Somewhere, an inconceivably massive number of calculations is taking place. It could be in the cloud, in the clouds or beyond the planets. It might equally be in a parallel realm or outside of space-time, perhaps inside a hollowed out mountain or flowing through a global network of supercomputers. The knowledge of the who, where, how or why hardly matters. Just as the ant neither needs to, nor can know anything of the freshly boiled kettle in the hands of the sadistic child.
Every second a zettabyte of information flows in and is assimilated. Information harvested from computer records, CCTV, biosensors, mobile phones, emails, brainwave monitors, paper records, diaries, dream logs, social media, in short every touch point between ourselves and the world – everywhere we leave an impression, scent, echo or trace – is added to the scales. Unknowable magnitudes of metadata for every living thing on the third celestial body from the G2V star of the Milky Way. All added to the scales. Which way they tip is the Reckoning.
He’d had a good life. Actually, no. That’s just an insipid platitude we trot out to comfort our fear-stricken minds. He was scared shitless at the thought of his imminent, eternal erasure. Even the defensive humour reflex catapulting his thoughts to a never ending purgatory loop of synth pop couldn’t cheer or divert him. No. This was the awful icewater-in-the-face clarity of dying and losing everything.
Think of it for a moment. Think that after you go to bed tonight, in the wee small hours as you lie supine and unconscious, your heart stutters to a stop. And your veins go still and cold. And whatever you are, or were, whatever the beautifully improbable thing that’s been haunting your meat module is, just leaves…forever. Dreams fade to black as the electrical storms in your brain flicker to nothing. And you never wake up. Gone.
He was subsumed by that paralysing, sublime terror. The visceral realisation that our life has an irreversible, immutable end game that has us trembling, pleading and acquiescing all at once. But in actual fact he had, according to the balance of the Reckoning, had a good life.
He had always had a keen moral sense. A felt and lived sympatico with his fellows, his lodestar was good intention. From an early age he was peculiarly sensitive to the inner states of others, aware that his happiness, sense of self worth, sanity even were all intimately connected to and contingent upon those self same states in other people.
At the age of twelve he had crossed the playground to stand next to, and talk to, a boy who had been singled out as whipping boy for the cruel pleasure of the pack. At seventeen he befriended a house-bound octogenarian lady on his street, got bits for her from the shops, went round for a cup of tea and to indulge her in her reminiscences. In his first management role at the age of twenty seven he had effectively saved someone from taking their life, although he never knew. The switch from being managed by a bullying autocrat to a nurturing coach was the ray of light this poor suicidal soul needed to summon the will to drag themself back to functioning and, in time, happiness. But he never knew.
He wasn’t perfect. Which, as utterances go, is a little like saying grey isn’t white. Mostly his sins were venal – commuting his bad mood to gormless first jobbers in the service industry, littering, not suffering fools, neglecting friendships. But he was never cruel, never wilfully unkind, never truly selfish.
There was that time, when he was eight or nine, when he kicked a frog over a fence. And the time he tried to evade a fare in a private hire cab by climbing out of one of the back windows. He’d lost his coat in a frenzied tug of war with the driver, having slipped out of it like Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor’s field. The madcap impulsivity of adolescence. The reckless thrill-seeking of our youth. But yes, all in all, it had been a good life.
The Oncology Ward was at the top of a labyrinthine Victorian hospital. High, spartan, white walls gave it that cold, institutional air – imbued with an atmosphere of benign torpor, a stoic resignation that often comes from a foreknowledge of death. He had his own room, at least. In a liminal state, just below consciousness yet still dimly aware of the room around him, he sensed the presence of another close by. His brain logged the fleeting moment of shade as something walked round the bed and in front of the window. Despite this, he felt no panic. Rather, he opened his eyes with a beautific sensation of calm and clarity. Turning his head towards the window he saw a man, well groomed and kindly looking, smiling back at him.
‘Hello Phillip’ said the man. ‘My name is Peter, and I’m here for your Reckoning’.
Phillip nodded, slowly, as though in assent although, in truth he hadn’t understood anything of what Peter had just said. He glanced down to read the identity badge clipped onto the lapel of Peter’s suit jacket. It read:
Peter St. Keys,
Nacre Gate Passing Solutions
In the kind, calm voice of a parent talking their child out of upset, Peter asked softly ‘you are aware that you are dying, Phillip?’
‘Yes’ his whispered reply. ‘I’m just running on fumes, I know’.
‘I am here to deliver your Reckoning verdict. Now, this will all seem very strange, if not fantastical. I know. But I want you to listen to your instinct. I think you are ready to hear what I have to say, and I also think you are aware that this moment is a transcedent one for you’.
Phillip was neither curious nor alarmed by this. He was aware only of an utterly alien feeling of serenity and perfect peace. It wasn’t just that this was a feeling different in degree to anything he had experienced throughout his life. It was altogether different in kind, hitherto foreign and unknown. It was bliss.
‘I’ll use language that you’ll understand’ continued Peter. ‘We – the entity I represent – deal in big data. Every action, every interaction you have had since you became a sentient lifeform we have collected, quantified and added to the balance of your Reckoning. Every thought, word, deed, sin – including those of omission – every beneficent act or utterence, every cruelty and unkindness, every intention and impact we have monitored and thrown into the balance. You are no special case, I should add. This we do – have done, will do forever more – for every senteint thing. At the end of every life we deliver the Reckoning, which is a calculation of impact, good bad or somewhere inbetween, of that life.’
Phillip smiled and let out a little grunt as he enjoyed a private joke with himself. ‘Are you sure you’re not Peter St. Nicholas? That sounds a lot like his naughty and nice list’. He was eager to amuse this stranger, oddly drawn to him as he was.
‘You’ve got it’ replied Peter through a warm grin, ‘except for Christmas, read Annihilation’. They both smiled. It was an immensely pleasurable exchange for Phillip. Which was paradoxical since it centred on that most feared existential threat. But all thoughts of that were gone. Now there was only a delicious warmth radiating out from his solar plexus and galvanising his entire body.
‘In essence, those with a positive score are granted an extension. And the length of that extension is commensurate with the size of that score’.
‘An extension. Advances in gerontology have enabled us to fully crack the millennia-old conundrum of ageing. For a long time we have been able to retard or arrest the process, but now we can reverse it’.
‘Oh, last century, 2016 I think. Don’t worry about the details, it’s enough for you to know that we can and that I am here in that regard’.
‘If you would just humour me’ said Phillip, ‘I’ve been a scientist all my working life. I’m just interested I suppose’.
‘OK. Well, a Japanese team put us on to the epigenetic theory. They honed in on two sections of DNA that control the production of a particular amino acid – glycine. You’ll like this, most people do, they bathed a cell line derived from a 97-year-old in glycine for ten days, and found that it restored the mitochondria’s ability to produce energy and actually reversed some age related defects’.
‘Neat’, Phillip cooed. ‘I had no idea’.
‘Would you like to receive your Reckoning?’
Silence. Just the hum of the ceiling fan, the indistinct hubbub ricocheting up from the street several storeys below, and the buzz-buzz-tap-buzz of a fly being confounded by the window.
Peter St. Keys looked uncharacterisically solemn as he reached into his jacket breast pocket. His fingers emerged clutching a small piece of paper, the size of a library catalogue card. He read from it in a steady, sonorous voice.
‘Phillip James Gregory. During the course of your 59 years, 7 months, 3 weeks, 5 days, 14 hours, 7 minutes and -‘ he looked up to meet Phillip’s eyes with a wry grin ‘I think that’s specific enough -‘ he resumed his recitation ‘all of you thoughts, words, deeds, dreams, sins – including those of omission – every beneficent act or utterence, every cruelty and unkindness, every intention and impact, has been monitored, quantified, and added to the balance. Your Reckoning, as you face 34 minutes left of life, is a net benefit and statistically significant positive impact. You have therefore been granted an extension of 6 years and 2 months’. He looked up again, narrowed his eyes and whispered ‘well done!’ with a heartfelt, affirmative nod of the head.
‘I’m fine, thank you. I’m ready’.
Peter cocked his head and, raising an eyebrow, echoed ‘ready?’.
‘Yes’ Phillip asserted, firmly yet cheerfully.
‘Are you sure? No-one has ever refused an extension’.
‘Yes’. Phillip closed his eyes. He drew in a long, deep breath. ‘I reckon so’.