(Early 21st Century)
‘Ah, come in Rex! Fancy a ‘wee dram’ as you always call it? I know you’re keen on a drop of the single malt…I have a fine Macallan Oak which has just had its 130th birthday‘ Aalok III started to pour without waiting for an answer.
‘Aye, that I am! No water or ice thanks. Since that last trip around the Highland Distilleries, I’ve been very keen indeed.’
‘How was your sabbatical?’
‘Absolutely perfect. As you know, I was following the footsteps of ‘In Search Of The Perfect Dram’ and I am pleased to tell you, the book has really stood the test of time. Hardly anything has changed since Iain M. himself did that epic trip around Scotland.’
Rex sunk into a battered old leather armchair with a tartan car-blanket casually thrown over the back. Aalok had set the scene carefully earlier, to remind Rex of his recent holiday and relax him ready for this discussion, which was bound to be tense in parts.
Aalok himself wrapped his long green body around something looking like nothing so much as an old tree stump. He poured himself a whisky too.
‘Now sir, I know you are not going to all this trouble to make me feel this comfortable because you have something good to tell me!’
‘Sharp as ever, Rex! No, it’s not good news especially as I know you’ve been looking forward to your own Ascension soon. But we’ve recently had some terrible, terrible news which changes everything.’
Aalok looked down, as if wondering where to begin. Rex had never seen the old diplomat lost for words before.
‘What I tell you now must stay between us Rex, or there would be utter panic throughout the Galaxy. Word will get out soon enough but I must tell the Federation first, they must be in the picture, bleak as it is. But you have arrived for your Ascension Evaluation just as I’ve heard myself.’
‘Well, what is it Aalok? Spit it out!’
‘Sixty four billion souls, Rex, sixty four billion of the most promising souls around, right now, gone. Snuffed out in under a week, every single one of them!’
‘What? Who? How?’ Rex felt the ground drop out beneath him and he totally lost his customary cool.
‘The Lysithia. Dead. All gone! Just this morning, I heard from O’KellyIsleyJunior who happened to be passing out that way. He found a great big nothing where a glorious planetary aura should be. He has subsequently done a full reconnaissance on my orders and all the probes on ‘Strawberry Letter 23′ have confirmed it. All life extinguished.’
Rex felt as if he’d been nailed to his chair. His brain seemed to be refusing to function. ‘This is a disaster of such epic proportions…but what could do that to a whole planet? One of the Federation races? No, that’s unthinkable!’
‘It’s very unlikely one of us is responsible, I can’t believe it either, what would be the motive? The cause seems to be a variation of the old human disease ‘Alzheimer’s’ but if so, it’s heavily mutated. There were enough news broadcasts recorded on the planet before it got everyone, to be able to work it out retrospectively. The air samples ‘Strawberry Letter 23′ took confirm it. Mutated or, heaven forbid, let loose on purpose. People got very confused, very quickly. They either stopped looking after themselves and had horrible accidents or got violent. The kids and babies didn’t stand a chance! I can’t bear to think about it.’
‘Are you actually saying it could be deliberate, Aalok?’
Rex sat very still staring at the man who had run the Federation for the last few thousand years. In all that time, nobody had ever seen Aalok show any negative emotion.
Now, he sat there with tears running down his barky old face, staring off into the distance as if he could see it all happening right there before him.
‘They are so far away, even if we had got word earlier, we couldn’t have got there in time to make a difference. We only know about it now because that old reprobate O’KellyIsleyJunior happened to be in that neck of the woods, sightseeing so he says.’
They sat in silence for a few minutes, absorbing the horror of what had happened. Then a terrible thought came to Rex…he tried to push it away but he had to say it.
‘But that means…oh, no! It can’t be true……they were about to…..’
‘Yes, it does. It is. They were. Now there is no other race even remotely ready to Coalesce to bring us all up to DuoDenary status. We are well and truly fucked – as the Vojin would say’. Aalok leaned back around his seat and breathed out, closing his eyes and striving for calm.
Rex took a sip of his Macallen and then leaned back and shut his eyes while his brain raced, computing the different variables.
‘There is only one entity who has a vested interest in wiping out the Lysithia.’
‘I keep trying to convince myself that this entity ….well let’s call it him, as that’s how I knew him….is so far beyond meddling to this degree but I just keep coming back to the same conclusion myself. I knew he was wrangling with some pretty big conceptual challenges and struggling with that, but I never thought he could be capable of evil like this, I always believed that he was basically a good person and that he would come to his senses eventually.’
‘The problem with that kind of intelligence Aalok, is that it often leads to over-thinking and is always prone to extreme cynicism and existential angst.’
Silence fell as the old friends allowed their enhanced brains tick over and compute all the possibilities, such as they were.
Rex opened his eyes and sat up straight. ‘Do you think….?’
‘O dear, I knew you were going to say that!’ Aalok leaned forward and leaned his forearms on his knees. ‘What do you think, is it possible?’
‘Mmmmmmm, could the Vojin be gotten ready in such a short time? They are showing so much promise but they don’t have everything they need to do it, not by a long chalk. That bloody ship going down back in the day, with the Twelve Keys all lost, didn’t help matters!’
‘I’m very aware of that, thank you!’
Aalok sometimes had to make allowances for younger AI’s. Not everyone knew that his Grandfather had been Head of the Federation then or that he’d lost family ancestors on the ship. It still hurt his sense of family honour every time he had to talk about it.
‘But how? Now they’ve entered the Probation Phase of their evolution, we are not allowed to go down there. I only scraped that last holiday in before the embargo. No more so-called messiah’s from outside, that’s the rules, they have to do it all on their own now.’
‘One of them could do it, but they would have to choose most meticulously. They must also be one hundred per cent free of any ‘Messiah Complex’. We must screen against a maniacal ego or thirst for blood and power whatsoever. Remember what happened with that nephew of Ghengis Khan, and the old man himself was bad enough!’
Aalok shuddered at the memory of watching decomposing bodies hurtling over town walls, spreading disease and breaking sieges. ‘Clever bloke though, he had a deep native cunning, which is one thing many of the Vojin have in common.’
‘The trouble is that you never know which ones are going to go too far until it’s too damned late. Such creative buggers, which is why we want them in the Federation, but it’s also why they need strong mentoring.’
Before the words were out his mouth, Rex felt a creeping feeling of dread. He realised there is only one senior enough Race Mentor available, even though the time had come to Ascend himself in a few short months. His assured future seemed to be slipping through his fingers like sand on a beach in the Maldives (another favourite holiday destination).
‘Oh no……you don’t mean me, Aalok! I’m due to retire from all that soon!’ Rex took a large slug of his single malt in a most disrespectful fashion, throwing some down his immaculate linen shirt in the process.
‘I know lad, I know. But who else could do it? There’s nobody of your calibre and experience, with your obsession for late 20th & early 21st Century Human Culture. You are the most obvious and fitting choice’
Aalok stared at Rex as if trying to force him to say yes by sheer force of will. A tactic that had worked many times before but Rex knew he had to come along with the plan willingly or not at all.
He leaned back and closed his eyes again, all dreams of his own Ascension fading like Scotch mist, at least for the next few years. He sighed, knowing that he had no choice but to agree. If his Federation needed him….and he owed Aalok III too. He’d seen him through his own rough patch once and made him the AI he had become today.
‘We would have to look for someone very unlikely. Not least because we’d have to keep them hidden from the other Federation Representatives especially in the early days. The less likely the person, the better. They would have to have some other reason to be wandering about down there and they’d have to be totally alone, with nobody to help them.’
As the perfect kind of candidate popped into Rex’s head, he realised that this would make the person they chose even more difficult to deal with.
Making his job that much harder. He kept quiet to see if Aalok would come to the same conclusion.
‘Yes I agree. And they would have to be unaware of the real mission too. If we pick someone unwilling, to make sure of no power trips in the future, we’d have to come up with a massive incentive for them to do it too. One that’s unconnected to anything off-Earth. Of course, Rex, that would also put both you and the Vojin firmly in the sights of our mutual friend, if indeed he was responsible for the annihilation of the Lysithia.’
They sipped their drinks while turning various ideas over in their head.
‘We are coming up to one of those time / space singularities, are we not? Where you can pop between for a limited window?’ Aalok stood up and started looking around, searching for his comms screen which always seemed to disappear when he most needed it. He didn’t like to use the one embedded in his gnarly old forearm in polite company.
‘Yes, it’s due in about a year. What are you thinking?’
‘How about if we could find someone who’s lost someone, who would do anything to see their loved one again, even for a short time.’ Aalok found the screen and breathed on the button to power it up.
‘Sounds good but how would it help us? We can’t kill them and they’d be missed if they kept disappearing. Which they would have to, at least 12 times.’ Rex could see Aalok coming to the same conclusion as he had and his heart sank.
‘What if we could catch them, at the moment they kill themselves? Then, instead of shipping them off to the Rehabilitation & Reincarnations department, they came to us. Unorthodox but it might work. Of course, we’d have to get the First Key into their possession to smooth the transition from their current location. Even more difficult, I’ll have to get permission from “Her Upstairs” for a mission like this!’
‘Rather you than me!’ Rex laughed, he couldn’t help it. ‘You’d better dust off that old ‘Difficult Conversations & How To Survive Them’ book again.’
‘Are you up for it lad, in principle, though?’ Rex owed him but Aalok thought himself far too much of a gentleman to call his chips in. This favour had to be given freely.
‘Oh I suppose so. After all, what’s one last challenge before I get to Ascend and chill for the next few thousand? And what a challenge, in so many ways! I will have to think of a nice juicy bonus for when I’m finished. Another cultural immersion sabbatical perhaps….’
Aalok put in a request for an appointment with the high level being whose permission he needed for this rather ‘outre’ plan. Then the two friends enjoyed a second large dram before Rex said his goodbyes and headed for an early night.
(Early 21st Century, Light Years Away)
The music pounded through the ship ‘Strawberry Letter 23’. If there had still been a bar in the restaurant of the ‘Renegade Class’ vessel, you would definitely have been able to hear the glasses rattle on the shelves.
O’KellyIsleyJunior sang along, particularly relishing the epic scream punctuating the thunder and majesty of the song ‘Otis’ from the antique, but still epic, hip hop album ‘Throne’ by JZ and Kanye West.
He was very keen on the more melodic type of rap, the kind that sampled old soul tunes and ‘Otis’ was one of his favourites.
The music filled the silence and emptiness of the million light years between its current location and where he imagined all the action happening, back in the Federation.
Although he was enjoying his jaunt around the outer reaches of the Galaxy, O’KellyIsleyJunior still sometimes missed the good old days when he was one of the elite, a fully commissioned AI in command of the finest spaceship in the Galactic Federation fleet.
After he’d been rescued from Earth where he’d crashed (through no fault of his programming he was always at pains to point out at every occasion where the topic came up), he’d been fully refitted from Explorer Class to Ninja Warrior Class and times had never been so good. Excitement and danger didn’t even begin to describe it!
The ship’s capabilities for mayhem and machismo suited O’KellyIsleyJunior, who had a very strong internal image of himself, his essence, the very soul of his AI. He was male, tall, black and very good looking. He also knew that, in his time, he’d have been an epic and worthy mate for any of those Kardashian girls. Voraciously binge-watching their TV series on the History channel was just another in a long list of ‘guilty pleasures’ in the long hops between planets.
The thoughts of all those gorgeous booties and the music together nearly worked to distract him from several other insistently nagging and unwelcome thoughts.
‘Why haven’t they recalled me and SL23 back to active duty?’ O’KellyIsleyJunior asked his domestic drone Hamish McTavish VIII. A rhetorical question, which Hamish tactfully ignored.
Apparently, everything was all kicking off back near Earth and he hated missing out. All right, all right, so everyone thought he had headed off to the far reaches of the Galaxy on an extended sabbatical but it didn’t hurt to check in, did it? Why did that old grump Aalok not get in touch with one of his best ships and favourite Captains?
Hamish carried on hoovering with its extended arm. He was fitted with quite the range of domestic gadgets and had a long internal list of jobs to be done. Today is the day that not one single space mite would be taking up residence on the top of the rafters in the room where O’KellyIsleyJunior spent most of his time.
O’KellyIsleyJunior didn’t bother with a physical manifestation of his body this far out in space, it would have been too wasteful on ship’s resources. He was nothing if not frugal, even if he did have esoteric taste in music (in most of the ship’s Drones’ opinions anyway). He spent plenty on indulging his passions, that was for sure.
With a virtual shrug of his shoulders, putting Aalok out of his mind, for now, he turned it up a notch.
The two drones working on routine repairs down the far end of the ship shuddered. They swiftly moved outside the airlock to escape as much of the noise and vibration as possible.
‘He’s bored, that’s his problem! He should go home instead of skulking about out here. He’s pretending to be too cool for the Federation and the endless sightseeing is just a ruse to enable him not to face that fact.’ one drone muttered to the other as they inched along the outside. ‘Oooh, I can still feel those awful vibrations even this far away!’
Back in the ship, Hamish had finished his dusting. He hovered nearby as it could tell from reading his vital signs via the ship’s life support systems that O’KellyIsleyJunior still wanted to talk.
‘Only 34 hours to Lysithia, try and keep calm, you’ll enjoy watching all those mad little Lysithian’s. Then you can enjoy yourself long-distance betting with your mate GladysMariaKnight and the ‘Midnight Train To Georgia’ about how close they are to achieving Coalescence and joining the Federation!’
O’KellyIsleyJunior still smarted from the beating he’s taken at GladysMariaKnight’s hands at their last game of poker.
He’d embarrassed himself with projecting a graceful rise from the table in anticipation of winning the final hand after going all in when he saw the Ace come on the River to join the pair of Aces in his hand. He’d looked up only to find her projecting an unbearable smug grin and holding a Full House.
O’KellyIsleyJunior deluded himself about being the best Hold’em player in the AI world and of course, he really disliked being beaten by a girl!
‘Funny, I’d have thought the ship would be making ‘tidy up and strap in’ noises by now, we must be close to our approach to Lysithia.’
He activated the long-range viewer and turned the magnification up full. Sometimes you can see an approaching planet long before the machines picked up the ….. Well, whatever it was they did pick up. Background radiation or something, he guessed.
O’KellyIsleyJunior had a special gift. It enabled him to pick up the aura (for want of a better word) of an intelligent species approaching Coalescence . This is partly why he had been picked to do so many of the early ‘search and mentor’ missions for the Federation. Until the fateful crash on earth.
He stared into the screen but it took a couple of minutes for him to realise that where there should be a great, bright, ever-shifting coloured aura, nothing was showing, nothing at all.
Stunned, he had to work hard to process what that actually meant. This most logical of beings, a fully evolved ship’s AI at the top of his game (even if he did say so himself to any Drone in the vicinity) struggled to grasp the enormity of what he saw.
Or the enormity of what it was he didn’t see.
As the full horror of the situation dawned on him, he reached for the ‘Top Secret, Full Blowout Emergency, Do Not Fuck About Pressing This Unless Absolutely Serious’ Button. He needed to contact Aalock fast.
A total void where a planet should be. Lysithia had totally disappeared, along with it’s sixty four billion intelligent beings.
Beings who, until recently, were all quivering with anticipation of being invited to be the next, and most importantly, the twelfth and final member race of the Galactic Federation as it Ascended to the long awaited Duodenary state.
(Earth, Early 21st Century)
The young woman walked quickly along the narrow street as if the demons of hell were after her. Her legs ate up the cobblestones and her hair streamed out behind her as she leaned in against the wind, which funnelled down the narrow seaside street as if it was coming straight from the Arctic to cut right through her. Black clouds scuttered by, over-ready to drop their load of snow on the unwary. It was unseasonably cold for March.
When she reached the gleaming navy door, she stabbed at the brass lock with her key, her hands were shaking with the cold. If she had stopped to look back for a second, she would have seen a tall man in black motorcycle leathers and a gleaming black helmet with mirrored visor watching her from the end of the road. He was leaning on a Harley Davidson, just by the gate to the graveyard of St Mary De Haura Church.
Once inside, Brianne stood with her back against the door, breathing deeply. She stared unseeingly through the house as if it were a foreign landscape rather than a welcome haven. Everything seemed familiar but today it looked like it belonged to someone else.
She walked through to the kitchen and threw her bag onto the kitchen table, hardly noticing that her purse and a palm-sized shell fell out. She turned to flick the switch on the kettle then opened the cupboard to get out a mug. She reached for a wine glass instead. Turning to the fridge she hesitated, as if trying to talk herself out of something, then took out the bottle of sauvignon blanc. She poured a large glass of the wine and, still standing by the fridge, lifting it to her mouth and half drained it.
Brianne sat down at the kitchen table and looked out on the pocket-sized back garden that had once been her pride and joy. It was very bare, cut back ready for spring. A lone robin hopped about on the bird table, looking for crumbs and tilting his head at her but there were no other signs of life. You would never know you were in the middle of the town.
‘Such a wonderful send off, who would have known he was so loved?’ his mother obviously didn’t know Alec at all, confining her limited interest to his infrequent visits to her modern, impersonally decorated bungalow thirty miles away. Beige ruled, according to Alec. He never took Brianne there, only visiting out of duty and guilt. While his mother had undoubtedly loved him in her own way, that love had petrified at the very moment when he left home, when he was no longer an accessory to or reflection of her own life.
Choosing to play Georgio Moroder’s ‘Electric Dreams’ in the middle of the funeral as one of Alec’s favourite songs just proved that. Brianne smiled as she remembered the baffled looks and hastily smothered grins of Alec’s friends as the incongruous guitar solo blared endlessly around the crematorium. She had provided a list of tunes Alex had always said he wanted played at his funeral, but that had largely been ignored.
The one song he’d really loved had been played right at the beginning when everyone was filing in and still chatting. Nobody had heard it and Brianne was still angry about that.
She jumped as the phone rang in her bag and tipped out the rest of the contents in order to get to it before it stopped ringing.
‘You all right? That was a bit of a hasty exit!’ her sister Megan’s voice echoed in the quiet kitchen. ‘Sure you don’t want me to come over?’
‘No, I’ve got to face the place on my own at some point and I just had enough of all that fake chit-chat and everyone smiling with relief it’s all over. For them.’
‘OK, well let me know if you change your mind. See you soon!’
Brianne ended the call and sat in the quiet kitchen still watching the robin, all the more aware of the silence now the kettle had stopped boiling.
I’ll do it when the robin flies away.
She took another mouthful of wine, barely tasting it. Her gaze dropped to the table and she noticed the shall that the stranger had given her at the funeral.
It was flat, chalky white on one side and pearlescent on the other, like the inside of an oyster shell. It was faintly warm to the touch. On the shiny side, a double spiral was engraved and her thumb slowly followed the line around as she held it. It seemed to get even warmer as she held it.
‘Alec would have wanted you to have it’ he had said, shaking her hand after the service and introducing himself as Jockie. Apparently, he had mentored Alec in a kitchen back in his apprentice days. She knew the name, she had heard Alec talk of him many times but had just assumed he was dead, long ago. Alec never kept in touch with people and had everyone tightly compartmentalised.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’ he used to say, ‘And out of sight is the best place for most people.’
Jockie held onto her hand with both of his, for a bit longer than was comfortable. He was tiny and she had to lean in to hear what he was saying.
‘He found it on the beach after one of our epic nights out in the early days and he always loved it. I found it when I was clearing out a box of stuff he left behind when he moved out of our flat. Funny how it always feels so warm. Anyway, you should have it now.’
Jockie hadn’t been at the reception line in the hotel local to Alec’s mother’s house. Typical, Brianne had thought, keep it convenient for you and all his other friends, now I won’t be able to have a drink till I get home. Possibly just as well. She had wanted to ask Jockie some more about their early days chef’ing together but he’d vanished in the melee to get out of the crematorium car park.
She stood poured another large glass of wine, gazing out at the garden again. The olive tree shivered in the wind and Brianne was glad she hadn’t put any pansies in yet. The frost would have killed them by now. It was still so cold, as cold outside as she felt inside.
The robin had disappeared now, gone off hunting over the rest of its territory for something to eat.
Brianne took her glass and walked upstairs slowly, leaving her phone on the kitchen table but still holding the shell. Its warmth was strangely comforting in the cold house. The heating had not yet kicked in and there was no point in putting it on now.
She went to the chest of drawers and put the glass down, heedless of the wet ring it made immediately,. She smiled, thinking how mad Alec would have got, seeing that ring. He was always more house-proud than she was.
She stood at the window for a minute, looking out with unseeing eyes, then took the white boxes out of the top drawer, held neatly together with an elastic hairband. Boxes carefully accumulated over the last month or so, since that terrible morning.
The morning when her world came to an end.
The morning when she came downstairs and found Alec curled up on the living room floor, for all the world like he was asleep. The soft mocha blanket they pulled over their knees on particularly cold evenings, was bundled under his head and a corner was pulled over his eyes. She was glad for that, the quiet horror of it all was too much to take in as it was.
He lay on his side, one hand tucked under the blanket, one hand flat on the floor, long artistic fingers spread out as if to brace himself there. One knee and socked foot was pulled up in a parody of the life-saving position and her heart melted a bit. She knew the shape of that foot so well, she had even drawn it on occasion.
She had called the ambulance but she knew he was dead, she knew by the terrible mottled colour of his hand and arm, where the blood had settled overnight. She didn’t have to touch him, couldn’t make herself touch him, when they wanted her to feel his pulse.
‘He’s gone, he’s gone.’ she had said, the words echoing in her mind ever since.
Brianne pulled the curtains, not noticing that the man in the motorcycle leathers now leaned against the wall just beside her front door, patiently waiting as if to come in.
She sat on the side of her bed and putting the shell down on the bed beside her, systematically took all the pills out of the boxes and made a neat pile on the bed inside the curve of the shell.
Then she swallowed them in batches of ten or so, until all the pills and all the wine was gone. She poured another glass and downed it quickly, to make sure.
She lay down on the bed, pulled the other side of the duvet over her, Alec’s side, and closed her eyes to wait.