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Poorly Formulated Questions

by Cyril Simsa

He had done alright for himself, had PBL, Everard thought, as he sat on the old man’s porch sipping tea.

The cabin had been styled to look as old-fashioned as possible, with jet-black wooden shingles and exterior walls clad in the split trunks of logs as weathered and gnarled as dinosaur bones, but no doubt it would be more modern inside. And the setting was grand, tucked up high on the mountainside amongst stands of twisty, resinous pine and shimmery, pink granite rock formations. There had been deer and beaver in the woods on the way up, and the remains of a quince orchard, long since abandoned by the original homesteaders. Wild strawberries. There weren’t that many people who could still afford to live like this, surrounding themselves with over-priced faux-pioneer chic in a natural setting that was all too real and precious.

But then, PBL was no ordinary person. If it was him, Everard had to remind himself. For that was the crux of his mission. PBL had been in hiding so long no-one properly knew what he looked like. This man — Bernard Zouzel, it said in the land registry — had the age and the bone structure, but that was hardly enough to make him a criminal. He needed more than that to make his arrest — some slip, some inadvertent betrayal, some tangible evidence of identity — a blooper so colossal it would give him probable cause to take him back to the International Environmental Court at the New Hague in Lausanne.

„Really, I should have been a historian,“ Zouzel was saying. „An interpreter of the past. A student of economic forces and nations.“

His eyes twinkled behind the archaic steel-rimmed spectacles, which on anyone else would have seemed a deliberate affectation, and a disarmingly insincere smile played beneath his stubby white moustache. He was in remarkably good shape for his 150 years, part of that first and last generation to enjoy radical life extension through genetic medicine, before the collapsing environment and the subsequent mass migrations had refocused human resources elsewhere. And it was those same genetic treatments that had given him the acronym, by which he was still universally known. PBL. President Beyond Life. Six terms in office, four constitutional amendments, and a seventh term brought short by open revolt, when even the most faithful of his followers had been forced to admit that maybe the climate was changing after all.

Of course, it had long been a topic of debate amongst his opponents, even before his fall, how much of the president was truly alive, and how much was just his zombie. Indeed, before his departure, the investigating magistrate had shown Everard a clip of PBL’s personal physician, Dr West, trying to respond to exactly this question from an ironic and disrespectful member of the international press corps. That would have been during the election campaign of 2028, before PBL closed the border. But looking at the alleged Zouzel now, there could be no doubt he was all there. Still vital, still charming in a slightly cloying, molluscan sort of way, still in love with the sound of his own voice. Only the face was a little more wrinkly, the short-cropped hair more obviously cloned, the self-deprecating tone another octave or two more hollow.

„Our present is always shaped by the past,“ he was saying. „It is only in our history that we can find the key to the future.“

It sounded reasonable enough, but perhaps that kind of philosophy had always lain at the root of his problems, both as a political leader, and as a fugitive from justice. For how, then, did you come to terms with something that had no historical precedent? Or at least a very different one from the comforting narrative of God granting man dominion over the beasts of the field and the Protestant work ethic that had once been so commonplace, before things fell apart.

To be sure, everybody is a genius with hindsight, and no-one had ever seriously suggested going back to exhume and berate our distant ancestors. John Maynard Keynes and Adam Smith. Henry Ford and Cristoforo Colombo. James Watt and A.G. Stakhanov. But the appeasers and deniers, the discreet statesmen and servile bureaucrats, who had continued to support business as usual, even after the evidence was incontrovertible, were another matter. They had been tried, in absentia if necessary, and the agents of the IEC had been sent out to find them. PBL was one of the Court’s last major absconders.

And here he was. Maybe.

„This is nice…“ Everard said leadingly, toying with his cup, as the wan mountain sunlight dappled the rustic oak bench with piebald shadows. A gentle breeze, spiced with the scent of herbs and resins, rustled overhead, and lifted the corners of his linen napkin. He could get used to this, he realised. How very easily he could get used to this.

He took a deep breath.

„You must have made your plans in good time,“ he continued. „Most of us never make it any further than the Burbs, since the Cull. Life must be very different up here, more relaxed, more like it used to be… Before.“

Zouzel smiled blandly, like a slightly threadbare old tomcat that has swallowed the last surviving pair of an especially rare breed of Amazonian canary. He was pleased with himself. Pleased and complacent, Everard could tell. Clearly he thought this was no more than his due.

„Oh, one does what one can.“ He replied, suppressing a grin so wide, he damn near licked his whiskers. „One only ever does what one can. Circumstance does the rest. What is it that the Bible says? ‚Many are called, but few are chosen‘? I’ve always found that a good precept in life — good advice for all the many young men and women, who have come up the mountain over the years — seekers after the truth like yourself.“

„And you were called?“ Everard asked.

„Some might say so.“ The self-confident smile never wavered, the disingenuously self-deprecating tone. „Though admittedly it’s been a while since the world last realised it. Time always betrays you, no matter how much you think you have left in reserve. Time is a hussy. Though in truth, I’ve known worse. We all die like Caesar. And you?“

„Me?“ To his annoyance, Everard could feel himself blushing.

„Yes, you. I can see you must have a calling, or at least you think you have, otherwise why would you come all this way, just to see me?“ Zouzel waved away his protests. „No, no, you’re not the first. Someone like you turns up every May, like a tame bear with a hangover after a long hibernation. It’s how I can tell it’s spring. You must have a whole colony up in the rocks somewhere. All you young Apostles of the Future, with your muddle-headed conviction that you understand the past so much better than those of us who actually lived it, retrofitting your crazy, post-apocalyptic notions onto other times, other mores. I always served to the best of my ability, on the basis of the best models available. My conscience is clear.“

So it was him. Everard felt a rush of adrenalin. He could hardly believe he had admitted it all so readily. His arrogance and his isolation must have blinded him. Everard reached down surreptitiously to feel the reassuring weight of the recorder in his pocket, and the mechanism whirred. Just a few more questions, now that the gloves were off, and then he would cuff him.

„But you were wrong,“ he countered. “History has shown you were wrong…“

„Has it? You come to me from one of those ugly little collectivist beehives you call home, and tell me that your so-called ‚civilisation‘ is not based on the suppression of individual rights?“

„And your policies flew in the face of the social consensus for decades…“

„Consensus,“ Zouzel snorted contemptuously. „Oh, please. There is no such as thing as a social consensus, only individual men and women — and perhaps businesses — with their own partisan interests. To speak about a social consensus is laughable, nonsensical, childish, undignified… All those supposed scientists, who espoused fashionable causes like renewable resources and the environment, were just defending their research grants, and the politicians who created the social conditions for their funding were in the pay of the manufacturers who stood to benefit from the production of new technologies. It was one of the biggest stick-ups in modern history, and the tax payer picked up the tab. Sustainable development is an oxymoron, a distracting pin-up girl for a coalition of industrialists, academics and shadowy activists, the self-appointed agents of an austere and dangerous ideology. They were the Taliban of post-Millennial Europe. I was only ever against instituting political measures that would restrict the power of the individual, that would limit economic growth in the name of some populist philosophy, which did not fully appreciate the importance of maximising human potential. I was only ever against the instigation of new set of social experiments in the name of a Green ideology, a Green terror, a Green totalitarianism. I just wanted to make sure my grandchildren would never be forced to spend their lives behind a Green Curtain.“

For a few seconds, Everard openly gawped.

„But the ice caps did melt,“ he responded eventually. „Sea levels did rise, the ambient temperature reached levels the world hasn’t seen since the Eocene. Billions died.“

„Yes, but we couldn’t have been sure of that in the 2020s. And however tragic the fates of the individuals concerned, is the overall result really so much worse for humanity than imprisoning countless millions in the shackles of a new Comintern? A new gulag? I was a bulwark of freedom, one of the very last. It was my duty to fight on. And when my physical strength began to give out, I had it fixed, because no matter how fit you try and keep in your daily life, there always comes a point, when nature calls, and I still had work to do. I know what people say, but it wasn’t simply a selfish excuse to extend my own life. People don’t realise that the process has side-effects, that you lose as much as you gain. Your ties to your friends and family, your relationship to the past, your natural sense of chronology. All this I gave up, and willingly, for the greater good. To keep future generations from harm. To save my fellow citizens from the demands of the charlatans and the demagogues who would seek to enslave them…“

He spoke with such confidence that even Everard wavered. His tone was that of a favourite uncle — intimate, authoritative, worldly — as seductive as the father-figure of some latter-day religious cult. His was the voice of a man who was only stating the obvious, even as he contemplated the fall of empires. The relentless flow of his words, the bizarre inconsistency of his assumptions, the absolutely unshakable conviction of his own genius was starting to make Everard light-headed. Perhaps it was just that he hadn’t eaten since morning, or perhaps he really wasn’t up to disputing the finer points of history with a false prophet like this, with the professor of irreproducible arguments and irreducible strangeness.

It was only when he started to feel the tingling in his fingers and the numbness at the back of his lips, that he realised the problem went much deeper.

The tea! What a fool he had been to think of Zouzel as only a cantankerous old grandsire, rather than a dangerous outlaw. If he had managed to stay alive these past fifty years, it stood to reason he wouldn’t give himself up just because Everard had decided come calling. He should have brought back-up.

Something about his expression must have given him away, because Zouzel paused to peer at him over the top of his spectacles. And then he nodded.

„I’m sorry,“ he said after a moment. „but nobody ever comes up here, except stooges of the court and bounty-hunters. One has to take precautions. You’ve just swallowed a massive dose of Japanese fubu powder. Dried puffer fish. It’s an old trick I learned from the Duvaliers, when we were neighbours, back in the Thirties. You should be pleased I’ve invested so much in your death: natural poisons are worth more than their weight in platinum nowadays. But then, I’ve never believed in skimping. „

His piggy eyes shone with every appearance of sincere concern, just the way they had in hundreds of old newscasts.

„Better luck next time…“

The last thing Everard was aware of, before he passed out, was Zouzel’s immodest smile, as he carted the investigator’s stiff body off into the root cellar, and laid him out beside the mummified remains of his predecessors. Their husks stretched out into the darkness in a brittle lace-work of dried bone and sinew, like the perverse web of some giant charnel-house spider. In his drugged state, their long ribbon of failure seemed to form an infinite regress.

„That’s what you get for asking poorly formulated questions,“ Zouzel laughed, not without a certain self-satisfaction.

Then there was only paralysis and blackness.

Copyright © 2013 by Cyril Simsa

Cyril Simsa, originally from London, has been living in Prague since the 1990s and has published articles, stories and translations in various places (primarily Foundation & Locus for non-fiction, translations mostly back in the ’90s). His most recent story credits were in Electric Velocipede and Mark Harding’s Music for Another World anthology (both 2010), and he has another story forthcoming on the World SF Blog.

 

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