Readers Like You

CANDIDATE AE67FE-001101: Male. 31.9 cycles. Region: ‘North America’ { 37.7749° N, 122.4194° W }. Tracked disciplines: folk audio, digital play, musician { strings, digital }. Status: monitoring.

CANDIDATE JD93UY-101000: Female. 11.2 cycles. Region: ‘East Asia’ { 37.8735° N, 112.5627° E }. Tracked disciplines: play, social observation. Status: monitoring; administering neural accelerators.

CANDIDATE BA89IV-011100: Male. 78 cycles. Region: ‘Australasia’ { 35.2809° S, 149.1300° E }. Tracked disciplines: none. Status: close monitoring, neural degeneration.

CANDIDATE UI59DE-111011: Male. 36.0 cycles. Region: ‘South Europe’ { 40.8518° N, 14.2681° E }. Tracked disciplines: social exploitation, trade interactions, domination. Monitoring: sociopathy. Addendum: active study { ‘Proximate Relationships and Social Hierarchies in Terran Economic Systems’ }.

CANDIDATE II49AH-011010: Transitional. 19.1 cycles. Region: ‘North America’ { 47.6062° N, 122.3321° W }. Tracked disciplines: electronics. Status: monitoring.

CANDIDATE UJ02XV-110011: Male. 26.4 cycles. Region: ‘Africa’’ { 26.2041° S, 28.0473° E }. Tracked disciplines: communication, information composition/dissemination. Status: monitoring. Addendum: active studies { ‘Hepatic Disease Rates in Cultural Producers’ ; ‘Non-Binary Theory and Obsessive-Compulsive Tendencies: Terrans’ }.

CANDIDATE Y6D8J1–110111: Female. 21.1 cycles. Region: ‘North Europe’ { 51.5073° N, 0.1273° W }. Tracked disciplines: none. Status: monitoring. Addendum: manual monitoring { station #6399 }.

{ BRK: INITIATE READER PROTOCOL Y/N ? }

Clara sinks her face into her hands and sighs deeply, shudderingly. Her fingernails press into her forehead and for a moment she focuses on the pain. But it is transient; she cannot ignore this.

What a fucking ridiculous day, she thinks. And now this.

She drops her hands and opens her eyes and looks at her car. It’s parked where she left it. It’s still a battered navy blue Vauxhall Corsa. It even still has the Bagpuss plushie stuck to the rear windshield. The only thing is that it is now upside down.

She approaches and pushes the car with her foot. Nothing. And now that she’s closer, she can see that it’s not just upside down: the roof has fused with the tarmac beneath.
She tries her keys in the door, just in case. It unlocks, so she locks it again.

There are people around her, walking to their own cars or just passing by. No one looks twice at her or her inverted car.

“Is this some kind of joke?” she asks, voice raised. A few people glance her way but there’s barely a question in their gaze. It’s as if a neatly parked upside down three-door hatchback is a perfectly ordinary sight.

“Fuck it,” she says, to herself as much as anyone else, and starts walking, leaving the car behind.

Her entire day has been off-kilter. Frittered with unexpected, off-putting and often outright odd events, it has been a chore to live through.

She fishes a packet of B&H from her handbag and lights up. She blasts thick, dry smoke out of flared nostrils and glares without direction.

It began when she stumbled from bed to bathroom this morning and tried to brush her teeth, only to find a viscous fluid pouring from both taps. Tasting it was perhaps not the best idea, in retrospect, but she had been half asleep and besides, it turned out to be caramel.

Later, on leaving her building she’d been greeted in Italian by the postman, who was in the process of folding letters into a variety of origami birds. They were lined up on the wall outside, each turned 45 degrees from the last. She had pulled a face at him, and sworn to herself that she’d never drink on a weeknight again.

The bus driver had initially seemed normal, until he turned fully to face her as she paid and she saw his two cheap glass eyes. She had hesitated, about to turn and disembark, until she glanced about and saw the bored faces of other passengers. She stayed aboard, convincing herself that he perhaps had some rare glaucoma, and was not blind at all.

Her subsequent journey was uneventful, although every time she looked out of the window she had a fleeting impression of something vanishing out of sight — into alleyways and sidestreets, into shops and other buildings, even underneath cars and trucks.

At work her phone had rung once only, exactly on the hour, all day. She found a cake with her name on it in the breakroom, the carpet coated in glitter and confetti, and a banner celebrating twenty years of service hanging overhead. No one else entered the room all day. She had joined the company just seven months ago.

Shortly after lunch — during which everything she tried to eat threatened to summon long-lost childhood memories — her manager, Ivan, had begun questioning her on her current project. She initially responded with some relief, clinging to this rational behaviour exhibited by another human being, until the questions began to drift further and further off-topic, and she noticed that he was playing a child’s game with her: each of his questions began with a homonym corresponding to the final syllable in her previous answer.

“Are you f- …are you kidding me?” she’d spluttered. Ivan widened his eyes in response, face otherwise expressionless, until his eyebrows vanished beneath his fringe. As far as she could tell they were not coming back.

“This isn’t appropriate behaviour,” he had intoned, deadpan. “And you can expect it to be raised in your next review.” Then he’d walked away, back to his office, without breaking eye contact. Five minutes later an email dropped into her inbox; he had emailed his manager, CC’ing her, and recommended her for a promotion.

It had been a relief to escape at the end of the day. Exhausted, physically and emotionally, she’d clasped her car keys like a protective talisman and sought to seal herself safely inside her vehicular cocoon. And there it had been, upended like an abused turtle.

So now she is walking home, chain-smoking cigarettes. She ignores all the people around her, even where they try to attract her attention, through sheer force of will. Once or twice she is forced to slip around people using the dance of the crowded pavement, but even during this she does not make eye contact. She just wants to get home.

She’s so intent on ignoring the world around her that she almost misses the truck that is heading straight for her.

It doesn’t sound its horn, so the sudden squealing of brakes is the only thing that alerts her — that and the intrusion of its bulk in her peripheral vision. Her heart rate leaps and she starts, turning her head toward the threat. It’s too late of course, for the juggernaut is mere seconds away and her reactions are too slow. The flat face of this diesel-driven monstrosity may be the last thing she sees.

Except that it is not. In the final moment she braces herself for collision and oblivion, but the truck passes straight through her. It’s a strange feeling, like being dusted with fine flour in a wind tunnel, as all that metal and plastic and oil washes around her. As it passes she turns and sees it harmlessly travel on, straight into a Morrisons Local store.

After that, Clara is hardly surprised when no one around her reacts at all. Ghost lorries, pah! Londoners have seen everything. Paranormal vehicular events barely register the bat of an eyelid.

She is, at least, almost home now — so she hurries on. The rest of her trip is uneventful, although as she walks up to her front door there is a soft crunching underfoot. There are so many origami birds placed on the steps and path that crushing them is unavoidable.

Once safely inside Clara continues operating on autopilot. Kettle on. Teabags from cupboard. Mug from the tree. Wait. Pour. Brew. Clasp the mug. Blow the steam. The ritual is soothing, and the part of her deep inside that wants to start screaming and never stop is grateful that it is just a cup of tea she holds — not a mug of pureed kelp or broken promises or who knows what.

Soon enough she has begun to calm, and Clara turns to the second step of her recovery from a tough day. In her bedroom, beside her bed, is a cabinet. Inside the cabinet’s drawer is a diary — a teenager’s diary, locked with a simple metal clasp.

Clara has always diarized her life. It helps her to process feelings and ideas, and looking back over it provides fuel for reflection. A day like today certainly deserves immortalising. Perhaps she can look back on it in a year and think “today was my first step on the road towards being committed.”

She picks up her pen and sets its tip to the page. Dear Diary, she begins, and does not stop.

Slivers of iridescent chitin wave like the fronds of deep-sea anemones. Long, hooked talons beat an idle tattoo on plastometal surfaces. Double sets of compound eyes regard their surroundings; no expression could be read in them, even were the onlooker of a shared species.

This is an autonomous being of a long-established starfaring species that we shall, for convenience, refer to as Second Technician Picasso. It is not, as far as we can tell, an artist, but the blues and greens that can be seen in light reflected from its carapace recall the artist’s Blue Period, and it is as good a name as any.

S.T. Picasso is situated before an array of screens, each imperfect in its dimensions as though cast by hand. The screens display a variety of human beings in a variety of locations. Among them is Clara, frantically committing words to page in her diary.

Other screens write swirling patterns in dense hieroglyphs, conveying information in a language we cannot possibly hope to understand. The inscrutable Picasso takes it all in, barely needing to move its bulbous head-thorax in order to do so. Those eyes absorb everything.

Oddly, we can hear little. Periodically there are muffled clangs or thumps, and sometimes rhythmic little pulses or shudders can be heard, as though much were going on around Picasso’s pod of screens, but distantly. Then there are the small noises Picasso itself is making, apparently restless despite its equally apparent focus on the task at hand. But from the screens, nothing: only the footage of humans going about their little lives, and the endless hieroglyph patterns.

Then those patterns shift and alter, the change apparent even to narrators and readers who cannot comprehend what is signified. Something new is suggested. And so it is: the complex patterns end, and become simple and looping. The screens displaying humans begin to blink off, one by one.

Picasso reaches out with one long talon and scrapes its tip softly against the screen on which Clara has frozen, pen in hand, diary pinned beneath it. Then its balloon-shaped head pivots, looking at what might be glass, through which a woman can be seen. She is lying on a flat surface, hooked up into a riotous tangle of tubes.

Picasso hesitates for a moment, then fiddles with some knobs and sockets and other tangibles around its bank of screens. A nearby machine hisses into life, and tiny lasers begin to dance within its delicate superstructure. An object is being assembled. It looks like Clara’s diary.

After a further moment of hesitation, Picasso prods a few more objects around it. The tubes hooked up to Clara begin to retract, detaching themselves from her and coiling up below. Once the last has removed itself Clara’s back arches and her eyes shoot open. Then she coughs and retches and cries out.

Meanwhile, Picasso has reached into a container and pulled out a tiny object. We recognise it as an iPhone 5C. The alien struggles to but succeeds in holding it. It pulls a tendril from below the bank of screens before it; although fibrous and alien, there is an Apple-patented Lightning connector at the end of it, which it plugs into the phone. It prods a button below the window through which we can see Clara, and begins to carefully type on the iPhone’s screen.

Clara tries to throw up but her stomach is empty. She feels the acid presence of bile and fights to control her nausea.

Her eyes are blurred and her head feels groggy. She cannot make out her surroundings, but she feels a cool surface below her, against her skin. The air is a comfortable temperature, although it smells faintly like a fishmonger’s. She cannot hear anything distinctive.

A frisson of fear is running through her, and as her senses acclimatise to her surroundings this sense deepens. She does not recognise where she is, except perhaps from the sets of horror and science fiction films. The room’s walls and ceiling don’t look like any material she knows, and there are no uniform edges. Everything looks a little organic. There is, however, a flattish pane of what looks like black glass set into one pseudo-wall. She shivers as she looks at it.

All of a sudden a woman’s voice is audible, emanating from all around her. “Hello,” it says. The voice is faintly robotic. “Please be scarred.”

Clara draws her knees up against her chest and wraps her arms around them. “W-what?”, she stutters.

There is a long, pregnant pause before she hears the voice again. “Sorry. Wrong. Please don’t be scared.”

Clara’s brow furrows in concentration. Then: “Is that… is that Siri? Like on the phone?”

Once again, there is a long wait before there is any response comes. “Yes. No. Not relevant. I must make a request.”

“Who are you?” Clara asks, followed breathlessly by: “And where am I? And why are you talking to me through a- a- a fucking iPhone? Just what the hell is going on?”

After a while the responses come. “Not relevant. Information ship seventeen. This is the most effective and efficient method. I must make a request.”

Clara closes her eyes and takes deep breaths. The last thing she remembers before waking up here, she was… in her flat, at home, drinking tea and writing in her diary. Writing in her diary about the weird-as-fuck day she’d been having. She opens her eyes and looks around the room again. Compared to spectral trucks, this isn’t actually that strange, she tells herself — unconvincingly.

“Let’s exchange questions and answers,” she tells the disembodied voice. “I’ve got questions, and you’ve got a request.”

Another pause, and then: “Acceptable.”

Clara tries to concentrate, tries to ignore her fear, and thinks back over the words exchanged so far. “What is information ship seventeen?”

“Interstellar vessel tasked with research and specimen collection.”

“On… Earth?” she asks, haltingly.

“Yes. Earth. My request: complete your diary.”

This throws Clara off balance. She chews it over for a second. “You want me to… finish writing my diary?”

“Yes.”

“What I was writing before… I woke up here?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Another long pause hangs in the whiffy, extraterrestrial air.

“Our research requires written artefacts. In the language of the specimens.”

“Then why not, um — why not collect books? From libraries?”

“Knowledge repositories have been exhumed. Exhausted. Folk sources required for fully understating. Sorry. Understanding specimens.”

“Folk sources?” asks Clara. “So you collect diaries? Why not just watch people while — hey! Wait a goddamn minute. New question: how did I get up here?”

“You always have been. ‘Up here’.”

“Bullshit,” Clara says. Her fear is subsiding, turning to anger at her mysterious interrogator. “I was down there earlier… I don’t know, today. Whenever. I was there.”

There’s another pause whilst her statement is digested, which Clara interrupts. “Were you… were you doing weird stuff to me? Like my car? All the people who were just wrong?”

“Wait. Too much. No. You were not there. You have always been here. Yes. We enacted experiments. You recognise them.”

“Experiments?” Clara repeats. Her face flushes. “Why the hell were you doing experiments? And what do you mean I’ve always been up here?”

She’s talking rapidly now, her voice raised. Her heart has not stopped racing; in fact it is accelerating its tempo, and she feels it thumping against her thighs.

“So that you would write about them. You are not… ‘Clara’. You are candidate Y. 6. D. 8. J. 1. Dash. 1, 1, 0, 1, 1, 1. Please finish writing your diary.”

Clara’s nausea is growing once more. The room is beginning to feel stuffy and its oppressiveness looms around her, as does the blank screen behind which, she assumes, is her interrogator.

“Why do you read our diaries?” she asks again. In a smaller voice, she adds: “I am Clara.”

“Your actions do not make sense. But your language we can understand. We read everything. We catalogue you. We understand you. You are not Clara. We made you to be read. Please finish your diary.”

Clara’s head is throbbing. Red and black now intrude at the periphery of her vision. “Why are you doing this to me?” she whispers.

“The study has been completed. We have what we need. But I want to finish reading your diary. You are an interesting candidate. Please finish writing your diary.”

Clara is now struggling to breathe, and her vision is fading fast. “Candidate… for… what?”

“Another chance. Please finish writing your diary. I want to read it. It might make a difference.”

Now almost blind, heart pounding in her chest, pressure building between her ears, Clara gasps out a few final words before unconsciousness takes her.

“Nobody… needs… readers… like… you.”

Clara is awake just long enough to hear the response: “Everyone gets readers like us.” And then she is gone.

{ DISPLAY EXPEDITION PRECIS Y/N? }

WARNING: Full report to be available to stakeholders following full analysis of expedition findings. Conclusions should not be derived from raw data.

DATUM: All Candidates discharged following conclusion of studies as per Reg 739.2.45.

DATUM: Extinction-level event recorded. Events played out within projected parameters.

DATUM: Re-seeding status: no candidates selected. Specimens archived indefinitely.

{ ENDS }

Originally written in 2016 for the Idle Fiction Jam and posted on Medium.

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