Distant and Remote
There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don't know.
"Don't feel too bad, Doctor Alvarez. It's not the first time we've seen that reaction."
"I just didn't see this advance coming," Alberto Alvarez said, shaking his head with something approaching despair. Harriet Bali offered him a sympathetic smile.
"When they thought technology would get bigger-instead, it went micro. When it was thought we'd be working less hours, enjoying more leisure hours-the opposite occurred. Overpopulating the Earth-and we hit a crisis in the birth-rate and increased incidence of male impotency."
The last made Alberto shiver with unease, and he saw Harriet lower her head to hide a smile.
"Doctor Alvarez. Please. We really appreciate your presence here. Without it, we'd still be fighting for official recognition and acceptance of what we've achieved. We're hoping that, with your collaboration, we can maximise the potential of the Stargaze Process."
Alberto shook himself. He nodded.
"Of course. I'm sorry. And, let me also say I'm honoured to be invited here to witness the process in action. I know the media, the movies, would have scientists always pooh-poohing any new breakthrough that wasn't their own, but it's not always like that. Those that take to badmouthing others' achievements are invariably those who are trying to defend their own previously-announced discoveries. The rest of us still remember what it's like to love the field we've chosen to work in. We get just as excited as anyone, therefore, when there's a major breakthrough."
The Stargaze Process easily qualified in the 'major breakthrough' category. It had broken through more than just scientific boundaries-it had broken through the confines of their own known universe. And beyond.
In layman's terms: why leap into a rocket and travel to the stars, when you could send your eyes to distant galaxies from the confines of your own living room in order to experience it for you?
Of course, it was rather more complex than just packaging your senses and posting them into the heavens. And for 'living room', read the 'Stargaze Main Projects Room'.
When you delved deeper into the science of it all, you found the only thing that was truly simple was the rather crass-but infinitely sellable-name they'd given the whole endeavour: Stargaze. The marketing boys and girls had clearly been sitting in on the meeting that day.
"Here," Harriet said. "We nicknamed the part that's positioned in front of the gazer's face 'the silver carrot'. Due solely to its shape, I assure you."
"Quite," Alberto said, craning round to observe where the thicker end of the carrot would slide forward to cover the subject's face. The carrot was hollow and horizontal, so you could look straight down its reducing cone. "It seems much longer than it really is when you look at it on the inside." It had a corkscrew rib, running like the bore on the barrel of a rifle. "Quite the optical illusion. Mirrors?"
"Kind of," Harriet said with a smile. "It's to encourage the mind to reach further. As the carrot turns, the senses are drawn out. Like drawing silk from a silk worm without, in the process, killing the worm."
"But nothing is actually 'removed'?"
"No. It's merely to help the senses to stretch. Picture it like standing on a hilltop on a perfectly clear day and letting your ears reach out and focus in order to hear the sound of a car horn in a city a hundred kilometres away."
He smiled back. "Hardly the same, I imagine."
"Hah! No, I'm afraid that image is rather prosaic rather than accurate on two counts. Firstly, there's no sense of sounds reaching the ear-rather the ear going in search of them. The other is the distances involved. For a hundred kilometres read… well, 'considerably further'. Would you care to take the seat and try it for yourself?"
"That's why I'm here," Alberto said. But getting into the chair was more awkward than it looked. His frame was accustomed to being hunched over a keyboard rather than contorting to fit what resembled a kind of cockpit.
Apt, considering the distance part of him was due to travel.
"There you go. Just slide down until the back of your neck feels the padded rim."
"I feel like I'm about to have a haircut," Alberto said shakily.
"You're not the first to draw that comparison. The chair's quite comfortable when you get into place. And when the process starts, you won't be aware of it at all."
"You've tried it?"
"Just try stopping me!" Harriet said, her smile peeling her lips back to reveal a healthy set of gums too. "Who doesn't want to throw their mind out into space, see what's out there? Starting with the stars we see in our night sky, and then beyond even them? Currently, we have no idea just how far the Process might let us see."
"It's curious. I mean: all that stuff about remote viewing, out of body experiences? I'm told it's not like any of that."
"The Russians ran programs in the Cold War to test extra-sensory abilities. Hitler had his scientists looking into the occult. The Americans had Oppenheimer. Teflon came about because of the space program. Science is forever a weird and wonderful innovator." They shared a smile.
Although Harriet had been charged with personally showing Alberto around, it was clear she shared his love of the new and admired those daring to not just ask but see if it were possible.
Well, with the possible exception of Hitler and Stalin, the megalomaniac sadists.
"Okay?" Harriet asked and Alberto nodded. She turned and raised a hand to someone the other side of the one-way mirror behind them. "They're going to start the Process now, Doctor Alvarez. Just look straight forward. You don't need to focus on anything--your senses will adapt automatically. In turns out our senses were equipped with this ability all along. We've always suspected they were once far more potent or had hidden depths we simply stopped using or forgot how to tap into… Stargaze merely facilitates their release, as it were."
As the silver carrot slowly began to turn, Alberto chuckled.
"Excuse me for saying so, but this reminds me of some mind-control apparatus, or the torture device, used in some old spy film. James Bond was it? Back when Sean Connery or Roger Moore was still playing the part?"
"You're wondering if it could all just be a form of hypnotism? That's understandable. The mind can play funny tricks, even on itself. Think of all those convinced they were Cleopatra in a past life due to regression therapy. I can assure you, though, you'll be able to tell the difference. Once you feel it start to happen, you'll know it's genuine.
"You'll be in control at all times. The initial 'pulling' part of the process is only to ease your senses out to a state where they might reach further. At first, you'll feel the momentum build, like your senses are pressing behind your eyes-then they'll just snake out as easy as party streamers from a compressed gas canister."
"And when I want to come back?"
"Like I said: you're in control. Don't worry if the first time the sensation gets the better of you and you snap back quite quickly-it's quite unnerving and it can take time to build up confidence to let it all just happen naturally. If you're worried you won't know how to pull yourself back, then don't: various instruments are monitoring your heartbeat, breathing, brain activity… If we see anything at all to alert us that the experience is anything but pleasant, and we'll bring you straight back."
"How?" She tapped the carrot. "'What's up doc?'" she said in a passable Bugs Bunny voice. "Just like a fairground ride: we'll stop it spinning." Alberto laughed at her impersonation and settled back down again.
He had expected the effect to build slowly, almost like the thing was drilling a steady hole through a thickly-reinforced wall. But it happened quickly. And so smoothly, Alberto realised at once that Harriet's assertion had been true: this was a natural ability they all possessed. Like a baby thrown into a swimming pool instinctively opened its eyes, held its breath…and then swam.
Alberto swam forward.
At least, his senses did. Momentarily, it felt as if his eyes were bulging, suddenly full of liquid before they oozed out of his sockets in long, horizontal flagella whose ends flowered and burst and then were pulled forward, still somehow connected to his optical nerves, to the part of his brain where all this information was processed.
They rushed down the endless silver funnel and then, wonderfully, his vision exited the carrot as if it had been nothing more than a barrel to shoot his eyes out.
He found himself far above his own planet.
Already? How could he have leapt so far already? He had only just been stretching to the tip of that carrot, and that was barely a metre and a half long. Maybe two, if he'd actually taken the effort to measure it and examine the schematics before taking his seat. Surprising him further, his mind had accompanied them rather than just waiting for the filmed information to be transmitted back to it.
He looked down and saw what Armstrong, Aldrin and others had marvelled at. It was a familiar image to anyone who'd ever picked up a book on astronomy. But, just like seeing an animal in the flesh compared to seeing one on a postcard, the real thing was an entirely different experience. And the animal analogy wasn't an erroneous one: that planet, that incredible sculpture of blues and greens and whites, was a living thing.
It gave one an understanding, a humbling appreciation of what Earth truly was. Gave you cause to believe in the miraculous once again.
The vision fed his senses and he acknowledged that more than his eyes were out here to process what he witnessed. And that a living thing always recognised another that shared its miracle of existence.
"Doctor Alvarez?" The rapping on the door was a mixture of knuckle and the soft flesh that peaked below the little finger when you made a fist. It came again, the rhythm choosing to become that deliberate pounding you got with a bad hangover.
The baddest hangover of them all.
"Doc. Tor. Al. Va. Rez. It's me. Harriet Bali. Please. I only want to talk to you. Doctor Alvarez?"
Alberto hurried over and crouched down to replace the black-sock draught-excluders he'd placed along the bottom of the door and which Harriet's enthusiastic banging had dislodged. It wasn't to keep breezes out. Nor in. It was to reduce the light. The curtains had been drawn, pinned, then covered by blankets looped over the curtain-rails and held in place with pegs and duct-tape. But even with his shades on it was still too bright.
"Doctor Alvarez-I got the key from the janitor. I'm sorry, Doctor Alvarez, but everyone's extremely worried about you. I persuaded them to let me come alone. To talk to you. So I could assure them you were alright."
"Nooooo!" Alberto moaned when he realised what she intended and turned so he sat with his back to the door.
"Alberto. Listen to me: if I can't tell them you're okay, they'll send others here. Those others will very likely take you away with them. They'll ask you questions and won't let you go home until you've answered them."
There was a pause and he heard her swallow, pictured her collecting herself.
"Doctor Alvarez-if they think you're sick, then they maybe won't let you go home again afterwards. Do you understand? After the way you ran off…without saying anything… People need answers, Doctor Alvarez. There's a lot riding on this. You were the official witness to what Stargaze is trying to do."
"I don't want to!" He craned his neck round to scream it at the door. "I don't want to! You can't make me!"
"You have no choice, Doctor." He heard the sigh in her voice. The exasperation. He looked at how his hands trembled. Even in the darkness they seemed to displace the air in black waves.
"If I talk to you? You'll tell them? You'll tell them to leave me alone?"
"If you tell me what we need to know… Then I promise you, I'll do all I can."
"All I can," she confirmed. He rolled away from the door and got to his feet. He was wearing his dressing gown over a thick jumper, baggy green corduroys, three pairs of socks on his feet. On his head was the brown felt hat with earflaps he wore when he went fishing. The sunglasses were wide, wraparound ones, bought for an aborted skiing holiday fifteen years ago.
He was glad he'd never gone. He never wanted to even think about being up so high again.
"I'm opening the door," he told her. "Get ready." He opened it a crack, pulling his head back like he was avoiding the searing heat from a partially opened oven. "Quickly. Get in. Quickly."
The sight he must have been. The way he'd barricaded himself in here. It was understandable when Harriet hesitated. But as he became frantic, as he made it look like the door would be closed again, she nodded, and squeezed through the gap.
He shut the door after her, stuck black masking tape back down the seam and worked it into the crack, then kicked the black sausages over the gap at the bottom of the door.
"It's too dark," Harriet said. "I can't see you."
"Your eyes will adjust…" It was just one of the many things your eyes kept secret from you that they could do. "You'll get used to it."
"Maybe my sense of sight, but not my sense of smell," she muttered, not quiet enough to avoid him hearing it. There was obviously plenty of annoyance burning away inside Harriet Bali for the predicament he'd placed her in when he'd woken from his stargaze, ripped himself from the chair, and then ran out the building like his hair was on fire and with nothing available to dowse the flames.
"You want a drink?" he asked.
"No. Just an explanation." "You can sit down."
"Where?" "There's a chair behind you. It's okay, there's nothing in it. It may smell a bit stuffy in here, but everything's clean, I assure you."
"Okay." He watched her swing a hand about until it bounced off the arm of the chair and then felt her way round to its seat. "Can't we just have a bit of light? Not even a candle's worth?"
"No." "Is it because of what happened? We tested the machine after you'd sat in it and it hadn't malfunctioned. No one else has had a bad reaction when using it. Are you sure you weren't suffering from some condition before you came to see us?"
In three quick sentences, she'd run the entire gambit of corporate arse-covering.
"The equipment worked just fine. That wasn't it."
"I'm relieved to hear you say that, Doctor Alvarez. It would have been a lot better for us, though, had you stayed around long enough to say that to our Board. Or responded to their frequent requests for an explanation since. You're a scientist--"
"Am I?" he asked her. "Are any of us what we really think we are?" The silence that came after indicated this wasn't the type of question Harriet was capable of answering. Nor the type she had come here to ponder with him.
"Then I'm supposing it's something you saw on your travels?"
"Yes. Yes, that's it exactly." "Space is a vast, unexplored area. And we're the pioneers. I warned you it could be disorientating. What exactly did you see?"
"Life." A simple word, but the most potent in all galaxies. The biggest miracle of them all. The one that made a supernova nothing more than a flaring matchhead.
"But that's every scientist's dream, Doctor Alvarez! My God! I mean, we traced your route afterwards, but we never thought…"
"What? What did you say? Traced my..? No one told me that you could find out where we went?"
"Well, the tracing process takes time. We can't just follow you by pointing one of ourselves in your direction. There are a billion tiny alternations in an individual's chosen route that could throw us into another galaxy entirely. But the computer records your movements, plots a path, as it were, so we can do it that way. We're not just pioneers, but cartographers."
"But no one's gone where I went?" he asked frantically, both hands curling fingers over an invisible bar set before him.
"Not yet. But…Life? If that's what you saw, we have no choice but to investigate it, do we? It's the Holy Grail of space travel."
"You mustn't!" Her saw her wince at the volume of his voice. "Don't you see? You simply mustn't!"
"Doctor Alvarez. I, we've, been patient with you. But wailing words of doom isn't going to cut much with us. We're scientists. So, please, give me a reason to think you're still capable of thinking like one too."
"Okay, okay. Yes." He looked towards the door, seeing neither escape nor sanctuary. There were no doors. No boundaries, anymore. And as for windows… "I'll tell you. But you must believe me. And then…then you must stop them from trying. They mustn't go there. It could ruin everything. For everyone."
"I went. Out there. It was just like you said it would be. I looked down on the Earth and it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. Then I turned away and went further. I didn't have the sensation I was choosing a direction as such, just that I felt some urge to go towards one particular star. There was nothing about it that was remarkable. If anything, it was dimmer, more distant than others more immediately approachable. But for some reason I was attracted to it.
"I hurried there. I passed through vast amounts of space and in so doing I passed through a similar quantity of time. I didn't move backwards and forwards in time, I merely mean that for such vast distances to be travelled, time has to be bent the same way light is influence by the effects of gravity.
"I couldn't pull up from my trajectory even had I wanted to. I certainly couldn't alter my path. I was going to see what was on the principal planet orbiting that star, like it or not.
"Because it wasn't me flying my senses out there. It was something else…something that was pulling me in."
"You mean this, whatever it was, had caught you, or that it was attracting you in some way?"
He saw Harriet was holding back from expressing outright scepticism. The Stargaze Process was new, so how could they discount anything until they knew the full scope of its possibilities and what might actually be out there?
"I mean…" He didn't complete his sentence. Instead, he changed scenes in the story, switching to another memory camera, as it were. "I came in closer and closer and the planet grew more distinct as I descended. It was green in places-but emerald, not the softer greens of Earth. And the seas were a darker, shinier blue. It was as if the planet were wrapped in different coloured foils. There were silver patches too: irregular and without pattern.
"But when I was close enough, the silver tarnished to a light grey. Like the shading of a graphite pencil? It still glinted in places but was not metallic--but like shells. Because that's what they turned out to be.
"Down I went. Down, down. I thought I was going to crash into that mass of grey shingle, but that would have made a nonsense out of what I was whilst I was travelling in that realm. As you told me: I was nothing but a satellite of sorts from my own mind. So I slowed, braking hard-but as with all that happens with your process, it was a smooth sensation of deceleration.
"And then I was amongst them.
"Their shells wore whirls like on the outside of a snail's shell. But these shells were also far more rounded, larger too-each about the size of a beach ball. They were mottled, tortoiseshell, each marked differently but cast from the same basic design, but limited by the same limited choice of colours. And from each shell extended a soft-limbed creature like a sea anemone, or a snail that had sprouted many tentacles or antennae rather than just the customary two. The creatures were a light orange, with green threads running through them which I don't think carried blood but were instead flows of nutrients from the pale-green mossy plant-life they were grazing upon.
"The tentacles quivered in the air, not feeling for me, but rather for each other and that fuzz they fed upon. They were blind in our terms of sight, and as I looked around I saw that only those nearest me were moving. The rest of them were still, but the shells not dull, but shiny, filled with living creatures as they were.
"Those others seemed to be sleeping.
"There was one though that had turned towards me. Sensed me. I knew it was the one that had drawn me here and I wanted to ask it why it had done so. How it had known of me, felt me out there…"
"You think it possessed some sensitivity of its own?" Harriet suggested. "Or that it simply possessed the same talent we've discovered in ourselves but that it didn't require some slowly spinning silver carrot to achieve it?"
"No." Alberto's denial was short, sharp, adamant. "Because there is no 'talent' we possess. Not the way you've all been thinking of it. That creature wasn't calling out to me. That thing was bringing me back. It wasn't trying to communicate with Doctor Alberto Alvarez. It was Doctor Alberto Alvarez. Or, rather: I am a part of it. We're not the ones extending our thoughts out there, Ms Bali. They're extending their thoughts, their senses out here."
"That's impossible!" Harriet said shaking her head. "I mean, come on…"
"I'm not saying we're just their senses. Nor that we're just their dreams. We're living, breathing creatures. We live, we die, just like any other living thing. But haven't you ever wondered what it is really that sets us apart from the other living creatures that share this planet with us? Not just our superior intelligence-which has always been obvious-but why we do things like imagine, create, argue over semantics and philosophy, and concern ourselves with abstract concepts such as reason, justice, mercy?
"It's them. That part of us responsible for all that I've mentioned isn't us. We're just the animal part. The monkey or tree shrew we were further down the chain. Take away that different part they provide, and we're just another version of our evolutionary ancestors once more. If we have a soul at all, then it's the sensory ability those things are projecting into us."
"You're saying we're slaves of snails?" Harriet asked, and despite her earlier attempts to avoid stooping to such tactics, the sarcastic scepticism was now out and having its voice. "Rubbish! That would mean they themselves had directed us to make a machine which would, in turn, find them again!"
"I…I can't figure that bit," Alberto said, rubbing vigorously at his temples as if something squirmed and chewed there. It probably did at that. "Maybe we possess our own residual intelligence. Maybe, over the years, we've grown capable of such thought in our own right. I only know they're out there. That we're not really who we think we are…"
"Then why would you be talking to me about this now? Why would you think it makes any difference if I'm just another snail-person, controlled by a remote server?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe because they don't have the control over us they once did. Scientists, maybe some people with greater mental abilities, or maybe those who think too much on these types of things, might be getting free of them. Maybe some of us can't be controlled the way we once were."
"Some of us?" Harriet asked. "No one else has had your experience, Doctor Alvarez."
"But they might do. I mean: if they ride the Stargazer the way I did…"
"On the other hand, what you're suggesting would make the Stargaze Process the perfect way to find out who had this peculiar talent of independence, of defiance, don't you think?"
Though he expected it to be there, he realised any trace of sarcasm had gone.
"Not 'some' having such a unique capability, Doctor Alvarez," she told him. "Just one. We had to be sure about you though."
"No! You…I have to go. To warn people!"
"No, Doctor Alvarez. I'm afraid you're not going anywhere. Not anymore." Harriet Bali smiled, slowly. At a snail's pace. "'Monkey and tree shrew', indeed…"
© Jez Patterson 2016 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 11:13 Sun 28 Aug 2016
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