No human can ever be alone again, but no-one seems to be able to remember why…
It takes twenty years to travel from Earth to planet Neuretro. Long enough for most people on Earth to forget about what happened, and long enough for Special Agent Turas Idrealta to come up with a decent excuse. He had now arrived at the core of Special Agents, and hoped they would believe him.
‘Whadya think?’ asked Nial.
Jennifer Stevens had just entered the front door of her end of terrace house. She had found her husband standing in a cloud of debris brandishing a kango hammer. He was smiling at a hole which the wall to their neighbours used to occupy.
‘Erm, uh …erm’
She was lost for words.
Jenny peered into the hole, and was able to look down the whole interior of the terrace. Far enough to see one of the Dwyer kids from the last house give her a dusty thumbs up. She looked back at Nial. He was beaming at his handiwork.
‘Huh, did you, uh …do this on purpose?’ she stammered -her words were not coming easily.
‘Of course, not bad eh?, if you look behind me you’ll see right through to the utility room …your mother could move in there, and then she’ll always be in view …and if you look up you can see inside every bedroom in the block’.
Jenny was silent.
‘I know what you’re thinking’, he said ‘…what about when someone is in the kitchen?, doesn’t the downpipe from the toilet block your view …well, take a look’
He gestured proudly towards several lengths of clear perspex waste pipes laid out against the living room wall.
Jenny stayed silent.
‘Look, it’ll take me a few hours to get them fitted but this way none of us will need to ever stay in the complex.’
Jenny’s phone rang. It was the station again. She had to go.
The lifeboat station in Aughris, where Jenny seemed to be spending an increasing amount of time volunteering, lies at the end of a spit of land. A mile long access road runs straight out to it, which is why Carol saw the car approach. She stepped out to meet it, carefully leaving the door of the station wide open as she went.
‘What the hell Jen, you can’t be driving around solo -are ye gone daft, you’re supposed to keep visual contact with someone else at all times …by rights I should report ya’
‘Sorry Carol, Nial’s busy wrecking the house and I need the car to call up to my mother after, she’s liable to wander out alone -what’s the story with the call out?’
‘It’s John Davis -said he had lost power and was drifting on the call …but the lads are after finding him half a mile off Oyster island with a haul of lobsters …and the boat in perfect nick. They have him inside. I’ve called an ambulance, he’s physically fine but it’s like he’s in some sort of shock …he has no clue where he is or who we are …same as the others’.
The pair started walking towards the building.
‘I hope you don’t mind me saying Jenny, but you shouldn’t be too down on what Nial’s up to, ye might be glad of it soon …did you have the radio on coming over?’
‘I didn’t, why? …should I have?’
‘Probably, they advised anyone living alone to move into special communes …I heard that the sports complex is being converted into one’.
They walked through an office and down a flight of stairs. The stairs led to a sick room where three lifeboat crew surrounded a man wrapped in a blanket. He was staring blankly back at them, unperturbed by his situation.
‘Hello Jenny’, said one of the crew, ‘another one for ya -total memory loss, can’t remember how he got to being in the boat …or how to operate it, we just found him staring at the box’
Carol pulled Jenny to one side, ‘sorry, I forgot to mention that John pulled up some sort of device when he was lifting his pots -the lads found him staring at it’
‘What sort of a device?’
‘I dunno, a silver…’
‘brown’ interrupted one of the crew.
‘You sure Kevin?, looked silver to me’
‘Okay, whatever colour; is it still on his boat?’ asked Jenny.
‘No’, said Carol, ‘Kevin stuck it on the lifeboat, it’s a strange yolk -light as a feather but solid as a rock’
‘Hold on …ye took it back to the station?’
‘Sure, it’s in the shed now; do ya want to take a look’
‘Are ye gone mental?, how’d ya know it’s not a mine? …clear yourselves and the casualty out of the station; I’ll have to get a bomb disposal team in’.
It was getting dark by the time the army truck pulled up at the start of the roadway. At the other end the last of the daylight reflected on something inside the open door of the boatshed. The air was cold, and most of the crew had gone home.
Jenny was on the phone -the local radio station had heard about the rescue, and of the strange object.
‘Yes, yes, the casualty was brought to hospital by ambulance. No, I can’t confirm that.’
She looked over as one of the soldiers approached.
‘Yes, in a stable condition, as well as can be expected -look, I can’t give you any more information. You’ll have to contact the hospital. Sorry, I have to go’.
She turned to the soldier.
‘Well, have ya ever seen one of those before?’, she asked, gesturing towards the boatshed, before introducing herself.
‘Never’, replied the soldier, ‘I’ll send over a drone to test for explosives. If that’s clean we can take it off for examination. Ye’ll all have to leave the area, I’ll give you a bell when we’re done …what’s the story with yer man that found it?’
‘Not much, hard to say, probably just the result of being out on the sea solo -we picked up two others in the same condition this morning’.
‘Scary stuff, I suppose all we can do is stick together’
‘Seems so’, said Jenny, ‘thanks for the help’.
The sea was calm. It was now dark. Jenny’s car pulled out onto the main road and passed the sports complex. It was a hive of activity, bathed in spotlights and filled with the noise of construction. Jenny did not stop to look, she shouldn’t have been driving alone; she knew that. But there was something else, something she’d forgotten.
It was noisy when Jenny got back to the house. She could not say how many people were there, it seemed like the whole street. They were celebrating; the last of the internal walls had been removed and there was now nowhere within the terrace that was hidden from view.
Nial greeted her, ‘You were mentioned on the radio earlier; John Davis found some sort of UFO and ye brought it back to Aughris, that’s what they were saying …think they were pulling the piss out of ye a bit …grab a drink’, he said, gesturing towards a table filled with bottles.
‘I’m pretty tired, how long is this going to go on for?’
‘What?’ shouted Nial; her voice was drowned out by the sound of music. Somebody had started up a mixing desk, it boasted an impressive sound system and they were making full use of the opportunity for noise.
‘How long is this going to go on for, the kids need bed, it’s half nine…’
‘Hah, half brandy, half wine; you musta had a tough day …one minute’
A toilet flushed above Jenny, and its contents dropped through a clear tube beside her, before disappearing from view under the floor. Nial handed her a mug of wine and brandy. She drank it, and joined in the chaos.
It was about half twelve when the first knock came on the door. Loud enough to pierce through the shouted conversations and music. Someone opened one of the upstairs windows and looked down. ‘It’s the Guards’, they shouted. The music stopped.
Nial walked to the door and opened it. Behind him a terrace full of people tried to hide within the building. Which was now impossible.
‘Is there a problem?’, he asked.
‘No, no problem’, said a tired looking bean garda, ‘is this your house?’.
‘Yes’, said Nial, ‘well, erm, some of it anyway’, he continued, correcting himself.
‘There’s quite a crowd of ye, I hope nobody is planning on leaving alone’
‘No, of course not’
‘Good, we’ve had reports of a soloist in the area, just making sure -enjoy the party’.
She turned to leave, and instantly the music came back on.
It was about half four in the morning when the second knock came on the door. The party had now run out of steam. Most of the group had fallen asleep.
‘Someone get that’, called a voice.
‘Tell them to feck off’, called another.
Nial staggered over to the door.
A small, middle aged man with brown hair stood on the other side. He had no coat, and despite the cool night air his shirt was patched with sweat. Nial was too tired for formalities.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘Please excuse me for calling so early’, said the caller, ‘I’m looking for Jennifer Stevens -I need to speak to her urgently’
‘About an object I lost, a large silver box -I heard that…’
Nial turned his back, ‘Jenny’ he called.
He need not have bothered. Jenny, along with almost everyone else in the houses, had been listening to the exchange. She wandered bleary eyed towards the door.
‘Good morning’, said the caller, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow, ‘I’m the owner of that object you retrieved yesterday and…’
‘You’ll have to go to the barracks up in Finner’
‘The barracks up in Finner, the army has it now …who gave you my name?‘ she asked wearily.
‘Oh, it was announced on the broadcast radio waves earlier …I managed to…’
Jenny shut the door, too tired to hear the full answer.
‘Broadcast radio waves …stupid soloist’, sniggerd a voice from somewhere upstairs.
Jenny’s phone woke her shortly after the sun came up.
‘Jenny, sorry to bother you again; can you come back out to the station?’
It was Carol.
‘Myself and Kev are out here waiting for the army to drop back that box from yesterday. They said that if it’s not an explosive it’s not their problem. I don’t feel right about having it about the place; what do ya reckon?’
Jenny scratched her head and gazed around her. Everyone seemed to be looking towards the door, where two Guards were talking to Nial. All three glanced in her direction and Nial slowly shut the door.
He walked towards her.
‘Listen, Carol, I have to go -I’ll swing by later’
Nial leaned in towards her so as to make their conversation as private as possible.
‘Jenny, it’s your mother; she was found wandering last night. She’s not good. Her memory’s almost totally gone.’
Jenny slumped down onto an armchair. She now knew what she had forgotten. But it was too late.
‘Can I see her?’
‘The Guards said not, the hospital won’t let anyone mix with soloists’
Jenny sank back further into the chair. At least a dozen faces were looking at her. They knew the implications of what had been said, but could find no words of comfort.
Even though it had only been days since the first case, everyone knew what had happened. That once someone spends too long alone, they go blank. And just wander about like a ghost, not knowing where they came from, or where they were headed.
The only known defence was to stick in groups.
Nobody spoke for several minutes.
‘I’ve got a job to do out at Aughris’.
‘I don’t think you should be doing anything right now Jen’, protested Nial, ‘the lads will look after whatever is up’.
Jenny glanced around at the sets of eyes silently watching her, ‘…I need to get the hell out of this place right now’
‘I’m coming with you’.
Jenny could see Carol and Kevin standing on the slipway. A silver box sat on the ground next to them. Carol approached the car as they pulled up.
‘Jenny, I’m so sorry about your mother’
Word had travelled fast.
Jenny did not reply.
She got out of the car and walked towards the slipway.
‘so this is what we need rid of…’
‘Yes, but, erm, we’ll sort it out, you should go home and rest’
Jenny wasn’t listening -she had opened the boatshed door and pulled out a can of kerosene.
‘I know of a way to get rid of the thing once and for all …and it won’t take long’ she said. Her voice was raised and there were tears in her eyes. She began pouring the kerosene on the box.
‘Jenny, no, you can’t…’ Carol made to stop her, but felt Nial’s hand grab her shoulder.
They both nodded to Kevin and all three stood back while Jenny lit a match. She tossed the match onto the box. If a fire could ease her pain, it was a small price.
The flame danced over the kerosene but the box did not tarnish. Tears were streaming down Jennys face now, their tracks traced by the firelight.
Then the box began to warp. And shrink. And fizzle. It’s silver coating faded to black and suddenly erupted. In an instant the air was filled with images. Memories. There were thousands. People and places, moving rapidly and dissolving just as quickly. Kevin tried to reach out to touch one of them, but his hand passed straight through. Jenny stepped closer to the box. Her attention was drawn to something near the heart of the fire. She could make out images of herself as a child. She was growing up, growing old. And in less than a moment everything stopped. The box rocked slowly from side to side, and then melted in on itself until nothing was left but a small finger of smoke.
‘Jaysus’, said Kevin.
All four stood quietly looking at the spot where the box had been.
Nial eventually broke the silence, a rainshower was approaching.
‘Uh, erm, I’ll stick the kettle on’
‘Would you look at the state of what is coming up the lane’ said Kevin. He had spent the afternoon drinking tea with Carol, Jenny & Nial. Mostly in silence. The weather had broken and cold rain was whipping across the bay. He was now looking at a small middle aged man making his way towards the station. The man’s shirt sleeves were rolled up, and he had the look of someone who had walked for hours.
Nial peered out the window.
‘That’s the lad from early this morning, the one who said the box belonged to him’
‘Well, he’s too late now’, said Jenny.
‘Not too late to let us know what’s going on; Kev, keep an eye on the road for anyone else’
Nial opened the door.
‘Erm, I’m sorry to bother you again but the army told me to call here -I’m looking for that object you found in the bay’
‘Come in out of the rain’, said Nial, stepping behind the stranger as he entered and sliding the bolt over the door behind him.
‘Ya can’t be going around solo’, said Kevin.
‘But I think you already know that’, added Nial, ‘and more too’.
The man had begun sweating heavily, ‘do you mind if I open the window, it’s a bit hot for me in here’, he asked.
He got no reply. Jenny fixed him with a stare. Her eyes were wild with emotion.
‘Who are you?, and what was that box?’
The room fell silent.
‘I suppose it makes no difference at this stage if I tell you’, he said quietly, ‘my name is Turas, and I am from a far distant galaxy. I was sent here to prepare your world for colonization. The box is a memory trap’.
‘Was a memory trap’, corrected Jenny, ‘it’s now smoke’
‘I see’, said the man, ‘well, there are many more hidden. Each one draws in individual thoughts until there are none. And then your species will merge with the collective.’
The room was silent again.
The stranger mopped sweat away from his face.
‘I realize this has come as a shock, but it has not been easy for me either. This is the most difficult mission I’ve ever been on. The heat on this planet is unbearable.’
He got no sympathy.
Kevin broke the silence ‘I wish I’d tossed that stupid brown yolk back into the sea’
‘Silver’, said Carol.
‘Are you sure?, I thought it was brown’.
’Does it matter now?, muttered Jenny.
‘What did you just say?’ asked the man suddenly, urgently.
All four stared at the stranger, whose face had turned grey.
‘I said I wish I’d got rid of that stupid box from the start’
‘No, you said it was brown’
‘But this can’t be’. The stranger started to tremble. ‘You were in a group, how is it possible your memories are different?’
The room fell silent.
‘Every human has their own view of the world’, said Jenny quietly.
‘Even in a group?’ he asked, his voice crackling with fear.
‘Especially in a group’, said Nial.
The stranger looked towards the door.
‘I’ve just made a big mistake, I need to release the traps before it is too late …I beg you let me do it now, for all our sakes’.
Nial slid the bolt from the door and stood back, and the stranger was gone.
The following morning Jennifer Stevens, along with the rest of the human race, woke up to a familiar sense of nostalgia; and a mess.
That same morning a superluminal message made its way from planet Earth to Neuretro.
It’s contents was as follows:
‘Special Agent Turas transmitting. We are No Go for the colonization of Earth, mission aborted. I am returning to base, and, erm, …I lost one of the boxes’.