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Excerpt for ANTimatter by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



ANTimatter





David Winship

Copyright © 2018 David Winship

All rights reserved.


“We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate.”


Kurt Waldheim (The Voyager Golden Record)







"There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"


Bobby Kennedy


Contents


THE RECEPTION COMMITTEE

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

WHERE ARE THE TOILETS?

ENCOUNTER WITH A BLANID

POINT OF NO RETURN

THE PUNCTURED BALL

PIGEON OF PEACE

THE LIMITS OF THE DIPLOMATIC ARENA

LIFTED

COMPOS MENTIS

ANOTHER BAR, ANOTHER BRAWL

THE QUANDARY

PIGEON OF DISCONTENT

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS

DISCLOSURE

SOME DAYS YOU’RE THE PIGEON…

WE ARE FAMILY





THE RECEPTION COMMITTEE

“Oh my god. This is gonna be weird. It’s like we’re inside a glow-worm!”

“You don’t get glow-worms in outer space.”

“It’s twisting and… uh, wait, it’s getting smaller. And darker. Maybe we’re inside some kind of ghastly space bobbit worm.”

“What the ‘ell’s a bobbit worm?”

“I used to have one in my fish tank. Uh oh. It’s got very dark. Woh-oh-oh-oh-aaaaaarghhh! Now we’re on the outside of it!”

“It’s not a bobbit worm.”

“Are we dead or alive right now? Is this like Schrödinger’s box? What do people think? Am I dead or alive?”

“Both, if you ask me. And it’s obviously not a box.”

“I mean, y’know, conceptually? Wait, I can see a light! There’s a pinpoint of light straight up ahead.”

“Don’t say it. Please don’t say there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Uh oh! Oh no!”

“What is it?”

“Damn!”

If you’re going to travel by wormhole, don’t be drinking beer and eating crisps. I found that out the hard way. So, yeah, wormhole travel - popping down one of those ol’ cosmological plugholes. What did I imagine it to be like? To be honest, when we set out from Earth, heading for the small circumbinary planet known as Smolin9 in the Andromeda galaxy, I was clueless. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Well, of course, I’d made an assumption or two. Everyone does, don’t they? So, this was my main assumption: I thought it'd be like sailing through a trippy, swirling, psychedelic tunnel while floaty orchestral melodies competed with choral chanting in a soul-caressing abstract audio soup. With maybe a bit of the outro to the Beatles’ ‘Day In The Life’ thrown in for good measure. I fully realise that that depiction may not be as good as some of the ones you encounter in the movies and stuff, but hey. Anyway, whatever. As it turns out, wormhole travel isn't anything like that at all. There’s a tunnel, yes. But sometimes you’re inside it and sometimes you’re kind of riding on the outside of it. Nothing is even remotely psychedelic and there is definitely no music. Nothing could have been further removed from my expectation.

The closest analogy I can come up with is that it’s like being propelled into the steepest bend and drop on a roller coaster. And you’re not strapped in. And there’s no hand rail. Okay, I’ll admit it, I’ve never actually been on a roller coaster. But I’ve been on a simulator. Anyway, regardless whether real or simulated, travelling by wormhole is actually like going on a roller coaster that just plain refuses to flatten out. Well, I suppose worse things happen in space – with wormholes, at least it’s not rocket science, so you don’t burn up on re-entry.

Wait, I mustn’t get ahead of myself. I mentioned the Andromeda Galaxy, right? Well, actually, the Andromeda Galaxy is really the M31. No, seriously, if we’re going to be precise (and we are), the Andromeda Galaxy is known to astronomers as Messier 31 or M31. I know this because I worked on a project known as RECONNECT. It was established in 2090 to seek out signals from intelligent extra-terrestrial civilisations. My role had provided me with quite a bit of detailed knowledge about M31, a vast cosmic dance that I might otherwise have confused with a Bracknell bypass. But I tell you what, I couldn’t say any of that knowledge had proved particularly useful up to that point. But just to show that I’d paid some attention to what my scientist colleagues had told me, I’ll tell you some stuff about it. M31 is big. I mean literally big. It boasts around a trillion stars, compared with the Milky Way which only has around two to four hundred billion. With an apparent magnitude of 3.4, it’s bright enough to be seen from Earth with the naked eye on moonless nights. Without wishing to alarm you, I should point out that M31 is approaching the Milky Way at a rate of around 68 miles per second and, in a mere three or four billion years’ time, the two will merge to form a single giant elliptical galaxy. So, don’t say I didn’t warn you! To help you prepare for this momentous event, I’ll maybe provide some more background information later. Actually, now I think about it, the planet may be in a different constellation. Cygnus, possibly. Yes, sorry, it’s Cygnus. So, it’s okay, you can forget about Andromeda and all that doomsday stuff. Besides, we’ve got about three and a half billion years to come up with an escape plan before the two galaxies collide.

. . .

As I tried to haul myself to my feet, it was like my legs just melted underneath me. My landing gear was toast!

“Oh my god!" Aysha exclaimed. "That was ‘orrendous!"

I nodded and yawned. For some reason, neither of us could stop yawning. I also had a headache and my vision was blurry. "It was like... hmm, it was like..." At that point, the roller coaster analogy hadn’t occurred to me and I couldn’t express what it was like at all. It was about as definable as love or the human condition or those witty ripostes that disappear as soon as you need them.

“Well,” Aysha interrupted, “I s’pose you’d expect some physical discomfort when you get sucked into a dimensional anomaly in the time-space continuum, wouldn’t you? Anyway, it’s all over now.”

“Is it though? If it was time travel, perhaps it’s in the future,” I objected, flinching as she aimed a punch at my shoulder. The roller coaster analogy now careered into my head at a frightening speed. “Yeah, you feel like screaming, but you don’t have a voice. In fact, it’s kind of like you don’t even have a body, let alone a voice. And then there’s that moment when you realise it’s definitely not just a simulator.”

Aysha regarded me with a quizzical look. And yawned. “A simulator?” she queried. “What the ‘ell are you talkin’ about? By the way, you were screamin’. And shoutin’ out. I could ‘ear you all the time.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, she said, “At least, I assume that was you callin’ out for a pillow and a blanket? And a vodka and orange? And, uh, barf bags?”

I nodded. That had been right at the start of the trip, before the whole thing had got seriously scary and weird, before everything had become stripped of tangible reality, before we’d been bombarded with sense stimuli - sounds, images, smells, tastes. None of it had offered any kind of coherent narrative, none of it had fitted into a rational pattern. Were those even external stimuli? I didn’t know. I couldn’t tell. Some other pretty bad stuff happened too. Unsavoury stuff. Don’t make me go there. Before long, my brain had started to lose its grip. Memories had started flashing by in a Groundhog Day loop of random recollected moments. To give you an example of what I mean - my dog died eight times during the trip!

Years later, I described the experience to someone in a bar who flatly refused to believe it. He told me that what I had experienced was a common psychic phenomenon – the ‘falling dream’. It is, he explained, an indication of insecurity, instability or anxiety. In some aspect of my waking life, he told me, I must have felt emotionally overwhelmed or unsafe or out of control. According to this guy, a falling dream may also reflect a sense of failure or inferiority, a feeling that you don’t measure up to people’s expectations. Not content with that, he launched into a spirited exposition of Freudian theory and accused me of the most arcane urges and impulses imaginable. He seemed particularly keen to establish how I had landed. Had I landed on my back? Or had my hands broken my fall? Or had I landed in water?

Well, the thing is, it wasn’t a dream, falling or otherwise, and, when the spheroidal mouth of the wormhole had finally disgorged us, there we were - sprawled out on a heavily textured grey magma floor, yawning like basking seals. I noticed Aysha’s face was swollen and puffy as if she’d just gone twelve rounds in a boxing ring. Her eyes were red as if she had been crying for hours, but there was no evidence of any tears.

"It was like being turned inside out!" I said, still struggling to exercise some control over my legs.

"Yeah, okay," said Aysha, grimacing slightly at my exaggeration.

I was all like roller coasters and barf bags and dead dogs and being turned inside out. How could Aysha behave like we had just stepped off a number 26 bus? "Like being turned inside out!” I repeated, determined to get more of a reaction. “And feeling incredibly itchy all over and you can't scratch it because..."

"'Cause your skin's on the inside?" Aysha suggested.

"Yeah. And your internal organs are on the outside!” I was starting to relish the hyperbole now. “And all the loose change comes out of your pockets! Yeah, that's the worst bit - all your loose change comes out and coins are like flying around, hitting your organs! And you’re like, hey, I’ve lost all my change!"

Aysha looked at me askance. "Hmm. Really?" Hauling herself to her feet, she frowned at me. "Your loose change? Don’t you think if you'd been turned inside out, you might ‘ave more to worry about than losin’ your loose change? Anyway, it’s not you that gets turned inside out. It’s space-time itself. In a wormhole, space-time is so curved that it kinda doubles back on itself.”

I stood up, took a slow and overly exaggerated stride and said, “That’s one small step for…” It was one giant dig in the ribs for me as Aysha put paid to my clowning around. I don’t know if it was the blow from her fist or all the talk about barf bags, but a pang of nausea welled up and I started sweating profusely. The weightlessness you encounter during wormhole travel completely confuses your body. Your inner ear cannot reliably judge up from down and your balance gets thrown out of whack. I moved my head too quickly, my stomach flipped and before I could do anything about it, my whole body heaved and I was back on my knees, vomiting like crazy.

. . .

I suppose I should tell you a bit about how we came to be in this pickle. And it wasn’t by means of any contraption I’d built in my garden shed. As I mentioned before, I’d been involved in a project on Earth called RECONNECT, conceived to facilitate scientific research into intelligent alien life in the wake of my grandmother’s encounters with extra-terrestrials during the early part of the twenty-first century.

Actually, I need to take you back a bit further in time. Some of you may be aware that Voyager 1 was launched by NASA way back in 1977? Well, that space probe, along with its golden record containing greetings, pictures and audio-visual information from Earth, eventually got picked up by a pair of itinerant spacecombers from a planet known as Morys Minor. As a direct consequence, one of them, smolin9, visited Earth to determine its suitability for colonisation. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, our beloved planet got rejected, because, apparently (and, I suppose, not surprisingly), it exceeded volatility thresholds. You’re not going to believe this, but during his time on Earth, smolin9 married my grandmother, Melinda Hill of Camden in London, and the pair of them travelled by wormhole to Morys Minor. To her amazement, she was obliged to undergo a surgical procedure relating to her heart tissue (essential for the production of special blue blood cells required for survival on the planet). She didn’t find out until it was too late, but such operations were irreversible. It meant she could not return to Earth, unless she could find a Mortian heart donor - apparently, Mortian hearts function perfectly on both Morys Minor and Earth. Luckily, the situation resolved itself when an extraordinary set of misunderstandings led to smolin9’s associate, polkingbeal67, swapping hearts with her.

You’re still with me, right? Well, her situation became even stranger when, for some curious reason, the ancient, ailing Mortian leader decided to name her (my grandmother) as his successor. Long story short, a random series of events led to the tragic death of smolin9, and the planet was subsequently renamed in his honour. Some time later, after thwarting an attempted subjugation of her adopted planet by chilloks - highly developed, diminutive creatures evolved from ants – my grandmother returned to Earth. And polkingbeal67 became the new leader of Smolin9. That all makes perfect sense, right? You’re following me okay?

. . .

Yukawa3, who had accompanied us on the wormhole trip, was a native of this new temporary home planet of ours and a seasoned veteran of wormhole travel. He had assumed his native Mortian form, but it didn’t alarm me – I’d seen him this way before. Mortians are small naked humanoids, no more than five feet tall, with disproportionately large heads, hands and feet. Oily, luminous, almost translucent skin covers their light, spindly frames and wide, lustrous oily-black eyes with greyish pupils dominate the exaggerated facial contours. They have no visible ears and sometimes their mouths keep opening and closing as if they’re gasping for breath. Think H.G. Wells and the Morlocks and then multiply it by a comically gruesome factor of quite a lot. He handed us each a vial of water. Except that it wasn't water. It clearly wasn’t water because it smelt like a burning tyre filled with rotten eggs.

Aysha pushed it away. “No thanks,” she said. “What I need is some chicken soup.”

"Drink it!" he insisted. "It's HDA. I hope that answers your question. You have to take it."

HDA. Oh, yes, now I remembered. We had ingested some of this foul-tasting liquid before we had set out from Earth. HDA stood for Homeodynamic Disruption Antidote and it tasted like, well, burning rubber and rotten eggs.

“You like it?” asked yukawa3.

“Er, yeah,” I said, almost gagging. “In theory.”

“By the way,” he said, “you’ll be pleased and honoured and humbled to know that the planet has had another change of name and it now goes by the name of your grandmother.”

I don’t think I could have been more astonished if he’d mutated into a hippopotamus and started dancing the flamenco. “This planet is called ‘Mrs Hill’?”

“Melinda. It’s called Melinda in honour of your grandmother.”

I suppose I should have felt pleased and honoured and humbled, but I was too bewildered and confused and preoccupied with my wormhole travel sickness. “Why? Why have you changed it? Why my grandmother? Why does this planet keep changing its name?”

Looking around, I noticed we were standing in a large magma chamber, illuminated by clusters of reddish orbs. Nearby, a pale, slimy, elongated face peered studiously at a kind of control panel, misshapen fingers twitching feverishly over a bank of screens displaying rapidly scrolling hieroglyphics. Yukawa3 introduced the stranger as casimir2 but offered no further elucidation. Unfailingly polite, I offered my hand. The first thing I noticed was the firm handshake. The second thing I noticed was the thin odorous fluid secreting from rubbery protuberances on his fingers. As I made a mental note to try noticing things in a different order in future, Aysha and I just stared, entranced.

Aysha whispered to me. “Do you suppose they ‘ave any idea how ugly their children are gonna be?”

The two Mortians hesitated for a moment and then conferred together in their native tongue. Like a runaway train gathering speed, the conversation soon became animated and yukawa3's expression distorted into confusion and then into horror.

"Everything okay?" I asked tentatively. The question landed like a glass of water on an oil fire. Their voices became even more agitated.

Unimpressed, Aysha stiffened, folded her arms in protest and coughed loudly to catch their attention. To no avail. Judging by the way yukawa3 was flapping his arms around, like a fledgling bird desperately attempting a maiden flight, it would appear that casimir2 was delivering some unwelcome news.

Aysha muttered something about the planet clearly lacking the capacity to sustain intelligent life as we knew it. I could see what she meant. Clearly, nothing was going to calm or distract yukawa3 or casimir2 for the time being.

If we had been expecting some sort of ceremony to mark our arrival, those expectations were disappearing like worms in a piranha tank. So, no twenty-one-gun salute, nobody in silk vestments, no formal introductions, no lavish buffet and no flash photography. No ticker tape or baskets of fruit from the local Mortian village. No local dignitaries and their families agog with excitement. Nothing. Surely it wouldn’t have hurt to put up a few streamers? It didn’t feel like we were the first man and woman to boldly go where no man or woman had ever been before.

I took Aysha's arm and we walked unsteadily towards an oval-shaped doorway in the magma surround. It struck me that the surface gravity was remarkably similar to that of Earth. "What do you think's going on?" I asked her.

"Search me," she said. "Hey, though... What about that? We've just been in a worm'ole! We're on another flamin' planet! Hey, I’m an astronaut! I can't believe it! And look at me, I’m wearin’ jeans, for crissakes!"

"Yes, I know." I bit my lip in a mixture of pleasure and pain, anxiety and delight, a cloud of doubt scudding across my mind like one of those clouds that are thick underneath and fluffy on top like a wedding cake or something. "Just so long as we can get back again!" Suddenly, I was really missing even the worst aspects of life on Earth. Joni Mitchell was right - you don't know what you've got till it’s gone. "Aysha, tell me, seriously, are you as terrified as I am?"

“Pull yourself togevver, Neil, dammit!” she admonished me.

She was right. I quickly pondered the ramifications of space travel and concluded that the physical aspect of it is only half the challenge. About eighty percent of it is mental. Let’s face it, this was an opportunity to demonstrate man's indomitable spirit in the face of crushing adversity. And I didn’t like the notion of getting crushed by adversity, or anything else, so I steeled myself indomitably for the challenges that lay ahead. “Don’t worry, I’m up for this,” I assured her. “After all, my grandmother was an intergalactic traveller. I’ve got space in my blood.”

“You’ve also got it between yer ears!” said Aysha scornfully. “Jus’ cos your face looks serious, don’t mean yer bein’ sensible. Hey, this place is a bit underwhelming, isn’t it?”

I looked around. She was right. It needed a lick of paint. And a carpet. A few throw pillows wouldn’t have gone amiss either.

“Were we supposed to bring our own chairs?” said Aysha. And then her voice tailed off. Eyebrows arched in surprise, she was peering intently at something over my shoulder. “O-k-a-y,” she intoned slowly, as if she was trying out the word for the first time. “That’s w-e-i-r-d.”

“What’s weird?” I asked, spinning around towards the rough-hewn opening in the wall. I smiled brightly - I’ve no idea why, but I suppose it could have been the HDA kicking in. Quite honestly, the sight that met my eyes did not warrant a smile at all. No more than ten yards away, two apparently human earthling forms were crouching in the shadows, pointing strange twin-barrelled alien firearms at us. So, yes, that was weird.

Well, here was my first serious brush with adversity. A courageous person would have reacted in a calm and appropriate manner. A courageous person would have managed to stifle the involuntary shriek that issued from the bottom of my soul before I clutched Aysha’s sleeve in abject terror. Well, you know what? I don’t care. Personally, I think courage is overrated. If we hadn’t wasted so many centuries worshipping gods, sports, alcohol and courage, we could perhaps have developed some really useful stuff like invisibility cloaks and shape-shifting. And, at that moment, I’m sure Aysha was fully on board with those sentiments. Possibly. I don’t know. What I knew was that the novelty of all this was starting to wear off.

The two armed men rushed straight past us like we weren’t even there. One of them fired some kind of laser beam at the wall above yukawa3’s head, causing the magma to sputter languidly for a few seconds before it subsided like a pricked balloon. As casimir2 raised his hands in a gesture of peevish surrender, yukawa3 dropped to the floor like a pancake missing the pan. After a few seconds, he opened one eye tentatively to peer at the source of the shooting and then promptly shut it tight again.

“Get up!” barked one of the men, a tall swarthy individual with a callous expression in his eyes. He aimed a kick at yukawa3’s torso, which the latter evaded by adroitly flexing his back. A second kick landed with a sickening thud, but, curiously, the Mortian didn’t flinch and exhibited no sign of pain whatsoever.

Aiming his weapon at the desk, the other man, shorter and chunkier, motioned for casimir2 to move away. Another blast of laser vaporised some dials and instruments on the control panel. “Move this way! Both of you!” he ordered, indicating the oval doorway.

Aysha was the first to recover her composure. “What’s ‘appenin’? Tell me!” she demanded. “Who are you? What’s goin’ on?”

The taller man waited for a few seconds while his accomplice ushered the two Mortians through the doorway. “We don’t want any trouble out of you two,” he said, nodding towards us. “Just stay here out of the way until we get back.”

Before either of us could respond, all four of them were gone, leaving us alone, as startled and bewildered as a pair of blind people at a busy intersection.

Aysha turned to me with an expression of sheer disbelief. “What the ‘ell?” she cried. “Who are they? The ones wiv the guns. They’re like us, right? From Earth?”

“Uh, well yes, kind of,” I agreed. “Humans. From Earth. Just like you and me.” I explained that when my grandmother had first arrived on the planet, the Mortian leader had assumed she would miss the society of her own species, so he had arranged for the abduction of a dozen young adults from various prisons near her home back on Earth (he had figured that their incarceration had rendered them expendable). So, anyway, unless there had been more recent abductees, the two guys with the laser weapons were presumably descended from those prisoners.

“Well, I’m so reportin’ them!” Aysha managed to force a smile.

One thing was clear. Not only was there going to be no welcome reception for us, but apparently, there was not even going to be any coffee. Nothing. No coffee. Just some kind of crazy ambush. No streamers and no coffee. Also… and my brain was trying to avoid processing this… but when that laser beam had demolished the instruments on casimir2’s desk, did that put paid to our prospects of ever…? No! No, surely not. Perish the thought!

I needed a coffee.

Like most people, I guess, I like to swim in the mysteries of life until I’m completely soaked. Then I like to dry off in the warm glow of something perfectly banal, comforting and obvious. If you hang around in the mysteries for too long, you can get all pruned and wrinkly.

Oh god, I needed a coffee.



NO PLACE LIKE HOME

Apparently, Aysha and I weren’t the only ones who were struggling to fathom the unfathomable events that had unfolded since our arrival. To say things had also been turned upside down for yukawa3 is an understatement worthy of a Nobel Prize for Understatement.

In an effort to avoid confusion in the chronology of events, I’m going to tell you what happened to yukawa3 and casimir2 after they were escorted away from us, even though I didn’t learn any of this until later during a conversation with casimir2.

Firstly, I should acknowledge that I might have relied too heavily on casimir2’s version of events. With the benefit of hindsight, I could and maybe should have been a bit more circumspect. Okay, I should have been as wary as a blind horse negotiating a revolving door in the dark, but at the time I had absolutely no reason to doubt his narrative. Forgive me if I’ve also embellished it slightly here and there (casimir2 was such a dour and uninteresting raconteur). So, whatever. This, anyway, in as much detail as I can remember, is casimir2’s account of what happened when he and yukawa3 were escorted out of the wormhole control centre.

During the frenzied conversation Aysha and I had witnessed on our arrival, he (casimir2) had been trying, with only limited success, to explain to yukawa3 that the descendants of the earthling prison abductees had overpowered their android guards and broken out of their enclosure close to the vast methane lake known as nefeshchaya.

The nefeshchaya compound was effectively a colossal greenhouse with a closed earth-like ecosystem. It comprised a cluster of dwelling pods, some dairy animals, a food processing facility, an ice house and a variety of equipment, tools, machinery and materials plundered from farms and factories on Earth. The Mortians, unfailingly benevolent and protective, had bent over backwards, providing sophisticated water extraction kits, a fully sustainable sanitation system, some goldfish, a few MP3 players and a regular supply of cheesy puffs.

When the first generation of abductees had arrived in the early part of the twenty-first century, it had been decided that they should undergo heart surgery, even though the nefeshchaya ecosystem eliminated the need for blue blood cells. These heart mutations, however, were obviously not passed on to the next generation and the Mortians decided against further surgical interventions.

Neither the original abductees nor any of their descendants had been inclined to perceive nefeshchaya as any kind of utopia. Having been wrenched from their home planet in such preposterous circumstances, the former Earth dwellers had seethed with resentment. And with each successive generation, the deep hostility they all harboured towards their Mortian guardians had just grown deeper and deeper.

So, having wrested control of the nefeshchaya boundary, the captives had turned captors, rounding up the entire Mortian population (all thirty of them) with the exception of yukawa3, who had been in transit from Earth (accompanying Aysha and myself), and casimir2, who had been engaged in securing his (and our) safe passage. Once they’d been rounded up, they were all gathered together in a bar room in the nefeshchaya complex.

You’re probably wondering why the population of Melinda was so tiny. The Mortians’ explanation was simple: they had evolved exponentially and had spent eons creating a fair and equitable state where every inhabitant had been scrupulously engineered to fulfil a specific role in society. Once all the roles had been allocated, no subsequent expansion was deemed either necessary or desirable, since any further population increase would have been redundant in terms of their needs as a species. Well, that, at any rate, is my interpretation of the official Mortian doctrine. They genuinely believed they had contrived a quintessence of civilisation whereby no one ever got marginalised, there were never any sources of conflict and the planet flourished like a summer harvest as a result. Since everything was so perfect and since they enjoyed long, healthy, disease-free lives, reproduction was carried out infrequently on a one-out, one-in basis, so the net population remained the same. And no, I don’t mean the female devoured the male immediately after coitus. For one thing, the Mortians were asexual and for another thing, that would be just gross. If one of the thirty died, he or she (they were actually monomorphic or polymorphic or something like that – I could never really figure it out) was replaced by a clone by means of a genetic engineering process. Maybe there was some kind of assignation in a petri dish - I don’t know the science exactly. Anyway, there was none of that unmatched chromosome and sexual procreation business we’re familiar with on Earth. But, once subjected to even preliminary scrutiny, even this feature of Mortian civilisation fell apart like a dried seed pod. Why, for example, had my grandmother been mooted as a successor to the planetary leader if a replacement could have been cloned? And, furthermore, why was polkingbeal67 subsequently promoted to that role? I wondered if replacements for both the leader and smolin9 had indeed been cloned, because, as far as I was aware, the population of thirty had not reduced. These were questions to which I was keen to get answers during my time on the planet.

Anyway, convinced that they had reached an evolutionary plateau, the thirty Mortians saw themselves as paragons of enlightenment. I have since discovered the full extent of their self-delusional bubble. All the grandiose schemes they had concocted to fashion their world according to their academic fantasies had been nothing more than an exercise in developing a superiority complex. Over the course of time, I heard all of their transformational claims, from intergalactic justice to the brotherhood of indigenous peoples. But as soon as they were exposed to even the flimsiest wisp of empirical evidence, those claims disappeared like chillok ninjas during a triple eclipse on Omega Kasan (sorry, but this, according to my grandmother, had been one of smolin9’s favourite analogies).

The Mortians had always been fond of repeating a certain proverb to admonish civilisations they considered to be too belligerent: 'when two goopmutts fight, the grass suffers.' Well, the grass on planet Melinda must have suffered a great deal! And it must have suffered without any blame being attributable to the much-maligned goopmutts, because, in actual fact, the Mortians had waged an endless succession of internal and foreign wars that had decimated the population to the point where they barely qualified as a credible species under the terms of the Intergalactic Charter! Hey, it’s even worse than that. Most Mortians insisted that intervention was always and everywhere wrong in principle. They boasted of the great pains they took to avoid foreign entanglements of all kinds. But the truth is, as I discovered in due course, their other principles led to them engaging in more intergalactic conflicts than any other peoples in the known universe, with the possible exceptions of the chilloks and the so-called Liberators of Trox.

It might seem improbable that the Mortians should harbour such imperial ambitions, given the limitations of their population, but there have been parallels on Earth. Back as far as the middle of the twentieth century, a few guerrillas overcame a French army that boasted an overwhelming numerical, technological, military and economic advantage in the Algerian War of Independence. The North Vietnamese inflicted a similarly unlikely defeat on the American superpower a decade or so later. They prevailed because they learned how to turn a local dispute into a global campaign and how to harness public opinion to their cause (even in the countries whose governments they were fighting against).

As far as I could tell, the Mortians revelled in the moral certainty that all collateral destruction was justified in the name of ideological progress. Incapable of seeing other life forms as being as important as their own, they pursued a ruthlessly self-aggrandising aspiration to impose their own particular brand of civilisation. They were oblivious to the misery they inflicted on others and heedless of the intrinsic value of interdependent species and heterogeneous worlds.

It might be tempting to ridicule their fatuous self-deception, but I think it behoves those of us from Earth to keep shtum and exercise a little discretion, because, until fairly recently, we believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe. We also thought that our planet was flat and that God had created the world in six days. Furthermore, we abused and persecuted all those who denied this consensus. So, yeah, I think we’ll cut them a little slack. Furthermore, it’s probably the case that over the centuries the vast majority of empires on Earth had been founded on blood. Their power had been imposed and maintained through oppression and war. And, if you think about it, the imperial elites justified it by believing they were, like missionaries, magnanimously offering their superior culture to the people they conquered.

Why would the Mortians be any different?

I think I’ve digressed a little, don’t you? Actually, let’s be honest – I’ve been digressing like a giraffe on ice! So, where was I? Ah yes, well, when our safe arrival from Earth had been secured, two of the nefeshchayan earthlings were dispatched by cruiser to pick us all up from the wormhole control centre. As you know, they actually only picked up casimir2 and yukawa3, but their original remit had been to capture all four of us - the two Mortians (casimir2 and yukawa3) along with me and Aysha. And they were supposed to have conveyed all of us to nefeshchaya as quickly as possible, since any delay might jeopardise their (the nefeshchayans’) health. Their vulnerability due to lack of blue blood cells could only be tolerated for short periods of time - extended absences from the special nefeshchaya ecosystem risked causing dysfunction. Anyway, the plan was changed because a serious issue had arisen. Try as they might, the earthlings had failed to persuade the Mortians to perform the necessary medical interventions on Aysha and myself, so we were to be left in the wormhole control centre pending a resolution to the dispute. Apparently, the necessary medical equipment was only available in the control centre.

As for the Mortians, well, casimir2 warned yukawa3 that there were other issues besides the earthling insurgency. One of them, in casimir2’s opinion, was the Mortian leader’s wild and demented state of mind. Incensed by his incarceration and convinced that earthlings were the source of all his problems, polkingbeal67 had allegedly been threatening to hang yukawa3 upside down from the nearest upside-down invercresco tree for the heinous crime of introducing two more earthlings to the planet.

On arrival at nefeshchaya, yukawa3 was greeted by polkingbeal67 with a howl of blood-curdling fury followed by a volley of abuse followed by a frenzied attempt at strangulation with a piece of seaweed, which the hapless victim only escaped by feigning death.

“Good to see you,” said polkingbeal67, recovering his composure in a remarkably sudden transformation. Round his neck was an absurdly ostentatious necklace of long lozenge-shaped crystals. “Good trip?”

Yukawa3 flinched, expecting his head to part company with the rest of his body. “Yeh, thank you,” he ventured tentatively, “but, verily, there’s no place like home. I hope that answers your question.”

“So, you’ve brought two more earthlings to visit us.” The planetary leader’s inflection suggested it wasn’t a question.

Yukawa3 peered at polkingbeal67 with big eyes, as if he was begging for mercy. He started to speak and then stopped himself. Then he gulped.

One forefinger tapping meditatively at his eye patch, polkingbeal67 sat himself heavily into a large, brown leather armchair. “I don’t understand you,” he said. “Why do you do these things? You worry me. Nothing about you makes any sense. Why are you always looking for trouble? Tell me what you want.”

“What I want?”

“Yes,” said polkingbeal67, peering intently, his forehead puckered in apparent concentration. “What do you want? What makes you tick? What is it you really want out of life? Tell me, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Yukawa3 thought for a moment. “Verily, I’d quite like my own TV game-show. Or maybe go on the talk show circuit,” he said. “Wait, I am grown up!”

With all the sincerity of a TV game-show host, polkingbeal67 squinted his eyes and laughed. Louder and louder. The crystal necklace shook violently. He was like the laughing chandelier! Casimir2 does not get the credit (or blame) for that remark.

Before too long, the laugh morphed into a menacing cackle. “I am still your leader,” he declared, examining his reflection in a mirror. “Listen to me!”

Yukawa3 and the rest of the Mortian population gathered in a loose huddle in front of their imposing ruler, nodding in dutiful assent.

Polkingbeal67’s latest accessory from Earth was a yellow and navy golf umbrella. He twirled it with one hand and then closed it with a decisive snap. “Are there any among you who oppose my rule?” he asked in a tone that sounded calm and benevolent.

“Permission to speak?” asked yukawa3.

Polkingbeal67 cocked his head to one side and adjusted his eye patch. “Permission granted.”

“You’re behaving like a total dork!” said yukawa3 with all the confidence that comes with knowing full well that the leader would have absolutely no knowledge of the pejorative earthling term. And then, as an afterthought, he added, “Sir.”

“Thank you,” said polkingbeal67, still projecting an air of casual solemnity. “And I can reassure you that you may rely on me to continue being a dork to all of you during this crisis. I will be both a dork and a pillar of strength and together we will turn this situation around. We will beat this. Wait, what exactly is a dork? Is it like a synonym for a heroic overlord?”

With no trace of a smirk on his face, yukawa3 simply nodded and said, “Uh huh. A complete dork.” Again, he added "sir" as an afterthought. Then becoming serious, he went on, “We’ve got to do something about the earthlings, Neil and Aysha. If we leave them much longer, the lack of blue blood cells will compromise their metabolism and some of their organs may start to fail. And if you think that sounds alarmist, well, it is.”

Polkingbeal67 stared at the dark hardwood floor. The room had been designed to mimic a traditional Irish bar. Dark wood panelling ran along the lower half of the walls. The top half boasted decorative shamrocks and Celtic crosses. Behind polkingbeal67’s chair was a shelf displaying horseshoes and other Irish memorabilia. Signs with neon lights completed the reproduction. “Why should I care about those infernal earthlings?” he mumbled, looking up again and ostentatiously opening his umbrella.

“Neil is Melinda’s grandson,” yukawa3 pointed out. “Remember Melinda? The woman after whom this planet has been named? The woman you gave your heart to?” Realising the comic ambiguity of his words, he stammered, “I mean literally, not, y’know… not figuratively, like… as in any romantic context.”

Polkingbeal67 stood up and made a stabbing motion with the umbrella. “All the more reason to leave them to their fate,” he responded in a surly tone.

“We can’t just let them die!” yukawa3 protested. “That’s barbaric! That would be a flagrant breach of intergalactic treaty stuff or… I don’t know, whatever! I wouldn’t do that if I was you. Come on, you’re not as preposterous as I look. As a planetary leader, you cannot stoop that low.”

If polkingbeal67 had had earthling eyebrows he would have been arching them disdainfully. “So, how low am I allowed to stoop?” he asked rhetorically, before losing his patience. “Oh, do spare me the melodrama,” he drawled, before commencing to pace the room like a caged animal, perhaps an angry gorilla, certainly an animal that could brandish an umbrella anyway. “You’re a traitor!”

“I-I’m not a traitor,” yukawa3 stammered. He racked his brains for a suitable riposte. As was always the case with the hapless yukawa3, the racking thing never produced anything except a stretched-out brain.

“I’m placing you under arrest, you crazy prokaryote!”

“But we’re all under arrest,” yukawa3 pointed out.

Polkingbeal67 was in front of the mirror now, hands on hips, jutting out his chin in what he imagined was a heroic pose. “Arrest him!” he commanded no one in particular. When a flunky jumped forward and seized yukawa3 by the arm, he added, “Don’t let him out of your sight!” Turning to casimir2, he said, “Go and get the attention of one of those snake earthlings! I want you to pretend you’re going to perform the blood cell procedure on the two new arrivals. But, listen to me - you’re actually going to send them back to Earth!”

Casimir2 advised him that the nefeshchayan insurgents had zapped the portal controls and that he didn’t know how much functionality was left.

Polkingbeal67 jabbed the umbrella at the back of a chair causing it to crash to the floor. “Well, find out!” he said tersely. His uncovered eye flashed for a moment, and then he prodded casimir2 in the ribs with the brolly. More than once, apparently.

And so concludes casimir2’s account of yukawa3’s reunion with his fellow Mortians.



WHERE ARE THE TOILETS?

Tic Tacs and ketchup go together like me and Neil Armstrong went to the moon together. We didn’t and they don’t. But a small container of Tic Tacs and a sachet of tomato ketchup were the sum total of edible items Aysha and I discovered during a thorough search of the magma chamber and all our pockets. Well, to be fair, there were also a few vials of HDA. But there’s edible and there’s edible and HDA is about as edible as liquidised skunk.

So, there we were, ensnared in a bizarre situation we didn’t understand, on a planet we didn’t know anything about. And the thing that was really propelling itself to the top of my list of priorities was, well, it was… where were the toilets? We hadn’t thought to ask. We’d been abandoned for at least two hours now and nature has a habit of calling when it’s least convenient. I also really needed a wash, for reasons I may have hinted at earlier. And so, disoriented, discouraged and discombobulated, Aysha and I ventured forth, through the oval doorway, in search of answers to myriad questions about our place in the universe and, er, the location of the toilets. Imagine our frustration as our exploratory (and rather urgent) meander along the labyrinthine magma corridors led to, well, more magma corridors.

Wait. Why were there no signs to the exits? No, never mind that. Why were there no signs to the toilets? So, the corridors eventually led to rooms and the rooms eventually led to the precious porcelain privy. Well, as it happens, no porcelain. On this planet, the loos were inevitably constructed from magma. These were auto-sanitising loos and the waste matter was immediately converted and expelled in the form of tiny spherical capsules of something I assumed to be biogas. I breathed a sigh of relief. At last my brain could focus properly. Clarity was restored. That should have been a good thing, right? Unfortunately, no, it served only to put me in a blind panic as I realised something that had not occurred to me until now - namely that if my grandmother had needed heart surgery to survive on the planet, then it stood to reason that Aysha would require this too. Oh yes, and so would I.

I felt strangely calm in the face of that dreadful realisation and I resolved to wait for the right moment to break it to Aysha. No, okay, you probably guessed - I blurted it out straight away: “Oh my God, Aysha!” I exclaimed with all the composure of a mixed bag of mice and cats. “We’ve gotta have heart surgery!”

Aysha’s facial expressions cycled from dismay to bewilderment and back again as I explained the ramifications. One particular ramification caused her eyes to pop out on stalks like a cartoon character (and I could almost hear a klaxon sound effect)! “Wait,” she said, “So, what you’re sayin’ is this - if we ‘ave this surgery, we can’t go back ‘ome?”

We looked around for somewhere to sit and reflect. Clustered points of crimson light spun slowly and soothingly around us as we walked. After a while, we perched ourselves on a ledge in one of the many jaw-droppingly beautiful chambers we had encountered during our search for the toilets. We’d already seen walls that boasted all the colours of the rainbow, but in this particular chamber the predominant hues were blue and orange. There were columns and arches and pilasters and sculptures of what were presumably illustrious figures of Mortian history. The ceiling was embellished with niches of white magma, polished smooth like marble. The mood was right, so I proceeded to reassure Aysha, employing all my customary charm and tact. Okay, I’ll own up, I just stared disconsolately at the magma walls and I was about as reassuring as a brain surgeon with an instruction manual.

In all probability, the entire complex, with its twisting maze of corridors and chambers, had been formed by volcanic activity thousands of years ago when molten rock had forced its way through the planet’s crust. Subsequently, it had been transformed wall by wall, chamber by chamber, into the architectural masterpiece that our eyes now beheld.

“It’s enchanting though, isn’t it?” I mused, in a pathetic attempt to change the subject. Bathed in a pale blur of blue and orange light, none of this seemed to be the nightmare it actually was. “I suppose this whole facility is under the ground.”

Aysha fixed me with an empty stare resembling that of a Rottweiler with toothache. “Just as well,” she snarled, “because no one will hear your screams when I tear you limb from flamin’ limb! Seriously? Are you jus’ gonna prattle on about the décor?” She seemed uncharacteristically hostile, and I wondered if the wormhole trip had affected her mood a little, or, indeed, if it had totally transmogrified her DNA. Wagging a finger at me, she looked as if she was about to go off the deep end. And then her rant stopped abruptly. She was trembling, and I’ll never forget the look in her eyes. Were we about to get a Jane Austen or a Charlotte Bronte moment? Taking hold of my arms, she clutched me passionately (okay, it could have been savagely). I braced myself as she spoke falteringly (I guess the faltering thing could have been voice-quavering, lower-lip-trembling emotional fervour, but, to be honest, it could also have been incandescent rage): “I don’ know ‘ow to put this,” she mumbled, an apologetic inflection of voice unmistakable (well, apologetic, infuriated, whatever). “I know I came ‘ere wiv you voluntarily, and I know it’s gonna be really tough for you cos you wanted to be a peace ambassador for Earth, an’ you wanted to honour your grandma’s legacy by fosterin’ good relations an’ all, but -” She hesitated as a wave of emotion washed over her. The impact of what she was saying was clearly affecting her now (or, I have to admit, she could have just been preparing to hammer home her point by punching me in the stomach). “This isn’t what I thought I was signin’ up for, Neil,” she said emphatically, thumping the magma with her fist. “I’m not ‘avin’ any surgery! And we’re goin’ back ‘ome straight away! You ‘ear me? Get us back ‘ome, Neil! We’re goin’ ‘ome!” Fixing me with a particularly hard stare, she added “Now!”

So, Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, thug-style. Several seconds passed. I didn’t dare to turn and meet her eyes.

‘Houston, we have a problem’, I thought to myself.



ENCOUNTER WITH A BLANID

First, let me explain something. Aysha and I shared a strong emotional bond. A platonic one, but a strong one. People have sensuality and spirituality. And there is a highly dynamic and complex array of psycho-social phenomena in the landscape of human interplay. Some of it’s rather base, some much loftier. I’m not sure exactly where Aysha and I connected, but it was definitely towards the non-sexual end of the array. When we first met, we were like two doves that had also never met. No, that’s not right. I suppose we were more like a sparrow and a greenfinch. We were like two streams that ran alongside one another, never merging or crossing. Oh, wait, I suppose that’s not a very good analogy, because it doesn’t allow for the possibility of a flood. Well, whatever. I’m sure you know what I mean. And, anyway, there hadn’t been a flood.

So, Aysha was pacing up and down, shooting me the occasional withering glare and sighing irritably at nothing in particular and everything in general.

You know what? I wasn’t cut out for this. None of it - space travel, being friends with people to the point where you have to take responsibility for what happens to them, knowing what to do in adverse circumstances. None of it. My dad used to say there’s no wall so high and no river so wide that you can’t just go home and eat pizza. Well, he was wrong. I sat staring at the floor with a scowl like a dark horseshoe embedded in my forehead.

It makes no difference whether it’s serious or popular, high or low, our culture abounds with examples of people who thrive on adversity – people who know exactly what to do and when to do it. They proliferate in our history books and they swarm all over our newspapers and TV screens. Listen, don’t they have any idea how annoying they are? As for me, when life gives me lemons, I squeeze them. And the juice stings my eyes like hell.

At that moment, I was fretting like crazy about what could have happened to yukawa3 and casimir2. I was fretting about Aysha’s outburst. Obviously, I was fretting about the damage inflicted on the control desk that appeared to configure the wormhole portal. In particular, I was fretting about the way yukawa3 had conducted himself throughout the whole thing. Having enticed us to travel here with him on the premise of intergalactic cooperation, surely it was incumbent on him to ensure our safety and welfare, plus coffee, plus directions to the toilet facilities? Ashamed of myself, bitterly frustrated at my failure to exercise any control over events, I just sat, numb with misery, staring at distorted reflections in the polished magma.

If I’m honest, the thing that was now beginning to bother me more than anything else was the sudden malice in Aysha’s demeanour.

When she had volunteered to accompany me on the trip, I had seen it as a clear sign that our friendship had deepened. What was it she’d said to me? Well, how could I forget? The whole moment was still crystal clear in my mind. Back in my apartment in Nuneaton, yukawa3 had just announced that the chilloks had abandoned their attempt to invade Earth. Wait, I should explain that yukawa3’s mission had been to warn us all that these chillok creatures (I think I mentioned them to you before) had been bent on overthrowing humankind and had been surreptitiously invading the planet. So, anyway, after all this had got resolved, he had asked me to return with him to Smolin9 (or Melinda, as it is now known) to act as an ambassador, a go-between to bring about peace between our two planets. Well, basically, he wanted me to make his planet’s leader see sense. The famously hawkish polkingbeal67 had declared war on Earth because his donated heart had been cremated along with the rest of my grandmother. The coordinates for the wormhole trip had been processed, and I had been obliged to accept or decline the invitation right there and then, with absolutely no opportunity to consult anyone. We had all been standing there - me, yukawa3, Aysha and a mutual friend called Disney – and you could have heard a pin drop. Finally, Aysha had gently clutched my arm and whispered, “You’re not going without me!” The hairs on the back of my neck had stood up and I’d figured the two of us had just made a deep emotional and spiritual connection and… yes, well, I can’t think of a time when my heart had felt so full.

But here, right now, I couldn’t raise any feeling in my heart at all. Becoming increasingly despondent and miserable, I started wondering if a full heart actually weighed more than an empty one. Yes, honestly, that’s what was going through my mind. You see, people always accused me of overthinking, but I had never really been smart enough to overthink things. Underthinking was my trademark. Do you sometimes wonder if you’re a head, heart or hands kind of person? I do. Everyone, it seems, is ruled by one of them – or maybe a combination of them. At that point, I began to contemplate the notion that I might like to be ruled, for a limited period of time, by my left knee, simply because the head, heart and hands have been monopolising things for long enough.

Hell, that was enough! I decided I should definitely get up and do something. Anything.

“Wait here,” I told Aysha. “I’m going to find someone.”

And so I started wandering in and out of chambers and passages (and focus and emotional states). Some of the smaller chambers had frescoed ceilings. Sections of the walls were tapestried and the air was heavy with a musty smell. The larger rooms were similar but more sparsely furnished, and the ceilings and walls were less colourful, apart from the ubiquitous clusters of red light. Some of them contained nothing but long tables flanked with exquisitely carved chairs. None of them offered any solace or diversion. Or people. After a while, one compartment became virtually indistinguishable from the next. Ultimately, they all seemed to coalesce into a single amorphous structure.

Suddenly, the blurriness evaporated and I found myself outside in the open air. Standing in a sort of cloistered quadrangle, I gazed up at a clear azure sky, illuminated by two suns. Yukawa3 had told me that the composition of the planet’s atmosphere was broadly similar to that of Earth, except that it was richer in certain reducing gases, especially methane. It smelled like rotting vegetables and made breathing just a little bit difficult. In the centre of the quadrangle stood a sprawling, apparently inverted tree, tangled root-like branches clawing beseechingly at the sky. It created a threadbare canopy of shade that provided scant reprieve from the searing heat. Scattered haphazardly on the ground, large green pods or husks, presumably the fruit of the tree, lay around in various states of decay. Beyond the tree, a broad expanse of gently undulating plains, broken here and there with scrub and rocky outcrops and clusters of what I assumed must be habitation pods, stretched away to the horizon. At this point, I realised that although the surface gravity was remarkably similar to the Earth’s, it was maybe a bit weaker, so I experimented with a few bunny hops like Gene Cernan on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission…

A small reptilian creature ran out from a crevice and looked up at me with green jade eyes.

“I come in peace,” I muttered tentatively. Too late. Unleashing a cloud of what I soon realised was poisonous venom, it wriggled sinuously away behind the tree. I was standing at least ten feet away, but fine particles immediately reached my lungs. Coughing, spluttering and feeling nauseous, I turned to go back inside, but everything started spinning. I fell to my knees and my insides twisted violently, causing me to roll over and vomit (again).



POINT OF NO RETURN

When I finally came to, I had a kind of hangover like I’d been kicked in the head by a pantomime horse wearing army boots. I say ‘pantomime’ because someone was shouting “It’s behind you!” I was slumped in a padded chair, and on the table behind me was a vial of blue-green swirly liquid. No cherry. No parasol. A man’s tanned and freckled hand seized it and thrust it towards my face. “Take it!” The voice and the hand belonged to one of the nefeshchayans Aysha and I had encountered earlier, a mean-looking man named Ollie. “It’s antivenom,” he said. “You’ve been poisoned by a blanid. Down the ‘atch! Then you’ll be okay.”

Staring at the swirling concoction, I recoiled slightly. I was not sure I could summon the energy to take the glass and lift it to my lips, but I managed it somehow. Noticing for the first time that the liquid emitted a weird, fluorescent glow, I shut my eyes tight and drank it down in one go. It fizzed slightly and tasted sour, but within seconds the tingling sensations in my limbs started to recede and my eyes cleared.

Looking around, I realised we were in the wormhole control chamber in which we had first arrived. And I noticed there were three of us in the room – me, Ollie and casimir2, who was staring disconsolately at the mangled controls.

“Where’s Aysha?” I asked.

“Listen, mate,” said Ollie, who still had a mean look about him, the kind you get from being, you know, mean. “Take it easy. We don’t know ‘ow long you were lyin’ there before we found you.”

Casimir2 made a thin, high-pitched sound like a mouse with its tail caught in a trap. “Oh no! Oh noooooo!” he wailed in a curiously emotive voice, reminiscent of (and about as convincing as) a female opera singer being stabbed to death in the middle of an aria. “This… this isn’t good. I’ve made a full inspection. Although the exit interface is viable per se, all the entry and re-entry controls are functional for voice communication only.”

“I told you, didn’t I?” said Ollie. “I zapped the controls for incoming transport.”

I sat upright and turned to Ollie. “Where’s Aysha?” I asked again, more urgently.

For the first time, I noticed a glimmer of sensitivity in his deep-set eyes. The jaw was still set hard, but the bottom lip twitched slightly. “She’s gone,” he said.

“Gone?” I echoed.

“Back to Earth,” he said, touching his chin nervously. “She’s gone back to Earth.”

Weakened by the effects of not only the blanid poison but also the debilitating impact of blue blood cell deficiency, I was in no state to query what was happening, beyond vaguely trying to process the enormity of Aysha’s sudden disappearance.

Ollie pointed to a small gold necklace lying on a magma shelf. “She left it.”


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