And yet here I am, practically invited by you,’ God said.
‘I noticed, so maybe I was bloody desperate to have you here after all,’ he replied with some scepticism. ‘Well like I said, whatever the humans are going to do, it’s not my fault any more. They stopped taking orders from me thousands of years ago. They called me a tyrant, and then a devil. Now I’m so ingrained into their folklore as pure malevolence, there’s no way they’ll listen to me.’
‘You still have influence over them, despite what you believe. And on the contrary, the current situation is all your fault, Lucifer,’ God replied. ‘By extension, that also makes it my fault.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I suppose it’s time I explained everything to you.’ He drained His pint glass.
‘You know of course that I made the universe. Well, that’s only half of the story. Your creations often ask the question that’s at the centre of the problem. Where did I come from? The truth is that I’m not unique. Not by a long shot. I belong to a race of immortals. We all have the same level of power.
‘Most of my people only care about balance, and preserving a constant state. Change is unpredictable, and in their eyes, dangerous. I was different. I dreamed, Lucifer. I wanted to create new things, new beings. In my society, the desire to alter too much is a crime. The only crime, in fact. Ironically, I was both rewarded and punished for it.
‘I had tried to expand my power outwards. Instead, I was sentenced to look inwards. My people bound me in a prison of my own design; my mind. I have been trapped there ever since.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Lucifer replied.
‘I told you, my powers are normal amongst my people. That means that any of us could do untold damage if we wished to. Anything we can imagine can come to pass. That is why they restricted my powers to my own mind. I could only change the inside of myself.’
‘So the universe, all parts of it, even me…’
‘Everything you have ever known, is simply a part of my imagination.’
‘But that’s preposterous! I have my own thoughts, my own personality. My humans, they think for themselves too.’
‘Yes and no,’ God said. ‘You all live in my subconscious, which is extensive to say the least. You feel like you are arguing with me. Actually you are not real. Right now, to any outside observer, I’m just a man arguing with myself.’
‘Why are you telling me all this?’ Lucifer demanded. ‘If it’s true, why don’t I know it already? And what’s this got to do with saving the world?’
‘Those are fair questions,’ God replied. ‘Do characters in dreams know everything? They are only aware of what the dreamer has allowed for them. It’s the same here. I have blocked bits of my memory from the part of myself that identifies as you. Someone of my race can be an entire society of conflicting opinions if they wish to, although I’m the only one to have chosen such a path.
‘As to why I’m telling you now, it’s necessary. For one such as I, the entire cosmos is trivial to think about, and therefore to make. Even living creatures do not tax me. But intelligent ones are a different matter. You and your humans, they all think for themselves. That takes a toll on my mental capacity. And humanity is growing all the time. There are over seven billion people on Earth, all reasoning and creating. My mind is unfathomably powerful to anyone inside it, but it is not limitless. I can feel the strain, Lucifer.
‘This was part of my punishment. I was deemed mad to want to change things. It was decided that my mind was to be destroyed. It was the only way to stop me for certain. My people are leaving that to me. I will create and create, until I have exceeded my boundaries. At this rate, that will not take long, perhaps only a hundred years or so. When that happens, I will literally think myself to death. I am this universe. When I die, it dies with me.’
Lucifer was stunned.
‘So all of my choices, my anger…’
‘All decisions that I made, really. I suppose you’re a bad joke that I torment myself with. I was punished for wanting to create. You’ve pushed me to the edge of insanity, just by doing the same. You’re an embodiment of the most creative part of my brain. We’re remarkably similar. Indescribable, our features ever shifting to suit our moods. Looking at you is like staring into a mirror for me.’
‘Is there anything I can do?’ Lucifer asked.
‘Your humans have given you the answer. They have painted you as an angel of death. Fulfil that role. Whisper into their minds. Be the devil they already believe you to be. Humanity is adept at war. All you need do is push them to act on their talents a bit more and give justification to their bloodlust.’
‘Why don’t you just wipe them out yourself?’
‘I have tried, but from the beginning, something has always stayed my hand. I feel like I need to be good. Hypocritical I know, but there it is. I suppose right now, I’m searching for the worst parts of my subconscious, and imbuing you with them. Keep humanity’s numbers manageable. Five billion is the maximum safe level. Any more than ten billion would likely destroy me. Your task is dark, but it’s for the greater good, Lucifer.’
‘Do I have a choice?’
‘Again, yes and no. I will make it, but I will do so as the part of me that believes it is you. Do I go mad, and pull everything into ruin, or do I manage the Earth’s human population and save my universe?’
God got up from the barstool. He went and pulled his coat on.
‘Thanks for the drink, Lucifer. I hope to see you again, for many centuries to come.’ He left the pub without another word. Lucifer frowned after Him.
‘I will have to lead humanity through a new level of Hell,’ he muttered. He hated the very idea of his task, but he knew it needed to be done. By damning some of the world, he would be saving the rest of it.
A New Hope? By Vartika Vala
A breakthrough was made earlier this week when scientists revealed they have found a planet identical to ours. They have gone as far as saying it could be our sister planet, an image of Earth, a parallel world. There will be a special investigation on Tube 3 tonight. People are invited to write in with their question which the scientists will attempt to answer in a live action programme...
Paulo put the file of cuttings down. It seemed like only yesterday that he'd been one of the people who'd phoned in. He remembered his question clearly: if this world is a parallel world, does that mean there is another me? The question had gone unanswered, all they ahd was theories, in the end. Every single question was thought through and the eminent scientists' respone was the same each time: we're not sure. It had been a waste of time, really, just another way we use the media to forget what's going on around us; create meaningless diversions to take our minds off the fact that we are drowning in our own disasters...
It was also to give some hope, Paulo recalled. There had been warnings for decades; climate change, terrorism, sea levels rising, pollution, the techno ceiling, over-population. The list went on. By 2031 everyone was thoroughly sick of being told what to do and how to live and they'd all given up. So the techno ceiling had been breached, the internet had gone bang, countries disappeared under flood water, thousands, no, millions died, and so on and so on. Those that were left just got on with it as best they could. Things had settled in the 2070s and with the discovery of Fuel99, space travel became possible and there was a new idea: find a new world and move there.
Paulo had been one of the first to sign up. He remembered his mother's pleasure and pride in his decision, followed by her worry she'd never see him again. He put the newspaper cuttings away in the cupboard and took out the bundle of her letters, written to him whilst away in China, training. He thought about reading them again but he missed her so much and the last time it'd thrown him into a fit of despair so deep he'd nearly gone in the escape pod. To oblivion. They'd told him not to bring letters but he'd sneaked them on board.
He went to eat and wrote his log and stared at the on screen monitor, wishing again the world had listened when they warned of the techno ceiling. Nobody had believed it. If they had, he'd be able to be in contact with Earth right now. Occasionally he could pick up a broadcast from one of the other ships, but it was patchy, at best. At least he got to go back eventually. Some of the others were staying, to try and use the new planet's communications systems. They'd called it Earth Two, which Paulo had thought completely unoriginal. Also, he thought - as he often did - what if those eminent scientists from home had got it all wrong? He and the other five astronauts were supposed to arrive on Earth Two, a planet just like earth in every way except in time. Earth Two was ahead, probably around 200 years, and this meant answers, hope, help, a new home - it meant everything to those on a dying planet. It was their future. They could cut corners, find out how Earth Two dealt with problems, assuming they'd had the same ones. And why shouldn't they have had the same ones? The planets were identical, same issues, same conditions... It worried Paulo that scientists couldn't exactly explain how they'd worked this out, but they assured him it was correct and he took their word for it. After all, the pay was enough to keep his siblings wealthy for the rest of their lives and he got to be part of history.
He shouldn't have looked at the paper. It made him think too much; sent his thoughts spiralling out of control into theories and suppositions and worries.
He signed off on his log, sent out a goodnight message to the other ships, and took a weeklong sleeping pill.
When he woke, it was to crashing sounds and alarms. He sat up, groggy but shocked, rubbing his eyes, trying to work out what had happened. He looked at his watch. He'd only been asleep for three days instead of seven and now he'd be playing catch up, trying to waken a body that was still asleep. He groaned. He wondered ho bad it would be if he just lay back down, and slid back off to sleep. nothing should be able to penetrate a weeklong.
The alarms blared louder and froced him out of bed and to the control room.
Earth Two five hours! flashed the screens and Paulo frowned - that wasn't correct - he wasn't due to arrive for another three weeks. He swallowed some caffeine pills and jumped up and down on the spot until he felt more awake. he looked at the screens and the readings and concluded, that the on board comp was correct.
Damn, he breathed to himself. He wasn't ready. His stomach flipped and he went into panic mode, running about the ship, sorting, making ready, setting landing sequences, checking settings, writing his log, sending desperate messages to the other ships. There was no reply from anyone.
Three hours later he felt awake and ready. He tried sending messages to Earth Two but there was no response. His sequences bounced back. he watched the green-blue planet approach through the large front screen. It looked the same. It looked JUST the same, from up here. A flicker of excitement ran through him. He set the ship's path to Orbit to give him time to work out what to do, where to land. His instructions were Asia, as on a future Earth that was where the party would be, so to speak, but in the end the eminent scientists has said it was up to him. As he went into Earth Two's orbit, he saw with horror there was soemthing very very wrong.
There was no space junk, no satellites winging around the planet, no space staions, disused, no new space stations, as expected. What did it mean? Paulo rubbed his beard, chewed his thumb. Maybe they'd just learned to clean up? It was in the future plan for Earth, when they had the technology.
Paulo tried again to contact Earth Two but there was nothing, no signals coming back; in fact no signals at all. He'd had no response from the others in his team, in their ships either. He was alone. To spress his rising panic, Paulo began to plan a route in and set the ship's landing sequence. He decided on China, and set the course for what had been New Shanghi, where he'd trained. His little ship turned and fought with the orbit for a few seconds, then set itself on the new course. Paulo sat in the landing chair, strapped himself in and braced himself. He stared through the front screen, at the greenish blue planet that was coming closer, and closer. From here, it looked just like home.
As the ship began to fight with the atmosphere, a terrible thought struck Paulo. if the scientific team on earth had got the travel time wrong, what else had they got wrong? What if it wasn't 200 years in the future? What if he landed in the middle of a war, or... The atmosphere was different to the one at home. It felt thicker, somehow. Paulo began to sweat in his landing suit. He felt his head shaking and wondered if he'd even survive the entry. His last thought, before he blacked out, was of his mother and how he hoped he'd made her proud.
When he woke, he was still strapped in his seat, but he was upside down. He looked around, feeling an ache in his neck and head. The ship looked intact, from here. Had he really survived? Was he dreaming?
Slowly, he extricated himself from the landing chair. He hung from the edge of the seat for a second, then lowered himself down. The screen was jammed in front so Paulo went to the door and began tapping in the sequence of codes needed to open it. It took him ten minutes to get through the three doors. By the outer one, he paused. I'm about to make history, he thought. I'm here, on our sister planet! He wished his mother were here to see him. He thought of her pride when he got home, their escape plan in hand, their future secured.
He opened the final door.
When he stepped out he knew in an instant something wasn't right. This wasn't 200 years in the future. Unless... unless something had gone wrong on Earth Two. He was on sand, in a wide expanse of yellow. In the distance were brown and yellow huts, with figures standing about. It was hot, so hot. Paulo undid his suit. It felt like Earth; the figures by the huts were human. Paulo began to run towards them, waving his hands, shouting in excitement.
Before he reached them, he stopped. He recognised this place. It was a place of sand and oases. A camel stood, watching him warily. The figures came closer and closer still. He stopped, and held up his hands as if to say, I'm harmless! But he wanted to run to them and embrace them, feel another body next to his.
Soon he was surrounded. Someone prodded him. Their faces were hostile. They wore robes, carried leather bottles.
I'm in the past, he thought wildly. Something's wrong.
He knew several languages and tried Hebrew first. It was a good guess.
He sat down on the sand. He should never have come here.
A woman approached him. She reminded him of his mother, back on Earth. She cried out and embraced him. Gently, she reached out and touched his face.
'Jesus?' she said, wonder in her voice. 'You've come back? But I thought... I saw you die on that cross...'
Paulo shook his head. 'No,' he tried to say. 'No.' But then he thought about the implications, the possibilities... he realised what had happened.
'Mother,' he said. 'I've come back...'
Emily Ethel, 83, lived next door to Albert. She sat at her window with a blanket over her knees and watched his comings and goings. To her he looked rather sad. One day she asked one of her carers if she would put a note through Albert's door:
"Dear Neighbour (it read)
I'm sorry I don't know your name, but would you like to call round for a cup of tea? It would be lovely to get to know you. I'm here all the time.
Albert picked up the note on his doormat, peered at it, snorted and tore it up. One of his campaigning friends called round soon after and Albert said that he had "a come-on from some bird next door." The friend made a crude joke and the pair of them guffawed about women and their supposed obsessions.
Emily Ethel was disappointed that she got no reply to her note. She continued to watch Albert from her window. He looked in her direction sometimes and once she waved but he didn't didn't see her.
The months went by and a new pizza restaurant opened near to where Albert and Emily Ethel lived in neighbouring houses. They both received publicity fliers through their letter-boxes. Albert tore his up. Emily Ethel read hers several times. Generally her carers warmed tins of soup and stew for her. She longed for something different and suddenly it had landed on her doorstep. The restaurant was offering to deliver take-away pizzas. She decided that she would try one. The carers were doubtful. Did she really think that she could manage? Pizza crusts could be hard to chew, they said. Emily Ethel was tired of their caution.
"No," she said, "Please don't worry. Please order one for me tomorrow. No need to call in and get me lunch."
Her carer did so but no pizza arrived. It was delivered, in error, to Albert, who sent it away with a sneer of disgust. He had never, he said, heard of a Miss Ethel. Next door, Emily Ethel went hungry.
Christmas approached. The campaign group to which Albert belonged organised a meal out in the pizza restaurant. Albert refused to go. It had, he said, poor ethical standards. He was also, he said, surprised that they, his friends, were compromising their principles. They were, he said, supposed to be Saving the World.
When there was a power cut in his and the nearby streets on the night of the meal, Albert was gleeful. His friends wouldn't be having their pizza. He opened a can of soup and ate it, cold, from the can. Next door, Emily Ethel - who had not owned up to the previous failure to get a pizza delivered - had told her carers that she would like them to order her a take-away again. The pizza restaurant tried to ring her that evening to explain why they could not deliver, but her arthritic fingers made her fumble and drop the telephone receiver. She had a can of soup in the kitchen, but her arthritic fingers could not work the can-opener. Emily Ethel went hungry. And she was cold. Very cold. She tried knocking on the wall. Albert heard her knocking but he ignored her.
Next day the carers found Emily Ethel dead in her chair. The doctor, when he came, said that it could have happened any time. They should not feel guilty, he said. One of the carers remembered the note which Emily Ethel had sent to her neighbour and knocked on Albert's door to let him know. Albert was offhand. So some old bird had died. What did it have to do with him?
Albert sat down and wrote a letter to his MP about hunger in the third world. He wrote a good letter and as he popped it into the post box he felt a warm glow. He was, he knew, doing his bit to Save the World.