"Articles" – a short story

As he followed the sullen guard from the elevator into a dimly lit rocky corridor, Falvar began to fear “protective custody” would turn out be “summary execution”. From the slight but perceptible increase in pseudo-gravity, he deduced that they were a couple of hundred feet below the Realm’s inner surface, which meant they must be in the detention centre’s maximum-security wing. Unused in all the decades since leaving Earth’s orbit, it has been the subject of innumerable popular rumours over the years, one of which was doing nothing to ease Falvar’s nerves.

The guard stopped outside a forbidding door of ribbed steel. He pointed a remote at the door, keyed a security code, and it slid open.

“In there,” he said coldly, speaking for the first time since they’d left the surface. He favoured the deposed Director with a frosty glare.

Falvar entered the narrow cell. It was reasonably well appointed, with two facing bench-seats/bunks and a table carved out of the solid rock, but there was dankness about it that the air conditioning could not entirely dispel. Of more interest to Falvar, though, was his cellmate. Sitting on one of bench-seats was Xeras.

She did not rise to greet him, but looked up, a resolute expression on her face.

“Hello Director.”

“You do realise they’re probably getting ready to space us both as we speak.”

“Director, you don’t seriously believe that old myth about the cells down here doubling as air-locks, do you?”

Despite everything that had happened in the last three days, Falvar found Xeras’s familiar assertive voice as reassuring as ever.

“You’ll forgive me if I’m a little jittery,” he said. “I’ve just been “rescued” – if that is the right word – from a lynch mob. You and me aren’t exactly the two most popular people on the Realm.”

“Which is why we are both down here – for our own safety. There are still sixty feet of rock below us, to say nothing of the ice shield. Believe me, if they wanted to quietly tip us out into space, they wouldn’t put us down here.”

There were doubtless other means by which they could be conveniently disposed of, but Falvar did not pursue the matter. He settled himself on the seat facing Xeras.

“We’re down here because you disobeyed a direct order to disarm your nuclear device and return to the Realm,” he said, aware as he said it how ineffectual it sounded.

“You were no longer in a position to give orders, sir,” Xeras replied firmly. “The only authority operative was that vested in me by the Articles, and I acted accordingly.”

“The Articles!” Falvar exploded. “What in God’s name does devastating a planet have to do with the Articles? You’ve wiped out the avisaurs out along with everything else.”

Grimly he recalled the latest probe images from the planet, broadcast over the Realm’s news channel that morning, the third day after the impact.

The planet was still ablaze from pole to pole. Already, billions of tons of soot, together with ejecta from the impact itself were turning the skies black. Soon the once-inviting world would be plunged into a winter that would last for two years, though the destruction of the ozone layer and acid rain would render it uninhabitable for at least a century.

An hour after the broadcast, a mob had attacked Falvar’s residence, where he had been held under house arrest since Theox’s revolution.

Xeras rose to her feet and from a locker in one corner of the cell she produced her palmtop computer, which she had been allowed to retain.

“Allow me to explain, sir. There’s something we missed, something absolutely crucial…”

Looking up, Director Falvar saw not the comforting familiarity of the Realm’s cities, fields, forests and rivers – instead there was a strange blue void, apparently forming a vast bowl over his head, punctuated only by fluffy white and grey amorphous shapes. He tried to keep his breathing normal. He did not want to let his agoraphobia show.

“The holosims can never really prepare you for this, sir,” Xeras said. The note of sympathy in the young Science Officer’s voice made it clear she’d had no difficulty in reading Falvar’s body language. Equally clear was that she was quite unperturbed by the scene, despite it also being her first trip down to the surface.

Rather shamefacedly, Falvar did take a deep breath and tried to take full stock of his surroundings. The elevated heath on which the shuttle had landed sloped gently away from him, meeting a large lake at its foot, about a mile away. On the far side of the lake was a forest which stretched away to what he knew was the “horizon”. But on the near shore was something that would have added to his unease – a mile distant or not – had he not swiftly recognised the great long-necked sauropod as a species definitely identified as vegetarian in dietary habit. His nervous system must have been running a second or two ahead of his thought processes; his heart started pounding.

The blue coloration of the “sky”(that was the word, wasn’t it?) was an optical effect caused by scattering of light from the planet’s primary, the still-blinding yellow disc low in the west that he had been so strongly advised to avoid looking at. He could feel its warmth on his face: in fact he was now beginning to feel uncomfortably hot. Or was it the psychological effect of being this close to a star – something that Falvar was used to thinking of as a remote point of light.

He became uncomfortably aware that he was a tiny speck of organic matter standing on the outside of a solid body, with only the force of gravity stopping both the atmosphere and himself from flying away into space… he felt a renewed rush of agoraphobia. Involuntarily, he closed his eyes. He tried to take a hold of himself. He took a deep breath and told himself that his people had evolved and lived on Earth, and that Earth was – or at least had been – a planet just like the one upon which he was now standing. But he felt no immediate urge to open his eyes again.
Temporarily deprived of vision, he became aware of the clamour of other senses – the constant chatter of the planet’s primitive, toothed birds, the distant roar of a creature somewhere down in the forest. He felt a gentle, cooling breeze on his face and became aware that the combination of it and the star’s warmth was infinitely more pleasant than the effect of the great daylight lamps strung along the Realm’s central axis. He took another deep breath. The air was fresh – it was indescribably different from the sterile, recycled atmosphere of the Realm.

He reopened his eyes, feeling much better. Yes, this was a beautiful world. The sort of world Earth had been once, many centuries ago, if the records were to be believed. Just the sort of world the Falandrafar Foundation had intended them to settle. But, if Xeras was right, there was one detail that was going to be a problem. And God only knew how they were going to get round it.

“How long do we have?” he asked.

“To make our rendezvous with the comet, we need to leave here within twelve hours,” replied Xeras. “There’s only an hour to sunset, we have plenty of time.”

“Let’s deploy the ground-effect vehicle,” said Xeras.

Night was falling as the ground-effect vehicle hummed across the surface of the lake. The sauropod Falvar had seen earlier had gone; he was not sure whether he was disappointed or not at being unable to see the great beast at close quarters, herbivore or not. In the west a brilliant object was visible. For a moment Falvar thought it must be the comet, then he realised it would still be a morning object from this hemisphere. It must be the next planet inwards from this one he could see, a virtual twin in size, but utterly inhospitable. Rising in the east Falvar could see the planet’s solitary moon rising. It was not quite full and even with the naked eye he could make out considerable detail on its surface.

“Unremarkable,” said Xeras. “Much smaller than Earth’s moon, and indeed similar moons we’ve seen in other systems. As far as we can tell, they are all formed in the same way, coalescing out of ejecta from collisions between their primaries and large primordial bodies.”

“Still an impressive sight, though,” said Falvar.

“We’re almost there, sir,” said Xeras, checking the vehicle’s GPS. A constellation of twelve navigation satellites had been placed in orbit around the planet; it had eliminated the need to leave marker beacons at sites of interest. Xeras switched the vehicle to silent running mode. Its engine hum sank to a whisper, but it lost height and was now suspended only a few inches above the water.

Falvar stared at the leafy shore. “I don’t see anything.”

“The creatures are small, sir,” said Xeras. “And they won’t become active until after dark.”

“While we are waiting, perhaps you could summarise what your team has found,” said Falvar. “In layman’s terms, please – I feel I might have missed some of the detail in your reports.”

“Very well, sir,” said Xeras, “First of all I must point out that the bulk of the data has by necessity come from the robot surface probes that are still exploring the planet. However my team has found nothing that conflicts with the probe data. The planet’s biosphere is remarkably like that of Earth. Life is DNA-based, there are three domains – anaerobic bacteria, which probably evolved first: normal bacteria: and eukaryotic forms broadly split up into protozoa, plants, fungi and animals. We’ve identified around 30 animal phyla, including chordates and arthropods –“

“I said in layman’s terms,” protested Falvar.

“What I mean is we are seeing that local life forms are similar at the most fundamental levels to those that lived on Earth,” said Xeras. “One consequence of this is that all the proteins, sugars, vitamins, etc. that we require for sustenance can be obtained from animal and vegetable sources, either by extraction or – in most cases – by direct assimilation.”

“In other words the food is edible,” said Falvar.

“I believe that is what I said, sir.”

The trouble was she probably did. “Continue,” Falvar grunted.

“Very good sir,” said Xeras. “We have been able to show, with a high degree of confidence, that although there are several classes of bacteriological and viral organisms that are harmful to us, there are none that are resistant to standard antibiotic and immunisation techniques.”

They could eat the food and there were no harmful diseases they couldn’t cope with. Coupled with the favourable geological reports and that the sun would be good for at least a billion years, the planet was ideal for their purposes, but for that one bloody thing – unless there was some kind of get-out.

“The final consequence,” continued Xeras, “is we can predict the future course of evolution on this planet with considerable accuracy. Great changes will occur among the land-living vertebrates within the next five million years –“

She broke off, reached for a pair of dark-vision binoculars and trained them on the shore. She must have heard something move on the shore – the light was now too dim to see anything with the unaided eye.

“Can you see anything?” said Falvar.

“I heard something, sir,” said Xeras. She swept the binoculars slightly from side to side. “Yes, there they are. Out a little sooner than last time.”

Falvar picked up a second set of binoculars. “Lead me in,” he said.

“Yes sir,” Xeras said, activating the short-range direction sender on her binoculars.

A red targeting grid appeared in the bottom left corner of the view field in Falvar’s binoculars. He swung them round until the grid was centred. A few dim trees and that was it.

“I don’t see anything,” he snapped.

“The gain, sir,” said Xeras evenly.

Hell! He really was doing a good job of making himself look like a complete idiot on this trip. He turned up the gain on the binoculars’ light intensifier and zoomed in. There! Scurrying around were three small, feathered bipedal animals.

“Tell me about these creatures,” he said.

“They represent a class of vertebrate intermediate in form between reptiles and birds. The group evolved fairly recently from archosaur stock and is not yet widespread. We’ve called them the avisaurs, or bird-lizards. They are warm blooded, like birds and several archosaur species. But here the feature has evolved to accommodate the energy requirements of a comparatively large brain, not to sustain powered flight. The brain in turn has evolved in response to the need to survive by it rather than brawn in a world dominated by archosaurs – and it has an important consequence.”

Falvar took a deep breath. “You are seriously expecting me to believe that these little creatures will go on to develop a civilisation?” he said.

“Not exactly, sir,” said Xeras. “What is happening on this planet is a long term drop in global temperatures. This is being caused by continental movements and their effects on weather systems, and will result in the planet being subject to periodic ice ages.”

“Like the ones that are supposed to have occurred in prehistory back home, before The Warming?” said Falvar.

“Yes, sir,” said Xeras. “Our forbears lived through them, as will these small warm-bloods here, as will the archosaurs. But our projections show that each ice age will progressively weaken the grip of the archosaurs, and descendants of the little avisaurs you see here will fill each evolutionary niche as it falls vacant. Eventually – about seventy-five million years from now – this will appear.”

Xeras produced a palm-top showing a computer-generated image of a feathered biped. The creature was humanoid, but did not look in the least bit human. The prominent bony crest on its forehead was the most obvious difference, but it differed also in numerous other more minor ways.

“How intelligent are these creatures – or how intelligent will they be?” said Falvar.

“As intelligent as we are, sir,” said Xeras. “There is no doubt they will achieve a global civilisation.”

“Assuming they evolve at all.”

“All five Projection Programs predict that they will, with mean confidence of ninety-five percent,” said Xeras solemnly. “You know what that means, sir.”

Yes, Falvar knew what it meant. He had known since he’d read Xeras’s reports, but he’d needed to make certain for himself.

“I’ve seen enough,” he said. “We have a comet to deflect.”

The cometary nucleus was close now, its mottled bulk filling the entire viewing-screen. The dust tail was visible only as a white glow off to one side. A fainter blue glow marked the ion tail. Falvar could make out surface features resembling small craters and mountains. Suddenly, a luminous fog filled the screen, through which the surface could only be seen dimly.

He watched as Xeras activated the smaller graphical display on the screen. Their trajectory was fine; their velocity relative to the comet was now less than eighty miles per hour.

“Three minutes to optimum release point,” said Xeras.

The comet’s nucleus measured roughly eight miles by five: not enormous by cometary standards, but more than large enough for their purposes – assuming they did go on… what was he thinking of? Of course they were going on, there was no way they could stay and his only motives for insisting on hitching a ride to see for himself was to delay the inevitable decision he knew he must make. It was the only decision he could make under the Articles, but was it the right decision? Theox, of course, would not think so.

Two minutes to go.

The Chief Councillor had recently thrown his weight behind the campaign to abolish the Articles and replace them with a written Constitution vesting supreme authority in a democratically elected civilian government, rather than the Director.

You can’t run a spaceship by committee – not even one as big as the Realm. But the issues addressed by the Articles went way beyond the running of a spaceship – they addressed the whole future of the human race and its role in the universe. Surely such matters should be considered and evaluated by the whole of that race… who was he, or the long-dead Falandrafar for that matter, to say that ordinary people were not to be entrusted with such matters? I do solemnly swear to uphold the Articles of the Realm so help me God. Fifteen words that guaranteed a lifetime of unswerving devotion to the Articles from every cadet inducted into the Crew.

“The psychological tests provided for in the Articles ensure that only people of a certain mindset were accepted for cadet training. People who fit readily into what is a military caste in all but name.”

So Theox had said in one of his recent speeches. But the Chief Councillor was wrong, because here he was – Falvar, Director of the Realm – having serious doubts about what he was doing. Or was Theox wrong? Falvar intended to do as the Articles decreed anyway.

Only one minute to go now.

There was little to do; the release was automatic and the device was programmed to carry out its mission without human guidance. Outside, little could be seen through the nacreous glow of the comet’s inner coma – the nucleus was already extremely active, despite still being ten days from perihelion.

There was a gentle shudder as the device left its cradle. Simultaneously, Falvar felt the firm grip of the restraining fields on his body and the shuttle went to full acceleration, pushing him back into his seat. Presently the brighter stars began to shine through fast-thinning fog as the shuttle cleared the comet’s inner coma. He saw Xeras checking the telemetry from the device.

“All systems nominal. Chemical motor has successfully killed residual velocity relative to comet,” she reported.

Two minutes passed. Outside, the last wisps of gas were flying past. The comet’s brilliant dust tail, still greatly foreshortened, came into view along with the fainter blue ion tail. Xeras set the main viewer to departure angle, back along the way they’d come. Another minute passed with interminable slowness. Supposing the device failed to have the desired effect? It was sheer luck a suitable comet had been so close to perihelion – if anything went wrong, they’d have to wait months if not years for another opportunity.

Sheer good luck… or sheer bad luck? Stop thinking like that, he told himself furiously. A blinding white glare filled the screen. At a distance of three miles from the surface of the nucleus, the device had irradiated around a third of the surface with hard gamma rays. The comet appeared to develop a third tail, tangential to the other two, as over a billion tons of water methane and ammonia ices were converted instantly to superheated gas.

There was a danger that the rocket-like thrust so imparted would shatter the nucleus, but so far all looked well as radar images confirmed it was still intact, albeit erupting furiously in a dozen places on the shocked surface.

The shuttle was comfortably outrunning the expanding gas cloud, which had increased the luminosity of the comet by several magnitudes. It must be a spectacular sight now from the third planet. Of course, if all had gone according to plan, in a few weeks time it was going to become considerably more spectacular. It would swing by at just fifty thousand miles, using the planet as a gravity brake to place it in a near-circular orbit around the sun, permitting its desperately needed resources to be mined at leisure.

“It looks like the deflection has been a success,” said Xeras. “Though we did err on the side of caution, and my guess is we’ll have to fine-tune the trajectory with a second device just before the comet approaches the third planet in twenty-three days time.”

“Take us back to the Realm,” said Falvar.

As he waited for Theox to arrive, Falvar stared up through the glass-domed roof of his private office in the Realm’s Control Centre. The daylight lamps were approaching full strength, flooding the Realm with their golden glow. There were still a few of the original inhabitants of the Realm left alive. Now, for the first time, he could truly appreciate what it must have been like to watch a sunrise on Earth – a proper sunrise, not the switching on of a glorified light bulb.

At forty-eight, Falvar was still just about young enough to have hope that a suitable planet might be found in his lifetime.

But Theox was one of those original voyagers, and at his age there was no such hope.
The telephone on his desk chimed. It was his secretary, announcing the arrival of Theox. “Show him in,” he said and rose to greet the elderly politician, whose face was set in an angry glare. There’s been a leak, Falvar thought. That’s all we need. “Thank you for coming to see me, Chief Councillor,” he said a little lamely.

“Let’s not waste time on pleasantries, Falvar,” Theox growled. “We both know why I’m here. I have it on good authority that a comet has been diverted into a suitable orbit for us to mine it. Why would we do that if we didn’t need to refurbish the Realm’s ice shield, so we can continue the voyage?”

“We’ve found life-forms on the planet that will almost certainly evolve into intelligent beings,” said Falvar defensively.

“Allegedly.”

“All five of the Projection Programs give the same answer, with a mean confidence far greater than that specified by the Articles.”

“Very well,” said Theox, “let’s assume for the sake of argument that the results are valid. You are saying that we are going to turn our backs on the first planet we’ve found completely suitable for colonisation because of some avisaurs that will become intelligent millions of years from now?”

Falvar made a mental note to carpet Security Chief Naxxy as soon as the meeting was over.
“Article 1 is quite unequivocal on the matter,” he said.

“Seventy-five million years in the future?” said Theox, his voice rising. “Do you seriously think we should be thinking so far ahead? We are an intelligent species existing now.”

“The Articles –” began Falvar.

“To hell with the Articles!” stormed Theox. “You know perfectly well they are an irrelevant doctrine, compiled by humans long dead, who furthermore knew perfectly well that they would never have to live with the possible consequences.”

Falvar was silent for a moment, struggling to keep heretical thoughts at bay. “Do you seriously think that Falandrafar spent thirty years setting up the Foundation and getting the construction of the Realm started, then devised the Articles as an act of spite because he knew he’d be dead long before it reached its destination?”

Theox must have sensed his doubt and appeared visibly less angry. “I think you’ve got to accept that he was under tremendous pressure throughout all those years, and that he was terminally ill when he drew up the Articles might have clouded his judgement.”

“Nobody wants to leave this world behind,” Falvar said. “But we have no choice.”

“Wrong,” said Theox, with a return to his aggressive manner. “You have no choice. The Crew have no choice. But I never swore to uphold your precious Articles and neither did the vast majority of the people on this Realm.”

“What are you saying?”

“I suppose it has occurred to you that as the Crew are outnumbered about a thousand to one by the civilian population, if enough civilians felt strongly enough about it, there’s not a lot you could do to force us to continue the voyage. Especially as the Articles prohibit the Crew from bearing arms.”

“Is that a threat, Chief Councillor?”

“No, Director, merely an observation.”

The Primary Control Room was bustling with activity as Xeras’ shuttle made its final approach to the comet, but Falvar, seated beside First Officer Cephella on the command dais, had little to do but stare up at the display cluster. The large main monitor was displaying images of the comet. Smaller monitors were still showing probe images from the third planet, but nobody was paying them any attention. He had heard, though, that Xeras had been taking data feeds from the surface probes throughout her two-day journey to intercept the comet.

Maybe Theox had been planning a revolution, but had been unable to drum up the necessary support. The daily demonstrations outside the Control Centre had been growing steadily smaller for the last week. It wasn’t that surprising, really. Ninety percent of the population had been born on the Realm; probably a significant number of those found the prospect of adapting to a wholly new way of life daunting, even if they wouldn’t admit it. Notably few of the few remaining protestors were under fifty.

Or was there something he’d missed? There was something about that exchange with Theox. It wasn’t just an observation; it hadn’t sounded like an idle threat either.

Falvar tried to tell himself he was being paranoid. Or was he secretly hoping a revolution would let him off the hook?

The comet was getting close now, but the release point was still some minutes away. Xeras signalled that she had fired her retro-rockets to kill the shuttle’s residual relative motion with respect to the comet.

The nuclear device, much lower in yield to the one detonated twenty-three days earlier, would fine-adjust the comet’s trajectory, so it would make a close approach to the planet, travelling against the direction of its orbital motion. The effect would be the reverse of a gravity assist – a gravity break. Success was vital. Without the comet, the voyage could not be continued. It would be months, if not years before another suitable comet could be located. Which just might give Theox the time he needed to organise a revolt.

Falvar became aware of a commotion behind him, but nobody on the command dais moved or spoke. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Security Chief Naxxy. He looked round. About a dozen of Naxxy’s men were fanning out across the Control Room.

“What the hell is going on?” he barked at Cephella.

The First Officer looked him straight in the eye. “Recall Xeras, Director. Order her to disarm the nuclear device and return here immediately.”

“What?”

“Recall Xeras, Director. It’s over. I’m relieving you of command.”

Falvar rose to his feet. “On what authority?”

“Mine, Director,” said a voice behind Falvar.

He spun round to see Theox standing behind the command dais.

“Pending free elections, the Realm is now under a provisional civilian government headed up by myself,” Theox continued calmly. “The Articles have been suspended and Crew functions will from now on be under the command of Cephella.”

Falvar stared round the Control Room, now liberally sprinkled with security men. It was obvious that only a minority of the Crew had joined the mutiny, but nobody looked willing to actively oppose it either. He could now quite reasonably surrender responsibility for abandoning the planet. He felt a guilty – and short-lived sense of relief.

Because he did still have one option.

“Suppose I refuse to order Xeras to abort the comet-deflection mission? You need to stop the mission, don’t you? Because if you don’t, your revolution might fail.”

“You are perfectly correct,” replied Theox, “but Xeras’ mission will fail anyway if you don’t order her to abort. Her nuclear device is booby-trapped. If she attempts to launch it, it will detonate immediately.”

“You’re bluffing.”

Theox looked Falvar in the eye. “Are you prepared to take a chance, Director?”

“This is nothing short of terrorism,” stormed Falvar.

“I greatly respect the principles behind the Articles, but I have to think of the million people we’ve got here on the Realm. We will do what we can for the avisaurs – perhaps our distant descendants will share the planet with another intelligent species.”

Wearily, Falvar resumed his seat and looked over to Cephella. “Patch me through to Xeras.”

“A word of advice, Falvar,” said Theox. “Don’t try warning Xeras. She’s foolish enough to think it’s a bluff too.”

“You have contact, Director,” said Cephella.

The fuzzy image of Xeras appeared, somewhat degraded by increasing interference from the comet’s ion tail. A delay of few seconds followed, due to the distance between the shuttle and the Realm, then radio crackled into life.

“Director?”

“Forget the honorifics, Xeras, it’s plain Falvar from now on. Theox has staged a revolution. The mission is aborted. Disarm your nuclear device and return to the Realm.”

Another pause followed. Then:

“I regret, sir, that I am unable to comply.”

Falvar felt an irrational flash of anger. Was everybody going to mutiny today? “Dammit, Xeras, I’m giving you a direct order. Disarm your nuclear device and return to the Realm!”

Falvar waited for a reply, but there was none. The display cluster blanked out. He stared at Cephella.

“Nothing to do with us, sir, she’s broken contact.” The voice was urgent, the “sir” probably a subconscious lapse. “But I’m still getting telemetry. She’s launched the device.”

“The bomb…” started Falvar. The words died on his lips. Obviously there was no bomb.

Theox shrugged. “You were correct, Falvar, it was a bluff. We considered it, but none of our supporters among the Crew wanted to know.”

Falvar ignored him. “Surely she’s not at the release point yet?”

“She isn’t… Astronomy now confirm detonation.”

“Where’s that damned comet going to end up if the device went off early?” said Theox nervously.

“We’ll know in a few minutes, Councillor,” said Cephella. “I’ll put the projections up on the screen.”

Once again, the display cluster came back to life, this time with a series of graphics representing the shifting trajectory of the comet and the orbit of the planet. The plot lines stabilised. Falvar was still trying to interpret the display when he heard Cephella gasp in horror…

“You do know that the probes on the planet were still returning data. Since nobody else was interested, I had it fed to me on the shuttle. Look at this.”

Falvar took the proffered palm-top from Xeras. “Mice?” he exclaimed, staring at the image of the small furry mammals displayed.

“No, sir,” said Xeras, “these creatures are primitive insectivores. Like the avisaurs, they are shy and nocturnal – and a lot smaller and even more elusive. Which is why they were missed at first. Like the avisaurs, they have evolved comparatively large brains, for basically the same reasons. But there is one important difference. These mammals will survive the impact winter – they will simply hibernate through it. The world they will wake up to won’t be pleasant – but they’ll be the largest living things in it.”

“Are you saying that a race of intelligent beings will arise from these creatures?” said Falvar.

Xeras took back the palmtop, tapped at its screen with a stylus and handed it over once more. In place of the insectivores was a computer-generated image of two bipeds standing side by side. The left-hand biped was far more passably human than the projection Xeras had shown Falvar down on the now-devastated planet, the one difference being that it had neither feathers nor scales. But the one on the right showed some differences. It was smaller, more rounded at the hips and two protuberances were present on the upper torso. These, combined with its smooth skin, gave it a weirdly sensual appearance.

“The one on the right is female,” Xeras said.

Falvar tried to suppress his almost sexual reaction to the female’s appearance. “The one on the right is smaller,” he said.

“Sexual dimorphism,” said Xeras, which left Falvar none the wiser. “The female is also wider around the hips to accommodate the birth canal – like all mammals, she gives birth to live offspring, rather than laying eggs. She also has two milk-producing organs on her upper torso. Other than that, these creatures, which will probably evolve in around sixty-five million years from now, are remarkably similar to humans. A classic example of convergent evolution, I would say.”

“But that still doesn’t alter the fact that you’ve violated the Articles – the impact’s left the way clear for these creatures rather than the avisaurs.”

“No sir. We were wrong about the avisaurs – the mammals would have supplanted both them and the archosaurs regardless. But without the impact it would have taken much longer. All I’ve done is speed things up by a few million years.”

Falvar looked at the graphical image again. “Give them scales like us and I’d be convinced they were human.”

“They are human, sir, or will be,” said Xeras.

“How so?” said Falvar. “They are, after all, alien beings. They are not of Earth. They aren’t even reptiles.”

“”Human”. “Earth”. Did you realize that both terms are derived from words meaning “topsoil”? That is so for every culture in our history, implying a harmony between the land and the people which I like to think we never entirely lost, despite the mess we eventually made of Earth.”

“So?”

“As with different cultures on our homeworld, so with different races on different planets. We’ll never know, of course, but I’d be surprised if these creatures do not come to think of themselves as human, and that planet down there as Earth.”

© Christopher Seddon 2001, 2008

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The Trouble with Online Dating

Dating, Technology and the Human Condition
Dating websites have been with us since the turn of the millennium and are an inevitable consequence of the internet, which came into widespread use during the previous decade. The logic behind such sites is inexorable – if you can order goods and services and book holidays online, why should you not look for a partner? On the face of it, online dating is the “killer app” of the singles scene. Unfortunately, as I intend to show in this article, the reality is rather different. I must make it clear at this stage that I am not suggesting this is due to any unethical practices on the part of the proprietors of the dating sites themselves. The problem lies with the fact the sites are being used by human beings and way in which human beings choose partners. This has the ironic consequence that online dating – far from providing a decisive advantage over dating services using older methods – actually makes things much harder.

A Brief History of Dating Services
The idea behind using dating services (agencies, personal ads, etc) has been around for a long time. The need for them is fairly obvious – not everybody lives and works in an environment where they can regularly meet people of the opposite sex; partying and clubbing does not appeal to everybody; and understandably there are many who would rather be proactive than wait for somebody to come along by chance.

The one problem with the “blind date” in its many guises is that no matter how well two people might get on by letter, over the phone or latterly by email, to slightly modify an old proverb the proof of the pudding is in the meeting. There is quite simply no way to determine without meeting somebody whether the so-called “chemistry” will be right. Consequently it will usually be necessary to go on a number of dates before meeting somebody compatible. Any dating service must therefore focus on quantity as well as quality of matches.

The idea of using computer technology to meet a partner is also not new and so-called “computer dating” agencies first appeared as long ago as the 1960s, in fact not long after computers came into general use. These early systems were fairly basic – subscribers filled in a questionnaire, the details were input to a computer, which would then print out a list of hopefuls for the subscriber to contact. In turn, his or her details might appear on the contact sheets of other members. Although the idea might seem positively alarming now, well into the 1980s the details provided included not just telephone numbers but home addresses of prospects! The market leader was Dateline International (a play on the international dateline) who opened their doors for business in 1966. Contact sheets listed six members – typically this might yield one or two actual dates.

These systems ran alongside more traditional “introduction agencies” and the time-honoured “personal” advertisements which were carried by many publications, notably Time Out.

These latter also began to benefit from technology during the 1990s when advertisers were able to record “voice greetings” in which they described themselves and which could be listened to by interested parties by dialling a premium-rate number and entering the relevant box number. If still interested, they could then leave a message for the advertiser, who in turn could retrieve their responses in a similar fashion. In addition to Time Out, publications such as the London Evening Standard and broadsheets such as the Guardian and the Independent began to offer this service to their readers.

Introduction agencies had a rather patchy reputation during the latter quarter of the last century, but some were more reputable and one in particular deserves an honourable mention. This is the quirkily-named Drawing down the Moon (DDM), which was and still is highly regarded. The format was extremely simple – if successful in passing a screening interview (membership was aimed at people of above-average intelligence who for the most part were university educated), subscribers filled in a thoughtfully-crafted questionnaire which was simply filed in a ring-binder together with a photograph. They could then look through the files of other members’ details and pick out about a dozen prospects which would then each be sent a photocopy of the member’s completed questionnaire together with their photograph and phone number. If the recipients were interested, they’d get in touch. Conversely the member might themselves be “chosen” by another member and sent their details. In both cases the onus would be on the recipient of the details to make contact. DDM advised their members that the “hit rate” was about 20-25%. Thus a “mailout” to twelve prospects might yield 2-3 actual dates. It is interesting to compare this with the “hit rate” for Dateline and note that they are very similar, despite the very different methodologies of the two organizations. We shall return to this point later.

Enter the Online Dating site
All the systems we have discussed above had drawbacks – with Dateline one knew nothing about the names on the contact sheet save they met the subscriber’s basic stipulations regarding age, height, education, location, etc. With the voicemail system, it was necessary to wait for the advertisement to appear and a certain amount of planning in re-running it at intervals. With DDM, it was necessary to schedule a trip to their offices in Kensington at fairly regular intervals to make selections. Nevertheless all of these systems made it fairly easy to get dates with potentially compatible members of the opposite sex, the odd “horror story” notwithstanding.

The online dating site would seem to offer all of the advantages of the above systems without any of the drawbacks:

1) Members can access detailed information on line about prospects.
2) Contact details don’t have to be exchanged until both members agree.
3) The site can be accessed from a member’s home at any time of the day or night.
4) Once a member has uploaded their details, they are ready to go – there is no waiting for an advertisement to appear in an external publication.

Given all these seeming advantages over the older systems, which did themselves produce reasonable results, one would expect online dating to represent another triumph for the internet. In fact the emergence of the dating site has made things far harder. The amount of time needed to secure a date in comparison to the older systems is far higher and the average “quality” of dates in terms of compatibility is certainly no better and is, if anything, worse. Furthermore the frustrations experienced along the way are apt to engender such negative sentiments about the whole concept of online dating as to make success even less likely.

The rosy picture
Wait a minute – is all this really true? Newspapers and magazines are apt to heap praise on dating sites and regularly carry features in which a reporter has joined a dating site and has been deluged by emails from hopefuls. However these feature writers have certain things in common:

1) They are always female.
2) They are always very attractive (or so the photograph that invariably accompanies the feature would suggest).
3) They are always in their twenties.

Have you ever seen such a feature written by a bald middle-aged man? No. Have you ever seen such a feature written by any man, or a single parent, or a woman over the age of 40? No – and I suggest assuming they want the story to contain at least one account of an actual date it would take a very patient editor indeed to commission such a feature.

The Reality
The absurd number of emails our sexy female 20-something reporters claim to receive in a single day would take a typical male member several years to realise. Most men, of course, aren’t in the habit of waiting for this to happen, so they start emailing prospects… and there the problems begin.

The vast majority of emails receive either no response or a negative response, the latter generally accompanied by a dubious reason why it is not possible to take things further (the common claim to have “met somebody” begs the question as to why are they continuing to use the site). Even if somebody enters into a dialogue there is a fairly high probability that they will suddenly break off communications without a word of explanation. It might take 20-30 or even more initial emails before a dialogue ensues which actually leads to a date. This is about five times worse than the hit rates associated with the other methods described above.

An explanation would be is that there is a huge imbalance of men over women using dating sites in relation to other methods. But this is not the case – although more men than women do use the sites overall, the imbalance isn’t that great (for example Dating Direct claim a ratio of 55% men against 45% women). Also if this was so one would expect the women to be “snapped up” very quickly. But that doesn’t happen – women who have made their excuses or not replied at all often continue to show up in searches months later, or even turn up on completely different sites. So the women don’t seem to be getting any more out of online dating than the men.

All of which can only be explained by the women rejecting a far higher percentage of would-be suitors at the first hurdle than they would with other dating systems.

The million-dollar question is why?

Why are the women so picky?
That women are generally far more picky than men isn’t really a mystery when one considers how long it takes to get a woman pregnant versus the time it takes to bring the subsequent pregnancy to term and bring up the child. The woman needs to know that the man is going to stick around and play his part in bringing up the child. Of no lesser importance to the woman is to choose a fit and healthy man to father her child – one who is likely to father fit and healthy children. These two goals frequently work at cross-purposes.

Homo sapiens is believed to have evolved in Africa 200,000-150,000 years ago. The earliest undisputed anatomically modern human to have so far been identified, H.s. idaltu, lived almost 160,000 years ago in what is now Ethiopia. Although some authorities claim the mental evolution of our species (so-called modern human behaviour) lagged our physical evolution by a 100,000 years or more, this view is looking increasingly untenable but even if it accepted nobody doubts that by 50,000 years ago humans as mentally-adept as ourselves existed. But despite the beautiful art work produced by the people of this era, their lifestyle was that of the hunter-gatherer and remained so for tens of millennia. People lived in small groups, where everybody knew each other. Not until the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago do we see evidence of greater social complexity as agriculture began to replace hunter-gathering and the first proto-urban settlements such as Jericho and Catalhuyuk appeared; and the first state-level societies with complexity approaching that of modern society do not appear until around 6500 years ago with the rise of the Sumerian, Babylonian and Indus Valley civilizations.

Sexual selection was part of the original behavioural package which as stated above arose at least 50,000 years ago and probably much earlier. But the complex society in which humans now have to make mate choice has only existed for a fraction of that time. Sexual selection in humans, evolved for a hunter-gatherer society, has probably not had time to adjust to the new conditions.

If we accept, then, that mate selection has been problematic for humans under the social conditions of the last 6,500 years, it is no great mystery why the use of dating services complicates the matter still further. What has not yet been explained is why online dating compares so poorly with other dating methods.

Choosing a partner
It is generally accepted that people make up their minds about a prospective partner fairly quickly – estimates of just how long range from a few seconds to a few minutes, but it is certainly safe to say that if your date isn’t showing signs of attraction through their body-language after twenty minutes or so they never will. But how does attraction happen?

For the sake of this discussion we can dismiss such things as dress sense, money, having a flashy car etc. Not having these things can disqualify; conversely having them is no guarantee of success. I would argue that what is colloquially referred to as “chemistry” is largely independent of such things. This view is supported by recent research (Nature 451 pp760-762).

I have not the slightest doubt that a Nobel Prize awaits the person who can unravel the secret of what makes “chemistry” work. Certainly there are no end of theories – pheromones have become a prime suspect in recent years, in which case the notion of chemistry might literally be true. However the two main sensory modalities – sight and sound – almost certainly play a central role, with sight the more important of the two. What is certain is that all the sensory modalities are involved to an extent and hence there is no way the presence or absence of “chemistry” can be predicted in advance – it is necessary to meet a prospective partner to get a definitive answer.

What can be done is to improve the odds by giving hopefuls as much relevant information as possible about a prospective partner. I would argue that this is what dating sites fail to do; moreover their modus operandi encourages members to dismiss prospects on the basis of misleading information.

How online dating fails
By “relevant information” I mean sensory data. Let us now compare the various dating methods previously described and see how much sensory data they provide:

1) Dateline – None.
2) Drawing down the Moon – Photograph, handwriting.
3) Voicemail ads – Sound.
4) Online dating – Photograph.

If we accept that sight is more important than sound, the first reaction will be to think that surely systems that enable members to look at photographs are going to have the edge and that online dating sites are bettered only by the far more expensive DDM. There is no doubt that both dating sites and the people who use them (of both sexes) place great emphasis on members posting photographs of themselves. The sites claim members doing so receive up to seven times as many replies (albeit the obvious retort that “seven times f*** all is still f*** all!”). Women openly post that they will not reply to members who do not have a photograph (though in most cases having one seems to make very little difference). A milder comment is that “I like to see who I am talking to”. And thereby hangs the great fallacy – two great fallacies in fact.

Just how much information can be gleaned from a photograph? I would argue that it serves as little more than an aid to recognition when two people meet. I’d argue a photograph gives little clue as to whether or not you will be attracted to somebody. Some people are simply more photogenic than others. Another consideration is the quality of the photograph – at DDM members’ photographs would be screened and they would be advised if a photograph submitted for consideration didn’t do them full justice. This is a facility no dating sites offer. Yet despite these drawbacks, a significant number of women on receiving an email will look at the photograph that accompanies it and then don’t even bother to read the sender’s details.

I mentioned two great fallacies and the second is to think that a conversation by email constitutes “talking” to somebody. It doesn’t. The difference between the two is at least as great as the difference between seeing a photograph of somebody and seeing that person for real. The drawback online dating has even compared with Dateline becomes obvious when one considers the two following scenarios:

Scenario 1. Time – present day.
Mike picks out Jane’s details on a dating site and sends her a brief message:
“Hi Jane – I liked your pic and your details. I think we might have a few interests in common [lists examples]. Hope to hear from you – Mike.”
Jane notes that she does indeed like classical music, the theatre and art galleries. But the photograph is so-so. She makes a mental note to check out Mike’s details at some stage, but she never gets round to it.

Scenario 2. Time – 1982.
Mike receives Jane’s contact details. In the absence of any other course of action, he phones her.

“Hi, my name’s Mike, I got your name from Dateline”.
At this stage Jane of course has no foreknowledge of their shared interests, but she does think Mike has a rather sexy voice…

If, fast-forwarding to the 1990s, Mike was to place a voicemail ad, the outcome would be the same. Jane would read his ad, which contains sufficient detail to tempt Jane into listening to his voice greeting… she leaves him a message.

Drawing down the Moon doesn’t provide the vocal dimension, but Mike’s photograph is better, having been selected from a group submitted for consideration. Also his hand-written profile does provide considerably more insight than it would if it had been typed – it’s not just what you write but the way that you write it.

To sum up: Dateline succeeds by virtue of the very lack of information it provides – members are forced to make direct contact straightaway in order to achieve anything. Voicemail succeeds because it conveys sensory data – voice – about both advertiser and respondent. DDM succeeds by virtue of the exemplary quality of service it provides to its members – but it is far more expensive than other methods described here. Crucially though, online dating fails because members believe seeing photographs and exchanging emails constitutes seeing and talking to somebody.

But online dating services DO offer spoken voice
It is entirely true that many online dating sites do now offer members the opportunity to post a voice greeting or even a video of themselves. This on the face of it would refute the criticisms I have made. But to return to the point I made at the very start of the article, my criticisms are not directed at the sites themselves but the way they are used. Only a tiny fraction of members post a voice greeting; the number is so small as to be almost irrelevant. Where the sites are culpable is that while they constantly exhort members to post photographs, no corresponding effort is made to encourage members to post a voice greeting. But the membership can also be blamed – how many members threaten to boycott emails from those failing to post a voice greeting or say that they’d like to hear who they are talking to?

To ask the question posed by Lenin under rather different circumstances in 1902, what is to be done?

Really the dating sites have got to take the lead. Over a quarter of a century ago, using the then cutting edge technology of home videos, the Chelsea-based dating agency Masterview made a valiant attempt to tackle the problem. Members visited a studio where a short video was made of them in which they would talk about their interests, outlook on life and what they were looking for in a relationship. In a similar fashion to Drawing Down the Moon, they could review details of other members and choose those they were interested in. The drawback of the system was that it wasn’t possible for members to then send videos of themselves to prospects – they would receive only a photograph and contact details. But with modern technology, it is very easy to post a video of oneself on line and as noted, many dating sites do indeed offer their members this facility. What they need to do is to encourage or even obligate members to do so.

The problem is that they have little incentive to do so. While members are paying to use the sites, why should they impose conditions that would certainly discourage many people from joining? From the point of view of the sites themselves, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

The answer might be for a “niche player” to take up the challenge, offering a “premium” service at possibly a slightly higher price. Such a service ideally would also avoid the almost universal practice of having “free” members, i.e. those who register their details but never actually subscribe and thus cannot use most of a site’s features, usually including the ability to reply to messages. Thus the site would attract only people who are genuinely serious about using it to meeting a partner.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

A Pub at each Corner

Brentford F.C. are far better known for having a pub at each corner of their Griffin Park ground than for anything they have ever achieved on the pitch. Rather than drink in all four pubs (despite two of them selling London Pride!) I decided to photograph them. Below are the four pubs, the exterior of the main stand and a couple of Griffin Park’s old-fashioned pylon-mounted floodlights.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Waterlow Park

Waterlow Park in North London was the gift to the public of Sir Sydney Waterlow in 1889. Over the last five years I’ve shot innumerable photographs there at different times of the year, day and under varying weather conditions. These are a selection of shots of the same scene, featuring a covered bench.

3 November 2002

22 March 2003

4 May 2003

28 October 2006

15 September 2007

22 December 2007

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Stanton Drew Stone Circle

Located in a field just outside the village of Stanton Drew near Bristol (OS Map reference: ST 601634) this is the second largest stone circle in Britain, surpassed only by Avebury. The Great Circle is 113 m in diameter and consists of 27 stones. There are two smaller circles – a 30 metre circle to the north-east with 8 stones, and a 40 metre circle to the south-west with 11.

The site is on private land, with no visitor facilities, for which reason it is far less well known than its impressive size warrants. Admission costs one pound, to be placed in an honesty box.

Below are a few of the pictures I took on New Year’s Day, 2008.

© Christopher Seddon 2008