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.
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.