How am I going to die? Reuben pondered. He knew When; he had been told. The Why was not important to him; he didn’t believe in a higher purpose, people just died. But the How bothered him.
Monday: decision day. Today, he would finally find out the How, if he said yes.
It had all begun four days earlier, on the same snow-covered Waterloo Bridge, with a helping hand to a passing stranger:
Reuben had overslept; the nightmares had been keeping him awake again and as a result, he had been late for work. The lack of sleep had left him in a daze, trudging amongst the hundreds of other zombie commuters.
When will they end? A month, plagued by these incessant night terrors. And always the same question? How are you going to die? It will be soon, but how?
He was rudely awoken from his vegetative state by a forty-something suited man, who bumped past, overtaking Reuben, at speed. As he passed, his outstretched foot caught an icy paving slab. He stumbled, but before he could fall, Reuben pushed his hand under the man’s shoulder, steadying him and preventing the stumble from escalating into a fall.
“Aiyoh, Thank you,” said the stranger.
“You’re welcome,” Reuben replied. “Are you ok?”
“Yes, fine, thank you. I really must thank you, lah.” The two men continued their walk across the bridge.
“It was nothing, really.”
“One day, I hope to repay the favour, and that day will be soon.”
“Mmmm.” Reuben was not sure how to respond, so he smiled dumbly. From the man’s accent, he was obviously not a local; from his business attire he was apparently not a tourist. Reuben was good with accents, but this one was odd: not American, not African, and not Antipodean; a strange accent that he had heard before, but he could not remember from when or from where.
To avoid starting a conversation and being even later for work, Reuben upped his pace, careful not to slip. His new companion matched him.
"You did a solid thing. To return the favour, I’m going to tell you something really important that will give you a damn shiok; something that will save your life." The strange man continued, undeterred by Reuben’s indifference. "In a few days, you are going to go on a long journey: a journey of no return, lah. Someone will contact you in a while to discuss the travel arrangements."
Before Reuben could discover anything more, the man turned the corner and disappeared.
What did this stranger have to tell me?
No! Get a grip! This man was just another crazy; Reuben attracted them. The odd thing was that he looked totally normal, apart from the weird accent. He was medium height, a little shorter than Reuben’s five foot and eleven inches and of a stocky build. His hair was grey and cut short, crew cut style; he had no distinct features that would make him stand out from the other commuters walking across Waterloo Bridge. He did not look mad; but if he was, he was definitely not the common or garden-variety of mad.
"Unfortunately," the tannoy started. That was never a good sign. "The next train to Bank will be delayed by approximately five minutes. We apologise for the delay to your journey."
Damn! It was one o’clock in the afternoon and Reuben was standing at Platform Two on the Central Line, at Holborn Tube Station. He was on his way to a meeting and was mulling over the forthcoming day’s activities. He had all but forgotten about his encounter on Waterloo Bridge, when:
“Hello again,” said a voice from behind Reuben. He turned to see the same stranger, from that morning, come alongside him.
“Are you following me?” Reuben asked, annoyed by the stranger’s persistence.
“No. I did not mean to shiok you. I am not a stalker, if that is what you are worried about?”
“If you’re not a stalker, then what are you, and what do you want?”
“I am here to save your life.”
The stranger noted Reuben’s sceptical gaze and responded: “Ok, so you probably think I am mentally disabled or worse. But would a madman know all your details?”
The delayed train would be a while. So, in the meantime, what harm would it do to entertain this madman?
Hell, it might even make the minutes go faster.
“Go on.” Reuben said. “You’ve got about four minutes to convince me.”
“I could do this slow and easy, to get you acclimatised to the shiok of what is about to happen to you, or I could just tell you and hope that your brain does not explode, lah. Four minutes would allow you the second option. So I will start…”
“Your name is Reuben Ecorse. You are 34, you were born in London and have lived here all your life. Before you interrupt, I do realise that any of the above facts could have been lifted from a myriad of social networking sites. But what they would not be able to tell me is these following facts. Are you ready?” Reuben nodded. “Your PIN code for the bank is 5694 but it is of little use as you have very little saved up. You are afraid of the dark and by day you are an Architect, but you have a secret desire to be a Rock Star. And finally, you will die in seven days.”
“Questions at the end, please. I am not an angel, nor am I blurred. I am a man from the 22nd century. You have a choice, lah. Either you can die, or you can come with me to the future. Someone will contact you shortly to discuss the details.”
“What? Don’t I get to ask you any questions….” Reuben was interrupted by the thundering arrival of the train. The doors opened directly in front of the two men.
“This is your train, I believe. You do not want to be late for your meeting,” the stranger said as he shoved Reuben onto the train; the doors closed. Reuben turned and looked through the window to see the man disappear into the distance.
The only rational explanation was that someone had concocted an elaborate hoax with Reuben as the patsy. They had hired an actor to approach Reuben and tell him bizarre things to mess with his mind. Who was sick enough to come up with such a ploy?
No. No one else knew his PIN code and no one alive knew he was afraid of the dark. Could it all be just a coincidence? First the visions proclaiming his looming death and then this stalker, professing the very same thing.
Would it be a painful death? How will I die? No, Reuben concluded. The stranger was obviously a rogue with a sick sense of humour: time travel was impossible, as was predicting the future.
But how could he have known my PIN?
It was dark on his journey to work and it was dark now, at 6 o’clock on his journey back home. He shivered and pulled his collar up to guard against the cold winter winds.
His mind was wondering back to thoughts of death, as his foot left the curb, ready to arrive on the tarmac road.
“Watch out!” He froze in time to see a truck hurtle past him. Its headlights were off and the rest of the traffic had drowned out its engine. He turned back to nod his appreciation to the man behind him.
“Hello Reuben. Fancy seeing you here?”
“Hey Seth! How you doing?”
A friend, Seth Long, had saved him. They had met at a party a month earlier. Seth had been a new arrival from the Bahamas and had been staying with the party’s host, till he found a place. Reuben had not gotten laid that night, but the party had not been a complete failure: he had met Seth and the two had immediately warmed to each other, Reuben agreeing to show the newcomer around London. “What are you doing here? You moved out of Nat’s, then?”
“Yes, a couple of weeks ago. I am actually on my way to my new flat”
Reuben estimated that Seth was in his early forties (he had never asked), lanky, with brown hair, pale brown eyes and was dressed as he had been the first time they had met. On that first encounter, Reuben had instantly known that Seth had not been a local: from the clothes he had worn, the apparel of a tourist. Not the un-cool over-bearing tourist types with their bum-bags, or the stuffy over-organised tourist types with their socks under their walking sandals. He was dressed like an old-school Indiana Jones-eque adventurer; there was a spring in his step that reminded Reuben of the turn of the century explorers, captivating all whom they met with their contagious passion for discovery…
“You got nothing planned for tonight?” Seth asked.
Reuben was also on his way home; a friend, at the last minute, had stood him up.
“No. I was planning an early night.”
“Since we both have nothing to do, you want to get a quick drink?”
“I’ve got an early start tomorrow,” Reuben lied; he had nothing planned. “Well, I suppose I can go for a quick one.”
“It is not difficult to break your arm, I mean twist your arm,” Seth said. “I have discovered a great place not far from here, if it interests you?”
They caught a black cab on Waterloo Bridge and five minutes later, they were dropped off at Borough High Street, south of London Bridge. Reuben had been thankful for the respite from the cold wind. As he stepped out of the cab, he was not looking forward to experiencing it once more.
“It is just over here,” Seth said as he led Reuben into a narrow opening between two buildings; the opening revealed a courtyard.
“This is the George Inn,” Seth proclaimed pointing to his right. “This public house was established in the medieval period.” Seth paused for dramatic effect but in doing so registered that his audience of one was unimpressed, so he continued: “Time for a drink. Do you want to take it out here: in the courtyard, or go inside?”
“Are you kidding?” Reuben responded, shivering.
“Ah, yes, it is a bit cold.”
The two men entered the wide-fronted but shallow inn.
“What is your poison?” Seth asked.
“Two pints of Guinness, please,” Seth asked the barmaid.
“Enjoy your drinks,” was the barmaid’s way of letting the patrons know that their drinks were ready and that she wanted paying.
“Let us sit over there,” Seth said, pointing to a small wooden table with two chairs in the corner of the bar. “So Reuben, what is new with you? Do you have any juicy gossip?”
“Where do I start?” Reuben said, as both men sat down. “To be honest, the last few days have been pretty strange for me, being harassed by a weird stranger and plagued by some seriously macabre dreams. Hey Seth, I don’t mean to unload on you…”
“Do not be silly,” Seth interrupted. “That is what nights like this are for. Tell me everything, every weird and sordid detail.”
Reuben proceeded to explain his recurring visions. “…It’s become a nightly occurrence and this is from a guy who never usually dreams.”
“Go on, I am intrigued,” Seth encouraged.
“To cap things off, two days ago, I meet this guy who knows intimate details about me and who proceeds to tell me that I am going to die, soon. He concludes with the revelation that he has come from the future to save me.”
“Ok, lah” Seth said leaning back on his chair, arms crossed with a smirk on his face. Reuben could feel the Guinness start to take effect and could perceive the same stirrings in his friend. The warmth of the pub melted his musings and allowed the potency of the stout to venture ever deeper into his subconscious. From deep within, a thought was freed.
“No really. But that wasn’t the strange part; the strangest bit was his accent. A little like yours, no offence, but a uniquely bizarre accent.”
“Bizarre, lah,” Seth agreed, leaning forward onto the table, the smile fading.
“So, I have these habitual nightmares, proclaiming my imminent death. Then I meet this stranger who tells me that I’m going to die, and both the stranger and you have the same weird way of speaking. What are the chances of that; what a number of coincidences to occur in just under a month?”
“So, you think that they are all just coincidences?”
“What do you mean? Are you saying that they might be linked?”
“Reuben, I am not saying that there might be a link… I know there is a link… And that link is me.”
“The link is you?” Reuben asked, not really understanding where Seth was going with this.
“Exactly Reuben. It is not a coincidence, and for your information, our accents are from the 22nd century and my associate, Norman Kanabar, is correct: you will die very soon.”
“I’m in no mood for your fooling about!” Reuben stated. Seth had a penchant for practical jokes and Reuben was not finding this one very funny.
“I am not joking. Look Reuben, I have been trying to find the most opportune moment to tell you the truth about who I am and what my real task is here. Well I guess I have found it…
Reuben, I am from the future, and I have come here to save your life.
Right…would you like another drink?”
“Am I going to need it?” Reuben surmised yes, but he thought he had better ask.
“Do you want to hear about your death with an empty glass, or would you prefer to be comforted by a satisfying full pint?” Seth asked.
“Fair point, anyway it’s my round,” Reuben said as he shakily got to his feet. This was not the alcohol at work: he had only had one drink. Was it fear?
When Reuben returned, he calmly placed the two full pints on the table and said: “Now it’s your turn to tell me everything.”
“Right, let us begin… In summary, you will have an accident in a few days that will result in your death. This is confirmed in the records of my time: death certificates, news reports etc. We are offering you an opportunity to cheat death and continue living, not here and now: but in my world of the future.
We are offering you an alternative to death.”
“Let’s just ignore the fact that you might be crazy or that this might be some elaborate hoax.” Reuben said. “If we suspend belief for a few minutes and I summarize: you’re asking me to choose between life or death? Stay here and die or go with you and live? You’re making this sound like a no-brainer. Life or death? I choose life every time!”
“Wait. It is not as simple as that. If you die, we are not sure what happens to you. Either there is no afterlife and you are just food for maggots, or you go to Nirvana and live in eternal bliss. Either way, you do not feel loss, you do not miss your loved ones and you will never feel homesick. That cannot be said for our alternative.
Although the world of the future is better: we have healed poverty and we are at harmony with Mother Nature, you will still be human and as such you will still feel pain; you will still miss home.”
“You’re not doing a good job of selling this,” Reuben interjected.
“Those are the psychological drawbacks but there are also the physiological ones. On the day of your collection: you arrive in a beautiful place with blue skies, the smell of roses and a cooling breeze blowing through your hair. The only reason you know that you have not died and gone to heaven is because if you were dead you would not feel so bad. We call it Travel Sickness: stomach cramps, headaches and general nausea when you make the time jump. In essence: you come out on the other side feeling like crotte. Do not worry, it does not last for long- it fades in a day or less.
I suppose what I am saying is that if you are religious, choose Heaven,
if you are not, I believe my option beats being eaten by maggots.”
“Charming.” Reuben took another gulp from his glass. “And… What’s in it for you?”
“Good question. What do we have to gain by helping you cheat death?
Seth spent the next ten minutes, and the rest of his pint, explaining to Reuben the problems of the future and how Reuben would help….
When Seth had finished, Reuben’s head was left spinning with an overdose of information, so to help clear his head, Seth went to the bar. He returned with fresh pints of lager and handed one to Reuben, who promptly raised his glass and said:
“Cheers to the New World! Now for the practicalities: How do you fake my death?”
“Before you are scheduled to die, we will transport you to the future. We then place a replacement corpse at the scene of your death, for the authorities to find. This body is an already deceased individual from our time. You see, from when I come from, everyone carries something like your ‘Donor Cards’, which allows their remains to be used in this program.”
The pub was starting to fill with patrons. As the bar became noisier and their heads became more intoxicated, their voices started to rise.
“Why now. I mean why come back to this time specifically, why 2010?”
“After this date, all citizens are obliged to possess IDs that record their biometrics, their finger prints, height, eye scans, everything.”
“Well, you can not just plant a fake ID on a decapitated replacement corpse; it makes it harder to fake a death!” Seth explained a little too loudly. The barmaid looked over, amused at their topic of conversation. Seth continued in a more moderated tone, “And I guess you are going to ask next: why not go further back? Well the closer we are to my time, the easier it is for the Progenitors, like you to acclimatise to their new world: it reduces their jet-lag because they have got less distance, or time to travel.
You have two days to deliberate. You will not be contacted until after the weekend. At that point you need to have made your choice. A ‘maybe’ will be considered a no. Decide ‘yes’, and there is no turning back.”
“Are you going to tell me how I die?” Reuben asked.
“Only after and if you say ‘yes’.”
“What… So you have the chance to save me. And you won’t!”
“Reuben, We cannot risk distorting history and detrimentally affecting our future. Whatever happens in four days, the historical records will say you died, whether we fake your death or whether you die for real.”
“So, if I say no, I die… for real.”
“Look, I am sorry, but there are bigger things at stake here than your life. If you do not die here, we do not know what might happen. If you continue to live in this time, the son you eventually have might grow up to create a weapon that destroys the world. The consequences of altering the timeline are immeasurable. I know it sounds callous, but this is how it has to be; that is the truth.
And truth is, for some people, death is the better of the two options.”
“Ok.” Reuben did not understand.
“Look, there is something else… This is quite a young program and, well, we have not quite perfected the process. We have no difficulty in delivering Collectors, like me, from the future into the past… But we have had less success the other way, with the Progenitors.”
“What do you mean exactly by: less success?” Reuben asked.
“Well we have tried this sixteen times already… look Reuben, you have the right to know… I mean, I believe you should know everything in order to make an informed decision.” Seth had had a few too many drinks, and as he said his words, he realised that he might have revealed too much.
“I’m listening,” Reuben prompted.
“If you choose to go, and you reach your destination, well, you would be the first.”
“How I see it,” Seth concluded more forcefully. “How I see it, is that if you do not believe in God and the associated afterlife etc.: half a chance is better than no chance.”
Both men sat in silence for a moment staring at their empty glasses.
“That is it, any last questions?”
“Seth, don’t get me wrong: it’s a great story. But how do I know, for sure, that this is all real. All the personal details that you have on me could have been procured in this time. I don’t know how, but like any good magic trick: it’s only good because you don’t know how it’s done. Have you got any hard evidence?”
“Like what?” Seth asked.
“I don’t know, like a ray gun from the future?”
“We do not have ray guns in the future. Besides, whatever we tell you, you could just rationalise away. Some wonderful new technology from the future could just be some elaborate magic trick.”
“So how do you prove it to me?”
“I can not. You just have to have faith. There is a point in any venture where you have to be willing to take a certain amount of risk. This is one of those moments.
Reuben, fortune favours the brave...”
“And death follows the stupid.
Seth, I’ve never had to risk my life on anything. This is London and I work in an office, I’m not a soldier in Afghanistan!”
“You would not be risking your life: it would just be your pride at stake. Reuben, it is your choice. If you choose to stay here, I can guarantee that you will die. If you choose to come with me and this turns out to be some elaborate hoax, you will come off feeling a little gullible: that is all. Personally, I would be willing to risk being embarrassed if it meant I might be able to cheat death.”
“You have a point,” Reuben conceded. “Wow… I wasn’t expecting to hear all of this when I agreed to go out with you tonight. God, I hope you’re not crazy. Or would it be better if you were?”
Monday: decision day. Reuben was back to his daily commute to work, but ever since his first meeting with the Collectors it didn’t feel a chore anymore. Everything was different, everything would be missed. Everything seemed a little more in focus, with the colour saturation turned up.
What a view, he thought. Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and The London Eye on one side and the domes of St Paul’s Cathedral and the Gherkin on the other, all in one eye’s view.
After his previous meeting with Seth, Reuben had felt lost and slightly saddened. He had had another restless night, continuously plagued by dreams of his mortality. He realised that this was all totally irrational, but the nightmares persisted. All the missed opportunities and all the mistakes he had failed to make right. There were so many things that he had put off for another time, because there had always been another time; and now time was running out.
The next morning, he pulled himself out of bed and wondered how he could counter this cloud of pathos that was colluding with his lack of sleep, to leave him in an utterly depressed state.
Who can help me? Reuben wondered. He had no immediate family and his friends, well, if he tried to discuss time travel or precognition of death with them, they would soon rapidly cease to be his friends.
Joe, he thought. Joe Brown was Reuben’s long-suffering karate instructor. Reuben had participated in the sport religiously in his youth, but now he rarely attended lessons, which frustrated Joe who felt Reuben was wasting his life with too much hedonistic nightlife and not enough discipline. Even with Joe’s chidings, the dojo still remained the one place Reuben could truly forget his troubles. The fear induced adrenaline rush of the impending attack, knowing that there was only oneself to counter the blows, had the effect of focusing one’s mind and emptying it of all other worries. He would finish each session completely exhausted, but totally at ease.
On Sunday morning, Reuben had awoken early to attend his karate lesson. As he entered the school hall, which doubled as the dojo, he was confronted by a smell that reminded him of his childhood: the scent of primary schools. It was merely the cleaning detergent; but never the less, it reminded Reuben of a more innocent age, when he had first met his mentor who had watched him grow, or descend, into manhood. Joe knew Reuben well and always had a kind intelligent word to say, and more importantly, Reuben respected those words. The pathos started to bite as he caught glimpse of the ageing man with a slightly greying beard and dreadlocks, and realised that this would be the last time that they would see each other. The two men had grown apart over the years, but Joe was still the closest thing to family, and Reuben would miss him.
“Sensei,” Reuben said with a bow.
“What brings you here so early? The lesson only starts in half an hour.”
“I couldn’t sleep.” Reuben knew that Joe would not be convinced by his feeble response.
“Get changed, and we can stretch together, before the others arrive,” Joe requested; he was already dressed in his white karate gi, held together by a black belt that had nearly faded to white.
“Ausse Sensei,” Reuben said as he bowed and left the dojo. Five minutes later, he returned dressed in his karate gi and slightly less tired black belt. He bowed, entered and approached Joe.
“Put your right leg on my shoulder,” Joe commanded as he assumed a squatting position. Reuben lifted his leg into position, resting the back of his ankle on Joe’s shoulder. Joe slowly rose out of his squat.
“So what’s on your mind, Reuben?” Joe asked.
“Not a lot.”
“Good, I detest idle chatter first thing in the morning.”
“Well actually, there is something,” Reuben confessed.
“Go on if you must,” Joe said with a sigh, followed by a rye smile.
“This is gonna be a bit weird, so bear with me… If you were given the choice between life and death… How do I put this? Hypothetically, if you were pre-warned about your death, would you try to avoid dying?”
“Other leg,” Joes said, as he lowered Reuben’s right leg and received the other. “Remember to breathe. I’m not following you Reuben. Are you in some kind of trouble? Is there anything that I can help with? You can tell me anything…”
“No, it’s nothing like that. It’s a hypothetical question. If you were given the chance to cheat death, would you?”
“Oh.” Joe paused in thought. “Look Reuben, as human beings, we are hard wired to want to survive. If a new medical technology arises that could save us, our instinct is to use it, or use whatever means are at our disposal to survive. Now if you’re talking about selling your soul to the Devil in order to get what you need, that’s a different question.”
“What if you’re not sure if it’s the Devil who’s providing the life-saving option?” Reuben asked as he lowered his left leg and then dropped into a squat, waiting for Joe to rest his right foot onto his shoulder.
“Look Reuben, the question you have to ask yourself is: are you ready to die?” Joe breathed out and lowered into his stretch. “Well?”
“Am I ready to die? Well…No. I want to live.”
“Ok, it’s easy then. If you want to live, do everything that’s in your power to live. Don’t worry about hidden Devils. Trust in yourself, that you have the moral compass to make the correct decisions when required. The world is not split into gods and devils, just people trying to survive…”
Reuben had left the lesson as usual, thoroughly fatigued, but at peace.
“So, is it Yes or No?” The question brought Reuben back to the cold of Waterloo Bridge. He recognised Norman’s growl instantly. Reuben turned to see the same forty-something suited man, in the same suit, come alongside him.
“Yes. I want to live.”
Norman turned to look at Reuben, smiled softly and started the briefing:
“You have got two days more of living to do. Do not waste it. I will only take up ten minutes of those two days, to brief you on how the extraction will occur.”
“When are those ten minutes going to happen?”
“Now: walk with me,” Norman said. “To start with. Let us get it over with.” Norman looked at Reuben expectantly.
“I don’t understand?” Reuben said.
“Ask me the question that you have been wanting to ask ever since we first met.
Reuben took a gulp of air.
“How am I going to die?”
“If I answer this question, there is no going back. You understand this?” This was more a command, than a question. “If you do change your mind, we still take you.”
“How do I die?” Reuben repeated calmly.
“You are crushed by a truck: your face, body, everything. Nothing recognizable is left. They find your ID on the body, that is it.”
They continued to walk without talking, Reuben waiting for his Collector to start the briefing process. After a few moments of continued silence he prompted:
“So, how does this work?”
After his briefing, Reuben had left Norman and rather than go to the office, he had decided to go to the pub. He would not be able to change the world in his remaining two days and he had nothing better to do, as all his friends would be working.
If these were to be Reuben’s last days in 2010, then he would enjoy them to the full. Instead of planning for the future, he would live completely in the present: Whoever said a little hedonism was not good for the soul?
I’ll get pissed, he concluded. Maybe they wont have beer in the future. Reuben could not take the risk. From his conversations in The George Inn, he assumed the 22nd century would provide an abundance of sex, so he did not have to worry about that for now. Besides, getting sex was harder to guarantee here, unless he paid for it.
He had drunk a few too many beers and talked to a few too many random people. The types of people who frequented pubs at eleven in the morning were not the types of people one would generally want to hold a conversation with, unless one were very drunk; luckily, Reuben had been very drunk.
Reuben had decided not to say goodbye to his friends or work colleagues. If this ended up being an elaborate hoax or the workings of a very coordinated group of crazies, he would come off appearing a little nuts, or at the very least, slightly melodramatic.
It was Reuben’s final day: his day of Collection. He had been instructed to continue with his weekday routine and as such he was to go to work and not: take-a-sicky, get hideously drunk and wake up in a pool of his own vomit on some backstreet in Soho, as he had done the day before, and the day before that.
Reuben walked down Long-Acre. He had been relieved of his ID fifteen minutes earlier, as per the plan. He felt a tap on his right shoulder:
“It is time,” whispered Norman. Reuben was ushered into a quiet side alley. He felt a needle pierce his neck. His legs went limp and he collapsed under his own weight. Lying on the pavement, as his vision started to fade, his last aspect was a rat’s eye-view of a few rubbish bags leant up against a lamp post, a stream of congealed vomit, probably from the night before, trailing towards him; it might well have been his own; he just hoped he was not lying in it. That was Reuben’s last memory of 2010.
Reuben awoke to a bright light. He could just make out white figures around him; the bright lights directly behind them obscured their faces and exact forms: they looked like angels. He could hear the twittering of birds all around and could see a clear blue sky above: it was all so beautiful.