"There comes a time when the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place,
and the universe opens itself up for a moment to show you what's possible."

-Phil Alden Robinson


"Were you always this evil, or did you take lessons?"

"I took lessons."

That throws me a bit. Although being tied somewhat stereotypically to a chair in the middle of a still-more stereotypical cargo shack in the middle of what can only be described as a lair, has done plenty to that end since the beginning of the day.

"I've got to hand it to you, it was wise putting me here. You don't have the vanity of a typical bad guy. So there's that."

It's classic super-villain. I'm on an island jutting with concrete constructions so numerous it looks like a pile of earth was dumped over the battlements of a citadel thrusting up from the ocean floor. The island is shaped like an atoll, and I'm looking out into the lagoon it circumscribes.

He glances away, evidently listening to his earpiece, then walks off one side of the screen. It’s an enormous high-definition panel that almost fills one wall of my cell. I can see the lagoon distantly through the windows of a control centre-type place displayed therein. People and consoles are dotted about.

"The bricks are all red? Excellent. The Archenovians -- they are in progress too?" His voice rings slightly off-screen.

God knows where I actually am. On the tip of the haze-draped peak on the screen? Underground or underwater (I'm sure this place doesn't stop at sea level)? I've been assuming I'm actually on the island, but I wasn't awake while I was brought here so I guess I have no idea. Being sealed in a concrete enclosure with no apparent means of escape from either is bad enough, but I could be beneath Giza for all I know.

"Yes, sir." A third voice. "Militude have also been in contact. All processors contacted so far have responded as expected."

"Wonderful news,” he says. “Did you hear that, Samantha?"

"You know I hate that name." He knows I hate that name.

He's shrugging as he walks back into view. "Well,” I continue, “not wanting to embody some kind of homage or parody of every action film ever, but is this where you describe your evil plan prior to my inevitable death, escape or rescue?"

“No. You can watch and learn, like the rest of the world.”

"How did you even find out what you're about to do could be done?”

“Oh. Yes.” He’s tapping distractedly at a tablet computer in his hands. “That.”

He seems to be savouring the pause. I look around my cell again. I can’t even see a door.

“We discovered an ancient stone monument in the desert.” He puts the tablet down. “Instructions were carved on it for activating a machine that would give us control of the galaxy.”

“You have got to be kidding me.”

He looks back at me for a moment, poker-faced, then grins. “Yes. No, there was no monument, and no desert, in fact. Actually, we discovered that--”

“We?”

“This will go faster if you let me talk.”

“I doubt that.” Villains love the sound of their own voice.

“A couple of astronomers got in touch with us about some intriguing findings, which we decided to investigate further.” He absent-mindedly waves a minion away.

“During our investigations we discovered language encoded in the positions of stars. Pairs of stars within an arcsecond of each other all represent a one-bit binary number, based on the distance between them. Stars greater than 4.3 light years apart represent a one, stars closer together represent a zero, and...” he stops for a second. More chatter in his ear, tantalisingly audible but frustratingly unintelligible.

“Yes, we found the whole sky could be read as a spiral binary ‘tape’ of sorts, starting at the poles and reading down clockwise towards the equator.”

“Why 4.3 light years as a cutoff?”

“Presumably because that is also the distance between Earth and Proxima Centauri, the closest star. There were two tapes, one each for the northern and southern hemispheres, although it took some time to determine where the demarcation was because everywhere on Earth faces the night sky at a slightly different angle each day.”

“The data density can’t be very high. You’re only talking a few thousand visible stars.”

“Certainly if we restricted our readings to stars visible unaided, the data would be garbled nonsense. However, we did not. With the telescopes at our disposal we were able to gather several gigabytes of data. In 10-point text it would fill one of our vaults.”

“How did you know you’d gathered data and not just noise?”

“Because there was a sequence, page numbers presumably, of binary numbers that occurred roughly every 10,000 characters. It was this that showed us there were multiple layers to the message. We picked up some page numbers out of sequence and after some experimentation found that the message was layered, again by distance. The closest stars to Earth formed the first layer, then the spiral reversed and stars slightly further away formed the next layer, and so on.”

I have to control my excitement. This is just like the old days. I'm trying not to wonder what happened to the astronomers. “How long is this...tape?”

“We do not know. We are somewhat limited by our optics. It took three years to record and analyse the data we have at this point, and it is still coming in. What we do know -- and this is the only possible conclusion -- is that the stars--”

“Were arranged deliberately around our star system,” I finish.

“Oh, not just our star system," he says. "Every star system. Or at least, the inhabited ones."

“You’re...” A hired thug has appeared, disconcertingly, beside me. “You’re telling me that the galaxy was made to deliver this message? Who is this?”

He looks slightly amused. “More than that. It delivers a slightly different message everywhere. There is also presumably a time-sensitive aspect, because stars are always moving within the galaxy. We do not know if this changes the message after a given period, or whether races are only given a small ‘window’ -- say, a few tens of thousands of years -- in which to spot and act upon the message before it disappears. The whole business casts light on concepts of determinism and free will that are, to say the least...interesting."

The goon puts down a bowl of soup and a glass of water and vanishes, which makes me flinch. The soup smells delicious. I sigh. He presumably could have teleported a bowl of soup and a glass of water in here without the goon, but that wouldn’t have demonstrated his control over me as effectively.

“This is all fascinating --” people usually say this in condescension; I was fascinated “-- but it’s just a spin on tablets in the desert. How did you know this code was there to find? How did you know 4.3 was a key?”

“Actually, we were told. Evidently the others got tired of waiting for us to figure it out. It is fortunate that I was there to act on the information.”

“Yes. Lucky us.” He similes thinly. “You’re playing the pronoun game again. Tell me about these ‘intriguing findings.’” I can tell he’s enjoying drip-feeding information.

“The astronomers who approached us had received what turned out to be a signal from space. It came from Groombridge 34, one of our closer neighbours. There has not been sufficient time since then for any reply of ours to reach them, but in any case the message instructed us not to reply under any circumstances, and to continue broadcasting. It also identified humankind specifically, in English.”

“Continue broadcasting what?”

“They did not specify, but we presume they were talking about general radio emissions from Earth.”

“And why shouldn’t we reply?”

“Again they did not say, but we suspect the senders were trying to marshal us without drawing attention to us or themselves. Any reply could be intercepted, and any cessation of activities would also be a signal to others.

“Interestingly, we could only detect the signal at certain times of day. Once we had ruled out sabotage or hoax it was clear the signal was highly targeted - which over 11 light years takes some doing, not least because Earth would be in a completely different place when the signal arrived - and is unlikely to have been detected elsewhere unless it was intercepted en-route.”

“What else did it say?”

“It described the method for reading and decoding the Tapes, and also informed us that they -- the transmitting civilisation -- have Tapes of their own. It went on to say that they have contacted or been contacted by other civilisations. in the same targeted manner, and described how to construct a device to relay the message to others.”

“How can we pass the message to anywhere else? We’ve never received messages from anywhere else.”

“The message also included a ‘directory’ of places to relay the message, as well as the communication protocol being used so we can relay any future messages to their recipients. This part of the message seemed boilerplate at the time, and it will soon be clear why.”

“So we’re relaying messages to unknown civilisations, based on a message from an unknown civilisation, to achieve an unknown objective.”

“Indeed.”

“Following the Pied Piper like obedient rats.”

“Don’t be fatuous, Samantha.”

“I’m strapped to a chair in a concrete bunker in the middle of god knows where while you execute god knows what insanity. I believe I’ll be as fatuous as I damn please.

“I don’t even understand what you’re doing, but I’m assuming that it’s going to be disastrous in some way for the rest of us and probably, considering the language you’re using, all of us. You’re like that dude in Fifth Element. Bad guy helps Ultimate Evil destroy all life in universe. Also, bad guy is alive. Hello?

“At least when you win the lottery you can buy lots of stuff. What are you going to do with this? Grab your mates Andromeda and M87, cruise the Milky Way down to the Leo Supercluster and mosh with the Great Attractor?”

“I could spend all night describing the contents of the Tapes to you, which obviously I am not going to do. However, I will say that it contains certain--”

“Instructions?” I’m rolling my eyes.

He smiles warmly. “Instructions.”

“For a power-crazed maniac you’re remarkably good at following those. I wish you’d exhibited such discipline earlier.”

“If you had exhibited it, there would have been no need to remove you from the Department.”

“You can’t seriously have expected me to do nothing. You wanted to abduct the entire population of Bull sharks from the Gulf of Thailand.”

“Yes, about that.”

“Yes. About that.”

“The Tapes described layers of reality above this one. That the universe exists within another reality, much as we exist within the universe. This continues 'upwards' for an unspecified number of layers. The Tapes also described, amongst other things, how to bootstrap the galaxy to establish contact with the next layer.”

“What are you going to do when you--” I stop and rub my eyes. “Never mind. What were the instructions?”

“The message from the Groombridgians alluded to this, but it was greatly expanded upon in the Tapes. In short, a series of conditions must be satisfied, specific to each civilisation. We satisfy ours, the others satisfy theirs, and the galaxy should then ‘activate,’ for want of a better word. The message said that in fact we are the last, and not to put too fine a point on it, could we get a move on.”

“What kind of conditions?”

“There appears to be no relationship between them, other than the extremely low probability they will occur on their own, which presumably is the idea. Thankfully, they do not have to be executed in any particular order, or -- and this would make it impossible, for all intents and purposes -- simultaneously.

“Our first reaction, besides the obvious, was to wonder how would know we had achieved a condition. The Tapes described earthquakes as the method for this. Of course earthquakes also occur for...other reasons -- “natural causes” is clearly a far less useful term than we thought -- but they are also, when of a precise magnitude, a notification mechanism. Of course, the Tapes use a different reference scale to our own, but it converts easily enough. A magnitude 7.81 earthquake denotes the successful achievement of a condition, and we have been gradually whittling down the list over the past year or so.”

This takes a few seconds to absorb. “So most of the earthquakes I’ve heard about recently...have been caused by you.”

He doesn’t respond, clearly on a roll. “The most baffling and unsettling aspect of this is the number of contemporary references in these conditions.” He’s grinning the way he does when he finds a cool new keyboard shortcut.

“For instance,” he continues, “one of the stipulations is that all vertical surfaces in the town of Fountain Hill, Arkansas be exactly 11cm in length.” He pauses for a moment, before adding, “We found it simpler to just remove all of the town’s vertical surfaces.” I close my eyes in dismay as he continues, wondering what happened to the hapless inhabitants.

“Another requires the placement of a purple bobble hat on the North side of the Ellenabad bridge over the Indira Canal in India.” He looks a bit embarrassed, which is really weird. Well, weird for a megalomaniacal fanatic; not weird at all for Darryl. The corner of his mouth twitches, he blinks, and he’s back.

I arch my eyebrows. “How on earth could anyone possibly know--”

“Quite.”

“Or that there would be a town called--”

“Indeed.”

“So...you believe that you’re simply playing into some predetermined order.”

“I would prefer it to be me than somebody else. So should you.”

A pause.

“It’s me.” He says this very slowly, and swallows.

“Yes. It’s you,” I reply, folding my arms. “I probably don’t want to know,” I continue with a sigh, “but how do sharks fit into this?”

He takes a deep breath. “One of the conditions is that a shark has to fight a polar bear.”

“A shark has to fight a polar bear.”

“Not just fight,” he says. “The shark has to win.”

Somehow, this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard all day.

“It was far more difficult than we expected. One would think simply putting the two together would be sufficient; bull sharks are known for their aggressiveness. In fact, most died from hypothermia before they got near the polar bears, and the others became weakened and were slaughtered. Introducing polar bears into a temperate environment was no more successful, so we gathered a second batch of sharks and designed thermal jackets to give them a fighting chance. We are releasing this second batch now.”

“Is this...”

“The last condition? Yes.”

“And we’re the last civilisation to meet them?”

“Seemingly, yes.”

“So before whatever the fuck happens happens, there isn’t much time.” It’s getting dark outside.

“No.”

“Let me out of here. If I’m going to have a front row seat for...whatever, I’d like to see it firsthand. Am I on the island too?”

“Yes.”

The general pace of activity in the background seems to have increased. A few more red lights are flickering, and the ambient light level has decreased. His little tablet is lighting his face quite dramatically from below.

“Where are we?”

“The Pacific.”

“Then I can’t possibly get to the Arctic in time to do anything. Let me out. I don’t want to die.”

He looks at me wordlessly for what seems like a long time.

“I don’t want you to die either, Sam.”

“Let me out, Darryl.”

Another pause.

“OK.”

Just like that I’m on the beach, sloping towards the lagoon. I hadn’t noticed it in the cell, but I’m not wearing any shoes. Sand is tickly and warm between my toes. The stars are out. Dim light reflects off jutting concrete revetments. Small waves are washing up. No animal sounds, which is odd.

I look down and see my shadow cast in front of me in a weak, frosty light. A monitor is squatting in the sand behind me. Further up the beach, a row of full-length windows glare balefully from between the layers of a thick concrete sandwich. Support pillars rise up from the beach beneath and sprout thinner branches where they meet the building. It sports a shock of antennae, and a few communications dishes, all facing in the same direction. I see him standing with his hands behind his back, and wonder if he designed the place. He glances at me, then turns to addresses a minion at a console.

I look down at the little screen. The picture has changed from the control room view to a mosaic, evidently of camera feeds from individual animals. I can’t tell which animals are which, although a few lurching across snow and ice are obviously the polar bears. Compasses and rows of constantly-changing data are overlaid on each feed. Most feeds are just dark blue with the odd light-coloured speck.

“Can you still hear me?”

“Yes,” he says, his voice tinny through the monitor’s speaker.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because I want to be the one. Whatever happens, I want to be the one.”

Another voice, echoing in the background, says, “Two coming into conflict now. 30 metres. 25.”

“Wasn’t it enough?” I’m looking at the stars again, and I don’t understand. “We had it really good. What was missing?”

“You couldn’t give me what I needed. Nobody could.”

“Most humans don’t have a hole in their emotional security that can only be filled by an entire galaxy. I’m not even going to go into the ethics of concealing an epoch-defining event from the rest of the world.”

“Is it dead?” He’s not listening to me. God.

“No sir, but it’s sinking. Body temperature is dropping fast. Wait!”

“What is it?” His voice has gone up a notch.

“Number 17!” I can’t see identifying numbers on any of the blue tiles filling my little screen, but one of them blacks out for a moment, before blue wipes across the screen again. It is near enough the surface that I can see filtering sunlight, and that source is rolling around the borders of the window. The anonymous tech continues, “Number 17 has engaged. Stand by.”

“Darryl--”

“Please, be quiet.”

I clench my jaw. “Darryl! How can you trust any of this? You have no idea what’s going to happen! You’re trusting the senders of this message over everything else!”

“I have no choice. Somebody has to do this, for all of us.”

“‘For all of us.’ Please don’t try to pretend this isn’t for your ego. I knew you before you were like this. I remember when treehouses and toy helicopters were enough for you. I remember you being frightened by empty buildings. Let others be part of this so we can learn something before we endanger everyone! We’re the last. The galaxy can wait for us.”

“It’s too late for that.”

The camera view, which has now zoomed to fill the whole screen, is tilting and shaking crazily. A flailing grey and orange shape repeatedly swirls onto the screen before whipping away. I catch a flash of fin and passing gill slits as the video stream stutters and tears. There might be more than one shark there. I can’t tell. The screen fills with orange; it’s one of the life jackets. The bear has clamped its jaws onto it, but doesn’t seem to have done any damage. A splash of white as it wraps one of its huge arms around its attacker. The view twitches and whips around; it seems to be a head-mounted camera. My god, it’s surrounded. It doesn’t have a chance.

It turns back and bites again at the shark it has hold of, but it just rips off a mouthful of life jacket, and the shark disappears. The bear flails at the attackers and the view twists and shakes as it lashes and bites. Snouts butt the camera, and I can see shark tails thrashing.

The movement of the feed continues lurching and jerking spasmodically, but the movement slows to a drunken pace. The orange disappears and is replaced by blue. The light is at the top of the screen again, but gradually fades. The blue darkens. Blood swirls in the water. I feel deep thuds from beneath the sand, and I look up into the night.

“I hate you.”

The stars go out





I honestly did not have it in mind until shortly after I finished this, but I feel I should at least doff my cap to sam512 for the deliberate punctuation omission he may well have pioneered. Osmosis.

For anyone that cares, this was a response to the following challenge from a friend of mine: "Write me a story about polar bears and sharks. It has to have a protagonist too. Things have to happen, then they have to stop happening."

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