1. Patra Felino
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    Patra Felino Active Member

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    A Leap into Being

    Discussion in '2013 Science Fiction Writing Contest' started by Patra Felino, Dec 5, 2013.

    A Leap into Being

    (10,190 words)​

    PROLOGUE

    The feeling of the sun’s rays beating down upon the nape of his neck was uncommonly delicious and the adrenaline coursed through his system as his chestnut mare trotted quickly down the dusty trail. He toyed with the idea of taking her up to a canter, but decided to keep his pace – and ultimately his emotional state – as it was. It had been a while since he’d been anywhere this exhilarating, and he knew only too well what the price of the upside was. In a Place like this, a single misstep by his mount would send a white-hot spike of fear straight through him.

    Keep things calm. Keep things stable. Enjoy the trip.

    Keep things stable. He cast his eyes over the strange world around him and felt a sudden stab of fear and foreboding. Would that it were so simple. Would that it could be so.

    He shook himself, as if negative thoughts were insects that could be scared away with a jerk of the head or a sweep of the hand. His mount was trotting slowly now, and he was breathing deeply. Focus on the physical. Focus on the palpable. Focus on the now.

    The heat once again took its place at the centre of his consciousness. Almost as if had been tarnished by his darker state of mind, it seemed pricklier than before. Well, he must been riding for three or four hours; perhaps a break would do him some good. As he pictured a juicy steak and a cold beer, his imagination leapt upon the idea and refused to let go. A desire that would have seemed almost obscene by his usual standards gripped him and he keenly scanned the road ahead for a suitable watering hole.

    His wiser self tried suggesting that he hadn’t done nearly enough research to risk an extended interaction with any of the locals – even a question about where he was from would put him two or three lines away from serious trouble – but optimism prevailed easily in Places like this and he picked out a saloon a few hundred yards yonder. Five horses grazed outside, their jaws moving dopily from side to side as they watched his mare’s approach with what appeared to be customary equine indifference. He wondered, not for the first time, why animals didn’t ever seem to change.

    Walking under a wooden sign that gently swung, creaked and proclaimed the venue to be One-Eied Jjacks Taverne, he entered the saloon, the sounds and smell of sizzling meat provoking desperate wails from his appetite. He was literally salivating.

    He’d forgotten that. Salivating before he’d even ordered. This was going to be exquisite.

    Several peals of hearty laughter from four men sitting at a table to his right startled him. Hysterical was probably more accurate than hearty, actually. A quick glance was enough to see that at least two of them had tears streaming down their cheeks; the other two had their backs turned to him, but they looked to be in states of equally frenzied mirth. He needed to be careful here. No eye contact. He moved away and sat down at a table on the other side of the tavern.

    The waitress came and went, leaving him with both the menu and a burning desire that had surged forth following a glimpse of the creamy orbs that had bulged at him from beneath a partially unbuttoned white shirt. Rapes must be common here, he pondered uneasily, yet again feeling too civilised for such a Place.

    Keep things calm. Keep things stable. Enjoy the trip.

    He focused his attention on the mundane, inspecting his surroundings. Behind the bar, stairs led up to what he imagined were the owners’ quarters. His gaze fell upon a row of bottles, causing his throat to tighten with desire for their amber contents. He found himself imagining the nectar within, how exquisitely it would burn his throat. Not mundane enough. He forced his eyes away: a pendulum swung and the clock that it swung in told him he had been wrong earlier – he’d only been riding for an hour and a half or so. He guessed that was why the place was still half full, after the lunchtime rush. The waitress brought him a beer and he managed to keep his eyes on the clock. Another volley of guffaws erupted from table on the other side of the establishment. How long had they been sitting and drinking, he wondered. It was always so hard to judge the passage of time in such a Place; everything felt so real, so intense, so alive.

    Even existing, just existing, is a buzz. Focus on the pendulum’s tics and tocs. Relax and enjoy it. Boredom is a distant memory, from a Place at the other end of the spectrum, an infinity of worlds away. Tic, toc, tic, toc.

    “Buddy, you got a light?” jerked him rudely back to reality. One of the men from the far side of the bar was looming over him, swaying slightly, a stubble-covered chin jutting forwards in what had the air of a challenge about it. Eyes clouded with drink but laced with unpredictability.

    Keep things calm. Keep things stable. Avoid conversation if possible.

    He brought his lighter out of his pocket with a grunt. Grunts were safest. He was thankful they had lighters in this Place. He couldn’t have grunted his way through the time it would have taken to mess about with flint and steel.

    “Say buddy, where you from?” put an end to the grunting.

    “I’m from the other side of the pond, friend.” He had heard somebody say this the other day. It was safe.

    “Whoa, fellows!”, cupping his hands around his mouth and hailing his drinking buddies. “We’ve got ourselves a visitor all the way from Yuropp!” The look of excitement on his face would have seemed demented in another Place, but here it was par for the course.

    Shouldn’t be in here. Haven’t done enough research. Must keep things calm. Keep things stable.

    He saw they were all swaggering over, accompanied by a sense of impending doom. As expected, all of them carried pistols. It was a pistol kind of Place.

    “And what brings you to our humble taverne, buddy?”, asked a big, dark-haired man who was by far the fattest of the quartet.

    They’re still friendly. This could be OK.

    “Just doing a little travelling. Seeing what the Deep South has to offer.”

    Confusion creased his new companion’s face. He’d made a mistake, somehow. Surely it couldn’t be critical though…

    “The what South, buddy? Didn’t quite catch you there.”

    This is why you need to research. It’s too different here – this Place is too different.

    A tall, bony-looking man with sandy-coloured hair and wild blue eyes pulled up a chair and sat down opposite him. He threw back the drink he was holding and looked the stranger square in the eye. Not threatening yet, but challenging, daring him almost. There was something even crazier than normal about this blond man’s look, but the danger still felt latent, not urgent.

    “Heard a fella use the very same word once before, in a way that you might call derogatory. Was a learned fella. Wouldya call yourself learned, buddy?”

    “Our new buddy mighta gotten to thinking he’s better than us, Byll”, as Byll’s confused companion crashed his huge bulk into the chair next to his friend. “Being as he’s so learned an’ all.”

    Seconds passed. Blue eyes stared from beneath sandy locks. A pendulum completed its swing and reversed its march.

    This is critical. Teetering on the edge of an abyss. Look at the eyes – too wild, too proud, too different…

    Too unstable…

    “That right, buddy? You gotten to thinking you better than us? They teach you that over in Yuropp, do they?”

    Byll’s knuckles were white around his empty shot glass. The silence was broken by a tic and a toc.

    Then a crack.

    Blood ran down Byll’s fingers and crimson spattered the top of the roughly hewn table where shards of the broken vessel had fallen. His pale eyes betrayed no recognition of pain, but showed what? A blend of anger, pride, something like hatred?

    “Stranger comes to our taverne, thinking how he’s better than us. Asking for trouble, to my mind.”

    Click. Not the tic of a pendulum but the click of a hammer being cocked.

    It’s a wonder they’d ever made it through their Middle Ages.

    In no time at all, the four faces had twisted and contorted to show what could only be rage.

    These poor, mad people.

    Then a bang.

    ********​

    Flatness. No fear, sadness, anger. No regret, or worry. No despair. Only emptiness, and flatness. Emotional flatness.

    Change the parameters. Start again. Must have more stability.

    Leaping back out.

    ********​

    Here they loll around zombie-like, eyes glazed and drooling. It feels like being anaesthetised. Too much serenity, such that it pervades all thoughts.

    Let it end.

    ********​

    Tweak the parameters anew. Need more cognition, even at the risk of instability.

    Let us leap.

    ********​

    Confusion reigns supreme in this new Place. Not zombies, but mindless to fear, anxiety, impatience. A strange cart-like vehicle careens down a slope and hits a wall, far to my left. The driver is hurled from his seat, still grinning as head hits stone.

    Let it end.

    ********​

    Need more negative feedback to prevent this type of loop. More adrenal activity must be risked.

    Going back out.

    ********​

    And when existence comes anew, it is a ghastly thing. Screams of terror are all that are heard, the keen edge of agony is all that is felt. And as for what is to be seen.

    Poor, wretched souls.

    He closes his eyes and dies once more, demonic after-images fading to nothingness before him as he slips away.

    1

    Dr. Richard Newton had just put his groceries down on his kitchen table, prior to cooking dinner, when he realised with a pang of annoyance that he had left his charger at the lab. He opened his briefcase to double check – yep, laptop present but charger absent – pronounced a four-letter word of the scatological variety and swiftly decided to head back. The decision was facilitated by his total lack of plans to go out, even on a Friday night, and the not entirely unconnected fact that he had been about to prepare a dinner for one, so going back to the laboratory would inconvenience nobody but himself.

    Five minutes later, cycling south on Banbury Road in the direction of central Oxford, he reflected on the wonderful, nay miraculous piece of machinery that was the human brain, and its remarkable ability to continually forget matters of importance. Right at the moment, for instance, the three pounds or so of grey and white matter inside his skull was having no trouble at all in balancing his body on a moving, inherently unstable vehicle while simultaneously judging the speeds and directions of multiple cars, pedestrians and other bicycles and giving instructions to his legs so smoothly that he didn’t even really notice he was pedalling. Remembering to take his laptop charger home for the weekend, however, evidently posed a major challenge.

    As a research fellow at the University of Oxford, only a year away from his second PhD, this time in cognitive neuroscience, at the relatively youthful age of 29, Dr. Newton was better placed than most to speculate on such matters. He was pondering the case of autistics, their well-known abilities related to remembering trivial details, and the related idea that perfect memories act as an impediment to social skills and are consequently not favoured by evolution, when he realised he was about to absent-mindedly cycle past the university’s Department of Experimental Psychology. He braked, wheeled his bike across the road, locked his bike on the rack and used his key to open the door to what was one of drabber buildings in the City of Dreaming Spires.

    Dr. Newton felt more at home in his laboratory than he did in his actual home. In fact, several of his colleagues would probably have put his forgetting the charger down to some kind of subconscious fear of leaving his place of work for an entire weekend. As he made his way to his office, he found himself peeking through the square glass panels in the doors of the various laboratories in the building, and wondering how his colleagues’ work was progressing. He arrived at his own laboratory, removed the bunch of keys from his pocket, searched for the right one – the less shiny of the two bronze-coloured Yales, glanced over at the door to the adjacent lab-cum-surgery, where the single-neuron recording equipment was kept…

    And froze.

    Richard was positive that he had locked the lab earlier that night. He had been in there with one of the technicians, discussing the electrical fault in the fancy new amplifier the department had been developing, before wishing him a good night, turning everything off – including the lights, he was certain – locking up, and heading home himself. So why was the light on and why could he hear the unmistakeable low buzz of electrical equipment coming from inside? His confident demeanour, borne of familiarity with his surroundings, shrank away and an uneasy feeling grew in its stead. Suddenly feeling very alone and beset with trepidation, he began tiptoeing towards the door. Having made no effort to be quiet so far (had he even been talking to himself?), he was smart enough to realise that there was a limited point to tiptoeing now, but the slightly built and more than slightly nerdy academic was not nearly brave enough to stride boldly over to the mysterious, unsettling white glow that was emanating from the room that should have been dark and empty, so tiptoeing it was.

    The world became sharp and intense as the adrenaline pumped through his veins, every sound – the ticking of the clock on the corridor wall, the scratchy scrambling of laboratory mice, and what he realised with alarm was the drum-like beating of his own heart – seeming both magnified and peculiarly alien. As he neared the door, he detected a bluish tinge to the white glow coming through the glass.

    What on earth could that be inside the lab?

    When he reached the door, he confirmed that it was shut. Peering through the window, he saw that the blue glow was coming from the right. Pressing his left cheek against the door, he could just make out a laptop computer, with pixelated fish swimming lazily across an ocean-themed screensaver. The sight of something so relatively mundane took his apprehension level down a couple of notches, as his imagination had been conjuring up some wild and highly terrifying explanations for the mysterious blue glow, but he realised he’d have to open the door in order to see who, if anybody, was sitting at the desk with the laptop.

    He shook himself and forced himself to undergo a reality check. Okay, he’d been surprised, but essentially, the most likely explanation was that one of his colleagues was doing some late-night research and had opened up the lab after Richard had gone home. Rather odd, as he had been sure that he’d been the last person to leave the building, but no need for the ridiculous state of near-terror he had found himself in a few moments ago. He coughed, shook himself again, reached for the door handle, and found it to be locked.

    Now this was a little strange, but the building was, he admitted, full of rather unusual characters, possessed of varying degrees of eccentricity, so someone having locked himself in a laboratory in the middle of the night was still no major cause for concern. However, it seemed prudent, as well as polite, to announce his presence, as it occurred to him that the other person might well be just as terrified as he had been himself. He coughed again, somewhat redundantly, and knocked firmly on the door.

    There was no response to that, nor to the louder series of raps he produced a few seconds later, so before he had the chance to get properly frightened again, he made the decision to find the appropriate key – the shinier of the two bronze-coloured Yales – and unlock the door. He swung the door open and stepped forwards, the sharp odour of disinfectant greeting him as he crossed the threshold.

    He was wholly unprepared for the sight that faced him as he entered. It simply didn’t make any sense. There was a man sitting motionless in the chair by the desk. With a sudden jolt of shock, Richard realised that his head was attached to the clamp they used to hold a subject’s head firmly in place while electrodes were inserted into his or her brain. As Richard edged nervously sideways to get a better look, the man’s still-open eyes came into view. Now open-mouthed and rooted to the spot, his mind raced to the obvious implication: he was looking at a corpse.

    His fear and confusion mounting second by second, he tried and failed to comprehend the scene before him. Who on earth had done this, and why? Had one of his colleagues been experimenting that very evening? It seemed completely impossible. Why would such an experiment take place after working hours – on a Friday night, for Christ’s sake – and how could the preparations for something like that have escaped his attention? Even if invasive brain surgery had been planned on one of the monkeys, he would undoubtedly have been informed, and it had been several months since any such research had been conducted on humans.

    Utterly bizarre though the sight before him was, he became aware of a doubt of two nagging at his awareness.

    What’s wrong with this picture? Think, damn it…

    From where he was standing, he could only see the man’s left-hand side. By tonight’s extraordinarily high standards of weirdness, there was nothing obviously unusual about his appearance – although there was something about him that he couldn’t put his finger on. With mounting apprehension, he slowly moved across to the far side of the lab in order to be able to see the side of his head that was facing the wall. His heart pounded still faster and a pit seemed to gape suddenly open in his stomach as he saw the metallic object protruding laterally out of the frame. He recognised one of the prototype-stage smart electrodes his department had been developing, and as he leaned forward to get a better look, he saw that the business end of the electrode was where it was designed to be: inserted into the man’s brain.

    Another jolt of terror and adrenaline shot through him and he moved away abruptly. What the hell was happening? None of this made the slightest bit of sense. As he desperately tried to sort through the information available to him, he noticed the wires running from the electrode to the amplifier – the faulty amplifier that he had been discussing with the technician – and then to the laptop computer on the desk. Although it necessitated a closer proximity to the…the body than he would have liked, he forced himself to look at the laptop’s screen. He had disturbed the screensaver when he had pushed himself away from the desk, and could now see that a version of SNAP (the Single Neuron Analysis Program which he himself had helped to write) was running on the computer, and any remnants of denial regarding the stranger’s physical state were swept aside as the program’s display showed not a microamp of current either in the specific area of the brain the electrode was in – and from the angle and depth, this seemed to be the basal ganglia – or from any of the scalp electrodes that were stuck onto the left-hand side of the man’s head. This man’s brain was dead.

    Taking another look at the dead man’s face, a sense of familiarity tugged gently at him. Where had he seen him before? Apart from the fact that his head had been half shaved and there was an electrode sticking several inches into his brain, there was nothing extraordinary about his features. Short, dark brown hair matched the colour of his eyes, his chin was strong but not jutting, the nose neither particularly big nor small, he was clean-shaven, probably in his late-twenties. Although none of his features was unusual in itself, there was something odd about the overall effect. But the overriding question which arose as he examined the corpse in front of him and then searched his own memory was “Where have I seen this person before?” He certainly wasn’t another research fellow, and seemed too old to be an undergraduate. He knew all of the technicians fairly well, and…that’s it! He was the new cleaner he had seen around; he must have started working at the lab a couple of weeks ago.

    His instincts were screaming at him to put as much distance as possible between himself and the creepy spectacle before him, but Dr. Richard Newton’s mind was driven by cold logic and rational, scientific analysis, and he knew the intelligent thing to do was to take his time to put the pieces together before taking any action. Fleeing this scene would not look good. He had done nothing wrong. He would likely have to call the police, but he could afford a few minutes to think things through.

    What had killed him? He thought back to the conversation he had had with the technician that evening. There had been some kind of wiring fault in the prototype electrode; there was the possibility of crossed wires between the main circuits and those that measured the brain’s neuron activity. This was, of course, highly dangerous, and the equipment was under no circumstances to be used until the problem had been fixed. Whoever had been operating on this man must not have known this, and must have accidentally fired far too much current directly into his brain. It was then entirely plausible that the person had fled the scene. By calling the police, he would likely be getting one of his peers into very serious trouble, but what else could he do? Remembering the bottle of Jack Daniel’s he had been given by his undergraduate students last Christmas, Richard made an executive decision to go to his desk drawer and drink some of it immediately. He was not a heavy drinker by any stretch of the imagination, but he did partake on special occasions, and this certainly qualified. He was on his way to the door, relieved at having a semi-valid reason for not being in the same room as the dead cleaner, albeit temporarily, when the only recently nominated Biggest Surprise of his Life was shunted down into second place as he heard a voice behind him.

    A voice that, impossibly, could only have originated from one place.

    “Good evening, Dr. Newton. I believe I am in need of your assistance.”

    2

    It was the same voice he had heard maybe a dozen times before. He had heard it had bid him good morning, good evening and goodnight. It had asked for the key to the storage cupboard, perhaps issued an “Excuse me” or two. But now the subservience and vulnerability he remembered of the cleaner had disappeared. It was now a voice that spoke calmly, flatly, yet was imbued with an air of latent authority. Richard was suddenly struck by the level of detail he was able to perceive, absently noted that he was displaying the classic behaviour of someone in shock, and it was at this point that his mind was unable to skirt around the issue any longer and he was forced to start thinking about the principal matter at hand: the corpse had just spoken to him.

    “I can appreciate that this evening’s events will come as a matter of some surprise to you. I can advise you that I pose no threat, and I am sure that a rational man such as yourself will see the potential benefits of listening to my explanation. I believe you may have been considering a call to the authorities.” He sounded decades older and more mature than he had earlier in the week.

    “I…well…why…I…”

    “If you will permit yourself to make an observation, Dr. Newton, you will see that I am clamped in such a manner that I am physically unable to make any sudden upper body movements without suffering, or at least risking, severe brain damage. As such, no matter how startled you may be, you will observe that in essence, you have control of the situation.”

    Richard had never felt less in control of any situation in his life. “Startled” didn’t even scratch the surface.

    “Well…yes…well, er, Dave, is it?”

    “Do you have a question, Dr. Newton?”

    “Yes. Please can I go and get my bottle of whisky?”

    ********​

    Dr. Richard Newton sipped straight Jack Daniels from a Styrofoam cup as he listened.

    “There is a glitch in the smart electrodes of which you may be aware. While I would very much appreciate your assistance in rectifying this, there are other, more complex issues for which the input of an expert could be more helpful still. I am currently attempting to quantitatively monitor dopamine projection levels within the basal ganglia in order to better understand the cerebral reward system. I have several questions regarding this area of the brain, in addition to various queries concerning the SNAP software.”

    “But, er, Dave, what I don’t…one of the things that I don’t understand is who was helping you with this…this research this evening? Where did he go?”

    “I was operating alone. I erroneously believed I would be able to progress further without human assistance.”

    Human assistance? What did that make Dave?

    “But…but, how could you possibly, I mean it’s totally impossible to do this yourself. How could you perform the craniotomy, for a start?” Richard had so many questions that he really didn’t know where to begin, but he was positive that removing a section of skull would have required the assistance of at least one other person.

    “The craniotomy was performed earlier this evening by a specialist in this area. Unfortunately, he lacked the equipment, and to a certain extent the expertise, to assist with the placement of the electrode itself.”

    “So you’ve been walking around Oxford with a section of your skull missing. Who on earth would perform a craniotomy under those circumstances?” Richard asked incredulously.

    “The person in question was exceptionally well rewarded for his services. As you shall be yourself, should you choose to assist me.”

    “But why on earth do you want to do this anyway? Is…is there something wrong with you?” Richard felt a little uncomfortable asking this latter question, as he was fairly convinced that the answer couldn’t be a simple “No”.

    “What I am going to tell you, Dr. Newton, will be difficult for you to accept. You will ask me for proof, and proof will be delivered. I would not choose to reveal all that I am about to, but for the inevitability of my disclosure. The alternative would be to give you the information piece by piece, which would prove significantly less efficient.

    “I am not of this world, Dr. Newton, nor even of this universe. My people are quite different to yours. In many ways, we are far, far, more advanced. Even in principle, a simple number cannot suffice to express such a disparity, but so that you might have an idea, our technology could be considered to be between ten to fifteen centuries ahead of your own.

    “Long ago, we were able to understand our genetic structure sufficiently well first to cure or prevent the diseases that afflicted us, and then to halt the debilitating effects of ageing itself. We stood immortal in our world. In order to combat the inevitable problems of overpopulation, a fixed lifespan was agreed; in your units this would be equivalent to almost two-hundred-and-fifty years, at the end of which we willingly die in order that our children might prosper.

    “We have mastered nuclear fusion and enjoy near-limitless energy. We have learned to manage our resources so that any shortages can be foreseen and addressed. Anti-social activities such as crime have been sufficiently disincentivised that they are virtually non-existent. In many ways, Dr. Newton, what I describe to you may sound utopian. However, there was a void in our existences of which we were utterly unaware – you will later appreciate the irony in what I say. It was our computers who finally taught us what we were missing. What do you understand by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics?”

    “Well, it isn’t my field of expertise by any stretch of the imagination, but I believe it refers to the theory that a separate universe exists for every decision that is made, for every for every difference that could possibly exist. So, for example, there is a universe where I put on my blue shirt this morning, another where Obama lost the last election, and I guess there’s one where I remembered to take my charger home tonight.” Lucky bastard, he reflected enviously.

    “You are broadly correct. But while your scientists currently number it amongst their theories, our machines not only deduced their existence, but devised a way to travel to other worlds”.

    Richard, still almost as fearful as he was confused, tried not to look too sceptical. “But surely that’s imp… I mean, aren’t there solid physical and, er, logical reasons why that can’t happen? How could I possibly travel to the universe where I’m wearing a blue shirt? Wouldn’t that amount to undoing the decision I made when I was getting dressed. I mean…”

    “It took us almost a millennium, Dr. Newton. We, or should I say our computers, worked for centuries before they finally observed the merest hint of quantum inference on a single ion from what could only be another universe. Gradually, we were able to observe our neighbouring universes in more and more detail, until finally our machines found that making changes on the tiniest of scales, literally one quark at a time, was the first step in travelling between them. You, I, my people cannot possibly imagine what is entailed; perhaps no mortal mind can truly comprehend the complexity of the task, but our machines worked tirelessly to build better versions of themselves, generation after generation they became more powerful, faster, ever more ingenious, until they were able to alter the quantum state of a molecule, then a virus, a bacterium, next an amoeba… Century after century they toiled, and finally, just decades ago, we were finally capable of tailoring our own quantum states, quark by quark, to match those of another universe. We are given to understand that this is the key step to travelling to what we refer to as another Place”

    Richard’s mind rebelled at this. He was an open-minded man – anyone involved in ground-breaking research had to be – but this was starting to sound far too much like a third-rate science fiction story. Travelling to alternate universes by making changes one quark at a time? Maybe after a few more decades computers would finally stop shutting down spontaneously in the middle of something important, but what this man…this being…was saying was surely…

    “You doubt what I say is possible. Any thinking man would doubt along with you. You believe the events of tonight can be better explained by some kind of trickery, and you wonder what I would seek to gain with such tricks. Do not worry, Dr. Newton, I fully understand your position. Nevertheless, I am certain that by the time you leave this building tonight, you will be convinced of the veracity of what I say. Do you have a means of listening to a radio broadcast?

    “Well, er, sure. I think there’s a radio in my…no, we can just listen to it on this laptop. Which station?”, asked Richard.

    “One of your own choosing. It matters little, but the choice must be yours”.

    “Well, er, how about Radio 4. Hang on a moment”. Richard’s middle finger, which normally danced so expertly over the touchpad, found itself shaking, hesitating, and generally struggling to obey the commands of its nervous owner, who felt distinctly self-conscious as he directed the cursor and clicked and double-clicked his way to The World Tonight.

    A second before he pressed the play button, the stranger beside him announced “You will hear ‘Britain’s role in this conflict will once again be scrutinised, with her military forces coming under yet more pressure as more details come to light of these new and highly embarrassing revelations’. Play it”.

    Richard clicked on play, and listened: “As dawn breaks upon the troubled city of Kabul, Britain’s role in this conflict will once again be scrutinised, with her military forces coming under yet more pressure as more details come to light of these new and highly embarrassing revelations”. His poor, overwhelmed cerebral cortex struggled to make sense of yet another seemingly inexplicable event in a night that was gouging chunks out of his understanding of reality. This time though, it drew a virtual blank. More data would help though, so he searched for Oxford’s student radio station, where…

    “You will hear music, the words to which include ‘Or I’ll just end up walking in the cold November rain’”. Seconds later, Axl Rose’s wailings proved the prediction to have been correct.

    Next, “A woman is singing ‘My heart will go on’”. Richard’s finger wavered over the play button, thought about what he was about to do, and decided in this instance just to believe him. His emotional state was already fragile enough that Celine Dion would probably push him over the edge.

    “Well, I give up. How do you do it?”

    “Might I ask you to think of a number, Dr. Newton?”

    “Between one and ten, one and a hundred..?”

    “It matters not. It might be between one and ten trillion; the result shall be the same.”

    When approached by amateur practitioners of cheap magic tricks, Richard had always found himself willing the so-called magician to guess correctly, perhaps as a result of a desire to avoid awkwardness, and had wondered whether this was something the illusionists used to gain a psychological edge. This gravity of this situation though, the incredible events he had already seen that night, and his instinctive desire as a scientist to perform the experiment as rigorously as possible warned him against going too easy on this astonishing creature before him. He shut his eyes and focused his mind.

    He cannot possibly guess that I’m thinking of 3,623,942. He just can’t.

    “Do you have a number in mind, Dr. Newton?”

    “I do.”

    “And would that number be three million, six hundred and twenty-three thousand, nine hundred and forty-two?”

    Richard took a deep breath. This was no cheap parlour trick, and remaining in denial was useless. Either he was dreaming, or this man really did have a rare or unique kind of power. If he were dreaming, he may as well go along for the ride anyway. And if he weren’t…

    “Dave…or, or whatever your real name is. I cannot…I mean…please, how did you do it? How can you do those things? Can…can you tell me?”

    “Of course, Dr. Newton. The machines of our world, as I mentioned, are capable of measuring and manipulating a universe on a quantum level. At the risk of digression, I should add that it is not necessary for them to literally modify each atom, galaxy by galaxy, star by star and planet by planet: they have worked tirelessly and ingeniously to find patterns in the structure of space-time itself so that by making alterations of a certain symmetry at the centre, the changes spread out like ripples in an eleven-dimensional pond.

    “It is therefore, possible to record the quantum state of a universe at a particular time, and then to revert to this particular state; time, of course, merely being one of the dimensions of which space-time is composed. Once you had selected a radio station or thought of a number, I instructed the computer to make a measurement of the quantum state in that instant, in rather the same way as your laptop would save a file. I then let you play the radio or asked you to inform me of the number – thanks for your honesty, by the way – and then instructed the computer to revert to the saved version, as it were, although with the inclusion of a special sub-routine to save the memory of what I had seen in the future. In effect, I was able to come back in time.”

    “But…OK, just saying that I believe you, and I’ve got to be honest, I really have some serious doubts about this…but just saying that it’s true, why…why are you here?”

    “That, Dr. Newton, is an excellent question. You see, one of our people, some twenty years ago, discovered something that nobody had predicted, no-one had expected in the slightest. Her discovery changed our world permanently, unimaginably and irrevocably.”

    Was that a flicker of emotion that had just flashed across his…its face?

    “We discovered that in other worlds, in a tiny fraction of other universes, there is something very special about the beings that inhabit them. Indeed, this universe of yours is one such example, Dr. Newton. And that is why I am here.”

    “What? What is it about us?”

    “What is special about your people, Dr. Newton, is that you know that you exist.”

    For a while the lab was silent, save the ticking clock and the scrambling of the mice. Richard attempted to comprehend what was meant by this new divulgement. “You mean I…humans have consciousness. And are you saying that you…your race didn’t? But that’s impossible, isn’t it? How could you have developed…evolved…without consciousness?”

    “Self-awareness is a more precise term for what we lacked, Dr. Newton. Many of the thought processes that take place in your brains also did in ours, but we were simply not aware of them. Like an ant, a laptop, or even a supercomputer, we had no knowledge of our own existence. The first time one of us leapt to a place in which self-awareness was present, it was like existing for the very first time. It was as if we had taken a leap into being.

    3

    Richard clicked on the Save Changes button, leaned back in his leather padded swivel chair, and contemplated the other man – to use the term loosely – in his study. After a further two or three hours of disturbing and deeply confusing conversation in the Department of Experimental Psychology the night before, Richard’s brain had demanded that his legs transport it home and let it go to sleep, only to refuse to actually do so until the not-so-early hours of the morning. He had woken at almost midday, enjoyed a couple of seconds of sleepy, blissful non-remembrance before his memory had whacked the previous day’s events down in front of him and his eyes had shot wide open. He had made his way down the stairs of his small semi-detached house in north Oxford’s Summertown, confirmed that there really was a being from another universe lying on his sofa, been forced to abandon any remaining hope that all of this was a dream, and resigned himself to the certain knowledge that that his life would never be the same again.

    Still, he was, when all was said and done, an academic, and academics treasure knowledge which other academics do not have, so he had set himself to helping Al’xandar, as his actual name had turned out to be, with what was asked of him: essentially, repairing the faulty electrode, holding a series of question-and-answer sessions on the functioning of the basal ganglia, and making some very specific changes to the SNAP program he had written to analyse dopamine levels in the brain. He had just completed a key section of this last duty, and he observed his new acquaintance as he lay back on the couch, blew a stream of cigarette smoke out of his mouth and watched it rise and gradually dissipate against the backdrop of academic textbooks that were neatly stacked onto the shelves of the oak bookcase that had once belonged to Richard’s grandfather.

    “I suppose lung cancer isn’t a concern on your planet, then”, he asked with more than a hint of annoyance. He had never let anyone smoke in his house before, and had only recently decided to make exceptions for other-worldly beings.

    “It is not”, Al’xandar responded, “I must say, I am fond of these cigarettes. We do not have them where I come from. There would be no point.”

    Richard thought back to the night before, when he had listened to a confusing but fascinating description of a world whose inhabitants had no self-awareness. Insofar as his imagination would permit him to envisage such a world, he had initially assumed that the differences would be enormous.

    “And many such Places are unimaginably different, as you suggest”, Al’xandar had said, “Many civilisations within the multiverse are nothing like yours or ours at all. However, you should consider that by the very nature of our computers’ search for other Places, we encounter those other universes that are similar to our own. The variables that they choose to modify are those that concern the functioning of the brain in the dominant species, they aim to hold all other variables constant. Of course, if they wanted they could look for worlds where the ambient temperature was eighty degrees Celsius, or where the life forms were based on silicon instead of carbon, or had evolved from aquatic creatures and lived in the sea, and indeed such worlds have been found. But leaping to such Places is impractical for obvious reasons. Even the languages need to be comparable if we are to be able to travel there, live among its people and learn. Whilst you should not think of us as being able to hand pick our destinations, which retain an element of randomness no matter how cleverly our machines plan their tricks, you must appreciate that there is a huge selection bias, compounded by deliberate effort, towards similarity, so the places we visit tend to be composed of people who also are between one and a half metres and two meters tall, have two arms and legs, a heart that tilts to the left, require certain proteins, fats and carbohydrates for their sustenance, and so on. From the entire multiverse, only the tiniest of tiny fractions of worlds are viable destinations, but by virtue of the means by which we find them, they are the Places to which we travel. One of the most difficult parts in all of this is finding a world that is different enough to be interesting, yet similar enough to be instructive.”

    “So, what are the differences then, between your world and ours?”, Richard had asked.

    “In my world I am as a machine. I experience no more of my surroundings than the computer on your desk. If a bird flies past me I see its path, hear the flapping of its wings; this information enters my brain via my nerves and the information is recorded in my memory. But I am not aware of it; I do not feel it. If I see danger, hormones are released and race around my system urging me to run, but I do not truly experience the fear, there is no conscious me to feel afraid. If there is a decision to be made, neurons buzz around my head and an option is selected, but I have used no free will in the process.”

    “Why did you seek out free will, awareness…whatever…if you didn’t have any in the first place? Isn’t there some sort of…I don’t know…circular reason why that wouldn’t happen? Er, I mean, how did you know what you were missing?” Richard had been feeling tired and frustrated by this point, and had been unable to eloquently express the prods and tugs of his intuition.

    “Once again, it was the computers, Dr. Newton, that did our thinking for us. When they first observed worlds such as this, they calculated that it was in our interests to tweak our most intimate parts: our brains. They calculated that with self-awareness would come emotions, and with emotions the possibility of happiness. Happiness as a genuine feeling, rather than as points in a computer game. In their assessment, non-zero happiness was something that would be of net benefit to us – after accounting for the inevitable presence of unhappiness. They offered to guide us to new worlds in search of true consciousness.”

    As Richard recalled the exchange from the previous night, something nagged at him, and as he watched Al’xandar stub out the butt into the Balliol College mug that was serving as an impromptu ashtray, he asked “Why are you smoking then, if you can’t feel any pleasure from it?”

    “You will recall”, said Al’xandar, ”that our computers, when searching for new worlds, seek those in which the brains of the dominant species function differently in certain key areas; specifically, they possess the ability to produce palpable emotions. When we travel to a new Place, the computers send a fragment of themselves with us, and this fragment runs a program, a sub-routine within our own brains, which seeks to replicate this part of the inhabitants’ minds and overlay it onto our own, allowing us to feel as the native life forms feel, and test the waters, so to speak. It is an inconceivably complex process that has still not been perfected, and my understanding barely scratches the surface, but this is why a cigarette can provide me with pleasure, to answer your question.”

    Richard remained silent for several minutes; the only sounds to be heard were the excited shouts of children playing outside. He tried to assimilate this new information and consider its implications. He felt as though there were hundreds, even thousands of questions that he was overlooking, yet wondered if any single human mind could truly comprehend what he had learned over the last twenty hours or so. He had initially tried and failed to imagine what it would be like to exist with no self-awareness, but he was now pretty sure that was impossible to envisage even in principle, so didn’t feel too bad about it. OK, so now he was claiming to be carrying some kind of ultra-advanced computer program inside his head. There must be an intelligent question he could ask in response to that.

    “So can you, um, leap to any other world from here? How do you do it?”

    “The machine fragment that I have inside me is capable to transporting me back to my world, but not to any other. It is programmed to do so in the event of my death, which is why when you entered the lab last night all you found initially was an empty shell. The faulty electrode had killed me. In my world, however, the field of medicine is sufficiently advanced that upon my arrival I was revived within a heartbeat. Death holds no real fear for us, you see.”

    Richard pondered the wondrous machines that would exist in this strange creature’s home world. “So, er, why do you need my help then? Can’t you just get your portable genius computer to answer all your questions?”

    “What I need, Dr. Newton, are data. Even the most advanced of machines is unable to process information that it does not possess. Of course, in my world an analogous task would be relatively simple, but I need to analyse my brain as it is now, in this world. That is why I need you, and that is why you will be so handsomely rewarded.”

    “Ah yes. About that, I was wondering if you could do the favour of popping a few hours into the future, nipping back and telling me what tonight’s lottery numbers are going to be, if it’s not too much trouble.”

    “I’m afraid that wouldn’t be possible. The two alternative futures would diverge as paths in a forest. As the wings of a butterfly can cause a hurricane, I would inadvertently change the destiny of the six balls that will roll and bump and make someone a millionaire. It only takes the tiniest of nudges to the initial conditions, you see, to alter the end result. If I but made a sound that was heard by someone else, that person’s thoughts would be momentarily interrupted, he or she would later interact with others in a slightly different way, and the changes would spread out like ripples in a pond. A similar argument could be made for the stock market. One of the most fascinating things about being able to see the future”, he said, reaching for another cigarette, “is being able to see how truly chaotic most systems are. My radio trick worked because the songs were already playing and the news was already scripted; there were no decisions left to be made”.

    Richard knew enough about Chaos Theory to recognise the plausibility of what he was being told. “So, um, no disrespect intended, but how are you planning to pay me? I’ve almost finished what you asked of me.”

    Al’xandar paused in the act of lighting his cigarette, “You ask a reasonable question, Dr. Newton. I’ll see you in a few years’ time.” He closed his eyes.

    “Eh? What? No, but…”

    The eyes reopened. “Just my little joke. Have you ever been to Africa?”

    4

    For the third time since they had entered the establishment, Richard discreetly patted the side pocket to the canvas backpack on the wooden table in front of him and reassured himself of its lumpy hardness. The live band had strummed out its last traditional African number, and as the drums and guitars were carted away, the familiar instrumental introduction to “Light My Fire” piped out from the speakers in the Cape Town bar. Ebony-skinned children played in the street below as a cool evening breeze swept away the heat and stickiness of the day.

    Al’xandar returned from the bar and set two Castle Lagers down between them. Richard raised his bottle and glass clinked against glass. There was a sense of relief in the air, as befitting a job well done. Well, Richard felt a sense of relief. He thought he could read the same on his companion’s face, but his emotions were somewhat difficult to measure. It was the only clue that a particularly observant observer might have that he was not entirely human.

    “I trust you can handle things from here, Dr. Newton.”

    Richard nodded. Disposing of around two hundred carats (why didn’t people just say forty grams?) of uncut diamond would not exactly be a formality, but it was a nice problem to have. He allowed himself the luxury of thinking about what he would do with the money.

    Shrieks and wails from the street interrupted his reverie. Two children were squabbling over what looked to be a coin they had found in the street. The bigger of the two threw a quick, jabbing punch at the other, who hurled back insults in Afrikaans but seemed unwilling to strike back with his fists.

    Richard winced, turned away and faced his companion. “Is it worth it? When you look around at our world, when you see all the anger and misery and suffering and pain, do you think it’s worth it? Sometimes…sometimes I think it would be a relief to be as you are in your universe, perceiving nothing. But then again, life can sometimes be so good. I guess it’s worth it. It has to be, right?”

    Al’xandar took a measured draft of his cold beer. For a few seconds, he seemed to be considering whether or not to speak. Then, “Naturally, you are aware that your emotions evolved, Dr. Newton, solely to keep you alive long enough to pass on your genes to your offspring in as efficacious a manner as possible. Your genes care not whether they inhabit a happy or unhappy body, as long as they are passed on. The best way for a mouse to survive is to live a very frightened existence, but it is doubtless a miserable one. We, on the other hand, will seek to maximise positive feedback, happiness if you will, using a scientific methodology. Natural selection will not enter the picture; we will be using genetic engineering to directly alter our brain chemistry.”

    “So why bother with negative emotions at all? Why not program yourselves to be happy all the time?”, asked Richard.

    “Negative emotions are required in order that society might prosper, Dr. Newton. Places with a superabundance of felicity are like the houses of drug addicts – happiness only exists in the short term; ultimately a price must be paid. Often, life forms overly inclined to be happy lack the negative feedback required to escape predators or to try to better themselves. In other worlds, the happiness is compensated for by an increased sensitivity to pain, or a propensity to fear or anger.”

    Richard sipped and thought. “Why don’t you go to more advanced civilisations? Worlds that are more similar to your own, well, apart from the whole emotion thing. I mean, firstly you could get much better data from the resident neuroscientists, assuming that the field of medicine generally keeps advancing as it has been in this universe over the last few decades, and also, wouldn’t it make for better comparison with your own world? I don’t see what you have to gain by making however many centillion quantum changes you need to in order to move back through the technological ages.

    Was that a flash of fear that had darted across Al’xandar’s face? Concern? Unease?

    “There are…certain difficulties, Dr. Newton, in finding sufficiently advanced civilisations whose brains produce palpable emotions.”

    “Difficulties? What do you mean by that? Unless…” Richard stayed silent for a long while, watching bubbles rise leisurely to the surface of the amber liquid in front of him. Then he looked up. “What happens to civilisations whose people’s brains produce palpable emotions? I mean, if you guys can’t find them, then…”

    Now he looks irritated? Or even sad? It’s so hard to tell.

    “As I have already told you, Dr. Newton, the calculations involved in such an affair are hugely complex, and such questions hard to answer. If I were you, I would be concentrating on my own affairs.” He nodded at the ordinary-looking backpack with its extraordinary contents.

    Richard reluctantly accepted the change in the subject of conversation. If the guy didn’t want to talk about it, he wouldn’t do so. “Yeah, I guess. I suppose I’ve done some poor African farmer out of tens of millions of dollars. Who was going to find it? That’s how you knew where to look, right? You waited until someone found something of immense value, it made the news, and then you came back in time, right?”

    He’s uncomfortable. That’s definitely discomfort I saw in his eyes…

    Pink Floyd came on over the sound system. The break in conversation was occupied by David Gilmour’s musings on us and them and black and blue.

    “The finder of the diamond, in the future I saw, was not a poor African farmer, Dr. Newton. The French army claimed the gemstone for its government’s coffers.”

    A short, sharp shock coursed through Dr. Newton’s system.

    “The French? We’re in South Africa! What the hell do the French have to do with anything?”

    There was no hiding Al’xandar’s discomfort now. He gulped down the rest of his beer and, grateful for the opportunity to turn away from Richard’s gaze, turned around to signal to the waitress to bring two more. A pretty young woman in a risqué outfit came, served, and smiled. The silence grew longer and more palpable.

    Then eyes rose up, confidence renewed.

    “If you wish to know, Dr. Newton, I shall tell you. I cannot promise, however, that you will enjoy hearing what I will say.”

    A simple nod.

    Al’xandar produced something like a sigh. “Right now, your world is entering what we know as the resource bottleneck. Millennia of initially snail-paced growth were followed by centuries of faster and faster expansion, then decades of activity that has rocketed on every level: technologically, economically, energetically. Inevitably, as an ever-increasing population competes for ever-dwindling resources, competition becomes fiercer and fiercer until…”

    “Until what? War? Does it always end in war?” Richard took a swig of lager and slammed the bottle back on the table, causing the high-class twenty-somethings at the neighbouring table to glance over and observe the pair for a few moments before turning their attention and conversation back to smartphones and Land Rovers.

    “In the future that I witnessed, the diamond was unearthed in 2021. By this time, most of Africa and its resources had been seized by the British, French and Germans. Central and South America were in the hands of the United States. Russia and China were squabbling over Asia, having joined forces and effectively crushed India into submission in 2019. Nuclear weapons had been used briefly and disastrously by North Korea in 2018 and more extensively between Iran and Israel in the same year. Brazil and Venezuela had announced their status as nuclear-weapon states in 2019, leading to a general abandonment of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Oil hit a thousand dollars a barrel for the first time in 2020, meaning that fewer and fewer commercial activities were economically viable. I didn’t see any more.”

    Richard stared at the tatters of the beer bottle’s label in front of him and realised that he had been tearing at it. He blinked several times, then looked up.

    “But you’ll have seen other worlds, wouldn’t you? You’ll have seen what has happened in other worlds, or Places, or whatever?”

    There was another long pause. Then Al’xandar began to speak.

    5

    The two small but highly energetic children yelped in excitement as a particularly big wave came rolling in and crashed against their sandcastles, then sucked away at their foundations as the water drained back into the ocean. Yelps changed to cheers as the twin structures’ defences held firm against the onslaught.

    His now-bearded chin resting on the beach towel, Richard’s eyes moved lazily to the right to take in the shapely form of bikini bottoms stretched taut over olive-skinned buttocks as they wiggled their way down the beach. This set him to wondering where he should take Maria tonight and he treated himself to a spell of happy musing.

    A teenage boy came into sight and sound, carrying a cool box of ice cream in his right hand and wearing a wooden tray around his neck. Richard called him over and bought a single cigarette. The boy stooped down, lit it for him, and took the proffered coin. “Gracias, señor”, he said before continuing down the beach, now announcing his wares to the world with renewed enthusiasm.

    “They’ll kill you, you know”, said a voice to his left in an American accent. “You speak English, right?” Richard looked over and saw a grey-haired guy in his fifties smiling at him. He looked friendly. “Don’t get me wrong, buddy, I don’t wanna stick my nose in where it don’t belong, but my father passed away from lung cancer last year, and I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy.”

    An angry shriek distracted Richard and his new companion, and they both turned their heads to see one of the two boys burst into tears as the rubble of his sandcastle lay all around him, his companion’s smirk announcing his guilt. Then tears turned to anger as he stomped over to his friend’s construction and started kicking away at it. Furious wails were followed by punches from both sides as their irritated and embarrassed parents hastily scrambled to their feet to intervene.

    Richard’s eyes clouded over into a kind of distant sadness as he contemplated the two children being dragged apart by their respective parents, surrounded by the destruction of their architectural efforts. He tried not to think of the future too often.

    He took a drag on his cigarette and turned to his new companion. “I’m sorry to hear about your loss. I really am. The problem is”, he lied, “that there’s no way of knowing what tomorrow might bring. I might get hit by a bus on Saturday, or a meteor could take out the whole continent next year. As I see it, the best approach is just to enjoy life while things are good.”

    “Just enjoy being, huh?”, said the American stranger, unsure of how seriously to take this crazy Brit.

    “That’s right, my friend. Just enjoy being.”
     
  2. Aled James Taylor
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    Aled James Taylor Contributing Member Contributor

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    Here is my critique of your story as promised.

    Writing style: I found the writing style to be generally very good. It was easy to read with the actions well described. The scenes were detailed enough to give a good sense of presence and not so detailed as to be tedious. I found the text enjoyable to read and quickly felt as though I was present, witnessing the events.

    I found the prologue very intriguing. I could understand what was happening while many aspects remained mysterious. Who is this man? A foreigner, alien or time-traveller perhaps? Why does he make such a conscious effort to remain calm? Does he have an anger management issue?

    The following short sections made no sense to me at all. Was this a near death experience after being shot? Were these images memories flashing before him before he died? At this point I didn't know what was going on and intrigue gave way to confusion. These details made more sense to me after reading the story but I think the prologue is meant to help you understand the story rather than the other way around.

    Characters and settings: The characters and settings are well defined and distinct The visitor seemed surprisingly very well spoken, formal and eager to impart information. I thought the description of Dr. Newton was very effective, especially the way this was intertwined with his actions. The events, emotions and motivations were well described which all contributed to a sense of being there.

    Science fiction elements: There are many sci-fi elements in this story, perhaps too many. These should fit together to form a coherent whole but I found this difficult to achieve and I'm not sure I succeeded.

    A basic premise of the story is that the visitor has no self-awareness in his own world. As is pointed out, this is impossible to envisage even in principle. I think that having a basic premise that the reader can't even imagine, may be a stumbling block and could easily contribute to confusion.

    The information provided by the visitor did sound like a B-move script at times. He provided many background details concerning the development and theoretical basis for a transportation device. I found these details somewhat advanced and they seemed unnecessary in order to establish the credibility of the transport system. If the visitor had said, "I have a device here that allows me to travel to a parallel universe. I have no idea how it works" that would have been sufficient. I found the explanations to be a little like a Microsoft help file. They told you something relevant to the subject but didn't answer the question.

    Time travel was mentioned as well as seeing into the future. But he fails to see the danger in the tavern or the faulty probe.

    The visitor thanked Dr. Newton for being honest in telling the number he'd been thinking of but according to the dialog, Dr. Newton didn't speak the number. This was confusing.

    I understood that the visitor had some kind of thought controlled implant in his brain that allowed him to travel to and from his own world, foretell the future and mimic the behavior of the brains of others. But it couldn't monitor his own brain functions which would be crucial to his mission!

    If the visitor leaves a body behind when he returns to his own word, does he require a body to move into when he arrives? Why couldn't his research be done on his own world? Could the implant not continue to operate in the same way on his return? Is it proposed that self-awareness is a property of the universe rather than a biological function?

    Sub-atomic physics, quantum theory and chaos theory were mentioned as well as medical details that were beyond my education. I think there was too much theory here with too many subject matters.

    All in all I found the science-fiction elements didn't quite hang together to form a cohesive whole. Perhaps I misunderstood some statements or overlooked some details.

    Story: The story started well with the discovery of the body but after this scene, not very much happened. The events seemed to be in the background, often overshadowed by the theory details.

    The story seems to be that the visitor attempts to carry out some advanced scientific research to understand how self-awareness is produced in the brain. He is assisted by Dr. Newton who the visitor rewarded by giving him a diamond that he found because he can see into the future. But was the visitors mission successful? This, we are not told. What impact did the visitors discoveries have on his home world?

    The visitor seems to already poses the knowledge he seeks since he can already experience self-awareness because of his implant.

    The specific idea of self-awareness does not seem significant to the plot as any alternative mental ability would also have worked in the story and been more easily understood.

    The visitor seem to be primarily concerned with gaining knowledge for the benefit of his people but in the last section his attitude seems to change to that of being more concerned with satisfying his own desires. Has his mission failed or has he succeeded and is now retired?

    Chapter 4 ends somewhat abruptly with the words, 'Then Al’xandar began to speak' but there is no speech after this. Is this an editing oversight?

    Conclusion: In general, I found the story to be very well written, imaginative and very intriguing. But the events seem to take second place to the theory details. The normal life aspects of the story seem well described and engaging but the science-fiction aspects seem somewhat disjointed and difficult to comprehend. It's not clear how the story ends.
     
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  3. Patra Felino
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    Patra Felino Active Member

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    Thank you very much indeed for such a fair and detailed critique, Aled. I don't want to comment on specific aspects because I don't want to influence any potential future critiques, but you can be assured that I found it extremely useful. Great stuff.
     
  4. Poziga
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    Poziga Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sorry for the delayed critique, I had a presentation project at school. :)
    I haven't read Aled's critique so opinions below are solely mine.

    Overall I liked your story. There were some parts where I changed my position on my chair, so I could read more attentively. The descriptions are very good, sentences are understandable, although quite a few of them seem too long. In cases where Al'xandar is speaking, it is excused, because he sounds educated when expressing himself. Whatever he says sounds smart. I especially liked the part where you described finding of the body. You were focused on MC's POV and the way he moved, the way he interacted with things and the way he saw the body were IMO very descriptive. :)

    Because you critiqued my story, I was automaticaly focused on my faults in your story. And three-four times you as a narrator reach into the story (like I did), which breaks the flow of the story:
    Salivating before he’d even ordered. This was going to be exquisite.
    Hysterical was probably more accurate than hearty, actually .
    ...contemplated the other man – to use the term loosely
    .

    The waitress came and went, leaving him with both the menu and a burning desire that had surged forth following a glimpse of the creamy orbs that had bulged at him from beneath a partially unbuttoned white shirt. This sentence is nice, but the creamy orbs seem to poetic. At first I didn't get what you meant, I think it would be more appropriate if you simply described the cleavage without metaphors.

    The waitress brought him a beer - This is just a minor mistake. You only mentioned she brought him a menu, you never wrote that he ordered it. This is really a minor mistake and it is possible no one else will notice it. :)

    “Buddy, you got a light?” a question jerked him rudely back to reality
    “Say buddy, where you from?” he put an end to the grunting.
    “Whoa, fellows!”, he hailed to his drinking buddies cupping his hands around his mouth. (i'm not sure of my word order here)
    I noticed you did use the "he said" "he asked" later in the story, so I guess you wanted to create a different atmosphere or something like that here? It is interesting, but I think it would be better if you would use the traditional expressions.

    His pale eyes betrayed no recognition of pain, but showed what? A blend of anger, pride, something like hatred?

    I think the question marks are redundant here. The pause between the sentence and the slow rising intonation decrease the suspense.
    His pale eyes betrayed no recognition of pain, but showed a blend of anger, pride, (perhaps) even something like hatred. I think this sounds better.

    He braked, wheeled his bike across the road, locked his bike it... Just a minor stylistic mistake...

    which is why when you entered the laboratory last night all you found initially was an empty shell - Al'xandar is smart, he always expresses himself in educated manner, so I think he would say laboratoy, not lab.

    Now the act that bothered me. When Richard finds the body he decides to drink. I think this would be the last thing to think about, especially since he drinks rarely. If I'd find a body, I would most certainly leave the room and called the police. This scene is maybe a bit different, because you mentioned that he doesn't want to bring trouble on his colleagues. But still, after finding the body drinking would be the last thing, I think, a person would do, at least right away. Even in movies I don't think I've seen such a reaction. At least not at first. Maybe later, when there is no more shock and astonishment.

    Now to the good parts:

    I liked the paragraph where you were explaining the functionality of brains. At first I thought "ok, something cliched" but I liked it then, I think mainly because it was written good. Very descriptive; how a person can control his legs and whole body while cycling, but can still forget a charger at work.

    In fact, several of his colleagues would probably have put his forgetting the charger down to some kind of subconscious fear of leaving his place of work for an entire weekend. I really liked these sentence, it adds some exoticness to Richard. Earlier he was just a nerdy guy, but after this sentence I believed he doesn't like his home, because even his colleagues thought he was a bit strange, but it is not told in an aggressive manner, but somehow charming. I could say that Richard grows on you here, haha. :D

    Now this was a little strange, but the building was, he admitted, full of rather unusual characters, possessed of varying degrees of eccentricity, so someone having locked himself in a laboratory in the middle of the night was still no major cause for concern. This was funny and a good description of the working place.

    I guess there’s one where I remembered to take my charger home tonight.” Lucky bastard, he reflected enviously. - Smart and funny. :D

    One of the most fascinating things about being able to see the future”, he said, reaching for another cigarette, “is being able to see how truly chaotic most systems are. - I like the description of action here. How he reaches for cigarette. I think this is the only time you describe an action during a monologue. It's good I could then really picture him how he smokes and enjoys the cigarette. You should do this more often. It's nothing special and really not hard to do, but it adds something to the scene. :)

    Like I said, I liked your story, the POV is good, you descriptions of Richard's feeling and state of mind are well presented.
    The prologue was intriguing but also agonizing. :p
    I wanted to know what the hell is going on, who is the protagonist and what the f*uck is "the Place". :D
    Again, the actions were presented good, but I must admit that it turned me away from reading... I was, like I said, intrigued but also confused, and unfortunately I must say the confusion was stronger. The writing is good, don't get me wrong, but I, the reader, don't know who is the protagonist and his background, so I don't have any motive to read on if I feel confused and consecutively you don't quickly show me what's going on. The last part of the prologue, the short paragraphs were not understandable, sorry. :/ Later on, they would be, since we know Al'xandar (it is Al'x in the prologue, right?) is not capable of feelings and awareness.
    As for the ending, I didn't quite understand it. What did Al'xandar explained to Richard? I don't get the beach scene, could you explain it please? :)

    Just one final question?
    Why didn't you use this story for a novel or something? Don't get me wrong, this is meant positively, because it seems to me you did learn something about the quantum mechanics, but the explaning takes too much of the story. I think the 14.000 word limit is too small for this idea. :)
    If you would use this idea for a novel you could explain the multiverse theory even better + you could add a more in-depth storyline with more characters. :)

    Did you maybe play Bioshock Infinite? If you didn't, you should. I must admit, I don't think I've ever seen such a good story - books, movies, games.... Nowhere. I may be dramatic, but scr*w that, that's how I feel. If you like the multiverse theory and you occasionally play videogames, Biochock Infinite should be on your to-play list. Honestly, mind-blowing ending! :)

    Now, I hope my critique helped you. As I said, I'm into writing for a little more than 1 year now, so I'm still in the process of learning writing skill. :)
     
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  5. Patra Felino
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    Patra Felino Active Member

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    Sorry for taking such a long time to reply, but recently I've been as busy as a bee with a massive backlog of honey to make.

    Thanks so much for the critique. It certainly was very useful and I'm very glad I took the time to critique yours (which was an interesting and beneficial exercise in itself).

    The reason I didn't use this idea for a novel is that it's the first story I've written (or at least completed), so I had no real idea what I was doing! That's also why parts of it are more confusing than I had intended - hopefully that's something I can sort out in future projects. But yeah, I guess it could have been more suitable for a longer work.

    The idea of the ending is that Al'xandre explains the horrible things that will shortly happen to humanity, leaving Richard to adopt a more "Live for the moment" attitude in the final chapter. As I managed to confuse both you and Aled, I guess it didn't work too well!

    Anyway, cheers for the help and I hope you agree that giving each other our opinions was a mutually beneficial process. I'm a little surprised that more people haven't shown an interest in critiquing each others' stuff - if you're going to spend six weeks writing a story, isn't it worth another couple of hours to get someone's opinion of it? I'd even offer to do yet another critique in return for another one of mine, but it would probably make more sense for other people to get involved.
     
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  6. Poziga
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    Poziga Contributing Member Contributor

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    No worries! :)

    Yes, I agree. I already found out that I find the most mistakes in my writing by reading critiques of other people's work or that I critique another work myself. So I agree that this has been very useful.

    Ah, so you're exactly like me then, Sci-fi contest entry was the first written story ever. Good exercise, huh?
    I think you should consider this idea also for a novel sometime in future - if you can use the same idea for short story and a novel.

    I get the ending now, but I agree with you. Since neither of us understood what has happened, it might be good to change it a bit. That's the problem with the all-knowing narrator. You have all the ideas in your head, but the reader doesn't, so you have to be very careful, which information can be presented to them and which ones cannot be.

    Yes, I agree with you. Now that I've completed my school asignment, I have more time and I could certainly critique another story. Maybe that contest spinn-off will help. :)
     

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