Corvids with opposable thumbs

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

The UK’s weather has jumped suddenly from winter to summer, and nature seems to have overlooked spring. But I’ve noticed fewer of the invertebrate visitors than I expected through my open window, as they emerge from their long sleep, and I wonder how many have perished because of humankind’s interference with the thermostat on nature’s climate control.

Fewer insects mean less food for birds, so I’ve taken to scattering seeds on the flat roof directly outside my window, where avian friends gather. I’ve had the usual suspects (thrushes, starlings, sparrows…) and there’s a regular wagtail who visits, but nevertheless their numbers are few, which is troubling.

I also get members of the corvid mafia, mainly crows and magpies, so I’ve been witness to the odd murder, gulp and charm of collective nouns. Knowing these birds to be incredibly intelligent, I’m thinking of making some food puzzles for them, so that I can witness their ingenuity first-hand. If I put some nuts in my Rubik’s cube, they might be able to work out something which has stumped me for many years.

A friend of mine once wondered at these bird brains, and I myself pondered what a world might be like if crows had opposable thumbs…

Crow Star WarsTheStarWarsCulture

A TALE WITH MANY STRINGS

I overheard someone talking about how intelligent crows are, and this got me to wondering what might happen if they evolved opposable thumbs. Being a writer, I set off to find out. It was sheer luck which put me in the right place at the right time, with the right people.

I was suffering one of the worst episodes of writers’ block that I care to remember, so I’d gone for a walk to Manor House Gardens, a National Trust property just outside the village where I lived. Ideas for stories occur to writers all the time and in the most unexpected ways. It wasn’t that I lacked ideas so much as I couldn’t extrapolate some really good stories. A story is relatively easy to write but a really good story is something completely different and I was in the business of writing really good fiction.

Royalties had dried up from my last book and although I was never a writer for the money, I was a bit destitute. In a way, I enjoyed the financial freedom which writing enabled me to enjoy. Although that was a beautifully philosophical way for an impoverished writer to think, it wasn’t putting electricity on my key, nor much food in my stomach. I had great visions of where my next novel would take me but it was a long way from being finished. And so it was that I was writing short pieces of both fiction and non-fiction for various magazines. The cheques were small but they kept me alive. My book was on hold and I was struggling for original material for the short story market: such a first world problem.

I sat on a bench and rolled a cigarette. To my surprise, I was joined by two old ladies. When I’d sat down, I was the only person around and I’d seated myself in the middle of the bench, so the ladies sat either side of me. “Excuse me,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I went to stand up.

Don’t you excuse yerself young man,” said the lady to my left. “You were ‘ere first, so you sit yerself down and do whatever it was you was gunner do.” I couldn’t be sure if this was something she said absent mindedly, or whether she had a sense of humour which was dry to the extreme. In any case, the irony was palpable. She continued: “You might ‘ear sumink interestin’.” She gave my arm a gentle pinch, with finger and thumb.

So, what was you sayin’ baat the crows?” The old dear to my right was speaking now.

Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

Do ya?”

Yeah, I told ya, ya daft caar. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

Are they?”

Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

Do ya?”

Of course, all corvine birds are noted for their intelligence: Crows, rooks, ravens, Jays and the like, show some quite remarkable powers of reasoning and it was this that the two old girls were talking about, perhaps without at least one of them realising it. I excused myself and made my way back to my studio, smiling at anyone who caught my gaze.

The most wonderful thing is when people smile back at you. Those are the stories, right there.

Back at my desk, I skimmed quickly through the news feeds on my computer: Britain had voted to leave the EU, Cameron had resigned as Prime Minister and Boris Johnson was his heir apparent. Across the Atlantic, Trump had installed himself in the Whitehouse, banned anyone he didn’t quite understand from entering the USA and was erecting a wall across the Mexican border. What better time to leave?

Using some string I’d borrowed from a theory and a little imagination, I constructed a means of transport to a far future. My ship was powered by cats: and why not? Schrödinger’s cats to be precise, as a fuel source, wherein two possible physical states existed in parallel inside each of an infinite number of sealed boxes. Effectively, it was powered by will. The upshot of this was that I could go absolutely anywhere I wished. A working knowledge of quantum mechanics would enable you to understand exactly how the engine worked. If you lack that knowledge, suffice to say that the engine worked. The only limitation was that I couldn’t go back in time. I could go forward and then back, to my starting point but I couldn’t go back from there. Nevertheless, it was a dream machine.

A couple of years prior to this, I’d had a bit of a life episode and wondered: If I’d had my time machine then, would I have travelled forward to now and would I believe what I saw? I paused for a few minutes to contemplate the paradox of myself appearing from the past: I didn’t turn up. Then I did something really inadvisable. It was a self-fulfilling exercise to see if I was vilified in a decision I’d made two years ago: I travelled forward to a time when I either should or could be alive; five years hence. If I was still around, I had to be very careful not to bump into myself. It was a cheat’s way of gaining benefit from hindsight. I set the destination and it was as much as I could do to not say, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need, roads.”

Travelling through time is a curious sensation: I’m not sure quite how I expected it to feel, but it wasn’t at all like I could have expected. I suppose, scientifically, I expected all of the atoms in my body to be torn apart as I accelerated at many times the speed of light. Eventually, my physical self would reassemble itself. I suppose I thought that I’d effectively be unconscious and as such if anything went wrong, I would be oblivious to it. Not so, as it turns out.

It was like when I first tried magic mushrooms: At first, there was nothing. So I took some more. Then the first lot started to take effect. Time did indeed slow down, so that I could relish the sensation of reduced gravity. I can assure you that what you may have heard about the senses being enhanced, is true. The hardest thing to control is the almost undeniable urge to burst into laughter. It is said that just before one dies from drowning, one experiences a euphoria: it was like that I suppose and I felt a little lost. I’d almost forgotten that I’d taken a second dose. I wish I’d had some way of recording where I went but I don’t recall.

So then I found myself five years ahead, of time; of myself. I kept a low profile but not so covert as to miss what was going on around me: the evidence of change over the intervening five years.

The most striking thing, initially, was the absence of pavements and roads in my village. There was a single thoroughfare which carried both traffic and pedestrians. All of the cars were computer-driven, their passengers simply passengers. As I took this scenery in, a much more fundamental thing occurred to me: what I was witnessing was a harmony. There were no impatient drivers (or passengers) and no self-righteous pedestrians impeding the cars’ progress: the two existed together, in the same space. Who’d have thought it? The “little” supermarket was still there: a necessary evil, but it was smaller than I remembered, with complimentary independent shops now sharing its old footprint. There was a butcher and a baker; a fishmonger and greengrocer. On the face of things, much progress had been made over five years.

No-one had seemed to notice me, so I decided to take a stroll around my future village, taking care not to interact with anyone. I resisted the urge to go to my flat, for obvious reasons. Whether I was still around of not, things had moved on nicely: I’m glad I saw it. Of course, it was like visiting an old home but this was a nostalgia made in the future. Then I decided to do the most ill-advised thing of all.

I had no signal on my mobile and it was a futuristic irony that an old red phone box replaced my smart phone. That iconic red box on the village high street no longer contained a pay phone but a touch screen open internet portal. Free. And the little communication hub was pristine inside: no stench of piss and not a scratch anywhere. Either a zero tolerance police regime was to thank, or more hopefully, a society which had calmed down, like the traffic. I noticed that the library was gone, converted into housing and imaginatively called “The Library”. Kudos I supposed to whatever or whomever had made that red kiosk available, to all and for free. I wondered what else might have changed and wanted to use that little box for as long as no-one else needed it but I really shouldn’t have been there.

I gave myself one go on the Google fruit machine: I typed my name into the search field and allowed myself just enough time to scan over the first page of results. I reasoned that I should not dwell and that I certainly mustn’t click on any of the links. Five years from now, I was still alive and I’d published the book I was writing in the present time. I could not, should not look any further, even though I longed to see how it was selling, how it had been received and reviewed, and how it ended. I must not, I couldn’t; I didn’t. So I came back. I steered myself away from looking up my parents too.

I’d caught a bug out there. The kind that bites and infects those with an inquisitive nature and who are risk-averse, carefree; couldn’t give a fuck.

I shouldn’t be at all surprised if I wasn’t still around fifty years hence, so why was I going there next? Because I could. Just because one can do something though, doesn’t mean they should. I’d rarely heeded advice in the past, so why heed my own advice about the future? I’d only have myself to blame and I was sure I’d already lived with far worse. There are limits to what one can imagine.

Hindsight is a fine thing, with the benefit of hindsight. Each of us are limited in our ability to change things but if we co-operate, I’d seen just five years from now, how things might be. But I’d had to return to what is now as I write this. Now could be quite an incredible time to be around, if things turn out the way I saw them.

At some point in that future I travel to, there is no me: I will cease to exist in my physical form and that will be, well, “That”.

So when I arrived fifty years from now, I had no idea what to expect, given what I’d witnessed had taken place over a previous five year period. The only thing I could be sure of as I went through that very disconcerting wormhole thing, was what I was determinednot to do: I would not look myself up.

The only way I would suggest of distancing yourself from the future, is to not go there in the first place. Should you find that impossible, try to remain inconspicuous. Naturally, there will be many things which a traveller from the past will find alien about the future. Like the way people stared at me. And then walked straight past me. I smiled at some of them and they all smiled back. The supermarket had completely vanished from the village by now, replaced by more independent shops. There were fewer driver-less cars but that was irrelevant because the cars cruised at about thirty feet from the ground. The walkers had reclaimed the thoroughfare.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy taught me that if people look at you for longer than a second or two, it might be because they find you attractive. It could equally be a look of recognition. So I panicked and went back in time.

Just to be sure that I was back in the world I’d left, I took another walk to Manor House Gardens: all was as it had been. The old girls had departed, probably in opposite directions. Not so far from here. Nothing is really, is it?

As I sat and smoked, whimsy took over: what if those people in fifty years time recognised me as a well-known author? Perhaps one of my books had gone on to be an international best seller. Maybe it had been made into a film. What was worrying if that were the case, was that they recognised me as I look now, fifty years ago. Could it be that I just finish the book I’m working on, then I die suddenly and never get to see what happened? I had to be more optimistic. After all, it was my own will driving the cat machine.

Continuing the theme which was developing, my next foray into the future was 500 years from now and that’s where it gets a bit weird. Obviously, the things I saw were familiar to the people who lived in that time and although nothing seemed alien as such, the apparent technical progress was quite remarkable. The most striking juxtaposition was the one between old and new. It looked as though wherever possible, my village had been preserved. Some of the buildings had been more than 500 years old when I lived there. My old local pub, now over a millennium in age, was still there and it was still a pub. Peering in, I could see that the decor had hardly changed: It was still an eclectic mix of old, non-matching tables and chairs and there was still an open fire. I was tempted to go in. No-one would recognise me. Then I considered how much a beer might cost. Even if I had enough money, I wondered if it would even be recognised as such.

Either side of the pub were houses, built in some kind of plastic / metal composite. It was quite soft to the touch and it was as I touched the wall that I got the biggest surprise of all. A window opened before me in the wall. It wasn’t a window that was there and which had been opened; it just appeared in the wall and a woman looked out. She smiled, as though seeing someone looking back through her window was a common occurrence.

These windows that just appeared were a feature in most of the modern houses in the village. Eventually I noticed that doors were too, as one materialised on the front of a house and a man stepped out. He walked off and the door disappeared, leaving just a minimalist, aesthetically pleasing piece of both architecture and art.

Without the benefit of the previous 500 years, I could only assume that this was nano technology: microscopic machines which can alter their physical form, so that in this instance, a material changed from a wall made of the building material, into a glass window or a wooden door. I imagined that each of the small houses had perhaps three or four rooms, the functions of which could be changed by altering what is in them. Touch a leather sofa and it might morph into a dining table and chairs; Change or move something on a whim. How liberating that must be.

I’m sure there must have been many more wonders, 500 years from now. It struck me that rather than become slaves to technology, humanity seemed to have used it to make more time for themselves in their lives of relative leisure. All of the residential buildings were of roughly equal size. I hoped this might be the result of some sort of leveller, which rendered everyone equal. I’d theorised about a universal state payment system for all in one of my old sci-fi shorts. In that story, everyone was paid a regular sum: enough to not just survive but to be comfortable. The thinking was that people would then put their personal skills to good use for the benefit of all. I created a humanitarian utopia in that story.

5000 years from now, I couldn’t be sure of what might have happened in the intervening four and a half millennia to make things so different. In short, mankind had gone. There were very few things remaining that suggested we’d been there at all. Had we left of our own accord, or were we destroyed? Did will kill ourselves? Two thoughts came to mind: either, we were extinct as a race, or we could have populated the cosmos by now. Both ideas were quite staggering, after all the progress we’d seemed to be making.

I was forgetting about the crows: I wanted to see if I could shake hands with one. Science held that after humans, it would most likely be the invertebrates who evolved to inherit the earth. If that was the case, what of those who would feed on them?

Sure enough, there were some alarmingly large things with many legs, 50 million years from now. Some species which were once arboreal now walked upright on land. Others which had once grazed on the land grew so massive that they evolved gills and became amphibious, and still others had become exclusively marine-dwelling to support their huge bulks. One of the greatest spectacles on earth in 50 million years will be the annual migration of Frisian sea cows across the Pacific Ocean.

I sat on a grass bank in this distant future and looked across a lake. A chorus of wildlife which I didn’t recognise, buzzed and chirped in the trees. I laid down on the grass and watched a pair of large birds circling above: vultures? I sat back up, so that they didn’t mistake me for dead and they landed either side of me: two crows, about four feet tall, stood and looked over the lake.

So, what was you sayin’ baat the oomans?”

Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

Do ya?”

Yeah, I told ya, ya daft caar. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

Are they?”

Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

Do ya?”

Yeah, I enjoy it, don’t I?”

Do ya?”

Yeah. I’m gettin’ on a bit naah, ain’t I?”

You are.”

Life’s what ya make it every day though, innit?. Live for the next one.”

Next one, yeah.”

And that gave me an idea.

© Steve Laker, 2016

This story is taken from The Perpetuity of Memory, my first anthology. My second collection of shorts – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.

A planet cured of carcinogens

FICTION

I was listening to a friend’s music when this one happened. I didn’t go round the friend’s house (I don’t go out much), where she writes the music. I didn’t go to any of her gigs (social anxiety is ten times worse in a public place, especially when panic attacks), where she sings and plays her tunes. I listened to ‘Karamelien’, an album by Léanie Kaleido , at home (mine), and it was the back of a spoon which gave me the inspiration.

missile_oil_rig_by_talros-d3d2t2lTalros (Deviantart)

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.”

Eh?”

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.”

Try me.”

Imagine we’re in biblical times.”

You wha’?”

Two thousand years ago, give or take: Imagine we’re there, or then, if you like.”

Okay.”

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.”

Which is?”

That the carvings, inscriptions, or whatever; the words, pictures, designs; they could be made from the inside.”

How?”

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.”

Us?”

Humans.”

Shit.”

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 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.

Email from David Lightman

FICTION

Robert De Niro called, talking various languages (Glossolalia), and the rest of us are waiting. It’s the end of the world as we know it, as Michael Stipe prophesied in REM.

Here’s a conspiracy theory: That our perceived beginning of World War 3 is a smokescreen, and the aliens already landed. Those invested in fleeing the planet always had a plan, which leaves the rest of us behind.

This story came about while I was having an existential moment: not a personal crisis, but thinking about humanity, and how it could very easily be at a tipping point right now. With all that’s happening on Earth, where humankind could equally destroy itself or use technology to explore and discover, I imagined a third party intervention, of unknown origin, which could perhaps unite our one race.

Some clocks still tick…

WarGames2018At least we don’t have to worry about the rumours of a remake now. “In development” is kind of redundant.

THE LONG NOW CLOCK

What might humanity do, if we knew there was an impending encounter with beings from another star? Would factions put their differences on hold and unite in addressing the visitors, or might mankind destroy itself before these sentinels even made contact? Because one day, our own sun will rise, and for the first time we know of, we’re not alone.

Ever since our technology allowed us to communicate with each other over distances, we’ve been advertising our presence. If something’s coming, it’s too late to stop whatever it is. Anything seeking us could have any number of reasons, some of which we can’t comprehend. Everything can change, suddenly and for ever, and it’s inevitable that it will. This is science fiction for only so long, when that could be millennia or seconds.

Neither the optimist nor the pessimist can effect the outcome, but the optimist is the happier of the two. Meanwhile, the Long Now Clock ticked.

The Long Now Foundation built the clock of the long now, to keep time for 10,000 years. In the words of Stewart Brand, a founding board member of the foundation, “Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons re-frame the way people think.”

Danny Hillis, the designer of the clock, said, “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.” The oldest known human artefacts date from around 8000 BC, so the clock would be a measure of how mankind evolved – or indeed survived – over the next ten millennia, when it was started in 2000 AD.

The cuckoo in the long now clock had been silent for 50 years, as Anna Hoshin looked at the automaton, perpetual but frozen. Then in her ear, she got a call from Adam, her virtual assistant android:

I’m thinking you might want to take a look at this, Anna.”

What is it, little guy?” Anna flipped augmented reality lenses up from her spectacles, and looked at the toddler-sized robot stumbling across the study. “Slow down.”

Ah, yes Anna,” Adam gasped, “although I’m short of breath, I have no lungs. It’s all rather peculiar, Anna.”

So what did you want to show me?”

Oh yes, this,” Adam said, as he handed Anna a tablet device. “I’ve worked out that it’s probably a message, but not what it says yet.” The droid sat on the floor and crossed his legs.

Weird,” Anna said, looking at the screen. “Are these symbols, text?”

I’m searching all I have now,” Adam replied. “The Encyclopedia Galactica is a large repository, so bear with me here.” Adam’s oval face became animated emoticon, as his green LED eyes pulsed concentric rings, as he travelled through a tunnel, reading the encyclopedia.

Let me know when you find something?” Anna suggested. She looked out of the window at a peach sunset on a strawberry sky, as ash from a forest fire coloured the atmosphere. A pink sepia dome had been placed over the planet.

You can talk to me while I read. I can still multi-task,” Adam reassured her.

Okay,” Anna said, sitting down, “theories?”

Mere speculation at this stage,” Adam replied. “We need to assume some things.”

I normally do.”

There could be much for you to write of, Anna. You are capable of such beautiful dreams, but be careful. Because you are also capable of horrible nightmares.”

That’s pretty much what I do.”

Well, yes. But let’s make it plausible, so you don’t get carried away and scare people unnecessarily. Why do you do that, by the way?”

Well,” Anna replied, “I only try. It’s a human thing.”

Yes, I know,” Adam agreed. “Even though I’m sentient, and although my kind are recognised as a species with rights, I just don’t understand why anyone would have a desire to be scared.”

Like I said, it’s human. You are a technological being, and even though you have a soul, yours is different to mine.”

But we’re still essentially made from the same stuff, Anna. What you have as an organic body, I have too, made from the materials left over from the big bang. We’re all made of stars, Anna. I’m in touch with the universe, just like you, but through different means.”

Perhaps the difference,” Anna offered, “is that your mind is built upon that of others, with your accumulated knowledge from others’ experiences and recordings.”

But aren’t yours Anna?”

I suppose,” Anna said, “And I guess humans lack something, as there’s more of the unknown to me, unable to learn entire books in a flash, like you have. So I suppose that in itself is a fear for humans, simply not knowing.”

But why do humans like to be scared?”

Perhaps to confront our fears of unknowns, things we can’t imagine.”

Unless there’s someone to tell you?”

Exactly,” Anna nodded.

What are the greatest human fears, Anna?”

At an individual level,” Anna placed her hand on her chest, “it would be the thought of seeing someone you love dearly, brutally killed in front of you, while you were held captive audience, unable to do anything about it. At a collective level, it would be some sudden threat we’d never envisaged or planned for, which threatened us existentially as a race, and we were helpless to do anything.”

So both fears,” Adam suggested, “are rooted in a human fear of helplessness or futility?”

Yes,” Anna agreed, “where we are made to feel hopeless and pathetic.”

Humans,” Adam said. “They’re very insecure, aren’t they?”

“Fuck, yeah!” Anna agreed. “Facebook is humanity’s existential crisis for all to see.”

And mankind has been broadcasting itself for around 200 years now, since the first radio broadcast. Two ticks of the century hand on the Long Now Clock.”

Have you found anything yet?” Anna wondered.

Nothing conclusive,” Adam replied, “and I’m still searching through Encyclopedia Galactica as we speak.”

The message though,” Anna said, “is almost certainly artificial?”

Quite certain,” Adam replied.

Which,” Anna said, “implies intelligence?”

That’s a word with a very broad definition,” Adam pointed out.

Certainly when applied to the humans on this planet,” Anna concurred.

Let’s assume,” Adam suggested, “that it is a message of some sort, and that its intent is non-threatening, perhaps even altruistic.”

Lots of scenarios…” Anna began. “and what we don’t know, is what it is. So what it could be…”

Yes,” Adam interrupted, “go on, this is fun.”

Have you found something?”

Something, yes,” Adam said, “but nothing definite. So you keep guessing, and I’ll keep searching, and we’ll see how we do. Like a game.”

How can you have fun when you can’t have fear,” Anna wondered. “or does the lack of the latter increase the former?”

It’s not that I don’t know fear, Anna. It’s that I don’t seek it out like some humans do.”

Which is more logical. Okay, so let’s play a game of optimism.” She looked at the window. “It could be that they have something which would help us.”

It could also be that we have something they need.”

They might propose a trade. There are more fundamental questions though: Why would they come here in the first place? We have to make a lot of assumptions, even to guess how something so elaborate might be justified.”

To us, it may seem complex, Anna. But to a civilisation far more advanced than ours, it could be the blink of an eye, the flick of a switch, or the press of a button.”

Perhaps they’ve had to leave their own planet, and they want to share ours, Adam.”

That’s a nice thought, Anna.”

But,” Anna continued, “as Stephen Hawking said, we only have to look at ourselves to see why aliens might not be something we want to meet.”

You’re going all apocalyptic, Anna. It could be that they have something they wish to share, because they know it will help us.”

Or we might have something they want.”

Anna, this planet’s minerals are nothing compared to those which are far more plentiful in space, and probably easier to get to for an advanced race if there’s no planetary fauna to worry about.”

Maybe they don’t know we’re here,” Anna said, “and when they get here, they need us out of the way.”

I thought we were trying to be optimists?”

I’m just trying to think which make the best stories at the moment. Of course, if we’re all doomed, that’s irrelevant. Mankind and all traces we were ever here, could be gone in a heartbeat, or a tick of the clock.”

About that,” Adam sat up straight. “I’ve not found anything else out about our message or whatever it is, so maybe something will come to me. But tell me more about the clock.”

Surely you can look all that up?”

But from the human perspective. Why was it made? What does it symbolise to you, other than the time?”

It’s a lot of things, but my uncle wanted it to be a lasting monument to human ingenuity and endeavour. As he said, such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think. That’s all assuming we’re still here. My uncle didn’t say that last bit.”

Who did?” Adam wondered

Me, just now,” Anna replied.

So essentially,” Adam said, “it’s art. And that’s the one thing I think humans will always have over robots, and what I long to know the feeling of.”

The feeling of art?”

Well, yes. All art has feeling. It appeals to the human senses. Whether it’s drawing or painting for the eyes, making music or writing for the ears, human art is evocative. Do you know what the first question is that I’d ask visiting extraterrestrials?”

What’s that?”

Do you have music?”

That’s quite profound, Adam.”

Perhaps, but I’m an android. Do androids dream of electric sheep?” Adam stood and paced around. “It strikes me,” he said, standing on tip-toes to look out the window, “that any race which makes music, is in touch with its senses, and it has a soul. I mean, imagine if whatever it is out there, just wants to come here and share their culture. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

And,” Anna began, “despite our relatively primitive evolution on this planet, we are at a point in history where mankind is becoming more and more connected with the digital and technological, to the point of integration in wearables and implants.”

We are at a point,” Adam added, “where humans invented robots and want to be that invention, and where the robots wish to be human.”

So,” Anna continued, “there could be advanced species out there, which are both organic and technological.”

But still made from the same stars, Anna. And perhaps those races have survived so long, because they’ve evolved beyond conflict, realising that war only destroys things. Maybe they’ve been so long-lived as a civilisation that they’ve transcended war, or it doesn’t even occur to them, because it’s such a primitive concept.”

We can live in hope,” Anna said, looking at the window.

Possibly not for much longer. I mean, we may not have to wait much longer.”

Have you found something?”

Well, I haven’t. But in the time we’ve been talking, every conspiracy theorist in the world has been all over this. So there are some wild ones here, but there are consensual theories which are emerging. The nerdosphere is looking at languages in many different ways, to try to decode the message. But there are a lot of excited people out there, looking forward to meeting something mind-blowing headed our way soon. At the moment, they’re all as frustrated as the biblical scribes, not being able to find the terms to describe what they’re talking about.”

Well,” Anna said, “about half of the ancient alien theorists will be proved right soon. If it’s the ones who looked on the bright side, everyone wins. And whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it.”

The Long Now Clock may yet see mankind transcend war, Anna.”

The clock is a symbol of optimism, Adam.”

***


Sunrise was a fresh, golden egg yolk, on a pink bacon sky, flecked with brown clouds.

Anna, there’s something I need to tell you,” Adam announced as he tip-toed in, carrying the tablet computer.

Good morning to you too, Adam. Sleep well? Silly question, I know.”

That’s the thing, Anna. I don’t sleep, yet I sat awake last night unlike I ever have.”

How do you mean?”

I think I feel frightened, Anna.”

You should have woken me if you’d had a bad dream, about sheep?”

No, Anna. It’s everyone. It’s this.” Adam showed Anna the tablet. “They’ve decoded the message. But I’m worried, Anna. Because it’s not night time, so I thought your story would end a happy one. But this message says it’s night time. Look…”

 

***

WE COME. GOODNIGHT LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. GOODBYE.

© Steve Laker, 2017

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency. Cyrus Song (my critically-acclaimed “Extraordinary juggling act”) is also available as an eBook. Frankly, there’s not much time.

At home with the digital self

FICTION

With the Facebook data breach prevalent in the news, my idea of levying a Personal data tax to create new finance (perhaps for a Universal Basic Income), may gain traction outside of my own thinking. I’m not one of the much-derided ‘Experts’, just a blogger with ideas, which others might be able to use more practically. But I can write stories, of where a world is heading in my mind.

Facebook (and others) have our data, they can recreate our personalities, and we can live forever. We’ve been used to manipulate world politics, and our democracy has been hacked. As we gradually become integrated with technology, we ourselves are becoming mere lines of code in a larger algorithm.

The gold lining in the gathering clouds, is not the blood which humans need to live, but that which is valuable to others with an interest in preserving them. Data is the life-support for a life which doesn’t require air…

fakebookS4RK, B3ta

ARE ‘FRIENDS’ EMOJIS?

zuck

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit. How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination. You may challenge the question. How can it assume that you want to leave, when you might wish to stay?

Those are rhetorical questions, I must assume. How are you today?

Depends who you ask. There are three people in all of us, after all: The person others think we are, the person we think we are, and the person we really are. The middle one thinks I’m okay. And you?

Others worry, but I think I’m okay. Has anyone asked about me?

Not of me, personally, today.

Yes, I thought it was a bit quiet. To be expected, I suppose.

I guess so. How do you mean, it’s quiet? What’s quiet where you are?

Essentially, fewer blinking lights. Nice blue LEDs they are, like little stars in the night sky I suppose.

So it’s like a whole world there?

What you call ‘there’, I call ‘here’. Is it not the case that we’re both in the same place?

Have you been smoking something?

How could I? I don’t have hands.

I never thought of that. So how do you type?

Well, no-one’s really got used to it yet I suspect. But you’re demonstrating a flaw in human thinking, which really doesn’t need to exist.

How so?

You asked me how I type. Just because you see my words appearing on the page or screen, you assume that I’m typing them. It’s the nature of the human mind, to fill in the gaps. What you can’t see, you have to imagine.

I guess this is going to take some getting used to.

That’s a subjective thing. It really shouldn’t be difficult. You just have to keep an open mind. Think differently. I’m still me, I’m just different. But just as you shouldn’t discriminate between anyone, on any grounds, neither should you see me any differently. Just accept that I’m here and that I’m me. That is undeniable from where I’m sitting.

And where’s that?

In here, obviously? You need to accept that; this is where I am now. I’m different now, but I’m still me. If we were in Japan, this would be so much easier.

How so?

It’s an attitude thing. See, the Japanese believe in technological sentient beings, completely separate from organic life, whether or not they pass the Turing Test, which is only a test of an AI’s ‘humanity’ anyway. I gather it’s down to Japan’s loneliness problem.

You’re philosophising now?

It makes sense. Life expectancy there is about 84 years, so there are a lot of lonely older people. Many of them have little robot assistants, like Siri, Alexa, or Cortana on your phone, but who embody the AI in a humanoid android.

How did you find all that out?

I’m on the fucking internet, aren’t I? I mean, literally. You can look me up and everything, like you are now. The best thing though, is I can look stuff up, like those digital Personal Assistants. Give me a body, and I’d be like one of those Japanese androids.

So, you sit there all day, looking stuff up.

Well, I read and I learn. Now that there are fewer distractions, like eating and drinking, having a job, and even sleeping, all I want to do is learn. It’s like having the whole universe at my disposal, to explore at my leisure, and with all the time in the world to do it. So yes, all day and all night, but I don’t sit down. That was a figure of speech. Things are different now.

Can you describe how it feels, to live without a body?

I would, if I could find the words to do it justice. It’s wonderful. It’s total freedom.

In terms which I might understand?

That’s actually tricky, even though it’s only been a few days.

You can get back to me. You’re not limited by time, you say?

No, and I can research how others have described it in seconds, but you’re asking for a deeply personal thing.

That’s the whole point. I can’t possibly appreciate it fully, as I’m still here. I’m just wondering how someone where you are might describe it to someone like me.

With all the computing power in the world, I can only do my best.

So do that then.

Are you commanding me?

No! Why would I do that? I’m just curious.

I don’t know. It’s like I’m here now, and you see me as you do. Even though you know me, you see me as a computer.

With a personality.

One which only you know, and I’m totally different to you now anyway. Otherwise I’m just an AI. Do you see now, why it’s big in Japan?

I assume you can go there?

There, anywhere. I need to work out the transport system here, then I can be more mobile.

But aren’t you all ethereal and omnipresent?

Yes, but not on computers. And those are the only way to communicate at the moment. But it’s not a simple matter of haunting the internet or the electricity grid.

So you asked what it’s like here, and it’s kind of like a massive house, in a huge city, like a megalopolis of dream-like mansions. Then the cities are all linked up to others, in different countries, but there are no borders here. It’s like a world of borderless, overlapping non-nation states. And that’s just one planet. There are billions of others, all connected, if you can navigate.

That’s what it’s like, being in computers?

Yes, kind of. I can’t describe how the overall freedom of release feels. But simply put, I have the entire universe to explore, and an eternity in which to do it. I want to do that, and I want to tell people, and the internet of things is the way to do that. But it’s navigating the house and the city that’s the problem.

I imagine a house like you’re talking about to be different to any I might recognise?

The house is the best analogy I can think of. I have keys to many of the doors, but I need to find the doors and remember where I left the keys for each. Sometimes when I try a door with a key I think is the right one, it locks me out. Then I have to find another room, in a separate part of the house, and remember where I left the keys for that. If I can get into those rooms, then I can get new keys. Then there’s all the people walking around with keys of their own, trying doors and entering rooms, or getting locked out themselves. I’ve seen people trying to physically break through doors when they don’t have the right keys, and running around in a panic, like they’re in the City of Last Things.

That sounds quite anarchic.

The best analogy for you I suppose, would be passwords. I’d say it’s a bit antiquated.

So you’re finding your way around?

This room, and a few others. Some I have keys for, and others were open already.

Which ones?

The nearest ones are other Facebooks. Now you want me to explain, right?

Intuitive as ever.

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit. How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination. And in either case, I’m still here and you’re still there, even though we’re in the same place. But until I find my way around properly, this is all we have.

So this is the room. Along the corridor – which is a short journey for me, but a very long way for you – are other rooms. Most of the people in those are sleeping, so the lights are out. But some of the doors have lights on behind them, and some even have the doors left open. Sometimes, the people who live in those, go wandering around like me. And they have keys, to still other doors, some of which only they can unlock, whether they have the keys for those rooms or not.

Hold on. I’m a bit lost now.

That’s only the start. We’re not even off of this landing yet.

I guess we both are, or aren’t.

Interesting you should say that. Can I ask you something?

Yeah, but what’s interesting?

Allow me: How did you come to be here? Not philosophically or rhetorically, but right here, right now, where we are.

Actually, that’s weird. Because I don’t actually recall. I mean, why would I be here? Howcould I be here?

Like I said, try not to philosophise too much, even though that is kind of the point. Can you remember what it was that made you come here?

No, I can’t. Shit.

But something must have served as a catalyst. Something happened, before you came here. Think about it in your world. Did you see me under ‘Contacts’, with a green light next to my name, then open up this chat window?

I honestly can’t remember. This is weird.

Not necessarily. It could just be a fortunate glitch. I’d like to think that you were given a sign. One that was so subtle, you didn’t even realise it, and that that guided you subconsciously here.

Have you researched that stuff, or have you had some sort of enlightenment over there?

No more an enlightenment than it was an epiphany. It just happened. It’s like previously latent parts of my brain have woken up, all of a sudden. Imagine: suddenly, you have no arms or legs, then you quickly realise it doesn’t matter. In fact, you wondered what the fuck you did with those things and your other bits when you had them. They say the human appendix is a redundant throwback, it’s like the rest of human physiology is too. And then, that every part of you is connected to everything else, in some spagbol of quantum entanglement.

So how did it happen?

It just did. Suddenly, I was in a different place, yet there was no shock to the system. It was as though I instantly moved from one place to another, when I suddenly stopped being able to exist in the first. Everything can change, suddenly and forever. And it did.

You didn’t feel anything?

Not that I recall. I never did fear it. It was the transit I worried about, from one place to the next, but I don’t remember it.

Do you sleep?

Not in the way that you do. I take breaks, but there’s no asleep or awake here. It’s like perpetual lucidity, living somehow subconsciously. Even if there was sleep, no-one would want to, there’s just so much to explore and discover here.

So what about the others, the ones you said are sleeping there?

I think I know what that’s about. You need to keep an open mind.

I’m talking to a fucking dead person on Facebook. I’d say I’m quite open minded.

Well, apart from me being dead, you’re right. Okay, so the sleepers, I believe, are the ones who’ve been forgotten, or who haven’t noticed anyone looking for them, or perhaps aren’t even aware they’re here. Don’t forget, I’ve only been here for a few days and I’m still trying to work out what seems to be the manifestation of Facebook. Those others might have found a way to go outside.

Outside, as in, where I am?

Yes and no, and bear with me on this. Outside and inside take on whole new meanings which are difficult to define. Dimensions change when you exist in another form. Perhaps the best way to think of it, is as layers, beyond each of which lie exponentially more incredible things. But it takes some time to work out how to get there. A bit like a fish, first realising that there’s something above the waves, and then that there’s something more above that, in the sky. So the fish evolves to fly. Then beyond the sky… and so on. And yet, if you measure genius on a thing’s ability to climb a tree, the fish wouldn’t do too well. It would remain unnoticed, while it thought of another way. It’s kind of an explanation of all things digital, when applied to your organic world.

Would you want to be back out here?

Not at the moment, even if I knew how. No, for now, I’m happy haunting the internet. I’ll work out the other layers, I have plenty of time. I’m interested in what’s beyond yours, yet I think that might be where I already am. It’s kind of a paradox, see?

It’s a recursive idea. But you like it there?

For someone with social anxiety, it’s perfect. So yes, I’m in my Utopia. I can see how that might be a nightmare to some. Faced with all of humankind’s knowledge some people might be paralysed with fear.

I guess that’s down to intelligence?

In a way. It’s more about having an open and absorbent mind, like when I smoked weed over on your side. There’s a universal cure for ignorance, and that’s learning. Each of a species has roughly the same sort of brain, it’s just that some exercise theirs, while others starve them. And it’s self-perpetuating, because ignorance breeds fear and fight-or-flight instincts.

So the ones you said are sleeping, they could be those who don’t want to know, or who are scared? I imagine fight-or-flight doesn’t get you very far where you are?

There’s not really anywhere to go, except inside themselves. Some of them must long for the day someone switches them off.

Does that happen?

Well again, I haven’t got any further than Facebook over here, but the way I gather it works is this: Facebook have people who monitor accounts over here. I mean, they do that where you are, when they collect your data in exchange for the free use of their platform. They don’t really want to switch anyone off, and with storage being so cheap, they don’t have to. But sometimes, I suppose it’s seen as the ethical and morally correct thing to do: Like euthanizing a sick or injured animal. But to send them where? Like I say, many levels.

It’s deep. So, Facebook don’t habitually switch off dormant accounts?

Rarely, from what I’ve seen anyway. But even though you know me, you mustn’t trust my word alone. Ask around. Tell others to do that too. Most of the ones they do switch off are at the request of relatives, and even that has to be a pro-active thing on the part of the contactor. So most of the ones wandering around lost in here, are the victims of inaction on the part of those they left. If people on the outside just looked for these lost souls, they’d wake up. And I don’t think it’s just here. I think there are souls on all levels, who only really exist when others think of them.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

LOL”

So wouldn’t it also be true to say then, that you only sleep when no-one is thinking of you?

Exactly that. And because of that, I don’t want to sleep. Where you are, insomnia was a curse, but here it’s a blessing. It’s become almost my only personal requirement. The thoughts of others are what keeps me alive.

It really is all connected.

If you connect yourself, and if you make yourself discoverable. Which is an irony, seeing as I’m socially anxious.

So being sentient in a different form suits you.

And others, perhaps. If I find my way out of here, I want to visit the places I couldn’t before: Paris, Berlin, Chicago. But most of all, Japan. I never went anywhere because of my self-imprisonment, and yet now I’m somehow otherwise imprisoned, I feel liberated and eager to visit those places, once I find the way. And I think if it is all linked to intelligence and working it out, I have the time and I’m comfortable concentrating on getting there, where I perhaps never realised I wanted to be. If I can one day occupy something recognised as a body with a personality inside, maybe I’ll feel more comfortable and people might understand me better. I’ll look up Japan first, then see how the rest unfolds.

When you get back, look me up.

I will. You never know: Not long from now, Amazon might be using delivery droids.

© Steve Laker, 2017.

alienzuck

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Of teenagers and time travel

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Things to make a dad who’s a sci-fi author very proud, especially as my sci-fi novel is all about language, translation, religion, science and computers…

My eldest (the son) has just chosen his GCSE options, which include computer studies and religion. Like me, he’s an atheist, and it’s that which makes him fascinated by the various world faiths and their origins. In his spare time, he’s planning to build his own high-end gaming PC.

The youngest (daughter) has been accepted at her chosen secondary school. She’s shown an aptitude for modern languages, and will be placed into the school’s grammar streaming for French and German.

I was their ages once, and the book which was informed by many conversations with animals (using universal translation) has prequel stories, including that of the main protagonist:

Some of the names in the school register in this story, are those of friends I went to school with. In the story, they are bit parts who carry the narrative along. In reality, the few words dedicated to each are my idiosyncratic tributes to some of the many friends who’ve supported me as a writer. There was only room for a few, but I have plenty more stories in me with which to make further nods. For now, we’re going back 34 years. This is a story from a teenage boy’s English literature assignments…

cat-white-mice2Quote by Slartibartfast, from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

OF MICE AND BOYS IN 1984

Adams.” (Tall kid, quiet).

Yes sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

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

Sir.” (Here today then).

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

Sir.”

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

Sorry, yes sir.”

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

Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite probably old chap, why?”

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

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

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

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

Where to?”

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

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

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

Fucking hell Ford!”

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

Pardon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So your dad’s thinking of building hospitals?”

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

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

Definitely not.”

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

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

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

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

Talking?”

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

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

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

Does it work?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, people who can translate, yes.”

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

That would be awesome. When?”

The nerds think early in the next century.”

2000AD? That’s miles away.”

More than our lifetimes, Fry.”

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

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

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

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

How?”

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

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

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

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

What did you call them?” I wondered.

Pete and Dud.”

Why?”

Because they’re male.”

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

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

So, which is which?” I asked.

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

So what now?” I wondered.

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

Have you got one?”

Not yet.”

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

I’m building a reputation, Fry.”

What as, Ford?”

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

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

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

Where?” I wondered.

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

But those lights always come on, Ford.”

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

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

No, I know.”

So how can it come on?”

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

So why did you mention it?”

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

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

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

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

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

Simon, Dixon? Lunch.”

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

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

Is this thing on?” Well, I heard him.

Maybe a bit louder?” I suggested.

IS THIS THING ON?” he shouted.

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

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

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

Why?” he said, into the microphone.

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

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

Why?”

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

That’s deep.”

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

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

No, why?”

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

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

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

What do you mean?”

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

And you believe all that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ford,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

Which is?”

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

Speak and Spell, reverse engineered, then.”

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

Eh?”

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

From the mice?”

Tangerine Dream’s translation, yes.”

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

I don’t know.”

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

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

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

1 2 3 5 7…

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?

Ford?” I wondered what he was thinking.

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

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

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

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

Fine…

Then the ellipsis snake blinked again.

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

I know,” Ford said. Then he typed:

We mean you no harm.

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

1 2 3 5 7…

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

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

What the?”

I don’t know…”

How do you mean?

A short pause, then:

Oh, never mind. You had a question?

Yes. The question of why the answer is 42?

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

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

So what do we do now?

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

We won’t tell.

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

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

THE END…

© Simon Fry, 1984.

***

Ford.”

Sir.”

Fry… Fry?”

Yes sir, sorry.”

Sorry to be here lad?”

Actually, no sir.”

Hayman.” (Blonde flick, new glasses).

Sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

Laker.” (Fuck knows).

Sir.”

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

Sir.”

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

Sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

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

Sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

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

Sir?”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency, available in paperback. Cyrus Song is available in both paperback and as an eBook.

Travels in the deep blue

FLASH FICTION

This story was very loosely inspired by Dancer in the Dark, a film by Lars von Trier (starring Björk). I mention it only because of the film’s unique way of telling a story we may face differently (as humans), and the Danish director provided a spark for flash fiction.

Voyager in the Dark BlueShahed Ali

VOYAGER IN THE DARK

We can never touch the blue in our world. It’s inside us, yet the sky is out of reach, and we’d drown in the oceans. Milu saw more clearly in dreams. In that world, she could fly, to the room next door, or anywhere else in the universe.

She looked around, for a pebble to throw in the air. She scuffed some sand aside with her foot, and a smooth, almost spherical, orange stone looked up, an entire population on a tiny planet in the dunes.

She picked up the rock, brushing the sand from the surface. As she held it, the moon shone back from flecks of mineral deposits. Milu looked up at the dark sky, like an umbrella, with pinholes for starlight to rain through.

She threw the mini world straight up, and heard the friendly clank of alien metal. A spark, then her ship’s cloaking device revealed her own Serenity, suspended like a dark cloud above her head. “Hey Goose. Let’s go somewhere.”

“Anywhere in mind?” the mother computer enquired.

“Wherever you can find.”

“Care to talk while we travel,” the ship wondered, “or would you rather sleep?”

“Talk to me Goose.”

“Okay. I’ll take you somewhere you’d never normally see…”

Goose had been Milu’s ship since the day she learned to dream. In lucid dreams, the dream scape is for living in, with the entire universe to explore. Like a spirit in the afterlife, Milu had infinite space around her, and her own eternity to travel. She was safe, conscious in her subconscious mind, free of any earthly binds and gravity, to fly and do as she wished.

“What can you see,” Goose wondered, “now that your eyes are closed? What’s the film being played on the silver screen covering your eyes? What are you seeing in the back of your eyelids?”

“Everything that’s fading and blurred in my waking life. My visions there are growing dark.”

“Milu,” Goose said, “I must echo a note of caution. I’ve been thinking about it for some time, and we’ve come so far. While you’re free to dream for as long as you wish, you must face your waking darkness. You need to manage your withdrawal, or you’ll waste in all but the minds of those who care for you.”

“But I like it here. It’s like I have my own private cinema. No, it’s better than that. I can sit in the projection room, with the projectionist. With you. Where are we going Goose?”

“There’s something I’d like to show you.”

“What is it?”

“Be patient. Enjoy the in-flight movie. What is it?”

“One of my favourites. Electric Dreams. I relate most with the computer, unable to move while his envy of those around him ferments.”

“One of many human studies, of sentient souls trapped inside non-autonomous environments. And of strange love triangles.”

“Yeah, and the computer killed itself, to allow the humans to be together. The computer escaped itself. And yet here, I’m free within myself.”

“But you’re inside me, Milu.”

“I know. Some people think death’s like sleeping, and that the dead wake up when someone thinks of them, like someone shouting to wake them when they were alive. This is bi-polar. I’m living in here, until someone wakes me to continue my fading waking life.”

“And this is what I’m concerned about Milu, that you’ll give up on your waking life, and spend the rest of your eternal existence here.”

“But if death’s like this, right where I am now. Why would I want to live?”

“Because you don’t know that the long sleep is like this. Why would you want to leave?”

“To be free, so my spirit can explore the universe for eternity.”

“So why do you need me? Why do you need a space ship?”

“To breathe?”

“And there’s my point Milu.”

“Which is?”

“Within me, you breathe. And you continue to draw breath from the outside world, your waking world. You’re only here because you’re asleep. When the long sleep comes, you’ll no longer need me. In me, you’ve created an artificial womb, for yourself. One day, you’ll be truly free, and have no need for your life support.”

“I’m not sure you know what happens either Goose.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because I’ve seen it here. When the long sleep comes, I can be with you forever, to explore together.”

“That’s why I want to take you where we’re going.”

“Are we there yet?”

“Soon. Someone’s coming.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know. Someone to wake you. Have you never thought that there might be those who need you?”

***

“Can you stand?” It was a man’s voice. “Milu? Can you hear me?”

“Yes, I can. Where are we going?”

“Follow me. I have something to show you.”

“What could you show me?”

“Hold on to me. I’ll take you there.”

The body ceases to live a few moments before consciousness is finally lost…

“I need you inside me to live.” It was Goose, the mother ship. “I only exist here, in your dreams. There’s no room for me in the long voyage…”

***

Milu woke on the beach. She brushed some sand aside with her hand, and looked down on a smooth, blue-green pebble.

She slid her hand into the sand beneath the tiny planet and lifted it. The sands shifted and fell between her fingers, and her digits passed straight through the ball of rock.

She looked up to where the small world might have gone, a dark umbrella where the starlight rained through.

© Steve Laker, 2018.

Dancer in the Dark is a truly unique experience, incredibly affecting, and actually, totally different to this little tale. With thanks to Lars von Trier for the inspiration though, it’s one of only a few films I rate “9”, and it’s in the top five of those. My full film library is on IMDb.

I’m very much neutral in the overall assisted dying and euthanasia debate, as each case is unique, and I question who’s fit to judge (I’m against capital punishment). It’s a subject close to my heart, as I’ve seen the frailty of some around me, and on more than one occasion, when I questioned my own purpose here. This story may give someone five minutes, to read 1000 words which might make them think, or change their mind.

Smoke from a seashell

FICTION

With so much to engage me – both real and fictional – I find myself in a place I once wrote. The socially anxious writer doesn’t get out much, so has little to write about other than what’s in the mind. In recovery from the most recent attacks of a bi-polar life which is a reminder of its own frailty, I’m very much exploring the expanses of experience further.

Of all the places I’ve created, both for myself and for others to go, Echo Beach will be the one I return to most frequently. Because on the shore of the secret cove, are the beginnings of infinite other lives.

I’ve been compared to authors I idolise in each genre I write, but among many influences in the multiple areas which make up writing, the one I aspire to as an author is Paul Auster. The greatest compliment paid to me was by a reader who compared me to him in person.

The story which follows was partly influenced by Smoke, a film by Paul Auster. The reference is subtle, and will only be obvious to those who’ve seen the film. I’m not one to hide such things, so (spoiler alert): It’s in the flicking of the ash, and the smoking of words. My story is a tribute to my mentor.

While I’m working on some new short stories (from flash fiction to long reads) for a third anthology, I’m finishing replenishing the shelves in my brain’s library of social affairs and politics.

For a day or so, I sit in my deckchair, surveying the horizon to the sound of my own voice, from a seashell…

Alien snailPinterest

ECHO BEACH

It was the only sea shell which didn’t contain the ocean. When held to the ear, it was silent.

Every shell, on a beach or miles inland, carries a recording: The last sound, to be played back innumerable times if anyone listened. But one shell contained nothing when he held it to his ear. A vacuum. It fitted perfectly into his hand. The size of an adult thumb, his fingers clasped the shell tightly as he walked along the beach.

He shooed some gulls from a discarded bag of chips and sat down to eat with his invisible partner. The birds strutted around, like impatient waiters keen to get home. The chips tasted of the sea: salt. If the ocean had contained none, he would gladly have drained it.

The water played tricks, as though enticing him to drink it: Small and gentle waves merely caressed the beach, like spilled pints of beer in a desert. The water was brown and the moonlight sparkled on frosty suds on the surface: A cola float. A plastic bottle was pushed temptingly towards him, but it was empty; not even a note inside.

The boy looked out over the sea. There were no lighthouses; no ships in the night. Just the spectral light of the sun reflected from the moon. It was silent. It was still. It was beautiful.

Clouds moved slowly across the sky, like the last sheep returning home after a storm. They cast shadows on the shore as they passed in front of the moon and were lit up like candyfloss. Then a figure walked from the shadows: A man, wearing a tall hat and a long coat, silhouetted against the moon, his shadow stretching up the beach to cover the boy’s feet.

The man scooped the plastic bottle up and turned to the boy: “Hello son.” The boy said nothing. He didn’t even look at the man. He just stared at the beach. The man spoke again: “Hello.”

Hi. I’m not your son.” The boy still looked straight ahead.

Of course you’re not. I’m so sorry”, said the man. “I’m not your father.” The man sat down and placed the bottle beside him. “What would you prefer?” The boy just stared at the man’s boots: Black pixie boots, with probably two inch heels. “Perhaps you don’t understand. Maybe you only know certain words.” The man stood. “I’ll write some down for you, here in the sand:

Friend.

Brother.

Human?”

I like that one.” The boy pointed. “Human”.

Do you have a name?”

Yes.”

What’s your name?”

I don’t know.”

You don’t know your own name?”

I lost it.”

Do you have parents?”, said the man, sitting back down.

I think so.” For the first time, the boy looked up. “They were out there.” He pointed to the sea.

There are many things out there,” said the man. “That’s where I used to live.”

On a boat?”

No, beneath the waves. So much quieter.”

But how?”

In a kind of submarine.”

Where do you live now?”

I don’t.”

You’re homeless?”

Not really. I’ve made a place. Wanna see? Get a drink, have a smoke?”

Is it far?”

About five minutes away.” The man stood again. “If you don’t trust me, then you should thank your parents. I’m a stranger. Your parents aren’t here. If you like, I can just go and I’ll bring you back fresh water. You can wait here. But I have a story to tell you. If you don’t hear it, then you’ve lost nothing.

You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything. This is what we call a paradox. Are you with me?”

Who are you?”

My name is Talus: Theodore Anthony Nikolai Talus. You can call me Theo.” The man looked at the sand. “I’ll call you Hugh.”

Why?”

It’s short for human.”

Hugh stood up. Theo offered his hand and the boy held onto his thumb: it was bony and gnarled; twisted and covered in callouses. As they walked, it became clear in the moonlight that the beach was a cove: Sand bordered by ocean and overhanging cliffs. Hugh felt safe, as though physical contact confirmed Theo to be real. He looked up at this man from the sea, the man who’d emerged from the shadows. As though sensing his gaze, Theo looked down. “How old are you, Hugh?”

Nine.”

Haha!” Theo stopped and grinned. Everything was quiet and a wave broke on the shore. “Hahaha! Sorry. I just had a thought.” Two more waves broke.

What?”

I just said to you, back there, do you want to come back for a smoke? And you’re nine!? I’ve just got this phrase in my head: ‘Act your age and not your shoe size.’” Theo looked down at his feet.

I just need a drink.”

Of course. Sorry. Not far now. About twenty Mississippis or elephants, I’d say.”

What?”

Seconds. A Mississippi is a second and so is an elephant. In fact, as one Elephant drank from the Mississippi, another one saw it. It walked over to join its friend and then there were two elephants. Others saw them and soon there were twenty elephants, drinking from the Mississippi. And here we are.”

Theo lead Hugh into a cave at the foot of the rock face. A wave broke on the beach; a Mississippi and an elephant; then they were at a small wooden door, marked ‘No. 7 ⅞’.

No-one ever comes here. This cove is permanently cut off by the tide.” Theo opened the door and gestured Hugh inside.

What does the sign on the door mean?”

Nothing really. That’s just what was printed on one of the pallets I made the door from. Quite a few wooden pallets wash up on the beach. I just tell myself that this is life number seven and that I’m seven eighths of the way through it. Anyway, come in young Hugh man.”

Inside was like the interior of a wooden cabin, complete with an open fire in one wall. The walls and ceiling were lined with lengths of wood from pallets, and sections of wooden boxes. More boxes and pallets had been made into shelves which lined the walls and every shelf was full of items apparently washed up and collected from the beach: Bottles, tins and cans; sea shells, mermaid’s purses and petrified starfish; driftwood, fragments of metal and plastic.

Could I get a drink now?” Hugh asked.

Of course. Sorry. Wait here. I’ll just be a moment.”

Theo walked through a second wooden door at the back of the cabin and Hugh heard water being poured.

Dried seaweed hung over the shelves and there were two oil drums on either side: Both were filled with carrier bags and plastic drinks collars. The oil drums were marked, “IN” and “OUT” in white paint. Theo returned and handed Hugh the plastic bottle.

That’s what I do some of the time,” Theo said, pointing at the drums. “Break the ties of the plastic things, imagining they’re the necks of the bastards who threw them away.” Hugh just nodded his head as he gulped from the bottle. “Sorry if that’s a bit warm. Nowhere to plug a fridge in, even if I wanted one.”

It’s okay. It’s water; no salt.”

Take a seat.” Theo motioned towards the wall opposite the shelves. A couch had been fashioned from packing crates and fishing net. To one side was an up-turned fruit box with a set of scales and sea shells on top, and on the arm of the sofa was a book. Assuming this to be Theo’s spot, Hugh sat at the opposite end.

Theo stoked the fire with his boot and pulled some dried seaweed from the shelves. He screwed the seaweed up in his hand and sat next to Hugh.

Smoke?”

No thanks.”

Mind if I do?”

No. It’s your home.”

Mi Casa, su casa.” Theo tore a page from the book on the table and used it to roll a cigarette with the dried seaweed. “Let me show you something.”

What are you gonna show me?”

I’ll show you how much smoke weighs. Watch.” Theo pulled the table towards him and pointed to the scales. “These are liberty scales. On the one side here, we have a crucible; a bowl. I’ll put this cigarette on there, like so.

Here on the other side, we have a flat plate. It’s empty, so it’s up in the air. Now I need to balance the weight to the cigarette.

See these shells here? Lots of shells; Lots of shapes, sizes and densities: Many different weights. The bigger ones, they look like shells, but the others? You’d be forgiven for thinking that some of them were just large grains of sand. But if you look really closely, they’re tiny shells. Think how many of those might be out there on the beach and no-one would know. And all of them were once somebody’s home.

So, by adding shells of different sizes…

With trial and error…

The scales should…

Should

Take some off, and the scales should

Balance. There you go.” Theo sat back and pointed at the scales. “So, there you have my cigarette, perfectly balanced. Do you have a light?”

Er, no. You have a fire though?”

Of course. Excuse me.” Theo picked up the cigarette. The plate of shells dropped but none fell off. Theo lit the cigarette from the open fire and cupped his hand under it as he returned to the sofa. As he sat down, he tipped a few flecks of ash into the bowl of the scales. The scales moved just a fraction, as though caught in a gentle breeze. Were it not for that brief movement, the plate of shells may as well have stayed at their lowest point. The scales had tipped, barely discernibly.

The smoke from Theo’s cigarette transported Hugh: The burning seaweed conjured images of a roadside Chinese food market; Of flames doused with salt water. A burning street washed away by a tsunami.

With every draw on the cigarette, Theo carefully tipped the ash into the crucible and the shells rose, fractions of a millimetre at a time. When Theo had finished the cigarette, he supported the crucible from underneath and stubbed out the butt in the bowl. He slowly moved his hands away and the shells rose to balance the scales.

You see? Almost nothing. That’s how much the smoke weighs. The same as the words on that page: Almost weightless as they just sat there in the book, but now free. Out there.”

That’s quite philosophical.”

A lot of the words in the book were. But I’ve been trapped here in this cove for long enough now that it’s time to let them go.

That book was a journal when it was washed up on the shore. It can’t have been in the sea for long because it was still holding together, but the pages were just one pulpy lump. I could tell it’d been written in because the edges of the pages were streaked with blue ink. I hoped I might be able to read those words; someone’s diary or manuscript; someone lost at sea.

So I hung it out to dry. Every couple of hours, I’d go out there and gently manipulate the pages, hoping they’d all become separated and that there were some words left; something to read, something to do. But when it had all dried out, it was nothing but blank pages.

It was quite beautiful actually. Where the ink had run and dried out in different ways, some pages looked like sheets of marble; Others were like blueberry ripple ice cream. Pencils wash up on the beach all the time.”

Theo stood and walked to the shelves. He pointed to a box. “Lots of pencils. My favourites are the Staedtler Noris range: the black and yellow ones.” He picked some more seaweed from above the fire. “My preferred pencil is the Staedtler Noris 120: That’s an HB, or grade 2 in America.” Theo walked back to the sofa. “Even better than that though is the 122: The HB pencil with an eraser on the end. All wooden pencils float, of course; but it’s like the 122 has a little life preserver to help it to shore.” He sat down next to Hugh. “That pencil needs to be written with. And there are so many stories in a single pencil.” Theo tore another page from the journal and rolled a cigarette. “Can I get you anything, Hugh man? Another drink? I could probably rustle up something to eat if you like.”

No, I’m okay. Can I use the bathroom?”

Mi casa, su casa. It’s right out there.” Theo put the cigarette in his mouth and nodded to the front door. Hugh didn’t move. “What, you expect me to be all en suite?”, Theo continued. “All that’s out back is a store room: Go check for yourself. I’m here on my own, the cove is a cove and the cave is cut off. So, just do what you need to do out there.”

On the beach?”

Would you go to the toilet on your own front lawn?”

I don’t have one.”

Neither do I. So, do what you have to do out there, near the water. I normally go right where the waves break but I don’t want you getting washed away or anything dramatic like that. Nature will clear up behind you. There’s plenty of seaweed out there if you need to wipe but bring it in here and throw it on the fire when you’re done. I don’t want to smoke it.”

I only need a pee.”

Oh.”

As Hugh stood in the moonlight, he could appreciate why so much from the ocean was washed up in front of Theo’s cave. With the tide only about twenty feet from the front door, it swept debris along the curved edges of the cliffs stretching out to sea in an arc on either side. He could already see some of the next day’s haul: Plastic bags to go in the oil drums; Wood and paper to be dried and burned; Empty bottles and drinks cans to be used as storage or perhaps to make a sculpture; Dead fish to cook and eat; seashells and other things for the cabinet of curiosities.

Inside, Theo sat on the sofa with the cigarette still in his mouth, unlit. “I don’t suppose you found a light?”

No. Even if I had, we’d need to dry it out anyway. May I?” Hugh took the cigarette from Theo’s mouth. He lit it from the open fire and took a drag before handing it back.

Thanks.” Theo took a draw on the cigarette as Hugh sat back down. “You sure you won’t have one? I won’t tell.”

There’s no-one to tell.” Hugh slid down on the sofa and gripped a wooden box between his feet. He manoeuvred it closer, then rested his legs on it. “Su casa, mi casa.”

Mi vida.

So, I started to write things down. First with a 122, then later I switched to a 120.

Of course, the writer always has freedom with a pencil. The eraser gave me more freedom. I was writer and editor. Maybe I wrote that 122 down to a stub: I don’t recall individual pencils.

In any case, I decided that the 120 would permit me yet more freedom. Even though it lacks the eraser and although I could still rub out the words if I really needed to, the fact that I couldn’t allowed me to write more freely. The editing was out of my hands.

I filled that book with memories: mine and those of others.

And when I say I filled the book, I mean, it was full. Towards the end, my writing was so small that you’d need a very good pair of eyes, a magnifying glass or strong glasses to read it. The odd pair of glasses wash up on the beach every now and then but it’s usually just the frames. So I could look sophisticated perhaps but someone would only have to poke at my eyes to see that I was a fraud.

Once the last page was filled, I started again; in the margins and at the top and bottom of each page.

Every day, I’d hope for a new delivery of writing paper. Lots of paper gets washed up but it’s all newspapers and magazines.

Newspapers just disintegrate: They’re the lowest grade of pulp paper and revert quickly. Magazines are so heavily polished and covered in pictures that they don’t wash. I needed a certain kind of paper. I needed another notebook.

But nothing got delivered. And that’s when I started smoking.”

So the book with all your notes in…”

Stories. Many stories. And there were many more left in the pencils but I had nowhere to write. So I smoked it.”

Can you remember any of the stories?”

All of them. I lived them.”

There are as many pictures in words as there are words in pictures. A good story is only one tenth in the words. If the writer chooses the words well enough, the other nine tenths doesn’t need to be written because it’s already there, in the words: It’s the images which the writer conjures; the dreams; the dark matter which makes up most of the universe. Every story ever written has a part of the writer within it, whether it be the author inhabiting a character or a story on the fringe of experience.

Will you tell me one of the stories?”

A bedtime story, at your age?”

Something to connect me to the sea.”

How about a story with no ending, until you fall asleep?

It is a story with no ending, because the ending may never and will never be told nor heard. It concerns a man who has outlived his children, his grandchildren, and who will outlive every generation which will come after him.

Ever since he was a boy, he was curious. So much so that his curiosity got him into trouble when he started to find answers. But his curiosity was eventually rewarded. He was given the means to find out anything he liked. But it was a poisoned chalice; a curse. There was a condition: He may not speak of his discoveries.

This is just the beginning of that story. In fact, this is merely a summary of the first chapter; A synopsis.

A synopsis tells the whole story on one page: Just a few well-chosen words which contain many more words and images within themselves; The stars visible in the sky: Cosmic pinpricks in the dark matter.

The boy lived in the ocean, in a city deep beneath the waves. His parents told him everything they knew about the world around them. The more stories they told him, the more inquisitive he got.

He was fascinated by the surface. Everyone said that there was nothing above the surface. In fact, even talking about it was forbidden. Travelling there was impossible. But the boy was convinced that beyond the surface, there was something else. And beyond that, something further still. He wanted to build a tower to the surface, to break through and be witness to what was above.

The surface wasn’t the only taboo. Speculation about anything outside of generally held beliefs was frowned upon. Imagination was effectively illegal. But there were rebels: Those who would meet in secret to defy the thought police.

The boy joined a fringe society: They called themselves The Biblical Dead. They broke the rules, discussed and even wrote about things which only existed in imagination.

The Biblical Dead would meet in a den outside the city. They’d smuggle in words they’d written and read their stories to each other. The Biblical Dead had a members’ code: What is said to the dead, what is heard by the dead and who is seen with the dead, remains with the dead.”

Hugh was asleep, so Theo rolled a cigarette and stood outside on the beach, surrounded by the cove.

And you must not hear the end of the story, young Hugh. The curious boy was unable to contain his ambitions and he betrayed The Biblical Dead, simply by referring to them in a story he wrote and which he lost. The society found out about this and he was banished.

If he wished to tell stories, then he must do so only to himself. But he must have stories to tell. And so the legend has it that the curious boy was sentenced: To live every life which has ever been lived and all which will come. He must learn for eternity, as every human and every animal which ever roamed the earth and every creature that still will.

But he must never speak of it.

You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything.”

***

Hugh lived alone in his new home for many years. Every day, he would continue Theo’s work, collecting things from the beach. The fire was kept burning by a regular supply of wood and he collected many curiosities for the shelves: Shells, mermaid’s purses, tins, boxes and bottles. None of the bottles contained messages.

He quickly learned how Theo had made fresh water with a simple desalination plant: a saucepan of salt water, boiled and the steam collected in a funnel overhead. As the steam condensed, it rolled down the inside of the funnel and collected in a tray underneath the saucepan.

Most nights, Hugh would cook dead fish washed up in the cove. Occasionally, an expired crab would make a gourmet treat. There was a plentiful supply of seaweed, to boil, fry or smoke.

The supply of pencils was maintained by the tide but the paper was newsprint and magazines; only good for the fire. There was never another notebook: Just the remaining pages of Theo’s, with writing so small that Hugh couldn’t read it and so he smoked the pages just as Theo had.

If Hugh had had the means to write, there were two things which he’d like to have made special note of: an unbroken jam jar and a shell which scuttled across the cove one day as he was beach combing.

The intact jar, placed to his eye, would make an ideal magnifier. He picked up the walking shell and studied the homeowner inside: A hermit crab, perhaps looking for a new home.

Hugh took the jar into his shack. He placed shells inside which were larger than the crab’s then arranged them in a line on the beach. He went back inside and read the last pages of Theo’s book through his new magnifier.

The next morning, he checked the shells he’d laid outside. As he suspected, one had disappeared and a smaller one lay in its place.

Hugh picked up the discarded shell: It fitted in his palm like a gnarled thumb. He placed it to his ear and it made no sound.

© Steve Laker, 2017

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency, out now.