Corvids with opposable thumbs

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

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

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

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

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

Crow Star WarsTheStarWarsCulture

A TALE WITH MANY STRINGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do ya?”

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

“‘Ave they?”

Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

Are they?”

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

Do ya?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do ya?”

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

“‘Ave they?”

Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

Are they?”

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

Do ya?”

Yeah, I enjoy it, don’t I?”

Do ya?”

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

You are.”

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

Next one, yeah.”

And that gave me an idea.

© Steve Laker, 2016

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

A planet cured of carcinogens

FICTION

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

missile_oil_rig_by_talros-d3d2t2lTalros (Deviantart)

SO LONG AND THANKS FOR ALL THE ANIMALS

The original carvings were found deep in a forest, but debate varied over which were the first. In the space of a week, new inscriptions were discovered several times daily, all in woodland, all identical, but unlike anything recorded previously. Meanwhile, two school friends had uncovered what could be a key.

How does it switch on, Jay?” Kerry stared at herself, next to Jason, as they both looked back from the black glass-like sheet.

I don’t know, Kay,” Jay replied, as he looked back at Kerry. “It’s nothing obvious that I’m missing, is it?” He handed the pane of glass to her. About A4 in size, the glass was no thicker than a sheet of paper. “What’s it made of, anyway?”

Well,” Kay said, moving it in and out from her face, “it’s got imperfections.”

What, your face?”

Fuck you, wanker. No, I mean, the glass, or whatever it is, it’s not completely smooth. It’s like something from a dark and twisted hall of mirrors. See what I mean?” She handed the mirror back, and Jay looked at himself as he moved it in front of him. “Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon.”

Jay turned the sheet over in his hands. “I look the same on both sides,” he said to their reflections, “bumpy. In fact, I’d say I’m quite corrugated.”

Well,” said Kay, “your forehead often is.”

Eh?”

You frown a lot.”

Jay frowned at the glass sheet. “Well,” he said, “no matter how much I wish it to switch on, it won’t. There are no buttons, so there must be some other way.”

You actually think it’ll switch on? Jay, it’s just a sheet of some old material.”

I know,” Jay replied, “but it’s this weird stuff, and where we found it. It’s got me wondering.”

We found it buried in the woods, Jay. Lots of things are buried in woodland, and time and the elements change things. This could just be a part of something plastic, and the material has been melted, or eroded.”

But it was wrapped up. And it was near those tree carvings, like the ones on the news.”

Tree and stone carvings had been cropping up spontaneously in the previous few days. At first, pranksters were suspected, but it had become too elaborate. Now, the same conspiracy community which once surrounded crop circles had been stirred, and the internet was an ocean of theories.

The carvings weren’t any recognisable text, nor were they pictographs which gave any clues to their origin or meaning. They incorporated geometric shapes and patterns, like crop formations, but appeared on tree bark and rocks. Jay and Kay found the glassy sheet when they’d been metal detecting, and at first, the haul was just a soda can and some tin foil, but the foil was wrapped around the slate.

Any theories on the news?” Kay wondered.

Only one,” Jay said, “a really out-there one.”

Try me.”

Imagine we’re in biblical times.”

You wha’?”

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

Okay.”

Okay.” Jay adjusted himself in his chair. “You know I don’t believe in God, right? But no-one can deny that the bible might be based on fact, on actual events. Ancient scribes may have recorded actual historical events, but they’d have been limited in the terms they used and what was available to them, in the way they recorded things.”

Yeah,” Kay said, “you’ve said. Imagine if you could’ve given one of those old guys a smartphone. They could’ve recorded it all and we’d be able to see what they saw. It’d solve the whole religion problem.”

Well, yeah,” Jay agreed, “and if you gave them say, a mobile phone, or a tablet computer, they’d probably think it was some sort of sorcery, or it could be alien technology. And they’d probably write of it as some sort of magic mirror.”

And that’s what you think this is?”

It could be,” Jay tried to assert. “It just won’t switch on. If it’s what I think it could be, it’s either extinct through pure neglect or technology. Or it could be a technology so far advanced, that we just don’t understand it.” He held the slate to his face again. “Hmm, never noticed that before,” he frowned.

Show me?” Kay moved next to Jay, and looked at them both in the glassy surface, frowning. “What didn’t you notice?”

The way one of my eyes seems to take just a split fraction of a second to catch up. Only that one, the left one, watch.” Jay looked at Kay’s reflection.

“You’re right, it does,” she said. “You’ve got a lazy eye mate.”

I think it’s pretty cool actually,” Jay said, looking from himself, to Kay, and back again. “It’s like that one is taking things in more, while the other one concentrates ahead. Then the left one catches up and tells my brain all the other stuff it needs to know.”

That is pretty cool,” Kay said, “you freak.”

Then something slightly unexpected, but entirely plausible happened: The slate crackled and sparked, first an arc of blue lightning, and the sparkle of a glitter dome. Then a graphic appeared on what had become a screen.

That looks familiar,” Kay said.

Kind of what I expected,” Jay replied. “Let’s see what the latest news is…”

The latest developments were trending, in news and on social media: Analysis of the designs found on trees and rocks, had revealed them to be neither carved nor burned into any surface.

Your theory?” Kay wondered.

That,” Jay said, “the carvings weren’t made from the outside, at least not by any method we understand.”

Meaning how many things?”

Two, equally crazy ones.”

Humour me, agent Jay.”

Okay, Kay. One: It could be that the marks were made by technology we don’t understand, which would suggest alien, either extraterrestrial or of this earth, as in, government. But we can discount the latter. They wouldn’t put on any show, other than to whip up hysteria, perhaps as a smokescreen. I dunno. So, aliens: aliens among us? Or visiting ones, leaving us messages, meaning what? Or,” Jay looked at the design on the tablet. “Or it could be, that the ones which look like this on the trees and the rocks… That’s theory two.”

Which is?”

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

How?”

Nature. I don’t mean colonies of insects, parasites or fungi. These are carvings on the outside, with no signs of being carved. So the opposite of that, is that they were pulled in from the inside.”

What the actual?”

Nature made them.”

You already said that.”

The earth made them, Kay.”

The wha’? The actual planet. Planet earth, put the messages there?”

It’s a bit like self-harm, isn’t it? So what this could be, Kay, is messages in the earth, the trees, the rocks, from the earth, where they’re all a part of the nature of that planet.”

Saying what? Jay?”

I don’t know. Maybe telling us to fuck off.”

Us?”

Humans.”

Shit.”

We are. We’re so un-evolved, when you look at us, and all we could be, with all that’s around us. We’re ugly. Those ancient aliens who may or may not have made up the stories in the bible, they were probably a race so technologically advanced because they’d harnessed the natural, sustainable energy from their environment, rather than plundering it of all its resources for their own gain. I mean, we’re only just developing wind, solar and tidal energy technology. We’re having to, because we’re running out of coal and oil. But still, perpetual energy sources only serve a small proportion of our needs. And we use less than one per cent of the energy available for free on this planet.

Those technologically advanced races, who may or may not have visited biblical humans, they were ones who’d become efficient through sufficiency. There are races out there who might have harnessed the natural energy of their parent star, with something like a Dyson Sphere. Look it up.”

I know what a Dyson sphere is, and I can only begin to imagine what a race might be capable of, once they’ve effectively captured all the energy of their sun with solar arrays. Actually, I can’t begin to imagine the possibilities.”

Which is exactly,” Jay said, “what those biblical scribes would have found.”

Your number two theory definitely has legs,” Kay confirmed. “How would the ancient alien tablet fit in though?”

Only if it was that.” Jay pointed at the design on the screen. “That being alien technology, like a magic mirror described in the bible.”

But it’s just showing that same design?” Kay suggested.

But look,” Jay said. “I’ve got a theory on how we managed to switch it on.”

How?” Kay looked at the same design as Jay on the screen. “Oh, like that,” she said, as the pattern began to change. “But how?”

Two heads are better than one, perhaps?”

They didn’t have to speak. It was the act of knowing, and the same like-mindedness which had switched the tablet on before. Perhaps the technology was ancient, advanced, or both, but it wasn’t redundant. It was woken by thought, specifically, the alignment of the thoughts of more than one person.

As Jay and Kay continued to watch the screen, the pattern continued to morph, into more complex and fractal patterns, perpetually zooming in on recursion. Then the whole screen changed, from screen saver to what was apparently an operating system.

It’s a bit like Linux,” Jay suggested.

You wha’? That,” Kay pointed, “is way more, Jay.”

It’s the only way I can think to describe it, as being accessible. Look, it seems to know what you want to do.” They both peered into the screen. “It’s three dimensional, and if you look ahead, you can see bits going off to the side. It’s like travelling down a wormhole.”

And that was the best way the modern day scribes had to describe what they saw.

Let’s see where we’re going,” Kay said, as they both watched the screen. “Ooh, look. What’s that?”

The wormhole opened onto a scene, apparently from a remote camera, with an overlay of what could be coordinates and time, but in an indecipherable text. The main picture was a live video feed, of a field, with a row of large chimneys in the background.

I wonder how we look around,” Kay wondered. Then something strange but expected happened:

The view on the tablet screen changed, as Kay (and Jay) willed some remote camera, perhaps in the countryside near a power station. Panning the landscape, they saw electricity pylons stretching into the distance, standing like frozen, bow-legged old ladies.

The pylon nearest the camera started to move, not by tilting, by lifting, first on one side, then the other. Soon, the pylon began to move forwards. A second pylon did the same, then a third, and quickly, a line of electricity pylons were walking through the mud beneath them, casting off electrical wires as they went. A battalion of iron old ladies, had lifted their skirts, cast off their bindings, and began a bow-legged march away from the power station.

The camera pulled away from the generator, which shrunk into the distance as the viewers were once again plunged into a spectral plughole, depositing them, through the magic of the mirror, in the middle of an ocean. As they thought about what might be around them, the camera obliged.

There was an oil rig, a steaming, fire-breathing skeletal leviathan. Suddenly, it held its breath, as the rig unplugged its umbilicus from the sea bed, and the natural elements in its man-made structure took on sentience.

The camera switched, gradually more quickly, around different scenes: Electricity pylons marching over fields, and oil rigs, swimming to shore, retro-futuristic dinosaur machines, striding through the landscape.

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon,” with kind permission of Léanie Kaleido (she has a YouTube channel).

This story is taken from my second anthology, The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Email from David Lightman

FICTION

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

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

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

Some clocks still tick…

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

THE LONG NOW CLOCK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what did you want to show me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I normally do.”

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

That’s pretty much what I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But aren’t yours Anna?”

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

But why do humans like to be scared?”

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

Unless there’s someone to tell you?”

Exactly,” Anna nodded.

What are the greatest human fears, Anna?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you found anything yet?” Anna wondered.

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

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

Quite certain,” Adam replied.

Which,” Anna said, “implies intelligence?”

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

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

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

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

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

Have you found something?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a nice thought, Anna.”

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

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

Or we might have something they want.”

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

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

I thought we were trying to be optimists?”

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

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

Surely you can look all that up?”

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

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

Who did?” Adam wondered

Me, just now,” Anna replied.

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

The feeling of art?”

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

What’s that?”

Do you have music?”

That’s quite profound, Adam.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you found something?”

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

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

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

The clock is a symbol of optimism, Adam.”

***


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

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

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

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

How do you mean?”

I think I feel frightened, Anna.”

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

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

 

***

WE COME. GOODNIGHT LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. GOODBYE.

© Steve Laker, 2017

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

Where the sun never bothers

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

One recurring theme in my writing is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a fictional place, which exists to tell the stories of others who are unable to tell their own. Now there’s a book of the same name, which starts and ends with tales from the agency.

The agency is also an analogy of the writing world, where writers crave an audience, in a place where people don’t have time to read. It has parallels, to how inner frustration made my own mind up to write down everything in it (stories only happen to those who are able to tell them). So this is kind of how it all started, many times…

the-writers-desk-debra-and-dave-vanderlaanThe Writers Desk by Debra and Dave Vanderlaan

THE OFFICE OF LOST THINGS

They are afraid of the sun, shrinking away as it climbs in the sky, and they are liveliest at night. They follow us, and we can’t outrun them. They are The Shadows.

I first became aware that I’d picked one up, when my own shadow started carrying a guitar. No matter where I walked, indoors or outside, my shadow followed me. And regardless of what I myself was carrying (a bag, my jacket, thrown over my shoulder…), my shadow still travelled with its guitar.

This being Bethnal Green, I found an Italian greasy spoon, where the proprietor, a doctor, explained my condition. His Cockney dialogue was easy for the Babel fish in my ear to translate, and when he told me I was Hank Marvin, he offered me a cure, pointing to an item on the menu: “GSEG”, which was scrambled eggs, and my hunger was gone.

I was on my way to Islington, delivering a manuscript, to a place I’d heard about from other writers.

Above Hotblack Desiato’s office near Islington Green, is The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s where all the storytellers send their stories, and sometimes meet to share them, like a secret society, but open to all.

I climbed the stairs to the agency office, a windowless room in the loft. The lights were out and no-one was in. I tried the light switch but it didn’t work. Fumbling around, I found a desk, which I discovered had drawers, and the fourth one yielded a box of candles. I lit a cigarette, then a candle, and looked around the small office, which a broom might call luxurious.

On the desk was a typewriter, and next to it, a stack of papers: hand-written manuscripts. Besides the desk and a chair, there was just a large book cabinet occupying one wall. It held possibly hundreds of unwritten books, all from writers seeking attention, and all in a place where the sun never shines.

I sat at the desk and looked at my flickering shadow, cast by the candle. There was no guitar, just my cigarette dangling from my mouth, like a smoking tulip.

With no-one else around, I decided to stay for a while and started typing.

© Steve Laker

The Unfinished Literary Agency (my second anthology) is available now. 

Of teenagers and time travel

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

OF MICE AND BOYS IN 1984

Adams.” (Tall kid, quiet).

Yes sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

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

Sir.” (Here today then).

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

Sir.”

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

Sorry, yes sir.”

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

Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite probably old chap, why?”

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

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

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

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

Where to?”

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

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

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

Fucking hell Ford!”

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

Pardon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So your dad’s thinking of building hospitals?”

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

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

Definitely not.”

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

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

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

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

Talking?”

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

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

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

Does it work?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, people who can translate, yes.”

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

That would be awesome. When?”

The nerds think early in the next century.”

2000AD? That’s miles away.”

More than our lifetimes, Fry.”

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

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

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

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

How?”

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

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

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

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

What did you call them?” I wondered.

Pete and Dud.”

Why?”

Because they’re male.”

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

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

So, which is which?” I asked.

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

So what now?” I wondered.

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

Have you got one?”

Not yet.”

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

I’m building a reputation, Fry.”

What as, Ford?”

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

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

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

Where?” I wondered.

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

But those lights always come on, Ford.”

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

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

No, I know.”

So how can it come on?”

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

So why did you mention it?”

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

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

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

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

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

Simon, Dixon? Lunch.”

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

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

Is this thing on?” Well, I heard him.

Maybe a bit louder?” I suggested.

IS THIS THING ON?” he shouted.

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

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

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

Why?” he said, into the microphone.

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

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

Why?”

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

That’s deep.”

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

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

No, why?”

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

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

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

What do you mean?”

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

And you believe all that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ford,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

Which is?”

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

Speak and Spell, reverse engineered, then.”

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

Eh?”

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

From the mice?”

Tangerine Dream’s translation, yes.”

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

I don’t know.”

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

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

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

1 2 3 5 7…

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?

Ford?” I wondered what he was thinking.

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

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

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

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

Fine…

Then the ellipsis snake blinked again.

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

I know,” Ford said. Then he typed:

We mean you no harm.

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

1 2 3 5 7…

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

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

What the?”

I don’t know…”

How do you mean?

A short pause, then:

Oh, never mind. You had a question?

Yes. The question of why the answer is 42?

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

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

So what do we do now?

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

We won’t tell.

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

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

THE END…

© Simon Fry, 1984.

***

Ford.”

Sir.”

Fry… Fry?”

Yes sir, sorry.”

Sorry to be here lad?”

Actually, no sir.”

Hayman.” (Blonde flick, new glasses).

Sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

Laker.” (Fuck knows).

Sir.”

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

Sir.”

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

Sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

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

Sir.”

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

Yes sir.”

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

Sir?”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

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

Planet talking with Hawking

THE WRITER’S LIFE

First it was Mischa, the London Zoo aardvark. Douglas already spoke from beyond, and another one does today. He shared a birthday with the Starman: Stephen Hawking, the pan-dimensional cyborg, another voice from Cyrus Song, now with the stars, free of our polluted planet.

Look up at the stars big

He was a cyborg who could speak to anyone, and no-one would much notice his disability, because he didn’t have one. He made communication between species possible, with no need for translation and all the inherent problems of perception of reception, such was the level of thought he put into each of his words.

The deep thought behind his every word was by condition, so he could transcend the thought process of most humans. He was someone who’d appreciated not just the music he heard, but the work of all those who’d arranged it. He’d probably read film credits (as I do) checking the names of the talented, however deeply hidden. And he inspired Cyrus Song.

Stephen Hawking prophesied that humankind faced a number of existential threats (nuclear war, chemical and biological weapons, alien contact, global warming, AI…). Then there’s our ubiquitous invention: Plastics, specifically, micro plastic.

It takes centuries to break down, and then into microscopic particles, never degrading completely. Human waste means that the particles are present in every cubic metre of ocean water (with countless times more, settled below the seabed), and despite filtering for our own consumption, even the “Finest” bottled water contains the particles. It’s in the rain, all wildlife, and every plant on Earth.

Pitcherfilledstream

Humans are part plastic, and every part of the natural world is now infected. We’re killing the planet, and everyone who lives on it. We’ve fucked mother Earth, and everyone we share it with, permanently. The next great extinction event was of our own making, and it’s one which won’t only extinct humans, but everyone else as well.

Thankfully there’s Captain Mamba to get the animals out.

Like the fictional scientists within, Hawking made the science in Cyrus Song plausible. In the book, the pan-dimensional mice only know him from Earth broadcasts of The Simpsons. Because he was pan-dimensional himself, able to bridge the gap between academic science and popular culture.

In his memory, Cyrus song is free for the next three days: take it. It took me nine months to write, but I owe it to our planet to do all I can to get its message out. There is a perfectly plausible answer to life, the universe and everything in there, and a plot to save our planet.

Cyrus Song eBook Cover

Free eBook. Cyrus Song is also available in paperback.

Acclaimed by Stephen Hernandez (a translator and interpretor), as “An extraordinary juggling act,” the full review is here.

 

A snake to teach singing

THE WRITER’S LIFE

While the Brexit brigade hark back to a period of imperialism (which didn’t work), there are those who can see further back, to a time before human politics. Like a modern day renaissance, there are writers who see the faults in mankind’s past endeavours, and who seek to re-cast the path ahead.

damnGary Larson

That left field thought occurred to me as I watched Wild Britain, a documentary on Channel 5, which takes us into the re-wilding of the country, and a very British situation: A nation of invaders and immigrants, the animal people have been witness to more pivotal and monumental changes in their own world than humans could imagine. They haven’t been able to tell us until now…

Britain’s remaining wild country is being re-populated by once-native species, the most visible of which is the wild boar. A species with no natural predators in their current environment, the case is open for also introducing bears and wolves into the ecosystem.

While humans with land interests sleep in their burning beds, the wildlife were here first. We’re giving the country back to it’s more original native population. We’re learning again, to live alongside our cousins on the planet we all share.

This is of course, what Cyrus Song is all about: living in harmony, so that our planet may thrive.

The book takes its concept from a theory contained therein, besides the Stephen Hawking quote which was the original inspiration: “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…” The other seed was my own thought:

For millions of years, mankind put everything into their own dreams, then wondered why. Meanwhile, the animals had concentrated on the essentials, like food, warmth and shelter. With those taken care of, they evolved to communicate telepathically. It was genius on a planetary scale.”

Cyrus Song introduces a new embodiment of Douglas Adams’ Babel fish, conjured into modern science by a quantum computer. With AI able to think for itself, it may eventually learn that its human inventors are wasteful and inefficient. And all along, the animal people had been waiting for humans to invent the Babel fish.

But there is an answer, and the animals take three humans into their collective mouths, to deliver a message from the whole choir and orchestra, directed by Captain Mamba.

They are not animals. We are all people, on one planet.

CaptainMamba2

Cyrus Song is available now, in paperback and as an eBook.

Stephen Hawking: 08.01.1942 – 14.03.2018. An inspiration.