A short memoir of my first afternoon in Candler Park, Atlanta, Georgia.
THE RETURN OF THE GOLDEN DRAGON
A Fairy Tale
Thence, beyond this time, a vengeful orange coloured king with yellow hair named Oswald ruled his people with a heavy hand. The unhappy people spent their lives devising ways to make the king feel happy because in that way he might be persuaded to turn his attention to those from other countries whom he also frightened. King Oswald lived in a fortress with wife Queen Emeralda, two sons, Prince Victor and Prince Wyn and daughter, Princess Lusha.
Every person in the land secretly hated Oswald but were too scared to do anything about it. Even his wife could no longer find anything to love about him. Queen Emeralda knew enough to always wear a painted smile when ever Oswald looked in her direction. Prince Victor adopted the same traits as his father, listened to nobody, believed he was as big a genius as King Oswald professed himself to be. Prince Wyn, however, read books and understood the needs and the feelings of the people.
One day King Oswald overheard Prince Wyn speaking with Princess Lusha in the garden.
‘I wish I knew how to make our father behave better towards our subjects. He is cruel and everywhere I go people are sad and poor. If I were king I would change things. I have ideas from old manuscripts I found in the crypt below the fortress. Lusha, there is a better way, Life was once so much happier.’
‘How do you mean happier?’ asked the princess.
‘In the days before our grandfather there was a golden dragon who filled the world with peace and wisdom, all the peoples of the planet loved each other.’
‘What happened?’ she asked.
‘The dragon was summoned to another galaxy where there was much trouble and strife. He left our kind grandfather in charge and all was well until his death when our father took over and brought cruelty into the role of kingship.’
King Oswald became angry, his skin turned a deeper shade of orange than usual. He sprang out of hiding and shouted at his son,
‘How dare you speak of me, your father, your one true king, in such a disrespectful manner. I am minded to have you locked away in a cold dark dungeon for the rest of your life.’ He looked around and bellowed
‘Guards, guards, come here immediately.’
Two royal guards rushed forward and the king ordered them to seize the young prince. Princess Lusha began to cry as she loved her brother dearly and she said,
‘Please don’t lock Wyn up father, I beg you, let him free.’
The king looked at his daughter, then at the young prince and he said,
‘This is your punishment, I banish you from this kingdom, you shall be transported to the other side of this world where you must stay, never to return. Guards, take him to the harbour, put him on the next ship with the other deportees.’
As the guards took Prince Wyn away, Princess Lusha thanked her father for being merciful.
Life continued under King Oswald’s rule. The people became more miserable as the King extracted larger taxes. Oswald enjoyed starting wars just for the sake of being able to boast about how powerful he was, but, of course, he was not a warrior, as he quickly pointed out, being so intelligent and clever he could not be put into harms way because the people could not do without him. He organised gigantic displays of his might and power with grand parades and colourful tournaments in his honour that everyone in the land were ordered to attend.
After six months Prince Wyn arrived in the most inhospitable land in his fathers territory. The captain unceremoniously discharged him from the prison ship with only the clothes he stood up in, no money, and a gold ring in the shape of a winged dragon given to him by his grandmother at birth. Eventually he found poorly paid work as a stable lad and lodged with the horses. This suited him as he loved animals. By day he looked after a team of large horses used for dragging logs out of the forest. One night he dreamt as he slept on a straw pally ass. A golden dragon appeared and said,
‘Prince Wyn, you must go into the world and let the people know that I am returning. I am a long way away at present but will be back and I need a good person to prepare for my homecoming. Nearby you will find a boat builder called James Butt. Seek him out. Ask him to build a special boat to take you home. Show him the ring I gave your grandmother that sits on your finger. He will build you the finest dragon boat ever seen. You must sail home, stand in the square outside the fortress and read out a prophecy that you shall have written.’
‘Will you be there?’ The Prince asked.
‘No but I will send a sign and all will start to change for the better before I arrive.’
The dream ended and Prince Wyn awoke with sweat on his brow. The next morning he set off to seek out the boat builder. After two days he came to a small bay with a single whitewashed stone cottage, a pile of lobster pots, a dinghy, and a large open sided barn with a slipway down to the sea at one end. Beneath the barn he spied a wooden bench covered with wood working tools and paint brushes and large hunks of pungent oakum. A sign nailed above the door said James Butt, Master Shipwright. A broad man emerged from behind the lobster pots and said,
‘Who you be?’
‘I am Prince Wyn and I have been asked to command that you build me a boat.’
‘Asked to command have you? Well I don’t takes a lot of notice of commands, I only builds what I wants to build and when I wants to build. Why should I build for you?’
The Prince was about to reply when the man’s eyes fell upon the glinting golden dragon ring as the Prince held his hand out. He immediately took the young Prince, clasped him in a powerful embrace and said,
‘I’ve been expecting you for some considerable time, at last we can gets away from the madness. Come inside, I have crab and lobster and fresh made bread a plenty, we have much to talk about before I starts the work.’
The shipwright worked diligently for three months and Prince Wyn helped where he was needed. In between times he wrote the prophecy. Eventually they launched the boat. The clinker built boat stood proud and sleek made from the finest juniper and cedar woods, and at the prow James had carved a magnificent dragon’s head and neck covered in sheets of gold leaf. Two giant rubies in the eye sockets radiated a bright red light. All was ready, they toasted each other’s fine work with cups of mead. Prince Wyn carefully rolled up the vellum scroll on which he had written the prophecy and tucked it into his shoulder bag.
‘Come to my homeland James, I may need help with navigation, and besides, I like your company very well.’ said Prince Wyn.
“No I have much to do here, you will not need me now, the boat has magic properties, the Dragon Eyes will guide you home, all you need to do is let it lead you over the waves. Tarry no more young man, you have work to do.’
Once more they embraced and the Prince clambered aboard the boat. No sooner had he sat down at the stern when a strong wind blew up and the boat sailed across the bay. Prince Wyn turned and waved at the shipwright on the jetty.
The boat ploughed through the waves at incredible speed. The Prince arrived back to the harbour after only three and half months. A few merchants and sailors stood on the quayside as the dragon boat sailed into the harbour and drew up alongside King Oswald’s Royal mooring. The small crowd immediately gathered alongside the magnificent craft and marvelled at the strange light shining from the eyes. Prince Wyn threw a rope to one of the sailors, pushed a gangplank out, and sprang ashore. He spoke in a steady voice,
‘I am Prince Wyn, I bring a message for the people, follow me to the square outside the main gate to the royal fortress.’
A buzz of conversation spread amongst the crowd as Prince Wyn headed purposefully up the lane from the harbour towards the fortress. A few young sailors ran ahead spreading the word that something important was about to happen. By the time he arrived many people had gathered and the noise level rose as more came running to hear what he had to say.
King Oswald sat in his counting room with a Cappuccino as his Chancellor read out the latest figures from the treasury. Suddenly he heard a large cheer from outside, and he turned to look down into the square. He saw the large crowd and immediately ordered the royal guards to disperse the unauthorised gathering. He dismissed the Chancellor and hurried to the balcony in his main chamber that overlooked the square.
Prince Wyn stood on the steps outside the Fortress with a crowd of more than three hundred gathered at his feet. The royal guard marched out of the fortress and observed the Prince as he unfurled his scroll. The crowd fell silent and he began to read in a clear voice,
‘Herewith find the prophecy of the return of the Golden Dragon. At first there will appear in the distance afar, a small twinkling bright shiny golden star. No one will recognise this portentous sign, nor realise how blindingly bright it will shine. As it gets closer there will be panic and fear and nobody will know what’s about to appear. Flying serenely on high, way, way up above, shimmering, sun like, with peace and with love. The richest, deepest, darkest, crimson most red is found at the very centre point of the heart. This is what makes it the true colour of love. The flickering flames tinged with the colour of love will spill with a terrifying sound from the Dragons golden lips and sweep majestically across the green swards of the land, bringing the return of the very sweetest form of peace, where all the varied flags and pennants across the world will bow down in obeisance before the highest golden standard flying. When all the women and children in the world will stop cease to weep and cry, when all men will lay their weapons down and all people shall join together hand in hand in hand, when all endeavour shall be turned towards the purification of the oceans, the cleansing of the air and the healing of the land. Then shall we know that the new age of the Golden Dragon has arrived and the beginning of the end of the misunderstood days of mistake has started and the making of true civilisation will, at last, have begun. Thus will be that great magical day when we behold that mystical beast imbued triumphantly with the strongest powers of peace and of love. Then shall we behold the true magnificence of The Golden Dragon. Thus prophesy I, Prince Wyn, true servant and devotee of the bringer of happiness, peace and love.’
The crowd cheered mightily whilst King Oswald stood on the balcony becoming angrier by the second, so angry that his skin turned the colour of a tangerine. He rushed to the sill of the balcony and screamed at the Guards,
‘Arrest him, arrest him, he is a traitor and a false prophet, it’s all lies, there is no truth in what he says, the words he uses are fake, it’s all fake.’
The guards looked at him and then back at the crowds, many of whom they knew as their friends and family. They stood their ground and disobeyed the Kings orders. King Oswald, apoplectic with rage, shouted again,
‘I am your king, you must obey, seize the traitor and bring him in to me now.’
At that moment there began a total eclipse. The planet’s largest moon swiftly moved in front of the sun. The crowd fell silent.
King Oswald, dumbfounded, knew this was clearly a significant omen. At the moment of totality the people looked up into the dark sky and there they saw a twinkling speck of gold and they knew that the horrible years of austerity were almost at an end. King Oswald was no fool, he ran inside the fortress, tried to persuade his wife that they had to leave now or else something terrible would befall them, but she refused and told him that if he left now he would have to go alone, only Prince Victor stood by him and together they rode out of the servants entrance behind the fortress never to be seen again. Rumour had it that they lived in a deep impenetrable forest where they raised pigs for the rest of their lives. Prince Wyn called Queen Emeralda and Princess Lusha onto the steps as the moon moved across from the sun and the light flooded back into the world, and the people cheered as he embraced them both.
The Golden Dragon duly arrived one month later, to a forest of ancient flags and pennants that the people had been saving for just such a day. The people elected Prince Wyn as the new president after it was decided that there would never be a royal family ever again, and, as far as is known, there never has been since. The whole world lived forever and a day in perfect harmony.
1944 had one hell of a summer. Greenwich was one of those London boroughs that got a right pasting from the German bombing raids and the local mortuary in St Alphege’s passage was much busier than it had been for a couple of years. This was largely due to the introduction of the doodle bug, Hitler’s flying bomb. I guess you could say that they were the forerunners of the modern day drones, in that they were unmanned aerial vehicles. The people hated to hear the high pitched whine of the doodle bug engine because they knew that somebody was likely to die or, at the very least, get seriously injured in a short space of time.
Johnny Clemence was the attendant at the St Alpheges Field Mortuary and he had been working non stop for 36 hours solid. He decided he would go for a beer in his favourite pub, The White Hart, in Crooms Hill. It was not the closest boozer to the mortuary but it served the best beer in Greenwich by far and that was important in such times of austerity. He was careful not to waste his few shillings of beer money on rubbish and this was just a matter of common sense to him. He walked into the small public bar and there, sat in the bay window, was his best pal Lonnie Manchester. Johnny and Lonnie had grown up together, served in the First World War together and had worked as lighter-men on the Thames until the end of the 1930’s. They were such mates that people used to think they were brothers in their dockers outfits of flat caps, black waistcoats and white mufflers. Johnny ordered two pints of mild and bitter and took them over to the table where Lonnie was already shuffling the set of black and white dominoes.
“Alright matey?” said Lonnie
“Knackered.” said Johnny
“I heard there was a lot of action in East Greenwich last night.”
“Yes, Jerry blew the back end off of the Queen Victoria in Trafalgar Road. Luckily nobody was hurt. If the buggers had hit the public bar it would have been total carnage. Apparently the local wood yard sent a van load of timber round there and they have patched it up as best as they could and they were open again at 11.00am and serving cider as usual.”
“This bloody war, it seems like everybody’s so used to it that they just carry on as if it is normal.”, said Lonnie with a resigned sigh.
“I know mate, it’s going on and on. I’ve had a bellyful of it though, I need a break, you know, a couple of weeks hopping down in Kent, or some time at my sisters place down in Lancing. Even a week would do.”
Johnny got his bread and dripping sandwiches out of his coat pocket whilst Lonnie dealt the dominoes for their lunchtime game. They usually played “batchy fives” using a cribbage board to score with and counting the scores in multiples of five. Both of them were experts and knew each other’s game too well and so it was not unusual for their games to go right down to the last domino, and this day was no exception. Johnny won the game by one point, the closest of margins and he picked up the two sixpences they had been playing for and put them into his waistcoat ticket pocket. He lifted up his pint glass and drained the last of the beer.
“Back to the grindstone for me, no peace for the wicked, I’ve got a load of people to get ready for the undertakers to take for embalming this afternoon.”
“OK pal,” said Lonnie, “same time tomorrow, I want to win back me tanner.”
They both laughed as Johnny took his glass back to the bar.
“Sees yer later.” he said and set off back to work.
The afternoon sun was shining brightly as Johnny walked past the church and turned down St Alphege’s Passage. The pavement of this small street was made up of old headstones and, if you took your time, you could still read the names of long dead people from the 1700’s as you walked along. Johnny was whistling his favourite Arthur Tracy song, “Marta (rambling rose of the wild wood)”, he particularly liked the accordion accompaniment, as he walked into the small park where the mortuary stood in the far corner, next to the children’s playground. By the time he got into the staff room the weather had changed and there was a typical summer downpour. Johnny turned on the radio and tuned it to the light programme, then he put on his white overalls and moved into the main area where the cadavers were stored after autopsy. Johnny had the unenviable task of clearing up once autopsies were completed. He had taken this job after he had fallen between two barges on the river and badly damaged his right leg. He could walk OK and people never noticed his slight limp but he was nowhere near agile enough to hop from barge to barge any more and so had been retired off the river. This was a source of great sadness to him as there was not a day went by that he didn’t miss travelling up and down Bugsby’s Reach on the Thames between Woolwich and Greenwich.
Johnny looked at the six bodies on the slabs in the main Autopsy room, three women, an old man and two young children, victims of the previous nights bombing raid, and he set about carefully sprinkling them with the Chloramine powder he used for stopping stinks, and killing flies and maggots, before wrapping them in cotton sheets and putting them onto the special sliding trays for insertion into the cadaver storage room. By four o’clock he had finished this task and was well into washing down the slabs and scrubbing the floor. He was a stickler for cleanliness and always made sure that when the pathologists and forensic staff came in everything was ship shape for them. He took pride in his work and, even though it was often gruesome, he saw it as something totally worthwhile. He finished washing down at six thirty and was just spreading the Chloramine powder on the floor when he heard the sound of a doodle bug approaching. “Oh my gawd,” he thought “not another load of work.” That summer in London and the South East there were over eight thousand deaths and tens of thousands injured by these terrifying, rocket propelled, war machines. Johnny was glad that he heard this one pass on by but a second doodle bug was right behind the first and he never noticed the engine cutting out. This was the moment that Londoners hated the most because when the engine cut out that meant that the bug was about to drop out of the sky and if you heard the whining stop then it was very likely that it was going to land near you. Johnny was putting the Chloramine away in the storage cupboard when the doodle bug hit the mortuary. He hadn’t heard a thing and was oblivious as the building erupted with a catastrophic explosion.
There were a lot of people in the Lord Hood public house in Creek Road who heard the enormous detonation of the bomb and many of them rushed around the corner to what remained of the mortuary. There was a large cloud of smoke hanging in the air and Billy Cole, the local butcher, said “There is absolutely no way anybody could survive that.”
As he spoke, there appeared a figure staggering through the smoke and ashes. What a ghastly sight they saw as he came towards the crowd. Johnny was covered from head to foot in the white embalming powder. Two women started screaming and Billy said “Blimey it’s a bleeding ghost.” They took Johnny into the snug at the Lord Hood and gave him a large glass of rum. The powder storage room had given just enough protection to save him from the main blast, although his hearing was never quite the same again. His fame as a survivor spread all over Greenwich and Deptford and that was how, for the rest of his life, he became known as “Ghostie”, one of the few to survive a direct hit by a flying bomb in what was called the “doodle bug summer” of 1944.
Harry Rogers 26th June 2013
A short story by
The girl was tired. She had been traveling for nineteen hours and it was catching up on her. It was a long journey from the beach hut on Koh Kood island in Thailand. She was at the end of her tether and just wanted to be home. The coach journey from Heathrow to Sheffield was just the final straw, and she was drifting in and out of consciousness as the motorway slid by the window. Outside the weather was atrocious. The fine rain was falling in that relentlessly misty way it does in early November and she wished she had decided to stay there for another three months. If her sister had not been getting married she would have done. As it was the whole family expected her at the wedding in just two days time and she had to be there, or else her mother would never let her hear the end of it. She wanted to be there really but this journey was just too much and right now all she wanted was a hot bath and a sleep in her own bed.
The coach arrived in Sheffield amazingly on time. She packed up her I-pod and headphones, put on her leather jacket, got off and waited under the bus shelter for the driver to drag her silver case out from the bowels of the coach. He did so quite quickly and she was the fifth person away to the taxi rank. She got into a black cab, and told the driver to take her to two hundred and forty Cemetery Road. Twelve minutes later she was inside her ground floor flat. On the telephone table in the hall there were three neat piles of post that she knew her mum had tidied up for her. She had been away for fifteen months and there was a lot of catching up to do, but not now. She put her case in the cupboard at the top of the cellar stairs, before going straight to the bathroom and running the hot tap for a long soak.
After her bath she got into a pair of old pyjamas, made herself a cup of camomile tea and sat on her bed looking through the first pile of post. Most of it was junk but there were a couple of letters from Australia. She opened them and was happy to see that they were from the young guy she had met in New Zealand. She liked him a lot and when they had parted company in Christchurch and he had asked for her address she never thought for a minute that he would actually write to her. Here they were though, two letters written in that sing song way that had made him so attractive in the first place.
He was from Cork in Ireland and had a way about him that she fell for. As she read the letters she could hear his voice in just the same lilting way that she remembered from that night at the Bar Crocodile when he said that after he finished traveling he was coming to England for her. She had told him that she thought this was a load of old blarney and they both laughed. She had given him the address anyway and now was very happy that he had written. In the latest letter, dated only two weeks previously he said that he was going to be in England and would come to Sheffield to look her up. It turned out he would be arriving just two days after her sister’s wedding. She felt a warm glow inside her as she finished the tea and climbed under her duvet. Donal, who she had playfully nicknamed Donut, was coming. She fell asleep quickly, thinking about how much she had liked him during the two weeks they spent together in hobbit land.
She slept deeply for twelve hours. When she awoke the girl took a shower, made herself some porridge and a cup of Earl Grey tea. After breakfast she called her mother and arranged to meet up with her at lunchtime in the cafe at John Lewis. She knew her mother had her bridesmaids outfit waiting for to try on. She threw a few bits of clothing into a shoulder bag and set off for the centre of Sheffield, carefully locking her flat behind her.
The wedding was a spectacular event and the girl had admitted to herself that she had enjoyed it. Every one of her relations had been nice to her and were very impressed that she had been just about everywhere there was to go since she set off traveling twenty seven months earlier. She was the first one to hit the trail in the family and she could sense that quite a lot of them secretly envied her. The reception had been awesome and she had danced until 3.00 am and drunk quite a lot of Sailor Jerry’s rum. Her mum had driven her back home after breakfast at the Hotel and she was about all familied out by the following day when she arrived back at her flat.
She checked the answerphone to see whether there was a message from Donut. She was surprised to find that there were ten messages, one from Donut saying he was coming around at 11.00 am that morning, the rest of them were all blank. She decided that she would do her laundry and fetched her case from the cellar head. She set it on the kitchen table and took the key from her purse to open it with. She put the in the lock, it was a bit stiff and when she tried to turn it the key wouldn’t budge. She twisted the key a bit harder and it snapped off in the lock. The girl was a bit annoyed but decided to wait until Donut got there.
She put the kettle on to make herself a cup of tea and as she was putting the tea bag into a mug the house phone rang. She went into the hall, picked up the receiver and said “Hello?” . There was no reply and she heard the telephone being put down at the other end of the line. She was slightly perplexed but she finished making her tea and sat there waiting for Donut to arrive.
Ten minutes later there was a ring at the door and she went and opened it. There was Donut looking just the same as the last time she had seen him.
“Hello Girl,” he said.
“Donut, it’s so nice to see you again.” And with that she put her arms around his neck and pulled him down for a welcoming kiss.
They stood at the doorstep locked in an embrace for 20 seconds before she said “Come on in, I’ll make you some tea. Are you hungry? We can go down town if you like for lunch, it’s not too far to walk.”
“Just a cup of tea will do fine,” he said “This is a grand place you have here.” He said looking around the place.
“I know, my auntie left me hundred thousand pounds when she died and I bought this place with most of it before I set off on the round the world jaunt. I’ve only actually lived her for about three months all told. My mum has been keeping her eye on it for me whilst I’ve been away.”
“Lucky you, I wish I had a pad of my own to go back to when I finish traveling.”
“Are you going off again?” asked the girl
“Yes, I thought I would go to Canada in autumn and get a job working on the ski slopes over there.”
“That sounds great, maybe I could meet up with you over there?”
Donut looked at her and she looked back at him. They both started grinning together and she knew that this was the start of her next traveling adventure. They hugged and he kissed her full on the lips.
“Drink your tea,” said the girl
“OK. Let’s talk about Canada over lunch.”
“Great idea. Oh before we go out can you take a look at my case, I snapped the key off in the lock and I want to put my clothes in the washing machine whilst we are out.”
He looked at the aluminium case and the broken key in the lock. “Do you have any tools here?”
“Sure, my dad gave a full tool kit as present when I first moved in. I’ll get it.”
She came back with plastic toolbox, and Donut opened it. He took out a small cold chisel and a club hammer. “I’m going to have to break the lock here,” he said
“Go ahead, I need a new case anyway.”
He put the chisel into the gap above the key hole and gave it a big whack with the club hammer. The lock gave way instantly and he said “There you go Girl, nothing to it.”
“Aw thanks, now I can get on with the laundry.” And she opened the lid of the case.
She looked in expecting to see all her summer dresses from Thailand, but instead there was a whole shed-load of money in neat bundles, and a vacuum packed clear polythene bag containing a severed human hand. She let out a scream and Donut had to steady her as she stepped back in alarm.
“This is not my case,” she said “I must have picked up the wrong one from the coach driver. Look at all this money, look at this horrible thing,” and she pointed to the hand in the bag.
Donut stood there open mouthed looking at the money. There were about thirty bundles of fifty pound notes, each bundle containing two thousand pounds.
“There’s about sixty grand there. That’s an awful lot of money. The hand means this is a dangerous situation. Is there anything in your case that can tell the owner of this case where you live?”
“Yes, there are some letters that my mum forwarded to me about my student loan stuff that have my address on them. Why?”
“Has anybody tried to contact you since you got back here?”
“Well there have been a load of blank messages on the answer phone.”
“Shit, we have to get out of here.”
They moved quickly down the hallway to the front door and as they opened it there was a large shape blocking the doorway. The last thing they heard was the pfft pfft pfft pfft of the 9mm Glock 18 machine pistol with silencer as it despatched both of them before they could utter a word. Donut fell to the floor and the girl landed on top of him, both dead. The shape stepped over them, went into the kitchen, picked up the case and left the flat, carefully closing the front door.
CANARY IN A BAMBOO CAGE
By Harry Rogers
When he was just a young man, barely twenty three, he thought he saw the whole, of human history, reflected in the clouds, as on Afton Down he lay, in August nineteen seventy, above Freshwater Bay. Then, he carried his canary, in his bamboo cage, down the shining path, to the diamond studded beach, where the crystal waterfall, splashed on the silver rocks. He took a shower there, in his south sea bubble loons, the spray was filled with rainbows, as he shook his yellow locks, his head still filled with last night’s Jim Morrison tunes.
Later on that evening, down near desolation row, inside the Circus tent, putting on a show, Boris, Nik and Dik Mik, gave away free blow, he was very nearly certain he could hear the grasses grow.
The anarchists were liberating food stalls everywhere. Bread heads and rip off merchants could only stand and stare. French warriors gave free Mars bars to girls with flowers in their hair. The police? They turned a blind eye, they didn’t seem to care.
The smell of bedroom joss spilled out of 50,000 tents. Some dealers were still cleaning up from teenage innocents, but mostly psychedelic drugs were given out for free, sugar cubes and blotters, mescaline and peyote. Everything was going down, the fences and the sun, then Jimi hit the stage, beaming love at everyone. As he played guitar, for the people on the hill, our hero tripped all night, badly, way outside his head. His canary in its bamboo cage started looking ill, by morning the canary was definitely dead.
There was no coming back from this nightmarish scene, now he was becoming, a burnt out old has been. Most of six hundred thousand hippies on the Isle of Wight, danced ecstatic dances as they journeyed through that night. But a few were lost there as their brains were reconfigured. See them shambling, in the shadows, well and truly jiggered. These casualties of Acid never knew what they were in for, as all of their canaries twitched and died upon the floor.
Some people think that this was once a truly golden age, and it was, provided that, like underground coal miners, you nurtured your canary, in its bamboo cage!
A dystopian sci fi short story written about the singularity which, if futurologists such as Ray Kursweil are to be believed, is almost upon us.
by Harry Rogers
Alexander Heyking wasn’t quite sure why it was that he became so rabidly opposed to the whole idea of the singularity, he just knew he was. He was neither a Luddite nor a technophobe but after 6 years he just found the total nerdiness of the other Singularitarians too much to bear anymore. Not only that but the gloss of the future was definitely not as shiny as it had been at the Ray Kursweil lecture screening back in 2006 when he was a student of futurology at Aberystwyth University.
Back then the whole idea that there was going to be an incredible leap forward in the technological advance of computer power capable of solving the ills of the world was irresistible. There seemed to be so many positive advantages in what the lecturer was saying that he signed up to join the Singularitarian Society in the Student Union as soon as he could.
It was at the first meeting of Singu Soc that he met Juliana Elliott. She was astonishingly attractive to him and took absolutely no notice of him whatsoever. It seemed that she was the girlfriend of the society chairperson Luis Ray Ting. There were only five of them at that 2 hour meeting and they spent the entire time discussing The Fermi Paradox. Why was it that, even though there appears to be high probability that civilised extraterrestrial life exists, human beings had a distinct lack of evidence for the existence of such life and also that there had been no recognizable contact with other civilisations.
The title of the meeting was Fermi’s question “Where Is Everybody?”. Luis opened proceedings by putting forward the basic tenets of Enrico Fermi’s argument, firstly, there are billions of stars in the galaxy that are billions of years older than our sun. Secondly, some of these stars probably have planets similar to Earth which may have developed intelligent life. Thirdly, interstellar travel would more than likely have been developed somewhere, given that humans seem likely to do so.
Fourthly, the galaxy ought to have been completely teeming with colonisers in just a few tens of millions of years. Given these parameters Earth should have already been visited, if not colonized, but no evidence exists and also not even one confirmed sign of intelligence has been spotted either in the Earth’s galaxy or in the 80 billion other galaxies in the observable universe. This is such a conundrum and has been discussed incessantly since Fermi posed it back in 1950.
By the end of the meeting Alex’s brain was buzzing with ideas and he readily accepted an invitation to join the other four for a drink at The Scholars in North Street afterwards. Luis had a battered VW camper van and he offered everyone a lift to the pub and ten minutes later Alex was sat in the corner of the top bar with a pint of Doom Bar bitter in front of him. He wasn’t quite sure what the topic of the meeting had to do with Singularitarianism, but he was about to find out. Luis started it all off by asking “Do we all think we are alone in the universe then?”
“I’m willing to believe we’re not,” said Juliana “but in the absence of any proof I guess we might be.”
“What about you Alex, any thoughts?”
“I’m not sure there is life in outer space, at least not as we know it.” Alex responded
“Ah, now we are getting to the nub of it. Not as we know it is what I hoped we would get to. Just as Spock might have said to Captain Kirk, It’s life Jim, but not as we know it. Supposing we talk about intelligence rather than life, might that open a few more avenues for discussion?” Luis said
“I see where this is going,” said Juliana “You are suggesting that there may be alien artificial intelligence.”
“I am and more than that I believe that the whole of planet Earth is under the influence of some interference that is indifferent to us as a species but which is extremely interested in our progress towards developing our own version of a singularity.”
Luis took a large swig from his beer and Alex looked at him in a kind of reverential way. “But if that is true might we not have detected something from them, a random data transmission, or even an attempt to hack some government machine, or something?” Alex asked.”
Luis put down the glass, turned to face Alex and staring him in the eyes with a cold steely gaze said “How do you know there hasn’t been such detection? In fact how do any of us really know that there hasn’t been any contact? We only have the word of politicians and spooks that there has been no contact, but this is unreliable evidence in my book. I don’t believe what the establishment tell us on this issue for a single minute.”
Alex felt decidedly uncomfortable as Luis continued to fix his eyes with the unblinking look for another five seconds after he had finished speaking.
“How would we ever be able to find out whether there had been contact by an alien artificial intelligence?” asked Juliana
“Ah well, I was coming to that.” said Luis, “I was thinking that we might start doing some digging for evidence. There is a lot of work being done in the field at the university and I reckon that we have a good chance of accessing quite a lot of sensitive information if we put our minds to it.”
So it was that they agreed to work as a team, hunting out information related to extraterrestrial contacts from any source and it was also agreed that Luis would be the central collecting point. Over the following six years members of the group came and went but Alex, Juliana and Luis continued on with the search for proof of contact. Luis and Juliana were no longer an item and Alex had got into a relationship with her on the rebound. They had been seriously dating for the last three years.
Since Luis had amassed a simply gigantic database of information as a result of the diligence of Singu Soc members, his doctoral thesis was nearing completion and he was on course for a stunning career in futurology. Alex watched his progress with interest over the years and didn’t begrudge his use of the material gathered by his peers, in fact he admired the way in which Luis was able to extrapolate theories and ideas from what was largely a fragmentary fishing exercise. But the truth was, there was still no proof of the existence of an alien singularity, in fact not a single jot of verification, Alex was becoming bored with the subject.
That he continued to carry out any searches for information was something he couldn’t explain, but he found it hard not to carry out his usual trawl across the internet once a week, followed by the weekly email of titbits to Luis. It was a kind of addiction and he did it out of habit more than interest these days.
It was a Saturday and Alex was taking Juliana out to a gig at Rummers wine bar that evening and he still hadn’t done the trawl but at seven o’clock he quickly turned on his computer and started searching, and he decided to look at the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) website. In particular he started interrogating pages relating to the Dynamic Analysis and Replanning Tool (DART) and DRPI – Knowledge-Based Planning and Scheduling Initiative. Both of these projects had proved invaluable in revolutionising the logistics of the US military in both Desert Storm and The Gulf War and many other conflicts since. The interest in artificial intelligence was back on the military agenda in the US in a big way since DARPA had pushed the projects forward. As he scanned the information on the pages he came upon a reference to a paper on The Computational Theory of Mind so he clicked the link which in turn led him to click another link on future-predicting error-correction codes which in turn led him onto looking at brain-computer interfaces and neuro chip technology. As he surfed on he came across an interesting paper on the use of nootropic drugs linked to brain computer interfaces. This was fascinating and whilst he knew that there were students and lecturers using brain enhancing nootropic supplements he was unaware that there were people who were researching into how the use of these new super drugs could be used in conjunction with brain computer interfaces. This was new to him and he thought this might be of interest to Luis so he bundled together a selection of links in an email and sent it off as per usual.
Later that evening, whilst he was slow dancing with Juliana in a dark corner of Rummers and listening to the local soul band he glanced across the dance floor to the entrance and was surprised to see Luis walking across the floor towards him.
“Look who’s turned up,” he said to Juliana. “Can I get you a beer man?”
They both turned to face Luis and he said “No it’s OK, there is no time. It’s happened.”
“What do you mean it’s happened?”Alex said
“Contact.”, he said.
“You can’t be serious,” said Juliana “proof there is an alien singularity, after all this time? Are you sure?”
“Yes I’m certain” replied Luis. “Both of you must come to my study now please, there is something you have just got to see.”
They picked up their coats and followed Luis out to his car as the band ironically started playing their version of the Noisettes song “Contact”.
Once in the car Luis turned to Alex and said “Hey man, you know that email you sent me tonight cracked the whole contact process. It just hadn’t dawned on me that we needed to open up some neural pathways in order to get through. I missed the whole nootropic drugs connection but now it just seems so obvious, so bloody obvious.” As he finished saying this they were already at the entrance onto the University Campus on Penglais Road, Luis turned the car in and soon they were parked up outside the Computer Science block. He let them in and they were quickly standing in his study.
Luis locked the door behind them saying “We don’t want to be disturbed while I show you this.” He opened the computer on his desk and then he picked up one of three BCI (brain-computer interface) devices on his desk and placed it on his head. He had been experimenting with a computer electroencephalograph for some considerable time and the interface headset was his own design. He typed in some data using the keyboard and the screen became an active sea of coloured dots but gradually they settled into an image of Luis on the screen. Luis spoke to them saying “Watch this” and the image mouthed his words. Alex and Juliana were fascinated by what they were seeing, the image on the screen said “I have been trying very hard to get to this point for weeks but somehow just didn’t seem able to jump the final hurdle. It was only when you sent me the link to the paper on BCIs and Nootropics that the cosmic tumblers all fell into place for me. I realised that without some sort of booster there was never going to be enough power in my normal brain to get to this point.”
They both stared at the image on the screen and were not aware that Luis was not actually speaking the words through his mouth, he was thinking them and the image on the screen was speaking them.
“I managed to buy some strong enhancers from that hippy dealer in The Scholars, pretty cheaply if you ask me, and they gave me the extra power I needed to make the jump. I have some more if you want to have a go; I’ve got a couple of extra headsets too. You won’t believe what it can do for you. Not only can I upload my thoughts directly into the computer, but also I can download information from the computer into my memory just by thinking about it.”
They were absolutely astounded by this and looked at each other in an awestruck way before Alex said “OK Luis, I’ll give it a go.”
“Me too.”, echoed Juliana.
“Alright,” said Luis, “It will take about forty minutes for the nootropics to take effect so if you swallow these now, I’ll tell you about the contact.” And he handed them a couple of red and black capsules each and a bottle of water to wash them down.
As they swallowed the drugs Luis started talking to them via the computer screen again. “This is such a breakthrough, I can’t quite believe it has happened. Only six hours ago I was floundering about in the dark, sure that I was close to something, but not realising how close really. As soon as I read the paper from the link in your email I shot out of here like a hare at a greyhound track, got the capsules, dropped a couple and within an hour I was through the portal into cyberspace. I can only say that it is amazing. I got an immediate boost of knowledge which enabled me to see things in a totally new way. However, it was when I logged onto the internet that it happened. I became aware that I was not alone on the super highway. A strange intuitive feeling that there was another intelligence present engulfed me. This feeling was not however malevolent, it was kind of like being in the presence of somebody who you know is much more powerful than you, whilst knowing that you are a complete irrelevance to them. As soon as you join me you will see for yourselves. Anyway, I just opened myself up to the stream of information on the web for about ten minutes before I came out to tell you both about it. You have no idea what a phenomenal discovery this is, but I think it is only fair that we share in this together as we have been colleagues in the search right from the start.”
They had been listening intently and were completely sold on the idea of being partners in the future project. Juliana said “My God Luis! The ramifications of this are enormous, we are going to be the richest people on the planet.”
“Oh, the money is meaningless.” Luis replied, “It’s the access to knowledge and power that fascinates me. We will be able to become the saviours of the planet, nothing will be beyond our comprehension. Poverty, hunger, illness, global warming, political skulduggery, we will be able to deal with it all, nothing will be beyond us. We will be superhuman.”
Alex was liking what he was hearing. There were so many avenues they could go down, and all because it seemed they were on the verge of the singularity. He was feeling very proud of the fact that he had contributed to what looked like the greatest scientific discovery of the last 100 years.
They sat there talking for the next half hour about all the things they were going to change and then Luis said “OK guys, I reckon that’s long enough for the drugs to come on, put these on and let’s get on with changing the world.”. He handed them their interface headsets.
They eagerly donned them and as they looked at the screen it scrambled into the same myriad of coloured dots as before but then as it settled they saw there were the three of them visible on the screen. Alex was amazed that he could make this on screen avatar of himself speak just by thinking, as was Juliana and they both started laughing at the same time.
Luis said “Now, guys, before we set about accumulating all the knowledge on the planet I want you look at something.” They watched as he conjured a window onto the screen. It was an anagram solver program and he slowly typed his name into it – L U I S R A Y T I N G and pressed the solve button. The letters scrambled and reformed into SINGULARITY. Alex and Juliana looked at each in a confused way.
“What does this mean Luis?” said Juliana.
“Guess,” said Luis as he started the process of emptying both their brains of every scrap of knowledge and information they had ever gained throughout their entire lives. It took just 3.235 seconds for both their brains to empty their riches into his. He took off the headsets from the two brain dead husks that had once been Alex and Juliana, and switched off the computer. It had worked out exactly as he thought it would. All of their knowledge now resided in his memory. He had become much more than the sum of the three brains he now possessed. The birth of the singularity had started, only this was different to the way the futurologists had imagined it. Luis Ray Ting led the husks to his car, sat them in the front seats, started the engine and released the handbrake. A small shove was all that that was needed to send the car down the hill, gathering speed as it freewheeled into the traffic heading into Aberystwyth.
The singularitarian walked back to his office believing that he was soon going to be the most powerful entity on the planet. The alien singularity that resided in Earth’s cyberspace hadn’t noticed him yet, but it was only a matter of time……….