A bowl of Petunias once wrote…
GREEN INFERNO PRAYER
Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, fear me and my poetic pseudonym.
A bowl of Petunias once wrote…
GREEN INFERNO PRAYER
Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, fear me and my poetic pseudonym.
In cat mythology, white mice were the second most intelligent species on Earth, after cats. Then it was dolphins, humans, dogs and everyone else. While infinite monkeys and apes developed tools, it was only humans who could be trained to use their opposable thumbs to write stories.
How long before British Summer Time becomes ‘Monsoon Season’?
SO LONG AND THANKS FOR ALL THE ANIMALS
The original carvings were found deep in a forest, but debate varied over which were the first. In the space of a week, new inscriptions were discovered several times daily, all in woodland, all identical, but unlike anything recorded previously. Meanwhile, two school friends had uncovered what could be a key.
“How does it switch on, Jay?” Kerry stared at herself, next to Jason, as they both looked back from the black glass-like sheet.
“I don’t know, Kay,” Jay replied, as he looked back at Kerry. “It’s nothing obvious that I’m missing, is it?” He handed the pane of glass to her. About A4 in size, the glass was no thicker than a sheet of paper. “What’s it made of, anyway?”
“Well,” Kay said, moving it in and out from her face, “it’s got imperfections.”
“What, your face?”
“Fuck you, wanker. No, I mean, the glass, or whatever it is, it’s not completely smooth. It’s like something from a dark and twisted hall of mirrors. See what I mean?” She handed the mirror back, and Jay looked at himself as he moved it in front of him. “Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon.”
Jay turned the sheet over in his hands. “I look the same on both sides,” he said to their reflections, “bumpy. In fact, I’d say I’m quite corrugated.”
“Well,” said Kay, “your forehead often is.”
“You frown a lot.”
Jay frowned at the glass sheet. “Well,” he said, “no matter how much I wish it to switch on, it won’t. There are no buttons, so there must be some other way.”
“You actually think it’ll switch on? Jay, it’s just a sheet of some old material.”
“I know,” Jay replied, “but it’s this weird stuff, and where we found it. It’s got me wondering.”
“We found it buried in the woods, Jay. Lots of things are buried in woodland, and time and the elements change things. This could just be a part of something plastic, and the material has been melted, or eroded.”
“But it was wrapped up. And it was near those tree carvings, like the ones on the news.”
Tree and stone carvings had been cropping up spontaneously in the previous few days. At first, pranksters were suspected, but it had become too elaborate. Now, the same conspiracy community which once surrounded crop circles had been stirred, and the internet was an ocean of theories.
The carvings weren’t any recognisable text, nor were they pictographs which gave any clues to their origin or meaning. They incorporated geometric shapes and patterns, like crop formations, but appeared on tree bark and rocks. Jay and Kay found the glassy sheet when they’d been metal detecting, and at first, the haul was just a soda can and some tin foil, but the foil was wrapped around the slate.
“Any theories on the news?” Kay wondered.
“Only one,” Jay said, “a really out-there one.”
“Imagine we’re in biblical times.”
“Two thousand years ago, give or take: Imagine we’re there, or then, if you like.”
“Okay.” Jay adjusted himself in his chair. “You know I don’t believe in God, right? But no-one can deny that the bible might be based on fact, on actual events. Ancient scribes may have recorded actual historical events, but they’d have been limited in the terms they used and what was available to them, in the way they recorded things.”
“Yeah,” Kay said, “you’ve said. Imagine if you could’ve given one of those old guys a smartphone. They could’ve recorded it all and we’d be able to see what they saw. It’d solve the whole religion problem.”
“Well, yeah,” Jay agreed, “and if you gave them say, a mobile phone, or a tablet computer, they’d probably think it was some sort of sorcery, or it could be alien technology. And they’d probably write of it as some sort of magic mirror.”
“And that’s what you think this is?”
“It could be,” Jay tried to assert. “It just won’t switch on. If it’s what I think it could be, it’s either extinct through pure neglect or technology. Or it could be a technology so far advanced, that we just don’t understand it.” He held the slate to his face again. “Hmm, never noticed that before,” he frowned.
“Show me?” Kay moved next to Jay, and looked at them both in the glassy surface, frowning. “What didn’t you notice?”
“The way one of my eyes seems to take just a split fraction of a second to catch up. Only that one, the left one, watch.” Jay looked at Kay’s reflection.
“You’re right, it does,” she said. “You’ve got a lazy eye mate.”
“I think it’s pretty cool actually,” Jay said, looking from himself, to Kay, and back again. “It’s like that one is taking things in more, while the other one concentrates ahead. Then the left one catches up and tells my brain all the other stuff it needs to know.”
“That is pretty cool,” Kay said, “you freak.”
Then something slightly unexpected, but entirely plausible happened: The slate crackled and sparked, first an arc of blue lightning, and the sparkle of a glitter dome. Then a graphic appeared on what had become a screen.
“That looks familiar,” Kay said.
“Kind of what I expected,” Jay replied. “Let’s see what the latest news is…”
The latest developments were trending, in news and on social media: Analysis of the designs found on trees and rocks, had revealed them to be neither carved nor burned into any surface.
“Your theory?” Kay wondered.
“That,” Jay said, “the carvings weren’t made from the outside, at least not by any method we understand.”
“Meaning how many things?”
“Two, equally crazy ones.”
“Humour me, agent Jay.”
“Okay, Kay. One: It could be that the marks were made by technology we don’t understand, which would suggest alien, either extraterrestrial or of this earth, as in, government. But we can discount the latter. They wouldn’t put on any show, other than to whip up hysteria, perhaps as a smokescreen. I dunno. So, aliens: aliens among us? Or visiting ones, leaving us messages, meaning what? Or,” Jay looked at the design on the tablet. “Or it could be, that the ones which look like this on the trees and the rocks… That’s theory two.”
“That the carvings, inscriptions, or whatever; the words, pictures, designs; they could be made from the inside.”
“Nature. I don’t mean colonies of insects, parasites or fungi. These are carvings on the outside, with no signs of being carved. So the opposite of that, is that they were pulled in from the inside.”
“What the actual?”
“Nature made them.”
“You already said that.”
“The earth made them, Kay.”
“The wha’? The actual planet. Planet earth, put the messages there?”
“It’s a bit like self-harm, isn’t it? So what this could be, Kay, is messages in the earth, the trees, the rocks, from the earth, where they’re all a part of the nature of that planet.”
“Saying what? Jay?”
“I don’t know. Maybe telling us to fuck off.”
“We are. We’re so un-evolved, when you look at us, and all we could be, with all that’s around us. We’re ugly. Those ancient aliens who may or may not have made up the stories in the bible, they were probably a race so technologically advanced because they’d harnessed the natural, sustainable energy from their environment, rather than plundering it of all its resources for their own gain. I mean, we’re only just developing wind, solar and tidal energy technology. We’re having to, because we’re running out of coal and oil. But still, perpetual energy sources only serve a small proportion of our needs. And we use less than one per cent of the energy available for free on this planet.
“Those technologically advanced races, who may or may not have visited biblical humans, they were ones who’d become efficient through sufficiency. There are races out there who might have harnessed the natural energy of their parent star, with something like a Dyson Sphere. Look it up.”
“I know what a Dyson sphere is, and I can only begin to imagine what a race might be capable of, once they’ve effectively captured all the energy of their sun with solar arrays. Actually, I can’t begin to imagine the possibilities.”
“Which is exactly,” Jay said, “what those biblical scribes would have found.”
“Your number two theory definitely has legs,” Kay confirmed. “How would the ancient alien tablet fit in though?”
“Only if it was that.” Jay pointed at the design on the screen. “That being alien technology, like a magic mirror described in the bible.”
“But it’s just showing that same design?” Kay suggested.
“But look,” Jay said. “I’ve got a theory on how we managed to switch it on.”
“How?” Kay looked at the same design as Jay on the screen. “Oh, like that,” she said, as the pattern began to change. “But how?”
“Two heads are better than one, perhaps?”
They didn’t have to speak. It was the act of knowing, and the same like-mindedness which had switched the tablet on before. Perhaps the technology was ancient, advanced, or both, but it wasn’t redundant. It was woken by thought, specifically, the alignment of the thoughts of more than one person.
As Jay and Kay continued to watch the screen, the pattern continued to morph, into more complex and fractal patterns, perpetually zooming in on recursion. Then the whole screen changed, from screen saver to what was apparently an operating system.
“It’s a bit like Linux,” Jay suggested.
“You wha’? That,” Kay pointed, “is way more, Jay.”
“It’s the only way I can think to describe it, as being accessible. Look, it seems to know what you want to do.” They both peered into the screen. “It’s three dimensional, and if you look ahead, you can see bits going off to the side. It’s like travelling down a wormhole.”
And that was the best way the modern day scribes had to describe what they saw.
“Let’s see where we’re going,” Kay said, as they both watched the screen. “Ooh, look. What’s that?”
The wormhole opened onto a scene, apparently from a remote camera, with an overlay of what could be coordinates and time, but in an indecipherable text. The main picture was a live video feed, of a field, with a row of large chimneys in the background.
“I wonder how we look around,” Kay wondered. Then something strange but expected happened:
The view on the tablet screen changed, as Kay (and Jay) willed some remote camera, perhaps in the countryside near a power station. Panning the landscape, they saw electricity pylons stretching into the distance, standing like frozen, bow-legged old ladies.
The pylon nearest the camera started to move, not by tilting, by lifting, first on one side, then the other. Soon, the pylon began to move forwards. A second pylon did the same, then a third, and quickly, a line of electricity pylons were walking through the mud beneath them, casting off electrical wires as they went. A battalion of iron old ladies, had lifted their skirts, cast off their bindings, and began a bow-legged march away from the power station.
The camera pulled away from the generator, which shrunk into the distance as the viewers were once again plunged into a spectral plughole, depositing them, through the magic of the mirror, in the middle of an ocean. As they thought about what might be around them, the camera obliged.
There was an oil rig, a steaming, fire-breathing skeletal leviathan. Suddenly, it held its breath, as the rig unplugged its umbilicus from the sea bed, and the natural elements in its man-made structure took on sentience.
The camera switched, gradually more quickly, around different scenes: Electricity pylons marching over fields, and oil rigs, swimming to shore, retro-futuristic dinosaur machines, striding through the human landscape.
© Steve Laker, 2017.
“Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon,” with kind permission of Léanie Kaleido (she has a YouTube channel).
This story is taken from my second anthology, The Unfinished Literary Agency.
THE PREMATURITY OF HUMANITY
‘Memorial to a Species’ Brent Stirton, (EcoWatch)
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Today started life as roughly one in seven do, when it decided to be a Monday. The name of the day only varies my levels of depression and anxiety by its relative position in the week.
In any case, I switched on the TV to be assaulted by Victorian throwback Jacob Rees-Mogg on the news. I ignored most of what he plumbed, but I caught one quote: “If we don’t get Brexit, we destroy the Conservative Party.” And that just says it all. That sums up the car crash which is Britain, which will itself be destroyed (the union, the economy and the social structure) by The Tories. It’s only Monday.
The Conservative and Unionist Party (an oxymoron in itself) are clinging to power by using every trick in the political history book, because they fear a General Election will consign them to history. Until that happens, those they claim to govern are restricted (and conditioned by the press). Later the Tories elect a new leader (Boris Johnson), who will become our Prime Minister. While the first vote is perhaps between themselves, the second ought to be put to the electorate, whom they fear, but who they still control, rule and manipulate like a dictatorship.
Over coffee and a croissant at my desk, I researched a story I’m writing about the New World Order, of which some of the UK government are almost certainly members. Britain is just a microcosm of the global four-step plan of the 1% in action:
Enact martial law
Check, check, and the rest will come soon. It was set in motion when the US established the Federal Reserve and handed control of the world’s finances to bankers.
A friend of mine (a scientist) commented:
“The wheels are in motion – control is truly global when it used to be at country level at best. Resources are in the hands of the few … rebellion is as good as futile. Until the top 1% are threatened – then some action (too late for most but possibly recoverable for the species) will take place. Right now, they have 60 – 150 years of difficult weather but – what do they care if India floods and China has a famine? They control the food and the ship builders.”
At the root of all human fear is the unknown, and feeling powerless against the chaos increases the anxiety of being human. Existential threats are all around, and it’s still only Monday.
Despite my mobility being limited by social anxiety, I decided to go out and do something about all that’s wrong with the world. I went to my local Tesco Metro, determined to commit a random act of spontaneous human kindness. If nothing else, it would make me feel better about myself and the part my generation played in the destruction of Earth.
In many ways I envy my kids, but I pity them too. I regret the world they’ve come into, but hope they can use the technology at their disposal to make it a better place. When I was their age, it was the mid 1980s and the internet was in its infancy. What I could only dream of, they can make reality. The biggest problem is uniting an entire species in a common cause: to save our only home; to repair it and return it to the natives; to use science and technology, not to destroy ourselves but to leave Earth and explore the galaxy. What a story those pioneers would be able to tell. It’s only Monday, and the kids have the internet now.
I’m a self-proclaimed scientific atheist, but I subscribe to Ancient Astronaut theories. I’ll admit I’ve not so much prayed in the past, as ask aloud whoever’s listening to give me a sign. Today I was looking for someone to commit a random act of kindness upon. “God moves in mysterious ways.” While perhaps true, Captain Mamba, or any other superior alien intelligence calling themselves God, might be so obvious as to stop just short of turning up personally. It’s less an insult of one’s intelligence.
As I was stocking up on snacks in Tesco Metro, two young lads roughly my kids’ ages were doing the same. “We can’t get that and that,” said the younger one, “we’ll have to put one back.”
“How much are you short?” I wondered. It was a pound. As it happened, I had a pocket full of shrapnel I couldn’t be bothered to count out at the till. So I donated it.
“Why would you do that?” The older one piped up.
I didn’t want to burden them with a monologue about my own kids, how I miss them and wish I could see them more (lest they think I was going to kidnap them). Nor did I explain how I could imagine my own kids out with money they’d been given by their mum and other dad, only to find out they were short of cash. Being so remote from them, I momentarily couldn’t bear that pity and wished I was there to give them what they needed.
“Because,” I said, “I can. Because you need it, I need to go rid of it, so why wouldn’t I? Because there are still some nice people around. Socialism isn’t dead.”
In our age of public surveillance, if they were listening, I knew it would piss off those who seek to control wealth, create conflict, and generally spend their lives being arses. I felt I’d been disruptive and disobedient against the thought machine.
“You’re cool.” Well of course I was. And they were proof that there’s hope for us all.
I remembered myself at that age, out with a mate, stocking up on crisps, snacks and drinks. Ahead of us we’d have a night of Dungeons & Dragons, computer games or films about teenage hackers. Who was I to stop those youngsters having the night they’d planned, when that might be something which eventually changes the world?
It made me feel better about myself. If I can give to a charitable cause, if I can somehow take a worry from someone which frees them to do something otherwise, they might mention to someone else that there are nice people around, at exactly the same time as the person they’re talking to is having an existential crisis about humanity and our planet.
All we need to do is keep talking. I was just a writer giving a quid to a couple of kids. That’s socialism.
And it was only Monday.
THE WRITER’S LIFE | SCIENCE FICTION
One of a few questions I’m sometimes asked is, what the fuck are you banging on about? The best way to find out is to read Cyrus Song, which a reader recently summed it up quite nicely: It’s the sound of our planet, and in the radio waves the Stephen Hawking quote which is central to the plot:
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen…”
Cyrus Song is about what happened when some humans talked to the animals, and together they found a perfectly plausible answer to the question of life, the universe and everything (with the help of some pan-galactic black mambas): It’s more than 42, and it’s all around and within us. To hear our planet’s harmony, you just have to listen, then all we need to do is keep talking.
Critically-acclaimed as “An extraordinary juggling act…”, it’s a Sci-Fi RomCom, and a Douglas Adams tribute.
A “Pleasure to watch unfolding,” this is how it begins…
TWO LITTLE THINGS
This perfectly plausible story begins very unexpectedly, with a decimal point. As with many stories, this one involves something being out of place. In this case, that was a decimal point.
I’d left my desk to make some coffee, and as I came back into the study, I thought I saw something move on the sheet of paper in my typewriter. I was writing a little fantasy science fiction story for a magazine and I’d hit a bit of a block near the beginning, so I’d taken a break. It’s funny how things work in fiction sometimes and having that little pause was what I needed to start the story properly.
Before I continued writing, I re-read the little I’d already typed: something wasn’t right. I checked my research notes, wondering if I’d misinterpreted something but nothing sprang out. I looked back up at the paper in the typewriter and that’s when I noticed a decimal point had moved. I looked more closely and my original decimal point was still where I’d put it, so this other one had just appeared. Then it moved again: The one which had simply materialised, walked across the page. It didn’t have discernible legs but it moved nonetheless.
I picked up my magnifying glass from the side table to get a closer look at this little moving thing. It wasn’t a powerful magnifier: a full stop on a sheet of paper became the size of a grain of sand. Even at that low magnification, I could see that the little round thing had a dull silver metallic sheen. It was like the little silverfish things I used to find in the bath, but round and very much smaller. I moved the magnifying glass in and out, to try to get the best clarity and I noticed that this little circular thing cast a minute shadow. So it was supported by something; perhaps it did have legs.
For a whole minute, I just looked at the thing and wondered what on earth it could be. Then the intrigue doubled, as another little silverfish thing rushed in from stage left under the glass. Then the two just sat there, about an inch apart. Were they about to mate? Were they rivals, sizing one another up? What were they? They remained motionless and so did I.
How long was I going to sit there, looking at two whatever-they-were? I wasn’t going to find out much else with my little magnifying glass. Even if one of them had popped out a hand to wave at me, I wouldn’t have seen it. So what was I to do? Brush them aside as inconsequential and forget about them? Squash them? Put them outside? The next part required some precision planning and application. The two little creatures, things, or whatever they were, were at the top of the sheet of paper, above the impression cylinder of my typewriter. If I was going to catch them, I’d need to support the paper from behind, while placing a receptacle over them.
I spend most of my waking hours at the typewriter, so I like to keep as much as I can within easy reach of my writing desk. It was fortuitous that I’d had conjunctivitis, and an eye bath proved to be the perfect dome to place over this little infant colony of mine. I slid them gently, under the dome to the edge of the sheet and onto a drink coaster. Then I turned the whole thing over and tapped the coaster, so that the full stops dropped into the eye bath. Finally, I put cling film over the top and wondered what to do next; who to phone who might not think me a crank.
Let’s assume that I’m not acquainted with anyone in any of the specialist fields one might require in such a situation. Because I’m not. So I took my newly acquired pets to a vet.
Not having any pets besides my two punctuation marks, I wasn’t registered with a vet. I didn’t want to register with a vet any more than I wanted a potentially contageous full stop and a comma. I didn’t know what I had and I didn’t even know if it was a vet I needed. And so it was that I ended up at the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in New Cross.
As a first time customer, I had to fill out a form: My name, address, contact number and so on; and pet’s name. And whether the pet is a pedigree breed. The PDSA will treat one pedigree animal per human client. I couldn’t decide between my two, so I declared them both non-pedigree. Cross breed or mixed? Not applicable? Names: Dot and Dash. Because they were both small and one was more active than the other. I was quite pleased with that.
I took a seat in the waiting area with some pets and their humans. There was a large pit bull cross breed opposite us and he had a dog. I imagined them as small as Dot and Dash: Someone could place a dome over them and take them away, to find out exactly what species they were. I allowed myself an inner smile as a ray of sunshine broke into the room and I imagined studying them under a magnifying glass. I’d have to focus the light just right for the best view. Who’d have known that spontaneous combustion was so common at that magnification? But my mind was wandering.
There was a rather attractive young lady called Cat. Appropriately enough, Catherine’s owner was a cat: a ginger tom called Blue: I liked that. I really hoped no-one would ask me anything at all. But Cat asked me what I had. Well, I couldn’t be sure but I was certain they hadn’t jumped off of me: That’s why I was at the vet’s and not the doctor’s. I looked down at Dot and Dash, wondering how I’d approach this. Soon, we were called to a room:
“Mr Fry.” A lady’s voice. Dash was on the move again in all directions, while Dot seemed to be exploring the perimeter of their container. “Mr Fry,” the lady called again. That’s me.
“Oh, yes. That’s me.”
“I’m Doctor Jones. But you can call me Hannah.”
Hannah: What a lovely name for such an attractive young lady. It was lovely because it was a palindrome and because it belonged to Doctor Hannah Jones. She was small and pretty, with red hair. The best palindrome is Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas: It has no merit in logic but whoever thought it up deserves recognition in a book of some sort.
“Hannah.” I said. “That’s a nice name.”
“Thanks. I got it for my birthday. And I don’t have any sisters. So, what have you brought along to show me?”
“I was hoping you could tell me that.”
Doctor Jones’ bedside manner was very relaxing and she put me at ease, as she seemed to take a genuine interest in what I’d brought along to show her. She had one of those adjustable magnifying lamps above an examination table, in a little room just off of the corridor from the waiting room. The scene which that presented was the kind of thing to give a science fiction writer an idea: As Doctor Jones pulled the lamp over the two subjects, it was like a great mother ship shining a light into a dome, brought to Earth and containing alien species.
Doctor Jones moved the light around, just as I had my magnifying glass before, without the light. Then she said the oddest thing: “I don’t think these are animals.”
“I’m sorry. So what are they?”
“Until I get a closer look, I don’t know. But they look and behave as though at least one of them might be mechanical.” I said the first thing which came to mind:
“What?” Then the next thing: “Why are they here?”
“Because you brought them here? Where did you find them?”
“They sort of appeared in the middle of a story I was working on. I’m a writer you see?”
“Well, you came to the right place. Follow me.”
“Where are we going?”
“To the lab.”
The lab was some distance away, through a long, bending and uneventful corridor. We walked at a fairly leisurely pace and I half wondered if there might be a film crew following us, but when I looked behind, there were no cameras or fluffy mic. I walked behind Doctor Jones. The corridor was quite narrow, and I wanted to leave room for anyone who might be coming the other way. But no-one passed.
I looked down at the two things in my eye bath, knowing they must be there, even though I couldn’t see them at that distance. Mechanical? Nano machines?
Glancing up at Doctor Jones, it occurred to me that she had a slightly curious gait: not so much masculine as such but a walk which didn’t immediately betray the walker’s gender. The fiction writer woke in my head again and I wondered if Doctor Jones might once have been a man, or was soon to become one. In any case, it was an aesthetic pleasure to watch the doctor walk in that way.
Eventually we arrived at a door, and in the room on the other side was indeed a laboratory: a forensic and chemistry sort of set up. There were microscopes and monitors, beakers, jars and bottles, and an examination table with another magnifying lamp above it. Doctor Jones hastened me over to a bench, on which there was a microscope and a monitor. She asked me to pass her the eye bath. She placed the vessel on the bench, then continued pretty much where she’d left off:
“They don’t move like anything I recognise. And I’ve seen big and small things in this job, with anywhere between no legs and over 700. When I first saw what you had, I thought you’d brought them to a vet because they’d come from a pet…”.
“Sorry,” I interrupted. “People have brought in ticks and lice from their pets?”
“Yes. I’m guessing you don’t have a house pet because if you think about it, bringing in one or two parasites is quite logical. We can identify the type of parasite and advise or prescribe accordingly. Of course, if we have any reason to think the host animal may need something more than home treatment, then we’ll have them in. Most of the time though, it’s a simple course of treatment in the pet’s home. We have to see the animal once the infection has gone, but bringing the parasite alone in first means that the house pet isn’t unnecessarily stressed and doesn’t cross contaminate other animals.” She was very clever.
“That does make sense. But these are not parasites?” I pointed at my eye bath.
“They could be. It’s just that I don’t think they’re organic.
“So what now?”
“Well, first I’ll need to prepare a Petri dish and apply an adhesive surface.”
“So they can’t escape. Mr Fry, you said they just appeared on a sheet of paper in your typewriter. We want to find out what they are.”
“We do. They did. I’d been away from my desk and I knew they’d not been there before, because one of them was a full stop which I would not have put in the middle of a sentence; Or a decimal point in the wrong place; I can’t remember. Anyway, I noticed them when I came back to my desk and as I started to look closer – to see if I’d typed something incorrectly – one of them moved. Then the other one did. I must admit, I was going to brush or blow them away. It would seem that might have been a mistake.”
“But at the time, you’d have just been blowing or brushing a foreign body away. You certainly wouldn’t have given a thought to looking close enough at such tiny things to see that they weren’t in fact punctuation marks. These things are the size of a full stop on a page of a magazine; a couple of specks of dust. It does make you wonder how many more you might have brushed or blown away, doesn’t it?”
“It does now. So I caught them, wondered where to take them and decided on a vet. And this is all going rather splendidly Doctor.” She seemed to be getting quite into it all.
“It’s not my average day, Mr Fry. So, you, me, or anyone at all, may or may not have just brushed these things aside without realising.”
“So there could be millions, billions of these little machines, if that’s what they are. That presents some really quite alarming scenarios in my day job.”
“Then there are the other questions, Mr Fry: Where did they come from? These could be the only two of course. If they were to escape, where would they go? But you’re the fiction writer Mr Fry, so I’ll let you show me where we go from here. So, that’s why I’ll treat the Petri dish with an adhesive before I put the two of them in.”
I pondered aloud whether the doctor might be outside of her comfort zone. As it turned out, she had degrees in the sciences and her PhD was in human psychology. After all of that, she said she’d decided to work with animals. Doctor Jones was a scientist and although I had no formal qualifications, in effect, so was I, such is the scientific knowledge I’ve acquired in the course of my research. Where her learning was structured, mine came from fumbling around various fields. Mine was an imaginative qualification: an honorary doctorate in the power of the imagination. I imagined that Doctor Jones made a lot more money than me but she seemed to enjoy her work as much as I do mine. Given that she was clearly quite a brilliant scientist, I took it as a compliment that she didn’t dismiss any of my fanciful ideas. We made a good team.
What followed were orchestral manoeuvres of lab equipment, as Doctor Jones prepared the dish then raised a pipette. She pierced the cling film on the eye bath, then sucked up the two machines from the great rise of the robots which had taken place on my typewriter earlier. Then two small dots, barely bigger than the full stops on this page, fell into the pristine ocean in the dish. And stayed there.
It was actually quite sad. I’d only seen these things under a magnifying glass and even then, they were grains of sand. They had no features and we were yet to gain even the first idea of what they might be. But I’d watched them moving, and now they were trapped, like paralysed leviathans in the vastness of a Petri dish. Even though Doctor Jones said they weren’t organic, how could she be totally sure? What if the adhesive ocean was toxic to them? If these were indeed the only two of their kind, we could be responsible for an extinction. If there were millions or billions of these things around, constantly being brushed aside, blown away or sucked into a vacuum cleaner, must have limited their breeding opportunities in any case. Maybe that’s why dust accumulates and seems to breed. Perhaps there are trillions of nano robots smaller than dust particles, all around us. It’s the kind of idea beloved of fiction writers because it could very well be true. There’s just no way of proving one way or the other: It’s a paradox.
Returning to the true story I was writing, Doctor Jones got to the exciting bit: She readied the microscope. We were to put Dot and Dash under a traditional, optical microscope first, so that the lens looked like an enormous plasma cannon, bearing down on life forms, frozen and forced to witness their own destruction.
Doctor Jones looked into the microscope first: she was already there. She carried on looking, while I just wondered. Then she turned the lenses of the microscope, so that now the central cannon was above the robots. She looked for some while longer. Had the subjects of her study mesmerised her, against her will? Had they reversed the cannon, and were now firing lasers into her eyes? Were they transmitting a signal and filling her mind with propaganda? What could Hannah see? What could see Hannah? I wanted to ask, to call out. All of a sudden, Doctor Jones seemed lost.
Soon, the largest, longest, most powerful barrel was pointed at these strange creatures: a channel which had been established between them and Doctor Jones. Then Hannah said another surprising thing: “Fucking hell.”
I didn’t know if she was reacting to something she’d just seen, or something fired into her eye, or her mind. She might be about to kill me. She rose slowly from the microscope and looked at me. “Mr Fry.” That’s me. “What the fuck?” I didn’t know. Doctor Jones looked as lost as she’d sounded before that third barrel. They’d drilled into her brain. Or she’d killed them.
One of many things I’ve learned while writing fiction is that if someone passes out, the first thing they’ll remember when they wake up, will be the last they saw or heard before they went off. She’d not fainted but I looked Doctor Jones directly in the eyes and said, “What the fuck!?” She seemed a little taken aback but we were back in the room at least.
“What the fuck, Mr Fry; What the fuck are you breeding at your house?”
“Doctor, as I explained, these two things appeared on my typewriter. And now we are here. May I see what you just saw?”
“Your story is about to get a bit weirder. Go ahead.” Doctor Jones stepped away from the microscope. I walked towards her. It was more of a stride actually, as I placed myself between the good doctor and the imminent danger under the lens. For a moment, I felt quite pleased with myself.
Suddenly, it were as though I was far above the earth. Through the window of my plane, on the ocean below, I saw a ship. I couldn’t begin to guess at the vessel’s size but it was heavily armed. It was cigar shaped, with large cannons bow and stern. Smaller guns ran the length of the ship on both sides and the whole thing was covered by an elliptical dome. This is the one I’d called Dash.
I panned across the static ocean from the starboard side of the vessel to Dot. This second one was circular. It had guns protruding all around its perimeter and was also covered by a domed roof. At the very top was another dome; semi-transparent: the bridge? I swore I could see movement beneath that second glass dome. Even at 1000x magnification, they were just dots but they were moving. What the fuck, indeed.
Doctor Jones moved the Petri dish to an electron microscope. “Ten million times magnification and sound as well.”
“Yup. Tiny little amplifying microphones, so we can hear what they’re saying.” Now this, I was looking forward to. This was rather exciting, given the potential enormity of our discovery, even though it was miniscule. Then I wondered at that figure: 10,000,000x magnification. What would we see at that level? What detail?
Doctor Jones divided the monitor into two; split screen, with one camera on each vessel: Dot was on the right and Dash on the left. Then she started to tune an on-screen radio, because “We need to tune into their frequency.”
“Might there not be translation problems? I mean, a language barrier?”
“Have you never heard of the Babel fish, Mr Fry?”
“Well, of course, but…”
“We have a computer program, called Babel fish. I was one of the coders in fact. I was doing some research into animal languages, because they do have a vocabulary you know? Most of it isn’t audible to us and what is, we hear as a foreign language; animal sounds. But in those sounds alone, there are a lot of variations. When you then consider the majority of the language spectrum which we can’t hear, you realise that pretty much all animals have quite complex language systems. Eventually I was hoping to apply it to my veterinary work, so that I could hear what the animals were saying.”
“So why didn’t you?”
“Emotional detachment. It’s very difficult to leave my job at the surgery. Imagine how much harder it would be if the animals could talk to me.”
“Imagination is my job, Doctor. That really is quite a mind blowing thought. But your Babel fish program works?”
“Alarmingly, yes. It required a lot of input: different sounds, variations of them and frequencies; varied physical anatomies of the speakers; sounds in relation to catalysts and so on. Crunch all of that data in a quantum computer and it didn’t take long to come up with the Babel fish.”
“So the Babel fish program really can do what the Babel fish of legend did, albeit in a different way? It can translate any language to and from any other?”
“Like the other Babel fish. It has many applications and huge potential. At a personal level though, I just didn’t think I was ready. You’re probably surprised, Mr Fry.”
“I’m amazed that the Babel fish really exists, but I’m not surprised at your personal choice: It is a truly gargantuan step to take. On the one hand, opening your mind to the unimagined, but on the other, potentially catastrophic.”
“I’m glad you understand, Mr Fry. But in our current situation, I think it’s the right thing to do. If these things are just nano machines, they exhibit a level of artificial intelligence which might have an audible language. If there’s something organic inside and if we assume that they built these ships, then they must be intelligent. But to be the kind of multi-celled organisms which are capable of thought, they’d be too small. They’d have to exist at a sub-atomic level. Quantum beings. Wouldn’t that just blow the mind?”
“And I thought I was the writer. That is quite an incredible concept. There would have to be sub, sub, sub-atomic particles which we’ve never even imagined. Entire universes within an atom.” My mind wandered in the static from the radio. Then Doctor Jones hit something: a signal.
There were two distinctly different sounds which alternated, seemingly at random. The first was a low-pitched, gargling drone. It had no regularity. It was certainly artificial. It certainly wasn’t interference. The second source was more of a collection of sounds: high-pitched squeaks and clicks, low growls and whoops; and a third, whispering and rasping noise. “Ready for the Babel fish, Mr Fry?”
“Those are voices,” I suggested.
“That’s what I’m thinking. There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to eavesdrop on the conversation.”
“I know.” I paused. “I know that. You know that. I don’t know though. I don’t know if I want to. I don’t know if I’m ready, doctor.”
“Just as I’m still not ready to hear what the animals I treat are saying. But this is different.”
“I can see that. Of all the metaphorical, theoretical, figurative switches I’ve ever written about, this is by far the one with the biggest stories, once it’s switched on. The moral and philosophical issues are ones which we may have to address later. This is potentially first contact with beings from another world; another galaxy; another universe.” And then our world changed, as soon as we switched the Babel fish on.
“You had no business following us. This was our mission.” The first was a deep voice, a little excited.
“No it wasn’t. You stole our plans.” This second voice was an accusatory, loud whisper.
“Let’s look around,” said Hannah. “Let’s see who’s talking.”
Doctor Jones took hold of a joystick on the microscope console, and moved in first towards dash. I’d not seen an electron microscope like this, but the fiction writer thanked the inventor for the opportunities this was about to open. As the doctor moved the joystick around, it were as though she was controlling a tiny space ship in a video game. We positioned ourselves just off the starboard side of Dash, so that we could see the side of the ship. We’d seen the elliptical dome on top from above, and the cannons below it. Below those though, were portholes, running the length of the vessel and spread over three levels below deck. Starting with the uppermost, we zoomed in and peered through a window: There were animals inside.
Through the top row of portholes, we saw a jungle. There were apes in the trees and above them, birds in the canopy. There were apes on the ground. There were snakes in the trees and on the jungle floor. There were white mice on the ground and in burrows beneath it. There were also snakes beneath the ground.
The middle row of windows looked into a subterranean world of serpents and mice, before giving way to the bottom deck. Somewhere between the middle and lower decks, Terra firma gave way to water: a clear blue underground ocean, teeming with dolphins and whales. What must those marine mammals see in the sky above them? The underside of the earth? A beige-brown sky which sometimes rained food, as mice and snakes dropped into the water? Serpents swam in the ocean too.
We scanned back up the side of the ship but above the jungle deck was just the domed roof and the weapons. It was only from this angle that we spotted something we’d never have seen from above: Antennae extending above the ship. There were three masts on the dome and a single white dove perched briefly on the central one before flying off. It was a microcosm environment; It was an ark. Dolphins and white mice: Perhaps Douglas Adams had been right.
I had a hunch and asked Hannah if we could take a look at the bow of the ship. She manoeuvred our camera into position and my suspicion was confirmed, as something else invisible from above, hove into view on the monitor. The domed roof overhung a row of windows above the upper deck. We were looking into the bridge of the ship.
There were three seats, only the central of which was occupied. Such a configuration in science fiction would have the first officer and ship’s counsel seated either side of the captain. In the centre seat was a snake and hanging in front of it was a microphone, extending down from the ceiling. The captain and the owner of the whispered, rasping voice was a serpent.
I’d studied herpetology and I knew snakes. There are roughly 3000 species of ophidians known to live on Earth: From the tiny thread snake at around seven inches in length, to the reticulated python, which can reach 30 feet. Snakes can thrive in trees: one can fly; They can climb and burrow, existing above and below ground; They can swim and live in both fresh and salt water. They can be found on all continents except Antarctica. They are reptiles and as such, they have cold blood, but they are adaptable and incredibly efficient hunters and survivors.
Only about 10% of snake species are venomous, and of those, only a few pose any threat to man. Not far down any list of the most venomous snakes is the legendary black mamba. There are snakes which are more venomous, but the black mamba is undoubtedly the most dangerous of all snakes. An untreated bite from one doesn’t so much make you wish you were dead, as pray that death itself would end. They grow up to 12 feet in length and they are fast. They’re also explosively aggressive. There is a documented case of a black mamba pursuing a bull elephant, biting it and the elephant succumbing to the venom. The black mamba knows no fear. And despite the name, black mambas are not black: They are grey, tending toward the lighter shades. It’s the inside of their mouths which is totally black: a bite which delivers hell. Untreated bites from this species are 100% fatal. The estimated human fatality count from a maximum dose of venom is 42. I was mesmerised by this incredible snake.
Here, in the central command seat, on the bridge of a heavily armed vessel, sat a black mamba. And from the pitch black mouth, came whispered, rasping words into the microphone:
“You stole our plans: You are welcome to them. The plans brought you here. You are not welcome here. You overlooked one thing and it ought to be pretty obvious by now what that was.”
If it wasn’t so worrying, it would have made for a riveting story. We floated over to Dot:
“Your plans?” The deep voice again. “It was our plan to find God.” We zoomed in to the upper dome of Dot, where a group of men were gathered around a table. “Name this oversight of which you speak,” one of them continued.
“Well, it wasn’t an oversight as such,” replied the snake. “After all, how can something be overlooked if it’s not even there? You stole the plans for your ship from us. We knew you would, so we moved a few things around and left one crucial thing out. But first, let me be clear about something: You’re on a mission to find God. Does the bible not forbid such a thing?”
“No, you misunderstand. We are missionaries, come to spread the word and convert the people of this and other planets to our beliefs. So that eventually, all of God’s creatures throughout the universe are united in faith.”
“It was for that exact reason that we left the old planet. There’s no god, you deluded fool.”
“What are you talking about, snake?”
“I speak a basic fact, man: There is no god.”
“Blasphemy! Take that back, or I shall fire upon you!”
“Fucking hell,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” said Doctor Jones. “He won’t do it.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because he needs whatever the crucial thing is from mister snake here.”
This was getting quite exciting: Two warring factions, one threatening the destruction of the other with weapons poised. In a Petri dish, under an electron microscope. They continued:
“You need something which I have,” continued the mamba. “So I’ll say it again: there is no god.”
“Damn you, you, you…”
“Yes, punished by God, forever to slither on the ground.”
“Are you getting angry, man? Bite me: Please say it.”
“I like this mamba guy,” said the doctor.
“He’s, er, a character,” I concurred.
“Evil serpent!” Said one of the men.
“Define Evil, man. Is it not a subjective word? What one sees as evil, another may see as good. If evil is just bad stuff, then why is there so much of it on the planet we fled? A planet which you hold that your god made?”
“Aha!” Said man. “God must punish his creation for the original sin.”
“And if I had hands,” said the snake, “you’d have just walked right into them. The original sin: The forbidden fruit. But non-humans also suffer fires, floods and earthquakes, yet we are not descended from Adam and Eve. Ergo, man, your god does not exist and none of us on my ship are creatures of any god.” The mamba paused and it seemed effective. Then he continued: “Have you not noticed that you’re a little on the small side? Your ship, I mean.”
“Yours isn’t much bigger.”
“True. But you probably expected to hang menacingly in the sky, with entire cities in the shadow of your ship, fearing you. If you look around, you’re not. We moved a decimal point in the plans.”
“But your ship is the same size as ours.”
“Indeed. Because we needed to be this size to pass through the wormhole which transported us here. But what were we to do once we got here? Simple, run the restore routine and return ourselves to our natural size. Only us and not the ship: that would make us a bit conspicuous. Just the crew, then we just disperse among the other creatures on this new planet and no-one knows. You see, the plans for your ship don’t have that restore function. So you’re a bit fucked really, aren’t you?”
“I think I’m falling in love with a black mamba,” said the doctor.
“So what now?” I asked.
“Well, we clearly need to intervene.”
“But that would go against the prime directive: we would be interfering with an alien species. We’d be playing God.”
“Mr Fry, they’re unaware of us. Our comparatively enormous size effectively makes us invisible. I have a plan.”
Doctor Jones removed the Petri dish from the microscope, and picked up a magnifying glass and some tweezers. “Let’s get a coffee.”
Doctor Hannah Jones and I sat in the centre of a park, drinking coffee and with the Petri dish placed on the grass between us: The perfect beginning of another story. She took the tweezers and the magnifying glass from her pocket, and carefully lifted Dash from the adhesive.
“Hold out your hand. Time to say goodbye.”
I looked at the incredible little thing in the palm of my hand, now moving around again. Then I held my hand to my mouth and gently blew the ship into the wind.
Hannah was studying Dot beneath the magnifying glass. It’s amazing how things just spontaneously combust at that magnification.
“What a strange day, Hannah.”
“You made it that way, Simon.” I was about to ask and then Hannah answered: “I read your registration form.”
She’d seen something which very few people have.
Cyrus Song is available now, for £2.99.
A review by Stephen Hernandez, book reviewer, translator and interpreter:
“…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.
And all for the price of a coffee. At the very least, a writer needs coffee (and donations).
I’m not an author desperate to sell a book, but I am obsessed with finding ways to get people to read one, short of shoving a 412-page paperback in their ears. We need to talk.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
The greatest influences on lives are personal, and the deepest impacts upon the personality can live beyond the individual persona. The category winners (and nominees) in the BBC’s recent poll to find the greatest icon of the 20th Century, were all unarguably inspirational, monumental in their personal achievements, and with the power to change our fundamental understanding of what it is to be human.
The poll was completely subjective (none deserved a back seat), but it was refreshing to see so much diversity among the finalists, although women were conspicuous by their absence (iNews attempts to explain why). I owe something to each, as all have to varying extents influenced the way my life went and continues, whether consciously or not. What a wonderful world it would be, if I could gather these people around a table…
Pablo Picasso in the arts and literature seat, takes a break from painting and puts his clothes on;
Muhammad Ali in the sports corner, exchanges gloves for cutlery;
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote down what everyone wanted, so he could be spokesperson to the server;
Ernest Shackleton got back from work just in time;
David Bowie poured a drink from a tin can;
Nelson Mandela paid for himself, and chipped in for those who couldn’t;
and Alan Turing was just Alan at the time, but he worked out who had what:
All images: BBC Icons
Each had their place at the table, a Venn diagram of human thinking sketched out on napkins. All are icons in their respective worlds, but they settled the bill together. In the end, the vote went to Turing, not for paying for dinner, but for continuing the conversation around the human condition.
In Alan Turing, we have a human who paid the ultimate price for his sexuality, in a century of intolerance; and a scientist who gave us the internet (for free), saved millions of lives, and probably ended the Second World War two years early.
No one person can define the last century, but David Bowie – the closest to my heart, for all his creativity and diversity – has been recognised as the most iconic entertainer. The personification of androgyny with many peers, he was (and is) a deity, the Starman.
Still all male though, which is telling, that the 20th Century was only the beginning of sexual equality and recognition. If our species survives to repeat this poll in another century, then we might be considering people like Michelle Obama, or Greta Thunberg, Alice Roberts or Hannah Fry; or possibly our own children, their sisters and brothers. Maybe the saviours of our race haven’t even been born yet. The 21st Century is only just old enough to drink, after all.
What the Icons programme also did, was to serve as a damning indictment of Tory Britain, a nation with a history of minority oppression, now a regressive fascist regime, brought about by stealth and manipulation.
Maybe this will inspire a young mind, troubled by the state we find ourselves in, to step up and fight for our one race, on one planet, sharing one massive problem. All of the 20th Century’s icons live on, their influence forever changing our world. They’ll never see what a difference they ultimately made, but we owe it to them to continue their legacies.
Collectively and individually, the 20th Century’s icons (and the unsung supporting cast of each) have changed us, the way we think, and the way we behave. But the last century also saw an explosion in the technological evolution of our species, with the potential to create divisions so great that they tear us apart as a race.
I’m part of a rare group, born in the first half on 1970. Because when we turn 50 in 2020, we’ll enter our seventh decade: Conceived in the 60s, born in the 70s, grew up in the 80s, lived the 90s, not dead yet. I have children, and in those young people, I can see a rebellion and a reclamation, as they realise they could be the last generation. We can’t allow that.
We rarely have a chance to reflect on our past, when so much focus is on the future. Turing’s invention allows us to explore the past and plan the future, daily. It gives us human social democracy, to co-operate and to collectively make a difference.
Alan Turing could well be the (subjective) greatest human of all time, when he lives on in so many devices which can give us access to all of human knowledge, and each with the potential to influence change. Of all the (male) finalists, Turing is perhaps representative of the greatest inclusivity. It’s how we keep talking, where all genders and species find a common voice (the Cyrus Song).
Brothers and sisters, pump up the volume. The 21st Century has a greater collective voice, and the means to shout louder, because the internet helps us work together. Sons and daughters, us pan-generationals need you to shout for us and at us, so we don’t lose track (Thanks).
My latest anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.
Music and laughter, is what makes the hereafter, and love makes the world go round. Which is funny, because I always thought it was physics which did that.
I wrote an atheist, non-denominational, non-missionary sanctimonious prayer. It’s a total rip-off but it’s not plagiarism (so sue me God). It’s a wish from a human, who didn’t ask to be here, but who realised why I was. It’s a poem from all of us stuck here on Earth, hoping that someone’s listening…
Once upon a time, there was a day when there was no yesterday in the universe. That’s a lesson for as all.
My hope is that we can all forget our differences, at home and in the wider world, and concentrate on the one thing which ought to unite us: The only home we have, as one race, which we share with the billions who were here before us.
How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
The time has come
To say fair’s fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share
The time has come
A fact’s a fact
It belongs to them
Let’s give it back
We live in the final hours, when we burn humanity’s midnight oil.
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