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Encyclopaedia Galactica

Part I of II


By Navin Weeraratne

London Harbour

London had always been a place of its own, a little blip on all the cascading maps of snooty, self important surveyors; from the old Domesday sorts who looked at all the Saxons funny to the Thatcher's Children in the Fat Cat water companies wondering where they could not a fix a leak next. A little anomalous blop which would always do well and always be the richest, regardless of whatever latest economic trend or disaster was raging across the country. New Sarum could fall and Manchester rise when all the steam engines came chugging along, and Sheffield could crumble and the new sky scrapers come surging up like so many mushrooms because of Her With the Handbag. But London would always be fine.

In the water, tugs raced about, nudging the container ships this way and that, darting between and screaming off towards better prey, first come first serve. They hoot at each other aggressively defending their claims, angry water beetles. The container ships are too gracious and so ignore them, they submit to being moved this way and that until they are finally alongside the docks, then they mop their brows and have tea with the cranes who smile like Japanese air hostesses while they unload. Next to the docks a large, grey, square building like a Roman turtle formation that's got a bit confused, bits of shield jutting out and making lots of shade, knobbled with the dull, dark blue bumps of superconducting radar: full coverage. Over the harbour, huge shadows like pre-Saxon sarsen stones hang motionless or slide slowly across the water, directed by thin, long nosed men with computers for limbs and radars for senses. Imperial College kids, they make fifty thousand pounds a year and the company health plan, they unwind in the clubs of the Dance Capital full of drugs, virtual revelations and slo-ooze hormone packs, the sort they stick against your carotid and which are illegal everywhere except Amsterdam so it doesn't matter.

The sarsen stones are really container ships themselves, huge, dark, rectangular blocks, each as big and heavy as a sky scraper. On their bottoms lights flicker and die in two neat rows, agrav coils nest beneath them and adjust every three seconds for the wind and the gulls shitting on the top. Large sections along the sides pop out along slim seams and float down to the unloading pads, some directly onto lorries. A few even start to streak out inland, off to Stansted and Manchester Control to be redirected to their final superstore. In little letters hammered along the side that you could trace with your finger: Made in USA.

The investors all had to agree, Britain was a most excellent developing economy.

"Have you heard?"
"About what?" the obvious question.

AT&T Bell headquarters

Lots of slick, dark glass and slicker, darker suits. Lots of money. Lots of ego. Nabobs running around with really quite mediocre first degrees but Americans always think that they're the best in the world.
"The Pentagon is releasing some Glass Beads, everyone in the know is very keen about it," said his boss.
"It wasn't in the news."
"Not supposed to be. Not yet. Our feelers think that its communications tech."
"As if we need more bandwidth."
"Not bandwidth, transmission. They think its instantaneous."
"So what? Not that anyone will notice the difference."
"They will in space."
"When are they going to hold their press conference?"
"Very soon, maybe even today. I want you to attend."
"Right. I'll need to pop back home and pick up a few things and I'll be ready to fly."
"I'll tell transport to keep a floater ready for you."
"What kind of bidding do we expect?"
"Sprint wants this really bad, Ameritech can throw in a lot more but they may not be very interested, this isn't the sort of thing they're getting involved in. Motorola is interested but I think they're wasting their time. We have to worry about Sprint. We're willing to throw in 10 billion straight, we'll go up to 30."
"And if Sprint goes higher?"
"I'll have to see if I can get the board to give us more money. We need these Beads."

Whoever thought First Contact would be about ships and handshakes was a sensationalist idiot and his name is Steven Spielberg (there! That's out). Now you tell me mate, why would you want to travel God awful distances to very sad, God awful places in case there was intelligent life where you were going? It's a little bit expensive no matter when the Revolution comes or how many bold robots you have running around as Heroes of Mechanical Labour. It costs.

Then there's how long the whole thing takes, hundreds of years if you want to be conservative and hide from the logical conclusions of the issue, millions of years if you're not scared of that. Ah, but those who are logical are called "radical," and they never get any funding because all the weak tea people with no stance on anything want to send off more weak tea people without stances on anything. Ah well. But whoever does end up going will be off for years, years that people back home would probably spend doing things a lot more fun and useful than you, shivering away in your block of ice, things like running off with your girl, graffitying your quickly ignored bronze statue which some later generation will melt down to build a sewer pipe with, and finding out how to get where you're going a lot faster and for cheaper.

Especially for cheaper.

And then when you finally get there, you don't even know if there's anyone there to meet. I don't care what they say, a few radio blips and Long Delayed Echoes don't really tell you much about anything. You might have wasted a good part of Creation going off to visit a family of sterile stones, and how do you do today? Would you like some magma with your methane glacier? Oh you're so witty Mr. Slag Heap!

And if intelligent life did ever evolve there's no guarantee that it'll still be there. If anything, it makes better sense to find a world with stupid life and wait for it to get smarter, chatting along with whichever tree climber, savannah roamer, muck crawler or gloop floater manages to chat back until they nuke themselves back to the Slag Family. Oh there you are Mrs. Flump! My your pumice looks just as fresh as it did a billenium ago!

And then even if you do manage to find intelligent life just before it devolves, what makes you think they'll be worth talking to? Everyone knows people not worth knowing and that does not stop within species. Only Buddha out of all the religious leaders was strict about not saying anything if you had nothing to say and Buddhists aren't very good at running around with swords converting everyone else to their wisdom. Woe is the day word gets out about us to the Galactic Village that we live over here and so and so decided to drop by and say hello. What will he/she/it/them tell everyone? That he/she/it/them listened to the ravings of the BJP Indian fascist party about the need for nuclear weapons to increase Indian security by making the region more unstable? Or the even stupider response of the Pakistani government with its own arguments why test burning ultra-precious metals to annoy everyone else is worth more than foreign investment to get the children out of the carpet factories? Or will instead they have listened to the delusional rantings of the confused, fearful, ignorant masses of the Faithful, all falling over each other in that great mangle tangle that they call the True Faith? Or better still, will they have been embroiled in the shoot-first-ask-questions-later diplomacy of the United Militarists of America? They would have come running out of that like they were in bad nightclub.

So you see, there really isn't any point in going about looking for intelligent life. Let intelligent life find you. Ah! The great break through in cutting edge thinking. You can be all pretentious and superior making up clever puzzles for them to solve else they can't get through to you, make yourself think that that way you only talk to people worth talking to. Just listen for the radio babble of intelligence, and mail them back. If they can work out how to read your letter then fine, else sod the buggers.

Easy as that.

"40 billion dollars!"
"That's cheap if you asked me," said his boss. "This is easily worth a lot more. I can't believe Sprint gave in that easily."
"Unless they didn't think much of this in the first place and wanted us to spend a huge sum on something useless while they go for the next big thing. We know they have better spies in Washington than we do."
"A possibility, in which case I'll have to resign in disgrace. I like to think instead that we won."
"And now selling this thing."
"Selling this thing. No real Earth market yet but some scientists think they can apply Tachyon transfer to microchips, a Tachyon transistor. I want you to tour Europe and see what people think of instantaneous computing."
"Can they really do that?"
"The only problem really is engineering: shrinking the damn thing enough for it to be worthwhile. But they tell me that all they need is the most basic chip design and since the whole thing works faster than light no one is going to care that they really have a simple computer. I've already talked to some people in London, they're extremely interested."
"When do I fly?"
"When can you?"
"Tonight."
"Great."

Heathrow Airport. Still the busiest in the world.

Lots of little changes here and there. Still streams of jets landing constantly but on widened runways to take the Boeing Leviathans, one plane just behind the other coming out of the grey, but now if you just looked straight up you could see the Agrav shuttles and containers coming in with their red lights flashing like winking demons out clubbing. A new control tower to handle the extra traffic, chemical sniffer beams that scanned anything interesting smelling and then cross referenced with chemist expert systems to see if it was Norsk Hydro driving past or another lorry load with love from the IRA (well of course that's still going on).

"Well that settles it then," the hook-nosed suit shrugged as the air hostesses walked past them on their way to their BA 787. "English women are prettier than American ones."
"All the same stock," protested the first suit. "Anglo-Saxons all look the same."
"Well they've got Flemish and Celts creeping across the lines, and don't forget all the Hong Kong Chinese."
"Well f*cking A. Where's our man?"
Putting down their bags and peering around for someone with a great big card like a gunnery target with their names on it.
"There he is! Skinny little bastard. Are British people that poor these days?"
"Not our fault if they're not competitive."
The Americans bustled off.
"Good morrow Sirs, welcome to Britain," a pimply, skinny lad with a Stephen Hawking smile, that slim line between pathetic childishness and animal evil. The sort that sells popular but very real science to the public on a scale not seen since the Printing Press, the sort of smile that lets an invalid steal his best friend's nurse wife.
"Wasn't one of our company men supposed to meet us here?" said Hook Nose.
"A Samuel Godfrey?"
"Mr. Godfrey has had to attend to a personal emergency, I'll be driving you to your hotel and someone will be around from the Company tomorrow at ten. Is that to your satisfaction?"
"Oh yes, fine."
"Splendid then."

There's something about drivers, about security guards, about maids and waiters. For some reason they're invisible: stock brokers leak secrets to each other in full confidence while their wine orders are solicited, fat ladies gripe and bitch about each other to each other while the young Hispanic lady dusts the receiver cable, execs study closely How To Legally Fire An Employee while Mr. Marks hands them the pizza that just arrived. Invisible but still people. They listen and they hear, they think and they plot: buying shares and tipping arsenic into the salt shaker, reservedly indiscrete with the tabloids and slitting the Senor's bastard, cheating throat or better still his dangling buddies.

Never under-appreciate the minor staff. Never disrespect them if you like your steak without spit added. And never, never act like they're invisible.

"Would you look at this place?" Hook Nose. "Do you see any floaters on the road? Goddamn barbarians."
"Plenty of floaters, there goes one now."
"Hardly any isn't any at all. And how come the company didn't send us a floater?"
"The hell if I know. You act like you've never been in a car before."
"I never thought I'd be in one again! Christ! I didn't know I hated bumps so much."
"Its these English roads, not a patch on ours. No standards, no good toll pikes."
"Hey kid!" Hook Nose. "Why are the roads so crap?"
"The government does what it can to please Sir," smooth and polite, an abused but noble Butler or a colonial officer about to machine gun everyone at Amritsar.
"The government! There you are! They're still trying this public utility shit despite everything we've taught them! I'd give my arm right now for a good toll pike. These Brits, can't do anything right. Now Germans, now those guys can build roads. They've got no floaters either but they make a road right. My ancestors are German, you know that Fink?"
"No Witte, I would never have guessed."
"I'm hungry, are you hungry?"
"I wouldn't mind a bite."
"Sir, there is a good café nearby that I know if you're interested."
"Sounds good. Stop there."

Getting out next to a pretty, old, very English sort of shop, the sort that managed to slip between the cracks of Tesco smashing into Sainsbury, surviving in the ecological/economical niche of the service oriented restaurant. Once it had been an out and out bakery, but its proprietor was a Thatcherite, Enterprise Culture biddy and she knew death row when she saw it.

"Boy, these are shit," Hook Nose. "I've never eaten such crap in my life."
"I'm sorry Sir."
"What are these, these are donuts?"
"Yes Sir."
"Your donuts suck. And these, what do you call these things?"
"Scones Sir."
"Scones! I think your scones are trying to be donuts."
"We should have gone to McDonalds," the first suit.
"Damn I wish I had room for a Cinny Minny right now. Let's go."

The route twisting off suddenly, off the highways and down into a run down area with not so much houses as large container depots and warehouses, abandoned British Steel mills and all the detritus of that once competitive company.
"Are you sure this leads to the hotel?" asked Hook Nose, an eyebrow raised.
"I don't remember it being this way."
"A small detour Sir, they're doing road work on the usual route."
"This is a bit way out though isn't it?" persisted Hook Nose. "Shouldn't we at least be on a highway?"
"Not necessarily Sir, this route is still shorter."
"Will you just let the guy drive?" jabbed the first suit.
"That flight was too long. I still haven't got over the candy they served and the scone shit didn't help."
"That's your fault, I told you never to touch the sweets they bring around on First."
"So sue me."

Turning into an alley and stopping.

"Is anything wrong?" asked Hook Nose.
"Oh no Sir."
"What? We're not moving kid."
"This is the end of the line Sir."
"What? Kid, this isn't the hotel."
"Did I ever say I was taking you to one?" And with that the lad turned round and shot Hook Nose three times in the head.

The second half of "Encyclopaedia Galactica" will be printed in next month's issue of The Shrubbery (Oct. 1998). Come back to see what happens next! Mail for Mr. Weeraratne can be sent via theshrub@theshrubbery.prohosting.com

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