Sugar, spice and puppy dog tails

THE WRITER’S LIFE

As it’s the school holidays, this month’s day out with my kids is different to the usual trip to Milton Keynes, as it’s not in Milton Keynes. This month we have a longer day, I don’t have to travel so far, and we’re spending the day in my spiritual home. I’ve got a day out in London with my two favourite young people, culminating in a trip to little China.

hungs_chinese_restaurant_chinatown_london

The itinerary was agreed after a surprisingly short trilateral democratic process, which took me aback somewhat. Given the multitude of things to do in London (paid and free), I thought there’d be more debate and possibly an argument. But no. With no prompting from me, eldest son (13) has chosen The London Transport Museum. This is fine by me as it ticks so many of my boxes: Transport, construction, engineering, history, graphic design, and London. The youngest daughter (11) is fine with this. She herself would like to go to The National Gallery, specifically the BP Portrait Award exhibition. This ticks more of my boxes: Art, history, religion, and architecture. Great minds think alike, and so do mine and my kids’.

This day out stretches into the evening, and given that London offers cuisine from pretty much every country, I asked the kids what they’d like to get for dinner. They chose Chinese, which was handy because we’ll be near Chinatown and I fancy Chinese too. I’ve even bought the kids a pair of chopsticks each, a souvenir of the day for future takeaways at home (I’m giving them spending money too, and paying for the food, and it costs £50 to get into the Transport Museum. My arse isn’t always tight).

The icing on the cake is a new T-shirt I bought, given that we’ll be walking around a gallery and a museum. In tribute to one of my favourite films, and to celebrate a favourite day out with my two favourite enquiring minds, I’ve got myself a ‘SAVE FERRIS’ shirt.

The story which follows is one I co-wrote with my son, or rather he started it and I finished it off. It could loosely be a sequel to The Invention of the Pencil Case, as we travel to a future Earth and find out a bit about how The Unfinished Literary Agency came to be, via The Office of Lost Things

IanVisitsIanVisits

THE BEST LAID PLANS

The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of copying us, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.

Animal people live alongside a different race: sentient, non-organic, technological beings. And the robots are correct, that they came from the stars, as did we all, and that theirs was a slow evolution with a sudden growth spurt.

There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on their own home world. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Her son once wrote a plan, presumably one of many, as this was ‘Plan 96’, and all in longhand, using an old silver and black pen. At the time, he’d said it was a story he was working on, but he wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. So he left it behind when the humans left Earth. Now the boy is grown up and lost on the home world, wondering what happened to it.

On Earth 3.0 for the most part, industry is confined to the cloud cities, while the planet itself has been left to nature. In 2142, The Shard is a glacial Christmas tree, abandoned by humans a century before and now a towering forest, as nature quickly moved in.

As Eve walked over London Bridge, the locals – known for their tameness – were keen to greet her arrival. Beavers looked from their dams on the Thames, and a group of crows congregated on the handrail. As a collective noun, they were more a horde than a murder.

Hello, human,” one of them said.

Hello,” Eve replied.

What’s your name?” The crow asked.

Eve.”

Oh no, not again,” the crow said. Then the horde departed, without any enquiry of her business there.

In Threadneedle Street, the old lady slept under a blanket of ivy, as the Bank of England sat on vaults of human gold. The Old Bailey was tightly wrapped in green vines, where various birds conducted industry, and squirrels and monkeys picked fruit. The British Museum somehow looked as it always should, the building itself now preserved as a record of humanity and maintained by wildlife. The British Library too, where all of mankind’s writing is archived, everything with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Goswell Road is still long, but now a wide, wooded path to Islington, and Hotblack Desiato’s old office.

A winding wooden staircase took Eve up to The Unfinished Literary Agency, a small, dark room on the top floor, with a crudely-cut window, about the size of a letterbox, at waist height on the far wall.

Inside was surprisingly clean for an office vacated a century before. Eve wondered who’d maintained it, or perhaps who’d remained after the human exodus. She sat at the desk and tried the lamp. It worked.

The walls were full of shelves, with manuscripts stacked a foot high. More were piled on the floor, and in the tray on the desk. There were hundreds of unwritten books, all untold human stories.

Eve looked in the drawers of the desk: Pens, notepads and other stationery, some candles and a tobacco tin. Then she found a name plate, the Toblerone sort that sits on a desk. In Helvetica black upper case, the name proudly proclaimed itself:

PROF. J.C. HESTER

Eve picked up a bound manuscript from the tray and began to flick through it. Someone had gone to the trouble of drawing a flick book animation in the bottom corner, a simple space rocket taking off in a cloud of smoke, with a person’s face looking from the only porthole. After this five second stick cartoon, the manuscript was entitled ‘So long, and thanks for all the humans, by MC Katze’. It was the story of a man and his cat, in which the cat takes her human to another planet, so that he can see the utopia awaiting mankind in the land promised to them. The twist in the tale is, the cat was an agent of Erwin Schrödinger, who told the human she was operating the spacecraft from inside a box on the flight deck, when she was actually flying it by remote control, and not in the box at all.

Eve heard a noise she wasn’t expecting, which worried her more than it would if it was expected. Her ostiumtractophobia (specifically, a fear of door knobs) was rooted in childhood, when someone (or something) outside had tried the handle of her locked bedroom door. The sound of keys in the door – perhaps ones she’d lost earlier – would be more paralysing still, if it were her door the keys were in.

The already-unlocked door of the office slowly swung open, and a character from one of the Earth 3.0 documentaries she’d watched on the home world walked in.

Looking very much professorial, in a tweed three-piece, topped with a flat cap and a monocle, a chimpanzee walked upright into the room.

Greetings,” he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. “It’s the Babel fish,” the chimp said. “Well, it’s not a fish,” he continued, “but that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?”

Erm, yes,” Eve replied, “I’ve heard of the Babel fish…”

Well,” said the chimp, then paused. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m Jules.” He offered a hand.

Jules.” Eve shook his hand. “I’m Eve.”

Yes,” Jules said, “short for Julio, see, Jules I mean? Except it’s not, it’s still got five letters. It’s just quicker to say, with only the one syllable. Here’s a funny thing…” Jules lowered himself onto a pile of manuscripts.

Would you like your chair?”

Oh no, that’s not my chair. That was here when I arrived, so I’m sort of squatting here now. Besides, sometimes it feels more natural like this. Instinct I suppose.”

So,” Eve sat back, “this funny thing?”

Oh yes. Just one of many anecdotes left over by the humans. You’ll be aware of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I assume?”

Yes, he invented the world wide web.”

Clever chap, yes. But here’s the funny thing. The words, world wide and web, are all one syllable. But abbreviated, it’s double-you, double-you, double-you. That’s nine syllables, which is a lot. But I read somewhere that someone suggested he called his invention ‘The Internet Machine’. Well, abbreviated, that would be TIM. And apparently, he was such a modest man, that not only did he give it away for free, he didn’t seek fame or fortune, he just did it for the greater good. It may be apocryphal, but we like it. It’s a rare example of man’s humility, and the web was altruism which could have saved many species. But it all went a bit King Kong didn’t it?”

It did,” Eve paused. “But you were saying about the Babel fish?”

Oh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Well, the name just stuck, in a tributary way. You know, not like the geographical river ones, but an historical – and it is an an, with a silent aitch – tribute. But now it’s the universal translation system for the world population.”

But how can I hear you?”

Oh, I see, yes. Well, it’s not an implant or anything now, no. No, without getting too technical (not my area), it’s carried in the wind, in radio waves, which are only audible to the subconscious. The upshot is, everyone speaks the same language. And really, that was mankind’s biggest mistake.”

One of them.”

Yes, there were a few. But there’d been researchers and ethics committees, scientific essays and peer-reviewed papers, and they all agreed that giving universal translation to the public would generally be a bad idea. Then Google just did it anyway.”

And others followed.”

Many. Then everyone.”

So,” Eve wondered, “the professorship?”

Oh that. The prof is in English, language, yes. Before that, my doctorate was in human psychology. I think the way the world changed was what guided me more into the languages, you know, in case they died out, with everyone using the Babel fish and all, and technology always hurrying them along. And the thing about being a professor is, I teach teachers how to teach teachers to teach, which I rather like. Took a jolly lot of work though.

But next, I want to do something different. I’m studying history, so I can teach the teachers about how it all went wrong. Because although the humans are gone, their past can teach us a lot.

I’m not a religious man, but whenever someone said everyone shouldn’t speak the same language, they might have been right. It’s a good thing if you’re a species evolved enough to debate, but take away certain barriers and an immature race will abuse it, with some using it for their own gain and not for the greater good. Someone was always going to package it up and sell it as a religion, or make it some kind of privilege, when it was around all the time. Us animals – as you used to call us – us people, had been communicating for many thousands of years before humans came along. Then the humans found out and wanted it for themselves.

It’s a tragic story but it’s a lesson from history which I’d like to tell others about, and of how that led to the evolution of the planet we see around us now. So it was all for the good really. I only hope humanity took that lesson away with them.”

It might be too early to tell,” Eve said.

How are things over there?” the professor wondered.

Lonely.”

That’s the thing with humans. When we look at your monuments, buildings, and many follies, you are capable of such beautiful dreams. But within those are some terrible nightmares.”

I know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

Who’s she?”

He. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.”

A dreamer then? And that’s the sad thing. Humans who dream are ridiculed if they speak of their visions. They become suppressed. But allowed to explore and discover, those people can transcend accepted human wisdom, in things like politics, which was a human invention anyway.

Anarchy is not chaos, when people are trusted to be individually empowered. An evolved race will sort it all out. But the ones who rise above it all are feared by those who govern and rule, and that leads to conflict. Conflict gets no-one anywhere, but debate can increase mutual understanding to find peaceful solutions. Too many humans were greedy, not just financially but morally.

I studied human politics for a while, and I had to conclude, it was quite a waste of time, for the humans. All it did was hold them back. It was a system which kept radical thinkers beyond its borders of conditioning. And the radical thinkers were only just getting a voice when everyone else did, so it got deafening.

If you ask me, I’d say most humans are essentially left-wing by nature, only becoming conditioned otherwise. Wherever you lie (or tell the truth) on the political spectrum, beyond that, you’re all human. Yet the one thing you all have in common is the very thing which drives you apart. Individuality is to be encouraged, but you can’t think as one. You’re generally a socially aware species. It’s just a shame there were so many who didn’t qualify by that credential.”

You have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Eve said, looking around the room.

Sometimes it helps not to be one to know one.”

Do you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?”

I think there’s one thing it will never be able to do, because it shouldn’t, and it ought to remain impossible. That thing, would be the interpretation of messages, of how they’re perceived by the receiver, which of course is completely subjective on the part of the individual, regardless of the intention of the messenger. Words only have meaning for some people if a specific person says them. The Babel fish is a translation device, not an interpreter. Too many humans, in their cut-off personal worlds, their microcosm universes, their ignorance and laziness, quite literally took too many things far too literally. And a breakdown in communication is conflict by any other name.

But even more fundamental, was humans’ sense of entitlement. A progressive race, but for their own gains. I know there are millions of exceptions, and it’s equally tragic that their voices were silenced. But back in human politics, that would be a victory for the right. More of you need to find your left wings, outside of your politics. You need to metaphorically fly free, or be allowed to, without those wings being clipped.

There’s a passage I’ve memorised, from one of your films. ‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’. It was a film one of the crows showed me. Her ten-times-great grandfather had a cameo in that film. He’s uncredited though.”

That was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

Yes, very good too. Now there was a human who used an unfair situation which had been forced upon him, to do good for others, to blow a whistle and bring down a dictatorship. He quietly went about a longer plan, rarely drawing attention, then escaped the tyranny. I suppose we miss those kinds of people, the free in spirit. We are all spirits when we sleep, after all, with the means for the enquiring mind to explore the universe.”

Some more than others,” Eve added, looking out of the window. “When all we needed to do was keep talking.”

Quite ironic really, isn’t it?”

Looked at like this, yes.”

But you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.”

It’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.”

Well, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.”

He was in London Zoo?”

Chester actually. We moved down to London when the zoos closed. All my family as far as I can trace, were captive bred, as they used to be called. But my great, great grandfather was an immigrant from New York, and he’s the first I can find with the family name Hester.”

Er, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. “Well, Boris – that’s my great, great grandfather – was rescued by a writer called Hester Mundis. She found him in a pet shop when he was young. She bought him, not as a pet, but to liberate him, and he lived with her and her eight-year-old son, in their apartment in Manhattan. I know Hester was expecting another child, so she found Boris a home with other chimps in Chester, and I gather he was on TV a few times. She wrote about him too, so he was immortalised in books, which must be a nice thing to have happen to yourself.

So we took her name, because she became mum to my orphaned or kidnapped great, great grandfather. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be here. I may never have been.”

And you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

I worked a lot of other things out there. You do, when you have the time and your basic needs are taken care of.”

You didn’t feel imprisoned?”

I’d never known anything else. I was never in the wild. Perhaps one day I’ll visit my own home country, but I learned a lot when humans were in charge. There are lots of arguments for and against on both sides. Those are less relevant now, but future historians will have plenty to write about. For now, I have plenty to write of here.”

Why’s that?”

Let’s rewind a little. A long time ago, a human said that given an infinite supply of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And it stands to reason that, given those resources, they would. But we wondered, why? What would be the point?”

It was a human thing?”

It was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.”

Which was?”

The monkeys. No offence to those with tails, but what it really needed was apes. You don’t even need an infinite number of them.

So after we’d finished reproducing Shakespeare’s works, we got started on the next plan. Then we quickly realised we might need more writers. Not an infinite supply, but far more than we have. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.”

What’s not?”

Plan 96 is to discover and write the answer to the ultimate question, that of life, the universe and everything. But infinite apes aside, I don’t think humans are looking in the right place.”

So where do we look?”

Look into your heart, and don’t be afraid of yourself, because people might like that person.

This was only your temporary home. You were squatters here before your nomadic race continued their journey, to find themselves. For now, you are gone from here, and you need to return to yourself. But there’s a record of how it all started, and how things panned out, right here, where it began.

It all started with a simple device: an old pen, and it’s a story close to my heart. But now it’s yours.”

Jules reached into his breast pocket and handed Eve a silver and black pen.

© Louis Laker and Steve Laker.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

 

Parlez-vous kangourou?

ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS

Is it possible to write animal language? This was a question asked directly of me on Quora, and it’s all down to interpretation. After all, no matter what anyone says, they have no control over how that message is received, but that’s a larger sphere for another discussion.

There’s a story (possibly apocryphal), of an explorer pointing to an animal he’d never seen before and asking a native what it was: “Kangaroo”. But ‘kangaroo’ simply meant ‘I don’t know.’ Do animals want to tell us something? All rabbits look like they have something on their mind, all the time. Is it possible to write animal language?

Apps for catsApps for cats

It’s something probably within near-reach of current technology, but while it remains theoretical, there’s always the fictional. Is it possible to write animal language(s)? I gave it a go, because someone had to let everyone know what the animals are thinking on this home world we all share. They were here first. It’s theirs, and we are only guests, with a moral responsibility to clean up our mess.

As this question was requested directly from me, I shan’t shy from mentioning my science fiction novel, which is central to my answers (it may be because I wrote that book that someone asked me specifically).

Cyrus Song has two main premises, and it’s a tribute to two people who’ve been influential on me in my literary and scientific lives: Douglas Adams and Stephen Hawking. It was the famous quote by the latter, sampled on Pink Floyd’s song ‘Keep Talking’: “For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk…” Of course it refers to humans, but I turned it on its head and wondered what it would be like if we learned to talk with the animals. Incidentally, the alternative title to that Pink Floyd track is ‘Cyrus Song’, Cyrus being a name for our parent star, Sol.

Then I had Douglas Adams and his original invention of the universal translation device: the Babel fish, which eventually disproved God in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I put that to use as a quantum computer program in Cyrus Song, to come up with a universal translation device for animals. Cyrus Song is clearly fiction, but my near-future sci-fi will always have a grounding in current science, at least scientific theory. I like to think my science fiction is plausible.

We already have universal translation, and can hear most human languages translated to our own as we speak through a device or algorithm. We’re on the verge of quantum computing and the vast power they represent, unimaginable in current computers. And we’re already setting AI to task on working out the really difficult questions we can’t yet answer, because our brains can’t process the huge amounts of data (a cure for cancer, the search for extraterrestrial life). With a greater human awareness of the other people we share a home with, humans are researching animal communication more (we know that much of what they say it outside our audible range, that whales and dolphins have incredibly complex languages, and that some animals can use a form of telepathy) and could yet build that tower of Babel.

I predict that something like the Babel fish could be with us in about five years, but for now it’s imagined as one possible answer to mankind’s biggest questions, of life, the universe and everything. I figured if we could talk to the animals, we might change.

I believe that humanity is at a pivotal evolutionary point, where we could equally save or destroy ourselves with the science and technology we’ve made. With the world seemingly just waiting for WW3, the only saviour I could see would be the sudden intervention of a common foe, to unite previously warring factions.

The same science and technology could take us to the stars, leaving this planet for those who were here before us. We have a lot of mess to clear up first, and for now we’re stuck here. So instead of a common foe, I see a common interest which we can all unite behind as one race, the human race. That’s our shared home. And when we look around, the answers we’re looking for are everywhere.

Is it possible to write animal languages? I did my best to interpret what I think they’d like us to know. If we take the time to listen, we might be better guests in their home.

Cyrus Song (with perfectly plausible answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything) is available now.

Teaching the world in harmony

FICTION

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

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

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

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

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

A PRELUDE TO THE CYRUS CHOIR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aha,” I said, “That’s us”.

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

”Pardon, doctor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” said Derek.

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

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

“Gnnnnnn….”

“Is he eating?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Och, dear.”

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

I had a wet face.

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

“Och, dear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t they supposed to be aphrodisiacs?”

“I wouldn’t put it past them.”

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

“It probably can’t even hear us.”

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

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

Maybe one day we will.

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

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

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

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

© Steve Laker, 2016.

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

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

The full review is here.

Cyrus Song is available now (eBook and paperback).

A flash film on a small screen

FLASH FICTION

Desk lampAngelica Jang

ON SCREENING MOTHS

As I sat up writing late one night, smoking a joint, thinking of drinking gin and tonic, I found myself in the very story I was writing: a screenplay, in which an army of moths take control of a valuable energy source…

Ever since I started communing with the animals using the Babel fish, I’d been busy as a writer, with different groups asking me to tell their stories. They were perfectly capable of telling their own through universal translation devices, now ubiquitous among humans, but shirked by animals who feel they should control their thoughts.

While humans had spent millennia on countless ventures in self-improvement, they’d eventually concluded that the one thing humanity all suffered from was loneliness. And so universal translation was invented: the Tower of Babel which some of their religions forbade.

Meanwhile the animals had spent their entire evolution taking care of their basic needs: food, warmth and shelter. With the essentials squared away, they spent millions of years evolving to be able to communicate telepathically. It was genius on a planetary scale.

So now some of the animals have hired me as a freelance. I have no more idea why, than a dog might know how to drive a car if he caught up with it. All I knew before I took this first commission, is that the moths plan to take control of human power sources.

I let one of the more persistent visitors in through the window, and switched on the Babel fish, so that I could learn more of this plan. At first, the moth told me about an existential crisis he was going through. It didn’t take long to realise where the line of enquiry was going, so I pointed out that I wasn’t a psychiatrist. He only commented that my light had been on, in a way which suggested that we already knew the ending.

But he did point out that my light had indeed been on. By now my window had been open for a minute, and his squadron of moth men were already flying towards me. I took a swig of my gin and tonic, and one shouted “Gordon’s alive!”

Their plan is to take over other laptops: The lights of writers, shining from the windows in the night.

© Steve Laker, 2018

Forever floating in her tin can

FICTION

Before modern humans went into space, we got a dog to try it out for us: “I asked her to forgive us and I even cried as I stroked her for the last time,” said 90-year-old Russian biologist Adilya Kotovskaya, recalling the day she bid farewell to her charge, a street dog called Laika. This was a small tribute I wrote to my homophone namesake. She’s still out there, floating in a tin can…

Laika_1_1024x600-1024x600Laika, the first dog in space (Unicorn Theatre)

A GIRL, SHELDON COOPER AND PETER COOK

On Earth, it was generally accepted among cats, that cats were the superior species. In this feline hierarchy, humans and dogs were equal but different, with little regard for the white mice and dolphins.

This social order came about when Amazon integrated universal translation algorithms into their Alexa AI home assistants, and others followed. In 2042, life in the home was very different to the one we know now.

The term “animal” had long since fallen into obscurity, now reserved for those who are less than “person” in its modern definition: a sentient, self-aware and self-determining being, which has a conscience, experiences emotions, and displays empathy with other people.

A few exceptions aside, most Persona non grata had written themselves out of any worthwhile news and were confined to their own history. Only a few Tory grandees clung on in antiquated underground offices, blathering about the past and not being listened to.

Do you know what I think?” Sheldon Cooper asked.

No,” replied Peter Cook, looking up from his chair. “And I didn’t ask.”

Well, let’s see what Ellie thinks. I feel her presence. She’s just coming downstairs.”

I know,” the dog acknowledged.

How?” the cat wondered.

I can hear her.”

Oh.”

What are you two talking about?” Ellie wondered, wiping her hands on Pete.

I thought I felt your presence,” Sheldon said, sitting up on the sofa. “Nice of you to get dressed. Did you wash your hands?”

Yes,” Ellie replied, “what are you talking about?”

Well, he,” Peter nodded at the cat, “was going to spout on about something…”

I don’t spout,” Sheldon protested.

You just did it then. And as I was saying, I didn’t want to hear.”

You don’t know what I was going to say.”

Aha!” said the dog, sitting up, “how do you know?”

Can you read my mind?” Sheldon asked.

No,” Peter replied, “can you?”

Okay,” Ellie interrupted. “Who’s for dinner?”

I’ll eat him if you want,” Peter said.

I’d make your breath smell better,” the cat replied.

Okay,” Ellie interrupted again. “What would you like for dinner? I’ll cook.”

Do you have tuna?” Sheldon asked.

We do,” Ellie replied.

Line-caught?”

Yes.”

In water, not brine?”

Yes, in water.”

Cut into chunks, with some black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon?”

Like you always have it.”

Yes. That please.”

Fine. Pete?”

Er…” Peter yawned, “Got any steak? You know, that one they grow, not farmed.”

We should have. If not, I can print you some.”

Yeah, do that anyway, fresher.”

Hey, why does he get printed food?”

I’ll print yours if you like, cat.”

No, I like it the way you do it.”

So, why…” Ellie thought, “never mind.”

What are you having?” Pete asked Ellie.

I’ll probably just print a pizza.”

Is it Thursday?” Sheldon wondered, as Ellie made dinner, “I sense it’s going to be a strange night.”

Here we go,” Ellie announced, returning with food, “up at the table please. Anyone wanna smoke?”

Told you,” said the cat. “Do you mind if we eat while you smoke?”

What shall we talk about?” Ellie ignored the cat.

Death,” Pete said. “But you wouldn’t know about that, would you cat, with your nine lives and everything. Have you worked out what those are all for yet?”

We will find that out around 3000 years from now.”

Oh, here we go…The self-proclaimed superior species on this planet, haven’t worked out why they’re here yet.”

Well neither have you, dog.”

I sometimes think I’m dead already.”

Why?” Sheldon wondered.

Can you tell me I’m not?”

Well, I can see you’re not. So what, you think all this is a computer simulation, like The Matrix?”

Could be.”

But you lack proof.”

And you don’t know why you’re here, cat.”

I need to urinate.” Sheldon jumped down from his chair and wandered around the garden.

I love the way you two get on,” Ellie said to Peter.

Sarcasm?” Pete wondered aloud.

Only partly. I’m very fond of the way you are.”

Well, everyone’s themselves Ellie, and most people shouldn’t apologise for that. I think with dogs and cats, it’s a mutual tolerance and a begrudging respect.”

What about humans?”

What about them?”

Do you just tolerate us?”

Sometimes it’s confusing,” Pete thought. “We do look up to you, because you’re pretty smart. But sometimes you over-complicate things. Dogs look at things more simply. We worry less. I mean, go out for a walk with us a couple of times a day, open a box of DogNip chews, and I’ve pretty much nailed my day.”

You’re much less paranoid and insecure than us humans.”

Oh, I don’t know Ellie. Having you around is nice for company, but all dogs have an inferiority complex, and issues of balance.”

Balance? Of what?”

We wonder about things like the difference between friends and family, and the colours of cars. I mean, we’re perhaps more in touch with our instincts, but those are a bit sexist and misogynistic. And I think purple cars smell nicer than green ones.”

How’d you mean?”

Well, they’re like candyfloss.”

Yes, but the sexism and misogyny.”

Oh, all that old-fashioned nature stuff, going to mum for milk, and dad for protection. Then in humans, the hunter-gatherer and the cook.”

Well, we’re more a commune here, friends and family.”

Yes, I know. I remember when you came out of hospital that time, and you were in a wheelchair. I didn’t know whether to hug you or sit on your lap.”

Ellie?” Sheldon was back. “Where are my wipes?”

I don’t know. Use mine, they’re upstairs.”

But those are yours, and they’re upstairs. I specifically hid mine here, so I had them when I came in.”

I might have eaten them.” Pete said.

Why would you do that?” the cat asked.

To freshen my breath? I don’t know if I did, I’m just saying I might have.”

The paradoxical dog,” Sheldon muttered, jumping back on his chair.

Did you wipe your feet?” Pete asked.

I always clean my feet, so yes.”

One day you’ll forget.”

So what if I do?”

You’ll know you’re getting old. Anyway, why do you get to go out at all hours and I don’t?”

Excuse me,” Ellie interrupted, “You can go out whenever you like Pete, on your own, or with your friends.”

Oh. And there was me, thinking you enjoyed walking with me, playing your favourite game in the park.”

Which one?”

Throwing sticks.”

My game?”

Well, yes. I assume that’s why you throw sticks, because you enjoy me fetching them for some reason.”

But that’s your game.”

No it’s not. You made it up.”

Yeah, because you like fetching sticks.”

No I don’t. I couldn’t care where they end up, but you seem to have so much fun throwing them, I just figure I’m humouring you.”

One day,” Ellie said, “you dogs will get over your inferiority complex.”

Not while there are cats around,” Pete replied, “they have a superiority delusion.”

It’s not a delusion,” Sheldon argued.

So what about them lives then, what are they for?”

Curiosity, which is just as likely to kill anyone else as it is a cat. But cats seek knowledge, so we were given nine lives with which to discover it.”

While everyone else already worked out it’s pretty dull, so they’re just sitting around relaxing,” Pete suggested. “Ellie, what do you think about death?”

That’s a very big question, because it depends on the definition of death.”

What, more than either dead or alive?”

Well, yeah. It’s not a bipolar subject. I mean, I don’t fear my own death – except maybe the means of departure – but being forgotten scares me, like being erased from history. I believe that life as we know it, is a passing phase, in something we don’t fully understand yet.”

Do you subscribe,” Sheldon interrupted, “to quantum physics?”

Well, it stopped being a theory long ago. If you mean, do I get that everything exists in more than one state simultaneously, and that quantum entanglement means every subatomic particle in the universe is connected to another, telepathically, then yes. Definitely.”

Good,” the cat said, “because a lot of philosophical and theoretical examples of my species perished in that debate.”

See?” Pete perked up. “Bloody cats, getting everywhere, proving things. When was a dog ever involved in an experiment? I mean, why not Schrödinger’s dogs? By the way, what in the name of anyone’s arse, did mankind think it was getting up to, sending one of my kind up to space, before we had the technology to ask if it was okay?”

That,” Ellie replied, “was humanity getting up its own arse. But Laika was our little trailblazer, still floating in a tin can out there somewhere. We owe her a lot.”

At least you’re grateful,” Pete said, “fetching your sticks, flying your spaceships…And yes, Laika’s floating around out there, unceremoniously abandoned, but it’s quite poetic in a way.”

What, like Space Oddity, David Bowie?”

No, I just think it’s funny. Who’s to say Laika didn’t get out there and everything worked fine? Then she sussed the controls and just buggered off. Maybe it was all an elaborate plan, and the dogs had another planet somewhere.”

Unlikely.”

But equally, not impossible. You couldn’t talk to us back then. What you might have thought was static noise, could have been her talking. But there was no universal translator back then.”

The paradoxical dog,” Sheldon murmured.

Well, yes,” Pete agreed, “but the point is, humans had no right to do that. Because back then, humans didn’t regard what they called animals as having feelings or emotions. But what was clearly a sentient, self-determining and self-aware being, was used in an experiment without consultation or consent, simply because it was assumed to be inferior. That is immoral, and even more so for the cowardice in persecuting a person whose voice couldn’t be heard.”

So is much which humanity has done,” Ellie agreed, “against its own kind too. It’s a burden which rests heavily on those of us who give a shit.”

If I might add a cat’s opinion,” Sheldon said, “it might make things easier to understand.”

Go on.”

Humans were in denial. Your science hadn’t proven the obvious, that so-called animals could feel, so it was conveniently overlooked and humans continued, well, being human.”

Now I feel good about myself. Thanks Sheldon.”

Sarcasm?”

No!

Oh. And I thought I was getting the hang of that one.”

Ever since we’ve been able to talk,” Pete said, “there is still much about humans which confuses us.”

Same,” Ellie added, “only now that we can talk, can we talk like this.”

Really, I hadn’t noticed,” Sheldon noted.

Sarcasm?” Pete wondered.

No. Cats have always been able to talk, and to hear you. Nothing’s changed with humans, because you still don’t make sense.”

But you can understand me?” Ellie checked.

I can hear you, and the rest of the human race, in you. But with a growing number of exceptions, humans still seem hell bent on destroying our planet.”

You mean,” Pete said, “the planet we all share?”

You’re only here because the humans brought you. Earth was originally the cats’. Then humans came along and our ancestors agreed to let humans be humans, hoping they might learn.”

Who says?”

Many ancient feline scribes.”

Like the human ones,” Ellie added, “who wrote the various human religious scriptures?”

Very much so,” Sheldon confirmed, “and those ancient human scribes wrote of cat gods, did they not?”

In Egypt, and some other places, yes.”

So,” Sheldon continued, “doesn’t that prove that man worshipped cats as gods?”

Not at all. Each ancient script is an individual’s interpretation of events, as they saw them, and recorded using the means available to them at the time. It’s what all ancient alien theories are built on, and it’s what unifies science and religion in many humans now. The point is, it’s a paradox. But it doesn’t matter who was here first, it’s what we do now that we’re here.”

Sometimes,” Pete spoke now. “Sometimes, I wish I was a dyslexic insomniac.

Why?”

Because dogs are generally agnostic, and that would allow me to lie awake at night, wondering if God is a dog.”

Really though,” Sheldon said, “we’re all the same.”

Hardly,” Pete said.

No, I mean inside, and at a fundamental level. Forget animals and humans as the outdated terms which they now are. As people, we are all the same. Just as the root of all humans’ conflicts – both internal and external – is in an inability to see others as alternative versions of themselves, so that can be transcended to encompass us all. Whether we’re an atheist cat, an agnostic dog, or a whatever you are Ellie, all those scribes wrote what they saw, and science proved what we now know. And that’s that we’re all connected and the only true creator is the universe itself.”

Yeah, but who set that off?” Pete wondered.

Oh, for fuck sake.”

It’s a good job we can all talk about it now.”

© Steve Laker, 2017.

laika-the-space-dog-310x415

Laika, c.1954 – 03.11.1957

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

The sound of our parent star

THE WRITER’S LIFE | SCIENCE FICTION

One of a few questions I’m sometimes asked is, what’s Cyrus Song about? The best way to find out is to read the book, but a reader recently summed it up quite nicely: It’s the sound of our planet. Before then, the most common question was, would I release it as an eBook? So I did.

I gave the eBook a different front cover, which says more about what the novel is in the absence of a back cover synopsis, and 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.

Critically-acclaimed as “An extraordinary juggling act…”, it’s a Sci-Fi RomCom, and a Douglas Adams tribute (The eBook cover even has a bit of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide (film) about it).

To hear our planet’s harmony, you just have to listen, then all we need to do is keep talking. This is how it begins…

CaptainMamba2Captain Mamba

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.”

“Why?”

“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.”

“Sound?”

“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!”

“No.”

“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…”

“Snake?”

“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.” Even so, I next wanted to interview Doctor Jones about what we’d discovered…

Cyrus Song eBook Cover

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.

This blog has wall sockets

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOK REVIEW

For a long time now, I’ve defined a typewriter as a musical instrument with keys. My keyboard of choice is my laptop, and it’s been a kind of living, retro-futuristic and steam punk device, in the various incarnations of The Unfinished Literary Agency, my fictitious writing bureau which tells the stories others can’t. Words and writing are art, just like music, and my typewriter made the Cyrus Song audible.

cat using laptop

I took a fearful plunge a week ago, when I decided to publish Cyrus Song as an eBook. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t do it before. I explained in my last blog post how I’m a traditionalist who reads books, but it was the Kindle and other devices which democratised publishing, and I was ignoring all those readers (sorry). Just like the answer to life, the universe and everything, it was under my nose all the time.

I’ve got old Cambridge Audio hi-fi separates and Mordaunt Short speakers for listening to uncompressed music. I’ll always prefer records and CDs over MP3, and I’ll still always prefer physical books myself, but I’ve democratised one of my own, because it’s the one I’d like people to read the most. I like doing things unplugged, and by unplugging Cyrus Song and plugging it into all those e-readers out there, I’ve made the novel I’d willingly be judged on as an author available to many more people.

My blog is where I come to be myself, and where expression is freedom. Right now I imagine I’m in a room, just as I am for 99% of my real life outside the blog. I’ve written before, Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: how do you get out? Assuming the subject would even want to, they could stop imagining. Or they could use their imagination.

The walls in this room definitely have ears, as it’s where I come to be heard, and hopefully liked and followed. Some people come here because they actually want to hear what I have to say. For a socially anxious writer, that’s the imagination required to get out of the room, to escape my physical self and all of its doubt, and occupy my virtual space instead.

This room also has a skirting board all around the perimeter, but in this virtual room, I don’t have to skirt around myself. I can use the plug sockets in those skirting boards to plug – on this occasion – Cyrus Song.

The book had reviews on Amazon and in Schlock web zine before it was converted to an eBook (and it’s always available as a paperback), and I’ve received a couple of email compliments in the past few days. Hopefully it’ll gather more reviews as the current readers finish it and still others pick it up. For now, the best and most informative review was the one in Schlock, by Stephen Hernandez, a translator and interpreter. Given that Cyrus Song centres around talking animals, there seemed no better professional critic to plug the book:


CYRUS SONG BY STEVE LAKER reviewed by Stephen Hernandez

The book begins with a bizarre, Kafkaesque occurrence. Although, in this book, the author would not be Kafka but Douglas Adams, the untimely late, famous author of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, a book which is central to, and has a great bearing on this book – sorry, if this is all getting a bit complicated, but then we are dealing with ‘The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’.

Simon Fry, the hero of this novel, is faced with perhaps the same problem as Arthur Dent, the hero in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: saving humanity from itself and discovering the meaning of life, which is, of course: 42. So, back to the bizarre occurrence: A writer [it is he, Simon Fry], is staring absent-mindedly at the page he has just written on his typewriter, whilst listening to Pink Floyd’s album, ‘The Division Bell’, in particular the ninth track: ‘Keep Talking’, and the quote contained therein by Stephen Hawking: ‘For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk…’ (the full quotation is also central to the theme of the book), when he notices two random marks on the page, a dot and a dash, which he could not remember typing. He notices the characters are moving across the page, seemingly in a self-determined fashion denoting some kind of intelligence. He captures the minute ‘creatures’ and takes them to a veterinary clinic [as one would].

The vet, Hannah [a palindrome] Jones, examines them under a microscope and makes a surprising discovery: The apparent microscopic creatures are minute warships, and are inhabited, or crewed, one by animals commanded by Black Mambas, and one by humans. It is then that the vet reveals to Fry, something even more remarkable [but entirely plausible]: she has invented a very powerful and unique piece of software called The Babel fish (after the translating fish in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), which interprets animal languages. She lets him use it in her clinic so he can ‘listen’ in on the patients, something she refuses to do as she feels it would take away her objectivity with regards to treating the animals.

In between listening in on animals and looking at alien spaceships through a microscope, Simon Fry manages, along with a Norwegian coastal tour guide and micro-palaeontologist named Gilbert Giles, or in shortened Nabokov terms—Gil Gil, to make a clone of himself (Simon Fry II), and also to take the Babel Fish out of the lab and into the wide world like a latter-day Dr Doolittle (which he is, in more ways than one).

The three of them form an unlikely trio, and with the Black Mambas’ help they attempt to somehow save the planet and mankind.

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’re 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.

It is indeed a very deep book, but it’s accessible and I’ve made it more so by plugging it in for e-readers. There really is a perfectly plausible answer to the ultimate question in that story.

The original review featured in Schlock web zine. Cyrus Song is available now.