The Usual Precautions VI – They Came From Earth

Philae Lander Nov 2014

Welcome to a Comet! Copyright ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA Rosetta’s lander Philae is safely on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.


They Came From Earth

“Too late, too late,” thought Alicanidria, “They found us first. We failed.” The thought rushed over him like sand blown across a raw crevice. Up on the horizon the dawn sky was slate and full and promising. The flat desert valley was a refreshing yellow ochre, magnificent hills reared up all around: yellow, sharp, harsh. He turned his attention to the Thing. It was a technology, there was no doubt. There had been assemblement, the same way a Young bolts plates onto itself for adornment and use. This was not an evolved Thing although he could see that the technologies were layered: the builders had seen much change in their lifetimes. In a little while they would look back on this as a prototype, a thing of mud not rock. He tap-scratched his head with one of his short tentacles and then reached out and poked the Thing. Nothing. As it arrived it had squalled appallingly, landed in a rush of noxious gas, squalled again and now was still.

Somewhere there were other worlds. He amended the thought: A world. One other. Where beings thought like him, not the same but in the same way. They wanted to reach out, to reach Other, find life, find hope, find something. Once he had seen a carving, a strange sculpture in loose sands of an ever-changing life form that was soft. It had the wrong colours for life – bright green like an oxide made in the Laboratory. And it moved in a way unlike life had ever moved.

The Thing made a “click” sound. All the scientists winced. That hurt. Then – a thing of wonder: light poured from the front of the Thing onto the rock floor and in that light something writhed like a curl of gas, like ice heated to the unbearable temperature where it ran free. The Thing in the light moved and twisted – it was light, it was dark, it was incomprehensible. He moved closer. Felt the searing heat from it.

“Is it life? Could it be a representation of them? Are they so different?”

He thought it was a repeating pattern. He wanted more, wanted to see what it depicted crushed, ripped open to show its inner consistency. Would it have the honesty to be the same inside as out?

He tried to imagine inhabiting that shape moving like wind moves sand grains. Only two legs and then two things like legs but not and above them a separated piece. He looked closer. There was something there in that shape. An almost-symmetry that could be a face. He thought he recognised in it the same yearning as in himself. Well, of course he did.

“Bring it.”

Alicanidria returned to the Laboratory. So that when it happened, he was watching on the remotes.

“Bring it. Bring it.” Chanted the scientists happily, but as they went to move The Thing onto a sled, it shone a hot red light onto them. And the horror began.

Up until then, they had taken the usual precautions: stayed at a reasonable distance, shielded themselves from the pulses and sounds it made. What unfolded from it was longer and faster than any tentacle. And on the end was a drill. There was a Young nearby who had been watching the light picture – taking measurements as instructed but also a little mesmerized. It had no time to move away, anyway. The Thing simply stuck the drill into the Young’s upper body. The Young screamed once and then ceased. It had been many decades since any of them had ceased. The watching scientists began moving away to save themselves but many of them were incoherent.

The Thing sent out another of its squalls. This was answered from above.

“It has a companion,” cried one of the Laboratory Assistants, “It is a boulder, dropped from a Mountain.”

The Thing drilled into the Young and grew hot. From out of the heat and dust, they watched it build another, smaller Thing. Little and fast and deadly. The Little Thing squalled and leapt onto the nearest scientist. It drilled into him, through the bolted plates, through the natal rock, into his etched silicon core. The scientist screamed and ceased. The Little Thing drilled and drilled and then assembled…another Little Thing. Together they squalled and chirruped and turned to look at the other scientists. They squalled again.

“Mountain!” one of the Laboratory Young said respectfully. “We have found a way to slow down the signal. Here is what they are saying.”

And he listened as the strange Little Things moaned “Braaains!”


Clearly, no matter how hard I try, even going off-planet, the whole zombie-thing isn’t going away any time soon!

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts from participants in the recent workshop I ran with Cymbeline Buhler, A Big Stone Rolls Inside. I’m asking them to contribute something…200-500 words with a short explanation afterwards of what exercise in the workshop informed/ enriched or was otherwise helpful in the development of the piece. The expectation isn’t that these will be complete, finished stories; more that we’ll get an understanding of how the workshop exercise informed or deepened the writing. So…

This was written during an exercise where we moved around using different rhythms to find out more about a character and then came back to the writing table for a visualisation exercise.

It’s a story idea I was already working on. This time last year it would have been the start of a much longer story that I would still be slogging away at now. The blogging, however, is teaching me how to finish! Yay, I can award myself my Endings Badge!! Now when I write a story draft I can see how fast it can move. This one has a single idea: zombie machines. It came from watching the Rosetta mission landing (picture above), from ideas about mining asteroids with von Neumann machines and from my current obsession with zombies.

The character I was working with is a scientist on an alien world who has witnessed the landing of a machine from Earth. The scientist is a silicon life-form – a four-sided, flat-bottomed pyramid with 6 things used as legs and 4 things used as arms/tentacles. It lives on a cold rock with no oxygen. It moves slowly, at the speed of rock. To grow, these creatures bolt on silicon plates they have made. You have no idea how hard it is to run around in circles with Cymbeline beating a drum trying to work out where leg number 5 is right now! I ended up being the alien imagining being a human – that helped me to get a grasp on the difference.

In the visualization, the wound I identified was that the creature felt pain that “we are not achieving what I desire”; so it’s an ambitious scientist. The expression of the wound was: “I once saw other life-forms that were fluid”. That understanding gave me the opening line and ended up informing the whole story – the joy of First Contact, the desire to be first to make First Contact and the fear that it will destroy what is contacted.

The name that came up was Alicanidria which sounds like some really contrived witchy-poo invention that I spent hours thnking about. It’s not, it just popped up. I should probably take the time to change it to something expressive of a silicon culture and this creature’s place in that culture: Deepstratum or Motherlode or oh for god’s sake…I hate science-fiction names. They are never really useful. Max Barry (“Jennifer Government” etc) does names well. Mostly I use them in first drafts and then find a way around using them in final versions – we have no idea whether an alien species would use names. We don’t even know if whales or chimpanzees use names. Names are, however, helpful for readers as labels so we are stuck with them. Other terms of reference like ‘flat’ and ‘yellow’ are also not right – what does this creature mean by ‘flat’? Does it even see ‘yellow’? So I also thought about putting various words into square brackets [tentacle] [he] but then realized that most of our words have so many cultural or biological references in them that the final story would be unreadable.