Written in 2017 and included in ‘Seven Pillows’. It was a great challenge to try and include both verbal dialogue and sign language conversation which becomes more and more important as the story progresses.
His name was Barry. And like a lot of intelligent animals he recognised his name when called; and if he felt like it, or could be bothered, he would come over and say hello. But what made Barry different was that he could say his own name. Oh; it was only a smack of the full lips and a guttural grunt – but, Barry was an intelligent ape, he knew it was his name.
And that kind of awareness made him extraordinary.
Barry had a personality. He was so laid-back and casual, after all, he wanted for nothing; he had a mate, he had constant easy food and space to move around, swing, exercise, play, scratch, yawn... and he would spend days just watching the world go by. He was special. It started off as a study into Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders. His ancestors had had their gene sequence manipulated and he had had various tiny neural prosthetic devices fitted when he was very young.
Because of his genetic and anatomic similarity with humans, Barry had been involved in drug trials which had proved of enormous help in the understanding and reactive consequences of stimulants and preventatives. He had taken it all in his stride with a pleasing attitude and a reassuring dependence on his human friends even when the trials had left him temporarily debilitated and ill. Barry was regarded as an outstanding and successful study.
But over the years it had had its effect on him, he was moody, often grumpy and quiet, but then he would soon return to his jovial, calm and pleasant ape-ness. There had as well been outstanding improvements in his levels of forced intelligence, in his self awareness, and his motor skills and his special awareness.
With a vocabulary of some 1000 words in sign language and recognition he could understand concepts like pain, cleverness, fear, happiness, humour. There was an undisputed level of hominid sapience not seen before...
Barry had years of tests which he had undergone with a resigned acceptance and aptitude which had pleased, surprised and then astounded the people who worked with him. To begin with he was keen and eager to please, he really seemed to enjoy the tasks given to him, seemed to relish and appreciate each morsel of prize and attention.
He would accomplish quite complicated logic problems and was rated at his best with an IQ of 72; he could add up and subtract simple numbers; he could visualise and pretend; play and laugh… to see him laugh was a joy. But all these tests were nothing. They proved little. Barry was a new species. He was a manipulated hybrid, he was a changed creature who could talk to those that studied him. That was the magic of Barry. Conversations were basic. But you could talk in sign language, in grunts and touches, points and gesticulations.
“B – rry hap-pee!”
<Breakfast Barry? Want fruit, nuts, juice?> signed Eibhlin.
“B-rry” < juice> and he signed with his righthand and fingers for his favourite juice. He pointed to his bedding corner and made a sign by pinching his squat, flat nose with his thumb and forefinger – Eibhlin laughed and made a poo-ing smelly sound. Barry laughed with her, like a chattering, slapping sound with his lips and tongue; and his eyes. Barry was a pleasure to be with when he was happy. Eibhlin roughly scratched his shoulder, even though he was three times her size she did not feel threatened by him, they were friends.
<Eibhlin change your bed – nice smell> she signed.
He asked when he wanted the toilet, he asked and chose his food when he wanted it, he liked company – he talked about the weather, about his home. But when you looked into his eyes... then you knew the sadness that Barry had to face up to with his world. He knew he was different. He did not have the same connection with his mate Lena. They watched him as he had sex, and he knew they were watching. They watched him as he tried unsuccessfully to talk with Lena, she did not understand that he was trying to talk; and they watched as he grew irritable and impatient with her.
Barry and Lena had been together for six years, well, together was rather a loose term, they did not co-habitat, but they saw each other often and spent special time grooming and enjoying each others company. They had had a successful mating twice, the first time producing a male infant who had unfortunately died young; the second time producing a very rare in breeding in captivity, set of twins. The infants were doing very well. But they did not come and visit.
And Barry, as the years went by became older. And wiser? Maybe. Certainly he was more familiar, more aware of his surroundings. The tests became fewer, they no longer tried to change him, to improve him, the drugs stopped. There was not a lot else they could learn from Barry. As a subject he had really exhausted all the possibilities and the scientists realised that they could not go much further with him, he was becoming tired easily and his attention span was not that of a younger Barry. The had decided to eventually, gradually put him into retirement, not suddenly overnight, but he would be happier and more content going to some cosy corner of a zoo where he could live out his remaining years watching people watching him as they went past. Barry was well known, the public would love to see him, they could have special sessions where Barry could show off his prodigious and precocious talents – the public might even be happy to pay...
The scientists became, however, more interested and impressed by Barry’s offspring. Penny and George had had a hereditary gain, an unprecedented definite sign of evolution in just one generation. They had a cognitive special awareness, an ability to learn sign and a dexterity of fingers and lips that had come easily, almost naturally, that had had to be taught over years with Barry. Every test was off the scale, amazing.
They understood the counting concept very quickly, even hinting at the ability to take it a step further and be able to count in fives – hands. Two hands and two fingers making twelve; four opened and closed hands and one finger making twenty one. Their concept of pretence and humour were advanced, both together and individually. They loved playing hide and seek with toys and food and laughed as each other’s climbing and acrobatic antics. A similar lip and tongue smacking and clacking laugh that Barry had.
The scientists had so much to learn from the twins. So much to teach them and then to observe. And the propensity for clinical and medical research was inexhaustible. They would prove to be special subjects – after all, they were twins – that made them the perfect couple and the comparisons between reactions to drug trials to each and both would be ideal.
The friendship between the ape siblings was astonishing. They played and fought one another in play, they groomed one another, snuggled up to each other as any other ape young. But the level of communication was unique. They were taught to sign, they were taught vocal sounds but they took this learning one step further between themselves. The scientists had them on 24 hour video and could see the private progress they were making. They were creating their own hybrid language of sound, sign and expression. Fascinating.
In time, after a year of retirement the zookeepers became worried about Barry.
He had not been himself. He was quiet, not interested in play, off his food and... well... he looked worried. They had checked his physical health. He was fine. But he had developed a distance, a distracted look as if there was something bothering him, occupying his mind, worrying him. He would just stare into space, he would no longer look directly at people who were talking to him. He had developed a vacant look; a glance to the left or the right, as if looking as someone who was not there, it was a bit like a facial tic. And he looked disorientated, confused.
They had first noted that something was wrong some months previously, Barry used to be happy, chatty, energetic, oh, he could be a bit touchy, a bit moody, but he would always come out of it, this was different, well, he just seemed to be not himself any more. But it was the way he looked at people, his keepers his human friends that had caused them concern.
Barry’s best friend was his keeper Eibhlin. She had known him since birth, sixteen years before. If anyone could understand the problem, she could. And very slowly, cautiously, with little bits of conversation over a few days Eibhlin was worried, she thought Barry was seriously poorly... on the verge of some sort of breakdown or depression. They knew that Barry could expect to live to at least 25 years and that his physical and mental health would expect to deteriorate gradually. Perhaps all the tests, all the drugs, the operations he had undergone over the years were taking their toll and after all, he had made such wonderful progress... that perhaps they had pushed him too far. Or was it the onset of an ape version of alzheimers, it had been studies into the disease that had led to Barry being such a good subject. Barry was physically well, they had done bloods, urine and stool tests. His appetite was not good, but not dangerously poor and they had tried varying his diet and giving him new things to eat. But Barry was not happy.
Val was one of Barry’s favourite keepers, like Eibhlin they had known each other for a long time. She had been present when his first infant had died.
<Barry want toys?> Val signed.
Shake of head.
<Barry want music?>
Shake of head. Looking down at feet and picking at his toes, showing that he was not interested.
<Paddling pool and water?>
<want to quiet and think>
<Raining outside>signed Val.
<raining in my head> signed Barry.
Barry was not as talkative as she had known him. And he was irritable, not wanting to be touched, pushing her away and barking. Then he would become quiet and reflective and start looking, staring into space as if he was trying to understand something, as if distracted, concentrating his gaze on something or just nothing. Eibhlin kept asking “what wrong Barry?” but her question was ignored.
Then later that day after Barry had had his evening meal and Val had settled him down for the night he kept looking over at her, scratching his side and looking at her, deliberately concentrating on her movements.
<Barry want talk. Afraid.>
“What wrong Barry?” she asked again.
<Barry want talk. Not now. Morning. Bring Val, Eibhlin, human friends. Barry talk>
There was a group of scientists, keepers and specialists present when Barry spoke in deliberate and careful sign language:
<You think you clever. You clever. Clever you. But you not. You cannot see it. Barry can. You cannot. You cannot see it standing behind you, watching you. It sees you and it does not like you>
Barry sat still, explaining carefully and slowly in his sign language with the occasional twitch and grunt. The humans were stunned by his alacrity, his presence, his seriousness.
<And it will hurt you. Bad. Bad. But you cannot see it. Barry can... It is there now. Me afraid of it.>
This short story came from a dream and was written in 2009/2010 and was included in the Brain Glue second section.
I didn’t go walking in the desert in Egypt when I was there, especially in the dark…. but in a dream? Yeah, no probs.
It was strange how the sound of my footsteps had gone. As if the desert around me had sucked all the sound away. Silence. Yeah, I know what silence is. But not that kind of silence.
I stopped walking and just stood with my eyes closed. God it was quiet.
I had probably walked about a mile straight into the desert, leaving the bright lights of the street behind me. The cool air conditioning in my 5 star hotel. And a cold glass of wine from the fridge. I had come on a holiday for adventure and I was going for a walk in the wilderness at 2 o’clock in the morning alone. It was the sort of thing I had to do.
I was not surprised at how dark it was. With no artificial light and no moon. But I was surprised that I could still see at all, I could just make out shadowy shapes of rocks in the distance. I could almost see where I was walking. There was a difference between eyes closed and open.
The stars were magnificent. Absolutely staggering. Again, I knew it would be so. But how beautiful they were, it took my breath away.
Orion was high. The Egyptians had worshipped the constellation and believed the hereafter was there, that a soul shot through the universe to a heaven in the stars.
And here I was, in a timeless landscape. For me it was a brave thing to do, scorpions, snakes, spiders. The desert was a scary place to be in the dark alone. I wore my walking boots though, and heavy socks tucked into my jeans. Nothing was crawling up my legs..
Standing there I wanted to make a grand gesture. As if I was a god. As if I could hold out an outstretched arm and be at one with it all. Nobody would see.
But standing there surrounded by the dark. Things started to happen.
I was not light headed.
I don’t think it was the drink. I’d only had a couple of glasses of wine, perhaps I was dehydrated.
A shooting star. I tiny fleck of light flashing over the sky.
And more. A shot of sparks.
Then brighter than the stars.
My mouth open. And it was all wrong. And it shouldn’t be like that.
Suddenly, away to my right and settled on the sand, a bright light.
Standing still – no more that ten or twenty metres away from me. It shone. Like a ball bright glowing. Whether it was alive or not, I could not tell.
It shone. And caught in its light I was aglow. And still a miriad of stars. And shooting all around me.
Whether it lasted a moment or ten minutes I could not tell. But as suddenly as it had all happened, I was alone again. And it was dark, and getting colder.
When you see shooting stars you are supposed to make a wish.
All was silent. All was dark. But I did not want an explanation. And I did not doubt what I had seen.
And I thought. Concentrated on one thing, a truth. The world was all around me, I was a grain of sand, no more. Completely irrelevant. I could see. Like pressing the plus sign on a computerised map. Zooming out. Me a speck of sand on a world we call earth.
And I gave myself three wishes.
I gave the world, my world, the human race three wishes.
Big stuff. It could get no bigger.
Perhaps this was a destiny for us all. One person. Standing in a desert alone, chosen by a superior being to have a chance of salvation for us all.
And I reasoned, and thoughts and decisions came with a clarity.
Wish one was easy. Contact with a benevolent alien race. Such wonderful things could come from such dialogue. It could lead to the end of so much religious ignorance, it could lead to such an advance in science.
Two. Discovery of a cheap and safe power source.
Whether it is safe fission or fusion or wind or wave or solar panel farms in earth orbit. It has to come. And governments have to invest in science and know that fossil fuels will not last.
And no. 3 And I thought of the one question we all ask, but never ask with a voice. What happens to us when we die?
And why not? It is so part of our accepted fate.
Shouldn’t it just be another problem we could solve? I wished that we knew.
The wine tasted just the same as it had a while before. But I could never tell what had happened to me. I just wish.
This story is about the transient nature of life, and how we all share the illusion of permanence. It was a very early story, probably written in the 1970’s, has not been re-written since then and was included in Brain Glue 1981.
‘Damn you Mike,’ Dirk pulled a face at his friend. ‘That makes my debt to you as large as the national deficit. We’ll have to find diamonds the size of tennis balls, just for me to pay my card debts. ‘Hey, how about that – diamonds just lying around on the surface?
‘About the same chance of us having a welcome-to-our-world party waiting as we land.’ Chris said, more to himself than anybody in particular. The spacecraft sped towards the ringed planet eight hundred million miles from the sun, though for all of their speed, the craft seemed motionless. It had been travelling on the same course at the same speed for over two months and they weren’t even half way. They were travelling faster than a human had ever travelled, but if a lonely hitchhiker had been floating in space waiting for a lift he would have missed the faint point of light approach and then shot passed him.
‘What’s the time Chris? How long we got til communication’s restored?’ Chris glanced up at his myriad of dials and switches and lights. He was running through the daily systems and computer check: it was his turn to do the only regular job they had at the moment.
‘Just over half an hour, but we’d better wait a little longer; our signal’s not getting through as strongly as it did a hundred million miles back.’
‘Time for a few hands more then. Let’s raise the ante, eh Mike? Give me a chance to recoup losses?’
Their three man mission was to land on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and to set up three weeks of experiments and tests on the only moon in the solar system with any appreciable atmosphere. They would leave various permanent recording instruments on the moon to keep vigilant sensor on Saturn and to measure the changes in the swirling gas clouds on the giant planet surface; they would leave seismometers and atmospheric analysers and a score of other measuring, testing and analysing equipment – all linked to a computer that would convert each result into a mass of data that would be beamed towards Earth at carefully selected intervals.
The information they were to take back with them, together with the information that would be automatically sent on afterwards, could very have answered a few of the problems that scientists had been disagreeing about since the first major probes had reached the outer planets back in 1980. It had been almost twenty five years before another series of probes had been sent outward to the giant planets. Then there had been a renaissance of space travel and enterprise. Man had landed on Mars, but had found very little to get excited about, the united effort had then ventured to Venus and a probe had landed and sent back excellent and informative data. There was no life, but the general scientific opinion was that given a change of cloud cover and a few billion years, there would be no reason why Venus could not become the second inhabited planet of our system. Probes had gone out into space at a prolific rate from all corners of the peaceful world in search of answers and in search of the energy and the raw materials that they knew they would need before the new Century was over. They also tentatively had gone in search of life, of alien life. Man had recaptured the adventuring and pioneering spirit that he had sadly lost during the desperate period of conflict and apathy.
‘I think you’ve got the cards marked.’
‘Shit, you’ve caught on.’ Mike laughed at the frustrated face that Dirk had pulled when he had won yet another hand. It was a good job they had all got on so well together over the few months they had been alone. The each sorely missed their wives and family and even though they were loyal and enthusiastic members of the United Assault on the Frontier of Space, there had been times when they had all had a bellyful of routine and weightlessness, of living in cramped conditions without any real privacy. Life aboard a spacecraft, seven the beautiful new Orion class, was boring and uncomfortable. All that, however, would soon be forgotten as they approached the majestic sight of Saturn and started the work that they had been trained to do.
‘Is it worth beaming a message yet Chris?’ The two men had finished their game of cards and patiently waited for news from home, they had been out of touch with Earth for a few days.’
‘There’s still a lot of solar interference on the line, better wait a little; no point in wasting energy beaming a message that won’t get through.
The minutes ticked by slowly. Each man had learned that patience was one of the very best attributes of a deep space astronaut – even though the message would be travelling at the speed of light, it would still take nearly half an hour to reach home. Any specific questions had to await answers from mission control for over an hour – when they reached Titan, they could expect to wait over 2 and a half hours for confirmation that their signal could be read and that was with favourable positioning of the planets. It made for a very lonely existence 720 million miles from home.
‘I think we can assume that mission control have sent us a message now, but there’s still a lot of interference on line, I think I’ll wait another ten minutes and see if it clears.’
‘You’re the communications officer.’ There was just a hint of displeasure in Mike’s voice, still what was ten minutes when they still had over two months until they landed on Titan? The three men had spent a while wording messages to their family, telling them that all was well and that they were missed. These had been fed into the computer from the mini-terminal that Chris patiently sat at, together with the details of an interesting observation that Dirk had made a few days previously. He had seen what he first believed to be a comet, when he was making a routine observations with the external refractorscope’s viewscreen. It had the speed and tail of a comet anyway but the spectrum analysis was very confusing – Dirk had wanted to report a UFO but Mike and Chris wouldn’t let him. It would be interesting to see if any observatory on Earth could corroborate his readings. ‘Right, let’s go then.’
Chris’s finger pressed a sequence of buttons and the message was sent He prepared a repeat for a quarter of an hour and drifted back into the chair to wait for the incoming message from Mother Earth.
‘I’m sorry I just don’t understand – run through the checks with me Mike – I tell you man, I’m worried.’
‘Computer initial and back up,’ Mike closed his eyes and thought out the checks, they had all been briefed in the handling and maintenance of communications.
‘Laser gun and connecting links
‘Positioning, have you done a manual check on the targeting positioning?’
‘Check – the computer did a triangulation check. Perhaps they’ve got some problem back home. Chris suggested.
‘Have you re-run the message?’
‘Marked priority- not much else I can do.’
‘How about a back up audio signal, is that worth a try?’
‘Not yet, it’s too slow. Even with bounce it could take six, maybe seven hours to reach Earth.’
‘Have you tried bouncing off the COMSAT – can’t think why but it’s worth a try.’
‘Yeah, I’ll do that.’
‘Some sort of computer malfunction?’ Dirk asked, listening attentively to the two other men trying to figure out what was going wrong, if anything.
‘Not reading. I could do a manual check on some of the available circuits, but that could take hours.
‘Could you by-pass to let us do that?’
‘I see no reason why not. Do you think it could have anything to do with that interference we had, it was pretty bad?’ Mike shrugged his shoulders, perplexed – it just didn’t make sense.
Perhaps they were over-reacting to a simple problem that had arised back home, there could have been a dozen explanations.
Run through the basic self-check; see if the computer picks anything up, there may be a connection somewhere. Otherwise we’d better just sit tight.’
‘I suppose so. But I admit it – I’ve got the jitters.’
‘Oh, don’t get worried, they’re only a couple of hours late, it’s just a little unusual, no reason to panic.’ Dirk reassured his two companions. But they were all worried.
They waited; and waited. The computer instigated and carried out basic self checks, all OK. They waited a little longer. ‘I’ve sent and audio signal. Can’t do any harm. They’ve probably sent one as well, it they’ve had a malfunction or a problem an audio would reach us in, say two, three hours time.
Control was over eleven hours late. Very unlike them, they were usually very punctual with communications.
Each man new exactly the consequences. Ok, they could continue the mission and return safely, they were in computer and manual charge of the ship – they didn’t really need mission control – not unless they had problems. But shit, it was gonna get lonely. No conversation with anybody but the three of them. No messages to their wives and family. They would complete the mission all right, but hell, would they return sane?
‘There’s still a hell of a lot of interference on the line. It’s built up again. Do you think we’re going through some kind of magnetic storm? Or has one moved over our line to Earth?’
‘Must be something like that. Christ knows what though. The ride’s been smooth enough, it we met some interference it’s some we don’t understand. Try the message again.’
‘I’ve been sending laser and audio every half an hour for four hours. I’ve started a secondary computer check and analysis taking a sideways route, might throw something up’ He paused for a second. ‘We ought to start manual investigation, starting with the bowl and pick-up, someone’s got to go outside, we may have been tickled by a meteorite.’
‘Oh my God!’ Dirk had been playing with his refractorscope for about quarter of an hour, checking and re-checking. He had seemed quite engrossed.
‘What you found?’ Chris looked down at Dirk from his perch at the mini-terminal, he immediately saw that he wasn’t at all well. He was visibly shaking and was going whiter by the second.
‘Mike! Oxygen!’ Chris bounced out of his chair, rebounded off of the ceiling and made a neat landing near the other two.
‘Oh my God!’ Dirk repeated, refusing the gas, pushing it away with his right hand, he looked delirious, ‘she’s not there!’
‘Fuck you! Earth! She’s not there! Dirk looked wide-eyed at the other two men in turn, their stomachs sank.
‘Run a check on the computer – I’ll look through the scope’ Chris bounced back to his terminal and Mike swivelled himself in front of the viewscreen and played furiously with the dials. He started muttering to himself.
‘Shit – what the hell’s going on?’ Chris hit the metal beam with the flat of his hand, ‘negative – what sort of answer is that?’
‘She’s not there.’ The three of them were stunned.
‘I’m going mad. This just isn’t true. Wait on – there’s a fuzz here, what’s that?’ He pointed to the screen, the other two just reached his side to see a bright speck of light moving in a neat arc – then there was another, they seemed to be emerging out of a faint cloud, only there’s no clouds in space. Then another. They watched in silence. Soon a distinct triangular formation of seven specks of light, they were travelling away from the Sun and out to their part of the system. They seemed to grow in brightness, slowly at first and then more rapidly.
‘Jesus, their travelling faster than they should be. Oh God. I wish my brain would stop.’
The formation passed Orion Challenger 11 by something in excess of two million miles. The three astronauts, still huddled around the viewscreen could hardly believe their eyes as they passed. They were enormous, like the starships of the old sci-fi movies. And travelling fast, it was like the tortoise and the hare, as they passed, they picked up even more speed and were gone – out of sight over the speed of light.
Mike manipulated the controls of the viewscreen back to the cloud of dust that now shone brightly between Mars and Venus. The cloud of dust that was Earth. The spectrum showed a lot of hydrogen, oxygen, a lot of carbon and mineral compounds, he didn’t bother to tune into anything else. They stared at nothing, lost in thought, lost for words.
‘What do we do now? Chris asked.
‘We die’ Dirk answered.
‘Shit – does it matter? Why can’t I cry?’
‘Oh this is mad! We must be hallucinating. Perhaps it was the magnetic storm, or whatever – it’s affecting us all in the same way. Mass hallucination. You’re ship doctor, Mike, is that possible. How do we check?’
‘You can’t, not out here. If I had the lab equipment I could… hey! This is crazy!’
They decided not to act rashly. They strapped themselves into their control positions and tried to relax, astronauts had to remain calm and efficient, if they really were the last three, then they had one hell of a responsibility. Mike and Dirk took sedatives to relax. Chris rested the natural way, his natural way, that is, by playing complicated arithmetical problems over in his mind; he tried multiples to the power of two then onto multiples to the power of three. He reached a record 38 million…and soon his mind was clear and at rest.
Two hours later Mike stirred and remembered. How were they going to find out what happened – did it happen? He tried to work out a course of action.
‘I think before we even start considering what we should do in the long run, we ought to individually record our feelings and impressions about what has happened or what we think has happened. It could be important one day. Then we give each other a full medical and psychological test. Then we’ve got to do a thorough diagnostic report; life support, navigation: all systems. Then if we are in agreement about the situation we decide on a course of action.’ They all agreed in principle to the idea – after all, they had to be sure. If they were hallucinating, then the knowledge they would learn from the tests would be invaluable in the future. If they were not hallucinating then at least they were busy and weren’t giving themselves time to think of what had happened at home.
It took three days to complete the systems checks and tests. Dirk was becoming irritable, he had almost lost his temper on a number of occasions, to him it was all a waste of time, they were going to die anyway. What was the point of checking the life supports or the communications?
They ate in silence, neither of them had a particularly ravenous appetite – they knew it was hopeless. But out of respect they tried to behave as normal as possible. Mike watched Dirk as he ate, being careful not to make it obvious. They were going to have trouble with him, nice guy that he was; he couldn’t take it. Dirk rhythmically shook his head from side to side, morosely. He occasionally muttered something to himself, he was losing control. Mike caught Chris’ eye and nodded. They would be ready.
‘But why?’ Dirk asked himself:‘ And did they take hostages or have they just destroyed us all? Surely there’s a logical reason, if they’re so advanced, and they are if they can travel at the speed of light – then they must be good. Evil destroys itself, doesn’t it?’ He closed his eyes in pain, ‘we’re the only ones left, there’s nobody, nobody else.’
‘Hang on a minute – isn’t there an Orion on its way to Venus to take samples of the cloud and gas? Perhaps they saw something, they may know what’s happening. We may not be the…’ Dirk lunged a slow sweeping fist out and caught Chris on the side of the face before he could finish his sentence. He threw a left hook and yelled; his eyes were crazy, wide open, his teeth clenched in fury.. he kicked and screamed, thrashing out at Chris in a frenzy. Mike bounced off of the nearest beam and went straight for the first aid hole for a syringe. In a panic Dirk wriggled in the air like a man drowning in water. Mike managed to jab him in the backside with the syringe and the two of them restrained him until the anaesthetic took effect. A minute later Dirk was floating in a deep sleep. Chris nursed a badly bruised cheek and what may have been a cracked rib or two; his reaction had slowed since he’d been without gravity and he’d taken quite a bit of punishment.
‘You ok mate?’
‘Christ it hurts. Do me a favour, don’t let him come round.’
‘Don’t be harsh on him, I’m surprised we haven’t all flipped.’ They floated Dirk over to his bed and made him comfortable.
‘Let’s have a look at those bruises, you need a bit of first aid.’ Chris was holding his side painfully.
‘What did I say?’ Chris asked.
‘Nothing, he just flipped.’
‘I was right though, we may not be the last humans alive. There is a Venus probe, and there’s the space station and perhaps an orbiter, maybe we should try and contact them..’
‘It would be trying to look for a needle in a haystack. They could be anywhere out there - but we could try to contact them on audio. Blanket range. Hold still, I’ll strap your middle..’ Mike set about fixing Chris up, it was only a temporary measure, but then everything was temporary now.
‘I think we’d better instigate a course manoeuvre – there’s no point in us going any further.’ The two remaining men agreed to return to what was left of their home, they didn’t really know what to do or what to expect of the future, was it really hopeless? There was always the vague hope that a selection of humans had been taken for recolonisation or something – or something… They had to try and find out what had happened and they weren’t going to do it travelling so fast away from the scene.
Changing course and re-programming the computer was the most complicated process that either man had ever carried out. It involved gently firing the thrusters to slow themselves down, then eventually come to a stop and then, turn the craft around and gently start accelerating in a 180 degree direction. A new course had to be set and the corresponding future alignments of the planets had to be taken into consideration, it would be no good arriving at a certain point to find Earth was on the other side of the Sun – or what was left of Earth.
‘Oh God – I just can’t get used to the idea. What’s the good Chris? I feel helpless. I only wish the human race could have left some monument to its existence – some sort of proof that we achieved a lot in the short time we were around – do you know what I mean?
‘Let’s just see what we can find out first. I’ve been thinking along those lines. We’ve got five and a half months of life support remaining.. we could be that monument you know…
Three days later Mike and Chris decided to allow Dirk to come round. They’d been giving him a stead dose of sedatives to keep his asleep, but they decided that he deserved another chance. The ship was speeding its seemingly slow way towards the Sun, the craft was behaving impeccably, it was one of the last outstanding achievements of the human race. Inside that craft three men fought to come to terms with death, not as an eventual end to a full life, but as a total annihilation of a race that had started to achieve it’s potential.
Dirk committed suicide a day and a half after coming out of his enforced sleep. Mike and Chris knew what he wanted to do when he suggested that he check the outside light-receiving bowl in case it had been malfunctioning. They did not watch as his lifeless body drifted away into the vacuum that was space. Chris didn’t say a word for nearly two days, he was beginning to feel very low, it was then that Mike suggested that they use the sleeping drugs on themselves. At least their last few weeks travel back to earth orbit would go quick.
Sitting in his control chair, all alone, Mike started his history of the human race – a personal account. For hours and hours and days he recalled everything he could ever remember about the history, the geography, religion, and nature of his race and its home; he remembered the achievements, the science and the medicine and the people. He milked the computer’s memory of everything it contained, all the books and films, shows and concerts. He used the audio recording facilities on the computer, he used all the writing paper, all the available photographic equipment. Chris, reluctantly at first and then enthusiastically eventually, joined forces with Mike and created a similar personal account. Together they created the greatest, if untidy and unorthodox, history of them all.
Orion Challenger 11 never made contact with the Venus probe or any other human being again. Between them Chris and Mike spent the remainder of their lives devoted to the saving of the memory of the human race. One day, they thought, an alien ship would pick up a very weak signal from a small craft orbiting the sun. Aboard that craft, the perfectly preserved remains of two strange beings and the memory and record of a race that lived and died.
I loved the idea of creating an omniscient alien being wandering around the universe. The story is a recent one and was included in ‘Seven Pillows’
Lebbaeus was very, very old. Older than the mountains, older than the oceans, even older than the Earth itself. But he did not count time in years or centuries or millennia. He was a very strange being; and yes, an alien. But unlike anything you could imagine. He could not see, not with eyes like us, nor could he talk or smell or touch. He sensed things, he knew things; and he knew a lot. He knew how stars were born, how systems evolved, he knew about planetary geology and particle physics, in fact he knew just about all there was to know. And he knew about life. Life was his job.
He travelled around the universe for all of his existence. For many, many millions of years his starship had journeyed through endless space visiting countless worlds. He was alone. Completely and utterly alone. He spoke to nobody, he needed for nothing, did not sleep, did not need entertainment. But he was not a machine. He was very much alive, very aware of everything around him, very comfortable with what he was and his job. His starship was his home, his comfort, the familiarity of it sustained his very being and he knew every little, tiny bit of it from the tips of the starwings to the heart of the dark drive.
Lebbaeus was a chemist. He was a manipulator, he changed this, added that, moved chemical compounds, created chains of interaction, introduced possibilities, changed trajectories, nudged asteroids and meteors from out of their orbits to wander and to create . There was a lot of chance involved. He could not predict the future, nor take account of random factors. But he gave it his best shot. Perhaps after a million years he could have made a difference.. usually not. But it was what he did. He was a galaxial mapper.
Lebbaeus moved slowly over the surface of the hot, steamy planet. There was not a lot to the core, but there was something to work with. He moved slowly on his-many-short-legs, like a slimy flat jelly trickling over a rock. He was not in a hurry , nor could he have understood the concept of haste and urgency.
There were dark yellow clouds of gas swirling around him as he set up his scientific equipment, it was hot, hot enough to melt metals, hot enough to turn water instantly into nothing. But Lebbaeus was not bothered by the heat or the intense atmospheric pressure, his little, squat body oozed along the dark red sandy ground.
He had no concept of sound, or speech or of any type of communication.. he would not have understood its relevance. He was and had always been totally alone. There may have been, in the very, very distant past.. something... something that made a beginning, a start to his life.. a moment of clarity, a purpose.. and Lebbaeus sometimes wondered, conjectured on it’s meaning. But it did not matter.
He understood thunderstorms and crackling electrical discharges, the powerful forces that moved millions of tons of rock around, the heat that turned everything to a liquid and then to a gas, but he was not disturbed, could not understand the concept of danger. His safety was immaterial anyway. The task was everything that defined him. He travelled around the galaxy, his portion of the universe; and there were others just like him scattered across the infinite void; and visited dead worlds and brought about changes, the changes very, very slowly encouraged, supported and created circumstances where life might begin. It began very basically with bacteria and microscopic wriggling forms that took millions of years to evolve... but evolve they would.. it was life’s duty to ever evolve and to grow.
And he said ‘let there be life’ And there was light. And he sent out his seeders. And they travelled the cosmos bringing the water and the basic ingredients for life, they sowed the basic chemical building blocks and ignited the spark, the magic of creation. In its many forms, plants, bugs, animals filled the universe. There was plenty. And He saw that it was good.
This was written for ‘Brain Glue’ 2011 and was my attempt at imagining a completely alien world.
Smolt sniffed the air, his large bulbous nose held up skywards. There was a kill. Probably a long way off over the plains towards the hills, but the definite odour of newly decomposing flesh was unmistakeable to him. He tilted his head to one side a little as if listening. He let out a satisfied grunt.
He loved tending the garden. Carefully turning and tilling the soil, weeding, watering, mulching. The garden was his reason to live, it gave him all the food he needed, it was all he knew. Like all of his kind and there were many just like him, he was busy, loyal, hard working and driven by the need to serve, to breed and then to feed. Their life was very simple, very purposeful, very ordered and very short.
Plant was big, not in size; if Smolt reached up as high as he could he could only reach halfway up to the top where the little pale flowers that became the breadfruit - the only food – that Smolt and his kind ate. But plant was big because he had lots of brothers, root-linked as if perpetually holding hands under the ground. Plant talked to Smolt. Not in sound, or colour or sign but there was a life connection a reciprocal need and the Feeders would stand still, lift their bony heads to the air, sniff and they could sense what needed to be done, what jobs Plant needed completing.
Smolt’s far eyesight was not good, he could see well enough to avoid tripping over the stones or bumping into the other Feeders or treading on the green soft-spots. He could not clearly appreciate the visual beauty of the world around him, but he often thought of it. He loved the colours even though to him they were vague and unclear in a misty kind of way. He often stopped, sniffed the air and would gaze at the world about him. At the sky, marvelling at the dark yellow clouds and the pale lilac of the clear skies and the iridescence of the borealis as it swam and swirled around creating ever moving pools of mauve and orange. The beauty would move him. And the green. Everywhere there was such green. But if his far sight was poor, his near sight was keen. It was one of his jobs to remove the irritants from Plant, little crawling many legged creatures that fussed about living and irritating Plant. He stood at the base of one of the brothers gently rhythmically brushing the lower trunk and stem and branches, caressing and removing and eating the creeping crawling irritants with a trance-like concentration.
Smolt stopped suddenly. His head tilted to one side. And he knew it was time to get food. Not his bread-fruit that the Plant brothers produced – always just enough to keep Smolt and his kind fed – but food for the Plant brothers themselves. Without a glance at his family, his fellow Feeders he turned and went. He could not move fast, his stumpy quadruped legs were not designed for grace or speed. He was what he was - a slow, plodding, methodical creature of limited intelligence. His sense of smell led him onwards to the kill.
Smolt was determined and unperturbed by the journey and he loved journeys. Sniffing as he shuffled along, sniffing the green grass, lifting his nose to the metallic pungent air that was home. He could smell Plant – all the brothers, hundreds of them in the Plot that he helped to tend and the Plot was kept well with a tenderness and loyalty that came naturally to them all. He could smell the bigfoot grazers that spent their comparatively long lives grazing in the grass and the vegetation that was everywhere. He could smell the far, far away acrid stench of the volcanic activity in the distant mountains, the ground often shook a little, tremors that meant nothing to him.
It was a long journey for a creature that moved so slowly and that only knew a few hundred days, but time was not important. It had little meaning, here, to the feeders and the irritants it was a concept that they wouldn’t grasp. They knew nothing of days as the world spun between night and day. It was just light following dark, following light. They knew nothing of seasons. They did not live long enough to compare.
He reached the kill, it was a very large grazer, many footed and thick skinned. It was already half dismembered by other Feeders. As he approached the Wingfliers that were feeding on the exposed flesh lazily flew away with beating leathery wings, there was plenty for all and they would be back soon. Smolt got to work, carving away chunks of skin and flesh with the serrated, sharp edge to his spade-like hands. He would only take what he could carry. And he would return as slowly as he had arrived and sniff the wonderful air as he trundled back to Plant. Then he would cut the flesh up further and it would be the mulch that the brothers had called him to collect.
Such was his life. Plant fed him and his kind. And in turn he fed Plant and his Brothers. All the life that he knew, including his own kind, including his own family, would one day in turn become mulch. It was the way.
Plant was aware of everything around.
The cool breeze and the promise of rain in the air; the clouds skudding by, forming yellow shapes against the pastel sky. The abundance of primitive life scuttling around and over. Plant could see; could see whatever Plant wanted to see. Sight was something that could be created, many, many millennia before there had been the ability to differentiate between day and night, light and dark and Plant had evolved, had chosen to evolve, the simple ability to detect light had been improved. And improved more. Until with a myriad of light sensors like the seeds on a giant flower head it had become sight. And Plant had evolved it more. With his Plant brothers and the perfection of precision growing and precision eye-flowering, Plant could create vision as good as a powerful telescope. Nor was sound a problem. Microscopic hairs within Plant’s sensing node could detect the faintest sound vibration and Plant had, at times, needed to evolve to protect the Brotherhood. Plant had no voice, had no need to communicate directly with the other animals around. But if Plant had have needed a voice, it could be created. After all, a voice was only a vibration of chords.
Plant could move. As much as was needed. Plant could sway or lean, Plant could grow towards the binary suns as Plant chose. But slowly, gradually, not fast or jerkily, that was not the way here. Everything was ordered, calculated and very, very, slow. Plant was supreme. Plant’s intelligence was as infinite as it had needed to be and the craving for knowledge was boundless. Plant did not forget anything, only ever learned. Plant knew how life had been created, Plant moulded and created the world about, it was Plant’s world.
But Plant also knew that there were other worlds. Plant had seen strange, lonely, so lonely craft and alien creatures. And Plant had thought, had conjectured and deduced and in time had understood. But the loneliness was so alien, so different.
There had been a time long, long eons ago when Plant had perhaps not been aware. But Plant’s memory was many brothers wide. And plant never died. Plant was. Stretched over thousands of miles looked after by the feeders, Plant’s mind could wander – wander past mathematical problems, past philosophy, past beauty and out into the stars. One day Plant would want to lift roots, spread fibrous strands of his life out and off the planet. Plant knew his world was not the only one. But to make contact, to see, to experience… that would mean he would have to disturb and break the connection between brothers and Plant did not want a brother to be so lonely. But the thirst for knowledge was strong….. and Plant thought a lot.
This was written with a nod to Bletchley Park… I just mused about when a similar situation could occur with even further reaching consequences. Included in ‘Seven Pillows’ a few years ago.
I was chosen because I have a gift with arithmetic, I am good at logic problems and have a methodical, tangential attitude to solving mathematical formula and equations. I have an empathy and a propensity with numbers and sums. Add to that the ability to speak three foreign languages... yeah... so what? But generally I am useless. People irritate and bore me. I have never had a regular job, have always struggled to pay my way. I have no inclination to teach and even research has become tedious. My name is Luke. Nobody likes me. I’m too intense, too stuck up, too introspective.
I know and I really do not care. I don’t care how I dress, about personal hygiene, my hair, my filthy nails. The superficiality of it all bores me. I have never had a regular job, I have struggled to pay my way, I have no inclination to teach and even research has become tedious.
Yet here I am.
I have left my little one-bedroomed apartment on West-side, I no longer have to worry about the domestic chores of everyday life and I am looked after. Among friends, well, I am part of a team; that in itself is interesting... not that I have a choice...
The world is building up to some sort of biblical kind of Armageddon. War, earthquake, famine, disease. I am almost relieved to be able to concentrate on something complicated enough to take my mind and my thoughts away.
There was a knock on the door and a man in uniform telling me what to do. Within days I was whisked away to this simple office, this chalet within a compound. Hidden away secretly. I am no longer allowed spontaneous communication, all of my mails are censored, not that I get a lot... I am forbidden to tell anybody about the job we are doing... hey!... that we have been kidnapped here to do. But what do I care? Nobody really worries about me; father gave up on me ages ago. He said that I had wasted my talents. And he is right. Do I see this as an opportunity to prove myself? No. This is just another dead end. But at least it is a worthy challenge.
The task is complicated and we are not getting any nearer a resolution. But there is a probably misplaced enthusiasm and energy amongst us that, occasionally gives us hope. We just need a breakthrough. A moment of inspiration.
Let’s face it, the world outside the confines of this place is getting crazier, we often talk about the politics of it all and where we are going with this project. We have no doubt in it is probably vital to the future of mankind, that might sound sensational but it is a reasonable statement. Hey. No pressure then...
Whilst part of the world sinks beneath the melting ice caps, whilst humanity struggles violently against itself and greed and selfishness rules, whilst society stands of the precipice of collapse, whilst we spend more money on creating weapons than clearing up the mess than using weapons create, whilst we spend more energy on personal entertainment than work and whilst we leave half of the world struggling to eat and to survive. We will slip back into neolithism. It makes me sick and bereft.
There are a team of us working on the project. We are all similar misfits, similar supposed geniuses or gifted analysts. We are referred to as the summers, but we are past caring what they call us. Two months in and we are not the slightest bit nearer to the interpretation, translation, understanding and decoding of a series of messages. I know what they expect of us. But the task is impossible, ridiculous and hopeless. There is no such thing as a universal translator. The whole concept of any alien life being similar to us is ludicrous. They used to say life depends on three basics: oxygen, light and water... baloney! We are completely blinkered because we only see our insular Earth set up. The whole concept has been blown apart. What do we accept as intelligence is negotiable. We have a multitude of intelligent animals, fish and birds here on Earth – we have now found similar even in our solar system: basic forms of life.. and suspect other systems have intelligence but there is such a difference. We cannot talk to dolphins – how are we supposed to talk to sentient beings from Rigel4?
The Hildebrand legacy pays us. But the payment we are forced to pay in is secrecy... whose wealth was amassed in the creation of fusion energy that revolutionised the post caliphate wars...
They have turned to us, our group of misfits simply because the computer programmers have thrown their arms up and admitted defeat. Quantum mechanics: no problem, molecule modelling: easy, space travel: pah!! Computers with megaPFLOPS based in Tokyo... they used time on even the IBM super computer, secretly of course, but it could not come up with a solution. Of course, we are not surprised. Since the worldwide crash in the early 22ndCentury that caused global panic and destabilisation and power blackouts that lasted long enough to kill nearly 2 million, the world has ceased to believe that advanced computers and robots will solve and eradicate every problem from poverty to global warming, from disease to natural disasters.
This is the most pressing, most important of problems. A series of numbers that need
deciphering, but it is more than that. It is much more. You wouldn’t understand. Try and imagine a billion pulses of light in wave spectral oscillations, a stream of coloured signal bursts in different forms and intensity. It is more a jigsaw that needs making than a code that needs breaking. Why important? It is secret and cannot remain secret. Nothing this big remains a real secret. There have been media whispers about if for decades; but it is an enigma and until we know what it means, if it means anything , what it says, if it says anything; hell! it might just be a random beacon set up by a star-travelling alien race, it might possibly be a natural black hole phenomena. But.
It might also be a hello. An introduction to a civilised species that could befriend us, offer us technology and give us, the human race, a new perspective.
But we cannot read it. We have no idea. Perhaps we are not ready. Perhaps we are not deserving. Perhaps we will never know. Who knows?