Aphelion Issue 265, Volume 25
September 2021
 
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Metaphase: Fluffy I, II and III

by Sergio Palumbo

(with Michele Dutcher)


The Altreh arrived on the surface of Undl after everything had already happened. The small colony of Humans looked totally wiped out; there were only some ruined buildings and destroyed facilities still standing. The fighting surely had been hard and fast, the alien Pirates -- known as The Cruel Eyes (because of the coldness they displayed in their evil silver pupils...)-- had fired a myriad of shots from the orbit to the most populated areas of the planet, hitting all the inhabited towns and villages so that-- at present-- only a few things were left there to prove the Humans had once built a colony in this place: blackish structures that had been houses before; palaces fallen to the ground; and remnants of some laboratories and industries.

This was the outermost outpost of the Human civilization within the Gliese 1 system, very far from all the others where colonists from Earth lived and the closest one to the portion of space ruled by the Altreh nearby. There was rich soil, two wide continents, no other intelligent lifeforms, many volatile creatures mostly very small in size, and general weather conditions suitable for a long- lasting human community. But there were some unpredictable dangers coming from outer space...

They had been forced to deal with those barbarian Pirates for so long and their weapons and defensive bases had been able to protect them adequately from the sudden assaults against their moons, their space stations and the homeworld itself. But Humans lacked the necessary technology to oppose and defeat adversaries so determined, cruel, aggressive and predatory. Yes, they had some modern equipment and instrumentation comparable to the devices used by the Altreh, like teleportation over short distances, laser self-defense turrets and faster than light starships for long, deep- space voyages. But they had not yet developed efficient shields, magnetic field barriers or regeneration medicine, so they were, in a way, still primitive in comparison to them.

At times K-jij-t thought that the Humans were really weird creatures. And not only for their strange eyes, and their so-called "beards"-- or hairy ends -- at the bottom of the head and on top of it, too -- at least for some of them... Indeed, no one among the individuals from that alien species had the long arms, the sky-blue broad body and, most of all, the three-colored plait all the Altreh possessed on their back... nor their bony cheeks and perfectly rounded eyes, of course. Actually, the Altreh scientist -- and most of his fellow colleagues from his own species, too -- thought that because Humans looked weak, half the size of K-jij-t, that they were not so highly evolved, that they must have been relying mostly on their strength and predominance of their species over all the other creatures, as that was the case on their far homeworld. Probably the Humans didn't know or comprehend at all that there were so many other alien species more advanced, stronger and more cruel than they around, indeed, and sooner or later all of them would have become prey of some fiercer opponent in that sector of space, as it had happened to the people of this outpost on Undl -- destroyed because of those bloody alien Pirates...

The Altreh (Altrehfdnfrstsdgdsjk was their complete name, but Earthlings couldn't pronounce it...) were different. They had always been peaceful and helpful with the Humans, although their species had never consented to be part of some common space agreement or alliance with the people from Earth. They were reserved and hoped to stay that way for the years to come. But they were not weak, and no species in that wide sector would have dared to fight against them. Humans, unfortunately, were not as strong and respected as the Altreh were...

The group assigned to Undl -- under the supervision of K-jij-t -- did a complete search of the whole planet, trying to find some man or woman still alive (it was the usual Altreh custom in such circumstances...), but they didn't find anything. Actually, a young researcher found by chance a dying animal, its back greyish, while its head was white, the so-called dog from the human homeworld. It was near the rest of a ruined laboratory, almost dead because of malnutrition and many wounds, as it hadn't been able to escape or it didn't want to at all...The Altreh were not able to take it away on time from the place where they had found it. There were high levels of radiation in that area, because of the tetronic bombs and explosive rays the spaceships of the Pirates had used profusely during the assault. But they had kept the corpse for further studies when they went back to the Altreh's system, as they were eager to examine alien animals and had always been very curious about these furry beings so many colonists kept as companions on Undl.

During the following years, Human policy about outer space colonization in that perilous sector of space changed completely. Earthlings had no desire to start a new home there, so there was no chance to speak about a return of the corpse of that animal -- a light bodied terrier, blackish brown coated and five years old according to non-scientific classifications of dogs kept on file by the Humans -- for a burial (as the Altreh knew that some Humans were used to), but anyway nobody asked for that, even though the Altreh Space Office communicated at that time the finding of more dogs (as they had announced the discovery of each human body), in case some relatives of the former colonist proprietor were still living on Earth or somewhere else in the galaxy.

Although the transported dog hadn't survived by then, because of the high radiation levels, K-jij-t -- who had charge of that corpse -- decided upon a thorough research on it and arranged for a cloning of the domesticated animal, according to the scientific traditions of the Altreh. So the dog was brought back to life, in a way. Decidedly it was a new species for the Altreh homeworld, but their planet was socially advanced enough just to let it live there, and there was no reason not to do so. Given the fact that the dog was not a common Altreh domesticated animal, the scientist decided to name it in a way the Earthlings would have liked. Fluffy was a name dogs were frequently given by the Humans, according to their registries. So the dog was named after that tradition, and K-jij-t -- who had been chosen as the supervisor of the cloning and its outcome-- kept Fluffy with his family, together with the other domesticated animals the alien had previously adopted: a strange downy hklf from the Northern Forests, a big common flying mouse -- home-raised -- and the little tltml his wife had been given as a gift when she was very young (that sort of creature tended to live twice over the life of an Altreh, so they usually resided together with more than a generation from one single Altreh family).

Life on the Altreh homeworld was very different from the one that dog would have had on the colony or -- maybe-- on the home planet of the Humans, but it soon became acclimatized to its stronger gravity, the peculiar cadmium-yellow sun, the many holo-lights present everywhere at night along the roads, and the twin moons in the sky. Training Fluffy turned out to be very easy, as the dog was willing to follow the commands it was given by K-jij-t or his son -- the individuals within K-jij-t's family who were recognized as its real masters. Moreover the scientist noticed the animal usually worked for praise and that was the main thing which kept it going. Over the course of time, the Altreh came to understand that dogs were probably much cleverer than most Humans had ever thought. For example, Fluffy's bark was not only a way of getting attention; the different, specific tonalities possessed an entire range of meanings. Also, for some strange reason, every day the dog seemed amused by the holovideo walls that entirely surrounded their parlor, and in fact it liked to stay there just contemplating the changing views, especially during nature documentaries. Fluffy appreciated the TV programs showing views of the beautiful greenish-yellow Northern Forests so much, in fact, that one morning K-jij-t took the dog there just to observe and make note of its behavior. It was amazing to observe how easily it indulged its bodily functions in front of the tall bent trees growing there, regardless of their smells and shapes, which were surely very different from the ones common dogs were probably used to. Well, anyway K-jij-t had to be fast at moving the dog away before some of the semi-sentient plants living there could react negatively...

At home, the scientist had been able to study many amusing habits that Fluffy exhibited over the years. The dog would lift its right eyelid to be sure its master was around; it would lift up all four legs in its favorite (but very strange...) position while it slept; and it would sometimes turn its kibble container upside down, for no discernible reason (it didn't matter whether the food was plentiful, absent, of a favored kind or a type usually snubbed...).

Another day, after a long time, because of his job, K-jij-t had to return to Undl (the attacked planet within Gliese 1 system, once a little human colony) as there were still various things to be catalogued from the precise officers of the Altreh still investigating the remains of that outpost abruptly wiped out. The scientist thought it could be interesting to examine the reactions of the dog directly in that place from where its original had been taken, so he decided to take Fluffy with him, notwithstanding the many protests and worries of his youngest son who had become very fond of the short-haired greyish dog.

When back on the surface of Undl, K-jij-t unleashed Fluffy and attentively examined its whole behavior. Fluffy wandered around in a seemingly-random way, smelling the ground and batting at some shrubs with a paw. Soon the scientific airskimmer came for them and so they went aboard to be taken to the next destination: the destroyed human town where the original dying dog had been found some years ago thanks to that young Altreh researcher.

On that spot there were still some ruined palaces and a few remains which were not yet razed to the ground. These represented some perilous obstacles and were enclosed by protective barriers to alert everyone to the tetronic radiation (still detrimental to health for many alien species visiting the planet). The anti-tetronic shield didn't let them spread out and no one was allowed inside, except for the Altreh scientists who were capable of going freely in and out, thanks to a special device. Here, too, K-jij-t unleashed the dog as he was ready to take note of its behavior within this place. But, unexpectedly, as Fluffy was set free, he stopped at once, his watchful eyes looking around as searching for something in particular. Then, suddenly, the animal ran away! Before the Altreh could do anything, Fluffy made its way through the barriers (the anti-tetronic shield hadn't been conceived to keep away animals...) and went down the slope until it stopped near what must have been the section of the building -- likely a laboratory -- where the researcher had found the original. The cloned animal was acting as if it were the original dog. (Surely there could be no lingering scents that would be irresistible to an animal 'born' and raised on another planet!)

K-jij-t ran after it and entered the protective shield but, when he finally reached Fluffy, he noticed something he had not predicted. The dog was there, motionless, its tongue out, yelping and barking, staring at something in particular that there was no longer present in that place, before its own eyes.

What is going on...? K-jij-t wondered.

The scientist had put all his recording instruments at work, watching Fluffy closely for several long minutes, but nothing changed. Astonished at that weird waiting, seemingly for no reason, K-jij-t found himself incapable of understanding Fluffy's actions. He decided it was time to return to the airskimmer to leave. He knew that also the Earthlings had long hypothesized about what their animals could sense or see at times thanks to their augmented perception, without finding really an answer...

But soon another strange thing happened...Fluffy refused to leave the area, whining and pulling away when K-jij-t tried to attach the leash. The scientist began to be worried: he knew that the high levels of radiation must already be harming the dog. Radiation of this type was usually not lethal for the Altreh, but it was very perilous for Humans and their animals, too.

K-jij-t tried again to lead away the dog by any means, but he wasn't able to do it. As desperate ills need desperate remedies, the scientist thought that circumstances forced him to stun the animal so he could carry it to safety. When back inside the airskimmer, the Altreh began to treat Fluffy for radiation exposure, and pondered what he had seen. Maybe all cloned dogs would behave in the same way, becoming fixated on the last place their originals had been alive. But Fluffy had been created as a copy of the original dog, including the chemical traces and synaptic patterns of the mature brain, so the present animal was a precise copy of the original.

Maybe the Altreh's technology and knowledge of that species was not comprehensive enough to eliminate that problem. Probably the memory remained and so all the pain and the afflictions it had suffered in the past, when the planet had been assaulted from the Pirates, were still present. But another thing was pressing upon the scientist: the dog had suffered serious harm because of its stay in that place, although brief. That was another trouble with that species: it didn't respond well to the medical procedures, proving itself particularly subject to damages caused by the tetrionic radiation. With time, Fluffy would inevitably become ill, and would grow steadily worse.

Although he tried his best, the harm was already done, and the scientist knew Fluffy would never recover. So he made his decision and did what had to be done. K-jij-t knew that his son would have not react well to Fluffy's demise and -- surely-- he would have never have forgiven him for taking the dog on a journey that cost his life. He told his family that he had been held up on the planet and in the meantime he arranged the cloning of the corpse of the dog, so to take back home with him another Fluffy. He thought about taking the new duplicate back to the place where the original dog had been found, because it could have been --maybe -- something beneficial for it and even worth evaluating, scientifically speaking. Or maybe he only wanted to see its reactions there...But the consequences had been really unpredictable!

When the "new" Fluffy was finally ready, K-jij-t took it home. His son was happy to see it again as he was very fond of the dog and, although a bit bewildered, it could still recognize at first sight its young master, as it possessed the same mind as the old Fluffy. The scientist explained that Fluffy's confusion was due to their long absence, and everyone accepted his claims, since he was the top expert on the species. The dog soon became used to its surroundings and its housemates, and everyone seemed content.

But many things still remained to be entirely explained. K-jij-t wanted to know for sure what the reasons were for such Fluffy's behavior. And he already knew what to do. So, no matter the past lesson, he decided to take the dog with him again (or, rather, the new clone...), to Gliese 1 on his next assignment. He would need to be more careful this time, and be ready to stun and remove the dog before any serious radiation exposure. But whatever happened would happen, and he would have learned something more from the experience. If something did go wrong, he would keep the fact concealed from his son, have the dog cloned again...

####

When the time came, he took Fluffy (third generation) to Undl again. They got to the same spot he had been the last time where the strange behavior had occurred. Once again Fluffy, as it was set free, ran away, got its way through the barriers and went down the slope stopping in front of the same ruined chamber of that old building.

K-jij-t followed it. There was nothing he could do but be cautious...Maybe there was no true logic at all to Fluffy's behavior!

Anyway, this time the scientist was well organized and put to work all the other instruments he had with him, to start a meticulous research project on the spot. "High levels of Tetrionic radiation," his tablet warned. No need for such expensive equipment to figure that out, the Altreh thought, as he already knew because of the barriers and the signs on the road. But that fact didn't explain anything yet. Actually, he really didn't believe he would find something, but this time he had some other peculiar instruments with him, too, and he thought he had better use them.

And then, finally, something interesting appeared all in a sudden: faint signs of a quantum singularity! Really amusing and unusual for that place, but there were some other indicators showing unlikely data...He had to discover more!

He pointed his tablet towards the source of the tetrionic energy and soon he was astonished! There was a lifeform down there, or something resembling a lifeform. Probably Human, his equipment said, the traces were faint but incredibly in agreement! His instruments gave him all the details he needed and so he could "see" the human figure, although it was only thanks to Altreh technology.

"You only need to know where you must look to find what you're searching for," his old professor had told him many years ago, when he passed his final examination. And the professor was right...

No one among the Altreh researchers had found that faint trace before, he had been the first! The devastation on the planet was too wide and the scientists had not yet catalogued everything on site even after months of study. They had just put up those barriers and the defensive shield to warn everyone against the radiation. And even K-jij-t would never have detected that incredible truth but for the unusual animal behavior...

K-jij-t looked at the remains of a human sign that was placed just outside the ruined building and he had his device make a quick translation into the Altreh language: Teleportation Chamber...

There could be only one explanation: one Human had been using the teleportation system -- maybe to reach a starship in orbit-- while the Pirates were attacking the planet, and there had been an explosion in the process, the blackish structure proved it...so the chamber had been destroyed and the man -- as a result -- had been involved in the accident. But in a very strange way !He was not alive anymore, but he was not yet dead!

Actually, that sort of event had already been reported in the record of occurrences regarding short- range teleporting even among the Altreh. But in such circumstances of the past the subjects had lost their physical shape and then had been transformed into some faint irradiated energy flux which had soon dissipated in the surroundings, killing them almost immediately.

But his instruments were telling him something else...in this case there was something worse! A quantum black hole had been created, a metaphysical one, which didn't exist in our reality and, anyway, could interfere with some objects or various energies present outside its own dimension, such as the fluctuating tetrionic radiation, for example. Moreover, if that quantum singularity could not damage the surrounding matter -- as it was too little to do that -- then it would have been attracting, little by little, all the metaphysical matter present on both realities: the common space and the metaphysical one!

So, that Earthling, or whatever was still left of him , was stuck within the space surrounding the singularity and kept fluctuating as a shape bereft of substance, and by now was made of more energy than of dense matter. He was unable to come back to our world, while the quantum black hole on his back was going to suck his own elements, one particle at a time, a long and time- consuming process which, sooner or later, was bound to destroy him completely.

But, regardless of the faintness of his being by now, Fluffy could still sense that man on that spot, maybe even smell him! Probably it was because of its augmented senses, as an animal, or maybe it was because of some weird case of nature K-jij-t wasn't capable of figuring out at present -- as only the best device from the Altreh technology he had with him could perceive that little metaphasical energy!

Surely this incredible thing had been generated due to a magnetic interaction between the tetrionic radiation and the teleporting radiance...That was really extraordinary, the scientist would have never imagined it! And the way the dog was waiting there, attentive and happy, wagging its tail, was evidence that the man it was looking for was surely his human master. K-jij-t had seen this behavior so many times when Fluffy had been kept waiting for him or his son arriving at home from work or from school, late in the evening, so he couldn't make a mistake about that.

There was nothing at all that the Altreh homeworld or the technology at their disposal could do to pull him back to life! Maybe in the next centuries someone would have discovered something useful, but who knew by then? Probably, in the near future, that man would have still been in there in such a weird condition...So he had not escaped death once and for all, but he had only delayed it almost forever.

And Fluffy, staying there, would have shared the same fate, getting closer and closer, if it did not die due to the wounds as before. Because the singularity would have been enveloping the animal, taking away from it little by little the elements it was made of, as it had begun doing on his old proprietor who was now fixed in that place, his own body being slowly -- but inexorably -- more and more dispersed over the days, and it would have been forced to stay there, too, trapped forever, until consumption would have driven it to an end and death had come, eventually.

K-jij-t wished he could do something, but there was nothing to do! The dog would not have understood why the human didn't react or respond to its yelping, but nevertheless it would have been -- unconditionally -- in perpetual adoration of its long gone master whom only it could sense directly, almost if Fluffy could still see him before its own eyes. And, so, its tongue out, its tail wagging, looking forward to a familiar gesture from its old human friend, Fluffy would have remained there, notwithstanding the passing of time.

Waiting. And waiting.

And waiting...

THE END


© 2011 Sergio Palumbo

Bio: Sergio (a.k.a. "ente per ente" in the Forum) has accumulated an impressive list of North American publication credits (growing at an enviable pace), and was the winner of the September 2011 Forum Flash Challenge. His most recent non-Challenge appearance in Aphelion was the Mare Inebrium tale Forbidden Archaeology, in the December 2011 edition.

E-mail: Sergio Palumbo (Humans: remove spaces from address!)

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