A Little More Time by Frances Gow

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Narrated by Bob Eccles

A Little More Time by Frances Gow
Illustration by Eleanor Bennett

They came one day when we knew we had lost the Earth, appearing like bubbles on the periphery of our vision. At first, they were indiscernible; an ephemeral form, like a faint rippling in the air. We tried to catch them out by pretending not to see, then turning our heads quickly like children playing peek-a-boo. But when you let them take the full force of human gaze, they just fizzle back into the ether with a soft crackle. We wondered how something so insubstantial could make such a difference but it is all a question of perception, so the scientists tell us.

In the global race for carbon reduction, we retrofitted the built environment and geoengineered our climate, pumping sulphate particles into the stratosphere. We protected our homes from the flooding and discovered new green, clean ways to work our worldly magic; SciFi pundits could only dream of terraforming Mars. But it was never enough, it was never ever going to be enough. People migrated across the world to higher, dryer lands. We built floating islands for the overspill of population, but it was never enough. Humanity clung fearfully to its last gossamer thread of survival.

I remember it like a thunderstorm; the air was thick and humid, scented like iron filings. The expectation was of an almighty showdown of Earth Vs The Human Race. The anticlimax was palpable. All we were left with was a vague sense that we were no longer alone. They peeled back the atmosphere like taking the lid off a can of sardines. Physicists rolled out their superstring theories whilst evolutionary biologists held up their hands and cried ‘Fair game!’ No one dared to dream that it might be possible to manipulate reality in such a way. Mathematicians the world over sighed at the sheer beauty and audacity of it. Machine-based, yet sentient. All at once ancient, yet juvenile in propriety. So unlike any being ever imagined. And yet, they could mimic us in… oh, so many ways.

“Martha? Martha.” Jed’s voice pierces the silence, drifts in through the open windows. “Martha?” I sit expectantly in our open plan living space, waiting for the inevitable. Pause. “They’re in the garden again.” Sigh. I wait a moment longer, stretching time, before Jed’s intangible voice floats into my hearing range, now insistent. “Can you shoo them out again? You know they don’t take any notice of me.”

I get up, unplug myself from the net and peer out into the small plot of land we call a garden, in which Jed is busy turning soil to plant this season’s greens. In the corner beside our gardening hut, there is a translucent glow that can’t quite decide if it wants to be a piece of wood to fit in with the hut or a blade of grass to lie in the safety of our freshly mown patch of lawn. I send a thought across to the shimmering mass. I’d go for the hut, if I were you. You’ll only get mown to shreds in a couple of weeks if you plump for the grass. There is a slight hesitation before the translucence settles itself and is absorbed by the garden hut. To all eyes, it seems to have altogether disappeared from the garden.

“Thanks, Hon. Those things give me the creeps.” Jed looks up at the sun, wipes his brow and resumes turning soil in readiness for planting. I leave him to his toil, preferring the relative cool of indoors.

I can’t tell you when it was that I discovered an unusual ability to communicate thoughts to these beings. People like Jed are frightened because they don’t understand. It was hard enough when we discovered that the earth was not flat. To ask us now to think in more than three dimensions is mind blowing even for the most liberal minded of us. And now, having been so close to mass extinction, the human race is going through a period of self-reflection, turning the clock back to a time before we got ourselves into this mess and to ask the question, “Where did we go wrong?”

The Id, as they have become known, are there merely as a constant reminder that something, somewhere along the path of history went horribly wrong.

“Martha.” An urgent strangled cry from outside. I rush to Jed’s aid and he is squatting in the soil, ashen-faced, pointing at our wind turbine. It is a new design with two blades that turn in opposite directions, encased in a cage-like structure in the shape of a street lamp. During the windy season, we get all the power we need, but sometimes in the hot and still climates we have been having more frequently, the blades shimmy to a halt.

Today’s wind is as still as stagnant water. No clouds in the sky, just the sun bearing down, reminding us of our mortality. Yet the blades in the turbine are whizzing as fast as the wings of a startled gnat. Any minute now, it will break free from its relative security and take off into the sky like a model helicopter.

“Jed, we could store enough energy to keep us heated throughout the winter,” I say, ever the pragmatist in this relationship. But Jed is having none of it, quivering in the earthy grooves of his own making.

“Oh, tell it to go away,” he says.

Just hide. You can help us when the old man goes to sleep.

The blades stop whirring and very slowly come to an eventual halt. As far as Jed is concerned we are alone again. “They’re everywhere,” he says, straightening up and regaining some composure. “Petra next door said she found one in her kitchen the other day, pretending to be the cat,” his laugh was uncertain. “She didn’t even notice until the real cat came in and there were two of them side by side. The Id disappeared quick smart, like a fireball in snow.”

“Maybe they just want to be friends,” I say. He looks at me as though I have just exploded into a trillion tiny trinkets. I hold my breath. Then his face softens and he utters an ambivalent chuckle.

“Oh, Martha. Whatever would I do without you?”

Whatever indeed.

I return indoors and plug myself back into the net, sending my avatar out to gather the latest headline news.

Rogue Id have infiltrated Tunmarsh high security prison and subverted guards. Fears spread of a new “war on terror”, perpetrated by an unknown and unseen enemy.

Perpetrated against whom and for what reason? While the scientists continue to debate the nature of this threat and whether indeed there really is a threat, politicians are beginning to wonder who is really running our nations?

Jed used to be a scientist. It seems ironic now that he behaves in a manner to suggest that his mind is closed to the possibilities of this duel existence on earth. Especially when you consider how we have been living happily alongside a multitude of creatures of varying descriptions, though admittedly, nothing quite so complex as the Id.

And how do they feel about us?

Lost, mostly. As far as I can gather. And confused.

With such collective consciousness as enabled them to save the planet from imminent destruction, why would they want to live out their days as a blade of grass or the next door neighbour’s cat? Perhaps they just want somewhere to call home. Somewhere to be useful. Something to assimilate. I don’t know.

Since they appeared, many ordinary things started to go wrong. Like, the net went down for a number of days. Electronic devices, such as phones, e-tablets and netbooks started playing up. Hospitals reported medical technology going haywire and air traffic controllers had the most hair-raising days of their lives. It did settle down when the Id seemed to be leaving, but there were still many left behind, as though lost in transit, half here and half not. Things worked again, though not as efficiently as before.

I send my avatar to the grocery store to stock up on Jed’s favourites, while scanning the news headlines for any new developments. Despite Jed’s disposition, I don’t want them to go, they kind of make me feel safe and useful. Besides, we now have an unlimited source of electricity thanks to our newly inhabited turbine.

There is widespread call from world leaders for the Id to vacate our planet and allow the human race to return to some state of normality. Scientists have been charged with finding a method of locating Id activity, so that a process of repatriation can begin. Oh, Jed will love that.

“No.”

I spin around in my seat at Jed’s voice and wonder at his newfound assertiveness. He is looking over my shoulder at the words on the screen.

“What?” I say. “I thought that would make you happy.”

His face, which is pale at the best of times, is entirely devoid of colour.

“They can’t, they mustn’t. It will all go horribly wrong. No, no, no. That is the whole reason I stopped the research. I would have lost my job, my reputation. If only you knew.”

“Jed,” I say. “You’re not making any sense to me.”

His face flushes red, like a teenager on a first date. Jed rarely talks about his research, the work he undertook before the Id appeared and before he began to lead a reclusive existence. He looks at me in earnest and then his eyes dart away, loaded with guilt.

“What?” I say, anxious at his agitation.

“My work, the reason… you.” Words stick in his mouth and he shakes his head as though trying to free the flow of thought.

So now he has my attention.

“Do you remember… how we met?” He says. I ponder the question and come up with a blank.

“You know I can’t remember.” I know that I am Martha, Jed’s wife. I know that we met at Grad school, but the details are hazy memories, like they belong to someone else. I have photo of our wedding but I don’t remember being there. Jed once told me that my memory loss was caused by an aneurism in my brain. I believed him. So why is he asking me this? My head is now spinning, I cradle my cheeks in my palms and a worried look fleets across Jed’s face.

“Don’t,” he says almost pleadingly. I am perplexed.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t go.”

He gently prises my hands away from my face and holds them in his. Fear marches up my spine as the answer dawns on me, the reason I can’t remember, my unusual powers of communication and the something that is missing from the puzzle that is Jed.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I say. “You let me believe I had some kind of power to speak to them the way I do.” He looks at me guiltily.

“If I told you, you would be less of Martha. I needed you to be Martha. I need Martha.”

“What about my needs?” Until now, my needs have been those of Martha, to care for the man she loves. But what about the ones I left behind? A feeling of displacement drags me down, do I really belong here? How I empathise now with the Id.

“I severed your link to the collective. You would never have known any different,” Jed says.

“How is it, then, that I can still communicate with them?”

“I don’t know. A flaw, something not accounted for in my research, though useful as it turns out.”

“Where is Martha?” I feel slightly nauseous. Or is it Martha who feels sick? My head still feels dizzy and I try to stand but cannot move my legs. Jed wraps his arms around my body, if I can claim it as mine, and I am warmed by his touch. “What will happen to me?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “If the Id are being expelled, our whole world may come to a standstill. Well, they wanted a return to rudimentary living and that is exactly what we will get.” I study the look of keen intelligence now reflected in Jed’s eyes, now that he is no longer pretending to be a nervous, frightened victim of circumstance. Now I see him for what his is; a catalyst for this benevolent binary existence between the human race and the Id.

“Why? Why did you do it?” I say.

“To prove a point. It was too revolutionary for traditional evolutionary biologists to accept. They had become lazy and presumptuous in their narrow-minded Darwinian theories, thinking that there was only one truth behind the origins of life.”

“I don’t understand, how is it possible?”

“Horizontal gene transfer enabled your species to develop a blueprint for a general synthesis of genetic codes and in doing so, enabled unseen alien life to share with us their innovations in perfect genetic symbiosis.”

“The Id have always been here?” I say.

“Yes, simply put.” He smiles wanly. “They are lost now. They split from us and they can’t find their way back.”

The dizziness in my head begins to increase to a steady pounding and my tongue feels swollen, making it hard to speak.

“Can’t… can’t you stop it happening? I feel like… something is sucking me away, I don’t like it. I don’t want to go. I’m frightened.”

Jed squeezes me tighter, but all I feel is numb.

“They discredited my work, destroyed my papers. There is nothing I can do now.” Jed is sad but resigned to his loss.

“But… Martha. What happened to Martha? If I leave, will she come back?” I say. A shadow of despair flickers across Jed’s face and I think I see him now in all his misguided conscience. This body, Martha’s body, does not respond to my commands. I no longer feel it, I no longer own it, if I ever did. I no longer feel the throbbing in my head or the numbness of these limbs because I rise above it all and see only a broken lifeless body in the arms of a grieving man. A man who lived a lie to avoid facing the bitter truth. I understand it all now, as I am embraced back into the collective consciousness. This forced exorcism serves only to return us to each other, to reassess and find new hosts with which to assimilate and share our knowledge and technology.

And the human race?

Their phones may not work for a while, their computers may break down and they will return to a time before we joined their plight on earth. Perhaps it will, in turn, teach them to take care of their natural resources. Jed will survive, but he will have to learn to do it without Martha. He is already reconciled. I see him now, smiling to himself as he says goodbye, knowing that he bought himself and life on earth a little more time.

He can live with that.

 

AUTHOR BIO: Frances lives and works in London and has previously been published in the following magazines: Crossing the Border (an Open College of the Arts anthology of creative writing, edited by Graham Mort), Monomyth, Legend and Scriptor-3. She was twice awarded an ‘Honourable Mention’ in the Library of Avalon Short Story Competition. More recently, long listed for the Cinnamon Press Award, short listed for the Yellow Room competition. https://fglaval.wordpress.com/

ILLUSTRATOR BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning artist. Her photography has  been published in the Telegraph , The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.zenfolio.com