Jasmine on tour

I’ve been on holiday for the last week – a week without writing but with wonderful walks, admirable scenery, and excellent weather (surprisingly). We have been staying on the western edge of Pembrokeshire (Wales). One reason for coming here was to visit Skomer Island.  This is a nature reserve with no permanent inhabitants and visitors limited to 200 per day. The island is principally a nesting and breeding site for various seabirds. About 300,000 Manx shearwaters use it, about half of the breeding population. There are also guillemots, kittiwakes, amongst other visitors, plus home-based gulls, predators such as falcons, short-eared owls and choughs and other small land birds. These are all interesting and would attract keen birdwatchers to the small island, but doesn’t explain why during the breeding season there are queues for the few sailings to the island and often visitors are turned away. These birds aren’t the main attraction; top-billing goes to – the puffins.

IMGP6522

Around 30,000 puffins visit Skomer between May and July, a sizeable proportion of the total population. They spend the rest of their lives at sea in the North Atlantic, out of sight and, until recently, unknown. It is when they come ashore to mate, lay their eggs and raise their young that they become the focus of human interest and, I would say, the reason for the success of Skomer’s conservation effort. Why puffins? Well, of course, they are cute – small, colourful (in their beaks), with faces that seem to show expression (thanks to their markings), and they fly in an amusing, eager, wing-flapping manner. However, the main reason is where they nest. They lay their eggs in burrows in the soil on clifftops, which happen to be exactly the place that the human sightseers can get to. The puffins have no fear of humans – they’re protected, after all – and seem to pay little or no attention to their watchers or the clicking cameras. They will stand or sit in their burrows inches away from paths and put on a marvellous display for the tourists. On Skomer there are a number of large areas where thousands of puffins can be watched at close quarters performing their natural antics, and very amusing they are too.

The other birds nest on inaccessible cliffs, or keep out of sight. Binoculars are needed to see details or a great deal of patience is required. Puffins provide entertainment without effort. They are a gift to the conservation groups bringing in £2000 a day to Skomer in the season. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and took dozens of photos of puffins, but while the puffins and other birds get on with the business of ensuring there is a next generation I wonder what the eager tourists to Skomer reveal us about human behaviour.

And so to next episode of Benefactors, my SF failed-novel. I really would appreciate some comments, you know.

Benefactors: Part 7

Helen felt the blood drain from her face. He hands shook. ‘You’re going to wipe my mind.’
‘A bit of it. In accordance with the Special Powers Act of 2026. I am sure you have read about the procedure Professor. The completion of the Neurone Map and the realisation that certain behaviours such as the Syndrome E abnormality could be localised and corrected by deep brain stimulation permits us to at last rectify the behaviours of people who have been radicalised or who hold dangerous beliefs.’
‘Syndrome E! That’s serial killers, suicide bombers and death cult jihadis.’
‘That is true. But the technique works as well on other parts of the brain such as the memory centres. If we can locate the site of a particular memory then it can be altered or removed.’
‘No, you can’t. I’ve read about it. It’s not as precise as that. You’ll remove my specialist knowledge. You’re going to end my career.’
The man looked sad again. ‘There may be a little collateral damage. Don’t worry. You won’t be aware of what you lose.’
‘You stupid man. You’re talking about ending my life as a thinking, reasoning person. I’ll be a vegetable.’
‘The effects may be similar to that of a stroke. Of course, we do have excellent treatment for stroke sufferers these days. The cause of your disability will of course be secret.’
‘But my friends, my colleagues. They’ll have been wondering what has happened to me. They’ll be asking questions.’
He smiled. ‘I’m afraid not. The university was informed that you were taken ill on the way to your department and that you have been removed to a specialist facility to give you the best treatment possible as your position deserves.’
Helen opened her mouth but no sound came out. Of course, she had no family. Her parents were dead and other relations were in India. She had never found time for a partner so lived alone.  They had thought of everything and tied her up in coils of lies. There was something though.
‘What about Darmaan. Are you doing the same with him. It’s a strange coincidence that he should suffer a stroke when we were together.’
‘Were you together? None of your friends or acquaintances were aware that you had been in contact with Dr Shamarke in recent days. I’m afraid that Dr Shamarke was involved in an accident on his way to work, alone.’
‘Darmaan. . .’ He’d been a friend, someone she had worked with when she needed IT assistance, but somehow she felt a huge loss. ‘Is he alright? What have you done with him?’
‘I’m afraid I do not have the authority to reveal what steps are being taken with Dr Shamarke.’
Helen sank back into the chair. She felt exhausted, defeated. They had taken everything from her – her files, her friends, her freedom and now they wanted to take her thoughts. But there was still one person who knew about the tree.
‘There’s still Jock Fraser. He’s in Kenya, and there’s still a tree.’
‘Dr Fraser is in custody. All the trees have been destroyed. They were discovered to contain a toxic narcotic which was harmful to the population.’
Helen covered her face with her hands and wept. She was a child again, being told what to do, punished for disobeying her parents.
‘I’ll leave you now, Professor. It won’t be long before we carry out the terms of your NAO.’
Helen was alone.  She sobbed for a little longer, enjoying the feeling of misery, the stab of pain caused by defeat.

Mindless misery wasn’t really her. She’d grown out of self-pity before she was ten years old. She had learned that problems always had a solution even if you had to reject everything you had. She sat up, blew her nose and started to think. Had she really been conned by Jock Fraser and others unknown? If so, was the purpose to discredit her? It was too ridiculous to contemplate. She couldn’t think of anyone who would go to such an elaborate ruse to ruin her scientific reputation. She had achieved her position by hard work not by the insights of a genius. She was a plodder not a Nobel prize winner. Another thought came to her.  If the plan had been to reveal that her acceptance of the tree data as real was a huge sting, then why was the government involved? At least she presumed her gaoler was part of the government. He seemed genuine but how would she know. This was getting confusing. She had to apply Occam’s Razor. If there are two or more explanations for a phenomenon, then the simplest is probably the correct one.
She had to accept that the data supplied to her by Fraser was from the tree and that it did contain some remarkable information. The government, or the part of it to which the agent called Orange belonged, was worried about it becoming common knowledge, and because of that they were prepared to sacrifice her mind in order to keep it secret. She had to find a way to persuade Orange not to carry out the Neurological Adjustment Order. She must retain her intellect.
The question was why the government was so worried? Was it because of the effect on the population of the knowledge that the plant’s genome was tinkered with millennia ago by an earlier, unknown civilisation or by aliens. Or, was the government scared by the possibilities of the new ideas frozen in the genome. Perhaps it wasn’t the possibilities themselves but the fear of others utilising them and surpassing the government’s own efforts. That sort of thing had fuelled the nuclear arms race but which nations now had the resources to embark on another futile competition for mutually assured destruction? But nuclear fission had been our own discovery and the atom bomb born out of the fears of the Second World War and the Cold War that followed. Surely no-one, human or otherwise, would hide, in the cells of the tree, the secrets of how humanity could eradicate itself from the universe. What would be the point of having that knowledge hidden away for hundreds of thousands of years until humans were just capable of reading and understanding its message.
She had to convince those that intended to damage her mind that the tree was a gift that could provide unmeasurable benefits and that her expertise was needed to tap it.
Helen smiled. She had a task and one that she was good at. Scientific research was not really her strength. She was far better as a teacher, an organiser, someone who could persuade the team to work together and the financiers to back the effort. She stood up and began pacing her small room.  She had a presentation to put together, perhaps the most important of her career.

………..to be continued.

Advertisements

Jasmine has an opinion

WP_20180516_13_28_54_ProWhat makes a woman?”, the Channel 4 programme with Munroe Bergdorf continued the exposure of gender issues in the media and to which I referred last week. The first part dealt with Munroe’s facial feminisation surgery which covered the same ground as Transformation Street.  What was more interesting was Munroe’s meetings with various people to discuss the question of whether transwomen are women.  This brought out many well-worn opinions e.g. women have beauty (!), women are mothers, women have a vagina, what you are born with is defines who you are. There were also scenes outside and inside a meeting of radical feminists opposing changes to the Gender Recognition  Act which would allow some form of self-identification of gender. The speeches were frightening in their dismissal of transwomen and using fear of men to whip up anger at transpeople using the spurious argument that if men could self-identify as women they would invade women-s spaces in order to rape them. If men wanted to they could already dress up and lie in wait in those spaces. It doesn’t happen.  The bitterness of these feminists made me sad and worried.

The problem is that 99% of the population are not only satisfied with the gender they were assigned and brought up by family, friends and society to accept, but they have given little thought to what gender is. Most people accept the binary view of the world without noticing or acknowledging that everyone has their own identity, characteristics and individuality.  If you examine the behaviour of people it is easy to see that there is a spectrum of gender. The 99% see no reason fir changing their views. But modern society has changed. On the one hand western society has become somewhat more accepting allowing transpeople (and other minorities) to be more open and assertive. Hence all the media attention. But on the other social media has provided a platform and a shield for people to be more outspoken in their views. The Brexit business in the UK and the election of Trump in the USA showed that the population is split with a sizeable proportion holding entrenched bigoted views. People are less prepared to allow others to express views that they don’t hold.  It is dangerous.

Going back to the question Munroe posed, I don’t know what the answer is, except that gender or identity is not determined by the physical form of a baby at birth. I identify as gender-fluid, although I still use “trans” for convenience. I do not know how a “woman” or a “man” thinks, despite having lived my working life as a man and being married to a woman that I love for over 30 years. I don’t think any person can know what every other person feels and, to be specific, radical feminists cannot know how other women feel about themselves.  I do know that I am comfortable being feminine rather than overtly masculine and that I am attracted to styles of dress and appearance that are labelled female. For us 1% I think it would be wonderful if there was no such thing as gender and that everyone was treated as an individual, but I’m wishing for a fairytale.

………………………

To change the subject. I had a lovely day in Aberystwyth this week attending a meeting of the Society of Authors.  As always I find writers wonderfully accepting and I am increasingly seeing the SoA as my union, providing advice and support to me as a writer. I’m looking forward to the next meeting of the Welsh chapter.

And so to the next episode of Benefactors, my SF novella or fragment of a novel.

Benefactors: Part 6

Chapter 6

The sky was bright blue but the Sun was still below the peaks of the eastern hills when Ekuru Lengabilo started up the Toyota. The boy and the old woman sat in the seats behind Jock, the boy pointing the direction to take. It took just half an hour bumping over the rough ground till they came to the entrance to a gully.
Ekuru pulled up. ‘I think it’s too narrow for the car.’
Jock got out and helped the woman and boy step down from the vehicle. ‘Lead the way,’ he said to the lad. Ekuru translated and they set off with Ekuru and the boy helping the old woman to walk. The steep-sided valley weaved left and right but within a couple of hundred metres it opened up slightly. There, standing alone on the patch of sparse grass was the tree. It was less than a metre taller than Jock with twisted, gnarled branches which were thinly leafed.
Jock stopped to take in the view. He felt joy that at least one tree still existed.
The air fizzed just above his head. The tree exploded in flame and smoke and splinters.
Jock, froze, his breath halted. On the ridges on either side of the gully, figures in full camouflage kit rose, weapons trained on him and his companions.
‘Don’t move,’ one soldier commanded in English. Ekuru turned and ran back the way they had come. Jock turned to warn him but a gun fired and Ekuru fell.
‘No!’ Jock ran to him and knelt beside his body. Blood covered the flesh-torn back. Jock knew there was no hope. The boy and woman joined him muttering in their own language. The soldiers surrounded them.
‘You will accompany us,’ the commander said and signalled them to start moving. They retraced their steps to the Toyota. A helicopter stood a short distance from the smoking wreck of the vehicle. Two of the soldiers carrying Ekuru’s body placed it by the side of the burnt-out car.
‘Get into the ‘copter,’ the commander said. Jock did as he was told helping the boy and woman to clamber on board. There was nothing else to do.
‘What’s going to happen to us?’ Jock asked. He felt the loss of Ekuru, the trees and almost all the people more than fear for his own safety.
‘Not my business to know,’ the commander said. ‘Sit down and belt yourselves in.’

Jock still didn’t have an answer to his question. They had flown at low altitude over the sparsely populated country until they reached the coast and then on out to sea. Far out in the ocean they approached a small flotilla of ships. One was an aircraft carrier that Jock recalled seeing in the news at various times in the last ten years. They landed on the deck and sank into the hanger beneath. Jock, the boy and the woman were escorted off the helicopter and then separated. Jock found himself in a small cabin with a hard bed, a toilet, a light that was permanently on and no windows. He’d taken the opportunity to rest and had dozed. The door had opened briefly at intervals of some hours and he had been given a bowl of typical naval fare but the sailor had not spoken a word.
One, two or it may have been three days later, Jock was marched from his cell to a larger cabin where he was surrounded by armed marines. He was brought to a halt in front of a desk. A senior officer, the ship’s commander sat behind the desk. He examined Jock.
‘Dr Fraser, I am instructed to inform you that you will be taken from this vessel and transported to an unnamed location.’
Jock cleared his throat trying to find his voice. ‘What about the boy and the woman?’
‘I cannot tell you.’
‘Is Ekuru Lengabilo’s killer under arrest.’ Jock felt renewed anger.
‘Mr Lengabilo was a terrorist,’ The officer said without hint of emotion.
‘Like heck he was.’ Jock clenched his fists. The commander nodded to one of the marines. Jock heard the sound of a cork being released from a bottle, a sting on his neck and his legs became like jelly.
Chapter 7

The bed was comfortable, there was an efficient shower in the en-suite, and there was an easy chair and desk. It could have been a reasonably priced hotel room. It was a cell and Helen knew it. The door was locked, there was no window and she had no access to the Net. All there was to do was read one of the paper books that had obviously been selected according to her reading tastes. She’d read them all before.
Meals were brought to her and she considered trying to make an escape but there were always guards in the corridor outside the door. Helen wondered how long she could stand this pampered but restricted existence – two days, three?
She thought it was four before he came to her. Of course her sleep pattern may have been distorted but it felt like four days.
‘Professor. I do hope you are comfortable,’ he said. He was younger than her and obviously kept himself fit but he acted as if he was at least her equal. He obviously wasn’t just an interrogator. They stood facing each other.
‘What a pointless question,’ She said, ‘I’m a prisoner. This is intolerable. You must release me.’
He smiled. ‘I’m afraid we must not. You see Professor you are a danger to the security of this nation.’
‘What on earth do you mean?’
‘You intended to distribute restricted material. That is what I mean.’
Helen glared at him. ‘I was about to share scientific data in order that we might learn its meaning and importance.’
‘Data whose owner had not released it for public consumption. Data that had been classified by the government as of national importance.’
‘Why?’
‘I do not have the authority to tell you that.’
Helen turned her back on him, walked to the easy chair and sat down. She crossed her legs and looked up at him.
‘Who are you?’
The man stared at her impassively. ‘You can refer to me as Orange. That is my designation.’
‘Are you and your colleagues all named after fruits?’
He gave her a thin smile. ‘My boss is Apple but that is not proof of the pattern you have postulated. We use the Naval Phonetic Alphabet from the First World War for our designations. Letters and numbers are somewhat clichéd. As you can tell I am quite low in the department.’ Helen wondered what government organisation he was referring to but the trouble they had gone to to keep her captive suggested something.
‘You’re scared. Or your bosses are. You think there is something in that plant genome that could threaten your position of power.’
‘That is pure supposition. It is unusual for you, Professor, to follow such a fanciful line of thought.’
Helen bit her lip. He was right of course. What was it in the plant’s genome that had caused her to ignore her normal caution? Was it Jock Fraser’s incomprehension, Darmaan’s excitement at solving the puzzle, or simply her hunch that it was special?
‘But Darmaan found a pattern, figures, mathematical formulae, physics, chemistry, biology beyond our understanding, stored in the genome of the tree.’
‘I’m afraid, Professor, you were misled. There is nothing remarkable about that tree.’
Anger welled up in Helen’s throat. ‘Misled? By whom? Not Dr Fraser. He may be an excellent botanist but he doesn’t understand genomes or binary code.’
‘How well do you know Jock Fraser?’
Helen paused. ‘We met once.’
‘And you spoke to him in Kenya.’
So they had been hacking her netlink. ‘Yes.’
‘That was all?’
Helen snorted. ‘You know it was.’
‘Well then, you didn’t know him at all.’
Helen leaned forward. ‘Are you saying that this is all a put-up. I’ve been conned by some scam or other into throwing away my scientific reputation.’
Orange shrugged. ‘There. You’ve said it.’
Helen flung herself back in the chair and looked away from him. ‘I don’t believe it.’
‘And that Professor is why you are here. The government considers your attitude and behaviour dangerous to the general well-being of the nation. That is why you have been served with a Neurological Adjustment Order.’

………………………to be continued

Jasmine is worrying

WP_20180223_21_21_16_Pro (2)

This is what a transgender/gender-fluid person may look like.

It is disappointing (probably an understatement) when a group of people trying to end discrimination break into factions which fight each other. It’s happened in the fight for female equality where certain radical feminists now seem to devote their time to accusing transwomen of not being women and of retaining their “male privileges”.  That dispute has become very bitter with trans activists attempting to prevent well known feminists have a stage to speak their anti-trans thoughts.

Now there is a split in the transgender/non-binary world caused by possible changes to the Gender Recognition Act. A group of transwomen (it looks like all women, I can’t see any men named) wrote to the Guardian last week, and perhaps other papers, and at  least one of the named has spoken out in public.  They are protesting at proposals to make it easier to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate, mainly by demedicalising transition, if someone declares that they will live for the rest of their lives in the gender they identify with. This is already being done in a number of countries.  It will of course mean that there will be transmen and women who have not undergone any surgery and possibly not even taking hormones. The protesters say that this change will “blur the distinction” between themselves i.e. those who have gone through gender confirmation surgery (they have vaginas), and others who have not.  Actually at the moment there is no distinction because the current act only asks for an intention to go through with surgery when the time is right. For many transpeople the time is never right for health or other reasons.

These transwomen are setting themselves apart from other transgender and non-binary people. They want to be considered as “real” women and so wish to cut themselves off from other trans/non-binary people who they see as “damaging our credibility”. They are asking the politicians who will have to vote on changes to the act to “show courage”, presumably to resist the overwhelming numbers of transgender/non-binary people who are lobbying for the right to be women (or men). No, we’re not.

Since the GRA become law in 2004 under 10,000 people have obtained certificates while the total number of transgender people in the UK is a half to three-quarters of a million.  The GRA is obviously not working.  Also the Equality Act of 2010 only recognises those with a GRC (or applying for one) as a protected minority with all sorts of safeguards against hate-crime etc. Not all of us want to transition; there are many non-binary/gender-fluid people who just want the freedom (and protection) to be themselves. Unfortunately this group of transwomen want to retain stereotypical gender roles so that they can blend in as women. But they will never be accepted by the “women have babies” faction.

It is all very disappointing and worrying.  The more infighting there is, the more prejudice is allowed to bubble to the surface so that even comedians like Peter Kay (Carshare Unscripted) can use the beating up of a trans person as grist for a joke.

…………………………..

Now for something completely different, as they used to say. Here’s the next episode of Benefactors. Here you will easily detect two influences on the story (if you know your 1960s SF) which made me ultimately decide that it wasn’t original enough. What do you think?

Benefactors: Part 5

Chapter 5

Helen met Darmaan by the lake that formed the centrepiece of the campus. It was a hot summer day and Helen was sweating. She wondered how her father’s family survived the heat of summer on the Indian sub-continent.
‘They’ve deleted the lot,’ Helen said, ‘and threatened me with a memory wipe if I make a fuss. I’m not risking that. Who knows what else I might lose if they start zapping my brain.’
Darmaan held her shoulders trying to calm her. ‘It won’t come to that.’
‘Won’t it? You’ve seen what was in that genome. They know how excited people will get if people learn what’s in the code.’
‘And we’ve got to make sure that that is just what happens,’ Darmaan said staring into her face.
‘I’m scared Darmaan. We’ve got lawyers threatening us and the government hacking our comslink.’
‘Which only shows how important that data is. Think about it Helen. You said that the genome is about two-hundred-thousand years old and only found in one spot in the Rift Valley where it’s been tended for generations by a local tribe. Yet it contains ideas and data beyond my knowledge and I suspect beyond any scientist on Earth today.’
‘You’ve found out more?’
‘Yes. I did a comparison search with the equations in the genome and what’s on the Net. I got some very strange matches with theories on the edge of quantum and cosmological physics. I saw hints of ideas that I can only describe as science fiction. And there’s that whole section of DNA that isn’t but is something similar. I think it is an organism but one like nothing that exists on Earth now or ever.’
‘But how. . .?’ Helen was scared of the answer as she knew it would tear her sense of being a rational scientist apart.
‘Aliens,’ Darmaan said in a whisper, ‘It’s got to be. They came here millennia ago and left a gift for us.’
‘But modern humans were just evolving then.’
‘Yes, right where those trees got planted. My parents came from Somalia when they were children. They thought of themselves as coming from an ancient people but the Rift Valley is where humans became human. You know what Fraser told you about those leaves. They make people more cooperative. Wouldn’t that have been a useful trick for those primitive people.’
Helen considered, ‘It’s too incredible.’
‘Is it?’
‘Whatever. It’s too important to let this Company whoever they are and the government turn it into a secret. We’ve got to do something.’ Then Helen remembered, ‘But it’s all gone, your copy too.’
Darmaan smiled and leaned to whisper into her ear. ‘Not quite. They wiped my Net files. They thought people like you and me would only keep data uploaded via our net storage.’
‘I do.’
‘Well, it’s not only old guys like Fraser who keep personal memory backups.’
Helen’s eyes widened. ‘You’ve got a button?’
Darmaan grinned and tapped his pocket, ‘A few here and there. It’s not all lost.’
Helen grabbed his arm and started to walk around the lake. ‘They could be watching us now. What are we going to do, Darmaan?’
‘We’ve got to get this out to some physicists, chemists and synthetic biologists who would know what it means. You move in the upper reaches of science, Helen. Surely you know a few Nobel Prize winners.’
‘Hmm. I’m not sure they’re the best – but their postdocs may be. The more we can spread it the more protection we’ll get.’
‘You get me the list. I’ll get copying.’
‘How? As soon as you logon the hackers will be on to you.’
Darmaan grinned again. ‘I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for ages. I’ve got a scroll which I disconnected from the net and a few more buttons. I can make copies and get them couriered to the people you name.’
‘Hmm, well, let’s split and meet first thing in the morning.’

Helen tried to act naturally on her journey home but in actual fact she was anxiously looking for people watching and tailing her. It was a long time since she had felt that she stood out as a woman with an Asian appearance but now she was worried that everyone was looking at her. She didn’t pick out anyone though. She got home, made some supper, tried to read a book. Finally, she unrolled her scroll and put in a call to Jock Fraser. The screen announced that it was “searching” for some time until a fuzzy picture appeared with Jock’s weather beaten face in the centre. There was darkness behind him and he appeared to be out in the open.
‘Hello, Professor,’ Jock’s voice was somewhat distorted.
‘Where are you, Jock? It’s a very poor signal.’
‘I’m in the Rift Valley. The nearest Stratonet balloon is probably a long way from here. But I can hear and see you.’
‘You went back.’
‘Yes. I wanted to see the trees again. I hoped the People would let me take more samples. But . . .’ His voice broke up and Helen felt that it wasn’t due to interference or a weak signal.
‘What’s happened, Jock.’
‘The People have been killed and the trees destroyed.’
Helen sucked in her breath, ‘All of them?’
‘Nearly. There may be one tree left.’
‘What happened?’
‘The government did a deal with the Chinese mining companies. There are rare earth metals in these hills. They didn’t realise the value of the Trees.’
‘Are you sure. I think your Company and our government have. They’ve confiscated your data and wiped my files.’
‘What? Did you find anything in the genome?’
‘Yes, Jock. It’s remarkable, there’s . . .’
‘Don’t tell me. We mustn’t talk like this. They’ll be listening.’ The connection broke.

The following morning, well before her usual time for starting work, Helen was strolling through the park next to the university campus. It was definitely not her normal routine and she felt exhausted. Sleep had not come for thinking about what Jock had said and the warnings from the company lawyer and anti-terrorism officer.
A figure jogged towards her. It was Darmaan. He stopped when he reached her barely showing a sweat.
‘This isn’t where I usually train,’ he said, ‘Running is in my genes.’ He grinned.
‘I’ve got the addresses of some people who may help us,’ Helen said, ‘Have you made the copies of the decoded genome.’
‘I left them hidden away in my flat,’ Darmaan said, ‘I didn’t want to carry them.’
Helen held out a folded sheet of paper. ‘Here you are, then.’
‘I’ll take that thank you.’
Helen turned to see the tall anti-terrorist operative. There were two other men beside him wearing helmets that covered their faces. They carried weapons. Darmaan grabbed the paper from Helen’s hand, turned and ran. One of the helmeted men raised his arm and aimed the gun. It fired with a soft “pfft” and Darmaan fell, convulsing.
Helen gasped. ‘You haven’t . . .’
‘Just a knockout pellet,’ the man said, ‘You’ll get the same if you resist arrest.’
‘Arrest?’
‘For conspiracy to assist a person with terrorist associations.’
Helen felt an unusual anger, ‘If you are referring to Jock Fraser again, he’s not a terrorist. He’s told me what’s happened to the people who tended the trees. They were just defending their homes. They didn’t hurt anyone.’
‘I do not know what you are referring to, Professor. I am commanded to arrest you and Dr Adams. Please come with me.’ He took Helen’s arm and marched her towards the park exit. His two subordinates pocketed their weapons, picked up Darmaan and followed. A van with dark windows waited at the gates.

………………………….to be continued.

 

Jasmine’s having a holiday

I lost track of the days this week and almost forgot to write this blog page. It was partly because I’ve been getting on with my new September Weekes novel, provisional title, Malevolence. Not completely sure where it’s going yet but things are developing . . .

Anyway being late gives me a chance to comment on the local government elections that took place in many parts of England yesterday. I didn’t get the chance to vote as all of our local councillors face an election next year.  Nevertheless this election  was hailed as the big chance to see what the electorate felt a year after the General Election.  The answer – not a lot. As usual I think the turnout was about half what it is for the parliamentary elections – so, very poor. The results show that a surprising number of people are still willing to vote Conservative despite the incompetence shown by May’s government and total disregard given by the Brexiteers to the wellbeing of the country and the sovereignty of  parliament. But we knew all that – a large proportion of the population are incapable of seeing the disaster that Brexit (and a Conservative government) is. There again people in general do not have a lot faith in Labour either, whether lead by Corbyn or anyone else. The Lib Dems made some gains but just can’t get their message across – the media still gives more time to UKIP (who lost almost everything) and Farage (who isn’t even in politics anymore) than Lib Dems or the Greens.  In fact the bulk of the media is conniving with the Conservative Leavers to drag the country into a future which will see most people a lot worse off, financially, environmentally and safely. (is that grammatical?)

So we limp on to a future which no one, especially the Leavers, can foresee.

WP_20180413_13_48_54_Pro

………………….

No news on Jasmine Frame at the moment, so here is the fourth episode of my SF long story or novel fragment, Benefactors. Hope you like it.

Benefactors: Part 4

Chapter 4

Jock was a little concerned but not too worried when Ekuru Lengabilo wasn’t at the dusty airstrip. His small plane landed early in the morning after the flight from Nairobi. Jock took a ride in a local’s beaten up Chang’an pickup truck into the small town of Isiolo. There were more Kenyan government soldiers hanging around the low concrete buildings than there had been the last time he was here, but either they didn’t notice or didn’t care that a highly tanned westerner was in a local truck. The driver dropped Jock off at the corrugated-iron lock-up garage and Jock was greeted by the Samburan mechanic that looked after his Toyota 4×4. Jock dumped his bags inside and checked that the alcohol tank was full. He was pleased to see that the mechanic had followed his instruction and allowed the sun to reach the solar panels on the roof so the batteries were fully charged.
Jock signalled to the mechanic to open the rickety door and he drove silently out on to the unmade road. He stopped to check there were no other vehicles or carts obstructing his route.
The passenger door was wrenched open. Jock glanced to his right and saw Lengabilo climbing in.
‘Drive!’ said the guide in Samburan. In Jock’s ear the translation came through without the urgency. He engaged forward, put his foot to the floor and they shot forward with a whine from the electric motors. They headed north.
‘What’s up?’ Jock asked when they were clear of the town.
‘The army were looking for me,’ Ekuru said. He twisted to look out of the rear window.
‘Why?’
‘They think I support the terrorists.’
‘What terrorists?’
‘The people of the God Tree.’
Without thinking, Jock pressed his foot against the brake and they came to a sudden halt in a cloud of dust.
‘What do you mean? Those people are the most peaceful and cooperative I’ve ever met. Probably something to do with those leaves they chew. They’re not terrorists.’
Ekuru nodded. ‘You and I know that. The government knows that too, but they also know that the way to get western support is to label opposition groups as terrorists.’
‘Ah, I see.’ Jock drove off again. ‘The people were worried about the Chinese plans to survey their land for minerals.’
‘It’s gone beyond that.’ Lengabilo said.
‘How?’
‘A week ago the Chinese arrived with all their vehicles and drilling machinery. They set off north west.’
‘To the Tree People’s land?’
‘Yes.’
‘We need to get there as quickly as possible,’ Jock thrust his foot against the accelerator. A light on the dashboard showed that the fuel cells were supplementing the batteries and solar power.

It was dawn next day when they left South Horr, heading west. Jock had stocked up on alcohol for the fuel cells and supplies for himself and Lengabilo. He was feeling anxious. He’d told the elder of the Tree People that he would present their case to the government but he had failed to get passed the lowliest of officials back in London. Now he was keen to get to the people’s homeland and the grove of trees that he had left just a few weeks earlier.
The roads through the forested hills were no more than tracks and passage was slow, but eventually Ekuru, driving the 4×4, carefully negotiated the steep descent into the Rift Valley. Jock scanned the view looking for landmarks that would show that they were close to the grove of trees. At last he thought he recognised the shape of the gullies and bluffs.
‘There,’ Jock said pointing, ‘where that smoke is rising.’ As he said it he realised that something was wrong. There shouldn’t be a pall of smoke over the People’s home. They rounded a bend and emerged on the savannah. Ekuru stopped the vehicle.
‘No!’ Jock cried. Ahead of them, huge vehicles were parked where previously wooden huts stood. Beyond, where the grove of trees had grown in the shade of a narrow valley, the earth had been gouged out to form a quarry.
‘They’re gone,’ Jock said meaning both the people and the trees that they tended.
‘We’d better get away from here,’ Lengabilo said reversing and turning the truck. He drove quickly away from the mine site.
‘What have they done?’ Jock said.
‘It’s what I feared,’ Ekuru said, ‘The government declared the Tree People terrorists for opposing their deal with the Chinese. Then they moved in. The people are probably all dead and the trees chopped down and burned.’
Jock’s heart hammered as if he had been running, ‘But those trees. . . they’re so special.’
‘The Tree People worshipped them,’ Ekuru said.
‘Not worship exactly. They cared for and protected the trees for thousands and thousands of years and I let them down.’
‘It’s not your fault that the government sold the ground beneath our feet. Where do you want to go?’
Jock thought for a few minutes as they trundled slowly over the rough ground. ‘I don’t know but I need time to think and get in touch with friends. Get us off the plain and back into the hills out of sight.’ Lengabilo did as he was told, turning back towards the rising ground that marked the eastern border of the Rift. As they approached the first hills they spotted two people in traditional dress, sheltering under an acacia tree. Ekuru stopped the vehicle and they both got out. The smell of the heat and dust and the vegetation struck his nostrils.
An elderly woman and a young boy sat in the shade. The boy stood up as they approached. Jock thought he was familiar.
‘It is the boy who gave me the leaves and seeds,’ Jock said. Ekuru nodded. The boy looked fearful and stepped close to the woman.
‘Tell him not to be afraid,’ Jock instructed, ‘Remind him who I am.’ Lengabilo spoke in the language that defeated the translator. The boy and the woman relaxed and invited Jock and his guide to join them. Jock returned to the car for water and food and offered it to the couple. They professed their thanks in a manner that did not require translation. Ekuru gradually extracted the story. The vehicles had arrived without warning. The people had tried to protect the trees, ignoring their homes, but had been gunned down by the soldiers that accompanied the miners. Only the boy had escaped because he had been tending the old woman who was ill. For two days they had been moving slowly away from their home that was now a scene of destruction.
Sadness, regret, guilt filled Jock. ‘All the trees are destroyed?’ he said. It wasn’t quite a questions but Ekuru translated his words. The boy shook his head and spoke.
‘There is one left,’ Ekuru said.
Jock jerked upright, ‘Where? How?’
Ekuru and the boy talked and then the interpreter turned to Jock. ‘The story is that hundreds of years ago an animal or a bird, versions of the story differ, plucked a seed pod from a tree in the grove and took it away. Many years later a goatherd came across the tree growing in a gully just a few miles from here. It was a young sapling then. Now it is a mature tree. The People have looked after it even though it is separated from the main grove.’
‘We must get to it. If I take cuttings, then perhaps the genome can be preserved.’ Jock got to his feet.
‘Not today,’ Ekuru said, ‘It’s too late.’ He pointed to the Sun dropping over the western horizon.

………………………to be continued.

 

 

 

Jasmine is not at home

With the Conservative government embroiled in another scandal caused by its own incompetence while the looming Brexit disaster grows on the horizon, I have been wondering why our politicians appear so useless, and that goes for the opposition too. I don’t believe all politicians are “in it for themselves”, though some are; some really do think they can improve things, however misguided their thinking may be. The problem is the type of person attracted to politics. You have to be single-minded. Politics is a long hard slog.  Unfortunately I think it is the long, hard slog to get elected that politicians enjoy more than anything, it’s what gets their endorphins going.

I have had a couple of brief periods involved with politics.  Most recently I got elected to our town council and was a councillor for three years. It was an awful experience. It could have been a full-time job except it was unpaid. I became disillusioned by trying to reach a consensus with other councillors whose only aim seemed to be to keep themselves in public view and dealing with uncaring elected and unelected officials in the county council. I was relieved to stand down. However, I observed that my political colleagues only really became lively when elections were on.  It was that simple competition to get people’s votes that excited them. So many MPs are career politicians (okay, many of the Conservative MPs may have little sidelines like running off-shore accounts) that it is only fighting elections that they know how to do.  The people with experience, skills and ideas that may actually do the country some good are not turned on in the same way.  So, in local and national government we get the egoists, the megalomaniacs, and the deluded.

………………………

WP_20180414_09_47_33_ProJasmine is still taking a rest although of course the three novels, Painted Ladies, Bodies By Design and The Brides’ Club Murder are still available on Kindle and as paperbacks from paintedladiesnovel@btinterent.com. Also available on Kindle are the novellas/collections  Discovering Jasmine, Murder In Doubt, and Trained By Murder.

Here however is the third episode of my SF long short story or novel fragment, depending how you look at it, Benefactors.

 

 

 

 

 

Benefactors: Part 3

‘Yes. One of the permutations of the bases produced what I can only describe as a non-random sequence.’
‘Oh? What do you mean?’
‘Well, your string of base letters translates into a series of numbers which in decimal start out as 1, 2, 3, 4, up to sixty-four. Then it goes into prime numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and so on. Then it gives some other figures. . .’
‘What figures?’
‘Universal constants, pi to a dozen places, e, G. Where does this come from Helen?’
‘I’ll come and see you,’ Helen pressed “end”. Now she felt the same excitement as Jock Fraser and realised why he had felt it necessary to visit her. It wasn’t something that she felt she could talk about over the public netlink. Who knew who might be interested in her research.

So rarely did she actually meet her colleagues in person, Helen had forgotten how extensive the campus was. It was a good ten-minute walk to the IT building. When she opened the door to his office she saw Darmaan standing in the middle of the room staring at a semi-circular holographic screen hovering in the air a couple of feet from his face. When his eyes focussed on her the screen dissolved.
‘Ah, Helen. Where did you get this DNA code? Or is it something you’ve put together to fool me? It’s not April 1st is it?’
Helen grinned, ‘No, it’s real, at least I think it is. It depends what you find in the rest of it.’
‘The rest?’
‘It’s on here.’ Helen handed over Jock’s memory store.
Darmaan examined it. ‘You don’t see many of these. Who doesn’t exchange data over the net?’
‘Perhaps old people like me who don’t fully trust the net or perhaps people who spend their time out of reach of it.’
Darmaan still looked mystified. ‘Where do they go then? Jupiter?’ He squeezed the button between his fingers and his screen re-appeared with the start of the DNA sequence. Darmaan waved his hands, scrolling through line after line and page after page of letters.
‘Hey, there’s a huge amount here. What is it?’
Helen shrugged. ‘I don’t know. As I understand it some people have suggested using DNA as a way of storing libraries of information for posterity.’
‘What’s the point?’ Darmaan said, still staring at the pages flashing by.’
Helen took a breath. ‘They build the artificial sequence of DNA and then insert it into the nuclei of plant cells. Then they culture the plants and harvest the seeds. When they have checked the genome, the sequence was embedded in it.’
Darmaan nodded grudgingly, ‘I can see it being a possibility for long term storage but surely even with your latest sequencers it would be too slow for practical use.’
‘Yes. That’s why it hasn’t really been developed commercially, but it’s incredibly compact with each bit of information held by a single group of atoms, and not requiring anything special for preservation other than a cool, dry environment.’
‘So this is from these experimental seeds is it?’ Darmaan seemed disappointed.
‘Um, no. The experimental plants don’t even hold a short story let alone a whole library.’
Darmaan glanced at the still scrolling screen. ‘But this is vast. Where does it come from?’
Helen described Jock Fraser’s visit to her office.
‘A thousand-year-old tree? That’s a joke, surely. Do you believe him?’ Darmaan stopped the readout and dismissed the screen.
‘Why should he be telling me tales? I’d never met him before.’ Helen wondered whether Jock was indeed part of some conspiracy to set her up but that seemed even more ridiculous. ‘Look can you decode some more of it and see what’s there?’
Darmaan shrugged, ‘Yes, now I’ve got the key and set up the algorithm for finding familiar data it’s just a question of time.’ He called up the screen, wiggled his fingers and then held out the pebble to her. ‘You can have this back. I’ve copied it onto my net storage.’
Helen felt that she should give a warning. ‘Don’t tell anyone else what you are doing, just in case it is a fraud. I don’t want to be associated with any whacky science.’
Darmaan grinned, ‘Ever the cautious one, aren’t you, Professor? On this occasion I think you’re probably being wise.’

Helen managed to do a whole day’s normal work including meetings with students and colleagues without constantly checking to see if Darmaan had sent her a message. Nevertheless, when she finally had a bit of time to herself in her office it was as much as she could do to check her other messages. Why was this crazy puzzle exciting her so much? Surely it was a hoax.
The beep announcing a call had hardly reverberated before Helen answered. Darmaan’s face appeared.
‘Hi, Darmaan. You look tired. Have you been watching your screen all day?’ she said. The young man’s eyelids looked heavy and his dark skin had lost its usual lustre
‘Yes. I haven’t been able to take myself away from it. This is incredible. I mean it. It can’t have come out of the cells of an old tree.’
‘What have you found?’
Darmaan sighed, ‘It gets complicated. After the initial simple stuff, it goes into sets of coordinates.’
‘You mean positions of things?’
‘Yes.’
‘What sort of things?’
‘Stars. I put them through the online astronomical atlas. It came up with some of the brightest stars in our sky: Sirius, Betelgeuse, Rigel and so on.’
‘Oh, and?’
‘Some others you can’t see with just your eyes, but they’re in the catalogue. They’re stars similar to the Sun but quite a distance away so they’re pretty faint.’
‘How far?’
‘The nearest is over three-thousand light years from here.’
Helen was confused. What did it mean? ‘Is that it?’ she asked.
Darmaan laughed. ‘That’s just the start. It goes into mathematical and physical equations next. Simple stuff like Pythagoras, Newton and Einstein, but quickly works up to stuff which is beyond me.’
‘Is it correct?’ Helen said, still not understanding what Darmaan was implying.
‘Well, the simple stuff is. I can’t tell about the rest. It’ll need a team of top theoretical physicists to decide what it means. But that‘s just for starters. There’s a section on chemistry, too.’
‘Chemistry?’
‘Yeah. It starts with a comparison of the masses of atoms of elements in the periodic table which provided a key for the elements. My pattern recognition software then picked out a modelling programme. It gave me a molecule of hydrogen, then water and ammonia, ethanol. Soon it was into sugars and proteins and stuff I have no idea about.’
‘So the sequence is a kind of catalogue of science.’ Helen said.
‘Or a guide, but there are other stretches which look like an actual DNA sequence except they don’t match any of the stuff your genome analysis recognises.’
‘Have you finished?
Darmaan laughed again. ‘No way. My program is still trundling through it.’
‘I don’t get it, Darmaan,’ Helen said, shaking her head.
The door to her office opened, held by Sarah. ‘I’m sorry, Professor, these people . . .’
Two men pushed passed her, one short and plump and the other tall and slim.
Helen waved her screen off, cutting the call to Darmaan. ‘What do you . . .’
The short man interrupted her, ‘Professor Patel. My clients have instructed me to recover property illegally given to you by one of their employees.’
Helen stood up, leaned on her desk, glaring at her uninvited guests. ‘Clients? Employee? What do you mean?’
‘Please calm down Professor. I cannot name my clients but the employee was a Doctor Johann Fraser.’
‘Jock?’
‘That is the name he goes by. He gave you something, a memory storage device.’
‘He did give me a button. He said it was his.’ Helen held it in her hand.
‘The device may be his but the data on it belongs to my clients. Dr Fraser broke his contract by divulging the information. You must return it to me.’
‘How do I know that you are who you say you are?’
‘My identification and the injunction is on your personal netlink now.’
Helen summoned her screen and the face of the small man appeared with the phrase “Identity Recognised” alongside it. Beneath was a legal document. She scanned it and saw that it went on for page after page of lawyers jargon but she got the gist; it authorised the recovery of data belonging to “the company”.
‘It doesn’t give your name or the name of your clients,’ Helen said still suspicious.
‘You don’t need those. The Net recognises my authority. Please hand over the memory store.’
Helen reached out and dropped the button into the little man’s waiting hand.
The tall man spoke up, ‘The data has also been removed from your cloud account and that of your associate, Dr. Darmaan Shamarke.’
Helen felt her cheeks burn, ‘You’ve hacked my netlink.’
‘Yes, Professor,’ the tall man said, ‘In accordance with His Majesty’s Government’s Anti-terrorism Network Surveillance Act of 2024.’
‘Anti-terrorism? What do you mean. It was scientific data.’
‘It was given to you by someone with links to people associated with a terrorist organisation.’
Helen gasped, ‘Jock Fraser! What’s he got to do with a terrorist group. He said he was a botanist.’
The tall man drew himself up to his full height. ‘I am not at liberty to reveal the identity of his associates but I assure you that the deletions have been made in accordance with the laws governing His Majesty’s Government Anti-Terrorism Authority.’
Realisation came to Helen. ‘The company and the government have done a deal haven’t they. They realise that there’s something in the DNA of that tree which is of vital importance. It’s data that should be available to all scientists for humanity’s sake.’
The tall man’s face was impassive, ‘I should warn you Professor that if you divulge what you know of this information that Dr Fraser stole from his employers you will be arrested and will undergo a neurological adjustment by deep brain stimulation.’
Helen shivered. She could see that the threat was real. She let her shoulders sag.
‘Thank you, Professor,’ the little lawyer said cheerfully, ‘We’ll leave you now. Thank you for your compliance.’
The two men left her office. Helen stared out of the window, thinking. A few minutes later she saw a two-person quadcopter rising from the patch of grass outside her faculty building. A moment later, Darmaan burst into her room.
‘We’ve been hacked,’ he said.
‘I know,’ Helen said, ‘I’ve just had a visit from two men. I had to give Jock’s button to them and they said they’ve wiped all the data from the Net.’
‘But why?’ Darmaan held up his hands in exasperation.
‘The government and the company, Jock’s employers, know that the tree is remarkable.’
‘But it’s thousands of years old; older if the tree Jock took the DNA from is descended from trees with the same genome.’
‘Don’t say anything more Darmaan. We’re probably being watched. Let’s take a walk, but keep your voice down.’

…………………..to be continued

 

 

Jasmine enjoys a break

20180413_130523Last week we paid a visit to the Gladstone Museum in Stoke-on-Trent.  It is one of a number of museums in the six towns that celebrate the ceramic industry that made them famous. However the Gladstone Museum is a “working” museum based on one of the last factories to use the iconic bottle kilns.  Pottery was manufactured on the site from the 1770s until the factory closed in the 1960s when it was preserved as one example of the hundreds of similar factories and thousands of bottle kilns that once occupied the area.  The museum reveals the processes used and the lives of the people who worked in the industry. We followed the laid out route which takes you through the factory and the stages in the manufacture.  I am always fascinated by the materials and methods used by industries and the Gladstone satisfied me with displays and description of the treatment of the pottery from mixing the base ingredients to the final decoration and packing.

WP_20180413_13_48_54_ProWhat the Gladstone also does well is to bring the workers alive. What was striking was the huge number of specific jobs that the process demanded.  Each job required skills acquired over many years so that the task could be done as quickly and accurately as possible. Many of the jobs had names which are forgotten now or seem a joke.  Yes, there were saggar maker bottom knockers who performed a vital role. There were jobs for men, women and children.   All worked long hours and sometimes weren’t paid at all if a firing failed and a job lot was lost. The conditions were terrible. Many of the tasks were carried out in an atmosphere of clay or flint dust, which lead to silicosis, a nasty lung disease. Many developed lead poisoning from the compounds used in glazes and those working the kilns suffered eye and lung problems from the high temperatures and severe burns ended many lives or careers.  In the early 1900s the average life expectancy of a pottery worker was still under 40 years.

WP_20180413_13_51_05_ProWhile new laws during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gradually removed young children from the workplace and provided some protection to workers it was still hard, physical labour right up to the closure of the factories after the 2nd World War.  Those who joke about ‘elf and safety need reminding how long it took to provide factory workers with some protection and how the various clean air acts and pollution measures have improved our living environments.  With the current demands for equal pay it was interesting to note the pay rates in the factory where, regardless of how skilled the jobs were, men earned more than double the women’s pay and children received mere pence. In fact the visit to the Gladstone Museum was a reminder of how different our lives are today.  The manual, dirty jobs which made fortunes for factory owners in the past have been handed over to people overseas who are willing (?) to accept poor pay and unhealthy conditions to feed themselves and their families.  How much longer can the economies of the rich western countries rely on the developing world to do our dirty work including dealing with our waste? How much longer can the Earth cope with our wasteful existence.  

The coal-fired bottle kilns were eventually replaced by electric and gas kilns because they were labour-intensive and dreadfully inefficient. Stoke may have lost its defining industry but is a cleaner place now, despite the congested traffic. It no longer makes the contribution it once did to the UK economy. Places like the Gladstone Museum now bring visitors but is that sufficient replacement for the industry that once drove the town?

…………………………..

I’m still giving Jasmine a rest and giving you some of my SF instead.  Below is the second episode of Benefactors, a story that originated from an article in New Scientist magazine.

Benefactors: Part 2

Helen’s eyes widened. ‘That’s a striking name. Did the sequencing show anything?’
Jock hauled a scroll out of his bag, unrolled it and started fingering the screen. ‘Well, first it proved that the tree is a previously unknown variety and from the mitochondrial mutations it branched form the more common stock about two-hundred-thousand years ago.’
Helen nodded, vaguely interested, but none of this seemed unusual or exceptional. ‘But something must have brought you to see me?’
Fraser grinned and handed over his scroll. ‘There is and it confuses the devil out of me.’
Helen flicked through screen after screen of DNA base sequences. ‘Why?’
‘I know you can’t see it immediately but when we examined the sequence we saw that the whole genome was huge, much larger than in other varieties. There seems to be a vast amount of junk DNA that doesn’t make sense.’
Helen shrugged, ‘All genomes contain what some people call junk. My work has been to find out if it really is.’
‘I know. That’s why I’m here.’
Helen still didn’t understand what had brought this throwback of an explorer panting to her office.
‘So? What is special about this particular junk.’
Jock’s face lightened as if he was about to announce something momentous.
‘For a start the genome is huge; bigger than any other organism, so I’m told; and secondly because no one at the company labs recognises any of the sequences.’
‘Really?’ Helen said dismissing Jock’s statement. He was a simple botanist; he couldn’t possibly understand genomics.
Jock sighed as if he had expected her response. ‘Look, I’m no expert at this stuff but we have some young, very capable sequencers back in the company labs with some very expensive kit and their boss, Maria, Dr Sanchez, assures me that the bulk of the genome of this plant is made up of a sequence that they don’t recognise from any plant, or animal. I’ve come to you because you’re the top guy in this field.’
The flattery didn’t affect Helen. She knew she was good. She’d built her career on making sensible decisions and moving forward the science of gene sequencing in small, carefully checked steps. She was renowned for her caution. Now she was faced with this fool from the outdoors who was gabbling nonsense.
‘Look, this talk of junk DNA is an old story. We think almost all of the DNA in an organism has some purpose even if much of it seems dormant. Genes code for proteins. What does your stretch of “junk” code for?’
Jock smiled. ‘The lab rats tell me that it doesn’t code for any known proteins. The codons don’t even match naturally occurring amino acids. Maria says it’s as if the sequence of bases is in another code entirely.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ Helen said, but her mind was ticking over now. ‘Leave it with me. I’ll check it over and see what your young people have missed.’
Jock pulled a memory button from his pocket. ‘I hoped you’d say that. It’s all here.’ He dropped it into Helen’s outstretched hand. ‘I’m heading back to Kenya tonight. I want to get more samples from the trees for comparison and to culture. The sample I was given may not be viable.’ He touched his screen and it snapped into a scroll. He stuffed it and the box of samples back in his bag.
‘I’ll contact you when I’m done,’ Helen said.
Jock stood up and slung his bag over the shoulder. ‘Thanks for that Professor.’

It was dark outside. Helen should have been home hours ago. She’d tried getting on with reading the papers but her eyes were repeatedly drawn to Jock Fraser’s tiny button sitting on her desk. She had given in, activated it and accessed her genome analysis programme. It hadn’t taken long to confirm what Jock had said. The first part of each chromosomal sequence was the normal set of gene markers and genes coding for familiar proteins but then the vast bulk of the base sequence was unlike any she had seen and seemed unrelated to the code of life found in all living things on Earth. She had run the analysis three times with the same conclusions each time. She had wondered if a virus had got itself written into the plant’s own genome but even that should have coded for common proteins. She had to admit that Jock was correct. The code was different. But if it wasn’t coding for amino acids with the familiar three base codons what was it? It was a puzzle and she liked puzzles; scientific ones anyway.
Helen stared at the screen trying to think of an answer. What other codes were there? Well there was Morse code, a series of dots and dashes coding for the letters of the alphabet. Writing itself was a code with the letters standing for the phonemes which were the components of speech. Then there was the simplest code of all – binary, the ons and offs, 0’s and 1’s used in fundamental computer programming and digital communications. How could the four bases of DNA be used to code in binary? Helen scratched her head trying to dredge up a memory.
She recollected some research on the use of DNA as long-term storage of computer programs and data. She did a search and found a number of reports. The researchers had used the four bases on DNA to represent numbers in binary. This key was used to build a strand of DNA that represented the lines of a computer program.
Helen was excited by the parallels with the genome of the ancient trees. Surely it couldn’t be a data store in binary? She wasn’t sure how to decode the DNA sequence but she thought she knew someone who could. She made a call from her desk. There was an impatient beep for a few seconds then the air in front of her was filled with a familiar face as black as the night sky beyond the windows of her office.
‘Hello, Darmaan,’ she said.
‘Helen? This is late for you isn’t it. What’s keeping you – one of your postdocs making outrageous leaps of imagination again?’ Sometime she had to call on Dr Darmaan Sharmarke for help in finding the gaps in the logic of her juniors when they placed too much faith in the abilities of the department AI.
‘No, nothing like that. I’ve got a problem.’
‘Your system playing up? Scroll not speaking to the net or something?’
‘No, I’ve got a problem, a conundrum, a puzzle.’
‘Oh. I can’t help with your genomics, Helen, you know that.’
‘But you are a program specialist, Darmaan.’
‘Hmm, yes.’ Darmaan looked confused. ‘What sort of puzzle do you mean?’
‘How could you decode a binary sequence written in DNA?’
‘Er, what’s that?’
Helen read out what she had noted from the reports. ‘A strand of DNA with the four bases standing for 00, 01, 10, and 11?’
‘I see.’ Darmaan pondered. ‘but you don’t know which base is which number.’
‘That’s right.’
‘There would be twenty-four different ways the four bases could code for those numbers,’ Darmaan explained, ‘but if there is a pattern in your DNA sequence then it should be quite easy to spot.’
Helen’s heart beat faster. ‘If I sent you a sequence of DNA could you read off the binary and see if it makes any sense?
Darmaan’s brow furrowed. ‘Yeah, I suppose so. Where’s this code come from.’ ‘Don’t worry about that, I’ll tell you if something pops out. It’s probably nonsense and I’m just being fanciful.’
Darmaan grinned, ‘You, Helen, fanciful? Never. OK, send it over and I’ll have a look’
Helen blew him a kiss and ended the call. She separated off the first thousand or so bases from the mystery sequence and sent it off to Darmaan. He was an inveterate puzzle solver. He’d be intrigued by the problem she’d set him, especially with her not giving him the full story. She signed off from the system, dropped Jock’s button into her bag and set off for home at last.

Chapter 3

Helen logged on and summoned her screen while yawning and clapping a hand over her mouth. Not only had she been late getting home she had barely slept thinking about Jock’s weird plant. Now she needed a coffee and was about to call Sarah to bring her one, when she read the screen glowing in the air above her desk. There were numerous messages from Darmaan asking her to call him. She sat down and put through the call.
‘There you are. At last.’ Darmaan said. ‘Where have you been?’
Helen glanced at the time. ‘Hey, it’s eight-thirty. I’m actually early this morning.’
‘I’ve been trying to get hold of you for ages.’
‘I can see that. Did you get anywhere with that sequence I sent you?’
‘Did I! Is there more of it?’
‘Uh, yes, some,’ she said confused by Darmaan’s excitement.
‘I need it.’
‘Why? Does it mean anything?’

……………………to be continued.

Jasmine off-duty

WP_20170826_14_01_13_ProIf you are reading this on the day that it is published I am at the Author-signing event in Telford hoping to sell some of my books. I hope that this event attracts readers with a bit of cash in their pockets and is not just a day spent in a room full of writers flogging their wares to each other. I am amazed by how much effort some of the writers put in to providing trinkets to accompany their written work.  I could be disparaging and call it tat but actually some authors really seem to spend a lot of time crafting the bits and pieces that support their written efforts. Is this really want book buyers want? I’ve got bookmarks and postcards but that’s it.  All my effort goes into producing the books.

…………………….

This week I watched a programme on autism by autistic people.  It suggested that over 1% of the population are somewhere on the spectrum.  Of course most of those are functioning pretty successfully in society but have questions about themselves and how they fit into the community. About the same number of people are thought to be gender-variant in some way or other and there must be endless minorities claiming similar numbers. I wonder who is “normal” or indeed what that term even means. The autistic presenters seemed to lump all “normal” people together as if they never had any self-doubts or worries about their place or role in the world. I believe that the marvellous thing about humanity is that we are all different. We have a wide range of physical characteristics, personalities, aptitudes and abilities that make each one of us unique, and we each have our problems and questions. I also wonder if this search for a medical term to attach to ourselves is just a means to find people who are like us; a label to tell us which group we can belong to. I am not denying that there are many severely autistic people who need a great deal of support and understanding in the same way that those with severe gender dysphoria need swift assessment and treatment to put them in the gender that matches their personality. What I do want to see is acceptance by society that there is no norm which everyone should aspire to.

……………………………..

I am still giving Jasmine a rest although I must get down to editing Molly’s Boudoir soon. It’s had a month or two resting in my computer files. I have been thinking and planning to start a couple of SF/Fantasy novels but as usual cannot quite decide which to begin with. Can I write two novels at the same time?

In the meantime here is another SF story I wrote a year or so ago from an idea that arose from an article in New Scientist magazine (New Scientist no. 3056 16th Jan 2016 p.27  I plant memories in seeds, Karin Ljubic Fister). I was considering developing it further and I may, but decided that actually my idea wasn’t particularly original (the scientific research moved faster than I imagined) and the story contained elements of older novels by more skilled writers.  Ideas and plots can’t be copyrighted and I wasn’t guilty of plagiarism but the plot was a bit too familiar.  Nevertheless I enjoyed writing it and doing the research into the east Africa scenes.  I haven’t been there but I hope I captured something of the atmosphere of the Rift Valley.

North Kenya 2

North Kenya (the fold is in the map not the landscape!)

Anyway, let’s see what you think of Benefactors.  There will be  a number of episodes over the next few weeks.

 

 

Benefactors: Part 1

1

Two men wearing red and orange cloaks over their traditional woven skirts, approached the grove of trees arguing with each other. Jock Fraser listened then raised a finger to his earpiece. All he was getting was whistles and clicks fed from the smartphone in the breast pocket of his gillet. He turned to the man sitting next to him on the dusty ground. He resembled the arguing men in looks but was wearing western style dress.
‘I’m not getting a translation of what those guys are arguing about,’ Jock said. ‘Aren’t they speaking Samburu, Ekuru?’
The dark skinned Ekuru Lengabilo shook his head. ‘There is some similarity but they are using their own speech.’
Jock frowned. He was not used to being out of communication with the people around him. ‘Can you translate for me?’
‘I have some words but this language is only spoken by these people. They are few and do not travel far from the trees that they tend. It is an old tongue without the words for modern ideas like phone and truck.’
Jock sighed. ‘Well, see what you can manage. What are those two arguing about?’
‘How much the one with the necklace is willing to pay the other for a goat.’
‘Ah, I see.’ Jock saw two other people arriving, a man and woman. They were not speaking to each other, in fact they were looking in different directions as if they did not even want their view sullied by the image of the other.
The arriving pairs looked at Jock and his companion with sour expressions then sat with him amongst the scruffy, low trees. Others arrived until there were about a dozen sitting in a circle. The murmur of chatter slowly faded.
A child of about seven years approached the group carrying a wooden bowl. She, Jock surmised she was a girl, moved around the circle and each person took a leaf and put it in their mouths. The girl came to Jock and he too took a leaf. It was taken from the trees under which they sat. He chewed. The taste was bitter and the flavour not particularly pleasant but he persisted as did the other people. Talk resumed. Jock noticed the couple, man and wife perhaps, begin to converse. They seemed happy to acknowledge each other’s presence now. The two men who had been arguing now spoke to each other more conversationally, nodded and smiled at each other. Others chatted amiably and Jock too felt content and happy to be amongst these people who he had not met before. He felt a connection with them that seemed more than just sharing the shade of the trees.
An elderly man used his stick to haul himself to his feet. He addressed the small crowd but looked towards Jock and Ekuru. Lengabilo interpreted haltingly.
‘He welcomes you on behalf of the people of the God Tree. He thanks you for your gifts and your offer to speak on their behalf to those that rule over us.’ Jock felt a bit guilty at hearing that – he was a botanist not a negotiator and he carried little influence with the government officials despite having drug company money behind his expedition. All he knew was that like most small indigenous tribes these people were under threat from the exploiters from the capital and beyond. He nodded in acknowledgement to the tribe’s elder and felt an unusual bond with him and determination to help.
Another child walked towards him carrying something on a bark tray. The elder explained that it was a gift from his people. The young boy who had such similar looks that Jock guessed he was related to the girl, a slightly older brother perhaps, smiled at Jock and handed over the bark. On it lay a small twig with a few leaves and a seed pod. The leaves and pod were dry and appeared brittle. They had obviously been plucked from one of the trees some time ago. Jock found this gift much more interesting than the words.
The elder was still speaking and Jock’s interpreter made it clear how much an honour this gift was: one of the last remaining seeds of the tree from the most recent flowering a decade ago. Jock knew how lucky he was. In their earlier conversations he had learnt that the next flowering, if indeed the trees survived that long, would not be for another thirty years or more and few of the seeds collected from the previous crop had germinated and taken root. There were probably no more than a dozen living examples of the tree. Most of them in this small grove.
Why was the tree special, Jock asked himself? It was small, spindly and slow-growing. Its wood was of little practical use, the leaves were edible but provided little sustenance and the seeds too rare to be of any value except ceremonially. All Jock knew was that the leaves appeared to contain a mild narcotic, hence the feeling of conviviality that he and the congregation felt. Why therefore did the people invest so much of their time in tending and protecting the trees? Was it simply tradition?

2

A tap on Professor Helen Patel’s door caused her to look up from the paper she was reading on her scroll. She felt a brief feeling of annoyance.
‘Yes?’ she called. The door opened and Sarah, her secretary looked in.
‘Doctor Fraser is here. You remember he asked for an appointment.’
Helen sighed. Why couldn’t the man have just sent an vemail or simply a text. ‘Oh, yes. I suppose you’d better send him in.’
Hardly had she spoken than a man brushed passed Sarah and hurried in to the office. His pale freckled face was peeling and his ginger hair windblown. He wore khaki shorts and a multi-pocketed gillet over a check shirt. His message had said that he was a field botanist. Helen wondered if he had come to her straight from an expedition. She half rose from her chair as Fraser advanced towards her with his arm outstretched. She took his hand and he gripped hers in a firm handshake.
‘Please sit down Doctor Fraser.’ Helen said sinking back into her own seat. Fraser pulled a chair up and sat as close as possible. He placed a canvas satchel that had been over his shoulder on the desk.
‘Oh, please call me Jock,’ Fraser said revealing his Scottish origins in his accent as well as his appearance.
‘It’s your name?’ Helen asked not quite believing that there were actually Scotsmen called Jock.
‘No, it’s Johann. My mother was Austrian but most people ignore that.’
Helen decided not to go into Jock Fraser’s ancestry. ‘I don’t understand why you wanted to see me in person, especially as you’re a botanist and I am not.’
Fraser leaned forward, his eyes shining. ‘But you’re a genomist, a highly respected one.’
‘That’s true. I worked on the Human Genome Project as a postdoc and I’ve been in the field for more than three decades now.’
‘And you have worked on sequencing and gene expression in plants,’ Jock added.
‘Yes, mainly plants. What is it you want to tell me Dr Fraser, uh, Jock?’
Jock took a deep breath and began to open the straps of his bag. ‘I’ve just come back from a survey in the Rift Valley in Kenya.’
Helen had an image of wide open savannah with elephants and lions, and insects and snakes and hot sun. She remembered why she preferred the lab.
‘Sounds lovely,’ she said.
‘Very exciting,’ Jock agreed. ‘The expedition was paid for by a drug company which I won’t name for now. We were looking for plants that may have medicinal properties that could provide the precursors for drugs.’
‘Ah, yes,’ Helen nodded, ‘a valuable job. We need sources of new medicines. Did you find any?’
Jock shrugged, ‘One or two that may be useful, but we also found this.’ He took what looked like a plastic sandwich box out of the bag, placed it on the desk in front of Helen and lifted the lid off. Inside were couple of small oval leaves and a shrivelled brown seed case. Helen didn’t recognise the plant.
‘A tree or bush?’
‘A small tree. No scientific name yet. Never recorded before, except by the indigenous population. In fact, we think there may only be a few of the trees, restricted to one small area.’
‘Almost extinct then?’
‘I hope not,’ Jock said. ‘The trees live for many hundreds if not thousands of years and only produce seeds once in a lifetime. A lifetime of the locals that is: about every forty years. They tend them and celebrate when they flower.’
‘Is it a potential drug source?’ Helen asked, wondering why Jock was showing her the specimen.
He shrugged, ‘Perhaps. The leaves contain a mild narcotic. The locals chew them during tribal gatherings. It makes them feel gregarious and cooperative. There could be a use for that, but the taste is pretty disgusting.’
‘Oh,’ Helen said wondering where this conversation was going.
Jock sat up straight as if about to start on a story. ‘That was the reason the Company decided to sequence the tree’s DNA, but I wanted to know more because the locals call it the God Tree – in their language of course.’