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The Postman
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Ken Orford

Science Fiction

U



I wasn’t the first, but for some reason I was the most famous. I guess that’s one reason why a postman from Woking ended up as the President of the World. You could say it’s a long story, but as I look out over the East River I realise that actually, it’s not.

It all started over three years ago, with a blazing headache. My daughter Georgina’s ninth birthday party had just finished and I put it down to that. I thought it would subside now that the noisy bunch of little girls had all left. But half an hour later it seemed to have got worse, to tell you the truth I was a bit worried – you hear so much about brain tumours and things like that. So, I packed myself off to bed. Quite unlike me, I normally liked to sit and watch a bit of telly, or meet a couple of mates down the pub for a game of darts. We were always there on a Wednesday for the pub quiz – we never did very well, except on the Sports round of course, we usually found we won that one.

Anyway, I missed the quiz that night and in the morning, though the pain had gone, my head felt really strange. It felt kind of tingly – like your hand feels when it’s been cold and you go inside and it warms up – sort of glowing. Well, it was my day off so I decided to go and see the doctor. As I sat in the waiting room, I was next to a chap who was sniffing a lot – well it was a doctor’s waiting room after all - but despite that I couldn’t help looking over his shoulder at the crossword he was doing. I don’t know why I did it – I’ve always struggled with crosswords. I remember once being thrilled to bits when I managed to complete The Sun easy crossword. This was the Times – way out of my league. But somehow I found my self saying:

“Institute – ten down, and that means 12 across is probably Stanza.”

The chap glared at me in huff, turned away from me so I couldn’t see anymore – but I did notice he put the answers in. But that was the first time I thought something odd was going on. I had read the clue, and the answer had been there – just as if someone had asked me my daughter’s name. It was like there was no thought – it was just there.

My number came up and I went in to see the doctor. Having explained my headache and the fact that I was okay, sort of, now – he just said something about it probably being a virus and told me to come back if the headache returned, and take some pain killers if needed.

I decided to stop off at Boots in the Mall and get some Ibuprofen. As I was going into the shop I could see bright lights and hear a PA type noise - something was going on the centre of the Mall where they have displays and small “events”. Having got the drugs, I headed over to see what the commotion was. There was a small crowd, and the thinking man’s totty – Carol Vordemann was there promoting something or other. There was a TV crew doing some filming for South Today, or some local news programme or other.

We were invited to “Challenge Carol”. They had the old Countdown clock and pairs of people were going up and doing the thing where you get given some numbers and have to multiply, divide, add and subtract them to get some random total. A pair of volunteers went up, the numbers were displayed and the clock started. Five plus three is eight, multiply by nine gives you fifty-six, multiply by 10 and subtract the seven – hey presto five five three. I kind of amazed myself – I had always been really useless at figures. I amazed the bloke next to me even more, because I hadn’t realised I had said it out load. The next pair went up, and the next – and I kept getting all the answers in a few seconds. Before I knew where I was, the chap I was sanding next to had pushed me forward, and I was on the small stage.

After introductions the clock started on the first puzzle. I had really got the hang of this – I pressed the buzzer after three seconds a reeled off the answer. I was the first person that day to beat Carol. I don’t know why I’d ever found Maths so hard – I had just managed a D at GCSE. It was like the numbers were just telling me where they went. Easy – piece of cake – morceau de gateaux. Good grief, where did that come from? – I’d quit French after just one year!

I stayed on stage and others came and went – I kept winning – after a dozen rounds I was more or less automatically pressing the buzzer straight away – and just giving the answer. The TV crew that had been packing up were now unpacking frantically. The crowd had also grown and a hum was going round. Well, after fifteen or so rounds, we stopped for a break. Carol came over and looked at me, deadly serious.

“Okay, I don’t know how you’re doing it – but you’ve had your fun.”

I didn’t say anything, I just looked her. What on earth was she on about?

“Have you got a wire, some help somehow?”

By this time the TV crew and news reporter had their camera on me, and the bright camera light was in my eyes. I just said that I could just see the answers – they were just…. obvious.

The news guy asked me all sorts of questions, who I was, where I was from, how long I’d had this “gift” with numbers. I just answered him.  After that Carol asked me a few more questions about how I did it – I told her I didn’t know; the answers just came. She asked me if I was good at other things like Sudoku or crosswords. I told her about the incident this morning at the surgery. She looked at me oddly, and asked for my details – I saw no reason not to give them to her. After that, I left.

I got home feeling odd, but really alive and buzzing. On the way home I’d got thinking about what had happened to me. The headache had obviously caused something to change in my head. I decided to see if I could find something out about brains and how they worked. I turned on the computer – normally my wife’s domain – and clicked on Explorer and went into Google. This was pretty much as far as I had ever got. Anyway, I typed in “How brains work” and started to read, I read the forest analogy on the Science Museum site, I read stuff from the Dana Foundation, I went to Wikipaedia and from there to some University sites and research papers. Just like I’d been able to do Maths fast I found I could read fast too – but I was also understanding it. It was really interesting – and I was getting all kinds of ideas about what might have happened. I was really intrigued by some work by Dr Montgomery at imperial College, looking at neurotransmitter levels. Fascinating.

I was so absorbed I didn’t hear Stella and Georgina come in. Georgie bounced onto my lap for a cuddle, which turned into a huge tickling fight, and Stella made a comment about my obviously feeling a lot better. She then looked at the PC screen, and with a puzzled expression, looked back at me.

Before I could answer, the ‘phone rang. Georgie grabbed the receiver before either of us could get there and announced it was Granny. Stella went to take the ‘phone from her when Georgie blurted out “Daddy’s on the telly!”

Well, I knew what that would be about… and sure enough. There I was – Georgie was bouncing round so excited that we could hardly hear. Stella had said she’d call her mum back and hung up. But of course it rang again – the first of a steady stream of friends and family telling us my fifteen minutes of fame had arrived. Funny, looking back I really thought it would be fifteen minutes – but look at me now, a few years later, a virtually redundant first President of the United Earth.

We ended up leaving the phone off the hook. Stella made us some coffee while we sat down I told her about my extraordinary day. But then I stared to talk about neurons and synapses, about neurotransmitters and neuromuscular transmission. I stopped when I realised she was just sitting there with her mouth open, and I couldn’t believe that not only did I understand what I had been reading, but I was starting to develop theories.

We talked a bit more, as I tried to explain my ideas – but I realised that although Stella was brighter than I was, well, than I had been, the ideas were way beyond her. Georgie was channel hopping, no doubt trying to find my smiling face again. Eventually, on BBC News 24 of all places, there I was. We all watched intently, but in the middle of it the doorbell rang. As the least interested observer, after all I knew what I had said; I answered the door and was confronted by a middle aged man.  My crystal clear, lightning fast memory told me he was someone whose photograph I’d seen a couple of hours ago. Before he could introduce himself I smiled at him:

“Dr Montgomery, I presume.”

I watched his blue eyes, behind the rimless spectacles looking at me. I could almost hear his mind whirring as he sought to work out where we had met.

I amused myself for a couple of seconds by letting him struggle. He looked like the archetypical academic: slightly unkempt hair, jacket, and blue button down collared shirt open at the neck.

I put him out of his misery informing him we hadn’t met but that I’d read a couple of his papers this afternoon. I invited him in, and we sat at the kitchen table drinking tea for the next hour or so. He wanted me to go over what happened, but I ignored him and started talking about my ideas. After all, if he wanted to know what happened he could watch the news. He was clearly struggling with the truth – that a postal worker had read dozens of advanced papers on Neurophysiology, and appeared to understand them …all in an afternoon.

I wanted to talk about my theories though. Whatever had caused my headache – I had concluded from one of the virology papers I had read that it was most likely a virus – had affected my brain’s physiology. I suspected that the biochemical functions had somehow speeded up, but more than that I wondered if my brain’s neurons had started to develop more connections. This would account for my brain’s improved performance.

The next few days after Dr Montgomery arrived on my doorstep were very seriously weird. I spent most of them either at Imperial College with Dr Montgomery, or on some TV or Radio show. Believe it or not, I even appeared on the US “Tonight” Show – they flew me and Dr Montgomery over to LA. I really shocked them though by not being a performing seal, and doing clever Maths tricks and IQ test stuff – but by talking about the possibility of others catching the virus. Suddenly I was seriously popular – I couldn’t even start to tell you of some of the strange offers I got – well it was LA after all. Anyway, as a result my fifteen minutes of fame was well and truly extended. I was even featured on the front of Time Magazine.

It was an exciting time for me – though I missed Georgie and Stella desperately. It seemed all brain functions were heightened, including emotional responses. I spent time at UCLA talking to other academics and progressing my ideas. But I was the one forging ahead – and the Professors and PhD’s were struggling to keep up. One of them did an IQ test on me – I was so far off the scale they invented a new scale (they estimated I was around 320 ish on the old scale). I turned my attention to the impact of this virus, and what would happen if it affected everyone, or just some people or maybe even just a handful. No matter what, the social impact would be dramatic, and I used my fame to start people thinking about it.

While I was there I got a call from my Mother-in-Law, Stella was seriously unwell – she was in great pain with … you guessed it … a headache. Dr Montgomery didn’t show up the next day at UCLA. He had a very severe Migraine – the Hotel doctor thought it might be a Cluster Headache. Well, the virus was spreading. It was on the news – the newly named “Barnwell Syndrome” (that’s me by the way) – was striking people down all over the planet.

I saw Dr Montgomery the next day – his eyes were shining and he shook my hand and hugged me. He was speechless at first, then the ideas started to tumble out of him. It was soon very obvious to me that my position as the cleverest man in the world had gone forever. Listening to him I felt just like I would have felt a month ago if Dr Montgomery (IQ 172) had started talking neuro-physiology to John Barnwell (IQ 96). It later transpired that his IQ was now a tad short of 600.

I returned home the next day – although I hadn’t changed, I felt like I’d gone from genius to dunce in a twenty-four hour spell. Stella hugged me saying how brilliant it was being clever – as for me I just wanted to see Georgie – she was sitting at the kitchen table, on her second A2 maths paper. It had transpired that children integrated the virus really easily – with comparatively little pain.

It’s at this point that it really stops being my story … it becomes mankind’s story. The virus had gone from an epidemic to a pandemic. The world was filling up with super intelligent people. Things happened so fast. The Human Race was making more advances in a week than it had made in the previous ten years. The first year was just incredible – fantastic scientific, medical and technical advances, incredible social change – and just a massive outbreak of common sense. Everyone knew broadly what needed to be done in any situation - it was obvious to absolutely everybody. All the debate was about how.

A generic cure for Cancer, which had been getting closer was announced in the first month. This was followed by a cure for Aids/HIV. But within a year they became almost redundant, because of the amazing breakthroughs in nano-technology. Microscopic machines which can live inside our bodies, the stuff of science fiction, had been developed. Many different varieties were possible. One sort just wandered round your bloodstream sweeping up and getting rid of Cholesterol and fatty deposits. Another strain would just swim around and target Cancer cells – making everyone effectively immune.

Developing cures and the like is of course only half the story. How do you manufacture and distribute 8 billion doses of something? Within weeks computers and machines that could manufacture anything were being developed. Within a year they had pretty much been perfected. Of course, the first thing they did was to make more of themselves. These machines started to make other machines that could make buildings and factories, make powerplants and roads, make robots to build and manufacture everything from a car to a vaccine.

The Carbon footprint issue was solved next – the Rutherford Labs scientists perfected controllable Nuclear fusion – and the computers got to work building the first reactors within months. They are now being commissioned around the world at a rate of two per day, so we have an almost infinite supply of cheap, clean energy. Though it would take a bit of time, global warming was headed off at the pass.

But not everything in the rapidly changing garden of planet Earth was rosy. In the first few months there were literally millions of suicides. Imagine being the village idiot – you are happy because you don’t know any better. Now you are suddenly a genius – but everyone else is a super genius. They smile at you, and look on your two hundred plus IQ with sympathetic eyes. Some people just couldn’t cope and took their own lives.

If technology accelerated ahead, social change was even more dramatic. Churches emptied – not because no-one believed in God, but because the futility and narrow mindedness of organised religions was clear to everyone. The thing that had caused wars and strife and incredible suffering for centuries was cast aside in the blink of an eye. At long last mankind’s belief in God had outgrown his need for religious dogma.

The amazing thing for me in all this was that I was still famous. Somehow I had become the champion of the “average” man. I was given a regular slot on Breakfast TV, which led to my own show. Everyone wanted to use this newfound mental; capability, and my show was a sort of Adult Education – featuring everything from Nuclear Physics to Music. But far and away the most popular subjects were the social and political programmes. Because for the “ordinary” man or woman, those with an IQ of less than say 350, this was something they were experiencing and wanted to influence.

In that first year of the pandemic things very nearly fell apart completely. How do you tell someone with an IQ of 200 plus they still need to go and collect refuse or clean drains? The Swedes, as ever, had set the trend – they announced that until machines had been developed to do the unpleasant jobs, then nurses, refuse collectors, firemen and the like – all the people society needed to survive but had traditionally paid very badly – would be paid like an English Premier League footballers. This didn’t really work, but common sense prevailed. Everyone realised that if the nasty jobs weren’t done then society would fail. So people volunteered! Can you believe it – University Professors, politicians, hairdressers, artists – everyone coming forward to do their bit working in sewers, or sweeping roads. There were so many volunteers that people were turned away. Of course, within a year it was unnecessary – machines were being churned out that would relieve mankind forever of boring, dirty, unfulfilling jobs.

Needless to say in this massive outbreak of common sense, armed forces sort of fell apart. Their futility as fighting forces was realised by everyone from the lowest private to highest general. Some unanimously agreed to stay and keep training to react to natural disasters – volcanoes, tsunamis and like.

So what was wrong with paying huge salaries for horrible jobs? Well, even in that first year, you didn’t have to be a Rocket Scientist to figure out that money would only be around for a few more months. Money was no longer a pre-requisite for the pursuit of prosperity, health and happiness. In a world of cheap, clean, unlimited energy and machines that can do almost anything, men and women were free to pursue fulfilment however they wanted.

What put the nail into the old style economy’s coffin was the invention of the replicator. Straight out of Star Trek. Give it something to duplicate and some raw materials and hey presto, you’ve got two of them. A duplicate computer, a duplicate vaccine, a duplicate banana … a duplicate person? No, something goes wrong there  but we’re still working on it and it won’t be a problem for long.

So, we have a world of unlimited cheap power, where anything can be copied – from your mama’s lasagne to a sophisticated machine, and where there is a massive outbreak of hyper-intelligent common sense.

After the first year, things settled down into some sort of order. Governments became loose controllers of activity – and that’s where I came back in. Essentially, the super-intelligent people couldn’t be bothered – they were far too interested and excited in pursuing their personal goals – discovering, inventing, creating. So who would they turn to to run the world, and just oversee and manage things? Why, people like me of course. And cutting the long story of the next couple of years short, that’s how I came to be here. Highly intelligent – in historic terms – and with huge popular support, I was elected President. In fact, only 0.001 percent of the world’s population voted - the computers extrapolated the result from that.

Now, as I look down at the East River – the first antimatter powered starships are being constructed in orbit. We can genetically engineer replacement body parts as the old ones wear out that are a perfect match. So with the nano’s in our bodies, people will live for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years. I’ll live to see the Arthur C Clarke Space Elevator planned for Belem in northern Brazil. I’ll live to see other worlds – but best of all I will live to see Georgie grow up in a world, no – a universe - without poverty, hunger, war, hatred and disease. A world where even a postman can become President.




© Ken Orford, 2008



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