Compostela

The Deep Cut

U2 approached the glowing yellow door marked with the crisper cutting icon and rolled through the puff of light into a sparsely furnished lobby. It was a typical knife joint. Thankfully no one was there.
A section ahead lit up green and he entered the cubical.
U2 settled his wheel into the cradle provided when the door phased back to solid light and waited for the sensors.
A soft chime sounded, the holo recording button began to blink and the melodious voice of TripleNine surrounded him.
“U2. It’s been some time since your last cutting. I looked it up—twenty-one years.”
There was no holo. Physical Counsellors were rarely surface shy.
“TripleNine. You sound well.” The emphasis was not lost on him.
“I’m awaiting a rather complicated cutting to take, okay? It’s a cranial crest with photo sensitive and pattern emitting points. It’s supposed to be the height of plus. But an alarming amount of my skull is visible and, believe me, you don’t want to see that.”
“Okay.”
“So how can I help?”
U2 wondered where to start. “I want some big changes.”
“I assumed you didn’t schedule this just to talk.”
“Right. They’re unusual. I have the crisper code in my mem.”
“Really? Not from the catalogue? That’s somewhat daring for you isn’t it?”
U2 flushed as much as his facial mods allowed. TripleNine was not supposed to pass judgement. In fact, their relationship had always been noninterferal and U2 pushed the blinking holo recorder off as a statement.
“I’m sorry. Transfer the code and I’ll look it over without the verdict.”
“Thanks.” But U2 wondered how long TripleNine’s assurance would last.
He extended his antennule and inserted the end into the flashing blue reader and then allowed access.
The information was more than an entire personabyte but the transfer was quick.
U2 imagined the holoscreens and dat windows TripleNine would be invoking. He was no sci but he knew enough to be sure TripleNine would compare his current makeup with the new data. He wasn’t surprised when reaction came fast.
“You’re changing back to female. And legs? Are you sure about this, U2? This is risk rich.”
“Keep looking, there’s more.”
Finally there was a gasp.
“What the deoxy? This is massive. Nearly the entire genome. No antennule. No remotes. De-holy-Oxy! Fertility? You’re going base!”
“That’s right.”
“I’ve never had a client go base. It’s an incredible amount of cutting. Nearly a day! The large nerve branch integration is tricky. The recovery—well—that’ll be at least one or two months. You’ll need to learn how to walk.”
“I’m thinking three months.”
“That’s an incredible time commitment.”
“I’ve been saving vacation and scheduled a remote transition to a full of six months.”
“Have you—you haven’t gone thodox?”
The name had been whispered with so much revulsion that U2 considered assenting. Choosing thodoxy wasn’t a crime. Technically, those who chose to live wild on the surface were outside of the law and Intergov. They were allowed their freedom as long as no significant ecological or historical sites were compromised. And it certainly wasn’t illegal to go base. Citizens were completely free to any genomic changes that weren’t considered suicide or an inordinate risk to others. That was clear in the 113th amendment. Still it would be a shocking thing to be thodox. But it wasn’t his goal to upset anyone. He liked TripleNine.
“No. I just want to be free of all enhancements and mods. It’s a project I’ve been planning for a long time.”
“It’s your right, of course.” TripleNine was grudging. “And I’ve checked that you’ve got enough credits for the cutting costs which are considerable. That must have taken decades to save.”
“It did.”
“Well. I’m required to give you three questionnaires before I can submit your request. One Intergov and the other two local.”
“I expected that.”
The physical counsellor sighed. “But couldn’t you be convinced to a protoreceptor and a fertility lock? That way you could do basic subnet com and avoid—”
TripleNine had left the silence to grow.
“Yes?”
“Well—avoid uncontrolled reproduction.”
U2 could hear TripleNine’s frightened inflection. He didn’t get angry. After all, he’d been through a lot of soul searching since the idea had popped up. The counsellor wasn’t bringing up a tenth of the horror stories he’d already considered. None of that had been enough to sway him. He’d hardly closed his eyes the night before though three hours sleep was all that his current mods required.
“I won’t change anything. It’s important that the cut is as described.”
“What about pain blockers for the recovery—”
“No.”
“But it will be horrific—”
“I know, go with the questions.”
“Okay, okay. Intergov first. The Intergov of Earth System requires your truthful and unobstructed answers to these questions. Ident yourself and do you solemnly swear to answer each and every question with full truth?”
“I, u276c162t, do so swear.”
“Few citizens elect for genomic change greater than fifty percent from current. Are you fully aware of the consequences and potential danger if you see this procedure through?”
“Yes.”
“Has your Physical Counsellor informed you of potential consequences to your satisfaction?”
“Yes.”
“Who do you authorize to notify your family legality if the procedure causes death or other inconveniences?”
“Citizen ident w843b999m. Updated contacts were provided.”
TripleNine grunted.
“Are you aware that your change to the female gender with viable germ tissue may result in an uncontrolled pregnancy? Meaning the nine month incubation of genetically random biological offspring with all the potential for unplanned variety, disease and death entailed therein.”
“Yes.”
“Will you be responsible for the afore mentioned offspring until such time as you elect to enrol these children in the ident lottery before but not after their thirtieth birthday?”
“Yes.”
“Do you have plans to attempt a pregnancy?”
“No.”
“Are you aware that electing to be without subnet access will result in unavoidable delays should you experience an injury or physical death?”
“Yes.”
“Also that experience starting with your planned change until the afore mentioned injury will not have a subjective recording?”
“Yes.”
“Unless you become unresponsive and are under govcare your lack of subjective recording will make you personally responsible, financially and lawfully, for all that you do from this point until you elect to re-augment. Do you understand this responsibility?”
“Yes I do.”
“That’s it for Intergov. The local gov questionnaires were merged with redundant questions excised. Are you ready or do you need a break?”
“Go on.”
“Very well. The State of Vancouver Island and Washington, this North American Union, and the city of New Victoria require your truthful and unobstructed answers to these questions. Ident yourself and do you solemnly swear to answer each and every question with full truth?”
“I, u276c162t, do so swear.”
“Are you aware of any unprovisioned municipal or state responsibilities which will be affected by your planned cutting within a one year period?”
“No.”
“Have you informed your employer of this cutting?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“It’s none of their concern. With my scheduled vacation it shouldn’t affect their business. If they have issues with my changes they can plead for a certificate of dismissal but I doubt they will.”
“I think you underestimate the magnitude of going base, U2.”
“Is that part of the questionnaire?”
“I was trying to do my job. I’ll continue.”
“Please.”
“Are you aware that arrangements at your expense to pay for your upkeep and remote privileges are necessary during the cutting and convalescence?”
“Yes.”
“Have you made these afore mentioned arrangements?”
“Yes.”
“If you have entered into personal contracts with any individuals within or not part of your family legality have you made arrangements to continue to satisfy those, put them on hold or withdraw from the contract during and after your cutting and convalescence? Please answer in a full sentence.”
“Yes, I have made arrangements to satisfy all my contracts.”
“That’s it. For your convenience I’ve saved your current genome and memories for reconstitution in the event of death or irreversible damage.”
“Cancel that.” U2 hadn’t wanted to use this until after the cutting. “I’ve filed a No Reconstitution contract with a legal AI. I want all existing copies deleted.”
There was a sharp intake of breath.
“You said you weren’t going thodox.”
“I’m not.”
“You’re over 500 and your ident will be forced back into the citizen pool if you’re incapacitated. There will be a new u276c162t.”
“I’m aware.” He wondered how he could make his counsellor understand. “There must be risk or there will be no meaning to my project.”
“But—this is too risk rich. You would be—gone.”
“That’s my decision. And the point. Delete it all.”
“I’m required to act in your best interests. I can’t in all conscience delete anything without verifying this.”
“The subnet address of my AI is in my contacts.”
There was a long pause.
“I’m back and it’s verified.” TripleNine’s voice was grim. “I’m deleting your genome and memories from the public record and my backups. Can you tell me, at least, what kind of project demands such drastic actions?”
U2 responded softly. “Of course.” And he related his plan.
When U2 finished he heard a groan of pain from TripleNine.
“Are you okay?”
“I began shaking my head and it hurt like hell.”
U2 smiled for the first time that day.
“I don’t understand. Have others actually done this? Citizens?
“Not many. It’s not the same now that the surface is mostly wilderness. There was a man who did it eighty-seven years ago.”
“Never-the-less, U2, it still sounds crazy.”
“Just because few do something doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Maybe that’s reason enough. Since I learned of it, the idea of doing this is nearly all I can think of.”
“I can hear that in your voice.”
U2 didn’t respond.
“Would you mind if I followed you with a remote?”
U2 was so surprised he didn’t answer right away. “I suppose not. As long as it stayed out of sight if I actually meet anyone.”
“Thanks. I feel better. The Cutting room is now accessible and I’ll monitor your progress. Your antennule will continue to function efficiently until very late in the cutting. Call if you need me.”
“Thanks TripleNine.”
The wall to the right of U2 flashed away in a burst of green light revealing a corridor. Green dots sped along on the floor showing the way to a light door.
He rolled in and spun on the clearly marked wheel bay. It descended, locked his wheel in place and then the wall behind tilted back.
This was it, his heart raced and he began to sweat. The point of no return.
The palate slid into a bay deep within the knife joint. Where everything happened. The centimetres around his body filled with NeoFreeze gas and his body froze in place. Heart stopped. Lungs immobilized.
U2 hated this part. It always took a few minutes while his brain stem fought to keep a physical body working even though the oxygen, sugars and nutrients were provided to his brain in a steady stream through biomembrane pumps.
The terror and discomfort passed and U2’s brain resumed normal activity. He remoted into work. The plan was to put in his time during the cutting and after to delay the vacation as much as he could. He certainly didn’t want to think about all the crisper edits virally changing his DNA and RNA. All those search and replace edits happening in every cell. And there was macro surgery too using his own force grown cells for new legs, ovaries and everything else.
Enough!
Time to concentrate on work now that his body was in the ‘hands’ of the gene jockeying software.

The Starry Way

Physio. I came to loathe it.
Only an ancient word from school came close: excruciation. A weaker part of me had to be exorcised and sweated out. It wanted me to return to my old life. But I endured.
I’d contracted a physiotherapy company which specialized in extreme cutting recovery. It wasn’t cheap. They’d been successful with an astonishing eleven clients who had gone base. Two had actually run marathons.
Still, the fact that such a company could be viable belied TripleNine’s worries about how radical I was.
Though I might be the only one doing it with No Reconstitution.
One of my therapists, c767e385v, was base and he had actually done an eighty-eight kilometre hike in an inland place called ‘Algonkwin’.
Near the end I hiked several surface trails with C7. We had worked our way from easy through to challenging treks he knew. Going up and down hills was the toughest.
And then there was equipment. The shelter was easy to use and guaranteed to protect against any attack though sleeping in it horizontally for eight hours was still strange. The pack and food packages were simple enough. Next in difficulty after walking was clothes. Especially pants. Very strange but their necessity in protecting from exposure rapidly became evident.

Two months and three weeks after my cutting I was finally judged ready.
The ultraspeed trip across the Union and the Atlantic on the bulletrain seemed new to me though I’d been to Europe before. Perhaps because I was at the beginning of my dream project. The stares I earned from citizens didn’t bother me. Well. Perhaps those from the adults did. It was understandable from kids less than a century.
A hopper took me the rest of the way to what had been a town in France called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Besides an old bridge there was nothing there.
This was the typical start of the Camino Francés or the French route of the Camino de Santiago. A pilgrimage with a very long history and the greatest for ancient Christians since the Middle Ages. I’d done a project on it during the seventh year of my ancient history doctorate. I’d been so impressed that I chose it for my dissertation defence.
This wasn’t the longest pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela but it had been the most popular. Still, 769 kilometres through the European wilderness was nothing to sneer at. There were only six sites on the way where I’d have access to supplies.
Daring for someone new to hiking.
And legs.
The pass above Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port proved a breathtaking challenge. Literally. Twenty-first century hikers did it in six hours. It was a climb of more than twelve hundred meters in elevation and then back down four. Of course back then the trail was cleared. Now it was just ruggedly beautiful.
The cliffs were shockingly dangerous. One misstep and I could plunge to my death. Actually cease to exist. Despite my terror I had never felt so alive.
It took me four days and I locked myself in my shelter and rested for an entire day at the Roncesvalles stop. At first I was concerned with my time but, later, I learned that each ETA was too little time. I comforted myself in how my GPS, my only electronic concession aside from the shelter, showed I was closing the gap as my legs and feet had adapted considerably by the time I resupplied at Pamplona.
Harder than the physical strain was loneliness. No com. No people. Just me. I’d find myself crying. Sometimes from solitude. Sometimes over the view. Though I didn’t admit it to TripleNine, I was secretly glad his remote was along though he only checked on me once or twice a day. Once, when he’d missed a whole day, I couldn’t stand it any longer, I called to TripleNine and was so happy when he responded.
One afternoon, another week in near Los Arcos, I was shocked by a wolf stepping out from thick shrubs ahead. I’d seen plenty of smaller animals and three deer but this was the first carnivore. I knew what it was right away though it was larger than expected. Shaking, I stepped back twice as the thing growled and bared its large yellow teeth.
TripleNine’s metal globe lunged straight at it causing the wolf to bark and crouch down. The canine batted a forepaw at the remote. A blue arc of bright electricity zapped out and the wolf yelped. Whining, it pounced away into the bushes leaving me gasping in shock. After a few long breaths I could speak.
“TripleNine.”
The remote zipped nearer but there was no response and the ‘live’ light on the globe’s bottom was red.
“TripleNine!”
The remote’s light flicked to green.
“U2? What is it?”
“Your remote just shocked a wolf.”
“A wolf. De-oxy! You’re serious?”
“Check the log.” I went into a clearing where some branches had broken and were leaning against a large tree. “I don’t want that happening again. I’m supposed to be dealing with my own obstacles.”
“Just a moment.”
I took out the knife from my belt sheath and cut a thick branch away.
“I’ve seen it. That animal could have seriously hurt you. You can’t expect me to allow that. I’m your counsellor.”
“Then leave and let me be.”
With my knife I snapped and sawed off the many twigs.
“What are you doing?”
I didn’t answer and soon had a section of bark off the top leaving smooth inner wood. I hefted the meter and a half staff. It had a reassuring weight.
“Is that to protect yourself from animals?”
Without warning him I swung at the remote hard. It was far too swift and fled meters above my head.
“Stop that!”
I shook my staff. “You’ve gone interferal. I didn’t spend years planning this to have you ruin it!”
“I’ll make you a deal.”
I swung the stick a few times, revelling in the feel and then let the far end of the staff fall. The truth was I didn’t want him to leave. “What deal?”
“I’ll take off the automatic defence program on the remote if you keep practising with that staff and promise to keep it close.”
I smiled, checked the GPS and began walking again.

Six days later there was a yell that made me start and twist to face off my path. A dirty young man clothed in raggedy animal skins was striding toward me through the undergrowth. I was so happy to see another person I almost laughed out loud. He had an oily fringe of a beard and a long spear. Its large and barbed metal head was viciously thrust my way abortedly a few times.
He spoke in short sentences but the language was new to me. Everything about him screamed thodox.
I tried standard but that had no effect. I switched to the old language of Spain.
“Do you speak Spanish.”
He cocked his head and half grinned, half leered. The young man was only a meter away and within easy striking distance with his spear. He blurted out a few unintelligible words and then knocked at my staff with his spear.
I went to add my left hand to secure my grip but the man flicked it away into the foliage. An urge to strike back at this ignorant man came upon me. I glanced down. I’d untucked my sweater in the heat so my knife was covered. Then the sharp end of the spear sliced in front of me. My knife would be no match for that spear.
Maybe later.
With more furtive pointing and some shouts the bandit made it clear that he wanted me to continue in the direction I’d been headed. A glint in the sky as we walked told me that TripleNine’s remote was following.
But I had told him not to act.
Would he if I was in trouble? Maybe my stubbornness would be my undoing.
We walked on through the sweltering afternoon and just before sunset we were climbing a slight grade. I knew we had come to an ancient town as I felt and then saw rounded cobble stones underfoot. Casting about from side to side I saw stone ruins in the woods on both sides.
A palisade of sharpened tree trunks came into view and a shout from a boy on a raised platform was answered by the waved spear of my assailant.
It only surrounded two very old two-storey stone buildings. From the look of a cleared area beside the palisade it had been decades since it had been claimed from woods as there were piles of stone foundations fencing off the rows of vegetables. The gate opened and questions were fired at my assailant by several men. He answered in monosyllables.
I was tied to a post. The sound of the gate closing made me shake.
A short but very stocky man came out of the nearer stone building and there was sudden silence. All the people put their hands over their hearts and nodded their heads. Including my captor.
The new man’s voice was low as he discussed something with the young man.
My eyes darted to him when he asked me something in Spanish. I was so relieved I blurted out the obvious.
“I don’t know this man’s language.”
“It’s Basque. I’m the only one here who speaks anything else.”
“I’m so glad to meet you. Can you tell this man to release me?”
The short man grinned at me but there was no warmth behind it. He shrugged.
“Sendoa doesn’t have a mate and the girls here are too young.” He approached and grabbed my chin. “You should do nicely. Sendoa’s strong and a good hunter. You could have done a lot worse.”
“I’m a citizen.”
The man’s grin disappeared.
“You don’t look like no Intergov citizen to me.” He pulled out something from a pocket and set it between us so that no one else would see it.
I looked down. It was an electronic device! “Will you contact the authorities?”
He slipped it back into his pocket.
“No. I just scanned you. You’ve got no mods. And nothing to access the subnet at all.”
“I have rights!”
The man didn’t react to that.
“None of that signifies here. The fact that you have an ident doesn’t matter in a thodox settlement.”
“But I don’t want to be thodox.” I was crying again.
He came close.
“You came here. I don’t know why or what you expected when you came into the wilderness with no protection. But you left your cozy safety behind you. Maybe you left for the same reason I did, eh? Adventure? An end to the easy life?”
I stared back at him with an open mouth.
“Well congratulations. You found it.” He turned back to Sendoa and clapped him on the back. He said something else in Basque, clearly for everyone’s benefit. There was laughter all around. Sendoa had a great blushing grin. He untied me, yanked off my pack and pulled me to a small but sturdily built wooden hut against the palisade wall.
Sendoa tied me using a rope attached to the wall and then set his spear beside a low bed made of rough timber and filled with dried mosses.
A small oil lamp was lit and he set my pack on the bed.
He stared at me for a while.
When I couldn’t stand it any more I tried speaking.
“Sendoa. That’s your name right? Sendoa?”
His eyebrows went up a tiny bit. He pointed at himself and spouted in Basque. All I could understand was ‘Sendoa’.
Finally he shrugged and went through my pack. The dehydrated food in degradofoil packets was clearly of no use to him as he tossed one into the stone fireplace after opening and smelling it. He made a pile of my clothes and another of the metal implements.
Sendoa stood and came at me and I tried to grab my knife though my hands were so hindered all I could do was pull it out. I couldn’t even angle it up at him.
Laughing he plucked it away.
He left but soon returned with a few logs which he set under me. Sendoa pushed me down so I sat though the rope held my arms up. Then I was ignored. Many explanations for this behaviour came and went in my terrified mind. All I could conclude was that he was trying to wear me down. And that it was working.
It was day again when something woke me. I looked around. Sendoa wasn’t there. Light was leaking in through the chinks of the palisade wall.
“Psst!”
It was from behind the palisade.
I choked out a “Hello”.
“U2. It’s me, TripleNine! You’ve got yourself in it now.”
“They’re thodox. Only one of them speaks Spanish.”
“I know. I heard you talk with him. I reported this to the authorities but they can’t help you while you’re in a thodox community. You have to get out of there.”
“I’m tied up.”
“How?”
“With rope. To one of the palisade logs.”
“A thin grey rope? Just a few centimetres above your head. To the right?”
I looked. “That’s it.”
“My remote’s laser could cut that. Technically, it’s not inside a thodox community.”
I stood up and put strain on the rope.
“Do it.”
“Okay.” The rope came free suddenly.
“Can you manage to get out now? There’s a ladder just on the other side of the hut you’re in. It goes up to a platform above the wall. Using a rope you could let yourself down.”
I peeked through the crack at Sendoa’s door and rushed back.
“Not yet. There’s too many people.”
“I’ll watch and return when there’s a chance.”
“I can’t thank you enough, TripleNine.”
“Don’t mention it. I mean that. But I’m glad to help.”
“You’re the best.”
By the fireplace I found some sharp flint rocks. Wedging one between two logs I managed to cut the rope on my wrists after what seemed like hours of sawing.
I spent the time repacking my stuff. Sendoa had ruined a few socks and some food packages. My knife was gone. But the rest was still there.
“U2!”
It was TripleNine.
“The man who caught you is entering with a deer carcass.”
“Thanks.”
There was no way to fake being tied up again. If I wanted to use my opportunity I’d have to attack Sendoa. I hefted the heaviest log from my seat that I could wield and pushed myself against the wall next to the door.
When the door opened I swung the log as hard as I could. There was a sickening crunch. But the shaft of his spear and his hand had protected his head. Something hit me in the face.

I came to very cold and with a terrible headache. My neck and face ached. I was still in the hut on my ‘chair’. My arms were tied painfully behind me and I couldn’t move my waist away from the palisade wall. Two oil lamps were lit. I was cold because my sweater and shirt had been pulled off.
I must have groaned.
“U2!”
“TripleNine?”
“I saw you hit him with the log with my infrared camera. I think you broke his hand. Anyway he stripped off your top, tied you up and then went tearing out of there minutes ago.”
There were noises coming our way.
“I’ll be watching.”
The door burst open and several people excitedly talking came in. Including a very old woman, the Spanish speaker, Sendoa and several others. They all looked red in the face and Sendoa was staring at me with huge eyes. He was nursing his right hand against his chest.
The old woman had an oil lamp in her hand and came close holding it to each of my arms. I was so cold I could feel the flame though the air. Then she broke into a fast paced Basque diatribe which made all the others look down at the ground. Even the Spanish speaker. She went up to him and actually slapped him full in the face. Then she spoke slowly, as if he were a child, and pointed at me.
The man faced me with eyes both angry and frightened.
“Why are you here?”
“Your Sendoa caught me—”
“No. No.” He held his hands up and the old woman stood on her tiptoes and slapped him on top of the head. “Why are you in the country of the Basque?”
“I’m doing the Camino to Santiago de Compostela.”
His face fell a little but then he looked a little hopeful. “So you’re a tourist?”
That made me angry. “No. I’m a pilgrim.”
The man turned white and then spoke to the woman in Basque. She yelled at everyone and they all left.
She closed the door, set the lamp down and came over to me. When she whipped out a knife I shied away but she tutted quietly. The woman reached her blade behind the rope tying my waist and cut them through. Then that on my wrists too. Gently she handed me my clothes.

The next morning, well fed and with all my belongings I was back on my way.
TripleNine came to hover as soon as the palisade was out of sight.
“Well?”
I laughed.
“It’s the craziest thing. One of my cuttings was for a skin decoration on my arm. That’s what saved me!”
“Why?”
“It’s the scallop shell—symbol of the Camino. Despite all the centuries they still respect the pilgrimage.”

When I returned to New Victoria after the Camino I was a different person. In my studies pilgrims were often mysterious about what they’d gained and I now understood why. How could it be put into mere words?

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Chimerascope

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 […]

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 so fluffy and tall that Ara wanted to climb up to their tops. And so that’s why she nodded her head decisively from where she stood. Today, among the last days of freedom left, was just the day for it.
She loved her attic room except for the fact that there was no way she could see straight out of either window even as she stood on her tip toes on top of her bed. The air was cool enough to raise goosebumps and her toes relished in the fading warmth from her blankets as she stopped and listened. Not a sound from downstairs. Ara yanked on her worn 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 in parts 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. It was so comforting as she pulled it on.
Springs faintly creaking and legs a little wobbly, Ara stepped gingerly unto her pillow, as close as she could get to one of the windows, and reached her hands up. Her Dad could only just reach them and he had opened both in the Spring; the days were already becoming shorter so she knew he’d be closing them soon. She passed her hands back and forth in the air. Not warm enough for just a tee.
She’d need a light jacket–her grey squall was just the thing! It took some rooting through the piled up clothes in the closet but she managed to pull out a wad of grey nylon from near the bottom. Wrinkled when she shook it out but it would still work just as well. It went on quickly and she zipped up the front to cover any trace of the gull shirt. And there was a hood. Bonus! Just in case Mom or Dad were already up.
Ara tiptoed down the attic steps to the hall in the same mismatched socks she’d been wearing for six days. Her 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. A peek down the hall through the door opened only a crack assured her that no one was about.
Carefully, she closed the door and tiptoed back up to her room. Again, she stopped again in the middle of the floor, held her breath and 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 where it hit the sloping ceiling. Between that and her desk a dark space lay in shadow.
The voice that emerged from the darkness was low and mellow sounding. It always reminded her of a man on a radio station that her Mémère liked to listen to. “Good morning, Ara. I hope your sleep was restful.”
“Y-y-es. Y-you can c-come out fort-ty-t-two-O-seven.” Ara whispered: she felt it lessened her stutter.
A ragged-edged discus floated out and up to several 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. Her friend always reminded Ara of a tiny, silicon flying saucer.
“Thank you, Ara. You are dressed. Are we going out?”
“Y-yes.”
“Excellent. Shall I hide in your hood until we get out of the house?”
“Y-yes.”
4207 ducked behind Ara and, after she stretched out her hood, edged itself neatly into it. But she felt no change to how the hood felt on her neck.
Ara walked quietly back down to the hallway and closed her door carefully behind her. Tiptoeing past her brother Will’s open door she saw him lying half out of his sheets sleeping quietly. His face seemed so relaxed but she tore her eyes away. It seemed to her that looking at him sleeping was an invasion of his privacy. Mom’s prodding still hadn’t made Dad fix his door. He was probably still annoyed that Will had broken it in the first place.
She carefully continued on past the closed door of her parents’ room on the left and then sprinted lightly down the carpeted stairs into the kitchen.
A bowl on the counter offered two apples and a banana and Ara obliged by stuffing the banana into one of the pockets 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 everyone else, often her school teachers as well, called her Ara which was much easier for her to say.
Satisfied 4207 wasn’t showing in the kitchen mirror, Ara bent down to put on
her sneakers. Quiet as a mouse, though stronger and a little bigger, she slipped out the sliding glass door at the back. She ran through an opening in the old fence in the backyard that led onto a hard-packed earth lane.
Seeing big blue portions of the lake down the hill through the trees and houses made her stop. It sparkled in the early morning light and made her realize how lucky she was to live where she did. She’d read about other places in the world but didn’t think she’d like them. How did people who didn’t have a lake know their directions? She shook her head slowly. Her lake was her East.
She turned and ran up the lane with the bottoms of her pants already getting 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 and waved at her. Ara stopped in front of Mooch to scratch him behind the ears.
“Hello Ara. You’re up early today!”
Ara liked Mr. Ellis who she met often one the land. He was retired and 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 lane ended at the border of an old fencerow. It was crowded on both sides by ash and poplar trees. A well worn path wormed through them and over the rusty fence long ago pushed into the mud. As usual, for that time of year, she stopped to pick some deliciously sour currants off the bush near the end of the path. Ara came out from around the bush and emerged onto 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?”
She had been incredibly excited when 4207 had mentioned the possibility.
“Y-yes. I w-w-want t-t-t-to climb th-that c-c-c-cloud.” Ara pointed up at the biggest white cloud over the end of the field.
“That is a cumulus cloud with a base of one thousand six hundred and forty-seven metres and top height of two thousand four hundred and thirty-nine 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?”
“Y-yes.”
4207 somehow had the ability to stick like super glue to surfaces and applied itself there like a bulky and colourful band aid. “Ready?”
“Y-yes!”
The lift off into the air was very gentle and Ara had no normal sense of their movement. Her feet left the ground although she felt as if she was still standing on something firm. It wasn’t at all like when her Dad got the car to go fast downhills or around corners. She didn’t feel scared, only excited as they slowly climbed above the level of the tallest ashes. Then they shot up into the sky though it all seemed eerily like she wasn’t flying at all: as if she were watching it all on a giant movie screen all around her. 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 in two rounded arms to the north and the north-east though the largest part extended a long way to the south. The water sparkled less and became a darker, more uniform blue. She could see farms, rocks and woods surrounding Haileybury. Burnt Island, which had always seemed so huge when her father had taken the family out in the boat, 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 cloud was still above. Ara could see the other nearby communities: New Liskeard, Cobalt and even Ville Marie on the Quebec side way to the south.
Finally, she was in shade and then her bubble entered the bottom of the 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 bright, white 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.
“You need not worry, though. I shall catch you if you land in a hole or off an edge.”
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.
“Ha!”
“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’ with her feet dangling out into nothing. It was very comfortable. She could see woods and small lakes as well as a few patchwork farms drifting by far below. With a huge grin on her face she took out the rest of her breakfast. 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 like a giant movie.
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 though small branches would be broken. 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.”
“Sh-sure.”
The banana peel lifted off Ara’s palm and began to spin quickly. It was soon a blur of yellow and brown. A darker brown centre contracted and left droplets of water in a misty globe around it which stopped spinning all of a sudden. The water drifted away to her right and suddenly puffed out like a large kernel of popcorn. It had become a tiny cloud! The small brown centre was about the size of a peppercorn and floated back and dropped in Ara’s palm. It was dry and heavier than such a tiny thing would seem.
“That is what is left of it after all the water is squeezed out.”
“Wow.”
Ara shoved it into her pocket as she got up. She had no intention of wasting her time in the clouds 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. Her heart leapt into her throat and it didn’t help at all that she was completely surrounded by white fog again. Was she falling?
“Wh-Wha–”
“I am sorry, Ara. I had to hide us. We were just probed by the radar of a CF-18 Hornet jet which is rapidly approaching from the south-west. 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 out of the cloud. 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 the elongated bubble, but she felt no heat.
“Have no fear, Ara.” It made Ara feel better to hear 4207’s calm voice. “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 nine steamboats, 4207 spoke again. “We have stopped, Ara.”
She opened her eyes and through the fading orange glow of the shell of air saw they were descending toward an island in a large expanse of water that would have dwarfed Lake Temiskaming. A rounded coastline was off in the distance to her right.
“Wh-where are we?”
“We have travelled 463 kilometres in little more than fifteen seconds. Now we are approaching Michipicoten Island in Lake Superior. It will take the CF-18 Hornet jet at least thirteen minutes to reach this location at its maximum speed. But, as you can see, we left a trail.” Ara turned and saw that what she’d thought was a cloud was a brilliant white line as tall as her house and at least as wide above and stretching, curved, into the horizon. “This is why we are descending. So I can hide from their radar.”
“Y-yes!”
As they dropped, Ara could see that the island was shaped like a flopping fish. The top high cliffs on the north side were angled up in the air and the bottom fins edged down to the water 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 a point and 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 far below the surface of the water.”
Before Ara could respond they sank toward the water. At first an oval crater of bubbling water formed below her feet and then they quickly descended until she was in a sphere surrounded on all sides by water. It was light blue above her head and dark blue and brown below. She could just make out large algae-covered rocks on the lake bed. They held still there for enough minutes for Ara to see a large fish swim up to take a look at them. It bit at the edge of the water and Ara put her fingers up the smooth surface. Finally the fish lost interest and swam away.
“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. There. 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 twenty-five 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 and there was just blue 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 moving north-east now at a speed of thirty-seven kilometres per hour. I could go faster but I might kill fish and other organisms. Do you prefer that I speed up?”
“N-no.”
“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. I hope before noon.”
After staying below the water surface for half an hour 4207 declared it safe and they rose up and were flying once again. They sped over the shore and then along the tops of trees and hills. 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 cloud trail they had left in the sky was dispersed away by winds by the time they saw Lake Temiskaming again.
At 11:48 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 your time on a cloud.”
“Y-yes I d-did. And th-the fish.”
4207 slid back into her hood and Ara walked home. Will was at the kitchen table playing on his old portable game system and talking on his cell as she came into the house and began taking off her shoes.
“–Yeah. My sister just came in from outside–I don’t know. I haven’t been out yet. She goes out for hours–I don’t know.” He shouldered the phone and shouted at Ara before she could get to the stairs. “Ara.”
She stopped, surprised that Will would interrupt his call to stop her. She was anxious to get 4207 back safely in her room.
“Y-yes?”
“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 s-saw th-the t-trail.”
Will put the phone to his ear and turned his attention back to his game. “She says she saw the trail–Yeah.”
Ara got to the top of the stairs thankful there 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 hadn’t made fun of her stuttering since they were both a lot younger and she was happy that he wasn’t always expecting her to talk to him.
As soon as the door was closed 4207 spoke. “No one is near enough to overhear us. It seems that our little journey to Lake Superior is being blamed on a meteor. That is good news.”
“Y-yes.”
“The less attention that is paid to me the better.”
“M-me t-too.”
She thought of the coming Tuesday with dread. The first day of school. All that attention from others again after a summer spent with 4207 and by herself. 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. And relieved. The probability of this was extremely low. Although I am a device, it was a very good thing for me to be able to experience society again. Though not directly until I had the good fortune to meet you.”
“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 a machine.”
“N-not t-to me.”
“I am, granted, a very complex and intelligent device and many centuries beyond any machines on this planet but I am not a person.”
“No.” Ara’s voice was quiet but very sure. Her forehead tense, she took her time and formed her lips before each word. “Y-you–are–my–friend.”
A silence descended in the room.
“Thank you, Ara. I am pleased to be your friend. But my point was that I was isolated for many, many years on my way here. That was harmful. My processing was harmed. I had no choice in that. But if you isolate yourself it is probable that that will hurt you. If I am to deserve your friendship I must help you with this.”
“I-I d-d-don’t want anyone m-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.
“Yes.”
“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.”
“Yes?”
“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.