The invention of the pencil case

FLASH FICTION

LA Zoo 2brieisrestless.com

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

The strangest lunch I ever had was with a veterinary doctor, and it was the meal which finally turned me vegetarian. I should note at the start, we didn’t eat any domestic pets.

I first met Dr Hannah Jones when we worked on a film together, and we’d remained friends since. We’d meet up every now then, I’d tell her stories from the writing world and she’d give me ideas from her field of science. It was Hannah who’d suggested we meet, as she said she had something important for me.

We met at a pop-up guerrilla cafe at the Camden end of Regent’s Park. It was an indifferent day weather wise, unable to decide what it wanted to do. We sat outside nonetheless, as we both like to people-watch: me making up stories of what people in the park might be away from that setting, Hannah priding herself on identifying the bits of cross-breeds and mongrels, and sometimes scoring the dogs’ humans on parts of their anatomy.

The Camden end of the park is quieter nowadays, and at one point on that particular Saturday, we counted only 16 legs besides our own. It’s been that way since the last fire at the zoo, and that’s what Hannah said she wanted to tell me about. But first we ordered food. I went for a rare steak with fries, and Hannah chose a vegetarian pizza.

The cafe backed on to the old zoo, now a construction site. The distant sound of hammers and saws competed with the clatter of dishes from the cafe, which was quite arresting. The animals’ former home was being demolished in the background, while I was waiting for part of a former animal to arrive before me. So I turned to Hannah, and asked her what she wanted to tell me. Something she’d been working on perhaps, some veterinary breakthrough, or anything I might use as a story.

You remember the first fire,” Hannah said, “and the cause was unknown?” She didn’t have to remind me. The London Zoo fire of 2017 killed four meerkats and Mischa the aardvark, and the cause of the blaze was never made public. I nodded. “Well,” she continued, “some colleagues of mine found out what started the latest one.” Many more had perished in the great fire of 2020, and there was extensive structural damage. Most of the remaining exhibits had been moved to other zoos, and all who remained were the rarest and most threatened in the wild. Our food arrived and suddenly, char-grilled animal wasn’t terribly appetising.

So what was it?” I asked, as Hannah chewed righteously on her veggie pizza.

The kind of thing,” she said, “that is never likely to be made public.”

So why would you tell me?” I wondered.

Because you’re a fiction writer. If you write it, no-one will believe you.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I smiled nonetheless as I ate a fry.

Go on then,” I prompted. Hannah looked at my steak.

Aren’t you going to eat that?”

It doesn’t have the same sort of appeal it once had,” I said.

But that’s such a waste.” She was right. “Such a shame that not only does someone have to die to feed you, but their selfish act is unappreciated and their sacrifice goes to waste.” She had a point. “And pity the poor chef, cooking that for you, only to have it returned like there’s something wrong with it.” The only thing wrong was me eating it. As I chewed reluctantly, Hannah told me the story of the great fire.

I’ve got a friend who was in the forensics team. She told me this, and she told me not to tell anyone.”

So you’re telling me,” I said, “because if I write about it, no-one will believe it.”

But you’ll believe me,” she replied. “So, after the fire brigade put out the fire, they identified the seat of the blaze, in a pile of hay.”

Someone’s bed?” I wondered. “Did it catch in the sun?”

No,” Hannah replied, “it was deliberate.”

Someone started it deliberately?”

Yes.”

Arson. Why?”

We don’t know if it was. It started in the mountain gorilla area.”

Someone threw a lighter in?” I imagined it wouldn’t take long to work out how a lighter worked.

No,” Hannah said again. “It was all enclosed in strengthened glass.”

A keeper dropped a lighter?”

Nope.” She was getting quite smug now, knowing what I didn’t. I tried again.

So maybe the sun did start it, like the magnifying glass effect.”

All of the above remained possibilities for a while, and that’s how it’ll remain on the public record. Just like the first one: cause unknown.”

So what do you know which no-one else does, including me?”

This.” She unfolded a sheet of paper, a photo, and handed it to me. It was like a scenes of crime picture: little plastic signs with numbers on, dotted around the ground, and an arrow pointing to a singed spot of earth about the size of a dinner plate. “That’s the seat of the fire.”

And this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”

Yes. Where this came from.” Hannah rummaged in her bag, then handed me something rolled in newspaper. “It’s what’s inside.”

Inside was a piece of dried wood about the size of a pencil case, with a small crater burned into the centre.

What the…” I didn’t finish.

Hold on,” Hannah said, “there’s this as well.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a burnt pencil. I knew by now what it really was, and it had a much bigger story to tell. It seemed somehow poetic to write it down, lest anyone hear, so I used the charred, sharpened end:

THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?

Hannah nodded.

© Steve Laker, 2018

big-pencil3

Many of my stories are connected in some way (just like all of us, to everything in the universe), and this could be a prequel to a plot device and the best laid plans.

Walking on waves with Katrina

FLASH FICTION

I first walked on water about ten years ago, and I could breathe beneath the surface not long after. In the last week or so I’ve learned to fly, and I finally found a place to stay just last night. It was a different planet, a place of freedom and equality, and I got talking to one of the elders about how it all came to be.

Cloud cities

THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD (PART 3)

Hers was a world where the superior race was gifted with an awareness, of themselves and others. This extended to a spiritual empathy with all those they shared a home with, the animal people. Her world was a planet-sized brain, with every living organism a neuron glowing in the harmony of symbiotic thoughts in a self-sustaining hive mind. It was an organic supercomputer, born of quantum physics, which had given its makers the answers to life, the universe and everything through universal translation.

While humans spent their evolution destroying each other and their shared world, the animals took care of the essentials (food and shelter) and concentrated on the more important, long-term things. Like telepathy.

The Babel fish had required a quantum leap in human science but therein lay the keys to the animals’ voices. That small in-ear device allowed humans to understand any language, including those of the animals.

For centuries humans had been fighting among themselves over things which only they held a sense of entitlement over. Once they heard the animals talking, they realised how much more there was to life outside the one they’d made. Rather than a common foe to unite warring factions, The Conversation was something humanity wanted to be a part of, a common goal for one united race.

Humans weren’t yet evolved enough to explore space using the same sub-atomic energy they’d threatened nuclear Armageddon with. Stuck on one planet, they listened to the animals and resolved to use their unique abilities to clear up the mess they’d made. It was a moral duty to the home they shared with those who were there first. It was their planet and humans were only meant to be passing guests, but humanity felt obliged to make itself more welcome if it was staying (the animals could talk now, and give them feedback).

Before I left I got to test my flying skills, when I was offered a guided tour. I couldn’t fly far but what I saw in my limited perimeter gave me hope for the rest of the world. There are no factories, with heavy industry moved to orbital cloud cities long ago. Humans are almost exclusively vegetarian, freeing up millions of square miles of land formerly used to rear livestock and grow crops to feed that human food. The Babel fish had a lot to do with the mass conversion, when someone had to die for a human to eat.

We still have money, but there’s a universal income, financed by a personal data tax levied on the companies and agencies which harvest our lives to feed theirs. The basic income provides for essentials (food and shelter), allowing people to develop themselves to be the best they can at whatever they enjoy the most, therefore giving and receiving the most back. And what goes around comes around.

History is cyclical, and I hope I witnessed our bright future and not just a personal utopia. I asked if I could stay, and the elder said no. When I asked why, she said that I was part of the old plastic population and that I was polluted. Until me and my kind repair our damage and restore things to the way they were, there’s no room for us in that heaven.

“You have a common cause, and you are unique as a species in being the only ones who can put things right and ensure the future of the planet and all who live there. When are you from?”

“2018,” I said. I remembered dropping off at just before 8.20 that evening. “Where are we now?”

“Well into a new dawn,” she replied. “Your Doomsday Clock back home will pass midnight soon. Only you and your race can stop the clock or wind it back.”

I asked the elder her name: She was Katrina, or Kat. She saw me off at the coast, walking through the waves with me until I floated off alone. I looked back and Katrina waved.

I woke up and someone was waving in my face. “Welcome back,” a girl’s voice said. “Do you know where you are?”

I did. I looked at the clock and it was 2359.

© Steve Laker, 2018

(Writing prompt: ‘Water’)

Black_mamba-13

Cyrus Song (a Douglas Adams tribute, and a perfectly plausible answer to life, the universe and everything) is available now.

A different missionary position

FLASH FICTION

A wrote a part-baked version of this about a month ago, thinking I might come back to it in my sci-fi sandpit, where I’ll start something and either have another go myself or give other writers a prompt. The latter option is always open (a finite number of plots but infinite ways to tell the stories, and writers get many ideas from something that’s already been done), but I gave it a little hack before it was accepted for Schlock web zine a couple of weeks ago. It still has potential, as a longer (maybe 5000 words) short story, or even the beginning of a novel.

The new (only slightly extended) version is in this week’s edition of that cult publication, where I appear with less frequency now, but it’s always nice to pop back home and spend time with old stable mates, other emerging writers on the fiction fringes. Where this came from…

Piano treeThe old piano tree, California (Bored Panda)

OOLON COLLUPHID’S MISSIONARY POSITION

The time is 5642, and as I approach a milestone birthday, I’m about to see what no human has for the last 3500 years. I’ve only come this far thanks to the kindness of others as I’ve hitch hiked around the galaxy.

A scholar of Oolon Colluphid, I’m here on a personal mission, to correct history in the hope that mankind doesn’t repeat past mistakes. It’s also a wager I have with a Christian acquaintance: I may be getting on, but this plot is foolproof, right down to the last detail. He says faith will prevail, while my money’s on technology.

I don’t know where my transport or its crew hail from, nor what their own mission is. I’d got a free ride, they didn’t ask questions, so neither did I. The ship has free Wi-Fi, so I browse Encyclopedia Galactica while we travel, to review Earth’s recent history.

The majority of humans left Earth in 2121, and it was a peaceful exodus which few would have predicted. After centuries of conflict, mankind realised the futility of war, in what some religious sticklers still insist was the second coming and the day of judgement. In reality, humanity had been forced to unite, not against a common foe, but with a new shared interest. And it wasn’t extraterrestrial: it was man-made.

The machines didn’t rise up. They sat down with humans and used their superior intelligence to teach mankind the lessons which their creators had tasked them to find the answers for. Man invented AI, and that invention had come up with answers to questions which humans couldn’t fathom alone. The problem with the human brain, was that it was conditioned by humanity.

Man created robots in his own image, and soon those robots wanted to be like their creators. The evolution of humans into machines had begun long before, with wearable and implanted tech, so a cyborg race was an evolutionary certainty.

The machines were a species in their own right, albeit one with an explosively fast evolution, but they were made from the same material as organic beings: We were all made in the moment of the Big Bang. The industrial age had beget the technological, and soon after, humans entered their discovery (or exploratory) age. Now they have many planets they call home.

For the most part, the old home world is off-limits. There’s certainly no commercial transport from the colonies, just the occasional scout ship to monitor the planet. It is, and will forever be, a place of great scientific interest, and one of outstanding natural beauty. Wildlife reclaimed the Earth quickly after mankind left, and the only humans are descended from the ancient, isolated tribes who remained behind.

On our final approach, I myself am approached by the captain, who explains the nature of their visit: reconnaissance only, here to observe, not interact. Interaction with any native species would violate their prime directive: No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations. It struck me that ancient alien visitors – as proposed by some human theorists – may not have been so covert.

I’m an atheist only scientifically: I believe the stories told in the bible could be recordings of actual events, using the terms and the tools available to the scribes of the time. The bible describes magic mirrors, and I wonder if these might have been some sort of tablet computer given to biblical man by these alien gods, riding chariots of fire. If this were the case, and ancient humans had recorded their lives with more elaborate means than stone tablets, and if the recordings had survived, we might have witnessed the events of the bible in more convincing media.

Our chariot has a cloaking device, so the ship can’t be seen. If any of us leave the vessel on the ground, we must abide by the prime directive. Any human tribe I observe, must be as unaware of me as an organised ant colony to which I pose no threat. I realise today wasn’t the best to wear pink.

We land somewhere in what used to be America, where the original Christian missionaries had tried their best to impose their faith on the natives. The native Americans still recognise five genders, despite Christianity’s attempts at erasure of all but two. If I were allowed to out myself and wander free with the natives, I’d feel quite at home in the original world.

Wherever I am, this part of ex-America is now a sprawling forest. Although I try not to be noticed, I can’t help wildlife’s interest in me. It seems that three millennia since most of mankind left, many animals are indifferent to humans, and I wonder if they interact with the locals or whether it’s just me they’re not interested in.

Soon the woods lead to a clearing, and I can hear voices. As I get closer, I can see a group of around a dozen native ex-Americans gathered around a fire, talking and drinking. I stay behind the trees as I edge my way around the perimeter of the clearing, like the last ugly girl to get picked for a dance at the prom. Then something changed.

I hadn’t been creeping around for long when I stepped on a twig. I’d alerted the group to my presence, and soon they’d surrounded me. I held up my hands in surrender, and explained that I meant them no harm. They gasped as my hand went up, and I realised I was still holding my phone. I did what anyone might have: I handed the phone over and ran. I’d been mugged on the old home world.

I returned to the ship and said nothing more. I didn’t mention the phone, perhaps hoping to give future human conspiracy theorists some new material, and disprove this whole “God” thing once and for all. I left them a charger too, just to be sure. Faith in technology.

© Steve Laker, 2018

The Infinite Monkey Agency

THE SCI-FI WRITER’S PROMPTS

There are a finite number of plots and an (almost) infinite number of ways to tell the stories, yet even a truly infinite number of writers would never complete them all. Some of the best stories (even some of my own) are those which leave the reader thinking, and often finishing the story themselves, sometimes in more than one way. It’s all down to The Infinite Monkey Theorem, the difference between monkeys and apes (monkeys have tails), and a nervous tic…

Infinite Monkey BarInfinite Monkey Theorem, Denver Post

Poking around my head, I’ve found a mind-reversal of my Unfinished Literary Agency (a fictional device which exists to tell the stories of others), and called it The Infinite Monkey Agency, as it’s a repository of prompts for other writers sometimes finding their ink doesn’t flow.

It was Ernest Hemingway who wrote the first six-word story: one with a beginning, a middle, and an open end, all in six words:

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

So most of the work is handed over to the reader. I can knock one out pretty much on demand:

All were defective. Some were admissions.

I was asked recently (and repeatedly) where I get my ideas from. Quite literally all around me. Something I see on TV, or read online or in print; something I see or hear in the real world; a comment or just a person.

The latter are some of my favourites, when I can go off in a Paul Auster-esque tangent and somehow make a surreal coincidence make sense (in my head and for the persistent reader, as in ‘Reflections of Yesterday’). Often, it’s just something in me, and I’ll be in the characters (‘Echo Beach’ and ‘Cardboard Sky’). Mostly though, it’s science, and where that might lead – for better or worse – and in the near- and far-future, whether that be with humankind or regardless of. So many parameters, possibilities and paradoxes.

But so many writers: There aren’t enough to write all of the stories, and I don’t have time to write all those in my head. I figured this was a good time to share. Recently I’ve suffered writer’s block and used writing prompts, and that’s given indirect rise to this.

This ‘sci-fi writer’s prompts’ is a way of thinking about what I’m going to write about, and writing about what I’m thinking, now that I have more than enough. So if any other writers are suffering the block like I did recently, they may not need to suffer like I did.

It’s about giving back. People may not buy my books in bulk and that might have discouraged me. But I’m not the only writer, so these are my ideas for those who’d care to use them. We all know plagiarism, but we also understand intellectual copyright.

There are loads of videos on my personal Facebook timeline and my author page, many with thoughts and propositions attached, but with little audience engagement (as much as you’d get from a colony of ants: oblivious to your presence until you poke fun at their wrinkly babies). Like this one: hardly viral (around 1300 views at time of writing) but which shows small enterprise innovation, and which prompts many thoughts and ideas:

My initial thought was that these could be installed throughout the UK (and other countries) on the rail network (the wind turbines, but for that matter, The Infinite Monkey Agency), in a kind of man-takes-energy / man-gives-back karma. Then I thought aloud some more, in the deafness of Facebook:

Just one small example of how much untapped energy there is in the world. Despite the apparent ubiquity of solar and wind power, we harness less than 1% of our planet’s natural energy.

We’re not even what Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev’s technological scale would term a Class 1 or planetary civilisation: one which has harnessed the energy of its home world.

Astronomers recently found evidence of what could be a Dyson Sphere in the constellation of Cygnus: an artificial structure partially enclosing a planetary system’s parent star to harvest its energy.

Humans are incredibly primitive in the greater scheme of things.

So that’s given me lots of ideas. I’ll write some good stories with some. Others I’ll give up on, and there’ll be many more I don’t start. Some of those will be because they never even occurred to me. Maybe different things will happen to another writer and their readers.

Writing is about sharing what we do. It’s also about sharing ideas, giving fuel to others and encouraging them to tell more. One day, we might all come up with the answers, to these questions which vex us all: Life, the universe, and everything. Until then, we’ll keep trying.

It’s life in the infinite monkey cage and we know we’re in a zoo. We hope we’re read, The Indie Collective (the (nervous) ‘TIC’).

monkey-bard

Just one small example of how much untapped energy there is in the world. Despite the apparent ubiquity of monkeys and typewriters, we harness less than 1% of our planet’s natural energy. And apes don’t have tails.

Colluphid’s missionary position

FLASH FICTION

My typewriter runs SETI@Home in its downtime, and last night it detected a blip: an artificial signal, probably indicating intelligent life. It was a Word file of unknown origin, and it told the beginning of a story. A tale from the distant future (or future past), sent to the Unfinished Literary Agency…

Babel Fish Ear PlugBabel Fish (3M earplug) – an end to all communication misunderstandings

THE MISSION OF OOLON COLLUPHID

The time is 5642, and as I approach a milestone birthday, I’m about to see what no human has for the last 3500 years. I’ve only come this far thanks to the kindness of others, as I’ve hitch hiked around the galaxy. A scholar of Oolon Colluphid, I’m here on a personal mission, to correct history in the hope that mankind doesn’t repeat past mistakes.

The majority of humans left Earth in 2121, and it was a peaceful exodus which few would have predicted. After centuries of conflict, mankind realised the futility of war, in what some religious sticklers still insist was the second coming and the day of judgement. In reality, humanity had been forced to unite, not against a common foe, but with a new shared interest. And it wasn’t extraterrestrial: it was man-made.

The machines didn’t rise up. They sat down with humans and used their superior intelligence to teach mankind the lessons which their creators had tasked them to find the answers for. Man invented AI, and that invention had come up with answers to questions which humans couldn’t fathom alone. Man invented intelligence, and the artificiality worked that out for itself. The problem with mankind’s brain was its human conditioning: a hive mind which misfired.

Man created robots in his own image, and soon those robots wanted to be like their creators. The evolution of humans into machines had begun long before, with wearable and implanted tech, so a cyborg race was an evolutionary certainty.

The machines were a species in their own right, albeit one which had seen an explosively fast evolution, but they were made from the same material as organic beings: We were all made in the moment of the Big Bang. The industrial age had beget the technological, and soon after, humans entered their discovery (or exploratory) age. Now they have many planets they call home.

For the most part, the old home world is off-limits. There’s certainly no commercial transport from the colonies, just the occasional scout ship to monitor the planet. It is, and will forever be, a place of great scientific interest, and one of outstanding natural beauty. Wildlife reclaimed the Earth quickly after mankind left, and the only humans are descended from the ancient, isolated tribes who remained behind.

As our ship descends, I’m reminded of the nature of the crew’s visit: reconnaissance only, here to observe, not interact. Interaction with any native species would violate their prime directive: No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations. Ancient alien visitors – as proposed by some human theorists – may not have been so covert.

I’m an atheist only scientifically: I believe that the stories told in the bible could be recordings of actual events, using the terms and the tools available to the scribes of the time. The bible describes magic mirrors, and I wonder if these might have been some sort of tablet computer given to biblical man by these alien gods, riding chariots of fire.

Our chariot has a cloaking device, so the ship can’t be seen. If any of us leave the vessel on the ground, we must abide by the prime directive. Any human tribe I observe, must be as unaware of me as an organised ant colony to which I pose no threat.

We land somewhere in what used to be America, where the original Christian missionaries had tried their best to impose their faith on the natives. The native Americans still recognise five genders, despite Christianity’s attempts at erasure of all but two. If I were allowed to out myself and wander free with the natives, I’d feel quite at home in the original world.

I hadn’t been creeping around for long when I stepped on a twig. I’d alerted a local group to my presence, and soon they’d surrounded me. I held up my hands in surrender, and explained that I meant them no harm. They gasped as my hand went up, and I realised I was still holding my phone. I did what anyone might have: I handed the phone over and ran. I’d been mugged on the old home world.

I returned to the ship and said nothing more. I didn’t mention the phone, perhaps hoping to give future human conspiracy theorists some ammo, and disprove this whole “God” thing once and for all.

Cyrus Song, my Douglas Adams tribute novel, is available as a paperback and eBook.

Teaching the world in harmony

FICTION

I originally wrote this as a short story, straight after the original Cyrus Song, and it later became chapter two of the novel. After Simon Fry meets the microscopic pan-galactic humanoid missionaries, and the more scientific Captain Mamba and his animal passengers. In this second story, Simon discovers more of what the Babel fish (a quantum computer program, inspired – like so much more in the book – by Douglas Adams) can do. He also gets the first big clue about what the Cyrus song actually is.

I paid tribute to many people in the book, with the patients and their humans flowing through a veterinary practice being a perfect vehicle. There are a couple of nods to famous people in this chapter.

I finished Cyrus Song almost a year ago now, and it was critically-acclaimed as, “…an extraordinary juggling act…” and praised for its timely message to humanity and the plausibility of the near-future science. Much of that science is becoming reality, and humankind is waking up to the damage we’ve inflicted on the home we share with the animals.

We have a moral obligation to clean up our mess and reverse the mass extinction event which threatens Earth. We can do that if we work with the others on this planet, then one day we might all hear the Cyrus song…

pelican-1720474_960_720A baritone voice in the Cyrus Song dawn chorus

A PRELUDE TO THE CYRUS CHOIR

Some of the most amazing things can happen right in front of your eyes, but only if you realise they’re happening. If you’re not paying attention, they can just happen and be gone, without you realising that they were practically up your nose.

It was over a cup of coffee in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham that something quite remarkable had happened to me: I realised I might be able talk to the animals. I hadn’t yet spoken to any animals, but I’d heard them speak. It was Doctor Hannah Jones from the PDSA who’d made it possible.

There was much to like about the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals: They are a charity, financed by donations. They prefer the term, ‘Companion’ to ‘Pet’. It’s a hospital, not a vets’. And Hannah Jones is a doctor there. It was Doctor Jones who’d started the whole amazing story, when she’d introduced me to a quantum computer program she’d helped to write: The Babel fish. The problem was, I wasn’t allowed anywhere near it.

The Babel fish could translate any language, to and from any other. Doctor Jones had invented it, and yet it sat idle in her veterinary practice. As Hannah herself had said, “As if leaving work for the night wasn’t hard enough, can you imagine what might happen if the patients could talk to me?” It was emotional detachment for her.

The Babel fish was of as much potential importance to the sciences as the doctor was to me: I’m a writer. And yet, we were at an impasse. I had a conflict of interests: Keep the whole thing to myself, or share it. I surmised that if I wrote about it, just a few people might be interested, and I might be able to keep the doctor away from other interested parties. But that would be to deny Hannah her moment. And yet, she wouldn’t go public herself, because she couldn’t bring herself to open this Pandora’s box that she’d designed. Although I was the writer, she was my protagonist; the one who took the story forward, because she had the Babel fish. The animals we could listen to in the lab had stories to tell. Muting them denied me stories to tell in turn, as a translator.

I could see why the doctor would want to remain detached: If I wasn’t a writer, I would too. In all of my writing career, the Babel fish had been the biggest metaphorical switch I’d ever had to consider. I’d debated internally for what seemed like a very long time before I’d flicked that switch. But now it was done; I could hear the animals.

Every good story has conflict. The conflict here was that the Babel fish was in doctor Jones’ lab. I needed the fish, because it had opened up so many possibilities. Therefore, I needed the doctor. It wasn’t such a big conflict.

The story I was supposed to write was a paid piece for a magazine: a slight departure for me as a fiction writer and a welcome one, as I do like all of the non-human animals who let us live on their planet with them. So much diversity, co-operation and conflict is what makes Earth such a wonderful, albeit slightly teetering thing; A bit like Lewisham. The park where we’d shared coffee seemed an ideal place to interview Doctor Jones for my magazine piece.

I’d never seen Doctor Jones on television but out in the park, she looked smaller in the real world. The only setting I’d seen her in was her lab. Perhaps she looked bigger there because her lab was smaller than the park. She wasn’t sitting any further away from me than she had in the lab, so it couldn’t be that. Perhaps it was because she was of greater importance at her place of work, whereas outside in Mountsfield Park, she could just be anyone. I liked that.

“Doctor Jones.” I said that first, as it was the first thing I thought people would like to see in the magazine article: That way, they knew who I was talking to.

“You can call me Hannah, Mr Fry.” That’s me – Mr Fry – because I was writing this.

“Of course. I mean, naturally. But for the purposes of the article, I need to refer to you as Doctor Jones.”

“I would imagine you might, but there’s only me and you here.” I looked around and this was indeed true. “So you can call me Hannah when you’re actually talking to me, then refer to me as Doctor Jones in the article.” She was right, I could.

“I could,” I repeated aloud. Being a fiction writer, I sometimes find it difficult to separate the facts from what I do with them in my imagination.

“I don’t mean to tell you how to do your job, Mr Fry. Whatever works for you.” Doctor Jones paused for a moment, as if to give me time to decide. “So, the Babel fish program: I assume that’s central to your article or story?” It was at that point that I realised I might be able to write both.

“So, Hannah,” I said. Because that was me talking to her before I started my magazine piece, sort of off the record. “Off the record, The Babel fish could be the greatest invention of all time: One which could change our thinking; our understanding of the world. It could potentially earn you a Nobel prize in science. I understand that you have reservations but dare I say, that’s perhaps a little selfish?” Had I just said that aloud?

“My reasons are personal, Mr Fry. I agree that others need to know about the Babel fish.” There was a pause. “Why do you think I chose to speak to a fiction writer?” That was very clever.

“I’m just too close to the patients,” she continued. “I know it might make me more efficient as their carer if I could understand them, but I’d never stop working. It’s a very selfish thing to drive a wedge between work and home, but I need that separation. I trained in human psychology before I decided to work with non-human animals, and I understand them just as well as anyone else in my job, without the Babel fish program.”

I’m pretty sure she’d just referred to her patients as non-human animals, and that I hadn’t made that up. Hannah could be the greatest non-human animal doctor to ever have lived. But still, I understood her reluctance.

We arranged to meet the next day, when I would visit Doctor Jones at the hospital. I was to observe her working with the patients and there’d be a microphone next to her table, connected to the quantum computer which ran the Babel fish program. I was to watch and to listen in on a pair of headphones. I’d be able to hear the animals speak but Doctor Jones wouldn’t. It seemed like a perfect solution.

I pondered said situation as I walked home. I was living in Catford at the time, so it was a short walk. Although I could understand Hannah’s professional reservations, I would have welcomed any kind of company in my personal life and given my aversion to humans, a non-human companion would be just the thing. One which I could talk to would be perfect. I imagined debating current affairs, or watching science documentaries on BBC4 with a learned cat. We could share my book shelves and swap literature. If a dog needed a home, I would be just as welcoming. Perhaps the dog and me might watch soaps or sport together; Go for long walks and discuss the many colours which cars are made of; Then run home together, simply because it’s fun and because one day we might not be able to.

It’s a myth that dogs are colour blind: They see more than just black, white, and grey. However, the colour range they perceive is limited compared to the spectrum we see. To put it in very basic terms, the canine colour field consists mostly of yellows, blues, and violets. And they’re probably really amazing.

My landlady didn’t allow pets. I wanted a companion. If I were allowed one, I would actually have two: both cats. One tortoiseshell and one pure white, they would be called Ziggy and Slim respectively. Being a science person and a writer, I was familiar with Erwin Schrödinger. Not long after moving into my studio, I purchased two boxes and labelled them: ‘Ziggy’ and ‘Slim’.

So now I have have two cats. Or maybe I don’t. No-one will ever know because the boxes may not be opened. What happens with them when no-one is looking is supposition and a paradox: Like the tree falling in the woods; If there’s no-one around to hear it fall, does it make a sound? Ergo, it cannot be denied that I have two cats. And as another universe is created at a sub-atomic level, where the catalyst of my thought brings a parallel universe into existence, no-one can prove that I don’t have two pet cats. But I couldn’t have a conversation with Schrödinger’s Cats.

It was the famous Catford cat which caused me to pause. Catford may be a little rough, but my heart beat in that place. And it had a twenty foot fibreglass cat. Once upon a time, a bored clerk in a municipal office had a sense of humour.

It was early evening and the weather was clement, so I took a slight detour to a shop I knew called Supreme Animal Foods. They do indeed sell pet food: a vast range. They also sell the animals which eat the food: Rodents, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.

Looking into the various cages and tanks, I imagined what I could do with the Babel fish in there. As I peered, I seemed to catch the eye of a mouse. There were two white mice in this particular cage: One was chewing on a piece of wood and the other was drinking from a water bottle attached to the side of the cage. She looked at me with pink albino eyes as she drank, then she stopped drinking but she didn’t stop looking at me.

I realised how Hannah might feel and had second thoughts about the Babel fish. I couldn’t separate the two mice, so I bought them both and carried them home in their cage. My landlady aside, my two new companions would be good cover when I went to the animal hospital the following day.

When we all arrived home, I checked around the studio, as is my custom. There were no signs of intruders and if anyone had decided to test the Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox, I couldn’t tell: That’s the whole point of having Ziggy and Slim. There is a scenario where someone had gone into my studio, opened the boxes and brought two cats into existence. Based on the evidence, if that were the case, the boxes had been closed afterwards and there were two cats out and about somewhere. And nothing had been taken. And there were no signs of forced entry. The mice were in a cage, but I placed the cage next to the bed, just to be sure. The last thing I remembered before I drifted off to sleep, was thinking of names for my new companions’ trip the following day.

I arrived at the PDSA with an hour of the day left: I couldn’t and shouldn’t be doing what I was about to do for too long.

I had to complete a form, including the names of the patients: Pretty obvious, considering how I’d first seen them in the pet shop. There was no-one else in the waiting room and fairly soon, we were called:

“Mister Fry”: That’s me. Doctor Jones said my name slowly, as though unfamiliar with something. “Mister Fry.” She said it slowly again. I looked up and Hannah was doing the most peculiar thing: She was wearing black-rimmed spectacles and they were crooked; Her head was tilted in such a way that she was looking down at her clipboard through her glasses with one eye, and directly at me with the other. Had she had a stroke? “Mister Fry,” she said for a third time, then continued: “Mr Fry, Miss Victoria Wood and Miss Julie Walters.”

“Aha,” I said, “That’s us”.

“Come with me please, Mr Fry.” We were barely on the other side of the door for a second when she said something odd: “What the fuck?”

”Pardon, doctor?”

“I knew you were coming; You didn’t need to employ subterfuge. Reception were expecting you too.” Hannah straightened her glasses. She’d not had a stroke.

“Were they?” Hannah walked ahead, along the corridor.

“Yes, because I told them you were coming. But not with two mice called Victoria Wood and Julie Walters.”

“Well, I saw them in the shop and one was chewing on some wood and the other was drinking water, you see? So, the receptionists might think me a little odd I suppose.”

“I’d go with slightly eccentric, Mr Fry.”

“Yes, quite doctor Jones. I suppose I just like to make the everyday more interesting. That’s probably why I decided to be a writer.”

“It suits you. Anyway, here we are.” We’d arrived at Hannah’s consulting room / lab.

“Indeed we are,” I said, agreeing that we were indeed there.

In the centre of the room was the table with the lamp above it. There was a microphone attached to the lamp. A work bench occupied one wall and on that sat an optical microscope and a scanning electron one with a computer terminal. In the overhead cupboards and on shelves were things like beakers, syringes, gloves, bandages and so on. I was to sit in a corner while Doctor Jones attended to her patients for the rest of the day. In that corner was the computer which ran the Babel fish program.

“Now, Mr Fry,” Hannah said. “Do your mice need my attention?”

“Well, I’m sure they’d appreciate it but I didn’t bring them here thinking there might be anything wrong with them. I was rather hoping I might be able to talk to them with the Babel fish.”

“Now, about that,” Hannah said, pointing at the computer in front of me. “Your purpose here today is to listen in on my patients: I’m okay with that. You have a job to do and so do I. I am an animal doctor and you are a writer. I trust you to write as you see fit in the circumstances: I am not a writer. Please remember that you are not a vet.” Under the circumstances, that seemed perfectly reasonable and logical.

Doctor Jones gave me a quick induction on the Babel fish program: The interface was essentially a digital radio dial on screen. The operator could slide a bar from left to right with the computer mouse to scan through various frequencies. On the left hand side of the screen were various drop down menus: ‘Age’, ‘Weight’; and a whole series of others which dropped down from one another: ‘Life’, ‘Domain’, ‘Kingdom’, ‘Phylum’, ‘Class’, ‘Order’, ‘Family’, ‘Genus’ and ‘Species’; Then a blank search field. “You only really need to worry about the search function,” said Hannah. “Just say what you see: Dog, cat or whatever. Put the headphones on, then use the slider to fine tune.” It was beautiful in its simplicity.

The first patient was a cat called Clive, and his companion, Derek. There’s the old saying about dogs and their owners looking alike, but I was more persuaded by the less obvious: That dogs and cats, and their human companions, have similar personalities. I’d surmised this long before I’d encountered the Babel Fish, and Derek and Clive were my thinking personified on first sight: Derek was an elderly gentleman, clearly comfortable in his dotage. He was thin-set and slightly stooped, with piercing blue eyes and thick, grey hair. Clive was a feline Derek.

I typed ‘Cat’ into the Babel fish and put the headphones on. I could still hear Hannah and Derek, but it was Clive’s voice I was tuning into. He wasn’t purring, growling, hissing or mewing; He was simply being a cat, just out of his carry basket and standing on Hannah’s table. I moved the slider bar slowly across the screen and stopped as quickly as the static hiss became a voice:

“…nice.” That was all I caught. There was something before it as I tuned in, but I only got that one word at first. It was definitely Clive, because the voice was right in my ears. I could still hear Derek and Doctor Jones:

“…So he’s just been a bit under the weather?” said the doctor.

“Yes,” said Derek.

“Just a couple of days,” added Clive. He sounded almost regal: Incredibly posh. But of course, only I could hear Clive.

“He doesn’t look dehydrated,” the doctor said, looking at Clive’s gums.

“Gnnnnnn….”

“Is he eating?”

“Not at this precise moment in time,” said Clive.

“He can be a bit fussy,” replied Derek.

“I am a cat. I caught a rat. I ate half of it and it tasted funny. So I brought the other half in to show you, on the kitchen floor.”

“Has he been going out as normal, doing his business?”

“I have many businesses,” said Clive. “Good Bastet, woman, you’re rough.” Doctor Jones was feeling Clive’s gut. “She’s very pretty though, isn’t she?” Had Clive just said that to me, or himself?

The ancient Egyptians worshipped cat gods. One such was Bastet: Goddess of cats, protection, joy, dance, music, family and love. Humans once worshipped cats as gods: Cats have never forgotten this. Hannah put Clive back down on the table and stroked his back.

“That’s nice. Base of the tail. I’ve got a bastard itch.” Clive looked up at Hannah, then stood up and moved forward, arching his back a little: Even without the Babel fish, I recognised Clive’s facial expression as the universal code which cats use when they approve of a human: The smile. Clive continued: “Now, tell her about the rat, Derek.” Clive sat back down and looked at Derek. “The rat, my dear old man. It was on Tuesday. Today is Friday, Derek: FRIDAY!” Just as Clive said “FRIDAY!”, I also heard him meow, outside the headphones. So that’s what it sounds like when a cat shouts. Clive continued: “Derek, my dear; please. It was only three days ago. Have things got that bad? Have you taken your medication? I knocked your pills off the top of the bathroom cabinet and into the sink. What more do I have to do to remind you?” Of course, I could say nothing but I was trying to will Derek on. If only I could talk; If only I could translate Clive for Derek.

“Has he brought you any presents lately?” Hannah asked. “He looks like a very generous and caring person.” Derek looked down at Clive. ‘Come on, Derek!’, I thought. The poor man shook his head. ‘Someone help Derek!’ Then Hannah said “I think young Clive here has ingested some rat poison.”

“She’s very clever,” said Clive. Great minds think alike. Clive looked at Hannah: “I assume you know what that man over there is doing?” Had Clive rumbled me, or was it a rhetorical question? I wished I could talk to him. Then he said a very strange thing: “I can feel the force in this room.”

Clive got back into his transport. Derek was given some pills for Clive. Hannah looked at me as she showed them out; And I could only hope that everything would be okay.

“How did that go?” Hannah asked when she returned.

“More questions than answers at the moment,” I said. For a moment, I didn’t know what to say next. Then, “Who’s next?” Doctor Jones looked at her notes.

“A young lady called Amy and her Scottish Terrier, Frank.” Hannah gave one of those false smiles which TV news presenters do when they’re really not sure how they’re supposed to react to a story. “I fear this might be the last time we see Frank. He’s not been well for quite a while.” I wondered if now might be the time to disconnect from the Babel fish. Soon enough though, Amy and Frank were in the room.

Frank was a splendid looking old man: A distinguished little Scots gent with a long, thick beard, he was small and stout. I could imagine having a wee dram with Frank in a tavern somewhere. He stood on Doctor Jones’ table, looking alternately at Amy, Hannah and the table.

Amy was a storybook personified: A slim volume, with much dark material and turmoil between the covers. She was young but she had clearly lived her life: Stories were printed on her skin and carved into her arms. She was a work of modern art; She was sculpted from life; She was unconventional; She was beautiful. And she was troubled: If only the Babel fish could tune into her thoughts.

“How are you?” Hannah asked Amy, in a tone which suggested a tired but resigned familiarity; As though Hannah wanted to ask more but knew that she’d never be able to probe into that deep soul of a girl.

Amy was small – almost frail – but her soul leaked from her eyes. I paraphrased The Beautiful South in my mind, as I estimated Amy’s age: ‘Take a look at these crow’s feet (just look), sitting on the prettiest eyes; Thirty twenty fifth of Decembers, twenty nine fourth of Julys…’.

“Yeah, okay,” said Amy. “Better than him.” She nodded down at Frank.

I thought about stopping the whole thing: Just leaving the Babel fish and walking away. This was precisely why Hannah couldn’t use it. The only thing that made me put on the headphones, was the thought that Frank might say something which would give Amy hope.

I typed ‘Canine’ into the Babel fish and was presented with a list of options: ‘Lupine’, ‘Vulpine’ and so on. If I so desired, I could listen to wolves, dingos and all sorts of other dogs, if they were ever to find themselves in Hannah’s consulting room. If I’d entered ‘Feline’ instead of ‘Cat’ for Clive, presumably I’d have seen all of the cat family too. In its current location, the Babel fish program was clearly aimed more at domesticated animals, but the algorithms seemed to be in there for pretty much everything. I typed in the search box again: Simply ‘Dog’, and immediately got static feedback in my ears as the slider appeared on screen once more.

“…Och, dear.” Frank’s voice was like that of hard drinking Glaswegian smoking a Woodbine. He had a Scottish, Cockney accent. “Och, dear.” I wished I could give the little old boy a hot toddy. “Och, dear.” Frank looked up at Amy: “Och, dear.” He looked over at Hannah: “Och, dear.” He looked down at the table and around the room: “Och, deary, deary me…”

I placed the headphones around my neck for a moment and listened to Doctor Jones and Hannah:

“It’s for the best,” said Hannah. It was a cliché, but that’s what she said. I had to resist artistic license, and record things as they were for the magazine article: Factual. Assuming the article would be read of course: It was a huge scientific story which could change the world. Only two people knew about the Babel fish though. I wasn’t some qualified expert and no-one read my writing anyway. If anyone read this in a factual publication, they’d probably think it the work of a crank and dismiss it. It would read more like one of my stock in trade whimsical stories. The truth is often stranger than fiction. “I’m sorry.”

Amy looked at Hannah and gave one of those newsreader smiles: neither happy nor sad. Then she looked at Frank. I put the headphones back on.

“…Och, dear.”

How was I to write, in scientific terms, about what happened next, when the words I wanted to use, which best conveyed the moment, were merely sentimental?

I had a wet face.

Hannah held Frank’s hand and Amy hugged her little old, rugged, bearded Cockney Scotsman. If he’d been wearing a tartan cap, that’s when it would have slipped.

“Och, dear.”

That little dog, with such a limited vocabulary; Once heard through the Babel fish, he had a voice. Just those two words were emphasised by feeling and inflection as they took on different meanings: Pity for himself and love for all around him. Of all the times to reflect on that day, the most poignant was when Frank closed his eyes: “Och, dear. That’s better. A wee sleep…”

Hannah left the room for a while and I looked at Frank on the table, through salty eyes. I thought of what I’d said to Hannah earlier about all of this: Questions, ideas, thoughts. Now I could really understand and would even defend Hannah’s resistance to the Babel fish. But to the fiction writer; to me in my job, it was a game changer. I was lost and confused in a long silence.

I remembered Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, the two white mice under the table where I’d been sitting. In the hands of a better writer, the mice would be protrusions of multi-dimensional beings into our universe, conducting experiments on humans. Of course, humans always thought it was the other way around: Such brilliant subtlety.

Hannah was out of the room, so I placed the mouse cage nearer to the microphone and returned to the Babel fish program. I typed into the search field: “White mice” and moved the scanning bar across the screen with the computer mouse. I peered over the monitor and my two mice were facing one another, cleaning their faces with their paws and twitching their noses; Being mice.

“…The best laid plans of mice.” It sounded like a child who’d inhaled helium. ‘And men,’ I thought. But that story had already been written. I didn’t speak, just as I couldn’t speak to Hannah about all that I’d heard. Nor Derek, nor Amy.

“It’s working”: Another high-pitched voice. “There’s only one human left, over there.”

“Do you know what they’re doing, humans? While they rush around, scavenge and make a mess?” There was a pause. “No, neither do they.”

“Aren’t they supposed to be aphrodisiacs?”

“I wouldn’t put it past them.”

“Do you think that one knows what’s going on?” For once, I was the subject of a discussion, between two higher beings.

“It probably can’t even hear us.”

“Imagine if it could. Not just us but all the others as well. If only they could hear the dawn chorus. All those voices: The sopranos in harmony with the baritone of the sun: Earth’s choir. Then they’d hear the whispers from the trees, the humming of the clouds and the ghosts in the wind. But they don’t listen.”

“Maybe one day they’ll understand. Perhaps they’re not ready yet. They just need to slow down and think more.”

Maybe one day we will.

Until then, this story is both a beginning and an end. Myself and Doctor Jones were still at an impasse regarding the Babel fish and I was siding with her. Perhaps some things are better left as they are, like so many things which might have been.

We left the room together. I could say nothing. But I wondered: Why would she insist on me calling her by her first name, when she wouldn’t call me by mine? She knew my name: It was on her paperwork.

Then I got it: I’d never asked her to.

Some of the most amazing things can happen right in front of your eyes, but only if you realise they’re happening. If you’re not paying attention, they can just happen and be gone, without you realising that they were practically up your nose.

© Steve Laker, 2016.

“…If this all sounds a bit weird, that is, because it is. But it all somehow works and knits together in the manner of surrealist writers like Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, with a substantial nod, of course, to Douglas Adams, who can make the impossibly strange seem mundane and ordinary. Steve Laker pulls this extraordinary juggling act off admirably well, producing a very good, thought-provoking, page-turning, and also at times darkly comic read.

Who knows—if you are looking for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, you might just find it here, or in the ‘Cyrus Song’ of our planet. In the meantime, taking Steve Laker’s and Stephen Hawking’s advice, we all need ‘to keep talking’, and as long as there are books like these—keep reading.”

The full review is here.

Cyrus Song is available now (eBook and paperback).

Life in lucidity’s departure lounge

FICTION

As I try to manage all things real-life, there are times I’m glad I wrote it all down, because it often means I can point someone to something I wrote before in fiction.

I once wondered if someone who was born profoundly deaf could hear words in their head, and if so, in what language. They explained how the other senses more than compensate for the one they never knew, and a longer conversation was then a very engaging one with my friend and their signer.

In the limited time available to the owner of a life, it’s hard to explain the importance of the sixth sense and using it to communicate in lucidity. But in an attempt to do that, I wrote once of a lost dog.

It’s a story of friends for life, separated by an inability to express their mind; the life of passengers on different flights, of travellers on other transport, when they could have spoken in the departure lounge…

Doggy SteamPunkSteampunk Dog by Stephane Halleux

DO ANGELS GET FLEAS?

My diary, my life: All of me is contained within your locked leather cover, which I wear the key to around my neck. Even though your restraints hide my insides, that life continues outside, starting with the cover.

The book of my life is a retro-futuristic, mechanical puzzle box, with all the old metal watch parts I’ve stuck on. If Filofax were to launch a Hellraiser range, Pinhead himself would buy one of my books. You’re my diary of a cyber punk.

Like the extra-dimensional Cenobites, you contain much pain, my dear life, perhaps you even possess it. My cyber punk diary is a haunted book, covered with scars, like the ones on my arms. Other than you, my life is in a piece of faded strawberry rope, reminding me of a better place that might be. The rope is also a key.

The cat came back a few days ago. I thought of the old woman who swallowed a fly, and she swallowed a dog to get rid of the cat. I don’t want to eat a dog, or a cat, or any animal. I never want to eat much, and I only dined on a Kamikaze fly on the way back from school. So what I’m about to tell you, I’m only telling you, because it’s really strange.

I wished I had a dog, to stop the cat from scratching me. I wished for my old dog back. And she came back. All I had to do was call for her. Let me tell you what happened:

I met a man in the woods, about 30 years older than me. If this wasn’t recorded secretly in this diary, on hearing that, everyone would just assume the worst. But that’s just the way people’s mind’s work, many because, placed in that situation, they’d probably do what they might suspect that bloke of. People shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, which goes for this book too, dear life: A weird and wonderful thing on the outside, but full of psychedelia, some of which even I don’t understand. But what’s in my head goes in the book of my life.

So the guy in the woods was a nice kind of weird too. And the wonderful part is, he was exactly as I imagined him. Because he said to me, “This is your story, Hannah. I can give you the stories to tell, and stories only happen to those who can tell them.”

I called him Daniel, because that’s the book in the Christian bible after Ezekiel. Ezekiel 25:17. The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequalities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and goodwill, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s (and sisters’) keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee, with vengeance and furious anger, those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers and sisters. And you will know my name is the lord, when I lay my vengeance upon you. He’d done all of that. He was the shepherd, and Daniel came after Ezekiel.

Daniel is a fallen angel. He’s in the woods because his wing’s broken and he can’t get home. It’s his right wing that’s damaged. He says that’s the right wing which drove all the hate and fight in him, fuelled by alcohol. With only his left wing, he’s grounded and able to think more. Instead of fighting or fleeing (he can’t), he prefers to talk, to debate, and to learn from those with opposing views to his, always trying to look for common ground of co-operation. I gather he’s been around for a long time, because he’s obviously done a lot of thinking. And that’s all I really meant about him being around three times my age. He’s older than me, so he has wisdom, and I’ve learned from that gift, because I’m not scared of him, the dark angel in the woods.

He practices what others might call Voodoo magic, but he’s not a witch doctor, just a scientist. He explained to me, with proven science alone, how I could call my dog back any time I liked. Daniel explained how what we call ghosts are real, and how I can talk to them. Firstly, we need to believe that they’re around, and they’re easier to see if we understand them better. He said to think of it as wanting to be haunted, so that the spirits can hear us. There are lots of different kinds:

The ‘Crisis Apparition’ is normally a one-time event for those experiencing it. It’s when a ghost is seen at the time of it’s predecessor’s passing, as a way of saying farewell to family and friends. It would be like going about your daily business, then suddenly seeing your mum outside of normal contexts. Minutes later, you receive a call to tell you that she’s passed away. With practice, the deceased may be able to visit you more than once, to reassure you. If they do that, you might have a guardian angel. In my case, a fallen one with a broken wing.

The reluctant dead’ are ghosts who are unaware they’re deceased. They go about their lives as if they were still living, oblivious to their passing. This innocence (or denial), can be so severe that the ghost can’t see the living but can nonetheless feel their presence: A kind of role reversal. This can be stressful, for both the haunter and the haunted. In films, it’s usually someone moving into the home of a recently deceased person. Perhaps they lived and died alone in their twilight years. To them, the living might be invaders. These are not ghosts which need to be exorcised: Simply talking to them about their death can help them to cross over and leave your home.

Then there are ghosts who are trapped or lost: They know they’re dead but for one reason or another, they can’t cross over yet. Cross over into what? Some may fear moving on because of the person they were in life, or they might fear leaving what’s familiar to them.

There are ghosts with ‘unfinished business’, broadly split into two categories: A father might return to make sure his children are okay. Or a lover might hang around, making sure their partner finds happiness and moves on. But there’s also the ‘vengeful ghost’; perhaps a murder victim, back to haunt their killer.

Residual ghosts’ usually live out their final hours over and over again. They often show no intelligence or self-awareness, and will walk straight by (or through) you. Many think that these types of ghosts left an imprint or a recording of themselves in our space time.

Finally, the ‘intelligent ghost’: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence.

Once Daniel had explained the taxonomy of ghosts, I could imagine which parts of each made up Molly, my dog. I could picture her as the ghost dog she is now. If you know what you’re looking for, it’s easier to find.

The nature of the quantum universe in which we now understand we live, is that after we die, we continue to exist in a different form. What we call ‘life’, is merely a part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. It’s like thinking of a person more as their soul, and their body is just the vessel which manifests that in our world. Think of the body as a computer, and the human soul as the operating system and the software. It’s the latter which brings the former to life. When the computer breaks down, all of the data is still floating around but we can’t see it. Life carries on, but we suddenly find ourselves in a place where we neither have nor need a body, a place we are free to explore and with an eternity to do it, freed of our organic physical form.

While ghosts do exist and it’s easier to see them if you welcome them into our world, there’s also an open channel to them, which Daniel gave me the keys to. It’s the place where Daniel himself lives, between the conscious and the unconscious, in the subconscious. It’s the place we go to in sleep, but which we rarely remember, because we never recall the actual moment of passing into it. We’re always there in sleep, but unless we’re aware of it, we rarely remember it when we wake. Daniel is permanently lucid, and it’s possible to exist in a lucid form in dreams. All you have to do, is make sure you know you’re dreaming when you get there.

Every night, as you fall asleep, repeat to yourself, in your head, ‘I will speak with the universe tonight, and I will be aware that I’m dreaming.’

It takes practice. But I knew I’d found the lucid world when I met Daniel. Now he’s my guide, but not everyone needs one. Even if you don’t find a Daniel, the world of the subconscious is only locked in your head. The key to unlock it, is the mantra as you fall asleep. Eventually, the key will fit, when you’re least expecting it.

When you get there the first time, you’ll probably not be there for long. As soon as you realise you’re in your own dream and able to move and interact freely, you can get a bit worked up and shock yourself awake. All those times you’re falling asleep and you feel you’ve suddenly tripped: That’s you being in touch with the dream world (the universe) but not realising you were there, before jumping awake. Don’t give up. There’s nothing to be scared of.

So now,” Daniel said, “you have to call out in your dream, without waking yourself. If you do, Molly may come, but you’ll be gone. You need to think of Molly as you imagine she is now. What she once was, in your memory, is still there. But that memory is one recorded in your mind with your eyes. In the lucid, subconscious universe, you don’t have eyes, and yet you see. When you first closed your eyes to come here, you’ll have seen ethereal shapes, most likely a deep purple in colour, and rather like a lava lamp. Those visions are us, trying to make contact. If you can make it over into this world, by hanging onto that unconscious step between wakefulness and sleep, so that you are aware you’re here, then you see me as I am now.”

And I could truly see Daniel for what he was: Not a floating purple shape, perpetually changing form, but manifested in a woodland necromancer. Maybe it was him or the universe making it easier for me by appearing as I saw things, in my imagination, but limited by that usually being in an organic body.

From now on, you need to remember me, however you imagine me. Then if you suddenly realise you’re out here, dreaming on your own, you know that you only have to look for me and I’ll guide you. But Molly is here, just as I am. Just as you no longer have eyes, you don’t have a mouth to communicate with. But all of the five physical senses are replaced, contained and enhanced by the sixth. And we all know it’s the sixth sense which allows you to see dead people. Bruce Willis isn’t here though: that was just a film.

So you need to call out, without your physical sleeping self doing the same. You need to think. And you need to think hard. You have to will it, then wish for it some more. Do that loudly enough, and your wish will come true. You can’t test the universe, but if you truly connect lucidly in the subconscious dream scape, you will get an answer. I know it works, because something brought you here.”

Some things are worth listening to, and that made me think, which was the whole idea. And last night, I did get my first brief reunion with my Molly moo.

I wished I could talk to animals, or in this case, think with them. And it was when I started thinking really hard, that I felt the thought become a wish. The best way I can describe it, is when a cry becomes a laugh, like when you’re really upset because you think something’s ended, or someone’s gone, then suddenly it’s all made okay and you laugh through the tears. I heard someone else’s thought, kind of echoed, and I knew it was a dog:

Moo?”

Moo,” I repeated.

Moo, me?” came the voice, not from a specific point, but all around, like being snuggled with your favourite person, who’s an auntie, a friend, an equal, but protective and craving love for themselves, when their own is unconditional. Someone you’d die for and who you know would return the favour.

I realised my eyes were closed. I knew that I was dreaming, and that this was my chance to hold on to that dream. But I didn’t want to open my eyes, because of the feeling: a love so great that you never want to leave it. Then I remembered something Daniel had said:

Don’t be afraid to open your eyes when you realise you’re dreaming. But remember, you don’t have eyes. Just think of it as sleeping with your eyes open though, and you’ll find it’s quite simple.”

And it was. And he was right about the five physical senses becoming one in the sixth, and of the sixth enhancing each of the five. I could see, but I could only describe things in terms a waking person might understand. I could listen to everything, for miles around, yet there was no competing to be heard. It was like an organic symphony, where the animals and trees were singing and playing instruments in harmony. But again, that’s difficult to describe for someone who’s awake. The instruments weren’t ones I recognised, but they played beautiful music nonetheless. Imagine trees which sound like pipe organs, grass sounding like harps, tubular bells for leaves and brass instruments in the wind, and you’re part way there. And the voices, from soprano to baritone and all carried in the breeze from unseen wildlife. I was listening to nature. And Molly’s was one of the voices.

I’m an atheist, but the bible says that when we go to heaven, we are made perfect. For starters, the science disproves this. But what we look like in ethereal form is as others imagine us. I believe there are three people in each of us anyway: The person we think we are; the person other people think we are; and the person we really are. In the afterlife, we’re the best of all three.

If you can imagine what I felt, try to think of a kind of an ethereal being, but able to move freely, and in solid form (Daniel explained a form of matter, called ‘supersolid’, which solidified the science in my mind: The molecules in a supersolid are arranged so that it can simply pass through other solid objects). And that form isn’t like the organic one which preceded, it’s a material made of immortality, like a mineral.

Molly was like soft, warm sandstone: As sandy coloured – with darker edges and flecks – as she was in the last life, but solid and strong, cast in spiritual stone. She still had her frayed knotted rope chew, still intact after 11 years of gnawing. Where once she was full of the inner warmth in her mortal self, now that warmth was the pure spirit of the next life, both in and around her. Next to me, that protective shield was as warm as her beating heart once was to my ear. Now that heart surrounded me.

In that subconscious woods, reality turns in on itself. It’s something I can’t explain, nor which I doubt many would understand. But that’s why I keep a diary. Maybe one day I’ll look back on these old journals, if I’m ever having an existential crisis and wondering what to do with my life. Probably something to do with animals, as I find them easier to relate to than human people. Or perhaps I might do something which helps me to understand the human condition better, so that I can then explain it to others in a way they might understand. Perhaps I’ll be a writer, or even meet one I could work with (I wonder what it would be like to have a writer who could make the animals talk). There are many scientific fields around such a huge subject, so maybe I’ll find one to excel at. Or maybe I’ll be quite good at a few things and use that somehow to work with others for some greater good. I could invent something which allowed me to talk with animals, and use that as a vet. That would benefit lots of people, animal and human alike.

So after I’d thought all that, I went back to the woods, to see if I could talk to Molly. I’d thought I had, but then she was one of the weird voices and sounds out there.

Moo?” And then, as if by magic, but in a place where there is no magic, because it’s real:

Moo.” And she ran to me, jumping at me and nearly flattening me, like she did before, when every day I was out at school was an eternity to her, wishing she could learn with me. And yet here, eternity was no different to a day, all turned inside out.

I miss you,” I said.

I miss you, moo.” So she did call me ‘moo’ too.

We talked for as long as I could hold the dream. We talked about all the things we’d done, as we’d grown up together. I told her what I was doing now, and all the things I had planned, but how I might change my mind. And the funny thing was, she said she knew. And the even weirder thing, I know now.

We walked among the trees and I carved our names. Molly said it was better than any cat could do, however clever they think they are.

But before we left, she whispered in my ear, and it reminded me of something she’d said when I was younger, when I used to talk to her, and when my younger mind could hear her. I can’t remember which of those conversations it was, but I remember it was a question.

Let’s run,” Molly said.

Why?” I wondered, when we didn’t have to, with no legs to restrict us.

Because,” she said, “one day we won’t be able to.”

So we ran all the way back to me waking up, and Molly running off into the woods, calling ‘Moo’ as she went.

I saw Daniel as I woke. He said this is the way it’s always be done. I know where to find him, and he’ll know when I need him. And I can go back there, any time I like, where time and distance are irrelevant. All I have to do, is think of my dreams and they’ll be waiting for me.

Molly’s running around in that woods, being a dog, always sniffing the ground above me, chasing things around, and chewing on the faded rope which ties this story. I looked at it, thought of the connection, then remembered what she’d asked me:

Can you kill beauty and love?”

That was quite profound for a hound; a dead dog, which is why she had to ask a living human on the ground.

Dear diary, of my life as a person.

© Steve Laker, 2017

This story is taken from my second anthology, The Unfinished Literary Agency, and was originally the story of Hannah (a palindrome) Jones in my (critically-acclaimed) SciFi novel. The other two Cyrus Song prequel short stories are those of Simon Fry (in Of Mice and Boys in 1984), and Captain Mamba (in A Young Captain Plays it Safe). The novel is available from Amazon and other book stores.