WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE
Quin wakes up in a glass cage the size of a large house, remembering nothing but his name and one or two vague, recurring nightmares of his abduction. The cage is divided into several rooms and seems well-equipped for human survival and even entertainment. He is greeted by an ancient woman called Trudie, who claims to have been abducted as a small girl over one hundred years ago and sees Quin as her latest – and probably last – companion. Presently, Quin gets a look at one of the beings keeping him and Trudie captive, but all he can perceive is an enormous eye staring down into the cage from above. The eye seems to make occasional percussive sounds and usually comes and goes in periods of several weeks at a time.
Quin develops a close friendship with Trudie, but after a few months she dies of old age, leaving him alone in the cage. The isolation, and Quin’s lack of any personal identity or memory from before his abduction, begin to drive him insane. He develops a morbid terror of silence, and in order to counter this he takes to singing constantly and loudly. To his surprise, he discovers that he knows all the lyrics to an unbelievable number of songs and even the identities of the artists who performed them. Taking up a battered old guitar which is one of the many artifacts supplied by the cage, he starts teaching himself how to play it. His preoccupation with music serves to stabilize Quin somewhat, until an unexpected change of diet has dire consequences for his health.
As the cage is equipped with exercise machines which, when used, provide random items of food, Quin is forced to exercise regularly in order to eat. However, the quality of the food begins to deteriorate until all that becomes available is ‘junk’ processed food in large quantities. After several months of this diet, Quin grows very sick and becomes bed-ridden and delirious. Unable to sing or make music, the silence he so fears claims him and he believes himself to be on the verge of death. In his delirium, he debates with silence itself on the very nature of consciousness and non-being before nothingness claims him. His next experience is of being treated – or tortured – by several of the beings who are holding him captive. He becomes confused about the passage of time and fancies that he can almost understand the percussive language of the giant eyes when it is speeded up greatly. Following this treatment, Quin briefly encounters a man, the first other human he has seen since Trudie, who tells him that there are free humans. Quin realises that the man had spoken to him in the Greek language, but that oddly, he had been able to understand...
A MOMENT AFTER THE MAN DISAPPEARED, the same unseen force seemed to snatch me from above and I was rushing through the tube, down (or was it some unfamiliar direction?) into and through what could only be described as a succession of blue, yellow and red fractal shapes. I hit the ground with a thump that bereft me of my consciousness once again.
For the first time in the short span of my memory, I dreamed something other than my regular dreams of falling upward through trees, and of being man-shaped nothingness wrapped in bandages.
This time, I was a man who everybody knew simply as ‘H’, and I was looking at my life from the outside in. It was like I could see H’s life in its entirety from start to finish, like a timeline I could zoom into at any point. I bore witness to H’s troubled childhood and his unavoidable exposure to a dark, religious cult that seemed to dominate the social circles his parents moved in. I saw H’s own reluctant but inevitable initiation into the secret cult as soon as he reached manhood. An early adulthood spent in the public eye, involving crowds, music, guitars (could this be an explanation for my own penchant for singing? I thought excitedly).
My conscious observation flashed quick as lightning through H’s public defiance and exposure of his occult connections, his anticipation and outsmarting of several failed assassination attempts, all artfully covered up by a complicit media - until he finally fell afoul of the honey-trap which brought about a premature end to his life.
H was not me; I could see that now. He looked a bit like me, though he had an idiosyncratic style of dress which became almost a kind of trademark costume – bespoke yin-yang motif blazers or chessboard suits. He could not have been me because he lived to be older than I looked, and his time seemed a little ahead of the 2014 I had always instinctively known I had been taken from. He was just a dream, a different dream at last, and my impoverished psyche readily identified with him.
The scent of fragrant grass filled my nostrils. Small, fine twigs were poking gently against my cheek. When I opened my eyes, I saw only the green of long grass blending with a clear sky, flecked with sparse white clouds.
With a yelp of surprise and excitement, I leapt to my feet. I was not in the cage! At some point, I had been dressed again in my regular sweater and jeans.
After my ordeal of eating nothing but junk food for six months, I had somehow been restored to optimum health; I positively glowed from the inside with renewed vitality.
I was stood in an impossibly lovely summer meadow, speckled with wildflowers of every description and colour. From somewhere in the clear pale chrysoprase sky above, a bright orange sun shone its auric radiance. In every direction, the meadow was bordered by a wall of majestic trees. It was exactly as Trudie had described it, I realised, only no description could really do the place justice.
There are free humans, the man had said in that strange place where I had undergone some sort of treatment. I wondered whether he had been referring to Earth, and had told me that because he thought that perhaps I had been born in captivity, like baby Ray. I also wondered, of course, why it was that I could apparently understand Greek.
As I stood there, bemused, I became aware of voices around me, shouting joyously. Out of the long grass emerged two boys of perhaps ten and thirteen.
‘Look! Here’s another one!’ the younger child exclaimed, pointing at me.
‘And here is another,’ said the elder, also pointing at me. They turned to each other and began to jabber excitedly. After a moment, I realised that they were both saying similar things to one another, but it was clear neither could understand what the other was saying.
‘I am going to show him where the others are.’
‘You wait here while I get the others!’
To my amazement, I realised that one was speaking Russian, the other Swahili...and yet I understood both of them perfectly.
What was going on?
I turned to the Swahili speaker who wanted to take me to these ‘others’ and signalled for him to lead the way. He grinned and ran off a ways, beckoning for me to follow. His younger, Russian-speaking companion sighed, shrugged, and followed.
The African boy led us to the edge of the woods where the grass and the wildflowers petered out and a group of eight people were stood, piling twigs and branches inside a circle of stones that was clearly intended to be a fire. The eight were all adults of varying ages, and they were mostly communicating with each other by hand signs, pointing, and single words in their respective languages repeated over and over again.
I understood all of them.
‘Hi,’ I introduced myself as I approached. ‘I’m Quin. It’s amazing to meet some people at last! Where have you all come from?’
The eight men and women all turned and stared at me with interest and welcome in their eyes. One of them, a middle-aged woman with sharp features and greying red-blonde hair came over and gave me a hug.
‘They can’t understand you,’ she explained to me in English. ‘They all speak different languages to each other. Guess we’re the lucky ones, eh?’
‘But...I can understand them,’ I told her.
‘Really?’ she said with surprise, her face brightening. ‘Grand. That’ll come in useful What are you, some sort of linguist?’
‘No. I mean...I don’t know. I don’t think I can speak to them in their language, I just...understand them.’
The woman frowned briefly, then shrugged. ‘Memory troubles, eh? Well, it happens to all of us, it seems. I’m Jane, anyway. Pleased to meet you.’
‘The others were all now watching us, talking freely to each other in our mutual language. One older oriental gentleman said wryly to himself in Japanese, ‘Well, at least two of us can understand each other,’ then went back to collecting firewood from beneath the trees.
‘Jane,’ I acknowledged the woman. ‘Are you being kept as a pet too?’
‘I’ve been trapped in a human goldfish bowl for about ten years.’
‘That Russian boy appeared recently. Haven’t had time to learn each other’s languages yet though. What about you?’
I told her about the cage, Trudie, and my recent change of diet.
‘Hey,’ a man’s voice cut in. I saw a short, wiry young man with olive skin and Mediterranean looks regarding us. ‘You – English? American?’
‘Well, we speak English. No idea where I’m from,’ I replied.
‘You have a funny accent,’ Jane told me quietly under her breath. ‘Couldn’t tell you what, though. I don’t seem to have much of an ear for accents.’
‘You sound Irish to me,’ I told her without even thinking about it.
‘Do I? Thanks. I have wondered.’
‘I speak little English,’ the wiry young man said. ‘I – Italiano.’ He looked around anxiously. ‘What we do here?’
‘Does no-one know?’ I asked. ‘It’s the humans have their picnic time, clearly.’
‘I’ve never had anything like this happen before,’ said Jane. ‘In all my ten years in the fishbowl.’
‘I think it might happen much less frequently than that,’ I explained. ‘My old companion, Trudie, was, like, a hundred and fourteen or something. She said this happened to her when she was a very young woman. So I reckon you’re looking at ninety-plus years since the last human picnic.’
‘So you say we have holiday?’ the Italian asked me.
‘Um...I guess so...’
‘Is no food, is no drink?’ the Italian complained.
I narrowed my eyes, remembering Trudie’s story. ‘I think there should be plenty of food and drink around here somewhere,’ I answered him. ‘Let’s go and have a look around.’
The three of us approached the larger group, and signified that we were going to look for food. Most of the others shrugged indifferently. One woman asked me in Hindi what made me think there was food to be found. Unable to answer in kind despite understanding her perfectly, I simply smiled and touched my nose with my finger.
Jane and the Italian man, whose name was Alberto, and I went off into the trees. They seemed happy to let me lead the way, seeing as how I was so confident there would be food somewhere. The trouble was, I had no idea where to start looking. However, no sooner had I started to fret about this, than we all spotted what appeared to be a bottle of wine lying on the forest floor, its neck pointing in a certain direction. Exchanging glances for a moment, we all wordlessly began moving in the direction the bottleneck had been indicating (after picking it up, of course, and replacing it with a pile of twigs and stones pointing an arrow in the direction from which we had come).
We found a similar bottle a couple of hundred metres further, pointing us in another direction, and did the same thing again. Alberto examined the labels on the two bottles with a critical eye. ‘Is not Italian,’ he noted gravely. Soon after that, I began to hear music in the distance.
‘Can you hear that?’ I asked my companions. Both of them looked at me blankly and shook their heads. We continued forward, eventually finding a third bottle.
‘It’s coming from this direction,’ I said, pointing. ‘Are you seriously telling me you can’t hear it?’ The music had died down in the last minute or so, to be replaced by what sounded like dozens or even hundreds of voices having some sort of party.
‘I can’t hear anything,’ Jane insisted.
‘Bottle is point this way,’ said Alberto. ‘We follow bottle, yes?’
‘Don’t you want to check this out? There’s definitely something going on over there!’ I objected.
‘We don’t hear nothing, follow bottle,’ said Alberto. Jane glanced between the two of us, torn with indecision.
‘Tell you what, you go on ahead, I’ll catch you up once I’ve found out what’s going on over here.’
They nodded their agreement, both of them looking at me strangely, as if they thought I must be a bit crazy. Then they picked up the third bottle, made a small sign in the forest floor with sticks and stones, and walked off into the trees.
The noises got louder and louder as I moved in their direction, and I found myself musing over how in god’s name Jane and Alberto had failed to hear it. Soon enough, I began to make out the words being spoken on some kind of public address system in an inhuman-sounding, high-pitched voice.
‘It’s so great to see so many of you here today,’ the strange voice was saying. ‘I’m sure that, if the Earth humans were able to see you all here, and see how much you care about their awful situation, and see just how much friendship and empathy is being shown to them today by us in the wider galactic community, they would be very touched indeed.’
What the smoking frack was that all about? I wondered if the sudden, unexplained onset of my ability to understand other languages had somehow scrambled my brain a bit. That last thing had made no sense at all!
The cover of trees suddenly cleared without warning, and I found myself looking out and down over a vast, natural amphitheatre that may well have been formed from a gigantic crater. But that was not the most amazing thing that caught my eye.
More amazing was the fact that I seemed to be looking at an enormous, open-air festival. Brightly-coloured tents of all shapes and sizes littered the ground of the crater almost as far as the eye could see, and at the very centre of the sea of tents stood a squat, circular stage that looked somewhat like a giant toadstool, flattened at the top.
Even more amazing than that was the beings that sat, stood, squatted and danced in between and among all the tents. They were beings the like of which my memory had no name for. Sure, there were a lot of humans – maybe one in four of all the creatures I could see were human, though they wore all sorts of weird and wonderful clothes. The other three quarters were mostly humanoid too, but definitely not human. I could clearly see reptilians, insectoids, bird-like creatures covered in magnificent feathers, even a few giant molluscs wallowing in shallow paddling pools nestled in between the tents.
I stood there, open-mouthed. Now, I was fully aware that I lacked any sort of personal identity that pre-dated the cage, or any memories of personal experiences of Earth, but I knew without a doubt that whoever I used to be before my memory had been erased, I had never witnessed anything even remotely like this.
high-pitched, inhuman voice started up again, amplified so that it could be
heard across the whole plain. It seemed to be emanating from what appeared to
be a very tall grasshopper-like being on the centre stage.
‘And now, ladies and gentlefolk, as they say back on dear old Earth – and esteemed members of tertiary and quaternary genders, of course – which they don’t say back on dear old Earth! Now, I would like to welcome one of the star performances of this event. One of the great tribute bands of this generation performing their very latest hit I Am A Human – put your hands, wings, claws, fins and tentacles together for...The Lizard Kinks!!!’
Spellbound, I started to make my way absently through the crowd towards the centre stage to get a closer look. The insectoid sprang off the stage, and a group of four green, scaly reptilian humanoids climbed up from somewhere below onto the stage. They were all wearing tuxedos. Two of them were brandishing electric guitars, a third seated itself down in front of a piano, tail swishing behind, and the fourth strode up in front of a microphone, grinning a sharp-toothed grin.
‘I am a Lizard Kink!’ he bellowed, and the crowd cheered in anticipation.
‘I can do anythink!’ he added.
Without further ado, the piano-reptilian opened with the first bar of a song I recognised instantly as ‘Apeman’ by the Kinks. I soon realised, however, that the lyrics had been radically changed:
I think I'm so fucking smart cos I’m a keeper of the secrets like some kind of demigod-man
But all around me everybody’s askin’ questions and the cracks are in the dam, man
So I'm no better than the stupid monkeys who invented all the traffic, man
Cos compared to the stars and the planets and the quasars
I am a hu-man
I think I'm so omniscient and I'm so close to God because I've lived so many lives, man
But with boredom and the loneliness of being so omnipotent I'm attracted to the lies, man
I feel too safe in this world of war
My unlimited power is a-gettin such a bore
I wanna take some drugs and shit on my floor
And hate like a hu-man
I'm a human, I'm a new human, oh I'm a human
I'm a dense fat man, I'm a Homer man, oh I'm a human
Cos compared to the Infinite Wonder of Peace
Compared to Jason and his Golden Fleece
I'm still such a blind and ignorant beast
I am a human!
According to our history, we caused this crazy universe to be
But give me half a chance and I'll become a bankster cabalist and rape this gorgeous world
Cos the only time that I feel okay
Is destroying anything that gets in my way
That's my idea of a sensible day
I must be a human
I'm a human, I'm a nu-human, oh I'm a human
I'm a dense fat man, I'm a Homer man, oh I'm a human
I look at my existence and it's passing me by
And all the effort is a-make me wanna cry
Oh what a joy to worry and lie
And be like a human
Come on and own me, be my human spouse
And we'll buy a sofa for our rip-off house
I'm a human, I'm a nu-human, oh I'm a human
I'm a dense, fat man, I'm a Homer man, oh I'm a human
I'll be your bastard, you'll be my slut
I'll sleep around and you'll chop off my nuts
We'll sit in, watch TV and a-drive each other nuts
Just like a human
“Nah. That’s in poor taste, man,” said a reptilian standing in front of me to his companion when The Lizard Kinks had finished their song.
“Yeah, solidarity for Earth humans, innit,” the second reptilian agreed. “There’s some things you just can’t make jokes about.”
‘I’m an Earth human, and I found it funny,’ I chimed in.
The reptilians turned around and looked at me in mild curiosity. One of them grinned a sharp-toothed grin. ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s so hip to say you’re an Earth human these days, innit? Almost every human I meet these days says they’re from Earth to us lizzies, just to make us feel guilty or something. None of them have ever even been there! Sheesh.’
I frowned, not sure I had the right to insist I was from Earth, if I had no personal memories of the place. ‘What makes you so sure we’ve never been there?’ I asked instead.
The reptilians exchanged incredulous glances. ‘Well duh! I don’t know,’ one of them said sarcastically. ‘The Quarantine?’ It was clear from his tone that he expected everyone would know what he was talking about.
The reptilians stared at me in disbelief. ‘Now there’s a first,’ said the first reptilian. ‘A human who claims not to know anything about The Quarantine.’
‘Ha ha ha,’ said the second reptilian to me, with good-natured insincerity. ‘How very original. You humans never cease to amaze us lizzies with your originality.’
‘Would you mind being quiet, honoured beings?’ a ten-foot insectoid chittered politely from behind us. ‘They’re about to do their rendition of Money Afternoon.’
The Lizard Kinks played an entire set of Kinks classics, some of which had been lyrically and musically tampered with, but most of which hadn’t. I stood there for the whole set, mesmerized by this musical lizard band and all the other wonders around me. When they finished, I tapped one of the reptilians in front of me on the shoulder.
‘Please, there’s a lot of things I don’t understand here,’ I said.
‘Yeah, no shit,’ the reptilian sniggered - a little nervously, it seemed. ‘What have you been smoking?’
‘What’s all this talk of “solidarity for Earth humans” everyone keeps going on about?’
‘Don’t ask them, you nob,’ another voice to one side of me butted in. I turned and saw a very tall, blond man with pale blue eyes looking up at me. He was sat with a group of humans on a large maroon rug, and they were eating and drinking together. When he saw my continuing puzzled expression, he motioned for me to sit down and join them.
‘Why shouldn’t I ask them?’ I asked the blond man as I sat down.
‘You’re making them uncomfortable,’ he shrugged, handing me a cool drink in a long glass. ‘Lizzies don’t like talking to humans about Earth. Is it somehow possible that you aren’t aware of this?’
‘Listen bud, I wasn’t even aware that there were humans who weren’t from Earth until an hour or so ago.’
A pretty girl sat opposite me coughed on the hookah pipe she was smoking and looked at me, astonished. ‘Seriously?’ she said softly. She turned to her companions. ‘Guys, I think he’s for real,’ she breathed. ‘I think he might actually be from Earth.’
‘No way!’ Another young man with a permanently cheeky, impish expression exclaimed. ‘I thought he was just trying to wind up the lizzies, make ‘em squirm a bit.’
‘Look at him. Meld with him. He doesn’t have any idea what we’re talking about!’ the girl urged her friends.
The others, all serious now, seemed to look at me for a second with glazed eyes. I felt a tickling sensation around my heart, moving up to the top of my head.
‘Tears of Tiamat,’ the tall blond man murmured. ‘He is from Earth.’ He looked gravely at his companions. ‘His memory link has been disabled. That’s how he was able to come through the Quarantine.’
‘Maybe one of the macrobes got him,’ a chubby young woman wearing a feathered headdress mused. ‘I’ve heard stories...’
‘This. Is. Incredible,’ the pretty girl said intensely. ‘How many get to chat to a real live Earth human?’
‘Only it’s not that great, is it,’ the cheeky-faced man added sardonically. ‘Because he can’t tell us anything, because he can’t remember.’
Every word they spoke seemed to bring up a dozen more questions in my mind, but at that point I remembered Jane and Alberto and the others I had left in the meadow. I realised that they probably should see and hear all this too, and that this little group of humans from who-knows-where would certainly be interested in meeting them as well.
‘There’s ten more of us around here somewhere,’ I said. ‘I’m going to get them and bring them back here. You aren’t going anywhere, are you?’
‘No...but wait...’ the blond man protested.
‘I’ll be back as soon as I can.’ I looked around, trying to memorise the position of certain landmark tents in relation to the small group. Then I smiled at them reassuringly and left, briskly retracing my steps as best I could.
It took me longer than I expected to find one of the little direction markers we had left in the forest that pointed back in the direction of the meadow’s edge where the other captives had been building a fire. Eventually I made my way back, though the final marker proved unnecessary because I could hear the crackle of a large fire and hear voices singing through the trees.
‘Quin!’ Jane exclaimed in surprise and relief as I emerged from the trees. ‘What kept you, man?’
There were a number of enormous, wicker-woven caskets strewn around the place, and they were all tucking into a wide assortment of buffet food and alcoholic beverages. The Indian woman was dancing around the fire, and Alberto and a Hispanic man had started tapping on a couple of bongo drums that must have been found with the food.
‘You guys have got to come with me,’ I told them urgently. Too quickly to make much sense, I described my experience of the festival on the other side of the woods. Jane listened patiently, a half-pained, half-concerned expression on her face which grew even more troubled when I started talking about reptilians.
‘Quin - ’
‘Don’t look at me like that!’ I half snapped, frustrated. ‘I’m telling you the truth! Why is it so hard to believe? I mean, you lot have all been abducted by aliens. You live in human hamster cages.’
For the first time, I saw Jane’s eyes flash with deep anger. ‘Aye,’ she shot back. ‘And take a look around you. We’re out in the open air with other people for maybe the only time in the rest of our lives. And you want us to come and say hi to a bunch of lizards?’
‘No, I said there are other humans there, like us, only not from Earth...they know stuff. They may be able to help us!’
Jane pursed her lips. ‘Captivity can drive a man mad,’ she said. ‘God knows it’s been a hard fight for me these last ten years. You just disappeared off into the words, Quin, for hours, saying you could hear things which neither of us could hear. Then you come back with all these fairy stories.’
‘Just come with me, I’ll prove it to you!’ I pleaded.
‘I’ve got wine, food, song and good company here, Quin. I’m not after going on a two hour trek through the woods, thanks. I like you, Quin, but to be honest with you, I think you’re a bit unhinged.’
She had clearly made her mind up. But what about the others? They were likewise focused on having a good time and celebrating their freedom, however short-lived it may prove to be. I could understand them (which suddenly made me wonder how I had understood the non-Earth humans and the reptilians I had met; how could that be?) and so I tried speaking to them like I had to the others at the festival, but they just stared at me blankly or told me apologetically that they didn’t understand what I was saying. All of them bade me join them, offering me food and drink, and I soon softened to the point where I decided to do as Jane was doing. These were my people, I said to myself. They share my predicament, and this is their moment in the sun. What right do I have to take them away from it? And so I tuned into their vibe. I ate and drank, I clapped, I danced, and I started to sing.
My singing turned all eyes and ears. Soon, I had everyone in the group beaming. I felt myself suddenly transformed in their eyes from some odd, highly-strung guy waving my arms and shouting urgently in English to an appreciated part of their little community, and the feeling that gave me overshadowed my desire to go back to the strangers and their wonders at the festival. It was enough for now, I thought, that I had met them. Surely I could return the following day? Would such a festival pack up and go home so soon?
But the following day (after we had slept off all the wine), I encouraged a handful of the others to come for a walk with me, and made my way back through the woods with my companions following close behind. We broke through the trees and beheld the enormous impact crater, which drew a few soft ‘oohs’ from the others...but there was no sign of any festival. In fact, there was no sign that this had ever been any sort of venue. The grass and flowers grew straight in the meadow; the earth was undisturbed and unblemished.
My heart sank right down to the bottom of my shoes.
‘I think I saw a lizard move down there,’ Jane quipped into the silence.
Our sojourn under the green and orange sky lasted another two days. I encountered no romance, as Trudie had, but the time passed in fun and camaraderie and we all grew quite close in that time. And then, after I had fallen asleep exhausted on the third night, I emerged from the indeterminate nothingness once more to find myself in my narrow bed in the cage.
I lay there for a moment, and then I screamed out my soul in rage and frustration and loss.
My scream was answered by another scream, just as long as mine, but full of terror instead.
Someone else was in the quarantine room...
END OF PART IV.
Click here for Part V, The Girl Who Didn’t Forget