The lighthouse

With a heart calloused with life-long despair, Fredrick slammed his curtains shut on a night ablaze with fireworks and crowds cheering in time to the rings of a midnight gong echoing across the harbour. Reacquainted with darkness, a foe he had the displeasure of knowing all too well, Fedrick edged back towards his armchair and surrendered to the grip of its stale musk and the grove of his backside, forever etched into the moulting, cement-grey upholstery. A reluctant heartbeat later, Fredrick rose his stooped head up to meet the television – a hunk of 1950s wood and glass – once more as it began to cough out black and white. As soon as his eyes crept onto the screen, the static ebbed to reveal its usual horror show of pain and suffering.

In a flash, Fredrick watched a decade of war, disease and famine unfold before him. Through a wall of tears, he saw Egyptian fighter jets drop bombs on Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam; Chinese tanks roll through the streets of Taiwan; dinghies packed with corpses wash up on Spanish beaches; Californians keeling over under a blazing sun. For Fredrick, one of the hardest parts was not being able to turn his head, because if he did so, the silence of the haunting pictures would be recoupled with sound, forcing him to hear each deafening cry, explosion and bullet firing in detail. The worst part of it all? He could not warn a soul or change a thing…   

For as long as Fredrick could stomach remembering, he was saddled with the affliction of being able to see random snippets of the future – days, months, years and sometimes great millennia. When it first happened, Fredrick’s mind ran wild with thoughts of being a crime fighter in the mould of his favourite comic book superheroes. He even envisioned being beloved and celebrated the world over. The dreams did not last long. As fast as a lightning strike, he soon learned that his supposed gift was the most bitter of curses. His rude awakening started with a postman and ended with his mother.  

When Fredrick was eight years old, from nowhere, a vision as clear as glass showed an approaching postman tripping over a hosepipe and chipping a tooth. Eager to be a Samaritan, he stopped the postman before he could hurt himself. After the postman showered him with appreciation, Fredrick returned to playing with marbles on his parent’s front door stoop in a haze of euphoria and pride. It was not to last. The crumple of metal. The shatter of glass. The snap of bone. He heard it before he could see it. When Fredrick shot his head up and saw the aftermath, his body spasmed in shock and horror, sending his marbles scattering in a million different directions.             

For years afterwards, Fredrick believed the postman incident was a tragic one-off, meaning when he was struck with another random vision some years later, he did not hesitate to risk life and limb to flag down a fast-moving bus in the knowledge that around the next corner a sudden sinkhole would cause it to careen into oncoming traffic, killing both the driver and two others on the bus. What Fredrick did not know was among the bus’s passengers was an unhinged, nervous man who had talked himself out of carrying out a mass shooting in the town’s shopping mall minutes before. But Fredrick’s sudden and frantic appearance spooked the man and triggered his paranoia, forcing him to pull out his gun and open fire. Instead of the original three people losing their lives, eight people died in total. After the police arrived and escorted an unscathed Fredrick to safety, it dawned on him that trying to change the future resulted in worse things happening.    

It was that realisation, among other botched acts of heroism, that led Fredrick to keep the knowledge of his mother’s cancer hidden from her. Before Grace found out for herself months later, he agonised day and night on whether to tell her or not. It was the most brutal of torturous. It was as if his heart had been soaked in petrol and set alight to burn without end. His vision was clear: Grace would succumb to late-stage cancer within weeks of being diagnosed. Fredrick knew her cancer would have been treatable if it was spotted sooner, but numerous past experiences had taught him that opening his mouth would somehow create more suffering. In the end, his solace was that she would pass pain-free in her sleep.  

With his mother’s death and his visions becoming even more frequent and intrusive, the growing darkness in his life pushed him into loneliness and the desire to cut himself off from the world. That’s when he found the lighthouse. Once the strident watchmen of a small, bustling harbour, years of unlove had stripped it of life and colour, leaving it a skeleton of what it once was. Condemned to demolition and a watery grave, Fredrick stepped in and bought the tower of bones with what he had left of his meagre savings and mother’s inheritance.

After he moved in, Fredrick went to some lengths to make the lighthouse liveable, but never did he attempt to make it pleasant or a real home. With the lighthouse baren except for a bed, chair, television and a near never-ending wall of books, Fredrick spent his days reading and his nights watching a broken television. When Fredrick first discovered it was broken, he sighed and resigned himself to more fruitless hours of searching through religious texts, academic papers and science fiction novels in the receding hope that his visions could be explained. Then he discovered something strange: when he looked deep enough into the static and concentrated hard enough, he could just about manage his visions…

Fredrick took one long, deep drag of his cigarette and held the smoke hostage in his lungs in the hope that if it stayed long enough, it would quiet the drumming of his heartbeat. It did no such a thing. As he sighed out thick, white plums, the thumping in his chest grew loud enough to ingest the staccato of fireworks outside. Even though Fredrick had thought about and psyched himself up for this moment for years, now that he was faced with it, he could do nothing to stop his hand from shaking like a leaf caught up in a storm.

Desperate for impetus, Fedrick laid his cigarette in his emptied gin glass and watched as the flame burned through the stick, leaving a trail of ash and whispers of smoke in its wake. Once the cigarette had finally burned itself out, he looked up to the television and tried something he had dreaded doing all his life because of the possible, terrifying consequences. But now, forever alone and estranged from the world outside, he knew he had nothing left to lose. As fear relinquished its grip on his heart for the first time in his life, Fredrick summoned a vision of his death from the static.

Blackness. All Fredrick could see was blackness. Just as he was preparing himself to see his unsettling demise, the television switched off. Mystified, Fredrick made to stand and march towards it for an explanation, until a reflection in the screen froze him solid. Before he could make out of the figure emerging from the shadows behind him, the cold, hard steel of a gun was pressed into the back of his skull. Just as the crowds outside were jumping into another round of fireworks and jubilations, Fredrick heard a hoarse voice mumble something about revenge before everything went black.

Blackness. Fredrick felt the caress of cold air against his cheek. The mushrooming sound of approaching conversation pricked his eardrums. A small tricking of light began to break the seal of his eyelids before a great, white wave broke them apart. Fredrick awakened to find himself in a small, white identity-less room. At first, the sterility of his environment made him assume that he was in an operating theatre, but the absence of beeping machines or the whiff of bleach soon convinced him otherwise. Instinctively he went to touch the back of his head in anticipation of finding a bandage or a thick, textured scar – nothing. However, as his hand moved away, his fingertips grazed something metallic attached to the side of his head.

Just as Fredrick’s fingers were beginning to probe the dime-sized device, in strode a gaggle of men, clad in sweeping white coats and engaged in hectic chatter from a door that whooshed up in an instant. Fredrick watched in silence and deepening confusion as the men batted complex figures and equations back and forth. Unable to stomach their obliviousness much longer, Fredrick agonised over how best to eloquently break up the conversation before a stutter come cough slipped out of this throat. His interruption was like a pin to a balloon. The room fell silent as each man wheeled around to face him.

As if Fredrick was a god descending from Mount Olympus, for a long moment the men beheld him in wide-eyed awe. “You are awake!?”  One of them exclaimed, triggering a sudden avalanche of warmth and affection towards Fredrick. However, as another made to shake his hand, Fredrick instinctively stepped back. “Oh right, your memory is still a little foggy. Not to worry, you will be as sharp as a tack in no time. After all, you designed the whole damn thing.” He said in a booming voice shoehorned into a Tom Cruise-sized stature. “Sorry, I don’t…”  stammered Fredrick in child-like helplessness. “While it is certain the fog will subside soon enough, there is no harm in helping the process along.” Before Fredrick could blink, he was on a whistle-stop tour of a planet-sized complex.      

From one hanger to the next, Fredrick was struck with an even more imposing, dizzying maze of power cables and generators that whirred louder than a concord taking off. If it were not for the earmuffs that he was forced to wear, the sound alone would have ground his eardrums to dust. As his Tom Cruise-sized tour guide, Yael tried his best to be heard over the drone, and despite his own straining and leaning in, Fedrick was unable to hear anything beyond the odd word or two. However, it was not an issue for long, because the deeper Fedrick was pulled into the inner workings of the underground system, the more memories began to drip and drab onto his mind.         

Fredrick’s back fell against the wall in both astonishment and the fear of a hunk of metal crashing into him. As he struggled to grasp the overwhelming sight before him, Fredrick could not help but feel like a beekeeper observing a hive. Except here, the worker bees were five-foot-tall, real-life C-3POs and the Queen Bee was a giant, super-advanced server, processing more pieces of information a second than there were atoms in the universe. The thought alone was enough to weaken Fredrick’s knees and somehow lift the dam holding up his memories.

In a flash, he saw a nuclearized World War between Iran and the United States of America push humankind to the brink of extinction. He also remembered himself, younger and more cocksure, delivering the conclusion to a presentation that promised the world’s richest and most powerful a saving grace. The Ark, almost from the pages of a science fiction novel, was a marvel of true artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Powered by quantum computing and all the energy sources known to man, it allowed a select few survivors of the nuclear fallout to upload their consciousness into a digital world, and Fredrick had been the first guinea pig.      

“It is time to launch the simulation,” said Fredrick as he turned to tower over Yael.

“What about the glitches!?”

“Keep them, they’ll allow me to control the simulation from within. Each universe needs a god.”  

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