CAT PEOPLE (PUTTING OUT FIRE)
As Glastonbury revellers leave thousands of plastic bottles despite a ban, there was an itch on my arm I yearned to scratch. Someone had let the cat out…
Big problems require the finest minds to co-operate.
CAT PEOPLE (PUTTING OUT FIRE)
As Glastonbury revellers leave thousands of plastic bottles despite a ban, there was an itch on my arm I yearned to scratch. Someone had let the cat out…
Big problems require the finest minds to co-operate.
In cat mythology, white mice were the second most intelligent species on Earth, after cats. Then it was dolphins, humans, dogs and everyone else. While infinite monkeys and apes developed tools, it was only humans who could be trained to use their opposable thumbs to write stories.
How long before British Summer Time becomes ‘Monsoon Season’?
SO LONG AND THANKS FOR ALL THE ANIMALS
The original carvings were found deep in a forest, but debate varied over which were the first. In the space of a week, new inscriptions were discovered several times daily, all in woodland, all identical, but unlike anything recorded previously. Meanwhile, two school friends had uncovered what could be a key.
“How does it switch on, Jay?” Kerry stared at herself, next to Jason, as they both looked back from the black glass-like sheet.
“I don’t know, Kay,” Jay replied, as he looked back at Kerry. “It’s nothing obvious that I’m missing, is it?” He handed the pane of glass to her. About A4 in size, the glass was no thicker than a sheet of paper. “What’s it made of, anyway?”
“Well,” Kay said, moving it in and out from her face, “it’s got imperfections.”
“What, your face?”
“Fuck you, wanker. No, I mean, the glass, or whatever it is, it’s not completely smooth. It’s like something from a dark and twisted hall of mirrors. See what I mean?” She handed the mirror back, and Jay looked at himself as he moved it in front of him. “Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon.”
Jay turned the sheet over in his hands. “I look the same on both sides,” he said to their reflections, “bumpy. In fact, I’d say I’m quite corrugated.”
“Well,” said Kay, “your forehead often is.”
“You frown a lot.”
Jay frowned at the glass sheet. “Well,” he said, “no matter how much I wish it to switch on, it won’t. There are no buttons, so there must be some other way.”
“You actually think it’ll switch on? Jay, it’s just a sheet of some old material.”
“I know,” Jay replied, “but it’s this weird stuff, and where we found it. It’s got me wondering.”
“We found it buried in the woods, Jay. Lots of things are buried in woodland, and time and the elements change things. This could just be a part of something plastic, and the material has been melted, or eroded.”
“But it was wrapped up. And it was near those tree carvings, like the ones on the news.”
Tree and stone carvings had been cropping up spontaneously in the previous few days. At first, pranksters were suspected, but it had become too elaborate. Now, the same conspiracy community which once surrounded crop circles had been stirred, and the internet was an ocean of theories.
The carvings weren’t any recognisable text, nor were they pictographs which gave any clues to their origin or meaning. They incorporated geometric shapes and patterns, like crop formations, but appeared on tree bark and rocks. Jay and Kay found the glassy sheet when they’d been metal detecting, and at first, the haul was just a soda can and some tin foil, but the foil was wrapped around the slate.
“Any theories on the news?” Kay wondered.
“Only one,” Jay said, “a really out-there one.”
“Imagine we’re in biblical times.”
“Two thousand years ago, give or take: Imagine we’re there, or then, if you like.”
“Okay.” Jay adjusted himself in his chair. “You know I don’t believe in God, right? But no-one can deny that the bible might be based on fact, on actual events. Ancient scribes may have recorded actual historical events, but they’d have been limited in the terms they used and what was available to them, in the way they recorded things.”
“Yeah,” Kay said, “you’ve said. Imagine if you could’ve given one of those old guys a smartphone. They could’ve recorded it all and we’d be able to see what they saw. It’d solve the whole religion problem.”
“Well, yeah,” Jay agreed, “and if you gave them say, a mobile phone, or a tablet computer, they’d probably think it was some sort of sorcery, or it could be alien technology. And they’d probably write of it as some sort of magic mirror.”
“And that’s what you think this is?”
“It could be,” Jay tried to assert. “It just won’t switch on. If it’s what I think it could be, it’s either extinct through pure neglect or technology. Or it could be a technology so far advanced, that we just don’t understand it.” He held the slate to his face again. “Hmm, never noticed that before,” he frowned.
“Show me?” Kay moved next to Jay, and looked at them both in the glassy surface, frowning. “What didn’t you notice?”
“The way one of my eyes seems to take just a split fraction of a second to catch up. Only that one, the left one, watch.” Jay looked at Kay’s reflection.
“You’re right, it does,” she said. “You’ve got a lazy eye mate.”
“I think it’s pretty cool actually,” Jay said, looking from himself, to Kay, and back again. “It’s like that one is taking things in more, while the other one concentrates ahead. Then the left one catches up and tells my brain all the other stuff it needs to know.”
“That is pretty cool,” Kay said, “you freak.”
Then something slightly unexpected, but entirely plausible happened: The slate crackled and sparked, first an arc of blue lightning, and the sparkle of a glitter dome. Then a graphic appeared on what had become a screen.
“That looks familiar,” Kay said.
“Kind of what I expected,” Jay replied. “Let’s see what the latest news is…”
The latest developments were trending, in news and on social media: Analysis of the designs found on trees and rocks, had revealed them to be neither carved nor burned into any surface.
“Your theory?” Kay wondered.
“That,” Jay said, “the carvings weren’t made from the outside, at least not by any method we understand.”
“Meaning how many things?”
“Two, equally crazy ones.”
“Humour me, agent Jay.”
“Okay, Kay. One: It could be that the marks were made by technology we don’t understand, which would suggest alien, either extraterrestrial or of this earth, as in, government. But we can discount the latter. They wouldn’t put on any show, other than to whip up hysteria, perhaps as a smokescreen. I dunno. So, aliens: aliens among us? Or visiting ones, leaving us messages, meaning what? Or,” Jay looked at the design on the tablet. “Or it could be, that the ones which look like this on the trees and the rocks… That’s theory two.”
“That the carvings, inscriptions, or whatever; the words, pictures, designs; they could be made from the inside.”
“Nature. I don’t mean colonies of insects, parasites or fungi. These are carvings on the outside, with no signs of being carved. So the opposite of that, is that they were pulled in from the inside.”
“What the actual?”
“Nature made them.”
“You already said that.”
“The earth made them, Kay.”
“The wha’? The actual planet. Planet earth, put the messages there?”
“It’s a bit like self-harm, isn’t it? So what this could be, Kay, is messages in the earth, the trees, the rocks, from the earth, where they’re all a part of the nature of that planet.”
“Saying what? Jay?”
“I don’t know. Maybe telling us to fuck off.”
“We are. We’re so un-evolved, when you look at us, and all we could be, with all that’s around us. We’re ugly. Those ancient aliens who may or may not have made up the stories in the bible, they were probably a race so technologically advanced because they’d harnessed the natural, sustainable energy from their environment, rather than plundering it of all its resources for their own gain. I mean, we’re only just developing wind, solar and tidal energy technology. We’re having to, because we’re running out of coal and oil. But still, perpetual energy sources only serve a small proportion of our needs. And we use less than one per cent of the energy available for free on this planet.
“Those technologically advanced races, who may or may not have visited biblical humans, they were ones who’d become efficient through sufficiency. There are races out there who might have harnessed the natural energy of their parent star, with something like a Dyson Sphere. Look it up.”
“I know what a Dyson sphere is, and I can only begin to imagine what a race might be capable of, once they’ve effectively captured all the energy of their sun with solar arrays. Actually, I can’t begin to imagine the possibilities.”
“Which is exactly,” Jay said, “what those biblical scribes would have found.”
“Your number two theory definitely has legs,” Kay confirmed. “How would the ancient alien tablet fit in though?”
“Only if it was that.” Jay pointed at the design on the screen. “That being alien technology, like a magic mirror described in the bible.”
“But it’s just showing that same design?” Kay suggested.
“But look,” Jay said. “I’ve got a theory on how we managed to switch it on.”
“How?” Kay looked at the same design as Jay on the screen. “Oh, like that,” she said, as the pattern began to change. “But how?”
“Two heads are better than one, perhaps?”
They didn’t have to speak. It was the act of knowing, and the same like-mindedness which had switched the tablet on before. Perhaps the technology was ancient, advanced, or both, but it wasn’t redundant. It was woken by thought, specifically, the alignment of the thoughts of more than one person.
As Jay and Kay continued to watch the screen, the pattern continued to morph, into more complex and fractal patterns, perpetually zooming in on recursion. Then the whole screen changed, from screen saver to what was apparently an operating system.
“It’s a bit like Linux,” Jay suggested.
“You wha’? That,” Kay pointed, “is way more, Jay.”
“It’s the only way I can think to describe it, as being accessible. Look, it seems to know what you want to do.” They both peered into the screen. “It’s three dimensional, and if you look ahead, you can see bits going off to the side. It’s like travelling down a wormhole.”
And that was the best way the modern day scribes had to describe what they saw.
“Let’s see where we’re going,” Kay said, as they both watched the screen. “Ooh, look. What’s that?”
The wormhole opened onto a scene, apparently from a remote camera, with an overlay of what could be coordinates and time, but in an indecipherable text. The main picture was a live video feed, of a field, with a row of large chimneys in the background.
“I wonder how we look around,” Kay wondered. Then something strange but expected happened:
The view on the tablet screen changed, as Kay (and Jay) willed some remote camera, perhaps in the countryside near a power station. Panning the landscape, they saw electricity pylons stretching into the distance, standing like frozen, bow-legged old ladies.
The pylon nearest the camera started to move, not by tilting, by lifting, first on one side, then the other. Soon, the pylon began to move forwards. A second pylon did the same, then a third, and quickly, a line of electricity pylons were walking through the mud beneath them, casting off electrical wires as they went. A battalion of iron old ladies, had lifted their skirts, cast off their bindings, and began a bow-legged march away from the power station.
The camera pulled away from the generator, which shrunk into the distance as the viewers were once again plunged into a spectral plughole, depositing them, through the magic of the mirror, in the middle of an ocean. As they thought about what might be around them, the camera obliged.
There was an oil rig, a steaming, fire-breathing skeletal leviathan. Suddenly, it held its breath, as the rig unplugged its umbilicus from the sea bed, and the natural elements in its man-made structure took on sentience.
The camera switched, gradually more quickly, around different scenes: Electricity pylons marching over fields, and oil rigs, swimming to shore, retro-futuristic dinosaur machines, striding through the human landscape.
© Steve Laker, 2017.
“Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon,” with kind permission of Léanie Kaleido (she has a YouTube channel).
This story is taken from my second anthology, The Unfinished Literary Agency.
It’s Easter, and I see local news anchors handing over gleefully to weather reporters, “Isn’t the weather lovely?” No it isn’t. It shouldn’t be like this. But because it is, thousands will flock to the beaches and leave their plastic human pollution behind. I’m also following the Extinction Rebellion movement on London’s streets, and counting the days before the government approves water cannon. I’m stuck at home with a typewriter, watching the first clashes of fascism with socialism…
The end of a world we once knew, is the foundation for a world we don’t know.
Contented people make shit activists, because they don’t have much to be pissed off about in their closeted, entitled lives. I’m angry about many things, but lack the energy I once had to be an effective protester beyond the written word. My faith lies in the younger generation, so I wrote a cross-generational poem.
Our children are growing up to be activists by default, with more UK school kids joining the #FridayForFuture protests every week. Theirs is a growing movement against capitalism, fascism, war, human rights abuse and climate change. We should not dismiss or ignore them. As parents we won’t, but we can’t ignore the ugly wall of politics we made for them, like so many rods for our species’ spine.
The UK government’s response to the student protests so far has been typical: The strikes are increasing the burden on teaching staff. From what I’ve been able to find out, most of the teachers are behind the students. To the detractors and deniers who say that striking affects their education, they ask, what’s the point of preparing for a future which won’t be there unless the world changes?
Our kids shouldn’t have to grow up this fast, but we made it that way. We didn’t change politics, but the children of humans could.
Some will use it as an excuse to play truant, but most are acting out of an existential fear, and better that their energy and anger is directed to a social cause than an alternative tribalism.
Perhaps eventually there’ll be civil unrest, but even a police state like the UK wouldn’t use tear gas to control children, would they? Once it really kicks off, I predict the Tories imposing martial law, and the death of policing by consent in the UK.
My own kids may or may not walk out of lessons on Fridays, and if they do, they have my support and admiration. As a punk in the 1980s, I didn’t always know what I was angry about. It’s pretty clear now what I missed.
Our children are the future. They’re precious and powerful assets, and they’re wiser than we were, because they can see what we didn’t see coming. We dismiss them as young and innocent at our species’ peril.
These kids will make a fine next generation of adults, because they’re activists. The world will not be at peace until we can see a future where we can all be content to live in a home we made for everyone together.
#PowerToTheChildren #ExtinctionRebellion #FridayForFuture #ClimateStrike
THE WRITER’S LIFE
The greatest influences on lives are personal, and the deepest impacts upon the personality can live beyond the individual persona. The category winners (and nominees) in the BBC’s recent poll to find the greatest icon of the 20th Century, were all unarguably inspirational, monumental in their personal achievements, and with the power to change our fundamental understanding of what it is to be human.
The poll was completely subjective (none deserved a back seat), but it was refreshing to see so much diversity among the finalists, although women were conspicuous by their absence (iNews attempts to explain why). I owe something to each, as all have to varying extents influenced the way my life went and continues, whether consciously or not. What a wonderful world it would be, if I could gather these people around a table…
Pablo Picasso in the arts and literature seat, takes a break from painting and puts his clothes on;
Muhammad Ali in the sports corner, exchanges gloves for cutlery;
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote down what everyone wanted, so he could be spokesperson to the server;
Ernest Shackleton got back from work just in time;
David Bowie poured a drink from a tin can;
Nelson Mandela paid for himself, and chipped in for those who couldn’t;
and Alan Turing was just Alan at the time, but he worked out who had what:
All images: BBC Icons
Each had their place at the table, a Venn diagram of human thinking sketched out on napkins. All are icons in their respective worlds, but they settled the bill together. In the end, the vote went to Turing, not for paying for dinner, but for continuing the conversation around the human condition.
In Alan Turing, we have a human who paid the ultimate price for his sexuality, in a century of intolerance; and a scientist who gave us the internet (for free), saved millions of lives, and probably ended the Second World War two years early.
No one person can define the last century, but David Bowie – the closest to my heart, for all his creativity and diversity – has been recognised as the most iconic entertainer. The personification of androgyny with many peers, he was (and is) a deity, the Starman.
Still all male though, which is telling, that the 20th Century was only the beginning of sexual equality and recognition. If our species survives to repeat this poll in another century, then we might be considering people like Michelle Obama, or Greta Thunberg, Alice Roberts or Hannah Fry; or possibly our own children, their sisters and brothers. Maybe the saviours of our race haven’t even been born yet. The 21st Century is only just old enough to drink, after all.
What the Icons programme also did, was to serve as a damning indictment of Tory Britain, a nation with a history of minority oppression, now a regressive fascist regime, brought about by stealth and manipulation.
Maybe this will inspire a young mind, troubled by the state we find ourselves in, to step up and fight for our one race, on one planet, sharing one massive problem. All of the 20th Century’s icons live on, their influence forever changing our world. They’ll never see what a difference they ultimately made, but we owe it to them to continue their legacies.
Collectively and individually, the 20th Century’s icons (and the unsung supporting cast of each) have changed us, the way we think, and the way we behave. But the last century also saw an explosion in the technological evolution of our species, with the potential to create divisions so great that they tear us apart as a race.
I’m part of a rare group, born in the first half on 1970. Because when we turn 50 in 2020, we’ll enter our seventh decade: Conceived in the 60s, born in the 70s, grew up in the 80s, lived the 90s, not dead yet. I have children, and in those young people, I can see a rebellion and a reclamation, as they realise they could be the last generation. We can’t allow that.
We rarely have a chance to reflect on our past, when so much focus is on the future. Turing’s invention allows us to explore the past and plan the future, daily. It gives us human social democracy, to co-operate and to collectively make a difference.
Alan Turing could well be the (subjective) greatest human of all time, when he lives on in so many devices which can give us access to all of human knowledge, and each with the potential to influence change. Of all the (male) finalists, Turing is perhaps representative of the greatest inclusivity. It’s how we keep talking, where all genders and species find a common voice (the Cyrus Song).
Brothers and sisters, pump up the volume. The 21st Century has a greater collective voice, and the means to shout louder, because the internet helps us work together. Sons and daughters, us pan-generationals need you to shout for us and at us, so we don’t lose track (Thanks).
My latest anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
At a time of year when I see friends on Facebook posting their year in review and wishing a happy new year to all, I wanted to do the same, but I can’t. Even though I’m a writer with a public access blog, I find the exposure of Facebook too much, and besides, there are still people there who judge me on past deeds for which I’ve made amends. In any case, this is too long for the average attention span on Facebook. Nevertheless, I’m anxious.
I didn’t know where to start with this. With all I’m going through (dad unwell, my personal independence payment taken away, depression, anxiety…) it’s hard to know where it begins and ends. And that’s what’s been putting me off of writing lately. But even as I write this, I’m reminded that writing is my only coping mechanism for my mental health when I’m on my own. Rather than start from the very beginning, this is the middle of an episode.
I’m typing from notes I scribbled longhand in a pocket notebook my kids bought me, which compliments the time machine I wear on my wrist. But I was in danger of running out of space in that inner heart, so I’m transcribing my pencil (naturally, the Staedtler Norris 122).
I see my friends posting those year-end sentiments, and I envy them. They’re able to say what I can’t, for fear of judgement. What I have and they don’t, is a self-loathing for all the harm I did when I was drunk (five years ago now). I’ve rebuilt the bridges I burned, but others can’t find it in themselves to do that. I know I’m better off without that toxicity in my life, but it hurts to lose old friends who simply aren’t prepared to talk and learn. As the same species on this lone planet which we all share as a home (and which we’ve broken) humanity itself could fail by its own devices, unless we keep talking.
So to those still reading, to anyone who found their way over from Facebook, and my blog followers, thanks. Thanks for being you, and for being there, even if you didn’t know that’s where you were. You don’t see me when I wobble, but you’re there without knowing it before I fall down. You don’t grab your hands out for me, but my mind latches onto you. I wouldn’t expect you to know what I’m going through, nor my daily life, because we never talk, and because humans don’t do that any more. Writing is my way of talking, and I know you’re there, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
At the end of any day, week, or cliché, love and music make the world go round. There was a time when I though physics did that, but now I realise it’s biology. Because there’s no substitute for a hug with a fellow human, nor any of our cousins, the animals who were here first. While I may be alone, I still have this connection with the rest of the world.
I’m an introvert who finds conversation difficult with anyone besides friends. Even now as I bear my soul and write this, I don’t want to talk about it. When I publish, a part of me will want to take it down again, lest it attract offers of help.
When someone with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health issue tells you they’re having a hard time, and trusts you enough to tell you, they aren’t doing it because they want you to fix them. They’re telling you because they believe you’re important enough to them to know why they’re not feeling one hundred percent. Respect them for doing that, because they clearly respect you.
Happy New Year, peace and goodwill to all humanity and everyone else whose planet we’re squatters on. Personally, 2019 can’t be as bad as the annus horribilis just gone, much of which was consumed by my battle with the UK government’s social cleansing apparatus. Hopefully I’ll win my appeal tribunal, regain my independence and get my life back. In the UK and around the world, all we need to do is keep talking, even if it’s not in the conventional manner.
Never under-estimate your importance as a human to another conscious entity, no matter how selfish we are as a species. For as long as I have you readers, I’ll keep writing, lest old acquaintance be forgot.
After posting that, two of my friends – old grammar school friends in fact – got in touch, via Facebook funnily enough (via my author page)…
Whatever you’re doing tonight, I hope you enjoy it. 2018, like many years before it, has managed to suck and blow concurrently. In another rotation, we can review 2019 …
… but only briefly.
I was talking to my dog, Pigsy, about you earlier and he said that both of us need to follow Dog’s law. They make a whole lot more sense than the anagram equivalent.
Pigsy went for a walk this morning. I know he enjoyed it but it’s gone now. He’s not wasting time reflecting on whether it was better or worse than any other walk he’s had. Equally, he’s completely forgotten that he ran at the front door so hard & grabbed the mail that the poor fucking Postie had to change his shorts. No, he’s no recollection of the impact with the door, my shouting or the Postie’s pants.
I asked him about tomorrow. He didn’t know what a tomorrow was. I said it was the thing that comes after now. He looked at me with that tilted head that Jack Russell’s have perfected and said “the bit after now, is now … it’s always now, you prick. You still believe you’re the dominant species, right?”
He’s always been a smart arse has my Pigsy but he had a point.
Past events make good stories, but they’re not worth ruminating over. They’ve been. They’ve happened. They’re gone. Unless you’re at the centre of a black hole I suppose, but then everything is happening at once and it all gets horribly non-linear.
Tomorrow. Well, it’s a new year – or it’s a Tuesday. It’s up to us. But, it’s tomorrow and it’s not ‘now’ yet.
Pigsy knows he’ll be going for a walk tomorrow. I’m sure he does; but he’s not arsed in the slightest about it right now. Right ‘now’, he’s stretched across my bed and made it pretty much impossible for me to lie down comfortably. I can’t move him though – he’s making the very best of now you see.
I reckon we should give that a go.
Don’t forget the past & don’t abandon planning your future … but let’s not lose sight of what’s happening now. We’ll miss something new because we were troubling over something old.
I’m not sending this privately in Messenger because I’m happy to wish you a happy new year.
You are where you are because of how you were wired from before you exited the womb. What happens in the future is already decided; not by god or any higher power but by synaptic connections that started their mechanics nigh on half a century ago. Luckily (or currently), there are too many variables to track to predict where we will be next year – so we can still pretend it was a choice.
Even shorter version – I truly hope your hard wired program has an exit for the subroutine that you call to beat the shit out of yourself. It’s time to leave that behind.
The Earth spins, and travels around the sun. The Milky Way galaxy spins, so that in a day, we each travel around 50m km, every day. So we’re in a different place now, and we’ll be in another in just a moment. Like when the second one came in:
Didn’t want to reply to blog post publicly but hope things pick up for you soon but the main thing I wanted to say was whatever else you do (or don’t do) don’t stop writing… Put simply, writing got you through some awful times before (at least that’s how it looked for the outside). You not wanting to write now should be seen as your ‘inner demons’ trying to make a bad situation worse for you. They are opportunistic like that and worse still no matter how clever you are they are equally clever and you can’t hide anything from them! So grab a pad and your tried, tested & trusted Staedtler Norris 122 and spew it all out onto paper, you don’t have to let anyone else see it as, much of it you won’t want to share with others and that doesn’t matter because committing things to paper seems to be a cathartic act for you.
Names withheld, because at least one is as publicity-shy as me, but I know where they live.
To finish off, my next door neighbour did my laundry today, as my washing machine broke down and I can’t afford a new one. He also bought me a box of chocolates. It’s that connection again, almost as though humans are starting to develop telepathy, just as the animals have been communicating for millions of years. And as I’ve noted in the past, open a box of biscuits, take a dog for a walk, and he’s pretty much nailed the day (in Cyrus Song). But there was more: Someone bought a book, another bought me a coffee.
It’s not even next year yet, but things just got better already. I didn’t brick it and take the post down. In fact, I posted it on my Facebook personal timeline. I’m always keen to make new friends there as well as here, and new followers on my author page, where posts besides these blog entries are more suited to a shorter attention span.
Thanks again for getting all this way. You don’t have to meet someone in person to be a kindred spirit. All of this keeps me going and makes it all worthwhile. It’s time to move on, water under the rebuilt bridges, whether travelled or not. Happy New Year, for the sake of old times and new.
There is no such thing as an indigenous Englishman, and Great Britain isn’t a country (a sovereign state that’s a member of the UN in its own right). As the UK and its politics stand, I despise the history of the former, and I’m ashamed by the latter.
As humankind writes its final chapters here on Earth, I wonder how quickly nature will simply erase us. And I speculate in fiction, where indigenous humans on this planet descend from Pangea, and whites are descended from ancient alien invaders.
It’s just a case of history repeating.
A story can begin with one writer, and end up in the hands of another. It’s all down to a plot device, which can be as simple as the means to write…
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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