Published by Shoestring at Shakespir
Copyright 2017 Pam Crane
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It was one helluva challenge. The BBC had been ruthlessly faithful to their brief: one celebrity, one unpopulated island, and the precise accoutrements of the regular castaway. Except that this time the island was uncompromisingly real, under the watchful eye of a GPS satellite, and in case of emergency their 21st century hermit would be issued with a digital beacon. Once this was activated there would be no going back; the Desert Island experience was over.
Adam had matured as a scientist and a popular presenter. He also fulfilled the other part of the brief – the DG wanted an Adam; symbolically it seemed apt for a man cast alone into his personal Eden. Several Adams had been considered – an eccentric scientist (too old and thus an insurance risk, though an excellent lateral thinker), a US pop icon (wouldn’t last five minutes without an audience, though a bell and a mirror had been suggested), an outstanding batsman (certainly possible but less motivated, and solo cricket is no fun), a comedian (short-listed but a touch too fastidious), a musician, really keen to chuck himself into the unknown and so nearly chosen simply because ‘maroon’ was the name of his band, and finally an ageing rocker … but his name wasn’t really Adam, he had a history of instability, and was now too long in the tooth. Adam Winsford however was the right age, fit as a fiddle, highly intelligent, super-motivated, and ready to become his own socio-biological experiment.
Adam would be cast away with only the clothes he stood up in; so these had to be chosen with care. Did it matter if he got wet? Would he need extra warmth on a tropical island? Did he need clothes at all? In the end he opted for rugged linen chinos and a bush shirt, his most comfortable walking boots, a storm jacket and a Tilley hat.
The set books were going to be an encumbrance. Came the recording, and the last bars of Tom Lehrer’s Elements, and he was about to ask “Kirsty, might I take the very smallest editions of Shakespeare and the Bible?” when he had an idea – if instead he asked for a couple of really old books, those heavily bound Victorian family volumes that weighed a ton and never fell apart, they could be pressed into use as bench or table supports. His third book was a no-brainer. “Lofty Wiseman’s SAS Survival Guide, please, Kirsty.” It was tiny. He could stick it in a shirt pocket as a constant companion. And his luxury would have to be a knife. Without a knife he was a dead man.
Three sweltering months had passed. He missed his nightly dram and had foraged unsuccessfully for jetsam to make a still. He was getting skinny and had let his beard grow. Ten mind-numbing weeks infiltrating the Alpha Course back in 2009 had put him right off religion, so all the poetry, wisdom and drama of the KJV was propping up a makeshift table in the hillside cave he had made his home. The bats he was sharing with made regular suppers; the messiness of distant coastal communities meant that here and there drift-nets washed up on his beach and he was able to use these to catch fish and small game. There was no shortage of containers for water collection – every storm brought a fresh pile of plastic gifts, along with useful timber, rope and salted bottles – but metal was scarce. His cooking had to be done amid hot stones. One day he found a lorry tyre and at last he had a comfortable seat.
He was rocking there now, shirtless, in the mouth of the cave as the rapid tropical twilight brought the bats out in their evening rush over his head. D:Ream’s Take Me Away was on the turntable and he was hallucinating again. This time it was Lizzy B. smiling at him in only an open lab coat and goggles; he reached out – his hand passed through her and she faded. Adam sighed and gazed at the darkening sky. It was a flawless evening. Oh, the stars! He was about to open the Shakespeare and, in the light from the fire, write up his bio-notes on the margins of Twelfth Night, when something flashed in the darkness. There was a thud that set the cave and the hillside shuddering, and then silence. Adam put down the quill and peered outside. Nothing stirred. It could wait till morning.
The susurration of the bats’ return woke him. Something was blocking the sunlight at the cave entrance. Another hallucination – who would it be today, he wondered? But this was not a person. No.
It was large, roundish, bluish, with several legs … and … tendrils? And huge eyes with lids like camera shutters! And it wasn’t fading at all.
Adam froze. He must be stuck in a nightmare. What to do? He clutched his knife and slowly raised it, glinting in the sunbeams.
“You are a man.”
This thing was speaking to him. And it had no mouth.
“I am a visitor.”
Too right it was a visitor. Solitude was seriously afflicting his brain.
“Last night my approach to this piece of land was too quick. My craft is embedded in its forest. I intended only a fly-by. I apologise for this intrusion.”
The flash and the bang?
This thing was real?
It was making sounds with its tendrils, like the strings of a banjo or a grasshopper’s legs. It knew English. It was looking at him without blinking.
“You have a name.”
“We study your culture. You transmit. We know your history. I am an anthropologist. We are watching you destroy yourselves. We are not allowed to intervene. We have seen Star Trek – it is the same philosophy. I am pleased to meet you. Why are you all alone? Where is your mate?”
It was too much to take in. Nick Pope and the boys at SETI would have been doing handsprings. There was an alien on his doorstep.
“I need nourishment. Will you lead me to the sea, please?”
“To the sea?”
“I need to immerse. My tank is broken. I cannot feed.”
Adam noticed now the texture of the creature’s body – it was a mass of tiny pores. It must absorb nutrients directly from surrounding fluid.
“Our sea is polluted.” he said.
“It will suffice.” The creature extended a forelimb that ended in something resembling fingers. Adam closed his own hand over the cool digits with a growing excitement and wonder. In his twenty-odd years as a scientist he had never considered this possible.
“I am a geneticist,” said Adam. “I am alone on this island as an experiment in survival. Currently I have no mate. This is amazing! Where have you come from? Where is your craft? We have tried for so long to find extraterrestrial life!” They were moving awkwardly side by side down the path he had cut through the rainforest, approaching the curve of bleached coral sand and a glorious turquoise ocean.
“Our home is 22.7 light-years away. From your view-point, it orbits a star near the tail of Scorpius.” The visitor paused to disentangle his animated tendrils from a thorn bush.
“Aaah! The sea!”
At a speed that took Adam’s breath away the visitor scurried headlong into the water and sank gratefully among the fish and the corals. Some fifteen minutes later he re-emerged, looking a little larger, a slightly darker blue, eyes glowing with relief.
“Now we can go to my craft.”
The two set off again into the tangle of trees. Presently Adam was staring in delight and disbelief at his first authentic flying saucer. The ten-metre disk, its shining surface mirroring man, alien, island and sky, was wedged between rocks at an angle of forty-five degrees, pilot’s door swinging open, and clearly damaged.
“May I see?”
“If you can reach.”
Adam pulled over a dead palm-bole and leaned it against the slippery hull.
“I can climb in this way if you stop the wood from moving.”
What he saw when he entered the warm chamber defied description. He had never imagined, let alone set eyes on any technology like this. The broken tank was recognisable – but he understood nothing else pulsing in the smooth blue walls. He would have to tell someone. How could he keep this to himself?
“I need to eat now!” said Adam. “I’ll come back down. Thank you so very, very much for showing me your vehicle. Will you come with me again to the cave?”
“I will,” replied his visitor. “And we can talk about your world, and mine, and God …”
Surely not. Adam felt sick to the pit of his stomach. He had left all that nonsense behind.
They reached the cave.
Adam retrieved the beacon.
He pressed the small red button.
Soon help would come.
Two minutes later the day went frighteningly dark; a second disk filled the entire sky.
“Adam, you have rescued us!” said his new friend as a ladder of light unfurled into the forest and his flailing feet lost contact with the earth.
“It surely depends on your definition of a year,” said Jim-Jam. “Are you measuring your 365 days from the start of January? Or one of the quarters?”
He fidgeted with his dressing-gown cord. His friend, as usual, was ready for the working day in sweater and jeans.
“I was looking at the winter solstice – what else?”
“Oh come on, Patrick. Engage brain. Why should we always start a cycle with winter? And why not spring? Everything’s beginning. It’s the Aries point for Pete’s sake.”
“And you have to take into consideration the civil year. It’s an agreed human cycle. The calendar is an idea that morphed into an event. Regular as clockwork. You know as well as I do that astrology maps the life of ideas just as vividly as physical phenomena. I need some more coffee.”
“You get it – it’s your kitchen!”
When James returned with two large mugs of Lazy Sunday the laptop was back on and Patrick was staring at the screen.
“Thanks, Jim-Jam. OK, I’ve got Solar Fire running and the winter solstice horoscope for 2011. You want me to check out the spring equinox?”
“Yes, and also the start of the calendar year 2012. I mean, when all the red-tops are yelling ‘wettest year since records began!’ in mile-high capitals …”
“You do exaggerate!”
“… they are talking about the year that started at 0h00 on the first of January. End of.”
“So you don’t want me to look at spring.”
“Of course I do! If we want to discover the connections between astrology and our weather we have to keep all options open. Don’t forget what Jung said, ‘Whatever is born or done at a moment of time has the qualities of that moment of time.’ We know what the qualities should be …”
“We think we do.”
“… and we are looking for the moment….”
“… when there are clouds on the horizon?”
The moment that was looking back at the two friends from a white circle on the starry desktop showed two planets overhead and the rest below the line of the Ascendant-Descendant,
“Oh just look at that!” Patrick was exultant. “A rising Moon! In Scorpio! How much destructive water do you want? How’s that for storm clouds? Eh, Jim-Jam?”
“Well, it’s certainly looking good for the winter solstice I have to admit. What does spring 2012 have to show us?”
“Not a lot.” The diagram was devoid of angular planets, nothing hugging the lines of the horizon or meridian. Nothing in the sky of March 20th 2012 at 5h14 am had the prominence and power of that winter Moon. James was deflated. Spring should have been another valid beginning.
Patrick wagged a finger. “Don’t forget there was actually a serious drought in the spring – totally misleading as it turned out. No, the traditional year wins this one!”
“Your memory is rubbish, my friend. We had a dangerously dry winter; it was spring when the downpours began. But why can’t I see them?…” he added more to himself now.
How easy it was these days to search through the planetary patterns; no more hours and hours of aching eyes and writers cramp as the hard-pressed astrologer crawled through calculations with books of logarithms and reams of paper, no more Tippex, no more nasty inky edges on the ruler, no more leaky and dying biros. Astrological software had evolved from 1970s punch-cards through the blue and white of DOS to the current generation of programs for Windows; these now performed every conceivable mathematical handspring for the enthused researcher, and displayed the results with clarity and beauty.
“I still want to put up the chart for 2012.”
“OK Jim-Jam. I do take your point.”
A few keystrokes and mouse-clicks entered the data for New Year, 0h00 on January 1st 2012, in London. They stared at it in silence. A little smile appeared like a sunrise on James’s face as he realised how right his instincts had been.
“Clouds on the horizon, Patrick.”
“Angular Moon again.”
“Not only the Moon setting but of course square to the New Year Sun, down there at the lower meridian with Pluto. Ever since Pluto went into Capricorn, with the Sun at the start of the year, we’ve been getting extreme weather. Add the Moon at right-angles and the whole country is lined up for exceptional rain. Wow,”
“It’s a double whammy, with the solstice.”
“A double whammy.”
“Even changing location doesn’t make much difference. The New Year horizon and meridian are always square.”
Then Jim-Jam had another thought.
“But suppose we did the dwad?”
“Trust a bonkers Aquarian to make a suggestion like that.”
“Patrick, you are as square as these angles. You know how easy it is with Solar Fire. We just go into the Indian Astrology module.”
“Because it’s a fractal. Astrology is all about twelve. We work with twelve signs whether in the western zodiac or the eastern constellations. All the dwad does is divide each sign into twelve more tiny ones. It’s a natural system of fine-tuning; it exposes the inner truth of every chart – every person – every event. You should know that by now!”
His friend had been straightening the higgledy-piggledy pile of books and magazines on the breakfast table, and brushed away some crumbs.
“I’m not convinced. You’re confusing two entirely different zodiac systems.”
“Look at you! Picky old Virgo. No sense of adventure. Yet you’re so meticulous; you’re perfectly cut out for dwad work if only you’d let go of your prejudice.”
“You do it then. It’s your computer. I don’t see what more it can add. And I wish you’d put some clothes on.”
“I prefer to be comfy, thank you … and stop tidying everything! You’ve been fiddling with my stuff ever since you arrived. Right. Dwads. The whole lot. Here we go.”
It took only a minute to fill the screen with the second set of tiny charts, their kaleidoscope of Suns, Moons and planets dispersed on the circles with no apparent respect to astronomy.
“One more thing …”
Jim-Jam selected the winter chart and its dwad offspring for December 22nd 2011 at 5h30 am, and put them up on the screen as concentric circles, one inside the other.
“Now will you listen to me when I tell you about fractals?”
“Could be coincidence.”
“Patrick I am not a beginner.”
“Do the others then. Show me the bi-wheels.”
“Let me check our winter chart for different cities…” a further flurry of clicks and keys, then “ … no, they all show that rising Scorpio Moon with the Dragon’s Tail and Ceres – already at the lower meridian – hitting it from the dwad. It’s a pattern that spells environmental disaster. Look at poor Chichester – the dwad lower meridian is there too, the symbol of the land itself; and Sussex was drowning.”
“Ceres is only an asteroid. I don’t see the significance.”
“Oh Patrick! Where have you been for the last six years? She’s officially a dwarf planet now. And – crucially – rules agriculture. And she was discovered on the very day the UK came into being, January 1st 1801, so she has an intimate connection with our affairs. Look what has been happening! Months of destructive rain impacting the whole of the UK, bringing our farmers close to ruin and whacking up food prices just when her son-in-law Pluto plunged the EEC into a multi-dip recession. And you don’t see the significance.”
“OK.” His friend sounded weary. He never could keep up with Jim-Jam. “What about New Year?”
“Moonset … moonset … moonset,” James muttered to himself. “… but what have we got in the dwad? … Ah!”
He was looking at chart after chart with Pluto and Chiron at the Imum Coeli making a dramatic triangle with the Moon and Ceres, directly connecting to the astronomical Ceres from the fractal pattern.
“You do see what I mean? Shall we take a look at spring now?”
They looked at spring. Once again the double wheels threw tiny, crucial Ceres into prominence and Britain’s agriculture into the spotlight. But -
“No clouds on the horizon!” said Patrick.
“No. No clouds on the horizon. These patterns can tell us a lot about the season; but they have nothing to say about our wettest year. It was vital to check them out – but on this point I concede. Clearly, spring is just spring. However! … that winter solstice and the New Year chart are both so full of rain that surely we have two reliable forecasts here? Don’t you agree, Patrick?”
“I still think the winter solstice has the edge.”
“You may be right.”
“We need more coffee.”
“We need to look at droughts.”
“And more wet years.”
“Do you think Piers Corbyn does this?”
“He doesn’t give much away.”
“He says he uses the sun. And the moon.”
“That could mean anything.”
“If we get this right we could steal some of his trade!”
“And upset the Met Office.”
“And Carol Kirkwood.”
“Which mug do you want? …”
“Swear!” said Jim-Jam.
“Swear you will never, ever tell!”
“Ow! That hurts!” Patrick managed to disengage his twisted arm and rubbed it frantically. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I really mean it,” said Jim-Jam. “This is something that must never come out.”
The two friends were having their usual coffee; Jim-Jam (James) uncharacteristically, was dressed. After a fashion. He had exchanged blue paisley pyjamas for a jogging suit in a strange shade of lime green but had still thrown his tatty old dressing gown over the top.
“Habit,” he said.
“Why the jog-suit?”
“Been for a run.”
“A run? You?”
“Getting a paunch.”
“No you’re not.”
“I’m not fit.”
“You’re bone idle!”
“That’s exactly my point. So I’ve been out this morning and had a run round the square. It was quite nice.”
“ That’s hardly going to break you into a sweat!”
“Depends how often I do it.”
“And how often did you do it?”
“Three times. Said hallo to the squirrels. Met next-door-but-one with his wolfhound.”
“Doesn’t sound very taxing!”
“It’s a start.”
Patrick took a long swig of cooling coffee and stared pensively at his friend.
“Never. It’s a funny word.”
“All words are funny if you look at them long enough!” said James. “Book had me scratching my head for a week, once.”
“Never is so … empty!”
“But it just means ‘on no occasion’.”
“No it doesn’t; it’s huge. It’s never, ever. It’s a big nothing from the beginning of everything to the impossible end of everything! Think about it Jim-Jam. ‘Never’ is the diametric opposite of ‘Forever’ … which is eternity, ie infinity … so it’s the dark side of infinity! It’s the most massive temporal black hole you could ever … ever! … conceive of.”
“Black holes aren’t empty.”
“How do you know?”
“I do my reading!”
“You can’t believe everything you read. All so-called science is speculation and blackboard chalk. Charisma and lies.”
“Well – they’re always arguing, aren’t they. And changing their minds. Look at butter. Look at eggs.”
“Are you suggesting we should be making lunch already?” Jim-Jam looked wistfully at his greasy but cold stove.
“All those things that were supposed to be killing us, and now all of a sudden they’re really good for us again. And we knew it all the time. They’re idiots.”
“We’ve got away a bit from black holes!”
“Nobody knows what a black hole is. They only have theories.”
“D’you know what I think? I think black holes are the interface between universes. Like wormholes.”
“They might be the doorways to the afterlife!”
“Try telling that to the Greg Cribbinses of this world.”
“ I did, once. And once ..” said Patrick, “he was actually open to that sort of idea. Once he was a first-class sandal-wearing barefoot hippie interested in all the stuff we do. I did his chart – and his family. We had lunch. He was a great guy. But then he got famous.”
“He is a jolly good astronomer. And a prolific writer.”
“Exactly. And I went to one of his talks – this was years later – at a bookshop, and he cut me dead.”
“Really. He definitely didn’t want to know his astrologer any more. So I’ve never tried to make contact again.”
“He can go get lost in Never as far as I’m concerned. I sat next to Patrick Moore once and got into conversation about the way the whole thing hangs together and is full of purpose and consciousness but he was just rude. Wasn’t going to buy it at all. Wouldn’t even listen. Kept interrupting.”
“Shame on your namesake!”
“They do say ‘Never meet your heroes’!”
“They also say ‘Never speak ill of the dead.’”
“I’m not, Jim-Jam. I’m just telling you the facts. He was another great guy. But a closed mind.”
“Considering he was a Pisces with Sun conjunct Uranus that is so disappointing!”
“Cribbins is another Piscean. What is it with these blokes that they slam the shutters down on their own imagination? You’d think they would intuit the truth behind the appearance of things.”
“I think Einstein did, didn’t he? He was a Sun-Pisces too. But he had good old open-minded, flexible, philosophical Sagittarius ‘under the hood’ and the other two are both fixed in their attitude, even though Cribbins’s Aquarius used to be quite experimental. Moore had Leo inside and liked to be right all the time.”
Jim-Jam paused, waiting for agreement.
“How do you remember all that detail, Jim-Jam? It must be ages since you looked that deep into their patterns. I thought you did that work years ago.”
“Once I’ve seen it I never forget. Visual memory.”
“To the putative end of time you would never, ever forget anything you have ever seen in anyone’s pattern, at any level of detail?”
“Well … as long as I was alive …”
“Aha!” cried Patrick, winning at last, “That’s not ‘never’. You have closed the funeral curtains round it.”
“Oh no I haven’t,” retorted Jim-Jam. “I am including eternal life, which is forever, and my ‘never’ extends throughout that ‘forever’.”
“Come on. You can’t possibly guarantee that in a discarnate state you will be capable – or even desirous – of recalling intricate planetary patterns at the drop of a hat.”
“Who says I’ll be discarnate?”
“Well if you aren’t then you’ll have a totally different body and brain somewhere – which might not even be in this solar system! You might be some blue multi-legged alien thingy! – and you’ll suffer from exactly the same amnesia as we all do when we reincarnate here. Am I right or am I right?”
“Oh my critical Virgo friend! Yes, I suppose I have to give you that one. We have no idea how much we have forgotten, after all. Lives lost in the limbo of never-ending change.”
“There,” said Patrick. “You’re off again. ‘Never-ending’. How do you know it’s never-ending? Aren’t we supposed to get off the Wheel of rebirth eventually?”
“Well, we haven’t yet!”
There was a silence – in which Patrick looked at Jim-Jam’s Star Trek wall clock and noted with satisfaction that it was indeed twenty minutes past the hour. Silences always fell at twenty past or twenty to.
“So what is it that you were about to tell me that I must on pain of death or at least extreme discomfort never, never divulge to any soul living or dead, Jim-Jam?”
James woke his crumb-laden laptop from sleep and silently turned the screen toward his friend. Patrick’s eyes widened.
“What the hell is that?”
The pattern was unlike anything he had seen before. James had gone to another level. In all the years they had been studying together no astrological technique had ever produced a result like this. In ring after concentric ring, Sun, Moon and planets converged to a point of energy that surely would turn the world and its civilisations on its head.
“I’m not going to tell you what I did – even you, Patrick. Well, not yet. And as you can see, the date is a long way off. But if anyone in the press got hold of this, or the politicians, or the general public, and took it seriously …”
“Would they be likely to?”
“ … if they did, which they might. You never know! … it could make them very nervous and who knows might precipitate a lot of panic and disorder.”
“Or it might focus everyone’s mind for the first time on the things that really matter!”
“But the things that really matter are often the very ones that most divide people – look at the wars we have had to endure, all on points of inflexible principle that neither side can tolerate. It might make things a lot worse.”
“And in the end it may never happen. Again.”
“Well, something will!”
“Who knows what the world will be like by then, anyway, Jim-Jam. Change is accelerating. Perhaps we’ll reverse all the damage, and this will be a fresh start?”
“Or it could be the Rapture.”
“Whatever it is, I doubt we’ll be here to see it.”
“We may be looking down from Upstairs, going, ‘Told you so!’”
“But you’re right, Jim-Jam. I think we bury this. Just let history unfold. We mustn’t interfere. Even if only one person believed us it might be the proverbial butterfly’s wing that starts a hurricane. What will you do with it?”
“Just file it. Let go and let God.”
“Supposing someone finds it?”
“They steal your laptop. Or it’s discovered after you die.”
“Thank you, Patrick, for that cheering thought. No, you have a point. Perhaps I should erase the file …”
“Completely shred it.”
“Then it will never come to light.”
“Never be a danger.”
“But I shall never forget what I have seen, and now neither will you! This is a secret that we share; and we must never speak about it.”
“Never, Jim-Jam. And you will never have to twist my arm!”
James was already breaking eggs.
The leaves were turning brown, and the handwriting had faded into the foxing round their edges. If Jack had been picking through a book from 18th century London he would have thought nothing of it; its plates would have been salvaged, a little careful Chloramine-T applied to clean the pages, then rabbit-skin size to strengthen and restore them. In his previous life as an antiquarian print dealer he had done this hundreds of times for customers of all kinds from souvenir-hunters to museum archivists. But here … this was part of a miracle. This diary, almost invisible in its hiding-place, had degraded through humidity. Not so long ago this would have been impossible.
He had stumbled upon it in a foray beyond the disaster area. The rest of the team were still assessing the damage to the settlement and treating the few survivors. Skeletally thin, most had breathing difficulties; the storm that raged over Elysium for nine days had been planet-wide, and swept into its vortex a scouring fury of dust that tore into young plantations, choked helpless livestock and ripped to splinters every structure exposed to the Martian weather. That had been nine terrible months ago. The distress calls had been answered with praiseworthy speed but the rescue party had to endure the mental agony of two hundred and sixty days in space before they could help the stricken pioneers.
What had gone wrong? Elysium had been built to withstand the known climate and survive any contingency – or so the International Mars Project had believed. The site near the equator had been chosen for its relatively stable climate and for level plains between mountains and rift valleys, many of which had filled completely and turned into life-giving lakes when the comets struck. Nearby Elysium Mons – one of the red planet’s great volcanoes – meant shelter from caves left by cooled lava tubes, and potentially fertile soils. Plans for terraforming Mars had eventually matured; so the World Economic Forum committed to fund the Comet Deflection Initiative. Eleven major Space agencies would combine to study the composition and orbits of suitable comets and develop the means to steer at least four, whose ice content met the criteria, into an impact trajectory with Mars. This had been successful. The two which crashed on the northern and southern ice-caps not only released their own water but in the heat of collision melted much of the polar ice. This ran rapidly through ancient channels on the planet’s surface to meet new rivers and lakes forming from the impacts near the equator. With Mars now a watery planet for the first time in four billion years, the first experiments in terraforming could take place.
With utmost delicacy Jack turned the fragile leaves of the diary. It began in 2079 with the single exclamation – “Water!” then pages of perfunctory personal and technical remarks until the heading “2081” under which were two words – “We’re here!” Jack couldn’t see a name anywhere … he turned to the last, almost illegible page before the darkened leaves hopelessly stuck together, and was able to make out a faint scrawl that looked like “Pete Branson.” Branson! He remembered Branson! He was the direct descendant of an earlier Branson who, with cash from a self-built media and transport empire, had pioneered space travel at the beginning of the 21st century. Jack was sweating with excitement inside the protective suit that made handling this unexpected treasure so difficult. But the state of the final pages of the journal disturbed him. This wasn’t from damp and iron oxide. Surely this was blood. He tried to read more of that last page.
“Dare not go outside. Friends killing each other. No food. Can’t reach water. If I’m still breathing please help me. Trying to” then the words stopped. He must have written his name before his energy ran out completely and he died. But where was he?
The radio crackled. “Jack? You there? Confirm OK – over.”
“Yeah, OK Paddy. Found something in a lava tube. Wanna see? Over.”
“Flash me – I’ll come and find you. Can’t get much sense out of these guys. They’re wrecked. Have to get them home I guess. Over and out.”
Shortly his friend’s stocky shape appeared through the pinkish haze of the Martian afternoon, heading for the bright radio-optic beacon that was standard kit now for extraterrestrial travel.
“You got something there, Jack?”
“Yeah. Diary. Lot of it stuck together – with blood I reckon. Can’t see a body yet. But you’ll not believe who wrote this.”
“Nine months – you’d think it’d be better preserved; but all the oxide has got to it, and the damp air. We need to go through this. If the guys who survived aren’t talking, Pete may give us some clues as to what happened here.”
The two men walked back to the ruins, Pete’s diary carefully wrapped in film. There was nothing left, really. That part of the small colony that had utilised the nearby cave system was more or less intact and had saved the lives of nine men and women who now lay in the rescue craft’s medical bay already on monitors and intravenous drips. All the external geodetic domes had shattered and blown away, leaving only their pink foundations. There was no longer any plant life; the ground as far as the eye could see between the fossae was dust, rock and red mud. God alone knew where the animals had gone.
Jack waved Paddy over to a stone bench in the mouth of the main cave.
“Come on. Let’s read this. Tell us what killed you, Pete.”
The journal confirmed that Pete Branson had – like Jack – started out as a civilian, but sharing the family lust for adventure had put himself forward for astronaut training at Houston, the hub of space exploration for over a century now. A year after the cometary impacts, as soon as the water dispersion had stabilised and the new rivers, lakes and seas were thoroughly mapped, a call went out for volunteers to embark on Mars’ terraforming. Pete had been one of the first. There had been a further year’s intensive preparation for the many complex tasks ahead, then, accompanied by supply ships, a series of craft each carrying about two dozen pioneers left at regular intervals for the red planet.
“Our ships are arks!” wrote Pete. “We have at least two of everything – especially people – we need our wives! And of course seed banks. We’re carrying dry seed as well as cryogenic cells, to see which leads to the quickest and healthiest growth.”
Some tools were provided before the voyage; others would be made in-flight or after landing with holographic printers and a variety of raw materials. Those developed from the discovery of graphene were especially useful, with unmatched strength and lightness. And with the right technology a planet so rich in iron could provide all the metal the settlers needed.
Everything went well. The community swelled, cave dwellings became homes, and the domes of this second Eden Project protected the first small farms where seed was tested, animals housed and fed, crops grown. Once the right seed-plants were identified, the settlers moved out onto the plain and began the process of greening the landscape of Mars. Crops, flowers and trees would feed on the atmospheric CO2 and begin to fill the Martian air with oxygen.
“We’ll need suits for years yet,” Pete wrote, “but the O2 measurements are gradually rising. Such a slow job! But we’re a patient lot out here.”
“The weather’s becoming unstable. Something has changed.”
The water breathed mists at first, then piled up clouds overhead that far surpassed the wispy cirrus seen in decades of photos. Everyone knew about dust storms on the planet, and how intense they could be; the welcome surprise of real rain promised a moist soil and gentler climate.
This was not to last.
“The atmosphere is so thin!” wrote Pete. “Water is sublimating. The soils are drying again and though the air’s cold, surface temperatures are too high for the outdoor crops. We’ve held an emergency meeting, and agreed to retreat under the domes. If we extend the hydroponic farm under the mountain we can still sustain ourselves and the livestock – at a pinch.”
Bur before they could harvest the last of the unprotected fodder the storm struck. Pete Branson’s words were brief:
“Utter terror. Utter destruction. Climate in chaos. Death everywhere. Stuck in a cave. Nothing to eat. Little to drink. No-one’s answering. Trying May-Day. May not survive this.”
Further on …
“Saw Doc pass my cave with a knife. Blood on his suit.”
“So tired. Air-con failing in suit. Hallucinating. God help me.”
And then the last page.
“Astonishing that nine of them managed to come through this,” said Jack.
Signals were coming from the rescue craft.
“Right. Time to go,” said Paddy.
They both missed the bone-heap in a crack in the lava.
It was inexplicable. The planet they had been approaching for so many months, and whose dark contours had been growing so slowly against the brilliant stars, was bursting with light.
Frank stared at the screen, scratched his head, and zoomed in on the image to the limits of its resolution.
“I still can’t make out what’s going on here,” he said. “Are you picking anything up on radio?”
“Nothing. This world doesn’t transmit. All I’m getting is the usual inter-stellar background.”
“What about other frequencies, George?”
“Not even thermal?”
“Not even thermal. No vulcanism. No explosions. No fires.”
“Well,” said Frank, “We’ll just have to wait till we get there. Another week and we’ll know.”
Exo-planets had already been explored for twelve years. Refinements in radio and optical telescopy had brought a rash of discoveries; star after star revealed itself as a complex system of orbiting planets and cosmic debris, and many were now within range of the new beamed propulsion vehicles launched from a growing network of space stations around Earth and Mars. Access to these had been made blessedly easy through the rapid development of graphene elevators – so familiar by now that the Tsiolkovsky Lifts were known affectionately to Press and public as “Beanstalks”. Frank Bloxham and George Gold were the latest NASA graduates to get their Starship Commission, head out with a small crew to the Red Planet, and join the search for extra-terrestrial life.
“That light is so bright! I can hardly see the surface. George, we may have to go down on auto-pilot. Are you in touch with Houston?”
“Intermittently. Reception comes and goes. Sometimes I can hear Mary but then she can’t hear me. … Houston? This is Explorer Taurus 75. Are you receiving me? Over.”
“Taurus 75, this is Houston. Can just about hear you. What is your status? Over.”
“Houston, Taurus 75 reporting status: attempting descent now. Vision compromised; too much light emission from surface. Switching to autopilot now. Request guidance if available. Over.”
“Taurus 75, this is Houston. Cannot monitor your descent; reception poor. Continue on autopilot and report landing. Good luck, all of you! Over and out.”
Everything in the Taurus vehicle was secure; Frank, George, Ken Mayr and Ravi Dutta strapped into their flight seats in the G-suits, stomachs empty, braced for the battering, searing atmosphere. The crazy shapes on the monitors might be the last thing they would ever see. Each privately surrendered to whatever fate might now deal them, and thought of the people left so far behind on the point of being bereaved – or cheering a hero.
When it came to what should have been the crunch, they hardly knew they had landed. How long had the descent taken? The self-imposed silence had almost been dream-like. It was Frank who first spoke.
“Big Bird has landed, gentlemen! Are you all okay?”
“Okay but feeling a bit weird,” Ken answered. Ravi and George nodded agreement as they freed themselves from the flight restraints and stretched carefully.
“Right. Not rushing this. We must take twenty-four hours to adjust, get some rest, eat, rehydrate and check all the systems. But first we need to get that comms desk lit up and tell Houston we’re safely down.”
The best part of an hour later George gave up his efforts to resume radio contact. The transmitter would flicker into life momentarily and then die. He longed to hear Mary’s voice, sweet and warm through the interstellar noise. Cut off from her his heart felt cold. Her face in his mind was all he had left of home. He buried his pain in the routines that now preoccupied the weary crew.
The four men slept till the sound of unfamiliar birdsong started a new day. Ravi cooked up the biggest breakfast they had had for weeks. Apart from the comms unit, all the vehicle’s systems still checked out; should danger threaten, they were good for an emergency take-off. The video screen that dominated the flight deck showed the men little of their new environment; the light everywhere was unlike any sunlight or starlight they had ever seen. It was so pervasive, so non-directional that it seemed almost material. Within the light there were forms – maybe rocks, maybe trees. There were movements; wind currents? Creatures? The outside temperature registered a mere 19º Celsius. No heat sources. No apparent threats. The crew suited up for their EVA.
Very, very cautiously Frank opened the hatch.
And walked into the light.
“Very strange out here, but no reason to believe it’s unsafe. Come out, George.”
“Ken and Ravi are right behind me.”
Silver-suited amid the silvery light the four men could hardly see each other.
Ravi called to Frank, “We could easily get lost in this. We need to check intercoms away from the ship.”
Warily they stepped twelve paces over the unfamiliar soft ground and re-tested their wireless transmission. There was no interference. They were cut off from Mission Control, but, thank heaven, not from each other.
“OK. Attach your Theseus lines to the hull clips, and we’ll move outward.”
Safely connected to Big Bird by fine, strong threads of graphene they tested the ground at each footstep, listening intently through the suit mics for any sound in this dreamlike environment.
“I can hear something … surely not voices?” George turned to his friends. They could see the surprise, and the beginning of fear, in his eyes.
All four stopped. There were movements in the light; were they figures? Ravi stepped closer to a tall, still shadow amid the brilliance and reached out to touch it.
“I am sure this is plant life,” he said,” I think we are amid trees … of a kind.” The dark eyes of the exobiologist shone with excitement. “Do you think this light is some form of bioluminescence?”
The moving figures were coalescing into a blurred crowd that remained ahead of them. Fascinated, the men followed, every nerve tuned to shifts in the light, the sense of voices that sometimes became bells, the muted sounds of their own footfall. The light was becoming brighter, more intense. The soft ground was now hard and smooth and around them were not only the shadowy trees but the indistinct geometry of buildings.
“What kind of civilisation is this?” whispered Ken to Ravi at his side. “Why has nobody noticed us? Where are we all going?”
The level ground dipped; they were now walking downhill, each man beginning to tremble as the voices and bells resolved into waves of an indescribable music, and he saw the forms ahead disappearing into a blaze, a cauldron of brilliance. They were about to be swallowed up into – what?
“We should turn back,” said George. “We don’t know if the lines will last. Can we check what’s left on the spools?” He looked round at the spool pack on his hip – and stared at his friends in shock.
“It’s gone! They’re all gone! The graphene has disintegrated! It was supposed to be indestructible! How on earth has this happened? We are utterly lost!”
“We’re not on Earth,” said Frank, trying to steady his voice. “This is what we signed up for. These are the risks we take. The only thing we can do now is keep going, and find out what is happening at the source of this extraordinary radiance. If the beings of this strange world believe it is safe, then there may be nothing to fear and everything to gain.”
The four travellers from an alien world walked resolutely into the blinding light. People they could hardly see moved aside as they drew closer to its heart. Around and above them were other lights that shimmered and sang. Before them at last they could see … a doorway … and within, a sublime glory. Each man sank involuntarily to his knees at the silver feet of a slender being who held a child.
Now they knew. Frank knew. George knew. Ken knew. Ravi knew. They had arrived at the birth of a world’s redemption, a moment which – just as on Earth millennia before – would inexorably resolve in tragedy and salvation. They had nothing to give but themselves. They were destined to stay, and learn, and try to survive in an environment that might be totally hostile.
“Help us,” whispered Ravi. “And we shall help you. There is nothing else we can do.”
There were sounds that none of them could understand, but a feeling of immense joy overwhelmed the men. They opened their visors, smiling as a soft silver hand touched each cheek, exploring the strangeness of a tear.
This was the last moment they remembered before walking through the doors at Mission Control into the astonished embrace of Mary and the cheering Houston team. How they had come home was never understood; some said they had never been away at all; but a small silver mark remained on each man’s face for the rest of his life – a life spent in endless, intimate conversations with strangers.
The happiest day of my life? That would have been the time of the Solar Storm. You look shocked. Well, I suppose you would. But you asked me to be honest. 2020. The Solar Storm… the people at NASA had been keeping an eye on the sun for years, counting sunspots, logging the solar maxima and minima, measuring prominences; then one Sunday it was all over the media that we were in for a big one. I’m sure you remember; who could ever forget? Timing was uncertain, so all NASA and the other observatories could do was show us how large the coronal mass ejections had become and ensure we were at least psychologically prepared. In practice, you can’t ever be ready for a thing like that. There was a lot of philosophising, much doom-mongering, and not a few suicides. Yes I know. Very sad. But when people are frightened, this is what can happen. I was in my garden when Valerie came out, in a state of considerable agitation, waving the Sunday Times. I remember looking up at the sky and thinking, ‘Oh well, there goes the automatic watering system!’ A ridiculous thought in the grand scheme of things.
And then it happened. Independence Day. I remember New York was planning its biggest firework display ever… what a joke! Compared to what hit us on 4/7, the famous 1859 Carrington Event was a sparkler. This was absolutely massive. Even the worst-case scenarios hadn’t forecast the impact, and all we had was a twelve-hour warning from the space weather monitor at Stanford. Half a day to decide where to be, what – if anything – to do, who to be with, how to plan. Plan? How do you plan for undefined catastrophe? What did you do? … OK. You’re asking the questions. Well as it happens Valerie and I still had a stash of emergency stuff tucked away in the attic from the Y2K panic. Ah, you’re a bit young to remember the ‘millennium bug’! Nothing happened of course. All the computers just chuntered on. Anyway – you met my wife this morning? She’s a careful soul. Likes to keep stocked up, ‘just in case’. Bulk-buys when things we use are on offer. So up in the box room under the cobwebs we had candles, a camping stove, baked beans, tinned fish, soup, batteries, a First Aid box, dried fruit, jars of Valerie’s preserves … what else? Sugar, milk powder, tea and coffee … Ryvita … ammunition … matches … Oh! And the clever girl had even squirrelled several bottles of single malt.
So when it happened we were just sitting looking at each other in the breakfast room, waiting for the digital clock to stop. It was lunchtime here, and summer, so across the most of the Western world it was daytime. There was no sudden plunging of major cities into stygian darkness, no crashing at blackened traffic-lights, no real panic; that was all happening in the far East and places like Sydney … Los Angeles … No, on the day people were pretty sensible, didn’t go in to work, disconnected appliances, avoided lifts and escalators, and came home from holidays if they could before all the flights were grounded. Of course there was a run on the shops; people always panic-buy. We kept out of all that. Pity as it turned out. We forgot about one crucial thing: water. When the flare came, and burnt out every electricity grid on every continent the pumping stations stopped. Only gravity-fed water would get to the taps and eventually even that would dry up. So bottled water would have been a good idea … had there been any left! I never thought I’d see the day when Brits were happier to be at home praying for rain than cooking themselves on a Pacific beach.
You’re really wondering why this was my happiest day, aren’t you! Shall I just say that sometimes it’s nice to be right. I’d seen it coming. People just laughed. I’m not going round saying ‘I told you so’ but the fact that you are doing a serious interview with a man who was once ridiculed for being ‘unscientific’ is mightily gratifying! I’ll show you my original calculations if you like. Later on. Over a whisky. And the other reason it was my happiest day – though as you can imagine the initial euphoria didn’t last – was the silence.
There was one almighty bang in the direction of the local electricity sub-station and then nothing moved. The clocks all stopped, apart from the battery alarm and our wrist-watches. The hum was gone from the fridge and freezer (we’d cleared those pretty well – hate wasting good food!) Not a prayer of any news from the TV or radio as nothing was transmitting any more; we learned later that every single satellite up there had been fried. No traffic moving anywhere. No phone. Just us, sitting there in the noonday sun – dazzling, even through our green curtains; looking at each other and wondering like the rest of the world was wondering how in heaven’s name we were going to live from day to day. Even the birds were silent. Even the animals. There was no wind, and no sound, and the sheer overwhelming peace of it all was sublime. We were now in a world where there were no aircraft, no factories, no mobiles. There was no information. Everything was absolutely still. And I loved it.
Anyway, after the darkest night we’d ever known (the stars! … For the first time ever, we could see all the stars!) and one or two wobbly moments with candles, we woke to an urgent banging on the front door and there was Dick from down the road with his bike and a message to come to an emergency meeting in the Church Hall.
So we walked down. The entire village had turned out, standing room only. Valerie and I were squashed against one of the useless radiators. Everyone was talking at once – though here and there you saw an ashen face, you know … those appalled eyes of someone in deep shock? One woman had to be carried out. Tom Barton the land-owner plus the vicar and our local GP eventually got the room to simmer down so we could talk through the critical issues – principally water and food. ‘Unless we share, we die,’ were Tom’s words. Blunt, as ever.
In hindsight, rural communities like ours actually managed pretty well; we’re a resourceful bunch. Everyone rigged up some sort of rainwater butt, and we set up committees to distribute filtered river water and the produce from farms and gardens. We went back to wheelbarrows, and horse-power, and our aching 21st century legs. Meat was largely off the menu – short-term, we needed every animal we had for milk, eggs, wool or transport of course, and security around the farms, hen-coops and small-holdings had to be very, very tight. Pets? Don’t ask. Huge bone of contention… to coin a phrase … you can probably imagine how many went ‘missing’. They caused more fights and more grief than almost anything else – even the wildlife. Eventually one bright lady in the WI pointed out that combing pet fur produced wonderful fibre for spinning and this saved a lot of our little friends from the stew-pot. But I’m jumping ahead.
You know what happened next. We had a war on our hands. Three days after the Storm we heard vehicles. The big boys still had fuel; Tesco and Waitrose had sent their juggernauts to pick up all the veg and dairy from contracted farms to fill the shelves in the cities. We were living in a rural bubble. We had no idea how desperate things were for everyone else, and frankly most of us didn’t care. Would you? Did you? Slam a human being into survival mode and what does he do? Well I tell you: it was Gunfight at the OK Corral. The drivers had been warned that there would be trouble and they were armed. But so were we. Before they could turn off the main road we had their tyres out. I could still handle a shotgun. We got the blighters’ petrol tanks too. That was a good day!
Not many since then though. The last nine years have been worse than we ever imagined. Hats off to the engineers and the miners; without them we could never have rebuilt any of our systems. We’d have been back in the stone age. That sudden peace and quiet was pretty permanent for the millions of poor beggars who starved or died in the riots. Still – there’s less population pressure now. The world has a chance to recover, get its forests back, breathe … we’d done a pretty good wrecking job, hadn’t we? No choice now. Renewables or nothing. When we’re done, young man, and you’ve phoned your copy through – you can use our line – I’ll give you a tour of our solar farm. Solar’s a good investment now, ironically! Interested?
My birth was a total shock.
Doreen, the ample young woman who was suddenly my mother, didn’t even know she was pregnant. It happened during the last act of Shrek The Musical, plunging the Upper Circle and then the entire Palace Theatre into pandemonium. And I was the wrong colour. Not wrong in the sense of pale Mum/ebony babe or vice versa, but wrong in being – in any and every light – green.
I was as green as Shrek, in stark contrast to the afterbirth. Parents in adjoining seats fainted. They had paid good money to bring pink or brown offspring to town, to see their emerald hero fight for the heart and hand of his princess; they were all set to cheer fairytale characters cruelly banished from home … and now the theatre echoed to horrified cries of “It’s a freak!” “Get it out of here!” “Don’t look, darling!” The safety curtain hastily came down. Staff dashed around like dogs on a flock. The theatre emptied.
A&E bustled us into a side-room. Doreen, too traumatised even to weep, was cleaned up, medicated, and made as comfortable as possible while a nervous sister washed me and an ashen-faced duty doctor embarked on a battery of tests.
“Shouldn’t she be in Maternity?”
“How would you feel if this frightful anomaly was wheeled in beside you?”
“OK. Staying here then.”
“How are we doing?”
“Sex indeterminate. Blood … I can’t cope with this … totally green. No haemoglobin. Lab will have to tell us what else is in it. BP otherwise normal. ECG, oh dear, anomalous; we’re getting a sort of double trace … we’ll have to do an MRI. Coccyx is odd; seems more prominent than usual. No hair, not even eyebrows. We have no way of knowing if this is delayed growth or a form of alopecia.”
“Doctor Singh, whatever this child is, it needs to go on the breast. It needs to bond with its mother. Can we stop, please, and give … it … to – what is your name, dear?”
“Doreen Sharkey.” She could hardly speak.
“To Doreen. Can you release your bra?”
“But I haven’t any milk!”
“Are you sure? Here, let me help you. There we are. Now take … baby. See? He … she … wants to feed!”
Doreen screamed. No-one had realised I already had teeth. And I wouldn’t let go. There was milk, and I needed to grow.
The MRI scan sent the doctors into a spin.
“Do you think we should notify the Home Office?”
“Or Nick Pope?”
“Or just keep this very, very quiet until we really know what’s going on. Here we have an infant born to a human mother but with a totally abnormal physiology. The green blood is pumped by two hearts. There appears to be the beginning of an actual tail. The bony structures are pneumatised like a bird’s, and all joints appear to have complete rotation. There are four lungs, and a stomach almost like that of a ruminant … but we can’t know as yet how it functions. Most of the skin surface is very smooth – but seems a little scaly over the shoulder-blades. Teeth are unusually mature for a neonate … poor mother! And the eyes – until they are open it is impossible to comment.”
“So what do we do?”
“Why not ask Doreen?”
My mother, now sedated, was sobbing.
“Doreen? Can we talk?”
“How long have you been carrying this baby?”
“I don’t know! I didn’t know it was there!” Her tears were soaking the hospital gown now inadequately covering her large, wobbly body.
“Can you remember any occasion when someone … something? … might have taken advantage of you?”
“The only thing I can think of was a dream I had. I’d been watching “E.T.” It was all about UFOs, and I went up in one. But it was just a stupid dream! Wasn’t it?”
“Hard to say. But here you are now with an alien baby. And we have no idea what to do.”
“I want to go home!”
“With or without the child?”
“It’s not a child! It’s a monster! You keep it. You deal with it. I want my life back!”
So much for mother-love. Doreen was mopped up, dressed, and taken home, where she locked and bolted all her doors and windows and hid from the world until her fridge was empty.
“I’ll take him,” said Sister Jones from Radiology. “I’ve seen the scans. I live way out in the sticks with no immediate neighbours. My partner is paraplegic, but always up for a challenge. We can bring up Baby and keep him … her … well away from the media and prying eyes, and maybe liaise with the SETI people. They really need to be told.”
“If you’re sure?”
“What other options do we have? Destroy the child? Unthinkable. No. Find some baby clothes and a Bounty pack, and with your permission I’ll run Baby home to Tintwhistle and have a long talk with Ray. I’ll update you as soon as I’m confident he’s onside, and then we can get onto SETI.”
So that”s what happened. I went to live with Ray and Shirley in their woodland farm cottage north of Glossop, and had regular visits from Pablo, a SETI astrobiologist, whenever he could get away from conferences and meetings to check on the progress of his very own, and alarmingly very real alien protegee.
I was definitely an androgyne. They called me Zee. As I grew, I was continually monitored. An EEG suggested a human brain but extremely busy in areas normally quiescent. My eyes opened normally, but were unusually large, with purple and yellow irises. I was ravenous; Shirley kept running out of formula and weaned me early. Then I ate everything given to me, and, once mobile, had to be restrained as nothing growing in the garden or surrounding woodland was safe. Creatures, however, became loved friends. I would be found curled up with the cat, or playing tag with foxes on the lawn. If I stood very still, dozens of birds would fly onto my outstretched arms and we sang together. The little scaly bumps on my back were imperceptibly swelling. By my 5th birthday I was as tall as Pablo.
And I was asking questions.
“Why aren’t you green?” “Why do you kill slugs?” “Why don’t you eat my red mushrooms?” “Why can’t I watch TV?”
TV would mean the Big Reveal. It was banned. I was getting plenty of basic tutoring from Ray, who had been a Primary school teacher before the air crash that took his legs, and Pablo opened my eyes to the marvels of the universe – but of the real 21st century world and its cultures I knew nothing.
And that’s the way it stayed. I was so tall by my teens that I needed an annexe to live in. Under my loose clothes the bumps were turning into wings and tail that began to stretch and move.
On my 18th birthday after the fuss of gifts and candles I went out onto the lawn to greet the birds … and heard a voice in my head.
“Time to leave,”
Who was that?
“Time to stretch your wings, Zee.”
“Who is that?”
“I am your parent. Our mental connection is now secure, and we’re ready for action.”
To my mind came a vivid image; of a great green winged being, with infinite hope and love in its eyes.
“Stretch your wings.”
I did. They cast huge shadows over the house and lawn. Shirley rushed out of the front door.
“Ray! Ray! Help, Pablo! Zee is …”
Flying. My wings took me high over the woods beyond the homes of my birds. Onward through evening sunshine to scattered clusters of buildings I never knew existed; then over mightier and mightier conurbations dazzling with lights and hectic with millions of pink and brown people.
“Feed, Zee, and keep flying.”
I swooped downward toward a swathe of welcoming green, tore hungrily into the stems, leaves, blossoms of the gardens there; then rose into the sunset sky.
“Follow the sun, my wonderful child! And wait for my word.”
The ever-strengthening wings took me over … “cities, Zee,” and beautiful mountains peaked in white; then there was endless blue … “the sea, my child,” and then less and less life-giving green as the lands below me parched, and fires raged, and dark people moved in swarms like ants and locusts, and as I dropped lower I heard the percussion of bombs and guns, the crying of brutalised women and children, a raging destruction that tore my soul.
“Grow, Zee! Feed on the Light! Your will can fill the sky!”
I obeyed my parent. My wings reached from horizon to fiery horizon, illumined by the setting sun. Looking down, I saw all human motion cease.
A great cry went up.
A single missile pierced one pounding heart; it instantly mended.
“There is hope for them now,” my parent said. “You will very soon understand. Your life’s work has begun.”
First came the dreams … then the screams.
Brian woke up in a muck sweat, busting for a pee and hung over from the bizarre ride of the last half-hour. “We get Triffids” his wife had said, her dreamself placatory. He had stared at their roof where the plantlets had started lifting the tiles, and watched as tendrils crept into the guttering of this aged house that was and wasn’t theirs … hunting for water … water … and then his eyes were wide open.
“It happened again.”
“Weirdness. Not our house – not this house – but like we’d been there forever. A sort of invasion…”
“Like my beetle dream?”
“Plants this time. You said Triffids.”
“But no UFOs. Oh when are we going to get a decent night?”
“Brian, I think we may need to look at our marriage. All this intrusion, all these dreams of a home in danger; they have to be trying to tell us something. I could make an appointment with Jill if you like … “
“I am not going with you to a shrink!”
“Look, we’ve all known each other for years. If anyone can decode our hidden agendas she can. She was brilliant with my post-natal depression, and the empty nest. Maybe work is encroaching too much now. Or we have friends who aren’t really friends … oh lord, you aren’t having an affair are you?”
“No I am not. And maybe Jill isn’t a friend. Or maybe rattling around this place on our own out of surgery hours is making us paranoid.”
“Brian, give me a cuddle?”
“Of course. In a minute …”
He returned, relaxed. “Come here.”
Next morning Brian spilt half his coffee when something scuttled across the kitchen floor. Rosina wept over the floor-cloth. Patients muttered to each other on the way out that the doctors were both looking at them oddly. Some had double prescriptions. The writing was even worse than usual. Afterwards the pair stood outside in the early evening sunshine, and looked up at their roof. Some of the tiles seemed to be lifting.
“It was that storm last month,” said Rosina. “The place is old. Maybe we don’t need Jill, maybe we simply need a decent tiler.”
“But what is that green thing?”
Brian was beginning to shake. He needed … there not to be something unfamiliar on his roof. As he stared, and then his wife stared, a wave of curly lime unfurled from behind the chimney stack and rolled silently down the entire pitch toward the gutter. Unable to move, the two of them watched in utter horror as an immense and convoluted light green something rapidly and totally enveloped their house, surgery and all, until the only thing visible was a pulsing vegetable mass.
The asteroid had passed between the planet and its moon. At the moment of closest approach the scheduled fast freeze shattered the creviced rocks that had cradled Viridis’ dormant spores over this last stage of their interstellar journey, and the gravitational pull of the new, watery world sped them home.
The science was right. The sentients had predicted an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water that nourished life-forms not dissimilar to themselves in the planet’s rhythmic sunshine. Levels of polluting oxygen were relatively low. Any spore that survived the stresses of entry and lodged in a safe niche to split its glossy carapace would immediately absorb everything it needed for rapid and healthy growth. Rebirth in a new colony here would slowly empty the old and distant planet of a population at risk of extinction. Viridis would be left to its suffocating oxygen and the few creatures that could survive in the wrecked environment.
Tendril 1 now luxuriated in the rich spectrum of an unfamiliar star, relaxed over one of the planet’s many geometric protuberances. His swift weight gain was crushing it. There were nutrients in the debris but he would have to move soon. Others who had travelled with him were now spilling out of their protective shells, feasting and maturing. Hundreds of stomata covered elastic skins filling with bright chlorophyll. The tiny lips of the stomata moved, setting up a whispering that ran on the air between adult and adult, announcing arrival, greeting friends, exchanging data. All had observed the small life-forms gathering at a nervous distance; all had sent out introductory waves to the unusual green beings who were their nearest cousins here … and were puzzled that they never spoke, barely responded, but remained in their places, their thousands of tiny appendages only stirred by the evening breeze. All over the land-mass the travellers from Viridis were making themselves cautiously at home.
“My God.” said Brian.
“Are we back in the dream?”
Neighbours and townsfolk who had fled homes and businesses before their nightmare collapse were converging on every square yard of open ground, interspersed with the flashing blue lights of the emergency services. The Mayor had been taking a tea-time nap and escaped in his underpants; no-one took any notice of his entreaties for calm. There were both women and men in hysterics, small children pallid with fear, one or two would-be heroes who strode out of the crowd toward the massive green invasion only to be pulled back by a dozen anxious hands. The screaming carried on the air to the increasingly sensitive green skins. It was nearly sunset; on Viridis Tendril 1 and his companions would be contracting for the night, but there was too much disturbance here from the small creatures still running out from underneath them as more and more travellers settled and spread.
Brian grabbed Rosina’s hand and fought his way to the front of the shrieking and weeping crowd.
“What we don’t know yet, sweetheart … no, we have to do this … is whether this alien horror is intelligent. For some reason you and I had fore-warning. I don’t think it was a fluke. They don’t know what we are, either. We need to sort this out.”
“Brian, they could eat us!”
“I don’t think so. They seem to live on fresh air! Do you remember the Air Plant your mother gave us one Christmas?”
“I know. That was our fault. We didn’t understand it. These things may be the same. They have exploded into growth just by being here in our environment. That may be why they are here! In which case they know where they are, and this is a planned invasion. And that makes them highly intelligent creatures. Amorphous and apparently vegetable, yes, but with developed mental functions that may be superior to our own.”
“We should get Jill.”
“There isn’t time.”
Brian walked away.
Now he stood, shaking, a few feet from the intricately curled edge of a massive green … thing … where his surgery had been. He spoke.
“I knew you were coming. I had a dream. Why?”
Confrontation. Sounds. Tendril 1 was alert. The small, warm living thing before him was communicating! Frequency detection would not be adequate. He would have to switch into mental extension to have any hope of insight and a possible response. Brian suddenly felt very odd; he sank to his knees, nearly swooning, as the thoughts behind his words were probed by fingers of an alien consciousness.
And next it felt as if a light had gone on in his brain. He was understood. And he could understand the invader’s reply.
“You are one of the sentients! Our plight was broadcast as soon as we found your planet. We streamed data constantly as we planned this escape from our dying world, in the hope that friendly minds might receive the news that we were coming. The surprise to us is that we have arrived to find photosynthetic life in retreat – and you, the presumed lower life-form, possessed of the intelligence we thought to find in the Green.”
“What do you need from us? You are crushing our civilisation!”
“Carbon dioxide, and sufficient water.”
“CO2 pollutes our entire planet. We destroyed so many trees that the oxygen we desperately need is dwindling and the climate is now critical. And we have no means of escape.”
“Then … Brian-and-Rosina? … we need each other. The millions that are coming will be told to avoid the structures upon which you seem to depend, and to populate only those empty places where there is still water enough to sustain our lives. Inform your companions on other land-masses that this will happen, and far from bringing you to harm we can help your … nations? … gradually to re-balance their ecosystems and feed themselves again. Please don’t eat us !!! Even if you do think of us as glorified cabbages!”
A pistachio copy of Brian’s arm extended from the Viridian to touch his cheek. The delicate restorative gesture moved him, and he smiled as he turned back to Rosina and then the waiting crowd.
“Anyone here with 7G? Dry your eyes, get out your cell-phones: let’s start saving the world.”
She was simply the most stunning girl I’d ever seen.
In the ten seconds it took for her to bend and rummage for documents in her travel bag an entire glorious lifetime together sped behind my eyes before commonsense and long training extinguished it.
The others crowding into the room were striking, unusual; she was outstanding.
“Yes, both parents. Third generation.”
She pushed the paperwork under my nose, tapping her feet. The officialese granting her permission to move north was as indecipherable as usual; her signature was as graceful and distinctive as her voice.
“Are you with anyone?”
“Not personally … “ my heart surged, ungovernable … “but I am leading a group.” She gestured behind her to a couple of dozen individuals who had detached themselves from the murmuring phalanx and edged closer.
“I shall need to see all their papers.”
I could barely concentrate. All I wanted to look at was this girl. She was silver. Every inch of visible skin was covered in the finest, thickest, most reflective silver hair, and she shone. Everyone in that holding room had their own grey fur, but some was less dense, some ragged, most quite dull, and some too patchy to be acceptable. It had taken decades to match and mate enough of the increasingly unusual births among the circum-polar peoples to select for a perfect human pelt and there was clearly a long way to go – but the girl called Silver was a ray of hope. She and her heavily-swathed band would be among the first to travel back into the coldest parts of old Europe and with the help of experienced Inuit and Sami begin to excavate the cities and re-colonise.
The problem was clothing. With the sudden failure in 2020 of the Atlantic Conveyor, and no more Gulf Stream to warm the northern hemisphere, the climate had changed catastrophically. Warnings had been ignored; the industrial nations were plunged into a new ice age while Earth’s equatorial region became a dust-bowl. There were massive extinctions. Farming animals for food, fibre and skins was almost impossible with so few crops to sustain them and with all power sources now at a premium the only oil-based fabrics available were those that could be salvaged and repaired. People had to keep themselves warm another way; they had to regrow their own fur.
“It takes guts to do this,” I said, looking up from the cluttered desk into calm grey eyes.
“Guts and a lot of dead animals!” she grinned. “We’ll be living off anything we can catch, and wasting nothing. How the sled dogs will manage remains to be seen. Water won’t be a problem as we can melt snow, but food may often depend on the success of our digs. At least everything’s been in the fridge!”
“But how will you keep fires going?” Nothing could be taken for granted any more. It was so long now since most of the forests had burned, died or been buried under ice, that surface kindling wasn’t easy to come by.
“It’ll be hard, but we’re trying solar panels in ground arrays to keep some energy generated for heating and eating … and comms of course.”
“It all sounds dreadfully precarious.”
“It is. But we have to try. The Inuit and Sami will help us. They have always known how to survive the Arctic. And we are allowed to breed with them, which will help the gene pool.”
How I longed at that moment to be Inuit. I felt my cheeks flush.
“Won’t there be danger from bears?” I asked.
“I expect so. But we also hope to be a danger to them! We shall need meat, and skins and sinews. There are large populations of polar bears now, and seal, and walrus. There has been so little interference with them since the cataclysm, and of course they have spread south.”
“I wish I could come with you!” I couldn’t keep those words in any more.
“Why?” She looked genuinely astonished. “You would lose your skin. You would be frost-bitten in days.”
“The early explorers managed.”
“Barely. We have to make a life up there – and make a living.”
“Is the rumour true that blocks of ice will be cut and floated south for drinking water?”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Not on our agenda. We’ll be tunnelling. God knows what we’ll find.”
“I could help you.”
The girl called Silver sighed and riffled the untidy pile of documents.
“Just stamp these, will you? They’re all waiting. We have to go.”
I had nothing to lose, everything I could ever imagine longing for to gain…
“I’m a dowser.”
“A what? “
“I find things. By dowsing. By sensing. Like being a detectorist but without the kit.”
“And that would be helpful?”
“I could find the right places to dig. I could tell you what might be down there, under the ice.”
“Oh please. We have maps for that. And reference books. Grow up.”
The desk lamp made her silver cheeks sparkle. I was so captivated by now that even this dismissive retort couldn’t hurt. A certainty grew in me, spreading like a storm cloud in my mind, that I would be there; whatever she said now, I would see her again. It was simply a matter of time.
Briskly, forcing my gaze away from Silver’s beautiful face framed by the heavy sealskin hood, I stamped the expedition papers and handed them across the desk. Our fingers touched just for a moment, then after one heart-stopping glance, she turned, beckoned to her companions – and was gone.
Why … how are people so real in our dreams? Silver came to me in my dreams night after night as weeks, then months went by with no news of the ice-sheet pioneers. In my dreams she would throw back the hood, step from the fragrant skins, shake her long bright hair free and let me stroke her silken fingers, her velvet shoulders, the glorious shimmering fur of her back … her breast … then one intoxicating kiss, and she would vanish, and I would wake with a pounding heart and tears on my cheek.
It was a particularly unpleasant Monday. I was processing my third batch of unpromising adventurers when the dull light from the hall window was blocked by a tall man in a carefully mended suit with a Global Migration Office lapel badge.
“You here nine months ago?”
“Yessir. Never miss a day.”
“Good lad. Now then, did you stamp the permissions for this lady?” He pushed an ID photograph towards me. It was Silver.
Now I was shaking. “Yessir. Why, Sir?”
“Her party is missing. Radio contact was lost three weeks ago while they were digging the London ice-sheet. We need to know how many were with her – any details you can give me.”
I rooted in the filing drawers and held out a pink folder.
“Is there a search party, Sir?” My mouth was dry.
“We have just the one emergency helicopter. Its fuel allowance is low, but we can fly it within range. Any rescue party will have to trek from there on. Casual nomads we wouldn’t worry about, but Silver is important to the recolonisation programme and we need to find her.” He looked drawn, exhausted. “Thank you, young man.”
“Sir?” I grabbed at his arm as he turned for the door. “Take me with you? I can find her. I have … gifts, Sir. Dowsing, Sir. Give me a London map!”
Bewildered, the GMO unfolded his pocket plan and spread it under my lamp.
“I’ve done this for prospectors.” I filled my mind and my heart with Silver. The little brass pendulum that lived in my breast pocket swung in arcs over the map. My arm fizzed. The shining point jerked and steadied at the edge of what had been the Thames.
“She’s here, Sir.”
“Are you sure? Isn’t this just hocus-pocus?”
“I have references, Sir. You need to take me there. We’ll get her out. All of them.”
“If they’re alive.”
Oh dear God let her not be dead.
We clattered north, the ancient helicopter struggling through dust and snow. Below us was a waste of white, punctured by frozen turbines and the iced remains of pylons. The shivering pilot set us down at last in sight of the tilting, motionless half-circle of the London Eye. My pendulum swung. It drew us desperately slowly over the ice towards the statue of Nelson that once towered above Trafalgar Square … onward again … and then stopped, yanking my hand in its frosted mitten insistently downward.
“Silver!” I whispered.
And there we dug.
Days later we broke into Charing Cross station concourse, nearly falling just as Silver’s group had fallen. We found dead people, broken people, half-eaten dogs, burnt sleds, crisp bags, chocolate wrappers, juice bottles from wrecked dispensers, and shivering in a foraged mound of decades-old clothing a few mutant survivors. One was Silver.
I held her and sobbed.
“I dreamed of you,” she said.
Angel Fish was a Pisces. The youngest of thirteen children, her birth came as both a relief and a shock to her mother, who some fourteen years earlier had celebrated her wedding eve by visiting an itinerant gypsy. Palm suitably crossed with what in these straitened days passes for silver, the plump black-haired woman looked up from her well-thumbed Tarots with a mischievous smile and said,
“I hope you’re fit – you’re going to have a full set!”… and …
“You’re a seventh child, aren’t you.” (How could she know that?) “Watch out for your own number seven – she’ll have the gift. Number thirteen will be the last.”
“A full set?”
The next day Maisie Head became Mrs Bill Fish and just over a year later she started her long and exhausting haul through the zodiac. The enthusiastic Mr Fish, initially dismissive of the gypsy’s unlikely prediction, beheld his feisty Aries son, a musical Taurus daughter, then hyperactive Gemini twins, with bemusement and then increasing anxiety as every year his fertile loins produced another bump for Maisie and another sign in their collection. The seventh, Ginnie, was only three when in the midst of being towelled dry after her Wednesday bath she said firmly,
“When I’m six we’re going to have a real fish.”
Maisie laughed at her precocious joke.
“And then you won’t have to make babies any more.”
Two years passed and came the foggy late February day when Angel would make her entrance. Maisie had opted for a water birth, which had worked well a couple of times before when she’d had the luxury of time to prepare, and the help of the local midwife who had become a close and indispensable friend.
“She’s coming, Maisie!”
“Lift her out for me, Annie.”
And this was the unforgettable moment of total shock.
The baby had gills.
They were definitely gills – the twins who had tumbled in as soon as their mother was decent were nine and therefore knew everything.
“I’ve seen those things on her neck in a book,” said May who had to be stopped from experimentally poking her new sister, whereupon June jumped on a chair and lugged a dog-eared encyclopaedia from the bookshelves, bringing down with it an avalanche of haphazardly stacked volumes. The racket brought the other children in and Leo, already bossy at seven, snatched the book from his sister and riffled through the pages.
“Look,” he said, as if it had been all his own idea, and shoving the opened page under his weary mother’s nose, “It’s evolution. Babies have gills for a bit because we all used to be fish …” … this was obviously enormously funny and Annie had to shush everyone … “… and then they’re supposed to change. Our baby’s still got hers. And she can breathe as well!”
“She’s not crying though,” said Marcus.
“Not now,” said Maisie, “She must need to sleep. Buzz off, kids. You’ve seen your new sister. Leave us in peace now. Please. Annie, I need a drink …”
“What are we calling her?” asked Julian, reluctant to let go of Maisie’s sleeve.
“Angel,” she replied, staring at the tiny, slightly puckered face snuggled up to her breast.
“Angel Fish?” More hilarity.
“Why not?” Bill, summoned from work, had at last been let into the crowded sanctum and was gazing with great tenderness at the newest member of his family.
“She is a little angel,” he said. And then with alarm, “But what are those funny things on her neck?”
“Gills!” his ten older children were jumping with glee. “She’s a real fish! A real fish!”
Bill blanched and staggered.
“I’ll call the doctor.”
“The only option,” said Dr. Splint. “Is plastic surgery …”
“Shush Octavia! He doesn’t mean plastic plastic …”
“… to remove the gills and normalise baby’s respiratory system. I’ve not seen this before, but I’m sure once she has put on some weight an operation in a few months time would stand every chance of success. I can put things in motion for you. But …”
“But?” One little word suddenly introduced a world of uncertainty which Bill wasn’t ready to handle.
“In the meantime the filaments must not be allowed to dry out, and we mustn’t risk infection. Baby’s neck must be kept wrapped in moist, sterile dressings at all times and these need to be regularly changed. I can fetch you a supply now from the dispensary and arrange an on-going prescription. Till I get back, a clean towel soaked in boiled and cooled water will have to do.”
“I can do it! I can do it!” April was already dancing away up to the airing cupboard. Annie grimaced at Maisie and headed for the kitchen as the front door closed behind Dr. Splint.
“Mummy, fishes die out of water.”
Maisie had learned to listen to her seventh child.
“What do you think we should do, Ginnie?”
“Can’t we clean the pool and put her back?”
“She might drown.”
“No she won’t. Daisy’s Mummy takes her new baby swimming every Tuesday and Daisy says he opens his eyes under the water and shuts his mouth and really likes it. And he’s an ordinary baby not a fish baby.”
Maisie looked up at her worried husband.
“Could we do that, Bill?”
“Anything’s worth a try, Maisie. Why don’t you get out of the pool now … here, let me help you … make yourself comfy on the sofa and just keep Angel’s neck wet till we have that towel. I’ll empty this onto the compost …”
“Libby I did this after you were born, and Archie, and no-one’s died; it’s all good for the garden. Then I’ll give the pool a good scrub and put in the spare liner as well. Where shall we put it? When it’s full again?”
“As close to me as possible, Bill. I don’t know how we do this.”
It was Ginnie who understood what her baby sister needed. Dr. Splint returned that evening to find Maisie showered and refreshed in bed with Angel dozing in a cot beside her, swathed in warm damp towels. In the living room the rest of the family (except Christian and Jane of course) were ‘helping’ their father position the refilled pool in a suitably protected corner well away from anything electric.
“I’ve spoken to the hospital,” he said, shedding slippery packs of sterile dressings over the sofa. “The Registrar can schedule remedial surgery for the end of April. I’ve said Yes on your behalf.”
“Then you can un-say it,” replied Bill.
“I beg your pardon?”
“We’re going to look after our little fish just as she is.”
“She has no future! She’ll just be a circus freak! Or she’ll die. There won’t be another chance. Please reconsider.”
Ginnie, in her pink dressing-gown and ready for bed after an exciting day, said,
“Why are you so cross? Angel’s our baby. We’re not going to let you take her away and hurt her. She’s going to swim and swim and be really famous. She’s going to have babies of her own when she’s grown up, and they’ll have gills as well, and when all the ice melts and the sea comes in there’ll be new people because of her who can live in the water. You just wait and see!”
The door slammed behind the furious doctor.
“We’ll have to buy everything she needs now,” said Bill. He looked glum.
“But all we need to do is keep Angel clean and let her swim all she wants to, Daddy.”
A month later Maisie felt strong enough to take Angel to the local Baths for the first time. The chlorinated water, just below body temperature, would keep her little fish safe from infection. Letting go was difficult – it was a such a huge, busy pool after their small blue one at home. Would she sink? Would she drown? Maisie opened her arms and let Angel float free. The baby turned in the water and stared into her mother’s eyes.
Then for the very first time she smiled. It was a radiant, joyous smile! The gills opened wide, the trachea closed, and Angel was in her element at last. She would swim all her life just as Ginnie had promised – in pools, in streams, in rivers, in the open ocean. She would be studied, and filmed, and interviewed. She would grow to be beautiful, and one day at an oceanographic conference would meet a man just like herself, called Hal Ryba, with whom she would spawn the first generation of true human amphibians. The polar ice would melt; the seas would rise, drowning the civilisation whose cultural apogee brought forth Dr. Splint … and Homo Amphibius would slowly re-colonise an ever bluer world.
'Revelations' is a collection of futuristic and thought-provoking science fiction stories by Pam Crane. Two of them - 'Clouds on the Horizon' and 'Never' are written out of her decades of experience as one of today's most adventurous astrologers. 'Desert Island Disks' came out of her love of the long-running BBC radio programme - but there's a real castaway with a surprise in store! 'Pioneers' and 'Celebration' take us off-planet into other worlds; one is Mars, where there has been a catastrophe, and the second is a mysterious world that challenges its human visitors' tenacity and entire belief-system. Back on earth for the other four stories and four end-time scenarios, 'The Happiest Day of my Life' takes us into a post-Solar-Flare world - in stark contrast to 'Silver' where everything has frozen, 'The Greening of Terra' and the restoration of oxygen to a largely deforested landscape, and 'The Future of Fish' in which one tiny baby proves to be the future of humanity as the oceans rise and drown the continents. 'Intervention' could be set in any time - its superhero saves the world by terrifying the terrorists.