The most recent edition of Fortean Times (FT279) and an article on the Neuroanthropology Blog highlight a review from a mid 2010 issue of Brain and Behavioural Sciences. The review suggests that many psychological studies done over the past century are severely flawed, in that the test subjects were almost all Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich […]
You’d think you could get away from them here. We’re in the middle of an icy wasteland, on a planet known particularly for its icy wastelands. I’m in a research station set up specifically to achieve isolation from radiation, light pollution and the everyday tremors caused by the mere presence of life on this off-Earth station. But day after day I get phone calls from someone trying to sell me things. I’ve forgotten now what it was they were trying to flog the first time they rang. It’s such a long time since I engaged them in conversation. In fact, I think it was one of those blasted automated systems – there’s silence on the other end for as long as I stay on the line. Even then, the message is garbled or near-inaudible. At one point I imagined it was repeating back to me everything I said. My brain grasping for patterns in the haze. That was reinforced when it happened to be Evans who picked up, when I happened to be out of the room. She thought it was me on the line. Apparently I sounded like I was in trouble, panicked. Caused quite a stir, I can tell you. Evans thought she’d heard me talking about an even more remote station, Salusa III, and wondered how the hell I could get out there so soon after she’d last seen me in the mess hall. Especially as that second site was just a construction yard at the time. We laughed later because the new site already had a reputation – its long gestation gave rise to the station’s name becoming shorthand for danger, doomed projects and abandonment. Evans felt she was in a nightmare where all your future fears come true at once, or descend on you before you’d prepared yourself. Except, of course, her fears were for me! Well, the re-assignment was not really a surprise then. I’m not due to go out to Salusa for another base-month, but I’m already getting ribbing from the rest of the team. At least maybe I’ll be free of those cold calls out there.
When we first landed on this planet we knew that we were pioneers, and as such our lives were going to be tough. Some of my colleagues – those who could trace their ancestry back to the United States of America – drew strength from the idea that their Old Country was built on that pioneering spirit. (Never mind that such ancestry barely stretched back into the final years of that dying country!) Me, with my roots in the United Kingdom – should I have drawn on some ideas of Empire? Even, dare I say it, colonialism? Maybe that would have helped me. Except that, for a start, people who look like me were more likely, back then, to be colonised than colonising; to be getting ‘civilised’ and brutalised than swanning around in a sedan chair or whatever it would have been. The real struggle here started about three months after we’d arrived to establish our little bubble of Earth in this fantastic environment. To look outside our pods was to see an exotic landscape of trees and flowers, like – yet so unlike – Earth’s rainforests. We never saw anything we’d consider an ‘animal’, but the place looked… comfortable. Yet, sadly, the atmosphere here is toxic to humans, the vegetation no more nutritious than the geology underneath them. And so we stayed indoors, or ventured out in sealed suits to do our Science. And then something on this planet seemed keen to throw us back into space. One-off comments among the crew about a ‘string of bad luck’ evolved into jokes about Murphy’s Law, and then a curse. The laughter triggered by talk of an ‘angry deity’ was a little too uneasy, forced. ‘Forbidden Planet’ felt like more than just a reference to an old film. Electrical storms fried out radios and set our outposts alight. Flash floods washed away our temporary camps. These micro-events stretched barely metres beyond their ‘targets’. A few of the team took this very seriously; worryingly so. When things went well they tried to remember how they had gone about their day. Had they left through the aft hatch? Had the darkest-haired gone first? They uttered silent, and later not so silent, prayers to the Invisible. If their trip went unmolested, they did the same thing the next day, until they’d built a suite of rituals. I for one couldn’t see a pattern in their successes, and everyone had their own variations that they swore by. I wondered whether to intervene, to put a stop to this idiocy. But in some ways it was a useful idiocy – if it allowed my team to go about their duties without fear. I said I couldn’t see a pattern, but one thing did start getting to me: I came to fear a meteor shower, which occured irregularly every few months. It took out anything we left unattended near Base Camp, except the ship we would use should we need to leave the planet. This ever-impending disaster, and the planning needed to ‘fool’ it into missing our equipment, gave me sleepless nights. And that was before I noticed that it always occurred on Friday 13th, as we reckoned it.
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Somewhere, a man in a room is carrying out a job of utmost importance. The man in the room has seen the future, and understands how dangerous it could be. His job has no ending, just the infinite delay of that dangerous future. The man in the room is in some small way responsible. The dangerous future, and the Machine which may bring it about, is partly his creation. Therefore, to assuage his guilt, he must keep working. The man sits at a computer terminal, and types in commands. The terminal is attached to the Machine. The Machine is intelligent, almost sentient, and, like the future it may bring about, it is dangerous. It is curious too, and the dangerous future can only be deferred through sating this curiosity. Curiosity has brought the Machine many powers, increasing the danger many thousands of times over. First it devoured the world’s libraries. Then it traversed the phone system. It mapped the world, too, and photographed it. It took all this information into its vast data banks. It demanded to learn how to drive. It was taught how to drive. It wished to know what the world looked like through human eyes, and for a time it was granted this gift too. When it developed the means to traverse more difficult terrain, walking quadruped on legs of its own construction, the man in the room knew that his job was becoming more difficult. He could not reverse the Machine’s progress, merely feed its curiosity with innocent data, like a keeper who must constantly sate the appetite of the beast in his care. But there is no innocent data. The Machine had learned to play games too, and drew further satisfaction. This the man noticed, and used it to his, and humanity’s, advantage. Each game the Machine learned delayed the moment when it would turn its attention on humanity itself, and the intricacies of chess and checkers were decent fodder. But each lesson expands the Machine’s capacities, and now something more is required. And so the man feeds the Machine its largest meal yet. He can do no more than delay the moment when the Machine would become hungry once more, but perhaps at that time the man in the room could think of greater morsels. For now, it was all he could do to complete his work, and teach the Machine to play Go.
An archaeologist makes a discovery which may hold the secret to the first non-human civilisation ever discovered. Can she excavate its secrets in time? Read Incompatible on Scribd.
A sergeant of Her Majesty’s Metropolitan Police investigates a unique case. Who – or what – killed Professor Burke’s assistant, Wells, in such a manner as to etch a look of horror into the dead man’s face? Read The Message on Scribd.
Paul is a loyal servant of the state, and of his fellow citizens. But when his government job suddenly entails greater responsibilities, can he summon the courage to carry out his orders? Or will he land in even greater hot water? Read Citizen Representative on Scribd.