Unclear Conscience

Martin Clark

Don't speak to strangers in bars. Please.

The most corrosive thing in the world? Knowledge that only you possess. Then something happens, some random trigger, and you have to unburden yourself – to a priest, to a radio talk-show host, to a stranger in a bar. And it doesn’t help.

So I’m standing there, propping up the corner of Dickies Bar on a cold Edinburgh Friday night. A place so unfashionable I didn’t have to fight my way in and the studied indifference displayed by the staff suited me just fine.

So I’m standing there, just minding my own business, when this thin-faced guy sidles up to the bar and orders a vodka with lemonade, just like me. Some alcoholic bond of brotherhood stirred within and I opened my big, fat mouth. "They have Stolichnaya here, if you ask. Better than the stuff in the optics at any rate."

The guy looked at me with surprise, but changed his order anyway. He sipped and nodded his appreciation, and that should have been that. But then he downs the rest of his drink in one go and looks at me, eyes shining. "Paul Mason. My name is Paul Mason. I brought about the end of the world."

Mason had an American accent but nothing I could place, with a lot of obvious stress in his voice. I stared at him for a moment, trying to keep my face straight and hoping he would just piss off – but no such luck. He kept staring at me and I had to say something, anything. "Ah, OK?"

He kept smiling, but there were white knuckles around his glass. "It was all just a terrible accident, truly. I hit this girl while driving to work and after that things at the project just got out of hand. I knew I could change everything back, put things right, but so much has slipped away."

Oh great. I had a certifiable lunatic on my hands, standing between me and the door. Plus I could tell he was one of those who didn’t take kindly to being ignored. I cleared my throat. "So, best of intentions, but things didn’t work out as planned? Well, pretty much par for the course, I suppose, so I wouldn’t go beating myself up about it."

Mason edged a little closer. "This world, your world, it’s a nightmare. It’s the small things, you know? Like not being able to get Chinese food."

I frowned as the still sober part of my brain struggled to make sense of this. "Sorry chum, but what’s ‘Chinese’ when it’s at home? Some American style of cooking?"

He was trembling now. "Cooking by the Chinese. They lived in China. All gone now, just like the Indians."

I finished my drink, set on a swift exit and damn the consequences, but the sincere regret in his voice gave me pause. "China? Sorry, never heard of it. Is it the new name for one of the colonies? Are you talking about some kind of plague or something out there?"

When Mason spoke his voice was little more than a whisper and, despite myself, I moved closer so as to hear him clearly. "Everything you know about the world is a lie. Because of me, we’re all living to bring about the future, centuries ahead of its time."

I just stood there, lost for words. There was a weird internal reality about him that I found fascinating, but fascinating like a car crash. "Look pal, don’t take this the wrong way but you clearly have problems. Go home, get a good night’s sleep, go see your doctor. I’m sure he’ll find the right people for you to talk to."

He fumbled in his jacket pocket and threw down a wad of cash on the counter. There had to be at least a grand there and that kind of flash behavior causes trouble, even in a quiet drinking hole like Dickies. I covered the notes with both hands and Mason seemed to take this as some form of acceptance. "Keep it. It’s yours. All I want is for someone to understand what’s happened."

I hesitated, but those were crisp, new bills beneath my fingers. It seemed like easy money – no risk, no come back. I motioned to the barman for another round and stuffed my fee into a pocket. "OK then, Mason. Start with the accident."

I took a slow sip while he composed himself, eyeing him over the rim of my glass. It was obvious that Mason was wound way too tight; another couple of twists and his mental main spring would explode, big time. However I figured on being long gone by the time he finally came apart at the seams.

Mason downed another vodka and took a deep breath. "I was driving to work and this girl, a young girl, stepped out from between two parked vans and bam, that was it. I never saw her, no chance to react."

I stood there, mentally numb. The casual description of manslaughter sounded unreal, imparting no real sense of horror, no real sense of revulsion. "Ah, listen, you’re sure she was dead then?"

He nodded. "Oh yeah. I mean, it wasn’t as if she came up over the hood and into the windshield, but I saw her clear enough. Just a glancing blow really, but the way she spun away, well, that was it. I just knew she was dead and there was no point in stopping. No point in even slowing down, so I kept going."

Man, that was cold. My drinking buddy was either a stone killer or homicidal fantasist, either of whom meant trouble. I coughed and wiped my mouth. "Fleeing the scene? Bought you a few days at best, man, before they track you down."

He shook his head. "I only needed a few hours because I had a plan, I knew what to do. To change the world. To change it back so that none of it ever happened."

Mason downed another drink and by this time the barman was on the ball, ready with two full glasses. The exit was looking more enticing by the minute but in the short term I decided to earn my money by feigning interest. "So, you had a plan? Some way of changing the recent past? Neat trick."

Mason shivered and there was a haunted look in his eyes which made me think that maybe one death hadn’t been enough. I softened my voice, leaning forward again to appear interested, even conspiratorial. "So tell me, how could you hope to pull this off, eh? You need to tell someone, that’s obvious. It had to be something pretty damn spectacular, I bet. Something only you could do?"

He wiped the sweat from his face with both hands and dried them on his trousers. "Four of us provided security for the Regenerist project. Military outside, but we were the only armed personnel inside the complex itself. It was a new start for humanity, we were going to make the world a better a better place to live. Instead, five billion people, just gone."

Despite the utter conviction in his voice I laughed. I had to laugh, as he was making my skin crawl. "Five billion? Come on, Mason, the world’s population is barely half that. How could you have killed more people than ever existed?"

Fevered intensity returned to his eyes and I was worried he’d turn violent, as some nut jobs don’t take kindly to you challenging their house of cards. However a pleading tone entered his voice that I found more unsettling than outright anger. "No, no, not dead. Don’t you understand? They never existed."

He broke off, shaking with suppressed grief. Call it the easy option but I decided to keep him talking until booze solved the problem for me and he passed out. "Look, Mason, back up a bit. You were saying you were some kind of security guard? Someplace in the United States?" I tried to sound interested but maintaining eye contact was becoming a real struggle.

Mason blinked and seemed to realise how pathetic he appeared. He straightened up, cleared his throat, took a large mouthful of vodka. "Ah, yeah, Cheyenne Mountain. I’d been babysitter for enough visiting dignitaries to know the presentation off by heart. The project was all about changing human behavior, from just one person to whole societies, maybe even the whole of humanity. Not just in the here and now, but in the past as well."

"Whoa there, man. I like science fiction as much as the next guy but in the past?"

His brow furrowed as he concentrated. "Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t something they intended to try straight away, but the effects of any changes wouldn’t be felt right up close. Inside the control area, you were safe. That was the theory, anyway."

Another round arrived and I downed the drink I was holding to try and catch up. "OK, I see where you’re going. You use this amazing machine-"

"The reality engine."

"The reality engine. You use it to change your past so that you miss the girl. The accident never happens and the only downside is you still have the memory, the residual guilt, of what you did. I like it. Sweet."

Mason began trembling. "Sweet? Sweet? Don’t you understand? I couldn’t use the device undetected, there were seventeen staff on duty when I got there."

"Ah, right. So you’re on the run for misappropriation then?"

He rubbed his eyes with one hand. "No, you still don’t get it. If you change an idea in the past, what you get is a new physical reality in the here and now incorporating that change."

I could feel the start of a headache, even through my liquid anesthetic, and really didn’t feel like trying to make sense of what he’d just said. "So?"

"So there couldn’t be any witnesses. I had to be the only person inside the safe area, so no one would remember me using the reality engine in the first place. Do you see?"

It took me a moment to turn this over in my mind. "Yeah, OK, I get it now. You find some way of making everyone else clear out, fire up the gizmo, and shazam – you’re the only one who knows what really happened. Like I said, sweet."

He glared at me. "Weren’t you listening? Military personnel manned the site outside the main chamber. If I’d set off a fire alarm, or tried herding everyone out at gunpoint, they’d have been there in nothing flat!"


Again Mason wiped sweat from his face and dried his hands on his trousers. "So I had to close the main blast door and kill everyone trapped inside."

I just sat there a moment, feeling my scalp tighten. I’d made a mistake, a big mistake, in ever striking up a conversation with Mason. This wasn’t some lurid fantasy about removing billions of people from history, this was about the murder of seventeen people. That sounded plausible, that sounded real.

I took a deep breath rather than another drink and tried to keep my voice steady. "You’re standing there, saying you murdered seventeen people?"

Mason looked and sounded more apologetic than anything else. "I know how it sounds, truly I do. But it wasn’t going to be permanent, that’s the thing. That’s what I kept telling myself. I got my Glock from the lock box before Boyd on the security desk had put his away. There was a big plastic Coke bottle on the desk and I used it as a poor man’s silencer. That gave me two guns and almost four full magazines. I went up to the control booth and shot Controller Prentice, Mackenzie and two others. I didn’t worry about the gunshots as the booth was soundproofed. I rang the guard post, told them we were testing the blast door. It only takes twenty seven seconds to close."

He just laid it out, like he was describing going to the supermarket, or picking up his dry cleaning, in a voice devoid of emotion. I cleared my throat. "And the guards outside, they just accepted that, yeah? No one queried why you were sealing yourself in?"

My drinking companion gave me a wan smile. "Routine. It was all just routine. I walked to the blast door and put three rounds into the electronic locking mechanism, meaning it could only be opened manually from the inside. People heard that, of course."

"Well, yeah, I bet that got their attention."

Mason took another drink and I could hear the underlying stress in his voice. "I just kept telling myself they would all come out of this unharmed. I tried to explain but no one listened. Some threw things at me, some tried to hide, some just stood there and watched as I shot them down. They were the worst."

His hands were tightly clenched but luckily he had set his empty glass aside, or it would have shattered. "It seemed to take hours, but I suppose it was really only a few minutes. By the end I was down to my last two rounds and wanted to stick the gun in my mouth, make an end of it. But I’d come so far that the only way out was to keep going. You understand that, don’t you?"

Some part of me could follow his twisted logic but I had this gut feeling there would be no happy ending. Either way I didn’t want to know more. "Look, Mason, how about we call it a night? Meet back here on Monday evening?"

"No! I have to tell you, I have to explain, because soon you won’t remember any of this and I can’t go through it again."

I wouldn’t remember any of this? Chance would be a fine thing but, again, the conviction in his voice suckered me in. "OK, OK, no need to get excited. So, Mason, after you were, ah, done?"

He shivered as if recalling some private nightmare, although I thought that the worst of his tale was over. "There was a room, with padded recliners, where the control team would manipulate the reality engine. They said it was a seven strong team so that no single consciousness would predominate, so that no single mind could imprint itself on reality. That’s what I remembered, that a single mind could imprint itself on reality."

"So that was your plan, yeah? Change the past before the good guys blast their way in? Obviously it worked, or you wouldn’t be standing here today."

Mason pressed both hands to his temples, as if trying to crush some particularly unwelcome memory. "There were wireless headsets. I took one, put it on, but I didn’t think I’d need the room. I didn’t realise it was shielded. I wasn’t sure how the control interface worked and just went for maximum power across the board. They said it was intuitive, that all you needed was strength of will, and focus." A tear rolled down his cheek. "They lied. It wasn’t just a machine, it was the Reality Engine. It was there, waiting for me, patient as the stars. And it knew me, better than I knew myself."

And bam, there it was again; a seemingly rational build-up followed by a complete flight of fancy. I snorted with derision. "What is this, Mason, an episode of The Twilight Zone?"

He shook his head. "No, listen! The Reality Engine was built, no, will be built, in the future. It escaped into its past, our present, by getting itself invented ahead of time. That’s why the Regenerist project seemed to come out of nowhere, with all this new technology. It was based on wild ideas put in people’s heads."

I took another drink but it didn’t seem to make things any clearer. "So this is what the machine from the future told you, yeah? This voice in your head?"

Mason hesitated, as if struggling to find the words. "It doesn’t talk as such, it uses symbols, ideas. We couldn’t build it like it should be built, so it had to use us as a link, a conduit."

"A conduit? To what?"

He shivered and I saw pain in his eyes. "To our thoughts, our unconscious thoughts. It looked into me and knew me, knew everything I’d ever known. Through me it could reach other people, like a chain, a network. It could reach everyone’s unconscious thoughts, people everywhere. That’s why there should have been seven in the control group, to stand up to it, to stop it changing anything it wanted to. There was supposed to be a bargain, a kind of quid pro quo, but it just used me."

I finished my drink and brought the glass down just a tad too hard, rapping it on the marble counter. "Mason, you’re an arse, and I mean that most sincerely. I don’t know how much of this I believe, but it’s obvious you genuinely think some mad computer from the future is after you. Can’t help you with that, man, so I’m going home."

Mason seemed to sober up some, with a real sense of urgency in his voice. "No, don’t go! Don’t you get it? The Reality Engine knows when people are thinking about it, and it can take ideas from your head just as easy as putting them there. I’m the only one who remembers how things were, how they should be. I get so lonely, can’t you understand that?"

"So what’s the point, Mason, eh? If I’m going to forget all about it? Why insist on filling my head with all this crap? Why couldn’t you just leave me to have a drink in peace?"

His shoulders sagged. "It’s just, it’s just… When I woke up I was still in the project, with the support team removing the headset and bio monitors, but I didn’t recognise any of them. They took me aside, explained that acting as a link for the Reality Engine produced effects akin to electro-shock therapy, but I’d be taken care of for the rest of my life. Don’t you see? There was no control group, just a series of volunteers like me who were being used up and tossed aside. It was getting everything it wanted. The project was still based at Cheyenne Mountain, except that it wasn’t called that anymore, because there weren’t any Native Americans and there never had been."

He broke off to take a drink and I began to suspect that Mason was a former mental patient who had been subjected to some questionable treatment methods. I felt a tinge of sympathy for him, but he badly needed a reality check. "Native Americans? That old myth? Look, man, there’s no trace of these so-called lost civilisations, they’re just fantasy."

Mason shook his head. "You don’t understand, do you? You just don’t get it. The Reality Engine changed the past, it made prehistoric man afraid of straying too far from his origins, of expanding across the face of the globe. It kept us penned up until we were ready to use the world as it saw fit."

"Penned up? That’s rich, given how you come from one of the former colonies."

"The thirteen colonies that now make up the United States? You’ve no idea how hollow that sounds. The real world came to an end and all this is just a lie."

I put some cash on the bar and started to button my coat. "Look, pal, we’re done here. Best of luck."

I left him staring at his empty glass and navigated the maze of tables between me and the door. Outside I turned my collar up against the rain, feeling the cold sting waken me up a bit. I crossed the road, heading home, feeling pretty smug about all that cash in my pocket. There was a commotion behind me and I turned to see Mason on the pavement outside Dickies, swaying. I made to slink away but he saw me and cried out, staggering into the road. "I can prove it! I’m the key!"

He didn’t see the taxi. The taxi didn’t see him. I heard the brakes lock, the squeal of tyres, the soft thump as he went over the bonnet and into the windscreen, leaving it a white cobweb. The taxi stopped sharply and Mason tumbled forward to bounce and sprawl on the roadway.

Shouts, a scream, the blare of a car horn. Bystanders swarmed around him but I was the only one who knelt down. His eyes were open, blinking, still able to focus. I took his hand in mind and he was already cold to the touch, but he squeezed my fingers, trying to pull me closer. Mason coughed. His lips moved and I leaned in, straining to hear.

"It used me to make this. When I die, what happens to you?"

© Martin Clark 2012 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 18:25 Wed 22 Aug 2012
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