With the world on the brink of destruction, female mathematician Caila (53) and alien scientist Mateos cooperate to forge a future for humankind.
But is there more to their relationship than meets the eye?
Friday, 15 September
“Drum’s planning a Wag the Dog.”
Over her mobile, Caila peered at her husband. They’d taken the day off to visit Hever and shop for new curtains. After a stroll around the castle’s 38-acre lake, enjoying the unseasonable warmth, they’d spread out a blanket on the picnic lawn beside the outer moat. Flaunting snippets of its autumnal, fiery crimson brilliance, Boston Ivy scaled the castle’s façade, concealing arrow slits and providing shelter for blackbirds, robins and collared doves.
“What dog?” Chris, Caila’s husband of thirty years, eyed her dumbfoundedly.
“Wag the Dog ... You know, military diversion to distract from damaging issues – in politics –; they made a film about it.”
“And the president of the United States wants to ...” Chris skimmed the article.
“The Wormhole Express isn’t exactly a broadsheet.”
“No, but it’s fun, and Men in Black also check the tabloids.” Data scientist, Caila, was a dedicated follower of science – with or without fiction.
“Rrright ...” Chris pushed himself up from the picnic blanket. “Sausage roll?”
“And mochas ... Ouch!” Caila winched, glaring at her bandaged right hand.
“Minor injuries unit, instead?”
“No thanks.” Yesterday’s blistering disagreement with the oven had occurred after minor emergency hours. This morning, despite it hurting like hell, Caila had convinced her fussing husband to wait and see.
As he crossed the picnic lawn and the gritty path between the information boot and souvenir shop, a flash of grey caught Caila’s eye. Ghost – that’s what she’d called him because of his diaphanous, silver-grey cloud-like cloak –, her imaginary childhood friend, had stuck for life. He sensed when she was ill, injured or sad. Or maybe, feeling out of sorts triggered her imagination.
Ghost kneeled behind her, and a gentle warmth flowed through Caila’s body. Her mind filled with images, too short to register, single film frames. It lasted seconds, minutes, she couldn’t tell. Then Ghost stood beside her, six-feet tall, and a crow cawed in the birch’s canopy overhead.
Erit Sapiens. Meaningless words shot through her mind.
And a sentence – demise of your planet.
“That’d be nice, with garlic butter.” Chris laughed at his wife’s take on cursing.
“Sorry, I was miles away.” Beside Caila, Ghost had vanished.
That evening, in the kitchen, after their Hever-books-coffee-curtains-supermarket plan, had turned into: Hever-books-coffee-books-tea-mad dash around the supermarket, Chris offered to rebandage Caila’s hand.
“My hand?” Caila balled her hand into a fist, then stretched it back out again. “It’s fine,” she shrugged. The bandages were a bit grimy, but otherwise ... She picked at the curled-up edge of the tape.
“I’ll do it.” Chris fetched the first aid kit and meticulously lined up gauze, tape and scissors beside the sink. He started peeling back the tape. “Tell me if it hurts.”
Caila giggled when he cautiously lifted the smudged gauze. A surgeon performing open heart surgery couldn’t be more meticu—
Chris’s expression morphed from sweet spousal concern to wide-eyed horror. His jaw dropped.
“What is it? Let me see.” Caila pulled her hand out of Chris’s.
“Eh ...?” she gasped.
“Guess, I don’t have an excuse for not doing the dishes then?” Caila eyed yesterday’s caked-on pasta carnage in the sink.
“This is ridiculous,” Chris said, her recovery seemingly causing him more distress than her injury twenty-four hours ago, when he’d suggested a trip to A&E in Pembury in lieu of Edenbridge’s closed minor injuries centre. “That was fire-engine red and blisters this big.” Chris held his fingers an exaggerated two inches apart.
“Maybe it wasn’t that bad.” Caila grimaced, stroking the flawless skin of the offending appendage. She hated being made a fuss of. Even from Chris she accepted fussiness only in small doses. “We’ll Google it: ‘My hand got better after I burned it a bit.’”
“A bit much. And it healed within a day, completely.”
Five hours later, after dinner and a bottle of red, Caila picked ‘Gifts of the Crow’ – one seventh of the yield of their bookstore crawl – up from the bedroom floor. It had slipped from her hands as she dozed off.
“Night, darling,” she whispered, snuggling up to Chris, who was out for the count.
But as she switched off her bedside light, the room lit up a warm shade of honey ochre, and eyeing her silently, Ghost floated to the foot of their bed.
90 seconds to midnight
“Bonum mane, Caila.” His warm and gentle voice was an audial reflection of his silver-grey, diaphanous cloak.
“Ghost.” Pushing herself up on her elbows, Caila pulled the duvet up to her chin.
Fifty years ago, when she was little – littler than her towering five-foot stature today –, she’d watched him watching her from the corner of the living room. Her four-year-old self had been suitably aggrieved when her parents dismissed him as a figment of her imagination. Still, Ghost had been at her side when she injured her knee, skating, at twelve. And when she studied for her number theory exam at university. She’d been staring at the same page for hours when he held out his hands. She’d placed her palms against his. Was it time or space travel ... a hallucination? She didn’t care, really. Human-like creatures – two arms, two legs, a head – like Ghost, shrouded in hued, translucent cloaks, floated over mossy, multicoloured soil. Birds, mammals, reptiles, and species unlike any she’d seen before, in colours she couldn’t begin to describe, mingled effortlessly and elegantly. Homes – dome shaped, pyramids, an octahedron balancing on a single vertex –, sheer and vibrant as their occupants, blended fluently into the iridescent pellucid atmosphere of a planet which put Earth’s Aurora Borealis to shame. Caila hadn’t told anyone – who’d believe her anyway? –, not even ... Caila glimpsed at her husband.
“Don’t worry, Chris won’t wake up.” Before today, Ghost had never spoken.
“This morning at Hever ... You said ...” Caila’s voice faltered, and she pulled the duvet closer around her. A red haze had formed around her body. She tried to brush it off, but her hand went straight through. “What ...?”
“A spheream. For now, it is only visible to you and me.” Ghost floated closer and as he rested her arm back on the duvet, the lump in Caila’s throat melted away.
“I never introduced myself. My name isn’t Ghost,” he said with a hint of humour in his voice. “It is Mateos, I am a Neteru from planet Etherun. How do you feel?”
“Confused.” Caila studied him. Underneath his, ‘spheream’, she distinguished his human-like silhouette clearer than ever. Mateos. ET. From space. In her bedroom. And she felt perfectly at ease.
“Could you hand me my jumper, please, I feel kind of underdressed.” She pointed at the chair by the door. Instead of her jumper, he fetched her moss green cardigan – close enough, for an extra-terrestrial whose wardrobe consisted of a single opaque, grey onesie. “Thanks.” Her head spinning with whys, whats and why nows, Caila slipped her arms through the sleeves and buttoned up. “Could you sit down, please? You’re kind of towering over me.”
“A long time ago,” he said, as he did, “we initiated an experiment, building an ecology from scratch on a deserted planet.”
“On Mesu,” Caila blurted out. She raised an eyebrow. “Mesu?”
“Our name for your planet. The aim was to observe how species evolved and interacted. For a while, the initial balance remained. Then humans, as I mentioned this morning—”
“Florence Nightingale and Stephen Hawking on the one hand, doom and destruction on the other,” Caila paraphrased, remembering Mateos’s ante meridiem communiqué. Lifting her palms, she weighed Nightingale and Hawking against doom and destruction.
“You got it.” Mateos laughed tersely. “But the scales have tipped, irreversibly; within seventy years, pollution and aggression will bring about the extinction of a significant number of Earth’s species, humans included.”
Caila dropped her hands. Seventy ... The couple on the corner had just had a baby girl with a tiny button nose, big curious brown eyes and the cutest dimples in her cheeks when she chuckled. What kind of future—
“However, recently, we learned a planetwide war is imminent. If we don’t intervene, a series of catastrophic events will annihilate all life on Earth; affecting the wider Universe as well.”
Caila gazed at Chris, blissfully unaware of imminent extinction level mishaps.
“Caila.” Irritated, Mateos dimmed the light on Chris’s side of the bed, reminding Caila that the one big event in her life he hadn’t attended was her wedding.
“When we seeded Mesu, we tagged key species with a string of dormant DNA. It is inherited from great-grandparent to one great-grandchild to, as much as possible, avoid overlapping generations. Tagged individuals are called Khered.”
“We serve as a backup, with skills and memories stored within our DNA. When activated, it enables a species-level restart. Kind of like a hard reset?” This knowledge, Caila guessed, came courtesy of her Khered DNA database. Crossing her legs, she reached behind her back to drag her pillow onto her lap.
“Only first-order Khered retain memories. We seeded twenty-nine first-order lines; twenty-three were killed during witch hunts.” Mateos paused for a second. “You are the sole surviving first-order Khered, almost weeded out too.”
“Burning witches wasn’t our finest hour. ... But, hey!” Mateos’s ‘weed’ remark evoked an image of a disembodied hand spraying a beautiful dandelion with herbicide, before yanking its withered remains from the lawn – a regular spring and summer commercial. “Weeded out?!”
“There’s nothing to worry about. It was dealt with when you were born.”
“Dealt with when—” Caila breathed in deeply and puffed up her cheeks. Pulling her legs up, wrapping her arms around her knees, she frowned, “You’d better fess up.”
“Over a century ago ...” Mateos caught her pillow as it tumbled to the floor. “... We called a general assembly. As a precaution, we’d arranged for Khered to view each other as images of themselves. One human contacted Earth authorities, describing Khered as redhaired females – first-born, like herself, she assumed.”
Caila twisted her hair over her shoulder. Copper, from a bottle admittedly, because she liked red better than her natural brown.
“Fifty-three years ago, your grandmother was – mistakenly – identified as a Khered and eliminated.”
As Mateos handed her, her pillow back, Caila frowned. Her grandparents weren’t first-born, hadn’t had red hair, and there was nothing suspicious about their deaths.
“Your mother, on holiday in the Netherlands, went into early labour, giving birth to twins – a boy and a girl. Another woman birthed a stillborn girl, I switched you around.”
“My parents weren’t ...?” Hugging her pillow, Caila gasped. “I have a twin? What happened to him? And my birth parents?”
“Your brother is safe.” Mateos reached out as if to comfort her but lowered his arm again. “This isn’t the time; I’ll tell you about your birth family later. Your first assembly is on Sunday; you’ll need to consider your options.”
“Right.” Caila sighed. “The total annihilation of life on Earth.”
“You’ve heard of the Doomsday Clock?”
Caila nodded. The fourth quadrant of a big cut-out clock, flanked by members of the Science and Security Board, against a blood-red background, had been on the 6 o’clock news. Grey dots marked the hours of the ashen-faced clock; slender stick hands all but touched at midnight. Underneath, it said:
IT IS 90 SECONDS TO MIDNIGHT
“On a twenty-four-hour scale, you have, in fact, less than a millisecond. Your leaders developed a new weapon; within weeks they’ll deploy it.
“There are two ...” Mateos wavered, waiting for Caila to catch his eye. “Did I say two?”
Chewing her lip, Caila tilted her head and nodded.
“Sorry, the Interstellar Assembly instructed me to say, you have a choice of four options. One: a reset of Earth; all species remain, except humans, who’ll be removed. Two: similar to the first, only, human Khered remain to restart and supervise new populations.”
Caila bit her lip. When Mateos touched her this morning, she’d seen twelve others. None or thirteen: Scylla or Charybdis – eaten by a six-headed monster or drowned in a whirlpool.
“Three wipe Earth clean, four do nothing,” Mateos mumble-rushed over options three and four. “I left out some details which are of no concern at this stage. Questions?”
“Are you sure? About this disaster?” Caila said softly, her hand gliding aside under the duvet, until it rose and fell with Chris’s chest.
“We tag your leaders. Countdown has commenced. Any other solution would be a temporary patch, causing considerable unrest and suffering among humans and other species during their final years.”
“And there’s no alternative to those – two? – options?”
- No. -
- What? How? - Mateos hadn’t spoken out loud, but she’d heard him clear as day.
- Lectanimo. A form of mind communication. -
- Brilliant. The end of the world is nigh, and you teach me mind-reading. - “Ouch.” Falling back, Caila banged her head against the wooden headboard. She scrambled up, glimpsing at Chris and rubbing what was sure to become a colourful lump. Chris ...
“You don’t seriously expect the thirteen of us to restart a population?”
“No, the probability of a successful restart with only thirteen humans would be negligible.” Gently touching the back of her neck, Mateos dispelled Caila’s end-of-the-world angst. He moved his hand upwards and the dull ache, where she’d hit her head, melted away. As Caila reached up, her hand brushed against his.
“Chris ...?” she asked, relaxing in the gentleness that radiated from his spheream.
Mateos sat back abruptly.
“You can keep your husband. Although I strongly advise against selecting your companions on such an emotional basis.”
Caila sensed his irritation, dragging like a nail across a blackboard.
“Companions? And this morning, you said other Khered species had already agreed.”
“I am not at liberty to say what they decided; you must make up your own minds. But to summarise, a consensus would be best. Yes, that too would be the best outcome. If you consider presenting an alternative, the IA’s position, too, is unbending.” Mateos, unsubtly, emphasised his to and toos.
“Got you in one. You’re asking us to decide between total and near total human extinction. Why not just get rid of the gunslingers, impound their ammo?”
“We’d need to impound a lot more than their ammunition. The raw materials, some essential to Earth’s ecosystem, are easily come by. Removing your leaders would have to include their governments, most of their employees and related organisations. It would affect extreme instability and bring about intractable anarchy and the extinction of a great many innocent species.”
Caila paled – humanity was wading chin-deep in shit – and gripped her pillow tighter.
“From tomorrow, you and your fellow Khered will meet regularly until the final assembly, next Friday.” Mateos glanced at Chris. “We’re not asking you to leave your hearts out of it, but sometimes your head knows what’s best for your heart.”
Seven days. 168 hours. 10,080 minutes.
“For the second option you must select seven companions.”
“Invite seven people into a post-apocalyptic world?!” Caila cringed. “Brilliant.”
“Don’t worry.” Leaning back against the footboard, Mateos pulled his legs onto the bed. “I’m here to help you. What more could you want?”
“If that’s your attempt at humour, it’s not brilliant. But thanks.” Caila smiled crookedly. Even after dealing her world an Earth-shattering blow, Ghost ... Mateos managed to make her smile. “One thing. I need to know. The end, will it be disturbing, painful, for ...”
“Humans who are removed won’t experience pain or distress; the telumparticula creates a sense of euphoria, triggering their fondest memories. It will be quick, a fraction of a second. A mild sedative will also be released, for your companions to ease the transition.”
“Thanks.” Caila grimaced. Earth minus eight billion people, because of a murder of maniacs. Rubberstamped by a baker’s dozen of Khered. “That crow at Hever – you said we’d be assigned a crow Khered –, is it going to follow me around until the reset?”
“A local jackdaw, he’ll be your corvidaean liaison.”
“Liaison? You seriously expect me to believe, he won’t indulge in a spot of spying?!” Scowling, Caila hurled her pillow at Mateos. “And what about you?”
“I’ll be here most of the time too.” Mateos lobbed her pillow back at her, laughing as it slipped through her fingers, onto the floor. “In your case, I’m sure, to assist only. Now, do you have any other questions before I let you go back to sleep?”
Caila stared at the light that sneaked through the vertical slits along the ragged edges of their cream, erstwhile white, blinds. Sleep? Now? Who was he kidding?
“What is my best corvid friend’s name? I can’t just call him Crow.”
“Corvid names are difficult to pronounce for humans. Why don’t you ask him yourself? He’ll introduce himself in the morning.” Mateos swung his legs of the bed.
“What would be smart questions to ask?”
“A smart question would be,” Mateos said, looking down on her, “‘How much sleep do I need to prepare for the Event?’ The answer is: a few more hours. Goodnight, Caila, call me if you need me.”
“Mateos.” Caila savoured his name – Mateos. It rolled of her tongue as if she’d said it a million times before. “You can’t expect me to sleep after what you’ve told me.”
He touched the back of her neck. Her eyes grew heavy.
“Cheat,” she mumbled, sleepily.
Mateos lingered. Caila’s spheream, her copper hair ...
He pulled the duvet over her arms and their sphereams mingled; red and grey in a playful, two-toned aurora. Caila sighed and smiled. They were so alike. Soon, she’d be back.