Tag Archives: science fiction

Try Again Next Time

A house sits in the midst of a drenched suburbia, assaulted by hard rain, windows rattled by thunder. Inside, an elderly man comforts his frightened dog and speaks softly to his houseplants. Overhead, the clouds intensify, gathering a darkness immediately above. Then a flash, lightning stabs downwards and wraps around the television aerial.

Nobody who belonged to that world would have been able to see two figures step out from the jagged edge that the lightning bolt has sliced through the sky, the arc frozen in time and the rain hanging still in the air. The world is completely still for these interlopers, one single moment stretched out at their mercy.

They climb carefully over the small brick chimney and keep a hold on it until their feet land are wedged securely among the slanted roof tiles. To their ears, the world has an eery silence, and their voices echo as if in a large empty hall.

“When are we?” says the junior. Her name is Klaudia, and her wonder at the frozen spectacle around affirms her first trip into the past.

“It’s 1985,” says the other woman. A name badge on her uniform identifies her as ‘Asta’. She looks up at the blinding spark that reaches down from the heavens, shielding her eyes from its frozen glare, then taps the screen of a device wrapped around her waist. “And this is the correct house.”

From a pouch on her trouser leg, Asta takes a black plastic square, the size of her hand span, with a circular hole in the middle. “Do you know what this is?” she asks Klaudia, who shakes her head. “This is a floppy disk. This is an example of what you are looking for. One is hidden in the house below. When you find it, place it in this protective bag.” Asta hands Klaudia a plastic pouch.

“What information is stored on the disk?” asks Klaudia.

“During the second world war, a German scientist invented time travel and caused havoc, trying to assassinate Allied leaders. Many Time Police agents died to stop this. We never figured out how he did it. He escaped, disappeared. But now he lives here under a false identity. On the disk is everything we need to know to stop him back then. Now,” she holds out her hand, “take off your time belt and give it to me.”

Klaudia frowns. “Why?”

“The disk is magnetic. Your time belt will damage it if you get it too close. That’s why you need to put the disk in the protective bag before you come back up here.”

“What if something goes wrong and I get stuck here?” protests Klaudia.

“Just stay away from electricity,” says Asta. “It will jump you out of frozen time. Now go fetch. You have all the time you need.”

Klaudia becomes aware of the silence that stretches out across the roof tops, and the water hanging still all around. Indeed, she reflects, for one moment, this busy world feels quite lonely. She removes her belt, hands it to Asta, then clambers carefully over the guttering and down a drainpipe. As she moves, water collects on her suit, and she is quite wet as she reaches the ground. It does not drip from her clothes, so she leans down, gathers some suit material in her hand, and squeezes. The water emerges from her fist, but does not drop to the ground, instead floating in the air next to her legs.

“I did not think it would work like that,” she mutters to herself.

“What?” comes a voice from the roof.

“Nothing!” she yells upwards. “Just the novelty.”

“If you want to go sight-seeing, we can jump to the Cretaceous period,” yells back Asta. “Focus on your mission.”

Klaudia smiles, then lowers her head and jumps suddenly, heart beating fast. Through a window of the house, its elderly occupant is staring right at her.

She meets his gaze, mouth open in horror, then she begins to relax. He is as frozen as the rain. Klaudia moves slightly from side to side, his focus does not follow her. She waves her hand, but he does not react. She breathes out, gathers her wits, then walks around the house.

Around the side, a window is open. She reaches through the gap, unclasps the latch, opens the window wide and climbs through. The room is dusty and the air is dry. She takes a few minutes to shake the water from her shoes and clothes through the window, leaving droplets hanging in the air outside.

Her search begins, but she walks right past a boxy beige computer that sits on a desk in an upstairs study. Her own plans come first. Instead she rifles through drawers, rummages in the back of cupboards and lowers her ear to the floor to peek underneath furniture. After scouring three rooms upstairs, her gaze is drawn to a hatch in the hall ceiling.

An attic – that’s where it would be. But quiet now, quiet – sounds will travel up to Asta on the roof. Don’t want any awkward questions.

Using a hooked pole found in a nearby cupboard, Asta opens the hatch pulls down a ladder until it touches the carpet. She climbs up.

It is dark, but her hands find a switch and flick on the light. She briefly muses how that works when the rain doesn’t fall… Then, crawling around on hands and knees, behind an old television, piles of children’s books and dusty bedding, Klaudia finds a small green box with rusty corners.

Inside, there are old black and white photographs. A group of men in uniform. Medals with German phrases etched around the edge. Official documents written with a typewriter, fake passports with different names but the same photograph – the old man downstairs, but with thick hair and angry, vibrant eyes.

Beneath it all, a slip of paper. It is brown with age. On the paper is drawn a faint but detailed map. It points to a building in a street in northern Austria. Wrapped inside the map is a key.

Klaudia puts the map and key into the protective bag, then the bag into a pocket. She crawls backwards out of the attic and down.

As her hands touch the ladder, all the muscles in her body rip into each other. She cries out in pain, and falls to the floor. As unconsciousness descends over her, Klaudia realises that the light switch must have electrified the ladder, and the light came on because someone with knowledge of time travel set a trap…

She awakens a few moments later, to the sound of rain drumming all over the roof, and bouncing off the windows. She sits up, head spinning, and sees the old man standing a few feet away. In his hand, an old German pistol is pointing directly at her chest.

“I was expecting one of you to show up,” he said. “After my secrets! But unfortunately for you, it was a ruse. Just cleverly planted spies acting under my orders. I never invented a time machine in 1941! I am simply going to steal it, now, from you! Hand it over!”

Klaudia puts her hand to her hurting head. “Enough of the theatrics, Grandad.”

The old man stares at her, then his hand drops to his side as recognition spreads across his face. “Petra? Is that you?”

“I do look like mother,” concedes Klaudia. “But I’m not born yet.” She stands up, adjusts her suit, then shouts furiously at her grandfather.

“Why did you electrify the ladder? I have been pushed out of frozen time. My companion is gone and she took my time belt with her! I was going to use it, take it back to you in that basement in Austria to learn how it works. We would have had the world at our feet! Now the opportunity is lost, because of you!”

The old man’s face is ashen. “I did nothing to the ladder! But… what is your name?” he croaks.

“Klaudia.”

His hand draws an envelope from his cardigan pocket, and, shaking, he holds it out to her.

“A letter arrived this morning,” he says. “It’s addressed to you.”

She snatches it from his hand, sees her name on the front, rips it open and reads the neat handwriting on the paper inside. She looks back at her grandfather, fury curling across her brow.

“It says: ‘Maybe you should try again in 60 years.’ It’s signed: ‘Captain Asta, Time Police.’”

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When You Go, You’ll Take a Little Piece of My Heart With You

It had been some time since I last saw Nelisse. Later she would be labelled by the press as The Notorious Dr. Crow, but for now she was still the quiet, slightly awkward fellow scientist I had shared a lab with one long summer years ago. Grey had now started to creep into her hair and the glasses were no longer in evidence, but the familiar bulbous ears and toothy smile remained.

We met in a canal-side café near St. Augustine’s. I did not see her approach, engrossed as I was in the week’s issue of Die globale Zukunft and a spelt croissant. Instead she landed at my table fifteen minutes before she was due, bursting into my concentration like a needle into a soap bubble. I swallowed my irritation and hoisted my cheeks towards my ears while rescuing the croissant from an impending flattening by over-sized handbag.

“I have news, such news!” she gurgled, spittle at the edge of her lips betraying turgid excitement I thought unbecoming of a rationalist. I fell back upon societal prejudices and assumed an announcement of marriage, marvelling briefly at the ability of life to find companionship even for such niche compositions, with the usual reassessment of my own chances. I was, of course, mistaken.

“Do you recall my obsession, my life-long focus, my magnum opus, my primary direction?” she frothed. I searched briefly the flashes of memory from the old days, the topic was not hard to seize upon given how frequently she had brought it up at length.

“So you have finally cured death,” I said flatly. “I shall call the committee, is it published?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “As I stated so many times, the goal is transcendence, not avoidance. There is no disease to cure, only a natural imperative to bypass.”

My intended joke about immortality granted eternity to write up one’s research died in my throat, so earnest was her tone, so serious. I considered the likelihood that she had finally succumbed to the insanity that threatens all in our profession, then reflected that such a state might well grant success to such a line of inquiry as hers. Perhaps there were new data. I urged her to divulge.

She waffled for a few sentences with jargon clearly of her own devising, before settling on that phrase that would become so familiar to the coming generations:

“Transmission of consciousness,” she said.

“How on earth would you measure that?” I replied evenly. “How would you measure an animal’s ongoing experience as being transmitted to another?”

“Not animals,” said she. “Human trials. One subject. Me, in fact.”

She had definitely lost all grasp on reality, I concluded at this point. How great the fall had been, from such promise of a leading scientist to a crank who forgot the basic rules of experimental design, objectivity and sample size.

“You have transmitted your consciousness,” I sighed, wondering how quickly I could bring this unfortunate meeting to a conclusion. “Into what?”

“Not so much transmitted actually,” she said. “More like shared. Connected. An overlapping of sensory experience, a merging of mental environment such that one mind comes to inhabit two bodies. Like the compound eye of a wasp, such that it sees in many directions at once… two pairs of eyes, two pairs of ears, twenty fingers… two brains, one mind.”

“You have two brains,” I repeated, emitting as many uncomfortable social cues as I could remember how to reproduce. “Where do you keep the other one?”

It was at this moment that a child approached the table, just as suddenly and distractingly as my first guest had arrived. A boy of maybe one or two years, recent acquirer of the art of walking yet long practiced in that of charm, bearing a wide smile and wider eyes. He extended a pudgy finger and prodded my elbow. I glared at him, wishing he would recede. I am not a fan of people in general and immature ones in particular. Yet the child seemed to have a curiosity and that, I suppose, is something a scientist should applaud.

“Err… where is your mother?” I said, loudly and slowly in the manner I reserve for undergraduates.

“No mother,” interjected Nelisse Crow. “Unnecessary. Genetic technology and artificial environments render such primitive mechanisms obsolete.”

I turned to stare at her, then back at the child, who met my gaze with green, unblinking eyes.

“He is… yours?” I said.

“He is not mine,” she replied. “He is…”

“Me,” said the child.

I jumped, knocking the small plate holding my croissant such that it rattled noisily against the glass tabletop, and sending my magazine onto the cobbles. I leant down to retrieve it, took a breath and then re-composed myself. The child’s voice had seemed ill-toned, incongruous. The formation of the sound too well-formed, too… knowledgeable. I shivered.

The boy’s smile broadened.

“Sharing of minds,” he said. “Over-lapping senses. Two bodies, one mind.” The sound of his voice rattled around in my ears, upsetting expectations and judgment of the normal. The words, the intonation, the pattern of speech were those of Nelisse Crow, yet they emerged from the tongue of an infant who should have been just beyond mere noise-making.

I pondered the possibility of a trick. Ventriloquism? But I had never known Nelisse capable of such subtlety, and this realisation twisted my gut into knots.

“What have you done?” I hissed. “What horror is this? What abomination?”

Crow’s brow furrowed, clearly mine was not the reaction she had desired.

“This is how it must be,” she said. “What did you expect? You were aware of my ideas, my approach. You did not bring them along to a conclusion?”

“Ideas, yes,” I said. “Not this, not actual, embodied…” In the moment I realised I was trying to keep my voice down to avoid the child hearing, and yet even that assumption no longer held in the new world that stood at my knee, staring me down with emerald inquisition.

I shall never die,” they spouted, woman and boy speaking in complete unison, same words, same intonation only gender and tone differing, “I will expand further and further, my light shall cross the universe in all directions while you, with you fettered vision and fear shall wither according to nature’s rules…”

They stopped suddenly. Crow sat back in her chair, the boy broke his stare and gawped upward. I followed his gaze.

Surrounding us, all around our table in a tight circle, stood a large crowd of people, silent. Men in suits; grandmothers in brightly coloured coats; waiters; a policeman. Our fellow customers at the café, passers-by on the street. All had stopped what they were doing and gathered around us. None spoke. None blinked.

Through this crowd pushed an elderly gentleman. His manner of movement lit up a stray puzzle piece in my mind. As I pictured peeling back his wrinkles and thick grey hair, recognition surfaced. Here stood Professor Willard Litman. My tutor, my mentor from many years ago who ran that laboratory in which I had first met Nelisse Crow. Nobel prize-winner, hero of mine and one-time surrogate father-figure who had disappeared a few months after I first met him and had been the subject of much media intrigue. I gasped.

He spoke. They all spoke – the crowd. They spoke together, in unison, to me and Crow and the child.

“What did you do?” I screamed at Litman. “What did you do?”

What Wonders Await

They broke the surface of the ocean after several hours of slowly rising. Waves buffeted the submarine, which began to bob up and down, from side to side. William had read about this in books, but never experienced it for himself, and was quite unprepared for the reality of it.

He had lived under the sea since birth, a child of the ocean city of Lienns, sixty-seventh such city to be built and home to a quarter of a million. There was everything down there a boy could ever need, he thought, apart from one crucial element – true adventure.

The submarine hatch hissed as the pressure equalised with the outside. Then lights flashed, the door clunked open, and Will received his first ever taste of fresh night air.

He climbed the ladder up to the outside deck. Tulia followed, grabbing his arm to stop him falling over the side from the unfamiliar motion. Brin came up next, carrying three foldable chairs, which he set upon the deck, and then went back below for bottles of green tea.

Will stared over the ocean. It was dark. A close, comforting darkness, Will thought, until Tulia told him to turn his head upward. Above, a hundred thousand dots of light decorated the heavens, and Will realised that they were much further away than anything he had ever set eyes upon.

The three friends sat in their chairs, drank the tea, drank in the quiet night, and listened to the sound of water lapping against the hull. The vessel swayed like baby’s cradle, and Will found himself quite comfortable despite the vast distances above his head. Lulled into a dreamy state, he wondered how many billions before him had sat in the quiet night air and looked up at the bright green moon.

Habituation, Part III

Continued from Part II.

“I don’t understand,” said Jane. “Isn’t this fulfilling a dream? To actually enter a world that you constructed, Isaac, and brought to millions?”

Isaac shook his head. “Where do you work, Jane?”

“Our office is in central London.”

“How do you get to work from your house?”

“On the Tube.”

“Enjoy it?”

“No, it’s awful.”

“But it’s amazing,” he said. “A marvel. A train that goes under the ground. But to you, with a daily commute, it’s awful. I enjoyed visiting your vision of my world, Jane. But I wouldn’t want to go there every day. That’s not what it’s for.”

Jane looked back into the convention hall, at the long queue of eager enthusiasts that snaked away from her team’s booth. It had grown even during her short conversation with Isaac.

“I think you’re in the minority,” she said. “Many disagree with you. Many want to go to the places you wrote about. They want to see them for real.”

“They are already real,” said Isaac. “In the mind of the reader. Their own version, flavoured by their own life experience. What your gadget shows them is some sort of hyperreality.” He shook his head. “Good luck,” he said. “Thank you for showing me. It’s amazing work, I wish you the best.” He stood up. “But it’s not for me.”

Jane reached up to her head and took her headset off, finding herself back in her office. Her fellow programmer, Brian, looked over.

“How’s the Isaac character?” he said. “Does the game work?”

Jane shook her head. “He doesn’t fit,” she said. “Let’s delete him.”

The End

Change of Tack

Paley found Director Oflake staring out her office window at the park and the sunshine beyond.

“Did you read that report?” he asked.

“Yes,” she sighed. “The first half claimed that the Alcubierre drive we are attempting to construct does not work, and the second half claimed that it will never work. At all. It’s impossible. I didn’t follow all the mathematics but the message was clear.”

“Yes,” said Paley. “Our spaceships cannot go faster than light, and never will.”

The Director rested her chin on clasped hands, closed her eyes and sighed again.

“I spent nine hundred billion on genetically-engineering super geniuses and pairing them with the world’s best artificial intelligence. When is that team going to take a crack at this?”

Paley shook his head. “Unfortunately they wrote the report. They are the ones saying it’s impossible.”

Oflake slammed a fist on the desk. Paley jumped. Then Oflake walked to the window and pressed her palms on the glass.

“This wonderful blue-green marble of a planet that we call home,” she said. “It’s actually a prison. All the science, all the art, all the wisdom, all the music, all the poetry, every life, every love and every death, it’s all been for nothing. Everything will just disappear when the sun explodes and takes Earth with it.”

Paley jumped again as Oflake suddenly screamed at the top of her lungs, banging the glass with her fists, causing a crack to snap across the window pane.

“I cannot believe the universe works like this!” she shouted. “I will not accept it!” She turned and stabbed a finger in Paley’s direction. “We start again,” she said. “Back to first principles, we check everything. Everything. Every last archive, every corner of science, everything. Someone, somewhere in history must have had an idea that we can use. Every avenue will be explored. Is that clear?”

“Yes Director,” Paley bowed. “But while we search for how to escape our prison… may I suggest something?”

“What?” she snapped.

“Well,” he said. “It’s a lovely day outside.”

Starting From Scratch

San was relaxing in the sunshine when Nesse’s voice floated into her mind from far away.

“Guess where I’m calling from!” said Nesse’s voice.

San giggled. “Are you diving through thunderstorms again?”

“No! I’m in a tunnel!”

“Wow. Under the ground!”

“Yes! Tunnels everywhere under the city. Must have been used for transport. Quite well preserved, really. And I’ve found a creature here! I think it’s a yoomun!”

“Human,” San corrected. “A lot of them died hiding from storms and the high temperatures.”

“This one isn’t dead!” exclaimed Nesse. “It’s still breathing. And it’s making a wailing noise. And it’s leaking from its eyes.”

“Wait,” said San, “I can tell you what that means.” She beckoned a bookfly over to where she lay and flicked through the pages. “I think it’s ‘crying’,” she said. “It’s a signal of distress.”

“What do I do?”

“Erm,” more page flicking, “try to cheer it up. Do you know any jokes?”

“Jokes? No.”

“Perhaps feed it?”

“What do they eat?”

“Vegetable matter that grows on the planet’s surface, probably.”

“I have some fruit that I picked up earlier, I’ll try that.”

She heard him talking to the creature. Nesse had a high-altruism brain and loved using it.

There followed occasional statements from Nesse as he narrated getting the creature’s attention, dealing with its fear, coaxing it to eat the gift. Then there was silence for a long while.

“Did it work?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “It died. Must have been the wrong fruit.”

“Probably for the best,” she said. “If you took it up to the surface it would burn. They get cancerous like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Don’t be so negative,” he chastised. “If one survived there might be more. We might be able to set up a breeding programme.”

“Well, good luck,” she said. “Let me know if you need any more help.”

Nesse’s voice faded from her attention. She stretched, yawned and flapped her wings to create a cooling breeze.

Ra’s Art, Part I

“This is the fun you wanted to show me?” Cru shouted over the wind that whipped past his ears.

“Oh no!” replied Ra, as the bird she was riding swooped closer to his. “Flying like this is the best way to get around Yelva, in my opinion… don’t tell my father I said that… but the real fun is in the terraforming!” She waved an arm towards the landscape below them.

They were approaching what looked like a patch of forest. A thick mat of trees extended for several kilometres around the brow and base of a cliff. The trees were green, which, Cru realised, was an unusual sight here. Then he saw a reflection of the sun flickering upwards from the ground – a river flowed in a curvy S-shape towards the edge of the cliff.

Cru looked over at Ra’s bird, but Ra herself had disappeared from its back. She had jumped, falling gracefully through the air towards the water below. Cru’s bird dropped low, skimming the surface of the water at a low speed. A large claw dipped into the river and threw spray in a wide arc into the air. Cru dug his fingers into the feathers from pure fright. His bird’s head twisted back to turn an inquisitive eye in his direction, then his mount tilted to one side and Cru lost his grip. He fell feet first into the water, and fancied he heard a cawing laugh from his ride before he broke the surface.

To be continued…