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.
Of course, white lab mice are the diet many snakes like to staple.
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.
An idiot species’ guide to how to save the world is my Douglas Adams companion piece, Cyrus Song.
“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.