All right, here goes. Your comments will be valuable.
London, England - November 17th, 2047 AD
The chimes of Big Ben echo through the chambers and passages of Westminster Palace. Marvin Windsor lifts his eyes from the unfinished paperwork that shrouds his desk and wanders to the window that overlooks the river. On the black expanse a couple of pinpricks of light roving across the water are clear in the crisp night, only the distant noise of a protest disturbs the silence.
After a few moments, there comes a sharp rap at the heavy oaken door leading onto the corridor. Without waiting for assent, it glides open and a suited civil servant steps through, inclining his balding head slightly. He is too familiar with the expensively furnished room to be deferential.
"Your majesty. I trust that your work progresses well."
The young prince turns, smiling slightly and running one hand through his hair as is his habit. He gestures apologetically to the heaps of memoranda that are their own answer.
"Good evening Mr Jarrow. Do you have news of the negotiations? The people are getting restless."
"They always are. I'm afraid the negotiations have collapsed. Once again. We've scheduled another meeting for Monday, but frankly I'm not optimistic."
"This is impossible! Couldn't I just-"
"No. You could not do that. There are no suitable candidates, there would be an outrage."
"The country needs a government, Jarrow. The people won't accept the monarchy giving orders, they've voted and they want to see a prime minister. To tell the truth, I didn't choose this job, Mr Jarrow, and I'm not ready for it."
The civil servant received these soft words blankly, his face didn't look as if it had seen a smile for years, and was certain it wasn't going to now. He was doubly sure he wasn't going to be over-ruled by a juvenile aristocrat.
"Governments only get in the way; we in the civil service keep things running smoothly. Nevertheless, we do need someone to sign on the dotted line, especially in these times. And with respect, your majesty, it is your duty to be that someone. Where else can England turn if not the monarchy? Now, your majesty, let us get to business..."
A year passed. There was another election, there was a measles outbreak in York and England crashed out of a football tournament. Come November, we return to the panelled room, where the only difference is that now fog billows beyond the windowpane.
Prince Marvin looks up as the clock on the mantelpiece chimes shrilly, only slightly out of synch with the sonorous gongs of Big Ben. Once again, the door sweeps open, fluttering the paperwork slightly. In strides Lord James Kent, advisor for home affairs and friend of Marvin's from university. He smiles wanly.
"The Cumbrian nationalists are on the warpath again, and the riots in Leicester Square are getting nasty. There's a pub on fire and seventeen police casualties so far. Thought you'd want to know."
"Good God. Who'd have thought refuse collection could cause all this trouble? I tell you, if I promised to have everyone's bin emptied every month I'd be the most popular man in Britain."
"Greenpeace would firebomb the palace. Oh yes, and some panthers have escaped from London Zoo. Not found any yet, but we're still looking."
"That one's a joke, right? Although after parliament it sounds like a piece of cake."
"Wouldn't be surprised though, based on our luck. Anyway, what do you want to see me about? Half of London's ablaze so this better be more than a chat about old times."
The suave minister pulled up a green leather armchair and lounged back, while the prince swept some space on his desk. In the far distance through the window a muffled siren began to wail mournfully. Both men knew how it felt. While his companion scrabbled through a drawer, the minister sauntered over to a cabinet in the corner and poured two glasses of whisky. "How's your father these days?" he enquired.
"Same as ever. The doctors say he'll never regain consciousness, but they're trying everything they can. Stranger things have happened after all... Ah, here we are. Put down that glass, we're going downstairs. I'll talk to you as we go."
The cellars beneath Westminster Palace are far older than the building itself, the whole area is a honeycomb of passages, shadowy rooms and dripping pipes. The ancient plumbing rattles and groans and gloomy alcoves piled with the debris of the years snake off in all directions. James Kent shivers.
"You know, James," says the prince, checking door numbers, "I never really appreciated how little fun running a country actually is. Every day my desk is piled high with regulations, laws and memos about all manner of things. Just today I had to decide whether to renew the carbon credit deal with Malawi or authorise one point seven million acres of solar panels across Devon. And then the Scottish president was harassing me about our weapon installations on the border, which I hadn't even heard of till then. And after that I have to deal with riots-"
"Technically I'm the one who has to deal with the riots actually."
"Not the point. The point is, how is anyone supposed to know what to do? Every day I make half a dozen decisions that decide the future of the country and I don't have a clue. How am I supposed to make the right choice?"
James is about to respond, but decides against. There is silence for a short while before Marvin stops short, unlocks a nondescript door after a few attempts. He pulls down a large switch and somewhere a generator awakens and begins to hum. Bright floodlights illuminate one by one and the two men shield their eyes from the sudden brightness. The room is just another freezing cellar, with an intertwining maze of large pipes obscuring the ceiling and whitewash flaking off from the stone walls. However, on the opposite side there is a large metal door, like a bank vault. Little rivulets of rust stain it like tears and there are a number of faded warning signs that tell of lethal dangers and dire legal consequences. To the right, a modern keypad has been stamped onto the stonework.
"Very melodramatic," remarks James after a few moments. Marvin only smiles slightly and strides over to the keypad. As he stands back again, there is a series of resounding thuds as unseen bolts crash home and then the protests of hydraulics as the blast doors grind open.
"Not many people know about this place," mumbled Marvin conversationally as he felt for the light switch. "Hence, no guards. It's a state secret. Affectionately known as the Chamber of Secrets."
The light when it comes is disappointing. A few naked bulbs make a half-hearted attempt at lighting up the medium sized cellar. The room is cramped, but there isn't much to see, as almost everything is shrouded in heavy tarpaulins. Here and there are a few unimpressive artefacts; a hunk of dusty machinery, a chipped totem pole, something that looks like a dented electric chair with a few modifications.
"So what is this place?" asks James, peering under a sheet spattered with paint and finding nothing of interest. "Looks like an abandoned jumble sale, or a museum."
"That's not far off the mark. It was set up in the 1920s, when the authorities seized a mummified hand from a pyramid robber in Egypt. It contains all the items that the powers that be deemed too dangerous, or couldn't understand. Patents by eccentric inventors, supposedly alien technology, that kind of thing. It's the place where we'd file the Ark of the Covenant, if we found it. Ever see that film?"
"No. Well this is fascinating. But it all looks like junk to me."
"Most of it probably is. But there are one or two gems. Somewhere in those crates in the corner there's a device that can supposedly see into hell. Needless to say no one's ever got it working. Amazing really, that some civil servant years back went through all this stuff and sent it down here."
"Good to know the British government takes care of its valuables. Sticks them in a cellar and forgets about them."
"Yes, well, not entirely. After my father's stroke I was given a record of everything stored here and there was one thing that caught my eye. Thirty years ago there was brilliant ex-physicist, a paranoid schizophrenic, who spent his early retirement as an amateur inventor. He was a big believer in determinism, that the consequences of every action and decision could be calculated accurately, if you knew all the facts. To prove his point he built this machine that will do just that. You can ask it any question and it will work out the best possible action to take. He was murdered soon afterwards, apparently. Anyway, the machine wound up here. Of course, the story is probably completely made up, but I thought it would be interesting to take a look at."
James looked like he suspected a joke. "So a lunatic cobbled together a real crystal ball in his garage - you take me away from Leicester Square for this? Well, I suppose I'm here now, so where is this contraption?"
"Yes, yes, I know. But you surely can't want to spend all night grappling with irate taxpayers... Well never mind that, help me look for the damned thing."
At last they found a lumpy shape lurking in the corner and gingerly lifted the sheet off, sending up a blizzard of dust. They found a large and slightly dented grey box with a tangle of leads tumbling out of the back, and a dead, bulbous screen on the front. Other unidentifiable pieces were attached by a maze of frayed wiring, among them a clunky black keyboard. All in all it looked rather like the forgotten toy of a technology enthusiast from the days of the floppy disc.
"Very twentieth century," remarked James wryly. "This is the box with all the answers is it? Lacks presence, you have to admit. I'll be surprised if it even turns on."
Marvin did not reply, but pushed something that looked like it might moonlight as an on button. There was a twang as a spring gave way, and nothing else except a sceptical look from his friend.
"I fear you'll have to rely on tossing a coin for a little longer yet. Well this has all been very interesting, but it's about time I was-"
He was interrupted by a crackling from the bowels of the machine, like water in a frying pan. At length the screen flickered and lit up with a dim undersea glow, a green cursor blinked onto the screen, and silence reigned but for the quiet whirr of hidden workings.
"Impressive, but I really must be going. God knows what's happening up there in my absence. Goodnight."
James extricated himself from the room with difficulty and the echoes of his footsteps faded into the distance, leaving Marvin alone in the cellar. The keyboard clattered as he began to type, half to clear things in his own mind and half to see what would happen. The humming of the machine stepped up an octave and aquamarine characters rapidly spilled down the screen.
The day after, when the last of the night's fires were being smothered with pressurised jets of water, Prince Marvin was back in his study. Dark portraits of dead statesman frowned with disapproval as he chewed his fountain pen meditatively, gazing through the window. The door swings open with slightly more violence than decorum permits. For once, Mr Jarrow is looking flustered rather than icy.
"We have received your memo... Majesty."
"Oh? Is there a problem?" Marvin enquires innocently.
"Actually there is," the man almost snarls. "The monarch does not give out orders. Especially not ones as foolish as those. Your task is only to give your signature, the civil service knows what is best for the country and the civil service takes the decisions. Have I not made this clear?"
"Actually I remember you asking where the country could turn if not me. You were right. It's about time I started taking some responsibility."
The white-haired mandarin narrows his eyes, and takes a few moments to compose himself.
"With respect, your majesty, these orders are pure foolishness. I beg your majesty to reconsider. If your majesty will just permit me to..."
"No, Mr Jarrow. I let you over-rule me about the arms deal with Venezuela, and that was not exactly a resounding success. This time I hold firm."
He emphatically puts down his fountain pen to prove his point. The civil servant twitches, a rare sign of the fury beneath the frozen diplomatic expression. Venezuela had been a disaster and the young prince seems resolved to be obstinate.
"Very well, majesty. Perhaps this mistake will teach you the folly of taking events into your own hands."
Prince Marvin smiles slightly to himself in satisfaction, and even approaches his in-tray with unusual enthusiasm.
Just two days later, Westminster Palace was encircled by police in full armour. They were holding firm against the seething tides of protestors at the moment, but it didn't feel like the rally would remain peaceful for long. Prince Marvin inspected it from his vantage point with more than his usual apprehension. The sky was bruised with ominous clouds, but the weather could hardly be more worrying than the situation below. And this one he bore personal responsibility for. Something James with his usual tact was quick to remind him of.
"What were you thinking? Half the countries in the world are fighting tooth and nail for every drop of oil on the planet, and you put petrol taxes up. I mean, environmental awareness if all very well, but only if you're alive to enjoy it. Frankly, I'm amazed one of your bureaucrat friends didn't stop you."
Marvin winced. "He tried, trust me. I promise you, it seemed like a good idea at the time."
"I can't believe you. The one time you put your foot down, the one time, and you go and do something insane like this. I think I'll have a heart attack if you aren't deposed soon. But what am I doing chatting like this? I really must be going, I've got some unarmed bystanders to brutalise."
Marvin glared at the crowds, recalling the conspicuous absence of protest when third world aid had been halved. He returned to his desk with a sigh and signed the paper rescinding his order, kindly left there by Mr Jarrow after their last meeting. As he did so, he contemplated to himself that watching other people make bad decisions for you was a lot better than making them yourself. It's difficult to blame a machine for your mistakes, but he was damned if he wasn't going to try.
The next five weeks made expensive petrol look like an early Christmas present. Diplomatic relations with Scotland had never been good since the place was finally, and grudgingly, given independence a decade ago, and in recent times they had taken a turn for the worse. There was some confusion about missile batteries on the border, which apparently no one in Westminster was aware of, and whether a weather mast was on the Scottish or English side, or even existed at all. Or at least so it seemed to Marvin, who had never had much interest in the trivia of foreign policy.
For five weeks conflicting reports and armchair military experts raged in the press and diplomats lived off coffee and their own fingernails. To the man in the street it was all surreal, the idea of a war seemed as remote as global warming. Everyone was all too used to seeing pictures and death tolls on television and hardly paid attention when some foreign corner with an unpronounceable name was destroyed. But the possibility of picking through the rubble of your own house or quivering beneath a table seemed ridiculous.
In Westminster Palace, Cabinet was having an emergency meeting, although a cynic would have noted that no emergency was too great for complimentary mints. Looking through the frosted window, no one would have guessed anything out of the ordinary was happening. Just another meeting for suits with no clue of the real world. As Prince Marvin listened to the petty bickering and quibbling, he found it hard to disagree. The meeting was already three hours old, crumpled mint wrappers dotted the table, and the Defence Secretary was just finishing his report.
"...so basically we cannot dismantle the missile battery, even if we wanted to, because we don't know where it is precisely. Besides, even if we did know, we wouldn't be about to take it down just to please Scotland."
"But maintaining military installations is expensive, surely we should jump at the chance to remove as many as possible?" Unsurprisingly, that was the view from the Treasury.
"Impossible, missile batteries are vital to the defence of the realm. Every last one is indispensable to the nation's safety."
"But you don't even know where it is! How can it be so important?"
"Well, if we bothered to put it there in the first place it must be important. And why would Scotland object to them being there if they weren't planning to attack us?"
"Forget the missiles, those are just their excuse. The real issue is this damned weather mast. Don't we have a map or something to decide this once and for all?" snapped the Home Secretary impatiently.
"There's an aerial photograph on page 67 of the agenda. I've not had a chance to look at it yet, but MI6 assure me it's very clear. So, we need to come to a decision on this, how do we react to Scotland's latest demands?" That was the Prime Minister.
"Well from a foreign policy perspective it's very delicate. You see Scotland has a military alliance with a whole number of other small countries, and if we make a move against them it could destroy years of careful diplomatic planning and strategy."
"Excuse me, where on the photo is this weather mast exactly? I can't seem to find it..."
"It's near a slight inlet on the river... there, that's it. Anyway, to hell with the diplomacy! It's got us into a right mess so far. If you'd read our report on the matter you'd have been able to head off this war six months ago," accused the Head of MI6.
"I never got a copy of your report! You lot never share information with my department. If you ask me, MI6 and the Ministry of Defence are deliberately trying to out-do the foreign office by leaving us in the dark."
"No, no, I think that's just a speck of dust on the camera lens or something. I'd have thought it would be a bit further North of the river..."
"Ha! As if we would need to interfere to out-do the foreign office! Everyone knows full well you were only appointed to shut your party up. The important thing here is that the English army is not ready for a war on this scale. Scotland has many more troops in the area and our reserves are depleted-"
"Lost them too did you?" interrupted the Foreign Secretary acidly.
"You see, I'd have thought the mast would be about here. Oh! Do you think that's it, that little blur right there?"
"Not at all. If our department got the proper funding we could go to war without a second thought and all our jobs would be much easier. But most of our troops are tied up peace-keeping in Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Turkmenistan-"
"And why are we peace-keeping in Turkmenistan when we're on the verge of war? Didn't the fighting there die down a couple of decades ago?"
"That's just how good at peace-keeping we are!" blustered the Defence Secretary.
"It was a Foreign Office triumph as I recall, once we managed to stop your thugs destroying ancient monuments."
"Aha! Here it is! See, right there, where the road bends slightly," the Home Secretary cried jubilantly, cutting through the argument. Grateful for the chance to change the subject, the Prime Minister bent forward and peered at the photograph for a little while.
"I don't see anything."
Prince Marvin had been observing all this with disdain. Clearly, no decision would be made here tonight. From flicking through the agenda he had gathered how grim the situation was. When civil servants used phrases like "civilian population not to be informed" it was time to head for the bunkers. By all accounts, the army was out-numbered and had probably left its guns at home, while Scottish forces were poised to strike, supported by numerous allies.
Leaving the Home Secretary to gesture excitedly at the photograph while the Prime Minister looked on blankly, he headed down through the corridors of power. The cellar was exactly as it had been last time, with the machine whirring and clicking softly as it waited for him in the corner.
One month later, and as snow flutters through the dark streets of Edinburgh and tinny syllables ring out from loudspeakers, a council of war is taking place. A large map has been pinned to the table showing the fortunes of the army, and its message is stark. Round the table, the faces are grimmer than the Scottish January afternoon, and no matter how many times one of them leans forward to tentatively shift the markers, the mood of despair is unwavering. No matter what they try, their efforts are thwarted at every turn by the enemy. Outside, the clearest indicator is the war propaganda that blares across the street. Holding strategic points. Tactical withdrawal. Troops falling back in good order to fortified positions. Heroically delaying the enemy advance.
Twelve hours later, the order to evacuate Edinburgh is given. Not many people have delayed long enough to hear it.
Meanwhile in London, Parliament Square throngs with life. The crowd surges forward against the barbed anti-terrorist fence that encircles the Palace and cries as one. In the background jingoistic chants break out among the drunken war-mongers, and groups of thugs break off from the main body to search for any Scotsmen foolish enough to remain in the city.
Some way to the right of where the protestors are focusing their attention, a sombre Marvin looks out at the scene. On his desk lies a copy of The Times, where a poll of Londoners gives full voice to the pro-war sentiment of the voting public. General hatred and centuries old rivalries have been swept up against not only Scotland, but the eight small countries which assisted them in the war. The latest panicky phone call from the leader of Iceland was only a couple of hours ago. The prince sighs and turns away from the view below.
James is looking at him from his chair, his whisky abandoned. His eyes are dim and distant and his face drawn. When he speaks his voice is hollow.
"It's not just London, they're like that everywhere. Your war is going brilliantly, even now Cabinet is squabbling over how we're going to divide up Scotland." He finishes with unmasked contempt.
"My war? Do you think I wanted this?"
"You mean you don't? The Scottish president was ready to back down as soon as we crossed the border but we've pressed on, regardless of casualties or civilians, and now the public want us to annexe Scotland and get started on the rest of the world. Ever since you took personal control there's been no reasoning with you."
"Look, we would have been defeated, I had no choice..." Marvin began to defend himself.
"And now what? Are we going to invade everyone we disagree with? This aggression is illegal and it is stupidity. We gain nothing from this. And now you're just like one of them," he pointed with a sneer at the crowd outside.
Marvin narrowed his eyes. "It's all for the best."
James looked at him with disbelief and rose slowly. The door closed with heavy finality, and Marvin took the opportunity to sink hopelessly into his cushioned chair. Wincing at the memory of the conversation, he slowly poured himself a glass. It had been easy to have the decisions made for him, and satisfying to defy Jarrow and the Cabinet with his personal orders. But the euphoria of his military success had evaporated in the cold January evening and he was far, far out of his depth in treacherous waters. For the best? Perhaps, but then who could decide what was for the best? This had never been his vision, and he realised now that there was a good reason machines didn't rule the world.
That night, he formally relinquished control of the army and issued a proclamation begging for peace.
Reading the papers the next morning, he could barely recognise his announcement. Jarrow had done a masterful job of converting his inarticulate plea to an authoritative and statesmanlike declaration, couched in insidious phrases like "commitment to peace" and "humanitarian considerations" that disguised the real motives. He managed to entirely ignore the report on page two of seven soldiers killed in an ambush by what would eventually turn out to be a ruthless Scottish guerrilla group.
When he emerged from his apartments, he was not greeted by the usual pair of polished policemen, but a contingent of soldiers. Once outside the deceptively serene Buckingham Palace, he saw the reason why. The normal litter-strewn streets were augmented with the husks of charred cars and robust police barricades. Here and there a lone shop-keeper was pulling down the steel shutters, or sweeping shattered glass into the gutter.
The sound of mayhem grew louder as they approached Westminster and as the armoured Rolls Royce turned the corner onto Parliament Square, the battle between rioters and police was still raging. On the near side, the road was jammed with ambulances, and paramedics treating the walking wounded while stretchers were rushed past. From not far away a medley of shouts, sirens and breaking glass rose over the grand buildings. In an instant, the scene was whipped away as the car swerved through an archway into the palace itself. The prince shambled towards the door of his study stunned by the raw memory of the carnage outside.
Once out of view of his bodyguards he staggered over to retrieve the decanter of whisky from where it had languished since the night before and slumped into his chair. For once, his desk was clear of fresh paperwork; on a day like this decisions were taken on the streets, not in plush offices. Over the next few hours, the sounds of chaos receded from his window and the level in the decanter steadily fell. He reflected on his rule, recalling each disaster vividly. Whatever he tried, his efforts were doomed to failure and catastrophe.
In Parliament Square, relative peace now reigned. The riots were being forced back by mounted police, and were now hundreds of yards away. Only the debris of violence remained. A man in shabby overalls and a bulky leather jacket approached the entrance of Westminster Palace, where the redoubled team of armed police flanked a metal detector. Seeing him, they tensed themselves for action and re-checked their weapons.
To their mild surprise however, he produced a government pass and the chip implanted in his arm corroborated his identity. One of the policemen obligingly moved out of his way, but instead he unlocked a small service door off to the left. They would recall later that in doing this he avoided passing through the metal detector.
Automated security cameras twisted in their cradles and tracked his progress through the building, as he moved through the small maintenance corridor and emerged in a disused office. From there he strode through the labyrinth of Westminster Palace without a pause, heading directly to the third floor. The bank of screens was never monitored, although the recordings would be trawled through later, and so his progress went unchallenged.
At last he turned a corner and arrived on a corridor where two armed policemen were waiting for him, flanking an oaken door. The younger of them was leaning against the wall, bored, but at the sight of the stranger he straightened up.
If anyone had been watching on the cameras they would have seen the man in the leather jacket produce a silenced pistol, and the two policemen crumple to the ground. The door they had been guarding led to one of the few rooms in the Palace where cameras were forbidden, and what happened next went unseen. Thirty seconds later, the figure re-emerged and swiftly his way to a pre-planned escape route. Five minutes after Prince Marvin was assassinated the alarms finally blared their warning, hopelessly late. Police in body armour swept the building with honed efficiency, but the trail went cold at a room where a cleaner was sprawled on the floor and a shattered window gaped onto the deserted street.
The killing sent shockwaves around the government in a way which mere war or civil unrest could never manage. The only man unruffled by the incident was the head of the civil service, Mr Jarrow. When the news was broken to him he gave a characteristic tut of annoyance and ordered a full internal inquiry, to be headed by himself. As soon as his assistant left the room, he began to dispose of the evidence, deleting records of the bank transfer and erasing the assassin's profile from the government security clearance database. He even indulged in a slight smile. He had been quite wrong about that prince, he had to admit. Much harder to control than he had anticipated, but at least now he was no longer around to rock the boat. After that reflection, Mr Jarrow returned to the business of running the country.
Meanwhile, down in a forgotten cellar, surrounded by dusty film reels and broken electronics, a machine softly clicks and hums to itself patiently, waiting and calculating.