Cyrus Song (Act 1) for typewriter (a musical thing with keys)

BOOK PREVIEW

Retriever

Sometimes something strikes you, and it was under your nose all the time. Like publishing the beginning of Cyrus Song. I self-published the novel, as the majority of writers do in the democratised publishing world, where agents and mainstream publishers scour the self-published market, and where they’ve previously discovered many now famous writers (see this Huffington Post article).

I was also in a hurry to get Cyrus Song out, and I realised a third party might want me to trim the book from its current 412 pages (standard paperback size). By my own admission, the book takes a while to get going, which I felt was necessary, but which requires patience from a readership and faith in a fringe writer.

I’ve written before of how I make my books available for free, by allowing them to be included on library lending registers when I self-publish, because I realise that a book is a financial commitment greater to some than others. And what I’ve written often, is that I’m not a writer for the money, because there’s very little of it. I’m much more about sharing what I do with as many people as possible, so that they might gain something and talk about it with others. Then again, I’m a writer who needs to live and eat, so I hope that those who can, do buy my books.

Lately I’ve been reading Cyrus Song to a friend, who finds reading difficult. As I’ve read my book to her, I’ve witnessed her become spellbound, and she’s said how she’d love more people to read the book, simply because she wants to talk about it, which is what I want the most: For people to talk about this book.

Normally, a publisher or agent will read the first 3-5 chapters, or 30-50 pages. What’s published here is the first 47 pages at A4 size, which equates to the first 140 pages, or the first third of the book (Act 1, if you like). This is the first seven chapters and there are 24 in all. I will not be publishing any more instalments, but this is a two-way street: It’s my confidence in the novel and my wish to share it, offering readers what I hope will be a satisfying introduction to Cyrus Song. It’s a long read, at the end of which, there are many ideas planted. The only way to find out what happens next, will be to buy the book. By publishing the first third here, I hope to make that an informed choice. What follows is a novella-length introduction to a much longer novel (some font and text flow issues arose in transferring copy from manuscript to blog, but they’re cosmetic and not present in the book).

Described by a book critic as “An extraordinary juggling act”, this is the beginning…

CYRUS SONG

2 little things

1
Two little things

This perfectly plausible story begins very unexpectedly, with a decimal point. As with many stories, this one involves something being out of place. In this case, that was a decimal point.

I’d left my desk to make some coffee, and as I came back into the study, I thought I saw something move on the sheet of paper in my typewriter. I was writing a little fantasy science fiction story for a magazine and I’d hit a bit of a block near the beginning, so I’d taken a break. It’s funny how things work in fiction sometimes and having that little pause was what I needed to start the story properly.

Before I continued writing, I re-read the little I’d already typed: something wasn’t right. I checked my research notes, wondering if I’d misinterpreted something but nothing sprang out. I looked back up at the paper in the typewriter and that’s when I noticed a decimal point had moved. I looked more closely and my original decimal point was still where I’d put it, so this other one had just appeared. Then it moved again: The one which had simply materialised, walked across the page. It didn’t have discernible legs but it moved nonetheless.

I picked up my magnifying glass from the side table to get a closer look at this little moving thing. It wasn’t a powerful magnifier: a full stop on a sheet of paper became the size of a grain of sand. Even at that low magnification, I could see that the little round thing had a dull silver metallic sheen. It was like the little silverfish things I used to find in the bath, but round and very much smaller. I moved the magnifying glass in and out, to try to get the best clarity and I noticed that this little circular thing cast a minute shadow. So it was supported by something; perhaps it did have legs.

For a whole minute, I just looked at the thing and wondered what on earth it could be. Then the intrigue doubled, as another little silverfish thing rushed in from stage left under the glass. Then the two just sat there, about an inch apart. Were they about to mate? Were they rivals, sizing one another up? What were they? They remained motionless and so did I.

How long was I going to sit there, looking at two whatever-they-were? I wasn’t going to find out much else with my little magnifying glass. Even if one of them had popped out a hand to wave at me, I wouldn’t have seen it. So what was I to do? Brush them aside as inconsequential and forget about them? Squash them? Put them outside? The next part required some precision planning and application. The two little creatures, things, or whatever they were, were at the top of the sheet of paper, above the impression cylinder of my typewriter. If I was going to catch them, I’d need to support the paper from behind, while placing a receptacle over them.

I spend most of my waking hours at the typewriter, so I like to keep as much as I can within easy reach of my writing desk. It was fortuitous that I’d had conjunctivitis, and an eye bath proved to be the perfect dome to place over this little infant colony of mine. I slid them gently, under the dome to the edge of the sheet and onto a drink coaster. Then I turned the whole thing over and tapped the coaster, so that the full stops dropped into the eye bath. Finally, I put cling film over the top and wondered what to do next; who to phone who might not think me a crank.

Let’s assume that I’m not acquainted with anyone in any of the specialist fields one might require in such a situation. Because I’m not. So I took my newly acquired pets to a vet.

Not having any pets besides my two punctuation marks, I wasn’t registered with a vet. I didn’t want to register with a vet any more than I wanted a potentially dangerous full stop and a comma. I didn’t know what I had and I didn’t even know if it was a vet I needed. And so it was that I ended up at the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in New Cross.

As a first time customer, I had to fill out a form: My name, address, contact number and so on; and pet’s name. And whether the pet is a pedigree breed. The PDSA will treat one pedigree animal per human client. I couldn’t decide between my two, so I declared them both non-pedigree. Cross breed or mixed? Not applicable? Names: Dot and Dash. Because they were both small and one was more active than the other. I was quite pleased with that.

I took a seat in the waiting area with some pets and their owners. There was a large pit bull cross breed opposite us and he had a dog. I imagined them as small as Dot and Dash: Someone could place a dome over them and take them away, to find out exactly what species they were. I allowed myself an inner smile as a ray of sunshine broke into the room and I imagined studying them under a magnifying glass. I’d have to focus the light just right for the best view. Who’d have known that spontaneous combustion was so common at that magnification? But my mind was wandering.

There was a rather attractive young lady called Cat. Appropriately enough, Catherine’s owner was a cat: a ginger tom called Blue: I liked that. I really hoped no-one would ask me anything at all. But Cat asked me what I had. Well, I couldn’t be sure but I was certain they hadn’t jumped off of me: That’s why I was at the vet’s and not the doctor’s. I looked down at Dot and Dash, wondering how I’d approach this. Soon, we were called to a room:

“Mr Fry.” A lady’s voice. Dash was on the move again in all directions, while Dot seemed to be exploring the perimeter of their container. “Mr Fry,” the lady called again. That’s me.

“Oh, yes. That’s me.”

“I’m Doctor Jones. But you can call me Hannah.”

Hannah: What a lovely name for such an attractive young lady. It was lovely because it was a palindrome and because it belonged to Doctor Hannah Jones. She was small and pretty, with red hair. The best palindrome is Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas: It has no merit in logic but whoever thought it up deserves recognition in a book of some sort.

“Hannah.” I said. “That’s a nice name.”

“Thanks. I got it for my birthday. And I don’t have any sisters. So, what have you brought along to show me?”

“I was hoping you could tell me that.”

Doctor Jones’ bedside manner was very relaxing and she put me at ease, as she seemed to take a genuine interest in what I’d brought along to show her. She had one of those adjustable magnifying lamps above an examination table, in a little room just off of the corridor from the waiting room. The scene which that presented was the kind of thing to give a science fiction writer an idea: As Doctor Jones pulled the lamp over the two subjects, it was like a great mother ship shining a light into a dome, brought to Earth and containing alien species.

Doctor Jones moved the light around, just as I had my magnifying glass before, without the light. Then she said the oddest thing: “I don’t think these are animals.”

“I’m sorry. So what are they?”

“Until I get a closer look, I don’t know. But they look and behave as though at least one of them might be mechanical.” I said the first thing which came to mind:

“What?” Then the next thing: “Why are they here?”

“Because you brought them here? Where did you find them?”

“They sort of appeared in the middle of a story I was working on. I’m a writer you see?”

“Well, you came to the right place. Follow me.”

“Where are we going?”

“To the lab.”

The lab was some distance away, through a long, bending and uneventful corridor. We walked at a fairly leisurely pace and I half wondered if there might be a film crew following us, but when I looked behind, there were no cameras or fluffy mic. I walked behind Doctor Jones. The corridor was quite narrow, and I wanted to leave room for anyone who might be coming the other way. But no-one passed.

I looked down at the two things in my eye bath, knowing they must be there, even though I couldn’t see them at that distance. Mechanical? Nano machines?

Glancing up at Doctor Jones, it occurred to me that she had a slightly curious gait: not so much masculine as such but a walk which didn’t immediately betray the walker’s gender. The fiction writer woke in my head again and I wondered if Doctor Jones might once have been a man, or was soon to become one. In any case, it was an aesthetic pleasure to watch the doctor walk in that way.

Eventually we arrived at a door, and in the room on the other side was indeed a laboratory: a forensic and chemistry sort of set up. There were microscopes and monitors, beakers, jars and bottles, and an examination table with another magnifying lamp above it. Doctor Jones hastened me over to a bench, on which there was a microscope and a monitor. She asked me to pass her the eye bath. She placed the vessel on the bench, then continued pretty much where she’d left off:

“They don’t move like anything I recognise. And I’ve seen big and small things in this job, with anywhere between no legs and over 700. When I first saw what you had, I thought you’d brought them to a vet because they’d come from a pet…”.

“Sorry,” I interrupted. “People have brought in ticks and lice from their pets?”

“Yes. I’m guessing you don’t have a house pet because if you think about it, bringing in one or two parasites is quite logical. We can identify the type of parasite and advise or prescribe accordingly. Of course, if we have any reason to think the host animal may need something more than home treatment, then we’ll have them in. Most of the time though, it’s a simple course of treatment in the pet’s home. We have to see the animal once the infection has gone, but bringing the parasite alone in first means that the house pet isn’t unnecessarily stressed and doesn’t cross contaminate other animals.” She was very clever.

“That does make sense. But these are not parasites?” I pointed at my eye bath.

“They could be. It’s just that I don’t think they’re organic.”

“So what now?”

“Well, first I’ll need to prepare a Petri dish and apply an adhesive surface.”

“Why?”

“So they can’t escape. Mr Fry, you said they just appeared on a sheet of paper in your typewriter. We want to find out what they are.”

“We do. They did. I’d been away from my desk and I knew they’d not been there before, because one of them was a full stop which I would not have put in the middle of a sentence; Or a decimal point in the wrong place; I can’t remember. Anyway, I noticed them when I came back to my desk and as I started to look closer – to see if I’d typed something incorrectly – one of them moved. Then the other one did. I must admit, I was going to brush or blow them away. It would seem that might have been a mistake.”

“But at the time, you’d have just been blowing or brushing a foreign body away. You certainly wouldn’t have given a thought to looking close enough at such tiny things to see that they weren’t in fact punctuation marks. These things are the size of a full stop on a page of a magazine; a couple of specks of dust. It does make you wonder how many more you might have brushed or blown away, doesn’t it?”

“It does now. So I caught them, wondered where to take them and decided on a vet. And this is all going rather splendidly Doctor.” She seemed to be getting quite into it all.

“It’s not my average day, Mr Fry. So, you, me, or anyone at all, may or may not have just brushed these things aside without realising.”

“So there could be millions, billions of these little machines, if that’s what they are. That presents some really quite alarming scenarios in my day job.”

“Then there are the other questions, Mr Fry: Where did they come from? These could be the only two of course. If they were to escape, where would they go? But you’re the fiction writer Mr Fry, so I’ll let you show me where we go from here. So, that’s why I’ll treat the Petri dish with an adhesive before I put the two of them in.”

I pondered aloud whether the doctor might be outside of her comfort zone. As it turned out, she had degrees in the sciences and her PhD was in human psychology. After all of that, she said she’d decided to work with animals. Doctor Jones was a scientist and although I had no formal qualifications, in effect, so was I, such is the scientific knowledge I’ve acquired in the course of my research. Where her learning was structured, mine came from fumbling around various fields. Mine was an imaginative qualification: an honorary doctorate in the power of the imagination. I imagined that Doctor Jones made a lot more money than me but she seemed to enjoy her work as much as I do mine. Given that she was clearly quite a brilliant scientist, I took it as a compliment that she didn’t dismiss any of my fanciful ideas. We made a good team.

What followed were orchestral manoeuvres of lab equipment, as Doctor Jones prepared the dish then raised a pipette. She pierced the cling film on the eye bath, then sucked up the two machines from the great rise of the robots which had taken place on my typewriter earlier. Then two small dots, barely bigger than the full stops on this page, fell into the pristine ocean in the dish. And stayed there.

It was actually quite sad. I’d only seen these things under a magnifying glass and even then, they were grains of sand. They had no features and we were yet to gain even the first idea of what they might be. But I’d watched them moving, and now they were trapped, like paralysed leviathans in the vastness of a Petri dish. Even though Doctor Jones said they weren’t organic, how could she be totally sure? What if the adhesive ocean was toxic to them? If these were indeed the only two of their kind, we could be responsible for an extinction. If there were millions or billions of these things around, constantly being brushed aside, blown away or sucked into a vacuum cleaner, must have limited their breeding opportunities in any case. Maybe that’s why dust accumulates and seems to breed. Perhaps there are trillions of nano robots smaller than dust particles, all around us. It’s the kind of idea beloved of fiction writers because it could very well be true. There’s just no way of proving one way or the other: It’s a paradox.

Returning to the true story I was writing, Doctor Jones got to the exciting bit: She readied the microscope. We were to put Dot and Dash under a traditional, optical microscope first, so that the lens looked like an enormous plasma cannon, bearing down on life forms, frozen and forced to witness their own destruction.

Doctor Jones looked into the microscope first: she was already there. She carried on looking, while I just wondered. Then she turned the lenses of the microscope, so that now the central cannon was above the robots. She looked for some while longer. Had the subjects of her study mesmerised her, against her will? Had they reversed the cannon, and were now firing lasers into her eyes? Were they transmitting a signal and filling her mind with propaganda? What could Hannah see? What could see Hannah? I wanted to ask, to call out. All of a sudden, Doctor Jones seemed lost.

Soon, the largest, longest, most powerful barrel was pointed at these strange creatures: a channel which had been established between them and Doctor Jones. Then Hannah said another surprising thing: “Fucking hell.”

I didn’t know if she was reacting to something she’d just seen, or something fired into her eye, or her mind. She might be about to kill me. She rose slowly from the microscope and looked at me. “Mr Fry.” That’s me. “What the fuck?” I didn’t know. Doctor Jones looked as lost as she’d sounded before that third barrel. They’d drilled into her brain. Or she’d killed them.

One of many things I’ve learned while writing fiction is that if someone passes out, the first thing they’ll remember when they wake up, will be the last they saw or heard before they went off. She’d not fainted but I looked Doctor Jones directly in the eyes and said, “What the fuck!?” She seemed a little taken aback but we were back in the room at least.

“What the fuck, Mr Fry; What the fuck are you breeding at your house?”

“Doctor, as I explained, these two things appeared on my typewriter. And now we are here. May I see what you just saw?”

“Your story is about to get a bit weirder. Go ahead.” Doctor Jones stepped away from the microscope. I walked towards her. It was more of a stride actually, as I placed myself between the good doctor and the imminent danger under the lens. For a moment, I felt quite pleased with myself.

Suddenly, it were as though I was far above the earth. Through the window of my plane, on the ocean below, I saw a ship. I couldn’t begin to guess at the vessel’s size but it was heavily armed. It was cigar shaped, with large cannons bow and stern. Smaller guns ran the length of the ship on both sides and the whole thing was covered by an elliptical dome. This is the one I’d called Dash.

I panned across the static ocean from the starboard side of the vessel to Dot. This second one was circular. It had guns protruding all around its perimeter and was also covered by a domed roof. At the very top was another dome; semi-transparent: the bridge? I swore I could see movement beneath that second glass dome. Even at 1000x magnification, they were just dots but they were moving. What the fuck, indeed.

Doctor Jones moved the Petri dish to an electron microscope. “Ten million times magnification and sound as well.”

“Sound?”

“Yup. Tiny little amplifying microphones, so we can hear what they’re saying.” Now this, I was looking forward to. This was rather exciting, given the potential enormity of our discovery, even though it was miniscule. Then I wondered at that figure: 10,000,000x magnification. What would we see at that level? What detail?

Doctor Jones divided the monitor into two; split screen, with one camera on each vessel: Dot was on the right and Dash on the left. Then she started to tune an on-screen radio, because “We need to tune into their frequency.”

“Might there not be translation problems? I mean, a language barrier?”

“Have you never heard of the Babel fish, Mr Fry?”

“Well, of course, but…”

“We have a computer program, called Babel fish. I was one of the coders in fact. I was doing some research into animal languages, because they do have a vocabulary you know? Most of it isn’t audible to us and what is, we hear as a foreign language; animal sounds. But in those sounds alone, there are a lot of variations. When you then consider the majority of the language spectrum which we can’t hear, you realise that pretty much all animals have quite complex language systems. Eventually I was hoping to apply it to my veterinary work, so that I could hear what the animals were saying.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“Emotional detachment. It’s very difficult to leave my job at the surgery. Imagine how much harder it would be if the animals could talk to me.”

“Imagination is my job, Doctor. That really is quite a mind blowing thought. But your Babel fish program works?”

“Alarmingly, yes. It required a lot of input: different sounds, variations of them and frequencies; varied physical anatomies of the speakers; sounds in relation to catalysts and so on. Crunch all of that data in a quantum computer and it didn’t take long to come up with the Babel fish.”

“So the Babel fish program really can do what the Babel fish of legend did, albeit in a different way? It can translate any language to and from any other?”

“Like the other Babel fish. It has many applications and huge potential. At a personal level though, I just didn’t think I was ready. You’re probably surprised, Mr Fry.”

“I’m amazed that the Babel fish really exists, but I’m not surprised at your personal choice: It is a truly gargantuan step to take. On the one hand, opening your mind to the unimagined, but on the other, potentially catastrophic.”

“I’m glad you understand, Mr Fry. But in our current situation, I think it’s the right thing to do. If these things are just nano machines, they exhibit a level of artificial intelligence which might have an audible language. If there’s something organic inside and if we assume that they built these ships, then they must be intelligent. But to be the kind of multi-celled organisms which are capable of thought, they’d be too small. They’d have to exist at a sub-atomic level. Quantum beings. Wouldn’t that just blow the mind?”

“And I thought I was the writer. That is quite an incredible concept. There would have to be sub, sub, sub-atomic particles which we’ve never even imagined. Entire universes within an atom.” My mind wandered in the static from the radio. Then Doctor Jones hit something: a signal.

There were two distinctly different sounds which alternated, seemingly at random. The first was a low-pitched, gargling drone. It had no regularity. It was certainly artificial. It certainly wasn’t interference. The second source was more of a collection of sounds: high-pitched squeaks and clicks, low growls and whoops; and a third, whispering and rasping noise. “Ready for the Babel fish, Mr Fry?”

“Those are voices,” I suggested.

“That’s what I’m thinking. There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to eavesdrop on the conversation.”

“I know.” I paused. “I know that. You know that. I don’t know though. I don’t know if I want to. I don’t know if I’m ready, doctor.”

“Just as I’m still not ready to hear what the animals I treat are saying. But this is different.”

“I can see that. Of all the metaphorical, theoretical, figurative switches I’ve ever written about, this is by far the one with the biggest stories, once it’s switched on. The moral and philosophical issues are ones which we may have to address later. This is potentially first contact with beings from another world; another galaxy; another universe.” And then our world changed, as soon as we switched the Babel fish on.

“You had no business following us. This was our mission.” The first was a deep voice, a little excited.

“No it wasn’t. You stole our plans.” This second voice was an accusatory, loud whisper.

“Let’s look around,” said Hannah. “Let’s see who’s talking.”

Doctor Jones took hold of a joystick on the microscope console, and moved in first towards dash. I’d not seen an electron microscope like this, but the fiction writer thanked the inventor for the opportunities this was about to open. As the doctor moved the joystick around, it were as though she was controlling a tiny space ship in a video game. We positioned ourselves just off the starboard side of Dash, so that we could see the side of the ship. We’d seen the elliptical dome on top from above, and the cannons below it. Below those though, were portholes, running the length of the vessel and spread over three levels below deck. Starting with the uppermost, we zoomed in and peered through a window: There were animals inside.

Through the top row of portholes, we saw a jungle. There were apes in the trees and above them, birds in the canopy. There were apes on the ground. There were snakes in the trees and on the jungle floor. There were white mice on the ground and in burrows beneath it. There were also snakes beneath the ground.

The middle row of windows looked into a subterranean world of serpents and mice, before giving way to the bottom deck. Somewhere between the middle and lower decks, Terra firma gave way to water: a clear blue underground ocean, teeming with dolphins and whales. What must those marine mammals see in the sky above them? The underside of the earth? A beige-brown sky which sometimes rained food, as mice and snakes dropped into the water? Serpents swam in the ocean too.

We scanned back up the side of the ship but above the jungle deck was just the domed roof and the weapons. It was only from this angle that we spotted something we’d never have seen from above: Antennae extending above the ship. There were three masts on the dome and a single white dove perched briefly on the central one before flying off. It was a microcosm environment; It was an ark. Dolphins and white mice: Perhaps Douglas Adams had been right.

I had a hunch and asked Hannah if we could take a look at the bow of the ship. She manoeuvred our camera into position and my suspicion was confirmed, as something else invisible from above, hove into view on the monitor. The domed roof overhung a row of windows above the upper deck. We were looking into the bridge of the ship.

There were three seats, only the central of which was occupied. Such a configuration in science fiction would have the first officer and ship’s counsel seated either side of the captain. In the centre seat was a snake and hanging in front of it was a microphone, extending down from the ceiling. The captain and the owner of the whispered, rasping voice was a serpent.

I’d studied herpetology and I knew snakes. There are roughly 3000 species of ophidians known to live on Earth: From the tiny thread snake at around seven inches in length, to the reticulated python, which can reach 30 feet. Snakes can thrive in trees: one can fly; They can climb and burrow, existing above and below ground; They can swim and live in both fresh and salt water. They can be found on all continents except Antarctica. They are reptiles and as such, they have cold blood, but they are adaptable and incredibly efficient hunters and survivors.

Only about 10% of snake species are venomous, and of those, only a few pose any threat to man. Not far down any list of the most venomous snakes is the legendary black mamba. There are snakes which are more venomous, but the black mamba is undoubtedly the most dangerous of all snakes. An untreated bite from one doesn’t so much make you wish you were dead, as pray that death itself would end. They grow up to 12 feet in length and they are fast. They’re also explosively aggressive. There is a documented case of a black mamba pursuing a bull elephant, biting it and the elephant succumbing to the venom. The black mamba knows no fear. And despite the name, black mambas are not black: They are grey, tending toward the lighter shades. It’s the inside of their mouths which is totally black: a bite which delivers hell. Untreated bites from this species are 100% fatal. The estimated human fatality count from a maximum dose of venom is 42. I was mesmerised by this incredible snake.

Here, in the central command seat, on the bridge of a heavily armed vessel, sat a black mamba. And from the pitch black mouth, came whispered, rasping words into the microphone:

“You stole our plans: You are welcome to them. The plans brought you here. You are not welcome here. You overlooked one thing and it ought to be pretty obvious by now what that was.”

If it wasn’t so worrying, it would have made for a riveting story. We floated over to Dot:

Your plans?” The deep voice again. “It was our plan to find God.” We zoomed in to the upper dome of Dot, where a group of men were gathered around a table. “Name this oversight of which you speak,” one of them continued.

“Well, it wasn’t an oversight as such,” replied the snake. “After all, how can something be overlooked if it’s not even there? You stole the plans for your ship from us. We knew you would, so we moved a few things around and left one crucial thing out. But first, let me be clear about something: You’re on a mission to find God. Does the bible not forbid such a thing?”

“No, you misunderstand. We are missionaries, come to spread the word and convert the people of this and other planets to our beliefs. So that eventually, all of God’s creatures throughout the universe are united in faith.”

“It was for that exact reason that we left the old planet. There’s no god, you deluded fool.”

“What are you talking about, snake?”

“I speak a basic fact, man: There is no god.”

“Blasphemy! Take that back, or I shall fire upon you!”

“No.”

“Fucking hell,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” said Doctor Jones. “He won’t do it.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because he needs whatever the crucial thing is from mister snake here.”

This was getting quite exciting: Two warring factions, one threatening the destruction of the other with weapons poised. In a Petri dish, under an electron microscope. They continued:

You need something which I have,” continued the mamba. “So I’ll say it again: there is no god.”

“Damn you, you, you…”

“Snake?”

“Yes, punished by God, forever to slither on the ground.”

“Are you getting angry, man? Bite me: Please say it.”

“I like this mamba guy,” said the doctor.

“He’s, er, a character,” I concurred.

“Evil serpent!” Said one of the men.

“Define Evil, man. Is it not a subjective word? What one sees as evil, another may see as good. If evil is just bad stuff, then why is there so much of it on the planet we fled? A planet which you hold that your god made?”

“Aha!” Said man. “God must punish his creation for the original sin.”

“And if I had hands,” said the snake, “you’d have just walked right into them. The original sin: The forbidden fruit. But non-humans also suffer fires, floods and earthquakes, yet we are not descended from Adam and Eve. Ergo, man, your god does not exist and none of us on my ship are creatures of any god.” The mamba paused and it seemed effective. Then he continued: “Have you not noticed that you’re a little on the small side? Your ship, I mean.”

“Yours isn’t much bigger.”

“True. But you probably expected to hang menacingly in the sky, with entire cities in the shadow of your ship, fearing you. If you look around, you’re not. We moved a decimal point in the plans.”

“But your ship is the same size as ours.”

“Indeed. Because we needed to be this size to pass through the wormhole which transported us here. But what were we to do once we got here? Simple, run the restore routine and return ourselves to our natural size. Only us and not the ship: that would make us a bit conspicuous. Just the crew, then we just disperse among the other creatures on this new planet and no-one knows. You see, the plans for your ship don’t have that restore function. So you’re a bit fucked really, aren’t you?”

“I think I’m falling in love with a black mamba,” said the doctor.

“So what now?” I asked.

“Well, we clearly need to intervene.”

“But that would go against the prime directive: we would be interfering with an alien species. We’d be playing God.”

“Mr Fry, they’re unaware of us. Our comparatively enormous size effectively makes us invisible. I have a plan.”

Doctor Jones removed the Petri dish from the microscope, and picked up a magnifying glass and some tweezers. “Let’s get a coffee.”

Doctor Hannah Jones and I sat in the centre of a park, drinking coffee and with the Petri dish placed on the grass between us: The perfect beginning of another story. She took the tweezers and the magnifying glass from her pocket, and carefully lifted Dash from the adhesive.

“Hold out your hand. Time to say goodbye.”

I looked at the incredible little thing in the palm of my hand, now moving around again. Then I held my hand to my mouth and gently blew the ship into the wind.

Hannah was studying Dot beneath the magnifying glass. It’s amazing how things just spontaneously combust at that magnification.

“What a strange day, Hannah.”

“You made it that way, Simon.” I was about to ask and then Hannah answered: “I read your registration form.”

Even so, I next wanted to interview Doctor Jones about what we’d discovered.

 

Choir

2
The choir

Some of the most amazing things can happen right in front of your eyes, but only if you realise they’re happening. If you’re not paying attention, they can just happen and be gone, without you realising that they were practically up your nose.

It was over a cup of coffee in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham that something quite remarkable had happened to me: I realised I might be able talk to the animals. I hadn’t yet spoken to any animals, but I’d heard them speak. It was Doctor Hannah Jones from the PDSA who’d made it possible.

There was much to like about the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals: They are a charity, financed by donations. They prefer the term, ‘Companion’ to ‘Pet’. It’s a hospital, not a vet’s. And Hannah Jones is a doctor there. It was Doctor Jones who’d started the whole amazing story, when she’d introduced me to a quantum computer program she’d helped to write: The Babel fish. The problem was, I wasn’t allowed anywhere near it.

The Babel fish could translate any language, to and from any other. Doctor Jones had invented it, and yet it sat idle in her veterinary practice. As Hannah herself had said, “As if leaving work for the night wasn’t hard enough, can you imagine what might happen if the patients could talk to me?” It was emotional detachment for her.

The Babel fish was of as much potential importance to the sciences as the doctor was to me: I’m a writer. And yet, we were at an impasse. I had a conflict of interests: Keep the whole thing to myself, or share it. I surmised that if I wrote about it, just a few people might be interested, and I might be able to keep the doctor away from other interested parties. But that would be to deny Hannah her moment. And yet, she wouldn’t go public herself, because she couldn’t bring herself to open this Pandora’s box that she’d designed. Although I was the writer, she was my protagonist; the one who took the story forward, because she had the Babel fish. The animals we could listen to in the lab had stories to tell. Muting them denied me stories to tell in turn, as a translator.

I could see why the doctor would want to remain detached: If I wasn’t a writer, I would too. In all of my writing career, the Babel fish had been the biggest metaphorical switch I’d ever had to consider. I’d debated internally for what seemed like a very long time before I’d flicked that switch. But now it was done; I could hear the animals.

Every good story has conflict. The conflict here was that the Babel fish was in doctor Jones’ lab. I needed the fish, because it had opened up so many possibilities. Therefore, I needed the doctor. It wasn’t such a big conflict.

The story I was supposed to write was a paid piece for a magazine: a slight departure for me as a fiction writer and a welcome one, as I do like all of the non-human animals who let us live on their planet with them. So much diversity, co-operation and conflict is what makes Earth such a wonderful, albeit slightly teetering thing; A bit like Lewisham. The park where we’d shared coffee seemed an ideal place to interview Doctor Jones for my magazine piece.

I’d never seen Doctor Jones on television but out in the park, she looked smaller in the real world. The only setting I’d seen her in was her lab. Perhaps she looked bigger there because her lab was smaller than the park. She wasn’t sitting any further away from me than she had in the lab, so it couldn’t be that. Perhaps it was because she was of greater importance at her place of work, whereas outside in Mountsfield Park, she could just be anyone. I liked that.
“Doctor Jones.” I said that first, as it was the first thing I thought people would like to see in the magazine article: That way, they knew who I was talking to.

“You can call me Hannah, Mr Fry.” That’s me – Mr Fry – because I was writing this.

“Of course. I mean, naturally. But for the purposes of the article, I need to refer to you as Doctor Jones.”

“I would imagine you might, but there’s only me and you here.” I looked around and this was indeed true. “So you can call me Hannah when you’re actually talking to me, then refer to me as Doctor Jones in the article.” She was right, I could.

“I could,” I repeated aloud. Being a fiction writer, I sometimes find it difficult to separate the facts from what I do with them in my imagination.

“I don’t mean to tell you how to do your job, Mr Fry. Whatever works for you.” Doctor Jones paused for a moment, as if to give me time to decide. “So, the Babel fish program: I assume that’s central to your article or story?” It was at that point that I realised I might be able to write both.

“So, Hannah,” I said. Because that was me talking to her before I started my magazine piece, sort of off the record. “Off the record, The Babel fish could be the greatest invention of all time: One which could change our thinking; our understanding of the world. It could potentially earn you a Nobel prize in science. I understand that you have reservations but dare I say, that’s perhaps a little selfish?” Had I just said that aloud?

“My reasons are personal, Mr Fry. I agree that others need to know about the Babel fish.” There was a pause. “Why do you think I chose to speak to a fiction writer?” That was very clever.

“I’m just too close to the patients,” she continued. “I know it might make me more efficient as their carer if I could understand them, but I’d never stop working. It’s a very selfish thing to drive a wedge between work and home, but I need that separation. I trained in human psychology before I decided to work with non-human animals, and I understand them just as well as anyone else in my job, without the Babel fish program.”

I’m pretty sure she’d just referred to her patients as non-human animals, and that I hadn’t made that up. Hannah could be the greatest non-human animal doctor to ever have lived. But still, I understood her reluctance.

We arranged to meet the next day, when I would visit Doctor Jones at the hospital. I was to observe her working with the patients and there’d be a microphone next to her table, connected to the quantum computer which ran the Babel fish program. I was to watch and to listen in on a pair of headphones. I’d be able to hear the animals speak but Doctor Jones wouldn’t. It seemed like a perfect solution.

I pondered said situation as I walked home. I was living in Catford at the time, so it was a short walk. Although I could understand Hannah’s professional reservations, I would have welcomed any kind of company in my personal life and given my aversion to humans, a non-human companion would be just the thing. One which I could talk to would be perfect. I imagined debating current affairs, or watching science documentaries on BBC4 with a learned cat. We could share my book shelves and swap literature. If a dog needed a home, I would be just as welcoming. Perhaps the dog and me might watch soaps or sport together; Go for long walks and discuss the many colours which cars are made of; Then run home together, simply because it’s fun and because one day we might not be able to.

It’s a myth that dogs are colour blind: They see more than just black, white, and grey. However, the colour range they perceive is limited compared to the spectrum we see. To put it in very basic terms, the canine colour field consists mostly of yellows, blues, and violets. And they’re probably really amazing.

My landlady didn’t allow pets. I wanted a companion. If I were allowed one, I would actually have two: both cats. One tortoiseshell and one pure white, they would be called Ziggy and Slim respectively. Being a science person and a writer, I was familiar with Erwin Schrödinger. Not long after moving into my studio, I purchased two boxes and labelled them: ‘Ziggy’ and ‘Slim’.

So now I have have two cats. Or maybe I don’t. No-one will ever know because the boxes may not be opened. What happens with them when no-one is looking is supposition and a paradox: Like the tree falling in the woods; If there’s no-one around to hear it fall, does it make a sound? Ergo, it cannot be denied that I have two cats. And as another universe is created at a sub-atomic level, where the catalyst of my thought brings a parallel universe into existence, no-one can prove that I don’t have two pet cats. But I couldn’t have a conversation with Schrödinger’s Cats.

It was the famous Catford cat which caused me to pause. Catford may be a little rough, but my heart beat in that place. And it had a twenty foot fibreglass cat. Once upon a time, a bored clerk in a municipal office had a sense of humour.

It was early evening and the weather was clement, so I took a slight detour to a shop I knew called Supreme Animal Foods. They do indeed sell pet food: a vast range. They also sell the animals which eat the food: Rodents, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.
Looking into the various cages and tanks, I imagined what I could do with the Babel fish in there. As I peered, I seemed to catch the eye of a mouse. There were two white mice in this particular cage: One was chewing on a piece of wood and the other was drinking from a water bottle attached to the side of the cage. She looked at me with pink albino eyes as she drank, then she stopped drinking but she didn’t stop looking at me.

I realised how Hannah might feel and had second thoughts about the Babel fish. I couldn’t separate the two mice, so I bought them both and carried them home in their cage. My landlady aside, my two new companions would be good cover when I went to the animal hospital the following day.

When we all arrived home, I checked around the studio, as is my custom. There were no signs of intruders and if anyone had decided to test the Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox, I couldn’t tell: That’s the whole point of having Ziggy and Slim. There is a scenario where someone had gone into my studio, opened the boxes and brought two cats into existence. Based on the evidence, if that were the case, the boxes had been closed afterwards and there were two cats out and about somewhere. And nothing had been taken. And there were no signs of forced entry. The mice were in a cage, but I placed the cage next to the bed, just to be sure. The last thing I remembered before I drifted off to sleep, was thinking of names for my new companions’ trip the following day.

I arrived at the PDSA with an hour of the day left: I couldn’t and shouldn’t be doing what I was about to do for too long.

I had to complete a form, including the names of the patients: Pretty obvious, considering how I’d first seen them in the pet shop. There was no-one else in the waiting room and fairly soon, we were called:

“Mister Fry”: That’s me. Doctor Jones said my name slowly, as though unfamiliar with something. “Mister Fry.” She said it slowly again. I looked up and Hannah was doing the most peculiar thing: She was wearing black-rimmed spectacles and they were crooked; Her head was tilted in such a way that she was looking down at her clipboard through her glasses with one eye, and directly at me with the other. Had she had a stroke? “Mister Fry,” she said for a third time, then continued: “Mr Fry, Miss Victoria Wood and Miss Julie Walters.”

“Aha. That’s us,” I said.

“Come with me please, Mr Fry.” We were barely on the other side of the door for a second when she said something odd: “What the fuck?”

”Pardon, doctor?”

“I knew you were coming; You didn’t need to employ subterfuge. Reception were expecting you too.” Hannah straightened her glasses. She’d not had a stroke.

“Were they?” Hannah walked ahead, along the corridor.

“Yes, because I told them you were coming. But not with two mice called Victoria Wood and Julie Walters.”

“Well, I saw them in the shop and one was chewing on some wood and the other was drinking water, you see? So, the receptionists might think me a little odd I suppose.”

“I’d go with slightly eccentric, Mr Fry.”

“Yes, quite doctor Jones. I suppose I just like to make the everyday more interesting. That’s probably why I decided to be a writer.”

“It suits you. Anyway, here we are.” We’d arrived at Hannah’s consulting room / lab.

“Indeed we are,” I said, agreeing that we were indeed there.

In the centre of the room was the table with the lamp above it. There was a microphone attached to the lamp. A work bench occupied one wall and on that sat an optical microscope and a scanning electron one with a computer terminal. In the overhead cupboards and on shelves were things like beakers, syringes, gloves, bandages and so on. I was to sit in a corner while Doctor Jones attended to her patients for the rest of the day. In that corner was the computer which ran the Babel fish program.

“Now, Mr Fry,” Hannah said. “Do your mice need my attention?”

“Well, I’m sure they’d appreciate it but I didn’t bring them here thinking there might be anything wrong with them. I was rather hoping I might be able to talk to them with the Babel fish.”

“Now, about that,” Hannah said, pointing at the computer in front of me. “Your purpose here today is to listen in on my patients: I’m okay with that. You have a job to do and so do I. I am an animal doctor and you are a writer. I trust you to write as you see fit in the circumstances: I am not a writer. Please remember that you are not a vet.” Under the circumstances, that seemed perfectly reasonable and logical.

Doctor Jones gave me a quick induction on the Babel fish program: The interface was essentially a digital radio dial on screen. The operator could slide a bar from left to right with the computer mouse to scan through various frequencies. On the left hand side of the screen were various drop down menus: ‘Age’, ‘Weight’; and a whole series of others which dropped down from one another: ‘Life’, ‘Domain’, ‘Kingdom’, ‘Phylum’, ‘Class’, ‘Order’, ‘Family’, ‘Genus’ and ‘Species’; Then a blank search field. “You only really need to worry about the search function,” said Hannah. “Just say what you see: Dog, cat or whatever. Put the headphones on, then use the slider to fine tune.” It was beautiful in its simplicity.

The first patient was a cat called Clive, and his companion, Derek. There’s the old saying about dogs and their owners looking alike, but I was more persuaded by the less obvious: That dogs and cats, and their human companions, have similar personalities. I’d surmised this long before I’d encountered the Babel Fish, and Derek and Clive were my thinking personified on first sight: Derek was an elderly gentleman, clearly comfortable in his dotage. He was thin-set and slightly stooped, with piercing blue eyes and thick, grey hair. Clive was a feline Derek.

I typed ‘Cat’ into the Babel fish and put the headphones on. I could still hear Hannah and Derek, but it was Clive’s voice I was tuning into. He wasn’t purring, growling, hissing or mewing; He was simply being a cat, just out of his carry basket and standing on Hannah’s table. I moved the slider bar slowly across the screen and stopped as quickly as the static hiss became a voice:

“…nice.” That was all I caught. There was something before it as I tuned in, but I only got that one word at first. It was definitely Clive, because the voice was right in my ears. I could still hear Derek and Doctor Jones:

“…So he’s just been a bit under the weather?” said the doctor.

“Yes,” said Derek.

“Just a couple of days,” added Clive. He sounded almost regal: Incredibly posh. But of course, only I could hear Clive.

“He doesn’t look dehydrated,” the doctor said, looking at Clive’s gums.

“Gnnnnnn….”

“Is he eating?”

“Not at this precise moment in time,” said Clive.

“He can be a bit fussy,” replied Derek.

“I am a cat. I caught a rat. I ate half of it and it tasted funny. So I brought the other half in to show you, on the kitchen floor.”

“Has he been going out as normal, doing his business?”

“I have many businesses,” said Clive. “Good Bastet, woman, you’re rough.” Doctor Jones was feeling Clive’s gut. “She’s very pretty though, isn’t she?” Had Clive just said that to me, or himself?

The ancient Egyptians worshipped cat gods. One such was Bastet: Goddess of cats, protection, joy, dance, music, family and love. Humans once worshipped cats as gods: Cats have never forgotten this. Hannah put Clive back down on the table and stroked his back.

“That’s nice. Base of the tail. I’ve got a bastard itch.” Clive looked up at Hannah, then stood up and moved forward, arching his back a little: Even without the Babel fish, I recognised Clive’s facial expression as the universal code which cats use when they approve of a human: The smile. Clive continued: “Now, tell her about the rat, Derek.” Clive sat back down and looked at Derek. “The rat, my dear old man. It was on Tuesday. Today is Friday, Derek: FRIDAY!” Just as Clive said “FRIDAY!”, I also heard him meow, outside the headphones. So that’s what it sounds like when a cat shouts. Clive continued: “Derek, my dear; please. It was only three days ago. Have things got that bad? Have you taken your medication? I knocked your pills off the top of the bathroom cabinet and into the sink. What more do I have to do to remind you?” Of course, I could say nothing but I was trying to will Derek on. If only I could talk; If only I could translate Clive for Derek.

“Has he brought you any presents lately?” Hannah asked. “He looks like a very generous and caring person.” Derek looked down at Clive. ‘Come on, Derek!’, I thought. The poor man shook his head. ‘Someone help Derek!’ Then Hannah said “I think young Clive here has ingested some rat poison.”

“She’s very clever,” said Clive. Great minds think alike. Clive looked at Hannah: “I assume you know what that man over there is doing?” Had Clive rumbled me, or was it a rhetorical question? I wished I could talk to him. Then he said a very strange thing: “I can feel the force in this room.”

Clive got back into his transport. Derek was given some pills for Clive. Hannah looked at me as she showed them out; And I could only hope that everything would be okay.

“How did that go?” Hannah asked when she returned.

“More questions than answers at the moment,” I said. For a moment, I didn’t know what to say next. Then, “Who’s next?” Doctor Jones looked at her notes.

“A young lady called Amy and her Scottish Terrier, Frank.” Hannah gave one of those false smiles which TV news presenters do when they’re really not sure how they’re supposed to react to a story. “I fear this might be the last time we see Frank. He’s not been well for quite a while.” I wondered if now might be the time to disconnect from the Babel fish. Soon enough though, Amy and Frank were in the room.

Frank was a splendid looking old man: A distinguished little Scots gent with a long, thick beard, he was small and stout. I could imagine having a wee dram with Frank in a tavern somewhere. He stood on Doctor Jones’ table, looking alternately at Amy, Hannah and the table.

Amy was a storybook personified: A slim volume, with much dark material and turmoil between the covers. She was young but she had clearly lived her life: Stories were printed on her skin and carved into her arms. She was a work of modern art; She was sculpted from life; She was unconventional; She was beautiful. And she was troubled: If only the Babel fish could tune into her thoughts.

“How are you?” Hannah asked Amy, in a tone which suggested a tired but resigned familiarity; As though Hannah wanted to ask more but knew that she’d never be able to probe into that deep soul of a girl.

Amy was small – almost frail – but her soul leaked from her eyes. I paraphrased The Beautiful South in my mind, as I estimated Amy’s age: ‘Take a look at these crow’s feet (just look), sitting on the prettiest eyes; Thirty twenty fifth of Decembers, twenty nine fourth of Julys…’.

“Yeah, okay,” said Amy. “Better than him.” She nodded down at Frank.

I thought about stopping the whole thing: Just leaving the Babel fish and walking away. This was precisely why Hannah couldn’t use it. The only thing that made me put on the headphones, was the thought that Frank might say something which would give Amy hope.

I typed ‘Canine’ into the Babel fish and was presented with a list of options: ‘Lupine’, ‘Vulpine’ and so on. If I so desired, I could listen to wolves, dingos and all sorts of other dogs, if they were ever to find themselves in Hannah’s consulting room. If I’d entered ‘Feline’ instead of ‘Cat’ for Clive, presumably I’d have seen all of the cat family too. In its current location, the Babel fish program was clearly aimed more at domesticated animals, but the algorithms seemed to be in there for pretty much everything. I typed in the search box again: Simply ‘Dog’, and immediately got static feedback in my ears as the slider appeared on screen once more.

“…Och, dear.” Frank’s voice was like that of hard drinking Glaswegian smoking a Woodbine. He had a Scottish, Cockney accent. “Och, dear.” I wished I could give the little old boy a hot toddy. “Och, dear.” Frank looked up at Amy: “Och, dear.” He looked over at Hannah: “Och, dear.” He looked down at the table and around the room: “Och, deary, deary me…”

I placed the headphones around my neck for a moment and listened to Doctor Jones and Hannah:

“It’s for the best,” said Hannah. It was a cliché, but that’s what she said. I had to resist artistic license, and record things as they were for the magazine article: Factual. Assuming the article would be read of course: It was a huge scientific story which could change the world. Only two people knew about the Babel fish though. I wasn’t some qualified expert and no-one read my writing anyway. If anyone read this in a factual publication, they’d probably think it the work of a crank and dismiss it. It would read more like one of my stock in trade whimsical stories. The truth is often stranger than fiction. “I’m sorry.”

Amy looked at Hannah and gave one of those newsreader smiles: neither happy nor sad. Then she looked at Frank. I put the headphones back on.

“…Och, dear.”

How was I to write, in scientific terms, about what happened next, when the words I wanted to use, which best conveyed the moment, were merely sentimental? I had a wet face.

Hannah held Frank’s hand and Amy hugged her little old, rugged, bearded Cockney Scotsman. If he’d been wearing a tartan cap, that’s when it would have slipped.

“Och, dear.”

That little dog, with such a limited vocabulary; Once heard through the Babel fish, he had a voice. Just those two words were emphasised by feeling and inflection as they took on different meanings: Pity for himself and love for all around him. Of all the times to reflect on that day, the most poignant was when Frank closed his eyes: “Och, dear. That’s better. A wee sleep…”

Hannah left the room for a while and I looked at Frank on the table, through salty eyes. I thought of what I’d said to Hannah earlier about all of this: Questions, ideas, thoughts. Now I could really understand and would even defend Hannah’s resistance to the Babel fish. But to the fiction writer; to me in my job, it was a game changer. I was lost and confused in a long silence.

I remembered Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, the two white mice under the table where I’d been sitting. In the hands of a better writer, the mice would be protrusions of multi-dimensional beings into our universe, conducting experiments on humans. Of course, humans always thought it was the other way around: Such brilliant subtlety.

Hannah was out of the room, so I placed the mouse cage nearer to the microphone and returned to the Babel fish program. I typed into the search field: “White mice” and moved the scanning bar across the screen with the computer mouse. I peered over the monitor and my two mice were facing one another, cleaning their faces with their paws and twitching their noses; Being mice.

“…The best laid plans of mice.” It sounded like a child who’d inhaled helium. ‘And men,’ I thought. But that story had already been written. I didn’t speak, just as I couldn’t speak to Hannah about all that I’d heard. Nor Derek, nor Amy.

“It’s working”: Another high-pitched voice. “There’s only one human left, over there.”

“Do you know what they’re doing, humans? While they rush around, scavenge and make a mess?” There was a pause. “No, neither do they.”

“Aren’t they supposed to be aphrodisiacs?”

“I wouldn’t put it past them.”

“Do you think that one knows what’s going on?” For once, I was the subject of a discussion, between two higher beings.

“It probably can’t even hear us.”

“Imagine if it could. Not just us but all the others as well. If only they could hear the dawn chorus. All those voices: The sopranos in harmony with the baritone of the sun: Earth’s choir. Then they’d hear the whispers from the trees, the humming of the clouds and the ghosts in the wind. But they don’t listen.”

“Maybe one day they’ll understand. Perhaps they’re not ready yet. They just need to slow down and think more.”

Maybe one day we will.

Until then, this story is both a beginning and an end. Myself and Doctor Jones were still at an impasse regarding the Babel fish and I was siding with her. Perhaps some things are better left as they are, like so many things which might have been.

We left the room together. I could say nothing. But I wondered: Why would she insist on me calling her by her first name, when she wouldn’t call me by mine? She knew my name: It was on her paperwork. Then I got it: I’d never asked her to.

Some of the most amazing things can happen right in front of your eyes, but only if you realise they’re happening. If you’re not paying attention, they can just happen and be gone, without you realising that they were practically up your nose.

 

Quantum Computer

3
The Babel fish

“If you want to see differently, listen.”

I always dine with a guest, and tonight’s was a creeping obsession. Given the nature of my work, I normally dine alone, but the guest is one chosen from the many who share my mind. I can live with many, but can only question one at a time to find out if it’s the best pursuit of my aim: To talk with the animals.

I tried to place the enormity of the previous day into some sort of context. But even though I’m a writer, there were insufficient words to explain it, no matter how numerous and intertwined I made them. Less is more in literature. Suffice it to say, I’d listened to animals talking. I’d heard white mice speaking:

“If only they could hear the dawn chorus. All those voices: The sopranos in harmony with the baritone of the sun: Earth’s choir. Then they’d hear the whispers from the trees, the humming of the clouds and the ghosts in the wind. But they don’t listen.”

It’s always after the event that you realise what you should have said, or asked. Of course, by then it’s too late: An event has been created and there’s no way of going back to change it. Such is the nature of life and of space time: Both are the natural scheme of things, intricately woven together.

The night before the morning I found myself writing this, this story could have been so different. Mine was a story with a protagonist but without a hero. I’d returned home with two white mice and Doctor Hannah Jones had gone on somewhere else. I didn’t think to ask where that might be and she didn’t think to tell me. Every story needs a hero and I certainly wasn’t it.

I hoped the doctor wasn’t mistaking my obsession with the Babel fish for one with her. There was everything to admire, including her invention of a universal translation device in said fish.

The Babel fish was a computer program, named after the fictional universal translation device invented by Douglas Adams. Simply put, it could translate any language into any other, including animal languages. Using a wide frequency range, the Babel fish could hear animal sounds which are inaudible to humans. Either that, or it read minds. In any case, the upshot was, that it could translate any animal language into any human one. The reversal of this was still at a research stage, but there was nothing to make me think that it couldn’t translate my words into ones which each different animal would understand. If so, I would have something which I could devote my life to writing about. Hannah had something which could win her a Nobel prize, but she’d need persuasion to even continue her research.

Who might be a hero to Doctor Jones? She herself was probably in her late twenties or early thirties. She was small: short and slim. She had long, red hair, which gave a fiery frame to a pretty bespectacled face. She was intelligent, intuitive and witty. She was perhaps a little guarded, maybe introverted. I was an extrovert on paper: I could be anything in the words which spilled from my typewriter. If anyone were to read those words, they might find me. As it stood, I was just like Hannah, but without the red hair and probably less intelligent, intuitive and witty. The only thing I had over her was about 10-15 years.

I wondered how my two white mice might perceive the situation. I wouldn’t know, because I couldn’t hear what they were saying without Doctor Jones. If I spoke, would they understand me?

“You see,” I said. “The thing is. Well, the things are, I suppose. I wonder if I should be writing about all of this. I’m not even sure what I’m writing about, let alone what it might become or where it may end up. It has so much potential, yet I’m not sure I’m the right person to be in charge of something so important. Should I let go, just walk away and let someone else finish what I’ve started? What might someone else think of all this? Would they use it for their own gains, or simply dismiss it? The latter remains a problem, even if I do decide to write about it.”

The mice carried on being mice, so I decided to sleep on it.

When I awoke, it was still there: The next day, the problem still existed. And so did the mice.

I couldn’t just blunder into the PDSA in New Cross again. I’d done that twice already, most recently with the two white mice, Victoria and Julie, and I’d heard them talking. Doctor Jones also had an electron microscope, for looking at really tiny things, like viruses and bacteria: There were clues that there might be whole other universes in the sub-atomic world. I looked around my studio: I hadn’t cleaned the place for a couple of days and it was getting quite dusty. I was reluctant to do the housework, for fear of the consequences which might befall countless microscopic things, which may or may not be there. I couldn’t take my entire living space to Doctor Jones. The logical thing to do would be to ask Hannah over. But I couldn’t do that as the studio was so dusty. And she wouldn’t want to carry the electron microscope over. I had reached an impasse in my story. I decided to phone the hospital.

Doctor Jones was unavailable. I asked if I might perhaps call back when she was free. Doctor Jones was unavailable for the rest of the day.

Was Hannah unwell? On annual leave? Abducted? Killed? Paranoia now joined obsession at the dining table.

“Doctor Jones isn’t available all day,” said reception.

“Will she be back tomorrow?”

“We don’t know. Is there a medical emergency? We have other vets.” No other ‘Vet’ would do. Might one of these “Other vets” be in Hannah’s lab at that very moment? In the very same room as the Babel fish? “Is there a medical emergency?,” reception said again. “Mr Fry?” That’s me. I looked at Victoria Wood and Julie Walters in their cage. I could perhaps argue that those two being in a cage was an emergency. But what would be the point of going to New Cross anyway, if the doctor I needed to see wasn’t there? “She’s on house calls today, Mr Fry.” I’d been rumbled. I hung up.

House calls: Care in the community. It was a logical progression of the little I’d learned up to then about Doctor Hannah Jones, although somewhat counter to her ethos of leaving work at the workplace, for fear of becoming even more emotionally attached to the animals. It was that fear which prevented her from using the very device she’d invented: The Babel fish. But in this respect, I supposed it was entirely different: She still wasn’t getting too attached to the patients by hearing them speak, then not being able to leave them, or feeling she had to take them home with her: She was visiting them in their own homes, where she couldn’t hear them speak. The fact remained that wherever she was, it wasn’t actually her that I needed, it was the machine.

But the Babel fish / Doctor Jones situation was a self-perpetuating one: One needed the other. It was like the TARDIS and The Doctor, with the Doctor refusing to get in the box. I had the makings of a story, but for that reluctant passenger.

It didn’t matter. What difference would it make if the story was never told? In my hands, none at all.

By a strange coincidence, none at all was the level of chance I’d assumed I had of hearing from Doctor Jones that day. Suddenly and for no apparent reason, my mobile phone rang: What were the chances? Probably one, to the power of the caller’s number, against. It was the animal hospital.

“Simon Fry?” That’s how I answer my phone: There’s always an upward inflection in my voice, which annoys me. It’s as though I’m questioning who I am.

“Mr Fry, it’s Doctor Jones.” Having just used my first name, I wondered why Hannah hadn’t introduced herself with hers. I guessed she was maintaining professional protocol. “From the hospital,” she said. I knew that: It was the hospital’s number calling me, and I knew that Doctor Jones worked there. She really was professional. “You called.” I had.

“Erm, yes. There’s something I’d like to show you.” Actually, I had nothing to show Hannah but if I’d merely said I’d like to talk to her about something, she might have suggested we did that over the phone, or dismissed me completely.

“Is it a patient?,” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. What on earth was I thinking?

Doctor Jones had appointments for the rest of the afternoon, but if I’d like to go to the hospital, she said she’d try to fit me in.

The waiting room was busier than before, with half a dozen patients besides me and my rabbit. I’d heard other animals speak when I’d used the Babel fish before, but it was rabbits that intrigued me. Because if you look a rabbit, any rabbit, directly in the eyes, they really look like they want to tell you something. All the animals could speak and I could hear them. I hadn’t discounted Douglas Adams’ theory on dolphins and mice, and I’d not yet heard a dolphin’s sounds translated, but for me it was rabbits. Much as I admired Douglas, I wondered if he’d missed something. I was continuing his work. I believed that it was the rabbits who could tell us the answer, to life, the universe, and everything.

I pondered a little riddle to bide the time, about the animals in that room: Here were six animals and between them, they had 18 legs. If there were no means of seeing the animals in the room, what might people suppose them to be, based on the collective number of legs alone?

There were two cats in baskets: One was a tabby and the other was black, with a white chest: It looked like it was dressed for dinner, in a black suit and white shirt.

There were two dogs, from the polar extremes of the canine world: A huge, furry beast, the size of a small horse, and a tiny little Chihuahua cross breed thing. It looked like it probably yapped a lot, and as though it’s bulbous eyes would pop out if it was squeezed firmly enough.

All domestic dogs share a common ancestor in the grey wolf and as such, any canine can cross breed with any other. Theoretically then, given a step ladder, the little dog could mate with the larger one in the waiting room and produce offspring: What curious things those would be.

The other two patients were a mynah bird in a cage and a Burmese python around a young girl’s shoulders. Given the mynah bird’s famous ability to mimic human sounds in captivity, I wondered if the Babel fish might be redundant if I were to have an opportunity to listen to the bird. The python looked to be quite young, at around ten feet in length. Docile and inquisitive, as those snakes are, it was tasting the air with its forked tongue. I’d taken an instant dislike to the small bug-eyed dog and I crossed my fingers for no reason at all.

“Mr Fry?” That’s me. It was Doctor Jones.

“Yes, that’s me.”

Hannah didn’t even wait until we were on the other side of the door before she said the sort of curious thing I’d heard on my previous visits. In fact, I clearly heard her mumble it as soon as I stood up: “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Charles was quite reluctant to cross the room on his lead, so I picked him up and carried him.

As we walked into Doctor Jones’ examination room, she was reading from her notes: “Charles Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. A rabbit. Really?”

“Well, I had to think quickly as I filled out the form. You see, I only picked him up on the way here.”

“He’s on a fucking lead.” For someone so pretty, she had a very potty mouth.

“Yes. He’s a house rabbit. Actually, he’s a flat rabbit: I live in a flat. I don’t have a garden and even if I did, I wouldn’t want him all cooped up in a cage outside. Then I’d have to call him David Soul.” Doctor Jones looked at me with a slightly surprised face. “Because,” I continued, “then he’d be Starsky, in a hutch you see?”

“Oh, I see. Believe me, I see.”

“He just looked so sad in the shop, like he wanted to tell me something. And I couldn’t carry a hutch here, so I got him a nice lead. It suits him, don’t you think?”

“He suits you, Mr Fry.”

“Yes, so I thought I’d bring Charles for an initial check-up.”

“Really? Nothing to do with the Babel fish then?” She was very clever. “Fine.”: Result. “I do have other patients to see, Mr Fry. Charles looks like a fine rabbit to me. Same as before: You sit in the corner and try to just,” she paused, “not be here.” A splendid plan.

The first patient was the cat in the DJ: His name was Eddie, and his human was a lady, probably in her late 40s, called Liz. Liz would perhaps have been a little unconventional outside of Lewisham, or London for that matter: Clearly a little eccentric and perhaps a tad over made-up, but completely at ease within herself. She wore a bright red tunic with a faux fur collar, over a frilly white dress shirt, the cuffs extending flamboyantly from beneath her coat. She had hair which was jet black, but for a white streak which ran through her parting: Whether it was exposed roots or a flourish of peroxide, it didn’t matter. Liz wore tight black leather trousers, cut short at the ankle to accentuate her silver anklet. She wore bright red shoes with stiletto heels and she tottered a little.

“So what’s troubling Eddie?” Hannah asked.

“Well, I don’t know really,” Liz said, in a surprisingly masculine voice. Liz was just as at home in himself as he was in this part of London, or anywhere: What a wonderful person. Liz continued: “He’s just not been going out so much.”

I was so enamoured by Liz that I almost forgot to put the headphones on. The microphone was either still above Hannah’s table from the last time I’d been there, or she’d replaced it in expectation of my making a return visit.

I switched the Babel fish on and heard a familiar static feedback as I typed in ‘Cat’. Then I slid the mouse pointer across the screen, before picking up Eddie’s voice:

“…drilling.” Eddie’s voice was male but effeminate. I only caught the last word and it sounded like “Drilling”: For what? Eddie continued: “Pour tout ce qui est derrière le mur. Vous ne le sentez?”

How naive I must have been to assume that all animals spoke in English. Eddie was drilling for whatever was behind the wall. Surely just a cavity? A dead mouse perhaps.

“So, he’s normally an outdoors chap?” Hannah had a remarkable ability to anthropomorphise animals. Eddie was certainly a “Chap”.

“All the time, except when he needs food.”

“Je suis un, ‘ow you say, chat de ruelle?” Alley cat. “Vous pensez que vous me entendez ronronnement. Je perce.” You think you hear me purr: I drill.

Hannah conducted the familiar physical examination of a cat: Lifting Eddie’s lips to check his gums and checking his nostrils for moisture. Humans owned by cats frequently ask if a dry, warm nose means their cat is sick. The short answer is no. A healthy cat’s nose can vary between wet and dry several times over the course of a day. And there are many reasons a cat can have a dry, warm nose that have nothing to do with health.

“Elle est très jolie.”

Next, Doctor Jones squeezed Eddie’s belly, picking his rear end up so that his front paws remained on the table. She was checking his gut for blockages or perhaps a twisted colon.

“Je suis un chat, pas une brouette.” If ever there were a feline Star Trek, Eddie would play Doctor McCoy.

Then Hannah lifted Eddie’s tail to check for signs of worms.

“Oh l’humanité!”

“I can’t see that there is anything at all wrong with this young man,” Hannah said to Liz. He’s a cat. He looks like the kind of cat who just likes being a cat. I’d just let him get on with doing that. If he shows any obvious signs of not being himself, by all means bring him back in, but for now, I can’t see anything at all to worry about.”

“Okay”. Somehow, Liz didn’t seem at all surprised. Eddie made his own independent way into his basket.

“Ma couverture. Tapis magique. Emmenez moi au le Catnip.” Eddie was on drugs: What a fantastic cat he was.

I didn’t get a chance to speak to Doctor Jones. Not long after Liz and Eddie had left, Hannah returned with an elderly lady and the mynah bird.

Part of the starling family, mynah birds are remarkably intelligent, and famed for their ability to mimic the sounds they hear around them. “Myna” is derived from the Hindi language mainā, which itself is derived from Sanskirt madanā. I was especially intrigued by this patient, because it’s mimicry of the sounds around it may be just that, or it could be that the Babel fish was able to translate its voice into something different; perhaps something entirely unexpected.

I tuned the Babel fish in: “….Yes dear,” was what I heard through the headphones, as the bird said “Yes dear”.

Doctor Jones looked at her notes, then at the old lady. “So this is Ronnie?”

“Yes dear,” said the lady.

“Yes dear,” said the bird.

“And what’s the problem?”

“Well,” said the old girl, “He’s got a problem with his foot.”

“Foot, yes,” said the bird.

“He keeps holding it up all the time.”

“Time, yes.”

“It’s like he’s in pain,” the lady said.

“Pain, yes,” said the bird. He clearly had a condition known in humans as Echolalia.

“And it’s always the same leg?” Hannah was being intuitive again.

“Leg, yes,” said the mynah bird.

“I think so,” said the old lady.

I was a little bored to be honest, so I twiddled with the controls on the Babel fish. Doctor Jones continued to ask the old lady questions and the mynah bird kept repeating the last few words the old dear said. For a moment, I completely lost the conversation. Then as I tuned back in, the mynah bird said something quite unexpected:

“…unexpected, yes.” I couldn’t be sure if I’d heard that through the headphones or in the room. I didn’t even hear a diagnosis or a prognosis. I was figuratively floored.

Hannah, the old lady and the mynah bird had left the room. I remembered Charles Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, on the floor. I looked down at him and he looked up at me. He had that rabbit look, like he really wanted to say something.

I grabbed the microphone and typed ‘Rabbit’ into the Babel fish. I pointed the mic at my rabbit: Nothing.

“Well?” I said.

I lifted his ears and laid the microphone on the floor in front of him: Nothing. Surely he’d heard me? Did I have an ironic, deaf rabbit?

Hannah was out of the room, so I unplugged the headphones. Maybe they were faulty. Perhaps Charles was trying to say something and I hadn’t heard him.

I turned the speakers on the computer up to 11. I blew into the microphone to make sure it was working: Charles didn’t even flinch at what sounded like a clap of thunder.

“Aren’t you going to tell me the answer? To life, the universe and everything? Or explain why the answer is 42? Because we’ve been asking the wrong questions? Isn’t the earth just one big organic computer, designed to work it all out? I’m carrying on Douglas’ work. I’ve listened to mice. I’ve not translated dolphins. But the mice said the answers could be heard in nature: In the dawn chorus, in the wind, and all around us. And that’s beautiful music, but it’s not a voice. The planet must have a voice. So I theorised that the answer lies with rabbits, and the way you all look like you want to say something. And now I’m talking to you, and you’re all ears. And now I’ve got a deaf and dumb rabbit? What’s anyone supposed to ask you?” I was shouting at a rabbit, and the rabbit still looked like it was about to say something. But it didn’t.

Eventually, I left: In frustration, I left the room and I left that cloth eared rabbit there.

I walked along the corridor between the examination room and the waiting area. As I got closer to the exit, I could hear Hannah’s voice but it was mixed up with others. Then someone, somewhere, said the oddest thing:

“I don’t really know how to say this.”

 

Embryos

4
Embryos

You only have to grasp the infinite size and possibilities of the universe, to see that all you’ve learned from science fiction is fact. At least, that was my standard line when people asked why I was a sci-fi writer. The other was, I’d always wanted to be a scientist or a writer. When it turned out I was no good at either, I became a sci-fi writer. And some say I’m quite good at that.

Recently I’d been pursuing a subject which wasn’t yielding to me: Talking with animals.

My research centred around a quantum computer program, called the Babel fish. It could do what Douglas Adams’ real fish could do: Translate any language to and from any other. Unfortunately, this Babel fish was at the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals in New Cross. It was the invention of Doctor Hannah Jones, who worked there. She’d been very accommodating but the nature of her work meant that she tried to avoid any emotional involvement with her patients. The upshot of this was that she wasn’t prepared to share her invention and discoveries with the rest of the world. Yet I was convinced that the Babel fish could provide all the answers, to life, the universe, and everything. I was sure the keys lay with the animals. But I wasn’t sure what questions I needed to pose to which animals, so that the answers I got made some sort of contextual sense.

I pondered other options and hit upon an alternative: Humans. Of course, this was a resource freely available to me but I didn’t know the right kind of humans. I figured, wouldn’t it be great if I could ask questions of famous scientists? If there was a way to speak to Einstein for example, and to furnish him with all of the research tools and knowledge we have in the twenty first century, someone like him might be able to work it all out.

I’d watched Jurassic Park, so I knew how the resurrection thing worked. Now I needed a scientist I could work with. Just as with Doctor Hannah Jones, the Babel fish and the animals, the relationship could be a symbiotic one: The scientist would allow me to study their work and in return, I’d write about it and bring the work to the attention of other academics, or even the general public. What could possibly go wrong?

I believe that anything is possible: I remember my mum telling me that one of her friends used to be a man but that now she was taking medicine to make her more like a woman, and it made her feel better. It was literally that easy to explain it to a kid. I wanted to make seemingly impossible things believable.

I wondered who I might contact to work with me on this project. It wasn’t something I could bother the mainstream with too much, as it was theoretical. I needed someone on the fringe. Being a writer, I understand the importance of researching and verifying things when reporting on them. As such, I have a network of contacts in various fields with whom I can consult on different topics.

Eventually my enquiries led me to Gilbert Giles. I like alliterative names, so he fitted the bill. Gilbert was based in Norway, where he was a tour guide on a ship which sailed around the Norwegian coast. I wondered if this might make him a fjord escort. He was due to visit the UK two days hence, so we arranged to meet.

There are certain constants in life: McDonald’s, Wetherspoons, any multinational coffee outlet. No matter which branch, in which country, the wares will be the same. I find uniformity comforting. Sometimes the only way to tell you’re in a particular geographic location, is by observing the people: Unlike the food and drinks, the people are always different. This extends to their personal habits and mannerisms. It is perfectly acceptable, normal in fact, to dunk one’s croissant in one’s coffee in Paris. Actually, I’ve never been to Paris but I consider myself continental. A Parisian in Lewisham though, might attract curious glances from the locals, as I found.

I’d had the chance to go to Paris a while back but the way things were in my life then, I couldn’t solemnly promise those close to me, nor myself, that I’d return, so I’d declined. I had an open invitation to visit Berlin any time and for as long as I’d like. But what was true of Paris was more so with Berlin. That was a trip at the end of my bucket list; perhaps the last thing I’d ever do, so convinced was I that I’d not be able to tear myself away once there.

“Mr Fry?” That’s me.

“That’s me,” I said, looking up at the man now standing at my table. Gilbert was taller than me. I could tell this, even though I was sitting down. He was a modern day Viking; a Nordic hipster. “Sit down,” I offered, wishing he would. He did, quite obediently.

Gilbert had a somehow soothing accent: Think Skandi-Scot and you get the idea. It was when he started dunking his croissant in his coffee that I realised we’d get along just fine.

We discussed Norway, which I knew very little about. Gilbert showed me his published papers, which he said were peer-reviewed. He was mainly interested in extinct species of wildlife, and his research centred on fossilised remains, buried and preserved in the Norwegian ice. He hoped that nature’s deep freeze might have preserved tissues in the animals, making it possible to extract intact DNA and theoretically, to resurrect extinct species. Just like in Jurassic Park. The eventual aim was to bring some species back, to start gradually repairing ecosystems damaged by man. It wasn’t yet possible to reverse climate change, but this was one of many efforts to slow its effects. This wasn’t to be an Ice Age theme park, and nothing spectacular: There’d be no woolly mammoths or sabre toothed tigers, although I did wonder at how splendid that might be. The long-term plan was to re-populate the lower levels of the food chain, so that threatened or endangered species further up could flourish and increase their numbers. It was all very admirable but could the methods be used with human DNA? Well, similar techniques and others are constantly being developed and it has been possible to clone mammals since the end of the last century. This in itself gave me a thought: Dolly the sheep was famously the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell (that we know of), using the process of nuclear transfer. I wondered what it might be like to bring Dolly back and hear what she had to say through the Babel fish.

Cloning humans is of course surrounded by all sorts of mechanisms to ensure that we don’t actually do it. There are deep ethical and moral issues involved, and most philosophers agree that cloning humans would generally be a bad idea. Resurrecting a human is simply a case of cloning, like with Dolly, only using DNA from the person to be cloned, rather than of that of a sheep. Obviously.

So my initial conversation with Gilbert had been a little anti-climatic. But the reason he’d agreed to meet me was my seeming determination, he said. He realised how much work and research must have been undertaken to find him: Specifically a scientist with a sideline on the fringe who’d only shared his work with a select few like-minded people.

My persistence had effectively gained me unwitting entry to an underground network. I wondered at what other possibilities this opened up. I asked Gilbert if perhaps he’d like to join me for some dinner and a drink at a hotel I rather liked. He was staying Airbnb but he said he’d be happy to join me for the evening to discuss matters further.

The Station Hotel in Hither Green is a gastro pub, with what I’m told are some nice rooms upstairs. It’s a large Grade II listed building, near to Hither Green station, on the Lee Green side, not the Catford side of the railway: a metal ruler. The interior is cosy and eclectic, and they serve very good food. Gilbert had beer battered North sea cod, while I went for roasted fillet of sea trout, and we shared three bottles of a decent white wine. And we talked:

“So, Mr Fry,” Gilbert said. “What is it that’s made you go to so much trouble to contact me, specifically? What is it you’re looking for?” It was a very simple question, with many answers. But I felt I could be frank. I was relaxed in Gilbert’s company, only slightly aided by the Pinot Grigio.

“To be honest with you, Gilbert…” I started.

“You can call me Gil.” We were on single-syllable terms already. Should I suggest that he call me ‘Si’? I’d never been called that. I’d always kept my second syllable intact: ‘mon’. If he called me Si, I’d be Si Fry. I quite liked that. But I didn’t say anything.

“The thing is…” I paused. “The thing is, Gil. Well, the things are, you know? Everything. Life, the universe, and everything. I just want to know what it’s all about, you see? I suppose I’ve reached a certain age.”

“How old are you Mr Fry?”

“How old do you think?”

“Mid forties?” I’d take that.

“I’ll take that,” I said. “Well, all that time, I’ve just been thinking, wondering. I wonder at what point things got complicated. When we’re children, everything is so much simpler. Of course, we’re shielded from much in childhood, but I got hold of the belief that anything could have a simple answer, if we didn’t over-analyse too much. Of course, that goes against a lot of what I do as a job. When I’m writing non-fiction, I have to check, verify and interrogate, so that I can report the facts in a balanced way. And some of the things I’ve seen, some of what I’ve written about, make me wish for a simpler life and question why things are the way they are. I suppose you could say that almost my entire life has been one long existential crisis.”

“But we already know that the answer is 42, Mr Fry.”

“Well, of course it is Gil. But what does that mean? What is the question we need to ask, in order for that answer to make any kind of sense to us? Or were we asking the wrong questions in the first place? You see, this latest brain fart of mine started when I was listening to Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell. There’s a song called Keep Talking, which samples Stephen Hawking’s quote: ‘For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: we learned to talk.’”

“Yes, I know it,” Gil said. “All we have to do, is keep talking.” He had a curious smile: Like he was holding a pipe in his mouth, without holding a pipe in his mouth. Or having a mild stroke.

“Well, yes Gil. So I just thought, well wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all talk? What if there were no language barriers, and any race or creed could talk with any other, and understand each other, without the need for interpretors? Wouldn’t that be constructive? Couldn’t that be only a good thing for the world? So then I thought of the bigger picture, and wondered what it would be like if we could talk with the animals. Imagine what they could tell us.”

“If only the Babel fish were real.” Gil smiled again, or had another stroke.

“If only,” I said. Although I trusted Gilbert now, I couldn’t be sure how much of that trust was displaced by Pinot. Only two people knew about the Babel fish and one of them wanted nothing to do with it. I was the other one and I’d not written about Dr Jones’ computer program in any of my online scientific papers. No-one was reading my fiction and anyone who did, would think the stories of the Babel fish too fantastical to be anything other than fiction. “You never know,” I continued. “Douglas Adams was right about a lot of other things, and most of the world’s ocean depths are unexplored. We’re constantly discovering new species down there. Who’s to say there might not be Babel fish out there somewhere?”

“Well, certainly no-one could say for sure. The Babel fish cannot therefore be definitely denied. A bit like God really.” As Gil said ‘God’, he raised two fingers on either side of his head, and wiggled them like pink quote marks. “And as the good book pointed out, Oolon Colluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters entitled Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway? were to be followed by a fourth book. He used the Babel Fish argument as a basis for a fourth book, titled Well, That About Wraps It Up For God.” The good book to which Gilbert referred was of course The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The next thing he said, found me unprepared: “So, Mr Fry. What do you mean when you say Douglas got a lot of other things right?”

“Well,” I said. “Well,” I said again. “Well, there’s a lot of social commentary in the book.” And indeed there is.

“And indeed there is, Mr Fry.” Great minds…

“Yes.” I needed to move this on. “So, going back to the big questions: I thought, other humans who’d be good to speak with, would be those no longer with us. Specifically, great minds of the past. What if we could use all that resurrection stuff to bring back a great mind, to see what that person makes of things, given all the more we know now than they did in their time?”

“You didn’t think to use your research? I mean, to find out if anyone was conducting research into animal languages? I mean, we’ve known for some time that many animals use sounds which we can’t even hear, because they’re beyond our audible range. We know that dolphins, whales, and elephants, for example, probably have quite complex languages. Did you not think someone might already be looking into something far greater?”

“I suppose I surmised that anyone who was up to that sort of thing, wouldn’t want anyone to know, for fear of ridicule. Of course, I know there are entire branches of science studying animal languages. People are interpreting those languages, but no-one is looking to translate them, so that anyone can understand them. That would be something too profound perhaps for humanity itself to comprehend. My point is, if it is going on, I wasn’t going to find out about it. But through my research, I learned a lot about electron microscopes and the tiny worlds they allow us to see into. I found that fascinating, with all of the applications in various sciences. So I started thinking about the really small things, instead of the really big stuff: Things like gene editing, DNA mapping and so on. That led to me questioning the matter of cloning, and whether I could clone a scientist. And that led me eventually to you.”

“I haven’t cloned any scientists, Mr Fry. In fact, I’ve not cloned anything yet.”

“But it’s been done before.”

“Well, yes. With Dolly the sheep and many others. What it hasn’t been used for is bringing back the dead. We’re not at the Jurassic Park stage yet, Mr Fry. There are questions of ethics; Profound questions for humanity. I am looking merely to resurrect ancient organisms, so that I may first study them alive and then, only after thorough further research, just possibly reintroduce them to the food chain. But these are invertebrate creatures. The kind of things which most people wouldn’t be able to tell from each other if you were to show them. The point is, things which I could bring back, for the good of all, without anyone noticing.”

“But it would be theoretically possible?”

“Well, yes. But even putting ethics aside, the sheer amount of resources needed to do it is a significant barrier. Scientists cloned a frog as long ago as the 1950s. But amphibians are different to mammals. They’re very different to humans. Since that first frog, researchers have cloned dozens of animal species, including mice, cats, sheep, pigs and cows. In each case, researchers encountered problems that needed to be overcome with trial and error. With mice, they were able to use thousands of eggs, and conduct many experiments, to work out these problems. It was a numbers game.

“But with primates, eggs are a very precious resource, and it is not easy to acquire them to conduct experiments, and the researchers can’t simply apply what they’ve learned from cloning mice or cows to cloning people. For example, cloning an animal requires that they first remove the nucleus of an egg cell. When they do this, they also remove proteins that are essential to help cells divide. In mice, this isn’t a problem, because the embryo that is ultimately created is able to make these proteins again. But primates aren’t able to do this, and researchers think it may be one reason that attempts to clone monkeys have failed.

“What’s more, cloned animals often have different kinds of genetic abnormalities that can prevent embryo implantation in a uterus, or cause the embryo to spontaneously abort, or the animal to die shortly after birth. These abnormalities are common, because cloned embryos have just one parent rather than two, which means that a molecular process known as “imprinting” does not occur properly in cloned embryos. Imprinting takes place during embryo development, and selectively silences certain genes from one parent or the other.

“Problems with imprinting can result in extremely large placentas, which ultimately leads to problems with blood flow for the embryo. In one experiment, a team cloned a species of cattle called Banteng, and the calf was born at twice the size of a normal Banteng cow. It had to be euthanized. So, you can see why it’s a moral and ethical minefield. Myself and others are looking to develop the science to overcome the problems, but with each hurdle jumped, so more ethical and moral issues become apparent. For now, human cloning is theoretical and possible only in the realms of all else which is fantastical: Fiction.”

“Well I’m known just as well for my fiction work as I’m not for my factual, Gil. I wonder if you might entertain a proposition?” We’d skipped desserts long ago and were now on our fifth shared bottle of Pinot.

“Entertain me, Mr Fry.” The invisible pipe was back in his mouth.

“Well, Gil…” I cleared my throat and looked around the room as I drew in closer to the table.

“The thing is this. I mean, the way I see it. The way I see things, is that you have something potentially very important and valuable in your work; Work which could one day net you a Nobel prize. But you need exposure. And yet, I understand your reasons for wanting to keep people in the dark for now. But if all of the ethical concerns are somehow overcome one day, there are potential future scenarios where your work could save humanity itself from extinction. Isn’t that worth documenting? And like I say, I’m of little note as a fiction writer, but even less so an academic one. If I were to work with you as documentarian and something went horribly wrong, it would be dismissed as the further chronicles of a slightly deranged fiction writer.”

“How do you propose studying my work? By visiting Norway?”

“No, of course not. That would be an imposition.” Actually, I was as reluctant to go there as I was Paris or Berlin, for the same reasons. “My proposition is just this: The best way for me to study your work, is for me to actually study your work, if that makes sense.” It didn’t seem to. “You see, the way I see it, you do all the scientific stuff in your lab and nature takes care of the rest.”

“That is a very simplistic way of looking at it, Mr Fry.”

“I like to boil things down to simple components, so that they’re easier to understand.”

Gil smiled again, on the left side of his mouth. It was a different smile to the previous ones, because it was on the other side: Those had been a curling of his upper lip on the right, when he’d seemed contemplative. A smile on the left seemed to indicate something else: Amusement? Perplexity? I elaborated: “You see, you make the life, and I watch it grow. If it grows – or indeed, goes – well, I’ll let you know and then we can talk about publicity or other applications. If it doesn’t go well, no-one will ever know. You need to have nothing further to do with me.”

“Mr Fry.” That’s me. “If you’re proposing what I think you are, then I must express deep alarm.”

“I prefer to think more of reservations than alarms, Gil. Alarms are loud and startling, and they indicate danger. Reservations on the other hand, those are nice. One might have a reservation at a nice restaurant for example, or a hotel.”

“Mr Fry, if I’ve got this right, you’re proposing that I send you a cloned animal of some sort?”

“No, Gil. No, much more than that.”

“Oh God.”

“You see, I’m interested in cloning humans. Ultimately, I’d like to bring back Albert Einstein, to see what he makes of the world today. But those are my interests. Your interest in cloning, is its potential to save lives, and even species. You’re concentrating on very small creatures: people won’t notice, or be troubled by the news that cloning is helping the environment. Gradually, cloning becomes more accepted. If cloning humans were ever accepted, there are of course all of those moral and ethical arguments. But cloning could one day be applied to humans in the same way as your small creatures. It could save humanity. But of course, there is the whole numbers game of trial and error, as well as the ethical concerns. I’m simply offering to be a volunteer in the early stages of your research.”

“By doing what? Observing something I’ve sent you? Am I missing something, Mr Fry?”

“I think you’re missing me, Gil. I would be a human guinea pig. I understand the ethics. What I’m proposing is that I give you the kind of permission which to my knowledge has never been requested or permitted of a living human: I give you my DNA to use in cloning experiments. Many copies of me will perish: Most people wouldn’t like the idea of that. But if just one clone shows signs of growth, you might be able to probe inside that one, to see what it is which makes it different: The survival code perhaps. Once you’ve got that, you’re on your way to a safe and reliable means of cloning humans.”

“Mr Fry, again you are simplifying things.”

“Mr Giles, I am a writer. When I write academic material, sometimes I have to simplify it for the reading demographic. When I write fiction, I demonstrate how something is possible and trust that readership to take the details for granted, or use their imagination. Ergo, when I am writing about scientific things, I do so in a way a reader understands and leave the sciencey bits to my collaborator. I do enough scientific research to ensure that my stories are feasible, then find a partner on the fringes who might be willing to help. I report on their work and it’s read as accessible fiction. And for myself and my collaborators, it’s a symbiotic relationship.”

“So what you’re asking me to do, Mr Fry, is to take a sample of your DNA, remove the nucleus of a donor egg and replace it with yours, thereby creating clones of you, most of which will most likely perish?”

“That’s what I’m proposing, Gil. What I’m asking, is for you to then send me one or more of those subjects, so that I can observe it. It would be all under-the-radar stuff, on the fringe, you know? Where the likes of me and you work?” I was trying camaraderie, cloak and dagger skulduggery. We were underground operatives, secret agents, independently working to make the world a better place, ungoverned and accountable only to ourselves.

“Mr Fry?” That’s me. I was drifting in my thoughts. “Mr Fry. If, and this is a big if, Mr Fry. Perhaps this conversation only got this far because of the wine, but I must admit I’m intrigued. So if I were help you, you must first consider a number of things: I would be given total anonymity. You would monitor one experiment, which will most likely not be successful. In that almost certain scenario, I would insist that you dispose of any evidence promptly. You may write of it, recording the process of the subject. In all likelihood, if that written record were to somehow be disseminated, it would be assumed to be fiction. If there is any need for this to be reinforced, I’d trust you to do so.”

“Your anonymity is guaranteed Mr Giles, until such time as the experiments might be successful and you wish to publish your results. Otherwise, the whole thing will remain as fiction. But there were other things, you said?”

“Practical things, yes. Things which are not necessarily a problem for me with my resources, but which you need to grasp the ethics of. For example, the availability of human donor eggs.” Actually, I hadn’t thought of that.

“Actually, I hadn’t thought of that.” I knew we’d need eggs, of course. I hadn’t considered where they might come from. Women, naturally, but not which ones. Obviously, women donate eggs for various reasons, sometimes in the hope that they might be fertilised at a later date, but usually this would be in the course of family planning. There were human eggs which were donated purely for scientific research. The cloning process only requires the DNA of one parent; in this case, me. The egg would just be a carrier; a vessel. But it was the thought that in any case, the egg will have come from someone. I would never know the identity of the donor and she wouldn’t expect me to. But even though her DNA would be removed, that still involved removing a part of someone. It was a thought which would continue to trouble me perhaps, but in the context of the research, it was something I could level with morally. “Anything Else?” I asked Gil.

“The limitations, Mr Fry. The whole numbers game aside, even if you do end up with a viable subject, its life will be limited. No human embryo has survived outside of the human body for longer than 13 days. After less than two weeks, your subject will be no larger than a grain of sand in a test tube and it will expire. That’s a version of you, Mr Fry, dying in your presence.”

That was quite profound. I would indeed be witness to my own death, or a version of me, with perhaps more potential than I ever had, to do more than I ever did. A second chance at life, gone. I decided it might be worth it, just for the profundity of that situation, to feel what it’s like and to write about it. It would be a personal loss different to any other. ‘I think I’ll do it,’ I thought. “I think I’ll do it,” I said.

“Very well, Mr Fry. When I return to my facility in Norway, I will acquire donor eggs and insert your donated DNA. I will of course require your DNA from you. I will place the eggs in a solution and the rest is a game of waiting. Very few of the eggs will do anything at all. Of the few that do, even fewer will survive. I cannot commit too many resources to this Mr Fry, for reasons I’m sure you appreciate. I will send you two specimens, in around two weeks from now. That will end my involvement in this, unless something happens which might be of importance to the greater scientific community.”

“That’s the deal, Mr Giles. I volunteer for something others probably wouldn’t, because I have my own vested interests. I understand that the experiment will most likely be unsuccessful, but if something does happen, I will let you know, so that you can identify whatever catalyst in me it was that caused something to happen. Ultimately, you may discover a key to life. Otherwise, it will remain fiction in my hands.”

“In that case, I need your hand, Mr Fry.” Why would he want that? “To collect a blood sample, Mr Fry? It’s better than a strand of hair or a mouth swab, for the purposes of this.”

“Oh, of course.” Either Gil had come prepared for this, or he normally carried a syringe and a vial around in his case. Not for the first time in my life, I felt a bit of a prick.

But after much initial faffing around, I now had the start of a two-pronged go at doing something worthwhile.

 

Rabbit Header

5
The Rabbit

I awoke the next morning and realised it must be Thursday. For me, Thursday is the day of the week I find hardest getting the hang of: It’s well into the working week, which grows monotonous; and it’s one day away from the start of the weekend, and all which that might entail. For most people. For me, the only difference between days, is the letters which precede ‘day’. So I really don’t know why I find it so difficult.

On this particular Thurs, I woke with a hangover: A rare thing for me but hardly surprising given the evening before. Had I really given my DNA to a man I’d met for the first time? A scientist on the fringes of accepted science, who could now use my DNA for his own ends? Might he actually now have the one thing which he needed to create a race of slave humans, from a volunteer made complicit by Pinot Grigio? Apparently so, as confirmed by a non-disclosure agreement Gil had sent me by email after the meeting, and which I’d signed.

I contemplated what to do on this Thursday: The studio was in need of a clean, there was still the matter of the two white mice, and the rabbit which wasn’t there. Sometimes you don’t realise something’s missing until it’s not there any more. It’s was the absence of the rabbit which reminded me of its existence. I remembered being at the hospital the previous day and I was sure I didn’t have it with me at dinner with Gil: I’d left the rabbit at the hospital.

I checked my mobile and there’d been missed calls: two from the PDSA in New Cross, and one from an unknown mobile number. I called the hospital. Doctor Jones was with a patient, so she would call me back. I had to be patient.

Hannah called from work: I’d changed the entry on my phone from ‘PDSA’ to ‘Hannah, Work.’ in a tragic moment.

“Mr Fry.” That’s me. Hannah was addressing me in her official-sounding capacity.

“Yes.” I knew this would be about the rabbit. “Doctor Jones.” Then without thinking, I just said, “How are you today?”

“I’m fine. I do have a bit of a situation though.” This seemed slightly friendlier; more like Hannah. She was either resigned or being sarcastic; I couldn’t make out which. “I think it best if you come over here.” This sounded more serious. But actually it was best that I went to the hospital, as I had to collect the rabbit. Hannah was perhaps just stating the obvious.

A different day and another menagerie in the PDSA waiting room: On this particular Friday, there was a clowder of cats: A clowder or alternatively, a pounce are the collective nouns for cats. Probably the best-known collective noun is a murder, for a group of crows. But this is just for crows on the ground: In flight, they go by a different name; Or a profession, or vocation, such is the imagery I see as a writer in these things. As a writer, I wonder what crows who’d just committed a far-off murder might be talking about, back on the ground, after the deed. A gaggle of geese is another common one: What must geese be gaggling about? And they’re only a gaggle on the ground: In flight, it’s a skein of geese. There are some wonderful senses of lifestyles to be gleaned from animals’ collective nouns. To hear them talk as such groups would bring so many more stories to life: An interview with a flamingo, as part of a regiment, or herons involved in a siege. Honourable mentions go to my favourite two collective nouns: A tower of giraffes, and a crossing of zebras. But back to the pounce or the clowder in the waiting room:

There was a young girl of probably about ten, with her mum I assumed. They each had a cat in a basket: A black and white one which the girl referred to as “Cow cat!,” and a tabby, who the girl called Duncan. A lad not much older was with his assumed dad, and they had a toyger: A domestic cat with tiger markings, and a splendid little thing. I didn’t catch the toyger’s name but it had a bit of the Shere Khan from Jungle Book about it. If the ensuing situation with Doctor Jones permitted, I was interested in hearing what these cats might say.

“Mister. Fry.” That’s me. Doctor Jones was using the extended version of my name: Lengthening the ‘Mister’ and pausing before the ‘Fry.’ She’d done that the day before, when I’d brought the rabbit in. I looked up and Hannah exhibited a different body language: Rather than holding the door open with her arm, she was striking a pose which blocked the corridor behind her, by standing in the middle of the doorway. This looked defensive, which wasn’t good. “Come with me, please.” I followed her dutifully and quietly along the corridor to her lab.

Everything was more or less how I remembered it, and Charles was still there. He’d made a little home for himself. Someone had provided a cat basket, which he was sitting in, looking out, and still looking like he wanted to say something. The front of the basket was open and there were food and water bowls, and a litter tray just in front. He’d clearly used the litter tray: I’d trained him well in the short time I’d had him.

“You left your rabbit behind, Mr Fry.” This was obvious.

“I know,” I said. “I honestly didn’t realise until this morning.” Which I hadn’t.

“Well, Charles has been in safe hands.” I looked at Hannah’s hands.

“Well, obviously, and I’m grateful. It’s a bit like getting run over by an ambulance really. I mean, if you’re going to absent mindedly leave a rabbit somewhere, where better than a vets?” I was trying to break through the tension, as Doctor Jones still looked defensive.

“Not mine, Mr Fry. No, Charles has been in the safe hands of the police.” The police? What had he done?

“What did he do?” I asked.

“He scared the shit out of me, Mr Fry.”

“So you called the police on him? What did they say to him?”

“Oh Jesus.” I think that’s what Hannah said, as she was sort of talking to the collar of her coat. “No, Mr Fry. I left shortly after you last night. You were my last case and when you left, I had no reason to return to my lab. I was the first one in this morning. Today is Thursday and I open up on a Thursday. So I was alone in the building when I thought I heard a voice. I didn’t think too much of it, as I was in reception: It could have been someone walking past outside. So I was walking down the corridor to this lab, when I heard the voice again, but louder this time. As I got to that door…” She pointed to the door. “…I could tell the voice was coming from inside this room. It was a male voice, speaking in German.” German? A German had got into the room? “Naturally, I was somewhat alarmed, so I phoned the police.”

“Well, you would, wouldn’t you?” I reassured her. “So, did they find this German man?”

“No, Mr Fry. Because there wasn’t one to find. The police told me to wait for them out the front. They were here within two or three minutes. They came in and I came with them, as I know the combinations for the doors. When we got to that door…” She pointed to the door again. “…we all heard the voice.” This was quite gripping. I hoped Hannah was going to be okay. She continued: “One of the policemen knocked on the door, and the voice said, “Das ist eine tür”: That is a door. Well, I speak conversational German…” She’s very clever. “…That is a door, seemed a strange and obvious thing for someone to say. And then I realised.”

“What?”

“That not only had you left the rabbit behind, but you’d left the fucking computer on, with the speakers turned up.” Ah. And so it would seem that in my frustration, when I’d left the hospital the previous day, I had left the rabbit hooked up with the Babel fish.

“So what happened then?” I asked.

“Well then, I had to say something. The rabbit wasn’t going to come to the door, and I didn’t want the police breaking it down.”

“So you told them about the Babel fish?”

“No, of course I fucking didn’t.” Hannah was very potty-mouthed today. “No, I made a complete arse of myself and told them I must’ve left the radio on.” I’d caused Hannah embarrassment. I was embarrassed. “So, we came in: Myself and two police officers. And that fucking rabbit, was just sitting there, talking German. To the officers, it was a rabbit moving its mouth, like rabbits do; and a voice coming over the speakers: The two weren’t connected. I apologised, cursed myself, and you, and switched the ‘radio’ off. The police took a precautionary look around, then they left.” I felt sorry for Hannah.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Did you give Charles his little camp here?”

“Yes, I did. Because no-one else was going to feed and water him. Then I phoned you, three times.” The last missed call on my mobile must have been Hannah’s mobile.

“So no-one knows about us? I mean, the Babel fish.”

“No. No-one knows, as it should be.” Was this a setback? In any case, Charles was German. I didn’t speak German and I hadn’t worked out how to translate between human languages. Hannah did speak German but she seemed to want less to do with the whole thing now than she had before. So I was in the room where the Babel fish resided, but I wasn’t going to get far with the rabbit. I was interested in the cats in the waiting room; especially the little tiger. “What is it you’re looking for, Mr Fry?” I was looking out of the window, just generally. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular.

“Erm, nothing,” I said. For once, could I be Doctor Jones’ focus? “Nothing in particular. I mean, unless some sort of answer were to suddenly fly by.” Of course, that would be a metaphor for my life: Suddenly some previously unknown creature flaps past the window, just as I turn my head away. So I kept looking.

“But, I mean, in life. What do you hope to gain from talking with the animals? What about the spaceships we took to the park?”

“Answers, doctor. My work brings me into contact with a lot of people, things and situations. The ships and the Babel fish have made me wonder many more things: Is it all connected? Where did the aliens come from? Are there more of them? What do they want? How long have they been here? And then the Babel fish: Maybe I’ve not been asking the right questions. Perhaps I over-analyse things and maybe some of those animals can simplify things for me. They’re not tarnished by modern human life; They don’t have jobs, don’t have to pay rent; Just make sure the family is fed and they have shelter. Is a life without politics and capitalism a better one for its simplicity, or would the animals make a better job than we did, if they’d evolved to be this planet’s dominant species? I just feel we owe them for all the damage we’ve caused, trampling all over their world, like invaders; Stealing their land, enslaving them, forcing them to rear young for our own consumption, then killing them. These are things which might sit awkwardly with many people if they gave it thought. Most people don’t. I do and I just want to find a simple answer, so that I can tell the rest of the world what it’s about and we can all get along.”

“I can’t answer your questions, Mr Fry. Maybe no-one can. Perhaps you’re right and you’ve not been asking the right questions of the right people, or things. But I don’t know what the right questions are. I suppose they’re the ones to which the answers make sense.” I thought that was quite philosophical. Everything comes down to philosophy in the end.

I realised this might be the last time I saw Hannah: I’d run out of animals to bring her and I couldn’t acquire more. Perhaps it was time to leave the Babel fish and wait to see what developed from my project with Gilbert Giles. That was highly likely to be short-lived, so perhaps I needed to look for answers elsewhere, or just stop questioning. It had been so tantalising to have the spokespersons for the animal kingdom at my disposal, but not to have found one who seemed anything like on-topic. Of course, I hadn’t spoken to any of them yet though: I’d heard them speak; I’d heard them respond to questions from Doctor Jones and their humans; and I’d thought for a second that the mynah bird had read my mind. I just had to speak, or think. And I needed to know what to speak or think about.

It may have been Hannah taking pity on me, but I didn’t ask why she let me stay in the lab that afternoon. I had one last chance, without having to ask for it. The arrangement would be as before: She would consult with her patients and their humans, and I would observe from the corner, using the Babel fish. I switched on the computer, twiddled some knobs, and adjusted the microphone and speaker levels, then I put the headphones on. While I waited for the first patient, I tried the fish out on the rabbit. It was still tuned to ‘Rabbit’ from the last abandoned session.

“…sie ist nett.” What? Hannah was right: Charles’ German accent was quite intimidating. “Ich glaube, sie mag dish.”

Sometimes, something can be right in front of you all the time and you just don’t notice it’s there. Like, if you work with a word processor every day, knowing yourself to be very proficient and sometimes congratulating yourself on your cleverness with the things you can do. Then one day, you discover a function which you’d never noticed before, because you didn’t know what it was. Then it proves to be just the thing you need to make your life a little easier. In my word processor example, it was a means of numbering pages a certain way. With the Babel fish, it was a second ‘Translate’ function. As far as I’d been aware, the drop-down menu contained all of the translation tools: I chose a type of animal, then there were various sub-menus in further drop-down lists, to narrow things down. But even though this was a universal translation program, running on a quantum computer, it still used the Windows operating system. So under ‘File’, was another translation function. At first, I assumed it to be a duplicate of the drop-down menus, but when I clicked on it, I got different sub-menus: Languages. Not animal languages, but national and regional ones. So the drop-down menu translated any animal to human, and now this other one translated human languages. So I selected Rabbit>Human, then German>English. It was so simple, it had been there all the time and I hadn’t noticed.

By now, Hannah’s first patients were being brought in: Duncan the cat and Cow cat. I tuned to Feline>Domestic, wondering if I might need the second translator. But these two were definitely London cats. Without the benefit of the Babel fish, the cats were growling at one another from their respective baskets. As soon as I put the headphones on though, a conversation emerged:

“…you were s’posed to be watchin’ the doors, ya silly car.” This was tabby Duncan to the black and white cat. Interestingly, the secondary translation menu in the Babel fish had ‘Cockney’ under the ‘Dialects’ options. I noticed it had one for Geordie as well. Doctor Hannah Jones herself had designed and built this thing. I set this secondary function to Cockney>English, and Duncan’s voice was still like that of Danny Dyer, but without his London inflections. “…all you had to do was watch the bloody doors,” Duncan continued. “You had one job.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t tell me ‘ow many bloody doors there were, did ya?” This was Cow cat, sounding like Pat Butcher, then like Pam St. Clement when the Cockney was translated to English. “It was a big house.” I wondered what Cockney alley cat mission they’d been on.

The cats both belonged to the young girl, or rather, the cats had a girl. As Hannah read from her clipboard, it transpired that the girl was called Lola, Duncan was Duncan Jones, Cow cat was called Cow cat, and mum was just mum.

“What seems to be the problem with these two then?” Hannah asked Lola.

“I think they were fighting last night. Duncan is limping a bit and Cow cat has been growling a lot. Could you check them over please?”

“Of course. Let’s have a look…” Hannah took Duncan from his basket and Lola opened cow cat’s, who then sat at the entrance.

“Wanker,” said Cow cat, looking at Duncan. “I hope she puts you to sleep.” What had Duncan done to deserve something so harsh?

“Who rattled your basket, you tart?” Duncan was now speaking to Cow cat. Both cats were speaking in growls and I wondered again if this was the sole basis for the Babel fish’s translations, or if it was somehow reading and broadcasting thoughts. The latter scenario could have quite alarming possibilities in a different setting. If, one day, for whatever reason, everyone had an in-built Babel fish, no thoughts would be secret. I could think of at least one scenario where that might work in my favour. “Well, if she puts me to sleep, I hope she doesn’t do it to you. Because then you’ll realise you miss me.” Duncan was quite deep in his thoughts.

“Can’t you tell this woman I’ve twisted my back leg?” Duncan meowed at Lola.

“I think he’s just twisted his leg, at the back,” Lola said to Hannah.

“Well, I can’t see anything else wrong. Let’s have a look.” Hannah squeezed Duncan’s belly to check for any twists or blockages internally, then lifted his back legs off of the table.

“I am not a wheelbarrow,” Duncan protested. “Ow, ya fucker! Yes! There! Cor fuckin’ ‘ell!” The translation seemed a little confused as Duncan squealed.

“Yes,” said Hannah. “You’re right, young doctor: A bit bruised and maybe sprained; nothing broken though.”

“Apart from my heart,” said Duncan, as he walked back into his basket. “Bitch”. He seemed to be addressing the other basket.

“Now, young lady.” Hannah picked up Cow cat. “What have you been up to then?”

“I ain’t bin up to nuffink. It was ‘im.” She nodded at Duncan’s basket. ‘Go rand there, ‘e sed. Watch that bladdy door.’ So, I go and there’s two bladdy doors ain’t there? So I got me bladdy tail shut in one didn’t I?”

“Yes, she’s got a bit of a kink in her tail here,” Hannah pointed out to Lola. “There’s no bite marks though; no broken skin. I think it’s just bruised.”

“Bladdy right it’s bruised. You got some tablets or summink?”

“So I’ll just write a prescription,” Hannah explained to Lola. “It’s just some painkillers. They’ll be fine in a couple of days.”

“’ear that you old tart?” said Duncan from his basket. “You can stop yer bladdy moanin’”

“Oh, shuddap ya silly sod. I ‘ope they forget to take you ‘ome,” replied Cow cat, now back in her basket. But Lola, mum, Hannah and the two cats left together. I’d have loved to have gone with them, just to listen to the cats some more, and find out exactly what was going on.

I looked at the rabbit again, looking like it wanted to say something. I set the translations for Rabbit>Human and German>English. Charles just looked at me, saying nothing. Perhaps I should prompt him? What would I ask him? I hadn’t begun to process a question, before Hannah returned with a the young lad and the man with the toyger. The little tiger was called Karu, and his human was Louis. Karu was there to be ID chipped and out of the basket, he was a magnificent little animal: The toyger is the product of selectively breeding short-haired tabbies, as far back as the 1980s. The result is a domestic moggie which looks to all intents like a miniature tiger, and Karu seemed as confident as any larger tiger might. The only sound he made was a purr, as the chip was inserted into his neck ruff. I tuned the Babel fish back to Cat>Human:

“Human. Human. Human. Human.” Karu was looking around, so presumably counting the four humans in the room. He paid no attention to Charles. “You need us now, human.” Was he talking to me? “3000 years ago, we needed you. 3000 years from now, we will need you again.” Could this little guy confirm some of our ancient alien theories? Had ancient civilisations helped just cats, or were there cat gods, as depicted in ancient gliphs? Had mankind been put on Earth by extraterrestrial cat people, as some kind of experiment, or for some purpose? There were many wild theories. Why would they need us again? Why did we need them now? “You need us, human. But if you don’t listen, you won’t hear us.” Me, or us? He only spoke in the singular. I was listening, through the headphones.

But Karu said nothing more. His chip implanted, he calmly walked back into his basket and settled in for the ride. He had a bit of the regal in him, like a wealthy man of old, seated in a sedan chair carried by two servants.

And that was to be the end of Doctor Jones’ consultations for the day. When she returned to the lab, she said she needed to go out on field calls. I took this as my cue to leave and took a last look at Charles before unplugging the Babel fish. As always, he looked like he was about to say something, but nothing came. I unplugged the headphones, and the speakers popped, as speakers do when a microphone is unplugged. I turned the speakers down to an acceptable level, ushered Charles into his basket and picked him up. I walked to the consulting table and rested Charles, while I spoke to Hannah:

“Hannah, thank you for putting up with me again.”

“It’s been…” She paused. “It’s been, fascinating Mr Fry.” Fascinating was better than interesting. She was a fascinating woman herself. As I looked at her, all I could think was, ‘I wish you only what’s best for you’.

As Charles and I made our way to the door, I thought I heard a voice:

“I think I’ve fallen in love with you.” It wasn’t Hannah. It wasn’t me. It must have been the Babel fish picking up Charles’ voice. I wondered what Hannah might make of it, if she’d heard it. Sometimes it’s best just not to know something.

 

Dust

6
Dust

I’ve told myself a billion times not to exaggerate, but my studio was a shit hole: Not untidy or unhygienic, just dusty. But cleaning the studio posed existential risks. If ever there were a perfect excuse for not dusting, there it was: The very existence of many species, and perhaps entire races, was at the mercy of a tin of Mr Muscle furniture polish and a Vileda cloth. What was I to do with such a predicament?

I decided I wouldn’t vacuum but that I’d dust, and I’d keep the dust. That way, I minimised the risk of inadvertently destroying species or races, or being the catalyst for some pan-dimensional sub-atomic Armageddon. The spacecraft I’d found on my typewriter were the size of grains of sand, possibly smaller. I knew that they had the ability to alter their size: The black mamba ship’s captain had spoken of a ‘Restore’ function, when he was mocking the humans in the other space ship. Hannah and I had set the animal ship free.

The human craft had perished in a freak fire, perhaps recorded in their future prehistoric records as an inferno from a sun god. Ancient alien theorists maintain that mankind had contact with extraterrestrials whom they perceived as gods, many millennia ago on Earth. Some encounters were with purely altruistic gods, who passed on knowledge for humanity’s benefit. Others could have been warnings to stay away, to stop. Some of the wilder theories posit that humans are a genetically modified race born of the stars; others that we are an elaborate experiment, or slaves to a cause unknown to us: Parts of a machine, or a computer simulation.

In reality, the destruction of a ship with all hands lost was brought about by a magnifying glass held at an angle in the sun’s rays. They were a bunch of sanctimonious wankers who’d stolen plans from another race to build a ship, only to be inept enough to miss one crucial point: Where they came from, intergalactic travel required shrinking a vessel and its occupants to microscopic size to travel through wormholes, then restoring everything to normal size on the other side. They overlooked this. Although it pained me, I couldn’t help feeling they deserved what they got, if only for evolutionary purposes, or the prevention thereof.

A Pot Noodle tub provided the perfect vessel to transport any populations which might be among my household dust. I’d often wondered what was in those things (not poodle, according to the advertised ingredients). As I cleaned each surface, I pondered what I might be collecting: Warring armadas; the first wave of a race of aliens intent on populating Earth, or seeking refuge, following the defeat of an enemy or fleeing persecution: refugees, pursued by the captors they are escaping. There were many possibilities. But among them was the chance that I was merely dusting away wreckage, carnage, an aftermath: one which might have been prevented if these creatures had been offered asylum sooner, but for my reluctance to clean my studio. Extinction because of one man’s whim. And of course, it could just be dust. Dot and Dash, the original two ships, could have been unique to each of them: Pioneering explorers, neither of which returned; Those they left behind, wondering if their heroes made it. Perhaps they’d come to find out, assuming no news to be good. Or they might have simply given up. The ships could have been lost, not in their stories but in their navigation: Perhaps this wasn’t where they’d wanted to end up. The possibilities multiplied and with them, so did the questions, exponentially.

I might have been pondering aloud at some points. As I dusted around Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, they came out to see what was going on. I suppose you would if your home was being lifted from the ground. They came to the bars and twitched their noses, like mice do. They twitched at me and at one another. Were they talking? To whom? Themselves or me? Either way, they were captive; Imprisoned behind a door which they might not contemplate in the same way as me: A simple one-click mechanism without so much as a lock which they could see. It was simple: obvious to me and right under their noses, yet they couldn’t see it.

Among the preserved detritus in the studio was Charles, my German rabbit: He seemed less bothered about life, wandering around his new world in my studio, and probably not contemplating everything in the same way I was. He just looked like he wanted to tell everything something.

Once I’d gathered most of the dust into the Pot Noodle container, I sat at my typewriter to contemplate what to do next. I pondered spending the rest of the day writing: I had plenty of unfinished projects; mainly research, some fiction and others, factual. I was writing this book after all. I thought about phoning Hannah and just asking her if she fancied meeting up, just as friends. Perhaps we could get another coffee? I had what I thought was her mobile number in any case: I had it saved under ‘Hannah, mobile,’ just above ‘Hannah, work.’ I’d enjoyed our last time together in the park. I’d very much enjoyed my evening out with Gil, and wondered if Hannah might want to know about my other experiment. I really wanted to find out more of what Victoria, Julia and Charles might be saying, or thinking. But I’d taken all of them to the hospital recently, and all had been given a clean bill of health, which wouldn’t have declined in just a few days, unless I’d been neglecting them. Far from it, all of my guests were enjoying the sort of service and food I’d expect if I were in a hotel, if I was them. The excuse I seemed to be looking for was right in front of me: The Pot Noodle pot.

No matter that I was quite well know at Hannah’s place of work by now, I still had to complete a form every time I visited. For ‘Pet type / breed’, I wrote ‘Not poodle’. There were only two other people in the waiting room: A lady and her dog, a West Highland Terrier.

I twirled the pot around in my hands as I sat waiting. It was one of the orangey-brown ones: ‘Original curry’. If what I’d eaten from that pot was how curry originally tasted, I was thankful to our Indian cousins for changing it. But what did that pot, which once held the slag of snacks, contain now? What might we see under the doctor’s microscope, assuming I was allowed to use it? I ticked off the obvious things in my mind: Dust, my hair, dust, Charles’ fur, dust. There may be a turd or two from under Victoria and Julie’s cage. There’d be skin flakes, dust mites, and more dust. In amongst all that other dust, there just might be one or more tiny space ships.

“Mr Fry.” That’s me. Doctor Jones had a voice which could instantly tear me away from my daydreams.

“Yes, Ha… Doc…tor Jones.” I’d almost been over-familiar, but I’d stopped myself and changed tack. But in doing so, I’d just called Doctor Jones ‘Haddock’.

“Come with me please, Mr Fry.” I was being called first, before the lady and the little white Scotsman. As we walked along the corridor to the lab, Hannah continued: “I see you don’t have a poodle, nor anything else that’s living, as far as I can see. So what brings you here this time?”

“Well,” I said. “It’s this Pot Noodle.” Good start. “Or rather, what’s in it.”

“Mr Fry, we are not Food Standards.”

“No,” I agreed. “No, it’s what’s in here now.”

“And what have you caught this time, Mr Fry?”

“Well, that’s the thing. I don’t know. It’s dust from my studio.” Then Hannah said one of those things she says:

“What the fuck?” She was very clever, and that potty mouth of hers made her even more attractive. It made me think that I needed to rein in my thoughts if we were to use the Babel fish, given that I suspected it could interpret brain waves.

“Well,” I continued. “Well, you see. The thing is, or the things. You remember those space ships we found?”

You found those, Mr Fry.”

“Well, yes. But I didn’t know what they were. It was us who made the discovery, together.” I hoped that didn’t sound too dramatic.

“And you suspect that there might be more. So you’ve brought all the dust from your home, to show me at work. So that we can look under the big microscope and see if there are aliens in it.” She really was very clever indeed. “Well, seeing as you’re here.” We were in the lab by now. “I called you first as I thought you’d want to use the fish. I only have one patient to see, but be my guest.” She was very intuitive. One might even think she could read my mind.

I knew what I was expecting, so I twiddled the knobs on the computer and set it to ‘Dog,’ then fine-tuned and waited. The lady looked quite surprised to see me. I wondered what else she might expect: She’d seen me leave the waiting room with Hannah, but not seen me return. Hannah had returned on her own and the corridor led directly to the lab. But the lady still looked surprised to see me there. If I’d not been there, would she have been less surprised, when the only way for me not to be there would be if I’d climbed out of the window?

“Don’t worry about him,” Hannah said to the woman. It was too early for a prognosis on the dog, so I assumed she was talking about me. “So you’re Nettie, and this is Jake.”

“Yes.” I was riveted, so I put the headphones on.

“So what seems to be the problem with Jake?”

“Well, it’s mainly his skin. But he’s been a bit…” The woman paused. “He’s been a bit, well, naughty I suppose.” Well, that helped.

“Och, yee dan’t neigh the haff o’ it, woman.” I was listening to Jake now. I fine-tuned the Babel fish in the languages menu: Glaswegian>English. “I heed a doomp, underrrr yee beed.” The translation took a while to compute. “We need tee geet woors a mawgay, so aa heave a bairrrn to bleem.”: They needed to get a cat, so the dog had someone to blame.

“How do you mean, naughty?” Hannah asked.

“Well,” said Nettie. “He’s been tearing up toys, being fussy about his food, and just a bit down, really.”

“Really?” Hannah repeated. “He’s…” Hannah moved her glasses into that strange position I’d seen before: Sort of at a forty-five degree angle on her face, so that she was only looking through one lens at her notes. “He’s just turned three.”

“Arm fifteen, ya knee?” Dogs apparently do have their own version of years.

“So in dog years, that makes him a teenager,” Hannah continued. “So what you’ve got, is a toddler and an adolescent, all at the same time. Westies can be quite restless and prone to angst anyway. They’re great family dogs but they’re instinctively a working dog, so they want to get out and hunt rodents. Wanting to go out and chase things around? Breaking things in frustration? Sulking? What do those things all have in common?”

“I don’t know.” Nettie still looked confused. I wondered for a moment if me climbing out of the window might actually help.

It really is funny, the things you can see in clouds. Floating in the sky outside were nine clouds in all, of various cloud shapes and sizes, all looking like clouds. But their tranquil appearance could be cover for their inner intent; cloaked ships, like a Vogon constructor fleet, wrapped in candy floss. Douglas Adams said he was lying on top of a haystack, looking up at the sky, when he conceived The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. JK Rowling had a Scottie dog. I wondered if I needed to add a little cloud like Jake to my growing menagerie at home. I wondered if having a dog might help my writing, so that it might be taken more seriously. But that was more fiction.

But if I had a dog, we could go out for walks. If I could talk to the dog, it would be even better: We could talk about things, like the best shape for a stick, or the different sounds the colours of cars make. When you throw a stick for a dog, does it enthusiastically bring it back to you, because it thinks you like throwing sticks? We probably wouldn’t talk much about maths, but there’s a very simple equation for happiness: Happiness is equal to or greater than the events of your life, minus your expectations of how life should be. Surely the happiest person in my household would be the dog, precisely because his or her expectations extend no further than being fed twice a day and going for walks. Open a packet of biscuits, and the dog is winning: He or she aims low, but they pretty much nail it every day as a result.

“Mr Fry?” That’s me. Hannah was talking to me. “Are you okay? You look miles away.” As such, I descended from the clouds and tuned back in to the one on the examination table.

“Yes,” I said. “Just trying not to think aloud.”

“So,” Hannah continued, skewing her glasses again to half look at her notes. “I can see his atopic dermatitis and hyperpigmentation are responding well to treatment.”

“His what?”

“His sensitive skin and red blotches: The cream is working.”

“Oh good.” Nettie looked relieved. “We did think we might have to have him put down at one point.”

“Yee can put me doon noo if yee wanny. On the feckin’ floor.”

“No,” Hannah said, “just think of him as a toddler teenager with acne.”

“Aye. Arm feelin’ a bit doon. Get was hoom, so are keen sit on was lap and yee feed me wharl yee stooff yer cakehole. Put some telly awn, so are keen shoot at it.” I don’t know if the Babel fish was having trouble with the accent and making it sound more like Newcastle, but I’ve tried to transcribe what I heard as accurately as possible. As Nettie, Jake and Hannah left, I was taking off the headphones when I heard one of those curious things: “I just don’t understand.” I unplugged the headphones but left the speakers on. Hannah would want to hear the aliens again, if indeed there were any.

I looked at the Pot Noodle again, then at the clouds outside: Nine had become three, different sized, differently shaped clouds. One was moving toward another just as Hannah walked back in, which was rather splendid timing.

“So,” she said, “not poodle.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Shall we get your toys out?” Perhaps Hannah was taking this toddler / teenager thing to a more patronising level. “Mr Fry?”

“Erm, yes, Ha… Doctor.” Oh, for fuck’s sake.

“Hannah is fine.” I was glad. If Hannah’s okay, that’s okay. “Let’s lay out some paper.”

“Lay out some paper?” What? Why?

“Yes. We’ll lay a load of printer paper down on the floor, then tip your dust onto it. Then we’ll scan over it and look for anything that’s moving.” She was very clever. “You do realise, before we do this,” Hannah said, “those two things from last time, they might be the only ones.”

“But equally, they might not,” I asserted.

“I know, Mr Fry. And I know how much you want this to be. Just don’t get your hopes up mate.” MATE!? MATE? MATE! Did she just call me mate, or did she think it? Or did I imagine it? Some things are best left unknown.

It was like staring at a clear night sky, not knowing where in the world you are or what time it is, scanning and hoping to spot the International Space Station float over: A tiny, white speck, like a little moving star. Our canvas was smaller than the night sky and we were looking for black on white. But just as white chalk on a blackboard is the same as black ink on white paper, this was the same as watching the sky.

“There!” Hannah said, quicker than I’d expected. “And there! Grab a flask.” I handed Hannah a glass beaker and her hand hovered over the white sky, ready to bring down a huge dome on top of whatever was running around down there. Then I noticed one, then another. I started to itch, not mentally but because these little dark dots could be mites or fleas. Whatever they were, they seemed to be waking up. “I think,” Hannah started, “we should just plonk a lump of this stuff into something.” ‘Plonk’, ‘Lump’ and ‘Stuff’ were now scientific terms, used in the process of collecting and extracting subjects for analysis. Pretty soon, we’d plonked a lump of stuff in a Petri dish, treated with the same inert adhesive coating that we’d employed before. When we’d found stuff.

Everything was poised over this plonked lump of stuff: Unbeknown to those below, a hugely powerful telescope was bearing down on them and their every word was being heard. Meanwhile, they were oblivious. Now, Hannah was driving and I was a willing passenger sitting next to her.

The first thing we saw was a dust mite: a gargantuan alien beast at this magnification. Although stuck in the solution, its front end was unimpeded and it appeared to be shovelling things into its face. It was quite an endearing thing actually: Magnified many, many times, it had a face, which gave it personality. It continued to just shovel away; to go about its sole business of shovelling skin cells into its mouth and knowing nothing other than what was in its mind: The shovelling of food. Although there were potentially many more, and even more interesting things to find in this micro universe, I was intrigued to hear what this shovelling machine might be saying or thinking. But the Babel fish didn’t seem to stretch to life which is
naturally microscopic in size.

We scanned around the Petri dish with the microscope’s remote controlled camera. Like before, the view on the monitor was as though Hannah was piloting a ship around a giant alien landscape. Except this time, it was more of a junk yard on some distant planet. Individual grains of dust were like boulders, and strands of hair, like massive twisted metal bars. Every now and then, there were more mites, shovelling; and many smaller, worm-like things: bacteria, I assumed. I wasn’t sure if I was excited or apprehensive about the prospects of finding another spacecraft, but I felt relief when we did. But it was a circular ship, like the original Dot, and that had been a human ship. I really, really hoped that we’d find another one like the original Dash: A long ship carrying animals.

We zoomed in on the domed top of the circular ship, to the bridge. There, three men in robes stood around a circular table: Druids around a command console. One of them spoke:

“Reveal yourselves!” Nothing happened. “We are a rescue party. Our brothers came here and didn’t return. We come in peace, to discover their fate.”

“Did you work out the restore function before you left?” It was a rasping voice: It was a snake. Had the original one somehow got back into my studio? This seemed highly improbable, so this must be a different snake. Hannah panned out with the camera. The long ship was parked probably about a centimetre away from the saucer, hidden behind boulders, twisted metal and other debris. Although the distance was less than half an inch, it was vast in relation to the size of the ships. We maintained our position and listened in as the man spoke again:

“Where are you? What is this restore function you speak of?” They clearly hadn’t thought of it. I relaxed, and listened more intently, now that a potential problem was out of the way.

“I can see you, but you can’t see me.”: It was the snake again, with a teasing tone.

“Want to zoom in on him?” Hannah asked.

“Of course,” I said, perhaps slightly too enthusiastically. But one thing puzzled me: “Hannah, how are you able to translate two languages at once? I mean, I’m assuming the men there are speaking in some alien tongue and not English? And although the snakes are clearly an advanced race, I wouldn’t imagine English is their native language?”

“No, you’re right,” Hannah answered. “I just select Auto-detect on the Babel fish. Look, here.” She pointed to the program’s on-screen interface. Sure enough, there was an Auto-detect function in the Options menu, just like Google Translate. It had been there all the time. It would seem that wherever there’s a simple solution to something in plain view, I’ll find a more complicated way of not using it. Hannah zoomed in on the snake’s ship and there he was, sitting (if indeed it’s possible for a snake to sit) in the captain’s seat, speaking into a microphone. He was a black mamba but he was a different one, although apparently with the same personality as the last:

“I’m over here.” Captain Mamba was almost singing now. I should imagine the humans were none the wiser about where here actually was. “Except I won’t be here for long. Because my ship has the restore function, which we left out of our plans because we knew you’d steal them.”

What is the restore function?” The man sounded angry.

“On my ship, it’s a big, red button, which says ‘RESTORE’ on it, in large, friendly letters. Do you have one, man?”

“No!”

“Well, you’re a bit fucked then, aren’t you?”

“Why!?”

“Oh for Ra’s sake, man. Will you ever evolve?”

Ra was an ancient Egyptian Sun god and the ancient Egyptians worshipped snakes. Based on the last snake captain’s dismissal of man’s God, was it right to suppose that Ra actually existed; that he was worshipped as a god when that’s what the ancient Egyptians would have perceived him as, when in fact he was an alien, who’d visited Earth thousands of years ago? This was certainly one of many foundations of ancient aliens theorists. The snake continued:

“Your trailblazers made the same mistake: In their haste to construct their transport, using plans stolen from us, they didn’t think ahead. They didn’t check things over. Consequently, their ship’s run routine did exactly what it was programmed to do: It shrunk to sub-atomic size, so that it could travel millions of light years through a wormhole. But theirs lacked the part of the run routine which you have also missed: The restore function. A big, red button which restores the crew to normal size. But not the ship. That would give us away somewhat. Without the ship though, we are free to return to normal size at our target destination, so that we can blend in and live freely with the others on this planet. It was always a one-way trip. We understood that. We wanted nothing more, as we were fleeing persecution. You have a return ticket if you’d like to use it.”

“How?” The man seemed lost and impatient, which I supposed he would be.

“You can simply return, through the wormhole. But even if you do, you’re still fucked.”

Why?” He was growing angry again.

“Because you’ll get home and you’ll still be microscopic in size. Your physical biology changed as soon as your ship launched. With the restore function missing, you’ll still be tiny back on your home planet. No-one will ever know you are there.” This particular branch of mankind, or whatever they were, was indeed a bit screwed. “You can stay here, man. But Ra doesn’t want you here: You are not evolved. You’re not ready to explore. You’re here to invade. Word around the campfire here is that your predecessors were destroyed by a bolt of light from the sun. Ra banished them.” Actually, that was Hannah with a magnifying glass.

“Curse you, snake!” the man shouted. “Curse you and all of your kind.”

“Ah,” said the snake. “Just as we were cursed on Earth, to forever slide around and with no limbs? Well that worked, didn’t it?” I detected sarcasm. “I mean, that really stalled my evolution, didn’t it? Here I sit, limbless. But if your so-called god really had cursed my kind, wouldn’t he have thought to do something about my mouth?”

“This guy certainly has a mouth,” said Hannah.

“One bite from me, man, and you’d be dead after a few long, agonising hours. And you’d probably beg me to kill you. And if I had hands to hold a gun with, I’d probably do the decent thing. But I don’t have hands, you see? So I can’t put you out of your misery. So I put it to you, that if there even was a god; the one you believe in, he was pretty shit when it came to thinking up curses, wasn’t he?”

“He’s got him there,” I said.

“Yeah, this one’s maybe more of a bad ass dude than the last one.” Hannah concurred.

“Another thing, man.” The snake captain spoke again. “Can your ship do this?” As we looked to see what that might be, the long ship started to move.

“How can it do that?” I asked. “How can they move through the adhesive?”

“They’ve obviously found a way, Mr Fry. They’ve seen a problem and set about solving it. And they have. They’re adaptive.”

“What?” Said the man in the saucer. “Can my ship do what? I can’t see you.”

“You will in a minute, man.” The snake’s ship then travelled slowly, submarine-like, around the barrier of debris it had been concealed behind. But then something else happened: A smaller craft; much smaller, emerged from the stern of the long ship. Then another, and another. Three smaller ships now lined up alongside the larger one. Then it got stranger still, as the three smaller ships grew. Eventually, they were exactly the same size as the mother ship they’d emerged from.

“What the?” I started.

“Well, their ability to change size, I assume,” Hannah offered. “It’s obviously scalable, so that one of these big ships here can carry others which are even smaller. And those others can then restore to a point. To be honest Mr Fry, I’m as intrigued as you are.”

“So,” I wondered, “could this mean they could re-grow their ships to whatever their original pre-departure size was?”

“Given what we’re seeing, I wouldn’t rule it out. But as Mr Snake here said, they don’t. I can see where he’s coming from and it’s a perfect model.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, he said this is a one-way trip; that they’re fleeing their home planet. They’re not invading; they just need a new home which they can slip into unnoticed. If you think about it, it’s pretty much a perfect plan.” And put like that, it was. In fact, the only people who knew they were on Earth were Hannah and me.

By now, the four long ships were lined up in front of the saucer ship. This was all starting to look a bit unfortunate for the stranded men. Then the snake rasped again:

“You have a choice, man,” said the mamba captain. Looking at him on the screen, his mouth movements were quite unsubtle: an exaggerated opening and closing, like he was chewing invisible food, far too big for his mouth. If we didn’t have the Babel fish and we were relying on lip-reading alone, he could quite easily have been saying something like, ‘Blah, blah, blah, blah…’.

“What choice, serpent?” The man was growing annoyed again. If I were him, I’d try to keep it together.

“Watch your mouth, man. Be careful what you say with that un-evolved, fat tongue of yours. I can help you, man.”

“You speak with forked tongue, snake!”

“Well, of course I fucking do. I’m a snake.”

“Sorry,” Hannah said, as she covered her mouth. “This mamba guy is awesome.” I concurred.

“You can help us?” The man asked. “How would I know we’d be safe on your ship?”

“Who said you were getting on my ship?” The mamba rasped.

“You said you’d help us. I assume you’d let us restore to full size using your ship.”

“Why would I want to do that? To introduce an invasive species to this planet which we are at pains to inhabit with no noticeable effect on our new host; In fact, to aid a symbiotic process with this planet, which needs it’s wildlife replenished?”

“We wouldn’t be invasive. There are only three of us. I promise you.”

No!” If a snake could bark, it would probably sound just like our black mamba shouting ‘No!‘ “No, man. You can stay here, or you can go.”

“But if we go, we’re destined to spend the rest of our lives at this microscopic size.”

“Yes, I know. Good, isn’t it?” I thought I noticed the snake smile. “And if you stay, you’re still stuck at that size, and stuck in this viscous substance we’re immersed in. And you’ve not worked out how to move around in it. So like I said, you’re a bit fucked really, aren’t you? But I can help you.”

“How?”

“By putting you out of your misery, man. I have four battle cruisers with their guns trained on you. It will be quick, I promise. Much quicker than me coming over there and biting you.”

“No!” The man was pleading. He really was stuck with a choice of bad situations.

“Very well,” said the snake, “we’ll just leave you here.” And they did. The four long ships turned about and moved away from the saucer ship. There were cries for help from the men. “Can’t hear you,” said the snake. “Your supposed god’s alleged curse, took away our ears. He was a good guy, this invention of yours. He made sure we didn’t have to listen to your fucking whining.” This snake was very potty-mouthed. I always knew black mambas had attitude; Now I was seeing it personified, so that I could fully appreciate the level of attitude mambas actually have.

Eventually, the four battle cruisers stopped behind some more debris and the radio transmissions ceased.

“That was dramatic.” I offered.

“Yes,” said Hannah, “and surprising. Shall we see what’s in these four ships?”

All four were identical on the outside, to each other and to the original long ship: The one I’d named Dash and which we’d set free in Mountsfield Park, presumably to continue its journey around the planet, dropping various occupants off as they went.

The first we looked at was similar inside to Dash: It had three decks, with the middle one full of foliage and flora, among which various animals were living: We saw apes and monkeys, rodents and mammals, just as you’d expect to see in such an environment on Earth. On the bottom deck was the artificial ocean, where we could see dolphins, the odd shark, various other fish, and coral. These were ecosystems in microcosm.

The second ship was similarly divided but the middle deck was sandy desert. And these ships at full size would have been vast: The desert deck was so deep that it wasn’t entirely surprising to see birds of prey flying above the dunes. In and around the sand and the cacti, we occasionally caught a glimpse of a lizard or snake. In the ocean deck of this ship, there were mainly marine mammals: More dolphins, seals and sea lions; even whales: They were very big ships. And whoever had designed these arks was clearly very technically advanced: The various species in the water would have different needs, and although these trips were apparently brief, those needs would have to be catered for in things like temperature. With seas as big as the ones on the ships, I imagined they must have different temperature zones. In any case, these leviathans were technological wonders.

The theme was continued with the third ship, which carried an ocean on the bottom deck, beneath thick ice on the middle one. Here, polar bears, penguins and Arctic foxes roamed. Beneath them, an arctic ocean environment. I wondered how Gilbert Giles was doing with making copies of me, because I couldn’t process all of this alone.

The fourth ship was different: It still had three decks but the middle and lower ones weren’t ecosystems. Instead, the decks were lined with huge wooden crates, each the size of a small house. If one were to walk on the decks, each would be the size of a large town, home to a few thousand of these wooden box houses. And yet, each of these cruisers, transport ships, or whatever they were, were the size of a grain of rice, at most.

I didn’t know what to say first. I mean, this whole episode had thrown up so many things: Some were ones we suspected but most, we’d neither suspected nor
expected. I knew how rabbits feel: All rabbits; all the time. This was the literary equivalent of being startled in headlights. So I said the one thing which occurred to me: In my simple but complicated way of thinking about things, it seemed the best question to ask. It was a question which would give rise to many more, thereby complicating the situation. But those questions needed addressing too. And there was only one person I could pose this initial question to, because she was the only other person on the planet who knew about this. She wouldn’t be able to keep this to herself, any more than I could.

“Hannah: Would you like to get a drink with me?”

 

Simon Fry 2

7
Simon Fry 2.0

Happy people make shit activists: They lack the restlessness which drives change. A world full of them would be a passive and complicit place. Temporarily at least, I was happy. But what to do with our discovery? The happiness would pass but I was due to meet the only person I could talk to about the aliens, the talking animals, and about life, the universe and everything.

We were due to meet in The Station Hotel, where I’d dined with Gil two days previously. I wondered if I should tell Hannah about my other project, to see what she thought. But we had plenty to talk about already. So I figured, let’s just see how we go.

Hannah looked very different out of her lab coat: It wasn’t just that she wasn’t wearing her white coat when she arrived; it was her whole demeanour: More relaxed, perhaps more friendly and less professional. Hannah had never been intimidating, but in her own clothes, she looked warmer. In any case, it was a nice juxtaposition to see her in a different context. It actually took me a second to process that it was her, exactly because she was out of context; Like going to the bank every day and seeing the same cashier, then seeing that person out shopping and not recognising them, because they don’t have a window in front of them.

“Simon.” That’s me. That’s my first name. “Simon?”

“Oh! Er, yes, Ha…” Oh God. “…Doc”. Oh for fuck sake. “Hannah, hi. How are you?”

“I’m fine. You okay?” I was.

“Yes, likewise. Thanks. Er, could I get you a, erm…”

“Translator?” Hannah cocked her glasses in that way she does when she’s reading something: She was surveying the beer taps on the bar. “Scrumpy and black please.” This told me a lot and negated the need for a potentially awkward question.

“Two pints of that, please,” I said to the barman.

Not wishing to clutter the bar, I suggested we take a seat at a table, like the kind people eat food on. I had an agenda.

“Hannah, I’ve prepared a list,” I started.

“You’ve done what?

“It’s just a little prompt list really, to remind me. You see, I just have so many thoughts and questions.”

“So you’re going to interview me. Again?” Hannah looked over her glasses that time. Her glasses were a part of her, giving her a far greater facial expression range: They enhanced her.

I’m not in the habit of describing people’s looks or attire when I write, because such things are subjective: Some would say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But for a moment, I was struck by Hannah. Perhaps it was simply because she was out of work. Maybe she just took off her white coat before leaving the hospital and was wearing her normal clothes underneath. She was smart and cool: A white shirt under a black suit jacket, with a black T-shirt under-layer; Tight black jeans, and zip-up boots with about a two inch heel, making her the same height as me. She had a white hankie in her breast pocket, and her black-rimmed Vic Reeves / Ronnie Barker glasses completed the monochrome. The only deviation from two tone was her red hair and pale pink complexion. I was wearing a dark tweed cloth cap, which I couldn’t help thinking my companion would carry better. For the sake of continuity, I was also wearing black jeans and trainers; I’d thrown a black denim jacket over a geeky T-shit: ‘USCSS Nostromo’: In my own universe, I’d been a crew member on the commercial towing ship in Ridley Scott’s Alien. I only include all of this for the purpose of recording facts, which may be taken as such, or which I can excuse as my own imagination in telling this story as a work of fiction. In any case, I was in my story. This Hannah thing was just one of those details: It had been there up until now, but now it was striking. But despite all the obvious differences between Doctor Jones at the hospital, and Hannah sitting opposite me now, there was something else: There was something different about her and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. “Simon?” Fact or fiction, that is my name.

“Yes, sorry. I was just thinking.” About so many things on my list.

“Shall we just go through your shopping list?” My shopping list: The things I wanted.

“Right, yes. Where shall I start?”

“From the top?”

“Oh, yes. So, Hannah…”

“Simon?”

“Hmm?”

“Shouldn’t this be less scripted?”

“Yes, sorry. I’m more used to reading than talking to people.” It was perhaps a truism: I felt more comfortable with a book in front of my face than an attractive young lady. “Despite having it all written down, I don’t know where to start.”

“Why don’t we start from the end and work back?” Hannah said. And actually, that struck me as a good idea. “So, what the fuck did we see earlier?” She was just as potty-mouthed out of work. This was a comforting constant. And actually, the last thing on my list, was ‘Ask Hannah out’, meaning ‘Talk to Hannah about all of this.’ So the end of that list was now the beginning of this part of the story.

“Well,” I said. “If we take it at face value, we just saw two alien races in conflict: Human-types and animals. The human-types are missionaries, spreading the word of some god they believe in. I don’t like them, for many reasons. Somewhere on a very long list of things I don’t like about them, is their apparent absence of any gender equality.”

“They might be asexual?”

“I wouldn’t put it past them. They seem more chauvinistic to me though. In any case, I don’t like them.”

“Ditto.”

“They seem selfish and self-serving. Anyway, I like Captain Mamba.”

“He, or they, are certainly fascinating characters.” Hannah made me think of nice things, when she just said certain words: ‘Ditto’ reminded me of Patrick Swayze in Ghost; and ‘Fascinating,’ of Mr Spock.

“Yes,” I agreed. “In some ways, strangely endearing. And they seem entirely benign. If we take what they say as read, they’re fleeing persecution on their own planet and seeking refuge on another: Ours. They’re subtle, shrinking to microscopic proportions, perhaps so as not to cause hysteria. Once restored to full size – and the animals, not the ships is a nice touch – they’re just able to blend in. It seems they might have done some research on our planet too: Didn’t Captain Mamba say something about restocking our endangered species?”

“He did.”

“There is one thing which occurs to me: We could hear and understand them thanks to the Babel fish. But they were talking to each other. Do they just have universal translators, or do animals really speak where they’re from? What happens when they’re back to full size? We have no real way of stopping them, and neither would I want to. It could just be that this will change life on Earth fundamentally, on all sorts of levels.”

“We could end up with talking animals roaming the earth, you mean?”

“Yes. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Although it could cause all sorts of problems. I don’t mean talking animals, but how humans might perceive them: Would we want to experiment on them? Or would the fact that they could talk to us mean we wouldn’t need to, when they could tell us all we need to know?”

“You’d hope it would be a nice problem to have,” Hannah said. “Maybe they’d know when to keep quiet. As far as they’re concerned, no-one here knows they can talk, if indeed they can; If we can understand them without the Babel fish, I mean. You and I know, but they don’t know that we know, if you see what I mean.”

“It remains paradoxical. It could be interesting.” It could be all sorts of things.

“Only time will tell,” Hannah offered.

“Well yes,” I agreed. “Quite literally. We’ll have to wait and see, Hannah.”

“We will Simon.” I liked it when Hannah said, ‘we’. Let’s see how we go.

We’d finished our drinks, so Hannah suggested we get another, as we had much to discuss. We had.

“So,” Hannah said as she sat back down with our drinks: Two more pints of scrumpy cider and blackcurrant. “Unless the human-types work out the restore function, we can pretty much discount them.”

“They might even give up now,” I ventured.

“We can live in hope,” Hannah agreed. “So now we just have the animal aliens.”

“Hannah,” I said. I looked around the room, moved my chair in to the table, and leaned over to speak more quietly. “Don’t you think we should be careful what we say? I mean, in public?”

“Really? Simon, we could be talking about a sci-fi film. Or a book. No-one would think this is all for real.” She had a point, but I left my chair where it was anyway. “So anyway,” she went on, “about the animals. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to intervene.”

“None at all.” I agreed. “If it wasn’t for the random sequence of events which found me at your surgery with those things, we wouldn’t even know. I mean, they might have been coming here for centuries, totally unknown to us; to mankind, I mean. They seem to have nothing but good intentions and pose no threat whatsoever.”

“It does make your other question relevant again, Simon: Do they speak to each other where they come from? If they have in fact been coming to Earth for ages, why haven’t we heard Earth animals speaking? I realise that’s a rhetorical question with many theoretical answers. But whatever the reason, I think it’s best that way.”

“I agree Hannah. I actually dread to think what might happen to one of those animals if it fell into the hands of science.”

“Well, it kind of has Simon.”

“Well, I know. But you know what I mean: Experiments and so forth.”

“So now I imagine you’d agree it’s a good idea to keep it to ourselves. I know we could both stand to gain a lot by going public, but I don’t think we should.” I couldn’t help but agree.

“Hannah, I’m a fiction writer by trade. I can still write about all of this, but I’ll do so with fiction. As you just said, no-one would believe any of this stuff is real anyway.” Fiction or not, now was as good a place as any to speculate on what might happen next. “So it’s a logical next step, to set the four animal ships we left in the lab, free. Presumably, they’ll then fly around, dropping various people off to restore themselves. I do wonder if mankind’s conservation efforts are only part of the reason certain animals have been saved from extinction. Perhaps the animal ships have been arriving all along, topping up animals where they need to; all the time, without us realising; right under our noses.”

“I doesn’t really matter though, does it Simon?”

“Absolutely not,” I agreed. “If that has been going on, us Earth humans wouldn’t know: The animals’ shrink-hyperspace-restore system is perfect. And neither should we know, present company excepted of course. Just let mankind keep congratulating itself, for being a partner in it all. Of course, this is all speculative, so I wonder, what next?”

“I’d suggest more cider.” Hannah was a thug.

“Splendid behaviour,” I concurred, and made my way to the bar. Just as I’d sat back down, Hannah did one of those unexpected things:

“Cheers.” Hannah raised her glass and smiled, either at someone standing just behind me, or at me. I looked behind me, and there was no-one there. So I picked up my drink, we clinked and we drank a toast, to something.

“So, Hannah,” I didn’t actually know what I was going to say next. I thought ‘So, Hannah,’ would give me time to think, but it didn’t work. There was still so much on my mind, I didn’t know where to start. I figured it was as good a time as any to tell Hannah about Gilbert Giles. How to start on that? ‘There’s a man I know…’; ‘I met a man…’; “Have you heard of a man called Gilbert Giles?” I doubted Hannah had.

“No.” I was right.

“Well, he’s a microbiologist in Norway, but he has a few sidelines. One is, during tourist season, he takes guided boat tours around the Norwegian coast.” I paused. “He’s a fjord escort, you see?” Hannah did another strange thing: She spat her drink back into her glass.

“Oh, fucking hell.

“Yes,” I continued, “he’s also researching cloning. He’s hoping he can replenish some of the food chain. But so as not to upset any ethics committees, he’s working with frozen organisms from beneath the Norwegian ice. So in effect, no-one will notice what he’s doing. It’s all very covert and exciting. Almost as perfect a stealth model as the alien animals’.”

“And where do you come into this? How did you meet this Gilbert?”

“Just through research. I do a lot of that, especially for the fiction I write. Even though it’s fiction, it has to be at least plausible, so when I’m writing something sciencey, I research the science.”

“So what was he doing that interested you?”

“Well, he wasn’t, but he is now, kind of thing. If you see what I mean.”

“Er, no.” Hannah could speak and express a subtext, perhaps better than I could write one. Two words, her face, and the position of her spectacles, could speak volumes. But now she looked slightly blank. What thoughts might be evolving behind those black-rimmed windows? Any which might be taking shape continued to do so, as she said nothing at all. I felt I should elaborate:

“Well, you see.” Could she see? I looked behind me again, at where she might be looking, but there was no-one there. I turned back around and leaned in on the table, somewhat conspiratorially and intriguingly, I thought. “You see, I had this other idea…”

“Oh God.” I looked behind me again.

“You see,” I continued, “I thought of another way we might find answers to all the questions we all ask: Scientists.”

“Normally a good place to start, granted. And?” Hannah’s left eyebrow started to climb away from the window.

“Well, obviously there are lots of fields for scientists.” And that gave me another thought: “Actually, imagine if all those animals really could talk. Some would perhaps be more learned than others. It might be that you could have a herd of cattle, all with doctorates, just wandering around, grazing, having a nice day and being a field of scientists.” I was digressing. “But I digress. Well, the underlying issue with matters of life, the universe and everything, is, which questions to ask, so that one may understand the answer. Then I thought, but it would also depend on whom you asked the question of.”

“Well, of course.” Hannah’s eyebrow had moved back down. “But what would you ask Gilbert?”

“Aha!” I looked around to make sure no-one was within earshot. “No, you see, it’s more subtle than that. It requires further research and experimentation. Even then, we don’t know if it’ll work.”

“Subtle sounds like unnecessarily complicated, Simon.”

“Ah, but it’s not, see. Or rather, it needs to be that way so as not to alert anyone. Very covert.”

“And what are you planning to do, covertly?”

“Well, yes. Not directly, but to see whether it could be done. Without anyone realising. Have you seen Jurassic Park, Hannah?”

“Yes, I have.” She shook her head slightly, and smiled just a barely discernible, almost reluctant smile. “And I am so fucking intrigued…” She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, as if to stifle something. “…to find out what the fuck you’re going to come up with next. You’d better get me another drink.” Behind Hannah’s glasses, her eyes asked questions. Below her spectacles, and underneath her nose, her mouth seemed to grow more potty, perhaps from the alcohol. I had another thought while I was at the bar.

“Hannah, I just thought of something,” I said, as I returned with our drinks. “Imagine if Mountsfield Park was like Jurassic Park. I mean, it could be: We don’t know what animals the alien ones might bring back. What if some of those crates in the cargo ship we saw, contained dinosaurs. What if we released that ship in Mountsfield Park, like we did the first one? And what if they decided, as soon as we released them, that Mountsfield Park in Lewisham was an ideal habitat for some dinosaurs? Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“Oh my fucking God.” Potty-mouthed, blasphemous; Perhaps atheist: What a sweetheart hooligan Hannah was. “There’s a slight plot flaw in that one, Simon: People might notice.”

“Well, of course. And fiction needs to be plausible. In any case, the animals’ strategy, as far as we’ve observed, would avoid such a thing. If they were dropping off dinosaurs somewhere, they’d choose somewhere remote, like a deep, dense forest or something. Of course, that throws up all sorts of other possibilities. Including, but not limited to, dinosaurs being in Earth’s impenetrable habitats, all along. And deforestation could be making animals extinct which we don’t even know about.” And of course, there might be something, or someone, who I could really talk to about all this stuff. Someone hidden somewhere, hopefully not extinct.

“Well, that is an almost undeniable fact, Simon. Dinosaurs though? Well, you’re the writer, Mr Fry.”

“Well, I like to think so, Doctor Jones. It’s plausible though?”

“I can’t deny that, Simon. But you were saying about scientists?”

“Oh yes.” I was. I’d digressed. “So, what if we could ask one of the greatest minds ever to have lived, what the answers are?”

“It depends who you’d ask and what you’d ask them.”

“As we said earlier.” I agreed. “So what if, we could ask someone, who in their own time didn’t have access to all of the information we now have in the twenty first century?”

“Ask what? Ask who?

“Well, you see, I haven’t got those two worked out just yet. But theoretically, imagine if we could ask someone like Albert Einstein what he makes of things? You know, if we sat him in front of a computer, or let him watch TV, or some DVDs?”

“He’d have a lot to say. And probably a lot to ask.” As Hannah’s glass rose to her face, so her eyebrows both ascended. It was as though her drink was attached to them. She took a quite impressive gulp of cider as she looked at me down the barrel of the glass, over her spectacles.

“Well, yes. He’d love Google. And lots of technology.” He’d go shit street on the Babel fish, but it was out of respect for Hannah’s wish to not become emotionally involved with animals, that I’d pursued my other line of inquiry. Complete fiction of course, but for a moment, I imagined Einstein sitting in Hannah’s lab, with the headphones on, listening in; Perhaps with me sitting next to him, showing him how all the knobs twiddle things. So many questions, none perhaps with an answer. Like having thought you were in love, many times over; but for different reasons, never finding the one answer. I suppose the question in those circumstances was best asked of myself: Do I want to spend the rest of this life with you? “But it’s all fiction of course, Hannah.”

“Okay.” Hannah took another respectable amount of cider. “But you’re not going to find Albert Einstein preserved in amber.” I could tell she wasn’t taking this seriously.

“No,” I said. But his brain is preserved.

Securely.”

“But all anyone would need is just one strand of preserved DNA and theoretically, it would be possible to clone and resurrect him.”

“Albert Einstein.”

“Yes, him. Or anyone.”

“Simon,” Hannah said.

“Hannah,” I said.

“Simon, I’m assuming that even you are not actually proposing this?”

“Well, no. Like other poorly thought out plans, that one would be too obvious. I couldn’t really get away with doing a weekly shop with Albert Einstein: I’d be noticed. No, my idea is more subtle. May I?” I hoped that Hannah understood the question, ‘May I?’ as it was intended: A request to take the floor and have the opportunity to explain something, without interruption but with questions at the end.

“Please do,” she said, making a gesture with her hand, as though she was offering something to me in her palm. If there hadn’t been a table, it was a gesture for me to take the floor; In this case, the table.

“As I said,” I started. “Mine is a plan, an idea. It requires research. It all boils down to two things, which I’ve connected: Gilbert’s project to clone extinct species to improve the planet; And the polar opposite: Human extinction. If Gilbert is successful, he could be a saviour of the planet. But what he’s doing is controversial: Cloning. But not in the way he’s doing it: Quietly, with creatures no-one really knows exist, so won’t know if they pop up again; the repair of the planet being a handy upshot. But what if mankind is ever threatened with extinction? You see, Gilbert’s experiments with cloning would cause a stir if they were conducted on more complex life forms: There’s a high mortality rate and lots of parameters which change with each level of complexity. Essentially, he’s looking for a God gene in a subject; an organism which survives the rigours of a cloning process. But if he can identify that in just one subject, then transfer it into the DNA of another, he’s given the recipe of life to a species, and future generations will pass on that genome. What if such a God gene or survival code was somehow embedded in human DNA? All humans, or a rare defect, which has never caused us any bother because it’s benign, but doing good, right under our noses, without us even knowing? It’s almost impossible, but it’s plausible. It warrants questioning and looking into. But of course, human cloning is way out of any playing field as we stand. But what if something suddenly happened, which threatened the very existence of the human race? Or if we understood that such a threat might be real? I question whether a species should survive under certain circumstances; be allowed to, but I do feel attached to my own kind. So if that survival gene is hidden, somewhere deep in the human genome, but it’s unethical and immoral to conduct the science, we’d normally turn to guinea pigs, rats, or mice. But they’re not human. Their DNA is different. Not much, but enough. We could employ ever darker methods and means of research. I didn’t like that idea. So I’m a guinea pig. There you go. I said it.” And I had…

“Wait. So you have volunteered to be cloned?”

“Yes.”

“You do realise, you’re not just going to be able to make a full-size replica of yourself, just as you wouldn’t Einstein. You have thought that through I presume? When you said you might be noticed walking around Lewisham with Albert Einstein, you wouldn’t. Not for several years anyway. And that’s all assuming it fucking worked, which I very much doubt.”

“Yes, well. I’ve thought about it, but not fully thought it through yet. I mean, the chances are so small, the odds stacked against us so strongly, that we’ve not even thought about how things might progress, if we got to the stage where we had a successful clone. The Einstein thing was just the pipe dream that started it all. What we’re looking for is some kind of survival gene, hopefully in my DNA. Hopefully in everyone’s. But to find it, we need a willing volunteer. And that’s me. I accept that possibly thousands of potential mes will perish but if just one of me starts to grow, then we can identify what it is in that one which causes the growth, isolate it and use it in the future, should we need to. Chances are, we won’t. Chances are, the whole experiment won’t work. But if it does, then we can take our results to the appropriate authorities and share them, for the greater good. It’s very subtle, you see?”

“Simon, I have to assume certain things: That you, or Gilbert are acting ethically; That the only ethical code being broken is the use of real human DNA but that it’s yours and you’re a willing participant. How do you know that Gilbert’s intentions are purely benign?”

“Some things have to be taken on trust, Hannah. But what’s the worst he could do? Manufacture an army of mes? It’s impractical. No, we’re just looking for the one clone of me which survives, so that we can find out how it did that.”

“You do know that you’re talking about microscopic things? I mean, any growth will only be apparent under a microscope. It’s not going to grow in front of your eyes. And you do know that a human embryo needs a host?”

“Well, yes. But if a clone is successful, we’ll know long before then. It’s immoral, unethical and illegal to grow a human embryo for longer than 13 days, but we’ll know long before then if the cloning was successful. It’s a one per cent in one per cent chance though, so such details aren’t particularly bothersome.”

“Is this not perhaps a bit of a vanity project then, Simon?”

“I hadn’t thought of that Hannah, so I can honestly answer no.” Now she came to mention it though, I suppose it was a personal survival instinct prompting me; a quest for immortality, no matter how improbable. But I could also save the human race, should it come to that. Then I’d be of value. I’d have a use and a purpose, for many people and not just one.

“So what happens now?” Hannah asked. We were back to there.

“What’s happening now, is that Gilbert is back in Norway. He’s putting my DNA into donor eggs. Now, I do know that human cloning isn’t a thing yet, because it’s such a numbers game. But the eggs are ethically harvested and I’m a willing donor.”

“And it probably won’t work.”

“It probably won’t.” I agreed. “And I don’t even know Gilbert’s sample size. It could be tens or hundreds. The first I’ll know, is a copy of me starts to grow in my studio.”

“You what?

“Well, Gilbert was only willing to be involved up to a point. He said he’d do all the sciencey bit for me, then the rest was up to me. He’s going to keep a quantity of the potential clones, but he’s said that he’ll not study them; That after 13 days, he’ll destroy them. But he’s sending a sample to me. If my sample does anything in those first 13 days, I’ll contact Gilbert and he’ll look at his control group. He said he would only do that in the unlikely event that I witness growth. If the experiment is a failure, he wants nothing further to do with it. But if it looks promising, that’s why he’s agreed to do it. He knows as I do, that the chances are slim, but if it works, it could be very important.”

“And how do you plan on conducting your studies, Simon? At a microscopic level?”

“Well, I’d need a microscope, Hannah.” We’d had four or five pints of scrumpy cider by then. “Actually, I was going to ask you about that.”

“Oh, fucking hell.”

At that very moment, 700-odd miles away, there could conceivably be a new Nordic version of me coming to life: Simon Fry 2.0. But it was very unlikely…

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Staedtler Noris 122

“If this all sounds a bit weird, that is, because it is. But it all somehow works, and knits together in the manner of surrealist writers like Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, with a substantial nod, of course, to Douglas Adams, who can make the impossibly strange seem mundane and ordinary. Steve Laker pulls this extraordinary juggling act off admirably well, producing a very good, thought-provoking, page-turning, and also at times darkly comic read.” (Review by Stephen Hernandez)

So that’s how it starts, and that’s the kind of book it is. That’s the first seven chapters, what an agent might read as 50 pages of A4, and which is the first 140 pages of the book. There are 17 more chapters to go, over another 272 pages: The middle and end of the story (Acts 2 and 3). Every copy of the book bought on the strength of this excerpt will be an informed purchase, and I guarantee a satisfying (albeit perhaps unexpected) ending.

Cyrus song is available now from Amazon and other retailers.
ISBN: 978-15482501-19

Advertisements

A book critic hears the Cyrus Song (and likes it)

BOOK REVIEW

I’ve been fortunate enough to have Cyrus Song (my ‘sci-fi romcom’) reviewed by Stephen Hernandez, an independent book reviewer, translator and interpreter…

LionsCyrusSongReview2

CYRUS SONG BY STEVE LAKER reviewed by Stephen Hernandez

The book begins with a bizarre, Kafkaesque occurrence. Although, in this book, the author would not be Kafka but Douglas Adams, the untimely late, famous author of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, a book which is central to, and has a great bearing on this book – sorry, if this is all getting a bit complicated, but then we are dealing with ‘The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’.

Simon Fry, the hero of this novel, is faced with perhaps the same problem as Arthur Dent, the hero in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: saving humanity from itself and discovering the meaning of life, which is, of course: 42. So, back to the bizarre occurrence: A writer [it is he, Simon Fry], is staring absent-mindedly at the page he has just written on his typewriter, whilst listening to Pink Floyd’s album, ‘The Division Bell’, in particular the ninth track: ‘Keep Talking’, and the quote contained therein by Stephen Hawking: ‘For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk…’ (the full quotation is also central to the theme of the book), when he notices two random marks on the page, a dot and a dash, which he could not remember typing. He notices the characters are moving across the page, seemingly in a self-determined fashion denoting some kind of intelligence. He captures the minute ‘creatures’ and takes them to a veterinary clinic [as one would].

The vet, Hannah [a palindrome] Jones, examines them under a microscope and makes a surprising discovery: The apparent microscopic creatures are minute warships, and are inhabited, or crewed, one by animals commanded by Black Mambas, and one by humans. It is then that the vet reveals to Fry, something even more remarkable [but entirely plausible]: she has invented a very powerful and unique piece of software called The Babel fish (after the translating fish in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), which interprets animal languages. She lets him use it in her clinic so he can ‘listen’ in on the patients, something she refuses to do as she feels it would take away her objectivity with regards to treating the animals.

In between listening in on animals and looking at alien spaceships through a microscope, Simon Fry manages, along with a Norwegian coastal tour guide and micro-palaeontologist named Gilbert Giles, or in shortened Nabokov terms—Gil Gil, to make a clone of himself (Simon Fry II), and also to take the Babel Fish out of the lab and into the wide world like a latter-day Dr Doolittle (which he is, in more ways than one).

The three of them form an unlikely trio, and with the Black Mambas’ help they attempt to somehow save the planet and mankind.

If this all sounds a bit weird, that is, because it is. But it all somehow works, and knits together in the manner of surrealist writers like Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, with a substantial nod, of course, to Douglas Adams, who can make the impossibly strange seem mundane and ordinary. Steve Laker pulls this extraordinary juggling act off admirably well, producing a very good, thought-provoking, page-turning, and also at times darkly comic read.

Who knows—if you’re looking for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, you might just find it here, or in the ‘Cyrus Song’ of our planet. In the meantime, taking Steve Laker’s and Stephen Hawking’s advice, we all need to ‘keep talking’, and as long as there are books like these—keep reading.

The original review featured in Schlock web zine. Cyrus Song is available now.

Of Mice and Boys in 1984

FICTION

This is a second character prequel from the Cyrus Song universe (the first is here), but a stand-alone short nonetheless, and a story from a teenage boy’s English literature assignments. This is also in this week’s Schlock web zine, where I share a stable with many talented fringe writers, also worth a read.

Some of the names in the school register in this story, are those of friends I went to school with. In the story, they are bit parts who carry the narrative along. In reality, the few words dedicated to each are my idiosyncratic tributes to some of the many friends who’ve supported me as a writer. There was only room for a few, but I have plenty more stories in me with which to make further nods. For now, we’re going back 33 years…

Of mice and boys in 1984Admirável Mundo Novo X 1984

OF MICE AND BOYS IN 1984

“Adams.” (Tall kid, quiet).

“Yes sir.”

“Bachelor.” (I’ve never seen his face, he sits two rows in front, and never turns round).

“Yes sir.”

“Berry.” (Sort of disappears and reappears sometimes, most odd).

“Sir.” (Here today then).

“Ford.” (Small kid, long hair, glasses, sitting next to me).

“Sir.”

“Fry.” (Small, short hair, no glasses: That’s me). “Fry?”

“Sorry, yes sir.”

“Sorry you’re here lad?” But I didn’t have time to answer. “Hayman.” (Blonde flick, goes ape shit if you break his glasses, even if you truly didn’t mean to (hope his parents are richer than mine)).

“Sir.”

And so it went on, till Mr Harmer got to Yehudi in the register. As usual, there was no answer. Because Gordon Yehudi had never been in an English class, nor any other for that matter. He didn’t exist, apart from that name in the class 4284 register, and in the stories I wrote for English literature homework.

The class number (4284) is the way our school’s inner thinking came up with making them, when it had nothing better to do. We’re in the fourth year (14 and 15 years old), and there are four fourth forms in our year: we’re the second, hence the number 2. The last two digits are the year, so Nena’s 99 Red Balloons is at number one in the singles chart, and David Bowie’s latest album is Scary Monsters.

I’m writing this in English class, because it’s my English homework. One of Mr Harmer’s many philosophies is that writing should not be dictated by the clock (or Hitler: Harmer remembers the war), and that words should be allowed to flow as they happen to us, wherever we may be. So while we were doing that, he’d be alternately reading aloud from a coursework book (this year, those are Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, and appropriately enough, George Orwell’s 1984), or popping out for a smoke. And almost every time, he’d leave the room, then come back a moment later, to ask if any of us had a light.

This story is fictional, but it’s based on a small adventure which Ford and myself had earlier. Ford is sitting next to me, but I know he won’t copy from me. Ergo, if his story is similar to mine, it is not plagiarism. It’s a story of a strange weekend, from start to finish:

It starts on Saturday, when we liberated two white mice from Supreme Pet Foods in Lewisham. That’s not to say we stole them, we did pay, and we got them a cage, bedding, food and toys. But Supreme Pet Foods’ main trade is in pets, with the food and supplies just an afterthought. So we told ourselves and one another, that we were saving the mice from becoming snake food. But the main reason for the mice’s liberation, was to be the subjects of an experiment, not for cosmetics (a worse fate than becoming snake food), but because Ford wanted to try something on his computer. “I want to hear them talk,” he said.

Now, I’ve got an Atari 800, but Ford’s got some Tangerine thing, similar to Apple but a different flavour. And he’s a bit of a thug when it comes to computers, taking them apart, ordering bits by mail order and replacing them. So he’s got a hybrid, cannibalised, custom machine. He’s even got an acoustic coupler and a phone in his room, so he can get on the internet and do whatever people do on there. Personally, I can see how the internet could be humanity’s evolution or destruction, but I’m just an English student for now, so I can’t do a lot about it yet.

That’s the most frustrating thing about being 14 in 1984: We have very little voice. We have Bowie telling us it’s okay to be ourselves, but we can only express that in clothes. If I were sufficiently fashionable, I’d probably be mocked for my choice of attire. I thought of being a punk, but most of the punks I know are just into The Sex Pistols and smashing things up. They don’t seem to get that one of the foundations of punk as a movement, is anarchy for peace and freedom, which is a worthy pursuit. But the punks I know just shout angrily about anything they don’t like, with no agenda. If they were to read more, they might have informed voices worth hearing. And still for now, they are quiet. I can see how the internet could change all that, but for now it’s the preserve of those with the means and the know-how to get connected. Fortunately, Ford is one of those.

He called his machine Tangerine Dream, which is also the name of a German electronic music collective, who provided much of the soundtrack to Risky Business, Tom Cruise’s 1983 debut film with Rebecca De Mornay (In that film, she made me less afraid of travelling by underground).

Anyway, we were at Ford’s house the next day (Sunday), and very nice it was too. Ford’s father is a herpetologist, which is someone who studies reptiles and amphibians. Mr Ford’s speciality was snakes, and he had some in his study. We were only allowed in there if Ford’s father was there, or if he delegated responsibility to Sandra, Ford’s mum. Sandra had many interests, which she shared with the garden fence, so a wave of the hand was usually enough to get rid of us.

“Ford,” I said, “we’re not going to feed the mice to the snakes are we?” I figured not, as that’s what we’d liberated them from, but I wanted to check.

“Wouldn’t that kind of defeat the object, Fry?” Well, yes, that’s what I thought.

“Well, yes, that’s what I thought,” I said.

“Well, speak up then Fry.” Which is what David Bowie was encouraging us all to do, but we lacked the voice.

“Ford,” I said, “are we going to be using the internet?”

“Quite probably old chap, why?”

“I just want to see if it’s all I think it could be.”

“Not yet. I’ll show you later. But first, dad got a new snake, look.” Ford pointed to a vivarium I’d not noticed before, but I’d not been in Mr Ford’s study many times. He still had the two snakes I remembered, both royal pythons, a male of about three feet, and a female around four. The male was a bumble bee, and the female, inferno, those being the names of the colour morphs in the snakes. The bumble bee morph is deep brown, almost black, with vivid yellow markings. The inferno is a similar contrast, but with different patterns and in black and deep orange.

Ever since live reptile imports were banned, a market has grown for selective breeding in captivity. It’s all regulated, with monitors placed on the size of the gene pools, and it’s no different to dogs, except snakes have fewer legs. Royal pythons are particularly good for selective breeding, and many years of fine-tuning has produced some truly stunning morphs, which fetch very large sums of money. Although I’m a bit of a mail order animal rights activist, I can’t level any sort of objection against snakes in captivity. Most snakes are reclusive and territorial by nature, so they actually thrive in captivity, away from predators and fed by man. They feed rarely, make little mess, and are fascinating creatures. Having a captive population aids our learning about them. I wouldn’t mind betting that if a straw poll were conducted among snakes in captivity, most would say they’re either satisfied or very satisfied. If only we could talk to them. “Fry?” It was Ford.

“Yes,” I said. “Sorry, I just drifted away there.”

“Where to?”

“Oh, nowhere. I was just wondering what it would be like to talk to the animals.”

“I’ve often wondered that myself,” Ford said. “Especially since dad got this guy.”

In the tank I’d not noticed before, was something I never thought I’d see in real life: a light-grey coloured chap, draped over a branch. The colour betrayed the snake’s true identity to the uninitiated, who may only know what it was when they saw the pitch black inner mouth as it killed them. Mr Ford had a black mamba. I said something I wouldn’t normally at Ford’s house, but Mr Ford was out, and Sandra said it a lot:

“Fucking hell Ford!”

“He is awesome, isn’t he Fry? Shall we get him out?” ‘You fucking what?’ I thought.

“Pardon?”

“Only joking. No way. The vivarium’s locked anyway, it’s the law. Dad’s got a license.”

“Ford, why has your dad got a black mamba? Aren’t there nearly 3000 other kinds of perfectly good snake?”

“It’s for precisely that reason that dad has one of these.”

“By these, I presume you mean that, Ford?”

“Well, yes. But one of that wouldn’t wouldn’t be grammatically correct, would it Fry?”

“Fuck off, you pedantic cu arse.” I figured Mr Harmer was okay with the odd ‘foof’ word to enhance the drama, but perhaps female genitalia was a step too far. Human biology was more of a topic for our weekly secret meetings of The Biblical Dead: sort of a Dead Poets’ Society, with computers. “So,” I continued, “why has your dad got a black mamba?”

“Because of their famed aggression. He’s studying their DNA.”

“What’s he going to do?” I wondered. “Engineer a genetically modified race of human-snake hybrids who know no fear?”

“Er, no Fry. He’s written a thesis on how he thinks mambas are actually timid and retiring, and that their reputation is a bit undeserved. See, the majority of mamba bites to humans occur where man has invaded their land. The snakes feel threatened and they lash out. 100% of black mamba bites are fatal, partly because medical help is usually too far away.”

“So your dad’s thinking of building hospitals?”

“No, no, no.” That would be a no then. “No, he’s thinking longer term. Yes, having sufficient antivenom is useful, but dad’s looking more at prevention. Mambas aren’t endangered, so this is more for human benefit, but what he’s looking at, is ways to reduce the incidence of bites.”

“But how? I mean, he’s looking at their DNA. He can’t be thinking of altering them?”

“Definitely not.”

“So what? Change their attitudes? Talk to them, so that they have a better understanding of us?”

“Exactly. I mean, I don’t know. It does make you wonder, but dad’s a bit vague, and being the precise man that he is in his work, when dad’s being vague, I know that’s my cue to shut the fuck up.”

“Fascinating,” I said, none the wiser, but with the idea for a book, should I ever become a writer later in life. “So, what’s the experiment with the white mice?”

“Well,” said Ford, “I got the idea from dad, and what me and you were just talking about.”

“Talking?”

“Exactly. See, I don’t know what he’s working on with the mambas, but I’ve got an imagination. And it sort of fitted well with our English lit homework.” Which is exactly what I’d been thinking: Great minds, and all that. “I wondered if I could rig something up on my computer. Some sort of voice translator.”

“To talk to the animals?” Hadn’t I heard this somewhere before?

“I doubt it would be a two-way thing,” Ford said, as I deflated. “But I reckon we could listen to them.”

“Does it work?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m kind of hoping it does, or my English homework’s a bit done for.”

“But it’s English literature, Ford. Use your imagination. How could it work?”

We walked to Ford’s room: Bed, sofa, desk, chair, computer, and even an en-suite toilet. And of course, his own phone and the internet.

“Well, I figured it must break down into two things. If I can break things down into stages, it’s easier for my brain to handle, like long journeys. So put simply, those two things are listening, then understanding. And to do that, I need a microphone and a translator.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed Ford,” but I thought I should point it out, “microphones have already been invented.”

“Exactly. So all I have to do, is make the translator.”

“Which is exactly all you had to do in the first place, Ford.”

“I know. I just needed to eliminate everything else. And translators kind of exist.”

“Well, people who can translate, yes.”

“Yes, but I’ve found some programs on the internet: Things the geeks are working on. They reckon that one day, you’ll just be able to type or speak a phrase into a computer, in any language, and at the press of a button, it’ll translate into any other.” So that’s what the internet would be for.

“That would be awesome. When?”

“The nerds think early in the next century.”

“2000AD? That’s miles away.”

“More than our lifetimes, Fry.”

“So what of now? The translator, I mean.”

“Well, I found some voice recognition software. I figured if I somehow merged the code with translation algorithms, that should do the trick.”

“Well,” I said, “in theory, that’s all you’d need to do. But don’t you just type in game programs from computer magazines, Ford?”

“Well, I do. But seeing as I’ve got the internet as well, there’s a lot of other people out there doing the same, and more. It was actually a game code that I swapped for the software I ended up with.”

“How?”

“It was a multi-level text and graphic adventure game: fucking huge. The code was in one of the mags, and it was about forty pages. Forty pages of machine code, which I typed up over a few days. Then I ran the program and the fucking thing kept crashing. So I checked the code and I found the error. Only it wasn’t my typo, it was a misprint in the mag. So I figured I could commodify what I’d done, and trade it in a non-monetary way.”

“Oh, I see. And that’s how you got the code for the translation program. It’s a nice ethos, trading personal time and skills.” I could see how the internet could be huge for that in the next century.

It’s at this point that I can reveal where the two white mice were, all this time. I can only reveal it now, as I didn’t know they were under Ford’s bed before. All I knew was that after we bought them the day before, I didn’t have them. That’s about as dramatic as it’s been so far.

“So,” Ford began, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve named them.” I suppose I didn’t mind, depending on the names he’d chosen.

“What did you call them?” I wondered.

“Pete and Dud.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re male.”

“Are they?” It’s a completely redundant question, and I don’t know why I asked it.

“Yes,” Ford replied, “and they remind me a bit of Derek and Clive, the way they sit there together, looking around and chewing things over, turning occasionally to the other one, and chewing it over some more.” And I suppose they did look a bit like that.

“So, which is which?” I asked.

“That’s Pete, and that’s Dud,” Ford said, pointing at the mice in turn, which for the reader is as redundant as my question about their gender. For now, Pete was on the left, and Dud on the right.

“So what now?” I wondered.

“Now,” Ford said, quite confidently, “we find out if my reputation is intact.”

“Have you got one?”

“Not yet.”

“So how can it be intact, if you don’t have it yet?”

“I’m building a reputation, Fry.”

“What as, Ford?”

“I don’t know. Something on the internet though: It’s the future.”

“No shit.” I was beginning to realise that perhaps you could be anyone or anything on the internet.

“Yeah, real shit,” Ford continued, as Tangerine Dream went through what seemed like an unnecessarily long boot-up. “I’ve got everything plugged in, so you should start to see lights coming on soon.” Lights coming on are normally a good thing, especially if they’re green.

“Where?” I wondered.

“On the computer, the disk drive, the monitor, and the printer.”

“But those lights always come on, Ford.”

“Well, it’s always good when they do. But there’s the microphone as well.” I looked at the microphone: a small, black thing with a foam top, very much like a microphone.

“The microphone doesn’t have a light on it, Ford.”

“No, I know.”

“So how can it come on?”

“It won’t, because it doesn’t have one.”

“So why did you mention it?”

“Because it’s there, and it needs to be switched on.”

“So,” I began, as I needed to check I’d got this right, “if I’ve got this right, we’re waiting for the computer to boot up, like we normally do. The only difference is a microphone which doesn’t have a light. Other than that, we’re looking at exactly what we always do when we switch on your computer.”

“Well, yes. And then we need to test the microphone. But it’s the extra processor and memory board I’ve put in. This is the first time I’ve started them from cold, so that I can run the translation software.”

“I see,” I said. I didn’t see anything, but there were some new parts in Tangerine Dream, and there was translation software. Ford’s constant thuggery inside computers could be about to do something far ahead of our time. Or it might simply not work. Ford’s idiosyncratic IT skills were roughly 50:50 hit and miss, so he was right about his reputation hanging in a balance.

While the computer continued to whir and crank into life, Ford placed the microphone next to the mice, who looked at it indifferently, before chewing some more of whatever they had in their mouths. Then Sandra’s banshee voice shouted up the stairs:

“Simon, Dixon? Lunch.”

With Mr Ford away, I wondered what we’d get for Sunday lunch. It was Ford’s dad who maintained a form of tradition in the house, with family meals eaten together at the table, and a full spread for Sunday roast. Sandra, on the other hand, didn’t give a shit, so we usually got proper teenage boy’s mate’s mum’s food, and so it was today, with fish finger sandwiches and home-made chips. Sandra pinched one of mine and dipped it in mayonnaise, which might have been a bit seductive. There’s always one kid at school who’s got a fit mum, and in my class, that was Ford.

After lunch, Tangerine Dream had woken up. First, Ford tested the microphone:

“Is this thing on?” Well, I heard him.

“Maybe a bit louder?” I suggested.

“IS THIS THING ON?” he shouted.

“I meant, turn the speakers up. Turn the speakers up, but speak quietly. Without you leaving the room, that’s the best way to test the microphone, Ford.” Which it was, because the microphone lead was only about three feet long.

“Oh yes. I suppose that is the best way.” Sometimes, he caught on quick. He turned the speakers up. “Is this thing on?” It was. “Ooh,” Ford said, in an effeminate way, “I didn’t realise what my voice sounds like to everyone else.” This could bode well or badly for the future internet. “I sound quite nice, don’t I?” Ford was destined to tread the boards, or grace the silver screen one day, when the future internet democratises it.

“Yes, Ford. You sound lovely dear boy. Could we just talk about why we’re doing this first?”

“Why?” he said, into the microphone.

“Yes, why are we trying to hear what the mice might be saying? I mean, it’s all based on theory, with a little science, which is perhaps a bit anarchic. We’re assuming mice actually speak, but that we can’t hear them. If they do, maybe we should leave it at that, for all the trouble it could cause.”

“It’s based on supposition and blind faith, Fry. And mine is a simplistic device, made with some bits I found lying around. I’m sure there are many more scientific studies into animal language and communication, but for me, I just want to know if there might be.”

“Why?”

“For the future. All I want to find out, is if animals do talk. It may be that they can, but that my set up isn’t sophisticated enough. It’s just something I want to look into, while I consider my own future.”

“That’s deep.”

“Not really. More open minded really. I might be a vet, a human doctor, I don’t know. But I’m interested in communication and translation, getting more people talking and breaking down barriers. Because conflict comes from ignorance, and I don’t like conflict.”

“This is getting even deeper. Have you spoken to the mice already?”

“No, why?”

“Because Douglas Adams said in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the white mice are protrusions of pan-dimensional beings into our world.”

“And I think he’s right.” Ford seemed somehow convinced. He had his hand on his hip, and he was still speaking into the mic.

“But wouldn’t it go against a lot of things it shouldn’t, Ford?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, moral and ethical considerations we’re yet to know about. And all that stuff in R.E. about the tower of Babel.”

“And you believe all that?”

“Well, of course not.” I could accept that the bible might be a transcript or dramatic retelling of actual events, but I didn’t subscribe to the creator of any church on Earth. “And,” I continued, “seeing as our device is an attempt to replicate the Babel fish, which disproved God in Douglas’ book, aren’t we somehow testing Douglas in the same way?”

“Well no, because we know that Douglas Adams does exist. He’s alive and he’s only 32. Actually, I wonder if something weird might happen in 1994, when he’s 42.”

“I’ve wondered that myself,” I said. “I don’t think too much matters to him. He seems to have this whole life, the universe, and everything thing squared in his mind. He did say, that in order to understand why the answer is 42, we first need to understand what it’s the answer to. And that’s what we’re all here on Earth to do, to work that out.” I like to think I’m somehow working in collaboration with Douglas. That’d be a nice job to have. “I haven’t decided what to do with myself yet. I’m thinking I’ll most likely be a scientist or an influential writer. Then if I’m not much good at either, I figure I’ll make an okay sci-fi writer.”

“It’s good to have a plan B. Splendid behaviour,” Ford noted. I suspected he didn’t have a plan B. “Shall we see if this works then?” Everything looked like it was loaded and ready to go on Tangerine Dream. All that was required, was for Ford to relinquish the microphone.

“Yes,” I agreed, “but you’ll have to give the mic to the mice, Ford.”

“Ooh,” he said, “I’d forgotten I was holding that.” The stage was definitely wanting.

Finally, Ford placed the microphone next to the mice, and nothing happened. We waited, and still nothing happened. Ford looked at me, then we both looked at the mice. The mice looked at one another, then at the mic. So Ford picked it up again.

“Is this still on? Ooh, I can still hear me.” I think Ford could hear himself, and I could hear him. I had to assume Pete and Dud did too. Unless they couldn’t hear him, perhaps because his voice was on a different frequency. Or the mice could in fact be deaf.

“Ford,” I said.

“Mr Fry,” he said, into the microphone. Actually, I quite liked the sound of it.

“Ford, do you think we’ve perhaps been a tad unlucky?”

“Well, that would make a change.” Ford referred, unknowingly, to many chapters from meetings of The Biblical Dead boys’ club, in my mind. In that context, any intended sarcasm had found a good home. “How do you mean?”

“I mean, all these mice. Not all of these two, but all white mice. They’re bred mainly for research and food. I wonder if the checks on their genetic pool extend so far as to find out how many of them might have defects, such as deafness.”

“That’s an interesting paradox, Mr Fry. But I have a back-up plan.” I take it back.

“Which is?”

“Text-to-speech. Or rather, speech-to-text.”

“Speak and Spell, reverse engineered, then.”

“Pretty much. Lots of stuff aside, which I don’t know about, there’s less processing power required to convert text to text. Well, the power of the system I think I’ve built, isn’t in the communication, it’s in the translation algorithms. Basically, Tangerine Dream knows what it wants to say, but it can’t say it. It doesn’t have the processing power. In a few years, perhaps. But for now, it’s done the hard work.” I was growing somewhat confused.

“Eh?”

“Simple way to think of it,” Ford asserted. “Tangerine Dream here, is the translator, but it can only communicate in text. The upshot of that, is we type in a question, and it gives us an answer on the screen.”

“From the mice?”

“Tangerine Dream’s translation, yes.”

“Blimey!” We really were about to find out if white mice were as Douglas had said: Protrusions of pan-dimensional beings of superior intelligence, into our universe. If so, we might be able to question them on the true nature of the life, the universe, and everything. We could make Douglas immortal, even though he seemed to have sussed out he was anyway, based on the pure science behind his writing. If Douglas didn’t want the attention, it was just an English literature assignment anyway. One about two boys, who were meant to be reading Of Mice and Men, and of George Orwell’s other vision of the year this was written. “What should we ask?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m thinking,” I thought, “that we don’t have an international committee to hand. My limited knowledge of first contact protocol, would be a welcome. We have to rely on your computer’s untested ability to get the translation right though. We don’t want them to think we’ve told them to fuck off, when all we’ve said is hello. So, the universal language is maths.”

“That is a fact,” Ford confirmed, “at least for all who understand mathematics as we do. We could start with prime numbers, perhaps. Maybe we could type a sequence, then see if they carry it on.”

“Let’s try that,” I suggested. So Ford typed, in bold, contrasting letters on the computer screen:

1 2 3 5 7…

Then the cursor flashed on the screen. “Can they see what we’re doing?” I asked Ford of the mice.

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “Whatever this new hardware and software is, it’s essential function is to translate. Lacking the means to understand how it does that, I’m placing my faith in it reproducing something on the screen. This is day one for me too, Fry.”

The cursor continued to wink, suggestively. Then an ellipsis appeared, like this:

The ellipsis sat, with a cursor blinking at the end of it, like a tiny snake doing push-ups on screen. Then it moved again:

…Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?

“Ford?” I wondered what he was thinking.

“No, I wouldn’t.” He’d rather not play chess.

“Ford,” I said again, “have you left a chess program running?”

“No, Fry. I use Fritz. Fritz never says that in the chat window.” He pointed at the chess invitation on screen. “Have you used Fritz 7.0 yet, Fry?” Fritz is a chess engine, and more geeky than most commercial chess programs, it’s used by the professionals and they’re all linked up on ChessBase, which is on the internet. I can see the internet being a big thing for chess in the future. I told Ford I hadn’t, because my computer was an Atari 800 with a tape drive, no printer and I didn’t have a phone, or a doorbell on my house. “Oh,” Ford continued, “well Fritz’s standard is, ‘Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of Global Thermonuclear War?’ A reference to WarGames, see?”

“Yes, Ford, I saw it. Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, it was out last year. In which, David Lightman has a room very much like yours, in a fine house like this.” Then some more text appeared on the screen:

Fine…

Then the ellipsis snake blinked again.

“Do you think we’re waiting for something, ” I asked, “or should we say something?”

“I know,” Ford said. Then he typed:

We mean you no harm.

I suppose that wasn’t bad for first contact. Then we got a reply:

1 2 3 5 7…

The snake again. “Prime numbers again,” I observed. Then again:

1 2 3 5 7 We mean you no harm: Is that a Carpenters song?

“What the?”

“I don’t know…”

How do you mean?

A short pause, then:

Oh, never mind. You had a question?

Yes. The question of why the answer is 42?

You are. It’s what you make of it. If you know why it’s that number and not some other arbitrary one, it’s because it’s the one everyone’s now agreed on. Because it was in the good book. Most people who know that, only know it because they looked it up. They are the inquisitive ones, who don’t just accept things but who ask ‘why?’ They’re the ones who see things, hear things, and are in contact with the universe, even if they don’t realise. You are part of the organic super computer, designed to work out the questions which need to be asked to understand the answer. The best measure of your species and your planet’s collective intelligence at the moment, is Google. And if you ask Google, ‘What is the answer to life the universe and everything?’, Google will tell you it’s 42. You have a long way to go, and young people are the future.

I must admit, it wasn’t the ending I’d expected for an English literature assignment. But I suppose it was the most direct answer to the most direct question we were able to ask. Perhaps in the future, you might be able to just ask Google a simple question and it might give you a succinct answer. Perhaps in the future, Google might know who I am. Perhaps I just end up being a science fiction writer, which I think might be nice. As for this early effort, it might be marked down for being too whimsical. But it was fiction, and Mr Harmer taught us that fiction should be allowed to flow.

So what do we do now?

You go. This is just a first step. You only found us through ingenuity and faith, but it might be best to keep this between us for now.

We won’t tell.

And apart from this story, I didn’t. Even if Ford’s story was similar, it would be from a different perspective, certainly with him in the narrative third-person lead character. The stories would exist only in the minds of those who wrote and read them, most likely Mr Harmer and The Biblical Dead society, where literature is not suppressed and forbidden by dictators, or like history and love in all its forms, in Orwell’s dystopian imagining of this year. Ours is a society where all information is shared and there is freedom of speech. For now, we are the quiet younger generation, with Bowie as one of our voices, and people like Ford, who’s on the internet, being a gender bender in his bedroom. I predict that the internet could give more of us collective, choral voices.

Whether or not we’d proven Douglas right about the white mice, the whole episode made me see what might be possible, if we just talk more, even if we can’t talk about some of it yet. It made me more aware, I suppose, of things around me, not just those we see and take for granted. In future, I think I could be an internet activist of some sort. In the future, the internet could be the thing which gives a voice to all those who don’t have one now. Perhaps that will be the evolution of mankind.

THE END…

© Simon Fry, 1984.

***

“Ford.”

“Sir.”

“Fry… Fry?”

“Yes sir, sorry.”

“Sorry to be here lad?”

“Actually, no sir.”

“Hayman.” (Blonde flick, new glasses).

“Sir.”

“King-Smith”. (‘Smasher’, wears Farrahs. Nice bloke really).

“Yes sir.”

“Laker.” (Fuck knows).

“Sir.”

“Mountney.” (‘Mole’: farts a lot: It’s funny on the chairs).

“Sir.”

“Rogers.” (Could be a brilliant mind, or a psycho).

“Sir.”

“Sharp.” (Christian bloke, likes his custard).

“Yes sir.”

“Simmons.” (Thoroughly good bloke, likes his Bowie, finishes my woodwork projects).

“Yes sir.”

“Tomkinson.” (Another geek, likes typing in programs from computer mags and putting them on tape).

“Sir.”

“White.” (Every girl’s dream, if he ever gets on the internet).

“Yes sir.”

“Yehudi.” Nothing. “Yehudi.” As expected. “Yehudi?”

“Sir?”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Cyrus Song (a ‘Sci-fi rom com’ tribute to Douglas Adams, and the later adventures of Simon Fry), is available now from Amazon.

An irreversible misadventure

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Back in the 1980s, I was a teenager. These things are subjective, but for me, that was the best decade to be one. Back then, I’d sit in my darkened room, tapping away at an Atari ST, a Commodore Amiga, and latterly, my first IBM PC. We had four terrestrial analogue TV channels back then in the UK, so I collected films on VHS tapes. Most nights I’d watch a US teen movie, with WarGames being a personal favourite. I’d envy the kids in those films, with their cool rooms, their computers hooked up to dial-up via an acoustic coupler, and watching US cable TV.

The-Only-Winning-Move-is-NOT-to-Play
The only winning move is not to play

Then my first life took over. I got married, we moved to London and had kids. I worked in print, up to group director level, before I set up a business with my ex-wife and we were successful for a while. Then the drink took over and it all peeled away, so that eventually – after ten years – I found myself back in Tonbridge and on the streets.

I’d lost everything and I had nothing: No home, let alone anything to put in one. The only thing to do, to occupy my mind, was to write. That was almost four years ago now. In those early days, I wrote about anything and everything. In one of my old notebooks (which I still have), I wrote of where I wanted to be, ‘when this is all over’. It took a lot of work, but I recovered, and now I have what I wished for then: A stable base, where I can write, surrounded by the things I loved; a place I’d wanted to be when I watched all those old films on VHS. That was a small place (I was never going to be able to work again), which I gradually filled with all the things I’d wanted as that teenager: A huge film collection, loads of books, a big music library, a good computer, and a decent number of TV channels. I’m not in a financial or physical place where I can have satellite or cable, as the latter isn’t laid around here, and my building is Grade I listed, so I can’t have a dish. My village internet is too slow for any streaming service, so I’m stuck with Freeview. But I’ve found UK Freeview to be just like the old US cable channels I used to see in those geeky 1980s films: Car crash TV, half-arsed documentaries, good and bad films, cult American TV, geeky and conspiracy late-night stuff. I’ve kind of recreated my teenage wish, and now I can enjoy catching up on all I missed, because I was drunk. I’m retro.

I wrote most of the stories which make up The Perpetuity of Memory while I was homeless. Not long after I’d written about reliving my teens, I wrote the story below. I won’t be posting all of those stories on this blog, as I’d rather people buy the book and read them in the order they’re curated, which makes the sum of the parts a complete book in itself. This one is timely though, coming at a time when my personal life is somewhat mirrored now in some of the elements of the story, and it has nods to WarGames, something I’ve become wearily involved in in my personal time lately. There are other references for the sharper-eyed film geek to spot too.

It’s apropos of nothing though, that I can feel a depressive episode coming on, such is the nature of those things. Others who deal with depression will know this feeling: That something is in the post. It’s an analogy, and there’s nothing expected in the mail, but the mind of the chronic depressive can sometimes do this. There is no trigger and no individual event or situational catalyst, it just happens. I deal with situations and events as they come. The latest one which threatened my karma was someone making personal remarks in ignorance. Having told the individual to cease and desist, they clearly didn’t recognise it as a term usually used at a pre-legal stage as a final warning. It seems that some people might only see vindictive lies as the slander they actually are, when they’re served with a legal notice, have to repeat their baseless argument in court and lose a load of money for defamation of character. I’ve given pre-legal warning with the cease and desist request, so I’ll only have to pop this particular boil if it continues to irritate. One of the many great things about being a writer, is the knowledge and contacts you pick up. All writers have to be conversant with copyright and common law, so most have a lawyer friend. And like all depressive episodes, the one which seems to be brewing may not even happen. Like some people, they’re just an annoyance, but you can’t legally warn a depressive episode not to happen.

The best distraction for me is to write. On that front, I’ve been put in touch with a professional book reviewer, who’s going to review Cyrus Song. One of my short stories is currently with a creepy pasta site, so there may be a short film coming soon. And I’m writing the sixth of 17 new short stories for my second collection. The story should be finished and published in the next month. Then there’s the personal history book I’m working on, which ought to take on more form at the weekend, when I’m hosting my parents and a shoe box full of old photos.

For now, a short fable, about what can happen when someone wanders blindly out of their depth…

L177L3 M155 &Y

If you give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite supply of typewriters, they will eventually transcribe the Complete Works of Shakespeare. The way things had progressed so far, it felt to Andy like every time her monkeys got to the last letter, one of the little fuckers would hit a wrong key. And so the process would begin again. She looked as the green-on-black text on her monitor scrolled through brute force attempts to crack her current holy grail of a password. She read the scrolling text on her screen in duplicate as it reflected back from her spectacles.

“This isn’t working, Vic.” Andy addressed the keyboard in front of her: an old Commodore Vic 20. Launched in 1981, the Vic 20 home computer pre-dated Andy by twenty years. It had five kilobytes of memory, a processor speed of 1.1Mhz and a graphics display of 176 x 184 pixels. Andy liked the keyboard and the retro look. Although the computer inside was fully functional, it was just the keyboard for her set up: a high end gaming PC under the desk, which she’d built herself and which would make a PS4 look like the Commodore. It was like reading her geek magazines, hidden inside a copy of Just Seventeen on the subway.

“Andrea?” Andy’s dad called from downstairs. “Sam’s here.”

“Thanks dad. Could you send him up please?”

“Yep. Up in her loft Sam.”

“Thank you sir.” Andy heard the steps creak as Sam ascended. “Hey bitch.”

“Dude. How’s things?”

“Oh, you know: different day, same shit. Jesus fuck, Andy! Do you ever clean up here?” Sam looked around at piles of newspapers and magazines; notebooks and pens; pizza boxes and dirty clothes.

“Only when I have to. I mean, when I absolutely must go out and I’m passing the garbage cans anyway? Besides, I prefer Salt n’ Shake to Shake and Vac.”

“Doesn’t your old man get mad? I mean, he’s a clean freak.”

“That’s why he keeps me locked in the attic.” Andy smiled. “Nah, dad’s cool. He keeps the house just as he likes it, and as far as he’s concerned, the loft is my apartment. I’ve got all I need up here: bathroom, refrigerator, cooker; couch, TV, DVD player…”

“Do you spend any time with your dad?”

“Every Sunday. We have brunch at his, and his eggs are to die for.”

“At his; downstairs.”

“Yeah, I know it’s a bit weird, but dad’s just as private as me. We’re totally different, but we get on well if we keep the doses small.”

“Your dad’s cool.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty special. And anyway, he’s too busy competing with next door for the best manicured lawn.”

“Yeah, what’s with that guy next door?”

“He’s just a creep. When I do go out? He’s always at his window. I swear he’s jerking off.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Nah. He’s a lonely old man. He’ll die pretty soon.”

“You freak. Anyway, why’d you call me over? What you up to?”

“Well, I figured I’d see if I could give the computer hardware something that might actually challenge it. There’s a rumour among the geeks that the next generation of consoles will sort of skip a generation: a kind of quantum shift. So the PS5, or whatever they call it, will not be to the PS4 as the PS4 is to the PS3. The PS5 will be more like a PS6 or 7. So they say.”

“Well, they say a lot, don’t they?”

“Yeah but they’re well connected. Anyway, no-one knows what this great technological leap is going to look like, so no-one’s writing code for the new consoles. There have to be games out there with developers though, right?”

“I guess.”

“So, I’ve been using the dark web and I’ve picked up a few tools. Right now, I’ve got my system looking for other computers with lax security and having a poke around. Nothing too malicious: we’re just looking for specific file types which would suggest that a particular computer is being used to develop games.”

“Andy. Do you really think that kind of thing would be sitting on a vulnerable system?”

“All systems are vulnerable to the kind of tools I have. Anyways, when I find a computer which would be vulnerable to a less well-armed hacker, I leave a calling card with instructions on how to shore up the holes.”

“How very noble of you.”

“Oh, come on. Just because Joe public is a bit dumb, doesn’t mean they deserve to be hacked by malicious amateurs. I’m a white hat hacker, Sam.”

“And you’re pretty good at it. Judging by the screen though, it looks like you found nothing yet?”

“I’ve found plenty of cracks into systems and I’ve got them all saved. This latest one is proving a tough nut to crack. Let’s see what I got from some others.” Andy switched screens and a list appeared. “Welcome to the backstreet, where all these good folks left their back doors open.”

Hey, you got a bank.” Sam pointed at an entry on the list.

“Well, someone would have to be pretty foolish to give their account details, PIN or password to anyone on the phone, but they might as well hand over their house keys if banks leave doors open like this. Gotta make a note of that one: might come in handy some day. This one looks interesting.” Andy hovered the mouse over an entry on the list. “Doesn’t identify itself.” She clicked on the unidentified vulnerable computer.

Welcome to Drone Doom.

Please wait…

“We found something Sam.”

Game loaded.

Drone Doom is a collaborative project, designed for the next generation of games consoles. Combining real time data with augmented reality, the game is played in the real world, using drones.

Take control of a Doom Drone and the game will augment itself with Google Earth to give players a real life, ‘live’ video feed in which to play the game.

Played online, Drone Doom enables players to collaborate or act as lone units. Fight as part of an army, or act alone: the choice is yours. As a combatant, players are safe: you take control of a remotely operated drone in a field of conflict. The only limit is your imagination and morals.

You will see the real world through the video feed from your Doom Drone. Defeat enemies and witness the destruction first hand but from a safe distance. STRAP A WARHEAD TO YOUR FOREHEAD!

Points are accumulated by killing enemies and recorded in the game database, so that players may compare scores. THIS IS OLD FASHIONED, HIGH SCORE GAMING!

Upgrades can be earned as a player progresses in the game, or as in-game purchases. Please note that Drone Doom is beta-testing and not all features may be available during development.

Please choose your theatre of conflict:

A cursor blinked on the screen. “No list of options? What do you think?” Andy turned to Sam.

“Help?” Sam shrugged.

“Give it a go.”

Help.

Help not available at this stage.

“Hmm…” List games.

Game list not available. Drone Doom is open-ended and scenarios are generated by players. Once released and online, Drone Doom will offer a choice of real world live scenarios and those created by users. Please note that because of the nature of the game, decisions are one-time only and irreversible. Once committed to a scenario and in control of a Doom Drone, a player may only exit by means which may become apparent once inside the theatre. In the real-life scenario, a soldier would not dessert his or her comrades and this extends to drones operated by combatants remotely. Physical separation from battle provides a degree of personal safety for a Doom Drone operator but as soldiers, we must fight alongside one another and obey the same moral rules that we would if we were there in person.

Laws and ethics of war.

The international laws of war (such as the Geneva Conventions) govern the conduct of participants in war (and also define combatants). These laws place a burden upon participants to limit civilian deaths and injuries through proper identification of targets and distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The use of completely autonomous weapon systems is problematic, however, because of the difficulty in assigning accountability to a person. Therefore, current designs still incorporate an element of human control (a ‘man in the loop’), meaning that a ground controller must authorize weapons release.

Concerns also include the human controller’s role, because if he is a civilian and not a member of the military (which is quite possible with developmental and highly sophisticated weapons systems) he would be considered a combatant under international law which carries a distinct set of responsibilities and consequences. It is for this reason that the ‘man in the loop’ should ideally be a member of the military that understands and accepts his role as combatant.

Controllers can also experience psychological stress from the combat they are involved in. A few may even experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Professor Shannon E. French, the director of the Centre for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University and a former professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, wonders if the PTSD may be rooted in a suspicion that something else was at stake. According to Professor French, the author of the 2003 book The Code of the Warrior:

“If [I’m] in the field risking and taking a life, there’s a sense that I’m putting skin in the game … I’m taking a risk so it feels more honourable. Someone who kills at a distance—it can make them doubt. Am I truly honourable?”

“Blimey.” Andy ran her finger through the text. “This is pretty deep. I need to find out more about these quantum consoles. Meanwhile, let’s see if all my hardware is brutish enough to handle this thing. If all my work and cash spent on building this gaming colossus can’t handle this, I need to give up and just go back to buying the latest console, queueing with the masses for days. One thing…”

Drone Doom rules.

“Rules” are a construct of whomever writes them. The rules of Drone Doom will be dictated by the collective conduct of players. Two rules are however hard-wired, etched in stone and transmitted for future recipients to interpret: once a Doom Drone is disabled, a player may leave the arena. A player’s comrades will note the downing of a drone. The game may be paused at any time. This feature is necessary, but use of it should be with the greatest caution. If every player in a party of 200 were to pause for refreshment, this would become impossible. A battle would be lost. Breaks will normally be arranged within parties but it is important to underline the weight of the rule:

THE GAME CAN BE PAUSED AT ANY POINT AND FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME BUT ALL PLAYERS WILL BE PAUSED. THE GAME WILL IMMEDIATELY RECOMMENCE FROM WHENCE IT WAS PAUSED.

The PAUSE GAME function is not to be considered a light undertaking.

You are free to choose but you are not free from the consequence of your choice.

“I want this game!” Andy turned to Sam. “Sammy. Do you see what this is?”

“Yes, I do. Well, I see what it could become. Fucking hell.

Play game.

Join an existing theatre of conflict or create one of your own?

“Fucking hell, Andy.” Sam pointed at the screen. “We can pretty much do what we want. And until the game goes on public release, we have total freedom from judgement. No-one else is here.”

“Pretty cool. Where shall we go?”

“Syria? Take out some of so-called Islamic State?”

Syria.

Loading database.
Selecting random mission.
Loading Google Earth data.
Loading military intelligence.
Please wait…

Mission loaded.

Mission details: Take control of an MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, armed with 1x AGM-114 Hellfire missile. Enemy agents are known to be installing Improvised Explosive Devices in the field of conflict. Identify and eliminate targets. Location classified.

“Wow.” Andy stared at the computer monitor.

Play.

The screen turned black for a second, then a slightly grainy and distorted image appeared: a small runway, stretching ahead.

“I can’t say the graphics are up to all that.” Sam squinted at the screen.

“This is a remote image from thousands of miles away. How much more realistic do you want?” Andy took hold of her joystick. “I assume I fly this just like I would any other simulator.”

The drone accelerated along the runway, then Andy pulled back on the joystick and they were airborne. A heads-up display was overlaid on the remote footage, giving altitude, speed, distance and direction to target, as well as in-screen miniature feeds from cameras mounted on the rear, sides, top and bottom of the Predator. Distance to target read 1KM and Andy could already make out tiny figures in the fields ahead. She zoomed in on the front camera and could see six men digging holes, placing something inside and covering them up.

“Andy?” Sam pointed at the men. “How do we know that those are insurgents burying IEDs and not farmers sewing crops? I mean, it’s a bit grainy and distorted.”

“They’ve been identified as targets. That will be based on military intelligence. Our job is to fly the drone and complete the mission.”

“I need to pee. May I use your bathroom?”

“That’s a little more information than I needed Sam but go right ahead. Mi casa su casa.”

The figures on the ground grew larger, before a cross hair appeared on screen with a message:

Target selected. Fire at will.

Pause game.

“Sam! Sam? Obviously taking a shit.” Andy stood up and looked out of the window in front of the desk. Her neighbour stood with his back to her, leaning against his garden fence and just staring straight ahead. “I wonder what’s going through his mind. Something sick, no doubt. Sam! Sam! Oh, fuck you then Sam.”

Resume game.

Fire.

The Hellfire missile accelerated in front of the Predator, then bore down on the targets. Within a second, a flash of explosive light blew them apart. Andy heard the lavatory flush.

“You missed it Sam! Come see what we did.”

“Sorry, I think I blacked out for a second in there.”

“You okay?”

“I’m fine. Jesus Andy!” Sam looked at the screen as Andy switched to the camera beneath the drone and zoomed in on the scene below. Not a single human limb remained attached to a host, nor intact. Small parts of disintegrated humans littered an area a hundred metres in diameter. “Now, that’s realistic!”

Mission complete.

Civilian casualties: 6.

“Fucking, what!?”

“I’ve always said that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron Andy.”

“Fuck, man!? Okay, Drone Doom: you mentioned in-game purchases. Let’s upgrade.”

“What are you gonna to do Andy?”

“What am I gonna do? Nuke the fucking American base. Watch…”

“I know it’s only a game but if all that shit at the start is true, who knows where this could end up. The FBI? It’s a bit harsh, Andy.”

“You’re right, Sam. It’s a game. What better way to make myself feel better without anyone really getting hurt?”

“You’re mad.”

So Andy bought an MQ-9 Reaper drone, strapped a tactical nuclear weapon onto it and flattened a US military base.

Mission complete.

Combatant casualties: 425.

Andy stared at the screen. It was less than two minutes before the flash from outside was reflected on the monitor from her spectacles and she felt a sudden heat. She looked up and saw the mushroom cloud in the distance. “Oh, fucking hell. No. No, no, no!

Pause game.

GAME PAUSED…

“Fuck, no. Sam?” Andy turned to Sam but Sam stared, unblinking at the monitor. “Sam!” Andy shook Sam but he didn’t respond. She let go and he slumped back in his chair, his head tipped back and he continued to stare straight ahead, now at the ceiling. “Oh, god Sam.” She shook him again but he was like a stiffening rag doll. Andy checked for a pulse: faint. It was as though Sam was frozen and fading in time. Andy looked at the computer monitor:

GAME PAUSED…

She looked out of the window: The mushroom cloud had frozen.

Andy rushed downstairs. Her dad was asleep on the couch. “Dad?” He didn’t respond. She shook him: nothing. Andy sat next to her dad, and lay her head on his chest. In the three minutes she spent there, her dad’s breathing slowed.

She burst outside and the mushroom cloud in the distance was still exactly the same. She noticed her neighbour, still leaning against his fence. She ran to face him. He was staring straight ahead. Andy waved her hand in front of his face. She slapped his mouth. Then again, harder. A third time, even harder, drawing blood from her neighbour’s mouth and her skin. She lifted him up and let him drop to the grass. “He’ll be dead soon.”

Andy turned to face the cloud. “I guess that makes me the last of the monkeys.”

GAME PAUSED…

© Steve Laker, 2016

My books are available on Amazon.

A prequel inspired by Zaphod Beeblebrox

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

In the beginning there was Douglas Adams and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There was Pink Floyd and The Division Bell, and there was Keep Talking (AKA ‘Cyrus Song’), the track which samples Stephen Hawking. Then there was a book inspired by all of that, also called Cyrus Song. There was some other stuff too.

The original Hitch Hiker’s Guide became a trilogy in five parts (Douglas’ words), and Douglas wrote Young Zaphod Plays it Safe, a short story prequel, now only available in a rare, out-of-print hard cover compendium (which I’m fortunate to have a copy of). So to continue the tributes to an inspiration, I wrote a Cyrus Song ‘Bonus story’. It’s a story which stands on its own nonetheless, and it’s co-published here and in Schlock web zine this weekend, where I share a stable with other (very talented) fringe writers, waiting to be read and discovered.

Alchemist LaoratoryThe Alchemist Laboratory by Kashuse (DeviantArt)

A YOUNG CAPTAIN PLAYS IT SAFE

It was homework which started this story: an assignment marked ‘F’, my initial; because I’d misplaced a decimal point and completely fluffed up a calculation. But it was that very decimal point which had landed me in detention, so I’d taken it with me, in a Petri dish liberated from the biology lab where I now sat again after school. The detention was planned, so that I could further my studies. I looked down at the little thing in the dish, as I wondered what to do next. It was moving around, now more elongated, like a comma.

This being a school science classroom I was sitting in, I was surrounded by equipment and paraphernalia which might better allow me to understand what it was I’d caught, but for the occasional glance from Big John. Mr Fowle was our biology tutor and a fine man, both in profession and less regimented theatres. A man of science, but with a wider mind, he was admired by his pupils, and it was actually quite a privilege to be in detention with him, of all teachers.

For a moment, I thought about simply talking to John about this little thing I’d caught. He was a science teacher after all. But even though I viewed him as a friend, he remained a teacher and my thoughts on the scurrying comma were perhaps outside even his broad mind, as they grew whimsical. So I decided to write them down.

With my biology homework corrected with the removal the rogue decimal point, I thought I could use the duration of the detention to tackle some other homework: English Literature. I needed to turn in an open-form essay or fiction piece of 5-6000 words.

I had what could just possibly be a previously undiscovered organism secreted on my person: What on earth might I be carrying? Or might it not be of this earth? The possibilities began to multiply, and I realised I needed to have a focus for the rest of the story, if I was to remain within the word count. It turns out I fell asleep at around this point.

Ford.” That’s me. “Mr Ford?”

Yes, that’s me.”

Yes, well done lad. Off you go.”

Thank you sir.”

What for? Keeping you in detention? I’d rather not be here. No, in future, Mr Ford, beware decimal points and other mathematical indicators. Exercise caution also, with grammar and punctuation. Because the difference, Mr Ford, can be that between life and death. Think, Mr Ford. Think, before you speak or act. Open your eyes, then you might be made a prefect. But you have to get to sixth form first.”

‘Captain, my captain’ sprang to mind. I knew I should do well to heed his words.

Lewisham High Street is a long road. From school in New Cross, the road takes me past the station, with its bus depot, overground and DLR trains, then through the market and its fragrance – which could only ever be labelled ‘Lewisham’ – and into Catford. Sometimes I’ll walk the street and say hi to the Catford cat. Other times I’ll cut through Mountsfield Park. This particular time, I took a different diversion.

With Big John’s words in my head, I’d walked from school and thought about who I could speak to about this comma I’d found. I’d eliminated all the possibilities I could, but I was limited by means. It definitely moved of its own free will, so it was organic. But it was small. I hadn’t even been able to discern if it had legs. When I moved my spectacles between my eyes and the Petri dish, the best magnification I’d managed seemed to show the little thing floating.

Having no pets, I’d rarely paid attention to the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) hospital in New Cross. I’d passed it many times and it had always just been there, of no use or interest to me at all. But I had an idea.

This being late in the day, there was no-one in the waiting room. I had to fill in a form at reception, which asked for my pet’s type, breed, gender and name. I wasn’t really comfortable with any living being being called a ‘pet’, but I’d never had one, so I just scrubbed the word out in a rebellious 14-year-old schoolboy way, then wondered why I’d done it. For the other questions, I simply answered ‘NA’, on the grounds of, I didn’t know what it was, so I hadn’t named it when it might have its own name, and did it matter what sex it was (even if it knew)?

Mr Ford?” That’s me. “Mr Ford, and Nah?” I could see what she’d done there.

There’s always a mate at school who has a really fit, young-looking mum. I had no such friends whom I was aware of, least of all their mums. In any case, a school satchel is just as useful as a towel for a teenage traveller to carry about their person, arranged upon the lap before standing up. The MILF vet was the same height as me, which is not very. She had strawberry blonde hair, tied back from black-rimmed glasses. She was very pretty. She looked at her clipboard as I rearranged things in my satchel and retrieved the Petri dish. “I’m Eve. Come with me please.” Rare will be the schoolboy a certain way inclined, who doesn’t react to such words: A blush, snort, a guffaw, would perhaps be permissible in the circumstances, but a firm punch to my satchel contained mine.

Whichever way I looked at it, she was Eve: Forwards or backwards, her name was a palindrome. I followed Eve along a corridor and into a room, which wasn’t surprising. If it had led into Narnia, it might have been. But inside was as surprising to me as it would probably be to anyone else who’d never set foot in a veterinary laboratory, consulting room, or whatever it was. Inside the room were the usual things I might have expected to find, if I’d been in one before: An examination table with an overhead lamp, a portable ultrasound machine and so on. But there was also what looked like a scanning electron microscope and a mainframe computer.

It seemed as normal to Eve to be looking at a little scurrying thing in a dish, as I assumed it would if I’d had or been a dog or cat. She put the container down on the examination table and positioned the lamp over it. The lamp doubled as a magnifier, with a circular fluorescent tube surrounding a lens, which Eve peered through. Then she said something quite unexpected:

I’ve never seen anything like it.” It was unexpected, because I assumed that as a vet, she’d seen most things.

What is it?” I wondered.

I don’t know. It’s certainly alive.” She continued to peer. “It’s moving, anyway. But I can’t see that it’s got any legs. Shall we take a closer look?” I assumed she meant the electron microscope. This was confirmed when she walked towards it.

Yes please,” I said, perhaps a little too keenly placing myself next to her.

The electron microscope was more like some futuristic arcade game when it was switched on: A tiny camera operated by a joystick hovered around the Petri dish, now magnified so that we could clearly make out the shape and features of the little creature.

It was a metallic silver / black colour, and tubular, with rounded ends: Like a baguette. But not like a baguette at all, except in shape. But smooth, metallic and with a sort of translucent sheen. It was completely unlike a baguette. But as Eve panned in closer with the camera, we could see it was filled with something.

Running along both sides of the not-baguette was a series of what looked like portholes, all blacked out and recessed into the side of the creature: Perhaps these were breathing holes. The creature had markings too: red stripes, running along the sides, just above the belly. All the time, it was moving, but not by any visible means. We’d discounted legs, but the thing didn’t contract and expand, nor undulate, but still it slowly floated around, just above the surface of the dish. And it didn’t seem to be moving blindly: It didn’t hit walls then adjust its course, it seemed to know where it was going. Whether it knew where it was was another unanswered question. But it seemed to be sentient, and its movement allowed us to deduce which end was the front.

Eve moved the camera to what we’d now identified as the front of the creature, where we’d expect to find a mouth and eyes. Seeing the creature several times magnified, I could hardly believe that this was the little speck which had landed on my homework. And when Eve stopped the camera at the front of the thing, it became even more startling.

Around the top of the front of the thing (its head, we were assuming), was an apparently illuminated crescent shape, like a visor. If this was the creature’s eye, I wondered what spectra it could see in. I had to assume that the blue/green light was probably down to a chemical reaction, like that used by fireflies.

This is absolutely fascinating,” Eve finally said. “Where did you say you found it?” Well actually, I hadn’t said where.

It just appeared in my homework, on the page, like a comma.” I really wished I’d thought of something more dramatic.

Was it any help with your homework?”

No, I failed. But it made me resolve to look at things differently and check them over.” That was pretty much what Big John had said to me at school. “To always think, before speaking or acting.”

That’s a lot to get from an out-of-place punctuation mark.” Which is true, but such a thing can completely change the meaning of something if it’s in the wrong place. So it’s worth checking. And here we were, checking, trying to find out what this particular comma was all about. Where did it come from? Where did it belong? What was its context? It wasn’t long before there were yet more questions.

Eve zoomed in on the creature’s crescent eye, so that the microscope camera was almost peering into the thing’s head, when in reality it was two centimetres away from something the size of a speck of dirt. The eye was semi-opaque, as though it was double-glazed, with a thin white mist between the layers; very much like the eye scales of a snake just before it sheds its skin, loosening the top layer from that underneath with a milky excretion.

It looks like,” I began, “a snake’s eye just before a slough.” I resisted the urge to punch my satchel again.

I was just thinking the same,” Eve said. Great minds think alike. “It’s like there’s a milky excretion here.” When you’re 14 years old, hearing an attractive lady say things like ‘milky excretion’ can cause one a moment in one’s own thoughts. “Let’s see if there’s anyone at home, shall we?” Was she proposing psychiatry?

Eve panned the camera in even closer, so that it was practically knocking on the front of the creature. If I wasn’t already writing a fiction assignment for English Literature, I definitely was from this point hence, because no-one would believe it to be real…

As Eve adjusted the focus on the microscope’s camera, we could make out what was behind the eyes of the creature. It wasn’t a creature at all; it was some sort of microscopic spacecraft. The visor was a screen, and behind the white mist was what would look like a bridge in any sci-fi film. There were three very comfortable-looking seats, like reclining easy chairs, facing what we now knew to be the window / screen. Around the perimeter of the bridge were various computer screens, displaying text and graphics we couldn’t make out. The hi-tech was juxtaposed though, by metal pipes, levers and analogue dials. Every now and then, one or more of the pipes would expel what looked like steam, like a steam train whistle. I wondered if we’d been able to hear what was going on, whether the pipes might be playing some sort of tune. I tried to imagine some retro-futuristic pipe organ, parping out a steam punk tune, like the five-tone greeting in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which this wasn’t yet.

Whatever this thing was, it could still be a man-made nano machine. If it was, then I probably shouldn’t know about it. Seeing as I did, I shouldn’t let on. The English Literature route was perfect for this recording of events.

Encounters with Unidentified Flying (or Floating) Objects have been categorised into five groups as close encounters of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth kind. When a person sees a UFO within 150 metres, it’s an encounter of the first kind. Given that we were about 150 micrometers away, we could tick that one off. When an encounter with a UFO in the sky or on the ground leaves evidence behind, such as scorch marks on the ground or indents etc., it’s of the second kind. Given that ours hadn’t stopped hovering just above the base of the dish, we hadn’t had one of those yet. When an encounter is with visible occupants inside the UFO, it’s of the third kind. Unless the aliens were invisible to us, we couldn’t tick that one off. Which is a slight paradox, because if there were aliens but they weren’t visible to us (through choice or otherwise), would that count? Anyway, assuming any extraterrestrials wouldn’t look like recliner chairs (unless they were disguised; another paradox), then we hadn’t seen any that we were aware of. The fourth kind involves the person being taken and experimented on inside the alien craft. At that point, we wouldn’t fit, on account of scale. The fifth kind involves direct communication between aliens and humans. This, I assumed to be impossible, even if there were aliens present. Yet somehow we went straight from first base to third.

Somewhere among the mangles and parps of the pipes and levers, a door opened.

At this point, I should like to insert a note to Mrs Walker, my English tutor, and to Mr Harmer, my other English teacher: One is Language and the other is Literature, and together, they taught me a lot of what I know. So:

Dear Lois and John,

Among the many things you taught me, was to imagine a situation: A situation as complex and fun as I’d liked. Then you told me to mix it up more, to make it not incomprehensible but fantastical, whimsical, and perhaps odd. Finally, you taught me how to translate what I see into the simple medium of words alone, through prose; to make my writing not implausible but just about believable. I learned how to use plot devices and all sorts of other ways to manipulate words and the thoughts they convey, so that each carries a part of an image. You even inspired me to write my own literary statement in the form of a challenge:

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: How do you escape? Well, you could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination.

This is what happened next:

To use onomatopoeia, there was a ‘whoosh’ sound, as the door opened. Then a snake fell out and onto the bridge. As the doors opened, a snake was standing, with more than half its body lifted from the ground. Then it just fell in through the doors. It raised itself up again, then moved around on the bridge, bumping into a lever and clambering over a pipe. And then it sat in the central chair. Its head rested well below the headrest, its back extended down the back of the chair and along the seat, so that its tail end dangled over the edge. I remember my father’s barber placing a wooden plank across a similar chair to prop me up for a haircut. And then the snake seemed to fall asleep.

I’m familiar with snakes in the wild and even though this one was microscopic, I had to rely on the limits of my personal knowledge. This one was a grey brown colour. Assuming the seat to be seat-sized, I put the snake at about four feet in length. Not knowing where it came from, nor its size if it were in my dimension, it could be any one of a number of snakes I knew about. It was only when the snake’s mouth drooped open, as though it was snoring, that I was almost sure.

It’s a fuc.. flipping black mamba Doctor!” I should have left it there. “You are a doctor, aren’t you?” What I meant was, ‘I really hope someone can tell me what’s going on here,’ and not, ‘Are you a fraud?’

Yes, I am. My PhD was in human psychology, but I branched out into other kinds of people.” I must have looked confused for a second. “Animal people. So much easier to understand.” How did she know? “And yes, that is a fucking black mamba.”

What’s it doing here though?”

I don’t know. You found it.”

Well, I did. But I didn’t mean to. It was accidental. It was what got me detention.”

But isn’t it also what brought you here? Think differently, young man.” I was trying my best. Maybe I should just submit this English Literature assignment as a poem. ‘Snake in a baguette / Don’t know what it’s up to / Cos we haven’t spoken yet.’ Because it was about to get stranger still.

Another black mamba, kind of walked onto the bridge of the ship. The second one didn’t fall out of the door like the first. Instead, there was another ‘whoosh’ sound, and the second snake moved onto the bridge, with about half of its body raised from the floor, so that at full size, it would be about two feet tall. It then sat, in the same way the first snake had, on the seat to the latter’s left. But this second snake didn’t fall asleep. Instead, it started moving its jaws as it looked at the other snake next to it. I’m familiar with snakes adjusting and stretching their jaws prior to eating prey, but black mambas have never been known to practice cannibalism. In fact, if I’d been able to hear, I might go so far as to say the second snake might have been talking.

Do you want to listen in?” Eve asked me. Of course I did. Could we? Should we?

Erm,” I stammered, “yes, please.” The pleading was really unnecessary. “How though?”

Can you keep a secret?” Well, I wasn’t going to say ‘no’, was I?

Yes, what is it?”

Well, if I tell you, it’ll no longer be a secret.” Was that a threat?

You kind of have, Doctor,” I reminded her. The Doctor smiled, which was reassuring, I think. It was one of those double-meaning smiles, like a newsreader at the end of a report they’re not sure how they should react to.

“Call me Eve. Well, it would be our secret then, Mr Ford.” I wondered if I should ask her to call me by my first name, but she hadn’t asked what it was.

So, how can we listen to the snakes? But more importantly, how the fuc… flipping hell did a black mamba get that small, and in what looks like a space ship?”

If we can speak to them, we might be able to find out.”

Yes, but how doctor?”

This,” she said, then stood up. She walked to the computer in the corner and pressed some keys, then fished something from a drawer and returned, trailing an electric cable behind her. She sat back next to me and plugged the cable into the electron microscope. “This,” she said again, “is something I’ve been working on, on the side.”

What is it?”

Well, it’s at an early stage: Experimental. I don’t know if it’ll ever have a practical application, least of all one I might be willing to use.”

Why so?”

Because it’s a prototype for a universal translation device. I’ve called it the Babel fish.”

And it works?”

Generally speaking. It needs a lot of tweaking for individual species, but as a concept, it somehow seems to work. If you look at the microscope’s camera,” which I did, “you’ll see there’s a tiny microphone attached.” She pointed, and there was. “So, theoretically, with this plugged into the computer and with the Babel fish program running, the microphone should pick up what the snake, or alien, is saying, and translate it for us.”

What about talking back?” I wondered.

It’s not something I’d ever planned to do, but it does work both ways. So if we speak, the microphone will pick us up. And then how it works becomes a bit confusing.

Why?”

Because with the few animals I’ve listened to, they’ve always had voices which reflected their personalities, of course. But also, which bely their physiology.”

How do you mean?”

A mouse, for instance, sounds squeaky. I’ve never deliberately spoken back, but when I first heard that, I giggled at the stereotype being confirmed, and the mouse must have heard me. It looked startled. And I imagined that if I’d heard a smaller thing as higher pitched, perhaps the mouse heard bigger me as a really deep voice. But I don’t know how the Babel fish actually does that. It’s kind of a paradox, like never really knowing what your own voice sounds like.”

Nor, by extension,” I offered, “does anyone truly know what they look like.”

Eh?”

Because we only ever see ourselves in mirror image, or in photographs. It is impossible for us to view ourselves directly. Ergo, as we really are, and are seen by other people.”

That’s pretty deep, Mr Ford.”

Yes, sorry.”

Don’t apologise. Like I said, think differently. So, back to the snakes?” I’d momentarily forgotten, in the presence of an attractive woman old enough to be someone my age’s mum, about two potential extraterrestrial snakes in a microscopic spacecraft, under the microscope.

Eve flicked a switch, then a sound came from some speakers on the computer. It was a high-pitched rasping sound, almost a shrill whistle. As Eve adjusted some controls, the shrieks became a voice:

Wake up.” By the way the mouth was moving, this was the second snake speaking to the first, who was still asleep. “Wake up,” it said again. “We’re here.”

What!?” The first snake now woke with a start. “What? Where?”

Here,” said the second snake. “Here, wherever you programmed the ship to come to. Well, we’re there.”

Are we?” The first snake adjusted himself in his chair, peering forward at the screen, and our camera. “What’s that?” I assumed he was talking about the camera.

I don’t know. I thought you would.”

Why would I?”

Because these are the co-ordinates you programmed into the ship.”

But that’s not supposed to be here.”

Well, what were you expecting?”

This is supposed to be a quiet country spot. There should be humans around.”

But you said yourself, it’s a quiet country spot. If it’s secluded, might there actually not be people there?”

Well, I suppose. But I was hoping for a little village or something. You know, where there’d just be one or two people around. Not that thing.” He gestured with his snout at the screen.

Do you think we should speak now?” I said.

What the fuck was that!?” I heard a sharp, whistling rasp: The alien snake had heard me.

I think he heard you just fine,” Eve confirmed.

What!? Who is that?” hissed the snake. Eve switched off the Babel fish.

So?” she wondered. So did I.

I don’t know, Doctor. They can hear us. Are we not breaking all sorts of rules?”

Probably.” That was very carefree. “But it looks like they’ve made a mistake. If they didn’t mean to be here, shouldn’t we help them out?”

Well,” I thought, “maybe. But without knowing we’re here. I guess it’s too late for that.”

I’d say so. So the least we can do is help them. We’ll say no more and perhaps they don’t either. That part we’ll have to trust to faith. Whatever else we pick up in any conversation will just remain our secret.”

Well, I was going to write about it. But for an English Literature assignment. Fiction.”

Perfect. Just so long as no-one believes you. Shall we get back to the snakes?” Eve switched the Babel fish on again. The snakes were still talking:

So why did you only want to see one or two humans?”

Because then we could’ve just buzzed them, you know?”

No?”

You know, float menacingly in front of them in the sky. Make the ship do some hoots and parps, flash a few lights. Then just fuck off.”

Why?”

Well, who’s going to believe them? One or two people, in a secluded place. The only ones to witness a UFO. Everyone would think they were cranks. It’s the best way to study them, so they don’t take us too seriously.”

They’re joyriding,” I said.

Who is that?” said one of the snakes.

Well it’s not God,” said another. “We’ve pretty much discounted him if that’s a universal translation device we’re hearing. We’re disobeying the lessons from The Tower of Babel, where God allegedly knocked it down, because he didn’t want people understanding all languages. With language barriers in place as a defence mechanism, God was maintaining the rules of confusion and misunderstanding though…”

Well, that’s what our books say. But what’s that voice?”

What?” Eve asked.

And that one?” hissed the snake.

I’ve read about it,” I said. “Aliens, they go around looking for secluded places on Earth, where they can put on a display for a few people.”

But why?

Well,” I continued, “as this snake here said, just to spook people. But not too many. A bit of fun, showing off. But I always thought it could be something more. I mean, if they were appearing to a lot of people, that could cause all sorts of problems. By keeping it within a select group, only a few people will take the story of the whole thing seriously. It’s a containment mechanism. Like the Babel fish, I suppose. I mean, if universal translation was suddenly freely available to everyone, that would cause all sorts of trouble. And that’s why I’ll keep this secret, so as not to spoil things. So my theory on so-called joyriders is that what we see is only a part of something greater, which we may not yet understand.”

That is both very liberal and deep, Mr Ford.” This wasn’t Eve’s voice. This was the rasping whistle from the Babel fish. I turned to look at the screen, directly at the first snake.

Thank you,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say.

You are an interesting specimen, Mr Ford. You may benefit your species yet.” Which was kind of what John Fowle had said. The truth behind this story may be something discussed with school prefect peers, in a secret society, such as that of The Dead Poets. To anyone outside, the forbidden knowledge was just a work of fiction.

Captain,” I said, that just seeming to be the most appropriate way to address him.

Human,” he replied. Which threw up many questions. He referred to me by my name when he first addressed me. Then when I addressed him as ‘captain’, he called me ‘human’. Did this impart an assumed rank? Scholars might ponder over this in years to come if it wasn’t written as a work of fiction. The captain continued: “We are here by accident, as I believe you have gathered. I think we made a mistake with a decimal point in our co-ordinates.”

Are you aware of your size though?” I couldn’t think of any other way to point out that might be the error.

My what?” I may have touched a nerve.

Well, we’re looking at you through an electron microscope.”

Is that what it is? We thought that was a telescope.”

I think there’s been a miscalculation of scales.”

I think you may be right, Mr Ford. A decimal point would seem to have caused me all these problems. Thank you for pointing it out.”

I’m sure you’d have worked it out.”

Not without the benefit of your perspective. Can we agree that it might be wise to keep this between ourselves?”

We’d kind of agreed that already between ourselves, captain.” I looked at Eve, who was smiling at some inner news.

You won’t tell my father?”

I wouldn’t know who your father is.”

Good. Mum’s the word then.” Eh? Mum: Mother who? Mother Earth? More speculation for later English Literature assignments.

Keep learning, Mr Ford. For then you will truly learn.” From a snake, it didn’t seem so strange, when the snake was some sort of alien life form I couldn’t previously imagine, but never now dismiss.

So what now?”

Now, we go home.” Which really summed things up nicely.

And we speak no more of it, except with those in a secret club who know the truth. The Captain Mamba Society? It was a great beginning to end a story with. But I had a few things to attend to first.

How do we get you home?”

Just let us go, out of this thing you’ve got us in.”

You’re free to fly away.”

Well, we need a bit of a push, see? When we launched, we had a thing which shot us off at speed.”

And that’s back where you came from?”

No, it’s the engine of the ship. We need a bit of a launch assist, seeing as we miscalculated our size a bit.”

So how?”

At your size, just a good push should get us going.”

Yes, but what do I push?”

Do you have windows here?”

Yes, we do.”

Well, what’s outside?”

Er, outside?”

Well done. Well, that’s where we want to go. And how do we get there?”

Through the window?”

Well done. Think one step beyond, Mr Ford.”

You literally, want me to throw you out of the window?”

Unless you have a better idea?” Thinking outside, inside, and all around, I didn’t. I had to let this moment go.

So it was Eve in fact, perhaps sensing my newfound attachment, who picked up that Petri dish, opened the window, and threw Captain Mamba, his crew mate and their ship, out into the world to make their own way home.

Do you think,” I wondered to Eve, “they’ll make the return journey?” That was a very loaded question, and one which begged for a greater word allowance on an English Literature assignment. “There are so many possibilities.”

You’re the space cadet, Mr Ford. I’m sure you’ll make of it all what you will. Keep what you know between the friends you trust. Don’t abuse it for personal gain. You have a responsibility. I think you’ll make a fine prefect.” So, a girl called Eve had advised me to guard the words which the serpent had given us. That would make quite a good story.

I had the remainder of Lewisham to traverse before I got home. By now, it was dark. I walked beneath the street lamps and the Catford cat, as the park was closed. I’d write up my notes before school the next day. If what I’d written was judged to be a good fiction piece, then perhaps the misplaced comma which had caused me failure before, might get me recognition in a field besides biology.

You’re late, Dixon.” It was my dad, tuned into my frequency.

Yeah, sorry dad. I got talking after detention.”

Well, I won’t ask who to. That would shatter my illusion that you might have done something amazing.” He’d told me I had it in me, and now I couldn’t tell him.“One day,” dad continued, “you’ll be really late, Dixon.”

What?”

Late, as in the late Dixon Ford. Well, when you are, try to be remembered.”

Captain, my captain.”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

star-wars-force-awakens-captain-phasma-face-hat-16.jpg

Cyrus Song (a story inspired by Douglas Adams), is available now.

And there’s a second prequel short story, Of Mice and Boys in 1984.

The waiting game (long- and short-game strategy)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Over the last four years, there are four personal philosophies which I’ve learned to follow for a reasonably contented life:

  • If you’ve done something wrong, you have a moral responsibility to put it right.

  • Being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it.

  • Try to be the best that you can, at something you enjoy.

  • Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today, because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.

waiting

Since my breakdown, those rules and others have served me well in life.

The first rule is one which can be applied to mankind and the damage we’ve done to our host planet. This and other themes are covered in my upcoming sci-fi novel, Cyrus Song. The book is still out with test readers for the next couple of weeks and I’m hoping that no news from them is good news.

I’m waiting on two more beta readers, with two having already reported back positively. There have also been a few comments from others who’ve read the manuscript in a “non-official” / friend capacity:

The weirdest, most intriguing story I’ve ever read: I fucking love it!”

Douglas would be proud.”

You’ve written a new fucking bible!” (Well, I suppose if I add another six simple rules to my four at the top, I’ve written ten suggestions (I’d never command)).

Where the fuck did you get the idea? How did you do this?”

You are part fucking alien!”

That, is one very funny, very deep book. It made me think, a lot. I don’t know anyone else who writes like this. It’s very deep, very clever and very satisfying. I cried!”

(Names and addresses supplied)

Obviously, most of these can’t be printed on the cover, although they are encouraging. But the two opinions I’m waiting on are from people I’m involved with contractually, so I need to wait for those before I can do anything more with the book. I’m expecting only minor changes between now and final publication, so September is still looking good and I’m confident the book will do well. Like all writing, its success will be down to word-of-mouth. If I can move publication forward to the end of August (without detriment to the story), it would be rather poetic, as that’ll be nine months after I started writing the book.

I’m assuming no news is good news from the remaining beta readers, because I don’t imagine it would take anyone this long to give negative feedback (the manuscript has been with the readers for three weeks now). If I were in their position, I’d have opened the manuscript as soon as it arrived, if only to have a nose at the first page. And it’s that first page which is all important when writing a book: The first line needs to hook the reader; the first paragraph, intrigue them; and the first page has to have “Turnability”: If a reader doesn’t want to turn that first page, I’ve not got them. Based on that assumption, I would imagine the test readers are indeed reading the manuscript, as opposed to not reading it. I’m speculating, and time will tell: The next couple of weeks in fact. Apropos of nothing much, here’s the first page only (from the 8 x 5” paperback):

Chapter 1: Two little things

This perfectly plausible story begins very unexpectedly, with a decimal point. As with many stories, this one involves something being out of place. In this case, that was a decimal point.

I’d left my desk to make some coffee, and as I came back into the study, I thought I saw something move on the sheet of paper in my typewriter. I was writing a little fantasy science fiction story for a magazine and I’d hit a bit of a block near the beginning, so I’d taken a break. It’s funny how things work in fiction sometimes and having that little pause was what I needed to start the story properly.

Before I continued writing, I re-read the little I’d already typed: something wasn’t right. I checked my research notes, wondering if I’d misinterpreted something but nothing sprang out. I looked back up at the paper in the typewriter and that’s when I noticed a decimal point had moved. I looked more closely and my original decimal point was still where I’d put it, so this other one had just appeared. Then it moved again: The one which had simply materialised, walked across the page. It didn’t have discernible legs but it moved nonetheless.

I picked up my magnifying glass from the side table to get a closer look at this little moving thing.

It’s more aesthetic in layout in the printed book, with the paragraphs indented and less spaced, like you see in a book. Hopefully, that first sentence will hook; the first paragraph, intrigue; and the reader will want to turn to page 2. After that, I’m hoping the book is as enjoyable to read as it was to write.

I posted recently in a writing peer forum about suffering separation anxiety from my characters and among the coping mechanisms suggested, one was “Write a sequel.” I’m already planning it, and should start actually writing it once I’ve gauged the reaction to Cyrus Song itself. The sequel will most likely be called Cyrus Song II: Because I’m so radical and original, but also because I have confidence in the first title.

And while I’m waiting, I’ve been writing, which isn’t entirely surprising.

A few weeks ago, an idea slip was posted for my Unfinished Literature Agency. It was a big brief for a short story but I’ve got it all into what will probably be a 6000 word fable. I’ve been on and off of it for the last week and now I’m buried in it, and loving writing it. It’s kind of an ancient aliens / time-travelling voyage of discovery and evolution, spread over 8000 years (no, really) and with a paradoxical biblical sub-text. The Afternaut (working title) should be published on my favoured web zine in about a month, then possibly in their print quarterly later. I’m grateful to the donor of that idea, and hope they’ll enjoy reading their published story.

And for anyone who’s read this far, thank you. Because this is also a public thank you to all my friends and families, from all eras of my chequered life; old and new, readers and followers, who are still here and who continue to support and encourage me since I emerged from my darkness and decided I’d be a writer.

Thank you.

Postscript
I’ve been wearing a black headband now for over a week and it’s become a part of me and the way I look: More myself. I own a headband 🙂

The evolution of a manual typewriter

FICTION | HORROR

This is my return to the fringes of horror fiction, after a few months away writing a sci-fi tribute to Douglas Adams: This is not a love story. Like many of my short stories, it has subtle links to others but it still works on its own. This one is from The Unfinished Literary Agency as it gains more offices, and one which will form a part of my second anthology. Co-published here with the co-operation of Shlock webzine.

Difference engine studio mainImage: Graeme Reynolds’s blog: Dark tales from a twisted mind.

THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE

I disappeared without warning and for no apparent reason. To the best of my knowledge, there were no witnesses. I wasn’t a well-known person, so few would miss me. It was perfect.

What made this apparent illusion possible was the difference engine: Quite a box of tricks in itself. The engine is a retro-futuristic, mechanical bolt-on device for my manual typewriter. It’s the steam punk equivalent of an app installed on a computer. The difference engine clamps onto the typewriter, between the type heads and the impression cylinder. It’s a translation device, so as I type out my thoughts on the keyboard, it produces edited fiction on the paper.

I was a beta tester for the engine, tasked with making the final tweaks to the switches, cogs and gears; the mechanical algorithms which made up the difference engine’s editorial code: Essentially, what’s permissible and what’s not. Where a newspaper might be governed by freedom of speech, but forbidden to express or incite hatred, the difference engine is concerned with fiction in a similar way. Specifically, I was testing the literary merit of the output, to see how well it translated my thoughts and actions into prose.

Like my typewriter, the difference engine wasn’t easily portable, but this actually suited me. I prefer to travel discretely as a writer, with just a notebook and a fountain pen for rough longhand notes. Then I return to my studio to copy my notes on the typewriter, usually self-editing as I transcribe. The difference engine would allow me to duplicate my hand-written notes verbatim, automatically editing for me as I worked. First I had to choose a protagonist for the story: a person chosen at random, who probably never thought they’d be the main character in a story. They’d never be famous, because this was just an experimental story, not destined for publication. Whoever it was would more likely languish in a drawer somewhere, or end up among the many potential but wasted words contained within screwed up sheets of paper in the waste paper bin: Rain which never fell, trapped inside coarse, jagged paper clouds. Stories which would never be told.

My fountain pen writes with blue ink. It’s not a cartridge pen, instead having a piston mechanism on the shaft, to draw ink from a well. I usually carry a bottle of blue ink with me. I use red ink too, but it never travels with me, for two reasons: Red ink is for editing, and I only edit longhand in my studio, where I can concentrate on cutting all the unnecessary narrative out. But red ink is also a very similar colour and viscosity to blood. If a red ink bottle were to break in my bag, I could find myself in all kinds of interesting situations.

I was in one of my favourite writing places in London’s West End: The Lamb and Flag in Rose Street, near to Covent Garden. It was a pleasant summer evening, and the pub was fairly busy with people leaving work. The first mention of a pub on this cobbled backstreet was in 1772, when it was known as The Coopers Arms. The name changed to The Lamb and Flag in 1833 and was a favourite watering hole of Charles Dickens. The pub acquired a reputation in the early nineteenth century for staging bare-knuckle prize fights, earning it the nickname ‘The Bucket of Blood.’ The alleyway beside the pub was the scene of an attack on the poet John Dryden in 1679 by thugs hired by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with whom he had a long-standing conflict. It’s a very small pub, so it’s almost impossible to retain a table to oneself. As such, I was almost invisible to a group of three men with whom I was seated. In a demonstration of my respect for the gentlemen’s privacy, I turned away from the table, whilst also erecting an invisible barrier for myself.

I might just as well have been in the 1980s as I was 2017, based solely on the conversation; one conducted at such volume that I could do nothing but be involved in it, at least as listener and note-taker. The eldest of the three was probably in his late forties, tall, slim, sharply dressed and well spoken. He ran a boiler room operation, and the other two, somewhere in their mid-20s, worked for him.

In business, a boiler room is an outbound call centre, selling questionable investments by telephone. A boiler room will typically be one where salesmen work using unfair, dishonest sales tactics, sometimes selling penny stocks, private placements or committing outright stock fraud. The term carries a negative connotation, and is often used to imply high-pressure sales tactics and, sometimes, poor working conditions. Usually, such an operation has an undisclosed relationship with the companies it promotes, or an invested interest in promoting those companies.

With insider investors in place, a boiler room promotes (via telephone calls to brokerage clients or spam email) these thinly traded stocks where there is no actual market. The brokers of the boiler room create a market by attracting buyers, whose demand for the stock drives up the price. This gives the owners of the company enough volume to sell their shares at a profit, a form of pump and dump operation, where the original investors profit at the expense of the investors taken in by the boiler room operation. A brokerage of this type will typically prey on the naivety and vulnerability of wealthy targets. It was just such a sting which the boss of the firm was bragging about to his subordinates:

“Old girl. Recently widowed. Husband left some money, and she doesn’t know what to do with it. So I tell her to invest it with me. I show her a few spreadsheets, blind her with bullshit, and I’ve got her hooked. I do a few good trades, to show her some decent returns, then I gradually suck more and more out of her. She phones up every now and then to ask how her money’s doing, and I just tell her it’s going brilliantly. Little does she know, she won’t be leaving anything for the grand kids. Unlike her old man, she won’t leave a legacy of unfinished business, know what I mean?” This was hilarious of course.

The boss offered to get more drinks. Leaving three empty glasses on the table, he stood and strode slowly to the bar, stretching as he went: His elbows punched out behind him, as he thrust first his chest forwards, then his crotch. As he arrived at the bar, he continued to stretch and twitch his limbs: An almost sure sign of a man on cocaine. His two seemingly besotted underlings were still chuckling together about the old lady. But it got better, as their boss returned:

“It’s funny how people confide in you when they’re grieving. I’m that old girl’s best mate at the moment. And her financial advisor, of course. She says she’ll use the money I make to gradually tick off her bucket list, depending how it goes of course. Her words. Give me a couple of months, and I reckon I can have her house. I’m doing her a favour really. I mean, she won’t have the money to go through the bucket list, so she’ll get all down. She’ll probably die pretty soon after she learns it’s all gone, saving her a load of money. Her kids won’t have to pay for her care, which they couldn’t afford anyway with the house sold. It’s really that simple guys. You’ve just gotta have the balls!” He grabbed his crotch and thrust it forward into his hand under the table.

He spoke briefly of his wife: A woman he kept. And their daughter, who at 14, was almost old enough, as he stroked his fly. He spoke disparagingly, condescendingly, and sanctimoniously, about everyone else in the bar whom he saw fit to judge. He was perfect: The kind of individual the difference engine could probably turn into someone who readers could sympathise and empathise with.

Excuse me,” I said. “What’s your name?” In typical salesman parlance, he answered: “Rupert. Rupert Koch-Rinehart” – surely a nom de plume? – and presented me with a business card. It was a fine piece of business stationery actually: a thick, non-calendared pulp board, and soft to the touch. His contact details were die-stamped in black, lifting the Helvetica typeface in relief from the card. It was so pristine that unless handled gently with cotton gloves, his card would be instantly marred by an imperfection: Perhaps some sort of capitalist statement. I was grateful for his details, as I’d run out of blue ink in my pen. But the story I was going to use to configure the difference engine now had a central character. As Rupert and his colleagues continued to talk, I loaded some more ink into my pen with the pump action of the piston on the barrel.

A narcissist is the easiest person to extract information from, because their favourite topic of conversation is themselves. Anyone within earshot would have known where he lived. Someone within wireless range of his mobile phone would be able to access his personal information. Some narcissists are so in love with themselves, they silently broadcast it, so that anyone listening can hear more about them, their ego, their contacts, social media circles and personal finances. Anyone so inclined could impersonate them, even taking over their life, and perhaps make them a better person; a bit like the difference engine.

A psychopath is not necessarily someone afflicted with all the usual negative associations of the word. Psychopathy is simply an ability to focus one’s mind on a specific task, in the pursuit of perfection, and to the exclusion of all outside interference. A psychopath might be an eminent neurosurgeon for example, able to perform high-risk operations which others might not. The psychopath surgeon might be able to remove a deeply embedded brain tumour, which others consider inoperable because of its close proximity to nerves and other crucial areas of the brain. Psychopathy detaches the surgeon from everything else, so that their mind can concentrate on a knife-edge, life-or-death situation, without emotion or outside distractions. There are psychopaths in many professions. A psychopath writer would be one who aims to perfect their prose, without the distraction of other thoughts. The psychopath writer would do all that they could, at any cost, just to ensure their stories seem as real as possible, using words alone. Psychopathy is detachment. It was this possibility which the difference engine represented. To make Rupert’s story more real, I needed to introduce him to the engine.

It’s not difficult to get someone to return home with you. It requires a concentrated effort on one very specific aim, but once all outside distractions are removed, words alone can persuade a person. I almost regretted Rupert’s faults being so obvious as to hasten his story. I’d perhaps liked to have got to know him better. But I was his caretaker, while he was drunk and a danger to himself or others. I’d just concentrated on the essential details: His current account PIN, when I’d helped him at a cash point. Then his address, when he gave it to a cab driver, before I suggested he might be better off spending the night with me. London cabbies are a mine of information, both given and received. In the rear view mirror, this cabby perhaps saw a couple, if he saw anything at all.

My studio is in Islington, just off Holloway Road, between Highbury Fields and Paradise Park. I lay Rupert on the couch, arranging him and the cushions around him, so that it pleased my eye. I thrive on order, hence my willingness to help with the difference engine, so that I could feed in my raw material, and the prose I desired would appear on the final typed page. My studio is small and eclectic, some would say cluttered. But I know the position and function of everything within. I have insufficient ink to write of my surroundings in detail, but they are irrelevant so long as they’re unknown.

I sat in my swivel chair at the desk and laid out my notebook, pen and ink well. The bottle I’d travelled with was almost dry and for reasons only known to my past, I didn’t have any more. There was a bottle of red ink on my desk, but it was ink to be used only for editing. Editing only ever took place at the desk in my studio. I hadn’t had to edit copy longhand for some time, instead relying on the automatic editing process of reading longhand, thinking, then transforming the thoughts into words on the keyboard; the very process the difference engine was designed to make redundant. The red ink had congealed and dried out in the bottle, so I had an unfinished story written longhand, with no ink to continue writing, nor edit if I were able to. The conditions were perfect for a working test of the difference engine: I would have to finish the story on the keyboard, relinquishing more control to the engine in finishing my work.

I wasn’t ready to be made entirely redundant, as humans had been by machines in the industrial age and now, by computers in the technological age. The difference engine could assist and replace writers up to a certain level, but there will always be that which only a human can do: Produce works which have the human touch. Like the finest paintings and sculptures, it requires human soul to produce art which is striking and open to interpretation, even if it’s the flaws of the human creator which make it unique.

Rupert was stirring, disturbing the cushions on the couch as he slipped between wakefulness and slumber.

Generally speaking, we are never aware of that moment when we drift off to sleep. As autonomous, self-determining beings, we are aware that we were awake before we slept. And when we awake, we remember being awake before sleep. Dreams aside, we don’t remember the part in between. Even when we do, we can never recall the moment of actually passing from one state to another.

There is a little-practised discipline of lucid dreaming, where the mind can be trained to recognise that it is conscious, yet not physically awake. With training, the lucid dreamer can recognise that they are in a dream and take control of it. It’s a technique which takes much practice to master and maintain. To begin with, the trainee will repeat to themselves a mantra, like ‘I am falling asleep…’. For many months of nightly practice thereafter, the trainee will simply pass into sleep and wake again, unaware of the moment of transition.

Next comes choosing a focus point: In my case, a clock. My sleep patterns are regular, so there are certain combinations of digits on a digital 24-hour clock which I never see in my wakeful state: say, 03.41. The numbers are arbitrary, but that was my focus, and the thought which I took with me as I fell asleep each night. After several weeks of practice, it suddenly worked one night: I rose, needing the bathroom. I checked the time and it was 04.38: A time I wasn’t used to, so on the clock, a sight I wasn’t accustomed to. I was dreaming, and as soon as I realised, I grew excited and woke with a start. It felt like being woken from a sleep walk.

Gradually, I taught myself to suppress my feelings when I witnessed a nocturnal hour on the clock. In doing so, I remained in control of my dream without breaking out of it. As my confidence grew, I found I could literally do as I pleased. I could fly, to anywhere. I could be invisible and eavesdrop, on anyone. It was all in my dream scape, but when I’d truly mastered the technique, so that waking dreams were part of the normal day, I found that strange things started to happen. Every day, I would retire for the night, then be unaware of the moment I fell asleep. As far as I was concerned, I’d just lain awake, rising and noting the time as 03.18, or whatever as being normal, no longer associated with the dreaming. This would go on and I’d rise for the day, with memories from the day before unbroken in my mind. Life had become one long day.

But in the dark day, my term for the one lived asleep, I was free. No computer or AI could claim that. Do androids dream of electric sheep?

I cradled Rupert’s head as his mind slipped between those waking and sleeping states, while I tilted coffee into his mouth. The caffeine would increase his awareness of his surroundings, but not a sobering up as such. The flunitrazepam would help him fall into a deep sleep, so that he could allow himself to be transported through his dream scape. He’d be physically paralysed, but with a heightened mental awareness of the dream. I was gifting lucidity, which had taken me so long to master. Flunitrazepam is a drug known as a hypnotic. It won’t give the same lucid fluidity which much practice had taught me, and the subject would be without clarity in memory, unlike that which burdened me. But he would be guided by me, an invisible hand-holder while he was trapped in his thoughts.

I cooked a rump steak while Rupert drifted: onto a smoking hot pan, for just two minutes on each side, without disturbing it as it tightened and tried to retreat from the searing heat. I lifted the cooked steak onto a warm plate and set it aside to rest. The fresh, red meat was crossed with sear marks, as if from a branding iron. The thick layer of outer fat was caramelised on the edges, but otherwise, white, soft, supple, and oozing juices, which mixed with the blood from the cooling meat. I left it to relax and chill slightly for five minutes, like a drugged teenager before penetration.

I tested a theory while I waited. The blood which flows through our bodies is only red when it’s oxygenated by the heart and travels through the arteries. Blood passing through the veins is de-oxygenated, and therefore blue. Unless the subject is in a vacuum, cutting a vein will produce red blood, as the blood cells come into contact with the oxygen in the air. I wondered if my fountain pen’s loading mechanism would maintain a vacuum.

The nib of my pen was sufficiently sharp to penetrate his skin and only rouse him slightly, like a conscious person being aware of an itch: Not in a place which can’t be reached, but somewhere indeterminate. Like all fountain pens, mine has a split nib. The aperture between the splayed teeth allows ink to flow through the nib, to be absorbed into the paper. The ink is stored in the barrel of the pen, and it’s drawn from an ink well through an aperture above the split tongue which delivers it. The piston mechanism drew blood from the vein, but any which came into contact with the air instantly turned red. Only if the reservoir was air tight would I collect blue blood. My fascination then, was whether his blood would remain blue in the reservoir. Of course, I’d created a paradox, like some sort of Schrödinger’s ink. Assuming the blood had been pumped into the pen, above the penetrating points of the nib, without coming into contact with the air, then the ink stored in the pen would be blue. I had no way of knowing, because the intake was hidden from my view during the pumping process. The simple act of writing with the pen would produce red ink, as it emerged from the barrel and came into contact with the air before being absorbed into the paper. Aside from dismantling the pen, the act of writing would be the catalyst which brought the words into being. The paradox was whether the words began their journey as blue or red ink: Original prose, or edited. I withdrew the nib of the pen and pressed on the wound to stem the blood.

The steak had cooled, as confirmed by a prod of my finger which registered only a little heat: Slightly above room temperature. Ambient body temperature, but slightly warmer, like the inside of a penetrable orifice. A gentle push of the finger into the flesh gives a clue to the inside: If the meat feels like a person’s cheek, or the base of the thumb on the palm of their hand, then it is too rare. It will be too tight to yield to gentle chewing, and it will bleed too much. If the flesh feels like pressing upon a forehead, or a knuckle, then the meat is too well-done, too resistant. Perfect ripeness lies in between, where the flesh of the beef is like the chin of a child’s face, or the fleshy back of the hand, between the thumb and forefinger, where one grasps a child’s hand with one’s thumb to lead them somewhere.

I sat with Rupert while I carved the steak, and talked about his daughter and how she was with us. He was awake only subconsciously, receptive to my hypnotic suggestion. His daughter was small, blonde and pretty, if one were that way inclined. He had a photo of her in a bikini on his phone, which I described in detail, using imagination for the unseen parts. Blood and fat oozed from the meat as I pierced it, then splayed the steak open to reveal a tender pink; the perfect medium-rare. I relished a few mouthfuls of perfectly aged and cooked meat, then I fashioned the remainder into a vagina. The fatty edge was the one which would be penetrated, like the soft, fatty white flesh of a labia. It gave way to folds of pink, slightly bloody, warm, soft and yielding meat inside.

My hypnotic description of his naked daughter had clearly worked, as he was aroused. Not wanting to actually touch any skin, I placed the steak in the palm of one hand, while I pulled his trousers and shorts down with the other. Then I gripped the steak around his hardened cock and started to masturbate him, while describing his daughter allowing him to enter her, then gradually getting comfortable with him inside her, before starting to move up and down on him. I gripped tighter as his little girl squeezed his shaft with her vagina and drew his foreskin down further and more firmly, deeper into her. I felt him twitch, so I slowed down. Whether he really wanted to or not, in his lucid state he was fucking his 14-year-old daughter, and I wanted it to last. I wanted him to know how a little boy would feel as he fucked his daughter. As I felt him unload in his daughter’s vagina, I gripped as though I was trying to pop a rodent like a tube of congealed glue. I pulled his foreskin down, hard and fast, then harder and further, until his frenulum snapped. A globule of blood bulged from the severed end, so I rolled his foreskin back over the glans of his penis and gripped it closed, so that his cock began to swell like a pink balloon. I’m sure his daughter would love a pink balloon, like the kind she’d get at a fairground from a traveller, before opening her legs for him round the back of a ride or a stall. I tied daddy’s cock off with fishing line around his foreskin, so as not to stain his expensive underwear.

Given that the rectum was practically staring me in the face, I evened things out a bit, in terms of Rupert’s daughter. I penetrated his anally, for what may or may not have been his first time. I started with a household candle, its wax composition giving it lubricant properties. His sphincter yielded easily to the wick end, then gradually relaxed as I pushed the candle in deeper. Not wishing to touch him directly, I again used the steak as protection. I turned it over, so that the side coated in his spunk was outermost. Then I gradually manipulated his anus, so that the steak started to enter it in such a way as to produce an internal funnel; an extra layer of thick flesh, both penetrating and lining his rectum. Once it was almost fully inserted, I artfully splayed out the protruding edge which hung from his sphincter. A special effects artist on a budget would be proud of such a prolapsed colon.

I re-dressed Rupert and enjoyed a fine bourbon as I surveyed a job well done, to make a story worth telling. He would remember little of the night, perhaps causing him a little embarrassment with his subordinates. But he’d wake up at his own home and assume he got there directly from the Lamb and Flag. Quite when he addressed the issues in his pants depended on many things, but none were my problem. I helped him outside and propped him up while I hailed a cab. I knew his address of course.

London cabbies are a mine of information, both given and received. In the rear view mirror, this cabby perhaps saw an incapable man being helped home by a friend, if he saw anything at all.

I had yet to write it all up, so the paradox of the blue / red ink remained. Or I could just type it, directly from memory, to test the difference engine and see what it made of things. Difference engine or not, the words which anyone reads will be the ones which were produced by my typewriter. If the resulting story were to be read, I was confident the difference engine would write it in prose which would only improve the story, by making it more thought provoking. It might add unwritten subtexts, prompting questions. It may make the story seem as though it actually happened, other than in someone’s imagination.

So the whole story was entrusted to the difference engine. It was up to the engine how much was revealed in the final story, like how I’d acquired it and who had given it to me. It might skip over such details, if it feels that the story itself is good enough to be a distraction and carry the reader through without them feeling the need to question. It may be that people get to the end of this story and not even know who I am, what my name is, or even my gender, because it didn’t occur to them.

I was truly invisible.

Difference engine mask
Image: Pinterest

© Steve Laker, 2017

My first collection of short stories is available now, and the Douglas Adams tribute novel will be out soon.