Sporullax was a world populated entirely by insects and I knew right from the beginning that if I stayed there long enough I would end up becoming an insect too. If not something worse – by which I mean something even less human. I will explain why I am making this rather dramatic statement shortly. After they found me – which didn’t take them long – I was of course taken into custody and subjected to both intense scrutiny and endless questioning. I must say that I was on the whole treated rather well but found the insectoids to have a distinctly cold manner. Perhaps that is because I cannot read insect emotions – if indeed there even is such a thing.
Naturally enough, since I was the only non-insect on the planet, they wanted to know everything about me. This however was a bit of a problem given the extreme anatomical divergence between myself as a terrestrial mammal and the alien insectoid race that was holding me in custody. For a start, they communicated to each other with chirping noises that they produced by rubbing a pair of specially adapted back legs together. Later on I learned that their ears were located on their legs too – but not the same legs that they used for speaking, needless to say, or else they would have deafened themselves every time they tried to say something. The problem in communication was solved via the insectoid race’s highly advanced technology. This technology was so highly advanced that it didn’t actually look like technology at all – at least, not to my eyes. To my eyes it simply looked like a pile of dung. The translation device consisted of half a dozen dull grey globules, each about the size of a grapefruit, heaped up in a mound on a metal plate that had been placed on the table between myself and the chief interrogator. These globules didn’t do a thing, other than simply lie there looking for all the world like so much poop. They had a curious look to them – they were almost furry but not quite. Perhaps velvety would be a better word, but I resisted the urge to stretch out a finger and touch them.
Despite their decidedly non-technical look these grey, poop-like globules soon got to work and overcame the immense communication barrier that lay between me on the one side of the table, and the tall dark-blue many-limbed representative of the insect planet on the other. The way this advanced technology worked was – and obviously I didn’t find out these details till later – by slowly releasing a rather unpleasant-smelling gas of organic origin and complex composition that had the property of inducing hallucinogenic, out-of-body experiences in anyone who happened to be close enough to breath it in. But this was no ordinary hallucinogenic, out-of-body experience where you simply waft off into some altered state of consciousness, seeing hundreds of complexly interlocking faces of elves and fairies or angels or whatever else in the duvet and floating up above your bed to look down on your own inert body. This wasn’t like that at all – under the influence of this very specific gas the subject was placed immediately into a rather standardized consensus hallucination. A consensus hallucination is of course a hallucination that one or more people can share, a bit like a multiplayer real-time virtual world on the internet, only a lot more immersive. If you are a gamer you know what I mean.
In this consensus hallucination the insect interrogator and I sat in comfortable and expensive-looking leather armchairs arranged around a low coffee table in some sort of spacious and well-appointed club or bar. Two tall glasses of bright mauve liquid with multicoloured straws poking gaily out of them stood on the table between us, whilst all around us, on identical leather armchairs sat these fantastically heavily wrinkled, massive bodied, immensely solemn-looking creatures which reminded me of nothing so much as rather over-weight bull elephant seals sitting up-right. Their faces too were full of deep wrinkles, and they bore expressions of great gravity and dignity. These very singular-looking creatures appeared as far as I could make out to be playing cards and smoking cigars. I turned to face my interrogator who was now completely unrecognizable – he now had the appearance of a shiny pink seal whose skin was stretched rather tighter than it ought to be. The over-all impression, curiously enough, was of one of those dreadfully cheap and garish brightly-coloured imitation-leather handbags that you can see in the handbag section of any high street clothes store. Looking down at my knees, I realized that I too was a pink and shiny seal-creature with more than just a passing resemblance to a cheap and nasty handbag. I scratched my nose with a pink shiny flipper, doing my best to adapt myself to what had just happened without very much success.
Somewhere someone was playing the piano, only it had a curiously wet, slushy, gushy, gloopy sound to it. I had the uncomfortable feeling that the notes were spilling out from the piano as a liquid and washing around the floor like the tide coming in at the beach. I dismissed this odd feeling as simple synesthesia and didn’t worry any more about it – I had more important things to focus on. All around me the card players played on, smoking their cigars and taking no notice of us at all. The insect interrogator who was now a luridly pink seal simply stared at me, apparently waiting for me to say something. I cleared my throat a few times and tried a few words, which came out amazingly in a language I had never heard before. It turned out that in this consensus hallucination both the interrogator and I spoke the same language, but it was a synthetic language, put together specifically to serve as a bridge between our two very different cultures. I explained to the interrogator in this bridging language that my ether-drive had started to fail, forcing me to crash-land on the nearest habitable planet. I told him that I was hoping to obtain some sort of technical assistance, so that I could fix the drive and continue on my way. The interrogator nodded gravely and said that he felt that this could indeed be possible, given the fact that the insectoids were a very technologically advanced race, but that first I had to be assessed thoroughly to make sure that I did not constitute any sort of a risk to his world. When he was satisfied on this account I would then be allowed to travel freely around the insect planet and seek whatever help I needed.
The questioning started so gently that I hardly noticed. It was more like being interviewed by a biographer than being questioned by a state official – not at all what I expected. The interrogation started off with questions about my earliest memories, and what I remembered about my childhood, and then moved on to my teenage years and secondary school. I didn’t mind answering, although I could really see the point to going into such detail. I found myself not wanting to talk very much about my years spent in secondary school. I explained that my school experiences were almost entirely negative and that I had no good memories of this period at all. I remembered that I had a dislike for my headmaster, although I couldn’t for the life of me think of anything specific that he had ever done to earn this dislike, which seemed as strong now as it had been thirty years ago. The interrogator noted my comments gravely, but would not let the matter drop. He wanted to know what subjects I had studied and which ones I enjoyed the most. Which subjects I was good at and which ones I had difficulty with. He asked me about friendships I had formed at this time, how I got on with my peers, and whether I had ever had any experiences of being bullied. What I used to do in my spare time, what interests I had, what my relationship with my parents was like at this time. What books I used to read.
As I say, I was impressed by the interrogator’s thoroughness. These insectoids weren’t sloppy – they certainly didn’t believe in cutting corners. But after an hour or so I was starting to think that perhaps they were a bit too thorough. Surely they didn’t need to know quite so much about me in order to ascertain whether or not I was a threat to the insect world. My attention started to stray. I kept wondering about the great, grey wrinkly creatures, the ones that sat all around us at the other tables. I couldn’t understand what they had to do with the translation process. I also noticed that there were numerous small dark shadows which kept flitting rapidly in and out of the deep folds of their grey flesh. Where they parasites or symbiotes, I wondered? When I asked the interrogator about this phenomenon he paused for a long time, as if trying to work out how best to answer me. Eventually he spoke. “These creatures are criminals”, he replied, “or at least you might say that they are potential criminals. The small fast-moving entities that you see crawling over them are police. In this world police are very small and they swarm over everything like lice. Their function here is to monitor the grey creatures closely and detect signs of criminal activity before it goes too far, before it advances too much and starts to disrupt the strict protocols of our world. At the same time, however, these creatures are also extremely valuable and important to us, in ways that you might later come to understand”.
This made no sense to me at all but since he plainly wanted to get back to his job in questioning me I didn’t pursue the matter any further. We resumed the pattern of gentle interrogation with which I had at this stage become familiar with. A number of details were starting to strike me as odd about this process. The first detail was the interrogator’s eyes. Although he was otherwise entirely expressionless, his eyes seemed to positively glow as he listened to me. There was something very warm, very accepting about these eyes. In addition, I realized that I found them remarkably beautiful – they were full of little flecks of various subtle hues and as I tried to focus on these coloured flecks I had the peculiar sensation of falling. I was falling inwards, somehow, and after a moment of this I felt compelled to pull myself out of it, and come back to myself. The sensation was extraordinarily pleasant, but at the same time it greatly disorientated me. When this happened I forgot where I was and what was supposed to be happening – not that I really knew the answers to these questions anyway. As a result of focussing on the interrogator’s eyes I completely lost my bearings and in some strange way the general craziness of my situation receded further and further into the background. It seemed very peculiar to me that I no longer found what was happening strange. The other curious thing that I noticed was that I was starting to lose track of time – I had no reliable sense of whether I had been sitting there at the table for minutes, hours, or even days. If anything, I had the distinct feeling that I was moving sideways in time, if that was at all possible.
In an attempt to counteract this growing sense of disorientation I made a deliberate attempt to focus my vision on the great grey creatures that were sitting at the other tables. After a while I started to notice something that I hadn’t picked up on before. Every now and again one of the creatures would get up slowly out of its leather armchair and ponderously make its way to another table. I couldn’t understand how I hadn’t seen this happening before. And then I noticed something else. I noticed that when one of the creatures vacated a chair it left something behind – it left behind a number of the large grey velvety globules or balls that I had earlier thought looked like dung. Bent-over monkey figures with sad human faces carrying wicker baskets on their backs then rushed up and collected these grey velvety balls, filling their baskets and then scampering off again, looking for all the world like ball-boys at a tennis match. I could not for the life of me work out how I could have missed all this going on. And then, as I continued to watch, I became aware that the big wrinkly creatures weren’t playing cards at all but eating what looked like over-ripe fruit, the juice of which was dribbling down their chins. A smell that was mid-way between very ripe pineapple and fresh paint filled the air.
Another thing that had also changed was the music – the slushy piano had been replaced by the somewhat tinny twanging of banjos, alternatively fading out and then slowly building up again amidst the omnipresent ambient background sound of distant crashing surf. I wasn’t sure if I liked this effect any more than I had done the underwater piano, but it was certainly different. As I watched, the big grey figures continued – in a slow and dignified fashion – to eat the fruit, which was piled up on the tables between them.
I turned my attention instead onto the being opposite me. I was starting to figure out that the more I looked at something the more the details changed and I wanted to test this theory. Sure enough, as I gazed at the interrogator, making sure to avoid looking into his eyes, I became aware that his body no longer looked like that of a seal. It looked more like the body of a shiny pink penguin now, only it was really only the rudimentary outline of a penguin, just as if the artist who had been in the process of sketching it had got fed up half-way through doing it, and could not be bothered finishing it properly. There was a great deal of shiny plastic-looking surface area with no real details anywhere, apart from the eyes, which looked at me gravely and compellingly.
“Don’t look too long at any particular portion of our virtual environment,” the interrogator advised me in a disconcertingly squeaky voice, “the continuity starts to fail and the overall effect is not a pleasant one. In addition to the perceptual problems and paradoxes that creep in, it detracts from the matter at hand…”
I apologized and promised not to try it again. Instead, I allowed myself to remain focused on his gaze, without looking too deeply into it. We moved on then to my time at university, and what the interrogator referred to as my ‘experiments’ with mind-altering drugs. I didn’t think that it was quite right to speak of my use of drugs as an ‘experiment’ but assumed that he was just trying to be polite, and avoid thereby the inference that I was an out-and-out degenerate, lacking in self-control and any sense of caution or responsibility.
I quickly relaxed back into the process, and as I did so I again began to lose the ability to orientate myself within a linear time-frame. I decided to surrender myself to this odd effect and not worry about it – I didn’t after all have much choice in the matter. Surrendering to the interrogation process was no great hardship – usually answering question after question is a gruelling, or at the very least tedious, business but somehow this was different. I noticed that long-forgotten memories came to life under the gentle probing of the bizarre fluorescent badly-imagined penguin-like figure sitting in front of me. Incidents and scenes that I hadn’t thought of for decades came into my head as vividly as if they had only happened yesterday. I remembered things in that session I didn’t even know had ever happened to me. Some of these memories invoked very painful emotions it is true, but I had no resistance to them all the same, whereas under normal circumstances I am sure I would have done. Obviously I did have resistance to allowing them into consciousness – otherwise why would I have forgotten them so thoroughly? Instead, as I recalled all these lost events, these lost incidents from my life, I experienced a profoundly deep sense of peace, even though the feeling of sorrow associated with them was often so intense that it brought tears to my eyes. I found this sense of peace strange. It seemed so natural, it rested so naturally and easily with me – as the company of an old and dear friend is natural and easy – and yet at the same time it was entirely unfamiliar to me. This feeling of peace was a stranger to me.
I can’t say how long this recapitulation process went on. As I say, my ability to estimate the passage of time had slipped away from me. Something however – some inbuilt instinct for self-preservation – kicked in at some point and I started to recognize that my whole state of mind, my whole sense of myself, had entirely altered. On the one hand it felt very natural, but on the other hand as I have explained it was also frighteningly unfamiliar, frighteningly strange. It was strange when I paid attention to what was going on, and tried to bring back some kind of normal perspective onto what was happening to me. I struggled to come back to myself – I knew I was missing some vital sense of myself but I couldn’t work out what it was. Then I realized – it was my memory of myself that was missing, my memory of who I was.
Everything became very clear, very quickly at that point and I knew exactly what was going on – my memories were being very thoroughly removed from me, leaving behind nothing at all. How this was happening was obvious – the moment I recounted my memories to the interrogator they ceased to belong to me. They were no longer mine; they had been taken away from me. The interrogation process that I been willingly submitting myself to was systematically stripping me of my memories, and quite possibly my personality as well. It was erasing my history – cleanly and with absolute efficiency.
I couldn’t tell how much of me had already been erased. An awful lot of it, maybe almost all. I now had a sort of an intuition – although maybe it was no more than a panicky fear – that I had been sitting here for something of the order of ten or twelve hours. Maybe even more. For a minute or two I was too choked up with horror to speak, and then my voice came back to me in a rush – ridiculously hoarse and weak and tremulous. “You’ve tricked me,” I choked out, “You’ve wiped out all my memory…”
The ridiculous pink plastic penguin-thing facing me across the coffee table remained as calm as ever – as far as I knew it was incapable of not being calm. It slowly shook its head, “Of course I am removing your memories. What else did you think this was about? How else can we be sure that you will not be a threat to our world?” I could not answer, I was shaking all over, quivering, whether in fear or in anger I could not tell. After leaving me a while to recover my composure, the alien interrogator spoke again, “As soon as this process is completed then you will be free to come and go as you please. You will in fact be truly free for the first time in your life…”
“You are talking nonsense,” I replied curtly, my presence of mind slowly starting to come back to me now after that terrible initial period of shock. “How can I possibly be free to complete my mission if I can’t remember who I am? Do you really expect me to believe that?” The figure in front of me shrugged its narrow penguin shoulders. “That is up to you. That is a chance you must take. If on the other hand you refuse to continue with the interrogation then you will remain in the holding facility, unable to leave and being subject to regular monitoring by the police-lice like the unfortunate creatures you see all around us. They have refused to surrender their memories to the purification process and as a result they constitute a permanent threat to us. That is why they sit here as they do, amusing themselves as best they can.”
I sat there, digesting this latest bit of information. This certainly put a new complexion on things, but I wasn’t just going to give up like these poor creatures obviously had done. Without giving any warning, I jumped up and lunged across the coffee table at my adversary, doing my best to seize him around the throat with my flippers. Unfortunately this didn’t work very well as I couldn’t manage to get a grip. I then had a brainwave and – instead of trying to strangle the interrogator – I aimed a savage kick at the table, which went flying.
Grey figures turned slowly around in their chairs to look at me, expressionless. Everything seemed in slow motion. The table was in the air, just hanging there. To my amazement I realized that I was feeling great waves of compassion washing over me, wave after wave of compassion from these solemn grey spectators. I wondered what this meant. What did they know that I didn’t?
And then the table came down with a clatter and I was back in the original interrogation floor where I had obviously succeeded in kicking the real table over, the table that had been loaded up with the big smelly grey dung-balls, which were now rolling off in all directions. All around me insect eyes swivelled in my direction and the sound of urgent chirping filled the air. I had escaped one trap only to find myself in another. What was I to do now?
The chief interrogator was hurt. The table – which in the real (insect) world was considerably bigger and heavier than the coffee tables had been in the consensual hallucination world – had come down on the distal segment of one of his rear legs and a pale, straw-coloured fluid oozed out on the floor between us from the injury. These creatures weren’t so damn invulnerable after all I realized, taking heart at this thought. And as for their so-called ‘advanced technology’ – it had turned out to be no more than shit.
I sensed that I had the advantage in some way – I just had to figure out how to use it. And quickly. Before the uneasy stalemate broke and the initiative passed instead to the insectoids. Possibly the answer lay in sudden dramatic action – these creatures obviously had a slow metabolism, whereas I, being a mammal, could muster up a lot of energy for in a short burst of frenzied activity. Perhaps I could surprise them by going into berserker mode.
And then, before I could get any further with this line of tactical thinking, four doors burst open, one in each corner of the room, and four streams of heavily-built, bluey-green beetle-like creatures – each about four foot in height – filed into the interrogation space. The beetles were walking erect, antennae waving, each clasping to its chest a ball of the grey velvety dung material. And then, as if on an unseen signal, they all started to simultaneously pelt me with the dung-balls, which rained down upon me from all directions. It was all over. I hadn’t been quick enough; the advantage has passed to the alien insectoids and they – with characteristic efficiency and effectiveness – had made their move.
I tried to hold my breath for as long as I could but it was useless. I was now surrounded by what looked like hundreds of the grey dung balls, and they were all releasing the hallucinogenic gas into the air around me. With the very last of my strength I rushed at the insect interrogator and seized the tall, spindly creature with a vice-like grip around its throat, “Tell your beetle buddies to back off “ I roared, glaring at close quarters into its expressionless insect face, “or I’m gonna rip your goddamn head clean off your body…”
He looked back at me calmly and I was surprised to see pity in his eyes. “Don’t you understand?” it asked, morphing this time into a white, gnome-like figure with incredibly ancient-looking eyes, “the insect world exists only in your mind. It isn’t real – it is a psychotic hallucination that you are trapped in. The so-called interrogation process was an attempt to free you from that hallucination. Its purpose was to free you from the false self system, the maze of deluded thinking that is keeping you prisoner…”
I let go of the gnome and collapsed in a heap on the floor. I had no more strength left in my body. As far as I could see, I had turned into some sort of hairless, wrinkly little goblin, all crumpled up and pathetic-looking and quivering with impotent range. We were back in the bar, but now all the big grey elephant-seal creatures were gone. There was still music playing, but this time there was something different about it. This time there was a bit more to it – I fancied – than the banal and frankly contrived ambient stuff that had been playing before. Slightly out-of-focus electric guitars wailed and howled in complex counterpoint to each other, the sound interwoven with the swirling strains of some unearthly synthesizer. The distant crash of surf was back again, only this time it was augmented with what I took to be the electronically synthesized cries of seagulls. And behind everything was the beat – that steady, driving heart-beat. It took me far too long to recognize why that regular pulsing beat affected me so much. It was the beat of the Star Drive.
I was suddenly struck by the most unbearable pang of pure sadness. Tears ran down my face. The gnome was watching me and as I registered its gaze I felt again those waves of compassion washing over me. I don’t know how long I sat there on the floor, all crumpled up, my face wet with tears.
Finally the gnome spoke. “When you have been disentangled from the false self system,” it said, “then you will free to continue your journey.” This still made no sense to me. “But what about the broken star drive module?” I asked him, shocked at the sound of my own ridiculously reedy little voice. “Who is going to fix the ether-drive if I forget about my mission?” The gnome-figure shook its head, “The star drive is not broken. That is not where the problem lies – the problem is with the false self system. The problem is that you are trapped in a false viral identity which is obsessed with the idea of fixing the star drive.”
“Your continual misguided attempt to fix the star drive is the real problem. Your attempt to correct the glitch is itself the glitch. Once you are free from the viral memories and beliefs of the false self system then you will discover that there never was any problem with the star ship. The ether-drive functions perfectly, as always. It cannot go wrong. It is incapable of malfunctioning.”
What this timeless gnome-being was saying to me remained as incomprehensible as ever. He made no sense to me at all. And yet – at the same time – it did seem to make a type of sense, on some level that just I couldn’t figure out. The gnome held my gaze for a moment, and then spoke again. “Your capacity to perceive reality is extraordinarily limited” it told me, “It is almost non-existent, but not quite. And the tiny portion that is still working is seeing everything upside down. This is why you are so confused. There is no insect planet. There are no insectoids. They all belong to the false self system – they were manufactured in a last-ditch attempt by that construct to save itself.”
“The insects are only in your brain. Or rather you are the insect, all rigid and impervious and incapable of feeling any genuine emotion. The hard shells of the insectoids – as you call them – represent your own brittle personality. Their mechanical exoskeleton represents your own heavily-defended and virtually humourless personality structure, which has gone viral and taken over your life. In reality you are the stunted little creature you now perceive yourself to be. This is your true form – although in time you will have the possibility of growing less contorted, less corrupt, less addicted to fear-driven delusional systems of belief”.
I sat still then, unable or unwilling to take all of this in. I had gone blank. For a moment or two I felt as if I was involved in some sort of tremendous inner struggle, and then everything suddenly came clear. I knew what I had to do. It was time for me to play my final card.
I still had one weapon left to me that the gnome didn’t know about, couldn’t know about. One last card. And it was a trump. In my head – my real, human head, that is – was a biochip that contained a special long-range relay device, which in extreme circumstances I could activate. This relay was designed to perform two simultaneous functions – it would relay 6000 terawatts of power from the ship’s core, destroying everything within a 2 km radius, and it would upload my personality and memories (what remained of them) back to the ship’s computer where they would be safely stored on the hard-drive. In order to activate this function I had to interface with the bio, which could only be done by visualizing a long and complex sequence of geometrical shapes. This coded sequence would in all probability be one of the very last of my memories to go since it had been written into the physical structure of my brain many thousands of times using a neurological pen. It was the ultimate fail-safe.
I started to initiate the sequence.