A Touch of Social Isolation

Unlike rocks, plants or soil, animals tend to move around -a lot.

It is a little known fact that the closure of the last garden of alien biology in the galaxy coincided with a plague on planet Earth. The short lived Zetlank experiment arrived at two solid conclusions. Which have influenced that field of study ever since:

Rule 1 -animal behaviour always leads to trouble.
Rule 2 -it is not easy, or practical, to pet a five hundred kilo bull.

It was the forty-fifth day of the lockdown, long enough to have stayed put.
Bip asked the most obvious question:
‘Where are you going?’
‘Who’s asking?’, came the reply.
Bip paused for a moment, then repeated his question.
‘Where are you going, Charles Anthony McGettigan, of the human colony of Lifford?’
‘You can call me Charlie, Bip -how do you know my name?’
‘I know everything about you, Charlie of the human colony of Lifford’, replied Bip, ‘except where you are going. Where are you going?’
Charlie eyed his inquisitor with suspicion. Bip was seven foot tall, coated in polished chrome, and had a small antenna protruding from the top of this head. His inquisitor deserved suspicion.
‘Suppose I tell you Bip’, he said finally, ‘then suppose you tell me what is going on’.
‘That is an acceptable agreement, Charlie of the human colony of Lifford’.
‘I’m heading to the shop for tea bags and milk, and my name is just Charlie’.
Bip nodded.
‘You are part of an animal study on Zetlank, just Charlie. You and your mate have been selected for observation. We have completed the physical factors needed for your habitation, and we will now include pairs of the animal species you share it with. This will allow us to monitor your behaviour, and include beneficial aspects into the collective. You will now remain at your residence just Charlie, we will provide the items you desire.’
Charlie took a minute to respond.
‘Ok Bip, and when you say ‘we’, I take it there are more like you’
‘Yes, just Charlie, there are one hundred and sixteen trillion identical units in this galaxy; now return to your residence’.
The fading glow of sunset reflected on Bip’s torso.
Charlie turned away. And silently made his way back up the small bohreen that led to his house. He’d have to try again tomorrow.

The inside of Charlie and Rose’s two story house was simple but comfortable. There were four rooms, a large television set (which had no signal), a stove (which was almost never not burning), a table and a sofa. The sofa was where they used to spend most of their time, but ever since the lockdown Rose rarely visited downstairs. She claimed her aging limbs made it difficult. Charlie suspected the lack of television signal was the real reason.
‘How’d you get on?’, Rose asked.
‘Not great, one of those robot things was at the end of the road again. Said it’d bring the teabags up to us. It’s all very strange. From what I can tell the horizon is no further than four miles away, and the days seem to be passing a lot faster than before the outbreak. If I was to guess, I’d say we are no longer on planet Earth’.
‘Did the robot say it’d bring up milk too?’
‘Yes, yes, didn’t even mention money. I’m gonna try to get back into town tomorrow. There’s more going on than just a lockdown. That thing said we were part of some sort of behaviour study. I want to call into McGlynns and see what they make of it all’.
‘Good for you, will you see if they have any of those chocolate digestives when you’re there?’

The sun rises quickly on Zetlank. Charlie had planned using the cover of darkness to slip out across the back field and into town, but it was broad daylight by the time he was out of the house.
It didn’t matter.
Bip’s unblinking eyes were firmly fixed on the bohreen in front of the house, and did not deviate as Charlie stumbled through the whitethorn and onto the public road.
In less than five minutes he arrived at a place he had never seen before. The road and surrounding countryside had given way to polished rock, which stretched as far as the horizon. Which seemed surprisingly near.
Right in the middle of the rock, in the place where Charlie had expected Lifford to have been, stood a giant rocket next to a line of steel tanks.
Steam billowed from beneath the rocket, and in the midst of it robot figures were working frantically to unload a cargo.
Charlie moved closer. He could now see the cargo. Massive blocks of ice encasing animal bodies. The robots were moving them into one of the tanks.
‘Bleep, arp, bleep’ came a sound next to him. Charlie turned to see one of the robots at his side.
‘Bleeparp yourself’ replied Charlie.
The robot suddenly emitted a high pitched screech, and it’s head began to swivel and flash red. In seconds it was joined by several others.
‘You will remain at your residence just Charlie’, said one.
‘Ah, Bip, I didn’t recognise you’.
‘You do not need to recognise me just Charlie, you need to remain at your residence.’
The other robots had now turned to face Bip.
‘Bleep’, said the robot with the flashing red head.
‘Arp’, said another, and turned back towards Charlie.
‘Where were you going, just Charlie?’, asked Bip.
‘Oh, erm, to get chocolate biscuits’.
‘We will provide the items you desire, you will return to your residence just Charlie’.

‘Did McGlynns have any biscuits left?’, asked Rose.
‘I never made it to town, but the robot said it’d bring some’.
‘How come you never made it into town?, you were gone all day.’
‘Well that’s the thing, town is gone -from what I can tell it’s been replaced by a giant stone surface and some sort of spaceport’
‘Are you sure you’re okay Charlie, that all sounds a bit wild …I’d tell you to get out more, but you’re gone the whole time’
‘It’s true Rose, and there’s more. The robots seem to be unloading pairs of every type of creature from Earth, and then treating them in tanks. They must need to freeze us for space travel, and the tanks house some sort of reanimation process. I’m gonna go back tomorrow and get a proper look at them.’
‘Fair enough Charlie, just mind yourself -and whatever you end up doing wash your hands.’

Charlie set an alarm for very early, but the eastern glow had arrived before he could get out of the house. It reflected on Bip’s torso, who was now standing in the middle of the back field scanning around him. Charlie looked towards the bohreen, and up to the public road. They were empty. There was no sign of activity when he arrived at the spaceport either. The rocket was gone.
Charlie walked up to one of the tanks and placed his hand on the side, looking for an entrance.
A door slid open and Charlie walked in. It was freezing and the air was charged with static. Rows of animal cages were stacked against the walls. The animals seemed to be slowly waking from a deep sleep.
Charlie spotted a pair of setters, who spotted him too, and began to bark. Charlie opened the door of their cage. The dogs danced and barked around him, savouring their freedom.
‘What are you doing in here, just Charlie?’, came a voice from behind him.
‘Good morning Bip, I was wondering how long it’d be before you caught up to me.’
‘It is not a good morning just Charlie. You are not at your residence. What are you doing here?’
‘Well Bip, how about another deal -you tell me more about how I got to this planet, and I’ll let you know exactly what I am doing.’
‘That is acceptable, just Charlie. But first you will return to your residence’.

Rose could just about make out the end of a conversation before Charlie came in.
‘…one more thing Bip, your friend with the flashing red head -what is that for?’
‘It is to alert us to an animal that has wandered from it’s habitat just Charlie.’
‘Okay, thanks Bip -I’ll see you later’
‘You will not see me later, just Charlie. You will be here.’
The door opened. Charlie walked in and shut it behind him.
He sniggered as he sat down.
‘Well Rose, that’s us sorted with getting back to Earth. By this time next week the robots should have us all packed up and home. They have no idea what they’re at. I’m eighty six with a busted hip and I’d no bother getting past their guard.’
‘I hope you weren’t rude -they’re only doing their job.’
‘Don’t worry Rose, I was as nice as could be. But you ought to see it. There’s a pair of Pine Martens ready for reanimation, they must be daft if they think those things will stay together. And that’s not even the worst of it. I saw a Jersey bull there, and their plan is to keep it contained with a siren and flashing red light.’
‘Ah well, so long as they keep the virus from spreading.’

It was the forty-seventh day of the lockdown. It had begun with words Charlie McGettigan would not normally expect to hear. But then again, these were not normal times.
‘Charlie, there’s a robot at the door’.
It was Bip.
‘You will tell me how you controlled those animals just Charlie’
‘Good morning Bip’
‘It is not a good morning, you have done something to the new arrivals. They will not remain in place, and are destroying our equipment. You will tell me again what you were doing yesterday’
‘I was just having a wander Bip, I told ya …sounds like you and your friends might want to rethink your study.’
‘It is not logical for you to just wander just Charlie, it is logical that you placed the animals under your control yesterday. You will tell me how. Or we will inflict severe pain on you and your mate.’
Charlie eyed Bip suspiciously for several minutes, and then smiled.
‘Allright, I’ll tell ya’, he said finally, ‘…and you’re not going to like it. In fact, there’s a good chance you are in for pain yourself. And we’ll need to make one last deal. A first class interstellar rocket trip to Earth. Make it good. I want the whole house and everything in it back exactly as you found us, without us even noticing the journey. In return I’ll tell you how I controlled the animals.’
‘That is acceptable just Charlie. You will tell me. And I will control the animals.’

On the forty-eight day of the lockdown Charlie woke to the sound of television.
Rose was on the sofa.
‘When did the telly signal come back on?’
‘I heard the set early this morning -it must’ve switched on by itself during the night. I don’t know what you said to that robot yesterday Charlie, but it’s not outside anymore’
‘You sure?’
‘Yeah, the postman has just been, seemed a bit confused when I asked him but he definitely didn’t see it’
‘Well, I just told it how to pet a dog -I think the stupid thing planned to use the technique on all those other animals; I’m guessing it’s a now a pile of scrap metal’
‘Ah well, it’d probably have just gone rusty standing up the end of the lane like that anyway. You’ll be glad to hear the latest advice on the news -they’re easing the lockdown. There’s no need to go sneaking about anymore.’
‘About time too, I’m off into town’
‘Fair enough Charlie, mind yourself …and bring back milk’

Unlike rocks, plants or soil, animals move around -a lot. This makes them difficult, and expensive, to monitor. Especially human beings. Which is why the Zetlank garden of alien biology was the last remaining one in the galaxy. And the reason it closed.

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