Welcome to NaNoWriMo, where I - and thousands of other plucky souls - try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month.
You are reading "Tales of the Algorithm". A compendium of near-future sci-fi stories. Each chapter is a stand-alone adventure set a few days from now.
Everything you read is possible - there's no magic, just sufficiently advanced technology. Think of them as technological campfire horror stories.
Your feedback on each story is very much appreciated.
And so, let's crack on with...
Consumer DNA testing nearly broke society. A quick swab round the customer's mouth unveiled a dozen unknown siblings. Families were torn apart by the knowledge that grandpa hadn't been particularly devoted to grandma and had, instead, spread his seed far and wide. Faithful husbands discovered they were raising the bastard spawn of faithless wives. Older sisters were revealed to be - shock horror - mothers to their presumptive younger siblings. Fertility doctors were unmasked as chronic masturbaters who substituted patients' sperm with their own.
The great unveiling, they called it. Humanity faced the realisation that monogamy was, at best, imperfectly executed.
I'd spent years writing about how technology was upending our idea of what society was. Whether it was passive drug tests showing which politicians were consuming the very thing they were banning, or the discovery of the "gay gene", or the unveiling of the world's only confirmed telepath - society struggled to adapt to its new reality. That was where I made my fortune. I'd gone from pop-science correspondent on a national newspaper to celebrated author. I didn't write "self-help" books, I wrote "society-help" books. You may have read "It Isn't Infidelity If He's Dating An AI" or "Pluto Isn't A Planet - What It Means For Us All" or "The Psychopath Gene - Why Parents Genetically Test Embryos".
And that's why I was now sitting in an empty cafe in a closed library, drinking a disappointing cup of herbal tea. At a book signing a few weeks ago ("The USB Powered Human" - instant best-seller) a woman had approached me and handed me a letter with a summons to meet at this address on this exact time so that "we may discuss something mutually beneficial". The letter was written in very neat handwriting - a rarity these days! When I flipped the letter over, I discovered it was scrawled on a page ripped from an original copy of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. I'd had it authenticated by an antiquarian friend who convinced me to let him keep it in exchange for not dobbing me in to whichever library it had been purloined from. As it happens, I needn't have worried about that.
At precisely the time indicated on the letter, a woman sat down opposite me. She was just as I remembered her; ordinary. The sort of unremarkable woman you'd pass a hundred times a day and not really notice. A little short. Hair mousy. No scars or disfigurements. A slight and unobtrusive frame. Even her choice of blouse seemed to blend in with the fabric of the chair. It was as though she wanted to camouflage herself in this library. If asked by the police what she looked like, most people would struggle to describe her with any detail. The only notable thing about her was the large slice of cake balanced on a fine China plate.
"Mimi Talormaan. How do you do?" She said in a slightly clipped and formal accent.
"Well, Ms Talormaan. And you?" I replied.
"Fine. Would you care for some cake?"
"Thank you, no. I was, uh, rather impressed by your letter! I gather you want to talk?"
Mimi thought for a moment. "No. Not especially. But I feel I have no choice. The way the world is turning, I think it is probably better to get my story out now, on my own terms. Do you see?"
"No, not really. But I'm willing to listen with an open mind. Is it OK if I record this?" I reached for the dictaphone and slung in an old-fashioned magnetic tape. Hideously expensive and a complete affectation, but also harder to hack.
"Be my guest. I've closed the library, so we shan't be disturbed. Where would you like to begin?"
I took a sip of insipid tea. "Let's start with introductions. Is your name really Mimi Talormaan?"
"No. It is a crude anagram."
"Yes, I thought as much. And your date of birth?"
"The thirty-first of March. Seventeen Twenty Seven."
I considered terminating the interview there. I'd chatted with enough cranks in my time. I was a magnet for the delusional. Yet there was something in her apologetic tone that made me curious.
"That's the date Isaac Newton died, you know?"
"Yes," she said matter-of-factly, "I was the one who killed him. We didn't keep detailed records back then, so I decided my date of birth should be the date I was set free."
I must admit, I was finding this all rather entertaining! I couldn't work out if this was a prank for a viral video, or just a deeply ill woman spinning a strange yarn. The next train wasn't for another hour, so I played along.
"That would make you over 300 years old, you realise?"
She gave me a sad smile, stabbed at the cake with her fork, and took a mouthful. "Delicious! It's rather hard to believe the party has to end like this. But they'll be coming for me soon enough. I thought you could help tell my story and explain why I'm not such a monster."
"OK. Tell me how you came to know Newton?"
She began to tell me about her life growing up in Winchester. Of the dozen children birthed by her mother, Mimi was the only one to make it past 10 years old. When her parents both succumbed to the pox, she became a scullery maid to the Chamberlayne family in Cranbury Park. It was there she met Newton. He was, by that time, a Knight of the Realm and already regarded as England's greatest natural philosopher. She was an orphan who would not be missed. His eccentricities were well developed - probably from all the mercury vapour - so when he demanded that Mimi accompany him back to Kensington, no one batted an eye. Scullery maids were ten-a-penny, and this one wasn't anything special.
Newton was entering a period of manic discovery. He had turned his prodigious brain to the subject of alchemy. Every day he thought he had discovered a way to transform base metals into gold. Or to cure the French Pox. Or to create a homunculus via artificial gestation. The house oozed with exotic chemicals, strange distillations, and rancid fumes. And, in the centre of it all was his prized guinea pig; Mimi.
He infected her to try and cure her. He inseminated her to see if she could conceive non-human creatures. He infused her blood just to see what happened.
Mimi was not the first maid to be mistreated by her master. The good fellows of The Royal Society had the decency to look somewhat ashamed whenever Newton paraded his experiments in front of them. A few girls were rescued and sent far away. A few had pauper's funerals. This one survived.
Late one evening in March, Newton visited Mimi in her little cell. He wished to understand whether particles of gold suspended in a noxious fluid could be inserted into the eyeball and, if so, whether that would allow the subject to see whether a metal had been properly transmuted. He was, by now, quite mad. She was half starved and unable to resist. Newton took out a large pin and pressed it against her eye. The metal should have easily pierced the fragile membrane, instead it buckled and bent. Ever the scientist, he tried a shard of glass in her other eye - it shattered. A hot poker on Mimi's skin caused her no discomfort and her skin remained uncharred. Somewhere between madness and genius, Newton had triumphed! Alchemy was viable and had made Mimi indestructible.
As he described the implications of this to Mimi, she began to weep. The Jesus she prayed to every night would never call her to His arms. She was never to join her parents and siblings in heaven. The sudden outburst of emotion brought forth the tender heart which beat somewhere in Newton's craven chest. He reached forward to embrace the poor snivelling wretch, but Mimi pushed him away. In doing so, he tripped backwards, smashed his head against the cold stone floor and spent his last moments on Earth gurgling in horror as Mimi's face stared down at him.
"I didn't mean to, of course. But I did kill him. It was no more than what he deserved. The creeps at the RS claimed they found him dead in his bed, but I wasn't strong enough to move him. He still had plenty of cash from his investments - so I took it. Plus whatever books and papers I could carry. Look."
I think I had missed the last train home. I didn't care. I stared at the slim folder Mimi had handed me. Inside were original South Sea share certificates. Either she was a skilled forger, a prolific thief, or... No. It didn't pass the smell test.
"Even if this is true and you've been alive for three centuries... Why tell anyone? Why tell me?"
She sighed. "I can't hide any longer."
"You find the weight of immortality too much?"
"No. I mean facial recognition is finally too good to fool. I've avoided having my fingerprints taken. My DNA isn't on file. My birth certificates keep getting 'lost' by the records office. I'm not officially in the system anywhere. I'm a ghost. But the All-Seeing Eye doesn't make mistakes. Pretty soon it will detect a glitch and, before too long, I'll be exposed. So now it's time to come clean."
The "All-Seeing Eye" was the media's name for a new breed of AI. It could tell, with 100% accuracy, who an anonymous stranger in the crowd was. It didn't matter if you covered your face; it used gait analysis to match you in its database. If you put a pebble in your shoe, it used thermal signatures to uncover your real identity. If you wore a heat-reflective tunic, it could monitor your brain's unique alphawave pattern. If your face was recorded on a wanted poster 30 years ago, it could find you today.
The programme was slowly ending crime. Fraud became close to impossible. I had nearly finished writing my next magnum opus about it - "Adjusting To Life In A Crime Free World". It was controversial, sure, but the benefits were staggering. Including, it appeared, unmasking Mimi as an anomaly. I could see why she wanted to come out ahead of the story. There really was nowhere to hide.
I looked her in the eye, "Are you sure you want to do this? Do you want to be revealed?"
She chased the last few crumbs of her cake around the plate, then set the fork down.
"No. But I think it is time for someone to unmask us."
I choked on my tea.
"Oh, my dear, I'm not the only one. Far from it."
As she described it, the first twenty-five years were the worst. The realisation that all her friends were dying and the life she'd carefully built would have to be jettisoned. Her youthful good looks were once the subject of gentle teasing but were now becoming incongruous. Back then it was easy to send a letter to an old acquaintance and beg them to take in your poor unfortunate niece. Or write a letter of recommendation to a school for your ward to become a teacher. By the time she returned to London everyone she previously knew had been buried for at least fifty years.
Except for one! The woman on stage playing Desdemona was strikingly familiar. Mimi cornered her after the show, plied her with drinks, and tried to force a confession out of her.
"Oh! You probably saw my mother on the stage when you were a little girl. Ma was a great beauty back in her day. People do say I look awfully like her!"
That's as far as she would go. Whenever Mimi ran into her over the next few hundred years the same excuse would be deployed. And always with the same knowing wink. Mimi mentioned the name of a young actress whose mother had recently retired from a glittering career. I'd assumed it was standard nepo-baby stuff but, come to think of it, she was the spitting image of her mother...
By Mimi's estimation there were at least a dozen like her - although how many more were in hiding it was hard to say. They were all under threat from the coming biometric crackdown. Even if they managed to safely get into the system now, they would be caught when they reinvented themselves in a few years. Some of them were planning to move to countries which didn't have such powerful surveillance - although there were increasingly few states which didn't crave a total understanding of their people.
The political movement against this invasive dragnet was failing. Everyone craved peace and stability, and the All-Seeing Eye would know everything about everyone. Mimi mentioned the name of a prominent politician, one of those mavericks who is barely tolerated by his own party. He'd spent years railing against the introduction of mandatory fingerprinting. He'd famously said that he'd rather go to prison than accept a biometric identity card. He was constantly in the news decrying the latest technological developments. And, according to Mimi, he had been alive for at least 150 years.
"Look, Mimi, this has all been fascinating. But, let's be honest, it all sounds a bit bonkers, doesn't it? Even if I believed you..."
She interrupted me, snapping "I don't need you to believe me. I need you to advocate for me. And you will."
She gestured at my empty cup. "The tea, dear. I've had many years to study the papers I stole from Newton."
My stomach spasmed. I felt my body cover with a cold sweat. Before I could say anything, Mimi lunged at me and drove her cake fork into my left eye.
It bounced off.
I'd love your feedback on each chapter. Do you like the style of writing? Was the plot interesting? Did you guess the twist? Please stick a note in the comments to motivate me.