Down by the River
By J. H. McKay
I can hardly believe that more than two years have passed since I last added to this little narrative. Life has gone so smoothly and uneventfully since that time that I almost forgot I still had it hidden out in the tool shed. During that time Bert has managed to ingratiate himself so thoroughly and unobtrusively into my life that once I had gotten over the marvel of his actual existence, and there were no other incidents like the one of two years ago, he just gradually drifted into the accepted background of my day to day life. There were days we barely spoke to each other and, once it became clear he wasn’t going to relent and satisfy my basic curiosity about where he came from and what it was like there, it was often hard to find anything to talk about. Neither of us are great conversationalists or have much enthusiasm for small talk.
Certainly nothing happened during the past two years that appeared to be worth writing down about. Or so it has seemed to me; but perhaps things have been happening under my very nose and I just did not clearly see them for what they were. A suspicion has been slowly building in my mind but it was not until yesterday that it gained sufficient mass to cause me to wish to once again take up this narrative. Perhaps writing down how that happened may help me to understand things better.
It was around nine-thirty last evening when Anne Robinson and I entered the trailer out of a softly pelting late May rain. In the dark we hadn’t been able to see the rain, only feel its gentle pattering on our heads as we’d run from the truck and huddled on the doorstep while I fumbled with the keypad and punched in the entry code. The rain had actually felt quite nice, like a cool gentle caress, quite different from the drenching chill of the April showers of a month ago. I didn’t really regret the delay caused by my fumbling and failure
to have installed biometric locks like practically everybody else now has. It would have given instant access but denied us the unexpected pleasure of the rains gentle touch.
Almost reluctantly we went in and removed our rain splattered coats but we quickly made ourselves comfortable and were soon sitting down beside each other on the side of the bed. The bedclothes were embarrassingly rumpled and unmade since I hadn’t been expecting Anne to be coming home with me. Anne didn’t seem to mind the unmade state of the bed though and seemed perfectly at ease as she sat there talking, a glass of red wine perched on the knee of a crossed leg, while I sipped a beer.
Anne and I’ve been seeing a lot of each other lately. I can’t exactly say what accounts for that but women in general, not just Anne, just seem to be paying me more attention than they have in quite some time. I have been feeling more energetic lately than I have in years but I don’t know if that accounts for how the difference in our ages, which before had seemed like an invisible barrier limiting how close we could become, no longer seems to matter.
I had taken her to the early movie at our small town’s only totally virtual cinema and afterwards Anne had surprised me by showing an interest in seeing where I actually lived. Of course I had anticipated eventually having her in for an evening, that was the reason I happened to have a couple of bottles of the Merlot I know she likes so much - since I hardly ever drink the stuff myself, but I was still a little surprised when the moment finally unexpectedly came with her essentially inviting herself over.
We’d been talking only a few minutes when Anne remarked wonderingly on the fact that there are still no power lines along the stretch of the road where I live. I explained to her that the recent advances in the efficiency of small solar and wind power generating systems, along with the expected imminent introduction of affordable cold fusion systems for the home that can generate power almost as cheaply as the utilities, made it increasingly unlikely those lines will ever be put in.
“So you think we’re really going to get cold fusion this time?” Anne asked a little sceptically. “I remember hearing about cold fusion when I was just a teenager, but it never seemed like anything more than a science fiction fantasy.”
“Yeah,” I said, “it looks like it’s really going to happen this time. They already have relatively small ones up and running that are being used to power factories and industrial parks and things like that, so it’s just a matter of scaling it down even further for home use. Now that they know the basic principles behind making it work it’s a matter of working out the engineering problems.
“Anyways,” I went on, “since I don’t really use much power the enhanced solar and wind systems I have now are more than enough. I doubt I’ll ever need a cold fusion system.” Especially not, I thought to myself, with Bert around to ensure there was more than enough power for both of us.
“You know,” Anne mused, “I can hardly believe all that’s gone on the past few years. Not just the cold the cold fusion thing but all these new discoveries and inventions that have come along recently. Like those tiny nanobots that can eat a brain tumour or go inside a broken can opener and fix it.”
“Yeah I know, it’s amazing,” I agreed. “I guess people are just beginning to imagine all the ways they might be able to use those things. It’s the same in general for the tremendously increased computing speeds that are now possible with the DNA and quantum particle chips. That’s made possible everything from the nanobots; to more human like robots; to better designed cars, planes, and just about anything else that’s made or manufactured. And a major reason there’s all this talk of people returning to and establishing a
permanent presence on the moon is that they’re now able to design and build spacecraft that are a lot cheaper and more efficient than anything they could make before.”
“Imagine,” she said with a sigh as she lay back on the bed and contemplated the ceiling, the wine glass perilously balanced on her flat
tummy, “people going back to the moon. I wasn’t even born yet the last time there were any people on the moon.”
I laughed, a bit self-consciously. “You’re reminding me of how old I am,” I said. “I admit I was. I was still a teenager at the time but I can remember seeing on the TV the black and white images of the astronauts bouncing around on the surface. But they never stayed very long, only a few days or so at most, and only two or three at a time. Now the idea is to establish a permanent settlement, maybe even more than one, with hundreds, maybe thousands, of people living there.”
“But the thing is,” Anne said, continuing her train of thought, “all these new inventions and things actually seem to have done some good for a lot of people. I mean look at the way the economy has boomed in the last few years, creating lots of good jobs for people. Look at how I was able to get out of that boring low paying job I had at the supermarket. I thought I was going to be stuck there for the rest of my working life; and that was if I was lucky and didn’t get laid off at some point. But now I’ve been able to catch on at IDR at
more than twice the pay and it’s a lot more interesting work besides. I don’t think that would have been possible a few years ago.”
Anne now works for the county’s largest and most enigmatic new corporate arrival. It’s located just outside town at the new industrial park it’s the centrepiece of, and calls itself IDR Com, as in “Inter-Dimensional Research and Communications.” IDR Com is a purely R&D oriented subsidiary of a large high-end electronics multi-national called TEC Limited, which is itself nominally based in Thailand.
Who ultimately owns and controls TEC isn’t clear and what pay off they see in pursuing research into the esoteric field of inter-dimensional sub-space radio transmission and receiving, a form of communications that some scientists think could potentially bypass the light-speed barrier, is anyone’s guess.
It’s possible there might be a limited market for the technology if the revived space programs are here to stay; particularly if they move beyond the moon to other places in the solar system. It would mean no more irritating delays in long range space communications such as they now have in communicating with unmanned probes, where they often have to wait for up to ten minutes or more, depending on the distance, for a transmission to reach its destination. In emergency situations where spacecraft needed immediate instructions and help from Earth it’s even possible to envision the technology saving lives but it still seems all very speculative and hypothetical to me. Big companies like TEC don’t usually sink large amounts of resources into something like that if they aren’t pretty sure there’s going to be a profitable market for the technology.
There is one other potential market, though small, for such a technology, and that is those groups such as the SETI Institute that are scanning the cosmos for signs of alien intelligence. I doubt that even the SETI and unmanned probe markets together are big enough by themselves to economically justify the large scale research effort IDR is doing, but could the development of a communications technology that would aid groups such as SETI fit in with Bert’s goals in trying to contact others of his kind? Is it a coincidence that IDR has been located here, so close to where Bert is hiding?
Whatever the real reason behind IDR Com’s existence here is, and I have my suspicions, there’s no doubt the company’s been a boon both to the local economy and to Anne herself. She applied for a job with them almost as a lark when she found out the company was willing to train locals to fill some of their lower level positions. The aptitude test they gave her showed something she had already known from high school and a year spent at community college; that she had an aptitude for the practical application of mathematics.
Before circumstances had forced her to quit her education she had even had vague notions of becoming an engineer of some kind.
After an intensive nine months training regimen IDR hired her on as a lab assistant. It’s a low level position that consists mainly of running and maintaining lab equipment; collecting and collating data; and so forth. The kind of thing the deep thinkers with heavy duty doctorates in physics and mathematics don’t want to be bothered with. But it represents a huge step up for her from what she’d been doing before. She’s making a lot better use of her capabilities and is as a result, I think, a much happier person. She can also look to the prospect of possibly more education and training; of being able to advance a bit more in her situation and as a person.
“True enough,” I said, agreeing with Anne about how things have changed the past couple of years, “maybe it just has something to do with people being a lot more sensible for some reason lately. I mean just look at the political situation for example; peace has broken out in virtually all of the world’s trouble spots, even the most seemingly intractable and irresolvable conflicts seem to have settled themselves out to something that most people can live with.”
“It’s amazing when you think about it that it didn’t happen a lot sooner,” Anne said, taking a sip of wine before resuming her meditative gaze at the ceiling. “It’s like it was just a matter of people using their common sense and electing the right people into power, or overthrowing dictators and then electing the right people, all along. Makes you wonder why it took us so long to get it right.”
“Humpf,” I grunted, “human nature being what it is maybe the amazing thing is it happened at all. Maybe we just got lucky.” And maybe in ways you would never imagine, I thought to myself. “But however it came about I think all the peace and stability has enabled all these scientific breakthroughs and new inventions to benefit a lot more people. It’s provided the security and confidence necessary for governments and companies to make long-term investments in their peaceful development and the accompanying reduction in
military expenditures has made more funds available for them to do it with.”
“Which has led to companies like TEC and IDR being able to sink money into way out stuff like instantaneous infinitely-dimensional communications technology,” Anne murmured, more to herself than to me. “And to afford to retrain middle-aged washouts like me to help them do it.”
“If you say that’s what they’re doing there,” I said with a grin, more interested than I wanted to let on. “Nobody around here seems to have much of an idea what the heck you people at IDR are up to. I mean, extra or infinitely-dimensional space communications? What the heck is that?
“And besides,” I hastened to add, “if you’re middle-aged, would that all women were middle-aged. I’ve never seen you look better since I’ve known you.” And I meant what I said. “And describing yourself as a washout is hardly fair either. You were always doing the best you could under the circumstances and now you’ve finally got the chance to do something more to your liking, something more suited to you.”
“And don’t forget the money,” she affirmed softly, “don’t forget the money.” Anne has led a hard scrabble existence for most of her life. Coming from a broken home, she’s been mostly on her own from the age of sixteen save for a few brief relationships that never seemed to work out. As a consequence she’s had to struggle all her adult life just to make ends meet and the much bigger pay cheque she’s now getting from IDR means a lot to her. I think it’s more important to her psychologically, in terms of security andself-esteem, than it is in purely material terms.
“And I thought you were just doing it for the love of science,” I kidded her.
“The love of science,” she said with a smile, “that’s a good one. Though I have to admit there’s a lot more to love about it than any other job I’ve ever had. It is interesting in its way and I feel a lot more like, I don’t know, like I’m not wasting myself there, like I’m putting more of what I’ve got to useful purpose.
“But to answer your question, I don’t think anybody there really knows exactly what they’re doing. Not even the very top scientists with all their degrees and research experience. As far as I can tell they’re basically just trying this thing and that; playing with sub-atomic quantum particles they didn’t even know existed a few years ago in ways nobody had even thought of until recently. Basically they believe they’ve stumbled on a way to manipulate and control the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen entanglement effect to a degree never previously thought possible, which may enable them to broadcast and receive signals through a sub-space with infinite dimensions in such a way as to be virtually instantaneous.”
“You’ve lost me already,” I said with a rueful grin.
“I’m sorry,” she laughed, “I’m sure I”m not explaining it very well. That was a very simplified explanation of something I don’t really understand very well myself. Certainly I understand it less than most people there, but even the smartest ones admit they don’t really understand how it works. Dr. De Laurier was saying to me the other day, ‘Anne,’ she said, ‘we’re like cavemen who’ve
inexplicably discovered a working radio transmitter and receiver and now by randomly pushing the buttons and twisting the dials hope to learn enough to be able to transmit something like a recognizable message between the two. As for a comprehensible theory as to why it works...’ at that point she just threw up her hands. All they think they really know is that by tweaking certain of these newly discovered particles just right they can gain a portal to an infinitely-dimensioned sub-space and broadcast signals through it that can be
recognized by receivers that they have similarly set up within the sub-space.”
“Well, if it works, it works,” I said guilelessly. “I guess that’s the important thing.”
“I guess so,” Anne said with a shrug, “but don’t try telling that to the scientists there. It really bugs some of them how little they know about it.”
Of all the advances of the last few years, the ones in the newly born field of instantaneous or supra light speed communications have been the most unexpected. So completely unexpected and out of the blue have they been that they have been called “shocking”. Based on discoveries arising out of experiments done mainly on happenstance and whim, and some subsequent inspired intuitive deductions by researchers scattered around the world, the advances are generally considered to be far ahead of their time. “Probably at least two hundred years ahead of what might be expected,” according to one prominent historian of science I saw being interviewed on one of the science net sites. “It’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a species travelling to the stars, not one barely groping to establish a foothold in the nearer reaches of its own solar system,” he had gone on to say.
“You know,” Anne said musingly, “it’s kind of funny.”
“What is?” I said.
“Well, you remember that meteor or shooting star or whatever it was that people saw in the sky one night near here back about three years or so ago.”
“Eh?” I grunted in surprise, her sudden shift of subject shaking me up out of all proportion to what it should have. After all, she couldn’t possibly suspect anything, could she? Nevertheless I could feel my heart pounding and suddenly I seemed to be short of breath. “Uh, well yeah,” I said haltingly, “I think I remember something like that.” I cursed myself for my clumsy response. I had nothing to fear, I repeated to myself, she can’t possibly know or suspect anything. Still, it’s been a long time since anybody has even mentioned that night to me, I had assumed everybody else had long since forgotten about it.
“What’s the matter?” Anne propped herself up on an elbow to regard me with narrowed eyes. “You look like you just got stuck with a cattle prod.”
“Oh nothing,” I grinned feebly at her. “You just kind of surprised me with the change of subject. That’s all.”
Anne has had quite a bit of experience in her time with male equivocation and deceit so I don’t think she entirely believed me. “Why should that surprise you?” she asked, a bit sharply. “There’s not something you’re not telling me about is there?” she inquired curiously. “I mean, you didn’t find that thing and not tell anybody about it for some reason, did you?”
“Wha-no! Why would I do something like that?” I protested. “Meteorites can be worth a lot of money to collectors. I would have turned it in for whatever I could have got for it if I had found one.”
Anne looked at me for a moment with what looked to be a mixture of puzzlement and suspicion, but she evidently decided it wasn’t worth pursuing any further. “Well anyway,” she said, leaning back on the bed again, “even though I never actually saw it I never forgot about it. It got everybody around here excited a little bit for the first time in a long while. I know it’s just my imagination but it seemed to me to be a turning point of some kind. A signal almost that things were going to change and be different afterwards. And you
know what? They have been, and for the better.”
“Well,” I said, not sure just how I should respond to what she had just said, “meteorites or shooting stars have often been regarded in the past as omens of big changes or events about to happen. There was a shooting star before William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066. Some people speculate that the Star of Bethlehem was a shooting star.”
Anne nodded to herself as though this confirmed something to her. “You know,” she said, “it’s as though somebody made a wish on that shooting star for better things for this world and that wish somehow came true. I just wish I had seen it though, I saw the pictures and video they showed of other ones that were supposed to be just like it but it wasn’t the same. I just have this crazy feeling there was something different about this one, something special.”
If I really thought she would have believed me, I think I would have told her the truth right then and there, gladly accepting whatever the consequences were in return for the relief of no longer having to bear the secret of Bert’s existence by myself. As it was, Anne’s musings hit uncomfortably close to home and my own suspicions about Bert’s possible role in the events of the last few years. All I could do however was to continue to play along. “Wishing on a shooting star, eh?” I kidded her, “That’s a pretty romantic notion, as well as an unscientific one. I wonder what your colleagues at IDR would think if they heard you say that.”
Anne actually blushed a little when I said that, but quickly retorted. “Ha, ha. Well, Mr. Unscientific, as someone once said, ‘There is much in heaven and earth that is undreamt of in yours or my philosophies’, or something to that effect. Even if it is just a sentimental notion there’s nothing wrong with a little sentiment now and then. I think the image of a meteorite shooting across the starry night sky makes a wonderful symbol for the beginning of a new and better time.”
“You know,” I said as I lay down beside her on an elbow to gaze with rapt admiration at the smooth freckled slopes and contours of her profiled face, at the strong yet fine lines of her forehead and slightly beaked nose, and the wide expressive mouth that can move from beaming joy to contemptuous disdain at the mere twist of a lip but also set my stomach to flip flopping with just a smile, “I couldn’t agree with you more. The world needs all the sentiment and romance it can get and I know of no one more beautiful and romantic than you.”
She turned her head slightly within a pillow of soft auburn hair that still smelt lightly of the rain’s dampness and looked at me with a slightly mocking smile on her lips. “C’mon,” she breathed softly, taunting me a little, “you can do better than that.”
But as I looked into the limitless hazel brown depths of her eyes and found myself drawn inexorably down into them I was all out of lines. As I kissed her the faint taste of Merlot just barely reminded me to remove the wine glass still perched on the flat plane of her stomach. Anne is a lean tall drink of a woman and as I moved to hug the full length of her soft yielding compactness against me I felt a need and longing I haven’t experienced for many years. Maybe, I suddenly thought, I’d been more lonely out there alone in the woods than I’d realized.
There was just one nagging problem that I couldn’t shake. As hard as I tried I just couldn’t forget the fact that Bert couldn’t be far away, perhaps in the very same room with us, hovering invisibly in some corner.
Wherever he actually was physically, I had no doubt he would be keeping tabs on who and what was going on in that trailer. He always knows somehow not to be in evidence when I bring somebody home with me without warning, yet is always there in his regular place by the wall when I come in alone, and he always reappears as soon as any visitor leaves.
I tried to tell myself that he wasn’t human; literally not of this world and thus more alien in nature compared to humans than any other living creature on Earth. He was about as likely to get some kind of vicarious thrill out of watching two humans engaged in sexual activity as I would out of observing fish lay their eggs. But it didn’t matter, I was an intelligent creature - or at least so I like to think, not a fish, and the idea of another intelligent creature watching us, however dispassionately, still bothered me.
It didn’t take me long to realize that as much as I wanted Anne, the spectre of Bert’s presence was seriously inhibiting my ability to achieve an erection. As hot and heavy as the action was beginning to get it wasn’t going to be long before Anne noticed something missing, if she hadn’t already.
Moving my oral attentions from those delectable lips to the long smooth line of her jaw and from there up to tender pink shell of her ear, I whispered into it as enticingly as I could “How about if we take a nice long shower together?”
“What?” she panted, “right now?”
“Yeah, I’d really like to. It’s a thing I’ve always had; to want to take a nice, warm soapy shower with any woman I’ve been attracted to.”
I just had to get out of that room, where I had too often seen Bert suddenly materializing out of thin air like he’d been there all along. I know of course that he’s just as capable of observing whatever goes on in the washroom as anywhere else, but just the act of going into another room where I’d never actually seen him before, and shutting the door behind me, I hoped might help to put my mind at ease.
I had to use a little more persuasion with Anne, and the narrow confines of the shower stall didn’t leave us much room for manoeuvre, but it wasn’t long before we had both given each other a good soaping over. And the change of locale, combined with the not inconsiderable effects of Anne’s nimble fingers, had the desired effect because then it really started to get fun.
I surprised myself with a stamina and strength I thought I had long since lost. Anne has taken some hard knocks in the course of her life and has a bit of a reputation for being a tough broad, but by the time our session was done I think it’s fair to say that I had softened her up quite a bit. So appreciative was she that we’ve booked a return engagement for the relatively more spacious showering facilities at her place.
I guess I’m kind of like the couple making love in a motel room who wouldn’t dream of letting anyone watch but don’t care if the sounds they’re making are heard next door. I didn’t care if Bert knew what I was doing with Anne, I just didn’t want the sense of his immediate presence in the same room with us as we were doing it.
I may be digressing a little bit, my main purpose in writing this all down is to help me go over in my mind what’s happening with Bert, not my relationship with Anne, but somehow in a way I can’t completely explain it all seems related. It was only after Bert’s arrival that Anne really started to warm up to me. If Bert has been shaping the course of events in the world in general, as Anne without realizing it hypothesized, could he also be doing the same thing on a more personal level with me and Anne? Does his power extend that far? I’m not even sure now if there would be a relationship with Anne worth mentioning if not for Bert.
Which brings me around to the real reason why I’ve restarted this journal after more than two years of letting it go: not to relive a memorable evening spent coupling with Anne, but because of how our conversation of last night has brought home to me how much things have indeed changed in the world since Bert’s arrival.
I’ve been as aware as anyone of all that’s been happening over the past few years but somehow I’ve always managed to avoid thinking about Bert’s possible involvement or what the implications of that involvement might be. Last night’s conversation with Anne brought me face to face with the issue and I don’t think I’m able to just keep ignoring it any longer. And the more I think about it the more conflicted I become.
Sure, most everything that has been happening has been for the good, and I don’t really know how much of it has actually been the result of Bert’s manipulating things behind the scenes. I’ve seen enough of what he can do though to know that he’s capable of a lot of mischief and deep down inside it just doesn’t seem right to me that an alien from who knows where could possibly be directing the course of human affairs.
The question I have to ask myself then is should I try to do something about it? And if so, how? I really don’t want to harm him if I can help it, assuming it would even be possible for me to do so. After all, in a sense he’s just someone who’s lost and alone in a strange world trying to get back home anyway he can. He’s been more than decent to me and so far as I know has caused harm to no one. And I did agree to let him stay on with me. All the same, that gives him no right to interfere in the affairs of another sentient species, particularly when it’s my species.
After I took Anne home I spent a restless night wrestling with all these thoughts and considerations and it’s been much the same for most of today. Which is why I find myself this afternoon sitting with a beer at the back of Barney’s Bar and Grill, taking refuge in pen and paper in the hope I can get it all straight in my head.
But I think I know now that I’m going to have to confront Bert before too long, before things possibly get too out of hand, if they haven’t already.
I see by the date of the last entry that it’s been more than six months since I resolved to confront Bert over my fears and suspicions about what he may or may not be up to. I can’t believe it took me that long to work up the nerve to do it. Perhaps the reason I dreaded doing it was because I knew in my heart it was unlikely to result in a satisfactory outcome and I feared where things would go from there. Unfortunately those fears have proven to be justified.
I think it was the moon landings of the last month that finally pushed me into working up the nerve; that and the talk of an imminent breakthrough at IDR Com along with the plans for Martian settlement that are proceeding at a breakneck pace. I’m not the only one who’s beginning to wonder where the accelerated pace of scientific and technological advance is going to lead. Here and there, in an occasional op-ed page or news media commentary, you can detect the beginnings of concern that it might all be just a bit too much, too
soon, for human society to handle. The nation states and their corporate backers are already starting to bicker over how to divide the spoils of exploration and discovery and their capacity for destruction has never been greater. The fear among them of being left behind is palpable. This combination of fear and greed with new technologies of vast and incompletely understood potentials for good or bad is causing increasing concern among some, but what none of them suspect is that it may be an alien agenda, entirely outside the sphere of human interests, that is driving the process.
Bert was at his usual place against the wall by the desk yesterday afternoon when I got back from a longer than usual two and a half hour walk. It was one of those brilliantly sunny and warm late fall days, the forest floor still clad in a vivid orange and red carpet of dying leaves, that really only come a couple of days each year. I had been too preoccupied however with thoughts of what I was going to say to Bert to take much appreciation in the day as I kicked my way pensively through the colourful layer of fallen foliage.
Bert hasn’t changed much in his outward physical appearance since he stopped growing about a year or so ago. He now looks more like a small, waist high boulder than anything else. Oblong shaped, he’s roughly one and a half metres in length by half a metre in width and a metre in height. He’s all rounded edges and corners, with no obviously exact symmetry to his shape, which, in contrast to when I first found him, makes him look more like a natural object than any sort of created artefact. He has however retained the same pebbly, softly glowing, reddish brown surface texture he’s had almost from the beginning, but it now looks firmer, not so gelatinous or blob like as when he first lost his hard shell. Whenever I touch him, as I occasionally do, he doesn’t seem to mind, the surface will give an inch or two. The sensation is sort of like poking a chubby person in the belly.
The overall shape however is variable; he can change it at will, as he has shown me whenever it has been occasionally more convenient for him to take on a different shape. The volume of space he occupies when he does this looks to me to stay roughly constant. He just sort of flows into a rounder or flatter shape, like he’s made of silly putty. The shape he has now is simply the one that usually fits him most neatly and unobtrusively into the space formed by the angle between the wall and the side of the desk.
As long as he’s visibly within the trailer he rarely moves from that spot. When he does move a bit, to get out of the way when I’m vacuuming for example, he just sort of glides over the floor, like the way a magnetic train does over its tracks.
He’s never grown or displayed any arms or legs or appendages of any sort, beyond those thread like tendrils I saw that one time when he first came to life, and certainly I’ve never seen anything like a mouth, or eyes, or ears. Aside from some slight irregularities to his shape he’s just the same all over.
One thing I’m almost certain of though; he isn’t just sitting there doing nothing. When he was detected infiltrating high security systems not long after he first arrived, it showed that he was perfectly capable of operating without any sort of wired connection and just because he hasn’t got into any trouble like that since doesn’t mean he’s cut himself off. On the contrary, everything he said then and since implies he’s just made sure he won’t get caught again. It’s only to be expected that he’ll do everything he can, using all of his considerable powers and capabilities, to try to get back home. The question is just how much is he manipulating and changing human society in the pursuit of that goal and does he even care what happens to us as a result?
That’s what was going through my mind as I wandered around outside and then as I stood at the kitchen counter chewing thoughtfully at a chicken sandwich while staring blindly out the window at the fall afternoon. It barely registered in my mind what a glorious looking day it was.
I could think of no clever way to approach him or segue way into the topic, so after swallowing a last chunk of sandwich I decided to just plunge in. “So Bert,” I called out to him as casually as possible, still looking out the window, still with my back turned to him, “so how’s it coming? I mean - do you think you’ll be able to go back home anytime soon? I get the impression that you work on it pretty hard. That it’s just about all you do.”
It may seem strange to anyone who ever reads this that in the more than three years he’s been with me we’ve never really discussed this topic in depth before. Bert has never been all that forthcoming on the subject beyond generalities such as that things were progressing as well as could be expected and that he would have to be patient but would succeed in contacting his people in time. Behind the generalities was the implied assumption that the details were just too complex for me to understand.
I still had a few nagging suspicions and concerns at the back of my mind but things soon quieted down after that one time where he was nearly caught out and as there were no more such episodes those suspicions and concerns lost their urgency and I gradually let the matter slide. I had no real evidence against him, still don’t for that matter, and everything seemed to be going along just fine. It wasn’t until I had that conversation with Anne this spring that I really started to take a harder look at what might be going on and seriously considering that Bert might have to be stopped somehow.
There was the possibility that if I pressed him to be more forthcoming about the nature of his activities he would just lie to me about them, and of course I have no real way to tell if he is telling me the truth or not. In light of what he’s done for me however I felt I at least owed him the chance to give a fuller explanation of his activities before I considered taking any action. And though I may not have liked what he had to say, I do think he has told the truth, at least as he sees it.
As I started to question Bert I suddenly felt how patently obvious I must be in the forced casualness of my manner, but if he detected anything unusual about me he gave no sign of it in his reply. “It’s coming along well, thank you, Vern,” He said politely.
There was a silence that grew uncomfortably long as I waited for him to say something more. When nothing more was forthcoming I turned around and walked over towards him. “I’m glad to hear that Bert,” I said. “But...when you’re working on getting home - what exactly are you doing?”
Maybe it was my imagination but it seemed to me there was a moment of hesitation before he replied. “It has been, and is, quite a complicated undertaking,” he said. “Perhaps more so than I originally anticipated. It is an ongoing process that I am constantly engaged in and monitoring even as we speak. A comprehensive and detailed description of all the factors involved would take almost as long as I have been on your world, and involve concepts and paradigms that would be largely unfamiliar to you.”
That sounded to me like a semi-polite way of saying that I was too ignorant and/or stupid to understand what he was doing. That in other words I should just butt out and leave it to the superior being to handle things and trust that he would be acting in a responsible way that took more than just his own interests into account. Aside from the irritation of the implied, perhaps unintentional, insult; it made me more determined than ever not to let him put me off or skip over the problem of what if his best interests and those of the human society he was meddling in didn’t coincide.
“Well,” I said, “how about if you just explained it to me a little more concisely. In terms of concepts even I can understand.” A slight undertone of sarcasm had slipped unintentionally into my voice. “Surely a creature of your sophistication and intelligence can do that.” I stopped, a little appalled at myself. It was the first time I had ever referred to him as “a creature” while speaking to him.
Whether he noticed any difference from the polite deference with which I usually addressed him I couldn’t tell, but he replied straightforwardly enough. “To put it concisely I am attempting to establish on this world the scientific and technological infrastructure necessary to enable the signalling of an outpost of my civilization as to my presence here. Once that has been achieved a mission to rescue me will be sent and arrive here shortly afterwards.
“The means by which I am attempting to achieve this is by introducing into your civilization the necessary scientific principles and concepts while at the same time fostering the development of an economic and political environment that will provide the rationale and resources to build what is needed. This is to be done, of course, in such a way that it will appear to be an autonomous course of development taken by your civilization. This is in the best interests of both myself and humankind. It avoids the potentially destabilizing societal effects knowledge of advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence could cause as well as the possibly much more serious consequences of a likely power struggle for access to me and the advanced alien technologies I possess.”
It was a fair bit for me to quickly take in all at once but I fastened my mind on the “in the best interests of both” part of what he had said. “You talk about what is in the best interests of both you and humans,” I said, “but it seems to me that what you are engaged in is a massive effort to speed up and redirect the whole direction of human scientific and technological progress; and with itthe development of our political and economic institutions. In fact you’re reshaping our entire society, just to serve your own purpose. What if what is in your best interest and ours differs?
“How can even you,” I said, gaining steam and growing bolder, “even know for sure what is in our best interest? How do you know for sure what the ultimate effect of all this fiddling and tinkering with the normal course of human development, all this...this - this social engineering - is going to be once you’ve got what you want and are long gone and out of here?!
“I mean,” I paused for breath, “I mean wouldn’t it be better if you just left us alone? Can’t you,” I entreated, “signal your friends and get off of Earth without our help? I know you can do so much, can’t you do that as well?”
“Sadly no,” Bert replied with what sounded like genuine regret. “If that were possible I would already have done it. Unfortunately the capabilities of the escape pod I was forced to integrate myself into when I was shipwrecked here are quite limited in their effective scale. If I am to send for help I need the aid of your civilization.”
“But - but,” I protested, “you’re getting that aid without the knowledge and agreement of those who are giving it. You’re getting it by manipulation and...and deceit!” I guess I had gotten a bit carried away at that point and was being a bit less diplomatic than I had originally envisioned, but just thinking about what Bert was doing had gotten my blood up in a way it hadn’t been in years.
Bert responded in the same patient level tone that he nearly always uses. “As I have already said, the risks are far greater if I were to reveal myself in asking for aid, and there are great potential benefits to the technology I have introduced. Along with some subtle influences I have exerted on the course of political development the result has been that your world is enjoying a period of advance, peace, and prosperity such as it has seldom known before.”
“And your influence has gone beyond the purely scientific,” I said with a bitterness I couldn’t help. “I had thought so.”
“Yes, I suppose from your unique perspective it must be obvious.”
“So you are basically in complete control of the destiny of the planet Earth,” I summed up. “Without the knowledge or approval of those whose destiny you control.”
“You are too sweeping in your statement,” he replied. “I have actually had to do very little in terms of direct action. Introduced a few hints here and there to spark an idea or concept, made sure certain facts or arguments came to the attention of certain people or the public. Most of what I do is simply monitoring the progress of events and carefully planning my next small action. If indeed any should prove necessary at all.
“You do not give enough credit to your own species, Vern,” he admonished. “Most of what has occurred has been done by them alone. I have had only to give subtle nudges to help propel them in the direction they want to go in anyways. If they did not want to go there, if they did not want to do the things they have done, I would not be able to force them.”
“I know,” I conceded, though little mollified, “that so far most everything that has occurred since your arrival here appears to have been for the best; but still, it makes me uncomfortable knowing that behind the course of human events, of human history, there is, so to speak, an inhuman intelligence working to change human history from what it would otherwise be for its own self-interested purposes. In fact,” I expanded, “it more than makes me uncomfortable. I just don’t think it’s right. We have the right to determine our own destiny free from outside interference thrust upon us without our agreement or knowledge and I think you should stop what you’re doing.”
There it was; I had finally said it. Now I could only await his reply.
It wasn’t long in coming. “I believe,” he said, without missing a beat, in that smoothly grave voice he’s appropriated from Bert Sniderman, “that in all good conscience what I am doing is to the benefit of your species as well as to myself. You may in the not too distant future have the opportunity to render a final judgement on what I do, and if so, we will see then what your opinion is.”
And that was basically that. There wasn’t much more for either of us to say. If I had hoped that he was simply going to voluntarily agree not to do anything more, to perhaps remain stranded on Earth indefinitely - possibly for the rest of however long he had to live, I had been sorely disappointed.
Which leaves me essentially back where I was before. The only difference now is that he has confirmed all of my suspicions about the extent of his involvement in human affairs. But I am as powerless as ever to do anything about it. If indeed I should try to do anything at all.
But I am being asked to put my trust, and that of the whole planet, in the goodwill of an alien creature whose only real interest at best is in getting the hell out of here. Whatever the apparent record of his actions so far might appear to be, that just isn’t good enough. But what am I going to do about it?!!
It’s taken me more than half a year but I’ve finally done it. Or rather I’ve prepared myself as best I can to do it when the time comes, which I can feel rapidly approaching. The “it” being to eliminate Bert. To kill him. For the good of humanity.
It’s taken me a while, but I think I’ve figured out a simple but effective way to get rid of him that just might work.
He survived the searing heat of entering our atmosphere like a shooting star; but he did that while in the more compact hard shelled condition I found him in. It stands to reason that while in the softer fleshy state he has since metamorphosed into he will be considerably more vulnerable. All I have to do is get close enough to him while he’s in his present condition with a weapon sufficiently deadly to do the job.
It is not something that I have contemplated easily. It has taken me sometime to come to what I now feel is the inescapable conclusion that Bert has to be gotten rid of. It will almost surely mean my own death as well, but the stakes are too high to ignore. The future of my species is at stake. I just can’t leave that future to be determined by some alien being from God knows where. I can feel it in my gut; it’s just not the way things should be. It’s not right. So I have to stop him before thing go too far, if they haven’t already.
Stop him, if I can, before humanity is changed out of all recognition; shaped into some unnatural form of his own design and choosing. Stop him whatever the cost.
To do that I need an effective weapon that will work against him. Just rushing in and blasting away with a shotgun isn’t likely to do the job. Even if I catch him in the soft fleshy state he’s in now without his seeing me coming I don’t know where his vital organs are. Or if he even has any. Nor do I know how quickly he can revert back to the smaller hard shelled state I first found him in. And now that he has a plentiful supply of energy it’s likely he could erect some sort of force field around himself at the first sign of danger, or maybe get me first with a high energy weapon, like a particle beam or something. I could try disabling the wind and solar generators to deprive him of his energy supply but that would risk giving him advance warning I was up to something and I don’t know what his energy storage capabilities are.
It became clear to me the more I thought about it that I needed something that would let me get up close and personal with him without his suspecting anything and then allow me to strike suddenly and powerfully without warning; wiping him out before he has a chance to react. A bomb of some sort was the obvious answer. And after a bit more thought I had an idea where I might get one.
Back in grade school I’d been best friends for a while with a kid who had later gone on as an adult to make his career in organized crime. What all he’s been involved in over the course of his career I don’t really know, and he ended up serving several stretches in prison, but at one time he’d been doing well enough to offer me a job helping him to run the illegal gambling part of his operations. I didn’t take him up on his offer; but we’d retained a casual friendship throughout our working lives and would occasionally get together
to relive old times whenever the opportunity arose.
It seems that these days even career criminals eventually retire, if they manage to survive long enough, and Joey’s been one of the lucky ones. Truth be told he’s come out of it all pretty well off and now lives in a palatial chalet in an exclusive retirement community by the shore of Trout Lake with a skinny blonde wife less than half his age. He hasn’t completely forgotten his humble beginnings though, or the people he knew back then, so every once in a while he’ll call me up for some recreational fishing and drinking.
Even allowing for some exaggeration on his part; judging by some of the tall tales he tells on our outings Joey’s been involved in a few things in his time considerably rougher than taking illegal sports bets. He’s hinted as well that he still has connections with important people from his past and boasted that his reputation still carries some weight in those circles.
Though I’m pretty sure a fair bit of what he tells me is just harmless self-aggrandizement he was the best person I could think of to go to for help in this situation. Given our relative positions in life it’s always been him who’s invited me whenever we’ve gotten together, never I him, so he looked a little surprised when I turned up unannounced on his doorstep one afternoon about a month ago saying I needed to talk to him. I hadn’t called him before because I didn’t want to risk using any kind of telecommunications device that could
be tapped by Bert.
Joey looked even more surprised when I handed him a note asking if we could go somewhere safe to talk without being overheard. He squinted at me a moment through narrowed eyes, then motioned me inside.
“O.K. Vern,” he said, in an abrupt tone of voice he’d never used with me before, “what is it?”
“You’re sure nobody can hear-.”
“Vern, I’ve got all the very latest in anti-bugging and surveillance equipment here. This place is as secure in that way as the Pentagon. Now what’s the big deal about?”
He sounded both exasperated and suspicious. Despite our long acquaintance I suppose the possibility was running through his mind that I was trying to set him up in some way, that maybe the cops or an old rival in crime were using me to try to get to him. More likely though I had some petty dispute or problem I thought he could help me with in an extra-legal manner. The way you see people going to a Godfather for favours in gangster vids. Because of his past and reputation Joey probably gets a fair bit of that kind of thing and maybe it irritates him.
“I need something from you that I think maybe you can get for me,” I said. “But nobody, and I mean nobody, can know who you’re getting it for. There has to be absolutely no mention of my name outside of this house or to anybody else. And I’m willing to pay you whatever it takes.”
Joey raised an eyebrow. “Let me guess,” he said, with a half amused grin, “you want to do away with someone and you want me to get you the untraceable piece to do it with.” Joey ruefully shook his head. “Vern, I never would have thought it of you. Well let me give you a little bit of advice. Before you go and-.”
“No-no Joey,” I ventured to interrupt, “it’s not like that at all. What I need is an explosive device; something small and compact and easily hidden, like in a jacket pocket or something, but extremely powerful, that can really make a big explosion. Like blow up a house or something.” Unfortunately I have no idea how big a blast it will take to kill Bert; I just wanted as powerful an explosive as I could get with a reasonably small size.
Joey stared at me for at least five seconds. “Vern, what the hell are you talking about?” he finally demanded. He didn’t sound at all amused anymore. He didn’t sound suspicious anymore either, he just sounded very exasperated, like a parent would be with a child who’s just said something incredibly dumb. “What you’re asking me for is a bomb that could kill a lot of people, not to mention do a hell of a lot of damage. You can’t get away with using something like that around here, all hell would break loose. And no matter
how secret we tried to keep it, it would end up coming down on my head. There’s only so many places you can get something like that, especially around here, and I’d be the first person the law would come looking for.”
“Joey, I swear I won’t harm another human being. Nor am I going to blow up a bridge or something that would create a big commotion. But,” I pleaded, “I really need you to help me with this. I...I just can’t say how important this is to me. I’ll pay whatever you want if you’ll just help with this. I’m...I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
Joey’s face now had a puzzled look on it. Then he said I wasn’t the same man he’d been going fishing with for the last five years. That something had got me all excited; that I should settle down and act my age, and enjoy that old age in retirement. But he could see by then that nothing he could say was going to talk me out of it and that if he did refuse me I’d just go somewhere else to try to get what I wanted, likely getting into a whole lot of trouble in the process.
Joey never did ask me outright what I was going to do with the bomb, just asked me to be patient, said he’d see what he could do, and that he’d get back to me. I had to insist then that he not try to communicate with me in any way about the matter and asked if he would have it for me if I came back in three weeks. That caused him another puzzled frown, but after thinking about it for about ten seconds he said with an audible sigh to give him four weeks and that I should just be sure to come again when his wife was out.
When I asked how much it was going to cost me he waved a hand and said to forget it, to just do us both the favour of doing whatever I had to do without getting myself killed. It was a relief to hear him say that, not because I’d miss the money since I don’t expect to live long enough to spend it anyways; but because although I’ve heard that organized crime has ways to evade the
tracking of movements of funds by law enforcement agencies, I had no doubt Bert would be able to see through any such subterfuge and flag any unusual transfer of funds I made from any of my accounts.
The last four weeks while I’ve been waiting have been nerve wracking. I’ve been on pins and needles the whole time; bursting with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of nervous energy such as I would never have believed myself capable of at my age, which I have only kept a lid on with the greatest of difficulty. I can see no sign that Bert has detected any difference in me over these weeks but then he never does give any outward clue as to what he’s thinking.
If he did notice anything he may have simply put it down to the changes that are overtaking me, changes that I can no longer ignore but can scarcely believe. Bert is undoubtedly responsible for what is happening to me and I keep waiting for him for him to say something, to explain what exactly he has done to me; but as in so many other things, he volunteers nothing on the subject.
Maybe he is waiting for me to say something, so that he can then admit that yes, he has done a great miracle for me, bestowed upon me the ultimate gift; expecting me to then gush with gratitude and admiration for the great alien technology that has made it possible. Expecting also perhaps that this will wash away any possible doubts I could possibly still harbour as to the beneficial effects of his actions on this world.
In that he would be wrong. If anything it has backfired on him; he has inadvertently given me the fire and energy necessary to rid this world of him. I don’t think I would have had that if he had left me the sedate retiree I was when I found him. It may even be that the bomb that, God willing, does away with him, is of a technology that only exists on Earth because of him.
Four weeks later to the day I waited as before on the shoulder of the road by the entrance to Joey’s gated community for his wife to leave for her weekly appointment with the hairstylist. Once again I pulled up before his three story cottage by the lake. This time however he opened the door before I had a chance to ring the bell and quickly ushered me in.
Joey had it all ready for me. I was surprised, though I suppose I shouldn’t have been, at how small and compact the manufacturers had been able to make their product. Joey said it was the very latest in the line; the result of some of the most recent advances in chemistry and physics. It was the kind of stuff normally used in very small quantities by safecrackers or in larger amounts by road construction crews.
The bomb is actually two, consisting of two brown packets each about three centimetres square by half a centimetre thick. They come with a single small round detonator that fits snugly in the palm of the hand and is completely concealed by clenching an average sized fist about it. The detonator consists simply of a clock by which to set the time I want the bomb to go off and a button to push to start the countdown. If I wish to set it off at my own discretion I simply set the clock to zero and push the button. The detonator has an effective range of up to 10 kilometres though I probably won’t be needing it as I see no way out of the necessity of being right there to
detonate it; to give me the best possible chance of taking Bert out. I’m only going to have one chance at it so I can’t afford to fail on the first attempt.
The packets of explosive material each have a simple sliding switch that shows blue when disarmed, red when armed and ready to be detonated. Joey said each packet was enough to demolish a three story building and that I could use them separately or together.
The three items fit neatly into a hard shelled black carrying case about the size of a wallet. I placed all three back into the case, slipped it into an inside jacket pocket, and memorized the combination that Joey gave me for the case lock.
I asked Joey if I had to worry about any of the components possibly being detected by security sensors such as those that he had protecting his own premises. He assured me, a little uneasily I thought, that they couldn’t be distinguished from harmless plastics by anything known to man. I can only hope that the same will hold true for Bert.
After Joey had finished explaining the basics to me there wasn’t much more either of us could find to say to each other. I thanked Joey again as best I could, saying if there was ever anything I could do for him - to just ask. He chuckled wanly, saying that he was out of the favour collecting business. Then he wished me well in whatever it was I intended to do and said he’d call me in a few weeks to go fishing. I said I’d look forward to it, and I would too, if I planned to still be around then.
It has been just over a week now since I got the bomb from Joey. Bert gives no sign that I can discern that he suspects anything though I know it’s silly to think that I would be able to even if he does suspect something.
Everything goes on as before, just as it has for the past three and a half years, which of course is the problem. Sure, things on the surface are going great, people are on their way to Mars for Gods sake, and the human race has seemingly never been so prosperous. But it is a phoney kind of prosperity being pushed by an alien being with its own agenda. Once Bert is no longer around to control how his technology is being applied who knows what may happen; each new advance introduced by him only increases the danger. It may already be too late, he may already have given more than we can handle by ourselves. If that does become the case what would that mean for the ability of humans to control and determine their own destiny? Would we become permanently dependent on alien governance, either direct or hidden?
So I have to stop him, and stop him soon, if we are to retain any control at all over our own destiny and still survive. Before our final epitaph becomes that we were a good foil for the desperate attempts of an alien being trying to get home.
I intend to use both packets of explosive material at once in an attempt to wipe Bert out in one big blast. I’ve hidden the small black case in the shed at the back of a locked tool cabinet. My simple plan is to go in there just before entering the trailer and slip each of the slim packets into a front pocket of the baggy khakis I usually wear. The small detonator I’ll put in a back pocket where I can casually put back a hand to manually set off both packets at once. If I can do that once I’ve edged up as close to Bert as I can get while making
casual conversation, say within a foot or so, making sure he’s still in a relatively vulnerable soft and fleshy state, it should give me my best chance at getting him.
The tool shed is also where I’ve been keeping this journal. If I am successful the trailer will surely be completely destroyed by the resulting explosion. What will be left of the tool shed, situated some fifteen metres away, and its contents is hard for me to know for certain. I intend to put this journal in a small unlocked strongbox placed at the far side of the shed in the hope that it will survive me to be one day read by others of my kind; however difficult it may be for them to believe its contents.
As I sit here at a dimly lit booth at the rear of a local eatery completing what is likely to be my final entry I look back over the previous entries I have made in this journal and see the considerable gaps of time between many of them. It makes me realize that for much of the period of time it covers there appeared to me to be nothing to write about; that for all intents and purposes my life went on at its usual placid pace even as Bert subtly worked his will upon the world around me. It is my only excuse, feeble as it is, for having let things go as far as they have.
I know also that if I am successful there will likely be nothing left to prove the truth of what I’ve written here. It will almost surely appear to any reader, whoever you might be, to be the delusional ravings of a lunatic. If that is so then so be it, it will be a small price to pay. Perhaps there may come a time when you will have more reason to take it seriously.
The end came, suddenly and unexpectedly, yesterday. I say the end came yesterday but in a sense it is also a beginning. For better or worse it was the day they came to take Bert away and left us to live with the consequences.
When they came for him there was none of the fire and thunder that had accompanied Bert’s arrival on our world. It was a warm late summer’s afternoon that gave just a hint of the approaching fall in the cool smell of the breezes that occasionally gusted through the swaying boughs of the trees and rippled through the tall grasses and bushes of the meadows.
I had just got back from a day of fishing and restless rambling over the countryside, trying to work myself up to the moment when I would finally steel myself to take things in hand and do what I knew had to be done: permanently remove Bert as a threat to our world while destroying myself in the process.
I knew immediately that something had happened the instant I opened the door. Bert, or rather what had been Bert, was gone. There was just an empty space in front of the wall socket where he had always been, waiting like a faithful pet, whenever I had come back alone. He had always known not to be there whenever there had been somebody with me; but this was different because this time somebody was already there.
The stranger had his back to me as he sat at the desk playing with the keyboard and screen. At the sound of my entry he swivelled around and and looked up at me with what I can only describe as a pixyish grin on his slim tanned face.
The interloper looked to be in his late thirties or early forties, of medium height and slim build. Light chocolate brown hair come down to the tops of his ears and warm brown eyes of the same hue twinkled humourously under arched eyebrows. His even white teeth flashed as he grinned and softly chuckled. “Vern!” he exclaimed in that so very familiar voice, “so at last we finally meet in the flesh.”
“B-Bert?” I stammered. But I knew it was. I had known before he had even spoken. There was something in the otherworldly smoothness and perfection of his features, maybe even in the look he gave me, that said “alien”; that said “Bert.”
“You said it, Vern my friend,” he said, getting up and extending his hand. He had a familiarity of manner and speech that was new to him, but it was Bert alright. It had to be. He spoke with the same authoritative voice he had always used; but now it seemed to be emanating from actual vocal cords. It didn’t quite fit though with the physical presence of the man now standing in front of me. It belonged to a bigger, more barrel chested, man; somebody more like the real Bert Sniderman.
I reached out and shook his hand. The grip was warm and firm. He was dressed in a plain, brown cotton shirt; with olive green khaki pants and brown hiking boots.
“So they’ve finally come to get you,” I said in a daze. “To rescue you.”
“Yes,” he said, nodding his head vigorously as he let go of my hand. “They have finally come to get me. It actually took no time at all once IDR had progressed to the point that it could transmit an experimental signal that bypassed the light speed barrier. No time at all,” he repeated with a chuckle. “My rescuers detected it right away and traced its origins to here, and me.”
“So it really was all about IDR,” I said. “It was the culmination of all your careful planting and nurturing of the necessary science and technology. That was why you had them locate here, of all places in the world.”
“Yes,” he replied, grinning at me almost from ear to ear, as though eager to tell all now. “Though I could appear to make myself vanish and through the use of your communications networks be aware of virtually everything that was occurring within the limits of human civilization, I was actually quite constrained in my physical movements by the technical limits of the survival pod I have been forced to inhabit ever since my arrival here. It was useful and convenient to be in close physical proximity to the facility upon which all of my hopes ultimately rested.”
“But you’re...out now,” I said wonderingly. “You have a human body, or what looks like a very good imitation of one.”
“Yes,” he said with an enthusiasm in his voice that had never been there before, “it’s wonderful!” He took a deep breath and clasped both hands to his chest as though to confirm the reality of his new body. “It’s so good to have a real biological body again; to feel and experience physical existence with it. Being in a survival pod, even though it has some useful, and even organic, aspects to it, is the equivalent of being trapped inside a machine.”
“But you seem different now,” I observed. “In the way you talk and act, the way you express yourself, now that you’re...”
“Human?” he finished for me with another chuckle. “Well not quite, but close. You are right though, having my consciousness confined within a bio-mechanical device did affect my manner, my mode of thinking. Almost unconsciously I tended to behave, to think even, in a way I considered appropriate to being part machine. But now,” his eyes shone brightly, “that I have a body that very closely resembles a human one and can experience the world around me, the world of humans, through human senses, I am naturally behaving much as a human does. Do you like the change?”
“Y-yes,” I said, not sure really how I felt about it. Not sure at that moment what I was feeling as I tried to take in the implications of what had happened. “It’s-it’s refreshing,” I said, trying my best to be calm and polite. “You certainly made the transition quickly.”
“Yes, well I suppose it is partly due to my having observed humans closely and studying their behaviour for almost four years. And you know, this body and the way it perceives and interacts with its environment isn’t as different as you might think from my own native organic body. Though to be sure there are significant differences; as well as differences between my home planet and yours.”
“Really?” I said, suddenly interested. “How so?”
“Vern,” he replied, more like his serious old self again, “you already know far more about me and my kind, just by knowing of the fact of our existence, than any other human being does or should know.”
“But you know so much about us,” I protested. “It seems only fair that we should know something about you.”
“Vern, we only came into contact with each other through sheer accident and happenstance. The amount of contact there should be between societies of vastly differing levels of development has long been a matter of debate and controversy among my people. It is an issue that has arisen in the history of your own world as well. Despite our relatively greater level of technological prowess we possess no great insight or final answer to such fundamental questions. None probably exist. We can only claim to have had more experience in the matter and to have perhaps gained some small amount of wisdom as a result. The consensus among my people at the moment is that, as careful as I have been to limit the possible adverse effects, that my civilization through my activities on your world has already exercised too much influence on the pace and direction of your civilizations development.”
“But,” I was confused, “now you’ve taken on human form.”
“This is very temporary, something they’ve done for me both as a kind of compensation for the time spent integrated into the survival pod and because it was thought that my being in this form would improve communication and understanding between us. That it would make you more comfortable with me and help us to relate to each other better. But this is only for a very short time.”
“I thought we related to each other pretty well before,” I said, dimly aware of the irony that up to a few moments before my main preoccupation in life had been to work up enough nerve to try to kill him.
“You’ve been fishing, Vern,” he said, abruptly changing the subject. “Did you catch anything?”
“Uh yeah, I caught a few,” I said. “So how much longer are you here for?”
“May I see them?” he said eagerly. “Are they trout? That’s what you usually fish for this time of year, correct? Trout?”
“Yeah, it’s a little late in the season for them but you can still get a few,” I said as I unslung my pack and took the fish out of the cryo sack. I rinsed the fish off under the kitchen faucet and laid them out on the counter. I had caught three brook trout, about eight to ten inches each, and there was something very picturesque about them as they lay there in all their speckled finery.
“They’re beautiful,” Bert breathed in a hushed voice as he stood beside me and looked down at them in the soft summer light streaming in through the window over the sink. He ran a finger down a smooth flank; over a kaleidoscope of red, green and blue freckles, feeling the cool firmness of the flesh. “Pan fried trout,” he softly exclaimed. “How I would love to know what freshly caught pan fried trout taste like.”
“Well, why don’t we have-.”
“No, I can’t. There’s no time.”
“Wha-? No time even for-.”
“No. Walk with me, Vern. Down to the river, where you found me. We have to talk.”
He looked at the fish. I hesitated a moment, then said “Take them with you then.”
“No Vern, I couldn’t,” he protested. “You caught them yourself. They’re yours.”
“I’ve caught plenty,” I said. “And I’ll catch a few more before the season’s done. Please. Take them. For me. It’s the least I can do in return for all you’ve done.” Again I was reminded of how my world had been completely turned upside down, half an hour before I’d wanted to destroy him for all he’d done.
Maybe it was because I was giddy with relief at the realization that both our lives would be spared, or maybe it was because of the new persona and form he had assumed, but suddenly it had become very important to me that Bert take the fish. In spite of all the misgivings I still had about what he had done; I wanted desperately to make at least this symbolic gesture, however infinitesimally small and insignificant in comparison it was, of giving something in return.
“Here,” I said, “I’ll just wrap them up in some cyro-wrap.” I quickly pulled out a drawer and got a roll of the stuff out. It only took me a minute to wrap up the fish before placing them in an old faded knapsack that had been hanging unused in the closet for years.
“Vern, I can’t thank you enough,” he said with what sounded like real gratitude as I handed him the knapsack, “you don’t know how much this means to me.” His eyes glinted for a moment in the subdued light of the trailer.
I shrugged, a little self-conscious. “As I said, it’s the least I can do.”
“Come, let us go. There’s not much time and we need to talk.”
So we slowly started to walk down to the river, basking in the late afternoon sunshine and talking as we went. Bert, knapsack slung over his shoulder, looked around at everything; like somebody just out of jail after serving a long stretch. I walked with my hands deep in my pockets, unfocused eyes on the path in front of me, as I tried to think carefully about every word I said.
It was a gloriously beautiful day to be out and about and though I didn’t take much notice of it at the time, Bert certainly did. He dawdled along trying to take it all in: stopping here and there to examine this tree or that, or a particularly colourful wildflower; or to gape at a fluttering golden yellow butterfly, or a steel-blue dragonfly whizzing by.
“I once said to you, Vern,” he said as he stooped to study the profusion of purple and magenta blooms on a stalk of Joe Pye Weed, “that you might yet have the opportunity to render final judgement on what I have done here.” He turned away from the flowers to look at me. “Now you will have that opportunity.”
“I-I will? I don’t...how is that?”
“As I said the consensus among my compatriots is that because of me our civilization has had an undue influence on the development of your civilization. They are now contemplating a course of counter-actions to try to neutralize the effects of what I have done and return human civilization as much as possible to the path it was on before my arrival here.
“I myself,” he went on, “am among a minority who believe that it is best to leave things as they are at this point and not to interfere further. We believe that for the most part my influence here has been beneficial or benign and that any attempt to offset it will only cause undue suffering and trauma.”
The path entered a thicket of evergreens. Bert buried his nose in a clump of balsam fir needles and breathed in deeply, then exhaled with a long “A-a-ah-h. What a beautiful scent,” he exclaimed. He pressed a finger to a stream of spruce gum dribbling down a trunk and sniffed at the finger before trying to rub the sticky stuff off with his thumb.
“Of course,” he said as he vigorously rubbed his fingers and thumb together, “there are those who just as a matter of principal believe that societies, particularly those at a relatively early stage of development such as yours, should develop as indigenously as possible no matter what the cost.”
“You better try to wash that stuff off there,” I said, pointing to a small rill running roughly parallel to our path. “It’ll stick to everything you touch otherwise.
“Just what would happen if they do decide to try to “neutralize” everything they believe has happened here because of you?” I asked. The euphoria I had been feeling at the realization of my own personal survival was being replaced by an increasing uneasiness as I realized that there were things that had yet to be settled.
In a sense I should have been happy at the prospect of all of Bert’s works on earth being undone; hadn’t I just a short time before been willing to sacrifice my own life to stop those works from progressing any further? Yet I wasn’t sure the way things now appeared to be unfolding was what should happen either. Things were happening too fast and there wasn’t time for me to think them through.
Bert knelt and rubbed his hands in the clear running water. As he got up he picked a single lavender Astor with a yellow gold centre. He studied the Astor for a moment then moved on to inhale deeply from a spiky cluster of Blue Vervain blooming by the stream bed. Finally he looked at me and said “Basically it would mean there would be very little advance in the physical sciences for at least the next century or so.”
We resumed our slow journey down to the river. ”Until,” he continued, “human civilization was judged to have reached the point in its cultural evolution at which it would have achieved its present level of scientific advance on its own.”
Bert paused as though expecting me to say something, but I didn’t say anything for at least a minute as I tried to let what he had just said sink in. His words, “very little advance”... “at least the next century”... “judged to have reached the point,” rang dully through my mind. At last I managed to say “And wh-, how exactly would they go about doing this?”
“It would be very difficult, and require extreme measures even the most ardent indigenist would find unpalatable, to completely expunge all traces of my influence; to eradicate all knowledge gained because of it. However the development of practical applications of the new knowledge could be frustrated and prevented. Prototypes would mysteriously fail for unknown reasons, unforeseen technical and economic obstacles to further development would be constantly arising, and so on. I think you get the gist.”
“Yes, I get the idea,” I said dolefully. “And what of the economic and technological progress that has been made to date? The new Martian colony for instance.”
“It would turn out to be technologically and economically unviable due to unforeseen problems in developing the appropriate technology and a near stagnant economy. It would eventually be abandoned. Likewise the Lunar settlements would wither away to at most a few isolated, largely unmanned, scientific observation posts.”
“And cold fusion, the quantum improvements in computer tech, the associated medical breakthroughs?”
“Their practical application and use, and thus their impact on societal development, would be restrained by us as much as possible till the time for their widespread introduction was deemed appropriate.”
“IDR would go as well, I suppose,” I said, thinking of Anne.
“Who needs stellar space age communications when activity in space is basically confined to Earth orbit?”
“What you’re actually talking about here,” I said, gritting my teeth as I felt my anger rise “is a long-term and direct interference in our affairs that far exceeds anything you did yourself.”
“All in the course,” Bert replied blithely, “of returning human civilization to the rightful course of development it was on before I nefariously started to seed it, here and there, with little kernels of knowledge that, with only a little tilling of the fertile soil, soon started to sprout and bloom into a so-called “golden age.”
“Excuse me,” he said, sounding not at all apologetic, “if I seem a bit irreverent but I think we share a similar frustration with the way events may possibly unfold.”
Bert stopped before an immense old cottonwood, it had to have been over three metres in circumference, and ran his hands over the rough grey surface; slipping them between the thick folds of bark running vertically up the trunk. “Marvellous,” he said in a near whisper, practically hugging the tree as he gazed upwards along the towering column, “how old do you estimate it is?”
“Oh, well over a hundred years, I imagine,” I said. “How old are you?”
He seemed startled for a moment by the question but then quickly said “Oh, that’s of no matter. What’s important, why I wanted to talk to you like this, is that as the only human aware of my existence and impact on your society you stand in a unique position to judge how beneficial, or deleterious, I have been. As such your opinion and recommendations will carry considerable weight with my compatriots when the final decision as to what is to be done is made.”
“I see,” I said, a bit numbly, not actually sure I was really seeing everything I should be. I wasn’t sure I understood the full implications of what Bert was saying. And I was becoming afraid as well; afraid of the responsibility, of what might be riding on what I said next.
We walked on in silence through the stillness of the afternoon woods; slanting shafts of sunlight falling intermittently upon us through the leafy branches. The only sounds were the muted singing of birds, the hum of the occasional passing insect, and the soft crunching of our footsteps on the decaying debris of the forest floor.
I walked with my head down as I pondered furiously what to do next. Finally I cautiously spoke up as I tried to feel my way along. “So you’re saying they want to know what I think of what you’ve done here. Whether I think the influence you have exerted on the shape and direction of my society has been for the best or not.
“But more importantly,” I continued, “they also want to know what I think they should do next, if anything. However, they won’t necessarily do what I think they should do. Is that right?”
“Don’t underestimate the importance of your opinion to them,” Bert urged. “In the past you voiced serious doubts about what I was doing and they know this. But what is done is done. To attempt to unwind it all now, or even just to freeze things for a considerable period to try to compensate for the accelerated rate of development I initiated, would as you said, involve far more meddling in human affairs for a protracted period than anything I have done.”
Slowly I nodded my head, then took a deep breath and said, “I agree. Despite my previous misgivings your influence does seem to have been mostly beneficial. It was, I suppose,” I added contritely, “partly wounded pride at the thought of an outsider directing the course of human history for his own purposes that accounted for some of my opposition.”
“But,” Bert quickly replied, “human history itself is full of examples of societies benefiting from cross civilization transfers of knowledge and technology.” Along with his more animated speaking style I noticed Bert’s voice had gradually changed to a more modulated slightly higher pitched tone that seemed more suited to his new body and manner. In the present context it may also have made him seem less pompous and more persuasive in making his point. “The place value decimal number system originating in India that then spread via the Arabian civilization to Europe and from there through out the whole of humanity is an excellent example of that.”
“And guns and alcohol going to the original inhabitants of the Americas is a not so good example,” I said sourly.
“Of course,” he said, sounding most reasonable, “it depends on what else comes with it, such as invaders and disease, and the ability of the receiving civilization to make appropriate use of the new technology. But I was very careful not to disseminate more than your civilization could responsibly make use of. For the most part I was simply stimulating an untapped potential that was already there.”
“Okay,” I said, “that’s fine. But I really think that from this point on there should cease to be any further covert activity of any kind on this world, or in this system for that matter, by you and your colleagues. If you want any further contact with us it should be up front and open. If you don’t wish to reveal yourselves then we should be left to our own devices.”
“I hope you know I only did what I had to in order to signal my rescuers,” Bert said earnestly, “and that I would never knowingly do anything to harm your society. I already told you why I thought it best not to let my presence be known.”
“Fine,” I said, nodding my head in agreement. I could see no point in arguing further with him about what right he’d had, regardless of the circumstances or his professed intentions, to unilaterally do what he’d done. “I understand you were in a difficult situation, but from now on that’s the way I think things should be,”
“Then,” Bert said with conviction, “we are in agreement.”
We came to a small meadow carpeted with Black-eyed Susans, their buttery yellow petals luminous in the fading sunshine. It was a common enough sight; yet breathtakingly beautiful all the same and I felt an obscure pride as Bert, this alien from uncounted light years away, stopped to admire the vista.
He bent down to pick a clump of purple Bergamot growing by the side of the path and sniffed at the minty fragrance. “Life is so tremendously diverse here,” he said with a sigh. “All these varieties of plant life we’ve encountered just during a short walk. Of course I knew all about it from a scientific viewpoint; but to actually experience it, to be physically aware of it, using all of the senses of a native inhabitant, is something else again.”
“You’ve picked a good time of the year,” I said, though of course he hadn’t picked it at all. “In another couple of months all the flowers will be gone and the trees stripped bare of most of their leaves. This will all look pretty stark and lifeless. A month or so after that and it’ll all be covered by a blanket of snow, though I suppose,” I said pensively, frowning as I thought of it, “that may have a beauty all of its own.”
“Yes, and then it will all spring back to life,” he said. “In ceaseless cycles of death and renewal that will only end with the extinction of all life itself. That is the way it is everywhere we have been where we have found life. Nothing is immortal but life itself constantly renews itself.”
“What about you though?” I asked. “It would seem to me that with the ability to move from body to body, to create the body of your choice, that you’ve removed yourselves from that cycle of death and renewal.” I hesitated for an instant then asked one of two questions that had been gnawing at me ever since I had begun to realize that something extraordinary was happening to me; especially now that it appeared I wasn’t about to destroy myself in an act of sacrificial self-atonement. “Are you yourselves immortal? Do you live forever?”
Bert turned his head to look at me and his eyes held both amusement and sympathy. “Ah, so you’ve been wondering about that have you? It’s understandable enough that you would. No, to answer your question, we are not immortal. We have been able to escape the natural life and death cycle of the purely organic; but the consciousness, or the mind or spirit or whatever you might wish to call it, even when reduced down to it’s essence of pure information distinct from any physical medium it may reside in, has limits as to how long it can survive, or perhaps it is more a question of it’s no longer wishing to survive, on this plane of existence. Eventually it may grow weary, or maybe just bored with existence, and starts to come apart, to lose it’s cohesion, in a way we do not understand.
“Some of us hypothesize there to be some sort of self-destruct mechanism buried deep in each self-aware consciousness’ innermost depths that at some point is consciously or unconsciously activated to allow that consciousness to pass on to some other theorized state of existence.” Bert shrugged, “Or maybe it just has something to do with the fundamental nature of the universe. That nothing, not even purely conceptualized information, can hold together forever.”
“And me?” I said, asking the other question. “How long am I going to hold together?”
“I wanted to give you something, Vern,” he said, “in return for sheltering me. Something that would stay with you, that you would keep with you as long as you lived. I wanted it to be a unique testament to my gratitude without revealing my existence to others. So I gave you another go round of nature’s cycle; a little more life on a planet bursting with life, yet of a nature unique in it’s history.”
“But...I’m..I’m growing younger.”
“Yes, I simply reversed the biological clock encoded in your genes that is responsible for the onset of the deteriorative processes of ageing. Right now you have a biological age of about fifty years compared to your chronological age of seventy-one. The process of getting younger will gradually slow down till in approximately seventeen years you will reach a biological age of roughly eighteen. After that you will start to age again at the normal rate. I thought that letting you go back much further into childhood would create unnecessary complications for you; however I can arrange for that if you wish.”
“I-I see. No...uh-that’ll...eighteen will be okay,” I said, not having time to think about it, not knowing what else to say. I was staggered by what he had told me even though I knew by now that something like this had to be the case. “So I guess before long simply dying my hair grey isn’t going to be enough to keep people from noticing what’s happening to me. Why didn’t you tell me the full extent of what you’d done to me before?”
“Though I was fairly sure of being successfully rescued in the near future I didn’t know with certainty for how long I might need you. I was able to give you some of the beneficial effects immediately but there was still the possibility I might have to stop or slow down the process if my stay turned out to be longer than I was anticipating. Now however you are free to make whatever arrangements you think necessary to accommodate yourself to this without having to take my situation into account.
“That is, of course,” he said, “if this is what you want.” He gave me a sidelong look as we walked along before continuing. “It is in some ways my most blatant act of interference with the ‘natural’ order on this planet and I will return you to a biological age of seventy-one years if you wish.”
At that point I didn’t know for sure what I wanted. A thousand different possible replies flew through my head but I could decide on none of them so I ended up saying nothing.
My thoughts in turmoil we walked on through the fading afternoon. Bert paused here and there as we made our way; first to admire a stately old oak, then to stare at a red chipmunk chittering at us in alarm from its hole high in a pine, and then again to study with a look of wonder a hummingbird sipping nectar from a pink Dragonhead. Gradually we neared the river.
Then we were there, as afternoon began to deepen into evening, at the small clearing by the river where I had first hauled him ashore. The sun browned grasses growing almost to the water’s edge rippled in the warm breeze as I turned to look at Bert, not sure what came next.
I felt all choked up and confused inside. I felt that I should say something to explain myself, yet I couldn’t get it straight in my mind just exactly what I wanted to say. I had been so critical before of what Bert had been doing; but now I was advocating that everything that had resulted from his efforts should be left in place. I wanted to leave as it was everything he had done for, and to, human society; but it was now I, the beneficiary of his “most blatant act”, who stood to gain the most.
So where was my objectivity? Who was I to judge? Part of me said I should out of principle alone turn down his gift of a new life.
Yet I couldn’t. I had been seduced by Bert and the irresistible fruits of his alien technology. Seduced by my greed for life; for the extra years he was giving me.
Is that really so bad? As I sit here now writing this down I honestly don’t know the answer to that. As it was I stood dumb there on the riverbank, conflicted and torn, feeling like a hypocrite; and what was worse, maybe even a traitor to my own kind.
As though he could read my thoughts Bert said with what I perceived to be deep understanding and sympathy, “It’s not necessary to say anything more. How often we wish things to be black and white, I have often in many situations wished it were so, yet how often they turn out to be grey. I am glad we had this walk. I think we have come to an understanding.”
I didn’t reply; instead I turned from him to look out across the river, my hands in my pockets, with the setting sun at my back. When at last I turned back to look for him he was gone.
It’s been eighteen years since I wrote those closing words and in all that time I’ve never felt the serious need to add to them. It is only the occasion of my coming to the conclusion that I am no longer getting physically younger, I may actually have been aging for the past year or so, that has moved me to unearth this archaic record of those times and to thumb through its yellowing pages.
I’ve long since left my place by the river, the place I had once planned to spend the rest of my life. There came a time when I could no longer comfortably keep up the pretence of being over seventy years of age when physically I more closely resembled someone in their mid-forties, and was steadily growing ever more youthful and vigorous.
So I said my good-byes and left. My story was I had accepted the offer of an elderly distant relative to go live with him in his condo on the West Coast: a fairly common instance of two old retirees teaming up to share expenses and chores in more moderate climes. Most people seemed to accept it without much question.
The only exception might have been Anne Robinson. I hadn’t been able to hide my resurgent libido from her; try as I might there was no way I could hold back when I was around that woman. So she wasn’t buying the decrepit senior citizen tottering away to live his last years in more temperate lands bit. She couldn’t quite figure out what the real story was but I think she suspected another woman was involved. As long as she didn’t get too close to the truth I let her think what she wanted. I wasn’t the only fish in her sea so it wasn’t as though I was abandoning her to herself, though I did feel kind of bad that she might think I would leave her for someone else. And I did miss her.
Eventually, if it’s still there, in another fifty years or so I think I might like to return to that quiet spread by the river. In the meantime I have the chance to live over again most of a lifetime. Hopefully I’ll have learned some things from the almost ninety years I’ve lived so far that’ll help me to avoid a lot of the mistakes I made the first time around.
Anybody familiar with the history of the past eighteen years can probably guess that Bert’s and my point of view must have largely won out with his colleagues in the end. Certainly I have been able to detect no clear signs of further alien intervention in human affairs since that time.
The ten year period from roughly 2020 to 2030, a second roaring twenties it’s often referred to, is now thought of as a sort of golden age of progress and discovery. Bert left Earth in the latter part of 2022 so most of that period was a building on and carrying through of the initial impetus he had provided.
By the late twenties the golden age had begun to peter out and it’s perhaps not surprising that it didn’t take us humans long to revert back to a lot of our old bad habits. War, riot, and recession, among other self-inflicted calamities, have once again reared their heads as human civilization has gone back to muddling through on its own.
But we have been able to retain most of the advances of that period, and what’s more, to build on them. As a species we now live longer, healthier, more fulfilling lives than ever before; and are able to do it in a more complementary, less damaging, way to the environment than we have done in a long time. Despite the occasional flare up there’s now more harmony and co-operation between us than at anytime since Bert’s departure. And as everyone knows the Martian settlements, after a few initial set backs and growing pains, have not only managed to survive but are now prospering and providing the launching pad for the next steps outward to the asteroid belt and beyond. Even IDR has managed to survive as a producer of supra light-speed communications products for the movement into the outer reaches of the solar system; even if that is one area of technological development where there is unlikely to be any significant further advances for many years to come.
Bert had always said he was only unlocking a potential that was already there and the golden age he helped to create, like all golden ages, has served as a reminder of what is possible given the right circumstances. We needed an impetus from outside to make it happen but cross fertilization between different groups or civilizations has been an almost constant feature of human history. The consequences can sometimes be disastrous for one group or another but there can also be great benefits - as I think there have been this time. We shouldn’t be anymore ashamed at having used Bert’s fortuitous arrival on our planet to make it happen than European explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries should have been at launching their golden age of exploration aided by navigational instruments and techniques introduced to Western Europe from the Near and Mid-East.
And who knows? It is just possible Bert’s civilization got something in return. Like Marco Polo retuning home to introduce his fellow Venetians to pasta from China the cross fertilization can happen in unpredictable ways. Certainly I don’t believe Bert will ever forget, or remain unaffected by, his stay here.
As anyone reading this might be able to tell I’ve spent some time over the past eighteen years thinking about these things. But I won’t be adding anything else to this journal after this final entry. With my starting to age in a normal manner the story it tells is essentially over. All that remained was to bring it up to date to that point and now I’ve done that.
I’m not sure what I’ll do with it now. Perhaps I’ll post it on some quiet corner of the net where it won’t attract too much attention and let those who are interested make what they will of it.
Now that I’ve started out again on a new cycle of adult life I think I’ll head off Earth to see human kind’s latest and greatest frontier. I’ve taken an interest in the sciences I never had in my previous life and some of the new educational institutions they have out there are on the cutting edge. If I can get into one I might even become a scientist. Someday I may even run into Bert somewhere out there.