James is involved in a bizarre accident and, when he wakes up, he finds things have changed. What would you do if you woke up with infinite power at your fingertips?
The headlights of the truck filled James’s vision, refracted through the raindrops that seemed to be crystallised in a single moment by that blaze of light. Time slowed to an agonising crawl and he could see, even through the darkness and driving rain, the shattered barrier that should have kept the behemoth on its own side of the dual carriageway. Reassuring steel, ripped apart like paper, and there was nothing he could do. If he’d had time he might have tried to swerve, but how much good would it have done in this weather anyway? Horns blared, brakes screeched, but not his own: his little Peugeot was on a one way course to oblivion. The airbag wasn’t going to save him. This was it. This was how he died. He heard the crunch as the lorry struck the front of the car, felt all power leave his hands as the engine was reduced to scrap and then, in a second that seemed to last hours, the light finally engulfed him.
“James? James?” It seemed to take him a long time to open his eyes. He was staring up at a featureless white ceiling, and was dimly aware of all the sensations of life around him: sounds of machines; the institutional, antiseptic smell of a hospital room; the weight of his own limbs and the feeling of breath filling his lungs. It all felt wrong. He should be dead, shouldn’t he?
He didn’t recognise the voice. It was a man with a faint accent and, as he turned his head, a stranger’s face hovered into view. He was South-Asian, middle-aged, kindly looking. His vision was a little blurred so he blinked and things came into focus. The man, wearing a white coat, smiled encouragingly at him. “This is going to sound like a cliché,” James murmured in a thick voice, “but where am I?”
“In a hospital.”
“Could I have some water?” he asked.
“There’s a glass on the table here. Do you feel strong enough to reach it yourself?”
“I…yes, actually.” He was surprised. A lot had gone through his mind in the last few seconds, but foremost was the understanding that he’d somehow miraculously survived an accident, and that he must now be in traction or something. There was no way he’d emerge from a head-on collision without a severe injury of some kind. But he felt fine and, as he leant up and reached for the glass he could now see on the cabinet beside his bed, he saw how his skin was whole. He took a long gulp of the cool water and took the opportunity to look around the room. It was an ordinary hospital room, with no windows and one door. There were machines all around him, but nothing he could recognise, and he wasn’t hooked up to a drip or anything. He drained the glass and put it back. “And you’re doctor…?”
“Professor, actually. Professor Khan.” He was a short man, sitting in a comfortable chair beside James’s bed.
He looked around the room again. “Professor?” He saw the machines with new eyes. “What’s going on here? What happened?”
Khan took off his spectacles and wiped them on his coat, as if he was buying time to decide how to answer. “There was an accident, James.”
“I know. I remember. A lorry.”
“Indeed. I’m glad you’re not experiencing any memory loss although given the circumstances…well, I’m getting ahead of myself.” He put his glasses back on. “Did you happen to see what the lorry that hit you was carrying before your accident, James?”
He shook his head. “No. It was dark and raining hard. Why does it matter?”
“Well, this might be a little hard to believe, but it was actually transporting an experimental piece of technology.”
James raised his eyebrows. “Experimental?”
“Do you know much about physics, James?”
“It’s not really important. It was cutting edge technology – even with a good science background, you’d be unlikely to be familiar with its operation. It was a new kind of particle accelerator, designed to test the effects of sub-atomic annihilation. It was on its way to be installed but, in an amazing coincidence, lightning struck the vehicle and powered it up, which is why it veered off the road. It was running when it hit you, James.”
“Right…and why is this important?”
Khan smiled. “No doubt you’re wondering how you survived. Well, let me tell you this, you didn’t. Not in the conventional sense, anyway. Rather, you were hit by a beam of anti-neutrinos from the accelerator just before the lorry destroyed your car. As the beam hit you, all the atoms in your body were somehow converted into energy.”
James blinked again. “Okay…”
“And you rematerialized, unconscious, at the site of the crash several hours later, totally unharmed. You’ve been out cold for several days now.”
“I know,” Khan said with another warm smile, “it all sounds bizarre. And it is. But here we are,” he spread his hands almost apologetically, “you were saved.”
“All right, well, that’s fantastic. One question…”
“If I was unharmed, why am I in a hospital room?”
“Ah, yes. A good question. Well, James, there’s no easy way to explain it, but we’ve been detecting some very odd radiation from you and…unusual things have been happening in your vicinity.”
“What kind of ‘unusual things’?”
“Are you aware of any dreams you may have had while you were unconscious, James?”
“Something about rabbits, perhaps?”
James frowned. “Yes…actually, yes, I think I did dream about rabbits for some reason. How did you know that?”
“We found dozens of them in this room last night.”
“I don’t know what to do with that information, professor.”
“Neither do we. I’m not a medical doctor, James, I’m a physicist. We’re studying you, trying to work out what’s happened to you but, at a best guess, it appears that your accident somehow gave you the ability to…manipulate the universe.”
James swallowed. “Manipulate the universe?”
“Yes. James, we haven’t had to feed you since you were brought to us, and your cells aren’t undergoing normal regeneration. Your lungs are taking in air, but it’s being exhaled unchanged. You’re not undergoing any ordinary metabolic processes. And the things you imagine seem to be appearing from thin air. James, I don’t want to alarm you, but it appears that you have somehow become both immortal and omnipotent.”
“Oh,” James said, “that’s nice.”
For a while, he was convinced it was all some kind of bizarre joke, but it only took a few hours of being up and about, walking around the hospital’s grounds to realise it wasn’t. He asked Khan to bring him some clothes from home but then, on a whim, decided to see if he could just…make them appear and he found, to his mild surprise, that he could. He sauntered through the leafy grounds of the private hospital – he could never have afforded to stay here himself, it was solely because he was now a subject of scientific curiosity that he enjoyed its facilities – and he tried a few more things. He wanted some ice cream, so he imaged a bowl in his hand, and there it was. He switched the flavours a few times as he and Khan walked. “Want some?” he asked.
“No, thank you. How do you feel, James?”
He shrugged. “Okay. No different than normal. Just like me.” It was overcast outside, so James made it sunny.
“Obviously we’ll want to observe you closely for a little while.”
“How long is a little while?”
“Honestly? I don’t know. Perhaps forever. Some people might decide you’re dangerous, James.”
“Dangerous? Me?” He shook his head as he spooned another lump of ice cream into his mouth. “I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“But you’re omnipotent so far as we can tell. People won’t understand that. They’ll be scared.”
“Well…I could make them not scared, couldn’t I?”
“I suppose so…”
James thought about it. “I don’t like the idea of that. I mean, I could just change your mind about keeping me here, couldn’t I? I can do anything I want.”
“But it’d be wrong to just reach into someone’s head and make them think new thoughts.” James brought back the clouds. They suited his current mood better now.
“Right and wrong may be concepts that can’t be applied to you, James. You have godlike powers.”
“Godlike…” James murmured. He was done with the ice cream, and it winked out of existence. His stomach wasn’t going to digest it, he realised, so he changed it so it would. He could do that now. He really could do anything. He stepped up a few inches from the ground and continued to walk, floating in the air. “This is an awesome responsibility.”
“Yes. That’s why we need to help you as much as we can.”
“How can you?”
“By studying you. By keeping you out of the public eye.”
“So no one knows about this?”
“They probably should.”
Khan tilted his head. “What makes you say that?”
“Because I’m going to change some things, and they should know why that’s happening.”
“But you just said it would be wrong to change people.”
“Not them. Just a few little things. To help them.”
James folded his legs beneath him so he was perched cross-legged floating about five feet in the air. He leant his chin on one hand and frowned. “Everyone. I need to fix things.”
“Look,” James said to the assembled leaders of the world’s nations, “I’m not going to take over or anything, but I just want to give you a few pointers because I worked pretty hard at giving you all a clean slate here. See, I know you were a bit surprised when I removed all the greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, and I don’t want to just make you behave, but this is a really great opportunity for you to all start looking into alternate power sources. Look, I’ll even give you an infinite supply of hydrogen or something if you need it. I’ll work with scientists to come up with something better than just…burning stuff… And, really, I feel bad about making all your nuclear arsenals disappear, but can’t you see they’re useless now? I’ve cured everyone with any diseases and made everyone immune to everything I can think of. And then there’s the improved crop yields which should eliminate hunger. So what have you even got to fight over?”
The US President raised her hand. “Mr…uh…James…it’s not that we aren’t grateful, but…”
James sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He was hovering in the air again; it was just more comfortable, although people did find it a bit odd. “I’m not telling you how to live; I’m just making it a lot easier for all of you. No more hunger, no more disease. And I’ve brought back all the animals humans made extinct, so this is like being back in the Garden of Eden, if you like.”
“And you’re god, are you?” the German Chancellor asked.
“What?! No! Of course not! I’m not giving you commandments or anything. Just…don’t mess up what I’ve given you. Don’t you get it? I could have just changed you; rewired your brains. But I left your minds intact. You can still do whatever you like.”
“And yet here you are,” the President said, “floating there, telling us what to do.”
James shook his head at her. “Asking. Not telling. I’m being polite. I’ve made everything as easy as I can here. Like I said, I could have just…made you do it. I can literally do it now if I want. Just make you agree with me. But I don’t really see the point of that.”
“And I’m sure you expect us to be grateful for your benevolence,” the President sneered.
“Jesus, I didn’t ask for this, guys! I’m just trying to make the world a better place. I don’t want your thanks or your worship or anything else. Do you know what an arsehole I could have been about this?”
“Oh forget it,” James snapped, “I’ve done all I can for you. Here’s your world: try not to screw it up, all right?” He disappeared in a flash of light.
James sat on a hillside, looking over a small fishing community nestled in a secluded cove. It was early evening, and the sky over the sea was turning golden. He came here quite a lot – it was where he grew up – but he didn’t often go down to the town now. He preferred to remain aloof. He monitored the world from a place he’d created in orbit; an assemblage of crystal and light where he would float unobserved, sending out his essence across the cosmos. He didn’t have to remain in a human form like this and, indeed, for some years he’d experimented with being other animals and even plants and rocks. However, before becoming whatever he’d become now, he’d been human, and this was how he felt most comfortable. The air was clean and smelled fresh. In the distance, one of his electric air trams moved slowly across the sky, leaving a steam of harmless hydrogen in its wake. Despite the concerns of the world leaders, most people seemed happy to have been allowed to start over with a world without the problems that had plagued it for generations. With no need for money, people were working together on a number of amazing projects – at least a dozen space programmes were just getting started across the planet. The leaders were scared that they had become superfluous, that was the truth of it. Everyone had enough of everything, and they were free to do whatever they wanted, forever.
He turned to see Professor Kahn walking down the hill towards him. “Professor?”
“Good to see you again.”
“You too. How have you been? I heard you’d died…”
“It’s…complicated.” Khan sat down beside him.
“Complicated like what happened to me? Are there two gods around here now?”
Khan smiled. “No. But it is related to that.”
“I’m not Professor Khan.”
James peered at him. “Yes you are. I can examine every cell in your body. You’re the same man.”
“There was never a Professor Khan. Well, there was, but not this one.”
“So who are you? Bearing in mind I can find out as much as I like immediately…”
“You won’t be able to find out anything about me. I’m not real. None of this is.”
“You’re dead, James. You died in that crash.”
“Oh…so what is this? A hallucination?”
“No. This is a test.”
“Yes. It’s how we do things these days.”
James waved his hand. “‘We’ being…”
“Those who are in control.”
James cracked a half-smile. “I thought that was me.”
“No. It’s us. You see, for a long time, we used to just see how you’d lived your life and then determine your fate on that basis. But human existence began to get very complicated, so we thought this would be better.”
“Making people omnipotent?”
“Giving you control of your own destiny. You aren’t omnipotent, James.”
“I know, you said it was a test.”
“Even within this environment. Now you’re just an ordinary person, in this world you’ve created.”
James looked down at his home village. “Ordinary?”
“Well, you’re immortal, but apart from that, yes. Your fate is to live here forever.”
“I see. And does that mean I passed or failed the test?”
“It doesn’t mean anything: everyone’s fate is the same. You all get to be all-powerful and, after a few years, you all get to live as ordinary humans in whatever you’ve crafted.”
“Oh…so if I’d just made a world full of unthinking slaves that do whatever I wanted, that’s how I’d then have to live?”
“How do other people do?”
“It varies, that’s sort of the idea.”
“How did I do?”
Khan patted him on the shoulder as he stood up. “You tell me. Enjoy yourself.”
James watched the sun sink into the ocean and thought about his future. “Thanks, I think I will.”