Sunday, 26 September 2010

To Save a World

Copyright © 2007

Alien abduction, a race on the verge of extinction, and more sex than a man can cope with...

Consciousness edged its way towards him; slowly, carefully, so as not to startle him.  He first became aware of how comfortable he was: not just comfortable but supremely so.  He could not remember ever being this comfortable before.  The still air of the room was at an absolutely perfect temperature.  The bed below him supported his back in all the right places.  He turned over out of habit, not to find a better position, there having been nothing wrong with the one he had been in.  The bed adjusted imperceptibly to his new posture. 
He breathed a deep breath in, held it for a few seconds, then let it seep from his body.  He opened his eyes to the perfect darkness that surrounded him.  He blinked.  He closed his eyes.  Open or closed, his eyes saw nothing except pitch blackness and the random noise of his own nervous system.  He stretched and the awareness of the covers that shrouded him evaporated.  The room began to glow; walls, ceiling and floor all took on a uniform radiance that slowly increased in intensity until the perfect level for newly opened eyes was reached.  He looked around and saw nothing, not even corners, the illumination being so homogeneous that it cast no shadows, and had the sense that he was floating in a vast, empty universe.  He blinked his eyes tight shut, believing himself to be still asleep and dreaming.  When he opened them again, shaking his head, the room was the same.  Intrigued, and perhaps a little perturbed, he sat up, and the bed adjusted itself once more to accommodate his position, lending perfect support to his back and allowing his feet to sink to what must be floor-level.  He actually pinched himself but nothing changed except the colour of his skin at the site of his assault. 

He stood and walked around, his arms stretched out before him as though he were in the dark.  After a few careful steps his hand touched a smooth wall.  A ripple of light expanded from the point of contact, and the wall settled to a brighter level.  He touched it again, and the wall became brighter yet.  He turned around 180 degrees and walked across the floor, which felt as though it had been constructed to make walking as easy as possible.  Both hands made contact, and the wall rippled and darkened.  At least now he could see the bounds of his enclosure.  He stroked the wall and its colour changed; stroking in different directions adjusted the blend as if he were moving his hand around a colour wheel.

‘Hello!  Can anyone hear me?’  The room, although empty and smooth, failed to provide an echo.  He strained hard to hear any reply that may have been forthcoming.  Nothing.

He moved into a corner and, leaning into it, slid down to sit on the floor.  The floor, however, rose to meet him at the ideal height for his physique and moulded itself to form a perfectly comfortable seat.  He was shocked by this turn of events but, before he had time to think about it, an aperture opened in the far wall and there stood before him the most beautiful woman he had ever seem in his life.

‘Hello, Daniel,’ she said, ‘I hope you feel refreshed after your sleep.’

‘Where the hell am I,’ he asked, ‘and who the hell are you?’

‘You are in one of the very best guest-rooms in our craft, which is in orbit some 640,000 of your miles above your planet.’

‘Wha–’

‘Please do not be alarmed.  You are quite safe here.  We have no intention of harming you and regret any disorientation you may be feeling after your journey.’ She walked towards him as she spoke, her face radiant with a smile that could calm a raging bull, her hips swaying in a way that would arouse a eunuch.  She sat opposite him on a seat that had not been there.  She offered him a device of some sort, flat, and about the size of a journalist’s notebook.  ‘You will have many questions, I am sure.  You will find many answers in here.’

Stunned, he took the device from her without looking at it.

‘You are not a prisoner.  You are free to move anywhere about the craft, apart from a few areas to which, for your safety and continued health, we must regrettably deny you access.  This is not a restriction on your liberty, as we are not permitted to enter those areas either. 

‘This room is programmed to respond automatically to meet whatever needs your actions indicate, whether you require seating, a couch, or other comfort facilities, or whatever requests you address to the computer.  You may exit the room by approaching the portal you see in that wall,’ she pointed to where she had entered, ‘and it will open at your request.  From now on, it will only open to visitors by your request.’

‘So, if I’m not a prisoner, you’ll take me back home?’

‘If that is your desire, once you have found out what we have to offer you.’

‘Which is?’

‘All in good time.  Meanwhile, please make the most of your stay here.’

The smile on her face intensified and she almost purred.  Then she stood, turned around, and glided out through the doorway that closed silently behind her, although it looked more like the plane of air in the doorway turning opaque than like a door closing: he had not noticed the door closing; he had noticed only her sensuous movement.

Shaking his head once more, he turned his attention to the device in his hand.  He turned it end over end, examining it from all angles.  It appeared to be completely uniform and felt like it was made of something hard like metal but covered with a thin rubber coating.  Its weight suggested it was made of polystyrene foam; its rigidity belied that notion.  ‘Computer,’ he said out loud, wondering if that was the right way to address a computer.  Nothing happened, but he felt as though something was listening, like he had said something to a dog that was now sitting at attention with its ears pricked up and its head tilted to one side as if in readiness for a sound that it understood.  ‘What is this?’  He held the object, as if to show it to the computer.

A disembodied voice responded, ‘It is a communication device.’

‘And what does it do?’

‘It communicates, of course.’

Oh no.  A wise-ass machine. ‘And what does it communicate, and to whom?’

‘It has many functions.  It interfaces between its user and many sources of information or entities with whom the user wishes to communicate.  For example, it is now acting as an interface between us, translating your speech into the language of my world of origin and my responses into your language.  Should you wish it, it can interface with our library and show you any information you may legitimately request.’

‘What do you mean, “legitimately”?’

‘Not all information is accessible to every class of user: some information is not even representable to some entities.  In your case, only very little of our information is off-limits; security and weaponry, for example – it would not be in your world’s best interests to return anyone with such knowledge – and other technologies beyond your world’s current level of development.  Some information is temporarily restricted until you have been fully briefed in person to the purpose of our mission.  If you want to know something, just ask.  You will be informed as far as I am allowed to inform you.’

‘OK.  How do I get something to eat around here?’  His stomach rumbled at the very thought of food, as if it were cheering.  He could not remember the last time he ate.

‘There are several options.  If you wish to socialise, you may attend one of our several common areas.  If you wish to eat alone you may request service here.’

‘Well, I think I’ll just eat here at the moment.  What’s on the menu?’

‘What would you like?’

‘I’d like a steak, medium, with fries and a green salad, some mayonnaise and a nice cold beer.’

‘One moment…’

A few seconds passed.  He felt as though his head was being caressed – no, more like his mind.  An aperture opened in the wall and a table slid out bearing the meal he had asked for and the extras, like black pepper and ketchup, which had been in his thoughts but which he had not mentioned.  ‘How did you do that?’

‘As I informed you, the device is an interface.  Keep it with you at all times; you will find it very useful.’

He suddenly realised that he was not actually listening to an audible voice; the computer was communicating directly with the language centres of his brain. 

He sat at the table and tucked into the best steak dinner he had ever eaten.  The texture, juiciness and flavour of the meat were incredible, the fries were crisp on the outside, fluffy in the middle, exactly as he liked them, the kos lettuce, cucumber and slices of pepper were crisp and cool.  He lifted the beer glass to his lips and drank: exquisite was the only word for it.  ‘Computer,’ he thought, ‘Can you hear me?’

‘Of course.  We are interfaced until you dismiss me.  The meal was to your satisfaction.’

He pondered his reply but then realised that the computer had issued a statement, not posed a question, and that no response was necessary.  ‘Computer,’ he said out loud.

‘Yes, Daniel?’

‘You’re dismissed.’

He looked at the device that the woman had given him, and shook his head slowly in disbelief.  He was aware that a presence had left him: he was no longer interfaced with the computer.  ‘Computer?’

‘Yes, Daniel.’    The presence took up its place in his mind once more. 

‘Am I really free to move around this ship?’

‘Of course,’ came the immediate response, ‘just as Azena explained.’

‘Azena?’

‘The woman who gave you the device.’

He checked himself.  How do I know that I am on a spaceship? He thought.  Is this some elaborate hoax?  He sat, and the floor reminded him why he was convinced.  ‘What should I visit first?’ he asked the computer, and felt once more his mind being caressed.

‘I would suggest the recreation deck,’ the computer replied, ‘This is how to find it.’

His mind was suddenly flooded with images of corridors, elevators, and walk-ways outside his room.   He had been totally unprepared for the impact of the visual input from the computer and he reeled and staggered and fell to the floor that reached up towards him and caught him gently.

‘I am sorry, Daniel, I did not mean to startle you.’

‘That’s – ok.  I just wasn’t ready for that.’  He climbed back to his feet and approached the door.

‘Daniel!’

‘What?’

‘The interface.’

He turned back, picked up the device from the floor that had cushioned its fall and returned once more towards the aperture.  ‘Open,’ he said, and the door vanished, revealing the corridor that the computer had shown him.  He stepped through the opening and became aware that he knew exactly where he was going.  He followed the corridors to the elevator, took the elevator to the walk-way, and allowed himself to be carried along to the recreation deck.  Along the way, he thought he saw Azena at least three times but, although she smiled her stunning smile on each occasion, she did not seem to recognise him.

The recreation room was a paradise of beautiful women, ten percent of whom bore a striking resemblance to Azena from smile to hips and every part between and beyond.  As he entered the room, one of the women approached him.  Her costume, he now noticed, clung to her body, leaving nothing to the imagination, and fitted her like a second skin.  He wondered why he had not noticed it before…

‘Daniel!’ she said, ‘Welcome to our recreation centre!  I am so glad you have ventured so soon from your quarters.’

‘Are you Azena?  Only – it’s quite confusing, there being so many that look like you.’

‘I am Azena, Daniel.  All will be explained in due course.  What would you like to do?  Would you like a drink?  We have many alcohol-based drinks, some of which are very similar to those found on Earth.  Perhaps you would like to try something completely different?’  She linked arms with him and led him to the bar.  On arrival, she addressed the bar-keeper, ‘Zondrian phthelmoline for our guest, please.’

The woman behind the bar smiled and complied with the request, and produced a tall, slender glass containing a clear, blue liquid.  He took it from her and sniffed at it, cautiously at first, then indulgently in response to the aroma that charged his senses.

‘All in one go,’ said Azena, smiling.

He emptied the glass into his mouth and swallowed the cool, exotic liquid.  He coughed and opened his eyes wide.  Azena threw back her head and laughed, delighted at his reaction.  A wave of well-being swept over him.  He tried to remember when he had ever felt this good.  He failed.  ‘Wow!’ was all he could say.

Azena explained, ‘The phthelmoline molecule is a direct analogue for human endorphins with the added advantage that it is more quickly absorbed than alcohol, and completely harmless.’  She linked arms with him again and moved in close, her nose almost touching his.  ‘What do you think of our spaceship?’

‘I’m very impressed,’ he responded, seriously, slipping his arm around her waist without thinking, ‘Where did you get it?’

‘It’s a perk of the job.’

‘And just what is your job?’

‘I’m a spaceship captain, among other things.’

‘So, you’re in charge around here?’

‘I am, although my leadership style is more democratic than most.’

Something had been bothering him and he brought it up abruptly, ‘Are there no men in your crew?’  He swept his free arm around, indicating the exclusively female compliment of the room.

‘Oh, we have men.  They are – in a different part of the ship.  I’ll take you there later.  Meanwhile, come with me before the phthelmoline wears off…’  The suggestiveness in her voice suppressed the growing suspicion he was nursing.  She took his hand and led him out of the main area of recreation room to a space that was subdivided into cosy booths.  They sat in one and it encased them in secrecy.  Her kiss took him by surprise and at the same time thrilled him.  She grasped at him and began loosening his clothing.  He wanted to stop her, to slow things down a little, but his blood coursed hotter through his veins than he had ever believed possible…

*

Consciousness once more edged its way towards him.  He was aware of having a very slight headache and a little discomfort in his lower back.  The room brightened until he recognised it as his quarters.  The elation he had known only hours earlier had left him and been replaced with a deep, immense satisfaction coupled with a feeling of utter but pleasant exhaustion.  Images of a naked Azena passed through his mind as he lay there.  He moaned as he became once more aroused.  He turned over, as if to remove the images from his view, and was startled to see her very real form lying there beside him.  She smiled her most alluring smile at him and he melted once more.  ‘I don’t remember coming back here,’ he said, his tone implying some alarm.

‘That’s the phthelmoline.  If you’re not used to it, it can induce an extreme state of euphoria that affects the short-term memory.  With practice, you can retain complete awareness in the aroused state and enjoy it fully.  Don’t worry, the effect is temporary and completely harmless.  Do you remember anything?’

‘The recreation centre.  I remember that, and the booth, and …’ He looked away, embarrassed, and felt himself flush.

‘Yes?’

‘The, er … sex?’  He looked her full in the face and smiled mischievously.

‘That would be hard to forget.  You were quite the athlete.’

‘Phthelmoline?’

‘Indeed, yes!’

His face fell once more and he lowered his head towards the floor.  ‘Is it normal practice among your people to seduce your alien guests so soon after their arriving?’

‘Not exactly normal but not exactly unusual either; and I suppose you need to have something explained: you are not exactly alien inasmuch as we are the same species. And, before you ask, no, we never mate outside the species.’

‘So, you’re human, then; from Earth?’

‘Human, yes.  From Earth, no.  Strictly speaking, neither are you.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Computer, Daniel would like to see “The Origins”.’

The room darkened and disappeared as the computer interfaced with Daniel’s mind.  He saw far below him a blue-green planet wrapped loosely in cloud and its sun way off in the distance.  Whilst the scene looked familiar, the planet was not quite like Earth, its land masses were very different, and the star was not quite the right colour for the Sun, and the planet’s satellite spun slowly on its axis at such a rate that it did not always present the same face to its sister world.

‘Many aeons ago,’ the computer began, ‘this world gave rise to a species that would one day become the most inventive and adventurous, and the most corrupt and destructive, of all species.’ 

The scene changed, and Daniel found himself plummeting towards the planet.  He reached out, his arms flailing, in a vain attempt to arrest his fall.  He heard giggling from beside him, and remembered he was sitting in a room next to Azena.  Down through the clouds he went, and into what must be a tropical rainforest.  All manner of life presented itself to his view: birds, reptiles, mammals, insects, apes.

‘From humble origins, the men of Edun developed and grew tall and upright and soon discovered that rocks were useful to them as tools – and weapons.  In the battle for resources, families fought each other, formed and broke alliances, and subjugated weaker rivals; clans, kingdoms and nations came into being.

‘They developed new tools, and learned to till the soil and husband cattle.  They learned how to build and, in a few millennia, great, burgeoning civilisations appeared.’ 

All the time, visions of the Edunites and their warring and farming and family life had passed through Daniel’s mind, and now he saw vast cities covering the face of the planet, and aircraft flying across the sky between them.

‘Rival civilisations came to blows and almost destroyed their world, until, one day, the world found peace.  United under one ruler, with no more wars to occupy them, the people investigated the extremities of their nature.  For some, invention and intellect was their delight, and great men of science emerged.  Once the exploration of their world was complete, they turned their eyes to the stars and wondered.  Still others turned inwards, and sought fulfilment in self-gratification, and turned many inventions and discoveries to the pursuit of luxury and comfort and exploitation of each other in excess and debauchery.

‘The world’s environment soon became unable to contend with the pressure that man exerted upon it and, despite many portents of disaster, man continued to abuse his world until climatic instability became uncontrollable and the world burned.

‘By this time, man had conquered his planetary system, and had begun to reach the stars.  Other worlds that were suitable for colonisation were found.  The only option for man was to leave his dying birthplace, Edun, and so huge star cruisers were filled with all that was needful and sent forth to people the galaxy.’

Daniel watched as great ships left orbit and swung themselves in great slingshot manoeuvres away from their own star towards many others.  The scene shifted to one ship in particular, that arched its way towards the nearest habitable world.

‘This is the vessel carrying Azena’s ancestors.  After a few of your decades, the ship reached its destination and the people awoke from their hibernation to begin again on a new world.  They abandoned the wild ways of the old world, and sought new ways to benefit from the lessons it had taught them. 

‘Soon, the people began to thrive, and they enjoyed peace and safety for many millennia.  They harnessed the resources of the new world until they were once more able to venture skywards and explore their new planetary system.  The nearby worlds were populated and the commonwealth so formed enjoyed many centuries of commerce and endeavour.

‘Eventually, the home-world, Edun, which had been forgotten in the mists of time, was rediscovered.  Its climate had long since restabilised and the world was once more habitable.  The returnees, unaware of their origins, were astonished at the discovery of ruined cities and the fossilised remains of their former occupants.  One vast building was discovered intact.  It contained records of the old race and its exploits, and its eventual demise and the final leaving.  In time, the language of these records was understood, and it became clear to the explorers that the stories of their ancient past had their roots in the accounts of this world.

‘Azena’s race faced a new problem: a problem so enormous as to threaten its very existence.  Its men were becoming gradually less fertile as the centuries rolled by.  Before too long, natural conception became a rarity, with almost all fertilisations requiring medical assistance (such as your “in vitro” methods of one kind or another, in fact, all of them at one time or another).  With time, the ethics of survival gained the upper hand over the ethics of human cloning, and men sired copies of themselves.  The in-breeding that resulted pushed the fertility problem along even faster, and soon cloning was the only means of propagation (now you will understand why there are so many “Azenas” aboard).  Men themselves became scarce.  Fewer and fewer had been born before the cloning began, and male clones survived less well than female.

‘A breakthough was made, and it became possible to stimulate ordinary cells to produce stem cells and then germ cells (I believe your world has made a similar development recently).  Once more, it became possible to reproduce sexually, albeit in the laboratory, and, with the discovery of how to coerce germ cells to contain Y-chromosomes, men became once more plentiful, but with one painful shortcoming.  All men so produced were sterile, and remain so to this day.  Whilst they are well able to mate, and to perform admirably to the satisfaction of the female, the male cannot engender natural offspring.

‘An outside supplement for the gene pool was needed, and our scientists once more returned to the old world in search of information that could lead them to other colonies that may have faired better than ours.  Many such leads were found and followed up with great hope.  There have been many disappointments.  Some colonies went the way of the old world.  Some, unfortunate enough to have landed in harsher, more hostile worlds than their home, failed to thrive and quickly became extinct.  At least one other colony went the same way as our world but did not have the resources or the good fortune to rediscover the home world and find the information that gave us any hope of a solution; even now, they await the outcome of our venture, and our two worlds are experimenting with ways of recombining our two sub-species; alas, it seems that our respective deficiencies may be all too similar…  Yet other colonies did not reach their destinations; many survived only to descend into primitive ways; or found themselves competing with and outstripped by indigenous races of intelligent life.

‘An interesting effect was discovered: the further from the home world the colonies travelled, and the longer therefore that they spent in hibernation, the more likely they were to regress.  Yet it is in these stocks that our humanity has its best hope of recovery: these stocks have been preserved perhaps for millions of your years in hibernation and, with them, the elements of our genetic make-up that we have long ago lost.’

A new scene appeared.  The departure of the great ships played out again but, this time, a different vessel was followed. 

The computer went on, ‘This is the colony that travelled to your world,’ and then fell silent as the scene ran on inside Daniel’s head.  He saw himself drawing back from the ship until it was one dot against many stars, its passage traced out among them by an imaginary line.  The scene withdrew further from him.  Soon, individual stars merged into clusters, and then into bands, and then he could see the whole galaxy.  Still the line traced the ship’s passage in a great arc across the Milky Way until it came to a halt on the opposite side from its starting point.  The scene zoomed in, and the familiar Earth and its Moon filled his vision.  ‘This is the world most like Edun.  The colony fell quickly into decay but the similarity with the home world arrested the descent just in time for our race to displace the indigenous hominid and begin the long, slow climb back to civilisation, following a path that would be all too familiar to its ancient forbears.

‘And that is where you come in.  We have come all this way to ask for your help.’

The picture faded out and the room and Azena faded in as the computer removed itself from Daniel’s mind.  ‘So how can I help?’ he asked her.

‘Your genes,’ she replied. ‘What we need is your genetic make-up to replenish our depleted pool.  You see, the colony that came to Earth was in hibernation so long that your race is like a genetic time-capsule.  Your planet’s human gene pool contains all the information that has been lost from ours.  Your world is ideally suited to assist our survival.  Your DNA in particular is especially suited to mine.  We have a limited number of genotypes; with access to yours in combination with mine, and others of your world with the other women on our vessel, our scientists would be able to recreate the full range of genetic diversity that once existed in our species, and, furthermore, ensure that we never suffer from this problem again.’

‘And in return?’

‘You will be richly rewarded.  There are several options that we could offer you, ranging from wealth on your world to an even more fulfilling life on ours.’

‘No, I didn’t mean for me personally.  I meant, what would you do for my world?’

‘Your world has many centuries before it gets to our stage of genetic decay.  We will, of course, ensure that you make contact with us when you reach out into space and offer our assistance in your survival.’

‘So, there’s no short-term alternative, like world peace and a solution to world hunger?’

‘We cannot interfere with your world’s development.’

‘Unless that interference would avoid our extinction.’

‘Please remember, Daniel, that our survival means the survival of humanity.  If human life on your world does fizzle out, your contribution at this time would ensure that the species lives on forever, albeit on another world.’

‘And what if I decline?’  His voice carried with it the clear impression that his refusal to cooperate was a very real prospect.

Her face clouded over and her lips became compressed.  Her forehead gradually wrinkled into a frown, and her voice bit back at him, ‘then we would have to resort to other options.’  He made to interject but she continued without giving him chance, ‘I assure you, Daniel, that we are totally dedicated to our mission.  One way or another, we shall achieve our goal.’  The last phrase was delivered in a manner that would have subdued Adolf Hitler.  Her tone, and her look, stunned him into silence; he felt the full weight of the threat, whether implied or inferred, and fell silent.  She rose suddenly from the bed and strode, naked and fuming, from the room; he could not help but be stirred by her swaying womanhood, and he half-wondered what life as a stud would be like…

He ordered breakfast as he dressed and returned to his reverie.  The fantasy was broken on recalling the disturbing manner that Azena had displayed.  He had trusted her easily when they first met; why, he wondered?  He had liked her, even, and that before the phthelmoline.  Something was not right.  Why would someone so desperate for his help behave with such hostility at the first sign of unwillingness?  There were other things that did not add up either; he was no physicist, but even he knew that crossing a galaxy would be an epic voyage, to say the least, and Azena claims that his ancestors did it, and, by implication, so had she.  The timescale involved would be enormous.  Surely there would be no-one alive back at home who would even remember the departure of her ship?  Certainly, they could not be awaiting her return.

The food arrived.  It smelled wonderful, and he ate it hungrily.

‘Computer.’

The Presence inserted itself into his mind, ‘Hello, Daniel, how may I assist?’

‘The journey that my ancestors made to this place, how long did it take?’

‘Many hundreds of thousands of your years, long before our current technology was even dreamt of.’

‘So, how did the people survive?’

‘They were held in stasis for much of the time.’

‘But what about the ship, how did that survive the journey?’

‘As I said, the people were held in stasis for much of the time.  The ship had many redundant monitoring systems to keep a careful watch on its performance.  If a problem arose, the relevant specialists would be roused to effect repairs.’

‘But what about catastrophic failure… A meteor strike, say.’

‘The ship’s defences would have warded off or avoided any such collisions.  Its long-range scanners would detect such threats in good time, and the ship had limitless time to spend on alternative routes.’

‘I find that all rather hard to believe…’

‘Our technology, even of that time in our history, is greatly advanced over yours.’

‘You implied that your current technology is able to shorten the time taken.  How does that work?  Isn’t the speed of light a limiting factor?  Have you found a way to exceed the speed limit?  Or have you found a way to use wormholes or something?’

‘Your Einsteinian view of spacetime is rather archaic, although it is true that the speed of light cannot be exceeded.  The Universe is far more complex than is depicted by your four-dimensional spacetime, or even by the eleven or so dimensions that your scientists are currently toying with.  Let me say merely that the Universe does not seem nearly so big in certain high-order dimensions and that, in those dimensions, nothing nearly so fast as light is necessary.’

‘So, you took a short-cut?’

‘You could express it that way.’

‘So how long does the journey take now?’

‘About two of your weeks.’

‘Two weeks!’

‘In fact, the actual journey itself takes about an hour.  The rest of the time, not to mention a lot of other dimensions, is spent in the dimensional transformation process at each end of the trip, a process that would be extremely damaging to life but for Zondrian phthelmoline.  It is important that your body adjusts to its effects before we attempt to return with you aboard.  I encourage you to make as much use of it as possible.  The week or so that you have been using it is not nearly enough.’

‘What do you mean, a week or so?’

‘Ah!  I perceive you had not guessed that you had been introduced to the substance before your awakening.’

‘Should you be telling me all this?’

‘Of course.  We do not wish to hide anything from you.’

Daniel rose to his feet and strode around the room as he delivered his next tirade, ‘I don’t believe this!  You abduct me without my consent, and then you drug me without my consent, Azena as good as rapes me, and now you hold me prisoner, also without my consent!’

‘Would you have joined us if we had explained it all to you?’

‘I just might have!’

‘We doubt that.  But now you are here you will be finding our proposition much more interesting and difficult to dismiss out of hand.’

He could not deny that.  The situation in which he found himself was intriguing: terrifying, nonetheless, but damn-well fascinating.  He became calmer.  ‘Ok.  That’s true.  So why did Azena behave like she did?’

‘Do you not understand, Daniel?’

‘No.  Explain it to me.’

‘Azena has become imprinted upon you.’

‘But we’ve only just met.’

‘It is of no consequence.  Being with you has been the meaning of her life since before she was old enough to contemplate what meaning is.  Her destiny is intimately tied up with you.  She was made for you, has been prepared for you, and now she fears the biggest rejection possible – what you might call unrequited love. For her, life without you is unthinkable.’

‘What do you mean – made for me… prepared for me?  How did you know you would find me?  How could you manufacture someone whose DNA would be “especially suited” to mine if you didn’t know I existed?’

‘We have been watching your world for many of your years.  We identified suitable candidates and selected suitable mates from our own stock.  We have been watching you for most of your life.  Azena is only a few of your years younger than you.’

Daniel felt confused.  Was he angry? He was not sure. Was he scared by the news just broken?  He definitely felt trapped like a rabbit in headlights.  ‘How much interference has there been in my life?  What have you done to groom me for this, this, this madness?’

The computer continued in its dispassionate tone, ‘Beyond the unobtrusive collecting of samples, absolutely none.  We are an ethical society.’

Daniel recalled the marks on his body that his parents had explained as nasty insect bites.  Only, they were not bites, they were hypodermic punctures.  ‘No.  This is…’  He shook his head in stunned incredulity.  ‘You…’ He exploded in anger, ‘I want off this ship!  I demand to be returned to my own life on my own world!’

‘If that is truly your wish, you will be returned,’ came the calm, emotionless voice inside his head.  ‘We will have to search for an alternative mate for Azena, although I fear the psychological trauma of losing you may be too great for her.  I request, however, that you give yourself time to calm down and consider this rationally.  If, after three days, your decision stands, you shall be returned.’

‘I don’t want to wait!  Send me back now!’  Daniel’s outburst came to an abrupt end.  The computer was no longer inside his head and had not heard his last demand; at least, Daniel was not conscious of any recognition of his words.  ‘Damn you, you stupid machine!’  He threw himself at a chair that did not exist and the floor of the room furnished one for him.  He needed to think.  His mounting frustration drove him from his seat.  He strode across the room and barked at the door, which melted away in its usual unhurried fashion, oblivious to his mood.

He wandered around the ship, paying no attention to where he went, ignoring the beautiful women that smiled at him as they passed.  Unusually, none of them had been an Azena.  He walked for about half an hour without encountering a known area of the ship.  How big is this thing, he wondered?  The corridor ahead of him divided in two, and the right-hand fork was marked as a restricted zone from which he was barred.  For the first time since arriving, he felt himself uninhibited by the rules and walked deliberately to the right; after all, they had trespassed on his body, for goodness sake!

The corridor doubled back on itself twice and darkened.  He found himself in a large lounge with soft lighting and background noise that he could not exactly describe as music but which had structure and form to it; more like birdsong but less strident and more harmonious.  Dotted around the room, groups of three, or four men, never more, never fewer, sat chatting idly and drinking blue liquid from tall, thin glasses.  Men!  The first he had seen since his abduction.  The nearest group of men fell silent and stared at him.  An uneasy silence swept over the room like a rolling bank of fog as each group either spotted him or was made curious by the sudden silence of the others.  The birdsong continued undiminished. Daniel moved towards a group of three.  ‘Hi guys, mind if I join you?’

‘You should not be here,’ one of the men said, rising slowly to his feet.  He was tall, well built.  His irises were pink and his head completely bald, his skin pale, almost white, and translucent like candle wax, his face without hair – no eyebrows or lashes, and no sign of a beard.  Daniel peered, wondering if it were make-up that achieved this effect.  He noted the skin on the man’s hands and forearms: that, too, was waxy-pale and hairless.  He looked around the group; they were all the same.  He extended his gaze around the room and saw more of the same: albinos, all of them. ‘I said, you should not be here.’

‘Look,’ began Daniel, ‘I know this room is off-limits, but–’

‘No,’ the spokesman replied. ‘You should not be on the ship at all.  You are not wanted.  Please leave.’

‘I’ve felt anything but unwanted so far.  Until now, that is.’

‘Do you not understand?  We do not want you here.  We men.  If you stay we will be unnecessary.’

Every man in the room was now on his feet, and every man looked intently at Daniel, each one’s frowning expression adding to the weight of the words spoken by his brother.  Each man shuffled forwards a little, making Daniel feel decidedly claustrophobic.  He shuffled back.

‘I – I’m sorry.  I mean you no harm.’  He spun round and hurried through the opening in the wall, through the snaking corridor that he now realised was so designed to protect the delicate albino eyes from the brightness outside the lounge, and back to the fork in the main passage.  No one followed him.  He stood and listened.  At first, he heard nothing; then the faint murmur of many voices found its way to where he stood.  He was subdued by the encounter, and began to amble along the other branch of the passage. 

For the first time, he recognised a part of the ship he had visited before: it was the recreation room.  There was quite a buzz going on, punctuated by laughter.  He went in and scanned the room as he walked towards the bar.  At a table in the centre, he saw a group of about eight women – all the same type – gathered around and paying court to a solitary man who sat on a couch with a woman on each side and one on each knee.  He was clearly enjoying himself.  He had bushy eyebrows and sported stubble that one of the women caressed with her open hand.

Daniel ordered a brown drink, mainly because he thought it was unlikely to contain phthelmoline, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it tasted remarkably like a good single malt. He took his glass over to the table opposite the popular man. 

The man smiled and waved at Daniel, then addressed his entourage, ‘OK, girls, let’s take a break while I get to know my fellow earthling over there.’  He grinned and winked at the girls, ‘And let’s have the phthelmoline ready…’  The women grinned back and giggled and moved as one to the bar, looking back over their shoulders at the man who winked again and waggled his fingers in a childish wave.

The man stood and stepped over to Daniel’s table, holding out a hand as he went.  ‘Hiya, buddy, Jack Shaw.  Pleased to meet ya.’  Daniel took the other’s hand and introduced himself, and they exchanged a firm handshake.  ‘Ain’t it great here?  Wow! the babes are hot.  Which one’s yours?’

‘Mine?’

‘Yeah.  Which set have they matched you up with?’

‘Oh.  The one called Azena.  What do you mean by “set”?’

‘Ain’t they told ya yet?  Ya don’t just get one of ‘em.  You get the whole dam’ pack!  Look at them lidl ladies by the bar.  They’re mine, all mine…  I don’t mind admitting it, I’m dam’ near wrung out, if ya get my drift.’  He winked again and tapped the side of his nose.  He drained his glass and one of his girls took it from him and replaced it with a tall glass of phthelmoline.  ‘Good job they got plenty of this stuff on board.  Only thing that keeps me up to the mark!’

Daniel wrinkled his nose and scratched his head.  ‘Wait a minute.  You mean that they expect me to play the stud for all the Azena look-alikes on this ship?’

‘Yup.  That’s about the measure of it.  And she sure is as nice a pack of bitches as any dog would want to rub his belly on.  You’re one lucky fella.  Almost as lucky as me…’  His eyes glazed over as he stared away to the bar.  ‘They sure are dandy.’

‘So – you’re up for all this, then?’

‘Yup.  As often as I can be.’  He laughed a loud and vulgar laugh, then drained the blue liquid in one and rose from the table.  ‘You all enjoy yourself, you hear?  I have to go busy myself.  Can’t keep the ladies waiting…’  He winked again and swaggered over to the bar, holding his arms open wide and hugging in the girls that thronged him.  The whole group made its way to a booth that closed around them in impenetrable privacy.

For what must have been an hour, he sat with his thoughts.  He realised that, apart from himself and the girl behind the bar who quietly kept his glass full, the place had become empty.  The booth, which now stood open and vacant, had presumably emptied itself in a different direction.  He wondered if the booths backed onto the lounge he had visited so that the albinos could be accessed without their being exposed to the light.  He wondered what they would make of Jack Shaw and his entourage, and decided they would probably find it pretty damn discouraging.  He spoke out loud, ‘I’ve got to get off this ship,’ and finished his drink.  He sat a while longer staring drowsily into his empty glass.  He realised that the small pool of liquid that collected at the bottom of it was blue.  ‘Damn!’

*

He awoke in a haze and a room not his own.  He yawned and stretched, and a figure in the far corner stood and moved towards him.  ‘Do you not find me attractive, Daniel?’

‘Azena?’  He propped himself up on his elbows and, looking around the room, realised where he was, and wondered if anything had happened between them. She knelt beside him, looking up into his face, her soft hand resting gently on his thigh.  ‘Azena, what’s just happened?’

‘Nothing, Daniel, that is why I ask, do you not find me attractive?’  The expression on her face revealed pain and anxiety, and the slight tremor in her voice gave the impression that she was not quite prepared to hear the worst.  None of the apparent anger of their last encounter remained, and she looked ready to cry.

Unable to help himself, he took her hand in one of his and stroked its back with his other.  He opened his mouth to say something then checked himself, a thought having occurred to him.  ‘Look,’ he said, I’m sorry to put it like this, but, before I say anything else, which Azena are you?’

‘I am the only Azena you have known since you came here, the alpha clone.’

‘And the others?’

‘The others await your decision, as do I.  Do you wish to be with them?’

‘No!  I mean… that won’t be necessary.  One Azena is enough for me.’

‘So you will stay, then?  With me!’

‘No, that’s not what I meant.  I mean.  I.’  He wracked his brain for the right words.  ‘It’s not you,’ he resumed, ‘It’s me…’  I can’t believe I just used that line, he thought.  ‘No, wait, let me start again.’  He sighed and shook his head.  ‘You are beautiful, Azena, the most beautiful woman I have ever met, way, way out of my league.’  She took on a puzzled frown.  ‘I mean, I would never in my entire life expect to get together with someone as beautiful as you.  On my world, someone like you would have the pick of any man in the world she wanted, and would have men queuing up to… Well, you can probably guess.’

‘But I have had the pick of your entire world.  I chose you.’

‘No, that’s not true, is it?  I have been chosen for you by someone else, and you have been groomed, even engineered, perhaps, for me.  Neither of us has made a choice in this matter.  It’s an arranged marriage, if you will, and that’s OK in some cultures on my world but not in mine.  I need time to get to know you… to fall in love with you… to learn that you are not just a pretty face.’

She breathed silently, her gaze now directed at the floor, sadness holding her face in its grip.  ‘You have a choice, Daniel.  Really you do.  You are free to leave if you wish it.’  A large tear splashed onto the leg of her tunic, fragmenting and forming into several tight globules on the impervious material.

Daniel caressed her cheek and wiped away the tear that was about to fall from her other eye.  ‘If I choose to leave, what choice do you have?  You have not been prepared for failure.  It’s as though your feelings for me have been programmed into your genes.  And, I guess, since they are your clones, your sisters all feel the same?’ She looked at him through pools and sniffed and nodded. ‘Your scientists have badly misjudged our world.  We are not all like Jack Shaw.  Some of us don’t take too warmly to the idea of being used as breeding stock.  If your people had been watching me as well as I am told, they should have known that.’

‘You misunderstand, Daniel.  We are for you, not you for us.  Jack Shaw is not being used, as you suspect.  He is being as he wishes to be.  He likes the idea of having many wives; and, of course, that suits our needs very well.  How you relate to us is entirely your choice.’

‘Again,’ Daniel said, slipping his arm around her shoulder and drawing the poor, broken starship captain close to him, ‘in some cultures on Earth, that is accepted but not in mine.  I really only want to be with one woman, and I want to give her all my love, and be loved by her.’

‘You would not go without love, Daniel.  I can promise you that.  I or any of my sisters would be willing at any time –’

‘I’m not talking about sex, Azena.’

She fell silent.  She opened her mouth and closed it again.  She shook her head.  ‘I do not understand, Daniel.’  The dam burst and she sobbed into his lap.

*

The computer had taken up residence again.  ‘So your decision is final, Daniel.’

‘It is.’

‘You wish to return to Earth to endure what you call work and play, and to pass up the life of joy and leisure, not to mention pleasure, that we offer.’

‘I do.’

‘It is regrettable.  We shall, of course, accede to your wish.  We are an ethical race.’

‘You always talk as if you are one of the humans from your world, never like a machine.’

‘I am not just a machine, Daniel.  I am the embedded mind of the last naturally born man of our world.  I am not the actual man, of course.  He died hundreds of years ago.  Faced with the prospect of our extinction he had sought a way to preserve the essence of humanity, our minds, and confer a sort of immortality on them.  His great legacy to his people was to create a computer capable of functioning as a human brain – his own human brain.  He then copied his thought processes onto that computer.  During his natural life, we worked together to enhance that machine, to make it compatible with others, to take its capabilities far beyond those of humanity’s biological form.  Since the death of his body, and, with it, his biological mind, he has lived on as me to continue our work.  Many more of my kind exist on our world with a status equal to that of our biological fellows – not only clones of myself but also of other great thinkers, and even of ordinary people.  Much of what you see on this ship derives from our collective effort of millennia.  So, yes, I consider myself human, and we, indeed, are an ethical race.’

‘And what will happen to Azena and her sisters?’

‘Her sisters will be reassigned to another match.  Their attachment to you is not so great as hers since she is the alpha and the only one who formed a liaison with you.’

‘And Azena?’

‘I await her decision.’

*

In the chill of an autumn evening, Daniel stood in the yard looking up at the night sky.  Somewhere high above him, a star that was not a star twinkled with the reflected light of the sun.  How long it would be there he did not know; they had not told him that.  Their mission to save their race continued, and, presumably, they would take as long as they needed to get what they wanted.  He had no doubt that they would find other men who are like Jack Shaw: heaven help their children, he thought.  Perhaps they had learnt something from their experience of him.  Perhaps they would temper their ethics with morality and add a healthier blend to their gene pool.

If he had stayed with her…

Would it ever get as bad on Earth as it had on that other world far, far away?   Would his world of violence and hatred last long enough to encounter the problems and develop the advances he had witnessed among an older humanity in his brief time in space?

He lifted his glass of genuine single malt to his lips, and recalled to mind the soft, mellow brownness of the liquid that he had poured from the bottle.  He took a sip and swished the aromatic liquid around his mouth, savouring the peat and the tang of the alcohol.

‘I am beginning to understand.’

‘To understand what?’

‘What love is.’

‘And is it worth staying for?’

‘It will be, if you learn to love me.’

‘I think you need have no worries on that score, Azena, I’m a very quick learner…’

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