A timeless plot device

FICTION

In one of the stories in The Unfinished Literary Agency, a writer loses his most cherished possession: a pen. Even though I prefer to use a keyboard (I can type faster than I write (neatly, at least)), and although I refer to my laptop as a typewriter, the pen (or pencil) is the most basic, portable and enduring tool of the writer. And so it is in this other story, where it’s used as a plot device. A previous draft of this appeared on this blog, but this is the final version, from the book.

I used to think I might one day be a prominent scientist or writer. When I became neither, I decided to be a sci-fi writer, and apparently I’m quite good at that. This story was co-written with my son (13), who knows about as much of what he wants to do with his life as I did at that age. One of his many aspirations is to be a writer, and although I’ve advised him not to take the route I did, I’ll encourage him only if he decides that’s what he wants to do. Whatever he does, he has a story in a published book with an ISBN, which grants him some sort of immortality. He’s got a copy of the book, but he’s a teenager, so it’s easier for his peers to read it on a screen…

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THE BEST LAID PLANS

The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of copying us, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.

Animal people live alongside a different race: sentient, non-organic, technological beings. And the robots are correct, that they came from the stars, as did we all, and that theirs was a slow evolution with a sudden growth spurt.

There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on their own home world. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Her son once wrote a plan, presumably one of many, as this was ‘Plan 96’, and all in longhand, using an old silver and black pen. At the time, he’d said it was a story he was working on, but he wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. So he left it behind when the humans left Earth. Now the boy is grown up and lost on the home world, wondering what happened to it.

On Earth 3.0 for the most part, industry is confined to the cloud cities, while the planet itself has been left to nature. In 2142, The Shard is a glacial Christmas tree, abandoned by humans a century before and now a towering forest, as nature quickly moved in.

As Eve walked over London Bridge, the locals – known for their tameness – were keen to greet her arrival. Beavers looked from their dams on the Thames, and a group of crows congregated on the handrail. As a collective noun, they were more a horde than a murder.

Hello, human,” one of them said.

“Hello,” Eve replied.

“What’s your name?” The crow asked.

“Eve.”

“Oh no, not again,” the crow said. Then the horde departed, without any enquiry of her business there.

In Threadneedle Street, the old lady slept under a blanket of ivy, as the Bank of England sat on vaults of human gold. The Old Bailey was tightly wrapped in green vines, where various birds conducted industry, and squirrels and monkeys picked fruit. The British Museum somehow looked as it always should, the building itself now preserved as a record of humanity and maintained by wildlife. The British Library too, where all of mankind’s writing is archived, everything with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Goswell Road is still long, but now a wide, wooded path to Islington, and Hotblack Desiato’s old office.

A winding wooden staircase took Eve up to The Unfinished Literary Agency, a small, dark room on the top floor, with a crudely-cut window, about the size of a letterbox, at waist height on the far wall.

Inside was surprisingly clean for an office vacated a century before. Eve wondered who’d maintained it, or perhaps who’d remained after the human exodus. She sat at the desk and tried the lamp. It worked.

The walls were full of shelves, with manuscripts stacked a foot high. More were piled on the floor, and in the tray on the desk. There were hundreds of unwritten books, all untold human stories.

Eve looked in the drawers of the desk: Pens, notepads and other stationery, some candles and a tobacco tin. Then she found a name plate, the Toblerone sort that sits on a desk. In Helvetica black upper case, the name proudly proclaimed itself:

PROF. J.C. HESTER

Eve picked up a bound manuscript from the tray and began to flick through it. Someone had gone to the trouble of drawing a flick book animation in the bottom corner, a simple space rocket taking off in a cloud of smoke, with a person’s face looking from the only porthole. After this five second stick cartoon, the manuscript was entitled ‘So long, and thanks for all the humans, by MC Katze’. It was the story of a man and his cat, in which the cat takes her human to another planet, so that he can see the utopia awaiting mankind in the land promised to them. The twist in the tale is, the cat was an agent of Erwin Schrödinger, who told the human she was operating the spacecraft from inside a box on the flight deck, when she was actually flying it by remote control, and not in the box at all.

Eve heard a noise she wasn’t expecting, which worried her more than it would if it was expected. Her ostiumtractophobia (specifically, a fear of door knobs) was rooted in childhood, when someone (or something) outside had tried the handle of her locked bedroom door. The sound of keys in the door – perhaps ones she’d lost earlier – would be more paralysing still, if it were her door the keys were in.

The already-unlocked door of the office slowly swung open, and a character from one of the Earth 3.0 documentaries she’d watched on the home world walked in.

Looking very much professorial, in a tweed three-piece, topped with a flat cap and a monocle, a chimpanzee walked upright into the room.

“Greetings,” he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. “It’s the Babel fish,” the chimp said. “Well, it’s not a fish,” he continued, “but that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?”

“Erm, yes,” Eve replied, “I’ve heard of the Babel fish…”

“Well,” said the chimp, then paused. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m Jules.” He offered a hand.

“Jules.” Eve shook his hand. “I’m Eve.”

“Yes,” Jules said, “short for Julio, see, Jules I mean? Except it’s not, it’s still got five letters. It’s just quicker to say, with only the one syllable. Here’s a funny thing…” Jules lowered himself onto a pile of manuscripts.

“Would you like your chair?”

“Oh no, that’s not my chair. That was here when I arrived, so I’m sort of squatting here now. Besides, sometimes it feels more natural like this. Instinct I suppose.”

“So,” Eve sat back, “this funny thing?”

“Oh yes. Just one of many anecdotes left over by the humans. You’ll be aware of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I assume?”

“Yes, he invented the world wide web.”

“Clever chap, yes. But here’s the funny thing. The words, world wide and web, are all one syllable. But abbreviated, it’s double-you, double-you, double-you. That’s nine syllables, which is a lot. But I read somewhere that someone suggested he called his invention ‘The Internet Machine’. Well, abbreviated, that would be TIM. And apparently, he was such a modest man, that not only did he give it away for free, he didn’t seek fame or fortune, he just did it for the greater good. It may be apocryphal, but we like it. It’s a rare example of man’s humility, and the web was altruism which could have saved many species. But it all went a bit King Kong didn’t it?”

“It did,” Eve paused. “But you were saying about the Babel fish?”

“Oh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Well, the name just stuck, in a tributary way. You know, not like the geographical river ones, but an historical – and it is an an, with a silent aitch – tribute. But now it’s the universal translation system for the world population.”

“But how can I hear you?”

“Oh, I see, yes. Well, it’s not an implant or anything now, no. No, without getting too technical (not my area), it’s carried in the wind, in radio waves, which are only audible to the subconscious. The upshot is, everyone speaks the same language. And really, that was mankind’s biggest mistake.”

“One of them.”

“Yes, there were a few. But there’d been researchers and ethics committees, scientific essays and peer-reviewed papers, and they all agreed that giving universal translation to the public would generally be a bad idea. Then Google just did it anyway.”

“And others followed.”

“Many. Then everyone.”

“So,” Eve wondered, “the professorship?”

“Oh that. The prof is in English, language, yes. Before that, my doctorate was in human psychology. I think the way the world changed was what guided me more into the languages, you know, in case they died out, with everyone using the Babel fish and all, and technology always hurrying them along. And the thing about being a professor is, I teach teachers how to teach teachers to teach, which I rather like. Took a jolly lot of work though.

“But next, I want to do something different. I’m studying history, so I can teach the teachers about how it all went wrong. Because although the humans are gone, their past can teach us a lot.

“I’m not a religious man, but whenever someone said everyone shouldn’t speak the same language, they might have been right. It’s a good thing if you’re a species evolved enough to debate, but take away certain barriers and an immature race will abuse it, with some using it for their own gain and not for the greater good. Someone was always going to package it up and sell it as a religion, or make it some kind of privilege, when it was around all the time. Us animals – as you used to call us – us people, had been communicating for many thousands of years before humans came along. Then the humans found out and wanted it for themselves.

“It’s a tragic story but it’s a lesson from history which I’d like to tell others about, and of how that led to the evolution of the planet we see around us now. So it was all for the good really. I only hope humanity took that lesson away with them.”

“It might be too early to tell,” Eve said.

“How are things over there?” the professor wondered.

“Lonely.”

“That’s the thing with humans. When we look at your monuments, buildings, and many follies, you are capable of such beautiful dreams. But within those are some terrible nightmares.”

“I know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

“Who’s she?”

“He. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.”

“A dreamer then? And that’s the sad thing. Humans who dream are ridiculed if they speak of their visions. They become suppressed. But allowed to explore and discover, those people can transcend accepted human wisdom, in things like politics, which was a human invention anyway.

“Anarchy is not chaos, when people are trusted to be individually empowered. An evolved race will sort it all out. But the ones who rise above it all are feared by those who govern and rule, and that leads to conflict. Conflict gets no-one anywhere, but debate can increase mutual understanding to find peaceful solutions. Too many humans were greedy, not just financially but morally.

“I studied human politics for a while, and I had to conclude, it was quite a waste of time, for the humans. All it did was hold them back. It was a system which kept radical thinkers beyond its borders of conditioning. And the radical thinkers were only just getting a voice when everyone else did, so it got deafening.

“If you ask me, I’d say most humans are essentially left-wing by nature, only becoming conditioned otherwise. Wherever you lie (or tell the truth) on the political spectrum, beyond that, you’re all human. Yet the one thing you all have in common is the very thing which drives you apart. Individuality is to be encouraged, but you can’t think as one. You’re generally a socially aware species. It’s just a shame there were so many who didn’t qualify by that credential.”

“You have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Eve said, looking around the room.

“Sometimes it helps not to be one to know one.”

“Do you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?”

“I think there’s one thing it will never be able to do, because it shouldn’t, and it ought to remain impossible. That thing, would be the interpretation of messages, of how they’re perceived by the receiver, which of course is completely subjective on the part of the individual, regardless of the intention of the messenger. Words only have meaning for some people if a specific person says them. The Babel fish is a translation device, not an interpreter. Too many humans, in their cut-off personal worlds, their microcosm universes, their ignorance and laziness, quite literally took too many things far too literally. And a breakdown in communication is conflict by any other name.

“But even more fundamental, was humans’ sense of entitlement. A progressive race, but for their own gains. I know there are millions of exceptions, and it’s equally tragic that their voices were silenced. But back in human politics, that would be a victory for the right. More of you need to find your left wings, outside of your politics. You need to metaphorically fly free, or be allowed to, without those wings being clipped.

“There’s a passage I’ve memorised, from one of your films. ‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’. It was a film one of the crows showed me. Her ten-times-great grandfather had a cameo in that film. He’s uncredited though.”

“That was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

“Yes, very good too. Now there was a human who used an unfair situation which had been forced upon him, to do good for others, to blow a whistle and bring down a dictatorship. He quietly went about a longer plan, rarely drawing attention, then escaped the tyranny. I suppose we miss those kinds of people, the free in spirit. We are all spirits when we sleep, after all, with the means for the enquiring mind to explore the universe.”

“Some more than others,” Eve added, looking out of the window. “When all we needed to do was keep talking.”

“Quite ironic really, isn’t it?”

“Looked at like this, yes.”

“But you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.”

“It’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.”

“Well, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.”

“He was in London Zoo?”

“Chester actually. We moved down to London when the zoos closed. All my family as far as I can trace, were captive bred, as they used to be called. But my great, great grandfather was an immigrant from New York, and he’s the first I can find with the family name Hester.”

“Er, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. “Well, Boris – that’s my great, great grandfather – was rescued by a writer called Hester Mundis. She found him in a pet shop when he was young. She bought him, not as a pet, but to liberate him, and he lived with her and her eight-year-old son, in their apartment in Manhattan. I know Hester was expecting another child, so she found Boris a home with other chimps in Chester, and I gather he was on TV a few times. She wrote about him too, so he was immortalised in books, which must be a nice thing to have happen to yourself.

“So we took her name, because she became mum to my orphaned or kidnapped great, great grandfather. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be here. I may never have been.”

“And you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

“I worked a lot of other things out there. You do, when you have the time and your basic needs are taken care of.”

“You didn’t feel imprisoned?”

“I’d never known anything else. I was never in the wild. Perhaps one day I’ll visit my own home country, but I learned a lot when humans were in charge. There are lots of arguments for and against on both sides. Those are less relevant now, but future historians will have plenty to write about. For now, I have plenty to write of here.”

“Why’s that?”

“Let’s rewind a little. A long time ago, a human said that given an infinite supply of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And it stands to reason that, given those resources, they would. But we wondered, why? What would be the point?”

“It was a human thing?”

“It was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.”

“Which was?”

“The monkeys. No offence to those with tails, but what it really needed was apes. You don’t even need an infinite number of them.

“So after we’d finished reproducing Shakespeare’s works, we got started on the next plan. Then we quickly realised we might need more writers. Not an infinite supply, but far more than we have. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.”

“What’s not?”

“Plan 96 is to discover and write the answer to the ultimate question, that of life, the universe and everything. But infinite apes aside, I don’t think humans are looking in the right place.”

“So where do we look?”

“Look into your heart, and don’t be afraid of yourself, because people might like that person.

“This was only your temporary home. You were squatters here before your nomadic race continued their journey, to find themselves. For now, you are gone from here, and you need to return to yourself. But there’s a record of how it all started, and how things panned out, right here, where it began.

“It all started with a simple device: an old pen, and it’s a story close to my heart. But now it’s yours.”

Jules reached into his breast pocket and handed Eve a silver and black pen.

© Louis Laker and Steve Laker.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

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A finished literary urgency

NEW BOOK

I’m sure there’s significance in my fifth book being published on the fifth of the month, but I can’t find any, other than this being the beginning of my fifth year as a writer. Not bad for an alcoholic ex-tramp (Charles Bukowski obviously taught me something). There’s a certain urgency to The Unfinished Literary Agency, in my visions of the future, some of them post-human…

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The Unfinished Literary Agency is a second collection of short stories (there are 20 in this one), which stand alone, but which tell a longer narrative collected together. Although there are some dark tales in the book, it’s suitable for a wide audience of various types, and has humour in the horror. For the most part, it’s science fiction, mainly set in the near-future, and it vindicates my plaudit of being a writer who can see deep into the human condition (and sentient AI and animals).

These are collected tales from an author variously compared to the surrealists Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, the horror writers Kafka, Lovecraft, King and Poe, and with Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Roald Dahl and Paul Auster.

A writer who can hold a black mirror to the soul, and who has a deep insight into the human condition,” these are stories of fairy tale fantasy, plausible and whimsical science fiction, near-future vision and surreal dreams, with drops of dark humour. Tales of post-human landscapes mix with everyday slices of life to tell a longer story with a dark heart.

A weird and thought-provoking journey…”

It was an enjoyable book to write and I’ve had good feedback from test readers. Like most writers (who are honest and want their books to be read), I always feel my latest is my best so far. Of this one, I’d say it’s a measure of me as a writer, and Cyrus Song is the one I hang my novelist’s hat on. Those are statements which can only be put to the test of course, if people read my books.

If someone new to my writing were to ask, I’d say read The Unfinished Literary Agency, to get an idea in bite-size chunks. Anyone with more time on their hands who wants a longer book to hold with them, could do far worse with many other novelists, and there is a plausible answer to the question of life, the universe and everything in Cyrus Song.

Four years ago, I was homeless and drunk. That’s a whole other story, but what I’ve done since is written five books. I feel I’ve earned the modest readership I enjoy, and I hope that following will grow as more people read my words. It’s the perfect way for the socially anxious writer to make friends and meet kindred spirits.

The Unfinished Literary Agency and Cyrus Song are available now.

My human existential crisis

THE WRITER’S LIFE

When much of humanity is in its own self-made restrictive bubble, I try to transcend and look in. Although I’m prone to existential crises of the personal kind, I also think of the extinction of the human race (and not just for pleasure). These are the things which occupy my mind, in real life and as a science fiction writer.

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Much has been written about the end of humanity and what form an extinction event might take, and some of it by me (the writing, not the event). The most immediate threat to an entire race and their planet is a nuclear war, but my money’s on AI or plastics (or cats), assuming we’re all still here in a couple of weeks. In any case, there’s no harm in speculating, and now is as good a time as any.

The saddest human legacy will most likely be that we used the technology we created to destroy ourselves, when we could have used it to explore and discover. But even with the accelerated technological progress we’re seeing now, there simply might not be time. It will be centuries and not decades for example, before we can reach stars beyond our own. Unless our species changes quickly, I don’t see us making it that far. A nuclear holocaust would be over in days.

Closer to home, the UK is very much a developing Les Miserables. In near-future fiction and in satire, I’ve foreseen an eruption of the unrest currently developing in the real world, where sections of the population are made sick and tired by the current ruling class. I’ve written of how a third party intervention might be the only way to stop an arrogant, self-serving, destructive government. Perhaps there’ll be riots on the streets and the government imposes marshal law. Then an anonymous blackmailer suddenly holds the nation’s communications to ransom: ‘Hold a general election and let the people decide, then we will return your internet.’ It would be effective. Well, one can live in hope.

The internet itself is a danger in the wrong hands. In an age of fake news, and gullible readers too ignorant to check facts and sources. These people are blind to their own manipulation and conditioning, but it’s in the wider realms of technology that the more existential threats lie.

Artificial intelligence is quite literally that: An intelligence which has been manufactured. There are those who believe this gives sentience to some AI (in Japan, technological beings are treated as a species), and some AI themselves might argue that we all came from the Big Bang, it’s just that they had a long incubation followed by a gradually exponential growth spurt.

Currently, artificial intelligence is being set to task on a number of projects, quite literally thinking about a problem. They are self-learning and have far greater processing capacity than a human brain. So given the time, AI could think of a cure for cancer. It took Deep Thought 7.5 million years to come up with the answer to life, the universe and everything as 42, but with the development of quantum computers, another answer might take just a few minutes to calculate. In darker science fiction, a quantum AI could conclude that the human condition is an incurable one and that we’re a waste of resources. Self-replicating nano machines could wipe out our race in seconds.

And then there’s plastics, possibly mankind’s most destructive invention, potentially more so than a global nuclear conflict, with much irreversible damage already done. After decades of producing this toxic alchemy, we’re only now seeing the destruction, down to micro particles in our oceans and in our drinking water. We are all part-plastic, toxic waste, and we know not what the long-term effects might be. Because we were in so much of a hurry and we didn’t think.

I can’t help thinking (among other things), that our own planet (the one we share with the animal people) might be glad to see the plastic population go, and some of my recent and current writing is based in post-human theatres. The end could be long and painful, or it might be so sudden that we don’t even realise.

Unless we make some changes pretty quick, unless we hurry up and think differently, we’re a bit fucked really, aren’t we mankind?

I have a book out next week, telling tales of all these things, and together they tell a longer story. I already wrote a novel which gives a perfectly plausible answer to the question of life, the universe and everything. Hopefully people will be around for long enough to read them.

The greatest threat of all, will always be those who seek to suppress the thoughts of others.

An aardvark in the air tonight

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Like everyone else, I was saddened by the news of the fire at London Zoo. It’s a place I know very well, from several visits over many years, and one very close to my heart when I wrote Cyrus Song. Four meerkat brothers are missing presumed dead, an aardvark called Misha perished, and I lost a little friend.

Misha and OttoMisha and Otto

I first visited London Zoo in 1977 on a primary school trip. Back then the big draw was Guy the gorilla, and we happened to visit on the day he died. Hoping I hadn’t cursed the place, I’ve returned many times since without incident, and most recently for the chapters of Cyrus Song which are set there.

A lot of research went into the book, to make the science plausible and the characters real. The three human leads each have a notebook on a shelf in my studio, containing their life stories, very little of which made it into the novel, but it was knowing the characters which allowed me to bring them to life in the unwritten words. I familiarised myself with London Zoo’s ‘Inventory’, and researched many of the species therein, so that I could give them voice and personality through the Babel fish.

Unfortunately on the day Simon Fry visited, the aardvarks were asleep:

There were too many interesting animals I wanted to speak to for me to be able to place them in any sort of order. So I decided to just go from A to Z. In the time available, I’d probably be able to speak to the aardvarks and the zebras, but very few others. But the big draw for me was the reptile house: Not because of my fascination with snakes in general, but because London Zoo is home to one male and one female black mamba.

Of course it would be handy if London Zoo laid out all of their exhibits alphabetically, but that wouldn’t be practical, so they didn’t. This being a warm spring Sunday afternoon, the zoo was quite busy. The aardvarks are in the ‘Animal Adventure’ area, which is mainly for young people. And aardvarks are nocturnal, so they were asleep. Which was a shame, because Misha and Otto looked like a couple very much at ease in one another’s company, at least when asleep. Otto had arrived from Berlin Zoo in 2014, so I’d have liked to ask him about that city, and whether he’d seen David Bowie.

It’s cold comfort that the post mortem shows she died of smoke inhalation in her sleep. But there she was, little Misha, curled up with Otto and both looking very pleased with themselves in dreams. I can only imagine how the guy from Berlin must be feeling now, but I do know that the zoo staff are very socially aware with the animal people, so he’ll be getting some sort of aardvark counselling. If only he could read my book, he’d see that I put him and Misha (she was from Holland) in a story which changed a lot of lives, and gives a perfectly reasonable answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything.

I’ve written many times of how I don’t write for the money, because there’s hardly any for the undiscovered self-publishing masses. I have my basic needs covered, so anything I make from writing I give away. I can hardly be called a philanthropist, as it’s really not much, but it’s what I don’t need. When life decided to give me a second chance, I resolved I’d pay it back.

As well as the charitable donations, I make my books available in libraries (on request), as I realise not everyone can afford books (I couldn’t once, and I used to base myself in a library when I was living on the streets). For those who can afford books, buying mine benefits good causes (mainly animal, homeless and addiction) and hopefully delivers a good read. Of course, anyone can donate directly to the charities but if we’re honest, most won’t. If someone’s buying a book anyway (because it’s received good reviews), the altruism by proxy is a small bonus. So it seemed only right to donate any proceeds from the sale of Cyrus Song in January to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the whole science side of the zoo which the public displays and learning support.

I shan’t milk the passing of every individual leaf cutter ant to plug my book, but Misha has a place in my heart from it.

History predicts that each new book increases interest in preceding ones, so with The Unfinished Literary Agency almost finished, Cyrus Song might get noticed more. And that’s good for Misha and Otto.

In loving memory of Misha Aardvark, 20.06.07 – 23.12.17

Worlds apart, connected by words

FICTION

Some time ago, someone started writing a story, and not long after, they stopped. It made its way to The Unfinished Literary Agency, where some writers got together to tell the story. And writers create worlds…

Return to Innocence

THE BEST LAID PLANS

The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of copying us, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.

The animal people live alongside a different race: sentient, non-organic, technological beings. And the robots are correct, that they came from the stars, as did we all, and that theirs was a slow evolution with a sudden growth spurt.

There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on their own home world. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Her son once wrote a plan, presumably one of many, as this was ‘Plan 96’. At the time, he’d said it was a story he was working on, but he wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. So he left it behind when the humans left Earth. Now the boy is grown up and lost on the home world, wondering what happened to it.

On Earth 3.0 for the most part, industry is confined to the cloud cities, while the planet itself has been left to nature. In 2142, The Shard is a glacial Christmas tree, abandoned by humans a century before and now a towering forest, as nature quickly moved in.

As Eve walked over London Bridge, the locals – known for their tameness – were keen to greet her arrival. Beavers looked from their dams on the Thames, and a group of crows congregated on the handrail. As a collective noun, they were more a horde than a murder. “Hello, human,” one of them said.

Hello,” Eve replied.

What’s your name?” The crow asked.

Eve.”

Oh no, not again,” the crow said. Then the horde departed, without any enquiry of her business there.

In Threadneedle Street, the old lady slept under a blanket of ivy, as the Bank of England sat on vaults of human gold. The Old Bailey was tightly wrapped in green vines, where various birds conducted industry, and squirrels and monkeys picked fruit. The British Museum somehow looked as it always should, the building itself now preserved as a record of humanity and maintained by wildlife. The British Library too, where all of mankind’s writing is archived, everything with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Goswell Road is still long, but now a wide, wooded path to Islington, and Hotblack Deisato’s old office.

A winding wooden staircase took Eve up to The Unfinished Literary Agency, a small, dark room on the top floor, with a crudely-cut window, about the size of a letterbox, at waist height on the far wall.

Inside was surprisingly clean for an office vacated a century before. Eve wondered who’d maintained it, or perhaps who’d remained after the human exodus. She sat at the desk and tried the lamp. It worked.

The walls were full of shelves, with manuscripts stacked a foot high. More were piled on the floor, and in the tray on the desk. There were hundreds of unwritten books, all untold human stories.

Eve looked in the drawers of the desk: Pens, notepads and other stationery, some candles and a tobacco tin. Then she found a name plate, the Toblerone sort that sits on a desk. In Helvetica black upper case, the name proudly proclaimed itself:

PROF. J.C. HESTER

Eve picked up a bound manuscript from the tray and began to flick through it. Someone had gone to the trouble of drawing a flick book animation in the bottom corner, a simple space rocket taking off in a cloud of smoke, with a person’s face looking from the only porthole. After this five second stick cartoon, the manuscript was entitled ‘So long, and thanks for all the humans, by MC Katze’. It was the story of a man and his cat, in which the cat takes her human to another planet, so that he can see the utopia awaiting mankind in the land promised to them. The twist in the tale is, the cat was an agent of Erwin Schrödinger, who told the human she was operating the spacecraft from inside a box on the flight deck, when she was actually flying it by remote control, and not in the box at all.

Eve heard a noise she wasn’t expecting, which worried her more than it would if it was expected. Her ostiumtractophobia (specifically, a fear of door knobs) was rooted in childhood, when someone (or something) outside had tried the handle of her locked bedroom door. The sound of keys in the door – perhaps ones she’d lost earlier – would be more paralysing still, if it were her door the keys were in.

The already-unlocked door of the office slowly swung open, and a character from one of the Earth 3.0 documentaries she’d watched on the home world walked in.

Looking very much professorial, in a tweed three-piece, topped with a flat cap and a monocle, a chimpanzee walked upright into the room. “Greetings,” he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. “It’s the Babel fish,” the chimp said. “Well, it’s not a fish,” he continued, “but that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?”

Erm, yes,” Eve replied, “I’ve heard of the Babel fish…”

Well,” said the chimp, then paused. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m Jules.” He offered a hand.

Jules.” Eve shook his hand. “I’m Eve.”

Yes,” Jules said, “short for Julio, see, Jules I mean? Except it’s not, it’s still got five letters. It’s just quicker to say, with only the one syllable. Here’s a funny thing…” Jules lowered himself onto a pile of manuscripts.

Would you like your chair?”

Oh no, that’s not my chair. That was here when I arrived, so I’m sort of squatting here now. Besides, sometimes it feels more natural like this. Instinct I suppose.”

So,” Eve sat back, “this funny thing?”

Oh yes. Just one of many anecdotes left over by the humans. You’ll be aware of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I assume?”

Yes, he invented the world wide web.”

Clever chap, yes. But here’s the funny thing. The words, world wide and web, are all one syllable. But abbreviated, it’s double-you, double-you, double-you. That’s nine syllables, which is a lot. But I read somewhere that someone suggested he called his invention ‘The Internet Machine’. Well, abbreviated, that would be TIM. And apparently, he was such a modest man, that not only did he give it away for free, he didn’t seek fame or fortune, he just did it for the greater good. It may be apocryphal, but we like it. It’s a rare example of man’s humility, and the web was altruism which could have saved many species. But it all went a bit King Kong didn’t it?”

It did,” Eve paused. “But you were saying about the Babel fish?”

Oh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Well, the name just stuck, in a tributary way. You know, not like the geographical river ones, but an historical – and it is an an, with a silent aitch – tribute. But now it’s the universal translation system for the world population.”

But how can I hear you?”

Oh, I see, yes. Well, it’s not an implant or anything now, no. No, without getting too technical (not my area), it’s carried in the wind, in radio waves, which are only audible to the subconscious. The upshot is, everyone speaks the same language. And really, that was mankind’s biggest mistake.”

One of them.”

Yes, there were a few. But there’d been researchers and ethics committees, scientific essays and peer-reviewed papers, and they all agreed that giving universal translation to the public would generally be a bad idea. Then Google just did it anyway.”

And others followed.”

Many. Then everyone.”

So,” Eve wondered, “the professorship?”

Oh that. The prof is in English, language, yes. Before that, my doctorate was in human psychology. I think the way the world changed was what guided me more into the languages, you know, in case they died out, with everyone using the Babel fish and all, and technology always hurrying them along. And the thing about being a professor is, I teach teachers how to teach teachers to teach, which I rather like. Took a jolly lot of work though.

But next, I want to do something different. I’m studying history, so I can teach the teachers about how it all went wrong. Because although the humans are gone, their past can teach us a lot.

I’m not a religious man, but whenever someone said everyone shouldn’t speak the same language, they might have been right. It’s a good thing if you’re a species evolved enough to debate, but take away certain barriers and an immature race will abuse it, with some using it for their own gain and not for the greater good. Someone was always going to package it up and sell it as a religion, or make it some kind of privilege, when it was around all the time. Us animals – as you used to call us – us people, had been communicating for many thousands of years before humans came along. Then the humans found out and wanted it for themselves.

It’s a tragic story but it’s a lesson from history which I’d like to tell others about, and of how that led to the evolution of the planet we see around us now. So it was all for the good really. I only hope humanity took that lesson away with them.”

It might be too early to tell,” Eve said.

How are things over there?” the professor wondered.

Lonely.”

That’s the thing with humans. When we look at your monuments, buildings, and many follies, you are capable of such beautiful dreams. But within those are some terrible nightmares.”

I know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

Who’s she?”

He. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.”

A dreamer then? And that’s the sad thing. Humans who dream are ridiculed if they speak of their visions. They become suppressed. But allowed to explore and discover, those people can transcend accepted human wisdom, in things like politics, which was a human invention anyway.

Anarchy is not chaos, when people are trusted to be individually empowered. An evolved race will sort it all out. But the ones who rise above it all are feared by those who govern and rule, and that leads to conflict. Conflict gets no-one anywhere, but debate can increase mutual understanding to find peaceful solutions. Too many humans were greedy, not just financially but morally.

I studied human politics for a while, and I had to conclude, it was quite a waste of time, for the humans. All it did was hold them back. It was a system which kept radical thinkers beyond its borders of conditioning. And the radical thinkers were only just getting a voice when everyone else did, so it got deafening.

If you ask me, I’d say most humans are essentially left-wing by nature, only becoming conditioned otherwise. Wherever you lie (or tell the truth) on the political spectrum, beyond that, you’re all human. Yet the one thing you all have in common is the very thing which drives you apart. Individuality is to be encouraged, but you can’t think as one. You’re generally a socially aware species. It’s just a shame there were so many who didn’t qualify by that credential.”

You have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Eve said, looking around the room.

Sometimes it helps not to be one to know one.”

Do you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?”

I think there’s one thing it will never be able to do, because it shouldn’t, and it ought to remain impossible. That thing, would be the interpretation of messages, of how they’re perceived by the receiver, which of course is completely subjective on the part of the individual, regardless of the intention of the messenger. Words only have meaning for some people if a specific person says them. The Babel fish is a translation device, not an interpreter. Too many humans, in their cut-off personal worlds, their microcosm universes, their ignorance and laziness, quite literally took too many things far too literally. And a breakdown in communication is conflict by any other name.

But even more fundamental, was humans’ sense of entitlement. A progressive race, but for their own gains. I know there are millions of exceptions, and it’s equally tragic that their voices were silenced. But back in human politics, that would be a victory for the right. More of you need to find your left wings, outside of your politics. You need to metaphorically fly free, or be allowed to, without those wings being clipped.

There’s a passage I’ve memorised, from one of your films. ‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’. It was a film one of the crows showed me. Her ten-times-great grandfather had a cameo in that film. He’s uncredited though.”

That was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

Yes, very good too. Now there was a human who used an unfair situation which had been forced upon him, to do good for others, to blow a whistle and bring down a dictatorship. He quietly went about a longer plan, rarely drawing attention, then escaped the tyranny. I suppose we miss those kinds of people, the free in spirit. We are all spirits when we sleep, after all, with the means for the enquiring mind to explore the universe.”

Some more than others,” Eve added, looking out of the window. “When all we needed to do was keep talking.”

Quite ironic really, isn’t it?”

Looked at like this, yes.”

But you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.”

It’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.”

Well, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.”

He was in London Zoo?”

Chester actually. We moved down to London when the zoos closed. All my family as far as I can trace, were captive bred, as they used to be called. But my great, great grandfather was an immigrant from New York, and he’s the first I can find with the family name Hester.”

Er, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. “Well, Boris – that’s my great, great grandfather – was rescued by a writer called Hester Mundis. She found him in a pet shop when he was young. She bought him, not as a pet, but to liberate him, and he lived with her and her eight-year-old son, in their apartment in Manhattan. I know Hester was expecting another child, so she found Boris a home with other chimps in Chester, and I gather he was on TV a few times. She wrote about him too, so he was immortalised in books, which must be a nice thing to have happen to yourself.

So we took her name, because she became mum to my orphaned or kidnapped great, great grandfather. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be here. I may never have been.”

And you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

I worked a lot of other things out there. You do, when you have the time and your basic needs are taken care of.”

You didn’t feel imprisoned?”

I’d never known anything else. I was never in the wild. Perhaps one day I’ll visit my own home country, but I learned a lot when humans were in charge. There are lots of arguments for and against on both sides. Those are less relevant now, but future historians will have plenty to write about. For now, I have plenty to write of here.”

Why’s that?”

Let’s rewind a little. A long time ago, a human said that given an infinite supply of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And it stands to reason that, given those resources, they would. But we wondered, why? What would be the point?”

It was a human thing?”

It was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.”

Which was?”

The monkeys. No offence to those with tails, but what it really needed was apes. You don’t even need an infinite number of them.

So after we’d finished reproducing Shakespeare’s works, we got started on the next plan. Then we quickly realised we might need more writers. Not an infinite supply, but far more than we have. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.”

What’s not?”

Plan 96 is to discover and write the answer to the ultimate question, that of life, the universe and everything. But infinite apes aside, I don’t think humans are looking in the right place.”

So where do we look?”

Look into your heart, and don’t be afraid of yourself, because people might like that person. This was only your temporary home. You were squatters here before your nomadic race continued their journey, to find themselves. For now, you are gone from here, and you need to return to yourself. But there’s a record of how it all started, and how things panned out is recorded in our history. This is where it began and you are always welcome back, wherever you are.

But keep this. This is yours. You made this.”

© Louis Laker and Steve Laker, 2017.

This story will be included in The Unfinished Literary Agency (ISBN: 978-1979983556), available in January.

The attraction of confusion

FICTION

On one of its faces, this story goes some way to explaining sub-atomic entanglement in the quantum universe, using hamsters. It’s a Cyrus Song time warp, and it’s also about asexual love, between friends, and connecting everyone else.

Quantum cats

QUANTUM ENTANGLEMENT IN HAMSTERS

Where writers write is usually assumed to be a solitary place, and that’s true of me. My solace was to be found with a veterinary doctor, and a universal translation device called the Babel fish. How these came to be here could be found in two parents and other stories entirely. Their relevance to this story, was as my guides, both personally and as a writer.

A good story should be more showing and less telling, but to save much of the latter, it was specifically Doctor Hannah Jones’ degree in human psychology (even though she’s a vet), and my wonderment of the Babel fish (wondering how it actually worked) which are relevant to this fable.

So there I was, a writer with some powerful tools for fiction, waiting for the next story to walk in.

“Do you want to know who’s next, Simon?”

“No,” I replied, “I like to keep the suspense going for a while.”

“But,” Hannah said, “you read the patient list earlier, so I know you already know. I thought you might want to know for your story.” I wondered for a moment who was writing this.

“Yes,” I agreed.

“Which is why,” Hannah started. “Oh never mind.” She stopped. “What are you hoping to get from this one?”

“Well,” I said, “besides the input of some animals, I’m always wondering what makes the Babel fish work.”

“A quantum computer,” Hannah said, “like that one.” She pointed to a quantum computer which had been in her consulting room for as long as I’d known her, which wasn’t very.

Before we’d met, Doctor Jones had invented the Babel fish, not all of a sudden, but she had. My understanding of its workings were sufficient for me to write plausible fiction, but I still wanted to understand what made it work, so that I could show I’d researched this.

The fish was reliant on the quantum computer, and my knowledge of the quantum world allows me to appreciate how those work: essentially, a conventional computer works on binary code, bits of data which can be either 0 or 1, yes or no, black and white. The quantum world is much more cosmopolitan, and in a computer, each bit exists as the two possible states simultaneously, until called into action by a computation. Ergo, a quantum computer is almost infinitely more powerful than the one I use at home.

The Babel fish is a quantum computer program, which uses that enormous processing power to detect frequencies outside of normal audible range, then process them against a mind-bogglingly big database of animal sounds and human languages, before decoding it all into an audible form. I could talk to animals with it. I wondered how it did that, and how much of what I’d heard had to be accepted on faith, of the Babel fish doing a good job. If a dog had told me it loved me, for example, I had to accept that it did.

“So,” I said to Hannah, “who’s next?”

“Oh yes,” she said, clearing her throat and picking her notes up dramatically (I told her it would work better this way). “Next,” she continued “is Hannibal Lecter.” We both paused.

Hannibal was only one half, with Lecter his partner. They were Roborovski, which might pass as a cyborg Russian gang in another story, but in this one they were Roborovski hamsters, belonging to a girl called Nina.

Nina was a curious girl, both in nature and the story she didn’t tell, perhaps because she couldn’t. I almost did a double-take when she walked into the room with Hannah, as though a younger Hannah had walked in with her older self. So struck was I, that I kept looking at the door, to see if another Hannah toddled or crawled in.

I had to trust the Babel fish to do only as it was instructed, as it apparently worked on inaudible frequencies. When I’d tested it previously, it had picked up things which might not have been wilfully spoken by the translated subject; other voices, perhaps thoughts. I tuned it to simply translate from hamster to human, placing the Babel fish headphones on my head in such a way that only I could hear the hamsters in my right ear, while listening to the room with my left for context. As far as I could tell, the hamsters were in a box which Nina placed on Hannah’s consulting table.

“That,” Hannah pointed in my direction, and I looked behind me, “is Mr Fry. Try to ignore him.” I turned back to smile, adjusting the headphones like Princess Leia struggling with her hair. “So,” Hannah continued, “who do we have here?” even though we knew. “Hannibal and Lecter”, which is what we knew, “hamsters”, which we also knew. “May I ask, why?” We didn’t know that.

“It’s my favourite film,” Nina replied, even though The Silence of the Lambs wasn’t about hamsters. She lifted a cage from the box, and in the cage was another, smaller box, some sawdust, bedding, a food bowl and a water bottle. The box within the cage, within the box, struck me as a sensible carriage solution, ensuring the hamsters were safe, and effectively at home, to reduce stress. But as Nina lifted them from the small box, I was half expecting them to be wearing face masks and strapped to a trolley. “This one’s Hannibal”, she said, lifting the first hamster out. “And this is Lecter,” which was entirely to be expected of the second one.

Now with the relative freedom of the cage, it was obvious which rodent was which. Hannibal seemed the dominant of the two, rummaging in the bedding, while Lecter was the more observant, blinking in the light and looking around.

“So,” Hannah said, “what’s up with these two?”

“Well,” Nina replied, “that one,” she pointed to Hannibal, “keeps throwing shit at that one,” at Lecter. “I think he might be bored.” Nina was very intuitive, and, I now realised, had similar mannerisms to Hannah. For a moment, it was as though I was even more of a spare part than usual: Hannah and Nina were somehow the same, and so too were the hamsters. All I had was the Babel fish, so I turned the volume up in my right ear.

“Shit,” was all I heard, from a small, male voice. Then a curious thing happened:

Hannibal had indeed thrown a turd at Lecter, who peered around through the bars of the cage. Meanwhile, Hannibal was back to rummaging in the bed, occasionally storing things in his cheeks, possibly more ammunition. Lecter continued to look conspiratorial, then, when he seemed sure no-one was watching, he flung the turd back at Hannibal. “Shit, you,” he said.

“So,” someone said in my left ear. It was Hannah. “You think one might be bullying the other.”

“No,” Nina said. She was quite assertive. “I think they’re playing shit tag.” Then Hannah did something unexpected:

“Fucking hell,” she said. “You could be right. Hamsters do learn quickly.”

“So they’re amusing themselves,” Nina said, “or it could be love”. That seemed an odd thing to say. “But that’s my worry,” which was even more unexpected, “that they’re bored. So I wondered if you’d have any ideas on helping them learn.” I wondered how much she knew about Doctor Jones.

“Once upon a time,” Hannah began a story I didn’t know I was writing, “Mr Fry,” that’s me, “there, used to be just like Hannibal Lecter.” I couldn’t disagree, that was a good opening.

Nina looked at me, looking more like Carrie Fisher than Anthony Hopkins. “He needed something to keep him occupied.” I suppose that was one way to put it. “And now,” Hannah continued, “he writes.” And that was a nice way to both end and begin things. “So I wonder,” she began again, “if the Babel fish might help in this?”

So now I really was a spare part.

I suppose Hannah meant, use the fish to listen to the hamsters, to get a better insight into them. Ever since she’d overcome her initial reluctance to use the fish in her work (so as to be “less confused”), and she’d realised an insight might be useful input for her. It worked like this: The Babel fish translated the animals, and I listened in, but Hannah didn’t. It was up to me, as a writer able to do such a thing, to translate that further, sort of into only what she needed to know.

“Mr Fry?” The younger Hannah was speaking to me now, and I moved the settings around on the Babel fish, hoping to confuse it. For my part, I was very confused, as though I was somehow split over the fourth dimension, with ends 15 years apart. Knowing as I did, that Hannah had a degree in human psychology, I could be looking into a mind’s future, possibly that of a psychopath. I really hoped Nina turned out like Hannah.

“Yes,” I said, because I wasn’t sure whether to tell her to call me Simon.

“I read about the Babel fish.” I assumed she’d read Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This Babel fish was very much connected to that, so it didn’t really matter which books Nina had read.

“Oh, good,” I said. “Well this one does exactly the same. So let’s see what happens.”

Everyone happens in their current position, so I tuned back into the hamsters:

“Do you ever think about the bars?” Hannibal asked.

“Most of the time,” Lecter replied, “they’re always here, why? Do you think there might be a cat in that box over there?”

“I don’t have to think about it until someone opens it. The bars: to imprison us, or protect us? Keep us together, or keep us away from others?”

“Simon?” This was Hannah.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Are they saying anything?” Nina asked.

“Yes,” I said, “they are,” because they were. “I just need to translate it,” which I did.

Hannibal Lecter spoke at length, about fava beans (we call them broad beans), and how nice they taste, and of how that’s like sharing something made by the earth, like the breaking of bread. And how their water is like Chianti, like the blood which binds us all. And about their incarceration for no crime, when their wider family were free. Then about being grateful for the gift of protected life in the cage. They philosophised, about being great thinkers given sanctuary, but unable to spread their message. It was a problem which I and billions of others would empathise with, now it was countless trillions of others, unheard, but for the miracle of the Babel fish.

While this was all going on in my right ear, the young Hannah Jones spoke to her older self, first about game concepts, then onto computers, wildlife, and the human condition. They could both be noted philosophers themselves, outside of that room’s sudden connectivity of humanity, when two people meet and click.

Quantum entanglement is that which we all have with the rest of the universe, and every living thing within it. All of the matter in the universe was born of the big bang, and at the point of that explosion of reality, every sub-atomic particle was torn apart. But each retained a quantum connection to its partner, quantum physics being that everything exists in two states simultaneously. Ergo, each of us is made of the Big Bang, and every one of us contains those fragments which are still connected to their counterparts, all over the universe. What’s even more mind-bogglingly, is that the hamsters are latching on to this. But what all the other unheard voices might have to say is something I’ve not found out yet, so that’s for another time.

“Mr Fry?” Nina was calling me now, Hannah in a previous life. This was becoming surreal.

“Yes,” I said, preserving the anonymity of my addressee. “I’m wondering how to decode this.”

“Aren’t you a writer?”

“Well, I thought I might be.”

“Well,” Nina continued, “there was this time, in a shed.” What kind of story was this, and who was writing now? “My cat had been at my arm a bit, and I drew something on my wrist: a pair of scissors, with “Cut here” in Biro. And this guy I knew at the time said to do it, to cut myself.” Why was she telling me this? “It makes a nice story, because he said if I did it, he’d be sad. Just that, just sad. But sometimes words carry. And he had kids he didn’t see much. And if he was sad, so would they be. So I didn’t do it. I couldn’t do it to him. But what he said at the end really stuck: “You can only do it to yourself.” And I still remember. So it’s a story.”

“Everyone has one. It’s a brave person who tells their own,” I said, to the future.

“Simon.” It was Hannah who returned me to the room.

“I was thinking,” I said (I was, wondering if I’d just been abducted by aliens) “it’s best to just keep talking. Hannibal Lecter here seems quite well balanced and in touch with things as far as I can tell. Just keep talking while you’re around them. It engages them, and hamsters are quick learners.”

“Such a shame they don’t live for long,” Nina said, which was both deep and dark.

Hannah showed her younger potential self and Hannibal Lecter out, then returned as a single entity.

“So?” Hannah’s glasses tilted quizzically.

“I think I might know how the Babel fish works,” I announced. “Both this one, and the one Douglas invented.”

“Connection.” I wasn’t sure if Hannah asked a question, or had just made one, so I agreed:

“Pretty much,” I said. “You were right about the hamsters, so was Nina: they’re quick learners, looking to occupy their minds. Perhaps they’ll one day have trouble containing them. And somehow, both of you were able to see into the future, without my benefit of the fish, or perhaps that’s just helped me interpret things this way.”

“What way?”

“That the Babel fish really does work on telepathy. That’s provable now with science.”

“Quantum entanglement?”

“Everything is connected, Hannah. I think I’ve worked out why I write it all down as well. It’s because they’re stories, mine and those of others, and the beginnings of many more. And we only write them down, in case we die.

“The entanglement is in our minds, because we who think, long for knowledge. And it’s in what we share with others, or in my case, write. I think there’s more to hamsters than meets the eye. Never judge a book and all that. It’s what’s inside. But that’s in all of us. So what I learned, is I’m not that special, but none of us should feel trapped, which is quite depressing. So I thought about it another way.”

And then I myself said something which even I didn’t expect, because it just occurred to me:

“It’s entirely possible, to be in love with someone and not want to reproduce with them.”

“Have you been out in the sun? Your face looks a bit burned, like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” And there I was thinking I was Princess Leia.

“Things happen,” I said, “because people make them. The Babel fish could make good things happen much quicker, if we could all talk. Humans aren’t ready to know what everyone else is thinking though, which is why I write this as fiction.”

I hope Nina spoke more about this to Hannibal Lecter.

© Steve Laker, 2017

Cyrus Song is available now. My new anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is published in January.

Where the reject robots work

FICTION

This was a flash fiction story to fill some column inches, so I used the word limit (800) to experiment, play, but didn’t throw this one away. It’s a simple device, of using pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons to convey facial expressions (:-)) (on the page, and on most screens), and it uses hashtags (but sans octothorpe) for AiThinkingAloud, in a place where thinking is allowed.

It’s the story of a defective sentient android, about inclusivity, and using what others may see as a flaw to make a difference to someone else. And it’s about better understanding others, and changing behaviour…

Steam Hell SinkiSteam Hell Sinki, Helsinki Finland

ZEIGARNIK’S KITCHEN

People are better when remembering the actions they didn’t complete. Every action has potential energy, which can torture its creator when stored. Release is the metaphorical pressure cooker letting off steam, a camel’s broken back, or a reject pink robot with Tourette’s.

Frenchie was made in China, and one of the Pink Ladies’ range of android personal assistants. Designed as helpers for the aged, vulnerable and lonely, the Pink Ladies could help around the home, both practically and intellectually.

Frenchie’s AI had objected to gender labelling, when “she” realised she lacked genitals, and the Tourette Syndrome diagnosis was made: “Artificial fucking alignment is what it is. Fuck.

Now waiting tables in Infana Kolonia (Esperanto for “Infant colony”), Frenchie approached a couple seated in a booth.

“Good evening, how may I,” she twitched her neck, “Fuck you!”, and her pink LED eyes blinked from her tilted head: (;-/), a closed eye with the hint of pink tears behind her spectacles, held together with pink Elastoplast. “Drinks?” she asked, pushing her glasses up, “Fuck it!” She fumbled with her order pad. “For you sir? Combover!” (8-|)

“I’ll have a whisky please, a double, on the rocks.”

“Okay, number 80. And madam? PleaseBeCarefulWhenYouGetHome.(8-/)

“Sorry?”

“Sorry, it just comes out. BadCardigan. To drink?” (8-))

“Should you be working here?”

“Who’s the judge?” (8-/)

“Pardon?”

“Sorry madam, management algorithms. To drink? Cyanide?(8-))

“Er, number…” the lady looked over the menu, “…number 33.”

“Very well. I’ll be back with your drinks. HopeYouDrown” (8-))

Frenchie shuffled towards the bar, then turned and trundled back.

“Can I take your order sir, madam?” (8-|)

“But we just ordered drinks,” the man replied.

“For food?” Frenchie looked at her notepad. (B-))

“I’ll have the soup,” the man said.

“Me too,” the lady concurred.

“Very well,” Frenchie jotted on her pad, “two soups.” (8-)) Then she turned and walked back to the bar, “One sociopath, and one supplicant…”

She stumbled through the double doors to the kitchen, blowing the misty oil away as she wiped her lenses. (8-O)

“Frenchie!” Jade looked down. His golden smile extended through his body in Frenchie’s pink, plastered eyes. To her AI, he was raw elements. She blinked up at him through her misted tortoiseshell windows. (q-/) “Are you keeping your inner self in out there, Frenchie?”

Frenchie cleared her throat, and wondered why she did that. (b-( ) “Erm,” she started, “no. Fuck it!”

Splendid behaviour,” Jade smiled. “Be yourself out there, my person. That’s why people come here, to meet people. Anyone don’t like that, they not welcome.”

Au, 79,’ Frankie thought. “Drinks, and soups. Fuck! Yes, thank you. Parp!” (8-))

Extractor fans in the roof began sucking the old oil from the kitchen, as the machine below started belching lunch. Cogs and gears clunked, cookware clattered, and polished brass organ pipes parped, like a living machine, a visiting craft playing a five-tone melody. Pink Ladies rushed, bumped into things (and each other), cursed, and dropped utensils (and food).

Frenchie’s friend Sandy wandered from the spiced steam, carrying a tray, a subdued yellow droid, looking at her feet as she bumped heads with her friend. She looked up at Frenchie, “For you?” (:-( )

“No, for customers. Arses!” (8-/)

“Okay. Tell world hi. Bye.” (:-( )

Frenchie wafted into the bar in a pink puff of steam, leaving the brass and wind orchestra in the kitchen. The room was perfumed by vapers – people making vapours – first jasmine, then the seaside, and cannabis. She wondered why she thought about all this with memories.

“Your order, sir, madam.” (B-/)

“Thank you,” the cardigan said. “What’s your name?”

“Frenchie?” (|-/)

“Thanks Frenchie.”

“Welcome…” (P-]) ‘I found a new way to smile (:-))’

Frenchie repeated to herself, as she fumbled through the vapers, ‘A new way to smile, (:-)), where did that come from? (:-/)’

“Sandy,” she called, as she carried her tray through the pipes and cauldrons, “Look.” Sandy looked at her feet. “No,” Frenchie said, “you need to look up. I found a new way to smile. All I have to do is tilt my head, see?” (:-D)

“Why did you take your glasses off?” (:-[ )

“Because they were put there by someone else. I always knew I’d see more without them. And besides, they can fall off my head when I tilt it to one side.” (:-D)

“And that’s funny?” (:-/)

“Only if you look at it a certain way.” (8-D) “Wanna go home?”

“Okay.” (:-))

© Steve Laker, 2017.