I just finished reading Douglas Smith’s second collection of short stories, called Chimerascope (Chizine Publications). These stories are primarily science fiction but there is fantasy and horror too. I enjoyed Smith’s characterization the most. These personas fly off the page and into your head and force you to think their thoughts. And that’s just about the best that fiction can aspire to.

Here’re the stories:

  • Scream Angel
  • The Red Bird
  • By Her Hand, She Draws You Down
  • New Year’s Eve
  • The Boys Are Back in Town
  • State of Disorder
  • Nothing
  • Symphony
  • Out of the Light
  • Enlightenment
  • Murphy’s Law
  • The Last Ride
  • Jigsaw
  • The Dancer at the Red Door
  • Going Harvey in the Big House
  • A Taste Sweet and Salty
  • Memories of the Dead Man

My favourites were Scream Angel and Enlightenment which are both stories in Smith’s Merged Coporate Entity universe (as is another excellent story, Memories of the Dead Man, which is from the early days of the MCE). The idea of a totally ruthless corporation driving conquest out into the stars using this drug called Scream which turns horror and pain into ecstasy was a revelation. And why wouldn’t such an extrapolation of the corporate greed that can create the tar sands and a thousand other environmental devastations upon the Earth be possible? I like these two stories because they offer hope that there is an answer and opposition to greed in Enlightenment.

The Boys Are Back in Town is an odd story combining a tavern on one of the Toronto Islands and characters from Norse and Greek mythology using mind altering substances to allow the mix. High adventure with a lot of tongue-in-cheek humour. Smith is right. I think Roger Zelazny would have loved it.

My son’s been watching the Saw movies and so I had prejudicial ideas about name of the story ‘Jigsaw’ but it was such a great story and nothing to do with horror. I think the Wormer idea is so cool but I won’t spoil the story by saying what that is.

The evidence for Smith’s talent is in abundance through this entire book. There wasn’t one story I didn’t like, even the horror genre pieces which I’m normally not into. They’re all so different, even the ones set in the same universe, that it’s hard to believe they came from the same person.

Very highly recommended.

Benjamin Button

The F. Scott Fitzgerald short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has apparently little to do with the Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett movie of the same name. I’ve only seen the film (Eric Roth wrote the screenplay with help from Robin Swicord on the screen story) so I can’t say yet but it does look as though the only things preserved from the original Benjamin Button story were the name and the fact that Benjamin grows young. The Wikipedia article seems to indicate that he wasn’t as much of the saint Brad Pitt portrays.
Still, it’s an enjoyable film with good acting by Pitt and Cate Blanchett as Daisy. A historical fantasy much like Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump.
My favourite acting is done by Taraji P. Henson as Queenie of the large heart and Jared Harris as the larger than life Captain Mike.
I really want to read Fitzgerald’s story now but will recommend the movie until then.

Ara and 4207 – Chapter 1 – Walking on Air

It was one of those days where the sky was so blue and the clouds on the horizon so fluffy and tall that you wanted to be on top of them. You ached to climb those white mountains in the sky. And so that is why Ara nodded her head decisively and slid down from the bed. Today was just the day for it.
She loved her attic room except for the fact that there was no way she could see out of either window unless she stood on her tip toes on top of her bed. She stopped and listened. Not a sound from downstairs. Ara yanked on her faded jeans and pulled her favourite T out from inside her pillow case. It had innumerable stains, a few holes and a long patch on a back shoulder. The picture of the gull on it was faded but you could still see some of the detail of the feathers on the two upraised wings. She never put it in the wash because her mother had threatened to throw it out so many times. But it was so comforting as she pulled it on.
She stepped underneath one of the windows and reached her hands up. Her Dad had opened it in the Spring; the days were already becoming shorter so she knew he’d be closing it soon. Ara passed her hands back and forth in the air. A little cool. She’d need a jacket — her grey squall jacket was just the thing! She rooted through the piled up clothes in the closet and pulled out a wad of grey nylon from near the bottom. It was wrinkled but she didn’t care. It went on quickly and she zipped up the front to cover any trace of the gull shirt just in case Mom or Dad were already up.
She tiptoed down the attic steps to the hall in the same mismatched socks she’d been wearing for six days. Ara’s record was eleven but with the first day of school coming in three days, she didn’t think it likely she was going to make it. It was fun to try anyway. She reached the door and opened it a crack. A peek down the hall assured her that no one was there.
She closed the door and tiptoed back up to her room. Stopped again in the middle of the floor, she listened for sounds of her brother or parents waking up. Still nothing. Ara walked over to her desk and pulled the small wooden hedgehog bookshelf out from the edge of the old wainscotting. Between the lip and her desk a small dark space lay in shadow.
The voice that emerged from the darkness was low and a little hollow sounding. “Good morning, Ara. I hope your sleep was restful.”
“Y-y-es. Y-you can come out fort-ty-t-two-O-seven.” Ara spoke in a whisper: from her point of view it lessened her stutter.
A ragged-edged discus-like object floated out and flew up to a few centimetres from Ara’s face. Most of the body was a translucent yellow colour with a three centimetre blue sphere in the centre. As it rotated the sphere looked green in the morning light. It always reminded Ara of a tiny flying saucer made of silicon.
“Thank you, Ara. You are dressed. Are we going out?”
“Excellent. Shall I hide in your hood until we get out of the house?”
4207 ducked behind Ara and, after her hood opened wider, edged itself neatly into it.
Ara walked quietly back down to the hallway. Tiptoing past her brother Will’s open door she saw him lying half out of his sheets sleeping quietly. She continue on past the closed door of her parent’s room and ran lightly down the carpeted stairs into the kitchen.
A bowl on the counter offered two apples and a banana and Ara obliged by stuffing them into the kangaroo pocket of her jacket. She found a package with two cookies from the school snack drawer and started munching on one while writing a note:

Dear Mom and Dad.
I had breakfast and have gone to play in the old field. I’ll be back before lunch.
Love, Clara.

Her parents didn’t like her using her nickname with them. She didn’t know why they insisted on this. It was her name after all. Nearly everybody else, often her school teachers as well, called her Ara.
Satisfied 4207 wasn’t showing in the kitchen mirror, Ara bent down to put on her sneakers. No noise was made as she unlocked and slipped out the sliding glass door at the back. She ran through an opening in the old fence in the backyard that led into a hard-packed earth lane. Seeing big blue portions of the lake through the trees make her stop. It sparkled in the early morning light and made her realize how lucky she was to live there.
She continued down the lane with the bottoms of her pants already heavy from the damp dew. The air was cool but there still wasn’t any sign of frost.
Mr. Ellis was walking with his dog Mooch ahead. Ara stopped running and walked over to Mooch to scratch him behind the ears.
“Hello Ara. You’re up early today!”
Ara liked Mr. Ellis. He didn’t ask her a lot of questions like other adults who seemed to need you to be having a conversation whenever they saw you. She hated the fact that she stuttered despite the speech therapy her parents had her going to. She preferred not having to say anything at all.
“Well it should be a delightful day, today. I hope you enjoy it! Mooch and I had better be going or Mrs. Ellis will give our breakfast to the cat.”
Ara smiled and ducked her head at him. As soon as he and the dog began walking away she was running to where the the lane ended at the border of an old fencerow. It was now considerably widened by ash and poplar trees. She followed a well worn path through the trees and over the rusty fence. As usual she stopped to pick some deliciously sour currants of the bush near the end of the path. Ara stepped around the bush and into the edge of the old field. After looking around to make sure there was no one in sight, Ara tapped her hood with her hand.
4207 came out and hovered by her left shoulder as she strode into the tall wet grasses of the field.
“There are no humans in the field today and it is a beautiful day. Have you decided to try what we have been planning?”
“Y-yes. I w-w-want t-t-t-to climb th-those c-c-c-clouds.” Ara pointed up at some large white clouds over the end of the field.
“Those are cumulus clouds with a base of 1647 metres and top height of 2439 metres. You will be able to breathe that high but it will be very cold. I will put up a shield so you will stay warm and breathe easier.”
“S-sounds g-great.”
“Shall I attach myself to the front of your jacket?”
4207 stuck there like a bulky and colourful band aid. “Ready?”
The lift off into the air was very gentle and Ara could hardly sense their movement. Her feet left the ground although she felt as if she was still standing on something firm. She did not feel frightened, only excited as they slowly climbed above the level of the tallest ashes. Then they shot up into the sky. Ara pulled up her hood as a shade from the bright sunlight.
As she gained altitude Ara could see more and more of Lake Temiskaming stretching to the north and far to the south. The water sparkled less and became a darker, more uniform blue. She could see more of the features of the farms, rocks and woods surrounding Haileybury. Burnt Island, which had always seemed so huge when her father had taken the family boating, was small from this height. And beyond it were the hills and valleys on the Quebec side.
They climbed higher and yet the bottom of the clouds still seemed far above. Ara could now see the other nearby communities: New Liskeard, Cobalt and Ville Marie.
Finally, she was in the shade and her bubble entered the bottom of a massive cloud. For a while Ara could only see white. It seemed like the thickest fog she had ever seen. After what seemed like an endless time, they popped up from the vast, white cloud and slowly drifted down to the surface.
Realizing she was back in control of her movement, Ara bounced a little on her toes. The cloud surface felt like a constantly moving trampoline.
“D-do I weigh anythi-thing?”
“No and Yes. Your weight, I have completely nullified. The air that I compressed around you does have mass, however. By my calculation, this will give you sufficient mass to interact with the clouds but not enough to break through the bonds between the water molecules themselves.”
Ara took a bouncing step and jumped as high as she could. She soared at least three metres above the cloud and came down on the springy surface.
“Do you like it?”
“Y-yes. V-very m-much! Th-thank y-you.”
It took Ara a good five minutes to walk to an edge of the cloud so she could look down. There was a small and fluffy oval indent there and she sat down in this ‘chair’. It was very comfortable. She could see woods and small lakes as well as a few patchwork farms far below. With a huge grin on her face she took out her banana. She couldn’t recall ever feeling happier than at that moment as she slowly worked her way through the banana and watched the land roll by far, far below.
Ara extended the banana peel out at her arm’s length. “Wh-what would happen if I d-d-dropped thi-this?”
“If I permitted it to leave your protective bubble of air it would fall. It would not fall straight because the winds would move it in different directions as it descended. If it landed on a rock it would smash to pulp. A tree would rip it apart. A person or animal would likely be hurt.”
“Oh!” Ara quickly brought the peel back into her lap.
“I could crush it down to be much smaller if you would like.”
The banana peel lifted off Ara’s palm and began to spin quickly. It was soon a blur of yellow and brown. As the brown centre contracted it left droplets of water in a misty globe around it. The water drifted away to her right and suddenly puffed out like a large piece of popcorn as it become a tiny cloud. The small brown centre was about the size of a pepper corn and floated back and dropped in Ara’s palm. It was heavy for such a diminutive object.
“That is what is left of it after all the water is squeezed out.”
Ara shoved it into her pocket as she got up. She had no intention of wasting this opportunity and was soon taking long leaps and trying to see how high she could bounce between fluffy peaks. Half an hour later, just as she was about to take an enormous leap, Ara suddenly dropped into the cloud. She was completely surrounded by white fog again.
“I am sorry, Ara. I have had to hide us. We were just probed by the radar of a CF-18 Hornet jet which is rapidly approaching from the south east. I think it has a radar lock on us. Yes. The jet is now moving toward us and will be here in seconds. We must not be found. I am taking evasive action.”
Ara could see that the round bubble she was in suddenly changed to a bigger shape that edged out to the west like the nose of a plane. Suddenly they shot forward. Ara didn’t feel the incredible speed at which they were flying: she could only see it. Whole clouds were wiping by like streaks of white and it made her dizzy to look at the spinning Earth below. The cone ahead was glowing orange to bright white and flames licked around them, but she felt no heat.
It made Ara feel better to hear 4207’s calm voice. “Have no fear, Ara. You are perfectly safe. We are now holding still and letting the Earth rotate below us. The air is moving past us at over 100,000 km/hr but the force of friction is on the outside of my shield and cannot penetrate in here. You might feel better if you closed your eyes.”
Ara followed that advice and began counting seconds in her head. After ten steamboats, 4207 spoke again. “We have stopped, Ara.”
She opened her eyes and saw they were above an island in a large expanse of water that would have dwarfed Lake Temiskaming. A rounded coastline was to her right.
“Wh-where are we?”
“We have travelled 463 kilometres in little more than 15 seconds. We are now hovering over Michipicoten Island in Lake Superior. It will take the CF-18 Hornet jet at least 13 minutes to reach this location at its maximum speed. But as you can see behind us, we left a trail.” Ara turned and saw a brilliant white line as tall as her house and at least as wide stretching, curved, into the horizon. “I suggest we descend so I can hide from their radar.”
As they dropped, Ara could see that the island was shaped like a fish. The top was angled up in the air and the bottom fins edged into the water. The high cliffs on the north side sloped gradually down to the land on the south. A wide carpet of green conifers was dotted with many small lakes, swamps and a few patches of bare dark-grey rock.
Their descent angled toward the water just off a south-east point. “I am dropping us just off the east coast of the island as I am not detecting any people in that area.”
Ara was surprised that anyone lived on this rugged island but she soon saw white buildings, including a red-topped lighthouse just in from the point and a long concrete breakwater.
“More than one jet is coming, Ara. We must leave the area. I cannot risk being found and I would not want to risk your life.”
“Th-this is m-m-my f-fault. S-s-sorry.”
“No. It is just circumstance. It is like you humans say: ‘we were at the wrong place at the wrong time.’ But now we must hide.”
“W-w-where?” Ara looked around and couldn’t see any place to hide nearby except, perhaps, inside one of the buildings. These showed no sign of being lived in and were probably locked.
“We will go underwater. Their radar and satellites will not penetrate the surface of the water.”
Before Ara could protest they sank toward the water. At first an oval crater formed below her feet and then they quickly descended until she was in a bubble surrounded on all sides by water. It was light blue above her head and dark blue below. She could just make out large algae-covered rocks on the lake bed.”
“H-h-how can you d-d-do this?”
“Using the same principles as with moving fast through the air. I am holding a rigid shell of air molecules in a shape conducive to moving through water. I will stay at this depth so you have some light and I will let the jets pass before we go. The first jet just went over the island.” He paused a moment. “The second jet just followed the first. Here we go. We will go north east to cross to the mainland. It is about 25 kilometres.”
Ara could see that they were moving away from the rocks quickly but it was difficult to judge their speed as after only a short time she couldn’t see the bottom. The water around their bubble looked almost exactly the same in every direction except up where it was brighter. On occasion she would see a fish or a stream of air bubbles zip by.”
“H-h-ow fast are we g-going?”
“We are going north east now at a speed of 37 kilometres per hour. I could go faster but I might kill fish and other organisms. Do you prefer that I speed up?”
“It is more difficult to move fast in water, Ara. Although it is more buoyant than air, it is also much more resistant to an object passing through it. I have changed the molecules on the outside of our rigid bubble to be hydrophobic. This means, like oil, our outer surface resists interacting with water and so there is less friction. I use mass ahead of us to pull us along with gravity. It is much like being pulled on a rope.”
Ara was suddenly a little anxious about the time. “W-when will we b-b-b-be b-b-back?”
“A good question. We will need to avoid detection while the jets are above so that is why I am heading to the mainland at an angle. As soon as I am sure that we are clear of the jets’ search area we will be able to take to the air again. Then I will be able to get you home quickly. Likely before noon.”
After staying below the water surface for half an hour 4207 declared it safe and they rose up and were soon flying once again. They sped just over the water and then along the tops of trees and cliffs. It took longer to get back as they needed to avoid detection at several points such as highways and when a jet screamed overhead. The large con trail in the sky was dispersed away by winds by the time they saw Lake Temiskaming again.
At 11:38 Ara and 4207 settled back down to Earth in the field which they had left five hours earlier.
“We are back, Ara. Despite our incident with the jet I hope you enjoyed walking on clouds.”
“Y-yes I d-did.”
4207 slid back into her hood and Ara walked home. Will was at the kitchen table playing on his Nintendo DS and talking on his cell as she came into the house.
“–Yeah. My sister just came in from outside. –I don’t know. I haven’t been out yet. She’s out in the woods for hours. I don’t know.” He shouldered the phone and shouted at Ara before she could get to the stairs. “Ara.”
Ara stopped. She was surprised that Will would interrupt his call to stop her and anxious to get 4207 back safely in her room.
“Pete wants to know if you saw the meteor early this morning. It was supposed to have gone right over the Lake and left a huge trail in the sky.”
Ara stared back at Will unsure of what she should say.
“Well? Did you?”
“I th-think so.”
Will put the phone to his ear and turned his attention back to his game. “She says she thinks so. Yeah–”
Ara got to the top of the stairs thankful that were no more questions. She hated being singled out. Her brother usually didn’t talk to her all that often. It wasn’t as though he didn’t like her. She thought that Will could have been a lot worse. He never made fun of her stuttering and she was happy that he wasn’t always expecting her to talk to him.
As soon as the door was closed 4207 spoke. “It seems that our little journey to Lake Superior is being blamed on a meteor. That is good news.”
“The less attention that is paid to me the better.”
“M-me t-too.”
She thought of the coming Tuesday with dread. All that attention from others again after a summer spent with 4207 and by herself. The first day of school. Having to talk to the teachers, team projects and, worst of all, having to talk in front of a class.
She lay down on her bed and looked up at the angled bit of blue sky above.
“I-I wish I d-d-didn’t have to g-go b-b-back to school.”
“I think I understand your feelings about school, Ara. But you cannot isolate yourself from those outside your family forever. I was alone for a very long time as I travelled to this star. When I learned that I was coming to a system inhabited by intelligent beings I was very surprised. The probability of this were extremely low. Although I am a device, it was a very good thing to have happened to me.”
“Y-you’re not a d-d-device.”
“We have discussed this before, Ara. I was built to serve my makers. I do have an organic component but I am largely a machine.”
“N-not t-to me.”
“I am, granted, a very complex device and many centuries beyond any machines on this planet but I am still a machine.”
“No.” Ara’s voice is quiet but very sure. Her forehead tense, she took her time and formed her lips before each word. “Y-you … are … my … f-friend.”
A silence descended in the room.
“Thank you, Ara. I am pleased to be your friend. But my point is that I was isolated for many, many years on my way here. It harmed me. My processing was harmed. There was no choice for me. But you isolate yourself and it is probable that this will hurt you. If I am to deserve your friendship I must help you with this.”
“I-I d-d-don’t want anyone more th-than you.”
“Perhaps that is true but you do need them.”

The Serpent Tunnel

Man was walking his golden retriever.
Dog smelled and categorized all scent messages as they went.
Walking. Air Cool.
Sudden tunnel erupted from the grass before them, looped up and down again swallowing them.
Dog and man detected no motion although the direction they walked seemed … well … down.
Walking. Air Stuffy.
The warm but solid walls of the tunnel disappeared as suddenly.
The man saw he was in a large cavern. Purple fungi as large as him sprouting from the ceiling with spore holes pointing down. Ground looked like solidified slime mold and glowing enough to see by.
The dog was in a cacophanous scent array that confused him. He was most disappointed by the lack of information on other dogs but confined his discomfort to a low grunt as he sat.
Standing around. Not knowing where to go.
Walking eventually again. Shoes and claws make sound like on an overly waxed floor.
Pillars of the yellow slime ahead. Not quite translucent… something in there. Interspersed with white octagons on the ground.
Ground tilts up and drops man and dog in an octagon. The shape quickly swooshes up and another column joins the others in the tunnel. No sounds on the floor.

The Oak Door

Consider this story. Perhaps it may enlighten you. You might be more open to the realm of the possible. Then it won’t matter if you think it true or not. One hard lesson I’ve learned during my life is that the form of things, their surface, doesn’t matter. But one can often reach the heart of what matters by following it through. Writing this helped me to get to the heart of something that happened to me a few months ago. It’s a start anyway. May 2008.

Stroke after stroke of the pedals I made my way, head down and panting, up the long hill. Even with the climb, cycling to work was always my favourite time of day. There was no better way to wake up. And the relief of reaching the top of this obstacle and the little dip after was always worth the effort. I could relax in a minor exultation.
So when I see it I’m always happy, even if a little breathless.
I’m talking about the Oak.
It’s on the boulevard and stands out to anyone not entranced by the road. Admittedly, that’s easier from the seat of a bicycle but any way you look at it, this Burr Oak is magnificent, easily among the oldest trees in the city. I’m always struck by its dark, deeply indented bark and the craggy, improbable limbs reaching out in every direction. At least a metre at the base, the sidewalk has to swerve around it. So tall that the hydro lines do not dare to trespass: they cross the road to avoid it and recross immediately after. It is rare that it doesn’t astonish me — on those few occasions when I, likely up too late the night before, miss it, I turn to face it like some green Mecca. The ritual for the Tree acknowledged; I can move on.
This has been a long Winter and Spring is finally, though slowly, mustering itself from the snow on this wet week. During the bleakest months I took up the practise of calling out to the tree as I passed. I know how this could be construed but there it is. I’d say “Hello Tree!” Or sometimes I’d be botanical: “Hi Quercus.” Or use my French: “Salut Monsieur Chêne!” Most often it was simply “Hey Oak”.
The Oak is roughly halfway to work, about six klicks. But it’s more than a milestone. My little gesture is an acknowledgement to natural majesty. A small way to connect with life. A salute for a being at least three times my age.
But that Thursday everything changed. That tree became something more.
Here’s what happened.
There were the usual number of cars steadily exhausting the road for me. Still energized by the hill I could feel sweat trickling down my skin under my layers as I coasted toward the tree. But on this particular morning something was different. It was the tree—in an instant I had somehow recognized that it looked wider and taller. And there seemed to be more limbs jutting into the cold air. I recall that clearly but don’t ask me to explain how that could be.
Suddenly I felt like shouting: there were no pedestrians to trigger any embarrassed restraint. “Hey Oak!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.
The “Hello” I heard in response was nothing like the volume of my bellow. I wonder, now, how I heard it at all. Yet somehow it penetrated helmet, fleece balaclava and morning cobwebs. I craned back and there was a middle-aged woman leaning on the Oak and staring at me. She wore a green and yellow dress that was far too thin for the cold. She gave me the impression of being very anxious about something.
Perhaps it was her eyes. They were an intense green. I quickly turned into the next driveway and circled back on the sidewalk. I stopped, legs astride my bike in front of the tree and the woman.
“Are you OK?”
She smiled briefly, still leaning against the tree. “Sir. I thank you. I am somewhat short of breath but well enough.” She spoke with a British accent but in an old style. Like in that movie my wife loves to watch over and over again. ‘Pride and Justice’ or something like that.
“I’m surprised you’re not frozen dressed like that.”
“Not at all, sir. The cold is crisp but it is the air that chokes me. Such a reek. But I would be very much indebted if you could find it in your heart to help me quit this place.”
It wasn’t only her voice but the words she chose that seemed old. These made her seem older than she looked.
“Well. I’m on my way to work. Ah. Maybe I could get you a cab? There’s usually at least one at the mall up ahead.”
“I thank you, no. But I would certainly like to shake your hand. You were caring enough to stop.” She gestured disdainfully at the cars passing by.
It was an odd request. But seeing no harm and thinking how much I agreed with the sentiment about the cars, I pulled my glove off and reached out. She smiled broadly. Her grip was icy but firm.
“A pleasure, sir. Your kindness was just what was needed.”
She didn’t let go but I tried to keep my voice reasonable.
“Your hand is freezing. Are you sure you don’t want to get somewhere warm?”
She smiled.
“A most excellent suggestion.” Then she stepped back into the tree and vanished. Only her arm and hand holding mine could be seen.
I said nothing. I simply stood there with my mouth open.
I realized her arm was still withdrawing into the tree but very slowly. And she was not letting go!
I looked around. The speeding cars took no notice and I didn’t see anyone else in the windows of the houses or out walking.
No matter what type of crazy thing this woman was up to, I didn’t want any part of it. I tried to pull away gently but had no luck. I tried to quickly wrench my hand away but that just hurt. Her grip felt like nothing more than cold flesh closed upon my hand but it was as unyielding as steel.
I heard the woman’s voice. It was hollow and far away. “Do not let yourself become panicked, sir. I promise you will come to no harm.”
As you can imagine this did nothing to decrease my fear.
I pulled my leg over the bike letting it fall. I set my feet firmly through the crust of grass gritty from the months of snow ploughing. I was about to pull back when suddenly I felt—very wrong. My hand had been forced so the tips of my fingers were against the bark. Something gave way and all the warmth in my body seemed to drain out of my body through the held hand. I remember feeling like I was ripped into two pieces as I was pulled into a tunnel of darkness.

My first impression as I came back to myself was of pleasure. I was sunk into the most comfortable mattress I had ever lain on. It felt wonderful. I wanted to stay absolutely still and keep my eyes closed, enjoying it. The only thing at all wrong was that my mouth was very dry. The air on my face was fresh and cool. It had a slight taint of mould but it wasn’t a bad smell: it reminded me of rich garden earth.
Woods came to mind. Deep woods. And as I opened my eyes the light was dim and myrtle green. Like I was in a vast and dark temple with enormous columns supporting a high lattice roof.
I blinked. What was I doing? I must be incredibly late for work by now. I sat bolt upright sinking further into an incredibly deep blanket of moss. I could feel moisture penetrating my clothes. As I manoeuvred my feet beneath me I sank yet further but managed to stand unsteadily. It was difficult in the shin-deep moss. I was wearing a thin green robe and sandals. Where were my real clothes? My backpack? My bike?
The smell of the moss water on the robe was powerful.
I was in a forest but it wasn’t like any woods I had ever seen. Some of the trees were so massive that I was reminded of an old picture of a car driving through a Californian Redwood. One of them could have taken several cars side by side. Some of the canyons made by their roots were probably as tall as I was. I turned around. They were so large that I could only count six trees in sight. The nearest one looked very much like my Oak although wider and much taller. It had the same bark and haphazard set of limbs far above. But the other trees were so much taller it made me dizzy to follow their trunks up. There was a haze of branches entwining far overhead which kept out almost all the light but that canopy must have been hundreds of metres above. It all made me feel somewhat claustrophobic.
A voice interrupted my survey.
“You are up! Excellent. You are well I trust?”
The woman in green was walking toward me holding a wooden bowl. She stopped as I stared at her. I was at a loss as to what to say.
“Welcome, sir. Welcome to Sidon Tule Fell.”
A mix of anger, wonder and astonishment fought for my tongue but I thought tact might be the best way out of this.
“I… I’ve never heard of it.”
“No. You are the first human to come here since I did many years ago. The Earth has changed much since then. I found the air quite difficult to breathe.”
I realized I was shaking my head in frustration and stopped.
“Um. Why did you bring me here?”
The woman cocked her head to one side, scrutinizing me. “Are you not pleased with this paradise? Is not the air improved at the very least?”
“The air has little to do with anything. I would like to know how I can get back.”
“I shall answer your first question. I brought you here because we could hear you calling through the Oak.” She gestured toward the tree behind me. “You cannot know how long it has been for me. I am content—but—I have missed being with another human so much!”
She looked down into the bowl and a blush crept up her face.
“I’m sorry. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She looked up and smiled. It looked as though she was trying to reassure me. “I understand. I know that you were not calling me. But you were calling to the Oak every day. We heard your call and I was sent to try to fetch you if possible. I have watched you riding your two-wheel vehicle past the oak for a fortnight now. I was exceedingly pleased that you heard my call today. It is now my happy task to make your stay here pleasant.”
“Pleasant? I have to get to work. Your forest is amazing but I’m probably already late for work. Can you show me how I can get back to my bicycle?”
She laughed.
“Oh you needn’t be concerned on that score. You shall get to work on time. I promise.”
“How? I don’t know how I can get back or how long it will take.” I turned to look down at the mossy hole I had stood up from. “Or how long I was lying there in the moss.”
“Please sir. You have only just arrived. Allow me to appeal to your generous nature. It does, I’m sure, seem excessive strange. If you but try to enjoy your visit in our world: it will be of short duration. I cannot bring you back until you have met someone. After that I promise you will decide how long you stay.”
My curiosity was aroused despite my concerns. “Your world?”
“Yes. We are far from Earth. But I am remiss. Introductions are in order. Please allow me to introduce myself, sir. My name is Helen Macfarlane Paisley.”
“I’m Justin Gannon. You will bring me back to—ah—Earth?”
“If you wish, it will surely be as if you never left it.”
I looked around and it didn’t seem I had much choice. There certainly were no other people who could possibly help. The fact that she thought we were on a different world was enough for me to think she was a little disturbed. I certainly didn’t know of any woods near the city that could match these; this forest seemed magically primeval. Who knew where I was? I felt like it hadn’t been long. But I did remember waking up so I was possible they’d moved my unconscious body far.
Helen began again, “Please take this water. The trip has the effect of making people very thirsty.”
The liquid in the bowl had no odour and certainly looked like water: I quickly drank and passed it back.
“Would you consent to follow me to the meeting place?”
I thought I’d better play along. “Okay.”
Her face lit up. “Excellent! We will make haste then.”
After only a few metres Helen led me to a path of black earth which cut deeply through the moss and was obstructed by roots at irregular intervals. I had to watch where I stepped. We walked silently for a little under ten minutes during which I saw an astonishing variety of trees in the dark shade.
At one point I stopped dead in my tracks. There, just twenty metres from the path, stood something completely alien to my experience. It was not as tall as the other trees but still at least a hundred metres high. It had translucent yellow bark and long trailing limbs which looked more like tentacles with suckers than branches with leaves. A wide circle of bare earth surrounded the base of the thing.
“Helen? What is that?”
Helen stopped and looked around.
“That, Mr. Gannon, is an Otumnuh. It is quite like a tree in many particulars. I have been informed it consumes sunlight like our trees. However it also eats any vegetable or animal matter. Not to be approached by the likes of us without protection. The meeting place is just ahead, sir.”
The nearer tentacles shuddered and moved slightly my way. That made me shudder.
At that moment I heard a strange sound from far above in the canopy. Like a horn but the keening note strangled into a thork, thork, thork ending. Everything became silent after that. I turned back toward Helen and took several steps to close the gap to my guide.
“I’ve never seen a tree with tentacles. Where is it from?”
“I am sure I do not know, sir. Some planet or other. We will soon see one who will know, however. He can answer all your questions and more, assuredly.”
The phrase ‘I’m not in Kansas any more’ crept into my head as I followed. Helen certainly hadn’t seemed to be lying as she spoke about other planets and being far from Earth but I’ve heard that insane people often look like they believe everything they say. But what if she was right? That tentacle tree certainly looked strange enough.
We came to a wall of foliage with a bright slit directly above the path. The light leaking through the gap seemed to pulse a little and made the shade seem much more gloomy. It hurt my eyes.
Helen turned sideways and carefully side stepped through the gap. I followed and learned quickly why she was being so careful after a thorn left a burning impression in my shoulder.
At my involuntary gasp Helen stopped and faced me.
“I am so very sorry. How thoughtless and unforgivable of me not to have warned you. The thorns are grown specially to keep the night carnivores out. They are not poisonous.”
“No harm done.”
“We are almost through.”
The light increased at each small step and suddenly I was in extremely bright light. So bright I had to stop and close my eyes. After a moment of adjustment I was able to see that we were in a round clearing about a hundred metres wide but it was still too bright to look up. In the centre of the clearing there was a flat wooden roof covered in fronds erected on four posts where Helen waited. I quickly joined her as much to get out of the strong sun as to get the meeting she had proposed over with.
I noticed something very strange once I was in the shade.
Helen was saying something to me but I missed it.
“What the hell…?” It was the horizon. I knew then that Helen had told me the absolute truth. This was definitely not Earth: the sky was completely wrong. I should not have been able to see the horizon with the clearing surrounded by trees so tall and yet I could. Not only were there impossibly smooth lines converging in the sky but they curved up over an incredible distance. I was immediately reminded of one of my favourite video games. Halo. This was like the Halo ring except with several rings linked together side by side. The way they converged suggested a sphere.
I turned to Helen who, I noticed, was sitting beside a pale-yellow, translucent jelly-like thing . It was about a metre high and sloped down from a rounded point to a width of approximately three quarters of a metre.
“Are we on the inner surface of a gigantic sphere?”
Helen laughed. “Yes! Excellent, Mr. Gannon!”
A melodious voice that seemed to come from the air above the jelly spoke. “Justin Gannon, I applaud your observation skills and your deductive reasoning. Your technology is what I would call, meaning no offence, primitive yet you were able to understand your situation very quickly. Most gratifying! Entirely gratifying! My name is unpronounceable in human language but you can call me ‘Myxomycota’ after the closest life form on Earth that matches mine.”
“That’s a Slime mold, right?”
“Exactly. You must be trained in the biological sciences.” The voice was clearly excited.
“Gratifying again! I too am what you would call a biologist. My people created this container to hold as many life forms as possible from the Universe. Your Earth has a luxurious number of species for which we have an almost complete set of copies in Sidon Tule Fell. That is the name of this section of our container.”
I was curious despite my anxiety about leaving. “What are the lines that converge in the sky?”
An extension of the mold’s body pointed toward the horizon. “Each section is like a stave or rib in one of your wooden barrels. The lines you see separate each section. They are walls approximately six of your kilometres high. These keep the life from different worlds separate and maintain their own environmental requirements.”
Myxomycota indicated the perpendicular direction. “Two sections that way a liquid methane ocean is hosted. I would be delighted to show you the incredibly interesting life forms there.”
Fascinating and intriguing as all this was, a tightening in my gut reminded me that how utterly alien a place this was. I had a family to return to. “Why was I brought here?”
“I understand your concern, Justin Gannon. Not every sentient being can travel here. For reasons we do not entirely understand only certain organisms can move unscathed through our portals. You and Helen are the only humans to have travelled successfully in this way. But it was you who made your presence known to us. Through your oak tree. But the reason why we wanted you or any human here is that we would like to expand our collection of genetic material for your species. We would very much treasure a sample of your DNA.”
“Helen is the only other human here?”
“That is correct.”
“So… you just need a few of my cells?”
“Yes, that is it exactly. It is a pleasure to meet with someone who understands biology.”
“Then I can return to Earth?”
“Your wishes will determine your fate. You are welcome to stay here too. There are many benefits to doing so including immortality. Helen, here, is nearly two hundred Earth years old and completely free of disease. There are many benefits for a biologist like yourself. We pride ourselves on having the finest collection of life in the entire Universe. You will see organisms no one on your planet has seen. It is possible that none ever will. Even though the percentage of worlds with life is terribly small, there is still the biological diversity of millions of planets here to study; some are even richer than Earth in biodiversity.”
It was obviously an incredible offer but there was no way I could so easily leave my life. Even with all its faults, Earth was home. “Thank you for the offer but I can’t leave my family. I must return to my responsibilities at home. You can take your sample and I’ll leave.”
“No need. The sample was taken already when you first arrived but we have rules to prevent us from using the sample without your express consent.”
“You have it.”
“Thank you Justin Gannon. There is just one other matter.”
“Even greater than your genetic material we would be overjoyed with something else you could easily provide us.”
“Which is?”
The voice hesitated. “We would like a copy of you. We can produce clones of you from your cells but they will not have your experience, knowledge or skills. Intelligent life in the universe is especially rare. We have found only about a thousand extant examples. The greatest goal of my people is to preserve all intelligent life that we can. Without a community of sentients, this is a lonely universe indeed. And the gain is especially more valuable to us if it is from a planet that is as threatened as yours. Would you agree to leave an exact copy here on Sidon Tule Fell?”
“I would like to know the consequences of a decision like that first.”
I noticed Helen quickly look at Myxomycota. Perhaps I had hit on the right question.
“An astute query. But a difficult one to answer without a starting point. What kind of consequences would you imagine there to be?”
“I don’t know. If an exact copy of me was made wouldn’t the copy want to return home to Earth too?”
There was a pause before the voice of Myxomycota continued. “Yes. That is a good point. But we could do a little editing. Only with your permission, of course. The copy wouldn’t feel compelled about certain things especially knowing that your original was back on Earth.”
Still it was a strange request. It seemed logical enough but I didn’t know how I’d feel about there being two of me. “I don’t know.”
Helen spoke up at this point. “I am just such a copy, Justin. It was my express choice to return to Earth as well. But, as you can see, part of me remained here. I can still remember everything but some things which were important enough to make me want to return are of less import to me. On the other hand, the original Helen, has long since died on Earth. But she lives on in me. On a purely selfish note I would add that I would very much appreciate some human company. You can’t know how hearing your call through the oak tree made me feel.”
“I see.” My choice was easy to make. There seemed to be no threat to me and I was certainly intrigued by the possibilities. “I agree then.”
There were tears in Helen’s eyes. “Thank you, Mr. Gannon.”
“Yes, thank you Justin. Please place your hand on the soil in front of me.”
I placed my hand down and suddenly a bulge from Myxomycota oozed out and covered my hand like an amoeba engulfing food. Everything blacked out again.

When I woke up on Sidon Tule Fell with Helen and the slime mold I knew I had been the copy all along. There was no urge to leave. Myxomycota began to tell me the story of his race and their unceasing quest to explore and preserve life in the universe. I felt no sense of urgency to get anywhere. I had all the time I could ever want.

The simple problem I was working on couldn’t stop my thoughts from drifting. For the umpteenth time my thoughts returned to the strange incident with the woman at the Oak at the same time. I recall the woman in green had pulled me toward the tree but she had just disappeared into it. The cars hadn’t stopped whizzing past. No one had noticed the green lady. It had all been so very strange. I picked up my bike and began riding quickly to work. It turned out that I was only a few minutes late.
That afternoon I cycled home and stopped by the Oak on the sidewalk. I touched the tree and felt its solidity. There seemed to be no sign that the woman had been there at all. A white-haired man came out of his house and ambled to the centre of his lawn looking curiously at me.
“You have an incredible Oak here!”
“Yes I do. I hope it sticks around for many years.”
“Me too. I hope you don’t mind my touching it.”
He laughed. “Of course not. You’re not the first. As long as no one hurts the tree I am pleased that natural things still have the power to draw people to them.” He turned and was soon gone into his house.
I had the strangest dream that night. I dreamt of organisms from many worlds populating the inside of a sphere billions of times bigger than the earth. And of a green eyed woman pulling me there.